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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.

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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

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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

FIFA 13

We may not be the most active of blogs but the last couple of weeks have seen a drop in productivity that is poor even by our standards. Apathy, illness, or the loss of use of our fingers is not to blame. Instead you can point the finger squarely at Electronic Arts; FIFA 13 had taken over all our lives.

I’m not an annual subscriber to the FIFA franchise, having a tendency to dip in every three-years or so, and as a result the wealth of updates and features that are on offer when compared to my last foray has astounded me. More so than that though, the gameplay itself feels as good a simulation of the sport as you’re going to get from a joypad. It captures so many of the subtleties, from the mis-controlling your first touch to shooting when off-balance, the tangle and clatter of accidental clashes or the nasty slice of a hurried clearance. By comparison it’s easy to get the beautiful parts of the beautiful game right, but to capture the “off” moments so naturally is a talent.

That may sound a strange but it’s the incidents where you’ve given possession away or swung a peg at completely the wrong moment that help you learn. It’s a very visual and gratifying feedback that helps describe just what you were doing wrong, be it being plain too ambitious or snatching at a chance that wasn’t really there. This definitely isn’t the type of game where a single man can dribble past the entire field and score as so many elements come into play from the defensive jockeying of the opposition, your first touch, the lightness of your touch and so on.

On a basic level you can point the stick in a direction and run but without the awareness of the number of elements likely to do you over, chances are you’ll quickly have handed possession away. Yet knowing this means that when you do carve through the opposition with a through-ball, sprint past the right back, before cutting it back to arriving midfielder who then buries it in the back of the net, is a deeply satisfying experience. Having said that, with my prowess in front of goal I’m happy if it spins in off my shin with a miskick.

Over the years the gauge has always swung back and forth between favouring defence or attack, and I think this year the balance is with the former. As such, unless you’ve Messi at your control, chances are FIFA 13 will be a game of through-balls down the line and patient passing. For one I really enjoy this balance of power. I’m the fool who optionally chooses to be the defensive midfielder, sweeping up in front of the back four, and there are a pleasing number of tools on offer to help me relish this roll. Jockeying and shadowing offer far more to those who prefer to defend the onion bag and round out the team nicely.

However, it’s not just the feel of the game that has drawn me in so. The number of ways available to play that game is quite overwhelming. Not necessarily in terms crazy new ways to play football, the sanctity of which remains reverently intact, but in respect to that almost every “what if” my brother and I could have thought of playing ISS ’98 on the N64 over a decade ago has come true.

The most compelling one for me has to be the online club, where you and your friends team up under one banner and take on the world. Taking the lead from the Pro mode, each of you takes a position and then holds that role for the full 90 minutes. At first this may sound like an exercise in futility as everyone flocks, playground-like, too the ball, but given a modicum of common sense and discipline it produces very rewarding results. On the base level there’s the knowledge that you’ve bested another team of humans (always a better feeling than doing the same to AI; you know someone somewhere is ruing your very existence). On another, it’s the moves, the coordination and the runs that could never be accomplished with non-sentient team mates. It can take you back to that time when your work’s 5-a-side team for five-minutes one night played like Brazil. Nothing was planned, no one said anything, but every pass, every flick, every back heel came off. Except digitally and with less chance of opposition getting shirty and hacking down Dave with the dodgy ankles.

Ultimate Team is also an intriguing prospect. In there you collect footballers as though they were Panini stickers to form a team. Starting out with an unnatural number of Australian and Paraguayan second division players, the greater your team does the more opportunity you have of collecting or buying better players until you’re mixing with the likes of Rooney and Ronaldo.

Rather than just relying on the skill of your players however, chemistry also plays a part. Players from similar clubs, countries or leagues are more likely to gel, making the team more than the sum of its parts. It’s a devilishly addictive mechanic that has you gambling on lesser talented players to boost your overall level, sending you down avenues such as scouting for a Hungarian leftback with a tendency for the 5-4-1 formation.

Combine this with online auction houses for players, contracts, healing cards and a whole extra layer of depth, Ultimate Team could have effectively been a complete standalone game. For something that on the face of it could have been nothing but a cash cow for EA, there’s an awful lot to lose yourself in.

With further lovely tie ins such as league tables as to how well your real-life team’s supporters are playing (currently Rotherham sit top of the Premiership thanks to their fans’ gameplay talents), the chance to download current form for teams, weekly challenges, skill games that cleverly coax you through tutorials and many other nuggets tucked away, I will barely want for interesting ways to underperform with Tottenham ever again.

Some stalwarts of the series may be reading this surprised at how enthusiastically I’ve greeted features that have possibly been in place for the last few FIFAs. I know the club has been around before, and the Pro mode, but to me all this is new. Having only dabbled with the decidedly average Vita versions with any real conviction over the last couple of years, the wealth of ways to play and the quality of the gameplay should not be forgotten and taken for granted.

The levels of polish and ease of accessibility to bring in new or returning players and then keep them hooked is a level beyond anything I’ve seen before. There are multiple avenues to get sucked down, about the only question is which one will you succumb to.