This year was a year dominated by the rise of the Arcade. Half of the games in my top 10 were 15 dollars or less and that’s a huge testament to how big the Xbox Live Arcade has gotten in the past year. Apart from the ones on my list, other games like Fez, Journey (PS3 download but you get the message), and Trials Evolution are getting major consideration for awards on multiple other websites. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a fair share of retail releases that impressed on multiple levels. Tell that to Sleeping Dogs, Mass Effect 3, Far Cry 3, Assassins Creed 3, and Dishonored and they will prove you wrong. It wasn’t the best year, that’s for sure, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t impress in many ways.
Hybrid is far from what it appears to be, it’s more than just another multiplayer focused shooter. It gets its “more” from not only the stunning visuals but also the intuitive design around the movement and in game combat mechanics that it executes so seamlessly. It, along with games such as Monday Night Combat, have really proven how great of a service Xbox Live Arcade is for small teams who have a new way to freshen up the increasingly dry multiplayer based experience. That combined with the intelligent overworld that presents constant power struggles between the two games factions in the form of ongoing battles within a certain part of the world are some of the biggest reasons that Hybrid stands tall within a dying genre.
Let’s all be honest here, stealth games are usually pieces of trash. Sure, a lot of them have a good heart behind them but actually executing on the ideas needed to make a decent stealth game seem near impossible for most developers. That, combined with the fact that I didn’t like Klei’s previous franchise, Shank, led to some pretty low expectations as I came into Mark of the Ninja. What I got was a fresh and sneaky experience that hasn’t been matched in years. Klei brought their admittedly beautiful art style from the Shank series and combined it with their now brilliant game design aspects that turn Mark of the Ninja into a pleasantly tense experience throughout its five hour lifespan.
I know what you’re thinking; I forgot Max Payne came out this year too. But believe it or not, it did release and again, believe it or not, it was pretty good. It told the depressing alcohol ridden story of Mr. Payne as he traipsed through foreign land trying to save soul after soul, and failing rather miserably each time. The story however was not this Max Payne’s forte as the most enjoyable aspects came from the franchises stapled combat mechanics. The combat revolves around using slow motion and Max Payne’s acrobatic nature (despite his age) to the player’s advantage as cinematic and beautiful moments seem to pop up in every combat section. There’s no doubt that Rockstar did well with the Max Payne series this go around, but it’s clear that it’s time to move on. Bully 2, perhaps?
Dust is the definition of coming out of left field to be a major success this year. Sure, many had decent expectations approaching the games release but I don’t think anyone expected the experience they got when they starting tearing through that beautiful word. A product made by one sole human in Dean Dodrill, Dust took a cartoony art style and turned it into a key aspect of a rather serious story that hits major emotional undertones near the end. In my original review I stated that Dust may have the best visuals I’ve ever seen and I still stand by that statement. Every inch of every slaved over texture is just as beautiful as the next and never ceases to be the best eye candy you’ll see all year. The story is far from the only thing that shined though as so did the well-executed combo system that let you blast enemies into midair and rack up combo chains that would easily reach 2000+. Dust is just one more reason why I think this year may have been one of the best years Xbox Live Arcade has ever experienced.
Apart from the year Revelations has released, an Assassins Creed installment has taken my Game of the Year for every year one is released. Since Ubisoft had made the horrible decision to annualize the franchise, we all knew it would be a matter of time before the fatigue began to set in and that was unfortunately the case with Assassin’s Creed III. But thankfully, the fatigue only begins to hit near the end as most of the game is a fantastic Assassin’s Creed experience that takes previous mechanics and only heightens their simplicity and effectiveness. The main reason it’s in my top 10 though is due all to Connor’s story and how nicely the Revolutionary War is integrated into the story. Sure, it has its hiccups, like all Assassin’s Creeds do, but experiencing that time period is something I’ve always dreamed of and seeing it realized in front of my face was an unforgettable experience.
Though I own the third, I’ll admit that I’ve never played a Forza game before. I’ve never been a racing game kind of guy and the complex nature of the car customization was really daunting whenever I did have that itch to jump into the Forza Community. I finally took the leap with Forza Horizon and was, simply put, blown away. The visuals are expected to be absolutely fantastic, and they are, but the simple feel of handling each car within the multitude of races was such an immersive quality that I eventually felt like I just couldn’t put the game down. The simplified nature and fantastic design choices that have been so prevalent in previous Forza’s all come to a head and make one of the best racing experiences I’ve had on this generation of consoles.
People are going to call me crazy, I know, but I never got into Dark Souls nor did I fall in love with Super Meat Boy. Trust me, I tried oh so hard but I couldn’t find the masochistic pleasure that everyone else seemed to bathe in. That masochistic pleasure finally hit me when I played Spelunky, though. Spelunky, originally a flash game, is a well realized and even better executed platformer that sends you throughout multiple levels, only allowing a checkpoint at the end of the current world you’re in. That is, if you have the required loot that the tunnel man desires. It’s hard to explain the degree of difficulty that comes with the task of getting through these worlds but to put it simply, I felt as if I could smash my controller between my hands whenever I would die and have to restart. But I felt like the world heavyweight champion when I would unlock a checkpoint. I wanted to sprint out of my house yelling of my success to any human or animal that would listen. Either way, no game matched the sheer happiness I felt once I reached the final world and at the same time, no game can match the pure horror I felt when I witnessed what the final world was comprised of.
Oh man, XCOM. If there was an award for uncontrollable addiction that you could not shake, you would be my choice. Apart from the obviously exciting turn based gameplay, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is one of the most well designed games I’ve ever laid hands on. It literally feels as if Firaxis never wants you to put the controller down, so they lay a small carrot (that expands into a huge carrot) down right in front of your face. They then make it seem so easy to reach, but it’s challenging. Just challenging enough to have you keep practicing so you can finally gnaw down on the carrot. With that, so goes ten hours of your life. That describes my experience with XCOM, hard as hell but damn is that carrot rewarding.
2. Sleeping Dogs
Leading up to the release of Sleeping Dogs, I couldn’t shake this feeling. The feeling was one of unexplainable confidence. Despite Sleeping Dog’s horrendous development life, I still felt like United Front and Square Enix were both about to churn out a decent product. Once I got my hands on it, I began to realize that a “decent” product did not describe Sleeping Dogs; instead it was a damn fine product. It all starts with the gorgeous visuals that helped bring the streets of Hong Kong to life, though that’s only a small inch of the shocker that is Sleeping Dogs.
Once you get past that positive, you see some of the best things within the package such as the Arkham Asylum-esque combat system that relies heavily on counters. The world itself was littered with side missions that either add to the depth that each character features or instead, are just plain fun. With the exception of those damn racing mission. Sleeping Dogs story is not a particularly new one; it’s a gang story relying on your main character who is an undercover cop. The thing that really elevates the narrative however is the fantastic characters that fill the world of Sleeping Dogs. Not only was Sleeping Dogs by far the most surprising game of the year, it was also one of the best games not only this year, but in the past few years. It’s one of those rare games that could go head to head with any Grand Theft Auto game and in the end, come out a victor.
1. The Walking Dead
Speaking of surprises, I think it’s safe to say that before the first episode’s release, no one expected Tell Tale’s latest episodic adventure to blow up like The Walking Dead has. I’ll admit, it was nowhere near on my radar when the year began but once the first episode, A New Day, was in my virtual hands, I knew I had found a piece of gold. Sure, I’ll admit that The Walking Dead is far from perfect; it has some serious visual issues and some occasional shooting sequences that feel like they had been worked on for ten minutes before being installed in the game. But that being said, I’ve never been more emotionally invested into a video game or any form of media like I was when playing through The Walking Dead.
The way it forces you into Lee’s shoes and then makes you feel like you belong there is truly amazing and something I’m sure all games wish they could achieve. But it doesn’t stop there as Tell Tale and their writers introduce character after character that all play an equally important role in your struggle to live. Then came the dialogue choices that were just as good at putting a smile on your face as they were at absolutely ripping your heart out and stomping on it. The terrible decisions that are forced upon you later on in the game only add to the pure horror you experience through your time with The Walking Dead.
Simply put, The Walking Dead is an absolute masterpiece and the best video game storytelling experience I’ve ever laid hands on.