My Game of the Year 2013
Many things happen in December. Trees go up, the festivities begin, people’s electricity bills go through the roof, and that’s before the collective weight of the world increases by a few pounds within a twenty-four hour period. But it’s also the end of the year, which can only mean one thing for the gaming community: it’s time to discuss the Game of the Year.
Yes, over the course of this month, you’re going to see so many of these lists that you’ll arrive at Christmas wanting to murder the author of every single one of them. (Please make sure not to do the same to me, because, you know, just don’t.) But nevertheless, I’m going to throw my own onto the pile.
Basically, this is a list of all the games I purchased over the course of the last twelve months ranked in order of preference. I should also add that 2013 has seen my interest in gaming diminish considerably for a variety of reasons that are for another day entirely. Therefore, there won’t be dozens upon dozens of titles listed in this post. In fact, there will be less than ten. There’ll also be several titles you may expect to see on a Game of the Year list that will be absent here simply because I either didn’t play them or I have yet to do so.
So, without blathering on much further, let’s get right to it, starting from the bottom and working our way up.
#9 – Crysis 3
Released: February 2013
If ever there was a game to concentrate so much on painting within pre-written lines, without actually realising the image it was filling in was totally and utterly devoid of imagination or creativity, Crysis 3 would be it. Because let’s face it, that’s all the game ultimately achieves.
There is a core problem I find with Crysis, which is more apparent in the third entry than in the previous, and it’s that the series ostensibly focuses more on the aesthetic exterior than it does on the deeper parts that would make it a more fulfilling experience. It’s all fine and dandy if a game looks good, and you’d struggle to find anybody that would deny Crysis 3 is graphically impressive, but if the story and characters are lacking, you have a fundamental problem. That is Crysis’ main issue in a nutshell, and one that continuously cripples its chances of being anything more than a B-grade franchise for EA to throw out every now and then.
It’s not that Crysis doesn’t have the potential to be an expansive and involving series with plenty of ground to cover. But if Crysis 3 is evidence of anything, it’s that focusing on the splendor and neglecting the most important elements that would actually make it engrossing does not a good game make.
#8 – Gears of War: Judgment
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Epic/People Can Fly
Released: March 2013
Is there any point to Judgment’s existence other than to perpetually irritate me every time I have to write it sans the ‘e’? There really doesn’t seem to be, and when you’re dealing with something whose entire existence seems unnecessary to the point of confusion, it’s hard to give one iota of a damn about it. Consequently, Judgment has served to do nothing but feel like a game that exists purely for the sake of existing.
One could be confused for believing that Judgment’s existential woes indicate it’s no fun to play, which actually isn’t true. In fact, in terms of gameplay, it’s at the top of its game in ways the franchise hasn’t previously reached. But it’s difficult to shake the feeling that you’re playing something that was only created to capitalise on the still very profitable Gears of War brand name. There’s little development to the series’ core story to be seen anywhere (it’s also a prequel to the original trilogy, which makes that even harder to achieve), and the whole thing feels like an exercise in repeating what worked previously instead of exploring new territory in hopes of pushing the series that little step further.
Nobody with a brain expected the Gears of War franchise to die with 2011’s Gears of War 3, but it’s still sad to see one of the Xbox’s strongest first-party series end this generation (last generation?) of gaming with a title as frustratingly dire as Judgment.
Also, can I finally stop writing ‘Judgment’ now? Is my punishment over?
#7 – Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Released: October 2013
Black Flag, by all definition, is not a bad game. It’s certainly not a perfect game, either, but it doesn’t come close to approaching the same level of mediocrity as last year’s Assassin’s Creed 3 did. Yet in spite of this, there’s still something that, at least for me, feels absent–though what that ‘something’ is is open for debate.
I should point out that I have yet to complete Black Flag despite owning it for well over a month, so it’s entirely possible that my opinion on it will change as I approach the end. However, from what I have played thus far, I’ve seen improvements in several areas, from gameplay and style to the game’s playable protagonist, but weaknesses in others, such as the story and the franchise fatigue that’s settled into the cracks. It’s fortunate, then, that the advantages seem to outweigh the negatives this year, which is a considerable step up from where we were this time last year.
That being said, however, one of Black Flag’s main issues is the lack of involvement the game has with the series’ central story that has formed the spine for all the titles to connect to up until now. Black Flag, as a consequence of disconnecting itself from the overarching story, feels like Ubisoft’s attempt at making a pirate game. Which is fine, of course, but in their decision to make Black Flag a numbered entrant in the series, they naturally implied continuance of said story arc, and there is little of that to be seen in the game. Instead of feeling like a part of the franchise, it feels more akin to a spin-off, and despite its successes at what it does, it mostly fails to actually be an Assassin’s Creed game in anything but name.
Like I said previously, Black Flag, even with its faults, is an improvement on last year’s release. Whether or not the series can ever recapture that same spark that made it such a fascinating series many years ago, however, is open to interpretation.
#6 – Hitman HD Trilogy
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Io Interactive
Released: February 2013
People like to revisit parts of their childhood–their past–that they’ve long since moved on from. They go back to their home that they grew up in to recapture a sense of nostalgia that has been lost to them. They meet old friends they haven’t seen in years because it reminds them of the old days when things were perhaps easier or better. Or, they play videogames that were huge and influential parts of their youth, such as the aforementioned Hitman.
Released back towards the beginning of this year, the Hitman HD Trilogy does what it says on the tin: it comprises three classic Hitman titles in one package, namely Silent Assassin, Contracts, and Blood Money. And, of course, it gives them a complete HD makeover. (Blood Money doesn’t get such treatment because it’s already available on Xbox 360/PS3 systems and thus doesn’t need one.) And it’s a success, as it doesn’t strip anything away from either game in the process of making them look prettier and more presentable than their original state.
However, perhaps the biggest achievement for the package–and of all HD re-releases in general–is the ease at which it takes you back in time. I grew up playing Hitman, discussing it with my friends, obsessing over every moment, adoring its lack of linearity and how it dumped me in a wide-open area and let me get on with it in whatever way pleased me the most. The opportunity to play them again all these years later is exactly like meeting an old friend and instantly hitting it off, remembering just what it was that made you friends in the first place.
There is also the fact that the trilogy was released relatively soon after the frankly sub-standard Hitman Absolution. Seeing how Hitman used to be, seeing the series at its pinnacle, made up for what they tried and failed to do with Absolution; it was a perfect antidote to the poisoned chalice. Hitman works significantly better when it gives you the freedom and space to operate within your own parameters, not when it bottles you down a corridor with borderline unplayable gameplay mechanics. Hitman should never be linear, and the re-release package highlighted just why it shouldn’t.
Hitman’s previous offerings are still, to this very day, at the very top of their game–and even more so when they look better than they ever did in a past life.
#5 – Payday 2
Developer: Overkill Software/Starbreeze Studios
Publisher: 505 Games
Released: August 2013
The joys of Playstation Plus introduced me to the sublime Payday: The Heist over the Summer, which consequently led me to purchase the second title when it released back in August. I’m very glad this happened because Payday 2 is hard to beat in terms of being a relentlessly fun co-op experience.
Payday 2 basically takes most of what worked in The Heist and expands on it, adding more levels, more guns, and more chances for unparalleled enjoyment into the mix. Sometimes going bigger and bolder doesn’t always work, because developers fail to realise the smaller size of the original game may have actually been something working in their favour, but for Payday 2, it’s quite the opposite.
There are, of course, some things in Payday 2’s DNA that simply don’t work as well as they were intended, such as the atrocious crime.net matchmaking system. But most of all, the game is tremendously well-made. Co-op games can be truly magnificent experiences to behold when the developers refine the mechanics involved, and Overkill/Starbreeze manage to achieve that with Payday 2. Because the game doesn’t just promote team-play; it makes success dependant on it. It’s because of this that Payday 2 remains one of the strongest co-op games you’re likely to find on the market, and one you’d be remiss to not try for yourself.
#4 – Bioshock Infinite
Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2k Games
Released: March 2013
Bioshock Infinite is a strange beast. For all of its crazy narrative momentum, featuring mind-bending tales of alternate universes and other spacey-wacey plot devices, the game suffers considerably in the gameplay department. Moments of genuine brilliance are smothered by monotonous combat segments that wield little in the way of excitement. The story belongs in the present; the gameplay belongs in the past. Yet, the game tells such a fascinating and compelling story that’s unlike other games, and it tells it to such a strong degree that it sort of paints over the cracks in between. In that vein, can you really call it a good game or is it more akin to flawed genius?
Regardless, Infinite is an example of a game whose story dominates that of all other things it has to offer. It lives and breathes to tell its tale, and in that regard, not even a mid-game lull can dampen the enormous impact it makes. This is not simply a game you finish and instantly cast to the back of your mind; this is a game you ponder and debate for weeks over what the ending means and whether your interpretation of it is more credible than that of others. This is a game you complete and begin researching almost immediately in an effort to fully understand exactly what transpired. This is a game you experience.
Even though Infinite’s strength lies in its storytelling, it’s also something that can prove to be its weakness. Trying to process the flood of information the game throws at you as it’s throwing it is like being repeatedly hit in the face by a baseball bat without knowing why. You’re trying to understand why you’re being assaulted in between each hit, but before you get the chance to figure it out, another blow comes along to make it harder to comprehend. Some people understandably cannot make sense of such a process and walk away, but others stick around to wait until the blows come to an end so they can unravel the mystery, and Infinite rewards such patience handsomely.
Bioshock Infinite isn’t the spectacle of gaming some would have you believe it to be, but it is one of 2013’s most creative and involving titles. I confess that I’m a sucker for stories that move beyond expectation and force you to explore underneath the external layer for the secrets it keeps hidden. Infinite reeled me into its web, and I went without struggle.
#3 – Tomb Raider
Developer: Crystal Dynamics/Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: March 2013
As we move into my top three titles of the year, it’s fitting that we get to one of my all-time favorite videogame characters making a grand return after years of franchise stagnation. Yes, I’m talking about Lara Croft, the British ass-kicking Queen of adventuring who’s (mostly) captivated the gaming world since her creation.
Only that’s not who she is in this year’s series reboot. She’s new and unfamiliar, the wisecracks are all but gone completely, her skills and attributes that people know and love about her have yet to be learned. She’s a baby that’s just been born into the world. She’s the Lara Croft we’ve never seen before, stripped of everything that makes her who she is so she can regain them again once she’s grown up enough. And do you know what? It’s fantastic.
Rebooting characters and stories has been a staple of storytelling in various forms of entertainment, including videogames, for a long time. Nobody could deny that such a process is usually done because the creative well has dried up and needs to be refilled, but still, reboots allow us to look into the corners of a series that we previously thought weren’t even there. We get to learn new things about storylines and people. It gives the creator a golden opportunity to right the wrongs, to create their own brand new version of the timeline and do whatever the heck they like in it.
Rebooting characters, however, is an interesting process. In building a character up in a new way, you could change the fundamental basics of who they are if you’re not careful. Or, you could do what Tomb Raider does and drag Lara back to her creation and force her to follow the breadcrumb trail that will lead her to the person we’re most familiar with, allowing us the chance to see more of her personality and inner workings than we’ve ever seen before as she inches ever closer. I never held much hope for Tomb Raider when it was first announced, but for the most part, they did a stellar job with Lara’s character.
A once-popular videogame franchise undergoing a creative makeover in an effort to rejuvenate dwindling sales is nothing new in today’s entertainment landscape. But when it’s being done by a team who knows how to make the most of the opportunity they have, the results can sometimes be gleaming. Tomb Raider is back, and she’s got so much ahead of her once again.
#2 – Grand Theft Auto 5
Developer: Rockstar North
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Released: September 2013
And here we are almost at the top of the list. It will probably be no surprise for most people to see GTA5 occupying a position this high, but believe me, I spent such a long time convinced it would be at the very top that I’m still surprised I put it here instead. I haven’t purchased many titles this year, but of the ones I have, GTA5 has been the game to provide me with the most amount of ridiculous and exhilarating fun this year–and it would’ve been my favorite were it not for one other.
I’ve long been a fan of Rockstar’s pride and joy because for every title like The Last of Us, a title that hits you with its storytelling prowess, it’s sometimes good to sit back with something like GTA5 and run rampant on the streets of a fictional metropolis, with no fear of what doing so will mean for the narrative as it progresses. Nobody creates an open-world environment quite like Rockstar, and GTA5 is no deviation from that established pattern.
Grand Theft Auto 5 may not have the same level of storytelling marvel displayed by previous titles in this list (in fact, its story is arguably mediocre in parts), but it fills the void left behind with hours upon hours of raw, endless fun, whether online or off. Los Santos is a playground brimming so heavily with enjoyment that I managed to fall in love with it almost immediately. That love remains nearly three months later.
Rockstar’s latest epic will mostly likely end 2013 as this year’s biggest-selling title, and it’s wholly deserved. Some will disagree and say the game was overhyped for what it ultimately is, and that’s fair in certain areas, but if there’s one thing the game is, it’s fun. No other title released in 2013 has given me the same feeling of excitable giddiness that GTA5 does whenever I peer up at the countryside and see the Vinewood sign looking back at me. It’s for this reason, and many more, that GTA5 sits dangerously close to the top position on this list.
#1 – The Last of Us
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Released: June 2013
Videogames are a unique entertainment medium totally unlike all other forms, because they actually put you in the story. They give you control over your character and the freedom to push them in any direction possible within the parameters of the game. Watching a movie or a TV show is different in that what happens to each character and how it happens is pre-determined and out of your control. What happens will always happen. And technically, you could say the same about games. But they involve you in the events that happen in a different way, and most of all, they can make you feel incredible things if they try hard enough.
Take The Last of Us, for example. It’s an exemplary tale of human survival, of keeping your humanity intact whilst everything around you tries to take it away. It puts you into a world full of misery and despair but gives you a tiny sliver of hope to keep you going. It’s dark and it’s grim, but it’s a beautifully executed story that works as well as it does because you’re the one to which it’s happening. You see this world–and this story–through Joel and Ellie’s eyes, and it has so much more of an impact that way.
Videogames are an exciting perspective from which to tell a story simply because of their very nature. They aren’t bound by the same restrictions television and cinema have to adhere to. They can run for four hours or forty. They can be as explicit or as mild as they please. And that same freedom allows them to involve you in the experience in a much more visceral way. The Last of Us is a tremendous example of how you can make a game fun–the very basic principle of all videogames–whilst telling a story that connects with you on so many emotional levels.
In terms of gameplay, it could be argued that The Last of Us’ combat becomes fairly one-note the further into the game you progress. And I would agree with that argument. But does it hinder how enjoyable the game is to play? Not even slightly, meaning its faults can be ignored when you’re dealing with a narrative as wonderful as this.
The Last of Us is, despite the frequent excellence of the Uncharted series, Naughty Dog’s finest achievement to date, and is easily 2013’s strongest title. It reaches unfathomable heights from beginning to end, and simply put, is an utterly brilliant game that, in my opinion, pushes so forcefully at the barriers around what a videogame is that it’s a wonder it doesn’t shatter them completely.
What are your choices for Game of the Year? Please feel free to drop a comment below!