Eric Pope is a product manager at Harmonix, currently working on a secret project that's probably not a new Rock Band game. You can harangue him on Twitter, if that's something you would like to do with your time.
“Whatever satisfies the soul is truth.”- Walt Whitman, on the Giant Bomb message boards, defending his GOTY picks.
It’s not been a great year. In our world at large, I mean, not talking of video games. 2013, in my estimation, took a lot more from us than it imparted. I’m referring, of course, to the untimely death of the dog from Family Guy. That hit us all hard, obviously… And so, for me at least, I leaned a little harder into the escapism of movies and video games this year than I have in the past. While some more intimate game experiences did make my list, what stuck with me most were a lot of the big blockbusters. Or maybe I should put “blockbusters” in quotes, as we see less and less of these huge titles hitting the sales projections made for them. Anyhow, I’m honored to contribute to the GOTY festivities this year, and I look forward to your thoughts in the comments below.
More has been written about this game than perhaps any other in 2013. After years of impossible hype, Irrational finally delivered its follow-up to the groundbreaking original BioShock. I was not much enamored with the game’s combat systems or its insistence I check every hot dog-filled trash can for RPG ammo. But, in retrospect, none of that matters enough to me to outweigh the impressive world building and storytelling done by Irrational’s narrative team.
I wanted to soak up every one of Columbia’s painstakingly crafted details. The scope of the storytelling is so much more than we’ve become accustomed to in most video games. Not many can claim to take on a concept as lofty as American exceptionalism in even the vaguest terms, but BioShock Infinite attacks it headlong. That kind of point of view is rare in these large titles, likely for audience concerns, but I hope Infinite will encourage more studios to take such risks.
Credit where it is due. Rocksmith 2014 is the most fun I’ve had playing a music game since Rock Band Blitz. Of course, Rocksmith is more a learning tool than it is a game, but that’s where its true accomplishment lies. The game teaches you to play guitar (or bass) through a dizzying number of tutorials and a decent song list of notable rock songs. I’m perhaps the perfect demographic for Rocksmith: a music gamer who enjoys playing guitar, but is patently terrible at it, and too cheap and lazy to spring for lessons.
The way the game smartly ramps the difficulty up as you learn each song is commendable for maintaining a healthy focus on fun. For example: If it detects that you aren’t doing great with playing bends, Rocksmith recommends one of its arcade mini-games (Temple of the Bends) for you to play to beef up your skills. I haven’t had this much fun playing guitar since we put that ska band together for the Bomb bros’ 2012 PAX East panel.
I’m the guy who likes stealth games. Sorry! I know it’s fallen out of favor as more and more non-stealth titles force stealth mechanics where they don’t fit, but Splinter Cell is one of the good ones. I’ve always been a fan of Sam Fisher’s exploits and revel in the chance to play the ultimate badass; choking out the world’s terrorists and shimmying up the most deadly of drainpipes. The global scope of these stories is always fun, too, and with Blacklist the stakes are as high as ever. You and your crack team are all that stands between multiple terror attacks in the United States.
But what matters most is how cool you feel while playing. The stealth systems pioneered by the previous entries in the series have been honed and polished here. Every level has various paths you can take, with multiple tactics you can employ at any given encounter. Successfully executing a strategy of your own design always feels greatly rewarding, but part of the fun is making mistakes and adapting your plans. If you’ve never played a Splinter Cell game, this feels like the perfect one to begin with.
Papers, Please struck an unexpected chord with me. On the one hand, its series of ever more complicated bureaucratic rules piling up on each other make for a uniquely challenging gameplay experience. Stamping passports is surprisingly very fun! But on the other hand it has a serious story to tell about fascism and the role of the individual in the machinations of an oppressive state. Detaining innocent citizens for kickbacks from the guards so you can feed your sick family is also surprisingly fun, it turns out!
The depth of Papers, Please is one of its biggest surprises. With 20 different endings playing out across 30 or so days, there are a lot of choices to be made from your vantage point in that cold border station. It’s sort of like The Oregon Trail, but with the American Dream replaced with an Eastern Bloc nightmare.
Brothers represents my ideal for a console indie experience. Its unique, yet simple, mechanics require a controller, and you can complete the entire game in a single setting. The creativity of the level design charmed me throughout, with one standout section requiring the brothers to navigate through a valley of felled giants. The story is a surprisingly heavy tale of family and loss. In fact, this is one of the few games from this year where my memories of playing it are mostly of emotions. I don’t generally get a lot of “feelings” from playing games, so this makes Brothers rather special.
Way over on the other end of the emotional spectrum from Brothers, we have the reference-soaked throwback to '80s sci-fi action cinema that is Blood Dragon. This game is one of those rare moments where a dev team was given a long leash to build out a full game based on what has to have been a joke pitch. I still can’t believe this ridiculous thing was greenlit by such a business-minded company as Ubisoft. I am so thankful it was, though.
It doesn’t hurt that this game builds on the outstanding open world engine of Far Cry 3, either. From the soundtrack, to the neon aesthetics, to the 16-bit cutscenes, this self-aware romp isn’t something we should expect to see often. It would be all too easy for the joke to wear out its welcome in lesser hands. Keeping that in mind helped me savor my time with Blood Dragon all the more.
4. Tomb Raider
Confession: I had never played a Tomb Raider game before this one. So I jumped at the chance to play a reboot of the franchise and get my feet wet as Lara Croft. I could tell from the marketing materials that it was going to be a good looking game, but man! Man, that is a gorgeous game. The gameplay, narrative, and voice acting is all very compelling too, resulting in a product that rivals the Uncharted series in every possible way.
I spoke before of Sam Fisher making the player feel like a total badass, but next to Lara Croft, Sam’s kind of a sneaky baby. In Tomb Raider, Lara is starting from scratch and you get to tag along for her rise from a greenhorn adventurer to a bow-wielding asskicker. I found that process really endeared the character to me in ways Nathan Drake or Sam Fisher never really have.
I burnt out on zombie stuff a couple years ago, roughly around the time I realized that, in fact, it is we who are the true walking dead. Ok sorry, I couldn’t resist. But really, it’s been so overused in games and movies in recent years, to far diminishing returns. That makes the good ones, the exceptions to the rule, stand out even more. Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us builds on all the lessons learned from three amazing Uncharted games and delivers one of the best games of the entire console generation.
Firstly, it looks tremendous. I bet we’ll see a lot of next-gen titles that don’t even come close visually. Unlike BioShock Infinite, in this game every bit of time spent scavenging for ammo or crafting gear felt completely worthwhile and essential to my own survival. Also, I liked that the game casts you as Joel, who is kind of an asshole. Of course, we’re shown all the reasons why he is the way he is, but I appreciate that the choices Naughty Dog made with the character pay off truthfully with the game’s ending. It feels real.
Assassin’s Creed is possibly my favorite game franchise. I’m a history nerd and I’m even all in on its meta sci-fi story arc. But I was disappointed in Assassin’s Creed III. Maybe I over-hyped myself on all the colonial Boston, Revolutionary War stuff, but somewhere in there I fell out of love. Probably around that Midnight Ride mission where the annoying as hell Paul Revere shouts directions at you from your shared horse. So with a heavy trepidation I jacked in to AC4. Is that what they say with the Animus? Jacking in? It should be.
What I found was a huge open world pirate simulation game with all my favorite parts of the previous AC titles there if I wanted them. The game encourages exploration. Where in AC3 everything revolves around its main storyline, in AC4 you could spend a dozen hours at sea, waging battles, capturing forts, upgrading your ship, and managing your fleet without hardly touching the mainline narrative. The naval stuff is fun, the underwater shipwreck exploration is fun, the game economy is meaningful, and the upgrades matter. I even liked the Abstergo Entertainment stuff! Black Flag is a true return to form, and perhaps the best entry in the entire series. If you checked out of the series last year, you have to go back, Jack!
If you asked me a year ago about the Metro 2033 franchise, I would have replied with a long, blank stare. It’s that utter, complete curveball of a surprise that makes this game so special to me; it seemingly came out of nowhere. It was hearing Klepek talk about meeting this crazy Russian novelist at the Deep Silver booth that piqued my interest. Despite it being common practice in film, there actually aren’t that many games based on books. So that grabbed me. Then hearing that you play as a keeper of the peace between the factions of survivors (Communists, Nazis, Capitalists) living in the tunnels below nuclear winter Moscow, I had to check it out.
Last Light, in my opinion, accomplishes the same things BioShock Infinite does well, as well as everything that game didn’t. It is stunningly pretty, despite the dark, harsh world. The setting is as fully realized and deep as Infinite’s. The story is captivating, playing each faction off each other for maximum intrigue. The combat feels natural and responsive, allowing you to alternate between sneaky attacks and head-on assaults at your whims. The weapons are customizable and varied. It’s, for me, the total package, and I have found myself evangelizing Last Light to all my friends since playing it earlier this year. If there’s another one coming, I’ll be first in line to pre-order.