Thursday, December 20, 2012

Best of 2012 - Biggest Surprise.


A lot of games took me unawares in 2012, though I'll admit none were as shockingly revelatory as Dead Island's incredible first-person melee combat last year. Still, this year boasted a litany of titles or experiences that defied expectation, for good or ill.

These are my biggest surprises of 2012.


For being supernaturally awful.

We are in danger of forgetting how bad games can  be, until one like Amy comes along.  At the very least, Amy's muddy art direction, deeply uncomfortable controls and offensively bad design remind us that games of high or even acceptable caliber don't just get pulled out of someone's ass - it takes a lot of craft.

But seriously, Amy was so bad it was like getting punched in the face.  A momentary shock, followed by a bleary wonderment as to what the hell just happened.

For being a Suda game I love.

I've never been a great fan of Suda 51.  I ignored Killer 7, disliked No More Heroes and found a bit of enjoyment in Shadows of the Damned - but it turns out a little tweak to some simplified brawling, a fireworks show for presentation and a killer script by James Gunn was all it took to get me hooked.  I've purchased Lollipop Chainsaw four times since its release - twice for myself (I like doubles) and once each for two ladies I know.

For the record, the ladies loved the game too.

honorable mentions

For (1) being the worst Assassin's Creed since the first Assassin's Creed and
(2) that almost no other writer online seems to see it.

Assassin's Creed was doing a pretty good job of improving with each iteration.  Revelations wasn't great, but with Assassin's Creed III, I discovered a game that ignored nearly all the lessons of its predecessors and struck out to make some bold new choices - nearly all of which were very ill-advised.

The hunting?  Delightful.  The naval battles?  Spectacular.  The rest?

The rest was gorgeous and tedious or frustrating as all get-out.  I am nothing short of bowled over that Ubisoft let their flagship franchise's closing chapter - one of the most-hyped games of the year, drooled over by media for nearly all of 2012 - end up as such a poorly-designed, inelegantly-playing mess.

What's doubly shocking is that the gaming media adored the game, begging the question of just how much of their reviews were honest opinion and how much were glossed over by the title's massive hype machine.  It's like pulling teeth to find a member of the enthusiast press who'll admit ACIII was a profoundly un-fun game compared to its predecessors - you can find them - but the fact that so much of the media drank the kool-aid is very worrying, to me.

Resident Evil 6 didn't have that problem.

For being straight-up fun, fun, fun to play - all the way - when I expected it to be merely okay.

The Far Cry name has never been one of mass consumption.  While the franchise was built on great ideas like freeform combat and meaningful player choice, the accessibility was never there - but with Far Cry 3, Ubisoft threw off the gamey taste ACIII left in my mouth and delivered one of the single best games of 2012.

It's a bit crazy, really, like watching Bethesda pull off Skyrim.  It shouldn't work so well - but it does!  

This is a huge, ambitious, sprawling game where so much could have gone wrong, but nothing actually did.  I was convinced that having a half-dozen studios collaborating on a single title is what made Assassin's Creed III so deeply uneven, but Far Cry 3 disproves that theory.  With five studios contributing to it, Far Cry 3 is everything a triple-A experience should be - a consistent, gorgeous, deliriously fun exercise in freedom, choice and some of the most glorious violence this side of Max Payne 3.

There's only one other game in 2012 which smacked my gob so verily.


For being a handheld I adore.

It's taken me a long time to love a handheld. I can summon nothing more than indifference towards Game Boys and DSs.

I liked my PSP.  God of War and Metal Gear Solid and RPGs galore - but it was more of a passing fancy than a real endearment.

But I love my Vita.  Which is something I've never really felt for a handheld, before.

Perhaps it's that games like Gravity Rush, Rayman Origins and Uncharted: Golden Abyss are exactly what I want in a handheld - a console-quality experience on the go.  Perhaps it's the thing's crazy-awesome back-catalog of PSP and PS1 games.  Perhaps it's the handy apps or the reasonable internet browser - but no, it's probably the games.

It's likely, simply, that in its first year I'm already more in love with the Vita's library than I was with the PSP's.  Heck, than I was with the PS3's.

I had hope for the Vita before it launched - I was mildly hyped, I'll admit - but I never believed the reality of the system would so eclipse its predecessor, for me, and so handily.  I actually use this thing every day.

Didn't see that one coming.


biggest surprise
of 2012

In 2012 Klei Entertainment established themselves as one of the most accomplished development studios in North America by putting forward not one, but two titles which were nothing less than exemplary representatives of their genres.

With Shank 2, it was a welcome surprise and very cool - a truly great brawler is hard to come by - but with Mark of the Ninja, it was like standing in a field, watching lightning strike the exact same spot a dozen times.

This isn't supposed to happen.  This wasn't supposed to be possible, but...

...keep in mind, stealth is my single favorite genre.  I gorge myself on stealth, and 2012 was a banner year for it.  I don't make such statements lightly:

With Mark of the Ninja, Klei - a studio that had never attempted the stealth genre before - presented gamers with what is possibly the single best stealth game of all time.

The title is excellent from all angles, but the near-perfection of its design is what I'll harp on, here - or more specifically, how profoundly it breaks precedent.

Consider Grand Theft Auto.  Consider Uncharted or inFamous or any franchise, really.  Consider Metal Gear Solid.

No developer hits it out of the park on their first crack at a genre.  Ever.  Grand Theft Auto, for me, didn't begin approaching perfect until San Andreas.  Uncharted hit its stride with Among Thieves, the Sucker Punch of inFamous 2 was miles removed from that of Sly, and let's face it, Kojima never really exceeded Snake Eater - but Klei..?

Klei assembled a near-perfect stealth exercise on their first try.

There's no words for it.  It's an utterly remarkable accomplishment - and not one that could have ever been anticipated.

Mark of the Ninja's near-perfection of a bordering-on-defunct genre is easily the single biggest surprise I had in 2012.

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