Best of 2012 #6: The Walking Dead

The Walking DeadIt’s going to be hard to come up with much to say about this given how recently I spent a few hundred words gushing about how well done The Walking Dead was, but I’ll do my best.

The best evidence of how effective the story here was the fact that I’m still thinking about it. Daring stuff compared to the cliched nonsense that passes for in-game plots most of the time. I’ve spent hours poring over flowcharts about what might have been, had I been nicer to this person or saved that one instead. It feels cheap to boil it down to the numbers like that, but it’s an outlet when the wait for the follow-up series. We are getting a second season, right?

In all seriousness, I would refer you to the recent post for my thoughts on the game, because they’re so recent that my opinion hasn’t changed. The Walking Dead represents Telltale finally fulfilling the promise that it had only threatened to before, despite the quality of the licences it had to work with.

I wouldn’t go as far as some in praising it as it has some annoying niggles and occasionally not that much game, but it’s going to live on forever more as evidence that a game’s story can make you cry.

Best of 2012 #7: Sleeping Dogs

Sleeping DogsChalk this up as the year’s biggest surprise, for sure. A troubled development and ambitious designs on a genre that few developers are talented enough to pull off rarely equals anything worth shouting about, and I don’t think any tears were shed when it was dropped by Activision and looked to be destined for a life spent filling retrospective articles about what might have been.

Frankly it would have been a surprise if Sleeping Dogs had come out at all, so the fact that it appeared and was as good as it turned out was shocking. It also subverted the received wisdom that urban crime games have to be set in the US to be a success, topping charts around the world.

It deserved it too. It was polished, the city made a nice change from New York or LA again, and both the hand-to-hand combat and gunplay took a dump on GTA’s routinely flaky equivalents. Really, if GTA comes out and is content to recycle the mediocre-at-best shooting of previous instalments – and there’s no excuse considering that its immediate predecessor in the Rockstar oeuvre is Max Payne 3 – it’ll deserve every negative comparison to Sleeping Dogs it gets.

United Front’s invention and love of genre film is continuing with the DLC – Asian horror and classic kung fu respectively – and hopefully this series will continue where its original home, Activision’s True Crime, looks to be left to die. There’s a joke in there about exploitation cinema somewhere.

Best of 2012 #8: Hitman: Absolution

Hitman: AbsolutionFor its failures as a Hitman game, Absolution still tickled me as a stealth game. Splinter Cell – one of my favourite franchises of last generation – has made a habit of disappointing fans with ill-advised re-imaginings, Metal Gear hasn’t been about the stealth for a while now, and the late 90s fad for the genre had faded, leaving stealth fans as high and dry as hardcore Hitman fans must be now.

I wouldn’t class myself as one of them, having only played the superb Blood Money, so perhaps I was detached enough to enjoy Absolution for what it was rather than what I wanted it to be. It nailed the compulsive pursuit or perfection that I loved from classic Splinter Cell and threw in a handful – but only a handful – of the murder puzzles of previous Hitman games.

Credit is deserved as well for going against the disappointing trend of six-hour single-player campaigns with no replay value. Over 20 hours first time through is practically unheard of these days, and this genuinely does boast multiple solutions that are worth experiencing for the wealth of Easter eggs and humorous conversations to overhear. And you don’t even have to pay for DLC to get it all. Bravo, IO.

Even so, let’s have a proper Hitman game next time, though, eh?

Best of 2012 #9: Darksiders II

Darksiders III hold up the Darksiders series as an example of the kind of game we don’t get any more. Both the games are solid, fun, polished B-tier adventures loaded with content of the sort that was ten-a-penny a generation or two ago, but the way the middle ground of developers has fallen out with increasing budgets required for a project of this size means it doesn’t happen any more.

Sadly, Darksiders II may end up going down as an example of why this is a dying breed. Unrealistic sales required to turn a profit coupled with THQ’s precarious finances will likely put paid to future instalments. A shame. But at least we have an Assassin’s Creed game every year to scratch that adventuring itch, right? Hey, come back!

Putting aside my opinion that a healthy industry needs more games like this, Darksiders II was a great game. Derivative, yes – it’s Zelda with Prince of Persia’s platforming and a loot system, essentially – but polished. It’s not as good as the original, though. I went through them back to back, and in that circumstance it’s glaring how the tight, focused adventure of Darksiders gave way to a stretched, bloated quest; the first world of Darksiders II is packed with things to do, and subsequent ones become increasingly sparse as you get the impression that the realities of having to populate a world this big caught up with the realities of Vigil’s ambitions and budget.

And then you hit Earth: one of the most ill-advised changes of tack in gaming history that would have been annoying even if it had been competently designed.

But this feature is about games I liked, damn it, so I need to stop being so negative. I really did like Darksiders II, despite the impression that the last couple of paragraphs might have given you, and it will be tragic if this is another planned series that got me invested before leaving me high and dry after only two. God, I’m having flashbacks.

Best of 2012 #10: FTL: Faster Than Light

FTL: Faster Than LightWhatever you might think about it, Kickstarter was arguably the biggest thing to happen to gaming in 2012. The big guns are moving in and seemingly doing their best to ensure that it’s a short-lived revolution, but for a while there publishing seemed democratised as interesting concepts that wouldn’t have had a hope at finding a traditional publisher enjoyed millions in funding. Adventure capitalism, I’m going to call it.

Thanks to some laughably optimistic schedules, few of the promised Kickstarter-funded games are here yet, and I hope that my best of 2013 will be filled with the wealth of point-and-click adventures and old-school RPGs that coaxed money from my PayPal account. One made it, though, and it was good.

FTL has become my favourite skiving game. It’s frequently running in a window behind a few browsers and Word documents, the way it can be paused indefinitely and still allow you to dish out commands perfect for a few stolen moments here and there. I’ve had crews named after friends and family; coworkers; the crews of the Enterprise, Serenity, the Millennium Falcon, the Pillar of Autumn; sports teams. Swear words too. They’ve all died horrible deaths, at the hands of the enemy or a solar flare, and the most successful are remembered, but the grief passes and I come back for more as soon as I come up with another interesting naming system.

The ability to keep playing without any real time commitment has a way of keeping games in my rotation for months, and so it has proven here. While FTL will be ineligible for my Best of 2013 list, then, that’s not to say it won’t remain a regular on my computers until then. Fingers crossed that it won’t be the only appearance of a crowdfunded project in one of these lists either.

Silliest name since DmC: Devil May Cry, mind.

Best of 2012

This really hasn’t been a good year for gaming. Not completely without merit, as I’ve discussed, but to call it barren would be an understatement, and what we got was often the safe, boring blockbusters that herald the closing months of a console generation. An artificially extended generation spreads them that much more thin, like butter spread over too much bread. Sorry, I’ve got Tolkien on the brain.

As always, to be included the games must have been played by me for the first time and released somewhere in calendar 2012. A few regrettable omissions that I’m yet to play, including Journey, Borderlands 2, Dishonored and Max Payne 3, but such gaps can be filled by some fantastic indie games that might not otherwise get a look in. Those games aren’t going to be lacking for GOTY awards.

Check out my lists from previous years while you’re here. I stand by them.