Usually I like to try to figure out a top five list of my favorite games every year, but maybe people calling this year “disappointing” aren’t completely wrong. Whatever the reason, I’ve only come up with three games that really made it into my definition of top tier enjoyment. As with last year on 1up, I list them in no particular order.
A lot of excellently-made games came out this year, but my favorites have always been the ones that keep me coming back. I’m talking about the games that I’m thinking about whenever I’m not playing those games. That’s the primary criterion, next to that being games that truly impress me with their quality of design, which themselves are few.
As I said on the last post, Hotline Miami is the only game in a while where I’ve had fun no matter what was going on, whether I was winning or losing. It’s one of those games that have me laughing out loud even as I die for the 50th time on the same level. It’s all because of how fun, simple, and immediate the basic gameplay loop is.
I think what’s ultimately at the bottom of why the gameplay feels so good are Hotline Miami’s high lethality and uniquely brazen depiction of violence. The way bodies get instantly sprawled all over the floor is reminiscent of the first time we messed around with ragdoll physics, just in a more bleak fashion. Having to sometimes manually finish off enemies went a ways in sealing the player’s involvement in the actions taking place on screen.
Finally and possibly most importantly, I think the simple interface and visuals actually lower the barrier between you and the fun. It’s like being able to quickly boot up Tetris as opposed to Mass Effect, except with Mortal Kombat levels of blood and gore. The way I see it, every blockbuster shooter is trying to make things more and more accessible to get closer to the lowest common denominator, and Hotline Miami is as far as anyone got this year, while still actually being a pretty tactical game. That balance might be its ultimate triumph.
Dishonored is probably my favorite full-price retail game of 2012. It’s almost the only one that to me didn’t feel like a safe Hollywood-ized shooter forced into current design trends. To me it harkened back to something increasingly rare in that market space — a game that is fully secure in what it is, and doesn’t restrict how you play it for fear that you might get lost or frustrated.
Well, to be honest, I also think Dishonored is ironically typical of its design paradigm. The first person simulation RPG finally popularized itself on current generation consoles after a sort of golden era on the PC, and Dishonored comes after a whole host of very good ones. Designed by the people who made what could have been a third Ultima Underworld (the progenitor of this whole subgenre) along with a Deus Ex designer, Dishonored falls back hard on the standards of those games. Even its storyline and setting, excellent as the latter is, didn’t feel completely original. Outside of the supernatural stealth powers, Dishonored actually does very little that Deus Ex and BioShock don’t already do. I’ve heard people call Dishonored a straight rip off of Thief, but I still haven’t played that game.
That said, Dishonored still continually amazed me at the quality of its level design, and that’s mostly why it’s in this blog post. There were too many moments where I said to myself “man, this is a real game right here,” as I discovered more and more of the options it gave me. There were too many times when I wished more big budget games had gameplay this opened-ended yet still deliberately designed. Maybe this is just because it’s gotten rare these days — the game that skillfully balances player freedom with authored level design. Dishonored is what so many retail games used to be.
Maybe this is because I’ve never played another space simulation game, but part of the appeal of FTL: Faster Than Light was definitely its uniqueness. The fact that I could finally make the decision to divert power from the shields to phazers wasn’t really it. It was just the general freshness of the feeling of managing a ship’s compartments and crew as I journeyed across the various places in the cosmos, never knowing what to expect.
As I’d heard in podcasts before buying it, FTL is one of those games that generates war stories from emergent gameplay — war stories about the kinds of things Picard had to do in episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation. I imagine that randomness is a big part of why roguelike fans keep coming back after constantly losing their progress. FTL just manages to put that appeal under a fresh veneer.
Like Hotline Miami, I think FTL’s simple interface and relatively quick gameplay loop give it a certain accessibility that completes its addictiveness. The fact that I know how easy it is to reroll just after losing an hour-long game is what keeps me coming back to FTL.
I would say that ultimately, 2012 was a year in which most of the big games stayed safe because the developers have gotten so comfortable with seven-year-old console hardware while holding their breath for new hardware. Many of them were good or even great, but none of them blew minds like the games they iterated on. As Dishonored is the full-price retail game I probably enjoyed the most this year, it’s also one of the only big ones that isn’t a sequel.
Indie games, not having the shackles of big sale requirements, don’t have to be sequels or play to conventions. As that sector of the market strengthens in the number, quality, and complexity of its games, it was inevitable that at least a couple would reach top-tier status.
- The other two 2012 games that I still totally think you should buy are Punch Quest and Crashmo. Couldn’t figure out where to fit them in the main post.
- This is what action games are supposed to be about people. http://pocket.co/sp5Zt