It’s cliché to say that 2012 was “the best year ever for video games.” Some folk say this about every year. Yet it’s difficult for us not to look back at 2012 with such love and fondness.
If 2012 has shown us one thing, it’s that video game development is truly in the “crossover era.” GamesBeat’s 2012 Game of the Year, The Walking Dead, was first available as a downloadable title, not a retail release. Other downloadables, such as indie-developed darlings Journey and Faster Than Light, garnered plenty of votes as well. And in our staff’s and contributor’s top games of the year lists, we even see mobile releases — like Fieldrunners 2.
Gaming has changed, and it’s nice to see that it’s more than just big-budget console and PC titles that have earned Game of the Year attention. Here are the top games as chosen by GamesBeat staffers and contributors. Let us know what you think about our picks in the comments — especially if you feel we’ve left something off our lists!
Editor-in-chief Dan “Shoe” Hsu
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PS3
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Firaxis Games
Little green men — yesteryear’s poster boys for mysterious invaders from outer space — are about as menacing as Oompa Loompas armed with toy guns. XCOM’s little gray men, however, are scary as hell. It’s not the ashen skin, bulbous eyes, or creepy-crawly walk. It’s what these Sectoids represent: a greater threat that we are simply not equipped to handle.
In the strategy game XCOM: Enemy Unknown, we mere humans bring dull knives to plasma gunfights. And just when we start to catch up in weapon technology, the bug-eyed bastards bring bigger guns and meaner friends. These jerks even cheat with mysterious mind-control powers. Meanwhile, we’re barely keeping the checkbook balanced between research, manufacturing, facility construction, aircraft, and an ever-decreasing budget due to world nations pulling out of the program if you can’t keep them safe (and you can never keep them all safe).
It all adds up to an incredibly exciting and stressful experience. Each decision — whether it’s which tree to hide your assault trooper behind or which whiny country gets your last airspace-monitoring satellite — feels monumental and permanent. Humanity’s existence is at stake, and we just want to make it to the next month, when a few more pennies come rolling in and a few more traumatized soldiers get out of sick bay.
It’s a desperate fight. And boy will we celebrate when those little gray men are dead.
Shoe’s other picks for best games of 2012: Fieldrunners 2, Dishonored, Journey, Fez
Lead writer Dean Takahasi
The Unfinished Swan
Platform: PlayStation 3 (PlayStation Network)
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Developer: Giant Sparrow
The Unfinished Swan is one of the most creative titles yet for the PlayStation Network. It’s an interactive fairy tale where you lob blobs of black paint at a white screen. As you do so, you uncover part of a 3D space hidden within the white scene. Uncovering each scene is a mind-bending task, as you have to navigate perplexing puzzles. You explore the unknown, and as you do so, you uncover a new segment in a fairy tale about a boy who loses his mother. It is a touching story that will remind of you of the zany Alice in Wonderland. Ian Dallas, the game creator, feels that a child who is abandoned is like an unfinished work of art. But just when you think that the game has become predictable, it changes. In some ways, the story seems unfinished. But the title is a wonderful first effort for Giant Sparrow, a new studio bankrolled by Sony.
Dean’s other picks for the best games of 2012: Halo 4, Far Cry 3, Journey, Call of Duty: Black Ops II
Culture editor Sebastian Haley
Publisher: Developer Digital
Developer: Dennaton Games
Indie sensation Hotline Miami is best described as the film Drive, but in a retro, pixelated and somehow even more violent form, with subtle hints of Rockstar’s Manhunt sprinkled on top. The short-but-sickeningly sweet levels allow you to carefully orchestrate your symphony of murder and mayhem, filling the floors with maimed corpses and spraying the walls with crimson, all while its surreal, Miami Vice-inspired soundtrack beats in the back of your mind. Basically, if you own a Wii or like looking at livestreams of kittens, this is not your kind of game.
Sebastian’s other picks for best games of 2012: Trials Evolution, Far Cry 3, The Darkness II, Final Fantasy XIII-2
Staff writer Jeff Grubb
Mark of the Ninja
Platform: Xbox 360 (Xbox Live Arcade), PC
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Klei Entertainment
For these Game of the Year summaries, we’re supposed to look above and beyond the individual parts of a game. We’re supposed to write about why it is important, but in the case of Mark of the Ninja, it’s those parts that make it so special. Developer Klei’s 2D stealth action game for Xbox Live Arcade and PC is a master class in well-executed gameplay mechanics. Whether it’s a soundwave that ripples off your ninja’s feet to indicate how much noise he’s making or a vision cone that indicates where an enemy is looking, Mark of the Ninja is constantly communicating with the player. It then provides the player with a great controlling character to poke and prod the world with.
It’s not rare that a game makes you feel like a badass, but with Klei’s game it’s not about how powerful you are — it’s about how in tune with the environment your character is. You have so much visual and aural information that every moment is an opportunity for experimentation. You can spend 10 minutes laying out a detailed plan that involves deadly traps, or you can play the entire game without a sword.
In video games, we don’t usually get a lot of new ideas, we just get different takes on old ideas. Stealth is an old idea at this point, but Mark of the Ninja distinguishes itself by executing the concept better than any other game before it.
Jeff’s other picks for best games of 2012: The Walking Dead, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Trials Evolution, FTL: Faster Than Light
Copy editor Jason Wilson
FTL: Faster Than Light
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux
Publisher: Subset Games
Developer: Subset Games
I’m low on fuel. My crew raced around my starship like a colony of ants, hastily putting out fires as doors opened to the cold vacuum of space. The Rebels are closing in on me. Do I take a chance and see if I can gain more fuel in the next nebular cloud, or do I make a mad dash for the next sector and hope to find friendly forces instead of angry adversaries? These are just some of the choices the player faces in FTL: Faster Than Light, the indie roguelike that’s swept upon a number of Game of the Year lists in 2012 (including ours!). What makes FTL so compelling to players is that a take on Civilization’s “one more turn” addictive nature — but instead of furthering your game, you’re driven to see if your next attempt takes you closer to escaping the pursuing Rebel forces. And it’s this that makes FTL one of the most interesting, fascinating, and, yes, best games of 2012.
Jason’s other picks for best games of 2012: The Walking Dead, Crusader Kings II, Torchlight II, Dragon’s Dogma
Contributor Rus McLaughlin
Far Cry 3
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Something visceral. Something primal. Most shooters don’t have these. They settle you into a safe, comfortable role. Veteran soldier. Seasoned cop. Career criminal. A hero … or an antihero. But Far Cry 3 makes you run blind through the jungle while murderous pirates hunt you like a piece of prey. You’re just a terrified kid. Never held a gun before. Never seen anyone die before. Now you’re covered in your own brother’s blood and getting high off the giddy thrill of mere survival. Then you’re turned lose to roam two amazingly rich, open-world islands where you can really start enjoying yourself, slowly and cautiously picking your tormentors apart. Before you know it, the elation you get from destroying a criminal empire hardens into a different kind of drug: revenge.
That’s when Far Cry 3 surpasses the standard shooter fare. An aimless twentysomething becomes a killer of killers, as feared as the insane warlords he wants dead. Between coolly tense stealth play and straight-up gunfights, you become the predator, stalking intruders in your jungle and murdering them at will. It all culminates in a moment where you must decide just how much you enjoy that particular power fantasy. Enough to abandon your humanity? Maybe.
Far Cry 3 goes there. Solid gameplay — minus a weak-tea multiplayer — and incredibly detailed environments lift it far enough, but its secret weapon lies in how it takes you into that dark, primal place. And then it dares you to ignore your basic animal instincts.
Rus’s other picks for best games of 2012: The Walking Dead, Fez, Halo 4, Journey
Contributing editor Rob Savillo
Platform: PS3, PlayStation Vita, PC, Mac, Linux
Publisher: Superflat Games
Developer: Superflat Games, Curve Studios
Jasper Byrne’s psychological thriller clearly owes a debt to the Silent Hill series’ mysterious and surrealist approach to narrative, among other things. Lone Survivor weaves a tale of intrigue, always making you second guess your choices while silently tracking your every decision. The latter shows an appreciation for an Eastern European take on storytelling (as seen in The Witcher 2 and Metro 2033) that flows more naturally than Western developers’ tendencies to employ contrived morality systems.
Lone Survivor also smartly reinvents the survival-horror genre by undermining the common trope of item scarcity, which games such as Resident Evil and the aforementioned Silent Hill have used in the past to create tension. Instead, Lone Survivor relies on its narrative sleight-of-hand to keep you on the edge of your seat.
For these reasons, Lone Survivor moves storytelling forward in the medium without falling back on “gamey” concepts such as light/dark paths. At once affecting and engaging, the narrative blends almost seamlessly (aside from an archaic death mechanic) with the interactive elements of the work, elevating the game above its peers in the big-budget, triple-A space.
Rob’s other picks for best games of 2012: XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Tokyo Jungle, Armored Core V, Dragon’s Dogma
Contributor Rob LeFebvre
Sony Computer Entertainment America
Sony Computer Entertainment Japan Studio
Gravity Rush is the superhero game I’ve always wanted to play. Even without the traditional Western comic book tropes like spandex and capes, Kat functions like any other neophyte comic-book character, only gradually coming into her full power as the story progresses. Her ability to control gravity is disorienting in the best way, as it echoes resonantly with the thematic elements of the story. Kat is as off balance as we are, as we move her about from place to place, finding ever odder, more unlikely spots to land on.
The world breathes with delightfully artistic colors; the environments are a treat to look at while playing. Gravity Rush encourages exploration of every gorgeous spot, with hidden power gems located all around, on top of buildings, under bridges, and the like. Characters pop off the screen with cel-shaded goodness, and fairly glow within the expository comicbook-style sections.
Touch and motion controls are subtle and make sense within the world, but what really makes Gravity Rush sing is the power of flight. Soaring across the various city sections, landing on floating urban debris, flinging objects and even Kat’s own body at the odd-looking creatures during fights is just thrilling, and never once loses its charm.
For me, Gravity Rush is the best title for the PlayStation Vita, showcasing the power and tech of the handheld gaming device to the highest degree I’ve seen yet.
Rob’s other best games of 2012: Guild Wars 2, Dishonored, Journey, Borderlands 2
Contributor Stefanie Fogel
Mass Effect 3
Platforms: Xbox 360, PC
Publisher: Electronic Arts
So much sound and fury was made over Mass Effect 3’s controversial ending that it’s easy to forget the final installment of BioWare’s space opera really is a damn fine game. It told a grim tale of galactic war, yet found time in between the dire exposition and bombastic action set pieces to bid fond farewell to characters Mass Effect fans have come to know and love over the last five years. It’s those quieter moments — the shooting match with Garrus, Mordin humming the Major-General’s song as he sacrifices himself, your final conversation with Captain Anderson — that stick with you months after putting down the controller. Mass Effect 3 also (mostly) fulfilled the series’ promise that in-game decisions would matter, paving the way for other morality-based titles like Spec Ops: The Line and our Game of the Year, The Walking Dead. By the time the credits rolled, I had completed every side mission I possibly could during my playthrough because I hated the thought of leaving that world behind, which I believe is one of the highest compliments you can pay to a game developer.
Stefanie’s other best games of 2012: The Walking Dead, Persona 4 Golden, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Dishonored
Contributor Kat Bailey
Developer: 343 Industries
Even compared to the normally high stakes world of triple-A publishing, Microsoft and 343 Industries had plenty on the line with Halo 4. If it ended up being mediocre — or worse, an outright flop — the brand as a whole would have a hard time recovering. With that in mind, the sighs of relief throughout Redmond, Wash. must have been deafening when the top scores started coming in, with even diehard Halo fans giving their emphatic thumbs up.
Halo may not be the be-all, end-all shooter anymore, but it remains quite relevant in the world of online gaming. A lot of that has to do with the distinctive blend of action the series brings to the table — shield management, tagging foes with grenades, and properly using the small but multidimensional maps. 343 Industries seems to have a keen understanding of this action, and it’s perfectly replicated it for Halo 4, throwing in a few of their own twists along the way (the Starhawk-like Dominion Mode is a favorite).
That 343 Industries understands the “recipe” for a good Halo game is only part of the story though. With new modes like Spartan Ops — a series of free downloadable microcontent — they are putting their own stamp on the beloved series. For that reason, the air of skepticism surrounding 343 Industries has largely been replaced with one of legitimacy. Now we’ll see if they have the wherewithal to use that currency to make something truly special.
Kat’s other best games of 2012: Xenoblade Chronicles, The Walking Dead, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Persona 4 Golden
Intern Mike Minotti
Guild Wars 2
Platform: PC, Mac
World of Warcraft is king of the massively multiplayer role-playing game. It’s probably going to sit comfortably on that throne for years to come. But 2012 brought us Guild Wars 2, the first MMO I played since 2004 that I actually preferred to Blizzard’s take on questing on adventuring.
Guild Wars 2 doesn’t reinvent online adventuring, but it’s littered with smart design choices that make you smack your head and yell, “Duh! Why hasn’t it always been like this?” Turning in quests? The hell with that! Guild War 2′s adventures happen organically and painlessly, without having to talk to multiple townspeople with exclamation marks hovering over their heads. Want to visit an unexplored zone that’s designed for players at a lower level than your own? Guild Wars 2 scales your character down so that you can still have a challenging time tackling each area’s trials.
It doesn’t hurt that its world, Tyria, is a beautiful land that’s fun and rewarding to explore. Oh, and the lack of a subscription fee? Yeah, I like that, too.
Guild Wars 2 is not only more accessible than a lot of its competitors, but it’s frankly a lot more fun than just about any other MMO out there.
Mike’s other best games of 2012: Gravity Rush, Borderlands 2, Assassin’s Creed III, PlayStation All Stars Battle Royale.
Intern Evan Killham
Slender: The Eight Pages
Platform: PC, Mac
Publisher: Parsec Productions
Developer: Parsec Productions
Technically, I’ve never lost a game of Slender … because I’ve never actually finished one. I’ve always quit when the cold sweat broke out.
Developer Parsec Productions’ free horror game is one of this year’s most surprising titles (in every sense of the word). Starting with a simple premise — collect the eight manuscript pages hidden in these spooky woods before eponymous monster Slender Man catches you — Slender uses its too-long arms to yank players into a hell of panic attacks and abject terror.
This game is relentless. Everything you see and hear is designed specifically to unnerve you, and it gets worse with every page you pick up. Even more spectacular is the disconnect between playing this beast and watching someone play it. If you do a YouTube search for “Let’s play Slender,” you risk losing an entire evening in the grips of sweet, sweet, schadenfreude. Boot it up yourself and you will regret ever laughing at those videos.
In a year that gave us two Silent Hill titles and three additions to the Resident Evil series, gaming’s horror genre was desperately in need of some new ideas. And then Slender showed up and made us afraid of the dark again.
Evan’s other best games of 2012: Max Payne 3, The Walking Dead, Borderlands 2, Silent Hill: Downpour
Intern Jason Lomberg
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Arkane Studios
Stealth games have never been my cup of tea. Metal Gear Solid 2’s brain-dead guards annoyed the piss out of me, and I usually ended up going “Rambo” in Metal Gear Solid 3, running through danger rather than sneaking stealthily past it. But Dishonored nails it – the sense of danger, the thrill of the hunt, and the exhilaration that comes from successfully pulling off one of Corvo’s many gruesome kills.
As GamesBeat writer Rus McLaughlin points out, Dishonored plays exactly the way you want to play it. You can tear through the City Watch like a Steampunk version of Chuck Norris (minus the roundhouse kicks); you can destroy every living thing in your path with merciless impunity. Of course being a one-man army with a thirst for cold steel and magical spells of destruction makes the game that much harder. But it’s one option.
You can also play the pacifist and refuse to take a life. Or you can utilize the cover system and take out the guards like a silent assassin. Near the beginning, a pack of man-eating rats block your path, and the solution involves drawing them away with a dead body — that’s about the time I realized I was playing something unique and special. The ways to get from point A to point B are endless and never less than thrilling.
Jason’s other best games of 2012: Sleeping Dogs, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, Journey, Mass Effect 3
Intern Giancarlo Valdes
Platform: PlayStation 3 (PlayStation Network)
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Journey is a game that doesn’t feel like it’s made out of textures, wireframes, or lines of code. The glistening sand dunes, the subterranean fortress, and the snow-covered mountaintops feel like real places, inspiring a magical sense of wonder and fear as you explore the unknown. That’s why the bond you form with your anonymous online companion is so powerful: It’s the two of you against the world, a nonverbal pact that is implicitly forged the moment you meet each other.
I didn’t realize this until I saw my partner collapse from the harsh winds during Journey’s climax. I desperately tried to nurse them back to life, but it was no use. I felt a slight pang of sadness as their body perished seamlessly with the natural elements, timidly coming to terms with the fact that I had to face the rest of the game alone. I only lingered on this for perhaps a minute or two, but just the idea of a game making me feel and think this way is a testament to how expertly crafted Journey really is.
By the end, I had experienced an entire range of emotions in a medium where most games have a hard time just trying to invoke one.
Giancarlo’s other best games of 2012: The Walking Dead, Tokyo Jungle, DayZ, Spec Ops: The Line
Intern Jasmine Rea
Persona 4 Golden
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Few Japanese role-playing games in the last few years have made me want to replay them quite like Persona 4. When developer Atlus announced Persona 4 Golden for the Vita, I knew not buying Sony’s new handheld was completely out of the question.
While it is by far my favorite Vita release this year (and arguably the best game on the platform), Persona 4 Golden is a shining example of how much Japanese RPGs have evolved in the last 10 years. It mixes an intense, emotional story about a group of high school friends with an ongoing murder mystery so well that you sometimes forget about all the supernatural happenings.
Persona 4 Golden’s most powerful element is that shows how everyone has a part of themselves they don’t want to admit exists, and the only way to live freely is to accept that fact. Even though you can’t summon your “true self” to fight for you in the real world, we can all learn a thing or two about accepting ourselves. Persona 4’s relatable characters will show you how.
Jasmine’s other best games of 2012: Resident Evil: Revelations, The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, Tales of Graces F, Lollipop Chainsaw
Intern Sam Barsanti
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Gearbox Software
It would be easy to explain the appeal of Borderlands 2 by describing it as a cheap way to satiate your hunger for constant rewards. It may be obvious, but the best part of every firefight in the game isn’t the moment-to-moment excitement of rampaging through a horde of bandits, it’s the few seconds after when you get to pick over the loot. The combat is just a means to an end. What really drives you to do anything in Borderlands 2 is the hope that with the next enemy you take down you’ll find a new weapon that is more interesting than your current one. I mean, who can resist an experience that treats every five minutes like a combination of Christmas, your birthday, and a Steam sale all in one?
Of course, to only talk about loot would be too reductive and dismissive of everything else that Borderlands 2 does well. The combat and millions of guns make it a good game, but the cleverness of the world and all of the things in it are what make it one of the best of the year. I won’t remember every bad guy I killed, but I won’t forget being openly mocked by the antagonist or helping one of the characters think of stupid names for local creatures, because those moments were unique (and well written). See, the appeal of Borderlands 2 isn’t the combat or the loot — it’s the gleeful, wacky fun of the whole package.
Sam’s other best games of 2012: The Walking Dead, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron, Max Payne 3, Mass Effect 3