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A screen grab of a scene of "Mass Effect 3"

It's December, which means one thing: It's end-of-the-year-list time. It's a proud media tradition, and we're happy to carry it on with the 10 best console games of 2012.

A few words of disclaimer, first. As with all such lists, this is a purely subjective exercise. There will certainly be omissions and inclusions that not everyone will agree with, but we've played an awful lot of games this year and have good reasons for each that is on the list, or not on the list.

For example, two releases that will certainly show up on a lot of year-end round-ups – but not ours – are stealth game Dishonored and shooter Borderlands 2. While both were good games, we didn't love them as much as other critics did; Dishonored suffered because of its insistence on a first-person view and an empty-feeling world, while Borderlands 2 was a lot of fun when played with friends, but not as much alone. As such, neither left us with as much satisfaction as the 10 that did make the list.

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Speaking of which, let's get to them, shall we?

10. Assassin's Creed 3

  • Publisher: Ubisoft
  • Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
  • For: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U
  • Full review

The big sandbox of open-world gaming reached new heights in Assassin's Creed 3, the latest in Ubisoft's historical action-adventure series. While the franchise has always excelled at replicating real-world settings such as the Crusades-era Holy Land and Renaissance Italy, the shift to colonial America brought with it a huge step up in environmental design. The shifting seasons; the drifting snows that actually slowed your character down when he walked through them; the transformation of foliage from stock background objects into living, breathing organisms; the clockwork crowds that seemed to have their own lives away from the game – all of it combined into the most believable virtual world designed yet. The game itself suffered from dull tasks and a surfeit of cinematics, but there's no question it was a huge technical accomplishment that set the bar higher for future open-world games.

9. Spec Ops: The Line

  • Publisher: 2K
  • Games Developer: Yager Development
  • For: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3

At first look, Spec Ops appears to be just another Call of Duty military-shooter clone. Once you get into it, it's clear that it's anything but. Set in a Dubai that has been devastated by a giant sandstorm, it's the video game version of Heart of Darkness , where an increasingly violent and troubling story forces players to question their own moralities. The titular special operative protagonists begin the game as clichés, spouting military jargon and trading quips with each other, but as they are increasingly exposed to the horrific results of their indiscriminate killing of supposed enemies, their mirth turns into anger and horror. By the end of the game, the troops are fighting with each other and questioning their orders. The player, meanwhile, is left wondering just who the villain in the story is – the actual antagonist character, or the person in the mirror. It's a rare game that makes us question why we like games of this sort in the first place.

8. The Walking Dead

  • Publisher: Telltale Games
  • Developer: Telltale Games
  • For: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
  • Full review

It was a good year for downloadable games, with one of the best being The Walking Dead , based on the comic book of the same name (from which the TV show is also derived). Released in five "episodes" over the year, the overall result is more of an interactive movie than a game per se, in the vein of Quantic Dreams' Heavy Rain . Rather than flat-out warfare against zombies, story and character development receive primacy, with players guiding convict Lee Everett through a tense and emotional survival tale. The game is all about human relationships and how choices the player makes affect characters' reactions to Everett. There are no standard game mechanisms here – no health bars, heads-up displays or experience points – with the only rewards being human ones, like the friendship and loyalty of characters. With the player's choices having a big impact on how things go, The Walking Dead is a great example of how games can tell a better – or more involving – story than any other medium.

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7. Nintendo Land

  • Publisher: Nintendo
  • Developer: Nintendo
  • For: Wii U

Nintendo is taking a big chance with the Wii U, a new console that centres around the concept of "asymmetrical gameplay." It's an idea that ties a second screen, found on the Gamepad controller, to the action happening on the main television screen. Most of the Wii U games released so far have made superficial use of this function – map or inventory functions, for example, have been relocated from the main screen onto the Gamepad instead. Nintendo Land, however, is the shining example of what Nintendo is trying to accomplish with its new console. The game's 12 mini-games all show off one or more aspects of the second-screen concept, from the simple – swiping ninja stars on the controller to see them show up on the TV – to the more complex, like having four players chase an invisible ghost, whose controller can see all of his opponents on the Gamepad. Each of the games are fun in and of themselves and will hopefully serve as inspirational launching pads for fully formed Wii U games in the future.

6. Journey

  • Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
  • Developer: Thatgamecompany
  • For: PlayStation 3
  • Full review

Los Angeles-based Thatgamecompany became known as the quintessential art-game developer with its first two releases, Flow in 2006 and Flower in 2009. Journey, its latest downloadable release for the PS3, cements that reputation. The game puts players in the shoes of an unnamed red-robed figure whose only mission is to trek across a desert to a mountain off in the distance. Unlike any other game out there, Journey has no words, dialogue or instructions – players are meant to simply figure things out for themselves and to interpret their experiences however they see fit. There is a story – or is there? – but Journey is notable for its spectacular desert vistas, made even more stirring by the haunting, Grammy-nominated soundtrack. It's also a very short game, taking three hours to complete at most, but that's actually part of what makes it so good. While developers as a whole are increasingly packing in more and more play time, it's refreshing to be able to experience a game in one sitting. It's quick to digest, giving you more time to think about it when it's over.

5. Sleeping Dogs

  • Publisher: Square Enix
  • Developer: United Front Games
  • For: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3

A game doesn't have to be perfectly original to be a ton of fun. That's perhaps the best way to describe Sleeping Dogs, both a gritty love letter to Hong Kong cinema and an homage to some of the best action games of recent years. Protagonist Wei Shen is a San Francisco cop assigned to go undercover into Hong Kong's triads, but in doing so, his allegiances are tested and questions arise as to who the real heroes and villains are. Obviously, the game borrows its story and themes from the hard-boiled cop movies of John Woo, while its kung-fu action comes from the respective oeuvres of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. It also incorporates a fighting system that's reminiscent of the Batman Arkham games, a driving system similar to the Need for Speed series and slow-motion gun-fights from the Max Payne franchise, all of which are set in a Grand Theft Auto-like criminal underworld. That Sleeping Dogs manages to pull all these influences together into a cohesive whole without feeling like a knockoff of any of them is no small feat.

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4. The Unfinished Swan

  • Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
  • Developer: Giant Sparrow
  • For: PlayStation 3

Every now and then, a game comes along and tries something completely unique with old game standards and absolutely nails it. A few years ago, it was the acclaimed Portal games, which took the old standby of platforming – or jumping from one ledge to another – and turned it on its head by requiring players to think spatially. This year, The Unfinished Swan did much the same thing by starting players off a completely white world, where walls, ladders and other obstacles had to be discovered by flinging blobs of black paint around. But the simple premise evolves as the game goes on, going from black paint to gobs of water that cause vines to grow, which can be used to traverse pits, to using your paintbrush to move around a glowing ball of light that keeps evil spiders at bay. It's all tremendously clever and different. Like Journey, The Unfinished Swan can be considered an art game – especially given that it takes place inside a painting – but its unique platforming elements steer it more toward the game part of that description, which means it's not just thought-provoking, it's a lot of fun to boot. It's also a short experience, taking only about two hours, but it's packed with more charm and enjoyment than many games 10 times its length.

3. Halo 4

  • Publisher: Microsoft Studios
  • Developer: 343 Industries For:
  • Xbox 360
  • Full review

If ever there were a template for how to make a super-big budget game properly, surely Halo 4 would be it. The first game to continue the sci-fi adventures of the Master Chief that doesn't involve series creator Bungie, the latest instalment gets everything right: impeccable graphics, superb sound (and voice acting), engaging action in both single- and multi-player modes, and, surprisingly, characters with depth that we can actually care about. Indeed, Halo 4 is the first game in the series to give us insight into the backgrounds of the Chief and his trusty artificially intelligent sidekick Cortana. Every inch of Halo 4 oozes with quality and, rather than rehashing the same old formula, the new storyline gives us reasons to look forward to the next two instalments of the second Halo trilogy.

2. Far Cry 3

  • Publisher: Ubisoft
  • Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
  • For: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
  • Full review

Speaking of templates, Far Cry 3 lays out the blueprint for where shooter games are going – or where they need to go. Set on a series of gorgeous tropical Pacific islands, the game focuses on the evolution of hapless Jason Brody into a fearsome hunter of both beasts and men. Faced with a fantastically insane villain in the form of drug-running, slave-selling Vaas Montenegro, Brody must test the limits of his own sanity. What makes Far Cry 3 so outstanding, however, isn't its relatively linear story but its huge open world, which holds many secrets and treasures for the curious-minded. There are tons of things to do away from the main story, from climbing perilous radio towers to liberating gang-occupied outposts to racing around on vehicles. The best part of this giant sandbox is that nearly every task feeds back into Brody's evolution, both in terms of game mechanics through skill and weapon unlocks, and in terms of character development. Like Halo 4 , Far Cry 3 also includes a multiplayer map editor, a feature that is likely to become standard for online shooters. By perfecting the formula for an open-world first-person shooter, the developers at Ubisoft have made it significantly harder to appreciate linear rivals such as Call of Duty, which offer pre-determined experiences that merely take the player from point A to point B. All of a sudden, such games feel old.

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1. Mass Effect 3

  • Publisher: Electronic Arts
  • Developer: BioWare
  • For: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U
  • Full review

The best game of 2012 is also its most controversial. Mass Effect 3 kicked off howls of protest online for its ending, which some said wasn't fulfilling enough. Whether that subjective criticism was true or not, the other 99 per cent of the sci-fi role-playing saga's concluding chapter was still outstanding in every way. From incredibly imagined (and rendered) alien worlds to excellent sound design and voice acting and tremendously engaging gameplay, BioWare nailed every technical aspect, all of which meshed with its traditional strong suit: storytelling and characterization. With humanity at war with the alien Reapers and players in control of Shepherd, the only person who could save the galaxy, Mass Effect 3 constantly offered up difficult decisions to make. Then, it didn't hesitate to show you the often horrific consequences of those decisions. It's one of the few games that made you second-guess yourself, or even ponder whether you're a bad person at heart. And love it or hate it, the ending offered up the sort of finality we're not used to seeing in an era of never-ending franchises. EA has since announced that more games will indeed be forthcoming (and designed in Montreal), which shouldn't be a surprise. But with BioWare founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk recently announcing their retirement, it's an open question as to whether the developer will be able to match the epic grandeur and excellence of Mass Effect 3.

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