2013: Top Ten Video Games

With 2013 rolling to a close, I proudly present the second of my top ten lists, the top ten video games of 2013.

10. DmC: Devil May Cry (Ninja Theory, Xbox 360)

What a weird year, where the number ten game on my list was a game that I thought was good, but not necessarily great.

Okay, so here’s the thing. I’m not a Devil May Cry fan. I thought the first one was okay, but never bothered to finish it. The second one was hot garbage, not even worth talking about. The third one was the one that would supposedly convert me, but I always found it too hard to even bother getting into. And I didn’t even bother playing the fourth one.

So, kudos to Ninja Theory I suppose for creating a DMC game that I actually cared enough about to see through to the end. People complained about the redesign of Dante, but I liked the new one a whole lot more than the original, which always seemed like the video game equivalent of a 90’s Image comic (specifically looking at Spawn here), and I actually got into the weird one upmanship between him and Vergil.

The gameplay was also solid enough to be fun, and a huge step up from the studio’s previous effort, Enslaved. Switching styles on the fly to battle different enemies was kept simple and fun, with an easy to use control system. And even though hardcore fans of the series complained about how easy the whole thing was, I found it perfect for me, given my lack of experience within the genre.

And that’s about all there is to say on it really. A pretty fun game that kept me happy until the credits rolled, but not exemplary enough to make it any higher on my list.

9. Papers, Please (Lucas Pope, PC)

Of all the games I played this year, this is the only one that made the top ten list that I never finished. In fact, I didn’t finish it because I got too stressed. But that was kind of the point.

Papers, Please is not fun. Casting the player in the role of a border guard in an oppressive Eastern Bloc country, then only paying the player for people who are allowed in, but penalising the player for letting in people with problems in their paperwork, and putting it all against a timer every day, while fighting to get enough money to keep the family at home fed and warm. With the most sparse interface, the game accomplishes so much and sets up more atmosphere than most games I’ve played this whole year.

There’s really only the one music track, but it’s perfect. It sounds like a weird Soviet march, and plays over the main menu, and at the end of every day. During the actual game parts, sound effects are relegated to just nondescript voices coming from the loudspeaker attached to the immigration office, speaking what sounds like a nightmare version of Simlish.

The gameplay itself is deceptively simple. Look at the documents and determine whether people can enter the country or not. But then the rules start piling on. First they only need a ticket. Then they need a paper. Then the job on their paper needs to match their work pass. Then there’s a terrorist attack, and people need to be scanned for weapons.

There’s even a plot, though I’ve not seen it to the end. Players are provided with moral choices as they go, though it’s far from the standard binary good/evil choices usually provided. It can be anything from a resistance organisation offering their services to the player for letting someone in with bad papers, to a border guard offering the player extra cash to detain people who don’t necessarily deserve it. The whole thing comes together in a way that creates real empathy for the person who does have to work this awful job, as well the people desperate to get into the country, only to be turned away due to the bureaucratic process.

That Papers, Please manages this with only the most spare mechanics is astounding, and proof that inflated budgets, HD graphics, and feature creep are not necessarily the keys to creating great experiences. I haven’t finished it yet, but I absolutely plan to go back and discover at least a few of the endings within the next couple of months. Glory to Arztotska!

8. Saints Row IV (Volition, PS3)

Okay, let me start by saying I did not like Saints Row 1 or 2. They just seemed like cheap knock offs of GTA: San Andreas, with no defining features. Then Saints Row: The Third came out and blew me away. It moved away from the ‘gangsta thug’ idea, and took the series into a more surreal direction. And now, Saints Row IV is the logical conclusion of that.

The only thing is, it’s a bit too much this time around. Granted, the events of The Third were ridiculous, but they still seemed internally consistent with the world Volition had built. But then SR4 opens with the player grabbing hold of the side of a nuke, detonating it in mid air, then becoming President of the United States. It’s fun and it’s funny, but everything just stretches a bit too far.

All that said, cruising around virtual Steelport with the new superpowers is maybe the most pure fun I’ve had with any game this year. And that’s why the game makes my top ten. It fundamentally changes the way the game plays when I can run around faster than any car can drive or than any plane can fly. The whole alien plot is fun, even though enemies just end up being reskins of enemies from the third game, and with the setting being the same, it all feels a bit like an expansion rather than a true sequel. But there was plenty of content here to justify the price, and the superpowers really did make all the difference. Your turn, Infamous.

7. Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games, Xbox 360)

It’s a shame, because if you’d asked me at the start of the year, I’d have guessed that Bioshock Infinite was in with a chance at being my number one game of the year. As it is, it resides here in the lower part of the list. Not bad, by any means, but also not the great example of the genre I wanted it to be.

First of all, I want to talk about what the game got right. The overall story was solid, and nearly exceptional. The relationship between Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth was well written, and definitely upheld by the voice acting from Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper. And the ending is crazy and cool and huge and small. It expands the Bioshock universe out to an extraordinary point, right before bringing everything back in for one of the most intensely personal endings of the year. And even when it threatens to devolve into the game just explaining metaphysics at the audience, it’s well done enough to work.

Also, the setting. Way back in 2007, Irrational Games brought us Rapture, one of the most exciting settings we had seen in a long time. And they’ve done it again with Columbia. I don’t think the city in the sky will go down like Rapture did, but everything from the bright colours inspired by the classic US Main Street, to the weird versions of songs not yet recorded like the Beach Boys’s God Only Knows and Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun. While it doesn’t entirely hold together (Vigours are less well explained than the original game’s Plasmids for example), it’s still an exceptional setting for any video game, and is far and away the highlight.

So, what’s holding it back? Well, the middle section of the story sags a bit, with the interesting revolution aspect being poorly handled as window dressing for some less interesting sci-fi aspects, and the themes of race and exceptionalism are touched on, but not as well explored as they could have been.

And the gameplay feels like a step back. The original Bioshock wasn’t exactly well loved for its shooting mechanics, but they were varied, and encounters felt like they had more strategy to them, especially the Big Daddy minibosses. By comparison, Infinite just seemed to throw wave after wave of dull enemy types at me, holding me back from continuing the story until I was allowed to carry on and see more of what I wanted to see (the city and the story). The Handymen had an interesting aesthetic to them, but the simple mechanic of shooting the weak spot until they died was disappointing. And while the sky lines were fun for a while, they were small and confined to the tiny combat arenas, a far cry from what we were promised in the huge E3 demo.

Ultimately, Bioshock Infinite is a good game, with several aspects holding it back from being a great one. But I still have faith in Irrational Games, and if they can tighten up their gameplay, and really capitalise on the best aspects of their storytelling, they will really be onto something spectacular with their next attempt.

6. Metro: Last Light (4A Games, Xbox 360)

All that stuff I just said Bioshock Infinite got right? Well, the same goes for Metro: Last Light. While it doesn’t have the colour of Columbia, the Moscow metro system is no less impressive, with stations forming small post-apocalyptic towns and communities, each with their own intricacies. I especially loved the fishing town in the flooded tunnels, and the pleasure town complete with an utterly bizarre theatre show.

But where Bioshock Infinite took a step back, Metro: Last Light took a step forward. The mechanics have been tightened up a lot since 2033, to the point where the battles are just as interesting and fun as exploring the world itself. In a small way, it’s a shame though. The weird janky shooting made Metro 2033 really feel like an Eastern Bloc game, and Last Light does feel a little more generic due to the improvements, but it’s all in aid of making the game more playable, and it’s a success where it counts.

The other big improvement is in the sections of the game taking place on the surface. While in 2033, they were tense, due to the ever decreasing oxygen meter, they were also often confusing. The level design has been improved in Last Light to the point where I always knew where I needed to be. This did mean the sections were admittedly less tense, but the added attraction of random flashbacks to before the war more than made up for it, my favourite being an early one, showing a plane crashing as the first of the bombs dropped.

Ultimately, the narrative still doesn’t hold together particularly well, the overall story being less interesting than the world or the characters that inhabit it. But given how much I enjoyed both Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light, I’ll be more than happy to step into Artyom’s shoes again, provided I’m given the opportunity to do so. The Metro games have quietly become the most interesting FPS games on the market, and it’s a pity that more people haven’t noticed.

5. Hotline Miami (Dennation Games, PSVita)

Yeah, yeah, I know. I know Hotline Miami first came out on PC last year. But, well, I don’t really play PC games. I tried to make an exception for Hotline Miami, I really did, but I’m so unpractised at mouse and keyboard controls, I ended up dying a lot more often just trying to land a hit than anything else. So, despite my love of the aesthetic, soundtrack, and idea, I gave up on it… Then they announced the Vita version, and that changed everything.

As of this writing, I have put over twenty hours into Hotline Miami. I’ve scored A+ on every chapter, gotten kills with every single weapon, unlocked every mask, and solved the puzzle to get the secret ending. I’ve also unlocked the Platinum trophy; one of four I’ve got, and easily my proudest. The fact of the matter is, I fucking love Hotline Miami.

At its core, it’s a puzzle game. Granted, it’s a very violent puzzle game, and one with a lot more twitchy action than something like Peggle, but the key to success in the game is finding the correct route through each room, avoiding the death that comes in one hit. It’s a process that can take hours (literally, it took me around four hours to get A+ on the police station chapter), but there’s perhaps no greater thrill in any game this year than seeing that high score screen pop up after a successful run.

And that soundtrack. As great as the gameplay is, it’s the sounds and visuals that really take the cake. Mostly comprised of hard hitting and psychedelic songs that are distinctly modern, but evoke the spirit of the 80’s. Put it this way, as I write this, I’m listening to my soundtrack playlist. Right now, Paris by M.O.O.N is playing. Next up will be Crystals, and after that Knock Knock by Scattle. It’s also on regular rotation in my car. And as well as it works outside the game, it’s even better when matched with the simple top down graphics and pastel colours. In fact, I’d be willing to say this is the first game to so successfully encapsulate the era since GTA: Vice City all the way back in 2002.

The dual stick and touch screen controls really do make all the difference too. Being able to just tap on an enemy to target him just feels right, and is possibly the best use I’ve found of the Vita’s touch screen so far. I might be a year late with this, but I’m just so happy to have finally had the Hotline Miami experience I missed out on last year, when everyone else was raving about it.

4. The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, PS3)

Time for a confession: I’m not really a big fan of the Uncharted games. I’ll be doing a list soon of the top twenty five games of the last console generation and, spoiler alert, none of the Uncharted games are going to make it. But with the Last of Us, Naughty Dog have finally nailed it.

I’m surprised too. If I didn’t like what they did with a genre like the adventure genre (adventure films, not adventure games), what was the hope with something as overplayed in games as the zombie apocalypse? But it showed well at trade events, and the writing seemed good, so I picked it up alongside everyone else on day one, and was subsequently blown away.

Where I always found the gameplay of Uncharted too loose, the Last of Us tightened it up to a degree of acceptability, but kept it quick enough to still feel tense. Early sequences trying to sneak past clickers with only the barest medical supplies are intense, and probably the closest AAA console gaming has come to survival horror in a good long while. It’s too bad the latter half of the game was comparatively so much easier, since it was this intensity that kept me playing for the first few hours.

Fortunately, the staff at Naughty Dog know how to put together a compelling narrative with strong characters. The relationship between Joel and Ellie is complex, multifaceted, and all around well crafted. It doesn’t hurt that Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson are on top form with their voice acting, and Nathan Drake himself, Nolan North, is on hand to prove how diverse he truly is, delivering a memorable performance as the quietly psychotic David during the game’s winter portion.

But what I’ll really remember this game for is its ending. I’m actually not too happy to spoil it here, because it really is powerful, managing to eschew both the storytelling norm and my expectations. I mean, I knew throughout that Joel wasn’t a traditionally heroic character, he’s too selfish for that, but his decision at the end is truly the apex of how far Naughty Dog could push his character without just turning him into a villain. And the really crazy part of it is that the game was well put together enough that I was behind the choice 100% of the way. I’ve long held the opinion that gaming has gone too far down this path of cinematic action shooters, to the point of staleness, but the Last of Us shows exactly how powerful the genre can be.

3. Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar Games, PS3)

Unlike seemingly the vast majority of people, I really enjoyed (and still like) Grand Theft Auto IV, so I hesitate to call GTAV a return to form. To me, it just seems more like they took what they learned from making GTA4, and Red Dead Redemption in the interim, and carried all those lessons forward to make GTAV possibly the best in the series so far.

Simply put, the latest iteration of Los Santos and the surrounding Blaine County is breath-taking. For my money, Rockstar are still the best developer in terms of building an open world and populating it with near endless things to do. Whether I was playing tennis with Michael’s wife Amanda, cruising Los Santos Boulevard in Franklin’s car, or engaging the cops in a cross desert chase, ending with a showdown at the top of Mount Chiliad as Trevor, I was never bored during the 35 or so hours I poured into this game.

Including the three characters was also a stroke of genius on Rockstar’s part. While there was still some of what the kids these days like to call ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ in here, just the mere inclusion of the Trevor character almost gave me an excuse to just go nuts on rampages across the city, without necessarily contradicting the character’s moral standing in the story.

But it’s that story which actually holds back the game from the number one spot. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of these three totally different characters coming together to pull off these heists, but there are certain Rockstar tropes they like to fall back on again and again. In this case, it’s authority. A whole lot of the game is spent focused on the characters working for corrupt FIB agents and a weird rich guy. It’s the same problem that plagued the middle chapters of GTA4, and here the whole thing gets derailed by a weird subplot involving Michael working for a hack movie director.

The other issue is of the Franklin character. As soon as Trevor enters the story, he sort of gets left behind. In a way, it was inevitable, but it’s a shame given how promising Franklin’s early stuff is. Ultimately though, if this is Rockstar’s first foray into a multiple protagonist story, I’m willing to say it’s a highly successful experiment, and I’m excited to see them iterate on the idea. Grand Theft Auto V is huge and detailed and incredible, and a near perfect way to close out the current generation of consoles.

2. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (Ubisoft, PS4)

Assassin’s Creed III made it onto my list last year as one of my biggest disappointments. While I’ve come around slightly on both the game and its stoic protagonist Connor, it looked for a while there like the franchise was losing steam. Fortunately, Ubisoft is very aware that the quickest way to my heart is through my childhood. And the parts of my childhood that weren’t spent fantasising about being a Jedi were spent dreaming of piracy.

That’s right; rum, sodomy, and the lash! And regardless of the inherent Assassin’s Creed-ness of the game, this is pretty much the open world piracy simulator I’ve always wanted. Invading ships, massive sea battles, sailing into storms… Hell, even sea shanties make it in. And there was almost nothing this year I loved more than sailing the open sea looking for plunder as my crew sang Drunken Sailor at me.

The only real problem is that all the Assassin’s Creed stuff is still in there, and it’s honestly holding the game back here. I was really engaged with the ongoing story of Edward Kenway and his relationships with real pirates of the time like Blackbeard, Ben Hornigold, and Mary Read. But time and again, it kept coming back to the overplayed Assassin/Templar conflict, and their hunt for a MacGuffin, this time in the form of a temple that can do… something.

Honestly, it wasn’t so bad. There were long sections in the middle of the game where the larger conflict took a back seat to the pirate stories, and that really was the best stuff in the game. If Ubisoft are willing to use Assassin’s Creed IV as a back door pilot and launch Black Flag into its own pirate based IP without the baggage associated with the Assassin’s Creed brand, I’d be all for that. As it stands now though, AC4 is a fine return to form for a series that was in danger of feeling overdone, and an excellent pirate game to boot.

1. Persona 4 Golden (Atlus, PSVita)

Now, okay, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that, at best, Persona 4 Golden was a 2012 game. But if Django Unchained can go on my Films of 2013 list due to a later release in Europe and the UK, Persona 4 Golden definitely counts, since we didn’t get it until March. I also get that it’s kind of a port of a game since 2008, but this is my blog, damn it!

I guess the real upshot here is that there was no game out this year that I had a better time with than Persona 4 Golden. I sank nearly 55 hours into it, often only stopping a session due to a low power warning on the Vita. There were stories that were perhaps more touching like the Last of Us, or with better twists like Bioshock Infinite, but there were no characters I connected with more than P4G’s investigation team, even to the point where I wanted more story after the ending, just to spend more time with the borderline neurotic Yosuke, or the carnivorous Chie. Hell, just to find out if Kanji ever worked through his issues enough over Naoto.

The new content for the Vita version also fit in seamlessly. I never played the original PS2 version, and the Golden exclusive segments such as the city hub, the late winter events, and even a whole added character with Marie all just slotted right in there and felt perfectly congruous with the rest of the game.

I’ll confess, I’m generally not a fan of JRPGs. I find the stories to be too generic and uninspiring, and the large amounts of grinding required before bosses feels like a way of artificially lengthening the game. With that in mind, P4G’s very easy setting was perfect for me. Boss battles were still challenging enough that I had to strategise and pick out a team that worked for me, but I could breeze through the dungeons with little to no problem and get back to the story.

And that’s what ultimately makes it my game of the year. Without even getting around to talking about the voice cast they put together (hello yet again Troy Baker), or the soundtrack, which is mostly made up of bizarre J-pop, the story and entry level difficulty really pushed me to enjoy P4G more than anything else I played. It’s easily the best game on the Vita right now, and I can’t wait to drop another 50 hours into it, and hopefully pick up that platinum trophy.

And now the rest…

Dead Space 3 (Visceral Games, Xbox 360)

The Dead Space franchise was one of my favourites of the previous generation. Dead Space was an excellent haunted house style game, and Dead Space 2 improved on the formula with a better rounded protagonist and tightened mechanics. Dead Space 3 throws horror out the window, introducing more standard shooter sections, and a crafting mechanic so obviously tied into the microtransaction model, it comes off as insulting in a full price game. The story also drops any pretence of subtlety, and gears itself more towards a co-op experience, rather than sticking with the franchise’s strong single player roots. The whole thing is a middle finger to the fans that went out and bought the first two, and it’s not good enough at being a shooter to attract the Gears of War crowd. What a total fucking mess, and a waste of so much potential. Disgusting.

Divekick (Iron Galaxy Studios, PSVita)

I loved Divekick for the week or so I played it. As someone who has tried and failed to get into fighting games over and over again, only to get bored and walk away due to all the complexity, the idea of it really appealed to me. No over the top combos, just two buttons: dive and kick. So, why did I stop playing? Well, because that complexity started to creep back in again. There are special moves that are different depending on whether you’re in the air or on the ground. And I still for the life of me can’t figure out either S-Kill or The Baz. Still, it got closer than just about any other fighting game has done before.

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon (Ubisoft, PS3)

I haven’t really spent enough time with FC3:BD to put it in my top ten, but it’s possible it would be had I finished it in time. The issue is, when it came out I was already burned out from Far Cry 3. And now I’m at the end of the year, all ready to publish this post and I’m barely past the prologue. But I just want to say that I love the idea of it, and I want more of it. Just these small passion projects that aren’t really risky due to the relatively low cost, and can just be sold digitally at a reduced price. Please make more stuff like this.

Injustice: Gods Among Us (NetherRealm Studios, Xbox 360)

It was okay, I suppose. Given how much people raved on about how great the story was, I actually expected more from it. The way the cutscenes morphed directly into the fights was cool, and it’s always nice to see Aquaman get his with arguably the most badass finisher in the whole game, but the fighting mechanics themselves are shallow, and the story is very standard comic book fare. Average, at best.

Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics, PS3)

I won’t lie, if I’d actually gotten into gear and finished this sooner, it would probably have pushed DmC off the list. But I don’t really want to push myself to finish it by the end of the day, given that I’m only 22% in. I’ll be honest, I didn’t like the first hour or two at all, but since around the 10% mark, the whole thing has grown on me a lot, and I fully expect I will see it to the end before too long.

—————————————–

Finally, I should really give a nod to all the games that came out that I haven’t played enough of to form an opinion: Batman Arkham Origins, Broken Sword V, The Bureau XCOM Declassified, Killzone Mercenary, Killzone Shadow Fall, Tearaway.

That’s it for this year, though I’ll be back in hopefully about a month or so to do my top 25 games of the last generation, as if one year wasn’t hard enough.

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