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My 10 Favorite Games of 2012

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(Photo by Tony Case/Flickr)

Since we were lied to about the world ending in a fiery apocalypse on Dec. 21, I get to reflect on my favorite games of 2012.

For a good part of this year I was burned out on gaming. Especially after E3 when I saw all the boring reveals where every title looked exactly the same, making me even more cynical about the future of the industry. Besides that I just didn’t play as many games as I usually do. Being young and broke, I also didn’t have access to every single game release from the major publishers on down to the indies. As this console generation winds down for one more big year in 2013 before more new systems hit the market, it’s revealing to see 2012 had a wide variety of excellent games. This list isn’t for a definite game of the year but the best stuff I enjoyed in 2012.

Note: These games aren’t perfect. Some have technical problems, a few even game-breaking. An asterisk notes a game with some glaring problems. Now on to the list:

10. Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault (Insomniac Games/Sony Computer Entertainment; PS3, Nov. 27)

Full Front Assault is a spin-off in the Ratchet & Clank franchise developed by Insomniac Games’ North Carolina studio. 2011’s spin-off All 4 One left a bad taste in my mouth because it was such a boring game. It featured multiplayer co-op and a new gameplay style that didn’t work for the series. All 4 One made me wonder what was going on over at Insomniac, with it abandoning the Resistance franchise and making the uninspiring Fuse for Electronic Arts. Even for free on PlayStation Plus I thought All 4 One wasn’t worth the time. I bought Full Frontal Assault because it’s a $20 game, unlike All 4 One that originally cost $60. Plus Full Frontal Assault brought back the traditional camera style that’s missing from the previous spin-off so I gave it a shot.

The game combines tower defense elements with the familiar Ratchet & Clank gameplay. I don’t know much about these different genres but Full Frontal Assault isn’t overly intimidating. The fast-paced gameplay is addicting. You have to plan out your strategy to continually defend your base. Full Frontal Assault plays awful in single player, so I can’t recommend doing the campaign without a friend. I had a great time playing the campaign mode co-op, especially with the new genre elements introduced. My friend and I went back to best our completion times and rank up each available weapon, something I never, ever feel like doing in games.

For a $20 retail and downloadable release Full Frontal Assault packs a lot of content. I got about 12 hours completing everything in the campaign. There’s even way more time in the online multiplayer, which appears to be just as addicting as the campaign. It’s not on the same quality level of the main Ratchet & Clank games, but Full Frontal Assault is a worthy spin-off for the franchise.

9. WWE ’13 (Yuke’s/THQ; PS3/Xbox 360, Oct. 30)*

I’m a big pro wrestling fan. Yes I know it’s “fake.” Playing the WWF Smackdown game on PlayStation back in those days is actually what got me to start watching wrestling in the first place. I skipped the past few releases of the WWE games because the franchise got Madden’d with yearly $60 releases where they couldn’t even get a guy’s hair or facial features right. Yuke’s isn’t a good developer but every year the studio gets the WWE license for video games. I couldn’t avoid WWE ’13 after reading about some of the new additions to the series.

Similar to what the NBA 2K franchise does in its most recent releases, WWE ’13 features a great nostalgia trip called the “Attitude Era” mode. In the Attitude Era you can play and relive some of the greatest moments in wrestling history from the ’90s, when WWE icons like Stone Cold Steve Austin, Mick Foley and The Undertaker were in their prime. The matches in the Attitude Era mode take place at a time before The Rock became known as Dwayne Johnson and a Hollywood star filming questionable movies. Back when it was in style to give your classmates the crotch chop and tell your 3rd grade teacher to suck it after they assigned you homework.

The Attitude Era mode does cool things like have you reenact parts of a match that were important, such as hitting particular finishing moves or winning a certain way. There’s so many matches and storylines featured for the Attitude Era that I felt I had gotten my $60 worth from that mode alone. WWE ’13 also has a seriously deep creation mode, ranging from wrestlers, arenas and individual move sets. I spent almost an hour trying to decide what my Lucha libre mask would look like for my created wrestler. Most wrestling fans who watched during the ’90s moved on to something else, but if you were even a casual viewer back then you’ll have fun with WWE ’13 simply for the Attitude Era mode.

*The online mode on Xbox Live is slow and buggy, sometimes not even loading up to the main online menu. There’s all types of goofy glitches that can happen during matches. Dumb AI opponents who do silly things, like go and take apart the announce table but never put you through it. WWE ’13 feels like a very buggy release outside of the “Attitude Era” mode, which works almost flawlessly.

8. Silent Hill: Downpour (Vatra Games/Konami; PS3/360, March 13)*

With the franchise’s original Japanese developer “Team Silent” disbanded several years ago and long-time composer Akira Yamaoka gone from Konami as well, the eight installment of Silent Hill wasn’t looking hopeful. In previews some of the elements in Silent Hill: Downpour seemed to borrow heavily from Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain (2010) or Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake (2010). With its developer Vatra Games coming out of the Czech Republic and being an unproven studio given the responsibility of an iconic series, Downpour appeared to be shaping into a disaster. I had never heard of the developer and wasn’t sure if they could even come close to living up to the Silent Hill name. Using the band Korn for the game’s trailer also raised major red flags for me. Being a huge Silent Hill fan I still gave the game a chance despite the almost colossal negatives going against it.

Downpour had its problems but overall it really surprised me. Coming from an unknown studio, I didn’t know where the game would go. I expected the worst. What I played earned my respect for Vatra Games. Murphy Pendleton is the main character, a prisoner who falls right into Silent Hill after a nasty bus crash during a prison transfer. Downpour added exploration and side quests to Silent Hill that gives a needed layer to the series. I thought this was an excellent addition given the game’s interesting world and background. Is Downpour scary? At times yes, but mostly it’s not. The enemy designs are terrible, which along with the bad combat are one of the game’s few drawbacks.. If you weren’t paying attention you wouldn’t even know why the game is called Downpour besides it raining all the time. What the game does well though is create a moody, uneasy atmosphere as you explore the personal journey of Murphy on his road to redemption.

Yamaoka’s music was one of the best and most important aspects of the Silent Hill series. You can’t fully replace someone like that. Fortunately in Downpour there’s terrific music from composer Daniel Licht, known for his work on the show “Dexter” (Watch a behind-the-scenes look at his work from the game here.) Despite Yamaoka’s absence (his last Silent Hill game being 2010′s Shattered Memories), Licht is the best replacement fans could’ve hoped for and is the perfect fit for Downpour. His music sets the right mood for the game, adding a chilling effect to the streets of Silent Hill. Other cool in-game licensed soundtracks that blend into the game like “Born Free” by Andy Williams contribute to the game’s creepiness factor. Williams’ booming voice declares freedom for a man a slave to his demons during moments when you feel trapped by your surroundings.

I really enjoyed Downpour. Vatra Games did an admirable job with a game that everybody expected to suck and that had zero advertising support from Konami. It’s easily the best game in the series since Silent Hill 3 from 2003. Hardcore Silent Hill fans may hate Downpour, but the team planted good seeds of their vision for the series to expand on with later releases. Sometimes change doesn’t work out too well with established franchises. With Downpour, I can safely say that this change shouldn’t terrify longtime fans. The Silent Hill franchise needs to evolve to reach the greatness it once had with the first three games. I’d love for Vatra and Licht to team up again to bring us to Silent Hill in the future.

* Downpour suffers from technical difficulties with glitches and a really bad frame rate at times when exploring the game.

7. Mass Effect 3 (BioWare/Electronic Arts; PS3/360/PC, March 6)

One of my favorite features is the ability for your personal choices to transfer from one game to the next. It makes your playthough feel unique to everyone else’s. Having all your decisions carry over for three games is something nobody else does as good as BioWare. I first played Mass Effect in 2008 when I was still new to the Xbox 360. My battle-tested Commander Sheppard and all my decisions from the first game to the third would culminate in the ultimate war for the universe. Unfortunately I had a massive souring on Mass Effect 3 the moment I couldn’t properly upload my Shepard from the first game. The same guy I went to war with for the past four years suddenly decided he needed emergency plastic surgery. Mass Effect 3 wouldn’t initially load up your character model if you imported a Mass Effect 1 save file. Luckily I was able to recreate it almost the same, but a lot people got screwed on that and BioWare didn’t fix the problem for months. We’ll just patch it later, right guys?

It felt pretty cool to finally have four years of gaming come to an end. In each game I took the Paragon, good guy route. It was a rush recruiting an all-star team in Mass Effect 3 to save Earth from the Reaper invasion as time winds down before everybody dies. Shepard always doubts if his efforts are enough to stop the Reapers. Soon you start doubting your own efforts as well. The relationship element of the game, like building friendships and romances, are still a highlight in Mass Effect 3. You felt like you really knew these people you were going to war with. I had this obsession with talking to every single person on the Citadel, hearing about their fears and hopes for the future. Mass Effect 3 builds up to a grand finale that ends in one giant galactic dud, but it’s an excellent ride there.

Electronic Art’s negative influence is all over the third title in the series, from a more bland, action-oriented game to an unnecessary online multiplayer mode (that nobody asked for), which is tied to achieving the best single-player ending. Another bad corporate move was releasing downloadable content of a fully designed character that should be included on the disc since they are an important piece of Mass Effect 3. My only huge complaint is the game’s bad ending that left this story arch on such a lame note. Rabid Mass Effect fans called for heads to roll and most of them were justified in their displeasure. I’d never thought I’d see a developer actually redo an ending. Is it too late to complain about other game endings I hated? You know downloadable content has become a complete joke when companies are releasing new endings instead of meaningful, game-extending content. But hey, I guess I’m just another one of those whiny, entitled players that game writers love to complain about.

I don’t know if I can get excited for another Mass Effect after the way BioWare and EA handled this release, but it was a real pleasure serving with Commander Shepard throughout this trilogy.

6. Halo 4 (343 Industries/Microsoft Studios; Xbox 360, Nov. 6)

The direct sequel to Halo 3 finally released after five years. Halo 4 felt like the right next chapter in the Halo franchise after a few mediocre releases from original developer Bungie. Halo: Reach (2010) is solid, but I hated 2007’s Halo 3. It felt like a cheap rehash of the first two games. Halo 3: ODST (2009) is garbage. Halo 4 feels like a revival for the franchise. Even though the Halo allure has worn off for me, I was curious to find out what happened to Master Chief after the cliffhanger ending of the third game.

The campaign in Halo 4 deepened the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana. Cortana begins to suffer from a design malfunction, causing her mood to change at random moments. The way Cortana kept screwing up the mission goals on each level because of her deterioration created an urgency to finish the game and get her cure. Chief promising to save her even as she almost killed him made for a sweet, but awkward, love story between a man and his AI partner. The rest of the story is confusing. Something about a race called Forerunners and a guy named Didact wanting to kill everybody. For about 75 percent of the campaign I really couldn’t tell you what happened or why Didact was so angry. It’s not my fault though. The Halo franchise consistently has one of the most confusing stories because of poor storytelling throughout the years. It’s also revealed that Master Chief has a first name. No it’s not something you’d expect like Mitt or Tagg, given Chief’s robotic personality and outstanding dialogue delivery.

Next to Gears of War 3, Halo 4 is easily the best looking game on the Xbox 360. All the levels look sharp and crisp. Halo 4 is also one of the smoothest gameplay experiences on Microsoft’s console. It felt like 343 coded the game in butter. I always loved playing Halo’s online multiplayer. Like Halo: Reach, Halo 4 includes daily, weekly and monthly challenges for its multiplayer, covering all the game’s different modes. These challenges always keep me coming back, no matter how unobtainable they might be for someone of my lowly skill level. There’s also a good dose of co-op missions that include their own small storyline. Halo 4 is the top exclusive game to buy on the Xbox 360 in 2012. 343 proved it can manage the Halo franchise, so I’m on board to see what new ideas and stories they can bring to the series.

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