10. Dead Space 2
Drenched in creature blood, drowning in baby-mutant entrails, with endlessly recyclable undead limbs piling up in every Fincher-esque corridor, Dead Space 2 would have been enjoyable if it were just the squirmiest gorefest of the year. But Visceral Games pushed their space-zombie franchise into thrillingly bleak psychological territory. As performed by standout voice-over actor Gunner Wright, protagonist Isaac Clarke is an endearingly non-badass Everyguy whose sanity is under attack from all sides: Visions of his dead lover; galactic conspiracies who want his beautiful brain; the occasional retina-obsessed schizophrenic; and don’t forget those zombies! Who knew Space Madness could be so fun? —Darren Franich
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the videogame industry’s franchise obsession. Plenty of the best games in history — and quite a few on this list — are sequels. But for anyone who’s grown weary of space marines and Mario[insert sport] and octoquel/sub-threequels with colons and numbers in the title, the growth of the independent-videogame market is a happy development indeed. This year’s indie-game standout, Bastion is a retro-delight, feeling at times like an RPG from the SNES era. Like Limbo and Braid before it, the game suggests a peculiarly modern creeping sadness. Unlike those games, Bastion is playful and funky. [Full Disclosure: I went to high school with the guy who wrote the Bastion soundtrack. No bias, I swear: He just won two Videogame Awards.] —Darren Franich
8. Marvel vs. Capcom 3
You want to be skeptical about this game. The unifying narrative is nonsensical. (By comparison, Street Fighter II was a Charles Dickens novel.) The lack of any truly diverse gameplay opportunities is a severe misstep. And the choice to feature 20 fewer characters than the decade-old Marvel vs. Capcom 2 was just confusing…until they announced a money-grubbing character-packed sequel (let’s call it a ”$equel”), released just a few months later. But I can’t argue with fun, and the fighting in MvC3 is an uncannily perfect mix of speed-chess strategy and fist-swinging brawl. More importantly, the game perfectly captures the essential appeal of its diverse all-star cast. If your heart doesn’t skip a beat when Mike Haggar does his Final Fight flying-double-kick, or when Taskmaster starts imitating Spider-Man, or when Arthur or M.O.D.O.K. or Viewtiful Joe do anything, then you’re a stronger geek than me. —Darren Franich
7. Assassin's Creed: Revelations
While not the equal of previous installments, the final chapter (allegedly) in the Ezio Auditore sub-saga of this historical action/sci-fi/action-adventure franchise gives you want you want, and earns bonus points for trying to give you more. The additions — tower defense minigames that require managing multiple assassins; the puzzle games that force you to navigate Desmond Miles’ fractured mind — aren’t entirely successful. But the opportunity to explore an opulent open world — in this case, 16th-century Constantinople — is worth the purchase price. And Revelations makes the always-fun rooftop-leaping action more entertaining than ever, thanks to the addition of hookblades and parachutes. —Jeff Jensen
6. Gears of War 3/Resistance 3
Two console-exclusive trilogy-capping sci-fi shooters. Two world-saving road-trip odysseys across ruined civilizations. Two variant species of attacking creature armies — one descending from outer space, one ascending from the planet’s core. Yes, the Gears and Resistance threequels are different in their details. The former is a burly up-close bloodbath about badass dude-children with daddy issues as big as their forearms; the latter is a tense big-arsenal thriller about a man trying to save the world (and his family) from oblivion. But together, they provide an intriguing state-of-the-genre exploration of their medium?and a moving double-portrait of apocalyptic desperation. I recommend playing them back-to-back, with a break in between to watch Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. Be sure to book a long session with your therapist afterward. —Darren Franich
5. FIFA 12
EA Sports’ soccer franchise has been scoring creative goals for several years, but FIFA 12 is a big evolutionary boot forward. Scores of significant and small enhancements — the more-realistic-than-ever animation, the improvements in gameplay mechanics (particularly in precision dribbling), human nuances like players begging for calls from the refs when plays don’t go their way — contribute to the game’s verisimilitude. The most welcome and winning addition: A new approach to defense that forces you to make strategic and tactical choices instead of just madly pressing buttons to rush and steal the ball away. FIFA 12 is a thrilling game worthy of the Beautiful Game that captures your imagination for what could come next. —Jeff Jensen
4. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Nothing is more frustrating in a game that the sense that you’re being pulled along by the nose by some impatient narrative force, shuttling you from cut-scene to cut-scene like a tour guide with a date to go to after work. But in Skyrim — the fifth game in Bethesda’s Elder Scroll series and the sequel to hits Morrowind and Oblivion — every direction is forward. There are hundreds, probably thousands of quests available to you, over the space of a map as big as a medium-sized U.S. state, populated by enough NPCs to fill a stadium. If you want to follow the main questline, that’s fine; just don’t be surprised when you come to a few hours later cleaning out some faraway dungeon in order to complete the first step of a tangent to a tangent.
Sure, Skyrim is more streamlined than its predecessors — partly due to the general process of simplification that all of gaming has undergone since the first grandmother picked up a WiiMote — but there is comparatively little hand-holding, and more content than you can ever hope to experience. It’s a world where getting lost is actually much of the appeal, and where your immersion will never be jolted by the nasal voice of a 13-year-old making fun of your mom.
3. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
A game like Skyrim represents everything great about big-budget videogames: an expansive open world, brutally realistic graphics, a neverending array of choose-your-own-adventure decisions, the chance to build your own private grown-up story line. A game like Bastion, conversely, represents everything intriguing about tiny-budget videogames: Eccentric cartoony graphics, straightforward gameplay that gradually complicates over time, a simple-but-catchy soundtrack, a blank-slate protagonist, the chance to experience an all-ages storyline with sneakily profound subtext. But what if there were a game that sat astride that dichotomy — that somehow combined the novelistic complexity of a console RPG with the poetic simplicity of an indie game?
Enter Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, the best game to ever hit the Nintendo Wii, and the first game to make the whole notion of motion-gaming feel vivid and concrete and alive. Arriving just in time for the franchise’s 25th anniversary, Skyward Sword is a 50-hour adventure that combines the pinpoint geometric precision of an early platformer with the mega-scale of a modern tech-juiced open-worlder. You’ll hum the soundtrack; you’ll practice archery; you’ll catch bugs; you’ll laugh, you’ll cry; you’ll write 11,000-word treatises. Who needs a jump button? By mixing contemporary technology with the most elemental videogame materials, Skyward Sword is the best argument in years for Nintendo’s continued artistic relevancy. —Darren Franich
2. Portal 2
Forget Sudoku. When it comes to brainteasers, nothing satisfies the noggin quite like Valve’s Portal 2, the futuristic ”physics-based puzzle game” that manages to be both challenging and one of the funniest games we’ve ever encountered. In the sequel, set an indefinite number of years after the 2007 original, you once again have to escape from various chambers using only your wits and a portal gun, which can conveniently create a wormhole between two surfaces.
GLaDOS — the first game’s sardonic, antagonistic, and dessert-teasing supercomputer — is back to make your life increasingly difficult. But it’s a new character, the eye-shaped robot Wheatley, who steals the show. Voiced to perfection by the British comic Stephen Merchant, Wheatley assists you on your quest while cracking jokes that even HAL 9000 would find amusing. He’s the sugar to help the medicine go down, and Portal 2 is a smart pill that’s definitely worth taking. —John Young
1. Batman: Arkham City
The 2009 hit Batman: Arkham Asylum was a corridor-trolling stealth-action riff — Metal Gear Solid with a Batarang. Because licensed videogames are typically gutter-dwelling quickie cash grabs, the mere fact that Asylum didn’t instantly fade into glitchy mediocrity made it a qualitative success. Turns out that developer Rocksteady was just getting warmed up. Arkham City expands the gameplay in every direction, sending the Caped Crusader loose in an urban hell-sprawl populated entirely by madmen (and their surprisingly verbose henchmen.)
Bringing together decades of mythology into one magnificent package, Arkham City occasionally suggests a fascinating mash-up of every Batman style of the last few decades: Frank Miller’s grit, The Animated Series‘ retro-funk, Tim Burton’s horror-clown dark comedy, Grant Morrison’s fanciful surrealism, Christopher Nolan’s city-symphony bleakness. But this is no Greatest Hits collection. With a story line that carries you from the depths of the city’s past to the literal heights of its miserable future, the game conjures up a sense of vivid geography that combines the explorative impulse of a Grand Theft Auto with something more inquisitive. It’s a sidelong portrait of the death and life of a Great American City.
There’s a lot to enjoy here, whether you’re wrestling with local street gangs, flying over the city by firing your grappling gun at water towers, hunting for side-quests, or facing off against the greatest rogues’ gallery in comic book history. But the reason Arkham City tops our list that it just keeps getting better. At the end end of this nightmare epic, you are breathless, emotionally bruised…and desperately in need of more. —Darren Franich
NEXT: Special awards
Best Reissue: The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection
The best deal in stores this year. Evocatively designed, morally troubling, tantalizingly unknowable, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus have only become more thrilling (and haunting) in the intervening years. Next year will hopefully finally see the release of their spiritual sequel, The Last Guardian. What better time to relive two of the greatest games ever…now in HD? —Darren Franich
Best New Technology: L.A. Noire
Usually, videogame actors have lent their voices, and in some cases their movements, to the characters they play in games, but the physical appearance of their bodies and faces were left to the active imaginations of the game’s designers. (Well, there was Tia Carrere in 1995’s The Daedalus Encounter, but that’s kinda the exception that proves the rule, don’t you think?) L.A. Noire‘s groundbreaking facial capture process changed all that, placing actors’ real-life mugs front and center as the main mechanism with which your 1940s L.A. detective roots out the culprits of a series of scum-of-the-earth misdeeds. Watching actors like Aaron Stanton (Mad Men) and John Noble (Fringe) really emote — and having that emotion play a central role in the unfolding game — felt like we were witnessing a crucial step in the evolution of videogames as storytelling art. The fact that the game itself was at times obnoxiously repetitive, and the open-world recreation of postwar L.A. too often felt superfluous, is almost beside the point. —Adam B. Vary
Best Argument for Motion Gaming: Child of Eden
Child of Eden is ridiculously short, and it occasionally feels less like a games than an interactive screensaver. But there are moments in Eden that are remarkably unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced before. A hybrid mixture of old-fashioned arcade rail shooter and techno-pop rhythm game, Eden is miles away from the clockwork-physicality of a party game like Dance Central. —Darren Franich
Best Single Game Sequence: Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
First, a mea culpa: In hindsight, my enthusiastic review of Nathan Drake’s latest adventure failed to recognize that the game’s climactic level is a real letdown, playing as if the designers simply ran out of time. But that doesn’t change my conviction that much of Uncharted 3 is outrageously entertaining, nothing more so than the epic shipyard-and-cruise-liner sequence. (Yes, the cargo-plane sequence is also pretty damn killer, but it is also pretty damn short.)
After Drake wakes up captive in the cargo hold of a random ship, he’s led to believe his partner and father figure Sully is being held captive by a ruthless warlord. But to get to him, Drake (i.e., you) has to fight through a treacherous graveyard of corroded boats and hulking freighters, swimming through undulating water, scampering over shaky containers, and hanging off of rusted-out hulls to do so. Then Drake must leap between speeding boats in a raging storm, only to arrive on a massive cruise ship that’s been converted into a floating fortress and is just begging to become an homage to The Poseidon Adventure. By the end, you feel as ringed out and bone-tired as Drake does — and you can’t wait to do it all again. —Adam B. Vary
Best Literary Adaptation: The Great Gatsby—For NES
Purporting to be a long-lost game from the early Nintendo era — the original Japanese title was Doki Doki Toshokan: Gatsby no Monogatari — this fiendishly enjoyable browser-game ditty adapts F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel into an 8-bit platformer. You play Nick Carroway, throwing your cap at butlers, flappers, boxcar hoboes, and — in one thrilling setpiece — the horrifying Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg (which shoot lasers, naturally.) Go play it now. If your boss/teacher/spouse/parent/whoever stops by, just tell them you’re learning about the death of the American Dream. —Darren Franich