The 10 best video games of 2012

CNN  — 

With new installments of popular franchises such as “Halo” and “Call of Duty,” expectations ran high for video games in 2012.

While the year’s most anticipated title, “BioShock Infinite,” got pushed to 2013, there were still plenty of games that pushed new boundaries with innovative story lines, fantastic graphics and creative storytelling.

Two new consoles, the handheld PlayStation Vita and the Nintendo Wii U, introduced new gameplay options with touch screen controls and cross-platform titles. Meanwhile, the shaky economy continued to plague the video game industry, as some big developers filed for bankruptcy while upstarts turned to Kickstarter to finance their game projects.

Of course, any Top 10 list is subjective, depending on individual tastes. For me, the games on this list were the most well-made, the most fun to play and, thanks to some intriguing elements, the hardest to put down. (There were some fine games that came out this year that I never got the chance to play, so feel free to make suggestions or disagree with my choices in the comments.)

Here’s my list, counted down from No. 10 to my favorite game of the year:

10. “ZombiU”

This dark tale of survival during a zombie outbreak in London captured my attention for its unique style of gameplay and gritty scenarios. Players must figure out how to survive using their wits, not a plethora of weapons. And when you do die (and you will), your former character becomes a zombie for your next human character to face. So you get to kill your former self and get all your loot back. It’s very twisted – and a nice change of pace for a Nintendo console.

9. ‘Spec Ops: The Line’

While it may look like a typical war shooter game, “Spec Ops: The Line” raised the storytelling bar by examining what war feels like on an individual level. This realistic desert-setting game hooks your emotions early on, and its action keeps you on edge until the story’s dramatic finish. It was a bold move by the writers to delve into the psyche of a soldier without making it feel like a fantasy trip.

8. ‘Journey’

I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t grasp what “Journey” was about at first. But the more I played, the more I began to understand that a game with artistic value can be just as exciting as a racing game. Without a word of dialogue, the game transports players to a magical desert where they journey toward a mysterious mountain and discovery is the object of the game. By encouraging you to assist other players on the same path, “Journey” tugs at your emotions and maintains a connection that makes it hard to put down. The game is over too quickly, but every replay allows for more exposure to its fantastic world.

7. ‘Escape Plan’

It won’t be on many year-end lists, but this game was funny and exciting while demonstrating the strengths of the PlayStation Vita. Lil and Laarg, two unique characters with divergent abilities, must be guided through a series of dangerous puzzle rooms to get to safety. Players move them via various inputs on the Vita (dual touchscreens, microphone, analog joysticks), but failure is often accompanied by a gruesome (and sometimes humorous) death. “Escape Plan” still gets played in my house months after its release – plus, seeing Lil on his coffee buzz is just laugh-out-loud funny.

6. ‘Far Cry 3’

The first of the year’s many sequels to make my list, “Far Cry 3” takes a character-centric story of growth and danger and drops it into an open-sandbox world where you must adapt to survive. Described by others as ” ‘Skyrim’ with guns,” it goes beyond that into an exploration of personal change against overwhelming odds. Your character starts out as a timid party boy, stranded on an lawless tropical island, and evolves by necessity into something more deadly. The immersive first-person story and complex characters – you will really hate the bad guys – will keep you hooked throughout.

5. ‘Mass Effect 3’

Aside from its ending, which has been criticized for its lack of closure, “Mass Effect 3” is a fantastic dive back into the galactic world of protagonist Commander Shepard. Players must chart their own course through this space-war adventure, choosing their morality along the way, to resolve a storyline that began two games ago. Are all plotline questions answered? No. But that doesn’t diminish the game’s vast universe of aliens and enemies. I’ll be sad Shepard won’t be back (BioWare has said he’s not part of “Mass Effect 4”), but this game will be remembered for how invested players became in his ultimate fate.

4. ‘Halo 4’

Speaking of endings, “Halo 4” brought a close to one of the popular characters in this sci-fi action franchise. No, not Master Chief, the super-soldier who will live on to kick more alien tail, but his artificial-intelligence companion, Cortana. The game’s graphics are almost film-level quality, and the range of environments keeps the pacing fresh. I wish there weren’t so many tangents into the non-gaming lore of the franchise. But the game’s emotional ending, when we realize how much Master Chief cared about his sidekick, put “Halo 4” on the top shelf for me.

3. ‘Borderlands 2’

First-person shooter “Borderlands 2” takes players back to the ravaged planet Pandora while improving on what was already a good game. The guns (lots of guns) and the violence (oh, the violence) are still there. But the introduction of villain Handsome Jack and his twisted sense of right and wrong give the player a welcome target to aim for. The loathing you’ll feel for Jack by the end will be palpable. I wanted to do the next mission just to find out what was going to happen. “Borderlands 2” offers the perfect mix of intrigue, explosions and humor.

2. ‘XCOM: Enemy Unknown’

This turn-based combination strategy/squad combat game brings thoughtful gaming to a new level. One part is resource management: Can you build and lead a worldwide military force tasked with defending Earth from alien invaders? The other part is squad-level combat: Can you direct your troops to victory on various fields of battle against foes who are bent on your death? This blend of styles kept me playing for hours on end.

1. ‘Dishonored”

Set in a rotting, alternate-universe world where steampunk visuals blend with advanced technology, “Dishonored” forces you to seek revenge for being framed for a murder you didn’t commit. As you set out to assassinate your enemies, there are two extreme modes of play – stealth or combat – and you can choose between the divergent styles as you see fit. The pacing is your own. The decisions, for better or worse, are yours to make. But they will have consequences along the way, so choose wisely. With a fantastic setting, an excellent storyline and the ability to make the adventures your own, “Dishonored” is my choice for the best game of 2012.