Well here we are, the end of another year is rapidly approaching and it’s time for top 10 lists again. I did this for the first time last year and have actually been looking forward to doing it again. I wish I could say I made that awesome video above but alas no. I unfortunately intended to have a Geek Bravado Ramble with title footage to go along with this but between the new YouTube Content ID nonsense and my inability to avoid well, rambling, which would make the video way too long, I decided not to bother. I really enjoy the mental exercise that comes with determining my list every year. Gaming’s my primary hobby by a mile and thus, I play a lot of stuff and having to both recall my experiences and rank them requires a lot of thought. Last year’s list wasn’t easy but this year was frankly brutal for me.
2013 was a Hell of a year for video games. A ton of super high quality stuff came out in both the indie and AAA spaces and there were great experiences to be had for just about every genre and palate. The so-called “enthusiast” press has been latching onto industry doom and gloom stories for easy clicks wherever they can but given the record setting launches for both next-gen consoles, I’d say there’s still a good chunk of people who like this stuff.
The two trends I’ve noticed this year in particular are the amazing resurgence of quality platformers, both in the indie space where the genre’s been thriving for a while but also on consoles. Platformers are what I cut my gaming teeth on and I still love them. It seemed like a dying genre for a while but maybe this is the start of a long-term comeback? The second is that this has really been the year of stellar voice acting. So many of the titles you’re going to see in my list are ones where I specifically call out the incredible talent voicing the in-game characters, give them a life and identity you don’t see in many games. People can make fun about how much Nolan North, Troy Baker and Jennifer Hale we’re seeing in games right now but there’s a reason for that, they are absolutely top of their craft in a clearly still limited and maturing field of acting. I only hope we get a greater variety of actors in games with the immense talent these three demonstrate.
So, let’s get to the lists shall we? I’ve mixed up the order a bit from last year. Let’s get the “bad stuff” out of the way first. Disappointments lists out exactly that, stuff that disappointed me. This section isn’t just about me just naming a bunch of stuff I think is bad, it’s listing out games (and also a couple of broader concepts) that I had high hopes and expectations for that unfortunately fell well short of them. A couple of these are likely to be controversial but these are just my own preferences, not a broad declaration.
Gone Home – I wrote about this in a more spoilery fashion earlier in the year. Surely due to be the most controversial item on this list. I think this is not only the most overrated title of the year but possibly of the last several years. It’s not even that it’s bad (it isn’t) but there’s nothing special or innovative about it or how it conveys its story beyond the social issue it tackles, one it should be commended for highlighting as it’s criminal that it hasn’t yet been tackled by a game. There’s virtually no game play here, it’s simply a (mostly) linear progression between audio logs (a concept many who loved this game deride others for using because it’s supposedly a lazy, overused design trope) telling a story that’s well acted and touching but also utterly cliche. There’s no subtlety to the narrative and you don’t discover events in the natural, organic fashion the game means you to. Instead, the twist is revealed early on in a way that will be obvious to anyone who isn’t an idiot and you’re given repeated, blunt, often nonsensical reminders of the repercussions of the character’s situation. By the end, you know exactly what’s going to happen and it feels like it’s been force fed to you in case you missed anything. If I wanted to watch a story, I’d look at a movie or a book but games are supposed to be about the player’s experience and there are two other titles in this list that do far superior jobs of telling great, emotional stories and have the game play to back it up. Both of those games didn’t receive nearly the critical of commercial success of Gone Home (despite both being cheaper as well as far better) and I think that’s a shame. I had high hopes for The Fullbright Company but they’re going to have to do a lot better than this for me to care about their next game.
Call of Duty Series – This sounds like an easy one but after playing Call of Duty: Ghosts this year, it needs to be said: Activision, please let this series rest and recover for a while. I play the campaigns of this series every year, partially because they’re short and partially because I want to see how insane they’ve gotten. Ghosts is so ridiculous that (spoilers I guess), by the end, you’re fighting dudes in space with guns while dressed in space suits to take over an orbital superweapon. I wish I was kidding. Call of Duty has been about lowest common denominator, shoot-everyone-because-warfare-is-cool-somehow action for years now but the series has become so devoid of new ideas, it’s embarrassing at this point. It hasn’t jumped the shark, it’s in orbit above it now. Given the lackluster reviews (especially for the multiplayer) and the rumoured 20% year-on-year sales drop, it appears critics and gamers alike also agree. There’s potential for Call of Duty 4 level of greatness here again but Activision needs to start remembering that it works in a fundamentally creative medium. Give this a break and let it get good again before it collapses like Guitar Hero.
Killzone: Mercenary – I’m one of the seeming minority who thinks Killzone’s a good series. I like the universe they created, I think the weighty, meaty, visceral controls that people often knock for being laggy and slow and I love what a technical showpiece it is. I was excited to play a Killzone on my Vita based around the idea of a mercenary with short missions suited to a portable system. Instead, what we got was a hot mess of a game that controls badly (actually as bad as the haters say), missions that rely on stealth but which have the entire level instantly alerted to you when one guy sees you, bullet sponge enemies and a cover system that just plain doesn’t work. This isn’t as bad as the attempts at Resistance and Call of Duty Vita games but it ain’t far behind. This could have been great but it was just terrible.
Battlefield 4 – Call of Duty multiplayer was never really my jam but I love me some Battlefield. Unfortunately, even before being acquired by EA, DICE has never been able to launch a game in a reliable, polished state since their Pinball Fantasies days. It usually takes a few patches before their games aren’t hot messes. Battlefield 4 takes the mess to a whole new level though. Even after multiple patches, there are still performance and reliability issues on PC. That version’s usually the hardest hit by technical issues but this time out, the next-gen console versions are getting it the worst. Most Xbox One and PlayStation 4 players still can’t reliably even join sessions, much like finish them without lag, matchmaking issues or just plain crashes. Isn’t this what consoles are supposed to avoid? It’s inexcusable and EA’s promise that DICE has put all other projects and DLC on hold until this is fixed is cold comfort for those who have what’s basically a $60 coaster at this point. As far as I’m concerned, both parties are accountable here, DICE for making this mess and EA for not letting it wait until it was ready. Get your acts together because the one thing you have to compete with Call of Duty won’t be much longer if you keep this up.
Dead Space 3 – I can’t stand horror in just about any form, yet I dug Dead Space for some reason. Maybe because it’s sci-fi, maybe because I just liked it’s atmosphere, I’m not really sure. What I do know is that Dead Space became yet another victim of EA corporate meddling, trying to turn it from a great niche series that was making money into a sludge of “broader appeal” that ended up being a commercial flop. They took what was a great horror action series and turned it into yet another cover shooter. I love co-op games but it had no place in a series ostensibly about scares and there were far too many repeated sequences of just raw action and nothing scary, plus all the microtransaction garbage. Also, I won’t spoil it but to say the story goes completely off the rails is way too small an understatement. Seriously, go watch the last quarter of the game somewhere if you don’t play it because it’s just bonkers. Dead Space was great and it could be great again but EA needs to let the creators do what they do best because this isn’t Dead Space.
Next-Gen Console Launches – I had pre-orders for both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 but had to cancel them due to car nonsense. I was bummed about being left out of yet another launch conversation but I don’t feel so bad now. Despite having 8 years to prep their new machines, both of these have an air of being unfinished about them. Hardware failures, inexplicable software design choices and bugs aplenty have dominated large sections of the conversation. Beyond that, the two big differentiators of the Xbox One over the PS4 which were meant to justify it’s higher price (better Kinect and TV) seem to have largely been met with shrugs. I’ve no doubt Microsoft and Sony will get these machines where they need to be but it does make you wonder what they’ve been doing all this time. These machines need to sell well at launch to convince publishers to invest in them but I definitely couldn’t recommend anyone buy one right now.
Mobile Games As A Whole (Again) – I’m listing them again this year because well, the problem’s gotten worse in my opinion. There’s potential for truly great, unique interactive experiences on mobile devices. The reason I continue to rail against the platform is well, there aren’t many. The mobile audience has been conditioned to believe that even though they probably spent $500+ on the device to play the stuff on, that any mobile game which costs money up front is too expensive. When $0.99 mobile games are being called “premium games”, something’s very wrong. The vast majority of mobile games fail and the ones that are succeeding are the exploitative, free-to-play, cow clicker garbage like Candy Crush and The Simpson’s Tapped Out. This is causing massive creative damage to the medium as a whole and it’s stifling the innovation that can be had in the mobile games space. Like I said last year, that it’s popular doesn’t excuse the fact that it’s bad. I’m hoping the mainstream public gets tired of free-to-play titles that barely qualify as games and creativity gets to reign sooner rather than later.
Gamers As A Whole – This is a weird one and of course I don’t mean everyone here but I feel safe to say this represents the majority. I’m also not referring to the disgusting group of sub-human scum that’s perpetuating the harassment, hatred and bigotry we’ve seen in the gaming field on social networks this year. I’m speaking more from an industry impact perspective. Many of the games you’ll see mentioned in this article were commercial flops and gamers have none to blame but ourselves for that. I am so sick of seeing people screaming that there’s nothing new, creative and innovative in video games any more, how everything is just yet another brown military shooter. Yet, we got tons of counter examples to that argument this year and no one bought any of them! We as consumers of this medium don’t get to have it both ways. We don’t get to complain that everything’s like Call of Duty, yet largely ignore everything that isn’t yet another Call of Duty. It’s ultimately up to us to drive the change we want to see and if all we’re going to do is keep rewarding the same, old, tired, boring stuff, that’s all we’re going to get in the future. Wake up people! Start supporting better things and when you do, tell others why they should do the same.
Quickly just before I hand out the bigger honours are my list of Exclusions. These are games that I think could have been contenders for the list but which I either haven’t gotten to play yet or haven’t played enough of due to time constraints.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
Phoenix Wright: Dual Destinies
The Wonderful 101 – I’ve had this sitting in the shrink wrap since launch. I’m convinced I will like it but I just kept getting distracted.
Assassin’s Creed IV – I have this sitting on my hard drive right now but because these always come out so late and are such big games, I never get a chance to play them before the year ends.
The Wolf Among Us – I loved the first episode but I don’t like to judge these until the seasons complete. Same goes for The Walking Dead Season 2.
Shadow Warrior – This looks like the kind of over the top ridiculous fun I expected it to be but I just haven’t had time yet.
Rayman Legends – My girlfriend and I have been co-opping this on the Wii U (the platform you should play it on) but just haven’t gotten that far yet. We got distracted by Super Mario 3D World.
All Next-Gen Console Exclusives – I had to cancel both my next-gen pre-orders for money reasons (thanks old car!) so I won’t get to play any.
Next up are the Honourable Mentions. Some may consider this a cop out because it allows me to name a ton more games than just my top 10. I don’t consider it so and here’s why: I think everything in this section is a great game I would heartily recommend but there are ones I liked more than others, some of which just barely missed the top 10. However, I’m keep that information to myself and after typing this list out, I purposefully scrambled it so that it is literally in no particular order. I think that gets me off the hook but you decide.
ZombiU (From 2012′s Exclusions) – I wanted to throw this in since I’ve had a chance to play most of the games on my Exclusions list from last year. The only reason the absolutely stallar and ridiculous Far Cry 3 didn’t take this spot instead is because this game’s just so cool and innovative. I hate horror games and though this one repeatedly stepped on that button, I still loved it. Don’t listen to the hater reviews, they’re wrong. This game better than any other on the Wii U (including Nintendo’s own games) makes the case for that system and the GamePad tablet controller. What would otherwise be a pretty bland and generic survival horror game (already a rarity these days) is catapulted into a whole other level of that experience with the addition of mapping and inventory management on the GamePad, management that I might add doesn’t pause the game while you’re doing it, creating incredible tension and panic. I played this all the way to the end, even when some of the scenarios wanted to have me shut it off in terror. It’s a crime that this game bombed as badly as it did. It’s like $20 brand new right now so if you have a Wii U or are getting one soon, grab this and try it out. Trust me, there’s nothing else like it.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger – Techland is such a weird studio. Their games run the gamut from amazing to horrendous (including the Call of Juarez series itself) but when they bring their best, it really shows. Gunslinger is a standalone downloadable game that kind of appeared out of nowhere and surprised me. It’s got a neat story with great voice acting but it’s actually a score based arcade first-person shooter. The controls are tight, the gunplay is frantic and fun and it’s just the right length, even it it is a bit constrained at times. The PC port was well done too.
Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon – It’s the engine and base mechanics that made Far Cry 3 amazing, covered in a thick layer of the dumbest, most endearing parts of 80s action movies. I’m amazed that a big publisher like Ubisoft took a chance on this idea but I’m so glad they did because it’s hilarious fun. There’s a button that makes your character flip the bird? Why? Because why not?! I had an absolute nostalgic blast from starts to finish with this game and it would have been a steal at twice it’s $15 asking price. It apparently did better than Ubisoft expected (much like Far Cry 3 before it) so I hope more stuff like this gets made.
Metro: Last Light – 4A Games are amazing. Despite being a small studio in a corrupt country and having to deal with THQ as they went off a cliff, they managed to not only put out one of the most technologically gorgeous games ever, it’s covered in the unique storytelling and game play you rarely get outside of Eastern Europe. The universe of Metro is dark, depressing and largely lacking hope and that’s a fiction they own wholeheartedly. I really enjoyed Metro 2033 and Last Light is an improvement in almost every way. It’s a great mix of action and fear, dripping in atmosphere and with unique mechanics such as being able to use quality bullets as money. This shows what first-person shooters are capable of when you think outside the box. It’s a shame that it was still a bit janky and that virtually all of the DLC was garbage.
Dragon’s Crown – Yes some of the art decisions are gross etc. etc. but the game is still great overall. Many consider the brawler genre outdated and a relic of the long gone arcade era. Dragon’s Crown shows how you can take it into the 21st century with style, substance and depth. It’s not perfect, there’s way too much grinding and the online can be a little odd but this is nonetheless a brawler that kept me coming back and reminded me how much fun this genre still is while having enough other systems to keep it from getting boring.
Beyond: Two Souls – David Cage and his games are far from faultless but I think they’re important and should continue to get made, if only to show different things you can do with the medium. Beyond: Two Souls and Heavy Rain before it are interesting experiments in interactive storytelling that also push the bleeding edge of graphical technology. The story told in this game is weird and doesn’t entirely make sense in places but it’s a cool mix of drama and near-future sci-fi that was compelling, played decently and which indeed did connect with me in an emotional way. The acting was far superior to Heavy Rain and it frankly astonished me that what I saw was coming out of a PS3 and not a next-gen machine. Beyond: Two Souls dares to be different and Sony took a chance on it and that alone deserved some respect in my opinion. And it still had more game play backing up its pretentiousness than Gone Home did.
Warframe – In a year of free-to-play PC games that were largely competitive shooters, Warframe did something totally different and did it really well. It’s a third-person sci-fi game with shooting, melee and a bit of platforming and it’s focused exclusively around co-op. Digital Extremes has their fair share of crap to their name and despite being amazing, The Darkness II was a commercial flop. Their change in direction to free-to-play resulted in something that was still a big risk and which I find to be a ton of fun. There’s nothing out there like Warframe and the best part is, it’s not pay-to-win because it’s a co-op game so any enhancements you buy are a benefit to everyone. I don’t know how well this game is doing but it’s continuing to get updates so I’m going to assume it’s performing well enough at least. It’s free on PC and soon PS4, you’ve got no excuse to not try it if it sounds even remotely interesting.
Tomb Raider – I actually never cared for most of the Tomb Raider games but I had a ton of fun with this one. The pretentious “ludonarrative dissonance” types can shut up because this was a blast and combined great combat, great platforming and exploration perfectly, with a jaw-droppingly gorgeous destroyed island environment. Great voice acting really conveyed the sense of desperation and urgency to the story and if you chose to pursue all the collectibles, there was a ton of replayability to the game as well, almost feeling like a smaller open-world. It’s unfortunate that they tacked on a multiplayer mode no one played and fewer asked for which bloated the sales expectations to unrealistic levels but hopefully Square Enix has learned for next time.
Gunpoint – Created by Tom Francis, a games reporter who never made a game in this life before this, it’s a testament to what you can do with some determination and elbow grease. Gunpoint is really neat because though it’s very short and easy if you play it by the path of least resistance, that’s only one way to play it and the levels are so flexible that you can best them in some truly devilish and creative ways if you’re willing to put in the time. It’s also got a funny story and a level editor to boot! This game did so well that it gave Francis the ability to start creating them full-time. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Rogue Legacy – I’m not even remotely close to finishing this yet but I already know it’s fantastic. Made in Canada by a developer who was apparently on the ropes and hadn’t had success up to now, it’s a great take on the roguelike genre I normally don’t really care for that has a great progression curve backed up by a unique game play system. This gives me the “just one more run” feeling in a way I haven’t experienced in years. Some of the random level generation is just outright unfair at times and some of the enemies are pretty cheap but that’s all part of the point. I’ll be buying this again when it hits PlayStation Vita next year.
Remember Me – One of several great games this year that didn’t have a publisher with the balls to put marketing power behind it because it wasn’t the same old tired ideas. This game is the first effort from independent studio Dontnod Entertainment (a sad rarity in AAA these days) and they came up with something really unique and cool that just needed a little more time in the oven. I absolutely love the techno-dystopian future setting and the art direction is stunning. This is also one of the few AAA titles to feature a strong, driven female lead character which is very refreshing to see. The combo lab and memory remix sequences are both fantastic ideas that broke up what is otherwise a fairly standard action platformer with weaker than standard combat. I do wish they were used more often and had a chance to be fleshed out better but there’s every chance that if this series gets a second chance, it could be something really special. Give it that chance Capcom, you owe it that.
DmC: Devil May Cry – Screw the “New Dante” haters, this game is the best Devil May Cry and I’ve played them all. I was as skeptical as anyone about this. I like Ninja Theory but their games don’t tend to be super fast and precise and I wondered if they could do the trademark combat of this series the the way fans deserved but they totally pulled it off. The world was gritty and dark yet the script was also goofy and humourous, even in that context. The writers understood that the Devil May Cry universe is kinda’ dumb and rolled with that. The levels were brilliantly designed, abstract, vertical gauntlets and yet always managed to feel fluid and never maze like. The combat was super fast and visceral and all the boss fights were unique and very memorable without being too punishing. Combine it with the amazing metal soundtrack and I felt energised going into every fight. They were also smart enough to hand the PC version off to QLOC who did a phenomenal job. This is another game that had unrealistic sales goals which were not met but I hope Capcom has learned from that and gives Ninja Theory another kick as this can. This is Devil May Cry the way it should be from now on.
Guacamelee – Canadian team DrinkBox Studios are damn good at what they do and this is no exception. I played it on the Vita but it’s now out on PC too. Yet another brawler that uses modern mechanics to make the experience fresh and fluid. The story’s basic but pretty neat, the art and animations are gorgeous and just abstract enough to make them stand out, the soundtrack is a near perfect complement to the setting and while it definitely gets challenging, it never feels punitive or cheap and you can overcome even the hardest moments with practice. DrinkBox has become one of those teams who automatically has my attention when they announce something new. I can’t wait to see what their next thing is.
Splinter Cell: Blacklist – I hated Splinter Cell: Conviction and thought it was a big step backwards for the series. Trying to turn one of the best stealth series into a Gears of War clone with idiotic enemy barks? Screw that. Ubisoft Toronto remembered what a Splinter Cell game is supposed to be with Blacklist. The game allows you to play either proper stealth or guns blazing, rarely forcing you into either and having a smart cross-mode scoring system that has reward tiers for each method and actually encourages you to play the levels both ways. The levels themselves are brilliantly designed with numerous ways to approach every encounter and always changing environments so things never get stale. The scoring and challenge system is also brilliant design as it seamlessly integrates into all the game modes but does it in a way that’s not obnoxious or intrusive and never are you promoted to accelerate progression by spending real money, something they could have easily done. The story is real dumb (even by Tom Clancy game standards), the enemy AI could still be better (though it’s vastly improved over Conviction) and the PC version had several issues (seriously, screw UPlay) but this is what a next-generation Splinter Cell should be.
I seriously thought this post would be shorter than last year’s but it’s already about 85% as long as that was and I’m only now getting to the list. Let’s waste no time! Here are my Top 10 Video Games of 2013, ranked in the order I would recommend people buy them if they only had time or money for a certain number of games, the top one obviously being the first recommendation.
10. Puppeteer (PS3 Exclusive) – This title came out of nowhere and was criminally neglected by Sony. It’s just one of the many great platformers this year. The entire thing is portrayed as if you’re playing a puppet show and has some of the most gorgeous art design I’ve seen in years. The levels are constantly changing and always layering on new mechanics, yet never getting overly difficult. There’s a ton of great voice acting backed up by great writing (though it does tend to get too verbose at times) and the fairy tale story is well told and actually has a touching ending. This is a great platformer and you can often find it for cheap. It’s a no brainer buy if you like the genre and have a PS3. Seriously Sony, why did you not promote this?
9. Grand Theft Auto V – This will undoubtedly be many people’s Game of the Year and I can’t blame them for that. This is the kind of open world that only Rockstar Games can make. It is nothing less than breathtaking with so many different things to do that I seriously don’t know how they made last-generation hardware not just implode trying to run it. The story is long and brilliantly acted with a ton of twists in both the narrative and it has an interesting dark sense of humour to it. Where that falls down for me however is that I’m getting really tired of Rockstar’s trope of not making a single likable character in their stories and their lazy reliance on bashing western culture with the subtlety of a brick to the face and hiding behind the shield of “It’s just parody!” Some of the most disturbing scenes in the game were also there just for the shock value and free PR that comes with it, rather than for any meaningful character development. GTA Online while ambitious is also a mess of clumsy systems and implementations and just isn’t that fun, even when you can get it to work.
8. Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon (3DS Exclusive) – Damn right it’s the Year of Luigi! The original Luigi’s Mansion on the GameCube is one of the most underrated games of the last 15 years and Canadian team Next Level Games did a masterful job on creating a proper sequel for the 3DS. This game oozes charm from every pore (the only thing you use the d-pad more is making Luigi call out “Hello?” in different nervous ways!) and layers that on top of unique game play mechanics with tight controls and using virtually all the the 3DS functions in smart ways, plus the 3D effect is actually really good and enhances the experience! It’s a super long game that has a ton of collectibles and reasons to go back to previous levels if you desire as well, making it great value for money. The only problems are that some of the levels are far too long to be conducive with a handheld exdperience and there are still far too many instances where you’ll find yourself getting stuck and needing a FAQ to proceed since you can’t just save mid-level. Seriously Nintendo, just buy up Next Level Games and keep them making great experiences for your hardware. They’re as good at it as any of your best in-house teams.
7. The Last of Us (PS3 Exclusive) – A zombie fiction game that was different and unique. The world of The Last of Us is jet black dark and free of any nuance that there’s a happy ending right around the corner. This game makes you live in constant tension and fear and does it masterfully, if with a bit of clunkiness here and there. Once again, brilliantly acted with characters that are created in such a way that you’re always straddling the line between sympathizing with and despising who you’re playing and forced to work with. The story’s very good and has a great game play twist about two thirds through that I never say coming. Many disagree about the ending but I thought it was perfect, though the last chapter leading up to it was a little much. I also thought there were too many forced combat scenarios put there just for the sake of having them and while unique, the multiplayer mdoe was also unnecessary and I don’t think added much of value. I have no idea where the series can go after this first outing but bring it on Naughty Dog!
6. Saint’s Row IV – I love the Saint’s Row series because it’s insane and owns that wholly but Saint’s Row IV is so incredibly ridiculous, it shouldn’t even work from a systemic perspective. This game is so mad and lets you do so much, it should be completely broken, yet the brilliant minds at Volition managed to make it all work and did so while their publisher was crumbling around them to boot. Saint’s Row The Third turned the crazy up to 11, this broke the dial and then spun it a few more times. It’s also full of references that only long-time hardcore gamers would even understand, much less appreciate. This is a series that knows exactly who it’s targeting and writes gushy love letters to that audience every chance it gets. I adore it for that but at the same time, the amount of stuff they give you also makes the game very easy and I really don’t know where the series can go from this point. Grand Theft Auto V has a great world that’s semi-set in realism and it does that brilliantly but Saint’s Row IV goes in a completely different direction, eschewing reality entirely and just goes “Here’s a sandbox where you can do basically anything, just have fun.” There’s a wonderful purity to that.
5. Papers, Please (PC Exclusive) - One of three games on this list that unlike Gone Home, tells a deep, emotional story while still remembering they’re video games, not an interactive art installation. There is literally nothing else like Papers, Please. A low-resolution pixel art game, you never see or hear your character orhis family that you’re trying to support throughout the game, yet I felt incredibly driven to always do my best for them. The story is that of a downtrodden worked trapped in a dictatorial bureaucratic machine that is devoid of hope, yet is determined to do the best he can for his loved ones while being pulled at from all sides and directions. You are given constant choices to make and all of them have vastly different consequences that can lead to vastly different and numerous game endings. You are always under time pressure but as you progress, new mechanics and requirements are layered on to you but never with so much as a second of extra time given. The game stresses me in a way few others do as I started to fumble and panic my way through my work days at the border booth. This is a story few who will play this game can even remotely relate to, yet it makes you feel for everyone involved, though they almost always remain unseen.
4. BioShock Infinite – I don’t know why it’s become trendy to hate on this game in the second half of this year but all you people who are doing so are wrong. I love the entire BioShock series but this is without question the best BioShock game. This is another victim of the pretentious “ludonarrative dissonance” crowd, plus a group of people that slammed its combat because apparently they don’t know what good combat is. Seriously, you’re playing in a floating balloon city and you’re going to claim dissonance is at work? The world of Columbia is fantastical, colourful, vibrant and violent for a well-established reason and the story told within it is deep, beautiful, tragic and emotional in a way few AAA stories are. Elizabeth and Booker are both great and once again, wonderfully acted characters with rich histories that are well fleshed out and makes you root for them both, even when Booker tries to make you hate him. The main twist in this game I never saw coming in a million years and it’s presented in a way that made my jaw drop both from the twist itself and the technical wizardry behind how it was presented to me. The combat was also fast, fluid and super satisfying and I had a blast with it. I don’t understand why people thought it was clunky versus something like Gears of War (which I also love) and those saying the violence had no place in the world just have a poor understanding of what the story was about.
3. Super Mario 3D World (Wii U Exclusive) - Unquestionably one of the best Mario games in years, this extension on the great formula introduced on the 3DS shows just what Nintendo’s in-house talent can do when you give them horsepower to play with. The cartoony Mario art style is nothing short of stunning in HD. The levels are master strokes in design as they are often as vertical as they are horizontal and they’re free-flowing and three dimensional without being confusing. They will undoubtedly be taught in game design schools for years to come. The new powerups added to Mario games are often hit-and-miss but everything they added to 3D World is smart and works really well. They also managed to take the four player competitive co-op mechanics of the New Super Mario Bros. series and add them in a way that works and if you’re really hard core, they still have the insanely difficult additional levels that most people will never see but that they put the effort into anyway. This is the Wii U’s killer app, it’s just such a shame it may have come too late.
2. Tearaway (Vita Exclusive) – If you have a Vita, buy this game. If you don’t have a Vita, buy a Vita and buy this game, it’s seriously that good. This is another game that Sony idiotically dumped onto the market with no promotion, releasing the same day as Super Mario 3D World and the Xbox One console. Media Molecule is one of the most talented teams in Sony’s fold and it shows. Tearaway places you in an incredible papercraft world that you can create huge swaths of in the real world using their web site if you want. You’re often asked to make items in the game that become part of the world. Oh, a snowstorm is starting? Draw the snowflakes and they become the storm! The game uses every single unique feature of the Vita and none of them are gimmicky and they all add to the game play in meaningful, often adorable ways. Combine that with a cute story that’s moving by the end and great platforming that plays well (unlike Media Molecule’s previous effort LittleBigPlanet) and you have the best game on the Vita by a mile. I wish some miracle could have happened that would have made this a Vita launch game because this would have moved a lot of hardware. Sony’s neglect of this game is an absolute crime and they should be ashamed for that.
1. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – I’m not someone who cries basically ever, at anything. This game not only made me cry, it had me openly sobbing at the end. That alone should tell you how amazing this game is. I still can’t believe that this was made by Starbreeze Studios, whose previous works are almost all gory first-person shooters. Like Papers, Please, Brothers puts Gone Home to shame by showing how you can have a deep, moving, emotional story with unique and solid game play backing it up. Often referred to as single player co-op, the game is played with triggers and the analog sticks as you are controlling two characters at once, each of whom have abilities the other doesn’t. Not a single English word is spoken in this bright, yet grim and disturbing fairy tale, yet you will feel very attached to these characters and feel their sadness and desperation, of which there is plenty. This is a dark story that has its highs but never lets off and doesn’t wimp out at the end. It’s a small, short game but it’s a master case for how video games can be a medium for emotional storytelling without also being pretentious and relying on tired tropes and cliches. Gone Home has nothing on this and I think it’s a shame that Brothers has had less critical and commercial success. If you’re only able to play one game this year for whatever reason, spend the $15 on this, it’s an experience like no other I’ve had in almost 30 years of playing video games.
Wow, almost 7,000 words this year! I was certainly verbose but I think it also shows just what an incredible year for gaming this was. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did and I can’t wait to see what 2014 brings. There’s some pretty amazing stuff on the horizon and that’s only what we know about. Bring it on I say, it’s always time to play!
I hope you and yours have a safe and happy holiday season and a great 2014. I’m largely staying home over my Christmas break from work and I hope to get a bunch of content put up on here (I still have Bold Predictions after all) and on the YouTube channel, with some live streaming for good measure. Agree with my list, disagree or have your own? Post a comment, let’s chat about it!