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The Best Surprises Of 2012

Sure, 2012 was a year rife with disappointments. But it was also filled with surprises of the best sort. Since we brought everyone down last week with our list of the biggest disappointments of the year, we thought it only proper to also share the best, most welcome surprises.

Here now, the best surprises of 2012.

You Don’t Know Jack Hits Facebook, Rules

After years out of the spotlight, the YDKJ franchise returned to consoles and PC a couple of years ago. It was a lot of fun, and a good reminder that we still liked Jellyvision’s brand of peppy, off-kilter trivia. But it was hard not to get the sense that each question brought you closer to the end of the finite number of challenges and we missed the gibberish question.

This year, seemingly out of nowhere, Jellyvision put the game on Facebook and it was excellent. Turns out the game lends itself to asynchronous social play more than just about anything else on the platform. The more recent mobile version is just as good. You Don’t Know Jack isn’t just a welcome return of a classic series, it’s easily one of the best social games of all time.

Sleeping Dogs

One could be forgiven for not expecting too much from Sleeping Dogs. Originally slated to be another entry the Activision-published True Crime series, it was dropped by the publisher, picked up by Square Enix, finished and published with its current out-there name. It seemed like it’d be another Grand Theft Auto clone. And it is, to a point; but it’s also fantastic.

It’s got a great story, strong acting and a really fun combat system that, thank the gods, largely ditches gunplay in favour of Arkham City-like martial arts. And perhaps best of all, its wonderful Hong Kong setting gives it a real sense of place. A standout game for 2012, and easily one of the best true surprises of the year.

PlayStation Plus Becomes Worthwhile

Show of hands for everyone who saw this one coming. For a long time, one of the big selling points (so to speak) of Sony’s PlayStation Network was that it offered the same services as Microsoft’s Xbox Live, but for free. (Insert joke about PlayStation Home here.) So when Sony unveiled Playstation “Plus,” it didn’t quite compute. Why would anyone pay for something they’ve been getting for free for so long? The early rewards didn’t seem worth it — an early download of a demo, early access to a game, or some light exclusive content.

Suddenly, Sony went hog-wild and started offering loads of free games to subscribers, and the service got a lot more appealing. As Stephen put it, suddenly PlayStation Plus was making a mockery of Xbox LIVE; later offers like the one that made almost every good Vita game free only sweetened the deal. Good show, Sony; we didn’t think you had it in you.

The Walking Dead

It seems strange to call Telltale’s The Walking Dead a surprise, but there was a time just this year when none of us saw it coming. We’d known Telltale as the studio responsible for some hit-or-miss licensed adventure games. There was some promising buzz surrounding The Walking Dead if you were paying attention, but all the same, it wasn’t until that first episode came out and we played it that it became clear just how special this series could be.

By the time they hit that astonishing third episode, Lee, Clementine and company were full steam ahead to Game Of The Year town.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown could have gone wrong in so, so many ways. From the moment it was revealed, it almost felt like an apology for 2K’s other take on the series, the gaudy, long-delayed first-person shooter. It sure looked like an update of the classic, tactical PC game so many of us fell in love with back in the 90s. But could anyone really pull that off? Yep, turns out Firaxis could. Easily one of the most absorbing, white-knuckle games of the year, XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a resounding success in almost every way.

Sony’s Downloadable Indie Lineup

While the PC will likely always have the lion’s share of quality indie games, a gamer in 2012 could find all manner of lovely, weird, interesting downloadable games on Sony’s console. Papo y Yo, The Unfinished Swan, Tokyo Jungle, Mutant Blobs Attack!, Sound Shapes and of course, Journey. The PS3 might not have gotten many blockbuster system-sellers this year, but the PSN spent most of 2012 as a hotbed of smart, beautiful games. Cheers, Sony.

DayZ

We’ve seen so many zombie games. So, so many. And yet in 2012, Dean Hall’s Arma II mod DayZ quickly became arguably the greatest zombie game ever made. Harrowing and immensely difficult, it was a “game” like no other, a lawless online hellscape that regularly cranked out unbelievable stories. DayZ was also the first zombie game to reinforce that long-held trope of zombie fiction: Sure, the undead are terrifying, but other survivors are far more dangerous.

The Wii U Controller

The surprising thing isn’t that the Wii U’s controller, which incorporates a large touch-screen, was cool. It was the way it was cool. I figured it’s be neat enough for all the reasons Nintendo kept hyping — I can hold it up and look around the game-world, I can use the touch-screen to interact with games differently. And it was neat in those ways. But what I didn’t see coming was how nice it would be just to play games on it.

I’ve been playing a lot of Little Inferno and New Super Mario Bros. U, and I always play both games on the controller, not on my TV. Sure, games like ZombiU require both the TV and the controller. And those are cool. But Nintendo seems to have anticipated a desire that none of us knew we had — to play games on handhelds and tablets, even in our living rooms.

Mutant Blobs Attack!

Who could’ve anticipated that the best launch title for the PS Vita wouldn’t be Uncharted: Golden Abyss or even WipEout, but a little indie platformer called Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack!? Certainly not me. And yet Mutant Blobs was indeed was a great game, a smart, challenging platformer that used the Vita’s various touch capabilities in clever ways and was loaded with cheeky humour, funny meta-gags and brain-twisting puzzles. It remains one of the best games on the system, even all these months later.

Slender

Parsec Productions’ wonderfully creepy, super low-budget game Slender was another out-of-left-field phenomenon in 2012. The free PC and Mac game spawned countless imitators, a newfound interest in Slenderman lore and the “Marble Hornets” video series, and a lot of goofy videos of people playing it and freaking out.

It’s even led Parsec to team up with Blue Isle to make a much more polished-looking sequel called Slender: The Arrival. Will lightning strike twice? We’ll see. But it certainly struck once, making Slender one of 2012′s most unexpected success stories.

Resident Evil: Revelations

It was quite a surprise that in 2012, when Resident Evil series took a serious beating for both Raccoon City and Resident Evil 6, Capcom would also release one of the best Resident Evil games in a long while. Revelations stripped things down for the 3DS and as a result was one of the most focused Resident Evil games in a long while. Sure, Chris Redfield’s action chapters were still more Gears of War-lite than true survival horror, but they mainly served to break up Jill’s tense, genuinely scary chapters on that abandoned ship.

The Friend Game

It’s surprising that it took someone this long to come up with The Friend Game, seeing as how it’s kind of the perfect game for Facebook. In it, you have to answer questions about your friends to see how well you know them — guess the answer they gave, and you get points. It’s sort of like OKCupid, only it’s more of a literal game, rather than just a metaphorical one. It’s a real blast, and along with You Don’t Know Jack gives new hope for the future of Facebook gaming.

Rayman Jungle Run

One could be forgiven for thinking that Ubisoft is driving the Rayman franchise into the ground. Last year’s Rayman: Origins wound up being one of the best 2D platformers in ages, and suddenly it seemed like we were seeing the little armless dude everywhere. He’s not even that cool of a mascot, people! But then again, if every Rayman game can be as good as Jungle Run, I’m not complaining.

The game perfectly translates the difficulty and goofy inertia of Origins to touch-screen devices, and looks gorgeous, too. It’s one of the few iOS games I still whip out and play regularly, and the perfect-score challenges are just difficult enough to be challenging while remaining attainable. And of course, you get to listen to that amazing soundtrack all over again.

Super Hexagon

Super Hexagon, the other big iOS surprise of the year, goes from “enjoyable high-score challenge” to “insane addiction” in the space of about five minutes. The whole thing is deceptively simple (or should that be deceptively complex?). Keep your little triangle from hitting a line, and don’t have a seizure. While Super Hexagon is a lot of fun on its own, something about the combination grinding chip soundtrack, fast-paced die/retry/die rhythm, and announcer Jenn Frank’s robot-like encouragement combine to make it almost impossible to put down.

ZombiU

Sure, we technically knew about ZombiU before E3 2012, but it still came as something of a shock when we finally played it at the Los Angeles expo. Zombies? Sure. A token Ubisoft hardcore launch-game for the Wii U? OK. But against all probability, ZombiU was actually an interesting game, with a mix of Dark Souls and Dead Island. The game turned out really well, arguably the best game on the Wii U at launch.

Spec Ops: The Line

The folks at Yager Interactive talked a big game with Spec Ops: The Line. Blah blah, adult story, blah, subversive take on video game violence, blah blah Heart of Darkness blah. And yet.. and yet… while the final game was something of a muddle, it was far more successful in achieving its goals than anyone was expecting. Once players got past the (debatably purposefully) boring third-person shooter opening chapters, the story went on a genuinely batshit descent into madness, all leading towards an audacious, ambiguous finale.

It inspired Tom Bissell’s fantastic essay “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Shooter”, and even inspired Brendan Keogh to write an entire book called “Killing is Harmless,” which actually I haven’t read, but at the very least prompted more good conversation. For those interested in video game storytelling, Spec Ops: The Line is worth playing as much for its failures as its successes.

Little Inferno

Little Inferno, which was released both on Wii U and PC this November, seems like a simple enough little thing. Players burn stuff in a fireplace, and use the coins they get from burning stuff to buy more stuff, which they then burn. But beneath that casual-friendly exterior lies a surprisingly moving story. That the burning itself is fun should come as no surprise, given that the developers are the same folks who made wonderfully tactile World of Goo. But the dark, clever fable at the game’s heart? That’s one of the most welcome surprises of the year.

E3: Watch Dogs And Star Wars 1313

E3 2012 was light on surprises this year. That may have heightened excitement around the few games that actually were surprises, though we think we’d have gotten pretty excited about both Watch Dogs and Star Wars 1313 even amid a sea of other announcements. Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs was one of the only true, jaw-on-the-floor surprises of the show, made all the better by a lengthy in-game demonstration so impressive that it made it difficult to believe Ubisoft’s claims that the game was being developed for current-generation systems.

We’d already gathered some inkling of Star Wars 1313 through the rumour mill, but when it was finally revealed, it looked even better than we’d hoped. The game looks to be ditching Jedi and force powers (hooray) in favour of a more Uncharted-like adventure. It’s a shame that game designer Clint Hocking departed LucasArts this year, since this is the exact sort of Star Wars game I was hoping he’d make. Here’s hoping Lucasarts has got someone equally talented on 1313, and that they can finally come up with a worthwhile new singleplayer Star Wars game.

Peter Molyneux And Cliff Bleszinski Keep On Truckin’

Studio departures aren’t usually the sorts of surprises we get too worked up about here, but these two stood out. In March, legendary developer Peter Molyneux left Lionhead Studios and Microsoft to start his own independent studio. Then in October, Cliff Bleszinski left Epic Games. While Fable and Gears of War games are all well and good, it’s understandable that two developers who got their start in the fracas of pre-millennial PC gaming might start to chafe at their cushy lives pushing out mega-franchise sequels.

Given the wild stuff going on in independent PC development right now, both men are almost surely excited to finally be freed of their past successes and starting something new. We’re excited, too.

3DS XL

The 3DS XL was a surprise partly just because Nintendo said it wasn’t coming, then said it was. But the real surprise was that the super-sized version of the 3DS was a big improvement in almost every way.

Black Mesa

It seemed like there was no way — NO WAY — that Black Mesa could have been any good. A fan-made, group-sourced remake/tribute of Half-Life, one of the greatest games ever made. A thrown-together team of programmers and amateur writers and voice-talent, regularly delaying the game, speaking in interviews about how thoroughly they’d underestimated the project. And yet… it was good. Really, really good. It was a smart, funny, fun tribute to a classic, and amazingly enough, even improved on the original game in some ways. An astonishing surprise, any way you slice it.