Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Top of the Scots 2012 | The Best Games: Five Favourites

I've never been shy about my belief that video games are as valid a form of art and entertainment as books and movies. They may not necessarily be there yet, but the promised land is on the horizon, and I see it more clearly this year than I ever have in the past.

That's because this year's best game, in my book, moved me in a way no experience in either film or literature has before.

Those of you who've played it probably know what I'm talking about already - and oh, how I envy those of you who haven't! - so before I give any more of the game away, let's get this show on the road.

Five Favourites

5. FTL: Faster Than Light
developed by Subset Games

FTL: Faster Than Light is a difficult game to describe, but brace yourselves — I'm going to give it a shot anyway.

Let's say it's a... rogue-like space sim... combining real-time and turn-based elements... resource management and battle tactics... randomly-generated enemies and environments... complete with upgrade paths and impossible rewards.

FTL certainly isn't going to be for everyone. Initially, I didn't think I would like it, either, but after completely failing to figure out what it was about for a couple of excruciating hours, I sat down for one final session, determined to either get to grips with it or move on with my life.

That was when it clicked.

My "final" session lasted for four hours. I played FTL again the next night, and the next, and so on, until I got to the last battle against the last boss, which - abominably - I lost.

Call me a glutton for punishment, but months on, I keep coming back for more. FTL must be the most moreish game I've played in 2012. It's probably for the best that the two-man team who developed it haven't yet ported their pet project to Android and iOS devices, because if they had, I might never have been heard from again.

4. Dishonored
developed by Arkane Studios

When I blogged about Dishonored a couple of days before it hit home consoles, it was primarily to applaud Arkane Studios for going against the grain so late in the generation by bringing an original IP to market. Their boldness has already reaped rewards: if recent reports are right, Dishonored's developers have a new franchise on their hands — and that's fantastic.

Appropriately, given its daring, Dishonored cast players as a rebel out to revenge an entire empire:
"Set in the fictional plague-ridden and industrial city of Dunwall, Dishonored follows Corvo Attano, the Empress' legendary bodyguard. He is framed for her murder and forced to become an assassin to seek revenge on those who conspired against him. Corvo is aided in his quest by the Loyalists, a resistance group fighting to reclaim the Empire, and The Outsider, a powerful being who imbues Corvo with magical abilities."
I loved the design of Dishonored, Dunwall made for a wonderful world, and the stealth-based gameplay blew me away.

Not so much the narrative, sadly. Though I had hopes of something resembling Half-Life or Bioshock - what can I say? I'm easily led - what I got, in the end, was a muddle, if not a complete mess. A stunning setting poorly used; an incredible cast of voice actors, including Brad Dourif and Susan Sarandon, none of who got to do much of anything.

I'd have said as much and more in a review... if I'd written one. The only reason I didn't was because despite playing Dishonored to death, I felt like I'd only seen a fraction of all that it had to offer. See, I didn't kill a single person. I didn't once use a deadly weapon. So few games allow you play in such a way that I simply couldn't resist.

What more could you want from a stealth game than that?

Well, since you ask...

3. Mark of the Ninja
developed by Klei Interactive

I'll be the first to admit that Dishonored did it for me, mostly. Mark of the Ninja, then, is the year's clearest illustration that less can be so much more!

For one thing, I couldn't have cared less about the story. Suffice it to say it almost certainly involved a ninja, who may or may not have had a magical tattoo. Utter nonsense, in other words.

But Mark of the Ninja didn't need narrative. Nor did it rest its laurels on lavish graphics or triple-A presentation. It did one thing so incredibly well that everything else it had to offer was just gravy, at the end of the day: it reduced the fundamentals of stealth - which have ever been the bane of gaming - to something pure, precise and more potent than... ever?

You know, I think so.

All stealth games to be 2D going forward! :)

Well, perhaps that's pushing it - see Dishonored, for all its faults - but Mark of the Ninja is a marvellous game all the same, and downloadable for a truly tiny price given the many hours of entertainment it offers. I intend to go back to it over the holidays, to 100% the levels I failed to first time round.

2. X-Com: Enemy Unknown
developed by Firaxis Games

Speaking of games I plan to go back to, I'm already thinking about playing through the entirety of XCOM: Enemy Unknown a second time on a harder difficultly — and I only finally finished it last week!
"Set in the near future, and following the invasion of Earth, XCOM: Enemy Unknown puts the player in control of an elite multinational military organization called the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit, which is tasked with defending the Earth against the alien onslaught. In the field, you command the unit's troops in a series of turn-based tactical missions; meanwhile, you must direct the research and development of new technologies from recovered from fallen aliens and captured prisoners and expand XCOM's base of operations, all whilst managing your finances and monitoring any alien activity."
If that sounds complicated... that's because it is. But here we have half the fun of XCOM: Enemy Unknown. There are so many systems to get to grips with, and so little time! By the time you do have a handle on things, Earth is well on its way to hell in a hand-basket. The sense of tension and jeopardy which defines the experience of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is simply dizzying; I spent 30 hours slowly losing control of all I'd worked towards, only to muster my forces just enough to take back the planet at the last.

Victory has rarely felt sweeter to me.

And defeat has hardly ever been harder. But death is just something you'll have to accept in the second best game of 2012. You will lose some of the soldiers you've shepherded from Recruit to Colonel, and it's tragic. All that time and money and experiential investment... gone. Never mind all that gear you've researched!

But for all that, loss in XCOM: Enemy Unknown is not half as heart-breaking as the feelings you'll experience in what is far and away favourite game of the year.

1. The Walking Dead: Season One
developed by Telltale Games

Who'd have thunk it, huh?

Allow me to answer my own question: no-one would have, is who. Not a year or so ago.

Let's not beat around the bush here: Telltale Games' last few new series were ill omens at best - Jurassic Park in particular was a mess - but the developers of The Walking Dead certainly got their shit together for this borrowed property.

Considering the source material, it's a wonder to me how respectfully The Walking Dead has been treated in all mediums. I haven't yet read The Road To Woodbury, but the first book in Jay Bonansinga's prose series was surprisingly strong.

Meanwhile the TV series has gone from strength to strength. The recent killing off of some of its central characters has been breathtaking, and the sheer sense of momentum behind the first half of its current run has impressed me no end, especially after the relative tedium of the second season.

But not all adaptations are equal, even when the others are stunning. Certainly not in this case. Because the original tale Telltale Games have spun out of the pages of Robert Kirkman's comic book so absorbed me, and so touched me, ultimately, that I'd proclaim its greatness over even my favourite book of 2012.


Contrarians may differ on point of principle - I wouldn't be surprised to see XCOM: Enemy Unknown take the top spot in a few places whose names I dare not name (well, alright: my money's on Giant Bomb and maybe Eurogamer too.) - but by and large, expect The Walking Dead to sweep the industry's awards.

And why is that? Well, Bioshock will always have a special place in my heart, but never in the history of video games has a story been better told than The Walking Dead's. Never have characters seemed so real to me as Lee and Clementine did. 

In short, Season One of Telltale Games' take on The Walking Dead made me cry. No other video game has ever managed that. Precious few books or movies do these days, if I'm honest.

Props to the Idle Thumbs for coming good on the countdown to tears. Dudes: you did it!

I you don't know what I'm talking about, don't worry. Just do yourself a favour and play The Walking Dead already. You can buy a collection of the whole first season now for next to nothing, and it might just be worth more than all the others I've talked about today put together.


And there we have it. My game of the year... plus a couple of others I loved. :)

So what do you think? Do you agree with my choices, or am I way off base?

Remember to stay tuned for more on the best and worst video games of 2012 tomorrow!


  1. You are absolutely correct about The Walking Dead. It made me care more than any other game has. I fell in love with Clementine, the little girl I saved, and all my decisions were about protecting her. Little did I realise that it would be Kenny who broke my heart. What I shared with those characters was one of the most profound gaming experiences I have ever had.

    1. I'd say it was THE most profound gaming experience I have ever had. Bioshock absolutely blew me away in its day, but season one of The Walking Dead had it beat by episode three. And looking back, that wasn't the half of it.

      And you're quite right about Kenny, Mazzack. I'd sided against him almost every chance I got, at least till that awful time on the train, yet the development and eventual resolution of his character arc completely killed me.

  2. First of all, I can now see why Valve is reluctant to release (or even announce) HL3. Every major title released this year with the number 3 in it's name, was utter crap.

    Anyway, nice to see FTL on your list :) I'm not totally sold on Kickstarter yet, but this definitely made me trust in it more. Hopefully we'll see many more projects deliver on their promise, like FTL did.

    Overall it was another great year in gaming and the first time indies (or smaller projects, since "indie" is losing it's meaning quite fast) represent a vast majority of my total playing time. Here's my top 10, if anyone's interested.

    1.DOTA 2
    3.Lone Survivor
    4.Dragons Dogma
    5.Sleeping Dogs
    6.Crusader Kings 2
    8.Virtue's Last Reward

    Bring on 2013

    1. Far Cry 3 was a pleasant surprise to me (after the disapointment with FC2). Excellent game, you should try it.

    2. I haven't played FC3 yet, my rant was mainly aimed at AssCreed, Diablo and Mass Effect (and Max Payne to a lesser degree).

  3. Dishonored would definitely be on my list. I didn't think the story was a complete muddle, but it certainly wasn't anywhere near what it could have been. But I'm willing to forgive any lack of story for a game that I can sneak around in the whole time, knocking people unconscious and stacking up the bodies. I do so love that. Was like a flashback to all those hours in my past playing the Thief games on PC. I too didn't do any killing, it was way too fun not to. Hope they continue the franchise, I'll be in line to buy on day one for the next one.