Last year I attempted to write a series of articles about the new game releases that held my attention in 2012 before eventually crowning an ultimate winner and three runners-up. I ended up writing so much before reaching those runners-up that I burnt out and coursework came along (that’s my excuse anyway). For the record, since I never wrote about them, my GOTY was Mass Effect 3 and my three equally placed runners-up were Borderlands 2, Far Cry 3 and Dishonoured. 2012 was a fantastic year for games, both in the big and little scenes. 2013 was strange. I was ready to decry it as a comparative big disappointment until I played a number of little gems over the Christmas period. And now, to sum up in what will hopefully take much less time than last year’s effort, my Games from the Year awards.
Most Satisfyingly Depressing-Papers Please
It’s a great strength of Papers Please that it makes the work you do feel dull and monotonous (just like a real border patrol guard) whilst also appealing to a particular part of your puzzle solving brain. It also makes you paranoid like little else. Dare I risk keeping my son’s drawing on the wall with that inspector around? The game has some irritating issues that I don’t often see addressed, but I won’t list them here. The game is more than ready to screw you over at a moment’s notice. There are 20 endings* and all but three are considered failures by the game. Even those final three, despite their more upbeat music, leave a bitter taste in the mouth. Set in a world of hypocritical, xenophobic authority figures, desperate, terrified citizens and refugees, rebels perhaps no better than those they seek to depose and a troubled family just hoping to eat for another day, Papers Please is a harrowing yet brilliant experience, made all the better by its thinly veiled roots in real history.
*Admittedly some are very similar
Biggest disappointment yet also exactly what I should have expected given my dissatisfaction with its predecessor-Bioshock Infinite
I could rant for a long time about why the original Bioshock is a mass of wasted opportunity, clashing systems, lazy moral choices, tedious combat and strangely poor audio balancing, and that everyone else is wrong except me, but that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to say that Bioshock Infinite has most of those problems too but is ultimately a better game, which, oddly enough, also goes against the general critical opinion. It’s very good until about half way through, then you stop being able to explore as many interesting locations and start to encounter more of the parallel worlds guff that is a lot less clever than it thinks it is. Unfortunately, the latter stages of the game also have significantly better combat, simply through the addition of a few vigors(magic powers). I do worry my opinion of the series is consistently soured by all the things it could be. In the game’s first violent encounter I tried in vain to just run away from combat, not wanting to skyhook an innocent cop in the face. Oh, Ken Levine. Why can’t your game be more like Deus Ex?
Ah well. It still looked bloody nice.
Best game played in 2013 but not from 2013-To the Moon
This is the Citizen Kane of games, for real this time! (By which I don’t mean dated and probably overrated) But seriously, To the Moon is in the latest Humble Bundle right now and for some reason you haven’t already played it. Get to it!
It also has one of gaming’s best menus, a high accolade.
Other people say they’re good/Most likely to be overrated- The Last of Us, GTA V, a Link between Worlds
I haven’t played these yet what with one very likely to be on PC within 6 months, one on a console I didn’t own until very recently and another by a company that insists on keeping its 3DS games at a ludicrous price forever and ever. I mean, geez, Nintendo! Ocarina of Time 3D came out 2 and a half years ago and it was a remake of a game from over a decade ago. Get over it!
Yeah, these games are probably good, but I bet they’re not ‘all that’. Since GTA 4 came out Just Cause 2 and the good Saints Row games took my world by storm, can its misogynistic leanings and repeated ludonarrative dissonance really compete? Does the Last of Us do a better post-apocalypse than Telltale’s Walking Dead? Is Zelda still great? Maybe. I don’t know.
Worst attempt at being cool-DmC:Devil May Cry
If I were referring to the game itself rather than the cutscenes this game could win the reverse of this award. The combat is some of the top in its field. By the end of the game I found myself feeling awesome in battle every 30 seconds. It’s over all too fast. The cutscenes however opt for a different kind of cool, the cool that a 13 year old thinks is cool. Occasionally a character might say something funny or there’ll be a humorous sequence as the camera tries to obscure Dante’s inferno* from view, but mostly it’s a lot of lazy eff-bombs. This tedium isn’t mirrored in the level or enemy design however. I should also stress that this is not some attack on the series’ new direction with its slim and boyish but not also white-haired protagonist that so angered the internet. The other games were stupid too, just in a different way.
*Was that euphemism obvious enough?
Best fauna-Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Most of the much deserved praise thrown at this game in which you control two brothers with each side of your controller is directed at its storytelling and amazingly moving singular button press, but it features much to make you go ‘phwoar!’. Just look at these beauties (sadly not all in engine as finding the right screenshots to nick is hard).
Best side activities-Splinter Cell: Blacklist
The main campaign of Sam Fisher’s latest outing leaves much to be desired. It features irritating missions with instant fail states, the occasional area with only a single linear approach and the insistence that you care about a by-the-books anti-terrorism story. This is not what you should play the game for though. It’s in the substantial side missions that Blacklist shines. There are 4 sets of assignments, all playable in co-op and all but one set playable on your own. Blacklist presents you with wonderfully intricate and dense levels with multiple routes and options available to you. It’s also frequently very hard (at the difficulty my friend and I chose anyway, ‘realistic’) in such a way that you are encouraged to try everything. In games of Blacklist’s ilk I often find myself with little use for the number of side gadgets I’m given, while here I frequently pop out my hover drone to scout ahead, marking targets for me to later track down on foot and occasionally zapping or distracting a guard. With or without a friend the optional additions of Blacklist make it a must for any fans of stealth and environment traversal.
Most probably amazing but attached to an awkward release model-The Wolf Among Us
I loved Telltale’s first Walking Dead game, and by many accounts this talk-em-up based on the popular Fables comic series is even better. Unfortunately Telltale insist on their episodic model, no doubt because they may make substantial changes based on the feedback from previous episodes. When I played TWD I was a little late to the party so I could play the whole thing over a few days. I’m not convinced I’d get the same attachment to characters if I had to wait a month for each section, or, in the case of the Wolf Among Us, an absurd four months. By that time I’ll have looked on wikis and discussed what happened with other people, likely leading me to see that the narrative isn’t quite as open as it seemed, which was the case with TWD. Some worry that Telltale are spreading themselves too thin. What with this and TWD Season 2 running at the moment and their Game of Thrones and Borderlands projects in development it’s hard to argue.
Most partially brilliant- Divinity:Dragon Commander
I’ve always loved games with a focus on narrative and ethical dilemmas. Larian Studio’s surprising real time strategy, politicking dragon-em-up had this in spades. I was constantly having to weigh the benefits of instituting a national draft (increased unit production and the favour of the Dwarves and Undead) with my own moral compass and the displeasure of the oft hypocritical liberal Lizards and Elves. By the end of the game I had agreed to let the post-war leader be decided by popular vote, sacrificing my divine right to rule, considered limiting the number of children allowed per Imp-couple and given my Lizard barrister wife a new lease on life by helping her question her own ethics. This is tied to a turn-based campaign world map, on which you transfer units, capture lands, and build a stable economy, which in turn is interspersed by real-time real time strategy battles, in which you can turn into a dragon in third person view. While the game mixes genres perhaps better than anything I’ve seen the RTS element does start to wear thin after the 15th or so battle. The battles are passable and the dragon adds a lot but they’re not where the real meat of the game lies, at least for me. It’s a game of politicians, racist and misogynist generals and marriages fuelled by practicality. The rest does tend to drag on (Ho ho!).
Best mainstream game in a year containing lacklustre efforts by the mainstream-Assassin’s Creed IV/Saints Row IV
The thing that stands out about these two games compared to the other big offerings is their understanding of fun. Though in ACIV’s case that often doesn’t extend to the campaign, which has its moments but still insists on pulling you out of the life you wish you had, diving off of crow’s nests, unloading heavy shot into a weakened Man-of-War and air assassinating an ocelot. To think that in the year that a console generation finally ended there would be so little to sing about, comparatively, that is; 2012 was an excellent year. This is not to belittle these two games of course. Saints Row continues to shed its ugly skin from the days where it was a cheap, posturing GTA clone with humour, knowing winks and plots that are delightfully mad for a game of its kind. Here’s hoping Volition can repair the damage done by the vaporisation of THQ with the profits of SR4 and produce the next game in a shiny new engine, with better shooting and a less rushed ending.
Most shame caused to new releases by expansion to something old-Take your pick: Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall, Skyrim: Dragonborn, Civilization V:Brave New World, Far Cry: Blood Dragon, XCOM: Enemy Within, Mass Effect 3:Citadel, Borderlands 2:Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, The Walking Dead: 500 Days, Crusader Kings II: The Old Gods
Remember when DLC was a word that made people froth at the mouth? Oh wait, that’s still the case, and plenty of these games contributed to that distrust with their initial pre-order bonuses. Don’t worry though, because these recent efforts show that an old dog can learn new tricks, or, at least, do its old tricks with just as much aplomb as we loved the first time round. It’s only slightly frustrating that some of my best moments this year have been spent with old flames lit anew, but it shows that the developers know what they’re doing, and (in most cases) they’re learning.
Not mentioning this would be awkward- Dota 2/Pokémon X and Y
Dota 2’s been available for ages. I’d been playing it for a whole year before its official ‘release’. My playtime is still dwarfed by my more committed friends, a fact that has forced me to learn quickly. Someone asked me to do a ‘side pull’ the other day, it was horrible. I remember a day when we didn’t even bother with wards. Dota 2 continues to be great at points and tedious at others. This was also the year that I took a look at my first eSport. I’ve never really had an interest in sports, let alone virtual ones, but that changed with the International, Valve’s annual Dota 2 championship. It made for much more entertaining viewing than any physical sport. It’s probably because of all the variables. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to have an appreciation for it without having played the game yourself. Anyone can understand the kicking of a ball into a gap, that’s why foot to ball has such a mass appeal. Few people would understand why accidentally denying the aegis of immortality may well have been the most expensive mistake of Lee “kYxY” Kong Yang’s career, but I did and it was awesome. eSports are cool and here’s hoping Mount Your Friends and the recently released Nidhogg gain a competitive following too.
Pokémon X and Y did much to improve the tiring formula of the series, fixing many of the long standing issues whilst transferring the pocket monsters to full 3D. You also get roller skates.
If you want to do any multiplayer to a serious degree there’s still a lot of tedious faff, despite the improvements made to EV training. The main game’s also too easy. By the end of the main story my party was grossly overlevelled, each at least 10 levels above the Elite Four. Why Nintendo are so averse to difficulty settings I will never know. However, despite their flaws Pokémon X and Y revitalise the series, and there’s never been a better time to take a peek (achu).
Actual Game of the Year-Gone Home
I feared that the high praise I frequently heard for this title was too good to be true, as I found it to be with the disappointing Thirty Flights of Loving. This, I’m very pleased to say, was definitely not the case. Gone Home raises the bar for environmental storytelling, to give a back of the box style quote. You can’t change the events of the story, but you can explore it at your own pace, drawing your own conclusions and being as inquisitive and determined to see everything as you wish. The house is frequently eery, depressing, believable and yet full of charm. The game contains many a great moment, the most notable involving a certain bathtub. The narrative is all the better for its subtlety. Very little feels heavy-handed.
I believe that the game could be used for ‘enlightening’ lost souls. You can use it to remind your parents that games aren’t just about dull killing. Or you could use it to remind fans of dull killing that games can be and are so much more. I also think that you could even use it to try and quell certain social prejudices among the more old-fashioned of your acquaintances. Those who’ve played the game will know what I mean.
Other games, especially the first person ones (*Cough* Bioshock *Cough*), could learn a lot from Gone Home. It tells a predetermined story without too much bombast and the mechanics actively enhance the narrative. It even manages to be a bit scary.
Good game, Fulbright. Well played.
Most likely to hold a figurative very warm place in my heart this time next year-Starbound
With last year out of the way let’s look forward to the future*. I’m more excited for 2014. We have industry heavyweights purporting to be doing things that are distinctly different like Everquest Next, Titanfall and Watchdogs**. There are new instalments to some of my favourite series with the Sims 4 and Dragon Age:Inquisition supposedly due this year. There’s an innumerable number of kickstarted or similar projects, many of them already available. Broken Age, Star Citizen, Godus, Shroud of the Avatar and Pillars of Eternity are all set to inevitably disappoint us in the two thousandth and fourteenth year of our lord.
A number of 2014’s most hopefully significant releases are already available in some form of early access. Day Z looks set to take the world by storm yet again, but this time it may be accompanied by a little something called Rust. Speedrunners really deserves its own reward. It’s available on Steam for a tiny price and it’s already flippin’ fantastic. It has grappling hooks.
I preferred Terraria to Minecraft. There! I said it! I was never much of the builder type, a group which Minecraft definitely catered better to. I’m an adventurer and an explorer and I felt that Terraria did that better. From the looks of the beta Starbound is doing everything Terraria did right and expanding it tenfold. Woop! It has gorgeous planets, a gorgeous original soundtrack and a gorgeous voice for the narrated story cutscenes (Logan Cunningham of Bastion fame). The beta was very promising but I didn’t play for more than a few hours. I’m wary of burning out on the game before it’s at its best, as I did with Don’t Starve last year. I don’t doubt that in a few months some particularly pretty pixels will be making me feel all fuzzy inside.
*As opposed to the past, I guess
**After nearly 2 years. Remember how cool it used to look?