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Kevin’s Five Highlights of 2012

2012 was a year about a lot of things, like (terrible) end of world predictions, the discovery of the Higgs-Boson, and Mars rover landings. But it was mainly about video games, and not just video games, but good video games, because the worst kind of video game is a bad video game. And those aren’t nice. Here are some that are.

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Borderlands 2 – Best Sequel That Didn’t Suck

Combine equal parts Call of Duty and Diablo and neglect to write a satisfying story and you’ll get the first Borderlands. Universally praised for its fresh RPG take on the FPS genre (or was it an FPS take on the RPG genre?), its relatively terrible ending was the butt of a lot of jokes, mainly because it was butt. Because of its success, fans the world over took a collective deep breath when Borderlands 2 was announced and an exhale of relief when it was released because, surprise, surprise, it was actually good. Not content with taking their case of sequelitis sitting down, Gearbox decided to go for broke and improved on every aspect of the game anyone had ever complained about, expanding their famed procedural weapon generator, breathing life into the story of Pandora and its inhabitants, and injecting, intravenously, the offbeat and dark humor briefly glimpsed throughout the first game’s campaign and its DLC. I don’t remember the last time I have been this satisfied by a sequel. Probably never.

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Minecraft – Best PC Hand-me-down

After taking the PC scene by storm, it was no wonder that Minecraft‘s devilishly simple formula would be copied ad infinitum on platforms without it, but as it turns out, the best Minecraft-clone on the Xbox Live Marketplace… is Minecraft itself. With the addition of some console-friendly modifications, such as crafting and split-screen LAN play as well as content updates to bring it up to speed with its PC predecessor, this port easily captures the block-placing, creeper-hunting magic of the original despite (currently) having a limited map size and the inability to import custom skins or maps. It turns out that the only thing better than ruining your friends elaborate brick mansion is doing it while sitting within punching distance of each other.

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Slender – Best Reason to Change Your Pants

Best played in the dark and with the high-pitched screams of your friends as a soundtrack, Slender captured the hearts, minds, and adrenal glands of the gaming scene at large with its depiction of the now viral Slender Man, originating from the Something Awful message boards and popularized in part by the mockumentary YouTube horror series, Marble Hornets. There is little story behind Slender – as soon as you start the game, you are prompted to “Collect all 8 Pages” and are left to your own devices in a dark, ominous forest armed only with a dying flashlight and paranoia. This is where Slender truly shines: mist obscures and muddles vague shapes in the distance, and a heartbeat-like pounding grows in intensity as you collect more and more pages and encounter the titular Slender Man with increasing regularity. Slender sets an excellent standard for the burgeoning indie horror genre, proving to hardcore gamers, siblings, and significant others that there’s more to them than pledge benefits and cat scares – there is absolute, no-nonsense terror.

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Katawa Shoujo – Best Reason to Take Japanese 101

One of the more vilified genres in gaming is the infamous and misunderstood “visual novel,” originating from none other than the world capital of Asian eccentricity, Japan. Visual novels are often presented as some form of fetish software, invoking images of tentacle on schoolgirl action or something equally outlandish, but the reality is that any sort of eroticism, while present, is but a minor component of the incredibly well-written stories that precede them. Four Leaf Studios, formed in part from the ranks of 4chan (the internet’s premier hive of scum and villainy), began the project in 2009 after being inspired by a single Japanese artist’s one-off sketch depicting his concept of disabled girls in a school setting. This sounds incredibly offensive – and it totally is at first glance –  but what its detractors don’t tell you about (because they haven’t played it) is its lovingly crafted story of friendship and romance (both of which sometimes end in bedroom antics). Despite the controversial and less-than PC subject matter, Katawa Shoujo is, at its core, a super niche passion project by fans paying homage to an equally niche genre and for a ragtag bunch of misfits to release a full-fledged one by themselves speaks of dedication and great moral fiber, sex scenes notwithstanding.

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World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria – Best Kung Fu Panda Simulator

The allegation that things get better with age only rings true for a few things: cheese, wine, and MMORPGs. Cheese and wine are tempered through bacterial and environmental processes (as well magic, presumably) while MMOs are forged in the fires of patches and expansion packs, and after almost eight years, (eight!) Blizzard has become a master of this 21st century smithing vocation. The previous expansion, Cataclysm, completely revamped the universally loathed 1-60 zones from its outdated “vanilla” quests to a more streamlined system, but failed to provide a similarly engaging 80-85 experience, bogged down by less than entertaining zones and compounded by a smaller level cap increase than previous expansions despite requiring an equal amount of experience to level. Pandaria continues the latter trend, bumping the level cap up by 5 levels to 90, but continues the streamlining process, simplifying the game’s talent and ability system to be more accessible and less cluttered, as well adding a new race (the Pandaren) and a new continent, the titular Pandaria, which boasts some of the best quest writing I’ve seen in an MMO to date. Haters need not apply – this expansion retains much of what makes World of Warcraft such an unshakable vice for veteran players but still manages to be amazing fun for fans old and new. Also, who doesn’t love pandas? Seriously.

With the end of the current generation and the beginning of the next in full view, 2013 has the potential to be one of the best years in video games to date, with a mix of high profile sequels as well as brand new IPs to dissect. I am not a time wizard or from the future so I don’t know if they’ll be any good, but here’s hoping.

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