With as old of a genre as fighting games are, it seems reasonable to assume the gaming development world would have their creation down to a fine science, but that's not the case. As I discovered over the course of several reviews this year, many studios still get the basic fundamentals of a fighter wrong, shipping games with lackluster arcade modes, poor online architecture and/or a lack of expanded single-player content.
Tekken Tag Tournament 2, however, succeeded where most others failed by offering a full-featured smörgåsbord of single-player content, bolstered by a delightfully robust selection of local multiplayer modes and one of the best, most refined fighting engines ever developed. Tekken Tag Tournament 2 is easily the best Tekken game there's ever been, of this there can be no doubt, but it's more than that. It also happens to be the very best fighting game that 2012 had to offer.
While Tekken Tag Tournament 2 exemplifies everything that is wonderful about traditional fighting game design, Persona 4 Arena broke new ground by reinterpreting fighting games as a storytelling medium, which is not something this genre has ever been tremendously good at, save for one or two exceptions.
Through the "Odd Couple" marriage of Arc System Works' extensive 2D fighter pedigree and Atlus' rich and storied Persona universe, Persona 4 Arena's experimental blend of traditional fighting game conventions and JRPG-style visual novel narrative progression resulted in a surprisingly effective, evocative experience. As with any experiment, P4A's unique new direction had some unforeseen side effects, though none were so detrimental as to detract from its excellent storytelling or world-class 2D fighting engine.
Traditionally, I'm not one to enjoy roguelikes or strategy games, so the willingness with which I succumbed to FTL's siren song of permadeath and resource management surprised me greatly. The whole experience has something of Firefly about it, despite lacking any sort of Ol' West sensibilities, quickly imparting an "us against the 'verse" mentality that instills fear, hope and a sense of courageous, do-or-die leadership. My ship ("Albatross MK I - VII") wasn't run by nameless, tiny pixel people, it was inhabited by a crew, my crew, and dammit I wasn't going to let them die.
They all died, of course, often burned to death or accidentally suffocated by the vacuum of space, but that's not the point. The fact that FTL can be so engaging with such a bare-bones visual style is tantamount to how good its fundamental game design is, as it relies entirely upon its gameplay to communicate the feeling of its universe. In fact, I'd wager that "better" graphics would have been damaging to the experience as a whole; everything in FTL is quick and efficient, and the ease inherent in its UI design would have been muddied by flashy animations or other obfuscating visual noise.
As a primarily console-oriented games person, Minecraft's release on XBLA was my first exposure to the indie phenomenon. I'd seen YouTube videos of people that had completely rebuilt Middle Earth from scratch and the like, but the appeal of Minecraft's actual machinations was a complete mystery to me. At least, it was until I was plopped down onto an expansive beach with nothing but my wits and the willingness to punch trees. Then everything came into sharp focus.
Fast-forward a few months, and now the expansive grandeur of my kingdom knows no bounds. As I survey the world from atop Tower Bad-Ass, a mighty ziggurat crafted from countless stones I culled from the very Earth itself, there is nothing the light touches that is not within my grasp. I can do anything here. I can build anything; the only things holding me back are the limitations of my own imagination and the inky depths of my willpower.
I'm as surprised as anyone that Ubisoft's island-based take on Alice in Wonderland didn't make it into our overall Top 10, as Far Cry 3 has easily been one of the most engaging gaming experiences I've had this year. Beyond the fact that the game itself is visually stunning and remarkably well acted, Far Cry 3's main strength lies in its ability to make both the world and its story feel intrinsically personal.
From its first moments, the game immediately forces the player to actively participate in the gruesome reality of the protagonist situation, rather than letting it passively play out in front of their eyes. This direct, instantaneous involvement instills a sense of vengeance and purpose in the player, one which justifies the admittedly violent, ghastly things they do over the course of the adventure. Games that make me emotionally care about the plot are unfortunately few and far between these days, so not only was it a pleasant surprise that Far Cry 3 got me interested at all, but that it did so with finesse and refused to let go once the hook had been set.