GOTY 2013

2013 was a weird middle year in gaming - for the industry as a whole as well as for me personally - and I spent a lot of time replaying Diablo III from last year instead of exploring new releases. There were also several big releases which I appreciated and respected but didn't quite get hooked by - such as Bioshock Infinite, The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V. While I normally don't pride myself on having particularly original thoughts, I'm guessing that my GOTY 2013 is...somewhat controversial (and in case you're wondering, the PC version of RE6 - which is the one I played - was released in March of this year and as such it should count for GOTY consideration).

List items

  • I liked Resident Evil 6 (PC) a lot. Its sprawling 25+ hour singleplayer campaign(s) felt generous and consistently provided new exciting setpieces for the player to enjoy while at the same time introducing interesting (though not always successful) twists to its core gameplay and mechanics. Despite a curiously uneven presentation - in which terrific facial animations coexist uneasily with some rather underwhelming texture work - it's hard not to get the impression that Capcom spent a heck of lot of money on Resident Evil 6, and the game certainly gives the average gamer more bang for his or her buck than most modern releases do. While its somewhat clumsy third-person action controls and UI can't compete with the dependable "Pop-A-Mole" framework of a Gears of War or even a Mass Effect game, RE6's systems arguably work better here than they did in the awkward Africa-based predecessor - and there's at least the sense that some of the idiosyncrasies are intentional and meant to introduce tension and unpredictability rather than to merely screw with the player. The incessant use of QTEs was annoying, for sure, but I only rarely had trouble executing these sequences properly and the checkpoints were frequent enough that the threat of endless thumb-related fail states never truly materialized.

    As with Sega's similarily underrated Binary Domain, I genuinely enjoyed the many stupid cutscenes in Resident Evil 6 and if the dialogue and plot hadn't been complete garbage - which they most certainly are - this could easily have been one of the most engaging narrative experiences seen in a mainstream action game in years. As it stands, there's still a lot of good (and not overly ironic) fun to be had with this slickly edited John Woo-aping over-the-top nonsense even though none of the characters come off as remotely human and the plotting is an unmitigated mess. Also, I really liked the sexy anti-hero Jake Mueller; and the fact that he got something resembling a proper character arc shows that the underemployed janitor who no doubt put together the "script" for this game was only sleeping half of the time while constructing RE6's third campaign.

    Survival horror as a genre definitely deserves a proper comeback, but as far as unabashedly silly AAA action games go Resident Evil 6 certainly gets the job done and Capcom showed some real dedication in making this game as lengthy and lavishly produced as it is. And since I personally felt that RE6 was more fun to both play and experience than other 2013 heavy-weights such as Grand Theft Auto V, The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite it only logically follows that this is my Game of the Year 2013.

  • Personally I felt that the inexplicably divisive Asssassin's Creed III was gripping and worthwile from a narrative/character standpoint (something I never thought I'd say about an AC game), but this year's pseudo-historical romp from Ubisoft is a more noteworthy achievement altogether since it offers what's arguably the first true sandbox experience in this allegedly open world-oriented franchise. Previous Creeds all had very nicely designed individual locations but not much of interest inbetween the urban environments, so it's been a pleasant surprise to discover the joys of sailing the splendidly recreated Caribbean archipelago while constantly on the lookout for cargo-filled ships to board, intriguing treasure islands to loot and imposing fortresses to storm.

  • Grand Theft Auto V includes the most impressive open world ever made, and despite being effectively a "lastgen" title its unprecedented urban simulation blew my mind on numerous occasions. At the same time, the game is also a harsh mistress since Rockstar (unlike Ubisoft) so often refuses to indulge the player's adolescent power fantasies. An astonishing number of missions in GTA V are mind-numbingly dull, but you always get the impression that this was done intentionally. The developers are making a meta-statement about video gaming in general and their own sandbox ludography in particular just as much as they are dissecting the American dream. In other words, GTA V is easier to respect than it is to love. But I do respect it a lot.

  • The Lebanese-born Swedish director Josef Fares depicts family relations with passion, warmth and nostalgia - which itself is unusual for an artist who grew up here in the frozen individualist North, and its no surprise that his collaboration with Starbreeze Studios provides this year's most touching gaming experience. Everyone talks about "the moment" in which Brothers breaks your heart, and this attention is well-deserved since the part being referred to is an amazing example of the kind of emotional engagement with a story that only a video game can provide. However, one shouldn't forget about the delightful high-fantasy romp which preceedes this moment since there are so many beautiful places to explore and clever mini-puzzles to solve crammed into this generous little downloadable title.

  • The Last of Us is so harrowing and intelligently mature that it would easily have deserved the top spot for 2013 had the game not been saddled with such infuriating and tedious mechanics. As with GTA V this is admittedly a case of something made difficult and draining on purpose, but I was simply infuriated by the plodding stealth and unforgiving combat of Naughty Dog's third-person survival adventure and at times contemplated giving up entirely. The extraordinary post-apocalyptic environments are deeply impressive, though, and above all The Last of Us provides a powerful story which ingeniously subverts our expectations by promising some kind of redemption but ultimately leaves the players hanging in a thought-provoking moral limbo from which we shall never escape.

  • While it's true that Splinter Cell: Blacklist doesn't deliver the most distinctive and memorable stealth experience in recent years (again, my beloved Hitman: Absolution certainly takes that prize), Ubisoft Toronto has nonetheless put together a very well-designed overall package which easily ranks among my favorite games of 2013. Even apart from its globe-trotting campaign - which cleverly hits all the major geopolitical hotspots (such as Benghazi, Tehran and even Guantanamo Bay) - there's a respectable amount of additional content in this game if you consider all the side missions as well as the returning multiplayer fan favorite "Spies vs Mercs".

    The basic gameplay revolves around classic (if not especially ground-breaking) stealth-oriented exploration, and the more action-oriented cutscenes sprinkled throughout the levels come off as nice rewards for getting through parts of a mission rather than as jarring game changers which disregard your previous accomplishments. The story is boilerplate American paranoia - and as such has a creepy conservative bias which the developers seem well aware of - but I really like the edgy atmosphere on board the airborne headquarters of Fourth Echelon and just how bold (read: reckless) the team's initiatives to stop the terrorist threat frequently are.

  • There was no Mass Effect release in 2013 but it sure doesn't feel that way. The Bureau provided a very tense and engaging variation on the faux-tactical combat of Bioware's sci-fi action RPGs, and some of my best individual gaming moments took place within 2K Marin's charming take on vintage alien invasions. The rigid design of Firaxis' XCOM: Enemy Unknown left me cold, but the shooter version was a pleasant surprise.

  • Ninja Theory's wonderfully stylized brawler combines satisfying and sufficiently technical third-person action with a dazzling visual creativity which extends far beyond the controversial (un-)dyeing of Dante's hair. Like the protagonist himself, this game is a marriage of heaven and hell in which all ends well.

  • Rarely have such spicy story ingredients (fundamentalist religion, white supremacy, socialist uprisings, fatherhood) been so undermined by a terrible script which reduced every recognizably human element to a mere backdrop in a grand metaphysical masturbation. Also, Ken Levine's latest FPS has some imprecise and rather poorly balanced combat which was frequently more annoying than entertaining. That being said, the art design in Bioshock Infinite is simply astounding and from a purely architectural standpoint Columbia is perhaps the most painstakingly realized place in video gaming history. Irrational's latest release may be weighed down by its own pretentions, but it's a memorable must-play nonetheless.

  • Tomb Raider 2013 is a respectable AAA release with sharp visuals, tight controls, atmospheric environments and a wealth of spectacular setpieces to experience throughout a nicely paced 10 hour campaign. Apart from the cover-based shooting and linear traversal, Crystal Dynamics also tries to incorporate certain exploration-based mechanics but never fully commits to these elements and instead seems satisfied with merely paying lip service to Core Design's original gameplay formula. Lara's new origin story thankfully succeeds in finally transforming this (in)famous video game character from slightly depressing sex symbol into a comparatively realistic female protagonist, and I feel that the oft-discussed dissonance between gameplay and narrative in TR 2013 has been somewhat overstated by professional reviewers. Unfortunately, besides the young Ms Croft there's not a single believable individual in the clich√©-ridden plot and Crystal Dynamics unwisely keeps the supernatural dimension which didn't do much good in Legend or Underworld and feels even more out of place here.