There were a lot of great looking games in 2012, and amazingly a lot of them were on consoles. While it might have seemed that PC ascendancy in the graphics department was almost complete, console graphics experienced a resurgence with some amazing looking titles managing to impress even the most jaded of gamers (e.g. me). While some of those impressive console releases suffered in frame rate (Assassins Creed 3, Far Cry 3) others managed the impressive feat of impressive visuals AND a smooth playing experience.
But while console titles did better than you would expect, it was the PC that really impressed. The true potential of modern PC graphics technology is beginning to be exploited by ambitious developers. As a result, for many games the PC offers the best possible experience for games like Max Payne 3, Sleeping Dogs and many others.
It should be noted that in this category we sidestep the whole argument about realism/art/technology when it comes to visuals. Whether it looks good because of an amazing engine or amazing art, the appearance of a game is a subjective thing. As a result, these entries are nothing more than the games that we think look beautiful, regardless of technology, platform or number of polygonoidal pixelahedrons.
Max Payne 3 (PC)
Rockstar’s newest entry in the Max Payne series combines amazing character designs, facial animation and slow motion particle effects with some of the most beautiful and realistic environments ever seen in a game. In particular, the favelas (which have been an overused game location of late) manage to be fresh and gorgeous here. Max himself looks almost uncomfortably real and every line on his face contributes to his craggy, rugged design, but its the world of Max Payne 3 that really impresses. Whether it’s in a deserted airport or a crowded Brazilian street, no games look more immersively realistic than this much derided (but actually excellent) game.
Far Cry 3 (PC)
You don’t need much accompanying text to explain why Far Cry 3 is gorgeous. Maybe the only thing that’s not clear in all the videos and images of this obviously gorgeous game is how well the camera emphasizes your characters momentum and vertigo when climbing or falling. The action set pieces are brilliantly framed and presented and whether your tip-toeing along ledges or jumping from a hand glider into the sea, the game shows everything in the most dramatic, stomach churning, exhilarating way. Far Cry 3 even manages to look amazing while remaining playable on consoles. An impressive feat.
Hitman: Absolution (PC)
While Hitman: Absolution features some of the most convincingly rendered latex material in cut scenes involving rubber-clad nuns, its the in-game visuals that we are commending here. The games design manages to be both realistic and comic book-ish at the same time, and a particular highlight is the Chinese market scene early on in the campaign. The movements of the hundreds of individuals in this area combined with a ridiculous amount of incidental details and detailed character animations make this scene a high point in a consistently good looking game.
Dust: An Elyssian Tail (360)
While other games on this list might have been made by huge teams, its almost impossible to comprehend how tiny the team was that made Dust. A team of one.
With a distinctive art style that blinded many to the games mature story and themes, An Elyssian Tail is a game that looks even better in motion than it does in still pictures. The quality of the animation in this indie 2D title has to be witnessed.
Halo 4 (360)
Those who would look to diminish 343 Industries achievements with the stunning visuals of Halo 4 might say that its appeal is mainly due to the matte paintings that make up the backgrounds, but there’s far more to the beauty of Halo 4 than just those. Particle effects, animations and convincing human likenesses in cut-scenes all contribute to Halo 4’s beauty. It also stays at a rock solid 30 FPS throughout the campaign, and throughout the story you will experience many different environments, from towering spires in the sky to wrecks of crashed space ships. Indeed, while the game looks great almost all the time, it’s when huge ships are flying overhead, crashing into the ground or when huge battles are taking place in the sky and on the ground that Halo 4 goes from just impressive to jaw dropping. Halo 4 is probably the most impressive looking console game of this generation.
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Sleeping Dogs (PC)
Again, Sleeping Dogs looked great on console, but really shone on PC. While it’s in many ways a standard open-world, GTA style game, it’s far better than anyone expected it to be and one of my favourite games of the year. The world that it puts you in is both familiar but engaging at once. Every GTA style title has a Chinatown but in Sleeping Dogs its an oriental world of its own. The detail and atmosphere of the game world is good, and while the small number of NPC character models hurts the immersion, some gorgeous graphical flourishes (like the rain reflections on wet roads) really shine. Sometime literally.
While I freely throw the word “beautiful” around throughout this list, it’s only really justified when I use it to refer to the visuals in Journey. Whether it’s the creamy pink sands you see at sun set, the sea of cool blue sand you encounter deep underground or the often-discussed sparkling golden sands that you ski down during the games stand-out scene, Journey is always stunning to look at. While other games here have their moments, Journey looks good throughout. Its’ the only game that I’ve played here that made me phone a friend to insist they buy it immediately just so they could confirm that what I was seeing was real, and was in fact as mind blowing as I thought it was.
Sine Mora (360)
Combining a distinctive art style with 2.5D graphics, Sine Mora is one of the finest looking shooters of all time and certainly the best of this year. Grasshopper’s best title of 2012, this diesel-punk title is chaotically, manically, hectically, frenetically… ok, you get the idea. It’s very pretty.
And the winner is… Journey!
This was so close for me. Max Payne 3 is an amazing looking game with a consistent tone and a convincing world, but Journey just ekes it out. There are many amazing looking games this year, but none of the others will still be burned in my minds eye ten years from now. None but Journey.