Besides doing research and some secret side project, I'm also playing games on my PC -- and at this time of the year, it's time to look back at 2012 in games. This will be a very personal look back, and I'm going to spoil story elements without remorse, so if you haven't played one of the games yet, you should probably skip the section.
This year, I've played the following games (with played, that means I've done at least one complete run from intro to outro or for a multiplayer-only game, spent a bunch of hours with it):
- Alan Wake
- Battlefield 3
- Dota 2
- Endless space
- Fallout: New Vegas
- Mark of the Ninja
- Mass Effect 3 (including all story DLCs)
- The Walking Dead (Episode 1-5)
- Trine 2 (& Addon)
Notice that some games are older or might have been released last year already. Without further ado, let's start with them one-by-one.
Well, it took a long time until it finally appeared on the PC, but it was still a fun game. What I really liked where the interesting locations like the clinic in the mountains and the farm towards the end, and the great characters. I wish more games would provide locations like Alan Wake -- in particular, the clinic on the mountain is nicely visible from the lake, making you wonder if you'll ever reach it. It's simple, but really effective, and makes you want to continue the plot. Unfortunately, the fights were not that cool and highly repetitive; and the end was at best mediocre. I would have wished for a more complete ending, but we'll see that endings seem to be kind of a problem for some other games as well.
Well, there's not too much to say about it. Graphics wise, nothing comes close to it except for one game (see below.) It's also well polished by now except for some annoying bugs which I assume will never get fixed. Two come into my mind immediately: Not being able to deny a medic revive while being dead (you can only deny after being revived, but you can die before you deny and get into a revive-cycle) and the fact that you can't change the options while being dead (you have to actually enter the game and stand around in the field before you can change options.)
Otherwise, it's a great game, and it got lots of updates this year through the premium service. I have to admit that paying those 50,once and resting assure that you get all DLCs and extras might be the only viable solution for me for large games. On the other hand, they could have made the game more expensive right away and patch for free ...
The DLCs have been mostly good; in particular, Close Quarters was a great update and Aftermath seems pretty nice so far. Armored kill on the other hand wasn't that great, the balance was really crappy at first (gunship!) and it's still hard to find a server where you can actually enjoy an Armored Kill map. On the other hand, some of the maps (in particular, Alborz Mountains) look absolutely gorgeous.
I had really high hopes for this game. The previews looked great, and I really fell in love with the steampunk world. Story-wise, it promised to be an interesting experience as well. I was a bit worried about the stealth part, but alternative solutions, being able to use force if you want, and the magic abilities made me hope for a killer game. Let's start with the not so great stuff: The texture resolution was really low in many places, making stuff look ugly close up. The sneaking is also not well solved, in some cases, your enemies spot you from far away and in some other you can just walk for minutes behind them. Worse, in some cases, the death of one enemy attracts lots of guards while sometimes you can slice through them without raising any suspicion. I know it's fairly hard to make a good stealth game, but as you can see below, it's possible. What also sucked big time for me was the water. Guys, if every mission in your game starts and ends with a trip on a boat, make sure the water looks amazing. On the PC, there is no excuse for crappy water any more.
On the other hand, there's one really great moment in Dishonored which was absolutely stunning, at this is the lighthouse at the end. Might be that it reminded me of the incredible Batman: Arkham City ending on the Wonder Tower, but that lighthouse was just very well done, the scenery was set up perfectly and it was a great fit. I have to say that I had the "high chaos" ending which changes the weather to a rainstorm, making the whole level very impressive. It's really unfortunate that the ending couldn't keep up with the last mission -- in fact, is was rather dull. A short camera flight, a speaker from the off, that's it. But that lighthouse is just incredible and raises the bar for great locations.
After finally getting a beta key, I played Dota 2 for a brief time. This was my first contact with Dota ever, so I sucked pretty bad the first games, but fortunately, I have some experienced Dota friends who taught me the basics of this incredibly deep and complex game. The main downside is that getting good at Dota 2 requires a lot of time. Anyway, if you like this type of game, Dota 2 is extremely well polished and has an excellent balancing. Brace yourself though for hours and hours of training.
A classic point-and-click adventure. Lots of nice gags, crazy puzzles and excellent voice acting. The ending is a bit weird, obviously designed for a sequel, but nonetheless interesting and a good fit. You'll probably going to play this only once, but you'll have a lot of fun in this one play-through I'm also curious to see if the next parts can keep up with the first.
I have to admit it: I'm a huge fan of the best 4X game ever made -- Master of Orion 2. Endless space promised to be 4X in space in the spirit of Master of Orion 2, so it was an easy buy for me. Having done a few full games, I have to say that it's actually closer to Civilization than to Master of Orion 2, and some things are not that well done in Endless Space as they have been in Master of Orion 2 (for instance, in MOO2, you could build transports to distribute the food in your empire, but such elements haven't been included in Endless Space for no good reason.)
Overall, it's a great game as it is right now, and I surely hope that it'll reach Master of Orion 2 awesomeness with the first pay-for addon or at worst Endless Space 2. Keep up the good work guys, and don't fear to add some complexity like espionage!
Fallout: New Vegas
This was surely the game with the crappiest graphics I played this year; it doesn't even have proper shadows most of the time. But heck, the story, the characters, the world and everything else is just phenomenal, making it better than Fallout 3. It just feels right from the beginning to the end, which is also well done. Sure, the end sequence could have been fancier, but all of your decisions have an impact and a glorious ending wouldn't fit into the Fallout universe anyway.
This is a mixed bag. I would count this as an experimental game; it was an interesting experience, but it wasn't my kind of game. For me, a better understanding at what decision had what impact would have been important, but all I can say is give it a try, as each run is different.
Mark of the Ninja
A stealth game, but this time, the stealth was extremely well executed. Unlike Dishonored, the stealth mechanics work great here, the pacing is perfect, and the game ends just in the right moment. Unfortunately, the end is also not that satisfying, but it does fit the scenario. It might have been enough to make it slightly longer. Anyway, if you like 2D stealth games, Mark of the Ninja is surely among the best since quite a few years.
Mass Effect 3
It's really hard to write about this game, as there are basically only two possible opinions about it: Either you like the ending, or you don't, and I'm firmly in the group who absolutely hates the end, including the extended ending.
The game itself is just perfect up and until the last mission, even more so, if you play the later released DLCs (Leviathan in particular.) It's a fast paced action movie, with an interesting story, lots of things going on, and cool characters. Unfortunately, there are some extremely stupid plot holes which make you cringe in your seat. If you need an example: Earth is being attacked, so you fly to the home planet of another race, and watch it being destroyed from its moon. Looking down at the planet, a general of the alien race tells you that you can see his home burning, and the next thing you ask him is to abandon the planet and come over to earth to stop the reapers, cause, you know, earth is your home planet, and well, earth is going to be important for the plot, sometime, hopefully. Gnah!
Besides such problems, everything is fine, there are really emotional moments when people from your team die, and then it comes, the most horrible ending in years. What makes me want to cry is that this is done by the people who made the Baldur's Gate 2 ending, which I remember as if it were yesterday because it was just epic. The ending in ME3 starts similarly: You talk with each of your party members, stating that this is the end, and we're going to fight together, united. You assemble you whole team; a group of characters you have spent hours and hours fighting with and dying for. Your team stands ready, the final speech is given, all of your people are ready to finish the reapers, and then: Boom, you have to pick 2 out of them, because the game doesn't allow for more people. I would have payed 20,more to get an ending where I can fight with all of them together, just to stand side-by-side with my team. After the final fight, which is actually not that bad, you wind up at the "set the color" stage, which is probably the most ridiculous ending ever devised. At this moment, it completely doesn't matter what you did in the game at all, but instead, you choose the color of the ending sequence (green, red, or yellow.) That's it. It might be that they needed some consistent ending to continue with ME4 at some point in the future, but in my opinion, the endings in ME3 should have been at least as diverse as in Fallout: New Vegas, and ideally even more. For me, the ending really ruined this otherwise great game, and I consider myself a huge ME3 fan.
The Walking Dead
I'm not sure if this can be really called a game, or more an interactive social study. The story is dark, gritty and gruel. The game has many choices, but you always have the feeling that you only decide which kind of doom one person will eventually face. Story-wise, it's well written, and you definitely get sucked into the game. However, be aware that it's a very linear game; it mainly consists of dialogues and quick-time events. Sure, that's similar to some of the weaker Mass Effect 3 missions, and it allows for extremely dense storytelling, but you might feel not only trapped by the zombies at some points. I have to say that I neither saw the series nor did I read the books, so I can only judge from the game. It's hard to judge who will enjoy this game; if you are unsure, try the first episode, as the rest is in a very similar spirit.
So much for the content; on the technical side, there are some weak points which are not really understandable in 2012. First of all, the graphics suffer from severe aliasing in many places; I don't get it why I cannot turn on 16x SSAA on this game as it has minimal graphics requirements. Second, it stalls at points during dialogues for a second or so; given that you only move through tiny scenes with a few characters at best, this becomes an annoying issue very quickly. There are also various quirks, for instance, decals float above the characters clothing. Team Fortress 2 shows how a NPR game can be done these days, and I definitely hope that Telltale will make their technology more robust & cleaner in the future. These are really small issues if you look at them isolated, but they stick out as the graphics are pretty minimal anyway.
The price for best graphics goes to Battlefield 3 overall and to Trine 2. In particular, the scene where you are inside the giant worm are stunning both gameplay and graphics wise, and the addon ups the ante even further. The main problem for a potential Trine 3 is that it'll be hard to top Trine 2, which cleverly expands the gameplay over Trine 1 and improves on the graphics side as well.
What I really like about this game is that the progression is great, new gameplay elements are introduced just at the right time, and both the ending of the game as well as the addon feel satisfying. Definitely one of the highlights of 2012.
Firaxis making X-Com, focusing on the round-based strategy; this sounds like nothing could go wrong. And yet, I was really disappointed by this game. Sure, it's well executed, but there are so many things which just feel wrong. It's also one for the worst ending 2012, I'm not sure why, but the ending just sucks on so many levels. Some of the cutscenes were much better at transporting the "world under attack" feeling than the end sequence.
For round-based games, there is still one big reference, which is: Jagged Alliance 2 with the 1.13 patch (and drops set to "enemies drop all weapons they have".) If you ever played Jagged Alliance 2 with the patch, you have seen the pinnacle of round-based strategy, it doesn't get much better than that, and I'm not even sure if it can get much better. It's still perfectly playable in 2012; in fact, I have played it this summer from start to end. X-Com is a good game, but it's far away from the dynamics of Jagged Alliance 2, especially when it comes to your team.
[Update] Added "The Walking Dead".