Best Games of 2013
My favorite games from 2013.
My favorite games from 2013.
There are two types of The Last of Us players: those who love the gameplay and story, and those who only love the story. I'm one of the former. I have a hunch that people who didn't like the gameplay were going about it the wrong way. I don't usually like using the "you're playing it wrong" argument, but with The Last of Us, it's easy to approach it from too much of an action or stealth direction, when your best bet is to blend the two. It's a game where you don't want to be mobbed by enemies, and the best way to do that is to both avoid being detected and actively take out any enemies you can without them noticing in order to thin out their numbers. You have a variety of tools at your disposal to get the job done, from improvised weapons you can use up close, to traps you can build and use from a distance, to guns in case you get desperate. Some people like it on easy, some people like it on hard, but if you can make the combat in The Last of Us work for you, it's among the most satisfying that you can experience. And as I mentioned, the story is awesome too. Assisted by fantastic graphics and sound design and great voice acting and mo-cap work by the cast, they take something as tired as yet another zombie apocalypse and wring it for all it's worth emotionally. It has all the weight and power of The Walking Dead while still having a robust action/adventure game behind it. It's just one of the best games to come out in years.
My friend mentioned that whenever a new Zelda game comes out, a lot of people crap on the previous one. This is mostly true. I don't think it will happen with A Link Between Worlds though, because it seems like almost everyone who has played it describes it "the best Zelda in X years", where X is the number of years since the last Zelda game they truly loved. In my case, A Link Between Worlds is my favorite Zelda game since Majora's Mask, and since that's my favorite video game ever... yeah, I like A Link Between Worlds a lot. It takes the basic framework and world design from A Link to the Past, a fan favorite, and modernizes it with the best controls the series has ever had (yes, ever (except for the 3DS' terrible form factor)) and many updates to the functionality. It's also the least restrictive Zelda game in a long time, letting you wander around the whole world after the relatively brief tutorial and letting you tackle most dungeons in whichever order you desire by letting you rent or buy whatever items you need to get through them whenever you want. The dungeon design is fantastic, the boss fights are a blast, and the ability to flatten and move along walls really opens up the possibilities for getting around. In short, it understands what people love about Zelda better than any game in over a decade, and just lets them have that. A bit pandering maybe, but it works.
Gone Home's designer and writer Steve Gaynor actually worked on the Bioshock series for a while, but he left it to do something smaller and more personal. I'm glad he did, because Gone Home is special. It's another game that tells a story in a way only a game can, having you uncover its details through examining an environment rather than actually seeing anything play out in front of you. People talk about it not being a "real game", whatever that means, and saying that the story would be better as a book or a movie. This is nonsense. A video game is the only thing Gone Home could possibly be. It shows that you can use the familiar mechanics of looking at and touching things to tell a story you don't see in mainstream games, and reveals how silly it is that you don't. There's no reason every game has to involve killing hundreds of people to get a point across, and yet there are still people out there insisting that there is. Gone Home gave me one of the best and most authentic emotional experiences I had in 2013, and I wish more people were open to seeing it the way I did.
I was honestly surprised by the tons of criticism this game received starting immediately after and lasting for a long time following its release. The reactions are strong and generally understandable, but I have a hard time agreeing with them. I think people wanted things from Infinite that it wasn't prepared to give them. It has a lot of subjects it touches on without fully exploring, from racism to totalitarianism and all kinds of things that would be hard to do justice to while trying to be an action game and tell a crazy sci-fi story. And ultimately, Bioshock Infinite wants to be an action game that tells a crazy sci-fi story. The shooting at its best provided some of gaming's best thrills this year, the world of Columbia and its inhabitants are well-conceived and fun to look at, and the main characters are excellently conceived and portrayed by the writers and voice actors, anchoring a plot that at times is over the top but ultimately serves its primary goals well. Infinite is messy, but I think it's a pretty wonderful mess.
People like to make fun of the story in games a lot. And a lot of times they're right. But there are certain things that games can do with storytelling that just aren't possible in film, novels, or any other medium. Brothers is a prime example of that. In it, you control two brothers at once, each hand controlling one or the other. It may sound like that gets confusing or frustrating, and it does from time to time. But for the most part it's manageable. At least enough to get you through the few hours it takes to complete the story. During that time it's a solid puzzle game, with clever and intuitive solutions and some satisfying temporary mechanics. The game's real strength though is the story, which is touching, unforgettable, and much, much more effective because it's a video game. Play it and you'll see why.
Grand Theft Auto V is the most fun I've had with the series in nine years. In many ways, the game has problems, from its questionable ethics to some weird design snags that other open world games have already solved to a plot that goes a lot of places that it probably doesn't need to. It's kind of a mess, really. But San Andreas is one of the most fully realized worlds I've ever seen in a video game, from its picturesque winding mountain roads to its gaudy downtown storefronts. It really feels like a huge place. And it's honestly a fun place to hang around in. The main gameplay focuses on driving to different places to shoot different people from behind cover, and in that way it's not much different from the last game. But there's a lot more big moments this time around that you remember for months afterward, and it all handles a little better, and the game's tone matches its content with less confusion. And the heists... well, the heists are awesome. I only wish there were more.
The cycle of innovation and imitation in games can be a pretty funny thing. When Uncharted: Drake's Fortune came out, featuring gunplay, climbing through exotic environments, and solving puzzles in ancient tombs, it was hard to miss the influence from the Tomb Raider series. And now with this new Tomb Raider featuring a more down-to-earth take on its protagonist, cover-based shooting, and a focus on quick traversal over thoughtful rumination on your surroundings, it's hard to miss the influence coming from the other direction. But Tomb Raider's isn't quite an Uncharted clone, having as it does a greater focus on survival, backtracking, and an essential desperation that goes a long way to define it. I wouldn't say either approach is really better, and I'm glad we're getting multiple takes on a central concept that is just so darn appealing. The new Tomb Raider still feels like Tomb Raider while managing to stay modern, and I find it hard to say it's not the most approachable and well-executed game in the series.
Along with a couple other releases, Super Mario 3D World justifies owning a Wii U, even if the system's future for anything resembling competent third party support looks bleak. It expands on the core gameplay of Super Mario 3D Land, which mixed elements of both 2D and 3D Mario games into a slick and satisfying experience, adds 4 play support and HD graphics, and basically taps the basic mechanics for as much action as they can handle. It's not the greatest Mario game ever - having to support multiple players of varying skill inherently limits the potential of the game design. But it's still really fun to play, even alone, though with friends or family is certainly preferable. It's amazing how this series manages to still be exciting so many years later with the same core ideas.
Saints Row: The Third is the artistic pinnacle of the Saints Row series, as weird as it is to use the word "artistic" in that context. In comparison, IV sort of feels like a bloated expansion pack or downloadable add-on, taking place in the same city and completely screwing with the series' framework of open world crime game by turning you into a super hero. In case you don't know, the game's basic premise involves (1) the gang's boss becoming President of the United States in the opening sequence, followed by (2) aliens invading Earth, which results in your capture and insertion into (3) a computer simulation of the city, which you are able to hack in order to essentially (4) gain a variety of super powers. It's nuts, in a series which is known for redefining what nuts actually means in video games. It's also incredibly fun to play, which is the key. I like the other Saints games I've played, but for the most part what you're actually doing is driving and shooting. In Saints Row IV you're running at hyper speed, leaping many stories at once, and basically breaking the world for your own amusement. It's just about as pure as enjoyment can be in the medium. As a bonus, they still have a great handle on the characters, and they're still a lot of fun to hang out with.
The Stanley Parable was originally a free Source engine mod, but in its conversation to full product it was completely overhauled and remade into what it is now. What it is now is a bit harder to describe. You play as (or are) Stanley, an office worker who one day finds himself alone in the building. A narrator describes your actions before you do them, and you can follow all of his directions to quickly reach an easy yet unsatisfying conclusion. But the real meat of the game is in not doing what you're told. There are tons of ways to disobey the narrator hounding your every move, and they usually result in something interesting, be it a new place you can go, a new insight into game design, or just a funny rant. The game's mix of playing with and subverting expectations while commenting on the nature of choice and interactivity in games is never boring, and the sense of humor keeps it light. You'll definitely understand what the game is doing better if you have a greater than average understanding of gaming history and culture, but anyone can pick it up and at least get a few laughs.
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