Well, this was a hell of a weird year, wasn't it? For a long list of reasons, I'm very ready to get some serious time off and come back when the calendar says 2014.
But this year wasn't all bad. For instance, these 10 games were pretty great! Let's reflect.
10. Dead Rising 3
What Dead Rising lost in weird restrictive time constraints (and I'm still not convinced it was a huge loss), it more than made up for with good old-fashioned open-world nonsense. This is the most fun I've had with a Dead Rising game so far, what with the amped-up absurdity of the combo weapons and vehicles, and the staggering number of on-screen zombies to tear through them with. The story ends up being pretty damn fun, the way it ties into the previous games, and just moving around in that big, detailed city, looking for weapon blueprints and Frank West statues was really enjoyable.
I don't even like character action games! And given all the hubbub around the development of this game, I seem to remember audibly groaning when Jeff asked me to review it. But I hadn't even gotten through the entirety of the first level, with all its spectacle and attitude, before I decided there was something pretty great here. Flipping back and forth between different weapon types mid-combo gave the fighting some nice, dynamic fluidity, but really I just couldn't get enough of the wildly imaginative visual and level designs from level to level. And the story, silly and over-the-top as it is, is executed pretty damn well. A great effort from Ninja Theory.
BioShock Infinite wasn't perfect--the shooting sort of wore out its welcome before the end, and parts of the story don't feel like they hold up to scrutiny--but the game just drew me in with its unique world design and singular sense of atmosphere and mystery. Plunging headlong into Columbia, I felt propelled by some unseen force to keep plowing ahead and trying to unravel the secrets of what exactly was going on in that bizarre flying city. Around the time I rode up that cable car to the final area of the game, with the Lutece twins on either side, dropping vague hints about the truth of everything in the game, it became clear there was no way I could stop playing the game till I'd seen it to the end. And I didn't.
This game is the logical culmination of the nonsense Volition has been spinning since, what, the second one? They finally took all the shackles off and said "Screw it, do whatever you want," and one of the most entertaining open-world games I've ever played around in was the result. I do wish it felt a little less like a (really robust) expansion pack for Saints Row The Third, but the superpowers were so super, and the writing was mostly funny enough, that if it had taken place in a totally new city, it'd be near the top of this list. I have literally no idea what they will or even should do with Saints Row after this, but I can't wait to find out.
6. Gone Home
What a wonderful little game with a focus on an intimate, personal story about real people going through basic, everyday things. The little bit of haunted-house bait-and-switching the Fullbright Company did here and there was amusing, but I'm glad this game ended up not actually having any real supernatural elements in play. The story meant a lot more since it really could have happened. And how good were all the '90s period trappings? From 'zines and riot-grrl punk to X-Files VHS tapes, walking around that house and finding all the things you could pick up and examine was a pure nostalgic joy. There's one thing about Gone Home I'm certain of, and it's that we need more games like this.
5. Rogue Legacy
This game plays like a dream. The tightest and most immediate controls in a 2D game since, what, Super Meat Boy? It just felt great to play, but the gameplay loop (or whatever you want to call it) is what kept me coming back to it. Randomized level layouts and an element of randomness to the character generation, which often resulted in some really goofy combinations of traits, made every run through the castle feel unique. Sure, the persistent unlocks defy the all-or-nothing spirit of real Rogue-likes, but earning enough money to buy the best new character classes and upgrades was so satisfying. No better indie action game out there this year. Step to my near-sighted flatulent barbarian king, I dare you.
Whaddaya know, I was right!
Hell, this game should have probably come up in our "Biggest Surprise" category, because when it was announced I saw it as the laziest play for its fanbase's nostalgia Nintendo could possibly make. A sequel to A Link to the Past? It sounds so horribly pandering. Instead, the final game felt more like a love letter to arguably the best Zelda ever made, a reimagined version of that seminal SNES adventure that bears the same overall structure but tweaks some things and flips others right upside down, enough that it feels sturdy and engrossing in its own right. And after the last couple of console Zeldas have gotten ponderously overwrought, you have to give credit to this game for just getting the party started right out of the gate with hardly any intro cutscenes, and then giving you all the items right away. This game gives me hope for Zelda.
Boy, am I glad I finally came back around to finishing this game. Yeah, it starts slow, and the gameplay doesn't really pick up until you get out of Boston, but once this game clicked for me, it clicked in a major way. After I hit Bill's town, I played through the entire rest of the game in a weekend (on hard, no less), which I pretty much never do if I'm not on a review deadline. The story is so intrinsically tied to the superb characterizations of its heroes that I just had to see what awful situation they'd be subjected to next. I also like how well the game handles the passage of time, with all the most dramatic moments unapologetically hard-cutting to a point in time several months later. And that ending is pitch-perfect, and totally faithful to the spirit and tone of the rest of the game. Naughty Dog might be the best big-budgeted developer of story-driven action games working right now.
1. Dota 2
C'mon, don't tell me you're surprised. Given the hundreds of hours and matches I played of Dota 2 this year (coming up on the 500-match mark at the time of this writing), I think it was required by law that I name this my favorite game of 2013. But the truth is, it's rapidly approaching a spot on my short list of favorite games ever. It's such an endlessly deep and varied experience, due in one part to the almost limitless combinations of 10 heroes you end up with on the field. But even setting aside the fighting-game-style matchup stuff, simply getting a handle on the flow of a match--when to push and when to pull back, when it's appropriate to gank or stack creep camps or any of the other endless minutiae of actually playing Dota--is immensely gratifying. It's one of the hardest games out there to get a handle on, but (perhaps as a result) it's also one of the most rewarding.
Dota 2 also completely revitalized my interest in playing games online with other people, since it's an inherently better experience when you play the game with people you know. I've unexpectedly made friends with people from all over the place that I never would have even met if I hadn't started playing this game. Joking and bullshitting with friends has also made it a lot more fun to engage with the seemingly endless peripheral features Valve keeps rolling into this game. Seamless tournament spectating, coaching, item crafting and socketing--there are so many good ideas in here it's hard to keep track of them all. It's the best-implemented free-to-play game on the market, bar none.
There's so much to learn and master in Dota 2 that you could play it for years and never come close to absorbing it all, and at the rate I'm going, I'll still be in there mixing it up for years to come.