Video games have a special significance at zConnection. This is mostly obvious from taking a quick glance at our front page: despite focussed efforts to change this, our deepest, most nuanced coverage is most certainly in video games. This is, of course, because zConnection was originally founded as a game-centric publication back in 2007. Many of our writers have been with us nearly as long as the site has existed, and their tastes and skills have developed in their writing here – resulting in a constantly improving source of news and reviews. This year, we expanded our coverage by bringing hands-on previews from London’s Eurogamer Expo, as well as interviews with figures as interesting as Final Fantasy: Distant Worlds conductor Arnie Roth, Ubisoft’s legal challenger John Beiswenger, and the team at Legend of Grimrock developer Almost Human.

Perhaps this year, for the first time, we’re in a position to truly evaluate the best games of the year. In the past twelve months, the industry has played host to some genuinely interesting releases: we’ve had indie gems like Journey, episodic successes like The Walking Dead, risky new IP like Dishonored, and we’ve seen the launch of a whole new console platform, Nintendo’s Wii U. That alone makes 2012 stand as a significant year, and one that merits a thorough critical examination. We’ve arranged a number of categories in which we’re going to grant accolades this year, but before we do, we’re going to look at the context and the reasons why these games deserve such praise.

Best Innovation

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This year has seen the advent of some interesting technology, such as the Wii U console. We also saw the announcement of the Android-based Ouya console, the further push of second-screen technology with Microsoft SmartGlass and Vita/PS3 interconnectivity, and the continued domination of tablet and smartphone games. Innovation, then, is at a considerable high. It’s not quite 2006, the year in which Nintendo released the Wii to critical and commercial success and caused its competitors to scramble to make the best motion-sensing tech in response, but it isn’t far off, either: the Wii U’s second-screen technology is giving Microsoft and Sony a run for their money again, even though it has not yet been proven commercially.

Most interestingly, Microsoft and Sony have chosen to compete with the Wii U GamePad in the same way they competed with the Wii Remote: by introducing new peripherals for their existing consoles which attempt to replicate the experience. The release of Kinect and PlayStation Move was almost indisputably a response to the release of the Wii, which took almost everybody in the industry by surprise, but it didn’t really address the issue. Because these were optional peripherals, developers could not rely on their audiences to own them; as a result, only a fraction of games released on the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 demand that their player is using the Kinect or PlayStation Move controller. No doubt, only a fraction of games to be released on those platforms will demand the use of a second screen – it’s ridiculous for developers to release a game that can only be played by a tablet owner, in the case of Microsoft SmartGlass, or a Vita owner, in the case of Sony’s cross-platform controller tech.

As a result, the Wii U is the only formidable platform in this new, somewhat unproven universe of second-screen technology, which many are already rushing to label as “the future of gaming”. Of course, this could be the same level of hyperbole we’ve seen from film critics who enthuse about 3D, or Windows Phone users, but there’s a grain of credibility to the assertion, especially since the industry has been moving further and further from traditional controllers and increasingly towards “organic” input methods like touch screens and motion. Putting a now ubiquitous piece of equipment, the tablet, in the hands of gamers could be the long-needed compromise between traditional and postmodern gaming. It’s because of this that our “Best Innovation” award goes to the Wii U, and its flagship game, Nintendo Land. While Nintendo Land hasn’t quite replicated the accessibility or addictive nature of Wii Sports from 2006, it has still demonstrated an exciting new technological trend in a very effective way. We expect to see much more of the Wii U in 2013.

Winner: Wii U and Nintendo Land

Best Zombie Game

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This year would not be complete without the typical complaints about an over-saturation in zombie games – but, unlike in some previous years, we’ve had some fantastic zombie-centric games in 2012. Nintendo’s new Wii U console launched with ZombiU, a visceral first-person shooter set in the streets of undead-infested London which earned praise for its inclusion of character permadeath, a mechanic underplayed in games since we’ve come to enjoy more character-driven adventures. On the other side of the critical spectrum, we saw Capcom release Resident Evil 6, the latest entry in their universally recognised survival horror saga, which was unfortunately bashed by many. What, though, earns the accolade of “Best Zombie Game”?

Well, it’s not strictly a single game: Telltale’s video game adaptation of The Walking Dead, originally a comic book and later an award-winning television programme, is split into five episodes which make up a single “season” of interactive storytelling. It’s almost unanimously lauded, and has sold millions of units already, despite its initially online-only distribution. Our reviewer, Jorge S. Fernandez, said with confidence in his review of the fifth episode, No Time Left, that Telltale’s series “has now eclipsed the original source material”. He added: “Kirkman may have been the one to bring the tragic and horrifying world of The Walking Dead to life in comic book form, but it’s Telltale that has managed to take the concept to its highest peak”.

While certain friends of mine have petitioned that I should grant this accolade to Zombie Grinder, a gorgeous, two-dimensional multiplayer shooter, it would be an injustice for this award to go to anything but all five episodes of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, a compelling defence of the episodic format and evidence of the potency of video games in telling an emotionally-charged story. Congratulations, Telltale: you deserve this one.

Winner: The Walking Dead

Best Crowdfunded Game

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2012 is significant for drawing considerable attention to crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo; for the first time, these methods of project fund-raising proved that they can be seriously effective not only for indie developers, but also established teams like Double Fine, headed by Tim Schafer. In March, their so-far-untitled adventure game raised $3,336,371 USD, hugely outstripping their original goal of $400,000 USD. As a result, crowdfunding has become a popular move in the games industry, and some excited analysts claim that the role of publisher may have been rendered obsolete.

While Double Fine’s adventure is nowhere near release, a number of other crowdfunded games managed to make their way to players this year, such as Faster Than Light, a roguelike space sim that raised over $200,000 USD back in April, and then successfully launched in September. It’s rocked reviewers’ worlds, and spawned a lively modding community, which have introduced changes as basic as removing the endgame to adding the spaceship Serenity from cult favourite television programme Firefly. There’s no doubt in our mind that FTL strongly deserves the honour of best crowdfunded game for a well co-ordinated funding campaign and a smooth release.

Next year, we’ll find out how the myriad games crowdfunded this year do on release, from potential Minecraft-killer Cave Story to Obsidian Entertainment’s all-new retro RPG. It’ll also be interesting to watch what impact is made on the Linux platform by many developers’ promise to add Linux support after reaching a certain “stretch goal” in their funding campaign; Shadowrun Returns was among many games that were promised to come to Linux in exchange for reaching a certain figure beyond their original target. And, speaking of ports, it’s time to move on from FTL as Best Crowdfunded Game to our next category…

Winner: Faster Than Light

Best Port

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Ports are often looked upon with distaste. After all, they’ve a reputation for being bad: from the slight stutters of The Orange Box on PS3 to the abysmal performance of L.A. Noire on PC, there are simply countless cases of rushed attempts to move games from one platform to another, and very rare cases of smooth transitions. This year is a little more interesting for ports, though. For one thing, we’ve seen PS3 and Xbox 360 games ported to Nintendo’s new platform, with new functionality added to take advantage of the GamePad controller. Plus, we’ve seen Valve launch the beta of Steam for Linux, and promise to move their own software catalogue to the oft-ignored desktop platform in an effort carefully co-ordinated with Canonical, the corporation behind the Ubuntu Linux distribution. Congratulations must also be given to Rockstar Games for porting Grand Theft Auto and Max Payne instalments to Android and iOS, proving the gaming capability of mobile devices.

I came very close to giving this award to Valve for the Linux version of Team Fortress 2, purely because a truly cross-platform game from a triple-A developer-publisher is a monumental achievement for proponents of the Linux platform, and will no doubt be widely appreciated in Linux gaming circles. Alas, Team Fortress 2 does not perform as well out-of-the-box as it should, and thus does not earn “port of the year”. Games like Assassin’s Creed III on the Wii U are a slightly different matter. Even just three years ago, you may have incurred scorn for suggesting that these games would make their way to a Nintendo platform, especially considering that the Wii U’s tablet-esque controller would demand considerable development resources, and the entire platform was capitalising on a brand name that was associated in the minds of consumers and potential console buyers as family-friendly.

Still, they came to the Wii U with minimal issues and, in some cases, improvements in the visual department – not to mention the inclusion of GamePad-friendly mechanics. This is great for Nintendo; while the Wii made a good deal of money without needing a large amount of third-party support, a more diverse base of players with a bigger library of games can’t possibly do them any harm. Assassin’s Creed III also has the benefit of being a fantastic third instalment in its franchise, earning praise in our review for its immaculate polish and being a “breathtaking experience to which no other open-world game really compares”. That’s why Assassin’s Creed III is our Best Port for 2012.

Winner: Assassin’s Creed III (Wii U)

Game of the Year

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It’s hard to pick the best game of any given year, especially when some experiences are so fresh compared to those of games released earlier in the year. We had some truly fantastic releases early in 2012, many of which have now been overshadowed in recent months by high-profile launches. In picking our best game of 2012, then, we have to look at this year’s full catalogue. Some highly-hyped releases didn’t fetch critical praise in our reviews, which rules them out from the beginning: Jorge S. Fernandez called Silent Hill: Downpour “a mundane horror game[, …] which is an unforgivable pedigree for any game that carries the Silent Hill brand”; Mat Growcott pointed out that War of the Roses suffers from “technical, mechanical, and online issues”, and World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria will “[do] little to encourage returning to a game you [may have grown] tired of long ago”. Let’s look at what we did praise.

Back in March, Mat described Mass Effect 3 as “a perfect example of why BioWare are such respected game developers”, and called it “about as near-perfect as I could expect”. In June, Jorge welcomed Diablo III, which he claimed “rebrands its time-tested gameplay for a new generation”. And, in October, I personally praised Dishonored for being a “remarkable example of how well the open-world and linear styles of storytelling can be married”, and congratulated Bethesda for putting so much of its weight behind an unproven, original piece of intellectual property. Although I’m concerned by Bethesda’s eagerness to declare that Dishonored is now “a franchise”, I’m eager to see how it is further developed in the new year, especially with the promised story-expanding DLC.

To bring the uninformed up to scratch, I’ll describe Dishonored: it’s a stealth action game which can be played without paying any heed to its stealth or action elements. It’s mostly linear, but has a universe that appears large thanks to a number of optional missions, a large cast of characters, and a few perks of its stealth basis: you can eavesdrop on conversations as you move around the gorgeous city of Dunwall, and some run into minutes and minutes of genuinely interesting and uninterrupted dialogue. There’s a great deal of depth in the universe, which is rendered even more endearingly in an almost cartoonish visual style, that seems to blend textures reminiscent of Wind Waker with character designs along the lines of Team Fortress 2: exaggerated caricatures in a world with realistic lighting, but simplified textures. For these reasons, as well as the many more detailed in my review, it’s Dishonored which earns the honour of Game of the Year at zConnection.

Winner: Dishonored