The Christmas Blog Series (XIII) – Games of The Year 2012 (Part 2)

To make a round top ten, here are five more games from 2012 that stood out as particularly good; again, the titles are in no particular order, with no specific categorisation by format.

Letterpress: An incredibly simple concept, used in many word games in the past, but married to a distinctive and efficient user interface and solid online multiplayer, Letterpress is an asynchronous multiplayer title in the vein of previous smash hit Draw Something, but instead of Pictionary it is inspired more by Scrabble. While many successful mobile games are reaction tests, Letterpress and its stablemates in the word game genre such as the jigsaw-like Qatqi are more leisurely-paced intelligence and logic puzzles. That such genres are flourishing on the mobile medium in a way that titles like Quarrel failed to do on home consoles is a good thing, providing a variety of kinds of game that can only increase the potential audience for computer games

Binary Domain: While Binary Domain‘s actual game mechanics were quite standard within the third-person shooter genre, and its setting seemed entirely unremarkable as another clean and sanitised cyberpunk future, it turned out to be significantly more ambitious than it was marketed as being. The main selling point, ongoing relationships and dialogues with squadmates, proved to have a significant impact on the course of some cutscenes and missions, while even though the use of a physics engine for location-based damage to bosses and enemies was unevenly implemented and died off towards the end of the game, it still added depth to the combat in a way many games do not have by making basic enemies act more unpredictably than usual. It was ultimately a game which could have made more of its ambitions, and diverged more from the norm, but much like Spec Ops The Line its attempts to use the shooter format to tell a more interesting story were the real draw and a more slow-burning kind of appeal which demos or reviews could not explain.

Trials Evolution: The sequel to Trials HD, this game set a high bar for user customisation, difficulty and reliance on developing skill required to win over time. With an interface and menu system designed around quickly and effortlessly retrying levels to improve, vast amounts of levels to work through with a well-pitched difficulty curve that provided a steadily-growing level of difficulty and incredibly intuitive yet difficult to master controls, Trials Evolution was a piece of pure video gaming design. It showed, in building immensely challenging and rewarding puzzles and races over an essentially two-button control scheme that can be easily explained in seconds, that it is very possible to make a game which is challenging and engaging without compromising accessibility or ease of understanding. Similarly, by incuding such a vast number of levels of different styles and themes, it is a game with a naturally wide potential audience by virtue of having many things to do; again, the emphasis is on making a game with universal appeal without compromising good design.

Spelunky: Much like Trials, Spelunky is a game with flawless design and simple mechanics used effectively to make something challenging and infinitely replayable. A platform game of the most straightforward kind with the challenge added through completely random arrangements of levels and hazards, it is in some ways the opposite of the very regimented and fixed Trials. It is a game about system mastery in a completely different way; one must understand the rules of the game and the range of potential hazards to succeed but will never know for sure what hazards will appear. As modern games move more towards being regimented experiences with fixed outcomes where mastery comes with practice, Spelunky‘s embracing randomness and then combining it with an easily understood base of knowledge of the set from which random elements are selected provides it with a very different kind of appeal. One could compare it with Dark Souls in its emphasis on lethality and repeated failure, but the skills needed to complete the two games are very different. Even Dark Souls is ultimately a regimented game of learning patterns – it simply hides the patterns and information needed very well to encourage experimentation. Spelunky’s randomness takes it beyond this.

Joe Danger 2 – The Movie: On the surface, Joe Danger is very much like Trials both thematically (both involve motorcycling) and mechanically (both have very similar controls and core mechanics). However, they play substantially differently; while Trials is about learning system mastery to complete each course quickly and efficiently, racing against other players to finish first, Joe Danger actively opposes speed for many levels. Individual sections may be timed, but the emphasis is on exploration and solving puzzles – applying system knowledge and skill in unorthodox ways to reach new areas and acquire items. The result becomes something more like the old extreme sports games, where knowledge usually used to gain high scores was required in missions to reach new locations or find items. Combine this with strong theming and a parade of amusing pastiches and Joe Danger is a game that, if slightly less intuitive and easily-understood than Trials‘ simple race to the finish, similarly reliant on application of skill and repetition of courses to find the best route.

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