Here are my favourite games of this year. A mild spoiler – none have a 3 in the title. Please note that although Minecraft was officially released this year, I banged on about the beta plenty in 2010 and included it in last year’s faves, so no dice this year. This list is also incomplete and inconclusive obviously, as I do not have an omnipotent grasp on an entire year’s game content. Yet.
The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (PC/360/PS3) – I can’t work out if this is a step forwards or backwards for Bethesda’s long-running sandbox RPGs, but it is absolutely essential regardless. For all that doesn’t work or is buggy, there is enough that simply takes the breath away to make it an easy recommendation. Take a few steps in any direction and you will find something that excites either in terms of excitement, architecture or sheer scale, though the cookie-cutter questing and dodgy dialogue are significant flaws. I expect it to pretty much sweep the board in terms of the mainstream best-of-the-year polls, and it feels like vindication – for once one of the most popular games of the year is also one of the best.
Solar 2 (360/PC). Another sandbox title, this time built around the progression of dust in space – from asteroid to planet to sun to star to black hole. By gently nudging your planet or star around a 2D universe the game manages to be totally relaxing and wondrous in a quiet, contemplative way. And the game design just has a sense of wholeness and authenticity to it – a game that starts with a Carl Sagan quote and manages to stay true to those principles cannot fail to be very special indeed.
TripleTown (Browser). Within a 6×6 grid this game manages to tickle new parts of my brain. Bold colourful graphics and lots of lovely little cartoony graphical touches are the icing, but the real filling is a deceptively brain-warping gameplay mechanic where you have to think about 50 moves ahead to plan the perfect town. Elegant design, fantastic gameplay, and just that hint of progression and real-world recognition makes this fulfilling.
Stacking (PC/PS3/360). The idea of stacking Russian dolls with different skills and attributes leads to all sorts of strategic adventuring, but it’s the art style and the characters that really make this game special. Surreal period landscapes, Victorian class values, and fart-based comedy have never combined so effectively – it’s this weird mix of ideas and production values that lifts a game in a genre that I consider antiquated and irrelevant.
Nitronic Rush (PC). A surprise treat, a free, futuristic thing, Tron meets WipeOut – this DigiPen student release is slick, ambitious and incredibly addictive, with the whole kitchen sink thrown at the racing genre. What is amazing is the depth on offer too – the high-level twitch gameplay on offer here is as hardcore as gaming comes. It’s so much more than a calling-card slick arcade racer.
Tiny Wings (IOS). Sheer elegant game-design perfection for me, I just can’t imagine a one-touch game ever being any better than this. Yes it does have the casual veneer of a throwaway title, but I spent months of this year frantically trying to top my high-score, and trying to unlock the secrets of the fine-tuned gameplay. Anyone who says this game doesn’t compare to fully-fledged console titles is flat-out wrong – this is gaming in the true arcade classic sense.
Atom Zombie Smasher (PC). I’m not sure this is anywhere near a classic, a sort of quick-fire zombie tower defence type of game where you fly in to rescue people from an oncoming undead horde. But the presentation is so brilliant, with ironic comic-book interludes and a feeling of over-militarised dystopia. And the game seems like such a singularly voiced, slightly surreal, quietly satirical dig in the ribs of reality, that it’s that feeling that I really take away as being the triumph here.
Jetpack Joyride (IOS). Very little of original value here, but all the brownie points come from the slick presentation, the play-it-one-more-time gameplay, the mission structures and unlockables. Like Tiny Wings, it’s one of those games that has won over almost everyone I have recommended it to – for a minute-long game this somehow has the potential to suck hours out of my life – I don’t know if that’s a plus or not.
The Stanley Parable (PC). It’s been a big year for narrative devices (Bastion, Portal 2, Nous) but this is the best in my opinion, a desolate wander through lonely corridors and strange circumstances narrated in deadpan tones by a storyteller capable of getting increasingly upset should you deviate from the story he is telling. It’s an intriguing exploration of the interactive medium, and its relationship to narrative, and in a year full of very linear mainstream games this is the ironic dig in the ribs at lazy exposition – stories cannot be limited in an interactive medium.
Fate Of The World (2011). As a vision of the impending escalation of disaster from an environmental collapse, this card-game cum political strategy simulator is an eerie mix of gamey gaminess and reality. It’s a no-win type of game, where one simply bats off one lost continent against another, and what is great about it is that it through that gameplay you come to understand the difficulties of choice that might face civilisation in the future. It’s a triumph.
Football Manager 2012 (PC/Mac/IOS). Simply the sim to end all sims, FM continues to streamline in design yet complicate in features the bewildering issues of running a football club. As always with this long-running series, reality meets simulation as often I am watching a match on TV and realise I am watching a player I have simulated, and maybe adapt my sim approach based on the physical appearance of the player. There is no game more complex or mind-consuming out there.
Portal 2 (PC/MAC/PS3/360). The best game story of the year, with the best characters and puzzle elements. The best co-op experience. And with incredible presentation and voice-acting. Yet somehow under the weight of all this production, the game manages to retain the core of gameplay that makes it like no other experience around, the player asked to conceptualise a solution and then carry it out in a virtual space – at its best there’s no other feeling in gaming quite like it.
Hard Lines (IOS). I’ve always been a sucker for light-cycle games – in fact the first full game that I coded was a game very similar to this on the Sinclair Spectrum. So I can speak for the game’s innate addictive qualities, and this is the best ever version of the trope – a chaotic bunch of lines battling to survive in a geometric arena. Great touches – the music, the lo-fi graphical approach that leaves room for some really tight gameplay, and the wonderful little bits of funny dialogue that bring what essentially are straight lines on a grid to life.
Nous (PC). An excellent freeware shooter with a strange structure, presented Portal-like by a rogue computer going slowly mad. The way the game plays with the notion of the player and the game system is an amusing treat, wrapped in a visually stimulating wrapper that constantly shocks and surprises.
Driver: San Francisco (PS3, 360, PC). All of the presentation in this arcade racer is yawn-inducing bullcrap, yet the gameplay idea of jumping from one car to the next like a hi-octane occult spirit is totally inspired, leading to some of the best adrenalin-fuelled thrills-and-spills action I’ve had from a videogame in years. Like Blur last year, it seems like original ideas in the racing genre seem to get lost in the mix as there are so many pixel-perfect racers around these days. A shame.
LA Noire (PC/PS3/360). As a major Rockstar release that everybody has tried, critical tongues have wagged this year over the merits and weaknesses of this game, but it remains a really singular achievement, carrying the milieu of classic noir into some sort of cinematic action thriller. No it doesn’t quite hang together – at its worst it’s a towering failure that proves the limitations of the medium. But yet whether it’s an essential experience or a weak pastiche, it is startlingly ambitious and completely unlike anything else released this year.
Tiny Tower (IOS). Yes this is a freemium release, and yes it is super-addictive, super-cute, and a brilliant bit of game design. This is an era where lots of games are building experiences that don’t ask much of the player other than just to sit and click. But this one does it with style, panache, and innocence, with a dose of good humour thrown in. I read the game as a sort of ironic pastiche of Western urban civilisation, and enjoyed it so much more on that basis.
Blipzkrieg (Browser). I’m not really one for quick-paced real-time strategy, but the exceptional design of this browser gem completely won me over – it has an arcade feel and a quick pace but total freedom within each level, and a sense of complete chaos mixed with tight control. My only disappointment with this game is that I have spelt it wrong on the blog (it is ‘ieg’ not ‘eig’) for six months .
Fifa 12 (PC/IOS/PS3/360/Wii). A begrudging nod to this yearly update, a glorified game patch given a full price. But the fact remains that it is probably the best sports sim I’ve ever played, the on-field flow approaching what my tiny mind can only perceive as perfection. Until next year’s iteration comes along. The only weakness in the entire game is the dismal menus and continual ‘press x to continue’ approach – once you’re in-game the thing plays like an absolute dream.
Where Is My Heart? (PS3/PSP). There’s something just so lovingly crafted about this puzzle platformer, in which levels fracture and split up into various pieces like a broken jigsaw to disorientate the player. Is it somehow the sense of being lost in the wilderness, or just the hand-drawn joy of it all, or the surreal simplicity of the little characters, you know the orange one, the dirty brown one and the black one? I like games that cast a spell, and this one does for reasons I can’t quite fathom.
LittleBigPlanet 2 (PS3). A chaotic multiplayer platformer, with almost unlimited possibilities due to the robust level editor encouraging thousands around the world to make their own contributions, this is the community game that has almost come to defy description. Due to the sheer scale of what’s on offer here it’s tempting to simply leave the core to their world and bow out. But treated simply as a co-op platform game alone it’s some of the the best fun I’ve had in gaming this year.
Dungeon Raid (IOS). A brilliantly-designed puzzle game, mixing match-3 mechanics with the tropes of a rogue-like, it’s one of the weirdest sensations around to be playing something that looks like Bejewelled yet plays out like a quest – even a puzzle grid starts to take on the form of a place, and a story of your progress builds without the slightest graphical sense of place. You just imagine D&D from the past and play the game almost as an accompaniment to the imagination.
Forget Me Not (IOS/PC). This is a bit like PacMan, a bit like a rogue-like dungeon hunt, and even a little bit like a chaotic little world system like Minecraft. Yes, a little bit. What the game lacks in longevity, it makes up for with charm – wonderful old-school tiny sprites, on-the-fly mazes and enemies, and retro sound to absolutely die for. It’s the little maze game that could, and every time I dip back into it for twenty minutes I find it to be a delight.
Groove Coaster (IOS). There’s nothing desperately groundbreaking about this music rhythm game, other than that it is incredibly surreal and weird, from the music to the strange three-dimensional patterns it paints. And there’s just something odd about the way it is presented and unlocks itself that makes it memorable. It’s as if playing and liking this game allows one to belong to a leftfield plane of existence.
The Killer (Browser). A short game but no less affecting for that – it’s surprising and thoughtful and has a reason for being, which is more than can be said for a whole lot of games these days.
Other games played this year – Winter Walk, Oiche Mhaigh, Bulletstorm, Water, Batman: Arkham City, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Crysis 2, Sesame Street: Once Upon A Monster, Ravenwood Fair, Order And Chaos Online, Epoch, W.E.L.D.E.R., A.R.E.S., Anomaly Warzone Earth, The Binding Of Isaac, Blocks That Matter, Lootfest, Hoard, InMomentum, Jamestown, Nightsky, Revenge Of The Titans, Scoregasm, Vertex Dispenser, Hyperdimension Neptunia, Xenoblade Chronicles, Inazuma Eleven, Brink, Dead Island, Bastion, El Shaddai: Ascension Of The Metatron, Alice: Madness Returns, Infamous 2, Dirt 3, Kinect: Rise Of Nightmares, Battlestar Galactica Online, Bodycount, Child Of Eden, Conduit 2, Dead Space 2, Dragon Age II, Dungeon Siege III, Dungeon Defenders, Earth Defence Force: Insect Armageddon, Fear 3, Fight Night Champion, Forsaken World, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, Hunted: The Demon’s Forge, Ilomilo, Killzone 3, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, MicroBot, Outland, Rock Of Ages, Shadows Of The Damned, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, Terraria, Lord Of The Rings: War In The North, Tour De France 2011, Brunswick Pro Bowling, Surveillant, Inside A Star Filled Sky, The End Of Us, A Mother In Festerwood, Interlocked, Beneath The Waves, Infinity Danger, Kami Retro, Pragmatica, Sr Mistu, Soul Brother, Continuity 2, Proun, Mythos, The 2D Adventures Of Rotating Octopus Character, Luftrauser, Bamdizzle, Kinect Fun Labs, Poker Pals, Bag It!, Mage Gauntlet, Forever Drive, Reckless Getaway, Frogger Decades, Quarrel, Temple Run, Frozen Synapse, Grand Prix Story, Spy Mouse, Contre Jour, Rally-X Rumble, Drawin Growin, 1-Bit Ninja, DaWindci, Storm In A Teacup, The Heist, Bumpy Road, Snuggle Truck, Coin Drop, Air Penguin, Land A Panda, Call Of Duty 3: Modern Warfare, Nuclear Dawn, Match Panix, Zookeeper DX Touch Edition, Legendary Wars, IStunt 2, Superbrothers Swords and Sorcery. I intend to play less games next year .