2012 hasn’t been the best year in the AAA arena for PC gamers looking for something new, pretty, and competent, but indie developers and European publishers have come out of the woodwork releasing some really mechanically unique and brilliant titles. Strategy fans and fans of space strategy titles in particular have had a very good year, and anyone who’s a fan of isometric gaming or 2D top down games has had something to dig their teeth into almost every month.

It seems as though ports to PC are getting worse, and our expectations getting lower, with the exception of Square Enix titles this year. 2009′s Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Dark Athena was recently on sale over at gog.com for a mere $3, and compared to the janky and ugly efforts from 2012 publishers, that even now blows a lot of the offerings out of the water. We’ve looked at Far Cry 3 and even launched a YouTube channel to discuss the years games so far, but what do we think are 2012′s best PC games? Note that this isn’t PC exclusive games, so much as games that meet our standards of porting, mechanics, story and visuals.

We already criticized Hitman: Absolution, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, and Need for Speed Most Wanted, but there was a lot to love about this years gaming, too – especially for those of you dedicated to the PC. Let’s take a look at the PCGM Top 10 PC games of 2012.

#10 War of the Roses – Developed by Fatshark, October 2012

I enjoyed War of the Roses enough to call out to two local historians who literally wrote the book on The Wars of the Roses, and the Battles of St Albans in particular to see what they had to say about the details. As it turns out, it’s not historically accurate at all, and despite countless hours arguing on line over the fact that there’s “no evidence crossbows were even used” during The Wars of the Roses, there’s always something for history buff’s to fight over. Thankfully, this is indeed a fighting game and when you’re done tearing it up online, there’s a beautifully rendered world to cut into.

E3screens5The War of the Roses isn’t even close to being a perfect game, which is perhaps why it’s in my number 10 spot, but it is a valiant effort Paradox Interactive and Fatshark to bring us a highly polished, AAA medieval combat experience where once it merely fit a niche. Since launch, net-code issues have died down and things are generally a lot smoother, and whilst some still argue that Mount and Blade is the better game, the depth, scale and beauty of War of the Roses suffice enough to allow you time to get used to the differences. What’s true indeed is that War of the Roses is an enormously fun game to play with friends, and it is an unparalleled experience on the PC or any gaming platform. Chivalry emerged the next month, which saw two medieval games pitting it out against each-other, but it’s not for me to decide which you prefer – it all depends if you like spit-and-polish, or some janky, wild testosterone fueled brawling.

For us, War of the Roses is the ultimate medieval combat experience – and hey, new content today!

Review here

#9 Dota 2 Beta – Developed by Valve, playable to the masses throughout 2012

I was new to playing MOBA’s in my spare time before Dota 2. There’s something about eSports that intimidates me enormously. Given that jumping into a game you don’t know how to play online is a scary experience anyway, I was about ready to take a torrent of abuse from players who’d enjoyed the game for longer than I had. That didn’t happen, though, and my sluggish and apprehensive performance was met with support or indifference, and after a mere 2 games I had understood the basics and learned to use my chosen Hero: Sniper.

Dota-2-review-3Build for newcomers, Sniper sits back and issues CC and finishers. I can handle that, I thought, but with 95 of the 110 that will eventually appear, there’s plenty more to learn. Dota 2 may be accessible to newcomers of the genre, but that doesn’t make it a simplistic game. You can argue for hours over the competitive edge between LoL and Dota 2, but the fact of the matter is they’re both enormously different. Each to their own, and no more than that.

The elegant ballet of lane camping at the start of each game as you gently pace back and forth carefully keeping an eye on the enemy in front of you, barely an inch apart, and the timing of each Hero for that all important last hit makes Dota 2 so meticulously crafted that the subtleties are comparable to that of one of the better board games. It’s a game that looks deceptively simple, but then, no one ever claims that when they’re losing, do they?

Review here

#8 XCOM: Enemy Unknown – Developed by Firaxis Games, October 12

For about 2 weeks, I woke up every day at 6am and jumped on my PC to play XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It’s not the story, visuals, art style, mechanics, or any sense of rose tinted nostalgia that brought me back to this game every day – it’s the fact that I was managing an underground salvation of humanity, as I watched teammates I grew to recognize and love die every time we went into the fray. Unfortunately, I only recognized their faces, because 2K limited further customization to special and deluxe editions, which would have enormously increased my attachment to my unit, but that’s just how it is.STRAT

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a fantastic game – and that’s why it gets my number 8 spot – but it isn’t necessarily a fantastic strategy game. With the wake of the console generation comes limited, but not a tragic watering down of the franchise. Squad sizes are limited to 6 players, and many PC gamers felt it necessary to put the difficulty all the way up to the hardest to give them a fair challenge. Like most of Firaxis Games’ products now’days, depth and scale are tremendously cut-back, but they’re substantially supplemented with “fun-factor”, for better or for worse. There’s no denying that XCOM is a consistently enjoyable, addictive experience, but as strategy games go, it’s a little predictable, and consequently a little repetitive.

That said, it’s fantastic to play on Steams Big Picture with a game-pad (calm down), or via Splashtops’ THD gamepad, which allows you to run games on your PC, and stream them to your tablet. XCOM: Enemy Unknown has just about enough depth and challenge – or strategy – to pass as a good strategy title, but for those of you looking for something a little more complicated, it’s not the best choice.

Review here

#7 Wargame: European Escalation – Developed by Eugen Systems, Feburary 23

What, you thought like most places this would merely be the last 10 big releases? Feburary 2012 was most certainly a period of time this year, and with that comes the release of my personal favorite RTS/Strategy game of the entire year. Eugen Systems sounds like some security corporation from a Bond film, and whilst I hadn’t heard about the European developer until this release, I was blown away when I tried it.

94853_wargame_european_escalation-39The problem I have with most RTS games of late is that whilst they aim to be balanced with regards to each unit, they end up being completely rock-paper-scissors. And it’s not only unit balancing alone that developers are obsessed with, it’s the layout of the maps. Now’days, maps barely resemble anything at all, other than a perfectly symmetrical concrete patio clearly designed for war. Nothing seems to make any logical sense, and it’s all about knowing what kills what with regards to the game mechanics. Then there’s the map exploits, oh God, it never ends.

Wargame: European Escalation washed all that away, and when it first released it forced you to jump right in online. With 361 painstakingly realistic units, no one knew what the hell they were doing. It was chaos: the chaos of war. Perfect. Sure, you can claim it’s rock-paper-scissors, but in war Apache beats Hind – its all about the ammo, the armour, and the range. Wargame is a lesson in Cold War technology before it’s a game, and several content updates later, it’s better than ever. For me, no strategy series has beat the depth and meat of Wargame: European Escalation, and it’s a must own.

Review here

#6 Planetside 2 – Developed by Sony Entertainment Online, November 20

John Smedley is watching you. He’s always watching.

Ever since free-to-play farted its measly way into the industry on the pretext of “oh, hey, here’s a game for free – and if you like it, you can just give us a couple of bucks to say thank you!” which we all know is complete bullshit, I have been cogently cynical as to the actual intent of companies who implement the system. For some, it’s their saving grace, allowing their games to survive on lower subscriber levels, and opening up the title to a larger market. There’s no real doubt that it saved APB, Star Trek Online, Age of Conan, and, more recently, The Secret World, but it’s also been used to unnecessarily re-boot franchises such as Theme Park on Android and Age of Empires on PC and consoles. In a nut-shell, F2P is largely: “Here’s a game, play it until your addicted, then we’ll milk you for cash.”Planetside-2-13

Exceptions to the rule are few and far between, and arguably the only truly acceptable title in my eyes was League of Legends, who charge for cosmetics only. They can afford to do that, though, and 99% of other developers cannot. Therein lies the problem with free-to-play.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, John Smedley’s watchful eye happened. He said “Guys, sriously, F2P or subscription? Who’s in?” and the community replied “F2P please, but here are the conditions” and John Smedley made it happen. It’s that simple. As discussed in our review linked under the trailer, Planetside 2 is a completely free experience which doesn’t limit you in any meaningful way. You can compete effectively without paying a single penny. Because of this, and the fact that the game is both fair and awesome, people have been buying cosmetics. Why would they do that? Because Planetside 2 is a fantastic and enormous game – it is a truly unique experience on the PC, and a nice way to make that even better is to pimp yourself out. All upgrades and side-grades are unlock-able with earn-able points, but if you’re of an impatient disposition you can go ahead and buy them with SC. Something that EA are no stranger to with their $60 packaged games. Good guy John Smedley – just don’t let him catch you cheating!

Review here

#5 The Walking Dead – Developed by Telltale Games, April 24

I’m not going to patronize Telltale Games and claim that The Walking Dead was so great because it was a “surprise hit” from an incompetent developer. The fact of the matter is that The Walking Dead isn’t a surprise hit. Why should it be? Telltale have always been a troubled developer, but they’ve also always been a very talented one. They’ve a great team of writers, artists, and story writers who, given an out-let for a higher budget, have really come into their own on this release. I’m not one of the people who saw the initial concept of this game and thought it would suck. I enjoyed Tales of Monkey Island, the Sam and Max series, and I even enjoyed Jurassic Park. 

The-Walking-Dead-ep-4Their eclectic mix of long dialogue, classic point and click influences and some recycled mechanics from the third shaky Broken Sword game always felt like a rebirth of the classic adventure game genre, but with April’s The Walking Dead which had a considerably larger budget than prior titles, and a new and interesting business model, Telltale Games raised a massive middle finger to the naysayers who always acted as though they weren’t a proper developer. Hell, Treyarch started with Wii ports.

The Walking Dead isn’t without its problems, though. If you’re not feeling for the characters, and you’re not a fan of the slow, drudging zombie like pace the series moves in, you’re gonna’ have a bad time. But for the rest of us, The Walking Dead is a touching and beautiful masterpiece that came in a £20 package with a whole bucket of feels. Spanning 5 episodes with another series announced, The Walking Dead is a show of its own. It doesn’t supplement the TV series, it bests it.

Review here, and here, and here

#4 Hotline Miami – Developed by Dennaton Games, October 23

The Hipsters may have ruined Drive for us, but they’ll never catch on to Hotline Miami. That’s ours.

Heavily influenced by the film Drive, which sees a vapid and vacuous Ryan Gosling prancing around to a pseudo-80′s soundtrack and smashing peoples faces in because he loves Carey Mulligan but is too embarrassed to ask her out, or something, Hotline Miami takes lashings of the ultra-violence and applies it to tight controls on masterfully created maps. Hotline Miami is what all indie games should be. A vision from a very small team (in this case two) with a heavily stylized and well executed concept. The title differs from other indie games in that it isn’t just all about the visuals. All too often games feature the same generic platform or puzzle mechanics, only with some new unique art-style to differentiate it from the crowd.Hotline-Miami-07

Hotline Miami’s art complements the game-play mechanics, and they’re woven into something of a masterpiece. What’s more, it’s a damned hard game, and the sense of humour and referenced albeit tasteless brutality transcends mere video-game violence into an art project of both visuals and coding. From picking your named mask to emptying out the various levels of enemies using mostly melee weapons, Hotline Miami is an addictive, consistently good experience that, for me, sets a new benchmark for small indie teams. I’m not saying that no indie game matches Hotline Miami for style and substance, only that Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin seem to have done it with a breeze of cool calm, and an air of “you like the game? Cool. F**k you” that’s refreshing in this climate of people begging to buy and support their games.

They made it, you buy it – nothin’ more to it.

  Review here

 #3 Assassins Creed III – Developed by Ubisoft Montreal, November 23

The ending may have enraged me to the point of writing this article, tweeting @assassinscreed and @ubisoft about 17 times and eventually crying into the palm of my hands for a week straight, but my emotional torment alone didn’t negate the fact that Assassins Creed III is a superb game. It’s not the most challenging game on the planet, and it’s even probably the easiest Assassins Creed game in the franchise, but have you ever been told a story so well? A story so rick and exotic with characters that sucked you in and dialogue that took time to actually explain itself? Conner might be a little wooden, but there were subtleties to the context that allowed him, as a blank slate, to learn with you as you traversed 18th century America, in its very European state.

Conner wasn’t as bold as Ezio, but we have to remember that Altair wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. Perhaps Conner was that awkward third album, but with Haytham Kenway making appearances throughout the game – who was a truly sublime character – and other numerous important key figures, Assassins Creed III was the first in the franchise that felt more about the world as a state than about either the Assassins or the Templars, or those in their ranks. Ubisoft Montreal tackled the political climate with a keen eye for detail, and whilst there are those who jest that Assassins Creed III is all “Murica’!” I have to wonder if they’ve even played it. In the end, all the political leaders are stripped of their glory and grandiose, and what we finally see is that every silly man on a horse is just as corrupt as the last. Conner wasn’t fighting for America, he was fighting firstly for his own people, ending in total and complete apathy. That’s kind of the opposite.

assassins_creed_iii_49Because of this, and the fact that it develops on the structure of all the prior games with enormous depth, Assassins Creed III is one of my favourite in the franchise. The multiplayer, however, was a total sham, which played like Tenchu designed for drunk children. Connectivity issues plague connecting to friends to this day, and when we did finally get to cover it in an up and coming let’s play, we were totally underwhelmed. Still, none of this deters away from the fact that Assassins Creed III pushed developmental budgets to the limit.

Ubisoft Montreal managed to market an historical period drama with a keen eye for political details and a cogent and incisive attitude to millions of Call of Duty players. That is absolutely genius.

 Review here (spoiler free)

 #2 Natural Selection 2 – Developed by Unknown Worlds Entertainment, October 30

If you’re like Eric Neigher, who can’t be bothered to properly play a complicated Indie FPS for whatever reason, then you probably won’t enjoy Natural Selection 2. In an age of Call of Duty and Battlefield, brainless instant gratification and zero thought in first-person-shooters means that military shooters has a monopoly on the entire genre. Twitch shooters and Halo style shooters such as Nexuiz and Section 8 have all tried and failed, but none have managed to deter attention away from those promotions and XP rewards that keep us coming back. We live in a world where an FPS is an investment like an MMO, and progression aims to pin down players and keep them buying DLC. It’s like the genre is a mere vessel for the sale of DLC now, and the problem is that everyone is totally okay with that.

Then there are games like Red Orchestra 2, Counterstrike: GO, and Natural Selection 2. Un-apologetically old-school in nature, entirely bad-ass in practice.

Natural Selection 2 isn’t just a balanced first-person-shooter gun-to-gun, it’s balanced gun-to-massive-over-sized-alien-teeth. ss_9e86c8e421df3fe0e0c409d85b6a64903318cb9f.1920x1080That’s right, NS2 is marine vs alien, and each teams efforts are conducted by one commander, who issues orders to the entire team over the in-game comms system. It’s RTS meets Alien, at least for one very responsible guy. Natural Selection 2 is a game with a learning curve, and because of that it is enormously rewarding. When do I use the Gorge? When shall I use the Fade? How do I maximize use of a Skulk? What’s the quickest path to this location? Where are the entrances to the vents? When shall I use a shotgun over an assault rifle? Can I ask for ammo from the commander, or shall I head back to a munitions hub? You learn, you cooperate, you win.

Natural Selection 2 isn’t high on my list as a direct rebuttal of the success of Call of Duty, it is simply, in my opinion, the better game. It’s thoughtful, rewarding, enormously fun and incredibly social. When was the last time you heard someone directly refer to you by name, ask you to do something, then congratulate you on a job well done? Natural Selection 2 feels a bit like a VIP gentleman’s club where everyone has something in common: a hatred for brainless shooters. Not to mention the fact that the game features a tailor made engine built for the title from the ground up, and about 10 years development time since the original mod for Half Life. It’s a beautiful indie development that pushes the limits of the budget, and retailing at £18.99 stands as proof that high quality gaming with substance doesn’t come in a £55.99 box. Hopefully, many developers will follow suit.

Review here

#1 GOTY: SLEEPING DOGS – Developed by United Front Games and Square Enix London, August 14

As console ports go, Sleeping Dogs is the best. Ever. Okay, it might not technically be the best ever since it required download of a high resolution texture pack, but once you grabbed that, you were rewarded with a lush and vibrant Hong Kong city-scape to enjoy. Actually… come to think of it… the controls on PC too before being patched didn’t work too great, either. I suppose Sleeping Dogs isn’t the best PC port ever, but it still looks better than, and performs better than, any other port to PC this year. As someone who’s happy to use a game-pad if the mouse and keyboard isn’t working out, I leaped into this title with fairly low expectations, but I wholly admit that I was wrong on too many levels to think that this title would be anything but brilliant.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t my game of the year merely because it looks pretty; Sleeping Dogs crams more game mechanics into any one game that I’ve ever seen before. Lock-picking, car hopping, a full, Arkham City style combat system, mini-games, racing, executions on various environmental assets, weapons, guns, the ability to steak out drug busts, cons, tricks, side-quests, main quests, and all other manner of ways to entertain yourself in Hong Kong. Whilst I jested at the fact that Sleeping Dogs didn’t work great with a mouse and keyboard, it’s important to note that it never will. Neither does Assassins Creed III. It’s just not that style of game. Sleeping Dogs is largely a brawler, and a driving game, and a fantastic one at that. The voice acting, characters and story were all sublime – and it was totally up to you whether your heart was in the Triad, or the Hong Kong police force. Sleeping Dogs had you betraying friends, befriending enemies, and fighting for causes based on false pretenses whilst the lines between fiction and reality grew increasingly blurred.

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I got lost for weeks in Hong Kong and whilst the main story was fairly short-lived, there always seemed to be something to do. The most important thing about Sleeping Dogs compared to other “GTA clones” (what a horrible term), though, is your hands-on approach to everything. Literally. In Hong Kong, as they point out in the game, ostensible as a reference to GTA, “isn’t America, there aren’t guns everywhere” and because of that, you felt somewhat more innocent than in other games of the type. You couldn’t just get out of you car and start shooting everyone up automatically, because you rarely even had a gun. Police, thus, became a real controlling power, and more than a mere annoyance. Spotted breaking the law? The police would tackle you and try to arrest you, as you could flip them round and hand-cuff them, running off. You aren’t an indestructible killing machine in Sleeping Dogs, you’re just a sentimental guy, lost in a world of lies and espionage. It was a human story that re-defined the genre for me, and as far as I’m concerned, Grand Theft Auto has a lot to learn about re-balancing the protagonist in the environment.

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Sleeping Dogs offered, to me, the same level of immersion as any decent RPG – and although I couldn’t relate to Wei Shen in any meaningful way, he somehow felt close to me, and I learned to empathize with him. A very strange, visceral experience, but one that I immensely enjoyed, and a fantastic game.

 Review here

Wrap up

Thus concludes the PCGMedia Top 10 PC games of 2012. Whilst you will inevitably question some of my personal choices, I’ve tried to pick games as objectively as possible – although clearly I immensely enjoyed some. I have chosen 10 games that excel at substantial, genre-redefining game-play, with decent mechanics and an art-style that supplements the game-play, rather than merely makes up for it. You might ask me why games like Far Cry 3, or Call of Duty Black Ops II aren’t in the list, and my reason is simple: $60 games designed for everyone often lose substance. With the exception of Assassins Creed and Sleeping Dogs, two games that appeal to everyone, we’re often offered watered down experiences that take four steps mechanically backwards, and show the age of the current console generation cycle. Gaming is about game-play, and if you’ve got an over-bearing HUD, or linear and basic mechanics to lessen the chance of failure, then your game might be fun, but it isn’t as substantial as I’d like. How does Assassins Creed III qualify, then? The combat in Assassins Creed III is mechanically substantial, and the game is designed to tell a story. Some have considered it an “interactive movie” instead of a game, but I don’t really adhere to that philosophy.

I’m confident that my Top 10 list for this year will be agreeable to those who enjoy the games respective genre. Natural Selection 2 was unarguably one of the best team-based FPS of the year, and Sleeping Dogs the best “GTA clone” or sandbox title, for PC. Of course, every list is deeply personal, and there are lashings of subjectivity here and there – the key thing to note is that “level of fun” is not the single most important criteria of this list. Not everyone will enjoy these games, but I know that those who do, do so immensely – and for me, that’s what counts.

What are your top games for this year? Have a fantastic Christmas!