2013 was a weird year for a great many reasons. Big life events. The launch of new consoles. But this year, like the year before it, has come to an end, which means we needed to lock ourselves in a room for way too long, eat some questionable Subway sandwiches, and makes some hard choices about the year's games. Some were good, some were bad, and some of them weren't even released this year.
This is just the beginning. Over the course of the week, we'll be sharing a whole bunch of articles and videos celebrating the year that was 2013, starting with a game that's probably familiar to most of you...
2013’s Old Game of the Year
"Why limit yourself to just one year of video games?" That was probably some of the thinking that went into Giant Bomb's decision to create a category to honor games released during the previous year. But this year we thought "well, why limit ourselves at all?" That brings us to "Old Game of the Year," a category designed to honor a game that didn't come out in 2013, but mattered a whole lot to us in 2013.
The selection is obvious. The 1994 Neo Geo classic, Windjammers, came back onto the scene in a big way for us in 2013, and sitting here writing about the majesty and pageantry of Windjammers only serves to make us stop writing this article and go play some damned Windjammers. It satisfies all of the "easy to learn, enough depth to keep surprising you" and "solid local multiplayer" requirements that today's crop of indie multiplayer hits seem to be striving to attain. On that note, we're just going to keep talking about Windjammers until someone decides to track down the rights to this Data East classic (it seems that a company called Paon Corporation may own those rights today) and make a new one.
We hope to be looking down our nose at a Windjammers reboot and proclaiming it to be "crappy when compared to the original" sometime in 2014.
URL of the Year
Flash games. Browser games. Those terms once sounded almost like dirty words, evoking a video game ghetto of five-minute trifles that most people barely considered the same type of entertainment as "real" games, the ones you pay money for. As this is the second year we've felt good about a category recognizing the best of these unique free experiences, that time seems to be behind us. These days, a URL can pop up and utterly dominate the moment, making its way around social media and inspiring thousands (millions?) of people to click and play.
While the complexity of games that run in your browser keeps increasing, thanks to developments in things like HTML5 and the Unity plug-in, by far our favorite web game this year was built out of simple ASCII text on a white background. Candy Box starts so simply. You have 1 candy! You have 2 candies! The mystique is undeniable. Should I eat all the candies? Throw 10 of them on the ground? After a little experimentation, you're soon farming hundreds of lollipops per second, embarking on a series of challenging quests, brewing potions with a shockingly detailed crafting system, and puzzling through the riddles of an omniscient talking frog.
It's the joy of discovery, and the marvelously surreal absurdity of it all, that made Candy Box so much fun to poke around in. Figuring out all of its quirks with everyone else who was playing it at the same time made it that much more communally satisfying. And we think it's great that we still have no idea where this bizarre game came from, almost like it just materialized fully formed in some strange unknown corner of the Internet.
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
For many, Assassin's Creed III was a low point for the series. The story may have jumped the proverbial shark long before the introduction of George Washington into the world of Templars and Assassins, but exploring and scampering around environments foreign to games was a huge part of the appeal. In Assassin’s Creed III, it just didn’t click, and it seemed like Ubisoft's desire to annualize the once limitless franchise was going to kill it off. But like Call of Duty, it was still hugely popular. It wasn't going anywhere.
Enter Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. Like the Call of Duty games, the Assassin’s Creed games are made by different teams, so maybe we’re entering a period where every year holds a new surprise for the franchise. But Black Flag is the closest the series has come to hitting the highs of Assassin's Creed II and Brotherhood in years, combining a likeable, interesting protagonist (one who doesn’t really care about the plight of the Assassins or Templars) with a world that demands exploring. The promising ship combat from Assassin’s Creed III has been beautifully refined, suddenly making fast travel a less appealing option.
Who wouldn’t want to listen to a few more sea shantys?
It says a lot about The Last of Us' singular visual accomplishment that we'd call it the best-looking game in a year that saw the launch of two new consoles. Whizbang GPUs and higher resolutions couldn't trump Naughty Dog's restrained attention to detail in creating one of the most believable zombified landscapes we've seen to date. Joel and Ellie's journey across much of the United States sees you visiting so many different areas that the game affords Naughty Dog's artists the chance to apply an apocalyptic touch to a great variety of everyday locations. From a high school gym to a college campus, a museum to an old hospital, the slums of Boston to a small-town Main Street, every inch of The Last of Us feels solidly rooted in a realistic aesthetic, with 20 years' worth of the end of civilization subtly layered on top.
It's not just the believability of the world that makes us like the looks of The Last of Us. This more than most games is a story that revolves around its characters, and the quality of the performances Naughty Dog got out of its actors--and the elegant transfer of those performances to the in-game models--ensured that each story beat carried the proper weight, each facial expression conveyed the intended nuance.
If all that weren't enough, The Last of Us once again gave Naughty Dog's immensely talented engineers their fourth opportunity to wring every last bit of performance out of the PlayStation 3. Nobody made that machine work harder or deliver more impressive visuals, and as a final outing before moving on to the next console, The Last of Us represents their finest work to date. It's a visual masterwork on every level.