Are video games getting better? I think so. The advent of two new consoles and their mediocre software lineups notwithstanding, I worked relentlessly to narrow down ten titles that outperformed my expectations during 2013, whether the gameplay grasped me or the story put me through a gauntlet of emotional turmoil.
Speaking of turmoil, my pile of shame multiplies each year. The following checklist is less than half of my actual backlog, but the releases featured take priority over something like Divekick or Dragon’s Crown.
What can I say? Despite Gearbox’s blatant disregard for the source material and the game’s unfinished state, I will start Aliens: Colonial Marines (whether I finish it is another matter). Anyone that knows me knows I harbor a morbid interest for irredeemable shovelware, because I remember BioShock Infinite, The Last of Us, and the like more fondly as a result. For that reason alone, this FPS eyesore belongs in my backlog.
Heart of the Swarm is an intimidating time commitment when you’ve never played StarCraft before. I understand the flow of battle, the build order, the subtle mechanics (using buildings to block bases, for example), but the people currently competing online operate on inhuman levels. Will I give the multiplayer a fair shake once I beat Heart of the Swarm’s campaign? Maybe. For now, until I finish Wings of Liberty, Kerrigan's struggles will have to wait.
Is there any doubt Deadpool is Marvel’s most charismatic character? While his healing factor and mastery of martial arts and things that go boom make Wade Wilson a formidable fighter, the Merc with a Mouth would not be as enticing an anti-hero if not for his, well, mouth. His disdain for serious matters is only eclipsed by his mental instability and fondness for breaking the fourth wall. The game’s story retains the tongue-in-cheek humor of the comics, though time will tell if I can stomach sub-par combat.
Company of Heroes 2 received considerable flak from critics who loved the first Company of Heroes, but those complaints gradually faded from memory. Rather, I welcomed the beta’s added realism. Trees and other obstacles block line of sight, soldiers repair/commandeer damaged vehicles, and frozen lakes fracture, consuming friend and foe alike. Does Company of Heroes 2 do the franchise proud? Get back to me soon.
Papers, Please is unique in its mundanity. What excitement does the job of an immigration inspector hold? Plenty, judging by the criminal activities that occur on the border of a fictional communist country. You have duties to Arstotzka, to turn away anyone without a proper passport and birth certificate. But what if that bribe from a human trafficker means your child eats dinner tonight? Could you detain innocent citizens if the financial bonus funds your heating bill? Papers, Please is a bleak glimpse at a dismal profession, and one I am eager to experience once I survive these early spring months.
Notice a trend here? Like celebrity deaths, strategy games that I buy and never play come in threes. Well, not "never." Backlogs exist for that reason, though I cannot recall why I neglected Rome II. Ancient Rome vies for my favorite historical period alongside feudal Japan and the Middle Ages, and routing whole enemy armies after crippling their morale brings out my inner conqueror. “Oh, this captured city pledges allegiance to my cause? How about you all burn instead?!”
Splinter Cell: Blacklist wowed me, just not for the reasons you might expect. Forced tutorials I can handle, but Uplay not recognizing my Xbox 360 controller (on the PC) led to an agonizing afternoon of troubleshooting. Upon sorting that mess out, I endured enough Blacklist for one day. Now, I am ready for more Tom Clancy-ing. Blacklist merges Chaos Theory’s stealth and Conviction’s lethality into a campaign both fluid and challenging, letting Sam act the saint or murder everyone without prejudice. Sorry, mercenary dudes. Wrong place, wrong time.
An inarguably polarizing Legend of Zelda title, I dismissed the chance to dust off my Wii U in favor of finishing Dragon Age: Origins. Luckily, Link’s adventures seldom reference each other story-wise, and the gameplay ages well. If that means I can get the same experience from Wind Waker in a year as I could tomorrow, I have no shame sticking this remake on the back burner.
Rayman Origins, one of the most light-hearted platformers, just got … lighter? While Ubisoft pushed Rayman Legends’ release back by several months, that extra development time came in handy. I forgot about the controller in my hands during the demo; the platforming is that smooth. Likewise, the music stages delight eyes and ears with gibberish renditions of “Black Betty” and “Eye of the Tiger,” and who could say no to a local multiplayer match of Kung Foot?
If Lego Marvel had not launched during 2013’s holiday rush, it would not be sitting in my backlog. I fell off the Lego bandwagon between Lego Star Wars and Lego Lord of the Rings, but I do love comic-to-game adaptations, kid friendly or not. Traveller’s Tales’ exaggerated cartoon gravitas improves from iteration to iteration, and their worlds brim with hidden collectibles. That Hulk minifig transformation, too. So good.
What a miserable launch, Arkham Origins. Disappearing bosses, corrupted save files, desolate multiplayer, the list goes on. Disappointment, not excitement, characterized a majority of reviews. Even so, I would sooner brave those glitches and the story, which rehashes past Arkham plots, than replay Arkham Origins Blackgate.
At least Batman: Arkham Origins’ launch issues eventually subsided. No such luck for Battlefield 4. The E3 alpha build I played contained fewer problems. Naming every game-breaking bug would prolong this blog indefinitely, but when Battlefield 4 works, the squad system ‒ counting on teammates for ammo and revives ‒ and visuals are to be revered, not condemned.
The sports genre aside, Assassin's Creed rivals Call of Duty in dedication to delivering a neatly wrapped present or blackened lump of coal to fans each winter season. Although I pre-ordered Assassin’s Creed IV, my PS4 shipped dead on arrival. No way I would have missed out on Black Flag otherwise. Donning the robes of a pirate who spurns assassins and lusts for treasure sets a new precedent for the franchise. Whoever designed the collectible sea shanties deserves an award, too.
Many people loathe the Killzone trilogy; I am not one of ‘em. Is the story revolutionary? Is the gameplay flawless? Is the series technical perfection? No, no, and no. I have not tried Shadow Fall, obviously, but Killzone 3 remedied Killzone 2’s immediate faults. I have hopes for Killzone’s PS4 debut, in spite of the tepid reviews.
Rivals was my first experience with the PS4 controller. Boy, what a marvelous feeling next to the hand-cramping DualShock 3. I did not know I would be competing against 15 people in a winner-take-all tournament at E3, either, yet my racing expertise bagged me fourth place. While Need for Speed’s pick-up-and-play nature is fast and unforgiving, few would deny the thrill of drifting around turns, throttling 100 miles per hour. I even enjoyed Rival’s sociopathic writing (I should probably seek help).
While I never touched Dead Rising 2, I spent enough time watching Let’s Plays to fill several playthroughs. Dead Rising 3 may not be as zany story-wise, yet the developers package inventive death-dealing armaments by the truckload. A reaper’s scythe that flings explosive projectiles? A motorcycle/steamroller hybrid? Flaming mecha dragon armor? Sign me up.
I do not hide my indifference for Mario games. They may be cheery, they may have platforming down to an art form, they may be lauded by droves of fans. The truth is, only Super Mario Bros. 3 clicked with me, but I need some reason to power on my Wii U.
Nintendo killed it with their first-party lineup last year, spoiling fans with two Legend of Zelda titles. Does A Link Between Worlds surpass A Link to the Past, one of the finest games in existence? Is the hyperbole justified? I guess I should found out.
Of course, not every developer hit it out of the park this year. By “disappointment,” I mean games that neither met expectations or surpassed their forebears.
Grand Theft Auto V is a menagerie of intermittent enjoyment. The final heist recreates The Italian Job using muscle cars, gangbanger Lamar steals the gold for best supporting character, and Michael accusing Trevor of being a hipster brought a goofy-ass grin to my face. Trevor’s erratic behavior breathes believable mayhem into many missions, too. Who knows what his drug-addled mind will do next? The latest GTA originally held a spot on my Top Ten, but any praise eventually turned sour.
Nothing angers me more than treating my time with contempt. The dock worker mission is excruciating in its banality, and Rockstar litters Los Santos with side missions that pay out one despicable "I owe you" after another. And that story. The developers could easily cut out the last eight hours if Trevor, Michael, and wet-blanket-personality Franklin murdered the people giving them trouble, which they do in the last mission. Why would Michael accept some random heist from Trevor the moment they reunite as well, when De Santa wants to the leave the burglary business behind? And how could anyone forget GTA Online’s busted launch, replete with exploits and racially insensitive community?
As I said in my review, I like Dead Space 3, but I don’t love it. Dead Space 2 paced itself, blending tension and action into a masterpiece of modern horror. Dead Space 3’s relentless monster closets met with a head shake, not girlish screams. Sure, I readily slapped together a Contact Beam and Seeker Rifle in the crafting menus, along with any other weapon combinations I could think of, and the frostbitten environments awakened terrifying memories of The Thing and the remake/prequel. Then you reach Dead Space 3’s conclusion ... where you battle a sentient moon. Is this Halo? Mass Effect? Talk about jumping sharks.
I was not certain I would call A Machine for Pigs a disappointment, but I had zero expectations of Call of Duty: Ghosts after a lifeless Modern Warfare 3, so here we are. A Machine for Pigs is more linear than The Dark Descent. Gone is the need to maintain your health and sanity, and I could count the number of times the game startled me on one hand. Running into a disfigured manpig is uneventful. They squeal worse than they bite, and the story lifts plot points from the first Amnesia. How original.
What the hell happened between Overstrike’s announcement and Fuse’s release? That question nagged me incessantly throughout Insomniac’s most mediocre shooter. Borderlands’ transition from photorealism to a cel-shaded aesthetic enhanced the underlying comedy. Did Insomniac not take note? People fawn over Ratchet & Clank, and Overstrike matched the immaturity punchline for punchline, according to the trailers. But Fuse’s unremarkable visuals, letdown of an arsenal, protracted boss fights, idiotic AI, and drab characters seal this as one of 2013’s biggest disappointments. Pray Sunset Overdrive is not all smoke and mirrors.
I hate a lot of things about Forza Motorsport 5: the commentary from the not-Top Gear narrator, having to load the next race before quitting the series, the limited tracks (holy hell, I would almost pay for more), the costly vehicles, and the Drivatars playing bumper cars. Turn 10 made some genius decisions, like using the feedback triggers in the Xbox One controller to teach newcomers proper braking and accelerating, except Forza 5 is middle-of-the-road by definition. Forza Horizon reinvigorated a stagnating franchise; Forza 5 sabotages that hard work.
And one last hurrah for the games that came so close, but also came up short.
These indie icons could not be more dissimilar. While Gone Home is a poignant step forward for interactive storytelling, The Stanley Parable is a snarky distillation of exhausted video game tropes. Gone Home is a nostalgic journey told through someone’s blooming sexual identity; The Stanley Parable is a showpiece in usurping expectations. I endeavored to replace what I touched or moved in Gone Home; I attempted to break everything in The Stanley Parable. Both games impacted me profoundly ‒ one with heartfelt emotion, one with unrelenting laughs ‒ except I have no reason to revisit either, as painful as it is to say.
For fans that stuck with the Deponia franchise, how about that ending? Few games let you control a self-centered smartass, much less one who survives hostile confrontations and terrorizes people on a regular basis. But Rufus rises above these faults in the most charming point-and-click adventures since LucasArts’ heyday. Rufus invents unconventional puzzle solutions from unlikely debris, and the vibrant garbage planet of Deponia is an oxymoron of beauty. The whole Deponia trilogy is worth a peek, though Goodbye Deponia is the best of the bunch.
I know Telltale already released the first episode of The Walking Dead Season Two, but I think 400 Days adheres to the series’ solemnity better. With five individual chapters, the developers twist the knives of human drama without illogical breaks in the pacing. Would Bonnie swipe another woman’s husband? Should Shel trade her sister’s innocence for the good of the group? The episodes raise these questions before ending on two conflicting ultimatums. Leave your sympathy at the door.
2013 produced terrifying projects from fledgling and veteran studios, but the two heavyweights were undeniably Outlast and Slender: The Arrival. Successful horror feeds on insecurities. Neither title cheaps out on the suspense. That paralyzing fear you feel is not forced. Outlast plays mind games for fun. A patient sits idle in his wheelchair the first time you walk by. As you backtrack, however, he lunges for your throat. Throw in copious gore and Outlast is not for the faint of heart.
Outlast, at least, offers emotional reprieve. Players must cross that invisible tripwire to trigger the next scare. Slender: The Arrival is less considerate. Hiding in the corner cannot save you. Ol' Slender Man will find you, and his unpredictable behavior guarantees scares at random intervals. Sometimes Slender Man waits in the distance, watching you. Other times he teleports behind you, reducing your camera feed to a mass of static. And when you lose him in an underground mine, he sends a hooded surrogate after you. Not cool, Slender Man.
Everyone wanted to be Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 4. Snake may be an icon, but can he stop submarines using his cyborg body? Can he kill Gekkos by breakdancing? Raiden ratcheted the absurdity up to 11, and only Platinum Games lets fans control their favorite white-haired Ripper. Raiden leaps between missiles in mid-air, dashes down a clock tower, and body slams a Metal Gear Ray before splitting it in half … during Metal Gear Rising’s prologue. The ensuing bombast never quits, the soundtrack accentuating every human dissection with bursts of metal and rock. A shame that the parry system (arguably the backbone of the combat) is so poorly explained.
Now, the real reason you’ve read (or scrolled) this far.
The sole next-gen winner on this list, Killer Instinct seizes the trophy for best tutorials. The Dojo clarifies linkers, auto-doubles, combo breakers, and other moves intrinsic to Killer Instinct while also distilling advanced fighting lingo, like frame traps, into easy English. I have been following the genre since Mortal Kombat II, yet I had no idea rolling the analog stick forward threw fireballs. I thought everyone inputted the motions separately!
Killer Instinct’s production values also pack punch. Endokukens dissipate in a shower of sparks, and match-ending ultras sync to the soundtrack, destroying stages as the bass rattles bones. If you need quality brawling at no extra cost, you have your answer.
Remakes have been on a hot streak lately, and when you have developer Crystal Dynamics adopting Uncharted set pieces, people pay attention. In Tomb Raider, every injury Lara sustains elicits a wince, but her drive is unrelenting. I applauded when she climbed to the top of a frigid radio tower and dodged wreckage from a plane crash. And the sprawling, albeit demented, island of Yamatai encourages completionists to revisit the open world long after they rescue Lara’s friends. One caveat: After killing a man in self-defense, Lara goes from innocent history nut to psychotic mass murderer in, say, five minutes. Survival motivates people to do crazy things; Lara skips the teetering on the edge part and swan dives into the crazy pool.
Gears of War: Judgment amends previously off-putting features. People Can Fly moved weapon swapping to the Y button, rectified latency problems online, and reduced spawn killing. Moreover, grenades stick to opponents when thrown ‒ a source of frequent montage clips ‒ and the always-on reticle helps line up hip-fire headshots. The multi-story maps also allow players to get a literal drop on their competition. For two weeks straight I played Judgment, even though Microsoft marketed this prequel terribly.
If you love Baird’s banter, the campaign holds up under scrutiny, too. Declassified missions modify upcoming firefights, filling rooms with dust or poison, slowing health recharge times, or replacing Kilo Squad’s weapons entirely. With Judgment’s Smart Spawn System simultaneously altering enemy waves, no battle is ever identical.
I knew not what awaited Booker and Elizabeth when I started BioShock Infinite. What I perceived to be the glamorous utopia of Columbia happened to be a corrupt capital built upon fake smiles and ignorance. Hiding most of the backstory in audio diaries never stymied my enjoyment, since I stray from the critical path to learn about worlds this cryptic and infinite (pun intended) anyway. The action does drag in the middle, however, and I prefer weapon wheels over standard two-gun carry limits.
But with Booker’s, Elizabeth’s, Comstock’s, and the Luteces' origins urging me on, I marathoned Infinite in a single night. The conclusion dumps a universe of exposition on the player, but the time travel paradox/alternate dimensions reveal blew my understanding of the series wide open. Sleep deprivation aside, a mushroom cloud of unanswered question hovered overhead, leaving behind nuanced narrative bits in need of sifting through. I have not scoured forums and watched hours of spoiler videos to make sense of an ending in years. It would have been criminal not to include BioShock Infinite in my Top Ten.
I consider strategy games my forte. Staying moves ahead of one’s opponent requires a careful, calculated mind, but rarely do I care for the pawns I control. Do I lament the loss of a bishop in chess or agonize when I king someone in checkers? Of course not. Leave it to Fire Emblem: Awakening, then, to blindside me with emotion.
The protagonists propel the story forward through humorous conversations and complex personalities, betraying the ominous reality that they might perish on the battlefield. Permadeath remains alive and well, and losing a hero due to user error crippled my desire to continue. While I did reload saves and restart missions, the shock lingers, dogging subsequent moves in this turn-based tour de force. I grew attached to my brothers in arms, not just their stats. I chose favorites and risked their lives. Am I a friend or general first? There is no right answer.
The App Store provides hours of mobile entertainment with gems like Infinity Blade III, Year Walk, and more. My favorite download, however ‒ the crème de la crème, a fairy tale for all ages ‒ contains metallic unicorns, endless running, a proper F2P model, and backgrounds that vomit every color of the rainbow.
Robot Unicorn Attack 2 is a nonstop onslaught of whimsy. Floating islands, elegant palaces, horned whales, and laser wolves occupy verdant vistas ripped straight from children’s imaginations, and the game copes spectacularly with extended play sessions. Players sprint and take flight with prismatic bursts of speed, shattering stars, collecting fairies, and evading golems to the melodies of Erasure’s “Always,” Stan Bush’s “The Touch,” Limahl’s “NeverEnding Story, etc. Unless you hate pleasure, get downloading.
Sometimes video games need to spice things up; sometimes those risks pay off. DmC is what I always wanted from Devil May Cry: accessible combat, a human(ish) protagonist, and a world as bizarre as the monster designs. Anybody can combo together limitless juggles and ground slams, and the unlockable difficulties tax franchise veterans in search of a challenge. The hellscape of Limbo exhibits actual personality, too ‒ more than some of the main characters. Streets quake, walls close in, and hallways stretch, impeding Dante’s progress and leading to unparalleled boss fights. I still recall the Raptor News skirmish (and Dante’s teleprompter platforming), succubus swear-off, and nightclub turned game show vividly even now.
Saints Row IV is stupid incarnate, fun made manifest, a compendium of 2013’s dumbest virtualized moments. I would have paid to be a fly on the wall while Volition mulled over ideas for this sequel. “What if the player became President of the United States? What if he had superpowers? What if he shot sound waves out of a gun that plays dubstep? What if Keith David voiced Keith David?” Saints Row IV preserves Saints Row: The Third’s deranged identity. In 20 hours, I teamed up with wrestler Roddy Piper, performed impromptu stripteases, crushed a 50-foot soda can named Paul, acted out vampire fan fiction, and rode a rocket to the tune of Aerosmith's "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing." Hell, nobody should miss Saints Row IV.
No game could emulate Metro: Last Light’s atmosphere, whose subtle details astounded me more than 2013’s biggest spectacles. Got some blood on your gas mask? Wipe it off. Wondering when your oxygen filter depletes? Check your watch. Cobwebs blocking your path? Burn them with your lighter. Is your headlamp going out? Recharge it manually.
4A Games immersed me in the squalor of radioactive Russia. Humanity’s downfall plagues every bit of the scenery, from barren wastelands ruled by mutated dogs, massive scorpions, and zombie bears on the surface, to the hovels people call home below ground. The minimalist UI also drew me in, at least on Ranger difficulty. Health bars? Ammo counters? Pffff. Is this baby’s first shooter? Try not to run scared when you hear the click of an empty weapon.
Sony gambled potential sales when shipping The Last of Us on the Friday following E3. Some consumers and journalists want nothing to do with video games after a full week of media coverage. For those who attended E3 2013 especially, flying home to our boring PS3s and Xbox 360s with thoughts of the Xbox One and PS4 fresh in our minds was a lousy tease.
None of that matters in hindsight.
The prologue alone kicks around emotions like a grade school soccer match, and while some critics say The Last of Us begins slow, these initial hours prove vital to the tone and world building. We learn why Joel is callous and uncaring, and Tess teaches us the brutality needed to survive post-apocalyptic Boston. We see the hopelessness a nationwide outbreak breeds, with fourteen-year-old Ellie never knowing life outside quarantine zones. And in the wake of Tess's death, reality sets in: nobody’s fate has a happy ending.
The Last of Us is visceral, bleak, heartbreaking and heartwarming. I choked back tears after Ellie’s runaway attempt, before reaching my breaking point late in the story. While Ellie and Joel stood atop a balcony, the sun’s gentle rays reflecting off the summer foliage, a herd of giraffe grazed on the park trees nearby. From the piano refrain to the pristine skyscrapers in the distance, it was the perfect release from every atrocity I had committed, and every horror Ellie witnessed. "We don't have to do this, you know?" Joel said, turning dejectedly towards her. How I wish that were true. As my favorite game from 2013, one of my favorites from this past generation, and one of my favorite releases of all time, if you only play one PS3 game, make it The Last of Us.
And now, a brief teaser for the games I expect to deliver during 2014. Prove me right, developers. (Dragon Age: Inquisition, Bayonetta 2, and Dark Souls II receive honorable mentions.)
If PikPok looked to children's fairy tales when developing Robot Unicorn Attack 2's fantasy creatures, then CD Projekt Red is brushing up on their Brothers Grimm. A dark and brooding land awaits in The Witcher 3, massive in scale and teeming with nightmarish creatures. The developers remain tight-lipped on Wild Hunt details, but every trailer leaves me drooling for more (the “Killing Monsters” trailer sent literal shivers down my spine).
Despite a forced, dorky E3 presentation, no game matched Destiny's ambition. Take Borderlands’ randomized loot, create a universe influenced by Star Wars and Halo, bundle it all together in an MMO, and you have a recipe for printing money. Is September here yet?
Sucker Punch convinced me of the PS4’s processing power. 2013 gave us Metro: Last Light, Crysis 3, and Battlefield 4, but Infamous: Second Son’s destructible locales, particle effects, and photorealistic fire and smoke up the ante significantly. My jaw hung slack-jawed after Sucker Punch’s E3 demo. The visual bar has been raised.
Dying Light is what Dead Island 2 should have been. Although Techland keeps weapon crafting, environmental hazards, and the tropical setting, every addition evolves Dead Island’s formula. Your character’s parkour abilities help him evade zombies and scour out-of-reach places, and powerful attacks end in crippling X-ray killcams. Then night descends, when infected Predators prowl. Pack extra underwear.
I bought an Xbox One for Titanfall. 500 bucks for one game. Does that justify my enthusiasm? No? How about jetpack freerunning and giant goddamn robots? Titanfall beat out the competition for my personal game of the show during E3. But can it take Game of the Year? Check back here in 12 months.