GotY 2012 Runners-up
I Am Alive – For a game that – at one time – seemed poised to kick off Ubisoft’s next major AAA franchise, I Am Alive betrays its assumed origins rather quickly. Between overlong climbing segments dictated by a stamina bar and close-quaters combat that abandons tension for limited solutions to each encounter, the chopped up remains of what I Am Alive was offers little reason to play through to the halfway mark where the game opens up. Ubisoft Shanghai’s post-apocalyptic sandbox quickly grows a personality beyond this point.
With a greater reliance on (bow and arrow heavy) stealth, an ebbing sense of hopelessness, and the ability to explore unchained, I Am Alive finally feels like it’s living up to its own name. Then the store ends. ENDS. You can pad the good parts out by rescuing hostages or offering supplies to stranded survivors hiding just off streets too dusty to see in, but that still means you must climb along buildings and become prey instead of predator. Still an interesting failure is better than a boring success & I Am Alive’s later chapters offer some of the most satisfying post-apocalyptic atmosphere & gameplay this side of Fallout 3.
Hotline Miami – This game damn-near made my list on the strength of its soundtrack alone. This game’s music is nasty in the best way possible. It’s like GTA Vice City & Drive had a baby that came kicking and screaming into a senseless world fresh from a cocaine bender set entirely in a strip club. It’s everything the media says video game violence is, yet the game remained relatively untouched by FOX News and everyone else.
You interested in pouring scalding water into someone’s face (while straddling them like a grade school bully) TO DEATH? How about caving in someone’s skull/slitting their throat/gouging their eyes out/tearing through their gut-meat with an assault rifle? Hotline Miami’s GOT you. Want to do all that stuff while dope beats as throbbing into your earholes? Hotline Miami has your hookup. It’s fast, challenging, and makes murder as cringe-worthy and fetishized as it could be in 8 bits. It also never steps away from that line. So Hotline Miami is cool. It knows what it’s doing and you’re going to die. Toward the end it becomes ruthless and difficulty ramps like too much drugs. And you want it to stop. And you want it to stop. And then it does and you want it back again.
The Unfinished Swan – We are led to believe that creation is not easy. Sometimes it can be, but then it’s not usually exceptional in such an incarnation. Except sometimes it is. The Unfinished Swan is about the process of creation in its many forms. It’s limited interactions make a simple point. Creation is challenging and terrifying and abstract and formulaic and wonderful. Creation is often unrequited and one-sided, but without it we can’t progress. Perfection cannot be created as easily as it can be realized, and even that required exceptional effort. I can’t say much else except, for a while, after I first finished Unfinished Swan, I returned often to find more out about creation. More of its secrets. The game taught me more about creativity’s purity than hours I’ve poured into essays, books, and film.
Creating is easy, once you get out of your own way. It’s determining how to move that arrests us, locks up our hearts, and calms our fire.
Dishonored – What a marvelously well-made game. It did not strike me as it did many others I know, but it still made an impression. On reflection, I was barely affected by this game, despite its exceptional presentation, full world, and intrigue. I don’t hate it. I don’t love it. I can only recognize its quality. I don’t regret my time with it, but I don’t need to go back for more. I like whales. I hate rats. I believe all of this wishy-washiness is the result of how I played Dishonored. I played it EXACTLY how I wanted it to turn out, i.e., I restarted every encounter dozens of times. I wouldn’t recommend doing that.
But I would recommend Dishonored.
Sleeping Dogs – Open world games are the “genre” I typically enjoy the most. GTA hooked me, GTA 3 showed why I loved games, GTA IV showed me what games could strive for emotionally. Each non-GTA sandbox game is worthwhile and adds to the genre, but the last few genuine attempts at GTA (Saints Row, Sleeping Dogs) have been incredible in their own ways. Sleeping Dogs is a really well-made game, despite a long, drawn-out development cycle. Bringing a stellar driving/hijacking mechanic, solid gunplay, fun melee, & a story full of interesting if predictable character, Sleeping Dogs scratched my itch and more.
Borderlands 2 – While the type of game Borderlands strives to be is not one I can stomach solo, it’s practically the most fun you can have shooting virtual humanoids with your best pals. Borderlands 2 delivers the freshest co-op gameplay in first-person shooters; it’s also knuckle-whiteningly frustrating. Clipping through the game’s gorgeous, varied environments digesting bullets and snatching every new weapon like there will never be enough is sublime. While playing it with two friends, though, moments of reprieve often led to one or more of us missing dialogue, missions, or rewards as one of us barreled on to the next objective.
This isn’t the game’s problem, it’s how I played the game, but I had the same problem with Borderlands. By all accounts, BL2 is superior to BL in nearly every measurable way, but it’s still that shoot-and-loot-heavy, story-light game. The old characters making a return was endearing; their fates mattered way more than I expected given the most dialogue we got from them in BL way “Urghhh” & “AHHH!” But Borderlands 2 was up to its ole tricks with fresh twists (Tiny Tina, Handsome Jack, tighter gun progression). Borderlands 2 deserves to be played, but please, play cooperatively.
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance – I finished this game just last night (9/10/13), & I’ve been writing this list all while playing through it; it only felt right to mention it. As Kingdom Hearts games go, DDD sits firmly in the middle of the group. It’s a fine handheld entry – certainly the best on a Nintendo system – but, like Birth By Sleep, doesn’t quite reach the fluidity of the two numbered games. Each KH games ability system stands out, whether it’s Re:Coded’s chip system, BBS’s Command combining or CoM’s card system, the games have not relied on a “right way.” DDD’s Pokemon-esque Dream Eaters are probably the most dense of the series attempts which lead to nearly 15 hours of frustration, but once it clicked… well, there was a bunch of grinding.
It’s easily one of my 10 favorite of the year, but since I played it late, it will merely lead the runners-up. My hope going forward is that Nomura can learn from the bizarre command/abilities experiments and deliver something smooth and less grindy than the last seven years of Kingdom Hearts with “III.” DDD doesn’t hold up in gameplay as well as BBS, but does a solid job of reining in the many facets of KH’s story (thanks to its five spin-offs) in preparation for KH3. Wherever it’s headed, the convoluted story (which I’ve always loved as something to prod and speculate at) has a trajectory, characters in unexpected positions, and an end in sight. Sora, Riku, Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and all the rest are in for a spectacular finish. I feel joy and tears welling inside me just writing about it.