Video games in 2012: A year of high-octane sequels

December 28, 2012

The video game industry has had a turbulent 2012.

The past year saw the introduction of a lot of new hardware: hand-helds from Sony and Nintendo in the form of the PlayStation Vita and the Nintendo 3DS XL, as well as a new console from Nintendo called the Wii U.

Speculation also ramped up about the next generation of consoles from Sony and Microsoft, with the expectation that both companies will announce follow-ups to their systems in the coming year.

From a game standpoint, 2012 was mostly a year of high-octane sequels, many of which focused on stronger narratives and more innovative game play. But even in a year of much-anticipated follow-ups, some new titles gained a lot of attention.

For example, Spike TV’s annual nod for game of the year went to a new game: The Walking Dead, a fairly simple but tightly written zombie survival game that puts its focus on dropping players in the middle of a fully sketched-out world. It is a downloadable title that comes in episodes, giving it the feel of a downloadable interactive television show. (For those curious, it was based on the same comic as the AMC show of the same name.)

Although not a complicated game to play, the title stands out as one that gives players, acting as survivors in a post-zombie apocalyptic world, a great deal of control over the story line in this game — and every personal interaction can have fairly serious repercussions down the line. It came highly reviewed, and its innovative approach to distribution made it a particularly interesting contribution to the year’s titles.

Still, it may not have topped everyone’s list of games of the year. A lot of reviewers liked Dishonored from mega-publisher Bethesda. A steampunky stealth game, it got high marks for its open world. It was designed to give players some opportunity to pick their own path to revenge through the grimy city of Dunwall, which was modeled on 19th-century London.

On the other side of the grit spectrum, the exploration and puzzle game Journey, from Thatgamecompany, also drew a lot of acclaim this year for its stunning visual style and score. It also allows players to interact and work with strangers for a short time, giving the whole game a feeling of serendipity that made it stand out.

Of course, sequels to top games thrived in 2012 as well, building on the strong franchises they represent. A remade game, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, made many reviewers’ top lists, with praise for how Firaxis handled its reboot of the classic alien-invasion strategy game. Borderlands 2 not only took players back to the Wild West atmosphere of the first game but built on the experience with more vehicles and weapons, and a greater focus on team play.

NBA 2K12 took cues from executive producer Jay-Z to make its latest title a pop culture triumph and continued its run as the must-have game for basketball lovers. Far Cry 3 got dinged for its story but earned solid reviews for its game play and unpredictable nature. And Assassin’s Creed III’s Revolutionary War tale got high marks for its ambitious story and impressive naval battles.

Other high-profile sequels, such as Call of Duty: Black Ops II, also made a splash in 2012, reaching $1 billion in sales in just 15 days.

And, of course, Halo 4’s long-awaited debut also made a big hit in the gaming world this year, even as players expressed some concern about handing over the classic series into the hands of new developers. 343 Industries’ take on Halo, however, offered a more story-driven view of the game’s universe and took players more deeply into the life of Master Chief, one of the industry’s most iconic characters.

The video game industry has a lot of challenges in the year ahead, from aging hardware to a continued shift toward mobile games. The industry is also facing calls from critics who would like to restart conversations about the appropriateness of violence in major titles.

This year’s most innovative and talked about titles focused on finding new connections with gamers, whether it was through its distribution method or by giving them more control over the stories they are playing — a trend that seems likely to continue.

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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