Thursday, 10 January 2013

Games of the Year 2012

I will be the first to admit that I didn't exactly consider 2012 to be a vintage year for games. Perhaps it felt worse coming off the back of 2011, which was about as good a period as gaming's ever seen. My top ten last year was able to boast titles like Rayman Origins, Dark Souls, and Skyward Sword, amongst others. This time around I'm not even in a postion to push out a list of ten. Doing a list of more than five would have felt a little too generous this time around. I'd have been making space for games that didn't really deserve to be there at all, which is no good. Anyway, this top five represents, for me, the best of what the year had to offer. Let's go.

Number Five: Super Hexagon

Everything about Super Hexagon seems simple. From the retro-flavoured geometric visuals to the glorious 8-bit soundtrack courtesy of Chipzel, it all wraps around a concept as straightforward as "avoid the walls for high scores". The controls don't get any more complex than left and right, as you tap each side of the touchscreen to guide your tiny triangle through the gaps in the onrushing obstacles. But the challenge, well that's another matter. What makes Terry Cavanagh's iOS masterpiece so brilliant is its unflinching difficulty. Levels come in Hard, Harder, and Hardest flavours, each faster and more punishing than the last. You'd imagine that hearing the words "Game Over" droned at you every few seconds might be off-putting, but something keeps dragging you back. Maybe it's the compelling high score chase, the hypnotic combination of visuals and music, or perhaps the zen-like state it drags you into that turns seconds into minutes, and minutes into hours. There aren't many better examples of "just one more go" mobile gaming to be found out there. To put it simply, Super Hexagon was perhaps the most addictive game of the year.

Number Four: FTL Faster Than Light

Almost every sci-fi fan will have, at one point or another, daydreamed about their own interstellar adventures. Battling pirates, meeting strange new races, capably commanding their ship through brutal space battles, the lot. FTL let you live out those dreams in glorious top-down, RTS style. It sticks you in control of a ship, its crew, and throws you into a race across the galaxy from the pursuing rebel fleet. In true roguelike style, star systems are randomised and death is permanent. Real-time combat and micro-management add to the fun, but what makes FTL so brilliant is the stories you'll come out with. Every star seems to contain some new encounter, be it slaver ships, merchants, alien planets, or pirate assaults. My own Starship Nemesis started out as a crew of three, battling their way between stars. But when Barry was lost in a tragic engine room fire, then Jill forced into slavery on the threat of death, captain Chris was left to command alone, limping across the galaxy before finally losing the ship in a hostile alien encounter deep in a nebula. You'll end up so attached to your crew and ship through all the adventures that it's truly heartbreaking when they begin to fall. And that attachment, along with everything else, makes for one of the most compelling sci-fi games you're likely to play.

Number Three: Okami HD

I've never been fully on board with the trend for re-releasing older games in HD. The whole thing always struck me as greedy, and somewhat pointless. But if anything was going to convince me otherwise it'd be Okami. Clover's take on the Zelda formula remains as fresh today as it did in 2006, offering a sprawling adventure with a brilliant cast of characters and a truly beautiful world to explore. The beauty is the real hook, actually. In its first outing on the PS2 Okami was hailed as one of the best looking games of the generation, with a glorious cell-shaded style inspired by traditional Japanese prints giving it a look that no-one else could match. And surprise surprise, it looks the absolute business in high definition. You won't often be able to say that a re-release of a six year old game is the best looking title of the year, but Okami could take that title by some distance. Combine that with a sweeping score, some fine combat, and more collectables than you can keep track of, and you've got an adventure that truly earns the tag "epic". With this HD remake we've got the definitive version of one of the best games in the last ten years, and a title that comes closer than any other to beating Zelda at its own game. Not to be missed.

Number Two: Hotline Miami

And now for something completely different. Sitting down to play Hotline Miami was unlike anything I'd tried before. A sharp blast of trippy 80s style, coupled with a pounding retro soundtrack and the most brutal depiction of violence you're likely to see in 2D, wrapped up in the guise of a top-down arcade shooter. Within five minutes I'd been taught how to kill by a tramp, awoken to find three masked strangers talking riddles in my living room, and assaulted a building full of thugs with nothing but a lead pipe. Five hours later I took off my headphones, switched off the computer, and tried to re-adjust to the real world. From the trippy Suda-style plot to the drug-induced haze of the music and visuals, Hotline Miami is a game that oozes cool from the word go. It's a challenge as well; a game, like Dark Souls and Super Hexagon, where death is as rewarding as it is inevitable. But it was also easily the most fun I'd had playing a game in 2012. The action was so slick, the unlockables a treat, and the style was unbeatable. I ended my review by calling it a modern day videogame nasty, and that rings true. Cheap, brutal, and fun as hell.

Number 1: Journey

Let me tell you a story. My brother and I grew up sharing a love of games, spending most of our childhoods playing away together. Sadly distance and adulthood means we don't get the chance to do that so often anymore. One night my brother phoned me to suggest we take the crazy step of playing something together online. But what? We're so used to sharing games that there isn't much we each have a copy of. The only title we both had was Journey, and thanks to the random pairing system and lack of communication there meeting each other was a tough prospect. But we were determined to at least try. Staying on the phone, we both managed to reach the same area, and after some fairly comic verification ("Is that you making all that noise over there?" "Aye jump up and down so I know it's you I'm talking to") we hung up and were able to get on with the adventure. In the sun we sailed side by side down cascading sand, and glided together above ancient ruins. Deep underground we cowered from ominous monsters, scrambling away when one of us was spotted. There were times I was afraid I'd lost him, but he always seemed to pop up around the next corner, chirping away. We reached a blizzard-scarred mountain, and our strength started to fail, but we never left each other's side. And at the end, when the credits rolled, I had the biggest smile on my face. I'd played through the game several times before, but never with the same person all the way through. That it was my brother somehow made it all the more special. Our journey had become a memory that will stay with me for years to come.

That's why Journey is my game of the year. I could mention the spellbinding visuals, from the desert bathed in the glow of sunset to the dank and moody underground temples. I could bring up the sweeping score, that thrills and moves in equal measure as you travel further on. I could talk about the glorious design, or the story, or the atmosphere, or any number of things. But what matters is that Journey was one of the most amazing and moving experiences I've had with a game, not only last year, but for many years. Magical.

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