Previously on Top Games of the Year.
A few words on the missing:
Max Payne 3, Dishonored, Hotline Miami, Lollipop Chainsaw, SSX–My personal runners up, had we gone to 10.
Twisted Metal, Sleeping Dogs, The Unfinished Swan, The Last Story–Games I either played for a hot minute, or didn’t get to, but should probably get a shot, by myself and whoever’s got the time and money.
The Witcher 2–This one, I’m just plain still in the middle of as of the time of writing. It’s kinda like a Game of Thrones mod for Dark Souls, and I’m on the fence whether that’s a good thing or not.
Fez–I’d have possibly been far more excited about this thing had Indie Game: The Movie not confirmed every impression anyone’s ever given of Phil Fish as a big bucket of asshole-flavored dicks. But the game’s decent enough.
COD: Black Ops 2–Throw all the ominous Trent Reznor scores at me you want, Activision, you’re still not good at this.
Borderlands 2–For this scene, the role of Justin Clark will be played by Jack Nicholson, Borderlands 2 will be played by a naked woman, and in the role of that other chick, Diablo II. Let’s watch.
Assassin’s Creed 3–More on this when we get to our Miscellaneous Awards. But this is easiest the biggest letdown or the year. Something that sounds this stellar on paper should not be this sloppy in practice.
I had every expectation me and this series were done professionally after Bungie left. Fast forward to three minutes after Cortana welcomes Master Chief back to Earth by his Christian name, and I’ve never been more invested in the Halo universe than I am now.
The problem I always had with Halo and shooters of its ilk is that for all the military rah-rah and futureweapon gun porn, I never really had a compelling enough reason to want to fight the good fights put in front of me. “KILL DEM ALIENS DEAD” has been perfectly fine for games in the past, but when you have a series so damned self-assured of its own importance, the lack of substance to that idea is nothing short of an insult.
Halo 4 triumphs because not only do I care about this new alien species deeming humanity unworthy, not only does the game quietly, fascinatingly indict the whole idea of super soldiers as being humanity’s great, ultimate fuck up and show Master Chief struggling with that fact, not only did I find myself caring about the minor soldiers and non-soldiers around me who mainly just want to go home and have home still standing when they get there, but it manages to make all the hours spent trawling through Halo games prior worthwhile by bolstering the relationship between Master Chief and Cortana. Halo 3 tried to make that bond a tangible thing, but dropped the ball right around the time I ended up sludging through a Forerunner’s colon looking for her. 4 instills Chief and Cortana with thoughts, motivations, and emotions the series never had the time of day for, not when there’s just so much killing to do. Master Chief has to work for his heroism here. He’s not just one by default. The entire franchise, especially its future, is better for having Halo 4 to instill that doubt, and leaving it to the player to remove it.
I want to fight the good fight in Halo 4, more than I’ve ever wanted it in this franchise. Given every unkind word I’ve said about this genre in recent years, that feeling is nothing short of miraculous.
Contributing Factors: Stunning graphics in an age where graphics have ceased to matter, Cortana being more than just cosplay/Rule 34 fuel, subtlety in a series that has and will never be widely known for its subtlety.
Moment To Savor: “Welcome home, John” is a big one. But the mission where you find yourself on a space station being recomposed by the Didact, and the chilling aftermath of it is one of those scenes I never thought this series capable.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “I, for one, welcome our new teabagging overlords.”
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I think we can officially call “Platformer Deconstruction” its own genre at this point. I’d say we should probably thank Jonathan Blow for that, but screw that guy, his ego’s been pumped full of horse steroids for a while now. The problem with everybody making an artsy platformer thinking they need to make a statement is that somewhere along the line, that statement either ends up just cloning half-forgotten memories of Mario Brothers or less reputable NES platformers, or being just pretentiously joyless as to almost be unplayable.
thatgamecompany went another direction. Journey‘s statement brings something to the genre we don’t get nearly enough of. Journey brings us awe.
When was the last time just hitting the jump button was exhilarating? Or that every moving object in the game, even the enemies, was fascinating enough to want to stop dead in your tracks and stare? Or that your first reaction when finding yourself face to face with another player was simply “Stay with me, explore the world with me” instead of “OH GOD THIS 9 YEAR OLD JUST WON’T SHUT UP ABOUT GAY NIGGERS”?
Curiosity and wonder are increasingly as rare as diamonds in gaming, and Journey is 3 blissful, affecting hours of that. thatgamecompany have created a world of desolate beauty unlike anything in gaming right now. It’s telling that your reward for scaling the peak and reaching the destination is being sent back to the start, and there have been mornings where I’ve gone ahead and sailed through half the game all over again just because I could, just because I wanted the feeling brought about by bringing my Traveller and others to places in the world I’ve never seen to persist. Considering the default way to push the envelope in gaming is ratcheting up the human misery, more and more does a game like Journey become a necessity….
Contributing Factors: Simplicity. Beautiful, understated simplicity.
Moment To Savor: The final push up the snowy portion of the mountain, and the total euphoria that follows.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Giving Etsy’s scarfmakers a hard time since March 2012.”
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…especially when games like this happen.
Spec Ops: The Line doesn’t just school every single military shooter you’ve ever played, but it grabs every survival horror game made in the last decade by the ears, sits them down, and shows them how it should be fucking done too. I can’t think of another title in recent memory that so frighteningly handles the torturously slow slide of its characters into complete despair and insanity and lays the enormity of the responsibility for trying to pull them out on the player.
This is not a shooter you play for the jingoist nipple rub of taking down terrorists en masse while whatever composer thinks he’s Hans Zimmer this week urges you on. Hell, the game isn’t even as polished a shooter as its contemporaries, nor does it need to be. No, what you play Spec Ops The Line for is the faint hope against hope that maybe Captain Walker and his men actually get out of Dubai alive, and hopefully still as good men. It doesn’t happen, and yet, you play. You fight on for your own soul. Whatever political motivation or duty for God and country you started the game with gets curbstomped out of the player right around the time civilians are being rounded up in the local mall and shot by the country’s American liberators. This is Call of Duty of the Damned. There’s no heroes here. As these games start to devolve into little more than online multiplayer Cowboys & Indians, any game that dares to remind us war is still hell, has never stopped being hell, and reminds us with monstrous, grim determination deserves a medal of its own.
The fun part is seeing other developers scramble around, trying to justify why their shooter doesn’t need to be like Spec Ops, and thus confirming that I never need to play any of their games ever again while this one exists. Watching someone try to weasel around the idea that the systematic extermination of human beings in the name of country is never not a hideously ugly thing is the kind of thing I wish I could pour on my pancakes on Sunday mornings.
Contributing Factors: Dubai being as vital a part of the experience as Rapture is to Bioshock. The way the game plays, moves, and advises changing depending on the insanity level. The best use of Hendrix’s Star-Spangled Banner ever. The horror. The horror.
Moment To Savor: Savor’s not the word I’d use, but, the white phosphorous scene. Jesus Christ.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “CHUD. Shit, I’m still only on CHUD. Every time, I think I’m gonna wake up back in Dubai.”
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Had this been a list judged solely on storytelling, the real #1 pick would’ve been here, there’d have been a gap of 3 or 4 pages, THEN The Walking Dead. There’s just no comparison.
The Walking Dead is the culmination of everything Telltale Games has been trying to do single-handedly with the point-and-click adventure genre, and then some. It has far less in common with (blank) Of The Dead than it does The Mist. Which is great, since the game is playing in the most tired, barren horror genre ever. The game does do its zombie business, and does it well enough, but it’s mostly an excuse for a gut-wrenchingly tense, emotional, Cormac McCarthian post-apocalyptic tale of a man trying to keep his people alive, and their hope and sanity intact. The zombies are just one more happens-to-be-there threat there to expose people for who they really are, under the absolute worst circumstances, and that includes the person holding the mouse/controller. The worst the game throws at you has to do with the player choosing to act, or not act. Who gets to eat, who gets to starve? Does this person deserve to die, should I be the one to kill them, should we try to bringing them back alive, knowing someone else will die in their place? Do we trust this person to do the right thing? But biggest of all is whether Clementine, the game’s sole, true, shining light of innocence, will get to stay that way? Unlike Spec Ops, that particular fight is ongoing, and even at the game’s end, is not set in stone, and will continue to be the reason to press on when Season 2 happens.
This story, these characters, will stick with the player long after the show and the comic fade into irrelevance. The questions and decisions the game forces upon the player are unlike anything else in gaming right now, arguably most media. The consequences for every shot fired, every life saved, everyone you choose to tell anything, are dire every step of the way. This is not a game of who shoots first, but who shouldn’t be carrying a gun. Unlike any video game I can think of, the answer to that is never “because they can’t aim” or “there’s not enough bullets” but “because, in good conscience, they should never have that responsibility.”
Go fuck yourself, Wayne LaPierre.
Contributing Factors: Telltale dumbing down the adventure game, while somehow making it more satisfying. Pacing and tension better than most movies. Clementine, Clementine, Clementine.
Moment To Savor: Katjaa and Duck. 2/3rds of the way through Episode 3. Not a single moment in any medium this year twisted the knife that deep.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Now you can feel the hollow, unrelenting despair of an undead world gone mad in the comfort of your own home!”
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Because of The Matrix Reloaded.
Yes, of course I’m gonna clarify that.
I’m that guy who loves the Matrix sequels. That opinion alone might be enough for some of you to discount me holding Mass Effect 3–a title that, as a structured game, is generally considered inferior to its predecessor–up as the best game produced this year, but anyone still listening, what a lot of people got out of the first Matrix was the idea of Keanu Reeves becoming this sunglassed, flying, digital badass who can stop bullets just through the sheer power of believing in himself. The sequels went in a direction nobody expected, and most people didn’t want. It’s a direction I love, however, and a huge part of that comes down to one line the Oracle says that guides the movies and a half that follows her saying it:
“We’re all here to do what we’re all here to do. I’m interested in one thing, Neo, the future. And believe me, I know – the only way to get there is together.”
I’ll grant, of course, that Revolutions wasn’t exactly pristine storytelling, but it’s still morbidly fascinating to me how much hate and venom still gets thrown at that ending to this day. The Matrix trilogy doesn’t get its happy ending because Neo beats Smith into a pulp, but because of a singular sacrifice that allows for both sides to have peace. It happens because one person made a choice, believing that this doesn’t get any better unless we move forward as one.
To a great many people, that idea isn’t narratively satisfying. It is to me. Immensely
That idea is one that is depressingly scarce as we see popular entertainment evolve. A great deal of my love for Mass Effect comes from that idea being central to the concept. 120+ hours have been spent culturing that idea, dealing out harsh punishment to those who would strike the idea dead. Mass Effect 3 is the final 40 hours of Commander Shepard, in whatever form we see fit, bearing that weight to the bitter, fatal end.
The decisions I’ve made, the bonds I helped create the past 5 years with Shepard and her crew have finality and grim purpose here. So many have been made, and nearly all of them, no matter how small, have rippled across 3 games and made the universe one of the player’s making. Never before in this medium have I felt the whole responsibility of being the linchpin of the fate of millions being quite so literally as the push of buttons. It’s one thing to feel that, for the first time in the series, deciding that fate by psychically tossing bad guys off into space has never been easier or more satisfyingly smooth and effortless; another to feel like I can exercise true, lasting peace or cold, righteous death for legions of people with a simple choice of what to say or who to talk to. The threat has never been more real or horrifying. The consequences of failure have never hurt deeper. The heroism has never felt more just. All of it has been by my choice.
Of course, all of this leads to the ultimate choice. The tri-colored elephant in the room. I won’t bore you cracking open that can of worms again. What I will say is that any problems I had with that final limp into oblivion were answered by the Director’s Cut.
My ending to Mass Effect saw Shepard give her life to break down every difference we’ve ever had, and build something better, as a universe. My choices were never in vain.
It is everything I wanted out of the ending to Mass Effect. It is everything I love about good science fiction. It is everything I want out of a game.
You’re god damn right it’s my game of the year.
Contributing Factors: The revamped combat system putting the game on par with the best shooters. Bioware not shying away from criticism, while still standing by their endings. Clint fucking Mansell. Jennifer fucking Hale.
Moment To Savor: Numbers into the dozens. For sheer emotion, Anderson’s last conversation with Shepard. For badassery, “That was for Thane, you son of a BITCH.” For the lulz, the ultimate payoff to the Khalisah Al-Jilani running gag. For NOT NEARLY ENOUGH OF YOU MADE A BIG DEAL OUT OF THIS AND WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE, Buzz Aldrin’s post-credit epilogue.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Now Shepard belongs to the ages.”
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