This year at Borders Down we've decided to cover each writer's favourite games of 2012 in their own articles, rather than trying to sandwhich them into a single hodge podge list. So
without further ado, let's kick things off:
While Capcom's internal efforts still struggle with schizophrenic design choices on the main, numbered Resident Evil line, Operation Raccoon City from Slant Six Games provided a pleasing return to the series' heyday. Taking things back to when the games actually had scares and a viable bad-guy in the form of the Umbrella Corporation, the developers proved that you can make an action shooter that still stays true to the spirit of zombie moves - the fear of overpowering numbers. The storyline was full of menace with the player taking control of an Umbrella Special Ops team on clearance duties and while the solo experience was a little light, it played much better in the form of the online co-operative mode. The real heart and soul of this release, however, was the perfectly wrought competitive play which saw two teams battling it out in levels filled to the brim with zombies and other monsters. The classes were supremely balanced, as were the upgrade unlocks, and nothing quite captured the spirit of the outbreak like hunting your adversaries through the streets while trying to avoid the flesh eaters around you. It's one of the few scary multiplayer games out there and the addition of the NPC enemies provided a completely unique and original style of play that elevated it far above the majority of versus shooters released last year.
Halo 4 marks the first decent Halo game featuring Master Chief since the original Combat Evolved shipped back at the initial XBox launch. My mates and I continued to be frustrated with the over generous auto-aim, unbalanced weapon loads and shockingly basic combat model that became Halo's multiplayer in the Bungie years that followed. And it wasn't until Reach shipped, sans Master Chief himself, that they produced anything that actually improved upon the first game. That said coming off the back of such a strong return to form, albeit a very long awaited one, 343 Industries had a lot to live up to and fortunately they completely knocked it out of the park. By providing a far more cohesive story and stripping out all the weaker elements - the Brutes and Flood specifically, they have succeeded in producing a package true to the franchise's core elements of large encompassing battles, against an organised and co-operative group of enemies, each with their own distinct roles. The tweaks to the Covenant made for the best implementation of the traditional antagonists, while the new faction mirror this design ethos, but with a completely fresh and unique set of behaviour. Chuck in great graphics with some absolutely sumptuous lighting effects and the fastest, most intense multiplayer offerings yet that place far more emphasis on precise aiming and you've got the best Halo title to date.
It's been a long time since Hitman: Blood Money came out and despite all these years the fun and variety that it still offers hasn't diminished a jot. Every level provided a myriad of different ways to execute your targets, giving it a shelf life well beyond the initial playthrough. Uncovering all the little touches and options the developers crammed in to each level made it a truly engaging and rewarding experience. And while the likes of Splinter Cell have eschewed player freedom and gone down the action game route, Io Interactive have been brave enough to stick true to the stealth gameplay facets of the series, whilst at the same time completely revamping the way that the series' staple of the use of disguises work. Adopting the appearance of NPCs within the level in order to access new areas has always been one of Hitman's trademark elements and previously disguises provided carte blanche access to such restricted portions. Whereas in Absolution the player can be detected if they get too close to any character sporting the same outfit. This is both more realistic and enriches the gameplay by adding an extra layer to the planning and execution of any route to your enemy.
The graphics have also been ramped up to modern standards without compromising on the wide variety on offer, the player can't help but be impressed when the first proper level dumps them into a large market with hundreds of characters and dares them to find all twelve methods to take out your mark. The developers have also once again demonstrated their creative approach to multiplayer modes with a competitive contracts mode making it possible to design your own hits and compete online with a wide variety of options under the player's control. There's huge variety in terms of locations, visuals and gameplay making the long wait than worth it.
Now I have to admit that I haven't actually played the solo campaign yet, due entirely to the superb four player co-operative play that was added in this release. We've seen far too many Horde mode clones after its success in Gears of War 2, but Mass Effect 3 contains an implementation that both brings something novel to the experience and sits seamlessly into the game's universe. The variety and diversity of enemies, forcing different tactical choices in the heat of the moment, coupled with well designed levels that feature a range of viable hold out points and a number of widely diverse factions all make for a deep and rewarding shooter. This is then mixed in with a compulsive loot system that sees players unlocking random drops of gear with everything from improved guns to experience points and character customisation options available. And in addition there's a huge range of different classes for players to choose from, with their own sets of abilities, and a ranking system that rewards restarting fully levelled up characters and trying out different upgrade paths for them. Oh and to top it off there's a choice of challenge level providing different, enjoyable styles of experience to experiment with. Thanks to the use of a one time download code system the developers have also been able to afford to regularly release new maps for free, more than doubling the number available on release. The way all the components have been designed together makes for a game that is great fun whether you are playing with buddies or random pick up matches. Oh and there's the follow up to one of the most interesting RPG series we've seen in years buried away in there somewhere, I'm sure I'll get round to it one day.
The modern games industry, particularly in the console space, has seen costs spiralling over the years, with both an increase in development effort and the expenditure on advertising required to generate public interest. Accordingly we've seen a gradual reduction in the number of more left-field retail releases, with the market separating more and more into high profile big budget disc-based games and the smaller, more diverse offerings being restricted to the download only route.
Then Enemy Unknown happened and 2K took one of the boldest moves we've seen a game publisher make all year - offering up a hardcore turn-based strategy title that doesn't compromise one iota. It seems fitting that in the same year that saw Syndicate, synonymous with old-school strategy, turned into a pretty but by the numbers first person shooter we also get the next title in the X-Com franchise staying true to its tactical roots. The game is easy to get into initially but soon ramps up the difficulty, with Ironman and Classic modes on offer to those who truly want to stretch their mettle. The balance level between utilising overwatch and making aggressive plays is measured perfectly and the maps always offer a variety of tactical options. Special mention should also be given to the excellent two player competitive mode which allows players to construct their own teams to a set points level, just like your favourite tabletop war game, and then battle it out. Enemy Unknown has literally every option a strategy player could ask for and covers it all in a lovely graphical sheen with huge amounts of re-playability.
The fact that this title saw a release in anything other than a cut-down XBLA/PSN form is truly a testament to 2K Games, who have utterly outdone themselves and demonstrated a real strength of character in sticking to their guns. It's a perfect game, in a genre all too under-represented in the mainstream console space.
Most gamers don't just stick to playing titles that came out in the current year. This section covers the best games from previous years that the writer experienced for the first time in 2012:
Low budget Crazy Taxi knock off? Yes, but one in which you get to drive an ambulance, run over zombies and fight huge boss battles against undead monstrosities. I've been interested in playing this ever since it was featured on X-Play's Crazy Adam's Import Emporium and it still provides a solid, reliable experience. There's a nice upgrade path and some tactics in how you approach the city and who to prioritise saving. In fact the first few plays can prove rather difficult as you learn the initial road layout and where best to find certain groups of survivors but once you've got it down it provides a pretty entertaining zombie game that meshes light RPG and management features with the core driving. It's not quite up there with Blood Drive or Zombie Driver as the best zombie-based driving game but it's eclectic stylings, sinister visual touches and decent length campaign definitely make it one for PS2 owners to check out.
Postal has been one of those series always quietly ticking over in the background but one that one could easily dismiss as little more than shock tactics if you hadn't played it. It was nothing I personally ever considered playing up, until catching sight of a YouTube clip featuring the famous duck seen from Postal: The Movie. One hilarious comedy from Uwe Boll later and I couldn't resist picking up the Steam re-release of Postal 2. The title provides a huge, open world town to explore with varied mission structure and diverse objectives to accomplish during each day of the game's story. On the one hand there's the brash sense of humour that lampoons everything and everyone, with plenty of inventive material based around the furore that erupted after the first Postal release, but there's also some pretty good AI in there as the player is given complete freedom to wander off and do their own thing while they explore the town. There's some rough edges and there's little in the way of hand holding compared to today's open world titles but that can be a very good thing. And in Postal 2's it all makes for a unique, attractive option that is far more than just the jokes, albeit very funny ones if you like bold humour.
Trapped Dead offers an old-school, traditional strategy-light PC experience. Viewed from overhead you manoeuvre your selected team of survivors, each with their own abilities and statistics, through a variety of levels around town as they try to survive the zombie apocalypse. You can approach the areas in a non-linear sequence and various survivors grant different abilities and limitations. Harking back to the likes of the Commando series you can employ stealth and traps or go in all guns blazing, with a balance between scavenging items and exposing yourself unnecessarily to zombie attacks. There's a nice mix of classic locations and levels can be quite expansive, often with route choices available and hectic set pieces. The visuals are superb and the whole package has a really professional quality to it, with some really nice lighting on decent rigs, and it still looks great with all the settings turned down. Anyone who played PC games back in the 90s should get a real kick out of this one.
Ok, ok, yes the player's ship is a little on the large side, but let's be honest playing Defender always involved keeping one eye on the radar at all times anyway, so little has changed there. Despite this element, however, the title is tried and true Llamasoft - once you fall under its influence you become overwhelmed with sound effects and crazy visuals as the score goes flying up and the evening just disappears without you noticing. You simply can't beat the true immersion and flow Jeff Minter has always been able to craft into his stuff and Defender 2000 is no different. There's an absolutely superb 90s-style rave soundtrack to go along with the on screen chaos and, while it may not be up to Tempest 2000's purity of experience, the aural and visual rewards are just as strong. There's still versions of classic Defender and the more traditional but still trippy Defender Plus on the cartridge to keep you amused too. As with Missile Command 3D this is one of the retro updates on the Jaguar that gets less attention in the wake of Tempest 2000, but still provides a cracking experience in its own right.
Outside of Black Box's Need for Speed releases in recent years that hasn't exactly been a wealth of racing games that have succeeded in marrying the on-screen action with a compelling storyline, but Driver: San Francisco sits at the top of the class. Playing with the boundaries of reality, the developers used the fantastic plot line to justify some really interesting and unique other worldly game behaviour that provided a pretty diverse experience. The predominantly bright, sunny visuals and remixes of classic soul music sat alongside a really refined physics model, that perfectly emulated that 70s American muscle car feel.
Ultimately Driver is a game full of character and style, providing a well rounded city populated with peoples' back-stories and while the multiplayer modes may have fallen apart as the new mechanics can be abused too easily, the single player is more than capable of carrying it.
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