Coming as no surprise to gamers, the world didn’t end this year. We’ve been staving off such disaster for decades now in the arcade and at home, so here are a few of the best titles of this otherwise apocalypse-free year.
(Devolver Digital; US: 23 Oct 2011)
Dark, brooding, and violent, violent, violent, Hotline Miami is off putting and hard to put away at the same time. Combat plays out like a series of “murder puzzles” that the player has to solve efficiently and at ferocious speed.
The game may be best experienced without seeing its “secret ending,” as the crass meaninglessness of it all seems more appropriate in matching the tone of the game on the whole, especially more than anything like a plot-based explanation of the harrowing events of the game are capable of evoking. The game is not for the faint of heart or for those who give up easily. Hotline Miami will make you pay in order to master its toughest challenges. Each success, though, will leave you pondering the central question of the game. Might it be true that you really just like hurting other people? G. Christopher Williams
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Turn-based strategy games are generally thought to be pretty slow paced, but XCOM: Enemy Unknown utterly destroys that assumption. Its turn-based combat is so streamlined and intuitive that it feels like a fast paced shooter while you’re playing. Off the battlefield, back at your base, things still don’t slow down. You have to manage funding, panic levels, and equipment, all of which affect your ability to do battle. At any moment, there are a dozen things to consider, so every action feels like it could result in total disaster. When things work out, even just barely, you’ll be ecstatic.
Despite all this, XCOM never feels overwhelming: It teaches you everything you need to know and ramps up the difficulty at just the right angle. It may be the most stressful and intense game of the year, but it’s also accessible to players of all skill levels. Nick Dinicola
(Bethesda Softworks; US: 9 Oct 2011)
Arkane Studio’s Dishonored is the love child of Thief and Bioshock, set in the decaying and fully realized city of Dunholme. For many, it was a dream come true, a first-person stealth-action game that put enough faith in player ingenuity to hand them the reigns and let them forge their own path of destruction or pacifism, stealth, or brutal warfare.
Of course such freedom can also be overwhelming. For many, including myself, Dishonored takes time to love. Its subdued, largely optional background stories are mostly read in in-game texts, and options are not always made abundantly clear. Even deciding whether to invest in improved Blink, allowing you to leap across the environment with a beautiful artistry, or summon hordes of rat to devour your foes can be an overwhelming, and permanent decision. However, Faith, investment, and experimentation are rewarded handsomely with an unforgettable experience shaped almost entirely by your hands. Jorge Albor
Fez is a beautiful, maddening, and beautifully maddening game. Its soothing world of colorful pixel art and chiptune music belies a rabbit hole of mysteries. Your ability to “turn” the 2D world makes even the most basic exploration exciting as you discover mysterious door after mysterious door, each one leading to a new visually unique area.
But its mysteries go far, far deeper than simply locating hidden doors. Fez is filled with unexpected puzzles that force you to reconsider how you interpret the world. In lesser hands, this kind of ambitious world-building-through-puzzles could have been disastrous, but there’s a strict logic behind everything in Fez that keeps it from going off the rails. Right from the start the game speaks to you in a foreign visual language, and learning that new language is one of the most rewarding experiences of the year. Nick Dinicola
Assassin’s Creed III
(Ubisoft; US: 30 Oct 2011)
Assassin’s Creed III
Even the most ardent Assassin’s Creed fans will admit that the series has become bloated and nonsensical as the franchise continues to pump out an entry every year. Assassin’s Creed III was a return to form for the series. It trimmed much of its fat, including the terrible tower-defense and trap-making systems—for the most part. Even the apprentice assassin system is heavily reigned back in the game’s latest entry. The game does feature a slew of secondary objectives, but for the most part, they fit right in with the world, particularly the world-building frontier quests and the thrilling naval battles. Of course, it is Connor Kenway that stands at the heart of this game, and it is Connor’s story that caps off the series better than Desmond ever could.
Assassin’s Creed III is more than a personal story with a revolutionary backdrop, it actually carries themes of freedom and histories of violence throughout the narrative. It might surprise you, but despite its adherence to established combat and movement systems, Assassin’s Creed III is actually a daring game. Jorge Albor