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Time is money. This old adage has meant more to me this year than it ever has. A new job, a longer commute, and a growing family means that time for gaming is becoming scarce and all the more precious. It's not like I regret any of the choices that I've made, but the sad fact of the matter is that I'll never have all the time to do/play everything that I want to (let alone write about these ventures in great detail). What all of this ultimately means is that writing a list of the best games I've played in a calendar year becomes a little easier, as the amount of games I've played is somewhat diminished.
With all that said, ordering this list has still been a painful experience, as the quality of releases that I have managed to play to completion has been quite high. For instance, I'm still agonizing as to whether Prototype 2 should have made it. Yes, it was shallow in terms of narrative and it was pretty easy, but I'll be damned if it wasn't fun. The games that did make the cut each elicit an emotional response — some in more ways than others — and speak to the way in which this medium can contribute stories, characters, and experiences that I'll carry with me until my final days. Some, like Motorstorm RC and Rayman Origins, evoke a strong sense of nostalgia that reminded me of why I fell in love with games during my childhood. Others, like Journey, challenged me by presenting an unconventional narrative that isn’t really possible through more-conventional storytelling methods. Despite all the gloom out there on the interwebz, there's still a lot for gamers to be excited about.
5. Motorstorm RC (played on PlayStation Vita)
An arrow courses through a racetrack with ruthless efficiency, charting a path to the best Time Trails score. Uninterrupted by obstacles or opponents, the arrow taunts me from a position that is well past my own. Switching vehicles won't help, the arrow knows each corner of the track like the back of its hand. My only weapon is persistence; tracing these small tracks with tiny cars until they become imprinted on my brain. Eventually, my car eclipses the arrow and I send a reasonably inflammatory message to whichever of my friends had set its track time.
This is the PlayStation Vita's "killer app.” It's cheap, it has a wealth of content that continues to expand with reasonably-priced expansions, and, most importantly, it's fun. Reminding me of the hours I invested in the Micro Machines series, Motorstorm RC puts the focus back on the racing as opposed to sponsorship deals with energy drinks or poorly conceived action-movie narratives. Its asynchronous multiplayer constantly taunts you with your friend's better times and encourages you to keep playing. This game is the reason I kept my Vita charged, and to make an even more compelling case for its purchase, you can download it to your PlayStation 3 and race at home if you feel the need. Unbeatable value.
4. Mass Effect 3 (played on PlayStation 3)
Have you ever had to say goodbye to a friend? Knowing that hand shake, that hug, or that kiss could be the last contact that you ever have with them can be a little too much to bear. Mass Effect 3 presents many moments like this. Some are idle threats, while others result in that type of loss that gets my bottom lip quivering. Of course, sometimes the relief of seeing a crew member survive a tense sequence proved just as moving. BioWare may not have gotten everything right here, but Mass Effect 3 is an emotional roller coaster of the highest order.
Quibbles with the unfulfilling (and baffling) conclusion and shallow multiplayer offering aside, this is easily the best game in the series. The impending doom of the Reaper invasion keeps everything moving at a brisk pace and impacts every conversation and relationship that Shepard has developed over the course of the trilogy. While a hard sell to anyone who hasn’t engaged with the series, the final chapter is a worthy investment for anyone who has been there since Eden Prime. As it stands, Mass Effect 3 is a fitting finale to this space opera series and a farewell tour without equal.
3. Journey (played on PlayStation 3)
Looking back, it may not have been the smartest idea to play through Journey just after my wife left for school camp. Feeling vulnerable and a little lonely, it wasn't long before Journey started tugging at my heartstrings. The ominous hum of the score in the initial stages drew me in immediately, reminding me of past anxiety and pushing me into a great expanse. The anonymous companions I gathered in my travels served to reinforce themes of life, death, companionship and tradition. Multiplayer that doesn't involve childish name-calling or vulgar language and also conveys a message deeper than "us versus them" is not only an accomplishment, but an important step forward for the medium.
Despite the distinct lack of guns, explosions, and sexy costumes, Journey drew me in with a refreshingly brisk pace. The controls are simple and the mechanics are even simpler (read: go forward), yet thatgamecompany has delivered something truly profound. Go play it now, just make sure you have loved ones and tissues nearby.
2. Rayman Origins (played on PlayStation Vita)
I don't ever want to be a kid again. I love eating rubbish and slippery slides as much as the next person, but I have so many things now that I simply can't go without (believe it or not, I'm referring to people and relationships as opposed to my lovely game collection). What I do miss from the days of old, however, is a bit of tough love from my gaming experiences. One-hit deaths, huge gaps, and a need for precise timing aren't typical of today’s tutorial-heavy shooters and adventure games. Back in the day, you had to work for the wins.
Rayman Origins captures that spirit and makes few concessions. You may not have to worry about lives and continues, but the distance between checkpoints — not to to mention the difficulty in traversing between them — will demand your focus and utmost care. The controls respond to your every careless command and display of hesitation, and it's the kind of game you could use to teach some very powerful life lessons. If that's not enough for you, there are charming visuals, a memorable soundtrack, and enough content to justify the price of entry five times over. This is one of the best 2D platformers of all time.
1. Max Payne 3 (played on Xbox 360)
The title theme for Max Payne 3 still haunts me. If I'm ever alone for any great amount of time, Health's powerful piece of music serves to make me all the more pensive. It foreshadows the pain and failure that the game's titular hero is going to see or has already seen. While it’s a solid third-person shooter at heart, Max Payne 3 is also a shockingly violent and stylish story of redemption.
Despite an awkward cover system and inconsistent damage model, Max Payne 3 is an enjoyable shooter that features the return of the eternally satisfying Shootdodge and Bullet Time mechanics. It also features some of the most shocking depictions of violence that I've ever seen in a game. This isn't necessarily a good thing, but it will stick with you; that much I can guarantee. It’s also worth noting that the game's substantial single-player campaign is infinitely replayable, with its multiple difficulty levels and two different score-attack modes. Great fun and a better value.
To conclude, I'll take the easy road and quote from my review:
I can recommend Max Payne 3 without hesitation. Its brutal, refreshingly adult narrative is something that anyone of the appropriate age — which for the record, shouldn't be 15 — should experience. There are inconsistencies that appear throughout the single player component, but I found it compelling and rarely frustrating. The multiplayer offering is also well worth your time, even if the majority of gamers don't seem to agree with me at the moment. Easily the best game of 2012 to date, and I have no doubt it'll survive my rigorous High Horse Audit later this year. Miss at your own peril.
What are your picks? Are there any glaring omissions from my list?