2012 Game of the Year Awards: Numbers 5 and 4

2012-Header-5-4.jpg

And the awards keep coming! We're now halfway through our best games of 2012. We'll have more Honorable Mentions posted this afternoon. Thank you for reading!

2012-GOTY-5-XCOM.jpg

#5 - XCOM: Enemy Unknown

October 2012Firaxis Games360, PS3, Windows

This year, the evergreen war between PC and consoles ended. Neither side won (no matter how much kool-aid I offer to Doug); rather, a ceasefire was declared while the big three console manufacturers readied their 2013 volley and publishers demoed their next-gen titles on high-end PC hardware.

The conflict that filled the void was one of scripted versus emergent storytelling, the discussion of which took much of our attention during this year’s Game of the Year debates. Our number six selection, Borderlands 2, falls firmly in the former category. Meanwhile, XCOM: Enemy Unknown resides happily in the latter. Enemy Unknown’s hasty arrival - some ten months from announcement to release - initially fell beneath the radar of many. But, offering a reboot of a sterling pedigree by a famously superb developer, it’s a pleasant, if not exquisite surprise.

There’s a lot of genius to be found in this latest XCOM. The gameplay is as challenging as its namesake without too much frustration - on easier difficulties, anyway - all the while laced with generous helpings of Firaxis’s trademark “just-one-more-turn” special sauce. It’s a deep, satisfying strategic experience, one that even manages to benefit from an attached gamepad without compromising complexity.

But aside from being gorgeous, fun and captivating for hours, Enemy Unknown is a triumph of emergent storytelling. You will lose squad members by the dozen. The ones who survive become your elite, your chosen few, as you level them up and kit them out. A single loss will make you wither. Each further death will sting, offering you greater pause. You will weigh ever more terrible bargains - is it okay to let London burn if it means keeping your squad’s sniper? You will contemplate save-scumming, unless you had the balls to start in hardcore mode. A furious hatred of the alien menace will grow in your heart, a fire you never thought possible; which should be cause for reflection when you realize your foes have no dialog or clear motivations (beyond causing general carnage).

Though the game offers but a loose narrative framework, you will finish your first playthrough with the experience of a full, rich story. Odds are good that you’ll charge back in for another.

A lot of games are described as “fun for years to come,” but end up cast aside after a few short months (or weeks) of play. I’m confident, however, that XCOM will remain a perennial favorite - thanks to staying power that the franchise has enjoyed, and Firaxis can only bolster. If it receives Steam Workshop support, I won’t be surprised if I pick it back up in 2018 to try out a few mods. Or even just to run through another challenging, engrossing campaign. -- Spencer Tordoff

2012-GOTY-4-Hotline-Miami.jpg

#4 - Hotline Miami

October 2012Dennaton GamesWindows

Playing Hotline Miami is like experimenting with a powerful drug: it immerses you in a foreign state of mind, but you might not like the person you’ve become once you’re on the other side.

In this case, the drug of choice is violence. Your role is to go where you’re told and to kill everyone you find. After the job’s done, you pick up your payment and head home. Once you’ve got the hang of things, the trick is to just keep doing that until you don’t know who you are anymore.

The game’s a power fantasy drenched in neon and choreographed to square waves and sparse, looping beats. It intoxicates the player with its hazy, ragged visuals and pulse-pounding, synth-heavy soundtrack, and it ropes them into one near-impossible scenario after another where the only way out is through everyone in the building.

Unlike any other game this year, the mere act of playing Hotline Miami is just insanely satisfying. Rushing room-to-room and improvising your survival with whatever weapon you can find – a knife, a beer bottle, a shotgun, a pool cue – is a tense and harrowing experience. Hesitate one-tenth of a second too long and you’ll be dead. But plan your approach carefully and you’ll dispatch enemies with the cold efficiency of a trained killer. Nothing made my pulse race like pushing through to the end of a particularly desperate mission. The reward you feel after surviving yet another encounter – and the elation you feel after brutally slaughtering your enemies – is as raw and electrifying as it is unsettling. Levels don’t end after the last enemy dies; instead, you have to walk all the way back out to your car first, stepping over the dozens of bodies you wasted on the way in. The body thrives on the adrenaline, but the mind fears for its integrity.

After you’ve overcome the game’s challenges and arrived at the end of the story, you’re left with some weighty questions about the nature of violence and what it means to play games where all you do is kill people. Are violent games morally defensible? Is it okay to kill certain people in a videogame but wrong to kill others? And what does it say about the kind of person who thrives on the rush of clearing out a room full of men in a lighting-quick rush of violence?

Brilliant, intoxicating and essential, Hotline Miami is a finely tuned game in its own right, but the issues it makes the player confront are massive and onerous. Months later, I’m still wrestling with how I should feel about the game. To me, that’s proof of its success. -- Nick Cummings