Looking back at the past twelve months in online gaming has become an annual holiday tradition for the team at Ten Ton Hammer. While many families gather to decorate trees, consume liberal amounts of eggnog, or squint sideways at one another, our family enjoys nothing more than busting out our time machines to take a virtual trip down memory lane.
At first glance, 2012 has been an offbeat, but nonetheless eclectic year for the gaming industry. The console world continues to hold its collective breath, waiting for next generation hardware to finally become a reality. As a result, indie gaming is once again on the rise, and the concept of online gaming has grown to encompass an even bigger chunk of the mobile market. And let's not forget the mountain of new gaming projects that continue popping up on Kickstarter at a steady pace.
When it comes to major MMO launches and expansions, 2012 has shown us that diversity can be a very good thing indeed. Settings, combat systems, and even business models have all gone under the microscope with many of the newest releases. The net result has been another stellar year for MMO gamers.
What follows are Ten Ton Hammer's top picks for 2012; those titles that sparkled so brightly as to be worthy of receiving one of our highly coveted Best of 2012 awards. You won't find any glad-handing here (yes, we're looking at you VGAs) -- each award was granted based on the knowledgeable opinions of our expert staff, most of whom have been deeply involved in the MMO industry since its initial inception.
So join us as we take a look back at the best of the best that online gaming has had to offer us over the past year. Not only do we look forward to hearing your opinions on our picks in the comments, but you can also make your voice heard in our poll for the Most Anticipated Game of 2013. And if you're feeling truly adventurous, be sure to check out our first annual Addon Awards, where we give props to the hard work done by some of the most dedicated gamers around.
Back in the day, shooter fans had much slimmer pickings when it came to worthwhile titles to choose from. With fewer releases in any given year, those that were truly worthy of a massive, loyal fan base quickly rose to prominence. The dividing lines were even more clearly defined once you factored in that online multiplayer modes were still a very hit-or-miss proposition in most cases (if they existed at all, depending on the title).
Man, how times have changed. These days, online shooters are a dime a dozen. It seems like a new one is released every few weeks, each clamoring for attention in an increasingly saturated market. For an online shooter to be worthy of notice, it needs to not only provide a truly original experience, but one that gives gamers ample reasons to invest their time in on an ongoing basis.
This is exactly what we were looking for when we sat down to decide on our winner for Best Online Shooter of 2012. While there were a few worthy contenders, at the end of the day it became readily apparent that only one title this year had that special something to take the genre boldly into the future rather than simply rehashing the same, tired old mechanics as has become all too common with online shooters these days.
At the end of the day, any MMO out there is only as good as its community. Flashy combat systems, compelling stories, and killer graphics will only take a game so far. If the game fails to provide a space for a solid community to form, it can all too easily devolve into a massively single-player game.
Determining which MMO is worthy of the Best Community award is typically a somewhat daunting task due to a variety of factors. For instance, even in a single game the community can have an altogether different impact depending on which server you end up playing on. But we weren't only interested in assessing what the community is like in-game; its broader impact across the web also plays a crucial role.
Taking the above into account, it became readily apparent that the community behind one game clearly stood out from the crowd. While our selection here may be viewed as somewhat controversial, we nonetheless feel that one particular MMO community this year is truly deserving of winning our Best Community of 2012 award.
The past few months have been a whirlwind of activity when it comes to expansions. In fact, 2012 saw more major expansions launch than triple-A MMOs, including such notable entries as World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria, RIFT: Storm Legion, and EVE Online: Retribution to name a few.
While expanded content is always a good thing, a truly great expansion needs to build upon the core game's strengths in meaningful ways. Not only does it need to provide more interesting things to do, but also add something entirely new into the mix beyond additional landmass, generic quest hubs, or an increased level cap.
This year's winner for Best Expansion not only hits each of these marks squarely on the nose, but adds one of the coolest new gameplay features we've had the opportunity to experience this year.
Awesome combat systems may get the lion's share of attention when it comes to MMOs, but only a handful of games end up being truly worthy of the full MMORPG moniker. I know, I know... the idea of an MMO built as a killer role-playing game experience sounds like crazy talk in this day and age. Thankfully, 2012 proved that MMOs can still provide plenty of worthwhile RPG hooks.
Immersion is a word that gets tossed around a lot in the gaming world, but few genres really address it on a fundamental level the way a good RPG can. NPC's need to feel like they're part of a living, breathing world; like their existence matters beyond doling out quests like virtual homework assignments, or dropping loot like Halloween candy into a decorative treat bag. The atmosphere created by the graphics and audio are equally as important, as is the overall connection the player feels to their character.
While most MMOs attempt to address each of these things to varying degrees of success, RPG fans usually have to look towards single-player titles to properly scratch their RPG itch. Every once in a while, however, a developer rises to the challenge of reminding us exactly why MMO and RPG shared such a tightly knit bond in the first place.
PC gaming offers few constants. Despite some strong console efforts - DC Universe Online, Final Fantasy XI and XIV, and Phantasy Star Online to name a few - MMORPGs remain solidly in the PC camp. In like manner, strategy games are still largely in the PC domain. Look no farther than RTS games such as the StarCraft series or MOBA games like League of Legends (which are essentially scaled-down, co-op RTS) to prove the staying power and mainstream appeal of PC strategy gaming.
But few strategy games reach the coveted status of becoming more than games, becoming hobbies in and of themselves. Becoming not just something that you play as a means to entertain yourself, but becoming part of your identity. Browse the forums at boardgamegeek.com, armchairgeneral.com, matrixgames.com or any of a number of passionate strategy gaming communities to see what I mean.
But few strategy games have the balance of depth, character-based charm, and accessibility to make it out of the niche marketplaces and Internet backwaters and into the mainstream. Among the n 2012, Civilization V: Gods and Kings was certainly an excellent strategy game in this vein. But if the mark of an excellent strategy game is one that provides interesting decisions at each stage of your eventual conquest, then perhaps the mark of a truly superior strategy game is one that provides compelling and fun reasons to keep playing even when all your plans blow up in your face. Crusader Kings II is just such a game.
Many MMOs do not rebound whenever they begin to decline in subscribers. When subscribers begin to leave it is as if a black hole shows up and swallows them whole, never to return to the game again. Yet sometimes there is a game that turns on the afterburners and escapes the ever hungry black hole of doom and switches from declination to growth.
One of the many MMOs to reach such statue was Dungeons and Dragons Online which suffered from declining subscribers and what looked like the doors eventually shutting on it forever. They took a strong, bold move and went from a subscriber only system to a free-to-play, effectively turning the boat around and revitalizing the game, which is still going strong today.
This year has been a strange year with many MMOs receiving makeovers in the attempt to rescue it from the endless pit of doom. One game emerged from the salon with a face that resembled a newborn and its players fleeing the black hole and returning back to its loving embrace. That game is World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria.
2012 has been an interesting year for the MMO industry. No two major launches were quite the same; combat systems, settings, and core game mechanics drew from a much broader spectrum than your typical cookie-cutter, EverQuest template MMO that typically decorate store shelves.
Active combat systems have risen to prominence this year, with the lines beginning to blur at a steadily increasing rate when it comes to what defines an FPS multi-player mode and a true MMO experience. Storytelling has also returned to the forefront, as MMO gamers have collectively grown beyond the point of weariness with lackluster kill ten rats questing, or spending larger amounts of quality time in a game setting that feels flat or even forgettable.
In other words, the status quo is beginning to change, and to be honest it's long overdue. When it comes to taking the industry boldly into the future - and not just arbitrarily for the sake of challenging convention - one game this year truly sets itself apart from the crowd. It may not completely revolutionize the way we play MMOs moving forward, but our pick for Best MMO of 2012 has clearly thrown down the gauntlet, and let it be known that the status quo simply doesn't cut it anymore.