2012 was by most accounts a rather underwhelming year for gaming. In terms of critical reception and end-of-year awards, there were several lauded indie titles and a handful of triple-A successes, but little in the way of undisputed masterpieces.
Then again, in a year when critics strained to heap praise upon a select few games, some were bound to be oversold for their good points. Similarly, a few diamonds were left hidden in the rough, overshadowed by the critical darlings. These underrated gems weren’t necessarily low-profile independent releases, but they were largely ignored by audiences and undervalued by critics.
So here’s my humble list of the games that stood out to me as overrated or underrated.
A few caveats before I start:
• The views espoused here are mine and mine alone. Don’t blame the other fine people at 2D-X if you happen to vehemently disagree with me or want to roast my almonds after reading this.
• I obviously did not play every game released in 2012. For example, I missed out on big titles like Halo 4, Far Cry 3, and X-COM. I’m sure there were plenty of games I did not play that are well suited to this list, but alas, that’s the nature of an expensive, time-consuming medium. We can only play so much.
• “Overrated” should not necessarily be taken to mean “bad.” On the contrary, several games that I label as overrated are actually quite good. In these cases, I simply think that critics failed to properly weigh the games’ faults against their merits.
• Likewise, “underrated” does not mean “perfect.” Indeed, if I had a personal “Game of the Year,” it was not one of the underrated games listed here. They all have flaws, but I think they deserve a second-look from audiences despite those flaws.
Assassin’s Creed III
How the mighty have fallen. The first two Assassin’s Creed games were excellent entries in the stealth-action genre, but you’d be hard-pressed to convince a series newcomer that Assassin’s Creed III has anything to do with stealth. What began as an annoying germ of unnecessary gameplay additions in the glorified expansions Brotherhood and Revelations has now metastasized as full-on, crippling bloat.
A full third of the game is spent following NPCs from one bland location to the next, and it isn’t until rather late in the game that the player starts getting to the meat of the titular assassinations. There’s plenty to see and do, but so much of the optional material is lifeless filler. Even the main missions have gone from visceral stealth to hokey and often buggy mini-games. Everything feels slow and ungainly, from piloting ships to traversing treetops. The eclectic open-world gameplay is an absolute slog to navigate, far removed from the simple joys of leaping across the rooftops of Venice in search of the next target.
What’s worse, the sections spent in the present (as the oft-derided Desmond) are a tantalizing peek into what could have been had the developers not decided to turn the third major entry in their incredibly successful series into a low-rent Red Dead Redemption. How cool would it have been to spend an entire Assassin’s Creed game stalking skyscrapers like Faith from Mirror’s Edge and taking out Templars like a parkour version of Agent 47 from Hitman? Most likely a great deal cooler than anything found in this dull travesty.
Astonishingly, despite some mixed reviews, Assassin’s Creed III has found its way onto a few Best-of lists. But unless the authors of those lists are talking about the standout musical score, I’m not sure what game they played, because nothing else about Assassin’s Creed III is particularly good. Even the graphics – which suffer from abundant screen-tearing – and the usually terrific story are diminished this time around, and it’s a damn shame, as this could have been the grandest entry yet.
I’d welcome the opportunity to write another harangue about this mysteriously well-regarded PC oddity… but I feel I covered the game’s problems pretty well in my review.
Journey is one of the aforementioned “overrated” games that’s actually pretty darn good. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that some of my favorite visual and gameplay moments of 2012 came from this downloadable treat from Thatgamecompany. The graphics are fantastic, the music is memorable, and the co-op gameplay is incredibly unique.
So what’s not to like? Well, the game is $15 and only two or three hours-long. Don’t get me wrong; a game’s worth should be judged more by the indelible experiences it provides than by its cost. But cost is still a factor when it comes to evaluating a game’s bang-for-the-buck, and it’s debatable whether Journey, for all its indie game appeal, is worth the steep asking price. However memorable, the game’s few set-piece puzzles are straightforward and simplistic, and while the ending is satisfying, its singular “point” as didactic art seems to have been assigned too much weight by critics.
For these reasons alone, it’s worth pointing out that Journey is hardly the perfect game it is trumped up to be as a Game of the Year favorite. Still, it’s a lovely follow-up to the equally memorable Flower and well worth experiencing.
If Journey was overvalued at $15, then Sound Shapes is doubly so. Packing a mere hour of gameplay in its campaign, Sound Shapes provides a great soundtrack and a few amusing levels, but little else. Sure, you can unlock some difficult challenge levels, but they can be beaten in less than a day and rely too much on luck to be considered well designed. Some will point to the design tools and user-created levels as saving graces, but given the asking price, what’s here is astonishingly thin.
Again, Sound Shapes isn’t a bad game, but it’s certainly not the revolutionary Vita and PS3 game many claim it to be. After all, the core mechanics are quite similar to the two Tales from Space games, which came out earlier and are arguably superior platformers.
Spec Ops: The Line
If ever a game was overvalued for its conclusion, this is it. While Spec Ops: The Line didn’t garner pristine review scores or a slew of year-end accolades, it did receive more than a passing mention of its controversial storyline – in particular, the ending.
Granted, the twist at the end of Spec Ops is an interesting one, and it’s thoughtfully implemented in the sense that it makes you reevaluate the time you’ve spent playing, but it doesn’t make up for what is otherwise an unremarkable cover-shooter. Much like the Army of Two games, the basic action in Spec Ops is rather straightforward and predictable, with the usual set of mindless enemy waves, choke-points, turret sections, and dingy, war-torn environments. No amount of well-meaning allusions to Heart of Darkness can save this game from a design philosophy that is inexcusably rote.
The Walking Dead
This is a tough one. On the one hand, Telltale’s The Walking Dead features what is undoubtedly one of the best stories ever crafted for a video game. The plot is wonderfully paced and surprising, the characters are memorable, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t choke up once or twice while playing.
On the other hand, for all the praise and awards that have been heaped upon this game, far too few critics bothered to mention just how lousy the underlying puzzle-based gameplay really is. Object-based puzzles are streamlined to the point of being superfluous, with most solutions lying in all too visible proximity to their accompanying obstacles. Say what you will about Telltale’s earlier Sam & Max games; they at least had a few puzzles that challenged the mind. Nothing about The Walking Dead’s puzzles is particularly challenging or even engaging. They’re nuisances, simply put in to fill space between cinematic sequences and to justify the game’s existence as non-movie.
Yet I can’t say with any conviction that The Walking Dead is a “bad” game or that it isn’t worth playing. Far from it; I’d recommend the game to fans of the comic and show in a heartbeat. But the game’s blemishes are undeniable, and it’s not enough to say that the game is “really an interactive movie with light game underpinnings.” If the puzzle sections weren’t meant to be good, they wouldn’t have been included, and the game would have turned out more like Telltale’s Jurassic Park. Sadly, The Walking Dead will have to settle for being a very good game with one extremely glaring – yet somehow often overlooked – flaw.
Having come out of nowhere in early 2012, SEGA’s Binary Domain is the very definition of underrated. It’s an impeccably polished cover-shooter that cribs the best ideas from genre mainstays like Gears of War and Vanquish and turns them into something uniquely exhilarating. Sadly, the game received only above-average review scores and went largely unnoticed by most gamers. They don’t know what they’re missing, because Binary Domain is unexpectedly smart, beautiful, and a ton of fun.
Players command a rag-tag group of international soldiers in a mission to infiltrate the headquarters of a massive robotics company. Utilizing a fantastic limb-damage system, the game offers up cybernetic enemies that are fun to shoot, as well as some massive bosses and memorable action set pieces. It’s also the rare squad shooter that makes the player’s choice of personnel count, as affinities with certain team members lead to different cutscenes and endings. Some poor squad controls aside, Binary Domain is one of the better games of its type to come out this generation and shouldn’t be missed.
Every year, there seems to be one or two ingenious puzzle games that receive positive reviews and very little attention. Past examples include the wonderful Crush and Rochard. My puzzle pick for 2012, Closure, is based on a three year-old Flash game but its gameplay still feels fresh: players must use portable light sources and lit platforms to navigate a stunning world bathed in darkness. The light/darkness mechanic makes for an addictive, brain-teasing hook and the brilliant puzzle design leads to more than a few euphoric, “Ah-ha!” moments. The game is an absolute must for Steam and PSN users who love a good challenge.
The Darkness II
The original Darkness was one of the unsung heroes of 2007, and five years later, its sequel was met with the same lack of enthusiasm and worse sales. Though not quite as strong a game as its predecessor, The Darkness II is a more compact, focused shooter with tight controls and a richly bleak atmosphere.
At the core of the sequel’s success is a clever scoring system that rewards players for using varied attacks and combinations of powers to kill enemies. Also notable are the excellent voice acting, intriguing story, and exemplary co-op campaign (which, quite impressively, is just as fun to play solo). It’s a much shorter ride, but fans of the original owe it to themselves to play this underrated gem of a sequel.
Double Dragon: Neon
Though fundamentally different from the original Double Dragon games in tone, Neon acts as a nostalgic wink at the beat-em-ups of video game yesteryear. Its weapon-based combat admittedly features very little in the way of variety, but what’s there is polished, fun, looks and sounds great, and is often good for a chuckle – not too unlike the equally underrated Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
Some critics didn’t enjoy the game’s bratty, tongue-in-cheek approach and classically stiff controls, but I think they make the game stand out in a growing crowd of retro brawlers. Rather than take itself seriously, Neon reminds us that this genre is all about mindless fun, and does so with an endearing sense of style (not to mention a kick-ass soundtrack).
Few developers do open-world destruction like Radical Entertainment. Building on their initial success with The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, Radical released Prototype in 2009 to strong reviews and solid sales. Prototype 2 represents a refinement on every level: better graphics, more interesting side material, a more coherent story, and so on. Unfortunately, the response to the sequel was rather muted.
The response is understandable, because at its core, Prototype 2 is essentially the same game as the original: players control a super-powered behemoth who rampages around a city, infiltrating bases and stealing the identities of key targets. But Prototype was a very good game, and it’s hard to knock something that emulates the first game’s success with even better results. While it was an undeniably hyped, high-profile release, I think the raucously enjoyable Prototype 2 deserved to be a bigger hit for its embattled developer than it ultimately was.
I could put quite a few Vita games in this spot, many of them launch titles. In particular, Wipeout 2048 and Uncharted: Golden Abyss were visually astounding, system-seller-caliber games that were undersold by critics and ignored (along with the system itself) by most gamers. But no Vita game was so unfairly overlooked as Unit 13.
Zipper Interactive’s swan song is a unique score-based shooter and a perfect fit for a handheld. Players select an operative whose skills range from stealth to run-and-gun proficiency and take part (alone or cooperatively) in one of several bite-sized missions with various objectives. While I can understand how the game might come off as a disappointment for those expecting a riveting story (each mission is self-contained and there is no overarching plot), that’s not the kind of game Unit 13 is trying to be.
Instead, it’s something of a cross between The Club and SOCOM: US Navy SEALs Fireteam Bravo, emphasizing point totals and leveling up over any pretense of military melodrama or realism. It controls well, looks great, and rewards thoughtful planning in addition to split-second reflexes. Unit 13 isn’t the ideal game for anyone wanting a Call of Duty-style frag-fest on Vita (there’s no real single player campaign or versus mode of which to speak), but as an alternative to your typical military shooter, it’s a great deal more successful than the dreadful Black Ops: Declassified.
Zipper tried to do something different and was sadly punished for their valiant effort; that alone would qualify them for a spot on most lists like this. It helps that Unit 13 is an all-around excellent game.