With Microsoft and Sony mostly preoccupied with the next-gen drop and building up some hype to the release of their new consoles, 2013 has been a bit of an odd year. We've had plenty of good games, lots of examples of developers at the height of their powers on seven-year-old tech, but there's also been a feeling that it's the right time to be looking ahead and start the generational transition.
Sadly, none of the launch titles to grace the new consoles were ever in any danger of trouble this particular list.
Instead, we have one of the best JRPGs of the new millennium, a return to form for Ubisoft's flagship series (putting the ship firmly into flagship... and the flag for that matter), and plenty to look forward to.
Game of the Year | Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
One of the best JRPGs to emerge in a decade -- second only to Xenoblade in terms of the plaudits this generation -- we'd had our eyes fixed firmly on Ni No Kuni for some time. A creative super development mashup between Level-5 and Studio Ghibli, this had us salivating with sheer excitement from the very first moment we heard about it.
And it didn't disappoint.
I can't think of a game that has filled me with so much joy so very easily. One of the best Japanese exports in years, it combined the creature collection and evolutionary elements of Pokemon with a grand-scale, epic JRPG in the mould of classic Final Fantasy titles, combine with the phenomenal aesthetics and emotional storyline that we've come to expect from a production house that gave us Totoro, Ponyo, and Spirited Away.
Beyond that, Ni No Kuni proved more than the sum of its parts, more than Level-5 doing an impression of Studio Ghibli. There were moments that brought tears to the eye, others that brought the biggest smile to my face, and innumerable little vignettes that made me audibly chuckle, all of it amplified by visuals that continue to dazzle and delight, a score that floods your ears with magnificence, and Familiar-based combat that proves rich and deep and engrossing. From elation to despair, and running the emotional gamut in between, no game proved as touching or as memorable this year.
Favourite Game of 2013 | Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
I'm so glad I get to say this. I'm so glad that Ubisoft didn't screw it up. I'm so glad that actually, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag sort of went above and beyond all of my expectations for it. We suspected that the Golden Age of Piracy might yield up a cracking setting for an Assassin's Creed game, and oh boy did the team deliver. The world itself is vast, but also impossibly detailed. Once again, the cohesion exhibited in AC2 and Brotherhood is placed front and centre thanks to a game world that begs to be explored, that piques the curiosity at every turn. Edward himself is a character that demands exploration too -- both one we can identify with and yet also morally questionable at times -- and he is ably supported by piratical partners who shun stereotype and silver screen for something a little more rooted in reality.
Assassin's Creed II and Brotherhood are by far my favourite games in the series, but Black Flag is giving them a serious run for their money. Moreover, this is the first time I've ever gone through an Assassin's Creed game more than once in the space of a few weeks. I find myself absently whistling the ame's theme and humming the shanties. I've been devouring the codex entries and reading up on the history. More so than ever before, this world has sucked me in absolutely and I can't get enough of it. As a fan of Assassin's Creed, as a fan of the stories surrounding the Golden Age of Piracy, as a fan of Sid Meier's Pirates!, I'd hoped that Black Flag would deliver from the moment the whisper of pirates first escaped Ubi Montreal's vaults. I'm so enormously happy to say that it does.
Highlight of the Year | EVE: Valkyrie
This year I enjoyed ten minutes of what can only be described as The Most Immersive Gaming Experience of My Life, and all that was required was a prototype Oculus Rift HD (which is so expensive it probably won't be coming to market any time soon) and a game that still doesn't really exist. Yet.
I'm talking, of course, of my time with EVE: Valkyrie.
The Doom 3 demo from the year before was nausea-inducing and gave me headaches. But sat in a cockpit, you no longer have to worry about the disconnect between mind and body. The little dogfighting demo that then unfolded changed my entire view on where we're going with VR and what the future holds. I don't want to go back now. As I wrote in my preview, every space sim, driving game, and fixed-position first-person title that I come across where I'm not using a Rift will now be an undeniably disappointing experience simply because I now know the potential for immersion in virtual reality on a 1-1 basis. Complete audio-visual immersion: it's coming, it's on its way, and when it arrives there'll be no room for substitutes or lesser experiences. You'll never want to play a game on a screen ever again.
Disappointment of the Year | SimCity
Nintendo have stamped their name all over this award yet again this year, but I'm so livid with them for spunking yet another valuable, competition-free year up the wall that they deserved their own separate article.
Bereft of a Wii U to rag on, there's only really been one game that's proven truly, soul-crushingly disappointing this year. And that's SimCity.
Throughout all of Maxis' tweaks and DLC drops two things were asked for time and time again: an offline mode and bigger city maps. Time and time again we were denied. We'd envisaged a glorious game where we could have our cake and eat it too, what we were greeted to on launch day was an overpriced box (or even more pricey virtual download) filled with blanks spaces, broken features, tiny city limits, no online infrastructure, and empty promises.
Wouldn't it have been nice to have been able to build the cities of our dreams, and then share those cities with our neighbours, to help one another out in terms of trade and traffic and public services? To create regions filled with sprawling establishments, each with their own personality and owner, each bound by paperwork and pipeline to adjacent metropolises. Wouldn't that have been lovely?
How the hell can you launch on online game with no online functionality?! I can't even...I'm out...
Most Anticipated for 2014 | Titanfall
There are so many games coming out next year that I crave. So many questions that need answering. Can Telltale possibly make The Walking Dead: Season Two as good as its predecessor, especially now that they've taken on all of these new IPs? Can BioWare sort themselves out and deliver a game in Dragon Age: Inquisition that might just restore some faith in a studio that has gone downhill under EA? Can The Witcher 3 possibly be a good as CD Projekt RED are saying it is?
Actually we probably know the answer to that last one. Please can everybody just start being more like CDP? Please!
But my anticipated game for next year remains unchanged: it's Titanfall. After going hands-on with it at Gamescom and again at EGX, I can't wait for Respawn's shooter. You know something special is on its way when you've got everyone in the industry let alone consumer all chattering excitedly about a single product. The slick traversal, the levels designed for verticality, the range of Titans themselves, the fast-paced Pilot combat, JETPACKS! -- this game has a simple plan and looks to be executing it absolutely brilliantly. The gunplay is excellent -- we'd expect nothing less -- the balancing seemingly perfect, and the design work looks to be absolutely spot-on. Titanfall is already shaping up to be the biggest gaming event of the year, and I desperately want to be a part of it.