If it happens in videogames, it happens on the PC first. Every year, developers conjure new ways to dazzle, mystify, challenge, and entertain us—some with a handful of deceptively simple game mechanics and a unique art style, others by building entire worlds that accommodate whatever role we choose to play in them. Whatever the approach, the big advancements always take place on the only platform without masters or limitations.
That makes handing out our awards every year an excruciating task. Because there are plenty of games that did things well and many games that do them extraordinarily well, but only one that can be said to have done something best. These awards are a tribute to those games—the ones that, in a year of outstanding work, stood above the rest; the games that set the high mark for each category and put the challenge to developers in 2012: top that .
The epic showdowns from the comic books and TV shows we grew up with are masterfully recreated in DC Universe Online with often grim intensity—and we're not forced to be the good guy. Combat is refreshingly deep, the player customization gives incredible freedom (in both looks and play style), and Gotham and Metropolis are filled with secrets to explore and collectible goodies to find. Its costume collection system is the best ever made, and every MMO should steal its two-person Duo dungeons design. Every gamer should have this MMO installed, and play through it at least once—there's hardly any reason not to, given the game's generous free-to-play content—and then keep an eye out for content packs that emphasize their favorite characters, including Flash, Green Lantern, and Brainiac (pictured above).
Publisher Sony Online Entertainment
Developer Sony Online Entertainment
Meticulously crafted by Moscow-based Eagle Dynamics, this über-accurate study simulation of the USAF's A-10C Thunderbolt II close air support fighter sets the bar for PC combat flight sims so high it may never be eclipsed. From its fully clickable and stunningly accurate 3D cockpit to its high fidelity avionics and flight modeling, DCS: A-10C Warthog delivers a master class in advanced flight simming. If you want to be a fighter jock—a real fighter jock—it doesn't get any better than this.
Publisher The Fighter Collection
Developer Eagle Dynamics
Forethought is the key to any great strategy game, and Frozen Synapse delivers a brilliant tool to predict (but never guarantee) what'll happen—a preview button. It's around this single mechanic that all the other elements come together so elegantly. Positioning, setting the timing and rules of engagement of units—it's all intuitive battle-programming, analogous to writing down a musical score and having it played back to you by an arena of rockets, machineguns, and splattered blood.
Publisher Mode 7 Games
Developer Mode 7 Games
Outside the confines of Arkham Asylum, Batman has, quite literally, the freedom to soar. After proving that it had the imagination and skill to make administering Batman's signature rough justice to Gotham City's worst a thrilling videogame experience, Rocksteady aimed even higher in the wide-open world of Batman: Arkham City. The result is a superhero game that convincingly immerses you not only into the being, but also the psyche of a lethal vigilante who—let's face it—gets off on terrorizing his prey.
Publisher Warner Bros. Interactive
The lo-fi graphics, the classic adventure game mechanics, the Blade Runner-style combination of hard science fiction and gritty noir—Gemini Rue is steeped in PC gaming nostalgia. But don't let that fool you: its fusion of a strong, linear narrative with gameplay that doesn't leave the player on the sidelines is absolutely cutting-edge. Instead of overwrought puzzles and make-work, the game challenges us to navigate a labyrinth of conspiracy and deceit, questioning every character's motives along the way—including our own.
Publisher Wadjet Eye Games
Developer Joshua Nuernberger
We died from kicking a door down. We gained ludicrous XP from performing feats of “Heroic Vandalism.” We foolishly charged into a monster zoo, thinking our Dire Sandwiches could save us. And we paid with our lives. Again and again. But thanks to the creativity and diversity of character traits (rolling a wizard with Flesh-smithing, Fungal Arts, and Necronominco-nomics, to name just a few), Dredmor's randomized dungeons and perma-deaths are an essential part of the fun, with every grisly demise leading to fresh possibilities and unique stories.
Publisher Gaslamp Games
Developer Gaslamp Games
Most games manage to slip in a spectacular set-piece or two into the action: Modern Warfare 3 strings them together like bullets on a bandolier. Completing a mission in the middle of a sun-occluding sandstorm; floating Inception-like in the cabin of an airplane as it comes apart while trading rounds in the air; accidentally blowing up the Eiffel Tower; wrecking enemies with a remote-controlled tank. Everything's at stake, there's a clear enemy and a team of men who only speak in catch phrases and military shorthand determined to stop him—it's a trope-filled template, but the spectacle of Europe and New York under attack in Modern Warfare 3's campaign is beautifully tuned action-movie indulgence.
Developer Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer Games
Both sides in Red Orchestra 2—Axis and Ally—have a unique sprinting animation that reflects the way they were trained to run with a rifle. That isn't realism for realism's sake—it's a useful moving silhouette for distinguishing Fedor from Franz at 200m. In these kinds of details, Tripwire wraps its reverence for WWII history around thoughtful FPS design that rewards those players with the most battlefield awareness. Detailed damage modeling means enemy bodies don't act like bags of hitpoints, but a body of simulated limbs and organs with specific vulnerabilities. Real bullet behavior is the other side of that; seeing a grey-coat run behind a brick wall, then tagging him in the heart (because you're pretty sure he crouched behind it) honors your skill and intuition as a soldier.
Publisher Tripwire Interactive
Developer Tripwire Interactive
Portal 2 wove humor, drama, adventure, and puzzles into a single tightrope and then led us gracefully across it—and such was the combined strength of these threads that we eventually forgot that we were solving puzzles at all. Instead, we were confronting life-or-death challenges; we were meditating on physics and geometry. And that incomparable experience was followed by yet another: brilliant cooperative play that required precision maneuvering, punished every lapse in teamwork, and carefully cultivated moments of insight that made us rocket out of our chairs and yell “Wait, I GOT IT!”
Derived from the classic, shuffling-zombie template of the George Romero movies, No More Room in Hell feels uniquely more like a horror game than an FPS. Every bullet matters, and you can't hold a flashlight and a weapon at the same time (other than your pistol), so illuminating a zombie with your Maglite while a teammate applies his sledge-hammer is typical of the game's excruciatingly tense, realistic teamwork.
Requires Source SDK (free)
Developer No More Room in Hell Development Team
The category we used to call “Expansion of the Year” got a name-tweak to reflect the continuously evolving nature of many PC games, including shooters, mods, MMOs and multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs). A case in point: With only two exceptions in all of 2011, League of Legends received a new champion every two weeks, which players could try for free a week after its release. But it's the capture-point gameplay mode Dominion that takes away this year's prize. While not designed for pro-level tournament play, it solved the biggest question holding the entire genre back: how the hell do we get our casual friends playing with us?
Publisher Riot Games
Developer Riot Games
Wonder why you haven't seen a certain game yet? Hop on over to the next page, and bask in the glory of our Game of the Year 2012 award. We've also got personal picks from each of the editors: games that weren't quite GotY material, but we love them just the same.
You can spend your days hammering steel at the Fireforge, selling off the armor and shields to merchants around Skyrim. You can decorate your home in Whiterun with hundreds of different swords and rare gems and hike lonely mountain paths by night seeking the perfect vantage point to view the Aurora Borealis. You can join the Stormcloaks faction, butchering innocent couriers and draping their corpses over logs to terrify travelers. You can set fire to trees just to watch them burn. You can be an unlovable but unbroken loser. The game manages to accommodate any and all play styles within its expansive dimensions, and as a result, every quest tells a unique story that follows the contours of your character with all its abilities and deficits. There has been no greater fulfillment of the promise of a roleplaying game than The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
Publisher Bethesda Game Studios
Developer Bethesda Softworks