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James Carter’s 2012

It’s New Year’s Eve and I sit next to the fire, mulling over previous years in video gaming as I’m prone to do on a cold December evening.

With their rap sheets long forgotten, lost to the ravages of time, it’s easy to reminisce instead over the triumphs of years gone by. The clink of my glass as I set it down doesn’t stir me from memories vicariously re-lived. A printer whirring in the background sounds like snow under boot, compressing the highs and lows of the past twelve months into stark black and white. As the paper drops to the table, the printer sighs a heavy ‘clunk’ that pulls the glaze from my eyes and announces the arrival of my list of games played in 2012. I lift the page and turn it to face me as if answering the door to a guest. My eyes are still adjusting to the reality of the room as I take in the sight in front of me. Unlike its older siblings, 2012 still has the rough edges and ungainly look of youth. Time will make footnotes of such features as it has done for previous years, but for now 2012 continues to wear them for all to see. The usual pleasantries (taking the coat, offering a drink) can only delay the inevitable as I return to my chair. We settle down, 2012 and I, to discuss our shared experiences…

Dear Esther
However it is classified, Dear Esther was one of the most interesting experiences I had this year.

Tales of old

A special note for the re-released games that I played this year. Whether it was a spiffier, shinier HD version, a swanky update to an indie gem or the same game on a different platform, these games outshone the vast majority of new games in 2012. Special mentions for Dear Esther, Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, Okami HD, Plants Vs Zombies (Vita), Rayman: Origins (Vita), Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (PC) and the iOS release of Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective… it’s only the stickliest part of me that kept me from letting these games carve a devastatingly telling path through the rest of this article.

Forgotten friends

Without doubt, my abiding memories of 2012 are the aforementioned re-releases and the highly anticipated games that don’t feature amongst my favourites. Mass Effect 3 is an achievement in-and-of-itself, it is slicker and smoother than its predecessors and it hit emotionally when and as hard as I needed it to. Nonetheless, I find myself unable to remember much of what happened in the game. Story is what brings me to Mass Effect, and the series has adhered, sadly, to the law of diminishing returns in that respect.
Need For Speed: Most Wanted (2012) was decidedly lacking. In fact, its main success was to drive me back to Burnout Paradise. There’s not really much else to say, except that my hours with Most Wanted were some of the most dull and insipid I’ve had with any game this year.
2012 should have been a celebration of the long-awaited return of two of my favourite characters in video games, unfortunately Hitman: Absolution spoiled the party; I cannot remember a more disappointing experience with a video game. It was as though IO Interactive desperately wanted to shoehorn Agent 47 into a Kane & Lynch game. Yes, it was polished. Yes, there was stealth. But the whole experience felt thoroughly directed and constrained, with an inane story involving horrible characters… frankly, it left me cold.

Acquaintances… and maybe more

Honourable mentions go to Dishonored [sic], Dust: An Elysian Tail, FEZ, McPixel, Sine Mora, Sleeping Dogs, Sound Shapes, Syndicate (2012), Velocity, Wipeout 2048 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Some I haven’t played enough of to properly appraise, others just missed out for one reason or another, but all have made an impression upon me in 2012.

So which games did I choose to represent the best of what I played this year? My own discomfort with decision making of any kind precludes me from discussing these games in anything other than alphabetical order. Well, chronological order would do, but would I choose order of release or order in which I played them? Another decision? Alas! Alphabetical it is then.

Asura's Wrath
A picture speaks a thousand words.

Asura’s Wrath (Cane And Rinse, Issue 53)

I never, ever expected Asura’s Wrath to be amongst the games I would look upon most fondly this year. But the sheer, ridiculous audacity of jamming together animated manga, religious allegory and myth to create a story that is epic and wacky in equal measure grabbed my attention like no other. Add to that atypically inventive and well-done QTE-based gameplay and a selection of the best Street Fighter characters never to have graced Capcom’s fighting series and Asura’s Wrath is a unique and iconic bundle of rage-fuelled fun. BURST!

Borderlands 2

I fell in love with Borderlands (Cane And Rinse, Issue 50) three years ago for it’s mix of addictive loot grabbing, satisfying gunplay and quirky, memorable characters. In many ways, Borderlands 2 gave me even more of the same, and improved in a few key ways on its predecessor; a better script, antagonist, pacing and premise are only let down by the tedious backtracking during side quests. An astonishing degree of reverence for the original game shines through every pore of Borderlands 2’s beautiful exterior. Though, I didn’t have quite the same level of fun with Borderlands in 2012 as I did the 2009 version, it’s hard to argue that it isn’t a significantly better game.

Far Cry 3

The game’s writer, Jeffrey Yohalem, claims that players don’t ‘get’ the subtext of Far Cry 3’s story. I don’t care; the story is atrocious. Lest I forget a batch of awful, linear, QTE-ridden main missions that have no place in an open world game, or the bucket-load of unnecessarily directed mechanics and HUD info that threaten to drown the player. The most concerning aspect of Far Cry 3 is a group of protagonists that make Far Cry 2’s viciously amoral mercenaries seem like perfectly pleasant dinner guests. I cannot stress enough the degree to which my complaints about this game affected my appreciation for it. Even so, Far Cry 3 is amongst my favourite games of the year for its moment-to-moment explore/shoot/hunt gameplay, its handful of incredible characters, its visuals and its plethora of unexpected, emergent incidents involving fire, flight, water and animals (preferably all at once).

Gravity Rush (Review)

It would have been a travesty not to find a Vita game amongst this group. I adore Sony’s new handheld and enjoyed as many hours on it as either the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 in 2012. Neatly avoiding over-reliance on showing off the Vita’s various bells and whistles, the touchscreen and gyrometer are employed with a deft touch, but even then (for the tilt/touch-averse) SCE Japan have provided more traditional methods of flying Kat around the environment.
Speaking of Kat, Gravity Rush would be nothing without its story and protagonist. The highest accolade I can pay Gravity Rush is that I am desperate to see a sequel that will explore some of the mysterious aspects to both its setting and the young girl whose discovery of the powers she now wields I shared this year. An excellent debut for both character and mechanics… more please!

Hotline Miami
…what’s the best game of 2012?

Hotline Miami (Quick Rinse)

“More please!” is a phrase I can well imagine was uttered more than a few times in the office of Dennaton Games during the production on Hotline Miami. This game is all about placing glorious excess in juxtaposition to pared-down mechanics. Hyper-saturated, colour-drenched, 8-bit-inspired visuals, a throbbing, skull-pounding, hypnotic soundtrack and deliciously gory, overblown violence are all layered over a relatively simple “top-down fuck ‘em up” (the developers’ words, not mine – though they do the job quite nicely).
Simple the gameplay may be, but easy it most certainly is not. The ferocious speed and slightly off-kilter controls (a match for the skewed perspective) left me reeling every time my well-laid plans went awry. Thankfully a now obligatory instant restart greets my every failure (thank you Super Meat Boy) and, despite dying 268 times in my first two hours play, I never once hesitated to jump right back into the fray. ‘Off-kilter’ is the best way to describe Hotline Miami – visually, aurally, narratively and mechanically – and it’s bloody brilliant.

Journey (Cane And Rinse, Issue 31)

How many video games elicit strong co-operation and deep emotional bonds between random strangers? Playing through Journey I was bowled-over by the visuals, the music, the fluid motion of the character and the subtle, open narrative. Afterwards, I am stunned that thatgamecompany managed to achieve a symphony from those parts whilst also running a giant social experiment.
The ambition of a game like Journey appeals to me greatly, and the open-to-interpretation story serves only to add to its ambition. The result is an incredibly special game that marks an inordinately inventive game developer at their most mature and impressive.

Mark Of The Ninja

The best stealth games are about testing systems until they break and piecing them back together, by which time your understanding has deepened to the point of feeling, frankly, like a ninja. In Mark Of The Ninja I didn’t have to push the game’s systems to breaking point due to its pacing, feedback and tutorials. Klei Entertainment designed spaces that feel more open than they are and encouraged exploration and testing without exacting punishment on the player for doing so.
Mark Of The Ninja did not break my stealth game habit of constant save/reload cycles, but the fact that it accommodates both my playstyle and a more fluid approach allowed it to do what many established stealth game series do not: satisfy the stealth game fan and sceptic alike.

Max Payne 3

Oh, how I have long desired the return of Max Payne (Cane And Rinse, Issue 46)! It was with no small amount of trepidation that I reassumed the role of hard-boiled, washed-up cop Max Payne. The relief I felt soon gave way to awe at the extent to which Rockstar had brought the decade-old franchise up to date. Here was a slick third-person shooter with all of the bells and whistles of a 2012 game, but the unmistakable feeling of the PC shooters from which Max Payne hailed.
The story is grim, the characters vulgar and the tone bleak; Rockstar did not shy away from the inevitable slide Max had to take following The Fall Of Max Payne, and yet managed to retain the series’ dry, dark vein of humour. I, for one, will be sad if Max Payne 3 marks the end of the road for Max Payne.

Papo & Yo
Just look…

Papo & Yo

If a drug and alcohol-addled anti-hero ex-cop is a tough sell (and an overdose on hyphens) then what should we make of an autobiographical tale of a child’s torment and abuse at the hands of an alcoholic father? The beautiful and fantastical fairytale of a boy and a giant monster travelling together through the mazes of a Brazilian favela seems like an odd premise for even an indie puzzle-platformer.
The puzzles are a little too easy, there are technical issues and the platforming is not up to modern standards, but these are minute concerns relative to what Papo & Yo does well. Few games tackle such a difficult subtext with anything like the aplomb that Minority Media does; to create a genuinely touching, albeit complex, relationship between two characters and be able to switch it to terrifying fear in an instant is no small task. The ending of Papo & Yo has to be seen to be believed – powerful and crushing, a true masterpiece.

The Walking Dead: Season One

What is left to say? Episodic? Point and click? Zombies? Telltale Games seemed to have previously exhausted two of three, and every other game released saw to it that zombies were well and truly done to un-death (apologies, I couldn’t resist). Yet here I sit, one of a cacophony of voices lauding this series of five episodes. The secret turned out not to be any great changes to the episodic or point & click formulae that Telltale have honed ever since their Strongbad and Sam & Max games, but good writing and a strong narrative.
Video game narrative has long been lamented. The most striking aspect of The Walking Dead is its ability to make the player care about the characters and provide gut-wrenching decisions that put those characters into situations of real gravity. At the heart of Season One was the relationship between Lee and Clementine, a father-daughter dynamic that asked the player to look out for a child without relying on the usual, frustrating escort-heavy gameplay. Tough decisions, relatable characters, realistic dialogue and a story that puts player investment at its heart – The Walking Dead follows Mass Effect’s approach to storytelling, and deserves every plaudit laid at its feet.

Sat by the fire, we have talked and listened raptly to one-another. Now that I’ve heard 2012’s story, I can finally take a long, hard look at it without the imposition of first impressions. The first thing that strikes me are that 2012’s clothes look like they’ve been cobbled together from the fashions of previous years, but they lack an instantly iconic style – as though one outfit has been haphazardly layered on top of another. The rough edges and ungainly youthful features that struck so strongly seem now less prominent, somehow, and therefore less distracting. The first place I know I should look is the last place I reach: the eyes. And here lies the truth, 2012 has seen disappointment and failure, but it has also seen ingenuity. Deep within 2012’s eyes there is a burning streak of independence and a spark of something new.

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