Saturday, January 11, 2014

Best of 2013 - Game of the Year.


"Best" - particularly in video games - is often a very personal thing.  Perhaps "subjective" is a better word - and there's no right answer for all gamers.  When the jittery, buggy The Walking Dead won the VGAs in 2012, it didn't feel dishonest to us, and even though I would've preferred to see something like XCOM: Enemy Within or Far Cry 3 in its place, I had to give my personal nod to a little stealth-platformer that saw release on the 360 and Steam.  

Similarly, 2013 sees some major titles that everyone's still talking about interspersed with smaller, stranger games that got under our individual skin in very different ways.  Sure, GTA V and in particular The Last of Us are sweeping most sites' nods and no one seems capable of giving Best Vita Game to anything but Tearaway - which I understand, Tearaway's pretty awesome - but I would be flat-out lying if I told you it was the best thing to drop on Sony's handheld in 2013.  

Which is my way of saying this is my list - it's a long one, thanks to how many wonderful games we saw in the past year - and it reflects the games in which I found the most consistent joy.  I've whittled it down from thirty that bear talking about to thirteen that you really should pay attention to.  

These are the games of the year.



worth noting



Metal Gear Rising : Revengeance, Ratchet & Clank Future : Into the Nexus, XCOM : Enemy Within, Hotline Miami, Assassin's Creed IV : Black Flag, BioShock Infinite, Ni No Kuni : Wrath of the White Witch, Resogun. 



acknowledgments




Open-world first-person shooter. 
Runner up - best PSN game.
Acknowledgment - best soundtrack.
Acknowledgment - Michael Beihn for best performance.
"This is the game we wanted Duke Nukem Forever to be, minus the boobs.  And honestly, when I'm having this much fun, I don't have time to miss boobs."
-from the review-


-and now, a moment from State of Decay-
Open-world survival-action/strategy.  With zombies.

Rare is the zombie action game that insists the player feel as nervous and vulnerable as they would actually be in an undead apocalypse, and State of Decay is the unpolished but smartly-designed zombie game you've been waiting for.  It genuinely feels like survival, here - with real choices and sacrifices to make, real desperation and a real sense of your own mortality. 

Adventure platformer. 
Acknowledgment - best soundtrack.
Honorable mention - best presentation on Vita.
"It's wonderful.  Lovely.  Delightful.  Charming.  Smartly-constructed and well-paced.  It's not a game you'll play forever, but it feels like an instant classic, and something you'll be dying to share with any kid in your life.

Tearaway, it turns out, is more than just a cute face, with something beautiful and meaningful to say about games, gamers and what occurs between them."-from the review-

First-person shooter. 
Honorable mention - best art direction.

What the 8th console generation needed was an insanely gorgeous game to kickstart things, and nowhere do jaw-dropping graphics have a greater impact than in a first-person shooter.  Set in a wonderfully-realized sci-fi universe,  Killzone: Shadow Fall is a solid FPS without any of the technical gubbins of Battlefield or the narrative dissonance of BioShock.  Plus, it's
"really, really, ridiculously good-looking."
-from the review-
I played an usually large number of consoles FPSs in 2013, but if I'm being honest, I had the most fun with Shadow Fall.

-review-
Brawler.
Acknowledgment - biggest surprise. 
Acknowledgment - best gameplay. 
Acknowledgment - best art direction.
Acknowledgment - Tim Phillips as Dante for best performance.

Inventive, striking art direction, a good story well-told and the broadest, most accessible combat the series has ever had without sacrificing the ridiculous depth it's known for.  In 2001 Devil May Cry created the template for every major third-person brawler that came after (God of War, Ninja Gaiden, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Darksiders), and DmC is the best Devil May Cry there's ever been.




honorable mentions




-review-
First-person shooter. 
Acknowledgment - best gameplay.
Second runner up - best presentation on Vita.

Eurogamer's Dan Whitehead summed up what makes Killzone: Mercenary so damned special thusly: "everything it gets right is sweetened by the addition of the phrase "but on a handheld" at the end" - and that's why I hold it in higher esteem than any other FPS to drop in 2013.  Every other cool FPS tethers me to my television, even disregarding that I felt BioShock Infinite's combat was a bit imbalanced and at odds with its narrative and Metro: Last Light was brilliant until it came to a screetching halt by design with Big Momma - I can make no such complaints about Mercenary.  It is a rock-solid FPS with a few neat tricks up its sleeve - and a shockingly attractive one, at that - "but on a handheld."

The sweetest plum.  

-review-
Open-world action. 
Runner up - best soundtrack.
Acknowledgment - best gameplay.
Second runner up - Steven Ogg as Trevor for best performance.

If there's any game that deserves to be a bit more honored than it is on this list, it's Grand Theft Auto V. "Honorable mention" doesn't quite cut it. 

The game is a beast, and while there's an argument to me made that it's simply a broader iteration on what Rockstar have done before, I don't see how the latest masterwork from a developer that only seems capable of producing genre-defining sandbox-action masterworks can in any way qualify as a bad thing.  This (huge, smart, gorgeous) game is ridiculously good, and is executed at a level that no other developer on Earth can really compete with.  

Rockstar Games : the Hank Rearden of the video game world. 


Open-world co-op first-person brawler RPG.  With zombies. 
Honorable mention - best gameplay.

Like State of Decay, Dead Island: Riptide is a bit unpolished, and yet another zombie game.  Its exceptionally tactile first-person brawling and capable atmosphere make it one of the two most involving, visceral, immersive experiences I had with a controller in my hand in the past year.  
"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-


favorites

From here on out, we're dealing with games that are all within a hair's breadth of being my personal Game of the Year.  I love all the games on this list, but these... these are something really special. 




2D Metroidvania brawler.
Winner - best soundtrack.
Acknowledgment - best gameplay.
Runner up (tie) - best art direction.

Some people feel ports shouldn't be included in GotY conversions.  I disagree - and I feel particularly strongly about it here, as Muramasa Rebirth is a massive leap over what we got on the Wii in 2009. Sharper graphics, better controls, an infinitely improved localization and DLC on the way - it's the definitive edition. 
"Muramasa Rebirth threatens to utterly spoil me with its sky-high production values, and the simple, wholesome pleasure of wandering its gigantic world and getting jumped by ninjas has not yet, after forty-ish hours, grown the least bit stale. 

It's a luxurious title.  A grand, opulent four-poster bed of a game that's ideal for snuggling in to for long, breezy stretches of gorgeous scenery and zippy, stylish, satisfying combat.  This is one of those games where time just disappears in the playing of it.  It bleeds character, and loving attention to the most minute of details bursts forth like a flock of sparrows as you dash by. 

Immaculate presentation, a king's ransom in content, a joy to play.  I can't recommend taking the time to get to know Momohime and Kisuke strongly enough."-from the review-

-review-
Third-person action-adventure platformer.
Winner - biggest surprise.
Runner up - best gameplay.
Acknowledgment - best art direction.
Honorable mention - best presentation on PS3 & PS4.

I had more pure fun with Tomb Raider than any other "traditional" triple-A action game this year.  It's everything that was pleasurable and worthy in the now-ancient PS1 games, reborn in a current-gen light - gorgeous, mysterious ruins to scramble across, enemies to fight, puzzles to solve and (this is the big one) fantastic platforming and exploration throughout.  The narrative and narrative presentation leave a lot to be desired, but Tomb Raider wins out over any other game in 2013's triple-A space with its exceptional playability.  This is a game of such considered design - a game so endlessly playable and enjoyable - that it's sort of 2013's inFamous.  

"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. "-from Best of 2013 - gameplay-


-review-
2D Metroidvania platformer-brawler.
Winner - best PSN game.
Honorable mention - best soundtrack.
Honorable mention - best gameplay.  
Honorable mention - best art direction.
Honorable mention - best presentation on Vita.  
Acknowledgment - best presentation on PS3 & PS4.

Guacamelee holds the distinction of being the game I replayed the most in the past year.  I probably ran through it ten times - a testament to its comfortable, classic mechanics dolled up in modern sensibilities and smart design.  It's hard to find a genre I love more than platforming (hint: stealth platforming), and Guacamelee offers a beautiful 2D platforming experience as the bedrock for its snappy, satisfying brawling.
"It's a modern classic and a game that, in the playing, feels as comfortable and comforting as stretching out in bed after a long day and snuggling up under the covers.  It feels so wholesome and correct in everything it does.  Like your favorite meal, your favorite song - like a cup of hot chocolate at the perfect moment - Guacamelee is chicken tortilla soup for the gamer's soul.  

The entire game looks like concept art in motion.  It taps directly in to a gamer's desire to explore, to sniff out secrets, to gain strength and be rewarded for our efforts and climb ever-higher.  Everything about Guacamelee is lovely.  It is, in every moment, a pleasure - one of the most purely fun games I played in the past year - and the best PSN game of 2013."  -from Best of 2013 - PSN game-



* * *



And now, we come to the close.  In recent years I've decided there's a difference between the Best Game and the Game of the Year.  Take, for example, Dark Souls and inFamous 2 or XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Far Cry 3.  Dark Souls or XCOM are more perfect games - beautiful, flawlessly-crafted gems - but inFamous 2 and Far Cry 3 are funner games, and more of a pleasure to play and play and then play some more.  There is, I've decided, a difference - but both are equally worth celebrating.

So it was, in 2013.



* * *




B e s t   G a m e   o f   2 0 1 3





Third person action/adventure/survival/stealth.
Honorable mention - best soundtrack.
Winner - best gameplay.  
Runner up (tie) - best art direction.
Honorable mention - Nolan North as David for best performance.
Runner up - Ashley Johnson as Ellie for best performance.  
Winner - Troy Baker as Joel for best performance.
Winner - best presentation on PS3 & PS4.  

An instant classic - a landmark game - it's up there with Super Mario World, Dark Souls, Uncharted 2 and Okami. If I had categories for best writing, best pacing, best technology, The Last of Us would win those too.  This is a game that is supernaturally accomplished.  It has no weakness - it is strength upon strength, and experiencing it is... transformative.

Upon completing its campaign for the first time, I could only say that "it is, in each and every way we measure games, astonishing - representing the absolute state-of-the-art of its form, and doing its part to push the medium forward as a whole."

It's not uncommon for a triple-A to make such a uniformly-positive impression on an initial playthrough, but it's quite another to hold up under a further three or four trips.  The Last of Us not only holds up, it still astonishes.  I've seen it a half-dozen times at least, and the game's opening still makes me well up - a testament to its writing and Troy Baker's remarkable performance.

Its gameplay - a weirdly-smooth, intuitive yet intentionally-unwieldly mix of stealth, action and survival horror which ensure it plays like nothing else that's ever been done - is never encumbered by its narrative, and feels entirely organic.  The desperate, panicked viciousness of our heroes is echoed by the player themselves in every white-knuckle, lethal encounter.


"The Last of Us is a master's thesis on pacing, and nearly impossible to put down.  The narrative presents a new high-water mark for intelligent, honest writing in video games, but never feels like it gets in the way on subsequent playthroughs.  Indeed, I find I always well up at two key points - even familiarity does not weaken its grip on your heart.  It's just... so touching.

It's a supernaturally gorgeous game, yet more proof that Naughty Dog have forged some dark pact with unholy forces to grant them dominion over the PS3's capabilities.  The game's world is beautiful, intelligently-designed and painstakingly detailed.

Its cast is exemplary, with Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker in particular delivering stunning, beautiful performances that elevate the entire production and hammer home the brilliance of Neil Druckmann's human, emotionally honest writing.

It's one of the best "survival" games to appear on the current gen, but more than that its fresh-feeling, weighty, desperate, impactful combat is a wonderfully balanced and nuanced blend of stealth and action, which repeatedly imparts a heart-thrashing adrenaline high.

The Last of Us is so uniformly accomplished across every facet that it's... shocking.  Its intelligence, craft and uniformity of excellence is a shock to the system.

In the years to come, it will be regarded as an absolute classic, and a landmark game.

It's a masterpiece."
-from the review-
Finally...




2 0 1 3

G a m e   o f   t h e   Y e a r




-review-
-FEATURE - on the women of Dragon's Crown-
-Chamberlain & Chance on Dragon's Crown-
-Dragon's Crown (on Vita) vs. Dragon's Crown (on PS3)-
-Personal Note (on Dragon's Crown)-
-I can't stop loving you, (Dragon's Crown)-
Classic 2D RPG-brawler with co-op.
Honorable mention - best soundtrack.
Second runner up - best gameplay.
Winner - best art direction.
Runner up - best presentation on Vita.
Runner up - best presentation on PS4 & PS3. 

It's a bit telling that I wrote more about Dragon's Crown than any other game... in this blog's history, actually.

When I see trailers for cute little retro games, I generally don't pay them much mind.  Throwbacks like Mega Man 9, Bionic Commando Rearmed and Scott Pilgrim are fun for a weekend, but I find myself quickly moving on to meatier, more traditional modern fare.  It takes something really, really special to break through and capture my imagination in that space, and now - for the second year in a row - I've had to give my Game of the Year nod to a retro-ish, sprite-based 2D action game.

Weird.

A bit like Guacamelee, it seems to be a title I just can't get bored of.  Unlike Guacamelee, Dragon's Crown refuses to give up its kung-fu grip on my imagination, and the number of hours I've found myself investing in the title doesn't border on ridiculous - it is ridiculous.


This must be what people who went nuts over Minecraft felt like, and I've little doubt it may largely be due to the game's presence not merely on my PS3, but my Vita - which ensures I can take it with me wherever I go, and can suspend hour-long dungeon chains with a tap of a button.

In all aspects but art direction Dragon's Crown is bested at every turn by other games, but it's managed to capture me in a way no other title has in... decades.  Since childhood.

This was state of the art in 1989.

Perhaps it was able to worm its way into my heart through the memories of playing Golden Axe with my older brother on a rented Genesis when we were kids.  We'd save up our allowance and job money for weeks and blow it all on a two-night orgy of video games and junk food.  Once we bought a two-liter carton of ice cream (the most luxurious and hedonistic of treats), cut it in half with a bread knife and sat downstairs playing games until we became delirious from the sugar rush and lack of sleep.

That's what Dragon's Crown is, certainly.  It's a bit childish.  It's terribly indulgent - this most luxurious and hedonistic of treats.

A party cuts its way through the Bilbaron subterranean fortress.

And yet, as such, so perfect in its execution.  As a game which seeks to recapture the joys of its arcade roots, it's an unqualified success - not simply recalling the heyday of its genre, but realizing it with modern polish and sensibilities to a degree that none but the lucid dreamers at Vanillaware could have imagined it.  It's so beautiful.

Not just visually - though it is phenomenally beautiful, visually - but in everything from its combat mechanics to its game design, which sees the player chasing the endlessly-dashing rabbit of that perfect set of gear that may never materialize.  Its gear system is pure Diablo - you pick up randomly-generated loot that may be the best weapon you've ever found, but you won't know until you go back to town and have it appraised.

This ensures the game - particularly now, with its crazy level cap of 255 and its ten-thousand-plus floor ultimate dungeon of insane challenge - has no true ending.  It is, instead, a perfect sunset you may spend years chasing over the horizon, but never catching.

A lone, brave elf stands among the remains of an ancient civilization, and Medusa.

I love how each of the six heroes plays entirely different from the next, and have the capacity to be mastered to a degree of supernatural, DMC-esque skill.  When a dark pirate descends into a dimly-lit room and I parry his flurry of sword strikes three perfect times in a row - sending my Amazon to her fastest, most powerful level of berserk and invincible to boot, thanks to proper skill allocation - before wiping the floor with that most-dangerous of foes is incredibly satisfying.  When an Elf handsprings out of harm's way, tumbles over a crossbow, snatches it up and springs backward again before unleashing its full ammo supply into a rampaging Orc Chieftan - it's beautiful.  When I soar across the screen, air evading to position myself above a sorcerer before crashing into him axe-first, when a skeletal archer takes his shot and I send it back at him with a perfectly-timed slash...

Kwa-ping!

...Dragon's Crown is beautiful in all the ways that matter.  It's never stopped being involving and rewarding. I adore everything about this game - the sublime music, the luxurious art, the gorgeous animations, the depth and reward of its play, its limitless replayability.  I can look to The Last of Us and admit its mechanics are fresher and more exciting, its technology more impressive, its story more gripping, its presentation more thrilling - but we don't always fall in love with the date who looks best on paper.

Nothing in the past year has captured me and proven its worth a hundred times over like Dragon's Crown, and I may never stop chasing its sunset.

The view is too beautiful, and the hunt is too fun.

3 comments:

  1. love the site, just came across it while looking for shigenori soejima artbooks.

    are you familiar with art-eater.com? also lots of cool gaming stuff, particularly on the dragon's crown art.

    cheers! keep it up

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. herpaderp, read your other article on DC's art.

      yeah im of a mind to give DC a higher score on my best of 2013 list (i think i placed it 3rd or so on my Vita list, with the top honors going to virtue's last reward and persona 4 at the top)

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    2. Thank you! ^.^ Glad you like it. I'm pretty sure I have VLH, but I never gave it a spin - and I taste-tested P4 long enough to decide it's the definitive edition of the awesome PS2 game, and moved on to more pressing questions.

      I should play games to enjoy them, more. Gotta' work on that >.<

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