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2012: The year intelligent old-school gaming struck back

If you’d told me this time last year that the last chunk of 2012 was going to provide the best, most genuinely interesting salvo of game releases in years, my reaction would have been simple. I’d have mustered up the weakest, croakiest laugh my poor, disappointment-withered frame could muster and gestured limply toward the last few years’ Q4 release schedules with all the zesty fervour of a broken seaside claw crane swinging listlessly in its case. I'd have probably wheezed a bit through the laugh too, to further the dramatic effect.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been many good games over the last couple of years. Great ones, in fact. But a few notable bat-obsessed orphan vigilantes and backwards-flying dragons aside, I've found the pre-Christmas build-up periods--for console games at least--to be slaughterously uninspiring. With the last four years dominated by Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed sequels, anything other than a sure-fire tried and tested mainstream brand has scarpered to the following spring like Tokyoites fleeing to the countryside at the first sound of Godzilla’s return.

Look over the last couple of years’ Q4 periods. Go on, look at them. Sequel upon cartoon license upon HD collection upon Kinect game. And with this aging console generation now limping along on diminishing returns as development is (presumably) shifted quietly to hardware we don't yet know about, there was absolutely no way at all that this Q4 of all the Q4s should have yielded any unique, innovative or risky successes.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Because if by some miracle of radioactive disaster you’d developed the psychic powers required to make said aforementioned prediction, and had I responded in the fashion detailed above, then at this point, and not for the first time this year, I’d have turned out to have been wrong.

Because the safest, dullest period of the gaming year, the one which usually exhibits the greatest excesses of modern console gaming’s big, glossy, triple-A saminess, has brought the most unique, fresh, intelligent batch of old-school inspired games I’ve seen in years.

In October we got XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Dishonored. In November we had Hitman: Absolution and ZombiU. In December, the collected retail edition of The Walking Dead finally arrived. All are indispensable, and all are united by one key trait. They fly in the face of currently accepted mainstream industry wisdom and they do not seem to care one little bit.

XCOM is a turn-based strategy game with immense demands, fathoms of depth, and a real penchant for beating the living hell out of the player after forcing them to become emotionally attached to its world. Strategy games are healthy on the PC, but in the increasingly explosion-heavy world of mainstream console game marketing, anything so thought-intensive and potentially intimidating to casuals has been popular as arsenic cake for years.

Dishonored is a dense, open-ended first-person ‘simulation’ with roots in the Thief and Deus Ex series. It allows the player to engineer and achieve their own objectives by way of combat, stealth, or quiet manipulation. It's happy to leave (and trust) the player to their own devices in such a multi-layered world. All of this is the antithesis of the funnelled hand-holding so prevalent in first-person console action games these days. Frankly, Dishonored's wildly branching freedom makes Deus Ex: Human Revolution feel like Splinter Cell.

ZombiU is the surprise smartie of the WiiU’s launch line-up; a considered, cleverly balanced return to uncompromising survival horror, using unique gameplay systems to cultivate a knife-edge dynamic of risk and reward. OK, its launch alongside an untested and in many quarters untrusted console ensured pretty weak sales, but the fact that Ubisoft chose to give its Wii U horror debut the spirit of old-school Resident Evil rather than Left 4 Dead is one hell of an interesting sign.

For all its flirtatious winks at the Arkham City crowd by accommodating more aggressive stealth play, Hitman: Absolution retains a stack of the series’ long-standing cerebral slaughter. Linear excursions aside, it’s still an open-ended joy of a game, allowing you to play God with the happenings and inhabitants of a series of small open-worlds in the most granular and downright devious of fashions. This is a game in which even the most seemingly straightforward sandbox can reveal a ‘best’ solution only after hours of obsessive experimentation. It's demanding, old-school puzzle stealth disguised as a Hollywood action movie.

In light of The Walking Dead’s vast critical and commercial success, it seems quaint that just two months before the series’ start we were all getting excited about Tim Schafer’s Kickstarter-fuelled pledge to bring back the ‘dead genre’ of adventure games. Finally fulfilling Heavy Rain's promise of intelligent, truly mature, genuinely malleable interactive narrative, TWD is a stunning, powerful work which understands the importance of subtle, slow-burn storytelling, character-driven peril (zombie-related and not), and the resonating impact of real consequences for actions. Hell, it’s our official, bona fide Game of the Year, and rightly so.

Next: Triple-A takes a bit of a kicking.

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18 comments

  • jackthemenace - January 7, 2013 9:58 a.m.

    It's great to see that smarter, more thought-provoking games are taking off, but all that amounts to nothing if no-one plays them, and unfortunately, as far as the gamers I know go, most of them would never play some of the more mature, intelligent titles unless they were entires in already existing series. Like, if The Walking Dead, even if it was exactly the same game, was called something different, most of the gamers I know would have dismissed it instantly.
  • D0CCON - January 2, 2013 5:40 p.m.

    It feels weird having this article come up after 2011, which remains my favorite year of titles yet.
  • AlbVega - December 31, 2012 1:48 p.m.

    Any person who disliked AC3 -one of the greatest revenge tales in gaming, ever- is obviously an idiot. Also, you keep talking about "storytelling" in The Walking Dead, which is ridiculous when you compare it to AC3's tale of revenge, honor and hope. So, shut up.
  • RebornKusabi - December 31, 2012 4:57 p.m.

    I dislike Assassin's Creed 3 for a lot of reasons and it sure isn't storytelling problems only. Shitty controls, terrible characters, annoying game design all wrapped up in a game containing very little assassinations in ASSASSIN'S Creed 3. So no, we won't shut up.
  • christian-shaffer - December 31, 2012 5:40 p.m.

    Yes. Obviously, anyone that doesn't agree with your opinion is obviously an idiot. Everyone but me is such a fool. Bit of a narcissist are we?
  • winner2 - December 31, 2012 9:41 p.m.

    Are you trolling? Because last I checked AC3 was shit. The most fun you could have in that game was climbing the trees.
  • pl4y4h - December 31, 2012 11:56 p.m.

    I've said it once and I'll say it again, AC 3 had a lot of problems
  • ranivus - January 1, 2013 12:36 p.m.

    Wow dude you almost sound like you know what you're saying but in reality and sadly, you don't. Putting things in quotes and referencing the 6th game in an annoying series that will never end as a great story just makes me sad about humanity and how ignorant they really are. Bravo sir, bravo.
  • ZeeCaptain - January 1, 2013 3:27 p.m.

    Well yea it was one of the best games of 2012 story wise, but the game play felt tired, they haven't been able to fix that since ACII, that's why they introduced the menu training and mission giving in Brotherhood, that's why they introduced tower defense in Revelations, and that's why they introduced the sailing mechanics in ACIII, they made a great game in ACII but after another three games that play the same and add one new gimmick after the other it's pretty obvious they know that they can't find the secret to eternal youth for this series, so if they do forge ahead with a game where Desmond is in the future killing the Templar then I don't know what to expect maybe a Tetris mini game to solve puzzles or a Bejeweled Blitz where they have little heads of Templars.
  • BottleBank - January 3, 2013 3:03 a.m.

    Some people are easily pleased i guess...
  • BottleBank - January 3, 2013 3:04 a.m.

    ...and i don't mean David Houghton
  • wantsumcandi-psn-id - January 10, 2013 5:15 a.m.

    Any person who disliked AC3? I really don't like the AC series, so I guess I'm an idiot, because I have my own opinion. I always thought people who used hyphens, instead of commas, to separate phrases we're idiots. (look above)
  • taokaka - December 31, 2012 11:55 a.m.

    I'm going to have to disagree a bit with the article, it comes of as far too one sided in favour of the somehow more "intelligent" games with gameplay concepts that were created a while ago and died temporarily due to action games that were new and innovative for their time. You keep using medal of honor as your benchmark for modern game design and give games who have roots in old school games as much chance as possible. You didn't mention games like borderlands 2, halo 4 and farcry 3 which have amazed critics and been commercial successes due to their brilliant takes on the FPS. Mass effect 3 and max payne 3 have done exactly the same with third person shooters. In terms of sales XCOM didn't even make it into the top 100 games sold this year globally while the ps3 version of medal of mediocrity is at 95, the download sales may totally change that but we'll never know (source: http://www.vgchartz.com/yearly/2012/Global/ ). Overall I just think the simplest way of putting it is the market changes and companies do whatever to differentiate their products whether it be look backwards for ideas or forwards to innovate, or in some cases make their product as bland and mainstream as possible and what we really need is the variety these games offer to keep us interested. Sorry for the long wall of text and I hope this makes sense to you as I am really tired at the moment.
  • Dauthi693 - December 31, 2012 2:33 p.m.

    I agree with taokaka the articles points aren't balanced but i agree with the point this article is making, also i think your example of borderlands 2 for FPS sucks as it felt to me like to succeed in spite of being an FPS not because of it. That said Games like Fez, Mark of the Ninja, Natural Selection 2, The Walking Dead, FTL, Journey, Hotline Miami, Spelunky, Asura's Wrath Binding of Isaac and Dishonored Show he has a point about intelligent design and/or the implementation of seemingly archaic old school mechanics. Then games like Persona 4 Golden, Planetside 2 and Tribes and X-Com and Betas for Mech Warrior Online and Hawken show that in this age of annual franchises old can just as easily be the new new.
  • Edias - December 31, 2012 11:35 a.m.

    The year started off relatively slow, but it definitely picked up later on. 2013 is looking to be a pretty solid year as well.
  • Mooshon - December 31, 2012 7:37 a.m.

    Great article Dave. Going to be really exciting to see what pans out. Next gen arms race of RAM and vid cards will inevitably generate a huge round of AAA recycling. Saying that, possible digi distribution revolution could mean cheaper dev and rise of indie style experimentation. Fingers crossed. Happy NY
  • Clovin64 - December 31, 2012 4:37 a.m.

    Nice to see the more inventive games getting more of a mainstream audience nowadays. That said, most of my gamer friends were still all OMG BLACK OPS 2 this year, but still...
  • bass88 - December 31, 2012 10 a.m.

    I'm currently working at a checkout of a major shopping chain and many are buying the games Mr. Houghton has listed. Since I'm interested in games I engage in conversation with them and they steer the conversation to COD. They say they got it for Christmas but they think it's a pile of wank. I ask them if there's something majorally different from the other series entries and they say there isn't really but they're just tired of it and want something different. So, maybe there is hope after all.

Showing 1-18 of 18 comments

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