10. Sleeping Dogs
Sleeping Dogs is not just another Grand Theft Auto clone. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let me tell you why it exceeds where previous sandbox games have failed. The world is gorgeous, the story starts strong and gets exceedingly good as it goes, and the basic structure always feels varied without introducing one too many elements. There are plenty of serious moments, but like any good sandbox, you also have plenty of chances to mess around and have a good time. This is a game that stayed with me long after I finished it and reinvigorated my love for open world games once again.
9. Hitman: Absolution
The Hitman franchise has been away for a while, but I couldn’t be happier to see it back. Absolution is the best playing Hitman game to date, and how it handles the basic mechanics of stealth and gunplay are better than you would expect given the series’ track record. Not only that, but it inspires the perfectionist in me once again, making me feel obligated to play as cleanly as possible. The open-ended levels, the surprisingly entertaining story, and the brilliant visuals make this the Hitman game I’ve truly wanted since Hitman 2. It may be a disappointment to some, but as a huge fan of the franchise, I couldn’t be more pleased with this title.
8. Assassin’s Creed III
Finally, Assassin’s Creed has completely clicked with me. I really like Brotherhood, but even the best games in the series have had some problems that prevented me from truly falling in love with them. There was something about the mechanics of climbing and free running that always felt off. Thankfully, this is the first time in the series where I didn’t find myself randomly falling off of buildings or jumping where I wasn’t supposed to. The subtle improvements are enough to make this the best in the franchise, but everything else about it shines in ways I didn’t expect. Connor is my favorite protagonist in the series, Desmond gets some interesting developments, and the naval missions contain some of the most fun moments I’ve had with a game all year. If this is a sign of the future of the franchise, sign me up for next year’s game.
It’s difficult to put into words what makes Journey such a fantastic title. The visuals and the music help, sure, but it’s a game that you will never understand until you truly experience it for yourself. And to think that you can create a truly compelling and original co-op experience by simply removing the voice chat. I felt more connected with random people in Journey than I have with many game characters from some of 2012’s biggest releases. I was happy when they helped, but sad when I lost sight of them. That alone made my Journey playthroughs special.
6. Mark of the Ninja
Stealth games come and go, but few truly nail what makes it so fun to sneak around unnoticed, taking down the unaware adversaries that block your path. Mark of the Ninja is one such game that does this, and does it better than most. Not only are the basic controls absolutely natural and feel just as precise as you need them to be, the way the game handles shadows and sounds is better than any stealth game I’ve seen. You always know when you’re hidden, you always know what your enemies can and can’t see (or hear), and you will always have multiple ways to approach each encounter. Combine that with brilliant levels designed to keep you from feeling lost and keeping you on your toes and Mark of the Ninja is a downloadable game that stands out in a year full of amazing ones.
Fez made me feel like a kid again, plain and simple. It managed to stay rooted in the games of the past that I loved so much while carving its own path and becoming a unique experience at the same time. And when I found out I needed to actually break out a notepad to solve some of the game’s more devilish puzzles, I felt a strange sense of glee that very few games over the past few years have inspired. Fez is, in short, a remarkable callback to a time when game experiences impacted you not because of the story or the characters, but because of a few basic mechanics that help shape a game into something greater than the sum of its parts.
4. Xenoblade Chronicles
It’s the little touches that make Xenoblade Chronicles the remarkable success that it is. It takes established JRPG tropes and, for the most part, breaks them apart and reworks them into something that feels ripped straight out of a modern WRPG. It gives you almost unparalleled freedom to roam gigantic landscapes and play the game’s immense story at your own pace. It features an addictive, exciting battle system that I found myself always able to enjoy. And finally, it’s complete with an excellent cast of characters and a story that surprises you with many twists and turns along the way. It may not be a huge evolutionary leap for the genre as a whole, but it does so much right and feels like that next great step forward that I’ve been excited to see happen. Let’s hope whatever Monolith Soft is working on next, it will be at least half as impressive as this brilliant RPG.
3. Mass Effect 3
Screw the controversy, I say! Mass Effect 3 lived up to all of my expectations and then some. Commander Shepard’s story felt truly complete with this fantastic conclusion to what is easily the best gaming trilogy of all time. Sure, there will be more Mass Effect, but in the end, Shepard’s journey has reached its ultimate conclusion and the universe is changed because of it. The improvements to the gunplay, the way small choices you’ve made along the way impact certain events and the expert writing make this easily one of my favorite games of 2012. And you know what else? I liked the ending too. Crazy, right?
I feel like I’ve written so much about Dishonored this year that I’m almost out of things to say about it. It’s a remarkable game that invokes the best aspects of player agency with a world that feels alive and full of secrets to discover. And I’m not talking about Easter eggs, no; I mean story details that flesh out both Corvo, the lead in this tale of revenge, and the world itself. You always feel you have several approaches to every situation and even if they’re not obvious, they become more so the more you come to terms with your abilities as well as basic rule set of the world itself. The more you unravel everything that makes Dishonored truly special, the more you will learn to love it.
1. The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead, like Journey, is a game that cannot simply be described. No game catered more towards everything I love about the medium more this year than this episodic, zombie-filled adventure. Lee became one of my favorite protagonists in any game, and even if some of the choices I made didn’t matter in terms of the narrative, they mattered to me. I cared about these characters, even when they messed up, and I found ways to deal with situations that I never thought I would have to do in a game. And, most importantly of all, I had to protect Clementine. Never before have I felt such connection to a character than I did to her. And during those final moments, I just knew I would never forget her. The Walking Dead is special and deserves all of the praise, and more, that it has been getting and will continue to get for years to come. Bravo, Telltale Games, and bring on Season Two.