Friday, December 20, 2013
Another year, another breakdown of the year's best games… according to me.
By any reasonable measure, 2013 was a fantastic year for videogames. Although much attention has been devoted to the launch of next-generation consoles (and I look forward to seeing what they bring) there’s no denying that the last-gen boxes were stuffed to the gills with quality software.
…And wow, does it feel strange to refer to them as last-gen.
Anyway, I was happy to find myself playing good game after game over the last twelve months, and I’ve got to be honest – if next year was guaranteed to be as strong as this year, I wouldn’t need new consoles at all.
Since 2013 was such a bumper crop of goodness, I had a difficult time picking an overall winner. There were many solid titles, but no single one which was head and shoulders above the rest. In fact, I think I rearranged the order of this list at least a dozen times and swapped the top three slots even more than that. Honestly, you could rank the final three in any order you like, and I’d probably agree.
Also, some readers may note that this list is heavily console-centric, but that was out of necessity. I know that there were quite a number of notable PC titles deserving of attention, but I wasn’t able to get to them due to my desktop computer being a piece of junk. My hope is that I will be able to include more PC titles next year, but I played as much as I could with the machines I had available.
In any event, don’t just skip straight to the bottom – please take a look at the very deserving games which precede the winner, and if some aren’t familiar or there are a few you haven't tried yet, give them some consideration. There were so many choice experiences to be had this year, it would be nearly impossible for anyone to have played them all.
And now, with no further ado… my top ten games of 2013.
Marvel Puzzle Quest – iOS/Steam
Anyway, it’s been quite a while since an iOS game held my attention for more than five minutes, but Marvel Puzzle Quest has become my new addiction, and I take a hit every chance I get. While it may appear to be a standard match-three puzzler on the surface, it retains much of the nuance and complexity found in the original Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords. The developers also do a great job of translating the powers of Marvel comic characters into game mechanics, there are constantly rotating events to keep players engaged past the campaign, the rewards and perks flow freely, and its free-to-play status never undermines the integrity of the core design. It’s pretty close to being my ultimate iPhone game.
New StreetPass Games – 3DS
I never had much use for the StreetPass function on my 3DS until this new batch of games came out, but I carried my unit with me religiously once they did. Although all four (Flower Town, Mii Force, Warrior’s Way and Monster Manor) suffer from being overly repetitive with their text, they each offer a unique style of gameplay that uses the Miis of fellow 3DS owners in creative ways such as power-ups on a spaceship, or as fellow gardeners nurturing a seed. Light enough to play before bed but rich enough to make me seek out Nintendo Zones or places where gamers might congregate, these titles might seem like a strange pick, but the fact that they made me change my real-world behavior can’t be ignored.
Devil May Cry – Multi
Real talk: the Devil May Cry series has never been as good as fans want to think it was until DMC3. I've got respect for that installment, but the work that Ninja Theory’s done with DmC is quite possibly the best Dante overall. While it may not require the same level of technically hardcore skill, it’s a more well-rounded and conceptually interesting game, and it takes the franchise to a whole new level. The art direction is fantastic, the combat engine is totally solid, and the re-imagining of the character, his backstory and the supporting cast was great work. Every aspect is polished and cared for, and it shows.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified - Multi
It's a shame that The Bureau was connected to XCOM, because that link set it up for failure. While it has precious little in common with the source material and might disappoint people wanting turn-based strategy, I found The Bureau’s spin on real-time combat to be quite satisfying once I learned the ropes. With creative micromanagement of a three-man squad and special powers which were a blast to use, each battle was intense. Its environments are incredibly rich with the essence of the early 60s, and the story turned out to be a real crackerjack past the halfway point. I would absolutely love to see a sequel, but since the studio has been disbanded that doesn't seem too likely… Enjoy this one for what it is, since it's probably all we’re going to get.
Saints Row IV - Multi
I've always been a fan of the Saints Row franchise, but I was painfully disappointed in Saints Row: The Third. As such, I didn’t expect much from IV, but I couldn’t be happier to have been mistaken -- the development team got themselves back on track in a big way. Open-world games are too formulaic these days and the devs know it, so they energized the adventure with wild superpowers that let players run rampant. IV goes bananas in the best possible ways and its design overhaul is jaw-dropping, but the real key is that it was all done in a way which absolutely makes sense. The writing is miles better than it was last time around, and it all fits together in just the right way. Newcomers to the franchise may think the Saints are just about being crazy, but crazy without structure underneath it isn't any good. As far as I'm concerned, Volition absolutely nailed that balance here.
Lost Planet 3 - Multi
I'm an absolute sucker for strong writing and characterization, and Lost Planet 3 has it in spades. While some were surprised or put off by the sudden shift away from fast action into a more narrative-driven structure, I adored it. It was a rare, mellow pleasure to join space-faring long-haul trucker Jim Peyton on his day-to-day duties, experiencing what it must feel like to be so far from home and missing your family while trying your best to support them. Playing the role of someone who wasn't an invincible lone soldier or lethal space marine was a rare treat, and the writers did a fantastic job in taking the mundane and making it shine.
Dragon’s Crown – PS3/Vita
Dragon’s Crown is the ultimate example of taking an older genre that’s been lying fallow and revving it back up for modern sensibilities. The side-scrolling beat-‘em-up hasn't been deserving of attention to for years, but Vanillaware not only brought it back with a bang, they created what could very well be the finest iteration that’s ever existed. The hand-drawn art is fluidly fantastic and dripping with distinctive style, the depth in game design and character abilities is superb, and the replay value -- traditionally a weakness of the genre -- far outstrips its predecessors thanks to the diversity of classes, numerous side quests, and online cooperative questing.
Tearaway - Vita
Out of all the titles I played this year, nothing was fresher or more joyous than this. Media Molecule uses every aspect of the Vita’s hardware in interesting, innovative ways that mesh perfectly with the third-person gameplay. It’s exceedingly rare when I don’t find touch integration or motion irritating in games, but everything Tearaway does is smart, restrained, and infused with whimsy and delight. There’s also no denying that the character and world design are painfully cute, and awarding the player papercraft blueprints to create in the real world was absolute brilliance. If there was ever a poster child for what the Vita’s hardware is capable of, this game is it.
Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons - Multi
This small, quietly unassuming title came out of nowhere with a gut-punch emotional response and a radical intertwining of game design and narrative. By combining the physical nature of controllers with the way the player controls two characters at the same time, a special form of storytelling was created that could only exist via the electronic medium. In addition, its dark fairytale of a story was conveyed only through gesture and play… Not a single word is uttered from start to finish. Succeeding at so many challenges is an incredible achievement from any perspective, and Brothers elegantly demonstrates that there’s plenty of room left to explore in the narrative space that has nothing to do with scripting or dialogue.
State of Decay – XBLA/PC
Despite the flood of zombie games over the last few years, I’ve been consistently frustrated at the lack of true survival scenarios… until now. State of Decay achieves exactly that, and does it magnificently. By creating an open world and allowing the player to roam free within it, searching for resources, rescuing survivors, and establishing a bulwark against the undead is fantastically gripping. Details such as managing internal strife at home base, assigning the right survivors to the correct tasks, and being in constant fear of character permadeath put it over the top. Going out on a routine supply run is never routine -- getting surprised by a mob of zombies and watching a character’s stamina run low as the undead close in is gut-churning. In this state, the stakes feel incredibly high at all times.
The Last Of Us – PS3
The Last Of Us is a genuine tour de force of writing, characterization, and world design.
Leads Ellie and Joel have one of the best relationships I've ever seen illustrated in a game thanks to incredibly natural conversations and rich levels of nonverbal expression. I was also quite taken by the contrasting themes of parental responsibility and independence, and of the way the game examines the difference between doing what’s right and doing what you must, not to mention questioning what the definition of “right” even is. The supporting cast is just as strong, and each new situation in their harsh quest presents riveting slices of what survival might mean to different people.
Technically, Naughty Dog devotes an unbelievable level of effort towards bringing each ruined location to life, and the environmental storytelling shines through. Even more impressive is how the hybrid stealth/combat play offers enough twists and surprises to actually sustain its fifteen-hour running time. Balancing tense encounters with quiet moments is a difficult thing, but the developers managed to find the right line better than most.
I never would have expected it given my general lack of affection for Uncharted, but these relatably human characters struggling through an inhuman situation manage to deliver the most memorable experience of the year. And that ending? It rings absolutely true. Although there’s no question that the amount of money and number of people required to create an experience of this sort would not be possible for many studios, the most important element of The Last Of Us is the time and care taken to craft the connection between its two leads, and the lessons learned here will certainly have an effect on future titles to come.
…And there you have it, my top ten of 2013.
I'd love to hear your thoughts either way, as well as your own picks. Post a comment and let me know!