Cheating? Nah. Although The Witcher 2 debuted in 2011, this year marked its first console appearance in its Enhanced Edition form. The 360 wasn’t the definitive way to experience it, but this side of a mortgage to pay for the PC to run it in its full glory it was still mightily impressive.
Even in its cut-down form, this game blew me away. I’ve been a fan of the books since the first one was translated into English and missed the first game after the console release was canned, and it surpassed my wildest expectations for both its depth and the faithfulness of the adaptation. I also wrote about how impressed I was at its ability to satisfy the whole role-playing side of a role-playing game by not railroading the player, and I stand by that. Most games are content to be embarrassingly cack-handed in their depictions of morality, and this somehow managed to feel nuanced while portraying an established character.
It’s doing things that BioWare struggled to do in Mass Effect with colossal budgets and the support of EA behind it. And all from a little Polish studio working with a licence that was little-known in the anglophone world before the first game set tongues waggling. With this and the underrated Metro series, Eastern Europe is seemingly becoming a hotbed of technically stunning, ambitious and innovative literary adaptations, and long may it continue.
A gaming PC is one of my planned purchases for the first half of 2013, and seeing The Witcher 2 in all its glory – GPUs are only now able to run it with ubersampling on at a stable frame rate, and it’s a sight to behold – with areas that aren’t divided to fit into 256MB of RAM will be one of the first things I do. I so rarely go back to games I’ve finished that those intentions should absolutely be taken as a comment on this game’s quality. Watch Cyberpunk 2077 like a hawk, because I’m expecting great things.
There’s no way Halo 4 should have been as brilliant as it is. Reopening a series that closed quite nicely, farmed out to a brand new studio for the fifth instalment in seven years. Just goes to show that throwing immense amounts of money at a project and setting technical geniuses on performing miracles with ageing hardware can do big things for what could have ended up being a fairly safe sequel.
I was frankly blown away by how good this game was. Putting aside how ridiculous it looks, it was an outstanding debut for 343 Industries, clearly showing where every penny of those huge production values went. Credit, too, for the story, which I, as a huge fan of the series’ wider fiction – I’ve read ten novels so far – found fascinating. Jen Taylor made it thanks to some touching moments as Cortana, managing to add pathos to a tale about the relationship between a super soldier and a computer. Quite an achievement.
And the multiplayer is arguably the best the series has seen since Halo 2. I just with the BTB players would pick something other than Ragnarok.
Honestly, Halo 5 is probably the number one reason why I’ll be buying the next Xbox. 343 undoubtedly built this engine with the upcoming generation in mind, and if this is a hint at what we have to look forward to, I can’t wait.
I have no requirement for a mobile game to make this list every year, but it always seems like there’s one that captures me in an irresistible way. Last year there were two, in fact, with Tiny Wings and League of Evil making my best of the year, and back in 2010 we had Infinity Blade as well. League of Evil is the outlier there as perhaps the only example of touch controls working for traditional action gameplay, but its success doesn’t change my opinion that mobile gaming should play to its strengths.
Super Hexagon did that, ticking all the boxes: bite-sized gameplay; simple, responsive controls; compulsive high score chasing against your friends. That you need to be extremely good – and some people really are – for a game to last more than a minute makes it perfect for the mobile format, yet the urge to keep playing meant at the height of my addiction I was frequently exhausting my iPhone’s battery on it.
It’s since come out on Windows, where it’s dirt cheap, but I’d encourage you to pick up the iOS one, because this is made for on-the-go gaming where the purity of its score-chasing gameplay can shine. There’s also standard Hexagon, a cut-down Flash edition that lacks the benefits of either full-fat version but is still a fine demonstration of what it’s all about.
I complained that XBLA might be leaking indie talent to iOS, but I don’t know why since I’m equipped to enjoy games on either. If Terry Cavanagh was making games for Live Arcade we wouldn’t have this, so it’s okay with me.
Hard to believe that a year ago we didn’t even know this game existed. On this day in 2011 the only XCOM revival on the agenda was the FPS version, which I think looks fairly interesting but has become a whipping boy for this generation’s ill-advised attempts to reboot cult PC classics for the Call of Duty generation.
This was pure fan service, though. Seriously, if you’d asked hardcore XCOM fans – is there any other kind? – what they’d like from a modern take on the franchise, I can’t imagine the result being far from what Firaxis delivered.
Praise must be lavished for how it achieved this while making a game that’s still enjoyable and eminently accessible for newbies like me. I dabbled with the original UFO when I first got Boxer installed – that app deserves some kind of award for making DOSBox usable to humans – and found it absolutely impenetrable and, while I have no doubt that there’s a superb game in there, I suspect it’s something you had to be there in 1994 to really appreciate.
By designing it to modern standards, introducing mechanics gradually so that the player’s skills grow with experience, this Enemy Unknown is accessible without massively dumbing down the core strategy or toning down the unforgiving difficulty. It should go down as an example to both gamers and developers – to the former as proof that the buzzword ‘accessibility’ isn’t necessarily the kiss of death for challenging gameplay that it admittedly often is, and to the latter as a blueprint for how to do it.
It didn’t do COD numbers, but it looks as if 2K had realistic expectations and is happy with the commercial performance. That bodes well.
This hasn’t been a banner year for Xbox Live Arcade, and indeed by many accounts it’s been PSN that’s had the most interesting releases. Trust a sequel to one of Live Arcade’s brightest gems to keep up appearances on Microsoft’s platform, and it’s an example of how a sequel should be done.
How so? Well, it’s the original, only better in every way. There wasn’t a huge amount of variety the first time around, whereas this one took in warehouses, countryside, towns, and the now-compulsory levels based on other indie darlings. Despite simple appearances, it’s technically very impressive too.
That Gigatrack stage took me an embarrassing 22 minutes the first time through, incidentally. It became a priority to post a more respectable time, but it’s quite a time commitment even when you do well.
Trials is endearing mainly because of its purity. It’s basically one trigger and a stick, but the way it harnesses its physics and makes use of the full range of motion on the analogue inputs – I’d argue that I haven’t been as aware of the fine-grained control to this extent since Super Mario 64 – makes it both accessible and frighteningly deep. One of the masterstrokes is how it shows the progress of friends overlayed on your game, which, unless you socialise with the savants who post ridiculous times on YouTube constantly drives you forward. This is an approach to high scores that I first noticed in the superlative Geometry Wars 2 and still hope for it to become the standard.
It was a shame how thin on the ground great XBLA games seemed this year; I hope the relative dearth of innovation is a mark of development switching to new platforms rather than, as part of me suspects, a sign that the interesting indie developers have moved to other platforms in the last couple of years. But if this does prove to be a last hurrah for the service, it’s a fine way to go out.
It’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.