2013 has dawned, and it’s time to review the best of last year’s games (that I played). This year I’ve opted to break from the traditional “best RPG”, “best strategy”, etc format normally used in Game of the Year rankings. For one, it papers over the vast differences that exist within any genre: Dark Souls is not Skyrim is not Mass Effect. For another, there are sometimes multiple standout games within the same genre. So instead, I’ve opted to recognise games for their special achievements. Here are 2012’s exemplars:
Best strategic gameplay: Eugen Systems’ Wargame: European Escalation, an easy-to-learn, lifetime-to-master Cold War RTS built around interesting choices: which troops, out of the vast array available, should I use? Where should I send them? And when? Half the beauty of Wargame is that there are no right answers. The other half lies in the simple, elegant way in which the game represents real-world military concepts, such as scouting, terrain, and logistics – this is beer and pretzels at its best. Highly recommended for (a) period and (b) strategy buffs.
Multiplayer game of the year: Wargame: European Escalation again, because in a game about interesting choices made on the fly, it is a joy to test one’s mettle against human opponents. It helps that a Wargame match can be played in 15-30 minutes!
Best emergent narrative: Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown. While flawed as a strategy game (Wargame is a better exercise in “interesting choices”), XCOM shines as the kind of unscripted emotional ride that would be impossible in any other medium. My playthrough was a memorable tale of struggle and sacrifice, tension and terror – all enacted by me, the player.
Best traditional narrative: Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story, which underscores that gaming also has room for scripted emotional rides. To quote the piece I linked above, “Only a few video game stories have made me respond as strongly as Analogue did in its most powerful moments, and that says it all.”
Indie of the year: Analogue: A Hate Story, beating out FTL: Faster than Light. While FTL is – for the first 90% of a given playthrough – clever, engaging, and addictive, it’s Analogue that’s stuck with me months later.
Game I most want to see imitated: Paradox’s Crusader Kings II, which marries two normally separate genres to memorable effect: the grand strategy game in which the player oversees war and statecraft; and the character-driven game, which normally takes place at a much smaller scale (XCOM and its fellow squad-based games, The Sims, etc). The only other company I’ve known to do this was KOEI (Romance of the Three Kingdoms, et al), and I’d like to see more. Now, will someone please Kickstart a remake of Emperor of the Fading Suns based on a licensed CK2 engine?
Most interesting experiment (EDITED TO ADD, because I’m forgetful): Journey, which takes the camaraderie-driven experience of classics such as Ico, strips out the puzzles, and makes your partner another human being rather than a non-player character. A short, sweet exploration of companionship.
The game I wish I hadn’t spoiled: Yager’s Spec Ops: The Line, one of the very few games that doesn’t encourage players to exult in inflicting digital carnage. Had I gone in blind, Spec Ops would probably have been a contender for Best Traditional Narrative – but I made the mistake of reading extensive spoilers. Foreknowledge left me with a story I enjoyed on an intellectual level, but robbed of its emotional impact. Oh, well.
Disappointment of the year: Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai, a game based around a brilliant concept – conveying the change that wracked Japan in the late nineteenth century – that the computer player just could not grasp. I hope Creative Assembly will do a better job with next year’s Rome 2.
Most underrated game: Cyanide’s Game of Thrones. So far – I’m about two-thirds in – this RPG offers a good to very good story, gameplay of comparable quality, and a couple of minor but very cool mechanics. The only place where it really falls short is production values, in particular voice acting. Does shonky voice acting justify a 58% Metacritic score and near-complete dismissal (seriously, there is not one guide for this title on GameFAQs)? I really, really don’t think so.
The overarching theme: Storytelling. Whether scripted (Analogue, Spec Ops, Game of Thrones), unscripted (XCOM and CK2), or a combination (Journey), most of the games that stood out for me tried to convey an emotion or an experience, or sought to question the player. As a believer in the narrative potential of games, this is one theme I welcome with open arms. Keep it coming, devs!
(As an aside, I think 2011 was the year of iteration: Total War: Shogun 2, my GOTY for that year, learned from the mistakes of its predecessors to become one of the best strategy games ever made. Tactics Ogre, a remake of a 1990s SNES/PSX game, inherited its excellent story from the original; but its polished gameplay – and even its gameplay missteps – are built on 15+ years of evolution in the tactical RPG genre.)
Game of the year: Unlike previous years, I can’t name a single stand-out. After careful consideration, I have to declare a three-way tie between Wargame: European Escalation, my new favourite RTS; XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the worthy heir to one of the best games of all time; and Analogue: A Hate Story.
Congratulations to a very strong crop of developers and publishers in 2012, and may 2013 bring us a field just as good!