Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Best Games 2013

Welcome to Post-Launch Reviews' look at 2013!

Since I don't really play new games as they come out, this is not a list of the best games that released in 2013. Instead, it's a look at the best games I played in 2013 - many of them came out quite a while ago, and I only got around to them this year (there is one exception, but that's because I'm a sucker for the franchise).

So, in no particular order, these are my favourite games I played in 2013! Links will take you to the full review if you want more info.

Top 10 Games, 2013 Edition

The Walking Dead

This game was quite the surprise hit. The point-and-click adventure game has all but disappeared from mainstream gaming, and TellTale is (to my knowledge) the only major studio that still produces them. Their previous efforts have tended to be solid games that flew under the radar due to the genre (with one stinker, Jurassic Park) but they really knocked it out of the park with this one. The Walking Dead is a dark, mature, and emotional story where you play as Lee, a survivor of the zombie apocalypse and accidental guardian of a little girl named Clementine, where the player's job is mostly to make some really hard decisions. It's not as interactive or difficult as most games, but that can actually be a very good thing: it's a great intro for non-gamers who like The Walking Dead comics or TV show. It does a great job of making your choices feel really difficult and impactful, though if you play the game a second time it becomes apparent that you can't really affect the story that much. But with only one playthrough the illusion is excellent.
My favourite game element is when you make a choice and you're informed that "Clementine will remember this". The Walking Dead does a very good job of making you care about Clementine and wanting to make sure she's raised right and protect her from the harshness of the world.

Shadow of the Colossus

Whenever the question "are video games art?" comes up, Shadow of the Colossus is unfailingly the first game that's mentioned. While I didn't enjoy it quite as much as all the rave reviews seemed to - there were definitely some flaws with the controls and the explanation thereof - I totally get where people are coming from with the art comments. Shadow is just dripping with atmosphere. The world is empty: there's no sign of life in the wide open fields or the quiet shores; all you can hear is the wind in the grass and your horse's hooves. Most of the colossi don't even acknowledge your presence until you start attacking - they're just these huge uncaring forces of nature. Which you brutally destroy in the name of love. For a game that's all boss battles with monsters the size of apartment buildings, it manages to be very atmospheric and contemplative, and will probably make you feel bad for some of the colossi and wonder if you're actually doing the right thing.


Max Payne 3

I don't think a sequel made by a different studio ten years after the last game can reasonably be expected to perfectly match the tone and feel of the last game. Max Payne 3 is not completely identical to Max Payne 1 & 2, but if you're okay with looking at it as "Rockstar's Max Payne", you're in for a great game. While the sunny tropical environment is a big departure from the gritty noir city of the first two games, the tone and character carry over very well. Max is a screwup who carries a lot of guilt, and that personality is very well written. There are also flashbacks to when Max left the city, which replicate the noir feel of the older games much more closely. Shooting is refined and extremely fluid, with smooth animations for everything - even spinning around while prone. If I had one complaint it would be that the elements of Norse mythology from the original games were dropped completely, but other than that omission, the feel of the game is very faithful to its predecessors.

SSX

 The only sports series I've ever liked got a refresh, and it's pretty cool. As an SSX series veteran, this is probably the game on this list that I'm the least enthusiastic about - a lot of features and style are missing compared to my favourite games in the series, SSX Tricky and SSX3 (in particular, gear is a bit of a random mess). That said, there's still enough flair and silliness to differentiate this SSX from the more realistic snowboarding games: the goofy, physically impossible ubertricks are still here, and you'd have to be insane to run these tracks in real life (lava tubes in a volcano, an abandoned oil pipeline, etc). The Deadly Descents add some cool twists, and the online play is pretty great, something you can't do in the old games. Despite my complaints, I had enough fun with SSX to put it on this list!

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

The oldest game on this list is one that I'd been meaning to play for a long time but had avoided because of the negativity I'd heard surrounding the ending - that the game had been rushed for a Christmas release, and as a result a bunch of content was cut and the ending was unsatisfactory. Well, I played the game with The Sith Lords Restored Content Mod that fixes bugs and restores cut content, and it was pretty great. What I liked most about this game is the much more nuanced shades-of-grey look at the Force - in most Star Wars stories the Force is black and white, good or evil. KOTOR II's core plot grapples with the Force's inherent nature, the dangers of blindly committing to light side or dark side, questioning whether actions can really ever be fully good or evil, and pushes the player to fully consider the consequences of their actions. I really appreciate this look at the Force, and it's all wrapped up in a well-built Star Wars world and a D&D 3.5 gameplay system (like Neverwinter Nights).


Like SSX, Pokémon is a series I've been playing for a very long time. Pokémon has had a curious history compared to most games: for casual players, picking up XY is just like playing Red/Blue, but more refined and with more options - for these players Pokémon has hardly changed at all over the years. For the hardcore players who know all the systems, there have been tons of huge game-changers over the year. X & Y's new Pokémon are fantastic and the visuals are better than ever, but what makes X & Y really interesting is that they do a great job of bringing those two play styles closer together. Breeding and advanced training have been made much more accessible, and it's easier to catch strong Pokémon. The result is that new players have easier access to powerful stuff, and competitive/hardcore players save time. To be completely honest the story is a little too simple and there's not much to do at endgame, but I still loved it.
Maybe one day Pokémon's formula of catching and training monsters will get old. BUT IT IS NOT THIS DAY

Uncharted series 

I had a hard time picking a favourite, so I cheated and picked all three! I love the first as an intro to the franchise and characters; the second is probably my favourite game, having the best flow and action setpieces; and the second half of the third game is my favourite overall because once you hit the desert everything is amazing. The Uncharted games are basically playable action movies with amazing writing, characters, visuals, and a very Hollywood style. I usually have a hard time picking favourites, but I think that the Uncharted series is easily one of the very best of the generation and has earned a place at the top of my list of recommendations.

Demon's Souls / Dark Souls

These reviews haven't gone up yet, and in fact I'm still working on Dark Souls at the time of this writing. But as a bit of a sneak preview for those reviews - holy crap I love these games. I avoided them for quite a while because I was intimidated by their reputation as the hardest games. After completing Demon's Souls and getting partway through Dark Souls, I definitely think they're not for everyone - dying over and over again is not everyone's idea of fun - but if you have the patience and tenacity you'll find an excellent pair of games. The worldbuilding is phenomenal. You're almost never explicitly told anything, but all the clues exist to piece together the stories of the many locations NPCs. The RPG systems are pretty easy to pick up, but incredibly deep, with a ton of different options and hidden secrets that reward you for experimenting, exploring, and trying crazy things. There's a ton of replayability centered around a stacking New Game + mode, and you'll still be discovering and trying new things on your second, third, or even sixth playthrough. Dark Souls is a little more refined and intuitive than Demon's Souls, but the earlier game does have a few features I miss in the successor.

Tiny Tina's Assault on Dragon Keep (& Borderlands 2)

 Borderlands 2 is a great, hilarious game with some very memorable characters and outlandish guns, but the Dragon Keep DLC is what really pushed it over the top for me. In the DLC you play as the vault hunters from the first game, who are playing a game of Dungeons & Dragons Bunkers & Badasses as the vault hunters from the second game, with the unstable thirteen-year-old explosive expert Tiny Tina as the game master. Not only is Dragon Keep absurdly hilarious and packed with all kinds of nerdy references, it also serves as a surprisingly emotional and touching epilogue to the campaign.
And it has a gun that shoots swords that explode into more swords that explode. So that's cool.

Post-Launch Reviews' Game of the Year:  

Spec Ops: The Line

The actual game mechanics are somewhat average and unspectacular, but the visuals are great and the writing is absolutely top-notch. The Line is both an unflinching look at PTSD and a vicious critique of military shooters. There are all kinds of scenarios that question the most basic gameplay of shooter games - for example, very early on there's a case of mistaken identity that results in American soldiers shooting American soldiers, and you have no choice but to kill the very people you came to save. It's self-defense, but in this scenario it seems completely irrational and pointless. And without saying too much about it, the white phosphorous scene is a pivotal moment that will probably stick with you for quite a while, and drastically affects the characters. There are small but impressive touches to the writing, like how the characters' dialogue changes over the course of the game: they start out professional and efficient, and as the situation gets worse their voices get progressively more angry and expletive-laden, to the point where you can hardly recognize them as soldiers. You're also always descending through game environments, which maybe doesn't necessarily make sense physically, but it's a subtle yet powerful feeling that mirrors the psychological descent into darkness.
The stellar writing - the examination of the psychological effects of warfare and difficult decisions, and the criticism of the ubiquitous military shooters - is what makes The Line my game of the year.


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Honourable Mentions

Here's my traditional cheating section, where I mention the games that were cut from the list or that had particular standout features.

Guild Wars 2

This MMO has had a great year, with free content updates every two weeks, and tons of tweaks and improvements. The biggest criticism of the Living Story update method - that returning players have nothing new to see because all the new content is temporary - is starting to be addressed. Some events have left been major, permanent changes to existing zones, and ArenaNet is starting to experiment with allowing players to re-play some of the removed content by adding the temporary dungeons to the Fractals of the Mists. The current Living Story "season" will wrap up in the first few months of 2014 and it looks like things will only improve.
Really the only reason Guild Wars 2 isn't on the list is because it was on here last year and I felt like something new should take that spot.

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

One of the funni
est games I've ever played, Blood Dragon is a laugh-out-loud parody of 80s action movies and games. Even though it's short, it can get old if you shoot for 100% complete, but if you mostly stick to the main story you're in for a roller coaster of hilarity.

The Darkness 2

This game didn't come together as a whole well enough to make the list, but it has some of the coolest gameplay I've ever seen. Your character, Jackie, is bonded with a demon called the Darkness, and you control both of Jackie's arms and the Darkness' two arms independently - two guns and two hungry tentacles, each bound to a different button. It's actually kind of hard to get your brain used to operating the four limbs separately, but once you do the gameplay is beautifully fluid and intense and violent.

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So that's it for this year! I've already picked up enough games during the last couple of Steam sales that I'm pretty much all set for 2014 - all I have to do now is play them. Maybe Dark Souls will sneak onto next year's list - since I'm not done it yet, I'll technically still be playing it in 2014. We'll see.

Happy new year!

1 comment:

  1. I've tried to get into Shadow of the Colossus, but I just can't. I know it is a good game, but it just wasn't for me.

    ReplyDelete