2013 has come and gone, and I wanted to take a stab at creating my own Game of the Year top ten list. This was not an easy thing to do. There are games that deserve honorable mentions, games I have still to experience, and others which were huge disappointments, but each of those will need to be addressed another day.
1. The Last of Us
The Last of Us is my clear choice for Game of the Year, and is a strong contender for game of the generation. It pushes the limits of what the PlayStation 3 is capable of, and the game looks amazing in all of its post-apocalyptic splendor and horror. I found the gameplay enjoyable, and appreciated the tension that resulted from higher difficulties, sneaking past clickers with limited ammo and trying desperately not to make a sound. The combat wasn’t perfect 100% of the time, especially how your companions would essentially be invisible to enemies, but I understand the reasons Naughty Dog went that route, and it never detracted from the overall experience. The Last of Us also did what I didn’t think any other game could: it made zombies interesting and frightening again. The biological, fungal spin on the infected was equal parts fascinating and horrifying, and it really helps them stand apart in what feels like an over-crowded genre. The narrative is nothing short of brilliant, and Joel and Ellie are some of the best, most detailed, nuanced characters I’ve ever played in a video game. From the game’s initial sequence to its jaw-dropping conclusion, I actually cared about these characters, even if I didn’t always find myself aligned with their motivations. Even after the game faded to black and the credits rolled, it took me weeks to get it out of my head. The Last of Us is a masterpiece that absolutely should not be missed.
2. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Before AC4, I had never played an Assassin’s Creed game. I’d read about the franchise and talked to friends who played it, but it never really appealed to me. All of that changed with Black Flag. When I heard it would be a tale of pirates and plunder and would feature open sea battles, I knew I had to play it. As someone who grew up loving the original Sid Meier’s PIRATES!, I just couldn’t pass it up. Black Flag resonated with me so strongly that it is the main reason I chose to purchase a Playstation 4 in 2013. The core story and traditional Assassin’s Creed gameplay are nothing special, and I probably love the game so much for being the least like any AC game in the franchise. The protagonist is a likeable pirate stereotype, just a puckish rogue looking for fame and fortune, and I appreciate that he’s just as clueless and indifferent to the whole Templars vs Assassins war as I am. Having to follow someone and eavesdrop on them is all well and fine, but they’re my least favorite missions by far. Fortunately, the animus mission rating system is not only a clever tie-in to the modern-day story; it also allows me to one-star these missions, and the feedback is actually being reviewed by Ubisoft. It’s the rest of the game, literally everything else other than the main story, that keeps me logging countless hours. The sea battles, sacking fortresses, collecting sea shanties for my crew to sing, upgrading my ship and personal arms, hunting and harpooning, all of it combines to help me live out my dreams of a life on the high seas. Even the companion app is extremely well done, and thanks to AC4, I’m finally buying into the idea of second screen functionality. The Kenway’s Fleet mini-game gets a special mention here for not only being fun on its own, but also providing me with a reason to go pick a fight with the biggest, nastiest ships I can find in the main game. Ubisoft has found gold with Black Flag, and I hope they realize it. I’m still apathetic to where they take the Assassin’s Creed universe from here, but they could easily turn this into a brand new pirate IP with a little reworking. Do that, and I’d be the first one to climb aboard and set sail.
Gunpoint blew me away with its hilarious writing, clever mechanics and noir setting and music. The great level designs allow you the freedom to solve each mission in your own way. Even the spectacular ways that things can and will go wrong are fantastic. I’ve never had this much fun failing a mission in a game, and it’s the most fun I’ve had in anything close to the stealth-puzzle genre since 2012’s Mark of the Ninja. When I stop and consider this was made by a person who had no formal programming training, it’s even more impressive. Gunpoint also comes with a level editor for no additional cost, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the community comes up with. More Gunpoint can only be a good thing!
4. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Brothers was a game I didn’t pay that much attention to at first, but when I heard Brad Shoemaker state his now infamous line that there wouldn’t be 10 games better than Brothers in 2013, I knew I had to play it. And he was right!
Brothers is not only beautiful to behold, the unique mechanic of controlling one brother with each control stick moves from alien to semi-frustrating to brilliant as the game progresses. It’s a quirk that may seem like a gimmick on the surface, but is actually supports the excellent narrative Brothers tells. If you’ve ever wanted to play a video game representation of one of Grimm’s fairy tales, look no further.
5. Gone Home
The debate over what constitutes a game seems to come up every year, and 2013 was no exception. Gone Home is one that is hotly debated due to its linear structure and limited interface, but even if you judge it as nothing more than an interactive story, it’s still impressive. I sat down and watched my girlfriend (now fiancee) play through the entire thing, and it was easily one of my best gaming experiences of the year. It’s a time machine back to the early ‘90s, and its choice of time and setting goes beyond nostalgia to support the narrative in a meaningful way. Gone Home also receives high marks for showing that a good video game story doesn’t have to be about saving the world or universe. It should absolutely be experienced.
6. Saints Row IV
I’m probably in the vast minority here, but I played through Saints Row 4 AFTER playing GTA V. It’s crazy to think these games once shared similar DNA at one point, but that open-world family tree split a long, long time ago. Where GTA is still grounded in some sort of semi-serious reality with it’s characters (even Trevor), Saints Row is just absurd in all the right kinds of ways. Why drive around a city when you can leap over entire buildings and glide over city blocks? Why shoot someone with a 9mm when you can fire up the dubstep gun and WUB WUB them until they explode? Hell, why use guns at all when you can run into enemies with super speed and punch through them? Saints Row IV is like The Matrix meets Infamous meets… well… Saints Row! The game never takes itself seriously, but it does so in a way that keeps me laughing instead of groaning. Nothing feels like a grind. Even the side missions which can seem repetitive and grindy in a lot of these games are varied, fun and weird enough to keep me coming back. The only negative I can say about Saints Row 4 is that it’s a little too derivative of the previous installment, essentially repurposing the exact city from The Third. I have no idea where they take the franchise from here, but I’m anxious to find out. Saints Row 4 was hands-down my favorite “sit down and just play a fun video game” game of the year.
I heard Jeff Gerstmann say something during a 2013 Bombcast along the lines of “there’s no way the best game on the PS4 is a Defender clone”.
Personally, I think that’s selling Resogun short. It may not resonate with everyone, but it’s a fantastic launch title that gives a great new look to classic game play. If Gone Home is all story with no gameplay, then Resogun is the flip side of that same coin. The game looks fantastic, the controls are tight, the ship options play differently, and it’s keeping me entertained for far longer than I thought it would. I started playing through on Rookie, trying to not only beat the game, but to do it perfectly with zero deaths, all humans saved, and never losing my maximum multiplier. Even at the lowest difficulty, that’s not an easy task. Higher difficulty levels not only means the enemies have new abilities, but the max multiplier increases as well, making for higher and higher scores as you progress.
It’s not perfect. The game should automatically keep track of your friends’ scores, and use them as a competitive incentive to keep pushing yourself to do better and better. I’ll never be able to compete with the best in the world, but if I can top my friends list, I’m still satisfied. Missing that feature is an oversight that could reduce the longevity of the game, but it’s my only real complaint.
I think Resogun is not only a great launch title for PS4, it’s also a great example of the value of PlayStation Plus.
Oh, and being able to remote play this on Vita is just a bonus. Really enjoying that feature, and Resogun is a big reason why!
8. Tomb Raider
Sure, there could have been more actual tomb raiding in this reboot, but that’s really my only complaint. Games rarely take a chance with a female protagonist, so I applaud Crystal Dymanics and Square Enix for not only doing so, but doing it in a way that didn’t over-sexualize her in the process. This Lara Croft seems more like an actual young woman and less like a cartoon characterization or outlandish male fantasy. This origin story introduces us to a more vulnerable, fragile and less experienced Laura who has to discover the strength inside of her in order to survive the terrible circumstances she’s landed in. There’s a bit of a disconnect at times when this same scared girl mercilessly wades through dozens of trained mercenaries and fanatics with a vengeance, but it didn’t diminish my overall enjoyment of the game.
Probably the most impressive thing that Tomb Raider does is succeed in spite of the stupidity of its own executive leadership. Ron Rosenberg, Executive Producer for the game, made more than one blunder in promoting Tomb Raider.
First there was the backpedalling from a scene in which Laura clearly survives an attempted sexual assault, a moment that they should have proudly owned as a mature theme in a mature game. When Ron says, “Sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game,” he diminishes one of the character’s most defining moments, if not THE defining moment. This is where Lara refuses to be a victim and instead takes a human life. Sure, an hour later she’s picking them off like a carnival shooting gallery, but that first one is a moment you remember.
The second egg Rosenberg laid was when he explained that, “When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character. They’re more like ‘I want to protect her’.” This is exactly why strong female protagonists are so rare in the industry. One finally comes along and the guy promoting the game basically undermines his own lead character implying she’s not heroic, empowered or responsible for her own fate. I understand that she’s not the badass Lara we all know from previous games, but come on. Nathan Drake doesn’t have special forces training either from what I’ve been able to tell, but when I play Uncharted, I’m not trying to protect poor, helpless Nathan. It’s a clear double standard, and one that I’m glad the game itself put to rest.
This is the game on my list that most people will probably question, but I spent upwards of twenty of the best gaming hours of 2013 with this fun little action-puzzle adventure, most of it played co-op, where FORCED really shines.
According to the FORCED Wikepedia page, “Players are cast as slaves in a fantasy gladiator arena, condemned to fight as gladiators to win their freedom. With the help of Balfus, a Spirit Mentor, they are able to fight their way through the challenges and Guardians at the end of each area and gain freedom for them and their kin.”
It’s half puzzle game, half action game. The developers call it “Diablo meets Left 4 Dead”. As someone who spent a hell of a lot of time playing in World of Warcraft over the years, it felt a lot like raiding. Piecing together strategies with your buddies over voice comms, fighting off trash waves, patiently learning each boss strategy, and then needing to flawlessly execute your strategy to earn victory is what FORCED is all about. It’s what I loved most about traditional MMO PvE encounters, just on a much smaller scale. While it doesn’t feature “classes” in the traditional sense, each of FORCED’s four gladiators features a unique weapon set with distinct abilities. Which gladiators you choose, and which active and passive abilities you select to equip can have a meaningful impact on how things play out. To complicate things even further, you have a spirit mentor NPC named Balfus who not only has some of the best, funniest dialog in the game, but who also is key to clearing each level. Mastering your own abilities, making the most of what your allies bring to the fight, and coordinating on how to use Balfus with your team adds a lot of depth to the game.
FORCED was my biggest surprise of 2013, and some of the most fun I had all year in a cooperative game.
10. The Swapper
The Swapper is a great puzzle game wrapped in a very interesting sci-fi narrative, and set in one of the most atmospheric, hauntingly beautiful environments I played in all year. I found the puzzles to be challenging, and I enjoyed unraveling the story piece by piece as I progressed through the game. Similar to Portal, the tools are your disposal are deceptively simple to use, but the fantastic level design will certainly put your wits to the test. The art design and music are superb, and I found the story to be equal parts entertaining and disturbing. The game’s final moments should not be missed.