At some point, it stopped being a trend and became the reality: the most interesting, thought-provoking games aren't mega-budget retail releases, but smaller downloadable titles. Three of my top five games of 2012 could be had for a low price and a quick download.
The Walking Dead (PC, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network) :: In Telltale Games' episodic take on the comic by Robert Kirkman, even the simplest choices can have far-reaching implications. As an escaped convict attempting to care for an orphaned girl, players are forced into one impossible moral conundrum after another. The gameplay is hardly challenging — its simple puzzles and streamlined action scenes never tax your brain or your reflexes — but The Walking Dead's ethical quandaries challenge what's in your heart.
Trials Evolution (Xbox Live Arcade) :: How hard can it be to ride a dirtbike up a hill? After your 100th failed attempt to clear a near-vertical ramp with a metal pipe sticking out of the top, you'll know it's harder than you could ever have imagined — and, somehow, immeasurably more satisfying to accomplish.
Spec Ops: The Line (PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3) :: It looked like a generic military shooter. It played like a generic military shooter. But Spec Ops: The Line thwarted players' expectations of the genre by delivering a thoughtful, probing story about mission creep and the human costs of war.
Mark of the Ninja (Xbox Live Arcade) :: Klei Entertainment's downloadable stealth game is a masterwork of interface design. With a streamlined graphical approach to representing sound, movement, and illumination, Mark of the Ninja eliminates the cheapness that often plagues stealth-action games. It's a gem.
Diablo III (PC) :: About eight hours into Diablo III, I wondered what the big deal was. About 40 hours into it, I began to fear for my marriage, my employment, and my sanity. Blizzard's action-RPG opus was worth the 12-year wait.
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