Games are designed to suck up the hours, but some do it better than others. 2013 saw an excellent crop of titles that managed to be utterly sublime in their play - games that seduce with the simple ability to keep dashing through enchanted forests, cruise up oceanside highways, fool around with a blade or leap from cliffs.
Not every - or even many games - can manage gameplay that's so consistently inviting. Games that are just really, really hard to put down because of how inviting, involving, expressive and fun their mechanics are. This year offered a lot of them, and I refuse to whittle this list down to less than 11 titles. These are the best-playing games of 2013.
Dashing through Genroku-era Japan just never gets old - particularly when it's as attractive as Muramasa Rebirth. A game of running through fields, through trees, across mountaintops and ancient temples, Muramasa's exquisite peace is regularly broken by random battles as samurai, ninja, oni and wild turkeys ambush you on your journey, not to mention the spectacular boss fights - and when the action begins, it's a fast, slick, ultra-stylish and satisfying affair with snappy, responsive controls.
Very hard to put down.
The best strategy game in years gets even deeper with Enemy Within, a massive expansion to 2012's Enemy Unknown. The impeccable turn-based, nerve-wracking gameplay remains largely identical, save for a far wider array of options and passive buffs at your disposal, and new ultra-powerful options to risk your cash and time on back at base. XCOM remains one of the most addictive games of the year.
I totally get why Chamberlain and anyone else would suggest that Grand Theft Auto's gameplay sucks, but I'm not in that camp. It's simplified and streamlined mercilessly, with the ambition that anyone, anywhere - regardless of their familiarity with games or gaming - can slip right in, tear around in hot cars and get into beautiful, badass gunfights. In this, it succeeds entirely - dozens upon dozens of hours can be lost to the single-player campaign alone, and then it takes those slick, comfortable mechanics into GTA Online for potentially-infinite play time - and a game's ability to let the player express themselves is always tops, in my book.
Killzone Mercenary is an excellent first person shooter. On a handheld. The mind boggles.
Most people were quite suspicious at the thought of mediocre-brawler developer Ninja Theory taking on the genre-defining Devil May Cry franchise - but things worked out great. The game's combat system is simultaneously the broadest and most accessible the series has ever had, maintaining DMC's, classic feel while permitting the player far more freedom and expression. Lovely.
"Dead Island: Riptide is a beautiful game, but its beauty isn't in the voice work or the writing or the menus or the game's budget. It is entirely in the playing of it. It's in the moment you turn a corner and see the Infected. The way your gut hitches.
If the point and purpose of video games is to have an adventure - to become engaged and lost in another world, breathing foreign air and experiencing all the tension, fear, excitement, pride and desperation of your player-character, Dead Island: Riptide is the best game 2013 has seen yet."
-from the review-
Excellent zombie first-person brawling - a gift from the gaming gods.
"You'll dash into rooms to find the exits sealed off, skeletal vaqueros, armadillos and chupacabras pouring in from otherworldly portals and set into them with clean, tactile brawling. Some are in your current dimension, others are darkened silhouettes - impossible to hit, but able to strike you from the land of the dead.An impossible-to-put-down gem, Guacamelee's near-complete lack of load screens and comfortable, responsive everything make it one of the best-playing games of the year by a long shot. Just as cozy on PS3 or Vita, its sharp platforming and carefully balanced, solid brawling - each so easy to slip into, each so satisfying - ensure its 'play is just as enchanting as the game's music and style.
Squaresquaresquare softens one in your current dimension up, and the final blow will send him flying - but at that precise moment, you tap triangle to snatch him out of the air and aim your throw with the analog stick. Once you've aimed, you tap R1 to swap dimensions from the land of the living to the land of the dead - the silhouettes become tangible, and potential targets - and the body goes sailing across the screen, crashing into his buddies and sending them sprawling like spicy bowling pins."
-best of 2013 - psn game-
"Resogun now feels like less a video game than a martial art. This is a game - like a good fighting game, a good first-person shooter - that sees the controller bleeding in to nothingness as you begin to react, play, do without thinking. A exhilarating meditation."
This is a vote of love, to be sure - but it would be dishonest of me to put it anywhere else. Certainly, Dragon's Crown plays beautifully:
"Once, during a boss fight, I was throwing down with two gigantic cyclopes. On the far-right of the screen was a slowly-closing gate, and - occasionally - a massive cyclops hand would reach out to hold the gate up to prevent its closing (potentially allowing another beast into the fray).
On the left-hand side of the screen, the cyclops I was working on drew back its giant fist, preparing for a major attack that would toss me against the walls and spoil the vicious momentum I'd built up. I held square and tapped the analog stick up, in a rising attack, and tapped R1 to air-evade off his shoulder to the left as he let loose with his swing.
At that point, I noticed the hand had appeared under the gate on the other side of the screen. I air-jumped, tapped evade, tapped attack to pinwheel, air-evaded again and was then at the hand. I tapped square and pinwheeled the hand, tapped up and square to perform a mid-air rising attack, pinwheeled again, jumped vertically one last time and hit down and attack to slam into the ground, through the hand with Neck Splitter - my single most powerful attack - destroying it.
It wasn't until after I'd done this crazy thing - evading on one side of the screen, zipping to the other side and destroying the hand without touching the ground - that I realized it had all been unconscious expression.
I hadn't bothered to think of how to do it - I only realized that it needed to be done - and so, I did."
As in Resogun, the controller in Dragon's Crown fades into nothingness - it becomes just you, the game, and the awesome shit you're pulling off.
If this category simply went to the game that sucked up the most of my life in the past year, Dragon's Crown would win by a landslide - over one hundred and fifty hours, so far, and I'm nowhere near done with it. Its luxurious presentation is always a bit shocking, each time I boot the game up, but it's Dragon's Crown's neverending playground of classic 2D brawling charm, combined with the modern sensibilities of tight, challenging, empowering play and a limitless, Diablo-esque loot system that refuses to set me free.
My Amazon languished at level 99 until the most recent patch arrived this month, pushing the level cap to 255, and I instantly dived back in on the promise of yet more power for my chainmail bikini'd powerhouse. Even then, I still feel the plaintive calls of my Elf, yearning for the skills she'll unlock as I get her past level 35 and deepen her abilities with that ridiculous, six-foot bow she carries.
I've long loved Vanillaware games - Odin Sphere and Muramasa - for their touching, epic narratives and lush presentation. Dragon's Crown (mostly) skips the story, and focuses entirely on its 'play. In doing so, George Kamitani and team have crafted an entirely modern brawler with classic notes that I may well be playing for the rest of my natural life.
If anyone had told me Tomb Raider would be this high on this list a year ago, I'd've given them a salty smack right in their ridiculous little mouth - but here we are.
"It was around when I'd completed my time in the shanty town, that it struck me. Standing on the edge of a scrap tower, I looked down to a horizontal pole thirty feet below and fifteen feet away.
I flung myself into space, Lara cartwheeling her arms gently before she touched comfortably down, right on target, and cautiously balanced herself on the log. I darted forward along the pole and sprung from that to a wall with a ledge that was too high to reach - and as I hit the wall, I tapped X, and she kicked off the wall to grab the ledge.
I hadn't been on this rooftop before, so I snooped around and found a couple boxes of scrap parts I could use to improve my weapons.
Then, satisfied that I had exhausted the spoils of this area, I panned the camera around and surveyed the conquered shanty town, Lara's ponytail blowing in the wind. There were the rusted, corrugated rooftops, the corpse of the rescue helicopter, the mountain to the south that so... energetically carried me here, and the setting sun beyond - and I reflected on the sweet, sweet platforming the game demanded and exploration it allowed through all those sequences and I asked myself "why can't Uncharted's platforming be like this?"
And it's like oh. Oh my."
Tomb Raider just nails it. It's flush with wide-open levels that beg to be explored through comfortable, thrilling platforming (!) in search of crates to open (+materials for upgrading weapons! +XP!), collectibles to find (+XP!), challenges to discover (+XP!), native creatures to hunt (+XP!) and hidden puzzle-tombs to overcome (+ tons of XP!). Hours will be lost to a single area, and it never gets boring - it never gets old.
You're always panning the camera around in search of some rooftop you've not yet reached, some cliffside you've not yet scaled and the reward it surely guards. It smoothly slips right in to brutal, tight combat that leans largely on third-person shooting - Lara's silent, headshot-happy (+XP!) bow is one of the best weapons of the year - that sees you ducking low and doing a little monkey-scamper between cover points (bullets are less likely to hit Lara while scampering). You can hit triangle to come out of your scamper with a handful of dirt to toss in your enemies' eyes, blinding them for a moment and leaving them open to the bludgeoning of your climbing axe, finishing them off with a brutally-animated final strike (+XP!).
It flows into huge, grand set pieces that lean on the combat and platforming simultaneously, flinging yourself from rooftops into cover points, popping up to deliver a flaming arrow to an ammo dump before scampering away and into a crazy-awesome escape sequence that sees Lara dashing through an apocalypse of self-destructing platforming pieces...
Tomb Raider is just impossible to put down. As soon as you clear one of its wide-open areas it funnels you into a white-knuckle heavy-action sequence. As soon as you clear that, another open area begs for your attention, and once that's done it always has another delicious, inviting place to explore, master and overcome.
"This is a stealth game. This is a survival game. This is an action game. It's a stealth-survival-strategic-action game, almost entirely at odds with the easy-breezy, liquid flow of Uncharted 3. It's heavy. Weighty. Desperate. ...meaningful.
Built on basic controls any gamer would be familiar with - L1 to aim, R1 to shoot, square to melee, X to vault objects, circle to crouch - The Last of Us takes a comfortable foundation and spins it out into gameplay that's not quite like anything else. It feels deeply inaccurate to suggest that The Last of Us is a shooter or a brawler or even a straight-up survival game - it feels only like itself.
Which, alone, is... precious - built though it may be on the familiar.
. . .
The weight of action and movement, the life-like (read: slow) animations, the pace of the play is very unique. It flows along at what is practically a crawl compared to most action games, and here those extra beats communicate the vulnerability and, well, humanity of our heroes and those who would do them harm while providing the player more time for snap decisions and on-the-fly strategies. It massively heightens the game's tension, and grounds this fungus-zombie-plague post-apocalyptic world in a believable reality."
The Last of Us's insane originality - built though it is of familiar blocks - should deny it success. So few games attempt something new and get it right, but here, not only is it right, it feels flawless. It feels like a play style that's been honed and focused over a decade, not something that just popped up out of nowhere.
There is something very special about the first time you find yourself in a tight spot and your fourteen-year-old AI companion saves your ass as a Hunter closes in on your position, a shotgun in trembling hands. She pops out of cover on the far side of the room, pipes "eat it, motherfucker!" and hucks a brick into his head, stunning him for a moment, buying you the time to rush forward and end this. The game's intuitive, manipulable AI - vicious, just as desperate as its heroes and as thoughtful of self-preservation - plays a major role in its success.
"Whipping a bottle (which could have doubled as a one-time melee upgrade, for smashing over an enemy's head) into a far corner will result in a short discussion between two hunters:
"I'll check it out - you watch my back."
So you watch the back of the man watching the back. You pop up from the other side of the room, taking a few precious seconds to level your revolver at his head, holding down the aim button until the reticle tightens and focuses and steadies and BOOM!
There goes your last round - but it was worth it.
Get out of there - move - they know where you are. ...know where you were.
Take your time. Take a breath. Study the environment. Pick up that brick. Use cover to flank him. He's coming around the corner you're hiding behind - no time for hesitation - you tear around the corner as he starts with surprise and mash square to chtok clock him in the head with the brick. And again - whukk - beat him down until he's trembling, holding up a hand to shield himself.
"Don't, don't do it man - we can work somethin' out!""
The Last of Us grants an experience unlike any other in gaming. Each and every stealth or combat sequence is ridiculously stressful - the line between success and failure so small - that even in the game's demo, the impact is nothing less than profound.
"After every single fight, I find myself releasing a huge breath I didn't realize was caught in my throat, until the last enemy fell. "
I haven't experienced gameplay that even approaches what The Last of Us pulls off since Dark Souls - and even then, The Last of Us manages something... profound.
Naughty Dog have long employed the use of "negative space" in their games (moments of calm exploration to provide a counterpoint to the breathless action), and The Last of Us is "a master's thesis on pacing, and nearly impossible to put down" - the kiss of life, for a linear title.
When I first cracked open the game, I played through it three times in quick succession - and no, it never gets boring. It never feels old or less than vital. Like 2012's Mass Effect 3, The Last of Us is a more-pronounced example of a game that posits a future where genre lines - stealth, shooter, brawler, action - are erased, and proves a single title can master everything.
Not merely a stealth came, a shooter, a brawler, a horror game, an adventure, The Last of Us is all of those games at once. In its combination and mastery of a half-dozen genres, it provides something wholly original and entirely unique - something we've never had before. Incredibly immersive, constantly thrilling, this is a game that plays like you hope it will.
Not only is it, in its own dark twist on Mary Poppins, "practically perfect in every way" as it flawlessly courts such organic, involving play, what's most impressive is that there's never been anything quite like this.
The Last of Us feels only like itself - the best gameplay of 2013.