As the leading international games trade publication, we don't make it a habit to dole out awards for "Game of the Year" and other categories, but the fact is we (and most of you) are all gamers. Having already shined a spotlight on the dozen titles that we felt helped shape the industry in 2012, we decided to share with you some of the games that caught the staff's interest on a more personal level.
GamesIndustry International's writers play a wide variety of games from digital and retail sources alike, and on a number of platforms, including consoles, smartphones, tablets and the PC. The following selections represent some of the titles we enjoyed most this year, as well as some that genuinely surprised and others that unfortunately failed to live up to expectations.
Far Cry 3 (Ubisoft Montreal)
Like a tropical holiday in the depths of winter, for me Far Cy 3 offers the perfect balance between overtly saying "you're playing a game" and keeping the curtains of immersion drawn tightly enough for you to imagine you aren't. Also, +1 for jet skis. Beautiful, compulsive and expansive, this latest effort from Ubisoft eclipses Assassin's Creed III to be 2012's Skyrim.
Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings (CD Projekt Red)
I loves me some good old fashioned swords and sorcery, especially when it takes place in a world as deep and well realised as that of the Witcher series. The Witcher 2 has its faults, including some painful scripting in places (lesbomancy, anyone?) but I love the combat, the signs system, the crafting and the nascent attempts at actually doing sex in a reasonably grown up way. Also, Geralt is probably my favourite protagonist of all time.
X-Com (2K Marin, 2K Games)
Ah, X-Com, how do I love thee! Let me count the ways! In fact, let's be honest: it's mostly about popping the heads from scrawny little Sectoids from 800 yards with a double-tap plasma sniper, or rushing my assault trooper into evisceration range with a shotgun. I never played the originals of these, skipping straight from Laser Squad to homage/rip off UFO: Afterlight, but I fell completely in love with X-Com. Batten down the bunker and raise a glass to the fallen. (PEWPEWPEW)
Surprise: FTL (Subset Games)
In a way, this should have been no surprise at all. I love roguelikes to bits and I make pew-pew laser noises in my head almost constantly, especially during tedious conversations. FTL snuck up on me, though - I didn't hear about it until it was out. Then, having read how amazing it was, I still didn't buy it for another six weeks, because I am an idiot. Since, I've played it for dozens of hours - even though I'm still comically bad at saving the universe. The moral here: I am stupid and bad at space.
Disappointment: Dishonored (Arkane, Bethesda)
This will earn me some flack, I know. Caveats: 1) I don't like stealth games; 2) Dishonored inflamed my completist/perfectionist glands because I wasn't good enough at it; 3) I got stuck at a bug halfway through and never finished it.
Actually, I did enjoy it, and will finish it at some point but I was disappointed in the AI, and the fact that you were offered so many options but encouraged strongly to choose those I found least entertaining: stealth and mercy. Make of that what you will.
The Walking Dead (Telltale Games)
While Telltale's Jurassic Park failed as the company's first mature licensed adventure game, The Walking Dead delivered in spades. The episodic title got better with each installment, following the trials and tribulations of Lee Everett and his band of zombie apocalypse survivors. Despite the ever-present threat of zombies, the focus of the series is the believable relationship between Everett and his young charge Clementine. The Walking Dead game transcends the source material and the television show adaptation, becoming the high-point of Robert Kirkman's entire zombie opus to-date.
FTL (Subset Games)
FTL was the game I didn't know I wanted. The little starship simulation roguelike will find its way under your skin. Be prepared to lose the valiant crew of your starship, like so many alternate universes. Boarded by hostile forces, dead. Trapped in an asteroid field, dead. Fire in the engine room, dead. Out of fuel, adrift in space, dead. The game will have you snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but you'll enjoy every minute of it and wonder how Kirk kept his crew alive for so long.
Mark of the Ninja (Klei Entertainment, Microsoft)
In a year that featured a multitude of stealth-based games - including Dishonored, Assassin's Creed III, and Hitman: Absolution - Mark of the Ninja stands heads above the rest as the one of the leanest stealth games ever created. Excellent visual indicators let you know when you're in the shadows or when your footsteps might alert your prey. The controls are rocksolid, so you never feel the game failed you when you're seen. The game even rewards you for your specific playstyle with different unlockable moves and costumes. All for the low, low price of $15; way under the other titles that didn't even see Mark of the Ninja take the crown.
Disappointment: Assassin's Creed III (Ubisoft Montreal)
This was it. After three games featuring Italian assassin Ezio Auditore, the Assassin's Creed series finally moved towards the conclusion of Desmond Miles' story. After the superb Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, the series seemed to lose its focus on the run-and-shank gameplay that excited players. Instead, Assassin's Creed III tried its best to be a full-featured historical simulator, with the complex Homestead, crafting, caravans, and even naval warfare. Native-American assassin Connor gained the series-first ability to climb trees, but along with that new gameplay came a bloated game. Hopefully next year's Assassin's Creed can improve on ACIII's strengths and cut out some of the fat.
"Let's forget about that embarrassing situation with the giant man-babies who didn't like the way the game ended"
Rachel Weber on Mass Effect 3
Surprise: Sleeping Dogs (United Front Games, Square Enix)
Sleeping Dogs looked rough when it was True Crime: Hong Kong. Then Activision canceled the game, leaving United Front without a publisher for its open-world look at Hong Kong's infamous Triads. Square Enix picked up the rights a few months later and with the help of Square Enix London Studios, Sleeping Dogs is a tight GTA-style experience. Innovative? Not really, but players will enjoy every minute as undercover cop Wei Shen. Race cars, free-run, and break arms with the best of them. The game thrives without the added bulk of AAA-extravaganza Grand Theft Auto IV and weaves a deeper, more visceral tale than Saints Row: The Third. I was surprised Sleeping Dogs even made it to retail shelves, but I'm glad it did.
Don't Starve (Klei Entertainment)
Think Bear Grylls meets Tim Burton. This odd little survival game has a scratchy pen and ink design that belies its merciless learning curve. Dropping you in the woods with only the clothes on your back you start out scrabbling for flint and twigs to make tools, but soon you're weaponising bees and making pig people your slaves. And it's still technically in beta!
The Walking Dead (Telltale Games)
There are actually human people that I have less of an attachment to than I do for Clementine, the little girl at the centre of this surprising series. She made every decision matter and every bleak moment all the bleaker, and I quickly went from waiting for every episode to avoiding the last one because I was scared of what might happen to her.
Mass Effect 3 (BioWare, Electronic Arts)
Let's forget about that embarrassing situation with the giant man-babies who didn't like the way the game ended (and who are probably busy campaigning to change the end of Marley And Me) and talk about the season finale that had me welling up. ME3 gave you the chance to say goodbye to all the characters you've loved and hated, and did it with awesome plasma guns. Pew pew, old friend.
Disappointment: Pikmin 3 (Nintendo, Wii U)
Not because the game isn't any good (I went hands on at the Eurogamer Expo and had to be wrestled away from the test unit) but because it isn't bloody here yet. So unless I start mixing cough mixture into my eggnog like I did in Christmas 2003, my festive celebrations are going to be completely devoid of brightly coloured minion. I mean for the love of baby Jesus Nintendo, if you can't get a title like that out in time for Christmas, why should anyone else?
Zen Pinball (Zen Studios, iPad)
Specifically it's the Marvel pinball tables. World War Hulk, Thor, The Avengers - I play them all with my seven year-old son and we're pretty rubbish at them. But hot-seating the tables is as much a part of our weekend fun as eating toast in front of Saturday morning cartoons. Zen Studios understands the important flow of pinball, smothering the tables with attention to detail and breaking their static nature with neat animated flourishes.
When I was younger I always stepped up to the pinball tables before the arcade machines. Now the opportunity rarely exists outside of the Santa Monica pier and the Pinball Hall of Fame in Vegas. I could buy a real pinball table but my wife would divorce me, so to keep that stupid urge in check I have Zen Pinball, and I happily lose hours to it.
Dishonored (Arkane, Bethesda, Xbox 360)
It was a toss up between this and Far Cry 3 as my favourite console game of the year. I'm not patient enough for large amounts of stealth but in Dishonored there seems the right balance - I can creep up on people and cause disgusting amounts of violence for the pay off. Heads rolled during every level and I laughed and laughed as the bodies piled up. Lady Boyle's Last Party was a blood orgy.
Dishonored is the Tenchu: Stealth Assassins of the current generation; an interesting world to explore, creepy characters, rewarding stealth and brutal one hit kills.
CSR Racing (Natural Motion, Boss Alien, iPad)
For so long I resisted paying out any money on this. I like it because it's slick, simple and short. Shiny cars, a sense of speed and a quick reaction test for the player. And then I get to tart up my motor with stickers and a customised name plate. I'm easy to please.
When I first got a decent internet connection in Wales, I began downloading free music every day. But I also constantly buy new music from the same artists because I appreciate the work and enjoy the tunes. I'm now at that stage with my iOS gaming and it was CSR Racing that pushed me over that mental threshold.
Surprise: Spec Ops The Line (Yager, 2K Games, Xbox 360)
I completely missed this on release and picked it up about three months later because I couldn't find much enjoyment in the likes of Ghost Recon: Future Solider. I'm a sucker for '70s rock and Vietnam films, a vibe that Spec Ops captured perfectly. Firefights with Deep Purple's Hush blasting out across the battlefield are the moments that make games for me, and the use of licensed tracks in Spec Ops is up there with Rockstar's GTA: San Andreas, Activision's DJ Hero and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2. The music is as memorable as the gameplay.
And the gameplay is good. Spec Ops is a tough, nasty, sweaty, cover shooter. I'd never played a Spec Ops or Yager game before, but now I'm clued up and keeping an eye on the franchise and the development team to see what comes next.
Disappointment: Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Treyarch, Activision, Xbox 360)
"I feel a bit guilty for labelling Black Ops II a disappointment, but this is a personal choice and for me the magic is gone"
I feel that I almost have to apologise for not liking this and I'm going to go back to it once I'm done with Far Cry 3, Forza Horizon, Dragonborn and Need For Speed: Most Wanted. Which makes me think I was foolish for paying full-price when I'm not going to pick it up again until next year. The thing is I've been there every year since the very first Call of Duty game on PC (one of the few games I've played on PC). It really picked up for me with the first Modern Warfare and since then I get involved with the whole spectacle of it - the midnight launch, the blockbuster sales, the online mayhem, the Veteran difficulty solo campaign. I've loved it all.
But this year it's all felt flat. Maybe it's franchise fatigue. The single player campaign is good but it's not as great as it has been in the past and it feels more disjointed than ever. Multiplayer is good again, but it's lacking something that I can't put my finger on. So I feel a bit guilty for labelling Black Ops II a disappointment, but this is a personal choice and for me the magic is gone. I hope I get it back next year.
Hotline Miami (Dennaton, Devolver Digital)
One recurring lesson people should take away from this year's best games was that games don't have to be fun. They can be thought-provoking, harrowing, heart-breaking, and engaging in all sorts of other ways that don't quite qualify as "fun." But in the midst of more erudite efforts, Hotline Miami was a reminder to me that "fun" is something games still do pretty damn well.
The action in Hotline Miami is fast, challenging, and rewarding without being frustrating. Enemies tend to be absurdly lethal in a straight-up fight, but simple-minded enough to rush through a doorway where their dead colleagues are stacked five high with gaping chest wounds. The resulting guerilla warfare is easy enough to entertain, but simple mistakes are quickly punishable by death. But even then, the Super Meat Boy-like speed of restarting after failure minimizes the punishment of failure, and keeps the game's focus on the fun.
Journey (Thatgamecompany, Sony)
You wouldn't know it to look at the company's bottom line, but Sony killed it this year when it came to quality games. Unfinished Swan, Tokyo Jungle, Gravity Rush, and Sound Shapes were all brilliant experiences for me this year, but I have to give the nod to Journey above the others. Thatgamecompany's latest was a piece of interactive poetry, a story told quickly and efficiently, propelling the player ever-onward even as it encouraged them to stop for a minute and reflect upon its meaning. The way it handled multiplayer was brilliant and inspired, managing to bolster the main narrative themes of the game without tearing players out of the story. Journey is as finely crafted a game as I've ever played.
Papo & Yo (Minority, Sony)
Over time, Minority Media's debut title may not be held in the highest regard. The game has some visual and control issues, and the story of a boy's relationship with his alcoholic father is lacking in subtlety, to put it generously. That said, in an industry so hung up on games being fun, on having online multiplayer and monetization schemes, we needed a game to be vocally and obviously about something. We need everyone from the Sims Social player to the Super Hexagon ace to understand that games can have meaning, that creators can use them to explore serious subject matter. Papo & Yo may have been an inelegant movement toward that goal, but it was an important one nonetheless.
Surprise: Binary Domain (Yakuza Studio, Sega)
Binary Domain is like an entertainingly self-aware Gears of War with a story that manages to be interesting despite being populated with meat-headed caricatures. Proof once and for all that you should never judge a book by its awesomely horrendous cover.
Disappointment: Assassin's Creed: Liberation (Ubisoft Sofia)
When I heard the Assassins Creed spin-off was supposed to be a propaganda game put together by the series' villainous Abstergo corporation, and that it would have a female ex-slave protagonist, I thought it had enormous potential to do something new and interesting with the series. Unfortunately, the unreliable narrative premise was largely squandered, as were the possibly touchy issues of slavery and gender equality. Much like the original Crusades-set Assassin's Creed, Liberation tries very hard not to say anything controversial, and in so doing ensures it doesn't say anything substantial, either.