With a number of blockbusters originally tipped for release in 2012 slipping into 2013, this was one of the slowest years for the gaming industry in ages. But no-shows like The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite and Grand Theft Auto V cleared the way for a few sleepers to shine. There was no shortage of great games to play, including some unexpected pleasures like The Walking Dead and XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Mass Effect 3
Despite the unevenness of some of its gameplay and an ending that doesn’t quite deliver the payoff some fans were hoping for, Mass Effect 3 is a stirring send-off for Commander Shepard and for Bioware’s action roleplaying game (RPG) trilogy. The richness of its characters and the texture of its lore elevate the whole Mass Effect trilogy to among the best sci-fi sagas in any medium in the past 10 years. And Bioware released some stellar downloadable content for the game after its release, including an enhanced ending that addressed some of the problems gamers had with the way it concluded. PS3, Xbox 360, Windows PC, WiiU
Halo creator Bungie may have moved on, but Microsoft’s dream team, 343 Industries, shows that the series is in more than capable hands with Halo 4. There’s the same best-in-class multiplayer and sleek, slick campaign as you’d find in any of the Bungie-developed games, wrapped up in the best visuals we have seen on the Xbox 360 to date. Criticise 343 for not innovating if you will, but its love for and understanding of the Halo universe is apparent in every moment of this game. Xbox 360
Max Payne 3
Max Payne returned after a nine-year gap, this time with Rockstar taking over development duties from series creator Remedy Entertainment. Rockstar kept the “bullet time” slow-mo hook that made Max Payne famous, while adding tweaks such as multiplayer and a Gears of War-style cover system to bring the formula up to date. Dripping in atmosphere, boasting cutting-edge visuals, and full of cool-as-ice action scenes, Max Payne 3 is a worthy successor to Remedy’s classic games. PS3, Xbox 360, Windows PC
Trials Evolution — the follow-up to Trials HD — is a pure shot of arcade bliss to the heart. Deceptively simple on the surface, it offers beguiling depth below its skin, embodying the easy-to-play, difficult-to-master principle of the very best games. With its wickedly designed courses, superb presentation and clever physics, this challenging motorcycle stunt game tests your patience and your skills as you try to track up high scores and complete its tracks. A neat course design mode, multiplayer, great social features and a couple of good expansion packs mean that the game offers exceptional value for money. Xbox 360 (XBLA download)
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Firaxis has done a fantastic job of updating the XCOM turn-based strategy franchise for today’s audience. Though some of the tactical gameplay has been streamlined, the game keeps much of the depth and difficulty of the beloved original intact. This game does not just revive an old franchise, but also reanimates a genre that was all but dead. It proves that there is still a market for slow-paced old-school games with a cerebral side. PS3, Xbox 360, Windows PC
Thatgamecompany’s brief but memorable Journey is an enigmatic parable and a meditative mood poem in videogame form. Its beautifully subtle visuals draw you into a world of wonder and terror, tapping into emotions that most games leave untouched. And its cooperative online play creates a wordless shared experience in a world where we are drowning in noise and chatter. With its emphasis on relaxed gameplay, freeform exploration and haunting atmosphere, Journey is completely different from anything else that came out this year. PS3 (PSN download)
Far Cry 3
Ubisoft’s Far Cry 3 pulls together light RPG elements and tight first-person shooter gunplay in an open-world Pacific island paradise crammed with things to do and kill. Though the game’s setting feels a little more pedestrian than the African savannah of Fry Cry 2, nearly every other element of the game is a huge improvement. There’s a staggering amount of content — if anything, too much of it — a beautifully realised world to explore, and countless ways to have fun with its mechanics. It’s the best open-world game of the year by far. PS3, Xbox 360, Windows PC
The pedigree of the team that made Dishonored – it includes people who worked on games such as Deus Ex, Thief: Deadly Shadows and Half-Life 2 – shines through in one of the very best games of the year. Set in an atmospheric steampunk world with faint echoes of the Victorian era, Dishonored’s emergent gameplay and brilliant world-building makes it as much of an instant classic as Bioshock. It’s a wonderful toy box stuffed with a range of deadly weapons, nifty gadgets and magical abilities for the player to experiment with in the role of elite assassin Corvo. PS3, Xbox 360, Windows PC
The Walking Dead Episodes 1 to 5
Everyone’s favourite adventure game revivalist, Telltale Games, cracks the code for compelling interactive storytelling in its episodic game series based on Robert Kirkman’s popular zombie comic book series. Focusing on storytelling and characterisation rather than shooting, the game brings to mind Heavy Rain in its mixture of quick time events and simple point-and-click adventuring.
As survivor Lee, you’re forced into making some gut-wrenching life-and-death decisions in every episode as you try to look after the young girl you rescue early in the game. I found myself on tenterhooks for the arrival of each new episode once I’d played the first. Dark, harrowing and compelling, this game was a definite highlight of the year. PS3, Xbox 360, Windows PC, iOS, Mac OS X
The follow-up to Gearbox’s “role-playing shooter” is a master class in how to do a sequel right. Borderlands 2 offers a stack of improvements and enhancements over its predecessors, including new character classes, improved artificial intelligence and a more expansive and customisable set of weapons. But it stayed faithful to the same single-player and cooperative looting, mayhem and twisted humour that made Borderlands the surprise hit of 2009.
Gearbox deserves a special hat tip for the effort it invested in making the PC version definitive when lazy ports from the ageing consoles to PCs have become the norm. And if the core game wasn’t enough, Gearbox also delivered a couple of meaty expansion packs for the game that put the quick-and-dirty cash-in “DLC” that most developers release in the wake of their games to shame. PS3, Xbox 360, Windows PC, Mac OS X
Darksiders 2: THQ’s sequel to its third-person action game adds a dash of Diablo-style looting to the original’s blend of God of War-like combat, Prince of Persia platforming and Zelda-ish exploration. It’s a tasty concoction. PS3, Xbox 360, Windows PC, WiiU
FEZ: The brain-torturing indie platform/puzzle game is a work of Byzantine brilliance — like tumbling down rabbit holes in rabbit holes in rabbit holes. Xbox 360 (XBLA download)
Mark of the Ninja: Though just a downloadable budget title, this 2D side-scroller features the purest, most expertly crafted stealth game mechanics of the year. For Xbox 360 (XBLA download), PC (Steam download)
The Room: A polished mystery game with an eerie atmosphere, neat graphics and increasingly intricate puzzles. iOS
Torchlight 2: Costing less than half the price of Diablo 3 and packing in five times as much personality, this action RPG is an addictive little diversion. Windows PC; Mac OS X version due sometime