2012 was definitely a revolution in games. Even though we saw our fair share of sequels, we also saw a number of titles that helped push forward game graphics in a big way. Some were quite original, like thatgamecompany's Journey, while others took the familiar and revamped them in surprising ways, like Nintendo's New Super Mario Bros U.
Join us now as we look back at 2012's trendsetters in visual achievement, in no particular order. Whether it was in the little things or just an overhaul in general design overall, you can't deny that these examples are definitely something to watch. Especially if you've got the HDMI-supported TV – and optional 3D – to do so.
Need For Speed: Most Wanted (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
Though the engine itself has a sense of familiarity (we've seen Criterion Games cover this territory before with 2008's Burnout Paradise), Need For Speed: Most Wanted excels in the visual department regardless, thanks to a robust city that's always filled with activities, beautiful car models that look just like the real deal, and a helpful menu system that easily shows you who's ready to challenge you on the open road. The smooth frame rate throughout each racing event doesn't hurt either.
Halo 4 (Xbox 360)
With Bungie working its charm over the last few years, we thought we've seen everything that could possibly be squeezed out of this sci-fi saga. But then 343 Industries whips up what could very well be the best looking first-person shooter for the Xbox 360 to date, if not ever. Featuring exquisite backdrops, complex enemies that require a whole lot of firepower to bring down, great weapon effects and convincing in-game cinemas, everything about Halo 4 just screams out, "Polish!", but still maintaining the gameplay that makes the series so special. Bravo.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
Activision's sequel has to get a mention because, somehow, even with everything that's going on in the game, the developers at Treyarch manage to keep a smooth near-60 frame per second frame rate throughout the proceedings. You could be invading a soldier-filled corporate building or doing a fly-by on swamp boats with missiles whizzing past, and the game maintains a smooth graphic quality that few games can match. What's better is checking it all out in 3D, as the developers have managed to implement it without losing a hint of detail. Even on the passive 3D TV's (like the LG models), it's spectacular to watch.
Journey (PlayStation 3)
For its third downloadable effort, thatgamecompany manages to trump its previous releases, flOW and Flower, with relative ease. Journey takes place in a fantastic world, where you'll travel through lonely deserts and stunning underground caves as you work your way towards a mysterious mountain. The game is intriguing throughout, especially the lead character, who doesn't show any facial expressions – and doesn't need to – as they travel along throughout each stage. If you must experience one downloadable game just to see what thatgamecompany can do with the PS3 hardware, this is definitely it…though the other two games are still quite the lookers as well.
New Super Mario Bros. U (Nintendo Wii U)
Normally, a Mario game isn't much of a big deal in terms of graphics, unless Nintendo has gone all out with an entry in the Super Mario Galaxy series. However, New Super Mario Bros. U is something special, as it's the long-anticipated debut of our favorite plumber in the HD era. Though it's strictly a 2D affair, Shigeru Miyamoto and his team have pumped plenty of visual goodness out of this game, whether you're swimming underwater and avoiding enemies or jumping across magical stars during a quaint moonlit night. It's really something to see, whether you're watching it on your TV or enjoying from the convenience of your GamePad. The only other game poised to outperform it is Rayman Legends. (Just play the demo and you'll see what we mean.)
Far Cry 3 (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
After dealing with the somewhat bright (and somewhat bland) surroundings of Far Cry 2, it's nice to see that Ubisoft Montreal went back to tropical basics for the third game, having you whizz around a jaw-dropping desert island with miles to burn while you do away with nasty pirates. Along with the lush surroundings, this game also has plenty of mayhem to spare, whether you're blasting a boat to smithereens with a well-timed shot from your bow and arrow or taking out a predator up close with your trusty knife. This game is a visual paradise, even with all the havoc that's happening.
Assassin's Creed III (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
With the latest chapter in the Assassin's Creed series, Ubisoft did something very kick-ass, losing the old settings from previous games and instead shifting to the Olde Town surroundings of 1760's Boston and New York. The results are nothing short of phenomenal, as you really feel like you're walking through colonial areas, carving up those vicious red coats and making a quick getaway by cutting through buildings and diving into those traditional haystacks. The PC version is the best looking of the bunch, though the other console versions are quite acceptable if you're lacking a high-end computer unit. This game's a killer to look at – and leave us wondering what Ubisoft will have in store for the next one.
Rayman Origins (PS Vita)
Finally, if you want a portable game that manages to retain all the visual magic of its console brethren, there are a number of Vita games to choose from, but none come even close to Rayman Origins. Every speck of visual delight that came out of 2011's platformer is recreated here, even if the screen is a bit smaller. You can also zoom in and see more detail if you choose to, though the default spaced-out camera is the best way to go. And sure, you can't play multiplayer, but the sheer beauty of the well-designed levels and hand-drawn animation are still intact. And that's what counts for you visual nuts!