Troy Rawhiti-Forbes selects the most addictively entertaining games of the year.
Video games have marched right up to the line that separates them from the more traditional forms of entertainment, and buried it beneath a glowing pile of pixels and polygons. We use them to scratch our competitive itches in contests with artificial adversaries, and to connect and collaborate with friends and strangers from around the world. We like them for their cinematic qualities, their imaginative audio tracks, and the increasingly high standards of voice and motion capture acting - boosted by some of Hollywood's most talented stars.
We also like to blast our way in and out of trouble too, it seems, as first-person shooters continue to lead the way for gamers. There was no shortage of gun-and-run titles in 2012, and the contest for money and eyeballs has prompted some spectacular leaps forward from the veteran franchises.
There were also some shocking stumbles in the genre too, though they were almost entirely limited to the new PlayStation Vita, where portable versions of Resistance and Call of Duty not only failed to set the world alight but couldn't manage a spark between them.
2012 was a year where ingenuity reigned. The Unfinished Swan and Journey, downloadable titles for the PlayStation 3, were subtle hits that stole hearts and went far to proving gaming's artistic credibility. The Xbox motion sensor came of age with a stunning full-fitness programme, Nike+ Kinect Training, and the Nintendo Wii U arrived to a warm reception.
Here, we celebrate the best of the best from 2012 ...
GAME OF THE YEAR
New developers 343 Industries were put under immense pressure, and in turn they produced a diamond. The Master Chief's first new adventure since 2007 is a daring leap forward for the ageing series, delivering graphics that look convincingly next-generation, a near-faultless soundtrack by Massive Attack mastermind Neil Davidge, and a love-centred plot that had some players reaching for their tissue boxes.
Halo 4 succeeds in looking and playing like its predecessors, so anyone with experience can jump in and feel at home, but it feels so very different. This is due in part to innovations in gameplay, both in the single player campaign and in the multiplayer modes, and in the elements borrowed from other first-person shooters including an increased emphasis on cover-based combat, thumbstick-controlled running, and multiplayer mode loadouts.
TEN OF THE BEST
Call of Duty: Black Ops II
(PlayStation 3, Wii U, Xbox 360)
Considering how much gamers are expected to shell out for their entertainment these days, we should expect more from franchises with annual updates. Treyarch have done players a service with Black Ops II, by introducing branching storylines which give the Call of Duty campaign a hitherto unseen level of replay value.
By switching the emphasis from kill streaks to score streaks, Treyarch have opened the multiplayer modes up to players of all kinds - sharing the power rather than turning matchmaking into a rolling death sentence for new players. The competition is fierce, fair, and quite addictive.
Every top PlayStation franchise will end up on the Vita before all is said and done, and Sackboy arrived on the portable device this year with a delightful, fantastical bang. This version of LittleBigPlanet is as powerful and proud as its console forebears, working up to the challenge of the Vita's feature set rather than down to its size. It is unquestionably the best Vita game out so far - beating out Mortal Kombat and Need For Speed: Most Wanted -and proof that the device can do great things in the right hands. Once again, Sackboy saves the day.
Forza has long been the domain of the motorsport simulation ultra-geek, with staggering levels of authenticity throughout. In this more accessible and arcadey version, the door has been opened to speed fans who aren't so hung-up on the details. Forza Horizon has beautifully rendered cars, challenging open-road courses, and generous rewards for driving somewhat irresponsibly. This series spin-off is not the Forza you know, but it's one you should love.
Best digital download
The sequel to 2009's downloadable hit Trials HD is a dirtbike platform game that is simple in its design, but stunning in its execution. It's intensely competitive in both its solo and online multiplayer modes and, because the game's levels are made using the same editor available to players, you can have a (very literal) crash course in how to shape your own tricky tracks.
It's pure, simple, unadulterated fun. Even crashing your bike is a hoot, over and over again.
(PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
FIFA 13 has near-ludicrous depth, with content and play options so varied that it could be a keeper for all time. The player AI has undergone improvement and the First Touch system has added more realism to your ball control. Kinect-enabled players have an advantage in that they can use their voices to manage team decisions, and if you break out some nasty language during play, the commentators will remark upon it as well. How much more beautiful can this game get?
Dance Central 3
Dance Central 3 has a weird storyline that might be described as Doctor Who on all sorts of acid and champagne, but as a means of presenting history's best dance hits, it's an effective kind of glue. The dancing is still swish and challenging, and there's a real sense of accomplishment from nailing the steps. Who needs Timberlake when you can bring sexy back yourself?
There will be a time when Dance Central goes the way of Guitar Hero. This is not that time. Put on your dancing shoes (or kick them off and mind the carpet) and get funky.
Far Cry 3
(PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
There is a debate currently under way about Far Cry 3's plot and whether it's a deep journey in the vein of Alice in Wonderland, or just another condescending tale of white-man colonialism. It's a bit of both, flavoured by some potent tropical hallucinogens that put the truth of the tale into question. Beyond the layers of plot, Far Cry 3 is open-world gold that evokes thoughts of Resident Evil, Assassin's Creed and Grand Theft Auto in one.
New Super Mario Bros U
Do you remember the old Nintendo Entertainment System packaging with the photo of the family assembled around a 14-inch TV while one kid played Super Mario Bros on single-player and his brother sat there, grinning like a tool with his redundant second controller? It took 24 years to right that wrong (with 2009's New Super Mario Bros Wii) and now the Wii U has enabled a fifth player to involve themselves by stunning enemies and building new paths using the GamePad's touch screen. New Super Mario Bros U is a must-have for families, and the first essential Wii U title.
(PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
In a year of sequels (itself a sequel to 2011, a year of sequels) Dishonored stands out as a work of incredible originality within the stealth-action genre. The range of mechanical and supernatural powers available to your character are the scaffolding your experiences will be built upon, and they open the way forward to a range of decisions in each mission. Kill 'em all? As you wish. Morality first? Make it so. The world - and it's an ugly, unforgiving, industrial cesspit of a place - is your oyster in Dishonored.
It is possible to engage a child's interest in magic and illusions without wheeling out that bespectacled boy with the odd-shaped scar, and Sony have shown how in spectacular fashion. Sorcery makes the most of the PlayStation 3's Move controller as the wand you use to guide Finn, a cocky little twerp with an apparent death wish, on his quest to rid his land of evil. Adults might tire of it after one playthrough, but children could play this weekend in and out for years.