After a slow start to the year, the games industry has exploded with new releases this winter, launching must-have game after must-have game. With a healthy line-up of games to choose from this Christmas, and Nintendo's Wii U finally on the market, it's tough to decide exactly what to spend your time and money on.

With that in mind, here are our 10 must-play games of 2012, all available to buy in shops now.

10. Syndicate (£9.95)

Syndicate PS3 10 games 2012

Criminally overlooked, Starbreeze Studios' reimagining of the isometric shooter Syndicate from 1993 is one of the best FPS games of this year.

It's set in a sleek, techno future where corporations - or syndicates - control the world via the "dataverse", a global network of information and communication accessed by neurally installed microchips. You play as Miles Kino, a corporate saboteur for the world's biggest syndicate, Eurocorp. He has access to the new DART chip, which he can use to hack guard's neural implants to make them drop their guns, attack their friends or commit suicide.

With its ultra-slick visuals, deafening guns sounds and icky gore, Syndicate is one of 2012's best sleeper hits.

9. Forza Horizon (£27.99)

Forza Horizon

A complete sensory overload, brimming with music, fast cars and glossy vistas, Forza Horizon is the best 360 exclusive of this year.

A fresh take on Forza's track racer formula, Horizon lets you loose on the streets and hills of Colorado as you compete in a kind of Gumball 3000 driving festival. It looks beautiful, the sun and moonlight shimmering on the bonnet of your custom designed Dodge Viper as you barrel down the side of the Rocky Mountains. In keeping with the festival vibe, Horizon's soundtrack has been handpicked by Radio One DJ Rob De Bank and features groups like The Hives, The Maccabees and New Order.

A glossy, high-octane racing sim that's endlessly fun, Forza Horizon is an essential purchase.

Read our full review of Forza Horizon here.

8. Assassin's Creed III (£37, GAME)

Assassin's Creed 3

The most ambitious game of 2012, Assassin's Creed III is an interesting mess that doesn't quite manage everything it tries to do but makes for a talking point nonetheless.

Set during Revolutionary America, you play Connor Kenway, a half Native-American out to bring down the villainous Templars. But it's not that simple; Assassin's Creed III does a great job of greying its character's morality, developing what could have been plain archetypes into more rounded, more interesting people. The visual design, too, is absolutely astounding, with the lustrous frontier and the port towns of Boston and New York wowing in equal measure.

The naval sections, in which you control a maritime galleon are some of the most brilliant moments in computer games of 2012 and make Assassin's Creed III a must-have, despite its niggles.

Read our full review of Assassin's Creed III here.

7. Journey (£9.99)

Journey PS3

Another case of hit and miss, Journey, by independent studio thatgamecompany, is available to download on the PSN Store.

Playing as a pointy, humanoid shape, you float across a sandy landscape in order to reach a distant mountain. Journey is kind of freeform; there's a fixed entry and exit point to each level, but you're left to explore everything in between for yourself, effortlessly gliding over sun-, and later snow-covered, fields.

It's frothy and frustratingly vague, often coming across as pretentious rather than smart. But Journey is notable for its revolutionary "multiplayer" which pairs you up with an anonymous companion and limits your ability to communicate via speech and text, the idea being that you learn to cooperate organically by watching each other play.

It works, too - any "Journeyer" will tell you how she and a nameless pal began to anticipate and complement each other's motions. Not the high-art that the game industry is clamouring for, but Journey is still a worthwhile experiment.

6. The Walking Dead (£20.99)

The Walking Dead

A brand new story arc, only tenuously connected to the comics and the TV series, Telltale Games' The Walking Dead has you play ex-history professor Lee Everett, as he leads a group of arguing survivors through a zombie apocalypse.

It's a point a click adventure game, like Broken Sword or Monkey Island but far bloodier, forcing tough choices on you that have far-reaching - often deadly - consequences. One great example involves finding a guy with his leg stuck in a bear trap. As the zombies close in, do you leave him to die? Or do you stay to cut his foot off with an axe, risking friend's lives and possibly killing him anyway?

The Walking Dead has a tendency to get bogged down in dead, expositional dialogue, and the small hubs between action scenes feel lifeless. The solutions to problems are a bit mechanical, too, often involving you listlessly pressing X over every object until something works. Nevertheless, The Walking Dead is an excellent game with a thoroughly creepy atmosphere and a lot of nerve.

5. Spec Ops: The Line (£15.95)

Spec Ops The Line

Not the anti-war game that was expected, Spec Ops: The Line is much deeper; an anti-computer game game.

Loosely based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Spec Ops follows three soldiers infiltrating a destroyed Dubai to terminate the command of a renegade US Army colonel. But things take a turn for the metaphysical when your character, Captain Walker, starts hallucinating, turning this ostensibly straight shooter into a treatise on war games themselves.

Variable stuff, but Spec Ops: The Line is an interesting and refreshing stab at gamers rather than developers. It picks apart our desire to complete games, get high-scores and be the hero, with Walker constantly bellowing the importance of finishing his mission despite the destruction around him, and his own mental and physical deterioration.

As a triple-A title with some real brains, Spec Ops: The Line is a standout game of 2012.

4. Dear Esther (£6)

Dear Esther

There's been a lot of discussion over whether Dear Esther, by thechineseroom really constitutes a game.

Wandering around a desolate Hebridean island, your footsteps trigger a voiceover, which details the history of the island, and the relationship between one of its former inhabitants and a woman named Esther. Through your walking, you come to understand that the narrator was involved in a car accident that killed Esther's husband and that he came to the island to be alone, and, presumably, to kill himself.

It's a dark, enigmatic and often creepy game that involves almost no interaction except walking. There are no items to pick up, no doors to open; apart from walking, the only other interaction is your flashlight, which turns on automatically in dark areas.

It lasts about an hour, with distant beacons like a flashing signal tower guiding you from one section to the next. The island itself is completely devoid of life, with only ominous artefacts left by previous inhabitants there to suggest that other people have lived on it.

Dear Esther is a unique, interesting and often scary examination of exactly what computer games can be. It's available now on Steam.

3. Dishonored (£25)

The critical fervour around Dishonored is unprecedented with writers busy picking apart every aspect of its visual, narrative and gameplay design. It's earned heaps of praise for its Victorian-London aesthetic, exploration-based story and satisfying, tactile stealth mechanics.

In a fictional city called Dunwall, you play as Corvo Attano, former head bodyguard to a murdered empress out on a quest for revenge. There's a wonderful dankness to the whole game, with sewer water and plague-ridden rats permeating nearly every place you go to. Even the nauseatingly opulent residences of Dunwall's upper-class are grubby, with the pantries stocked with cans of whale chub and fish oil, and everybody coughing and sneezing.

That physical muckiness is mirrored in the game's murky characters, who backslide and double-cross at every opportunity. The only thing clean about Dishonored is the violence, which hinges on quick throat slitting and accurately placed sleeping darts in the neck.

Dishonored is a brilliant game, with a distinct look and feel of its own and some high narrative aspirations. Tiptoeing around its damp interiors has been one of the biggest gaming joys of 2012.

2. Call of Duty: Black Ops II (£38.85)

The Call of Duty series has received a lot of flank in recent years, with critics arguing that with each annual release, the games get more and more samey. For all its sales figures, Modern Warfare 3 was a damp squib; despite being Treyarch's strongest CoD at the time, the original Black Ops still wasn't very good.

Black Ops II however is the best Call of Duty since 2007, and one of the best games of this year. Set in a near future, it reinvents the standard real-world CoD series, pumping it full of bright colours and sci-fi silliness. It's wonderfully unassuming; the old games laboured until this jarring historical realism which really didn't suit the big action scenes. But Black Ops II is smarter than that, and really understands what Call of Duty is good for.

The multiplayer is as solid as ever, too, and has been polished up with a few minor tweaks that make a big difference. As the first Call of Duty game in years to really challenge what the series can do, Black Ops II stands out as one of the smartest and most enjoyable computer games of 2012.

Read our full review of Call of Duty: Black Ops II here.

1. Max Payne 3 (£14.99)

Max Payne 3

The best game of 2012, Rockstar's Max Payne 3 is also the best third-person shooter ever made.

With the superlative RAGE engine humming away under its hood, Max Payne 3 recreates the violence and chaos of a John Woo shootout like no game before it, with bullets tearing through cover and bodies tumbling over in horrific gory detail. Essentially a game about shooting bad guys, what Max Payne 3 knows better than any shooter is that pulling the trigger isn't the fun part; it's more about flanking, manoeuvring and dodging bullets.

The entire game is gorgeous. Based in Sao Paulo, Max Payne 3 moves from one beautifully designed shooting gallery to the next, with standout missions inside a busy nightclub and a locked down police station.

The story's not so hot, relying far too heavily on Tony Scott movies and abandoning most of the Max Payne lore. But the performances are rock solid, with James McCaffrey proving a best of the series turn as the eponymous Max Payne.

Violent, stylish and sometimes very exhausting, Max Payne 3 is an absolute must-own for Christmas this year. Go get it.

Read our full review of Max Payne 3 here.

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