+ Best Story
A ten-minute lesson in how to create emotional resonance between the player and characters without the use of voice or text, Thirty Flights of Loving managed to make the outcome of two people you’d known for roughly the same amount of time it takes to do a wee a gripping prospect. It whooshed players through its rich and breathless tale of bank heists and getaways gone awry and respected them enough to leave them to piece together the snapshot vignettes and drip fed details during a serene finale (juxtaposing cleverly everything that came before it).
Another class act from the man who brought us Atom Zombie Smasher and Gravity Bone which, though a little clunkier, is probably still the stronger example of how to do absolutely loads with absolutely fuck all. Fortunately Bone comes bundled with Flights.
05. Lone Survivor
Survival horror enjoyed a renaissance all of its own in 2012, with Ubisoft’s gloomy I Am Alive, Benjamin River’s intriguing pixel-horror Home and Jasper Byrne’s staggering good Lone Survivor. I’ve long bemoaned the fact that AAA horror games have veered away from their psychological roots in a bid to leech off the success of shooters at large, but Lone Survivor felt like a game hauled from the halcyon days of scarers. Exhausting, gruelling and, for a while at least, legitimately terrifying, its successes all stemmed from its acceptance that mystery is the key to good survival horror.
It also had a phenomenal soundtrack and a well-penned story that instilled paranoia and intrigue in equal measure. I liked it enough to dust off the 10/10 tags for the first time since February 2011.
“FTL is a game in which every grand failure is a grander story waiting to be retold and it’s not the exploits of the ‘six-legged horse-like creatures’ that people are recounting all over the internet. It’s the tale of the Mantis warmongers – belligerent beasties with pincers for hands – commandeering my ship, or the time I set an enemy’s frigate ablaze before sending a small troop of fire-retardant Rock People over to play intergalactic whac-a-mole. Or the time Elnubnub the space slug repaired the O2 chamber with his dying breath, sparing Talfryn and Stanhope in a feat of deep space gallantry even old Bruce Willis would stand up to salute. My story.
“A majestic cocktail of genre conventions and cunning writing merged to form a game that is every bit as absorbing and thrilling and cruel as space-proper gazed upon through youthful eyes.”
I’m still playing FTL, and I still feel exactly the same about it.
03. Day Z
+ Best Multiplayer
There’s very little left to be said about Day Z, the Arma II mod about zombies and men and the Machiavellian antics of both. Dean Hall’s mod was an unflinching survival horror masterpiece that lent itself to anecdotes like no other game this year. It also captured the unbridled terror of a zombie apocalypse better than any game I’ve ever played.
They say games are about empowerment but, for me, there was nothing empowering about Day Z. I filled the role of the mouse dropped into the proverbial snake pit. The question wasn’t if, but when. I haven’t quite worked out how to put into words how utterly brilliant that feeling still is.
Taut, tense and gloriously ragged, Day Z stoked imaginations (as best epitomised by the thousands of YouTube videos charting capers in the Chernarus hinterlands) and its emphasis on vérité made it one of the most memorable experiences of 2012.
Truly great games make themselves known long after you think you’re done with them. Pining for a game months or years after its launched is, for me, the hallmark of true quality. Eternal Darkness, Fallout 3, The Wind Waker, Knights of the Old Republic. There are more but not many, and I reckon Dishonored is set to join the stable.
Dunwall was the key. Much like those games Dishonored thrived on its rich, impossibly detailed world that felt both alive and likely. It helped that it looked beautiful; a steampunk world painted in watercolour hues and shot through with the spirit of Half Life 2’s City 17 (with a dash of Victorian England for good measure). But its glories ran far deeper; in the lore and the history of Dunwall and its people; in the extreme juxtaposition between social hierarchies; in the eccentric characters met outside of an admittedly spiceless tale. Dunwall was a magnificent place.
Equally, Corvo was a magnificent assassin (if never a magnificent character). His healthy pool of murderous tricks helped establish Dishonored as one of the finest stealth games of a year full of the things, and Arkane’s undying willingness to allow the player to experiment and toy with Corvo’s abilities evokes shades of Thief or Deus Ex.
Arkane built a plaything and a playground with rules but without parents, and Dishonored has rightfully found its way onto a great many top-ten lists.
01. XCOM Enemy Unknown
I’ve played XCOM Enemy Unknown for long enough now to know that the enemy is far from unknown. The enemy isn’t alien either, I’ve worked out. The enemy is me. It’s me every time I gamble the life of Lieutenant Morbo the Annihilator on a 42% chance he’ll hit whatever it is he’s pointing his plasma rifle at. It’s me when I pray no harm will come to Colonel Kroker when I leave him three squares adrift of cover in the name of advancing up the battlefield quicker. It’s me when I command Major Brannigan into the yawning maw of a shipwrecked UFO, robbing him of a second move and thus the opportunity to defend himself.
But fuck if that isn’t part of what makes XCOM so goddamn special. Those risk and reward moments; the balance of war and the future of man itself resting in the palms of Lady Luck and her decidedly not-infinite generosity (RIP Sargeant Farnsworth, quite how you bungled a shot from two feet away is beyond the comprehension of us all).
XCOM is a game that demands the kind of forward-thinking you’d bring to a chess match but marries that to the instant gratification of scraping a great big alien’s face off from halfway across a map with whatever the equivalent of a .50 cal sniper rifle is in the world of plasma weaponry.
Firaxis’ master stroke, though, was allowing you to name your troops. It transformed XCOM into one of few legitimately violent videogames. The surface violence was spiceless – a bit of blood ejaculated from a wound much like in most games – but beneath that was violence proper. The repercussions of losing a soldier in the field were felt, so much so that there’s a Facebook group dedicated to chronicling the deaths of as many XCOM soldiers as possible.
Ultimately it’s your own personal tales of gallantry, derring-do and unbridled stupidity that will endure long after XCOM is resigned to the shelf.