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Birthday Honours

At this time of year, as the Christmas trees come down and attentions turn to hot cross buns, award ceremonies are ten-a-penny with every magazine, show and website handing out accolades left right and centre. And by golly by jingo we want to get in on the action.

So whilst more reputable publications hand out Game of the Year plaudits, we present you with a list of those titles that have proven themselves enough to make the resurrected BIGsheep Birthday Honours.

Biggest Surprise: ZombiU

At Gamescom ZombiU and I did not get on well. In a noisy hall, shoulder to shoulder with fellow gamers, I attempted to get to grips with a seemingly clunky, cricket bat swinging survivor of the zombie apocalypse. He wasn’t a survivor for long. Neither was the next chap. Or the subsequent poor lady.

In the comfort of my own home, however, Ubisoft’s Wii U launch title came into its own. It wasn’t a game to excel on a show floor, but a considered title that required patience. In return it repaid you with a unique experience that could crank up the tension by merely placing a pair of blips on your radar.

In an era where most games seem to be going for a more instantly accessible and, some may say, dumbed down mainstream experience, ZombiU embraces being slightly obtuse. Now whether this is a design masterstroke or a pure accident it’s hard to tell but it’s come from nowhere to be the most surprising title of 2012.

Honourable mentions: Wii U, PlayStation Plus’s instant game collection.

zombiu

Most Likely to Make My Mind Melt: Fez

For a handful of us, our April was consumed by talk of glyphs. We had notebooks and smartphones full of pictures and scribbles as Phil Fish’s mind boggling platformer took over our mental faculties. It started simply enough, presenting itself coyly as an 8bit indie darling. Slowly, however, the truth was revealed and not only was it an inspiring mix of retro visuals and stirring platforming but a vessel that contained an entire new language that had to decrypted.

There was no bluntness to it, though. The language was part of the world, etched into the walls, with a subtlety that meant when its importance was revealed it made you look at the world from a completely different perspective.

fez

Greatest Multiplayer Experience: FIFA 13

As a concept it may not be revolutionary, but EA’s latest incarnation of the beautiful game is as polished as can be. Part of that comes from the various game modes: grouping each club’s supporters together and charting shared success; a collectible card game where you put your best Panini stickers against a friend’s; or online leagues that shows the best implementation of “True Skill” since Halo 2.

In the last twelve months though there has been no multiplayer experience that has topped getting half-a-dozen friends together and marching out onto the virtual pitch. Each of us takes a position – I like to think of myself as the digital Scott Parker – and attempt to work together in sync, watching for each other’s runs, sliding through through-balls, and hopefully working goals that even Messi would be proud of. Though sadly the opposition seem equally adept. The swines.

Honourable mentions: Nintendoland, Journey.

FIFA13

Reaffirming My Belief That Games Can Just Be Pure Fun: Nintendoland

If there was a period that sold me on the Wii U it was the Monday lunchtime right after it had launched. A colleague had brought the machine, Nintendoland and a bagful of Wii-motes into the office and an hour later I was plotting a visit to GAME.

Some may say that Nintendoland doesn’t sell the Wii U as well as Wii Sports sold the original Wii, but that’s beside the point as the Luigi’s Mansion mini-game is almost worth the price of admission alone. A simple collection of games based around almost playground concepts, the collection excels at stripping away overly complex controls schemes and allows players to revel in the glee of tig for the modern era.

There are duds, but most either excel in multiplayer or reveal a surprising amount of depth or challenge when tackled solo. They’re simple, but when simple is done so well why overcomplicate matters.

Honourable mention: Super Mario 3D Land

nintendoland

Most Interesting New Tech: Book of Spells

I’m always a sucker for technology that verges on the novelty. Last year’s obsession with Skylanders and its Near Field Communication toys proves that out. This year it was Sony’s Wonderbook that won me over; effectively a giant set of Augmented Reality cards bound in a cover and combined with an Eye-Toy.

As always, though, it’s how it’s used that makes it wonderful. Wonderbook’s ability to turn your room into a classroom at Hogwarts is achieved by more than simply rendering dragons on your coffee table. You get sucked into the magical castle, shown tiny paper-based dramatizations of spell’s histories, and transported to fantastical locations. At each you flick and swish your wand complete with all the sparkles you need to levitate toads and set Deatheaters on fire.

It may also help that there’s a Walking with Dinosaurs tie in coming later this year.

Honourable mentions: Vita, PlayStation Plus, Game Boy Camera.

bookofspells

Most Likely to Make Me Miss My Bedtime: Minecraft

Sometimes a glassed walled lair hidden beneath a manmade volcano just has to be made. Then of course when that’s completed it needs attaching to the mine cart network so you can speedily reach the giant floating castle. Well, that would be if my giant floating castle hadn’t burnt down when I installed the fire pit. Next time: don’t use timber.

With each new construction the late nights were worth it. Not since Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts have I had a virtual Lego set that kept me up to the wee small hours as walls needed finishing, ponds needed digging, and giant squid needed herding.

Honourable mention: Wordament

minecraft

Oddest: Tokyo Jungle

Possibly the hardest fought category but by a smidge Tokyo Jungle made my mind boggle most. The sheer bizarre concept of playing as a Pomeranian, savaging cattle and courting flee infested mates doesn’t sound like a winner, but it worked.

It felt like a modern incarnation of Double Dragon but when you take into account the story behind the animal adventure the mind truly boggles. Time travels, future humans trying to save themselves by sacrificing the past, and golden retrievers declaring themselves king… I’ll never slag off the Halo storyline again.

Honourable mentions: Frog Fractions, Fez.

tokyojungle

Bestest Game: Journey

Hands down this was by far and away the best game, nay experience, I’ve had all year. It combined charming, mute characters with wondrous landscapes in a platform-come-pilgrimage that saw you gracefully slide down sand dunes, scale snowy peaks and soar through the blue skies above. It constantly changed, but never felt forced or jarring in its transitions just that it always wanted to take you on a new adventure.

More than that, however, it touched me emotionally. The beautiful story conveyed in such minimalistic ways joined with an online cooperative experience that seemed so unique but equally compelling to everyone I spoke to was moving. It may only be a few hours long but that time can be held up as the finest time that can be found in our hobby.

Honourable mentions: Witcher 2, Fez

journey

2011 – Something a Little Different

The last year has seen some truly fantastic experiences. Pressed onto shiny discs and thrust into our mitts, they probably caused more marital strife than gaming has ever caused before. “Not now dear, I’m slaying a dragon/shooting Russians/taking down a plane with a rocket launcher whilst I’m free falling out of another plane/Batman.”

Whilst not all releases caused such ructions, many tried to stand out from the crowd. They offered something a little different and whilst “different” may not always be enough, here we doth our caps to those who went against the grain in 2011.

7. Activision’s toys

Though the production line of plastic guitars and Fisher Price drum kits may have been halted by Activision with the suspension of the Guitar Hero series, they weren’t quite through with toy-like accessories to their games just yet.

Skylanders is an audacious attempt to merge the children’s toy market with the DLC. Whereas in most games players simply toggle a button to swap between characters, in Spyro’s latest reboot toys are physically placed on a sensor and then sucked into the virtual world. Want a new character? Grab a new toy and just swap them out.

Skylanders walks a fine line between being an interesting innovation and a potential cash black hole for parents with persistently nagging children, but I find it a fascinating concept. There’s a connection to your character, you can pick up physical DLC from high street shops, and the toys themselves allow profiles to be traded between 3DS, Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360. For that last reason alone people should take note.

6. Narrators

Our experience with The War of the Worlds may have been a torturous one, but its attempt to drive the narrative through well scripted lines and exceptional voice acting was one of its few redemptive features. The coup of bringing Patrick Stewart aboard added a gravitas that showed up many studios who thought voice work could be done on the cheap.

Similarly, the use of a narrator in Bastion brought about a feeling that this story was not one you were merely playing but actually driving. Be it falling of a cliff or bringing down a huge foe, the disembodied voice would pipe up and recount your tale as though a gravely bard of old.

5. A traditional sandbox

Modern sandboxes seem to be full of guns, cars and cities. Now whilst I may have left a few Matchbox racing cars rusting in my sandbox as a child, I can’t quite recall my mother allowing me firearms or large scale housing developments to take place in that green wooden box in the back garden.

From Dust gave every grownup the ability to play with sand and water in a way that we’ve always wanted. From created rivulets through a barren desert or frantically creating an adhoc walkway so your villagers may escape an impending forest fire, it was about playing and shifting and heaping and getting your virtual hands dirty.

4. Stunning visuals

Battlefield 3 may be able to push a bazillion polygons and render uberbit textures until the F14s come home to roost, but realism is not necessarily pretty. El Shaddai knew that. A wonderful and mind bending trip through landscapes and themes that experimented and toyed with styles. It wasn’t a traditional platformer trip through the clichéd list of elemental levels, but a journey that took in saturated heavens, high contrast oceans and scenes overlain with brushstrokes.

Slightly easier to comprehend was Rayman, who seemed to be channelling the hand drawn talents of Disney of old. So smooth and bright, his adventures through a world teeming with screen filling monstrosities and equally beautiful landscapes were as charming as a Saturday morning kids TV classic.

3. Core motion controls

Child of Eden may well have already been mentioned above, but for many its Kinect release was a watershed moment. Not because it was the first new title for the sensor for some months, but because it was the first core game released for it. A spiritual successor to Rez, your motions felt at one with the game, enhancing rather than hindering the enjoyment of the bizarre visuals. Others followed, Rise of Nightmares for one, but while there is still “killer app” outside of dance games and party pieces there are at least markers in the sand for those demanding “traditional” games.

2. Mo-cap

Ninja Theory’s Heavenly Sword and Enslaved may have set precedence, however it was Team Bondi’s LA Noire that took motion capture technology to new heights. Barely a soul could have witnessed the open minutes of this crime thriller without having their breath taken away by the sheer quality of the facial animation on display. Featuring many well known faces from the casts of Heroes and Mad Men, the ability to immediately recognise every emotion that played across them set a new – but ultimately costly – bar in virtual acting.

1. Twisting genres

Existing on the list for one reason and one reason only. Rock of Ages: the world’s first tower offence game.

Birthday Honours

As with The Queen, I feel it my duty to recognise those that have impressed me over the last twelve months and so I welcome you to the second annual BIGsheep Birthday Honours.

For services to music: Rock Band 2

I used to think the solo guitar experience was exhilarating, making you feel like an instant rock star. However, as I have already stated this week there were few experiences last year better than playing in your own plastic band. This iteration on the series builds on its already strong core, whilst the drums and the copious amount of downloadable songs have been a revolution to me, revitalised my interest in this genre.

For services to the Capital Wasteland: Fallout 3

If there was one game in 2008 that I had to force myself to put down as I was in danger of forsaking all others, that game would be Fallout 3. Some may have found the desolate wasteland they were wandering through a chore, I regarded it as a mammoth game of hide and seek. Over each ridge or round the next canyon turn you never knew what you were going to find, from crashed UFOs to museums dedicated to fizzy drinks. The sheer scale of the game was inspiring.

For services against the undead: Left 4 Dead

Despite my original muted response towards Left 4 Dead, the zombie apocalypse has grown on me. It is a game where no story is needed, your goals are obvious and tight teamwork is rewarded. This simplicity is its strength with new players able to delve right in and get just as much from it as grizzled veterans.

For services to engineering: Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts

Not only does it feature one Trophy Thomas, but also the ultimate Lego set. Once you reach a certain point in the game a light bulb flicks on inside your head and all sorts of crazy ideas begin churning out. To add to my trebuchet, Thundertank, Thunderbird 2 and Seaking, I’ve seen ferris wheels, walking robots, space shuttles and a myriad more creations that make you realise what a flexible toolset you have at your disposal.

For services to puzzlement: Professor Layton and the Curious Village

A delightful DS game that takes a different slant on point-and-click adventuring, combining some devious logic puzzles with a colourful brand of animation. The whole game oozes charm, from a village that is populated with those obsessed with testing your brain to Professor Layton’s nemesis who would prefer you out the way so he can presumably have all the puzzles to himself.

Honourable mentions

Whilst they may be my Top 5 games of the year, I do think a few others deserve the nod.

The continued presence of Halo and Rainbow Six: Vegas should be appreciated. Excluding those with zombies, no shooter has come close to dislodging these pair as firm favourites.

In terms of controlling green clad pixies, Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for me was second only to Link to the Past in terms of enjoyment. A great debut on the DS for Link.

Mirror’s Edge would be held in far higher esteem if only the combat wasn’t so frustrating. For me this has great parallels with Sands of Time; if only enemies were completely removed from both games then I would champion them to anyone who would listen.

Although there seems a backlash for Fable II, I still really loved it for what it was. There may be no sandbox world on the scale of Oblivion but I liked what it did for it did it really well.

Birthday Honours

I have now turned the ripe old age of 27 and to commemorate the fact I thought I’d do my own honours list to celebrate the games that over the last year that have taken my fancy.

The First Annual Birthday Honours Awards Award

For services to shooting: Halo 3

I’ve said plenty on this little beauty so we’ll leave it short: personally, I don’t think you need anything else with its sandbox encounters and expansive multiplayer.

For services to storyline: Bioshock

I can’t actually remember when I game grabbed me and pulled me in so deeply to a plotline. Admitedly it was a little ropey at the end but it was a wrench everytime I had to put the controller down as I always wanted to find out what audio diary was around the next corner. Simply put, this is a beautiful and well put together title that everyone should give a chance to.

For services to originiality: Portal

I still haven’t touched the rest of the Orange Box. Portal was the only reason I bought Valve’s value collection and alone it is still worth the price of the whole thing. The humour, the gameplay, the challenge and the final payoff all make this one of the smallest games of the year I think ever conceived… despite the cake being a lie.

For services to board games: Carcassonne

Although Catan may have been my first step into European board games online, Carcassonne was the one that really hooked me. A devestatingly simple game but with a great depth of tactics and possibilities.

I like it so much I now have about three different real-world versions at home.

For services to kelptomaniacs: Crackdown

Some say “take the orbs out of Crackdown and you would have nothing”; why on earth would you do that? Crackdown was not only fun because of its over-exagerated crime fighting but for its hide and seek orbs. I liked nothing more than bounding around the city, spotting a glowing sphere in the sky and then setting about scaling great heights to grab it.

I even reset my game so I could go through it all again.

Honourable Honours Mentions

Whilst they may be my Top 5 games of the year I think others deserve a mention.

I had great fun with Rainbox Six: Vegas at the start of the year, a great tactical shooter that is now unfortunately gathering dust.

Catan should also be given a nod and if it weren’t for those stubborn, headset-less wearing players that refused to trade online it may have been given more.

Overlord, a delightfully British game where you basically control evil Pikmin. If it wasn’t for Bioshock coming out at roughly the same time I would (and probably should) have made more of it.

And, finally, Sneak King. My god. Has there ever been a more sinister game created by man’s own hand?