Top three unexpected awesome game experiences of 2012

We’re heading into the last couple weeks of December, so you know what that means: reflection time! Let’s start with games. Instead of posting my top games of the year, I’m going to categorize some of the most awesome experiences I’ve had this year. Starting with awesome surprises.

These are the top three out-of-nowhere completely unexpected awesome game experiences I had this year.

Spec Ops: The Line

What is it? A modern military shooter with a story that challenges your assumptions as the “hero” of the story, and as a person playing a video game.

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Why is it on the list? I knew going in there was something different/surprising about this game. Had I not known that, I might have passed on it. Mechanically and visually it’s an average game. I played the demo when it first came out and wasn’t impressed. Don’t make that mistake. If, like me, you can find this game on sale (I got it for six bucks on PC), get it! This type of story hasn’t really been done in games before. Have you ever stopped to think about what you’re doing when you play a shooter? Is there a choice behind your actions? Do you even check to see if there is? Spec Ops: The Line will leave you thinking about those things and more. The story is concise, interesting and brilliantly acted—Nolan North turns in a stellar performance.

Pro tip: Play it on the easiest setting. The story is the main draw here. On easy, the enemies go down after a couple of shots and the fights don’t drag on as long. You’ll still need to be smart and use cover, but you and your AI teammates won’t die near as much.

Sine Mora

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What is it? A side-scrolling airplane shooter starring talking animals.

Why is it on the list? Wrapped around this straightforward shooter is a story about time travel, rape, slavery, revenge and freedom. Crazy right? Sine Mora does “in medias res” better than almost any game I’ve ever seen. You’re thrown into a strange world bound by strange laws, and you piece it together as the story unrolls—slightly out of sequence, Tarantino style. It seems a little silly at first, but the characters are deadly serious. It’s a relatively simple story, told in just two hours, but the poetic writing and Hungarian voice work (yep, it’s a Japanese made, Hungarian voiced story) draws you in, and the sharp, challenging gameplay and lush visuals keep you going.

Pro tip: Once you beat the story mode, an encyclopedia is unlocked in the options menu. It’s packed with details about the world and its inhabitants, all the way down to the average climate and weather patterns.

The Walking Dead: Episode 2

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What is it? The second of five episodes in the stellar Walking Dead adventure game series by Telltale Games.

Why is it on the list? The entire series is astounding. It’s set a new bar for interactive storytelling. As of this writing, I’ve only played the first two episodes (thanks to a game save bug, I have to start over). I won’t spoil anything, because the story is what this game is all about. I’ll just say that there was a moment in the second episode that shocked me so much I actually dropped my controller. The way the writing makes you feel both powerful (through your choices) and completely powerless (through the messed up situations you’re in) is amazing. I’ve never played a game with so much constant grinding tension.

Pro tip: If you haven’t picked up the game yet, grab a physical disc version in stores. There are too many save game issues and other weird bugs for me to recommend downloading the PC version. It’s the only blemish on an otherwise fantastic game.