Top 10 Video Games From 2012

For the first time in years, I did a decent job keeping up with the latest video game releases. There were still many that I missed, but this is the first time I have been able to put together a top 10 list during January. This was a great year for video games, especially when it came to narrative-driven experiences.

Honorable Mentions:
Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Mass Effect 3
10) Mass Effect 3
This is The Dark Knight Rises of the Mass Effect trilogy, especially in terms of divisiveness. I loved it despite mixed feelings about the ending.

Trials Evolution [XBLA]
9) Trials Evolution
Pretty much the perfect sequel. Expands upon the original in every way possible.

Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]
8) Sleeping Dogs
A strong contender for my new favorite GTA-style game. Gotta love the Hong Kong setting, too.

Mark of the Ninja [Xbox 360, 2012]
7) Mark of the Ninja
This could very well be the best stealth game I have ever played. Finishing a level without being seen always feels like a huge triumph.

Max Payne 3
6) Max Payne 3
If ever there were a game that feels like an action movie, this is it. Hell, it’s better than most of Hollywood’s recent action flicks.

Hotline Miami [PC]
5) Hotline Miami
The violence is hard to stomach, but the gameplay is so addictive that I kept coming back for more. Best soundtrack of the year as well.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown
4) XCOM: Enemy Unknown
I’m usually not a big fan of strategy games, but XCOM locked me in and didn’t let go. Easy to learn, difficult to master, but always fun.

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]
3) Spec Ops: The Line
On the surface, this appears to be nothing more than a standard third-person military shooter. But then the story kicks in, and it’s impossible to get out of this descent into madness. Arguably the best narrative ever found in a shooter.

Borderlands 2 [Xbox 360]
2) Borderlands 2
The original Borderlands was one of the breakout hits of 2009, and the sequel delivers everything that worked so well in an even more refined experience. I can’t stop looting.

The Walking Dead: The Game [Xbox 360, 2012]
1) The Walking Dead
The most emotional experience I have ever come across in a video game. An unheralded art of storytelling in a medium that so badly needs strong narratives.

What I Missed: Far Cry 3, Lone Survivor, Torchlight II, Diablo III, Hitman: Absolution

What did I miss? Do you agree with these choices? If you have your own top 10, feel free to share in the comments!

Video Game Review: Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

Spec Ops: The Line
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: Yager Development / Darkside Game Studios
Release Date: June 26, 2012

Let’s get the inevitable comparisons out of the way. Spec Ops: The Line owes a lot to Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness, and Francis Ford Coppola’s war film, Apocalypse Now, and quite frankly it almost certainly would not exist without either of these.

At its core, Spec Ops is a third-person shooter with the standard cover-based gameplay found often in its genre. Levels generally consist of killing a bunch of enemies, moving to a new area, and then killing some more. However, it’s what happens between these moments of gunfire that separates this from the rest. Morality often comes into play, and the choices are never easy.

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

You play as Captain Mike Walker (voiced by Nolan North, aka Nathan Drake from Uncharted), who is sent to Dubai on a reconnaissance mission along with two squadmates. Six months earlier, a cataclysmic sandstorm destroyed the wealthy UAE city, and the ensuing chaos has left the area a veritable no-man’s-land. After discovering a looped radio signal from a U.S. Army Colonel, Walker and his two partners are covertly sent to determine the status of Konrad and anyone else they may come across. Essentially, it’s a get in and get out mission. If only it were that simple.

It doesn’t take long for Walker to decide that they need to *rescue* Konrad, and not just learn his location. This decision leads his team into an onslaught of violence, as they run into a resistance far greater than they could have expected. Along the way, horrifiyng moments present themselves, leaving you as a player to make increasingly more difficult moral decisions. One early choice has you deciding whether to save a handful of innocent civilians or to gamble on saving the life of an agent with precious intel you could really use. There is no right answer here, only “wrong” and “less wrong.”

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

There are a number of unforgettable moments during the campaign, all of which tie in with the “war is hell” theme. Other games have showed the atrocities of war, but not like Spec Ops. It’s quite fascinating to watch Walker and his squadmates change over the course of the game. During the early stages, they are joking around and acting like stereotypical soldiers. By the end of the game, they are at each other’s throats, constantly bickering back and forth.

Their mental and physical deterioration becomes even more glaring in the form of the “execution” option. After damaging an enemy enough, they will sometimes fall to the ground and squirm, desperately trying to do something in the last seconds of their lives. Walker has the option of executing them and putting them out of their misery. As the game progresses, Walker’s executions become increasingly violent, as he continues to become more and more desensitized to the brutality of war.

On these terms, Spec Ops offers a lot of depth. This isn’t just some mindless shooter, as its awful TV commercial suggests. This is about a squad’s descent into madness, and it serves as a sort of deconstruction of the entire shooter genre. By the end of the game, you as a player will feel like you have been to hell and back, which is exactly what this is trying to do.

Spec Ops: The Line [Xbox 360]

Spec Ops relies heavily on its themes, and without its polished narrative, it could easily get lost in the shuffle as another third-person shooter. There are noticeable flaws — the controls could be tightened up, the AI is questionable at times, the campaign is relatively short and the multiplayer mode feels tacked-on and unnecessary — but I am more willing to forgive these issues since it felt like I was playing something meaningful. As gamers, we don’t get treated to narratives like this very often, and this is a game that people will be talking about for years. Hell, it has already inspired one game critic to write a lengthy critique of the campaign, something unheard of in the industry.

If you’re willing to overlook some gameplay limitations, Spec Ops: The Line comes with a very high recommendation. This is one of the most mentally challenging games I have played all year, and it is one with more layers than anyone could have expected.