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.