The folks at Xbox Live usually horde some of their best downloadable titles for their Summer of Arcade campaign. The headliner of 2012’s line-up for me was easily Deadlight, a 2D puzzle-platformer from Spanish developer Tequilaworks. Combining a visual style heavily influenced by LIMBO and gameplay elements reminiscent of Shadow Complex, you play as a survivor of the zombie apocalypse trying to navigate your way through the decimated remains of Seattle. Filled with challenging environmental puzzles and intense “run or die” moments, Deadlight brought a fresh perspective to the zombie survival genre.
What can be said about Journey that hasn’t been said already? It’s a game but it’s not. It features multiplayer but you can’t play it with your friends. It’s surprisingly moving, occasionally frightening, and very, very strange. Most importantly, Journey is an experiment in gaming that succeeds primarily because of the fearlessness of developer thatgamecompany.
8. Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack
The jury’s still out on Sony’s Playstation Vita but most owners agree that its gaming line-up was a bit slight in early 2012. Mutant Blobs Attack was an early Vita release but it remains one of the most fun and original experiences on the system. You play as a one-eyed blob who rolls along absorbing pieces of the environment and growing in size until, eventually, terrorizing the populace and attracting the attention of the military. It’s one of the most laugh-out-loud funny games of the year, filled with 1950’s B-movie tropes and a roster of evolving powers that allow your blob to dominate Earth.
7. Max Payne 3
Long delayed and frequently believed to have been abandoned, Rockstar’s Max Payne 3 drags the titular anti-hero into this generation with a game that feels both familiar and fresh. Max’s seemingly endless stream of bad luck almost defies belief, but the cover-based shooting is fluid and frantic and the use of the series’ signature Bullet Time move allows for some insane gunplay moments. While the original Max Payne games payed homage to comic book noir aesthetics, Max Payne 3 is easily one of the most cinematic and vibrant games of 2012.
6. Mark of the Ninja
When I saw the early teaser trailer for Mark of the Ninja, it was hard for me to imagine stealth actually working as the key gameplay element in a 2D side-scroller. Once I played it, however, I grew to admire developer Klei’s creative use of shadow and “visual audio” cues to convey a ninja stalking their prey. In addition to a host of fun ways to dispatch (or evade) enemies, Mark of the Ninja also features some of the smartest social-gaming hooks in recent memory and led to some frantic score-baiting among the team here at VGH.
I love a good word game and Quarrel is a very, very good word game. Combining elements of games like Risk and Boggle, developer Denki’s Quarrel is both endearingly cute and surprisingly challenging. Up to 4 players can challenge each other to assemble words from an anagram. The person who does this the fastest (and with the highest point value) dispatches troops and overtakes enemy territories. If you can dominate the map you can win the game. As much about spelling as it is about careful allocation of your resources, Quarrel clicked with my sensibilities in an almost fanatical way when it hit Xbox Live in early 2012.
4. Quantum Conundrum
When it comes to first-person puzzle games, few titles can hold a candle to the creative density on display in Portal and Portal 2 but Airtight Games’ Quantum Conundrum tries really, really hard. Trapped in a vast mansion by your mad scientist uncle, you learn to switch dimensions and change the properties of the items in your environment — heavy items become “fluffy”, time alternates between fast and slow, etc. Successfully combining the attributes from different dimensions is the key to progressing through the house and finding out what happened to your missing uncle. In addition to some of the most devilishly difficult puzzles in any game in recent memory, Quantum Conundrum also features hilarious commentary from Star Trek‘s John de Lancie as your insane uncle.
3. Spec Ops: The Line
A morality play under the guise of an ultra-violent, third-person military shooter, Spec Ops proves that more can be done under the umbrella of “spectacle based entertainment” than just explosions and headshots. Rivaling Uncharted 3 for its cinematic presentation and Bioshock for its high-stakes moral choices, Spec Ops conveys madness and the wages of war unlike any video game I’ve ever played. It’s deep, dark, and surprisingly complex for something that, on the surface, appears to simply be a Call of Duty wannabe. It also features one of the best voice-acting performances ever captured in a game from the great Nolan North.
2. The Walking Dead
As terrifying as it is moving and emotional, Telltale’s The Walking Dead proves that there is still life to be wrung from both the tired zombie survival genre and the aging adventure game genre. Instead of revisiting the characters and stories from the comics and TV show or, mercifully, watering the experience down to a simple first-person shooter, The Walking Dead does something utterly unique: it echoes the “humans are the real monsters” theme of the series with a whole new cast of memorable and compelling characters.
1. Sleeping Dogs
If you know just some of the back story of Sleeping Dogs‘ development, you know that this game should have turned out to be a giant mess. Instead, it’s a full-featured reaffirmation of just how fun an open world game can be when it’s done right. The hand-to-hand combat, gunplay, and racing elements in Sleeping Dogs all show such a high level of polish, it’s surprising that the makers of GTA and Saints Row haven’t been able to achieve it in the past. When all of those elements are combined into Sleeping Dogs‘ best moments, it’s a game that’s alive with the energy and momentum of a great Hong Kong action flick.
Other noteworthy favorites:
Mario Tennis Open
Uncharted: Golden Abyss
Haven’t finished ’em yet:
Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask