2012 Game of the Year

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Walking DeadJeff Dunn’s Choices: The Walking Dead & Hotline Miami

The Walking Dead is a zombie game that’s not about zombies. Sure, the presence of those lumbering body munchers hangs over protagonist Lee Everett and his rotating band of survivors throughout all five of the stellar adventure game’s episodes, but at its core, Telltale’s The Walking Dead says much more about the living than it ever could about the dead. 

This is a deeply ambitious video game, but not in the usual ways. The “game” portion of it is competent, but nothing special. You point, you click, you walk, and you listen to the other characters. That’s about it. There’re even a handful of bugs that hold the whole thing back. But it’s what those characters say, what happens to them, and how you as a player always feel compelled to respond to this dying world’s happenings in some way or another that makes The Walking Dead the most emotionally affecting title of the year.

The writing here is simply fantastic, creating a stable of characters that rise beyond their stereotypes (the scared little girl, the redneck, the grumpy old man, etc.) and become creations that demand attention and care. For a game without any massive shootouts or explosions, there are more “water cooler” moments in The Walking Dead than probably any other title of 2012, all of them stemming from the game’s humanity rather than the usual carnage of today’s market. From the beginnings of its zombified madness to that soul-crushing final scene, The Walking Dead is the swift, tearjerking kick in the pants that video game storytelling sorely needed.

Hotline MiamiHotline Miami is a psychopath simulator. With it, independent developer Dennaton Games created that rare breed of game that near-perfectly blends the thematic elements it wishes to get across with the actual mechanics of the game itself. The result is a unified, warped, and nauseating (in a good way, trust me) acid trip of a top-down shooter that sends up years of conventional video game wisdom. Oh, and it’s addictive too.

Killing in Hotline Miami isn’t satisfying. It’s a relief. See, the game is brutally difficult, and your nameless protagonist is just as vulnerable as the hundreds of worthless thugs you’ll be mowing down in each of its 20 levels. Getting hit once results in instant death, so in order to succeed; you need to be swift, decisive, a little bit lucky, and completely ruthless. It might take a bit to memorize your enemies’ movements, but after a while, you begin to shoot up roomfuls of thugs on instinct. The game’s superbly druggy soundtrack and 8-bit visuals get you in the zone. You become untouchable, a god of this virtual world.

Then you snap out of it. And when you come to, you see nothing but bodies on top of bodies, guts and brains and blood pools all strewn about from your trigger finger. You feel a bit weird, not so much guilty, but just…weird.

What Hotline Miami asks players to do isn’t all that different from most games these days. Just kill the bad guys, it requests. Do what it says. But the way in which it asks them to do these things — with its purposefully obfuscated plot, meaningless points and rank systems, and personality-less lead character — will make some players question, is repeatedly and blindly killing things really the best we can do with this medium? 

Alternatively, you can just enjoy your murder sprees. They’re kind of fun.


Grant Hatchimonji’s Choice: XCOM Enemy Unknown 

Strategy games are a bit of a niche market. Perhaps not as much as, say, JRPGs or maybe fighting games, but they generally don’t have as much universal popularity as shooters, for instance. But I defy anyone to play XCOM: Enemy Unknown and not get horribly addicted.

The premise of this reimagining of 1994’s X-COM: UFO Defense is simple: as the commander of the super-secret organization known as XCOM, you’re tasked with protecting the earth from an alien invasion. In doing so, you will need to engage in a number of turn-based combat missions on the ground with a squad of four to six soldiers, but that’s only about half of the experience.

The other half is building up your base and allocating resources — the most important being time — to conducting research on the alien materials you recover on your combat missions and building your own technology (e.g. new weapons, armor) to take with you the next time you’re on the ground. Choose wisely though, because you won’t be able to do it all. So will you use those remaining alien weapon fragments to make your own plasma rifle, or conduct research on a new type of technology?

All the while, the clock is ticking. As time passes, and if you don’t do a good enough job fighting the aliens in combat missions, panic rises in the countries funding XCOM. If tensions get high enough, they’ll cut their funding. The real kicker is that should enough countries leave XCOM, it’s game over for good. But that’s what makes so XCOM so brilliant: the difficulty makes everything so tense that you’re always on the edge of your seat, trying to avoid that horribly permanent game over. Whether it’s the tense turn-based combat missions or the more subtle aspect of decision making back at your base, every action has a consequence in the long run that needs to be considered.

And sure, with so many different ways to enjoy and play the game, there’s a bit of a learning curve. But this XCOM is ultimately much more streamlined than the original, making it more accessible to both new players and console players, as developer Firaxis did an excellent job of also bringing it to Xbox 360 and PS3.

My mantra when playing XCOM? “Just one more mission…” 



Assassin's Creed 3Chris Leonard’s Choice: Assassin’s Creed 3

I should start by saying that I have not played Assassin’s Creed 1 or 2 and that I usually prefer RPGs or FPSs, so Assassin’s Creed 3 is outside of my usual gaming focus. Perhaps that’s why I found this game so surprising and have selected it for my Game of The Year 2012.

I’ve played a lot of open world games, but the ability to freely traverse in all three dimensions makes the world seem so much larger and open to exploration. It is this freedom of movement whether in or under cities like Boston and New York, or in the wilderness that makes this game so enjoyable.  Don’t like what’s In front of you?  Climb whatever is next to you and rise above it.

Once you get past the hokey setup with the Knights Templar, 12/21/12 and the End of the World, the game is a heck of a lot of fun.  The opening sequence and training has you free running around a theater to commit a murder, a passage across the Atlantic which includes rough seas, climbing around the masts like a mizzen monkey and bare-knuckle brawling.  And then you get to Boston.  Take some time to free run around the city, and find smaller quests to engage.  You’ll get to talk to Ben Franklin, dodge or takeout British soldiers.  As a history buff, I loved climbing Faneuil Hall and the Old North church to take in the vista.  Just don’t jump from the top of either.

Best of all is the game’s the incredible attention to detail.  Each city is masterfully crafted and full of very-lifelike people going about their business.  They have crow’s feet around the eyes, realistic shading and shadows. Crowds form, engage in activities, individuals moving, doing things naturally, and if you can’t talk to them, you can push them out of the way.  And then there is the stellar architecture that isn’t just background, you can interact with it.

If you haven’t already take Assassin’s Creed 3 out for a test drive.  The parkour elements and 3D world you can engage will give you a great feeling of freedom. 





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