The world of gaming is changing. It's no secret that behemoths like EA and Activision dominate much of the industry. But 2012 showed us that smaller developers aren't going anywhere. Which indie games stood out? Which big-budget games lived up to their hype? And which game is Gizmag's Game of the Year? Read on, as we salute the top games of 2012.
Staff pick: Far Cry 3
When it comes to sheer variety, depth of play, and compelling narrative, Far Cry 3 had the competition beaten. The game begins with your kidnapping by a horde of drug-crazed psychopaths, and the action doesn't let up from this there.
Far Cry 3 is one of the year's best because no other game delivers as complete an adventure, while also providing an incredibly diverse "sand box" experience for gamers who crave variety.
Feel like a break from chasing the cartels goons? Why not go hunting, do a bit of dune buggy racing or just chill out and play some poker.
Far Cry 3 also delivers finely balanced stealth and shooter elements with a dose of RPG character development thrown in for good measure.
When you combine these superb elements with simply stunning visuals and some riveting cut scenes, you come up with a game that is (for me) worthy of the top spot in 2012. Grab it this Yuletide and you'll have no regrets.
- Steve Polak
Staff pick: Borderlands 2
The original Borderlands was a game that had its share of problems, but it had so much charm that it was easy to give it a pass. The team at Gearbox took a long look at those issues and took major steps to create a game that did away with many of them, and it is a much better game for it.
The core gameplay in Borderlands 2 remains more or less the same as the original. You are still running around, shooting enemies and collecting awesome loot in the form of new guns. However, the AI has improved, glitches are all but gone, and story is actually somewhat meaningful.
Borderlands 2 may not be perfect, but it offers a cohesive co-op experience and stellar gameplay, and is well worth playing. To put it simply, it's just downright fun, and it is a game that is truly worthy of being recognized as one of the best of 2012.
- Dave LeClair
Staff pick: Dishonored
It's rare to see a game that's not quite like anything before it. Though many of Dishonored's elements are borrowed from classics like Deus Ex and Bioshock, the sum of its parts is unique.
What makes it unique is choice. The revenge plot is hardly original, but the way that you exact that revenge is. Want a brutal kill-fest? Go for it (but watch out for those plague-ridden rats). Want to take your enemies out with stealth? Better level up your teleporting and time-freezing abilities. Want to go through the entire game without killing a soul? You can do that too, with the help of sleeper holds and sleep darts.
In a world of plotted-out, cinematic Call of Duty clones, Dishonored gives you the freedom to be creative. Finish it, and you'll be clamoring to play through again.
- Will Shanklin
Staff pick: ZombiU
There's nothing technically impressive about this game whatsoever, but those who can overlook its underwhelming visuals and clunky combat controls will find a masterful resurrection of the survival horror genre that plays your nerves like an instrument.
Your health doesn't regenerate, ammunition is so scarce you'll savor every round, and the "normal" difficulty setting errs on the side of "utterly sadistic" – a lone zombie can easily take you out if you're not careful.
A game like this is long overdue, and a must-see for fans of the genre.
- Tim Hanlon
Staff pick: XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Each year, the spare time I have to devote to video games seems to dwindle more and more. As a result, I do a lot of research consulting various reviews before deciding on which title will get my time and money. XCOM: Enemy Unknown always had a head start due to fond memories I have of playing UFO: Enemy Unknown. When the first positive reviews started rolling in, making XCOM: Enemy Unknown my next purchase was an easy decision.
Sid Meier’s Civilization was the first game I developed an addiction to, and the 1994 release of UFO: Enemy Unknown combined two of my favorite things: turn-based strategy and aliens. Thankfully, Firaxis resisted the temptation to chase the easy bucks of a first person shooter and stuck to its UFO: Enemy Unknown roots.
There are some differences: base management has been reduced to just one, and the game is much prettier. But the core gameplay remained the same. Select a squad, fit them out with the best gear you can currently afford and get down to the business of blasting away the alien invaders.
The attachment you develop for your soldiers increases the tension as the game progresses (losing a veteran that has served you so well can be devastating). In between missions you research new weapons and armor and build new facilities. You'll also need to ensure that money is rolling in by keeping countries around the globe happy ... but keeping everyone happy is nearly impossible, and tough decisions will need to be made (sorry, Argentina).
Even on normal difficulty the game is challenging. The switch to the over-the-shoulder animations during firefights can be glitchy (soldiers regularly step through walls, for example), but the engrossing battles and just-one-more-go appeal makes XCOM: Enemy Unknown my personal favorite game of 2012.
- Darren Quick
Staff pick: Halo 4
When Microsoft handed 343 Industries the keys to Halo, gamers were skeptical. Would the franchise thrive in the post-Bungie years?
Those concerns washed away, with the release of Halo 4. 343's first stab at the franchise honors the old (gunplay and controls are the same as they've always been), while taking the series in bold new directions (a story with an emotional core).
Halo 4 does more than dispel doubts about its new developer. It just may be the best Halo yet.
- Will Shanklin
Staff pick: GTA: Vice City (10th Anniversary Edition)
Believe it or not, a full decade has now passed since Grand Theft Auto: Vice City appeared on PlayStation 2 to both acclaim and controversy. In celebration of this, a special 10th Anniversary Edition of the crime-focused open-world game has been developed which brings the wisecracks, dubious fashion sense, and 1980s soundtrack to the iOS platform, with superb results.
Providing you can live with the (surprisingly workable) touchscreen controls, GTA: Vice City (10th Anniversary Edition) offers all the fun of the original title in pocketable form, and proves yet again that truly great games remain compelling for many years after their original release.
- Adam Williams
Staff pick: Xenoblade Chronicles
Japanese role-playing games: you either love 'em or hate 'em ... and the Wii wasn't exactly known for them. And yet despite Nintendo of America's dumb-founding and well publicized hesitation to release it, Xenoblade Chronicles could be considered one the best JRPGs of its generation.
It's one of the best games of the year because it's such a departure for a genre so often criticized for stagnant design. It's a bit like Final Fantasy XII, taking inspiration from the massive open worlds and optional quests of MMORPGs, but is more successful at blending these new ideas with the traditional single-player game design fans have come to expect.
If Final Fantasy XIII has been derisively labeled a "tube" RPG, Xenoblade is the complete opposite. The beautiful environments in this game are its main selling point – they're wide open for exploration. As a result the actual character models suffer a bit, which is unfortunate, but they get the job done.
Besides the main story, there are many intertwining systems at play that will keep you busy throughout the 60 hours (or more) you will spend with the game. Tying it all together is a fantasy sci-fi story featuring giant robots that is less confusing and convoluted than its spiritual predecessors, Xenogears and Xenosaga. Needless to say, this game has me very excited to see what its developer, Monolith Soft, has cooking for the Wii U.
- Jason Falconer
Staff pick: Sleeping Dogs
If variety is the spice of life, as idiom dictates, then Sleeping Dogs would have the ability to bring zombies back to the land of the living. The United Front Games-developed, Square Enix-published title is primarily an open world action adventure which sees you exploring Hong Kong as you seek to infiltrate the Triads in an undercover operation. Sleeping Dogs is played from a third-person perspective as you control the main protagonist Wei Shen, who runs, jumps, drives, shoots, and fights his way around the detailed environment.
This is a game whose quality surprised many, mainly due to the fact that Activision Blizzard canceled the game in its original guise as the third True Crime title. This is a game that grabbed me from the start. It features a compelling and lengthy storyline, gorgeous visuals, fun gameplay, and the aforementioned variety that prevent it from ever getting boring. Sleeping Dogs is a combination of the Grand Theft Auto series, the Yakuza series, and the classic Shenmue games. It's big, it's bold, it's brutal, and it's the one game of 2012 I'd recommend above all others.
- Dave Parrack
Staff pick: Journey
Can video games be considered art? Several of this year's entries suggest that they can, but perhaps none announce this louder than Journey.
The creators of 2009's Flower returned with another stunning PSN exclusive. You control a mysterious robed figure, wandering in the desert. Your goal is to reach the mountain that looms in the distance. Call of Duty this is not.
Journey's brilliance resides in its use of multiplayer. Along your way, you may encounter another robed figure (another human player). There are no headsets or keyboards. Your only means of communication is a song.
If it all sounds a bit artsy-fartsy, you may be right. But it's some of the most magnificent artsy-fartsy gaming ever made. If you own a PS3, this is a Journey worth taking.
- Will Shanklin
A recent film called Indie Game: The Movie implanted a game called Fez into the hearts and minds of gamers everywhere. It gave gamers a rare glimpse into the process that a small team needs to go through to create a game, and we clearly saw how difficult it was to bring a final product to market. It took a while, but Fez finally released, and it was well worth the wait.
Fez is a beautiful game with a mechanic that feels fresh and exciting. You play as a cute character who is granted a magical fez that allows him to flip his 2D world in a 3D space. The mechanic is executed in a similar fashion to that of the Paper Mario games, but in a much more meaningful way. It's beautiful, and incredibly entertaining.
Fez is without question one of the best games of 2012. It has fun mechanics coupled with a beautiful art style that makes it a game that every gamer should take the time to play.
- Dave LeClair
Runner-up: Black Mesa
Like many gamers, I sunk countless hours of 2012 into hunting for loot across vast digital worlds and gunning down other players in fierce online skirmishes. But the game that got under my skin the most was a free remake of a 1998 shooter.
Black Mesa follows almost the exact events of the original Half-Life, putting the player in the shoes of Dr. Gordon Freeman as he battles invading monsters and a government cover-up. But calling it a simple graphical upgrade doesn't do it justice. A volunteer-only design team spent eight years developing the game with no budget and, because it involved copyrighted material, no chance of profiting financially. This was purely a passion project, and that dedication shows throughout the full length of the game.
Everything from the levels to the characters to the sound effects was recreated from scratch and, in some cases, retooled to cut out any tedious moments and keep the action flowing. The people involved even took the time to add a few nods to future events in Half-Life 2, record new dialogue that fleshes out the story, and compose a fresh, engaging soundtrack. The final experience gripped me like no other game in the past year.
The Black Mesa team could have easily updated the graphics and called it a day, but instead gamers were handed a true labor of love that pays tribute to a classic and somehow, impossibly, makes it better.
- Jonathan Fincher
Gizmag Game of the Year: The Walking Dead
Video games and zombies have a long history. But what makes Telltale's The Walking Dead special has little to do with the undead. Here the zombies serve less as target practice, and more as a backdrop for humanity, relationships, and agonizing moral decisions.
The breakthrough adventure game borrows heavily from 2010's Heavy Rain, but Telltale hits the marks that Quantic Dream's title missed. The Walking Dead's dialogue options, puzzle solving, and QTE (Quick Time Events) blend seamlessly with stellar writing and voice acting. It's storytelling at its finest.
The Walking Dead is also significant as the first Game of the Year that you can play not just on PC and console, but also on iPhone and iPad. Mobile gaming has come a long way from Doodle Jump.
If you haven't played The Walking Dead yet, you're missing out. This masterpiece will be remembered – and likely emulated – for years to come.