PlayStation Vita

We thought we were so smart back in January with our release lists and RSS feeds. We really believed we knew what was going to happen this year. “I can’t wait to play BioShock Infinite when it releases in 2012!” we said. We were so naïve back then. It doesn’t matter how closely you follow the news or how often you refresh your browser; some companies can still manage to catch the gaming public completely unaware.

Here are some of our picks for the biggest surprises of 2012.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Contributor Rus McLaughlin

I hated the first Black Ops. Hated. It. I even went back and replayed parts of it just to refresh every design misstep and weak idea in my mind before its sequel arrived. You’d better believe that I’d sharpened all my knives in anticipation of carving up Black Ops II like a particularly ugly turkey who killed my dog. And then it turned out good … like, really good.

It’s as if developer Treyarch, a company that consistently churned out the worst entries in the franchise for years, suddenly ditched their old playbook and started fresh. The flow and encounters hit a sweet spot that I haven’t felt from the series since the first Modern Warfare, which came out in 2007. The branching storylines — often based on your in-game performance rather than flat yes/no answers — lock in unless you replay the entire mission … and every mission after it.

Very nice. Sure, the real-time strategy chapters don’t hold up as RTS games, and it’s still the bro-tastic Michael Bay of video games, but I can’t deny that I’m actually excited about Call of Duty again right when COD fatigue had fully set in. Can Activision deliver at this level every year? I’m still skeptical, but at least now I know that the possibility exists.

Walking Dead The Game

Rediscovering adventure games

Contributing editor Stephanie Carmichael

This was a momentous year for point-and-click adventure games, and Kickstarter played a huge role in that. Fans donated more than $3.3 million to Double Fine Adventure, making it one of the most successful video game campaigns on the crowdfunding service, let alone one of the greatest outpourings for the genre to date. Luminary Jane Jensen raised enough money for her Pinkerton Road Studio and the upcoming adventure game Moebius. And Telltale Games launched one of the hottest titles of 2012 with The Walking Dead. Those are only a few of the promising or excellent titles that found an audience in the past dozen months. Who said adventure games were dead?

Street Fighter X Mega Man

Contributor Samir Torres

Street Fighter and Mega Man turned 25 years old in 2012, and that calls for a celebration. Street Fighter X Mega Man is a free, PC-only, old-fashioned Mega Man adventure game in which you battle Street Fighter characters instead of Robot Masters. When you beat them, you acquire their abilities. It came out on December 17.

The most interesting part is that Capcom is working with die-hard Mega Man fans to make the title — fans whom the developer has neglected in recent years with the cancellation of Mega Man Legends 3 and Mega Man Universe and the Blue Bomber’s omission in Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

The PlayStation Vita

Intern Giancarlo Valdes

Though I only bought the Vita a few weeks ago, I honestly think it’s the best handheld I’ve ever owned — with its gorgeous screen and sleek hardware design, it’s also the prettiest. Games such as Gravity Rush, PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, and Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack are great — even when I’m not commuting and just playing on the couch at home. The proprietary memory cards are still ridiculously expensive, and game-wise, the lineup doesn’t look too bright in 2013, but for now, I’m happy with just catching up with all the gems that came out this year.

Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2

Contributor Rob LeFebvre

I quit playing World of Warcraft a few years ago because, meh, I thought the third-person fantasy massively multiplayer online genre was over, and I was tired of it. After messing about with Star Wars: The Old Republic and Eve Online, I figured that Guild Wars 2 would just be another WOW clone. Instead, it’s much more interesting and compelling to play, has many different ways to progress in the game, and made me an MMO player yet again. Not having a monthly subscription is a big factor as well.

Warlock: Master of the Arcane

Copy editor Jason Wilson

I hadn’t realized how much I had missed Master of Magic, the fantasy equivalent of Civilization from the 1990s. I didn’t realize that I had been yearning for a game like this until I encountered Warlock: Master of the Arcane. It isn’t as deep as Civilization — the focus is more on combat than in Sid Meier’s legendary turn-based strategy series — but in some ways, it’s more fun. The factions each have their own personality (I love the voices of the goblin units or the flying galleons of the Undead), and Warlock’s A.I. actually knows how to play its game. If you enjoy turn-based strategy that focuses more on combat than on expansion and empire-building — and dig fantasy — check it out.

Guild Wars 2

Intern Mike Minotti

I’m one of those MMO players. You know, the kind who plays World of Warcraft casually, sometimes tries something new, but always returns to the welcoming arms of Azeroth. I never thought I would find an MMO that I would genuinely like better than WOW, but Guild Wars 2 hooked me with its beautiful world and innovative quest systems.

The Phantom Pain/Metal Gear Solid 5 Logo

The Phantom Pain/Metal Gear Solid connection

Editor-in-chief Dan “Shoe” Hsu

Every year, the best part of Spike’s Video Game Awards — meaning the good part of Spike’s Video Game Awards — is all the world-premiere trailers for upcoming titles. 2012’s show was no different, and the announcement trailer for developer Moby Dick Studios’ The Phantom Pain was the highlight of the evening.

Even more interesting is the fan-driven speculation that the title is secretly the next installment in Konami’s Metal Gear franchise. The evidence is circumstantial at best, but if you think back on it, this is exactly the sort of thing that we’d expect from the stealth action series.

Dragon’s Dogma

Contributing editor Rob Savillo

Capcom’s underrated action-adventure caught me completely by surprise. I’d heard nothing about it until a few weeks before release when then-Bitmob staff writer (now at PC Gamer) Omri Petitte published his “A Series of Epic Events” preview. Instantly, I saw Monster Hunter- and Dark Souls-style gameplay dancing in my head, and I wasn’t too far off once I got my hands on the disc.

Here’s a game that makes nighttime feel dangerous and isolating, not merely a moonlight-blue hued palette swap. Here’s a game with a detailed, skill-based combat model that encourages creative solutions. Here’s a game that makes exploration feel grand and of consequence such that smart preparation becomes a necessity. Here’s a game that blends asynchronous multiplayer into an experience that’s not turn-based or on a phone. Here’s a game that doesn’t waste your time with bland, boring, and ultimately useless dialogue from cardboard non-player characters. Here’s a game that’s not afraid to challenge modern design conventions and show them to be a poor way forward for the medium.

The PlayStation Vita

Intern Jasmine Rea

I was all prepared to dislike the Vita based on how woefully under-supported it was at launch and Sony’s silly choice to make a 3G-enabled model. Since I really wanted to review Persona 4 Golden, I knew I’d buy one at some point, and boy was I shocked by how much I loved it. The screen is mesmerizing, and the increased size and heft fixed all the problems that I had with the PlayStation Portable’s shape. Most of all, I didn’t mind forking over money for digital versions of PSP games that I already own. They just look so much better on that pretty screen. The Vita deserves more support, and if you like Japanese role-playing games, you’re sure to adore this flashy little handheld. Just don’t buy into the touch panel gimmicks, and I think you’ll love it, too.

alan wake big

Alan Wake’s American Nightmare

Intern Evan Killham

Alan Wake, developer Remedy Entertainment’s Stephen King/Twin Peaks-fusion thriller with a dash of Lovecraft, was one of my favorite games of 2010. I was a little disappointed that the follow-up, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, was a bite-sized Xbox Live Arcade downloadable title, but I checked it out anyway because, hey, more Alan Wake. And you know what? It is glorious.

Remedy drops the first game’s moody tension in favor of a more action-based, grindhouse dynamic, and while such a drastic shift in tone might be the worst thing that could happen to a franchise, somehow it just works for Alan Wake. It could be because this is a series explicitly about storytelling and creativity, and as such, it can include any genre Remedy feels like throwing in there. And seemingly as a test of this hypothesis, American Nightmare is a time-travel story.

The game has three levels, and you play through them three times. You could assume that this is a clever way to reuse assets and keep the game XBLA-sized, and you would be right, but on each time through, the characters around Alan remember bits of information about their experiences in the previous loop. For example, one time through, Alan has to go out to a character’s car to retrieve an item; the next time around, she remembers that someone will need that object and has it with her when you first (second?) meet, saving you the dangerous trip outside.

It’s really clever storytelling that keeps the repetition from feeling, well, repetitive, and it also serves as a fascinating commentary on game mechanics in general. What are checkpoint restarts, after all, but a form of time travel?