My Gaming Year in Review, 2012

mass-effect-normandy I played all or part of 18 games in 2011, but by July of this year I was already at 16 games, so I figured I was in for a high total. Yet I only finished the year at 19. Part of it was because my consumption slowed down in the fall, but it's also because I spent most of the last quarter playing Borderlands 2. It's a huge, fantastic game, and the variety of gameplay and downloadable content proved addictive.

If 2011 was about me rediscovering what I wanted to get out of games (chiefly, a good story augmented by nice mechanics), then 2012 was about me learning about new ways to play those games. I used to favor as much order and structure as possible in the way I consume media: the CDs I've hung onto are dutifully alphabetized; I prefer watching series from the first episode instead of beginning in medias res; I like to finish a book before starting another; etc. But I've loosened in the past year or so, and accepted the fact that it can be just as entertaining and edifying to shift between two books based on mood as it is to work through one at a time. (I have an easier time multitasking with nonfiction, though; I still prefer to read novels without cluttering them with other narratives.) Accordingly, I jumped around in my gaming a lot more in 2012 than ever before, and I let myself off the hook for dropping games quickly if they didn't engage me. As such, there's a difference in this list between games I left unfinished, meaning I plan on returning to them later, and those I simply quit with no intention of finishing or replaying.

I also took chances on some cheap buys and below-the-radar titles, and I experimented more with games purchased via Xbox Live Arcade. I came across some pretty mediocre games, but nothing truly terrible. I also spent time with one of the best games I've ever played, as well as some fantastic titles I wouldn't have known about were it not for the suggestions and supplies of friends. The year had more hits than misses.

Mass Effect 2 (finished) I spent a blissful few weeks at the beginning of the year working through Mass Effect 2. The first title in the series was wonderful, but it was also a reminder of how little experience I really had with RPGs. When I announced on Facebook that I'd finished the first game, friends asked which love interest I'd pursued; I hadn't even known that was an option. I learned the hard way that RPGs like this one aren't just about giving you control over your environment, but in letting you be the engine of your own story. When I played Mass Effect 2, I made sure to spend time with all my companions, drawing out their backstories and learning how to help them. I got sucked into the romantic subplot, and I became obsessed with winning the loyalty of everyone else on my ship by helping them succeed in their own side quests. (I earned favor from all of them.)

Most of all, though, I was blown away by the depth and texture of the story. Mass Effect let you pursue a number of story options and character traits (good vs. bad), but you were still working for one form of the government or another, whether you chiefly identified yourself as an Alliance ambassador or a Spectre agent. But Mass Effect 2 detonated all that, putting you on the outside of the system and forcing you to wonder who you were working for and how much they were telling you. It's the Empire Strikes Back of the series, full of bittersweet reunions and tough learning experiences. I absolutely adored this game.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (finished, sold) Admittedly, any big adventure title was going to pale after Mass Effect 2, but still, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood was a decent title that didn't quite hit all the right notes for me. I enjoyed AC2, but Brotherhood suffered from trying to keep things going by picking up the story in the same moment the previous game ended. That's well and good, but it felt weird to have to work through the game's introductory here's-how-you-do-things missions just a couple months after finishing a game with the exact same controls. I liked the revenue system that let you build up money by renovating the city, but I wasn't wild about the fickleness of some of the Borgia tower missions. A fun title, but not great or inventive.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (unfinished) I spent a few days with this one, getting to around level 10 or so, before realizing two things: 1) this was a big, beautiful game, and 2) this was going to take a lot of time. I liked the gameplay and story, but I wanted to take a break and come back when I had more space in my schedule to devote to playing. That didn't really happen, though, so I think I'll give it another go in 2013.

Borderlands (finished) This was a damn fun game. Just enough customization and strategy to keep it from being a simple run-and-gun, but not enough to weigh you down. Tons of world-exploring and mayhem, topped off with a nice sense of humor. The ending was a little too dated for me, by which I mean it felt too much like a game from 20 years ago that would require you to kill a major boss by repeating a few moves ad nauseam (shoot, hide, jump) instead of employing some strategy. Overall, though, it was a great experience, and it inspired me to check out the sequel.

Mass Effect 3 (Collector's Edition) (finished) I was so excited about this game that I preordered the collector's edition. I've bought maybe a handful of brand-new games in my life, but the price was worth it. If Mass Effect 2 was The Empire Strikes Back, then Mass Effect 3 was solidly Return of the Jedi. It's a return to a more rigid interpretation of good vs. evil, though there's still a nice amount of nuance and choice available to you as a player. The gameplay felt a little easier than it did in the series' second entry, though (and they both felt more forgiving than the original Mass Effect). It was great to revisit old characters and get some closure on certain stories, though I'd have liked a bit more resolution on the romantic path I'd taken. (Possible spoiler: I imported the same character I used in the first two games, a male Shepherd who had a relationship with Miranda, and I kept waiting for either a tearful goodbye or long-earned homecoming. Ah well.) I also wasn't nuts about the fact that I had to play online multiplayer rounds to boost by "Galaxy at War" status in the main game. To me, that felt too much like an obvious grab by the studio to encourage in-game purchases, and it marred the main narrative. It's a very good game, though, and a strong end to a story that I spent ~100 hours playing.

Batman: Arkham City (finished) Arkham City was a stunning improvement on Arkham Asylum, thanks to the open world and the amount of control afforded the player in terms of what mission to pursue. I became obsessed with this game for a few weeks, riding the adrenaline high of beating up multiple gangs while exploring every crack of the city for more trophies and surprises. The combat mechanics are better here than in the original, too. Awesome game.

Bulletstorm (finished) Bulletstorm reminded me of an elaborate theme park ride, the kind that sits you in a fake Jeep and has you follow images of Indiana Jones through a plastic cavern while lights flash around you. So much of what makes a game good is its feeling of inevitability: the story becomes an organic and independent thing that draws you in. It feels like it's actually happening, as much as a game can. Bulletstorm, though, progresses in rough chunks that blur together after the first hour or so, and the gameplay feels artificial and uninvolving. You don't feel like you're in the world, just running through a track and triggering checkpoints along the way. Still, for all its weaknesses, it's a slick little game, and though I was underwhelmed by the story (and abysmal dialogue), I still played through to the end.

BioShock (replay, quit, sold) I hadn't played this game in years, not since my roommate days. But I remembered liking it, so I picked up a cheap copy. The atmosphere and story are still top-notch, but I just couldn't get into it. I think it's a gorgeous, accomplished game, and I'm looking forward to checking out BioShock Infinite. But playing this felt a bit too much like homework. I like adventure games, but I'm not as wild about survival horror.

FarCry 2 (quit, sold) I like open worlds, but Far Cry 2 felt a bit too loose for me. I was impressed at the size of the African arena you get to explore, and I liked the mix of scavenging with bigger quests. But the game was never fun, and I could never manage to get lost in it the way I can with other titles. I played it for a couple of weeks, but I didn't regret giving it up.

Fez (unfinished) A great purchase from the Arcade, regardless of whether I ever finish it. It's simple enough to understand — although structured like a 2-D platformer, you can actually rotate the world to find new paths and opportunities — but wonderfully complicated to master. Games like this remind me of just how much you can do with basic ideas.

Singularity (unfinished) I didn't know anything about the plot before I started the game, which made it fun to see how the plot unfolded. I loved the mix of first-person adventure with puzzle-solving, and I enjoyed the way the game played with physics and time. Fantastic setting, and a really smart and fun title. I regret letting this one drift away.

Saints Row the Third (quit, sold) I'd heard a few unconnected buzzwords about this one — chaotic, creative, irreverent — and figured it was worth a look, so I snagged it for a relative bargain with a coupon. After a couple of days, though, I gave it up. I'm not a fan of the Grand Theft Auto series, and this one was too close to that, from the cartoonish violence to the crappy handling and awkward mechanics. Not my kind of title. I sold it back to GameStop a few days after I bought it.

Wet (quit, sold) Another bargain-bin purchase. It's a fun idea — you're a female assassin dual-wielding pistols and equipped with a sword to boot — though the grindhouse aesthetic felt a little tired. It's another title undone by some ungainly physics, though. Cute, but not engaging.

Crysis 2 (unfinished) This is a really solid FPS, and I enjoyed the use of strategy to progress through battle zones. Unfortunately, my copy seems to have a glitch that won't allow me to progress past the first attempt to collect tech from an alien, so I had to quit. I'd like to get back into it, though.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (quit, sold) Playing this game reminded me of why I've mostly given up on the FPS genre. It's pure madness, the kind of theme-park mayhem that's clearly not meant to do anything but pad out an online experience. I'm also a big believer in story, and the MW2 plot left a lot to be desired. It felt like Tom Clancy filtered through Michael Bay. I'm also not a fan of games that require you to work your way through endless killing fields with little or no understandable reward. Halfway through some level in the middle, I just stopped and didn't look back.

Rage (finished) I like going into games blind, or at least not knowing every beat that's going to play out. I didn't know what the story or mechanics of Rage would have in store, but I really enjoyed it once I started. I appreciated the amount of control and creativity the game gives you, encouraging you to combine elements to make tools or weapons, or competing in side missions to gain perks you can use in your main objective. I appreciated the size of the world, too. My only regret is that the end felt rushed. When I beat the game, I actually said aloud, "What?! That was anticlimactic." The game does a great job at giving you tools to fight new enemies and then pushing your limits when it's time to use them, but the final assault on the enemy stronghold felt a little repetitive and empty. There were no tough choices to be made or major enemies to fight, and there wasn't even that much strategy to the run-and-gun. I'd noticed a slight leveling already — the rocket launcher made short work of mini-bosses, letting me push through enemy territory fairly quickly — but I was let down at how quickly the game ended. Still, an enjoyable play.

At this point in the year (late summer or so), I ditched the last of my first-person shooters. Actually, I should clarify: I ditched the last of my military shooters. I grew up playing WWII FPS titles like Medal of Honor, and even a few years ago I enjoyed Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. But the tactical shooter genre isn't fun for me anymore. I really need a decent story and a variety of gameplay to keep me interested in a game, which is why I can enjoy cartoonish shooters with a sense of humor and allowance for customization (Borderlands) but have less patience for games that are nothing but slogs through terrorists cut from a Michael Bay movie. I stopped playing Modern Warfare 2 not because it was too challenging, but because it wasn't fun. It was just a series of meaningless explosions. What's more, the campaigns on those games are becoming afterthoughts now that they're being pushed as multiplayer experiences. But I don't want to log on and play with a bunch of angry kids who just do this all day. I want a memorable experience. I haven't really enjoyed a military/tactical shooter in years, but I kept Modern Warfare on the shelf out of habit. Not anymore.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (quit, sold) I liked a lot about this game. Its focus on espionage made it feel like a reworked Metal Gear Solid, but it also offered some interesting combat. I thought the level-up system was nicely designed, too, letting you choose upgrades based on playing style and priority. But I found myself a little too disconnected from the story as it wore on, and the first major boss battle highlighted just how flawed the combat and mechanics could be. (I'd opted for a stealth-based play, which left me woefully underarmed.) I didn't so much quit as just forget about it.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (Enhanced Edition) (quit, sold) I described this game to a friend as "a boob-delivery system for guys who don't have access to porn." The thing is, there's a really good game in here: the combat system was solid, allowing for mixed use of melee or ranged attacks with magic and traps, depending on your playing style. It also allowed for nice customization and crafting for you to build your own weapons. (I spent a few hours tracking down material for a particularly powerful sword that I came to love.) But the plot is far too bland and broad for the game, with interchangeable nation-states fighting over territory for reasons that seem to keep shifting. The core of the narrative involves the player being accused of regicide and trying to clear their name, and that hunt has plenty of potential. But the story gets bogged down in bad politics and hilariously unnecessary sex scenes. It's one thing for, e.g., Mass Effect to allow you to pursue a relationship over the course of a game. But a lot of The Witcher 2 seemed design to let the player go wild with multiple partners, including prostitutes or random companions. There's no story there, just uncomfortable, surprisingly lengthy digital grinding. I made it pretty far in the game before I started coasting, and I quit before I finished.

Borderlands 2 (finished campaign, currently on DLCs) This is a great game, and the only one besides Mass Effect 3 that I preordered this year. The mechanics are slicker than the original, the humor's just as strong, and the gameplay's maddeningly addictive. It's got a strong story, but I love the way the game doesn't take itself too seriously, either. Several missions are meta-jokes about the absurdity of video game missions (one has you stand still for two minutes, another has you shoot a bad guy in the face). The DLCs are a great extension of the universe, too. The game is one of the best I've ever seen at balancing genuine challenges with real humor, and the open world and flexibility of mission order let you control the flow of the story. I recommend the title to anyone.

The best: Mass Effect 2 and 3, Borderlands 2 The worst: Saints Row the Third Total played (all or in part): 19 Games finished (solo campaign): 8 Games released in 2012: 6