Welcome back to the second and final part of Push Start’s Games of the Year feature! A few days ago my good friend Dan gave us his top five picks, as well as a handful of this year’s games that he hopes to catch up with in 2013. I’ll be doing the same, and I’ll also be throwing in an honourable mention or two before I get down to my own personal top five. So let’s start off with those that I need to catch up on.

FarCry 3
I’m actually playing this one at the moment, but I’ve not played enough to really give it an honest appraisal. Like Dan, I checked out the demo at September’s Eurogamer Expo, and found it fairly similar to its predecessor – in general, this is a good thing, as I loved and hated FarCry 2 in equal measure. I loved the world, the gunplay and the way fire spread outward to consume the unwary; I hated the respawning checkpoints, the enemies that could see you hiding in the long grass from a mile away and snipe you with a rusty AK47, and bloody weapon jamming!

A fifteen minute demo was too short a time to see if these problems and issues had been excised, but after a few hours with the game, it seems to be the case. Detection is now made clearer by a bar showing how close you are to being spotted, taking an enemy encampment now means you keep it (hooray!) and weapon jamming is gone, seemingly in favour of a paucity of ammo. The result is that FarCry 3 is more or less the game I always knew FarCry 2 could be, but it’s also been weighed down with scavenging, hunting, crafting, and an XP/skills system, and I’m not entirely sure these mechanics are to the game’s benefit. It makes it feel like Skyrim with guns at times, which might sound amazing, but I’ve found that, for me, all this detracts somewhat from the main thrust of the game. I’m also yet to find any sidequests which don’t just boil down to fetch quests, and I wish there wasn’t any forced stealth in it – I like being a sneaky git, but it should be an option, not an instant fail if you’re spotted. Still, it’s early days yet, and it’s as easy to lose hours in this game as it is to do so in Skyrim.

Dishonoured
Like FarCry 3, I also played the demo of this at EGX, though I didn’t really enjoy it. I liked the idea of it, but it’s just not a game that demos well in a public setting, I think. For a start, you’re dropped into a mission without much explanation of what you’re doing and what your abilities are for, which does leave you free to experiment, but I didn’t really feel able to mess about considering it was a public demo in a gaming con. Perhaps playing the demo at home would’ve allowed me to get into it at my own pace.

As I said, though, I liked the idea of the game, I liked the art direction, and I did enjoy what I played – I just felt a bit out of my depth. A good friend was kind enough to get it for me for Christmas, so I will be playing it. I’m sure I’ll love it when I can play it at my own pace.

The Last Story
I really, really want to play this. I can’t say for sure why I’ve not yet done so, as I was massively looking forward to this, the latest console jRPG from one of the grand masters of the genre, Hironobu Sakaguchi – the man known as the Father of Final Fantasy. It should be apparent by now that I’m a massive fan of Final Fantasy, and of Sakaguchi (Lost Odyssey, created by his Mistwalker team, is one of this generation’s best jRPGs), and I of course pre-ordered the limited edition version of The Last Story, which came with a gorgeous, richly-coloured artbook and a lovely soundtrack CD composed by fellow Final Fantasy stalwart Nobuo Uematsu – which I wrote a Musical Mondays piece on a while back. It’s a beautiful set, complete with a golden steelbook case, and I confess I pick it up and look at it every now and then.

So why haven’t I played it yet? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s because I played a lot of RPGs last year and needed a break from the genre. Yet here I am, knee deep in The Witcher, and planning to play through a slew of other RPGs afterward. Maybe I should bump The Last Story up to the top of the list?

Tales of Graces f
I’m a bit of a latecomer to the Tales of series – a good friend recommended Tales of Symphonia to me back on the GameCube, and he tried again when Vesperia came out on the 360. To my eternal shame, I didn’t take on board his suggestions, but I did make sure to grab a copy of the 3DS remake of Tales of the Abyss, and I absolutely loved it. I then made sure to hunt down a copy of Tales of Vesperia and loved that too… well, I’ve not quite finished it yet, which is why Tales of Graces f still sits unloved on my gaming shelf.

I pre-ordered ToGf on the strength of those other two Tales of games, and ended up with the lovely Day One edition that Namco-Bandai put out (of which I posted an unboxing video here on Push Start), and I am really looking forward to playing it eventually… But with Ni No Kuni coming along in the next few weeks, I think it’ll have to wait a little longer.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings
I’d heard great things about both of the Witcher games since each was released, and bought the Xbox 360 version of the second, Assassins of Kings, intending to check out the main narrative beats of the original title on Youtube.

Instead, I ended up buying The Witcher on Steam, despite my PC only having integrated graphics. So I bought a new PC and I am currently playing The Witcher: Enhanced Edition, and will then get around to The Witcher 2… Hopefully. As I hinted at above, I’m also getting massive urges to play a ton of RPGs like Baldur’s Gate, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, Planescape: Torment and Knights of the Old Republic… Maybe I should put it to a vote!

Oh, and I also missed Assassin’s Creed 3 this year, but as I’m yet to play Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, I’m not too fussed about that…

Honourable mentions:
I want to give a quick shout to Resident Evil: Revelations, a 3DS exclusive that I loved a lot more than the more recent Resident Evil 6. It looked so good that it deadened the impact that Uncharted: Golden Abyss had on me when I got that shortly after, and it played beautifully with the Circle Pad Pro. I enjoyed the slower place of play and the scanning mechanic reminded me of Metroid Prime to a degree. Sure, the story was overblown hokum, but again it turned out better than Resident Evil 6 in that regard.

One more shout out before we get to my top five: Final Fantasy XIII-2. While I’m one of the five people that really enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII, it cannot be argued that it was stripped back to the bone in gameplay terms. Spreading the party out into groups of two and shifting between them every now and then helped mitigate the relentless forward momentum, and an excellent battle system kept the pace up. Its sequel did some things better, and some things worse. Firstly, it was decidedly less linear, thanks to both larger environments with occasional branching paths and a time-traveling mechanic that meant you could go back to previous areas whenever you wanted.

However, your main characters were a duo consisting of a bit part player from the first game and a total newcomer – Lightning, the previous game’s stern heroine is curiously absent for much of the game. The story was also weaker than the first part, and the battle system has been somewhat compromised, making the stagger mechanic, the beating heart of XIII‘s combat, almost worthless outside of boss battles. With Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII now in development, I’m hoping Square Enix can take the best of both, add some new stuff and give us something really great

And so, here we are: Push Start Gaming’s Top Five Games of the Year:

5: Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed
srt
“A Sonic title in a list of the year’s best games?? Surely not,” I hear you cry. Well, yes. I can understand your scepticism. The old blue chap hasn’t had the best of times since bursting out into the third dimension in the late nineties, but his more recent games have been getting steadily better. The Wii exclusive Sonic Colours was a very good start (even if at times it resembled a high-energy rollercoaster), while last year’s Sonic Generations was a perfect evolution of the Colours formula and served up an excellent 2.5/3D Sonic adventure that offered a good, hearty helping of nostalgia for the errant Sega fan, and became one of my favourite games of 2011 as a result.

This form has continued into Transformed, a sequel to 2010’s well-received fan-service racer. This time, some characters have been excised (no more Ryo Hazuki!) and others have been added to the star-studded roster, which now features the likes of NiGHTs, Jet Set Radio‘s Gum and Skies of Arcadia‘s Vyse. The big gameplay hook this time is rather obvious from the title; as you race around beautiful racecourses inspired by various Sega games (some of which are utterly, brilliantly mental), both course and vehicles transform, allowing you to drive, sail and fly around the environments.

Handling is uniformly excellent across all three modes (to be expected from Sumo Digital, of Outrun 2 fame), though if I have one complaint about the transforming aspect, it’s that boating feels a bit too slow. Karting absolutely flies by comparison, especially if you nail the drifting mechanic, which allows you to build up a boost of up to three levels should you hold a long enough drift. And trust me, you’ll need it, as this is a tough game even on ‘normal’ difficulty. It’s probably worth your while to start out on ‘easy’ and work your way up once you know the tracks.

And know the tracks you will, given the generous amount of modes on offer. You have five cups consisting of four races each, reminiscent of Mario Kart‘s GP mode, as well as a world tour mode that throws standard racing at you along with specific challenges, such as drift zones (I’m sure I remember one of the PGR games doing this years ago, but it’s still great fun here). The requisite single race and time attack modes are also catered for, as is a multiplayer matchmaking mode that I’m yet to try out.

All this stuffed in, and yet the game was released at a lower than usual price. As far as I’m concerned, it’s at least up there with recent entries in the Mario Kart series, and I’ve no doubt I’ll be getting more out of it than last year’s MK7. Put simply, if you like kart racers, you owe it to yourself to get this one.

4: Theatrhythm Final Fantasy
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If you checked out Dan’s list the other day, you’ll notice some cross-over here. That’s because I all but forced him to buy this game (it’s not as sinister as it sounds; I knew he’d love it, so it was for his own good, really!). I’d had my eye on this Final Fantasy-themed rhythm-action game for quite some time before release, and expected it to be a somewhat limited, yet fun little curio. If you’d have told me before release that I’d end up putting 80 (yes, eighty) hours into it and naming it as one of my favourite games of the year… well, I doubt I’d have believed you.

Theatrhythm is, as I said above, a Final Fantasy-themed rhythm-action game. On the top screen of your 3DS, you’ll see your note chart, characters or backdrop (depending on the type of music playing), and you’ll furiously swipe along on the bottom screen with your stylus. Very furiously, if you’re playing some of the harder songs on Ultimate difficulty (damn you, ‘Battle with the Four Fiends’!). There are three types of track to play along to: battle themes see a party of four characters of your choosing arranged alongside the right, with enemies on the left like Final Fantasy of old, and four lanes of notes rushing toward you; field themes are your world map traversal analogue, where one character at a time walks along in time to your swipes and slides; event themes are played to the backdrop of cutscenes or gameplay segments, and can occasionally catch you out as you stare at the pretty pictures instead of watching the note chart.

Each of the numbered series titles has a playlist, consisting of one of each type of theme, and there are a number of unlockable songs that can be played singly in challenge mode, which is also where you’ll find any of the DLC tracks you might choose to add to your game. Other collectables and unlockables include upgradable ‘trading’ cards, options for your personalised profile card, songs and videos for the two media players, and items and equipment that you can use in gameplay.

These last two come in very handy if you’re trying to tackle the game’s challenging Dark Notes or find the crystal shards that unlock additional characters, as they add modifiers to your character’s base abilities, level them up faster or increase the likelihood of rare item drops. It’s a lot deeper than you’d expect, given its genre, and even after 80-odd hours, I’ve not unlocked everything. It’s certainly not exactly the game I was expecting, and this is all to the good. Theatrhythm Final Fantasy is the perfect companion for someone who loves the music of the venerable jRPG series

3: Mass Effect 3
gsl
Sometimes the internet makes me wish I had Asura’s extra arms, so that I might be able to act out the world’s most over-the-top facepalm.

Now, I understand some people were disappointed with Mass Effect 3’s ending. I get that. I was somewhat indifferent to it myself (which I guess is damning it with the faintest of praise, considering it was the ending to a galaxy-spanning trilogy), but by no means did I hate it. I understand that people disliked that the final few moments did away with your party and that the ending itself came down to a choice of three seemingly interchangeable decisions. Even though I felt like the entire game was in itself an extended ending (and that, for me, the final cutscene left it open for the player to imagine the state you leave the universe in for generations to come), I get why that would annoy people.

What irritated me was the ridiculous escalation that then took place. First, it was “Mass Effect 3’s ending sucks!”. Then it became “Mass Effect 3 and BioWare suck!”. Not long after that, I began to notice comments popping up all over the ‘net proclaiming that the entire series sucks and always has. I understand that the internet seems to foster a culture of rampant (frequently idiotic) one-upmanship, but man, it’s so depressing at times.

But anyway, I’m not here to lambast the internet-at-large, this is supposed to be a celebration of my favourite games of the year. Mass Effect 3 is certainly one of these. I confess, I find it the weakest of the trilogy (I had hoped some of the RPG mechanics would find their way back in in the style of ME1, rather than the more streamlined mechanics of ME2 – though at least they did away with those horrid post-mission result screens!), but even so, some of the series’ most emotional moments are to be found in Mass Effect 3, and it’s down to that feeling I mentioned earlier – that the game as a whole feels like an ending. Who can forget (SPOILERS!) Mordin’s heroic sacrifice; Thane saying a final prayer, not for himself but for you; shooting the breeze and shooting cans with your best buddy Garrus high above the Presidium (oh and just for the record: Shepard doesn’t miss). Who can forget ordering Grunt to stay behind and hold off the Rachni/Reaper assault, and being sure that you’d lost him, only for him to come swaggering out of that cave, covered in gore. Who can forget the relief? Every other mission, it felt like you might lose someone, and that made every survival all the sweeter, every death a grand tragedy.

Mass Effect 3 also has some of the series’ greatest moments of spectacle, such as the opening on Earth as Reaper forces invade, laying waste to all before them, or the assault on the moon of Palaven, with gigantic Reapers hanging in your peripheral vision, in orbit over the turian homeworld. That’s without even mentioning the galactic showdown near the game’s end, except that I did just mention it.

The game does have some missteps, of course. There is, of course that ending, which at it’s best is a touch unsatisfying (though I’ve not yet tried out the extended ending DLC that appeared post-release, as I’m waiting to do a second, all-DLC playthrough), and the journal bugged a few of my sidequests to the point that I couldn’t finish them, while others disappeared entirely, leaving me to wonder if they were time-sensitive. N7 quests were few and far between, and the less said about Galactic Readiness being tied to multiplayer, the better.

Still, some things, such as skill-trees, were improved from ME2 (though still not as granular as ME1’s system), and the level of graphical and presentational polish was higher than before, and coupled with those earlier-mentioned moments of emotion and grand scale, combined to create a trilogy closer that kept me enthralled throughout, determined to keep everyone alive, before realising that it was never going to happen, that this was what they had all joined me for, this fight. It wasn’t do or die; it was do and maybe die anyway. I had to accept that, in order to complete my mission, losses were inevitable, and that epiphany had two effects: it freed me up to do what I had to do, and it filled me with a sad sense of finality – just the atmosphere a final chapter needs, in my opinion.

Production has recently begun on a Mass Effect 4, but I really don’t know where they might take the series. A game based on the human-turian First Contact War would be too limited in scope after saving the galaxy from annihilation, and any sequel would surely have to be far enough in the future that it may as well be a new IP. I love the Mass Effect series (I have all three collectors editions, after all), but I think it should remain a trilogy. And it’s a trilogy I know I’ll be playing for years to come.

2: Gravity Rush
grk
I knew this was going to one of my favourite games of the year from the first time I fired up the demo. As far as I’m concerned, Gravity Rush is the Vita’s best game, and worth buying the handheld for alone. But then, I am absolutely in love with the game.

Like Theatrhythm, before release I had thought this might end up as perhaps an enjoyable curio. The resulting game is as close as you’re likely to get to playing through a Ghibli film (at least until Ni No Kuni arrives next month) – a mostly light-hearted journey of discovery and inner strength. The game’s protagonist Kat is one of my favourite characters of the year; at once cheeky, cheerful and petulant. She doesn’t spend vast swathes of the game feeling sorry for herself for having lost her memory (which she never even regains over the course of the game), she just gets on with the business of saving the world, and genuinely enjoys the powers her sparkly feline sidekick ‘Dusty’ thrusts upon her.

It’s also an absolute joy to control Kat, flinging her around the gorgeous island cities that make up the game’s mostly open world, especially when you’ve powered up her abilities enough that you rarely have to touch the ground. Many open world games offer you a large square-footage of ground to run around in; Gravity Rush gives you the same, but allows you all that space above and below to explore as well, meaning you can spend hours just searching out the gems you need to upgrade Kat’s powers. These are often hidden underneath the floating islands, leading you on extended scavenger hunts as you run along the underside of the world. Combat is just as fun, with Kat drawing nearby objects into her own gravitational pull and flinging them at the gelatinous Navi that are threatening Hekseville.

It’s an absolutely beautiful game as well, the draw distance masked by a lovely painterly effect that gradually resolves more detail as you get closer, and the cities each have their own distinct flavour, with great music helping distinguish one from another – even now, months after I finished the game, the music from the first area pops into my head every few days and makes me smile. There is a little room for improvement, though; Kat’s gravity slide ability is unwieldy, meaning I rarely used it, and the cities could do with a bit more to do in them than just story missions, challenges and gem harvesting. Some things for a sequel to address, perhaps

Speaking of a sequel, it certainly seems to be on the cards: the story, while fairly easy-going, does make you pause for thought at times, and towards the end you might find yourself questioning whether the events taking place are real or someone’s beautiful fever-dream. Though much is left unsaid, and many questions remain unanswered, it’s a very satisfying tale that has me really praying for a continuation – not just to clear things up, but also because I loved the game so damn much. I truly hope SCE Japan Studio will get around to it sooner rather than later, and in the meantime, I’m looking forward to their next handheld title Soul Sacrifice.

1: Halo 4
chiefcort
Since its unveiling at last year’s E3. I had been hoping that this would be my Game of the Year for 2012. However, with series creators Bungie stepping aside to build a new universe from scratch, and Microsoft putting together a hand-picked team of the industry’s best to continue their blockbuster sci-fi series, I had genuine concerns that 343 industries might not be able to match that trademark Halo feel, that “thirty seconds of fun, over and over again” mantra that has been at the core of the games since 2001.

When I finally had the game in my hands however, all my fears evaporated. 343 know their Halo, that’s for sure. Right from the off, it’s reassuringly familiar, as Cortana wakes the Master Chief from his power nap to deal with a Covenant boarding party that have overrun what’s left of the Pillar of Dawn. The new team have gone to town in ramping up the epic scope and scale, and this is, again, immediately obvious; towards the end of that first mission, you’re out in space, on the hull of a starship fighting Covenant as an enormous Forerunner planet looms above, threatening to swallow your almost insignificant conflict whole. And it just gets bigger and bolder from there.

Story takes a more central role in Halo 4 than it has in previous instalments, which has led to criticism that the game is too reliant on knowledge of the lore, particularly from the extended universe. I suppose it’s a valid criticism, but the story stands well enough on its own merits, while bundling in a ton of fan-service for those (like me) who’ve scoured the series for clues, read all the books and trawled Halopedia for hours on end. That’s not to say that the narrative ever overpowers the gameplay though, and this latest entry gives us a whole new class of enemy in the Prometheans: small, dog-like crawlers that clamber all over the environments and seek to overwhelm you with sheer numbers; watchers, the aerial power of these Forerunner constructs, with the ability to catch your grenades before flinging them back at you, shield comrades and even resurrect them; and a whole slew of massive Promethean Knights that tower over both the Chief and Covenant Elites, teleporting about the battlefield to cut you down with their arm-mounted hardlight swords.

Fighting the Covenant is as enjoyable as ever, and allows you to fall back on years of hard-won battle tactics, but the Prometheans will punish you if you go in expecting those same strategies to work. I play Halo on Heroic difficulty (it really shouldn’t be any lower if you plan on truly appreciating it), and in my first few encounters with the Prometheans, I got utterly annihilated. It’s not uncommon to feel out of your depth, perhaps a little hard-done-by, but it soon becomes apparent that you need to prioritise targets more ruthlessly than you might with the Covenant, and once you figure out your strategies for this new class of antagonists, they slot nicely into place.

Over on the multiplayer side, fans were even more worried. Everything 343 announced about the new modes seemed to lean towards a more Call of Duty-style XP ranking system, and that is not what Halo fans want. One of the main reasons that Halo‘s MP playerbase keeps coming back is because it’s always a level playing field – no matter whether you play every day or once a month, it’s always a level playing field. Ranking up is the very antithesis of this, a mechanic intended to keep people playing, which is all well and good, but we already have that in Call of Duty. That series also already has perks. No Halo fans wanted these features implemented. Thankfully, the way 343 have inserted these mechanics hasn’t impacted the game much at all – ranking up offers you more load-out options, but doesn’t affect base health or damage output (and at any rate, most players seem to favour DMR/pistol load-outs), and ordnance, Halo 4‘s perk system, tend to be either limited-ammo power weapons or very short-term buffs like a constantly-draining overshield or speed boost. All of these give you an edge, provided you know what you’re doing, but none of them allow you to dominate for more than a handful of seconds.

Another impressive aspect of Halo 4 is that, on its first try, a brand new studio has created possibly the best-looking game on the 360 to date. If it’s not the best, it’s certainly up there with the rest of them, and the hi-tech Forerunner world of Requiem is swathed in impressive lighting effects that further add to the game’s graphical potency. Some have complained that all this eye candy is at the expense of Halo‘s trademark expansive battlefields, and I don’t really agree. Some areas are as vast as those in any other Halo, and though there are plenty of indoor environments, those too can often be cavernous. If there is a trade-off (which I’m not so sure there is), I think it’s worth it as a showcase of what the seven-year-old Xbox 360 is still capable of. I cannot wait to see what 343 industries will be able to do with Halo 5 on next-gen hardware, and I can’t wait to see where the story goes from here.

So there you have my favourite games of the year. Leave me a comment, let me know what you think of the games I’ve listed and let me know what your favourites of 2012 were. In the next few days, I’ll be writing about what I’m looking forward to in 2013, so make sure to look out for that. For now, I would like to wish everyone a Happy New Year and hours of happy gaming!

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