Looking back, 2013 has ended up being a weird year for me. In fact, I’d go as far as saying it has been a stop-gap in terms of my gaming experiences. Sure, there have been some entertaining releases over the last twelve months, but I struggle to think of many games I feel I will remember the year for. A large part of the blame is most likely down to the huge backlog of games I’m currently trawling through (I’ve only just got round to unwrapping Arkham City, and I haven’t even started Far Cry 3) but part of the issue has been that I wasn't genuinely taken in by some of the big hitters. For example, I considered BioShock Infinite to be a narrative hot mess (and I wasn’t that impressed with the AI companion if I’m honest), and to me Tomb Raider, while a good return to form for Lara Croft, wasn’t as outstanding as word of the interwebs suggested.
That said, I did manage to enjoy myself from time to time. Revengeance proved once again that Platinum Games are awesome, and Papers, Please blind-sided me with its simple presentation over a rather deep experience, but 2013 to me will be the year of preparation – the warm-up act to 2014. That’s when many of the next/current-gen big hitters will finally land, and it’s also when many of the crowd-funded projects I’ve thrown money at will come to fruition. On top of that, we’ll be getting Dragon Age III (I still remain hopeful), get a glimpse at the next Uncharted and Mass Effect games, finally have Titanfall in our hands and (in a fairly predictable move considering the noise I’ve been making about it) WildStar will go live with all its fast-paced MMO goodness.
But yes, enough about next year – it’s time to focus on what really stood out for me this year.
Game of the Year | The Last Of Us
Yep, I’m going with a fairly popular and probably obvious nod this year.
As I stated earlier this year, I honestly felt that The Last Of Us was leagues ahead of many other games in terms of both its narrative and the intensity of its gameplay, and it’s an opinion that hasn’t changed some six months later. The post-apocalyptic world that Naughty Dog was both beautiful and terrifying, and its set pieces were, as usual from the studio that gave us Uncharted, some of the best in the business. Of course, the real strength of TLOU was its story, in which players followed the long and dangerous road taken by Joel and Ellie, transforming them from begrudging companions to an inseparable duo. In a similar way to how Telltale’s The Walking Dead did in 2012, Naughty Dog’s newest IP managed to bring “the feels” (as the cool internet-ers say) in a way I wasn’t quite expecting, and it made it a more memorable, and downright human, experience for it.
What cements its place as my top choice though was the inclusion of its multiplayer component, which managed to capture the essence of the brutality from the single player and transfer it into an online arena. Just like in the main story, the melee combat was hard hitting and sometimes downright disturbing, and it managed to make me feel as venerable and exposed as I did the first time I ventured into the DayZ mod. The term “nerve-wracking” doesn’t quite match up to the feeling I had trying to survive when the rest of my team had been wiped out, but it’s pretty close. Personally, I cannot wait for Naughty Dog to return to this series to explore new tales, perhaps adding a bit more freedom into the gameplay (I’m not expecting an open world, although that would be pretty awesome) because this truly was a highlight of the past twelve months, and frankly I want more.
Favourite Game | The Stanley Parable
The problem with selecting this particular game is that, without actually spoiling anything, I can’t really explain why this is my favourite of the year (although to be fair you should probably just go and get it so I don’t have to tip-toe around the subject) but damn it – for the sake of this article I’m going to try.
The blurring of every line imaginable with The Stanley Parable, paired up with some witty and downright hilarious script writing for the omnipresent narrator, made it a gameplay experience that I cannot recommend enough. The examination on player choice (or lack of, depending on your perception) is both entertaining and thought-provoking, and it was one of the few games this year I was absolutely eager to 100% in fear of not discovering something. It wasn’t exactly action packed (although it was), it didn’t have a particularly deep plot (although it did) and it wasn’t even really a game (although it was) but I seriously cannot stop thinking about it, and that’s why it’s my favourite of the year.
Admittedly, I nearly put Hearthstone as my selection here just because of the sheer addictiveness of it, but a cooler head prevailed when I remembered I’d only had access to it for 3 days. But damn, it's addictive.
Highlight of the Year | Chaos on the streets of Los Santos
In a similar vein to my pick last year, where I chose running riot in PlanetSide 2, I felt my highlight of 2013 once again came through emergent multiplayer experiences, specifically in Grand Theft Auto Online. You see, even though the damn thing was bugged up beyond all recognition (that’s B.U.B.A.R for those that need a safe exclamation around sensitive ears) and despite the fact we still don’t have heists in yet (which is the only way I’ll probably return to the online component properly) I came away from that game with a series of anecdotes, ranging from hard-fought races, and surviving fire fights by the skin of my teeth, to the absolutely ludicrous. You only have to watch the video above of Take To The Sea, or the one below of me instigating random street fights, to see what I’m talking about – and sharing these moments with friends only makes it more memorable.
Case in point – some friends and I managed to steal a cargo plane from the military base and fly it out to the TPI airstrip in Blaine County. After spending 5 minutes trying to figure out how to open the bay doors (you ram them, apparently) we came up with the greatest idea ever – rob a store on dirt bikes, have the cops chase us back to the plane, and then escape on it with the bikes. Nothing could possibly go wrong... only I kept hitting cacti on the way, and by the time I’d got there the police had swarmed the plane and pinned down one of my friends. “No matter,” I thought to myself, “I’ll quickly jump onboard the plane as the cargo doors are still down and be flown off to freedom.” Telling my under-fire friend he was “an acceptable casualty” in the quest for cash, I drove onto the plane with some speed and used the back of the cargo hold to stop my bike.
The thing is, that creative emergency brake caused the cargo plane to explode.
Say what you will about the broken online mechanics, questionable storyline, or the tired reflection on American society, but as that example demonstrated, I had some seriously fun and memorable moments in GTAO this year.
Disappointment of the Year | Defiance
So this year we’ve had SimCity and Aliens: Colonial Marines grace us with their presence, hitting the industry like a fun-destroying EMP and leaving nothing but empty shells of the hope we once clung to in their wake. Hell, had they taken human form I’m fairly sure they would leave a burning bag of crap on your front door, then stand on the other side of the road, pointing and laughing. Yet, when I think about disappointments, I end up thinking about the games that will almost certainly be forgotten in time, because the two above examples just given will live in infamy, just like Duke Nukem Forever and Daikatana. God, imagine if you only had those four games to play for the rest of time. Don’t worry – I’ll wait for you to stop crying.
What’s that? Get back on topic? FINE.
So, yes, that disappointing game for 2013 ended up being Defiance – that oh-so-promising trans-media experience that was part TV show, part MMO shooter. I had such high hopes for it, and the end result? Well... It’s very rare that a game is actually better in its beta form than its commercial release, but that’s basically what happened with Defiance. What is perhaps most heartbreaking about it all is that there was some semblance of fun and addictiveness about its gameplay, but ultimately couldn’t pull itself together. It had a poor starting experience, and a boring end-game experience, and while many of the connectivity issues and more notorious bugs were addressed over time it still wasn’t enough. The whole point was that it was meant to be a living world that we the players could explore and live in, but TV show did a far better job of fleshing out the lore despite Trion’s best efforts, and some of the characters were just downright horrible (Lawkeeper Cooper in particular. Ugh.)
Perhaps this might have all turned out differently if Sony and Microsoft had played nice, allowing the PS3 and Xbox 360 to play alongside the PC version, but we’ll never know. At least the TV show was half decent in a cheesy-sci-fi-romp sort of way.
Most Anticipated For 2014 | Dreamfall Chapters
This was by far the toughest decision to make for this year’s article. As the introduction pointed out, there’s a lot I’m looking forward to next year, so I had to think about it logically to make a decision. Even though I’m so excited for it that I bought a new joystick and throttle, Star Citizen won’t technically be out until 2015, and even though I become more impressed with it the more I play it, WildStar has had more than enough praise from me over the last few years, so I’m going to give my nod to Red Thread Games’ kickstarted adventure title Dreamfall Chapters.
The Longest Journey and its sequel Dreamfall hold a special place in my heart from the yesteryears of gaming, and so for Ragnar Tørnquist and his band of cannon-stroking developers (we’ll never forget, Martin) to bring one of the most frustrating cliffhangers in gaming to some sort of resolution (hopefully) is something I definitely look forward to. Both Tornquist and fellow scribe Dag Scheve have proven they can spin an excellent narrative yarn with the previous games in the series and, more recently, the highly-underrated MMORPG The Secret World, and the chance to return to the worlds of Stark and Arcadia after all these years, to be reunited with so many beloved characters, is exactly why the gaming community threw over $1.5 million at the project. Hell, it’s why fans from seventeen different countries descended upon Norway last month for the inaugural JourneyCon.
The recent news of the team hitting their pre-alpha milestone (with nearly three quarters of the game ready for testing) on time is incredibly promising considering the amount of delays most crowd-funded efforts often suffer, and the work the team has put into the Unity engine-powered game, pushing the creation tools at their disposal to the limits, was shown off to great effect during demonstrations earlier this year. The aim of making adventure games more intuitive without losing the sense of discovery or diluting the challenge of puzzles is something that has been of paramount importance to the developers, but if what the team have promised comes to fruition I suspect it could be one of the more accessible adventure games in recent years. Of course, we’re going to have to wait almost 11 months before we get to see if that’s true and experience the conclusion of Zoë Castillo’s adventure, but I honestly believe that it will be worth the wait.
And I say that even though my interview with Ragnar and Dag at Gamescom this year descended into talk about "wangs." We kept it classy, of course. Just about.