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Game of the Year 2012

Lock and load

What makes for a great shooter? The "shooting" part of the equation plays a rather large role, to be certain--but most games in the genre pull that off effortlessly. Multiplayer is another important (though inessential) element, but how does one stack hours spent competing against others online to standalone single-player experiences that bring something new to the table? You can't quantify lasting impressions.

2012 brought a lot of subtle evolutions to the shooter genre. Call of Duty: Black Ops II introduced a branching campaign and refinements to the multiplayer; a new Halo trilogy was kicked off by a new developer; Spec Ops: The Line made us question the morality of our virtual wars; and Far Cry 3 thrust us into an island of insanity where chaotic encounters occurred in natural, organic ways. There's a lot worth celebrating in this year's offering of shooters. So join us as we give a nod to those that we enjoyed the most, and crown one as 2012's shooter of the year.

Halo 4

The industry has undergone somewhat of a shift since Halo 3 released in 2007. Series-leader Bungie left Microsoft to chase its destiny at Activision, and Call of Duty has experienced an explosive rise to become one of the largest game franchises of all time. Expectations were sky-high for Chief's first tour of duty after his years in stasis, and his return isn't just good; it's absolutely triumphant.

343 Industries created a better Halo game than Bungie ever did--one that pushes forward a compelling, interesting narrative without sacrificing the massive battles the series is known for. Halo 4 is everything Halo fans want from a Halo game from top to bottom. It's the complete package, mixing together a strong campaign, amazing multiplayer, and fantastic cooperative play to strengthen the franchise, creating a bright future for Master Chief's continued journey.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II

Treyarch could've just taken the Call of Duty formula, regurgitated it, and sat back while the coffers overflowed. But instead, the developer created one of the strongest shooter offerings this year. The campaign's near-future setting had a branching story with various endings that encouraged multiple playthroughs, and the futuristic weapons were a breath of fresh air.

Of course, some of the most important changes came in the form of multiplayer changes. It received vast improvements in balance and player customization with the new Pick 10 and Scorestreak systems, and Treyarchs signature Zombies mode also evolved, turning into nearly a stand-alone game with the addition of Tranzit, Grief, and Custom survival. Even the bonus features, like CODcasting and the updated Theater mode, helped raise the game even higher above the standard shooter. Its tough to find a game that's as complete a package of Black Ops II.

Max Payne 3

Poor Max Payne, that guy always draws the proverbial short end of the stick. But at least he finally got a shot at redemption in Rockstar's Max Payne 3, where the cynical ex-cop ditched the badge in favor of a smooth-sailin' bodyguard gig. Unfortunately for Max (but fortunately for us), it wasn't quite as easy as Max thought it would be.

Max Payne 3 is a tale of personal redemption; in it, Max discovers his alcoholic, self-destructive tendencies make him incapable of even the most basic of tasks. He must ultimately come to terms with the horrible events that define his life in what is easily the franchise's strongest outing. Max Payne 3 still includes series' staples--such as Bullet Time and shoot-dodging--while embellishing everything with a bit of Rockstar flair. Cut-scenes are edgy, the noir-style monologues are clever and rich, the multiplayer is surprisingly decent, and the shooting is some of the most gruesomely brutal and responsive we've ever seen in a third-person shooter.

Far Cry 3

Maybe it's when you take out a group of hostile pirates without ever getting caught; or, perhaps it's when a duo of pissed off bears tears through an enemy compound, mauling everyone in sight. But at some point you'll be overwhelmed by the realization that Far Cry 3 is unlike any shooter you've ever played.

Between the expert performances of the psychotic Vaas--one of our new all-time favorite villains--and the incredible variety of things to do on the hostile Rook Island, Far Cry 3 will easily soak up hours of your time. It's easy to get lost wandering the island, liberating encampments, activating radio towers, and hunting down wildlife to gain access to useful upgrades. Far Cry 3 is masterful in its pacing and mission variety, and the way the allies, enemies, and animals on the island clash to create organic moments of chaos means your playthrough will be wildly different than anyone else's.

Borderlands 2

Toilet humor? Check. Awesome four-player co-op? You bet. Enough gunporn to fulfill our wildest gunlust fantasies? Absolutely. Borderlands 2 had everything that made the original so great--but it transcended its predecessor in every way imaginable. It's almost like Gearbox went down a list of our wants and desires for a Borderlands sequel and said "nope, not good enough."

For starters, it provided a more focused narrative with a central villain--the delightful (and quite funny) Handsome Jack--which provided a sense of context to side quests and story missions. There was vastly improved variety of colorful environments, and character classes were further developed, allowing players more freedom than ever before in terms of skill builds and cosmetic customizations. Plus, we got to party with Claptrap, which is always a guarantee that great times are in store.

PlanetSide 2

When it comes to multiplayer shooters, most are content to shove you into a 16-player free-for-all where those with the fastest trigger fingers and knowledge of the best choke points usually come out on top. PlanetSide 2, however, destroys everything you think you know about virtual warzones, injecting you smack dab in the middle of a giant 2,000-player battle for supremacy. And that fast trigger finger of yours? It isn't going to matter much when tanks and aircraft rain destruction all over your helmeted head.

This free-to-play FPS MMO is the ultimate experience for anyone who has ever dreamt of engaging in a full-scale war in the virtual space. Class-based infantry strategize takeovers of enemy-controlled bases, while ground armor and air support punch a hole in the enemy's defenses. Your heart will pound when thousands of bullets light up the dark night sky, and your adrenaline will pump as a column of tanks rolls up behind you to assault an enemy compound. No shooter does multiplayer warfare even remotely as awesome as PlanetSide 2.

Spec Ops: The Line

Spec Ops: The Lines wants you to think its a game youve played a hundred times before--a game where plastic army men wrap themselves in the American flag and ooh-rah at the corpses of soldiers theyve filled with lead. But its not. Though it starts off like any Call of Honorfield-style shooter, it slowly shifts, kicking players down a narrative rabbit hole thatll question the concept of war, the entire genre, and you: the player.

Captain Walkers trip into Dubai might not have the strongest gameplay of any game released this year, but narrative and atmosphere go a long way. Few games have ever taken such a disturbing, candid look at military shooters, and none have held the player so accountable for their actions. Are you the hero? The villain? What are you willing to do to finish the mission? Its damning of the genre, its damning of the industry, and, most importantly, its damn good.

And the winner is...Halo 4

Shooters can tell wonderful stories, or provide compelling campaigns, or suck you in with thrilling multiplayer, but Halo 4 is the rare game that one manages to do it all effortlessly. 343 Industries first at bat with the blockbuster franchise is the best Halo to date, with so much heart its nearly beating out of its chest and enough content to keep us gaming for years to come.

The focused single-player out-explodes Black Ops II by a mile, and the cooperative play in Spartan Ops is much easier to digest than Borderlands 2s. And though some might dismiss the multiplayer as more of the same, its anything but. Loadouts make the competitive side more accessible than ever, and the new killstreak rewards help move Halo forward without sacrificing what makes it unique.

Indie game of the year

It's hard to define what "indie" is. If we strictly abide by "any developer that self publishes" (like The Walking Dead's Telltale Games), then billion-dollar companies like Valve qualify. If we say that it's a developer not technically owned by a publisher but is still being bankrolled by one (like Journey's Thatgamecompany), you're including massive studios like Epic Games. Calling it "downloadable" doesn't do anyone any favors, either, because just about every game can be downloaded these days. Instead, to us, indie is more of a handful of developers in a basement slaving away at code sort of thing. Its a freedom that major developers simply don't have--a total control of artistic direction without needing to bow to the bank accounts of corporate overlords.

Indie games have crept into nearly every Game of the Year award category this year, but we still think its worth celebrating the genre itself. Today we do just that, putting the spotlight on the indie mindset. Here's a list of the indie games that impressed us the most--and, of course, the winner of GamesRadar's Indie Game of the Year award for 2012.