Friday, December 28, 2012

THE BEST OF 2012 - The Best GAMES Of The Year


- You could make the argument that it's sort of a scary time to be a gamer. Sales are down, publishers are going under, and there's a sense of uncertainty about when the next generation of consoles will hit, and what they'll mean for the industry.

People like me are now, more and more, part of a "lost" or semi-lost generation of gamers. We grew up with gaming, we still play when we can, but as we get older and busier, we just can't commit to too many of the 100+ hour blockbuster games that now make up the core of the gaming market. This has led to the rise of minigames and gaming apps. The iPhone and iPad are killing the portable games market ... though Sony and Nintendo also didn't do themselves any favors by releasing new portable consoles that were pricey and lacking in killer apps. In many ways though, iGaming is eating into the console market as well. Shorter attention spans and reluctance to buy a $60 game - when apps are usually $5 and under - are hurting the games market in general. Nintendo, with the launch of its WiiU, now faces a vastly changed landscape than when it launched the Wii several years ago. The same casual, family-friendly market that Nintendo laser-targeted with the Wii has now moved on to Apple's devices. Nintendo has compounded its problems by taking away its two big hypothetical advantages. Where it should be trumping Apple is in the graphics department - but the WiiU is not particularly strong in the graphics department, offering no significant improvements over the PS3 or XBOX 360. Secondly - and these will come eventually - but Nintendo launched the WiiU without a killer-app, first-party, Nintendo franchise game. A must-have Mario, Zelda, or new original game could turn the tide ... but man, Nintendo is going to have an uphill battle over the next several months.

The other thing that made 2012 feel weird and/or lacking was just the seeming absence of many big, must-have blockbuster games - beyond the usual updated iterations to the various shooter franchises like Halo and Far Cry. Since I've never been into shooters, I found myself without many big games I was really looking forward to. Resident Evil 6 was an exception, but decidedly mixed reviews dampened by enthusiasm a bit.  A lot of big games were delayed, or scheduled for 2013. It's why the barren wasteland that was 2012 might have been - hopefully - an anomaly. 2013 will see Bioshock Infinite, Devil May Cry, The Last of Us, Beyond: Two Souls, Tomb Raider, Metal Gear Revengeance, Grand Theft Auto V, Star Trek, Watch Dogs, and many more big, long-awaited, triple-A titles. 2013 is set to be an amazing year for console gamers.

But here's the thing: the absence of big blockbusters in 2012 has led to an indie-gaming renaissance. The originality, creativity, and coolness that's come from indie and downloadable games over the last year is incredible. The downloadable scene now includes HD remakes of arcade classics, experimental arthouse games, episodic serialized interactive adventures, and new entries in genres long thought dead (point-and-click adventures, anyone?).

There are now more cool downloadable games than I can keep track of. But incredibly, three of my absolute favorite games of the year in 2012 originated as downloadable games. JOURNEY was one such game - an abstract adventure that was more about discovery and creating a mood and ambiance than anything else. It's sort of a remarkable game. THE WALKING DEAD was another game that took a lot of people by surprise. Sure, a game based on The Walking Dead is a no-brainer, but not necessarily a story-based graphic adventure released as serialized downloadable "episodes."  Playing the game brought me back to the fun I had as a kid playing the old Lucasarts and Sierra adventures on the PC. Another cool thing about the downloadable games world is the prevalence of new games that are 100% old-school in nature. Take DUST: AN ELYSIAN TALE - a gorgeous, hand-drawn 2D platformer that is what 10-year-old me probably imagined games of the future might look like. And get this - it was made by one guy. The fact that gaming has now come full circle, where it again allows for auteurs to put out personal and original games, is a great thing. Gaming has always had its James Camerons and Peter Jacksons and Michael Bays. Now it can have its Wes Andersons and Richard Linklaters.

In terms of big console games, I'll admit that most of the ones I spent significant time with in 2012 were holdovers from 2011. These games are so big and drawn-out now, they take me forever to play through. I spent months making dents in Batman: Arkham City, God of War III, Uncharted 3, and the Mass Effect series. To that end, I barely had a chance to sample some of the new games I purchased at the end of 2012 - Resident Evil 6, Darksiders 2, and one or two others. I did get a big kick out of LOLLIPOP CHAINSAW, which was just a totally off-the-wall zombie action game where you play a Buffy-esque cheerleader wielding a giant chainsaw. Insane? Yes. But hey, this is why I love videogames.

Looking ahead, 2013 is going to be a very, very interesting year. From a games perspective, I mentioned all the big titles on the way. But from an industry perspective, it's going to be a transition. We'll likely get our first glimpses of Sony and Microsoft's new home consoles - and you have to wonder, what innovations will they have? Just better graphics and more horsepower? Or will we see true cloud-based gaming, seamless integration with tablets/apps, new motion-control devices, or something else we haven't even really considered? I don't know if this is make-or-break for Sony, Microsoft, or Nintendo quite yet, but the stakes certainly feel high. Sony and Nintendo have both made crucial miscalculations this year - and I don't think it's a coincidence that they are both Japanese companies. The divide between the Japanese and American markets is becoming more vast than ever, and we're seeing Japanese publishers survive only by integrating with American developers and properties. From a creative standpoint though, it's a huge loss when all the cool, quirky Japanese games begin disappearing from the market. And it's also a shame when Sony and Nintendo - two companies who have taken risks and supported out-of-the-box ideas, don't succeed. On the flipside, Apple again finds itself in a position where it is, almost by accident, a leading games platform. Will Apple embrace that, or continue to operate as a total outsider to the industry? I know for me, as long as iGames are limited to touch-controls only, I won't consider the iPhone or iPad to be true gaming platforms. The biggest fear of all is: will gaming simply wither and die as a real entertainment medium? Will mainstream gaming devolve into iPhone time-wasters and nothing more? Will we stop seeing huge, epic games that push the medium to its limits? Let's hope not. Gaming shouldn't aspire to be Hollywood, necessarilly - but I also think it should aspire to more, much more, than Angry Birds and Temple Run.


1.) The Walking Dead - multiplatform

- With some of the best writing and voice-acting I've ever experienced in a videogame, this spin-off of Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard's comic book is an incredible piece of interactive entertainment. The game takes place in the universe of the comic - and you'll run into some recognizable characters like Glenn and Herschel. But the story and main cast is all new - taking place in parallel to the events of the comic and TV show. But the amazing characters and story are more than worthy of The Walking Dead name. Lee Everett is a convicted murderer who was in the back of a police car, headed to jail, when the zombie apocalypse first hit. In the ensuing chaos, he encounters a young girl named Clementine, who's been separated from her family. Lee takes in Clementine, and watches over her as he meets with others and forms a ragtag group of survivors. The game is filled with fantastic character moments, shocking twists, and a central relationship that is emotional and developed with subtlety and skill. Now, the simple gameplay might seem rudimentary at first, but developer Telltale games brilliantly enhances the story with interactivity. Sometimes, that interactivity means intense action sequences involving zombies. Sometimes, it means making difficult choices - who to save, who to kill, who to support, who to challenge, who to protect. The game slowly but surely completely sucks you in - an engrossing interactive narrative that both took me back to the classic graphic adventures of old but also felt totally new and fresh.


Journey - PS3

- Navigating through Journey's ethereal landscapes, you can't help but get caught up in the almost spiritual ambiance of the game. The world of journey is very mysterious. You encounter structures, ruins, deserts, vistas, mountains, machines - but what does it all mean? In most games, you wouldn't really question such things, but Journey feels like the videogame equivalent of a semi-abstract painting that invites individual interpretation. The game looks amazing, it's soundtrack is incredible, and the controls are perfectly-tuned. In some ways, playing it reminded me of the feeling you might get when you first played Super Mario Bros. - in that game, the mechanics and the world slowly, organically, reveal themselves through discovery and through trial and error - and the joy is in how expertly the mechanics fit together with that world. Journey has a similarly simple pleasure of exploration and discovery. Without enemies attacking or time limits counting down, the game is less a game in the traditional sense, and more of an experience. I think that's huge - we've always known that interactive entertainment can be more than just a "game" in the strict sense of the word. The same is true for The Walking Dead. Both it and Journey are less about accomplishment and more about experience. And Journey is one of 2012's must-have entertainment and pop-art experiences - in gaming or otherwise.


- Dust: An Elysian Tale - XBOX 360
- Lollipop Chainsaw (perhaps my "guilty pleasure" of the year) - multiplatform
- Darksiders II - multiplatform

And there you have it - my Year in Gaming for 2012. Feel free to leave your thoughts or comments, and happy gaming.

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