Sean’s Top Ten Games of the Year 2013

2013 proved to be an exceptional year for gaming. Even with the release of 2 new consoles, some of the most ambitious and better yet, most successful storytelling in video games to date happened on current generation platforms. Not every game on my list is perfect – no game is, really – but these are the games I enjoyed my precious time with the most.

What do you say we get this show on the road, huh?

10. How to Survive

Appearances can be deceiving. As a long time horror fan, the story of Eko Software’s How to Survive sounds right at home of a direct to video feature film off in the corner of a local video store. A survivor maroons on a sandy beach of an island archipelago and immediately discovers he is in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Using a unique set of skills and with the help of other stranded people, the castaways must band together to survive and escape the horror of the islands.

The game features many well-worn tropes in zombie and survival games, such as enemy types and weapon crafting and a generic name, but to write it off on what it appears to be would be to miss what How to Survive is: a good game with lots of interesting ideas and well executed gameplay mechanics, mild RPG elements, a decent–if generic–story, some punishing difficulty peaks and valleys, and moderately long running time. If it hadn’t been for some truly mind-boggling design decisions–it’s saving and checkpoint system, a lack of HUD mini-map and some late game pacing issues–How to Survive could have been a great game instead of simply being a good one. That being said, it’s worth your time and money and I personally hope Eko gets to improve on the promise shown here should the opportunity arise for a sequel.
How to Survive - Beachfront

9. Beyond: Two Souls

David Cage’s ambitious Beyond: Two Souls may be the most divisive entry on my list. Less of a game and more of an interactive, epic movie, Beyond‘s sum of its parts is greater than the game as a whole. Jodie is an instantly sympathetic character who struggles with being tethered to an entity named Aiden, who she can often use to get her out of sticky situations. The story is a bit of a mess, but with the amazing performance by Ellen Page, it was easy for me to overlook the muddled story and almost over the top climax.

The game suffers from one specific vignette too many and the game’s rules seem to only be applicable in very scripted ways, which brings the overall experience down a bit, but I still found it to be extremely enjoyable in its ambition and scope. I found willingness to go off the deep end into absurdity during the last hour or so of the 8-9 hour campaign to be highly endearing. Beyond: Two Souls isn’t for everyone, but those willing to give in to its world and its rules may find something truly special.

Beyond: Two Souls E3 2013

8. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

What do you get when you mix the fun, open-world gameplay of Ubisort’s masterful Far Cry 3 with the 80’s action movie mentality and aesthetic? A whole hell of a lot of fun in Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. The stand alone game built from the same engine is at all times a satire of 80’s action films, both high and low budget, ridiculously over the top in humor and has its tongue planted so firmly in its cheek that I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if it wound up puncturing through.

Some of the one-liners get a bit too repetitive and over stay their welcome, but the game has plenty to offer by way of humor. From game tutorials to ridiculous dialogue to 80’s training montages and sex scenes, Blood Dragon is the video game equivalent of an Albert Pyun movie. If you don’t know who that is but enjoyed this game, I highly recommend you seek out his work. You will not be disappointed.

Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon - Review Featured

7. Bioshock Infinite

What more can anyone possibly say about Bioshock Infinite that hasn’t been said ad nausuem? How about how the story–as interesting and meta as it was regarding video games and how we play them–is riddled with plot holes. Why are Vigors readily available, and at one point handed out for free, and yet no one except a few use them? Or the fact that Comstock changed his name for no good reason other than to serve the twist? Or that each combat scenario was telegraphed by rooms full of cover and seeing tears which served to eliminate many of the surprises in terms of actual gameplay.

Yes, I have some issues with the story and some of the mechanics, but I can’t take anything away from Bioshock Infinite‘s ambition. I wholly appreciate that Ken Levine has used this series to offer commentary on video games by using the very tropes he’s calling attention to. Best of all, Bioshock Infinite makes you think and that is always a good thing and something that should be celebrated.

Bioshock Infinite

6. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Admittedly, this is a last minute entry into my list. Having just got the game the weekend before Christmas I spent the entire 2 days playing and only completed 13% of the game. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, much like Skyrim, seduces my open-world OCD making me complete every single task and collect every single item available to me before I can move on to the next story mission.

Running up on a target, driving a sword or blade into them and slamming them to the ground is as satisfying as ever, and naval combat is a blast.

A gorgeous, fun, expansive game that takes the very best from past Assassin’s Creed games as well as Far Cry 3, and makes it easily the best Assassin’s Creed game I’ve ever played, and I still have tons to do. If I have any real complaints about the game, I suppose it can be pointed at the entire franchise. Free running still has me running up walls or jumping from deadly heights that I never intended to, and for some reason that I will never, ever be able to comprehend, there is no way to crouch while walking and no way to walk faster without either jogging or going full-sprint (the slight boost from holding X is not nearly enough). I’m hoping Ubisoft adds these things into the inevitable sequel, but after 6 games, I’m gonna go out on a very safe limb and say they won’t. That said, this game shouldn’t me missed.

Assassin's Creed IV

5.  Splinter Cell: Blacklist

Sam Fisher returns to what he does best, stalking bad guys in shadows. After the more action focused Conviction, Blacklist is a return to form. Offering players who prefer stealth (like myself) a ton of paths and tactics to tackle each and every situation, the game never regresses into a shooter the way Conviction was wont to do.

Sure the story is more of the same kind of techno-jargon, spies-going-out-on-their-own tropes we have seen time and time again, but I have always found the stories in the Splinter Cell series to be its weakest area. Instead, I have always preferred taking down enemies from within the shadows and evading patrols and cameras and Splinter Cell: Blacklist offers this in spades. The campaign offers a ton of things to do outside of the main story path with side missions galore and the mutliplayer Spies vs Mercs is as strong as it has ever been. Sam Fisher is back (kind of-since it’s not Michael Ironside anymore) and I couldn’t be happier.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist

4.  Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

For me, no other game is as co-dependent on mechanics and story as Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. What at first seemed like a novel idea quickly becomes so inseparable from the story gamer director Josef Fares has told that it becomes nearly magical at the emotional climax.

Playing the game itself was pure joy from start to finish and after the initial two areas in the game, which play up very familiar fantasy tropes, it becomes more and more dark and disturbing and at the same time wonderful and beautiful. Few games have affected me the way Brothers did. I highly recommend this to everyone. It’s that good.

Brothers Branch Co-Op

3.  Grand Theft Auto V

If you would have asked me 4 months ago if I would have expected to not like the story in Grand Theft Auto V, I would have thought it was impossible. I absolutely loved the story in GTA IV and each mainline GTA has had a better story than the previous one so it would be expected that the trend continue. Unfortunately, this was not the case. I found the 3 protagonists to be either forgettable (Franklin), unbelievable (Michael), or at times gratingly annoying (Trevor).

The stories didn’t resonate with my one bit in Grand Theft Auto V, but you know what? It really didn’t matter that much because the game itself was a blast to play. The heists, though disappointingly infrequent, are a series highlight and the humor is, at times, at an all time best. Not all jokes work and some are just plain juvenile, but when you have this much volume, you can’t help but miss a few.

The world of Los Santos is pretty spectacular with tons of things to see and do and randomly generated missions go a long way towards fleshing out the world in ways that Rockstar has never done before. It’s still GTA, so if the formula doesn’t work for you, then you probably won’t find much here to enjoy, but for those that have been with the series since the beginning like I have, Grand Theft Auto V is the next great game in a consistently great game series.Grand Theft Auto V - The Crew

2. The Last of Us

The Last of Us came this close to being the best game of the year for me. Unfortunately, as I have stated in both my review and my Games of the Generation write ups about it, the mechanics of the gameplay kept butting up against the world building and immersion that Naughty Dog so laboriously put into the game. To reiterate, if there is a world where scavenging for ammunition an supplies is key to survival, there should be absolutely no reason why someone would have enough bullets or materials for crafting. As such, every time I saw the red words “FULL” when attempting to pick something up, it would pull me right out of the game. I knew I could spend the bullets I had and would come across more almost instantaneously.

That being said, the game is a wholly different experience when playing Survivor difficulty. Bullets and supplies are scarce making each and every encounter much more tense. I can’t count the times I ran out of bullets and shivs and had to try and make my way out of the situation by either sheer determination, brutal melee violence or by plain old running away. Removing Joel’s ability to hear through walls is also key, meaning navigating each area was much more deliberate and nerve racking.

Yes, the story stands head and shoulders above all other games this year, and had Survivor difficulty been available from the outset, it would be no contest. Either way, The Last of Us is a truly exceptional game and should be played by almost everyone old enough to.

The Last of Us Quiet

 1. Tomb Raider

I’ve been a Tomb Raider fan since the first game was released to the original PlayStation way back in 1996 and have played and enjoyed every game since. Yes, even Angel of Darkness – a maligned somewhat mess of a game, that still had plenty to enjoy as a fan of the series. When Crystal Dynamics revealed the first trailer for their 2013 reboot, I was immediately on the hook. The concept of a gorgeously rendered version of Tomb Raider‘s gameplay was more than enough for me to purchase the game day one.

What I didn’t know is how far CD was going to stray from the original concepts and core gameplay design that made the series a household name to begin with. Gone were the Rube Goldberg-like puzzles and serviceable combat in favor of massive exploration, tighter third-person shooter mechanics, one of the most intuitive and impressive cover mechanics I’ve ever experienced and Lara Croft as a bona fide CHARACTER. Instead of a relatively cold female avatar with a British accent, the new Lara is a person – fallible, caring, at first scared, later confident. There is a genuine arc on display in Tomb Raider 2013 that has been all but absent in any game previously.

While it’s understandable that many lamented the loss of the aforementioned tomb raiding, I enjoyed the approach that the island’s huge environments were the puzzles to be navigated and conquered and that treasures were real world relics detailing the mysterious island’s sordid and deadly history. It was a pleasure watching the mystery of Yamatai Island unfold and watching Lara slowly become the adventurer we all came to know and love.

I haven’t even discussed the game’s stunning presentation. Nary a load screen in sight as the 12 or so hour adventure progresses, and cut scenes and gameplay were staggeringly seamless. The camera is never intrusive, showing exactly the right angle for both ease of play and cinematic beauty. The score is  brilliant and rousing in all of the right moments. Lara’s ascent up the side of collapsing building as the score announces her triumphant arrival is one of the most memorable moments in any game I have ever played.

Yes, the supporting characters are weak and thin, and there is a multiplayer suite that can be completely ignored, however, neither of those things can trump the flawless controls, stunning and expansive vista and excellent character development for Lara. Truly a triumph in gaming and easily my game of the year.

Tomb Raider Guide to Survival 2: Exploration

And there it is, the 10 games I feel are the best I have played this year. I didn’t get to play everything seeing unfortunately so maybe I can convince the guys to do a “Best of the Rest” type article in the coming months, but I digress. Let me know what you think of my list in the comments below!

 

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