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In January, I made a list of all the games I knew I wanted this year: The ones I was sure would be locks for the top spots in my Game of the Year list. This list was dominated by big-budget sequels like Borderlands 2, Assassin’s Creed 3, and Halo 4.
Now in December, I look at my GOTY list, and it looks nothing like the January one. Some early locks scraped by (Borderlands 2), some just barely missed the cut (Halo 4), and one in particular was gravely disappointing (Assassin’s Creed 3).
It was a surprising year, and I couldn’t be happier.
10. Paper Mario: Sticker Star
The various Mario-themed RPG franchises have always been rock solid, but the Paper Mario series has always been my favorite. Fantastic writing, charming visuals, and fun combat have been hallmarks of the series, and they’ve been translated well to the 3DS. While I do lament the lack of party members and the wonderful badge system from previous iterations, Sticker Star manages to cram a ton of excellent bite-sized content into a single game card, making it a great addition to any gamer’s 3DS collection.
This late in the console cycle, you don’t see many publishers take chances on daring new intellectual properties, but thankfully, Bethesda saw the potential in Dishonored. If it wasn’t for another game that will show up later in this list, I might go so far as to say Dishonored is the best stealth game to date. It eschews so many pitfalls that this genre suffers from in such elegant ways. The “Blink” ability (which allows you to teleport short ranges in any direction) by itself would be a game changer, but when combined with Dishonored’s other abilities, it makes the city of Dunwall an absolute joy in which to skulk around.
8. Far Cry 3
I really wanted to like the second game in the Far Cry series. It had a lot of fascinating ideas that just lacked a little on their execution. Far Cry 3 goes back to the drawing board and makes fun a top priority. No more malaria, no more gun degradation, and no more regenerating enemy outposts. Instead we get one of the most mechanically sound games of this generation, keeping the core gameplay incredibly satisfying. Sadly, what will be remembered about Far Cry 3 is how much better it could’ve been if it hadn’t squandered its most interesting characters and story potential. Even so, it’s still one of the year’s best, and absolutely deserves your time.
7. Borderlands 2
Borderlands was my undisputed game of 2009, so it’s safe to say I was highly anticipating this release. Gearbox addressed almost all of my issues with the first game: differentiating the gun manufacturers, adding deeper character customization, and bringing a real storyline to the table. And yet, Borderlands 2 just doesn’t quite scratch the itch as perfectly as its predecessor. Still, I managed to put more time into Borderlands 2 than any other game this year (upwards of 200 hours), which might speak to how good this game is, even with my diminished enthusiasm.
6. FTL: Faster Than Light
I hadn’t supported the FTL project on Kickstarter, so I was caught completely off-guard when I heard gamers and critics alike singing its praises. And as soon as I loaded up the space strategy simulator, I joined the choir. I’ve been selling this game to people by calling it “Oregon Trail in space,” but that is severely simplifying the deep combat and ship-upgrading systems available to you. Add to that an incredible soundtrack, lots of unlockables, and a great difficulty curve, and you’ve got one of the year’s bests right here.
I’ve been keeping an eye on Spelunky for a while now. Having a Mac kept me from playing the original Windows version (though that version now has gotten an HTML5 browser port you can play right here,) so its XBLA debut was the first time I could get my hands on it. Tight controls, great music, intense challenge and an addictive quality that keeps you coming back for more after every swear-worthy death. I’m constantly learning ways to attack Spelunky’s randomly-generated levels. Then add in up to three friends to share in the madness.
4. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
While I didn’t grow up on the XCOM series, I am a stauch believer in the Advance Wars/Fire Emblem franchises, so a big-budget turn-based-strategy game on consoles intrigued me immediately. The strategy is solid (the same can’t be said of the game’s performance, though patches have made it significantly more stable,) but the real gem is the squad customization that creates a bond between you and your units. That bond is then cruelly severed by the game’s crushing difficulty, which end up making your victories all the more sweet.
3. Mark of the Ninja
Remember when I said one game was keeping Dishonored from being the best stealth game yet? It was this one. Mark of the Ninja turns a stealth game into more of a puzzle one by clearly communicating information to the player and stripping its mechanics down to only the most relevant core. You’ll always be aware of whether you’re visible or not, what equipment you have on hand and what options you have for navigating the possibility-filled levels. Being able to pause the action at any time to set up strategies and traps is awesome and the way the game visualizes sound is truly revelatory. I’ve never had so much fun playing stealth.
2. Mass Effect 3
When it comes to Mass Effect 3, the pros far outweigh the cons. I can’t imagine being completely satisfied with any ending to a series that had so many high points, but I think the Bioware did an admirable job (even before the Extended Cut downloadable update). I was satisfied with the controls though, which have now crossed over fully into the action genre. They’re much better than the wishy-washy ones in Mass Effect 2, though I’m still somewhat partial to the RPG feel of the original. With the new controls though, we’re now introduced to a stunning multiplayer mode, something I never thought I would want from Mass Effect, but am now entirely glad I have. Maybe I’m overvaluing this chapter due to its culmination of the series as a whole, but I’m OK with that, as it’s one of the best trilogies in all of gaming.
1. The Walking Dead
Call it interactive fiction. Call it “barely a game.” Call it whatever you want, but it’s one of the most affecting experiences I’ve had not just this year, but in all my years of playing games. Telltale has so smartly hidden it’s mechanics that you would only start to peek behind the curtain on a second playthrough. Your decisions feel like they hold a ton of weight and will often come back to bite you later (sometimes literally). I formed bonds with a ton of characters, which made the losses all the more difficult. Consistent quality throughout all five episodic chapters make this game something you need to try, no matter the platform (and with versions on PC, Mac, iOS, XBLA and PSN, there are plenty of options available to you).
And those are my picks from the games I played. Sadly, not having a PS3 or a Vita means I couldn’t enjoy the majesty of Journey or the quirkiness of Sound Shapes. And not having access to a PC kept me from playing both Torchlight 2 and Hotline Miami (though knowing both would eventually received Mac versions was enough for me to purchase them on Steam anyway). Still, I’m pleased with my choices, but I’m sure the lovely Gamesbeat/Bitmob community will let me know where I went wrong.