Somewhat inspired by listening to GB's coverage this week, I decided that I'd run down the top games I played this year. Weighted heavily to games released this year, but some older ones that I just got around to playing.
One of those games that was a complete surprise. I've never been a cover-based shooter fan - I found Gears to be quite good, but never got around to picking up the sequels. What Spec Ops accomplishes is not so much in its mechanics (though those ain't bad), it's more about the narrative it weaves. A game that shows you the horrors of modern warfare not to shock the player, but to affect its protagonist. Captain Martin Walker starts off as a generic rough-and-tumble military guy. But the actions he takes and the things he sees begin to profoundly affect him. His character slowly degenerates over the course of it, leading to a finale that will bring his psychological scars to the front. A real unflinching look at war, those who are involved with it, and the real damage that can be done to a man's mind. And a brilliant counterpoint to more modern shooters that tend to whitewash the effects of war on this scale.
I had real misgivings about this. Yes, the artstyle caused me to pause, and at times it really conflicts with the narrative the game is trying to show. But what a story it is. It deals with big themes - death, morality, and destiny. As I played, there was a constant internal monologue in my head as I tried to evaluate what Dust must be feeling or thinking. About right and wrong, and even about the nature of who he is. Really drew me in. And despite my misgivings about the aesthetic, the game is stunningly beautiful - the animation was above reproach, the vistas could give you pause, and even the character designs were excellently done. This game is all the more remarkable because of the fact that it was made by only one person, with some help on the music. Dust is an amazing achievement, and for what it does, it does it very well.
I played the original Borderlands, and the description of it as a first-person Diablo with guns isn't that far off. By and large, the sequel doubles down on what made the original so addictive, and then enhances everything else. More variety in guns, locations, and abilities is only the tip of it. The humor returns, and though a bit grimace-inducing at times, had some great laugh-out-loud moments. The online co-op returns with a much more streamlined process of game creation, and I spent innumerable hours playing with friends for a pure cathartic shooting experience. The characters and storyline, though nothing you really hadn't seen before, are excellently done. Special mention to Lilith, the Siren, who walks the edge of being a badass female character without falling into stereotype.
Never have I seen a game that feels like playing through a psychotic break from reality. The warbling dark psychedelia of the background, the soundtrack that oozes heat, tension, and psychosis, and the unparallelled levels of blood and up-close killing that feels both uncomfortable and necessary. Add that to incredibly responsive and fast gameplay, and a storyline that can only be glimpsed out of the corner of your eye, giving you the barest of context for your characters' brutal actions, and you have what is an absolutely unique experience that should be played.
Alex Navarro refers to FTL as "Oregon Trail in space", and I can't find a better way to sum this game up. You take the role of a commander of a ship that is fleeing across the galaxy from an overwhelming force. You need to keep your ship working, your crew alive, and your fuel from running out. You are constantly under the threat of annihilation from what dwells in the harsh expanse of space - pirates, aliens, dangerous phenomena like solar flares - and must make tough decisions every step of the way in order to survive. A Kickstarter success story, it gives me hope for the indie games that have turned to crowdfunding to bring their creativity to light.
A game that uses no words to convey its amazing experience. Graphically and aesthetically, it's something I've never seen before. The combination of the music, the incredible soundtrack, and the vastness to everything you see creates an unspeakable beauty that can only be bathed in. Add in the anonymous multiplayer, where you can meet companions who you will never know the name of, or ever see again, yet share those moments together on a trek to something dimly seen in the distance.... Journey is nothing short of breathtaking. If Journey isn't art, nothing is.
Mark of the Ninja is the stealth game that should have been made years ago. Once you've played it, and seen how all of the systems and mechanics link together so simply and so effectively, you can't fathom why this hadn't been done sooner. Whereas a lot of stealth or deception games rely on trial-and-error, failing repeatedly to find the right hidden path to get through an area, Mark of the Ninja constantly gives you information on the enemies surrounding you, actions you can take (and how much noise they will generate), and the ability to stop time to plan out a complex action that would be difficult for the player to do in real time, but easy for a master ninja. An experience so tight and responsive that it might well hum.
3. To The Moon
This was an indie game that I somehow missed when it was released in November of last year, only grabbing it when I saw it pop up on Steam. The plot echoes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: two doctors enter the mind of a dying man in order to grant his last wish - a wish to go to the moon. How this story evolves from that simple request is unexpected and completely heartfelt. Though the "game" aspect of To The Moon is very light, the narrative is the slow and deliberate unveiling of parts of a man's past, his life, and his innermost struggles. Add in a soundtrack that is a simple and perfect accompaniment to the story, and you have an experience that will stay with you for a long time.
XCom: UFO Defense was one of the games that defined my childhood. When I heard it was getting a reboot, I was skeptical. It was such a singular game, and I didn't think that such a game was able to exist anymore. Firaxis proved me wrong. XCom: Enemy Unknown is an absolute triumph in every department. A turn-based strategy game that can make you feel tension, joy, fear, and utter devastation in the course of one battle is something that I haven't seen in a long time. This is a game that both punishes and rewards caution. Every move you make is calculated, and sometimes even the best course of action can lead to ruin. And yet you never feel that it is because the game is unfair. You, as the commander of XCom, are tasked with overseeing the defense of Earth from alien invaders. Your victories are hard-fought and earned, and even your most devastating defeats are yours to learn from and then press forward. I cannot heap enough praise on this game.
I have always been a fan of adventure games. Something about the stories have always drawn me in. But there hadn't been a great one for years. I was very heartened by the announcement of Double Fine's Kickstarter earlier in the year, seeing that there was a place for these games, and that we might see a renaissance of sorts coming our way as a result of it.
What I didn't expect, however, was that the next evolution in adventure games had already occurred at Telltale.
The Walking Dead is so many things. It's the fulfillment of the episodic game structure that Telltale has been chasing for years. It's the next leap forward in adventure gaming, where you can feel you have agency over a story while at the same time the authors of the game can give you an amazing narrative. It's a faithful adaptation of Kirkman's comic book series. But perhaps most of all, it's a story of Lee and Clementine, and the surrogate father/daughter relationship of two people who find each other at the end of the world.
Put into an incredibly harsh and uncaring world, we often think about the kind of person we'd be. A ruthless pragmatist? Or someone who'd cling to our humanity even at the cost of ourselves? The Walking Dead lets us confront that in ourselves by giving us choices that are so grey as to be undistinguishable. But they're choices that we have to make - often without time to think them over. Instead of just simply showing you options, you are forced to put a part of yourself out there. Make a decision that will effect how your world plays out. This is the strength of an interactive medium, and The Walking Dead pushes the boundaries of what can be done with it.
The Walking Dead is a rare game - a bolt from the blue that may not come again. But it is one of those games that comes along every once in a while that pushes the entire medium forward. It's not a "gamer's game" - it's a game that should be played by everyone.