Saturday, January 4, 2014

2013 roundup: My ten favorite video games of the year, some honorable mentions, and other awards

Give me a second to catch my breath.

I actually had to hold off on a formal best-of-2013 list until now because, truth be told, there has been too much to play within the last year and I needed to use my extensive holiday break to catch up on a few favorites that I missed (at least two of which made my top ten, so hey, it was a worthwhile delay). Even then, I somehow managed to get through the last twelve months without touching The Last of Us, Super Mario 3D World, or any JRPGs whatsoever. The year that I finally push myself as a freelancer, buy five new systems and make every effort to bolt myself into place as an expert of the video game industry is the year that I honestly, truly can't keep up.

That would happen.

I'm gonna jump into my top ten in a moment, but first, I'd like to get a couple of honorable mentions out of the way, since, as has been stated, 2013 was kind of incredible, and narrowing the year down to ten games alone feels criminal. One painful exclusion would be DmC: Devil May Cry (review), Ninja Theory's fan-angering (but Mike Suskie-appeasing) reboot of the notoriously newcomer-unfriendly character action series. Complaints that the new developers have made DmC too easy aren't unfounded, but the truth of the matter is that I finished the game six times, on every difficulty. I was finally able to experience the thrill of truly mastering one of these things, so if the franchise's newfound accessibility means that it's lost some fans, well, it's also gained at least one.

The most humbling game of the year for me would have to be Dragon's Crown, which I initially dismissed due to its somewhat sexist art style (which, for the record, I still dislike) and my general apathy toward beat-'em-ups in general. Once I finally gave it a shot over Christmas break, however, I found that it offered a revelatory approach to loot-a-thon dungeon crawlers. It's one of the year's best time sinks, to be sure; I finished it in 17 hours and wished I'd had 100 more to spend with it.

And while I don't think it's quite substantial enough to land in the top ten, Resogun (review) deserves credit for doing in 2013 what Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved did in 2005. It's a simple, stylized twin-stick shooter (sort of) that was released as a would-be throwaway downloadable title at the launch of a new console and manages to completely steal the show from what should have been the heavy hitters. And this was free, for Christ's sake. It's a very short game, and I'd never in a million years suggest that anyone buy a PS4 specifically to check it out, but I've played nearly every new-gen console game yet, and this is by far the most fun I've had with one.

Finally, special mention should be made of both Gone Home (review) and The Stanley Parable, two experiments in interactive storytelling that aren't really "games" in the traditional sense (they offer no real obstacles to overcome or anything in the way of challenge) but nonetheless have important points to make, and use the strengths of the medium to make them. Gone Home is a rather touching epistolary that tackles a subject rarely brushed upon in the industry and misdirects players along the way, while The Stanley Parable is a clever and often hilarious statement on the role of the player in a narrative told through a first-person game. Both are short, both are surprising, and both are worth your time.

Now then.

10. Rayman Legends (Xbox 360)

This is almost a weird choice. My goal with an article like this is to assemble a list of 2013's most defining games, and as such, kicking it off with a sequel that blatantly recycles mechanics and assets from its predecessor seems a bit curious. Understand, though, that I was never an enormous fan of Rayman Origins. It absolutely exuded whimsy, but too much of its charm was undone by infuriating hyper-reflex platforming that I believe I've described as "quick-time events without the button prompts." It seemed like every level forced me through strenuous tests of endurance just to learn a specific set of skills that I'd never need again. I don't enjoyed being frustrated, particularly when it's so unjustified.

Helpfully, its follow-up, Rayman Legends, actually includes dozens of remastered levels from Origins, which means that I was able to revisit the 2011 title, make direct comparisons and confirm that, yeah, Legends is exactly the sort of platformer I was looking for where the first game wasn't. It's slow-paced and meticulous, and places a far greater emphasis on exploration than memorization. And on the few occasions in which it does lean in the direction of precise-timing-to-the-millisecond deathtrap hopping, it creatively synchronizes the player's movements with goofy remixes of classic songs like Ram Jam's "Black Betty." And that detail alone makes it a thousand times less tedious. A little context can go a long way.

So Legends is great in and of itself, but it's also an important release for the simple matter that it pulls back the curtain. Origins was, as far as I'm concerned, the most beautiful 2D game ever made. That Legends spins it into something I can finally, heartily enjoy means that I can appreciate the magnificent audiovisual experience unfettered at long last.

9. Cubetractor (PC)

The trouble with being a low-ranking and generally unsuccessful freelance video game critic is that outlets tend to dump the throwaway stuff on you. Their most trusted writers tend to handle the biggest and most exciting games. That makes sense and is totally fair, but it means that the up-and-comers tend to get stuck with the stuff that no one else wants. Typically, there's a reason that no one else wants it, but occasionally, you get an assignment that really, really jumps out and surprises you.

That's what happened to me with Cubetractor, an adorable 16-bit indie release that was developed by a two-man team in Singapore and occupies the slot for my most obscure pick of the year. It's a game in which you take control of a robot called Endroi that can pull cubes toward itself from any distance and must take care not to clobber itself while doing so. Ah, so it's a block-arranging puzzler, eh? Actually, no: It's a tower defense game, and one that manages to breathe new life into tower defense games despite the genre's over-saturation. The premise is that Endroi can build structures by pulling two different blocks into one another, which often requires ludicrously slick movement and timing. Half of the challenge comes from figuring out solutions, and the other half comes from the extreme coordination it takes to put said solutions into practice.

File this one under "easy to learn, but difficult to master." It could have been released on the original Game Boy for how simply it controls, yet it's one of the most brutal games that I've played this year. It also nearly doubles its weight in optional challenges, meaning that if you're hooked (and I suspect that you will be), you'll get a lot of value out of this one. Check it out; these talented guys deserve the support. (Review.)

8. Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS)

You know, it's not like Fire Emblem is the only series to do the permadeath thing. The reason that this one gets all of the attention, though, is because it spends so much time developing these characters behind the scenes. These aren't just faceless avatars for video game violence. They're people. They have well-defined personalities and countless unique lines of dialog. They react to one another organically and fight in ways that reflect upon their identities. When you lose one by your own error, you're not just losing a tool. You're losing a fascinating individual, a comic relief, or a blossoming relationship. You're losing something that matters.

It's a tough lesson that we're forced to learn again and again every time Nintendo releases another of these games, and Awakening scores bonus points by being the toughest Fire Emblem I've played yet. I was particularly scarred by the sequence in which Chrom and company take to the sea and attack three rival ships at once, surrounded and terrifyingly outnumbered. First you get your ass kicked. Then you hang back, play defensively, and pray that you can stall while the enemy continues to overexert itself. And then the Pegasus Knight reinforcements just... keep... coming. And you reach the stinging realization that as hard as you try, there is just no way you're getting through this without taking heavy losses. It's a massive eff-you to anyone who thought that they could beat the system.

Awakening is the least-surprising entry on this list. I bought a 3DS specifically for this game and it delivered precisely what I wanted out of it. There's value in that. As much as I admire risk-taking, there's no shame in sticking to what you know works when your turn-based strategy infrastructure is as consistently solid as Fire Emblem's. Just throw in some new team dynamics, deeper conversational mechanics and the best writing of the series yet (which is saying quite a bit), and you're set.

7. Saints Row IV (PC)

First and foremost, Saints Row IV earns its spot on this list mainly by being the Crackdown game that I always wanted but never got. Orb-collecting was great fun; you'll hear no argument from me on that subject. What Crackdown lacked, however, was context, humor and personality. It was a vacuous experience for me, too sexless to be anything more than a forgettable diversion.

Saints Row IV is the funniest game that I played this year. It's one of the funniest games that I've played any year. Maybe I could have seen that coming. What I didn't expect, however, was for it to be so damn heartfelt. I went into this game with very little experience with this series and zero attachment to its cast. I left feeling like I'd known them my entire life. It's the product of great writing, faultless voice acting (if you're playing as Nolan North, at least) and some unconventional attempts to delve into its characters' psyches. So it's a memorable game in addition to being a big, ambitious toy box of gravity-defying dubstep gun wackiness.

I wouldn't call this the best sandbox game of the generation. Just Cause 2 still takes that award in my book. But Saints Row IV is an appropriate statement on just what I've come to expect from the genre. It's nutty, it's expansive and it sees the value in letting players simply derail themselves. But it also realizes that freedom doesn't need to come at the cost of structure or weight. Aside from its endgame stretching itself a bit thin, Saints Row IV is a pure delight. Compare this to Grand Theft Auto V and I'd say that Volition has a better understanding of what makes sandbox games tick than the people who more or less invented it do. (Review.)

6. Guacamelee! (Vita)

As if to prove a point, Guacamelee! issues its upgrades via effigies that look an awful lot like Chozo statues, only they're called "Choozo statues."

So Guacamelee! is a bit shameless in its influences. That's fine, because I've always had an affinity for the sort of level design that the Metroid series, at its best, offers, in which I can return to an area that I "completed" hours ago and uncover things I didn't notice when my understanding of the world was so limited. I do wish that Guacamelee! had been more creative in masking its secrets, since most of the game is simply spent hunting down new attacks for smashing through various multicolored blocks, but it's an organic, constantly-expanding game nonetheless.

However, where Guacamelee! could have settled for simply having a unique and well-executed idea – a luchador-themed Metroid clone with deep hand-to-hand combat – it instead goes the extra mile by offering some of the most creative and, frankly, intimidating platforming challenges I've ever seen. Mechanics like triple jumps, wall-running, mid-air dodges and freaking dimension-hopping are cobbled together into terrifying tests of laser precision that all lead into one another and never feel like wastes of time. The game isn't arbitrary; it's too inventive for that.

Guacamelee! will make you scream, and I'll confess that the last couple of damage-sponge bosses might just be a bit too frustrating for their own good. But the intense platforming that takes center stage is rewarding in the best way. The game constantly has you second-guessing your own abilities but sends you off feeling like you could accomplish anything.

5. Papers, Please (PC)

If I'd done an article like this for 2012, my Game of the Year would've been Spec Ops: The Line, a game that, as I'm sure you're sick of hearing by now, was designed not to be "entertaining," but to make you feel disgusted with yourself. More importantly, it applied unsettling rationalization to the role of the "bad guy," a sensation inherited by this year's Papers, Please, in which you must support your family under a harsh (and fictional) regime by working as an immigration officer, rejecting or even detaining anyone who doesn't meet the qualifications for entry.

Both of these games ask you to do horrific things, and both of them justify your actions by applying the consequences for saying "no" into video game terms. Papers, Please can't threaten the well-being of your actual family, so instead, if you don't do what the government tell you to do, you "lose." Your progress is brought to an end and you're taken back to the title screen. You do terrible things to survive, to "win." Because it's a video game, and if you're not playing to win, why are you playing at all? Why did you even spend your money on this?

You wouldn't think that an 8-bit game centered on rooting through immigration paperwork would be very exciting or powerful, and aside from a few bursts of on-screen violence, the consequences of your actions happen off-screen, either implied or depicted via newspaper headlines. But just like how the white phosphorous sequence in Spec Ops was all the more disturbing because it was presented as an unassuming shoot-the-white-blips mini-game comparable to the AC-130 level in the original Modern Warfare, the minimalist presentation of the people lined up outside of your booth in Papers, Please makes it all the easier to condemn them to terrible fates when the risk of a dreaded Game Over screen rears its head. And that's the disquieting part. What a chilling game.

4. Outlast (PC)

The first trick to creating a good horror game is that it's not about making a big, ugly monster jump out of the darkness and yell "boo"; it's about making players think that a big, ugly monster is going to jump out of the darkness and yell "boo." The second trick to making a good horror game is that, yeah, you still do need to make a big, ugly monster jump out of the darkness and yell "boo" every once in a while, just to remind everyone that you're not all talk.

Outlast actually borrows quite a bit from Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which I was never overly fond of; the atmosphere was wonderful, but the puzzle design was so obtuse that I'd typically be stuck in areas until they stopped being scary. I love Outlast because it pulls the most effective ingredients of the formula (namely, the complete inability of the main character to actually defend himself) and sands it down to a smooth, lean, unpretentious experience that rarely gives you a chance to pause. The setting, a mental hospital, is time-tested, and forcing players to complete large chunks of the game through their camera's rather limiting night vision mode is a stroke of claustrophobic genius.

I'm slightly annoyed that Outlast's writing isn't actually very good, and the game being set in a sanitarium means most of the villains can get away with having no better motivation than that they're just goddamn nuts. But Outlast is a horror game, and via some combination of limiting controls, perfectly-timed jump shocks and slow-creeping terror everywhere else, it's the scariest horror game that I've ever played, to the point that I was only able to inch myself through it for small chunks at a time. To buy this game is to subject yourself to constant, overwhelming discomfort. To quote the title card, please enjoy.

3. BioShock Infinite (PC)

Oh, don't look at me like that.

It's funny that BioShock Infinite would be the game to spawn seemingly never-ending debate about "ludonarrative dissonance," the notoriously pretentious term that refers to a disconnect between story and gameplay, because the first two BioShocks could have been set anywhere for how much it actually mattered that you were in an underwater city. They were, in my mind, corridor shooters that undersold their beautiful worlds. Too much detail was dumped into Rapture for the whole place to be trapped in a display case, for its most important characters to be tucked away off-screen. And now Irrational goes and makes a game that feels as it looks, that puts its most important figure front and center for the duration, that's actually fantastic, and you all hate it? What is wrong with you people?

I am getting emotional. I adore Infinite and I am not ashamed of that. It's a beautiful, exciting, lightning-paced first-person shooter. It lacks the wealth of iconic imagery that its predecessors had, yes, but it's also got the most potent combat of the series to date (thanks in part to the Sky-Line, which gives Infinite's movement a decidedly three-dimensional edge) and one of the best supporting characters in any video game, ever. Elizabeth is voiced and animated to perfection. She plays an important role in combat (thanks to her ability to summon objects out of thin air), and Irrational wisely avoids the trap of turning Infinite into a feature-length escort mission, mercifully allowing Elizabeth to take care of herself, and alerting you to this fact the moment she joins you.

Even more importantly, though, Infinite is daring science fiction that uses the bare basics of its established franchise as the jumping-off point for a story so demanding of the audience's intellect that I doubt it would ever have been greenlit if it didn't have the demonstrably bankable BioShock name attached to it. I still won't spoil what's revealed during the game's final 15 minutes, but whether you love or hate the ending, I can't imagine anyone not being lost in deep thought as the credits roll. It really shouldn't bother me that Infinite has inspired such a wide range of impassioned reactions, because that's what all great, challenging art does. (Review.)

2. Tearaway (Vita)

Immediately after spending more than a thousand dollars over the course of a week investing in two new next-gen consoles back-to-back, I did what any sensible person would do: I spent even more damn money on another damn gaming system, namely the PlayStation Vita, which everyone on my Twitter feed has been insisting is a spectacular handheld. They were correct. Vita is freaking amazing. But that's unimportant for the time being.

What's important is Tearaway, the tragically underselling vessel of condensed charm that I bought with the system. I'm hesitant to describe it in only a couple of paragraphs; there's almost too much here, too many terrific ideas. It was developed by Media Molecule, the people responsible for LittleBigPlanet, so you know that it'll be a platformer with a wry British narrator, a diverse world made of found materials (construction paper, in this case), and lots and lots of colors. But whereas LittleBigPlanet was a revival of familiar tropes for the customization age, Tearaway looks for every possible opportunity to try things that have never been done in mainstream platformers.

I don't like hardware gimmicks. Tearaway sidesteps this problem by not having hardware gimmicks. Its many unique uses of the Vita's camera, touch pad, motion controls and so forth are integrated as core mechanics rather than one-off novelties. You see a pattern on the ground that matches the one on the back of the Vita, and you know that you need to reach under the system, poke it, and watch your finger protrude through the floor on the screen. The game throws so many creative ideas at you that it's more or less spoiler-proof, even for running no longer than six hours. That, and it's the cutest and most visually striking game of 2013, never once breaking its papercraft rule. Tearaway instantly justified the purchase of the Vita for me. At the risk of sounding confrontational, if you don't like it, you are a kettle of inky black pitch. (Review.)

1. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (Xbox 360)

I named this as my biggest Game of the Year hopeful back in August, after I spent three straight, emotionally exhausting hours punching through it. It's since become a considerably less unique choice now that nearly everyone who's played it is tossing it onto their own year-end lists, but it remains the only game of 2013 to which I awarded a perfect score, and in my mind, it couldn't be more deserving.

Time and time again, when discussing some of my favorite games of the last generation, I return to the same subject: interactive storytelling. With every year, we see developers mining more and more ways of engaging us on intellectual and emotional levels that wouldn't be possible in any other medium. The narrative presented in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is one of the year's best, and it's told without a single line of cohesive dialog, since all of its characters speak in a fictional language that isn't translated for us. There's a vague indication of what our objective is, a lot of frequent gesturing by the brothers to clue us in on how they're feeling at any given moment, and a Team Ico game's worth of atmosphere reminding us just how far from home they are, and continue to be with every step.

But all of these tools are dwarfed by the most important narrative ingredient of all: the mechanics. Brothers is not technically the first game to task players with using both analog sticks to guide two characters simultaneously, but it's a unique control scheme, and developer Starbreeze uses it to assemble some strikingly intuitive tests of multitasking and hand-eye coordination, such as an already-famous sequence in which the brothers must ascend a castle wall by tethering themselves together and swinging about on one another's weight. More importantly, though, is that it subliminally reinforces the bond that these two people share. They need one another and feel helpless, even incomplete, when they're separated. And since they're both controlled by the same player, they are, in a sense, literally one.

I don't believe that cutscenes are an absolute failure state; 100% immersion doesn't work for every game and there's still plenty of value in telling the players to put their controllers down for a few moments while we all get caught up to speed. Brothers, however, demonstrates a commitment to interactive storytelling that many other games could learn from. That it's also a beautiful and consistently clever little adventure-platformer with some of the year's most memorable (and haunting) imagery is worth noting, as well; it's the rare heavy game that's too colorful, too spectacular, too surprising to be oppressively bleak. Brothers is an extraordinary game, and my favorite of 2013. (Review.)

And now, just for fun, I'm gonna hand out some miscellaneous awards.

Most overrated: Grand Theft Auto V
Most underrated: Total War: Rome II
Most overlooked: Remember Me
Most visually striking: Tearaway
All-out best-looking game: Ryse: Son of Rome
Best soundtrack: Remember Me
Biggest surprise: Dragon's Crown
Biggest disappointment: Forza Motorsport 5
Most enjoyable bad game: Sonic: Lost World
Least enjoyable good game: Papers, Please
Game that I spent the most time with: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
Game that I spent the least time with before judging: Soul Sacrifice
Shortest game that I played: 9.03m
Game that I most wanted to play, but didn't: The Last of Us
Game in my Steam library that I most want to play, but still haven't: Rogue Legacy
Best game that I never finished: Pikmin 3
Best game that I received a review key/copy for: Saints Row IV
Worst game that I received a review key/copy for: LocoCycle
All-out worst game that I played: Aliens: Colonial Marines
Best non-2013 release that I played in 2013: Final Fantasy X
Best remake/re-release: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD

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