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CalmDownTom’s Top 10 Best Games of 2012

XCOMIt may be February, but the CalmDownTom GOTY awards are now coming to a close as we bring you our ten best games of 2012. We’ll even put them in order this time, so there will be more to fight about! Let “I can’t believe you put number 4 ahead of number 5” arguments begin!

We’ve said it before and we will continue to say it till someone argues with us and we prove them wrong: 2012 was an amazing year for gaming. The naysayers may say nay, but games have never been better. If you didn’t find something amazing to play in 2012, its because you were too lazy to look properly. At CalmDownTom we’re lucky because we get to try so many of these great games, and we get to tell you about them too! So if anyone says that modern games are rubbish you should have only one response: “No, you’re rubbish!”. Then you should tell them about all the amazing games that they missed. Games like these:

(Oh and we cheekily picked 12 games for 2012, ostensibly to match the 12 in the year, but actually because we couldn’t leave any of these out!)

A strong contender from the indies, FTL was a Kickstarter success story and a game that (along with XCOM) reminded us how much fun it was to name little characters after your friends then watch them die. A brilliant strategy space sim inspired by the types of games we all miss, FTL was difficult, thought-provoking, nostalgic and painfully, wonderfully addictive. One more mission FTL. Kick my ass one more time!

Syndicate11. Syndicate
Two people bought Syndicate, and I was the other one. And that’s a shame, because Syndicate is brilliant. Composed of two equally brilliant half’s, Syndicate combines a team-based Left4Dead-style multiplayer game with an interesting, streamlined singleplayer campaign to create an alluring package… for me and that other guy that played it.

While the multiplayer was more warmly received, I loved the singleplayer campaign. It took the tone and atmosphere of last years Deus Ex game and made it more linear, more action focused and more awesome. Syndicate immersed you in a deep and interesting world and gave you the powers and abilites to remove all the enemies from that game world in the most cinematic and satisfying ways possible.

The Darkness 210. The Darkness 2
Released waaaaaayy back at the start of the year, Digital Extremes had a tough act to follow. I loved the first Darkness game and Starbreeze are masters of the FPS genre who (as far as I’m concerned) have never put a foot wrong, so the The Darkness 2 was an unknown quantity. I was surprised and relieved when I found that Digital Extremes had created a game that stayed true to the originals over the top cartoon premise and ultra violence while adding to the gameplay formula in interesting new ways.

With more of a comic-y look and an even pulpier story, The Darkness 2 took Jackie Estacado’s story in a subtly new direction. While the very end of the game was a big WTF moment, the rest of the story was brilliant and the game made you feel like a nigh-invincible overpowered anti-hero spirit of vengeance. The games side missions with a cast of contract killers was great fun too, with each playing differently to Jackie but being brutally fun in their own way.

The Walking Dead9. Walking Dead
There’s not much to say about The Walking Dead that hasn’t already been said. It’s a brilliant, nerve shredding experience that redefines narrative in point and click games, evolving the genre into something completely new and unique. Indeed, few people would call Walking Dead a point and click game now, even though that’s the genre that its developer is best known for. Walking Dead is unique, and its possible that its blend of real time action and choice-based gameplay will create a genre of its own as other devs copy the success of Telltale Games.

Reminding me of Heavy Rain (one of my favourite games), Walking Dead should have been a shoe-in for my game of the year, but technical issues pushed it out of the top spot. I lost saved games over and over and as such I was forced to play the first episode so many times that it wore thin and I began to see through the facade and observe all the machinery that operates behind the scenes to make the gameplay and choices work in the game. Still, the writing is unequalled, the characterisation and dialogue is fantastic while the games episodic nature perfectly suited its pacing and structure. Its a wonderful game that everyone, EVERYONE should play.

Chivalry8. Chivalry: Medieval Warfare
Still the game that I am most likely to book up between sessions of anything else (or when I’m reviewing something I hate), Chivalry is a fantastic multiplayer medieval combat game.

There’s a solidity about the combat that just works. Torn Banner Studios really have nailed melee combat in a way no other developer has before. Other games have let you swing a sword or axe, but Chivalry is the first game where swinging one of those weapons feels weighty and realistic. A broadsword swipe might be slow, but the weapon is heavy enough and the momentum is such that you know that it will cleave off an enemies arm, leg or head if you can hit them. Chivalry is the most fun I’ve had in a multiplayer game in a long time and the best multiplayer game of 2012.

Intrusion 27. Intrusion 2
Intrusion 2 is something special. It’s the kind of game that shows everything that’s right about gaming today. A passion project made by essentially one creative genius making the kind of game he wants to play, it combines the best of classic games and new technology to create something wonderful. The pixel art is simply gorgeous, and the animation is brilliant while the boss battles are the best I have experienced in ANY game. The whole experience is slick and watching the scaling and scrolling of the pixelated enemies is glorious. If you has simply taken the classic games of the 16 it era and extrapolated them into he future, you would get something that looked like Intrusion 2. It’s a “Back to the Future Part 2″ alternative present, but with more amazing side scrolling action and less Biff Tanen. Intrusion 2 is a game I fell in love with. I will remember it long after most of the other titles on this list have faded from my memory.

Hero Academy6. Hero Academy
I probably played more of this game than anything else on the list, but it wasn’t played always played at “mainstream gaming” times. I didn’t only play Hero Academy after work each night or all weekend. Instead I played it DURING work (shhhh!) and on the train and on the bus. And on the toilet. And between turns of XCOM. And while any game I played ever was loading. And after it finished loading and there was a boring cut scene. And at dinner when no one was talking. And at dinner when someone was talking but it was boring. And…. You get the point.

Hero Academy is a turn based competitive strategy game on iOS and PC. It plays out on a grid, and each turn you have 5 moves to make with your chosen team, whether they’re Dwarves, Dark Elves, The Council or whoever. The strength of the game comes from the fact that the teams are so well balanced and the game is just brilliantly designed. While Dark Elves regain health from damaging enemies, The Tribe (orcs) get mad and do more damage when one of their members are killed and while The Council have teleporting ninjas that can swap places with team mates the Dwarves have engineers that can shield their team mates with protective bubbles. It’s the interplay of all these skills and abilites, along with the games slick presentation and pitch-perfect character design that makes this compulsive, competitive brilliance. Oh, and I am really good at it. Challenge me, my username is CalmDownTom. Bring it!

Journey5. Journey
That Game Company craft gorgeous and original games that are worth talking about. This is a fact that everyone can agree on even while many debate the relative merits of Journey and whether its worthy of all the praise it has received. Described by an otherwise sane friend of mine as a wanky art game, Journey is controversial. That’s probably because its a game that challenges us as an audience and tries to make us feel something. Some may feel that its manipulative, while others will dismiss it because of its overtly peaceful, wistful theme and simple gameplay.

But despite what anyone might say Journey IS beautiful, its soundtrack IS moving and its gameplay IS engaging. Beyond all of this, its also an emotionally engaging game. I’m at risk of digressing horribly here, but I’ve had this dream my whole life that I can float or even fly. By moving my feet a certain way I drift over the ground without my feet touching down, and I feel exhilarated and joyously happy. Then I wake up. The way that your little avatar floats over the ground in Journey gives me the same, THE EXACT SAME feeling. It’s like the developers have the same dream too and tried to make it part of the game.

When games engage us they generally anaesthetise us; they put us in a state of brain activity that feels like sleep. We close off the outside world and enter a state of flow. Journey doesn’t feel like falling asleep, it feels like waking up and realising that the dream world is real. Whether it’s the part with the pink, creamy pudding sand at twilight, the quiet and cool blue sand that you trudge through underground or the shimmering golden sand that you ski down as you swim in liquid sunshine, Journey gives you experiences that stay with you after you leave the game world and return to the real one.

2-relocation4. Max Payne 3
Sometimes I feel myself completely at odds with public opinion on a game. With Max Payne 1 and (especially) Max Payne 2 being some of my favourite games, the disappointment everyone that played Max Payne 3 expressed to me was hugely disappointing. With my expectations at rock bottom, I expected to completely hate the game by the time I played it.

And certainly Max Payne 3 is different to the first two games. Yes, it makes concessions to modern conventions. Yes, it has a cover system. Yes, it has checkpoints instead of quick saves. And yes, its no longer possible to dive about in the open every time you see enemies and kill them all in one sideways slow motion leap. But in truth most of these changes suit the type of game Max Payne 3 is. It’s brutally tough in an old school way. Its writing is dark and gritty and littered with weird, nasty characters, in keeping with the types of games Rockstar (rather than Rememdy) excel at. But Rockstar get so much right.

Max is a washed up drunk, and the story of this bruttish, often comedically inept character is by turns tragic, comedic and redemptive. Max usually has no idea whats happening and gets thoroughly fucked up (in every sense of the word) throughout the campaign. All the while though the characterisation of Max and his friends and enemies is brilliant. Max’s dialogue is comedic, but the humour is jet-black. He sprouts the same one liners and noir-ish commentaries on events that he did in previous games, but here, in a world much more like our own, its amusingly incongruous and highlight how out of touch Max is with events. In some ways he’s like Arnie’s character in Last Action Hero when he comes to the real world; Max seems constantly surprised by how dangerous and confusing his environemnts are to him.

And the whole thing takes place in a gorgeous game world with an amazing soundtrack by Health. The music in the game is perfectly suited to the tone and perfectly evocative throughout and I thought favelas would never be engaging game environments again, but in Max Payne 3 (on PC) these levels are some of the most stunningly realised visuals I have ever seen in a game. Combine all this with challenging but addictive gameplay and Max Payne’s trademark slow motion action sequences and you have one of the best, most underrated games of 2012.

Sleeping Dogs3. Sleeping Dogs
A True Crime game, abandoned by one developer only to be rebranded and released by another. Not a promising start. How did Sleeping Dogs turn out so great?

The answer is it got the fundamentals right. While many open world games include passable or average hand to hand combat, Sleeping Dogs has BRILLIANT hand to hand combat. Taking influence from the Arkham games, but including lots of interactive elements in the environment, fighting people in Sleeping Dogs is still fun long after the campaign is over. In other games you might fight because you need to in order to complete missions, but in Sleeping Dogs you fight because FLYING ROUNDHOUSE KICK, OH YEAH!

And Sleeping Dogs offers more fun than just smashing people into phone boxes, sticking their heads in deep fat friers or dropping shop shutters on their necks. Some other review sites lamented the gunplay, but I found that the slow motion shooting to work brilliantly. Playing a bit like that John Woo’s Stranglehold game (but good), sliding over car bonnets or other scenery caused the game to go into slow motion and chaining this to eliminate every enemy in the room with head shots was great fun. The ridiculously cinematic car chases where you shot out enemy car tires to see them flip in slow motion were just another example of where the developer prioritised high octane fun over realism.

Top the whole package off with good driving gameplay, a passable story, great voice acting and a gorgeous game world as well as clever side missions and collectibles and you have the biggest surprise of 2012 as well as a simply brilliant game.

XCOM2. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Everyone knows the story by now: an XCOM FPS was coming (Stahp!) even though fans wanted a classic XCOM game, then Firaxis came along and saved the day. They made the XCOM that the fans wanted, and the world was saved from a million angry PC strategy fans bringing about the apocalypse by harnessing their collective indignation.

And the XCOM game that Firaxis made is a marvel. It’s more true to the original than any fans could have hoped. Retaining the base building and meta game of the original, Firaxis sensibly omitted anything that wasn’t essential and streamlined the game, then went ahead and added things that made it even better. Removing action points was a brave but justified choice and with this abstracted to move and shoot actions the game benefited immensely. Meanwhile, the character customisation was deepened with each troop having unique skills and abilities that gave them their own battlefield personas. Once you chose unique names for each (come on, you HAVE to do that) the teams that you formed in XCOM became your beloved ally’s on your mission to rid Earth of the alien filth.

And the improvements didn’t stop there. While the game had a clever game engine that showed the combat from dynamic angles, the developers had thought hard about how players would progress through levels. When only a few enemies remained it would give you hints (depicted as your characters hearing suspicious sounds) that pointed you in the right direction. Meanwhile, capturing enemies was an advanced challenge for those whose teams were especially successful, and psychic powers developed later in the game added to your options in combat.

Sure, there are some issues. The games camera struggled at times and XCOM was a bit buggy overall. The scope of the game was limited compared to the originals and you never had the chance to defend your base or search for aliens in very big environments. Rather, the levels tended to be linear and after a while the layouts became samey and familiar.

Still, despite this XCOM was the most engaging game I played in 2012. When I was in it, I was DEEP in it. The base building helped pace the game and you were always working towards something while suiting up your troops and sending them out to battle was nail biting but exhilarating. The loading scene where you saw the characters (that you had chosen and customised) flying in their transport plane to fight the alien threat made you feel proud of your little team. The fact that they could die in any mission only heightened your attachment to them and your pride in those who died fighting the good fight.

I remember every one of the troops I lost in XCOM’s campaign. I have a little story for each in my head, including the brave masked troop who died on the very last mission of the game so that the rest could survive and escape. I salute you little dude, just like I salute Firaxis for making such a fantastic game.

Far Cry 31. Far Cry 3
Climbing a radio tower in a picturesque island in the Pacific, looking down on a landscape that’s quite possibly the most stunningly gorgeous game world I have ever seen, I managed to forget I was still in my smelly, non-tropical living room. Far Cry 3 has a way of drawing you in to a compelling and believable world. It’s not our world, but it is a very real one. It’s a world that engulfs and surrounds you as much as Tamriel or Neverwinter. In other words, it’s an FPS game with a world that’s as fun to live in and explore as any RPG.

And it’s a surprising game too. No one thought it would be a contender for game of the year, but taking the open world approach of Assassins Creed (complete with towers to climb that expand your view of the map) and combining it with brilliant FPS gunplay based on emergent behaviour, it blew everyone away. Some of the other games review sites looked very silly for leaving it off their GOTY lists altogether, most likely because they compiled the lists early and assumed Far Cry 3 wouldn’t be a contender. Well done Ubisoft for proving them wrong!

So why does Far Cry 3 win? Is it the brilliant, varied soundtrack that oscillates between orchestral brilliance to dubstep to up-to-date pop culture bands like Die Antwoord? Is it the terrifying but hateful main antagonist Vaas? Is it the dark story of stupid, ignorant frat boys having their lives ruined by horrific events on a tropical paradise? Is it the gorgeous game world or the amazing game engine? The creepy dream/drug sequences? The scripted action scenes? The hunting? The awesome bow and arrow?

Yes. It’s all of those things, but it’s also one much more fundamental part of Far Cry 3 that’s perfect. It’s the feel of the game. Whether it’s the chaotic way the cars handle (where you are always only JUST in control) or the way the weapons feel when you fire them or the way the enemies react when shot or the way the wind blows when you glide over the island, everything just clicks. The game lets you live out your fantasies on that island, and every time you do something, whether its slide down a zip line or blow up a jeep with a grenade, the feeling you hope you will get is the feeling the game gives you.

I loved every game on this list, but if I could only play one of them, it would be Far Cry 3. Exploring, improving my character, hunting, shooting, stealth-ing, driving, jumping off cliffs. Far Cry 3 is a big playground where you can do almost everything you love to do in games. All in one game. Astounding.

So that’s our top 10 (12) games of 2012. What do you think? Travesty? What did we miss? Tell us below, or in the Facebook group.

Now the list begins for CalmDownTom’s 2013 game of the year. It’s a big job, and I can’t wait to get started!

Published inTop 10