Red Herb Review: The Top 10 Games of 2012

imageRumor – the invisible force said to actually power the internet – has it that this console generation is coming to a close.  If this truly is the last year of this triumphant generation, a generation that began as any other (with pretty graphics and prettier promises) but evolved into a full blown fusion of home media and dedicated gaming, then it’s all the more important to reflect on the virtual adventures 2012 gave us.

We laughed, we cried, we cried even harder trying to slog through Halo 4 on Legendary…2012 was the culmination of six years of advancement, where devs’ were past their growing pains fumbling with new technology and knew how to fully utilize the tools at their disposal.   2012 was a year in which we reaped the benefits tenfold through the sheer amount of excellent games rapid-fired onto store shelves (or, more realistically, Steam shelves.  Yeah.  Steam shelves).

Of course, if your video game launched without a number following the title this year, you either were A) An indie developer of a warmly reviewed, art house-y digital game or B) Watching your fucking studio get shut down.  Twas a dark twelve months, as well.  But let’s focus on the brighter spots ( at least for now; thinking about writing up a “Worst of 2012” mainly because I didn’t get to announce my hatred for Operation Raccoon City loudly enough).  I now present to you my Top Ten favorite video games of the year.  Keep in mind that if you don’t see your top pick make the list, it’s probably because you didn’t write any of this (mystery solved, and you’re welcome).

TOP 10 PICKS OF 2012

  • 10. The Darkness II (Digital Extremes)

imageIf I created a list of The Most Underrated Games of the Year, The Darkness’ sequel would be the gore-drenched, profanity juggling, Mafioso splitting, quad-tentacled champion.  The Darkness II managed an unenviable balancing act between being a different developer’s sequel to a critical and cult hit while carrying an established license most popular in an altogether different medium.  I would have placed a confident bet that this game was destined to be bad before release and, after playing it, I would have lost that bet with a goddamned smile on my face.

The smoothness and ease of controlling Jackie Estacado’s numerous, flesh-mauling powers, while maintaining the competency (and fun) of a top shelf first-person shooter, allowed me to once again get lost in The Darkness’ comic book world of angels, demons, and gun-toting thugs.  Plus, the game features some of the best cel-shaded graphics coded to a disc all year – the same year that saw the likes of Borderlands 2.  “Hundreds of demon-snake incurred decapitations” and “touching narrative” are rarely two descriptors assigned to the same game, but Digital Extremes pulled it off like…well, like a demon-snake yanking a dude’s head off.

  • 9. Dragon’s Dogma (Capcom)

imageSo Capcom took a stab at Westernized RPG’s this year.  And you know what?  It wasn’t a bad stab.  Taking a “What Works” position on game design, Dragon’s Dogma played as if it chewed up a half-dozen other RPG and action-adventures and spit out a surprisingly involving open-world experience that can only be feebly described as the result of Skyrim and Shadow of Colossus’ heated one-night stand (wherein which they broke all the hotel room’s furniture).

Dragon’s Dogma has this tendency to teeter on the generic (A fetch quest that takes me to the other side of the world? Bully fine!) just before it plays its hand and reveals itself as genius.  From it’s seemingly simple combat system that opens up like a lethal flower in bloom once you begin assigning devastating skills to the unique Pawn set up that allows you to tailor companions to your liking by testing their mettle in battles against gigantic hordes of fantasy beasts, it feels as if Dogma suckers players in by presenting itself as accessible, then gut checks you with its depth.

  • 8. Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)

imageWell, kids, we’ve veered into blockbuster territory – and what a blockbuster it is.  While the end of a trilogy can be dicey business, and ME3 by no means came out unscathed, few can argue that Bioware didn’t handle Commander Shepard’s final stand against humanity’s extinction with the same care and obsessive focus on story that put the studio on the map to begin with.

Mass Effect 3 took liberties with the franchise’s core conceits by reining in exploration and narrowing the way the narrative was told, and these decisions definitely twisted fans’ collective space panties, but the end result was a more concentrated, more urgent fight for survival; your choices felt no less impactful and the consequences of your actions weighed heavier than ever now that Reaper inflicted death awaited you and your crew at just about every corner of the universe.

The Mass Effect Trilogy is undoubtedly one of the very best sci-fi epics of the last decade, and that’s accounting for sci-fi across all media.  Mass Effect 3 as a finale stirred up emotions both bitter and fond within fans, but goddamnit if that isn’t what good fiction is supposed to do.

  • 7. Max Payne 3 (Rockstar Vancouver)

imageSometimes injecting an old hero into a new setting can be painful (just ask Duke Nukem).  But sometimes, it’s just what a dormant franchise needs, which Rockstar proved by reintroducing gamers to the shit-luck, pill popping detective Max Payne in a modern context.  Max Payne 3 ran like a well oiled machine, with each cog turning in perfect unison.  The needle sharp writing, the pumping, organic score, the precision gunplay, the lived-in, detailed worlds…The game had such an unerring synergy between all of its components; it’s likely the most focused, biting work Rockstar has ever published.

The creative heads behind Rockstar Games take huge cultural influence from films; in Max Payne’s case, film noire specifically.  They attempt to capture that bent for style and drama that pushed them to create in the first place.  But sometimes Max Payne 3 does more than simply pay homage to its pop culture roots.  Sometimes it outdoes them.

  • 6. Assassin’s Creed III (Ubisoft Montreal)

imageUbisoft’s unparallelled ability to bring history and setting to life made for, likely, the best installment of Assassin’s CreedACIII doesn’t revolutionize the formula first introduced to gamers back in 2007, but it certainly does improve upon it, even if the changes are too nuanced to be noticed at a glance.

Free-running has never been this easy to initiate, especially with Conner’s added exploratory skills that allow you navigate trees and foliage with the press of a button.  AC has always represented the finer examples of what big budget storytelling can offer in games, and Conner’s quest through British oppressed America does not disappoint (even when Desmond’s limp dicked apocalypse subplot definitely does).  It shows the side of revenge few stories – let alone video game murder simulators – choose to depict.  The game never allows you to feel justified in taking life, instead forcing Conner to question his own motives and whether or not he truly plays a part in the greater good of a young, tumultuous nation.  Tons of games toss you in the middle of happenings, but few make you wonder if you belong there.

Open-world games are a dime a dozen this gen (hell, this lists consists of six from this year alone), but Assassin’s Creed III will go down as a top tier admission to the genre.

  • 5. Sleeping Dogs (United Front Games/Square Enix London)

imageThis game surprised the shit out of me.  Fully expecting this to be yet another GTA clone (because that’s what the True Crime series this game hails from practically is), I was ready to be fantastically bored by Sleeping Dogs, a game centered on an undercover cop looking to infiltrate Hong Kong’s organized crime scene from the ground up (just as in 300 of Jet Li’s and Steven Segal’s films combined).

But Sleeping Dogs disseminates the “functioning is good enough” conventions found in most open-world crime game designs (like humdrum combat and floaty car physics) and reworks them into fun, interesting ways.  Driving is a legitimate pleasure going from point A to B instead of feeling like a frustrating, median scraping chore.  Missions unfold in unexpected ways and rarely feel repetitive.  Melee combat has no rightly business being as playable and engaging as it is.  The game even shakes up the traditional notion of upgrades by incorporating it as a play on the modern game’s morality system with you either cozying up to the Triad or playing it by the book as a cop.

It also doesn’t hurt that lead Wei Shen is one of the more dynamic characters at the forefront of a video game in recent memory.  The story leans on predictable, but Wei Shen’s inner struggle and realistic choices make it worth riding out until the bloody end (because you get to shove a guy into a fucking wood chipper).

  • 4. Need for Speed: Most Wanted (Criterion Games)

imageIn a year where the superb Forza franchise made the jump to open-world racing, Criterion Games stood their ground with the very best racer on their resume to date.  Although borrowing its name from a former NFS game, Most Wanted plays more like a superior Burnout Paradise.  As in that racer before it, Most Wanted rewards the reactionary; matching your blistering speed only with timed aggression sees races won throughout the sprawling, obstacle laden city.  It helps greatly that every car – right down to low octane street crawlers – handles marvelously, with your inputs translated effortlessly.

Huge, thinking-outside-the-box improvements to the formula including a streamlined interface (which is all navigable on-screen in real-time, anytime), the ability to drive any car you want as you find them (forgoing the archaic unlocking procedure prevalent in any game featuring cars and racing), and the clever integration of friends’ accomplishments into your game world to encourage constant competition are innovations we’ll eventually cannot do without.  Criterion Games and their culmination of racing expertise has not only set the bar unfairly high for future Need for Speed entries, but they’ve set a new standard for the entire genre to compete with from here on out.

  • 3. Borderlands 2 (Gearbox Software)

imageBorderlands 2 obviously follows the mantra, “Give the audience more of what they want."  Because "more” certainly rings true when talking about the incalculable amount of guns thrown your way, the host of missions to take on, and the expanded size of areas for you to mow down the locals in.  A few hours into your first playthrough, though, another word comes to mind: “better."  Quests are better, the classes and skill trees are better, the co-op is better, the story is better.  Borderlands 2 is the kind of sequel every sequel wants to be: a true successor in every way.

The first Borderlands made two grave mistakes.  Firstly, it introduced quests as bulky, boring blocks of text.  Secondly, it lacked a sufficient villain.  Gearbox must have grown self-conscious about these points of contention because Borderlands 2 tethers missions to funny, well-written characters that send you on varied quests that never quite feel like the one before it.  And as for a villian…you couldn’t ask for a better antagonist than Handsome Jack: a histrionic, self-flagellating sociopath that slowly reveals to you he is, in fact, a cold, manipulative psychopath the more you and yours push his temper over the edge.

Gearbox has shown gamers how a great concept can become even greater with fine tuning, smart design, and an ass-wallop of guns.

  • 2. Resident Evil 6 (Capcom)

imageOh, come on, you saw this coming.  Did you think The Red Herb was some thinly veiled pot reference?  And this slotting is without bias, I say!  Bias would have placed RE6 right at the top, and that may confuse a lot you who kept track of the shit slinging reviews this game garnered.  The fact of the matter is, I got a ton of mileage out of this game and consider it one of my absolute favorite releases of the year.

The scope of this sixth main series entry extends Resident Evil beyond a chemical spill in a remote, abandoned mansion to a sweeping global threat ready to topple civilization at a terrorist’s whim.  RE6 tells its story from multiple perspectives, across several beautifully realized locations and against different classes of enemies ranging from slack jawed zombies to coordinated teams of brainwashed, mutating minions capable of pinning you, shooting you, and generally gussying up your day.  It’s popcorn action fare but popcorn action fare done well.

You’re given unprecedented control over your character in battle with surprisingly layered combat mechanics meant for situations both tight and overwhelming (it’s ironic the gameplay’s versatility is evidenced strongest in the context-less Mercenaries mode).  The biggest change series fans have to cope with is a tonal one.  The bump-in-the-night scares of Resident Evil’s PS1 incarnations are gone, there’s no denying that.  Instead, we’re privy to an acutely tense action title underlined by its top notch co-op and satisfying amount of content to dive into.

  • 1. Halo 4 (343 Industries)

imageA behind-the-scenes change of hands in video gaming is a time of duress for any fan.  The prevailing mindset is that an IP’s spark and wonder — it’s magic, so-to-speak — rests with the game’s creators.  Usually when a surrogate studio takes over, the result is a sequel strong where it doesn’t deviate, but left weak for its reluctance to take risks.  With Bungie out of the picture, fans braced for impact when Halo 4 was announced under the tutelage of 343 Industries…

But there was no cause for concern.  No, as it turns out, 343 may have made the best Halo game to date.  I truly didn’t anticipate taking as much of a shine to Halo 4 as I did, but how could I not?  On almost every level, Halo 4 is the perfect marriage between design and execution.  Each model, stage, and weapon is lovingly detailed and painstakingly crafted.  The multiplayer is one of the most easily accessible and enjoyable competitive offerings in a modern shooter.  The story is succinct, thought out, and emotionally driven; filled to the brim with more character and humanity than this franchise has ever housed.

And, Christ, is it fun.  The vicious AI makes it so that you’ll never go about any single firefight the same way, nor will you want to, what with the variety of tactics presented to you within an area, the choices offered organically through clever weapon, and vehicle placement.  Online, the arena feels balanced, with matches going to the team most willing to group their efforts.  It’s a game that serves those that spend hours upon hours in it while still making itself readily available to newcomers.  It’s the shooter’s shooter and an intelligent testament to both science fiction and style.  If you own an Xbox and have avoided the Halo franchise this long, it is imperative for you to change your ways right now.

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