(DISCLAIMER: If it reads like I was slobbering over some of the games on this list, it's likely because I was. )
So, another year is in the books, but 2013 was not just any other year. As far as the sheer volume of games that came out this year that appealed to my tastes, and the overall high quality of those games, this was one of the deepest fields in a while. Aside from maybe 2010, this was my favorite year of gaming since the unbelievably awesome 2002. As evidence of this, a number of games that just missed this list (as well as several more that missed the "Honorable Mentions" list) probably would have made my Top 10 list last year. And at least 5 or 6 games on my 2013 Top 10 probably would have won my overall Game of the Year last year as well. So it speaks both to how weak 2012 was, but also how strong 2013 was. Settling on the ten games that would make the list thankfully wasn't too difficult, because there was a noticeable gap in how I felt about games 10 and 11. Most of the agonizing occurred when it was time to order these 10 games, particularly the top 3, because I felt strongly about each of those games being at the very top. I had to make some really tough calls, but ultimately I feel like I got the list right.
The debut game from independent developer Tom Francis just so happens to be one of the smartest and most satisfying games I played in 2013. Like any good stealth game, Gunpoint allows for multiple play-styles, and gives you the opportunity to essentially do a "dry run" for how you want to carry out the mission. But what sets it apart is that the way in which the game is designed allows you to see the totality of the level from the start, and by also providing you the ability to essentially alter the level design of each stage, it ends up being a very approachable way to script how the mission is going to play out. By giving you specific tools to make use of, and the rules for what they do in the Gunpoint world, you almost have total free reign to experiment with each stage until you've settled on the most fun, satisfying way to complete your objectives.
Because you are only given enough information to know what everything does, how everything works in tandem with the design of each level is something you're left to discover on your own, which leads to plenty of "I didn't know I could do that!" moments. And as a result, there ends up being a lot more variety than just simply doing a ghost run, or a no-kills run, or a "fuck it, I'm just going to kill everybody" run. The game encourages you to come up with the solution that feels most satisfying to perform, which made replaying each level several times a very enjoyable thing to do. This is all well and good, but on top of everything else the game also features a retro visual style that could have felt dated but for some reason doesn't, a simple music score that could have been forgettable but is actually pretty memorable, and a story that could have been a throwaway but is instead surprisingly compelling. Talk about making a strong first impression!
Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar Games, Playstation 3)
No game this year has left me feeling more conflicted. On the one hand, in a vacuum GTA V is hands-down the best Grand Theft Auto game Rockstar has made, and possibly the best overall game of this type. It is an amazing technological achievement that constantly leaves you wondering how they pulled it off on this generation of consoles. It's got an entertaining story with an equally-entertaining cast of characters to go along with it. And the missions, which over time have become the big selling-point of this series, are among the most fun and varied in the series. And yet, I feel like the game didn't do nearly enough for me. The open world genre is one that has felt stagnant to me for a while now, and I was really hoping that as this generation's swan song, GTA V would be the shot in the arm that both this series and the genre needed.
But the open world aspect of this game...it just doesn't feel very different from what I've been playing for over a decade now. It's the best-looking and most believable world they've crafted, but it's filled with the same shallow "time-waster" activities as the last game, with the addition of "new" mission types that only feel like something new if you skipped Red Dead Redemption. And just the overall feel of the game, the way you control your characters/vehicles and interact with the environments, it's all incredibly long-in-the-tooth at this point; it's unfathomable to me that GTA V barely improved on the mechanics of the very-dated GTA IV, especially when something like Sleeping Dogs came out the year before and feels so much better to play. It's largely on the strengths of the missions (particularly the heists), the characters, the presentation and just how impressive the scope of San Andreas is that this game even made my list. Nevertheless, as the game I spent the most time playing in 2013, I have no doubts about it as being one of the year's ten best games. But now that I've played it, I'm left wanting GTA to become more and more about the heists, and honestly I'm not sure I'd miss the open world element if it went away altogether.
Rayman Legends (Ubisoft, Wii U)
Platformers are one of the few genres where I view "more of the same" as being a good thing rather than a bad thing, and this is especially true when you are following-up a game as good as Rayman Origins. Legends more-or-less continues from where Origins left off, but it also makes numerous improvements across the board; beyond further polishing up the controls and visuals, this time around they deliver a lot of gameplay variety that actually holds up rather well against your traditional Rayman platforming levels. Most notably, the game makes excellent use of the Wii U's Game Pad by building entire levels around touch and tilt mechanics, and they bring an element of fun and challenge to the table that complements the rest of the game, rather than feeling tacked-on. Although there was one Murfy level towards the end of the game that I thought didn't work at all due to the touch controls not being responsive enough to overcome the speed of the level (AND Globox's woeful AI), on the whole I thought they worked well and were a positive addition to the game.
Then, there are the "chase" levels which rank among some of the most fun and thrilling fast-paced platforming stages out there. But the real stars of Rayman Legends are the music stages, which are a real treat and playing them at the end of each world truly comes across as a rewarding experience. The sheer joy that comes from finishing a music stage in one uninterrupted run is a level of pure fun that few games can offer. If there's one area where Legends comes up a little short, it's that it's a noticeably easier game than Origins. But while I'd probably give Origins the edge in terms of pure platforming, Legends makes up for it by being the more fun game to play of the two. And as a game that is absolutely loaded with content, including many of the stages from Origins, Rayman Legends provides a big bang for your buck beyond already being one of the year's most fun games.
Gone Home (The Fullbright Company, PC)
On the surface, Gone Home isn't much of a game. In terms of game mechanics, you don't do much other than walk around a house and look at things. And yet, what makes Gone Home so special is something that could only be achieved through this medium. In an era dominated by cutscene-driven storytelling, here's a game that allows the setting to tell its own story. By allowing the narrative to play out in a very natural way, Gone Home does a terrific job of creating a believable set of characters that have lived in this house, and in a lot of ways these people end up feeling more whole and fleshed out than many other video game characters that have had hours of screen-time. As the game goes along, you start to feel like you know these characters, what types of people they were, and how they lived their lives. From a storytelling standpoint, Gone Home really plays its story straight for the most part, but the game's lonely setting and dark mood urges you to immediately think the most ominous thoughts about what has happened to this family, and why nobody is home (fueled by a very simple, subtle score that is among the most effective themes I've heard at creating a sad, haunting atmosphere).
With that in mind, developer The Fullbright Company smartly and deliberately structures the progression through the house in such a way that plays heavily with your expectations of how most modern video game narratives go, and this permits them to take the story places that you never would have considered at the start. But beyond the central narrative, the game also brought a lot of emotions out of me, as someone who grew up in the 90's. I remember making mix tapes of my favorite alternative rock bands of the time, and looking forward to watching The X-Files every Friday night (and also taping re-runs of the earlier seasons in order), and borrowing game cartridges from a "friend" who eventually wanted them back years(!) later. It all feels very familiar to me, and while it could be considered just a "nostalgia trip" in a way, it made the story, characters and setting come across as more intimate and personal to me. It's a level of sincerity and realism that you just don't find in most mediums.
The Swapper (Facepalm Games, PC)
The Swapper is one of those "check off every box" type of games, in that just about every component of the game's makeup is done well and met my expectations. It combines elements from a number of games that I really enjoy (Metroid, Portal, Dead Space), it looks great, the atmosphere is outstanding, the music is excellent, the story is thought-provoking and the puzzles, oh man, the puzzles! The Swapper is filled with some of the most challenging puzzles in any game I've played in a while, with a few towards the end of the game actually taking me over an hour to figure out. But there's a great sense of accomplishment upon finally cracking the code on a brutally-tough one, even after pulling out what's left of my hair in the process. And what stands out the most is that the swapping mechanic that you are introduced with at the start can be utilized in many different ways to solve puzzles throughout the game; it just requires you to figure out what you have to do, by discovering something that you could do all along, but you didn't know you could do it.
This is encapsulated by one brilliant moment that occurs early in the game. The first few puzzles are really simple, as you start to learn the basics of what your swapper gun can do. And then along comes a puzzle where you're thinking, "OK, what now?" And there's a visual clue in the background of the level that you never would have picked up on before this point in the game, and that's when the light bulb goes off and now you're thinking "Wait a second, this also does THAT? I wonder if that means I can also -- holy shit, that actually worked!" It's a very smart game, and every time it succeeds at making you feel smart as well, it's just an awesome moment. Sitting in a dark room with headphones on and just being able to immerse myself, playing through The Swapper was an experience I can look back on say I thoroughly enjoyed, and there's really nothing about the game that comes to mind that I remember being sub-par in any way. Top-to-bottom, it's a great game.
Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games, Playstation 3)
The game design may not have been as ambitious as when the game was first shown off, and the combat may not have been quite as good as previous entries in the franchise. But Bioshock Infinite still managed to meet my sky high expectations by delivering an unbelievable thrill ride, one that had me fully engaged from the opening quote all the way through to the unforgettable ending. Irrational created a world in Columbia that I had no trouble buying into, one where I sometimes would forget it was a game I was playing, one where the journey felt as much mine as it was Booker's. Almost everything that happens in the game is done with the purpose of keeping you invested in the narrative, to have you consistently taking in everything that's happening around you to try and decipher what's really going on, and to have you constantly on the edge of your seat waiting to see what direction the game would go in next. Everything is worth paying attention to, because Infinite is always telling its story even when it isn't explicitly doing so, whether it's through clues found in off-hand pieces of dialogue or from visual and auditory stimuli in the environment. The way that the events of Bioshock Infinite unfold and eventually wrap up is a tremendous achievement in video game storytelling.
However, the game has its warts; I thought Infinite got away from the "encouraging experimentation" component of the earlier games' combat, by having a few powers and guns that I found to be notably superior to the others. While this was offset by the addition of certain environmental objects to interact with, which added variety to the combat in areas where there were skylines or tears, it wasn't uncommon for the combat to feel unremarkable at times in areas absent those features. But at the end of the day, the combat is serviceable at its worst and still really fun at its best, and I don't feel like it in any way took away from an experience that I'll remember for a very long time.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (Starbreeze, Playstation 3)
It's over and done with in the span of 3-to-4 hours, but Brothers may very well represent the strongest 3 or 4 hours from any game this year. In its short running-time, Brothers trims the fat and makes every second count, creating an excellently-paced adventure that hits every note with a high-degree of confidence and focus. During my single sitting with the game, I went on a ride that swept me through a wide range of emotions; it's a definitively sad game, but it allowed for moments of levity that genuinely made me smile. There are tense moments that really had me feeling on edge, but just as often the game let's you enjoy a thrilling set piece that wouldn't feel out of place in a Disney movie. It's filled to the brim with clever puzzles and features some pretty creative boss fights, but Brothers may be at its strongest when you're working together to traverse the game's gorgeous landscapes. The art design is the best of anything I've seen all year -- it's one occasion when I can use the word "breathtaking" and not feel like I'm being hyperbolic.
All of this would make Brothers a great game in and of itself, but it reaches a whole other level for me due to the part that I thought was the most suspect coming in: the controls. Dividing up the analog sticks to control each brother individually initially felt awkward and clumsy. But over the course of the game, it became something more than just an unorthodox control scheme. It is this game. Starbreeze rejects the separation of gameplay and narrative by taking what constitutes the bond between player and game (the controller), and having that represent the emotional bond between the two brothers. The places that they go with this are deeply powerful and resonant in the context of the story, and would not have been possible had they gone with something more conventional. Brothers, to me, is the finest-crafted adventure game of the generation.
Super Mario 3D World (Nintendo, Wii U)
Ever since Mario made his 3D debut with Super Mario 64, there's been a conscious effort on Nintendo's part to figure out how to translate classic 2D Mario gameplay into 3D. As a first effort, 64 wasn't that game, but subsequent installments have led us to where we are today. Sunshine introduced the linear, pure platforming stages that could be considered a testing ground for what would eventually become Super Mario Galaxy, a game that fused the open world style of previous 3D Mario games with the linear design sensibilities of 2D Mario. Finally, Super Mario 3D Land refined the Galaxy formula into what Nintendo was searching for all along: a 3D Mario game that played like an old school 2D Mario game. And this brings us to Super Mario 3D World, which finished the job that 3D Land started and could very well be the full realization of Nintendo's initial vision.
First and foremost, playing Super Mario 3D World was the most fun I had playing anything this year, new game or old. In just about every inch of every stage, there's something fun to do. It could be just trying to progress through the level normally, or trying to find something hidden, or...let me put it this way: just running and jumping around is a whole heck of a lot of fun, because the game plays like a dream. It may sound cliché, but 3D World is built all around having fun, moreso than any Mario game I can remember. It doesn't have the most creative Mario stages ever, but very few of them feel like throwaways and there's a lot of variety in each world -- you never play two stages in a row that feel too similar. The power-ups may not necessarily be the best in the series, but I think they are without a doubt the most fun set of power-ups. In particular, the Cat Suit is probably my new favorite Mario power-up, and anything involving the Double Cherry was awesome.
It really goes without saying that I had an absolute blast playing this game, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the excellent and extremely catchy soundtrack, the very polished and pleasing graphical look, and some really strong (and challenging!) post-game content. Super Mario 3D World is Mario game design done at its highest level, and it'd be tough to convince me that this formula can be perfected much better than it was done here.
The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, Playstation 3)
If I was "rooting" for one game in 2013, not just for my own selfish interests but for the industry at-large, it was The Last of Us. "AAA", big budget console experiences became increasingly dumbed-down, safe and pandering over the course of the previous generation, leaving me wondering if this segment of the video game market could ever amaze me again. At the same time, the once-thriving survival horror genre has taken a huge beating over the past decade, with the flagship brands in that arena engaging in a race to see who could fuck everything up the fastest. A certain game that represented just about everything that is wrong with modern "AAA" gaming closed out 2012 with the unintentionally-sardonic tag-line, "No Hope Left".
And then there's The Last of Us, a game assigned the unenviable task of putting both an entire genre and an entire sector of the industry on its shoulders to live up to all of the hopes and dreams I had for it...hopes and dreams that have been crushed repeatedly by the likes of Capcom and EA. And boy, did it ever live up to my expectations. There was a certain something that I wanted -- no, needed to get out of The Last of Us, that feeling of a personal battle of attrition that I'd been longing for. Because of this, I chose to play it on Hard with all of the hand-holdy settings turned off, and just crossed my fingers and hoped that the game would feel like it was meant to be played that way, and not as a shooter. And thankfully, it gave me just about everything I was looking for from it. It was exactly the brutal and unrelenting fight for survival I was hoping for, one that left me emotionally and mentally drained by the time it was over.
The 20-or-so hours leading up to that point were nothing short of spectacular; on a moment-to-moment basis, The Last of Us is the most memorable single-player campaign I've played since Half Life 2. Every scene, area, and encounter feels as if it was meticulously constructed by Naughty Dog under the lens of a microscope. And the pace of the game is nearly perfect, ratcheting up the suspense little-by-little as it goes along before reaching a fever pitch in its final act, leading up to what was absolutely a perfect ending. Once the credits rolled, I felt exhausted yet fulfilled, which is specifically what I was hoping to take away from it. Without hesitation, I'd rank this as one of the 3 or 4 best games of the generation. Yes, there is some hope left.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (Nintendo, 3DS)
With how much fun I had playing Super Mario 3D World, and owing to how impressed I was by The Last of Us, it's hard to believe that another game came out in 2013 that I found more enjoyable to play. But The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is that game. By re-establishing the sense of adventure that was once the series’ hallmark, A Link Between Worlds had me hooked from the start unlike anything else I’ve played this year. When I’d pick it up and play it, I’d find myself losing track of everything that was happening around me, to the point where I had no idea how long I had been playing or how late it was before I finally forced myself to put it down. It brought back that feeling I had when first playing Zelda games as a kid, something that almost never happens anymore. More than anything else, the game served as a wonderful reminder of why I fell in love with this series in the first place.
When I think back on this game, I'll be looking at the dungeon and overworld design and how, combined with Link's abilities (particularly wall mode), this game provided many of the most creative moments of the entire year for me. It always felt like there was one more thing you could do or find in a certain area even after passing through it several times, if you were just willing to try something that might work. This concept probably could be extended to the boss battles as well, particularly what was a phenomenal final battle. Over and over, the game impressed me by how clever and creative it was. And the game never tells you what you have to do to solve a puzzle, defeat an enemy or get to a hard-to-reach area. It gives you the tools, but allows you the freedom to figure it out yourself. It finds a great medium between too easy and too hard, where it ends up being challenging without being frustrating, and also very rewarding. It's the Zelda game that has encouraged exploration the most of any in quite some time, because exploring is not rewarded just by finding stuff that helps make you better -- it's the exploration itself that is worthwhile content due to how much fun and gratifying it is to do.
In the end, it's a no-frills Zelda game that gets just about everything right. With only some mild hand-holding, the game allows you to just go ahead and embark on the adventure without arbitrary restrictions or excess padding getting in the way. It avoids the familiar pitfalls of the three most-recent 3D console Zelda games by deconstructing the game back to being what the core of a Zelda adventure is, and just makes the best possible game within that framework. And unlike the more recent games, the game's new gameplay mechanic does not feel gimmicky, unessential or detracting from the experience like wolf link, flying or sailing did, respectively. Everything about wall Link is integral to the entirety of the game, and the game would not be nearly the same without it, nor would wall Link be as good of a mechanic without a game being built so well around it like ALBW is. Maybe it's the comfort of being in the familiar setting of A Link to the Past, but there's a confidence about every aspect of this game that has been missing from Zelda games for a while.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is my favorite Zelda game since Majora's Mask, and for all of the reasons stated above, I’ve chosen it as my 2013 Game of the Year.
The Wonderful 101: Hideki Kamiya's latest character action romp combines the visual aesthetics of Viewtiful Joe with the stylish, over-the-top combat of Bayonetta, to make a new Pikmin spin-off that happens to star the Power Rangers. And for the most part, it actually works. 101 is unlike anything else I've played this year, and the game's willingness to try a lot of things that other games don't do, is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Some uneven pacing and a few ideas that didn't work out quite so well hold it back from greatness, but the mind-blowing set pieces and the overall spectacle of the game makes it one worthy of recognition. (Platinum Games, Wii U)
Rain: I'd say "beautiful" is a good word to describe Rain, both in terms of its music and also its visuals. It also hearkens back to a style of game that was much more commonplace a few generations ago, and admittedly that element of nostalgia brought a smile to my face while playing it. But I kept waiting and waiting and waiting for the gameplay to hold up its end of the bargain, and while some interesting mechanics are in there, the game never goes as far with them as you'd hope. The end result feels very "Ico Lite", as opposed to something that could legitimately fill that void for me. (SCE Japan Studio, Playstation 3)
Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon: An enjoyable follow-up to the GameCube game that is solid in all phases, but peaks way too early for a game of its length. Dark Moon does a commendable job of varying up the locales as the game goes along, but doesn't find enough new, creative uses for the game's mechanics to keep the momentum going until the end. It's a good game, but a bit of a missed opportunity, because it very easily could have been a great one. (Next Level Games, 3DS)
10 for 2014:
10. Thief 9. Watch Dogs 8. Mario Kart 8 7. Alien: Isolation 6. The Witness 5. Murdered: Soul Suspect 4. Super Smash Bros. U 3. Bayonetta 2 2. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze 1. The Evil Within
Nice Top 10! Approved, for sure. I'll admit I was a bit surprised to see A Link Between Worlds at #1, even though it totally earns it's place there. Your list was interesting to read, lots of variety in there.
Also, I LOL'd at The Swapper's developer's name. "Facepalm Games?" Ha! Classic.
I approve of that list! While I don't own a PS3, I would love to play The Last of Us, Two Brothers, and esp Ni no Kuni. Games like GTA V & the Bioshock games are also games I'm very interested in playing. Even though I could go out and buy a PS3 and some of the games I mentioned, I cannot justify the purchase do to my huge backlog of Wii U, 3DS & Wii games, some of which are still brand new in their cases.
Yeah, I can't remember a year where I felt this strongly about 2, let alone 3 games for the top spot. If I believed in ties, I'd put all three at #1, because it was so hard to pick a winner. You know, how do you rank Zelda vs. The Last of Us vs. Mario when all three are awesome but for entirely different reasons in each case? I couldn't really say one was definitively better than the other because of those differences. It really was a pure toss-up. Each time I penciled-in a different game at #1, I felt bad that I didn't go with one of the other two. Ultimately, every time I went through the cycle of re-ordering my top 3, Zelda was the one that I always felt the worst about snubbing. Like, literally there was this voice in my head saying "you're picking the wrong game, you ass!" It was clear that even with three games that were virtually equals, deep down I enjoyed playing Zelda just a bit more.
The bigger surprise about ALBW to me is that I was never super hyped for it. Sure, I fully expected it to be a good game and had always planned on getting it, but I just never got the sense in the lead-up to its release that it was going to be this good. It wasn't until I starting seeing some of the impressions on here and elsewhere that prompted me to go out and get it ASAP. It's one of those games where you don't fully understand what makes it great until you actually sit down and play it.
Even if you have a not-so-great computer like I do (that I never really use for gaming) you may have a decent shot of running some of those. I had to bump the settings down a bit on Gone Home to get it to run smoothly, but I was very surprised at how well The Swapper ran on my laptop. Granted, the art behind it is done so well that it looks a lot more impressive than the tech behind it actually is, but I was still surprised. That's one thing I've come to appreciate about the rise of some great indie games in recent years, a lot of the ones that don't come to consoles I can still run reasonably well on my laptop.
That being said, something like Gunpoint could be AWESOME on Wii U now that I think about it. Being able to do all of the electrical systems manipulation on the Game Pad rather than having to change the whole main screen into "wiring mode" would probably be a better way to play. It'd give more flexibility, in that you'd have full control over your character's normal abilities while also being able to do all of your hacking at the same time.
Heh, I feel your pain. Some days I wish I didn't have to work for a living and just could destroy my backlog in a few months. It always seems to keep hovering around 40-45 games, which makes me sad. I feel obligated to knock about 20 games off that list before even thinking of getting another new console. I mean, I do believe in just going and playing the game you most want to play at any given time, even if that means further piling onto the backlog. But at the same time, like you said, you have to justify the existence of all those games sitting on the shelf unplayed. At some point, it just starts to feel out of control. I'd like to get back to the point where I can impulse buy 4 or 5 games during a sale and then not immediately ask myself why I did that.
Exactly. Plus now with digital downloads, its like Im going crazy buying all these new games. Its like,I want that one, this one & ooh, this game looks really cool,I have to download it now! Ug, help, I'm truly addicted to buying games, heck I would say moreso than even playing them.
I was going to say the same thing about work in my original post. I would love to hit the lottery so I could allocate all my time to playing videogames and traveling to all the places I've always wanted to visit.