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“The Maverick Gamer” Game of the Year 2012

Another year is in the books, folks. I think we can all agree that 2012 wasn’t too shabby of a year for gaming. We’ve certainly seen some great new games, including some stellar sequels, both more immediate and a long-time coming, as well as seeing some new IPs establish themselves. For me, picking the absolute best game I’ve played all year was quite the challenge and a close call.

After much consideration, I now give you my top ten games of the year, as well as my pick for Game of the Year 2012!

Tales_of_Graces_F#10: Tales of Graces f (PlayStation 3)

Publisher: Namco-Bandai Games

Developer: Namco Tales Studio

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This underrated RPG barely squeaked into the top 10, but I’m happy to rank it amongst the elite games of 2012. This is actually my first entry in the Tales series, believe it or not. I actually became curious of it due to the fact that publisher Namco-Bandai Games said this would be the last Tales title to come to North America if sales were low on it. Part of me didn’t want to see a franchise die like that, so I threw down the money on it at launch and it paid off in spades. The story of Graces f (the “f” apparently standing for “future”, a nod to the extra epilogue added onto this version) revolves around Asbel Lhant, the heir to the prestigious Lhant family, who happens to be a snotty, trouble-making child. You’re taken through his life, even playing as him as a child, where he witnesses some rather traumatic events, and thus, decides to run away from home to become a knight. The plot evolves onward into your typical “kid becomes a great hero” shtick that gathers a band of friends around him to help save the world. Yes, the plot is rather cliche, but it’s Graces’ strengths that justify playing it. The cast of eccentric and unique characters (the crazy-ass and hilarious Pascal being my favorite) really brings the game to life. The way these characters interact through Skits, which are optional scenes you can trigger throughout your journey that usually entail comedic exchanges between the cast, as well as in post-battle celebrations makes them extremely likeable. Watching Asbel evolve as a character is also a sight to behold, seeing such a weak, naive, and somewhat unlikeable character grow into a strong and inspiring person, making the journey more fulfilling. The best part of the game is undoubtedly the battle system and the skill learning system tied to it. Battles happen in real-time, allowing you to pull off over-the-top attacks that grow stronger with repeated use and look amazing, to boot. Every encounter I had was thrilling and it never got old. The skill learning is downright addictive, where equipping certain titles, which you earn by using certain skills, reaching plot milestones, and the like, allows you to learn skills from them as long as you keep them equipped while battling. I constantly found myself milking every single skill I possibly could to try and make my party stronger, making the experience far more fun and engaging. Combine these elements with the fantastic art style and a sweet and heartfelt ending, and you have  one great Japanese RPG.

#9: Transformers: Fall of Cybertron (PlayStation 3, Xbox images360)

Publisher: Activision

Developer: High Moon Studios

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It’s predecessor, War for Cybertron, was one of my favorite games of 2010, so it should come as no surprise that this much-improved sequel makes the list this year. The campaign, which revolves around the Autobots’ and Decepticons’ ongoing war with each other as they prepare to leave their dying home planet, Cybertron, behind, is much improved, giving a greater focus on narrative and grand action set pieces, shirking the ability to play co-op in the process. Considering how well the campaign turned out, co-op is something that nary will be missed, as I walked away more than impressed. It’s hands down the best story told in a Transformers title yet. It also features some amazing moments, like the ability to play as Grimlock, leader of the Dinobots, getting to fight Bruticus, fighting alongside the towering and overwhelming Metroplex, and an epic final battle that left me in awe. The multiplayer is just as tight as ever, improving over it’s predecessor’s already strong suite with greater customization options. It still stands as one of very few games that I find online multiplayer actually worth playing. It’s simply so much fun. The Escalation Mode takes a step back in this one, however, which causes Fall of Cybertron to not place as highly as it should. It’s way too easy this time around and it stops after Wave 15, whereas in the original, it was a struggle just to get that far, and if you did, you could keep going past that. However, this one misstep isn’t enough to deter this title from making the list of 2012’s elite. If you love Transformers or intense third-person shooters, buy it.

Double_Dragon_Neon_promotional_poster#8: Double Dragon Neon (PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade)

Publisher: Majesco Entertainment

Developer: WayForward Technologies

 

 

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I love side-scrolling brawlers, and have since I was little child. Some of my fondest gaming memories come from playing games such as Golden Axe, Maximum Carnage, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time. This day and age, brawlers never really get a fair shake from critics, who usually pan them for being repetitive and overly simplistic. While the former is pretty much true (for pretty much any game on the market, I say), some games actually, when done right, shine right through the simple nature of the genre. Double Dragon Neon, a re-imagining of the original arcade hit from the 80’s, proves that point, showing that when you inject a game with enough character and polish,can make for a very fun experience. Celebrating the franchise’s 25th anniversary in 2012, developer WayForward set out to make a game that not only captured the essence of the franchise, but also served as an homage to the era, and to say they succeeded is an understatement. Filled with bright and beautiful neon colors, fittingly cheesy voice acting and one-liners, an a-typical, hammy villain pulled straight from a cartoon of the era, a rocking 80’s soundtrack, references to pop culture and games of the era, and smooth brawling gameplay, and you have one lovingly-created game that’s an absolute blast to play and serves as an entertaining nod to the era in which the series’ roots lie. I loved playing it over and over again, powering up my character while thrashing all of Skullmageddon’s baddies, and the showdown with Skullmageddon himself is an amazing fight in and of itself. The only downside is it lacks online co-op, but that isn’t enough to drown out the lights on this bright downloadable title.

Forza-Horizon-Box-Art#7: Forza Horizon (Xbox 360)

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios

Developer: Playground Games, Turn 10 Studios

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By and far, Forza Motorsport is the king of simulation racing games this generation, dethroning the once mighty Gran Turismo with it’s innovation and community-driven content. However, one of the very few surprises to come out of E3 2012 was news of a new Forza merely a year after Forza Motorsport 4, and it was a street racing title, at that. Enter Playground Games, a team of developers from all reaches of the racing spectrum in gaming like Codemasters and Criterion, who set out to take the series in a fresh direction in order to rejuvenate the franchise. The end product is a game that, while it lacks the staggering number of races and cars that it’s simulation brethren are well-known for, brings an injection of style and freedom to the franchise. One top of the varied tracks and races, each of which challenge you to master different cars and car classes, you also get special competitions that include racing airplanes (!), offroad competitions, tons of car customization options, and a full online suite that had me scraping up 48-hour Xbox Live trials just to keep racing people around the globe. You can also just jump into the streets of Colorado with a bunch of friends and drive around to your heart’s content, creating your own street races by setting custom waypoints and even tackling some co-op missions that include driving specific cars from one point to another in tandem. While the game does sadly omit being able to fine tune your car, it’s a minor snag in an otherwise immensely fun and engaging race experience. This is one racing title you absolutely don’t want to miss out on and is easily the Xbox 360’s best exclusive title of 2012.

P#6: Sleeping Dogs (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)

Publisher: Square-Enix

Developer: United Front Games

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This is a game I had my eye on since it was first announced, and my intuition absolutely paid off. Originally meant to be released as a part of the True Crime series before later being scrapped by Activision, Sleeping Dogs is easily some of the most fun I’ve had with a game all year. Part Grand Theft Auto, part martial arts-style brawler, it tells the tale of Wei Shen, an undercover cop who just returned to Hong Kong after some time in the United States. He’s quickly thrust neck-deep into the Chinese triad, where he must pose as a member of a gang in order to investigate the Triad from within. As he makes allies within the Triad, he quickly becomes torn between his duty as a police officer and his obligation to his new-found allies. It’s a very well-told story, one that entertains from beginning to end thanks to strong voice acting and fantastic cutscene animations. When the story isn’t unfolding, there are skulls to kick in, and with a battle system that plays like a more grounded style of  the Batman Arkham series, it never fails to make you feel like a badass as you break knees and throw foes into walls and air conditioning units in between roundhouse kicking them in the face. On top of that, you can race through the painstakingly detailed streets of Hong Kong, take on some side jobs for quick cash, and even witness Wei’s god-awful singing and dancing at the karaoke bar, which is always good for a few raucous laughs. This is a game I beat and later came back to achieve the Platinum Trophy in, not just because I wanted that Platinum, but because the game is just that awesome. It’s a damn shame it didn’t sell as well as it should have, but I still thank Square-Enix for taking a chance with such a great game, despite the outcome. I would have never have had the opportunity to play it had they not stepped up to the plate.

hitman_absolution_playstation_3_#5: Hitman: Absolution (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

Publisher: Square-Enix

Developer: IO Interactive

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This is an entry I waited a long time for, as did many others. The Hitman franchise was dormant for 6 years before Absolution released, so not only have fans been starving for a new entry, but Square-Enix and IO Interactive had to make it worth the wait. Boy, did they ever. The story of Absolution kicks off with series protagonist, Agent 47, being assigned to kill his old handler, Diana, after she betrayed the Agency and left while also taking a mysterious girl they had in custody, named Victoria. 47 reluctantly, but dutifully, completes his assignment, but instead of merely meeting his rendezvous and collecting his pay, he instead takes the girl into custody himself at the dying request of Diana, turning his own back on the Agency. The plot continues to unravel as not only is Agent 47 now a target of the Agency, but he also faces the challenge of protecting Victoria from those who would abuse her talents for their benefit, constantly pushing his skills to the limit with each and every mission. The campaign is a rather lengthy and challenging affair to the dedicated, but what makes it so good is the fact that you can tackle any missions any way you want. Feel like shooting everything in your way? Go ahead,  if you can survive. Want to sneak in and take out your target directly? Sure. Want to make it look like an accident while posing in a disguise? You can do that, too. Player freedom is Absolution’s strong suit, and it shines. With five difficulty levels, anyone can dive in play, as well. Beyond the single player campaign, though, lies Contracts mode, which allows you to dive into a mission and create an assassination assignment for other players to complete for money and bragging rights by sharing your creations online. The catch? You have to be able to pull off the assignment yourself before it can be created. It’s put up or shut up, and Contracts mode is easily one of the best new mechanics to be introduced in any game all year, making Hitman: Absolution infinitely re-playable. The disguise mechanics can be a little wonky, sure, but Absolution is every bit the game I was hoping for, making it one of the most engaging experiences I’ve had all year while also quenching that thirst for a new Hitman title in great form.

5a392dd1d41ebadc2e69d76a5eaa6a8c#4: The Walking Dead: The Game (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)

Publisher & Developer: Telltale Games

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I seem to be gravitating towards player-driven experiences, as of late. In fact, it’s been something that’s been growing for a few years now. There’s just a certain something about stepping into the shoes of the main character and simply being that person, not just controlling him/her. It allows you to sculpt the game into what you want it to be, making the decisions you want to make and having to live with the consequences. It gives you the ability to form bonds with characters, learning what makes them tick, what makes them sad or happy, and thus, trying to find ways to make their lives better in conjunction with your own or deciding to turn your back on them. It’s a sense of empowerment, control, and the feeling that the game is truly of your own creation. The Walking Dead: The Game is a prime example of such an experience. More than just a simple point-and-click adventure title, it puts you in the shoes of a felon named Lee, who, after getting in a car accident on his way to jail for committing murder, finds himself thrust into the middle of a world gone to hell. Wounded and confused, he happens upon a seemingly abandoned house, where he finds his new purpose for living: a young girl by the name of Clementine. Without anyone to protect her, he makes it his responsibility to take her in and protect her from the Walkers; zombies that now roam the streets seeking to eat the flesh of the living. As Lee, you’ll work together with other survivors, building relationships while also being forced to make life or death decisions at the drop of a hat, which could change how others feel about you entirely, all the while doing what is best to ensure the survival of Clementine. This game is positively loaded with decisions that will make your jaw drop, and the fact that you’re only given a brief amount of time to make them, it keeps you engrossed and engaged from start to finish. The voice acting and writing is top notch, even giving Heavy Rain a run for it’s money, and the comic book art style pays homage to the property it bases itself. While there can be a few performance issues such as framerate hiccups and animations not lining up with audio during a few scenes, these are small bumps in an otherwise exhilarating roller coaster ride that will thrill you all the way to it’s monumental finish, where all of your decisions will decide the outcome.

p4a_boxart_ps3_rated_001#3: Persona 4 Arena (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

Publisher: ATLUS

Developer: ATLUS, Arc System Works

 

 

 

 

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Little do many know this, but the real reason I picked up Persona 4 Golden last year was to lead into this. I wanted to buy this at launch because I love 2D fighting games, especially ones developed by the masters at Arc System Works, but I didn’t want to walk into Arena’s plot blindly without knowing who any of the characters were nor what the hell was even going on. I think we all know by now that it turned into something far, far bigger than that for me personally, and as astounding as Golden is, it’s sequel of frantic fisticuffs is no slouch, either. The idea: take the amazing characters of Persona 4, add in some characters from Persona 3, tell another emotional and engrossing story about coping with your inner demons and solving meticulous mysteries, and wrap it all up in a polished fighter that is amazingly faithful to the source material. So faithful, in fact, that even status ailments, “One More” attacks, and SP Skills from the original RPG make their way into the game’s fighting mechanics seamlessly. The music of Persona 4 is even thrown into the mix, along with some new tracks and remixes so fantastic, I’d be foolish not to say that this has the best soundtrack of the year. Group those in with a very approachable, yet resoundingly deep, fighting system, and you have the recipe for a fighting game all Persona fans and fighting junkies can be proud of. The story is easily the best ever told in a fighting game. Where other fighters tell either overly complicated stories or simple yet uninteresting ones, Arena weaves a tale from the writers of the original RPG, bringing Yu and the gang back for another well-written story loaded with fantastic voice acting and the series’ signature twists and turns. While it does tend to retread the same ground a bit too much, it still manages to be engaging from beginning to end. One top of all of this, Arc System Works incorporated a standard Arcade Mode, a full Tutorial Mode for teaching the basics, a Challenge Mode that not only tests your combo-doling abilities, but also teaches you the ins and outs of every character, a Score Attack Mode to challenge the best of the best, and an extremely polished online suite accompanied by strong netcode.  Bottom line: Persona 4 Arena is a must play for all fighting fans out there as well as fans of the RPG. This ultimate crossover between ATLUS and Arc System Works delivers one of the best fighters of this console generation, bar none.

final_fantasy_xiii-2-boxart#2: Final Fantasy XIII-2 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)

Publisher: Square-Enix

Developer: Square-Enix 1st Production Department, tri-Ace

 

 

 

 

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The sequel to my personal 2010 Game of the Year, Final Fantasy XIII-2 no doubt had big shoes to fill when it launched early on in 2012. The last time a Final Fantasy title had a direct sequel was Final Fantasy X-2, which, while it did sport a rather excellent battle system, its plot was pretty awful and it featured a completely asinine ending that took a figurative dump on the ending of the original Final Fantasy X, reversing events with nary any explanation. Needless to say, despite the lofty expectations, I still had a genuine fear for XIII-2. However, that fear was laid to rest within the first few hours, and it never came back. In fact, there are many ways that it surpasses its predecessor, believe it or not. XIII-2’s events lead off right at the ending of the first title, where, while everyone is celebrating their victory and reuniting with loved ones, Lightning suddenly disappears. Serah, her sister, from then on spends considerable time trying to find her and hoping for her return while everyone else is convinced she is dead. Just as she tries to come to grips with this, a mysterious man named Noel (pronounced just like “knoll”, not the Christmas-y term) appears, sent by Lightning to find her. The two of them set out on a journey through time, fixing paradoxes caused by the evil Kaius while also trying to find Lightning, who has now become a warrior at the behest of the goddess, Etro. Little do the two protagonists know what lies ahead and what fate truly awaits them. Now, the plot can get a bit confusing, at times, but it works itself out by the end, with an ending that absolutely had my jaw dropped to the floor for days afterwards. Not just the story and characters steal the show, though. The amazing battle system returns from the original XIII, although now you only use Serah and Noel, with the third party slot being filled by a monster, of which there are tons for you to collect and choose from, giving you tons of possibilities in regards to your party and it’s Paradigms. It gives the game a sort of Pokemon-style element, as well. Every monster also has a Crystarium, just like Serah and Noel, but this time around, careful management is required to get the most out of your leveling, as you can pick and choose which Paradigms to level along only one path, rather than separate, pre-determined paths for each. It’s very deep and allows for total customization of your characters, a contrast from the original game, but one that gives more freedom to the player, which is always a good thing. On top of all of this is a rich and audibly-pleasing soundtrack, gorgeous visuals, and tons of side quests and post-game content that should satiate anyone who had been dismayed by the original XIII’s lack thereof. In the end, Final Fantasy XIII-2 proved to be just as excellent as its predecessor, delivering an engrossing experience that I certainly won’t forget for years to come while also pushing the series forward in exciting new directions. Its ambitiousness is to be applauded.

THE MAVERICK GAMER GAME OF THE YEAR 2012

Mass-Effect-3-Xbox-360-Box-Art_0-650x650#1: Mass Effect 3 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC)

Publisher: Electronics Arts

Developer: Bioware

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Just like two years ago, when it came down, coincidentally, to Final Fantasy XIII and Mass Effect 2 for Game of the Year of 2010, this wasn’t an easy decision. I’ve been deliberating pretty much all year, since finishing both this and Final Fantasy XIII-2, which of the two was the superior experience. While Final Fantasy XIII won then, this year, it goes to Mass Effect 3. What it came down to was which game left the biggest mark on me. XIII-2 had some amazing moments, and it was everything I could have asked for in a sequel for a previous Game of the Year, being both ambitious and innovative. However, Mass Effect 3, with its truly bar-setting story telling, phenomenal characterization, and benchmark player-driven design, won me over. This is the final product of the lofty ambition of developer Bioware. They set out five years ago to create a trilogy of games where the player’s decisions could carry over into sequels, making for an epic, player-driven experience where the player would be forced to live with the consequences, whether it be basking in the accolades of saving a dying race, or having to live with yourself after sacrificing a comrade. This is a series that has been rooted in its emotional storytelling, of which very, very few titles have been able to do with as much success. In Mass Effect 3 itself, the war with the Reapers has begun, and all organic existence within the galaxy is at stake. Your choices will determine who will join you in the fight to stop the Reapers, giving your decisions more weight than you could possibly imagine. You’ll want to do everything you possibly can to increase your battle readiness, constantly wondering if the decisions you make will be enough once the final hour comes. The entire game never has a dull moment, but the last few hours are the stuff of legends and among the most intense I’ve experienced all year. The ending of the game was an unfortunate controversy, but it’s one that I felt ended the series appropriately and in a thought-provoking manner, so much so that I kept replaying the ending over and over in order to analyze it. The “Extended Cut” ending Bioware made to shut the protestors up does shed more light on things, but it stood tall without it, just as it stands tall amongst the elite titles that 2012 had to offer. Mass Effect 3 encompasses everything a truly amazing game should be, and that’s why I’ve decided to name it The Maverick Gamer Game of the Year for 2012! Congratulations to EA and Bioware for crafting such an amazing experience, and if you, the reader, haven’t experienced this trilogy yet, you must. It’s among the best of this console generation and is absolutely not to be missed.

Honorable Mentions:

Persona 4 Golden (PlayStation Vita)

I’ve said enough about P4G on this blog to write a book about it, and it may come as a surprise that it didn’t make the list, but there’s a reason why. See, the original Persona 4 was released 4 years ago on the PlayStation 2, and, thus, making Golden a port. I do not count ports in awards simply because it detracts from giving new games a chance and due to the fact that the game was already in contention in the year of it’s initial release. It’s like releasing a director’s cut version of a movie in theaters a year after it was originally released and putting it in the running for Best Picture at the Oscars. It simply doesn’t make sense and isn’t fair. It may sound silly, but it’s something I’ve stood by for years, as I firmly believe that purely new titles should be rewarded and not older experiences. However, looking back at 2008, Persona 4 probably was the Game of the Year in a landslide (I originally awarded it to Crisis Core, but it was never official and Persona 4 obliterates it). Plus, Persona 4 Golden is beyond a Game of the Year, being one of the greatest games of all-time. I really should establish a “Hall of Fame” of sorts to honor such titles, but let it be known that if this was the initial year of release for Persona 4, it would have won without a doubt.

Warriors Orochi 3 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U)

I love Tecmo-Koei’s Warriors series, and while it’s evolution has been slow over the years, Warriors Orochi 3 is by and far one of the best in series, introducing an amazing time-traveling plot that has you going through time in order to save the lives of fallen comrades in order to face the evil Hydra in battle. Add a staggering roster of over 130 (!)  characters and the most polished gameplay in the series to date, and you have the recipe for a great entry in the series, but it wasn’t enough to make it a top 10 title.

Pokemon Black 2 & White 2 (Nintendo DS)

I loved Pokemon Black 2 and White 2, but Nintendo made a mistake in not delivering a new monster-catching title on the 3DS instead (which it will remedy this October). The result was a game that was great, but left the series running in place rather than taking the leap forward it should have. It was just more Pokemon, which isn’t a bad thing, but not enough to give it much merit.

And that’s a wrap, folks. Agree? Disagree? Feel free to leave comments and I thank you for reading. Onward into 2013 we go!

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