The 30 Best Videogames of 2012

Games Lists
The 30 Best Videogames of 2012

Paste’s Best of 2012 series continues through Dec. 31.

The videogame landscape might look very different a year from now. Sony and Microsoft’s new consoles will either be looming on the horizon or already in stores. The Wii U and the PlayStation Vita will have had a full year to win over consumers and critics or risk the same fate as the Sega Saturn and Dreamcast. Cutting-edge computer games will continue to demand hardware few of us can afford. The 3DS will probably still be the best system we rarely think about. Tablet and smartphone games will continue to thrive while being treated as an almost entirely different industry by critics and players alike. (Speaking of which, look for Paste’s Best Mobile Games of 2012 list some time next week.)

But this is about 2012. This year bulldozed whatever arbitrary distinctions once existed between retail and digital distribution. Seven of the 10 best games of 2012 were initially available exclusively as downloads. Of the other three, two were downloadable for at least one platform the same day they appeared in stores. The PlayStation Network was particularly successful, with three of our top 10 games and four of our top 20 appearing exclusively through Sony’s digital marketplace. Our ability to instantly access fantastic games has never been greater (at least in theory—most of us could probably drive to a GameStop, kill an hour digging through the budget bins, hit a food court for an Orange Julius, maybe build a time machine to take us back to a Babbage’s in 1990, and still make it home before the typical PlayStation Network game had finished downloading.)

2012 was a great year for independent game development across all platforms. Our list, which was voted on by a number of regular freelance contributors to Paste’s games section, and then tabulated and compiled by myself, reflects this. There’s no better compendium of the games worth playing in 2012. Ballots were cast by myself, Simon Ferrari, Ryan Kuo, J. P. Grant, Richard Clark, Stu Horvath, Mitch Krpata, Drew Dixon, Joe Bernardi, Sean Clancy, Dan Crabtree, Luke Larsen, Casey Malone, Filipe Salgado and Keith Veronese. Here are the 30 Best Games of 2012.

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30. Lone Survivor
Developer: Superflat World
Publisher: Superflat World
Platforms: PC and Mac

Jasper Byrne’s Lone Survivor is a stock premise, but here it is taken to a relentlessly bleak place. The game is 2D with dark pixel art. Everything is crumbling and falling apart. The sound design relies heavily on drones and static to create an atmosphere of tension. It is a game played in a perpetual state of anxiety.—Filipe Salgado

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29. Dragon’s Dogma
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Platforms: Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3
Epic role-playing game Dragon’s Dogma is the game that keeps on giving. It doesn’t end where you think it will, growing more exciting as it goes before allowing players to tackle a New Game+ mode that’s actually worth playing.—Jennifer Allen

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28. Need For Speed: Most Wanted
Developer: Criterion Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, PC and PlayStation Vita
Need For Speed: Most Wanted excels at providing a framework to explore the exhilarating relationship between chaos and consequence. A mind-blowing series of options lure the player from one goal to another, providing weight to the carelessness needed to accomplish them by shoving police cars into our bumpers and flipping our car relentlessly over the cliff, leaving us to sit and think, if only for a few seconds, about what we have done.—Richard Clark

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27. Torchlight II
Developer: Runic Games
Publisher: Runic Games
Platform: PC
The drip-feed of clicking monsters for loot and nuggets for XP feels stronger in Torchlight II than in Torchlight. Despite how akin to Diablo II (and therefore, Diablo III) the game is in its story and act structure, the change of pace and environments helps make it like a larger and grander experience than crawling around in a dungeon and returning to the same town over and over.—Denis Farr

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26. The Unfinished Swan
Developer: Giant Sparrow
Publisher: Sony
Platform: PlayStation 3
The charming would-be storybook Unfinished Swan explores a few interesting ideas within the well-populated world of puzzle platformers. Between a number of mechanical twists, consistently striking art design and a poignant central metaphor, Swan is an experience that’s hard to forget.—Garrett Martin

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25. The Secret World
Developer: Funcom
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platform: PC
Equal parts X-Files, Buffy and Grant Morrison’s The Filth, Funcom’s supernatural MMORPG is more about the journey than the destination—quite literally, as its paucity of endgame content led to abysmal adoption rates among the MMO core audience. With an open character development system and an in-game ARG framework, The Secret World just might be the smartest contemporary adventure game and the biggest financial risk of the year.—Simon Ferrari

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24. Max Payne 3
Developer: Rockstar Games
Publisher: Take-Two Interactive
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC
Max Payne 3 represents Rockstar’s most blatantly Hollywood game yet. The company has steadily been working towards creating 40-hour films in video game form. With GTA IV andRed Dead Redemption, that meant breaking up open world driving, riding and shooting with extensive dialogue scenes that demonstrated voice work and cinematography a cut above the industry standard. Max Payne 3 follows in Uncharted’s footsteps, seamlessly chaining together story-advancing cutscenes with third-person gunplay.—Wes Fenlon

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23. Tokyo Jungle
Developer: PlayStation C.A.M.P.
Publisher: Sony
Platform: PlayStation 3
It’s rare when I fall for a game that entices me with little more than beating my old score and completing more challenges. The addictive animal-based action RPG Tokyo Jungle allows me to craft personal narratives for each playthrough while shooting for a high score. It’s an insane, feral 100 Years of Solitude.—Casey Malone

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22. Thirty Flights of Loving
Developer: Blendo Games
Publisher: Blendo Games
Platform: PC
In Thirty Flights of Loving designer Brendon Chung trades overbearing clarity for emotionally true moments, capturing something in a moment or expression that most games clumsily try to do with entire games. Consider the characters. They look cartoonish. Their bodies, built out of cubes, weigh in with significantly less polygons and detail than their big budget contemporaries, but their big faces telegraph in ways motion capture hasn’t quite gotten to yet. Chung is confident: Thirty Flights of Loving makes space elastic and hopscotches through time, from years to hours to seconds. This could easily signify empty style, but in Chung’s hands, it’s shaped into one of the best games of the year.—Filipe Salgado

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21. Assassin’s Creed III
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U and PC
Assassin’s Creed III does not reinvent the series. It embraces the core ideas—parkour, historical drama, conspiracy theories, derring-do—and pushes them further. If you have loved those things in the past, you will love them even more here. If you hate the sci-fi infused framing story with its flickering digital artifacts, or the repetitive objective based action, or the slow-burn multiplayer, well, there is a lot more to gnash your teeth over.—Stu Horvath

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20. Far Cry 3
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC
Ignore the story and Far Cry 3 is excellent. It’s a thrilling first-person shooter that alternates action with long passages of exploration. It requires thought, strategy and patience. It isn’t just a full-speed-ahead shooting gallery. It’s not the revelation that Far Cry 2 was, in part because it plays very much like Far Cry 2, but the lush new jungle setting and the four years between the two games mitigate the sense of repetition.—Garrett Martin

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19. Trials Evolution
Developer: RedLynx
Publisher: Microsoft (360); Ubisoft (PC)
Platform: Xbox 360 and PC
It’s you, your bike, and a track. Couldn’t be simpler, right? Wrong. Trials Evolution is a sadistic bitch of a game, forcing players to earn every inch of progress. Reaching the finish line is a feat in itself. With no faults, at a gold medal time? “Trial” is an understatement.—Mitch Krpata

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18. Dear Esther
Developer: thechineseroom and Robert Briscoe
Publisher: thechineseroom
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux and OnLive
Dear Esther uses the immediacy of the first-person perspective commonly employed by shooters to minimize the distance between player and story. As you explore its island, walking through caves, empty shacks and a shipwreck-strewn shore as if you’re prowling a barren battlefield in a peacetime Modern Warfare, always inching closer to the radio tower that flickers in the distance, you’ll hear occasional bits of narration that obliquely fills in the history of this island and your character. At certain moments you’ll notice brief glimmers of figures in the distance, ghostly memories of the lost ones mentioned in the narration. It’s a sad elegy for your character but a novel new direction for first-person games.—Garrett Martin

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17. Papo & Yo
Developer: Minority Media
Publisher: Sony
Platform: PlayStation 3
In Papo & Yo a child attempts to deal with his father’s addiction. It’s a game about escapism—the psychological escapism of a child, coping with a situation he can’t physically escape. But he’s growing to deal with it. He doesn’t retreat into another time or place; he stays in the favela, but one that bends and shapes itself along magical chalk lines. As he moves forward, the landscape becomes less and less grounded until, at its most fantastic, he is finally able to deal with his relationship to the monster that represents his father.—Brian Taylor

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16. Diablo III
Developer: Blizzard
Publisher: Blizzard
Platforms: PC and Mac
With Diablo III a lot of the social joys of the series are gone, but the feeling of taking down a nightmarish group of special enemies remains unmatched. And now that the real money auction house is implemented, I’ll try my hand at Blizzard’s new idea of making every player a gold farmer. The fact that some people are potentially going to end up spending over a thousand dollars on gear is stupefying, but it’s reassuring to know that the Diablo series can still turning us into slavering zombies after all these years.—Simon Ferrari

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15. Borderlands 2
Developer: Gearbox Software
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC
Borderlands 2 does what sequels are supposed to do, making improvements where it must, and trying hard not to disrupt anything that made its predecessor a success. No doubt it is a superior game to the first, but it’s still all about whetting a primal hunger for the next reward. As you traverse the wastelands with a laundry list of uncompleted mission objectives, a progress bar nearly filled with enough XP to nudge you up a level, and the infinite promise of undiscovered loot, you feel forever on the verge of something great.—Mitch Krpata

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14. Halo 4
Developer: 343 Industries
Publisher: Microsoft
Platform: Xbox 360
I think a lot of people were asking the wrong question when they pondered whether 343i would make as good a steward of the Halo franchise as had Bungie. What I wanted to know was whether or not 343i could drag Halo out of the miserable hole that was Reach. Nothing 343 has done with Halo 4 has irreparably broken the core of what makes a game Halo. It’s still the game where you need to jump and juke while shooting in order to survive, and it still rewards a dancer’s grace and improvisation in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s still the only competitive console shooter that anybody would ever want to play split-screen with their friends.—Simon Ferrari

13. FTL: Faster Than Light
Developer: Subset Games
Publisher: Subset Games
Platforms: PC, Mac and Linux
My favorite aspect of the outer space roguelike FTL is that it’s a story-generating engine. The many permutations of game-dictated events and your accumulated decisions allow for a rewarding variety of experience. Everyone I’ve talked to about FTL, regardless of whether they’ve “beaten” it, has wanted to walk me through their most nail-biting, heartbreaking, or holy-crap-that-was-lucky runs. The light story elements that are present in FTL are a distant shadow of the stories players generate through the game mechanics. That’s what finely-tuned game systems do: They let us author our own experiences.—J.P. Grant

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12. Spec Ops: The Line
Developer: Yager Development
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC
In Spec Ops: The Line the real cowards are the players, content to ignore real wars for false ones, spending their money on yearly installments of war games that aim to entertain rather than inform, to dull rather than comment on any aspect of reality. We tell ourselves we want to honor the troops, but what Spec Ops: The Line makes so clear is that our interest isn’t in any sort of reality at all. We just want an escape from the dangers of mundanity, no matter what the cost.—Richard Clark

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11. Fez
Developer: Polytron
Publisher: Polytron
Platform: Xbox 360
Here’s the thing about Fez: all that platforming? It is just the surface. It’s tightly structured and for the most part you can brute force your way through it. The secret puzzles you stumble across in various rooms, the ones that lead you to the anticubes, are the real meat of the game. Sometimes they require you to look a little bit outside of the world, or look at it through a different lens, to solve them. Some require a knowledge of videogames, of the Xbox, of technology that comes from outside of Fez, but they’re not just “gamer” shibboleths. It’s these moments where Fez really shines; but they’re also shibboleths of a different kind, one that creates a challenge not of manual dexterity like so many other retro-looking platformers. Instead, the challenge is mental, and maybe even cultural: where Fez’s retro tendencies, its very self-aware nature of being a game, of technology, become the language of what you do.—Brian Taylor

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10. Sound Shapes
Developer: Queasy Games; SCE Santa Monica Studio
Publisher: Sony
Platforms: PlayStation 3 and the PlayStation Vita
Sound Shapes twists the basic tenets of the classic side-scrolling platformer into a form of interactive music-making. Every element of the game serves a musical purpose. Coins aren’t just collectibles but musical notes that add new instruments and melodies to the level’s soundtrack. Platforms aren’t just bricks or elevators but words that move, twist and disappear according to a song’s lyrics. Instead of simple obstacles to avoid or monsters to dispatch enemies are drum machines that contribute to the beat. Sound Shapes surreptitiously teaches you how to build and arrange songs while enjoying one of the most beautiful and memorable games of the year.—Garrett Martin

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9. Mark of the Ninja
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft
Platforms Xbox 360 and PC
Mark of the Ninja made me feel competent and clever. In spite of my sloppy thick dough thumbs, it turned me into a meticulous, thoughtful person, pulling from reserves of patience I didn’t know I had. It is a real feat to make the player feel powerful and capable, even as the game repeatedly stalls her progress. As a platformer Mark of the Ninja has a palpable snap, but most of its real thrills are intellectual. In short, playing it feels cool as hell.—Jenn Frank

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8. Dyad
Developer: Shawn McGrath
Publisher: Sony
Platform: PlayStation 3
The better you are doing at the tunnel shooter Dyad, the less clear it is what is going on. Colors explode across the screen, the music swells and you attempt to navigate audio-visual chaos. There’s no fetishizing clear feedback here. There are times when I was playing this game when I couldn’t tell you whether or not my input was having any effect on anything. Itemizing Dyad does it a disservice. It creates an impression of the game as a series of moving parts that happen to interlock. It misses the point: the smashing of those parts together. Synaesthesia by (and as) design.—Brian Taylor

7. Spelunky
Developer: Derek Yu
Publisher: Mossmouth
Platform: Xbox 360
The roguelike platformer Spelunky recreates the sensation of arcade games, with the primacy of the leaderboard and simple rules buckling under brutal difficulty, but fragments the most crucial keys to success into an almost infinite kaleidoscope. Somehow it does that effortlessly, with a design free of unnecessary embellishments. Spelunky‘s randomness might seem to entirely dispatch of memorization and pattern recognition, but it merely multiples the instances in which both skills are needed. It expects you to call upon those memories with no advance warning. That makes Spelunky one of the few retro-flavored platformers of late to transcend its obvious inspirations.—Garrett Martin

6. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC
This faithful remake of the classic early ‘90s strategy game makes tactics accessible to console gamers. Clever strategy is crucial during the turn-based battles, but you’ll have to be just as smart running the bureaucratic side of XCOM and planning what new facilities to build and trying to balance the concerns of numerous panic-stricken nations. It will infiltrate your brain and keep you up at night.—Garrett Martin

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5. Mass Effect 3
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U and PC
Mass Effect 3 isn’t really the end. Sure, it ties a big, messy bow on this particular storyline after four plus years, but there’s no way this massively successful series is just going to disappear. Expect spin-offs and tie-ins and new trilogies until there’s no money left in the name. In the meantime just enjoy Mass Effect 3, a thrilling conclusion to one of gaming’s best series.—Garrett Martin

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4. Hotline Miami
Developer: Dennaton Games
Publisher: Dennaton Games
Platform: PC
It’s the way that the extremely violent puzzle game Hotline Miami makes me question what I’m doing that makes it great. It does not rap you on the knuckles for enjoying it: There are no stern lectures or razor-sharp ironies or “Look what you did!”s. It’s an unease, like that post-massacre come down, or the way that the reasons for the violence is left unexplained, the abyss that looks back underneath it all. It offers no protection from the deeds: It is not quite meaningless and free of context, like a blood-filled stick figure flash game, or cloaked with justification, like a war game. Hotline Miami just stares back at me with an awful grin on its face.—Filipe Salgado

3. Dishonored
Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC
Dishonored is about loyalty: loyalty to country, to honor, to friends. In inhabiting the protagonist Corvo’s many roles—as the princess’s Lord Protector, as revolutionary, as assassin—the player is encouraged to explore that theme from a variety of angles, both by shaping the plot through his actions and by reacting to its multiple twists. If all that sounds a bit heady for a game where you stab dozens of dudes in the neck, well, it is. But the genius of Dishonored is how subtly its fiction and mechanics work together to draw the player into its world.—J.P. Grant

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2. Journey
Developer: thatgamecompany
Publisher: Sony
Platform: PlayStation 3
No game has ever been as succinctly named as Journey. That’s all this game is about, my forward momentum as I undertake a mysterious quest. I don’t know why I’m doing it, or what waits for me on the mountaintop, but I know it must be done. In reducing the journey to its most primordial form, Journey attains a universal power. Instead of wilting under this asceticism, thatgamecompany wrings as much as they can out of their self-imposed rules, ending with a surprisingly poignant conclusion that hits an emotional high the rest of their game doesn’t even attempt.—Garrett Martin

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1. The Walking Dead
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, Mac and iOS
Telltale’s The Walking Dead is one of the best licensed games of all time because of the way it re-creates the pacing and feel of the comic series. It’s heavy on character interaction and suspense, like the comic and show, and light on puzzles and item hunting. Action sequences are spread out; this is not Left 4 Dead or Dead Island but a character-driven game with action elements only added in when completely necessary. Think of The Walking Dead as Maniac Mansion and a poor man’s version of Heavy Rain put into a blender containing 10 or 15 issues of Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s comic—a nice mix, especially for the episode price of $4.99.—Keith Veronese

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