With 2013 drawing to a close, and the list of upcoming releases becoming slimmer, now seems as good a time as any to count down the ten best games I played in 2013.
Games must fall between January 1 and December 31, 2013 in order to be eligible. This list is strictly subjective, and the key factor is how much fun I had playing each title. If I did not play a game (e.g. - Grand Theft Auto V), I cannot very well rate it, and if I did not particularly care for a game, it doesn't go on the list, no matter how stupid you tell me I am. If you disagree, make your own list.
10. The Last Of Us [PS3]
Get your pitchforks and torches ready! This year's biggest critical darling barely made my list, edging out Sony's Puppeteer by a hair for one reason: its superb storytelling.
The Last Of Us brought absolutely nothing to the table that we hadn't seen done better in Naughty Dog's own Uncharted series. Combat is often clunky, the stealth feels forced, and the legitimately forced survival rooms are a pain in the ass that dragged the entire experience of playing the game down. If not for the stellar writing and voice acting, I would have quit playing long before I reached the game's climax. One can only move so many ladders from point A to point B.
Complaints aside, any time a game compels me to finish it because the story is so good, it should be commended. The Last Of Us is a stunning achievement for writing in video games, even though it does rely a bit too much on profanities here and there, and it's brought to life with equally stunning performances from Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson that overflow with emotion. I may not have had much fun playing it, but the story has stuck with me ever since, making it worthy of inclusion.
9. Need For Speed: Rivals [PS4, also on PC, Xbox 360, PS3, Xbox One]
I'll confess, I'm not one for most racing games. I've never been particularly good at them, and the more they veer into sim territory, the less interested I get. I respect the Gran Turismo and Forza serieses for what they accomplish, but they're not my cup of tea. That's where Need For Speed comes in.
With the help of Criterion Games, the masters behind the Burnout series, Ghost Games has taken the reigns of one of gaming's best arcade-style racing franchises and turned it up to 11. The open world is gorgeous, even when it's speeding by at 160 MPH, the cars meticulously detailed, and the sense of speed is staggering. I've caught myself holding my breath numerous times after narrowly avoiding head-on collisions with oncoming traffic, or slamming an opponent into a guardrail to take the lead before crossing the finish line. Rivals is an adrenaline rush, made all the more effective by the innovative new AllDrive system.
A persistent online world, AllDrive populates your game with real players - not just AI - who are free to challenge you at any time. What's more, they can help or hinder your progress, even if they're not involved in your event. It's a brilliant system that will undoubtedly become a standard in racing games for the forseeable future. The stakes feel greater against living opponents, and you never know what's going to happen at any given moment. Friends can even jump in one the action using their phone or tablets with the Overwatch companion app to give you an edge, or an obstacle to overcome.
Even with AllDrive turned off, there's so much to do in Need For Speed: Rivals that it will keep those of us who just like to drive fast and reckless occupied for quite some time.
8. Injustice: Gods Among Us [Xbox 360, also on PS3]
Apart from Batman, I've never been a big DC Comics fan, and when the makers of Mortal Kombat announced their next project - a fighting game featuring DC's most famous heroes and villains - I had mixed emotions. NetherRealm Studios made arguably the best fighting game of this generation with the 2012 reboot of their flagship franchise, Mortal Kombat, but would DC's roster of characters be able to carry a fighting game?
The answer is a resounding yes. In fact, I'd love to see Capcom use their Marvel Comics license in a similar manner, because Injustice is a sublimely entertaining fighter that captures the feeling of being an all-powerful superhero perfectly.
Each hit feels vicious and brutal, and clever touches like interacting with the environment around you take the game to the next level. The roster is enormous and varied, featuring staples such as Batman, The Joker, Superman, Green Lantern, Sinestro, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, and some relatively more obscure characters making their first ever video game appearance, and each one feels fun to play in their own unique way.
NetherRealm absolutely nailed the sense of scale as well, whether you're knocking your opponent through buildings or initiating a clash - a special super move that sees both fighters wager a portion of their super meter in a giant explosion. What's more, Injustice is fun for both beginners and advanced players, making both feel like they've stepped into the boots of their favorite characters.
It may not be quite as good as Mortal Kombat, or even Super Street Fighter IV, but Injustice: Gods Among Us is a wildly entertaining fighting game, even if you're not a DC fan.
7. Dragon's Crown [PS3, also on PS Vita]
Capcom's Dungeons & Dragons licensed arcade games rank among some of my favorites to this day for the way they melded the beat 'em up genre with RPG conventions. Atlus' Dragon's Crown sought to do the same, and it succeeded effortlessly.
Much was made over the game's sexist depiction of females (and their ridiculously oversized bosoms), but when a game is so blindingly fun and addictive, I can forgive its artistic faults. Though it does get somewhat repetitive at times, Dragon's Crown hearkens back to the age of quarter munching beat 'em ups and modernizes them with light RPG sensibilities such as equipment management, and the ability to hire AI companions.
Of course, AI companions are no match for real ones, which is why the game's online play is such a welcome addition. It almost feels like walking up to a machine with three complete strangers and plunking your change down the chute. But this game has legs its arcade forebearers never imagined, making it a complete, challenging single-player experience as well. With so many secrets to uncover, it's worth replaying levels in the hopes of finding some better gear to help you tackle a tougher stage later on, and the gorgeous hand-drawn graphics dazzle each time.
6. BioShock Infinite [PC, also on Xbox 360, PS3]
Much like The Last Of Us, BioShock Infinite's greatest strength lies in its storytelling. Far from the claustrophobic corridors of Rapture, Infinite is set in the sky-city of Columbia and tells a fascinating story about race, sacrifice, and quantum mechanics that game fanatics are still discussing nine months after its release.
As a shooter, Infinite is fairly conventional. Sure, it still has the guns & glorified magic combat of the original games, and the skyhook mechanic is a breathtaking gimmick, but there's nothing here that's going to set the genre on fire. Truth be told, the vigors - this game's version of plasmids - are considerably less useful than in the original BioShock, allowing players to pick one and stick with it all game instead of using them all to various advantages. But once again, Irrational Games' brainchild, Ken Levine, has written a brilliant tale that explores themes seldom touched upon in video games. The game's depiction of a mostly white society, overflowing with overt racism, is unsettling, even amidst the science fiction setting.
Also like The Last Of Us, voice actor Troy Baker teams up with another female companion, this time Courtnee Draper who plays Elizabeth, to deliver another excellent performance. Even more noteworthy, the AI-controlled Elizabeth is never a hindrance to the player. This is not a glorified escort mission - Elizabeth is a vital part of the gameplay and the plot, and by the time the game reaches its mind-blowing finale, you'll have developed a real connection with her.
Infinite is a capable shooter, with an exceptional story, which makes it a must-play.
5. Fire Emblem: Awakening [3DS]
Strategy-RPGs and handheld consoles are a perfect match. Whether you're looking for a quick fix, or a long session, the genre seems tailor-made for gaming on the go, or just laying on the couch. For my money, there is no better choice in the genre than Fire Emblem: Awakening.
Recruiting units and pitting them against small armies, taking everything from terrain to weapons and unit types into account, Fire Emblem games are like video game chess - a thinking man's series that rewards careful strategizing, planning, and tactics, and victory is utterly fulfilling as a result. The risk vs. reward battles are nerve racking, despite being slower, turn-based affairs instead of button-mashing action sequences.
Part of what makes Fire Emblem so special is the attachment you'll feel with your units as the commander. Not only do they have individual personalities, gleamed through the use of story cutscenes and interactions with other members of your group, but the series' standard perma-death option means every move could cost you your favorite unit if you're not careful. For the first time, Intelligent Systems has added the option to turn off permanent death, but series veterans will want to stick with it for the true FE experience.
Whether you're a newcomer or a veteran, Awakening has a dearth of content, thanks in part to brilliant usage of the Nintendo Wi-Fi connection. Players can recruit characters from past Fire Emblem titles, take on special battles, and even compete with other players in asynchronous multiplayer. Even if you don't touch that stuff, the main story has dozens of hours of gameplay alone! With so much to do, Fire Emblem: Awakening will keep gamers enthralled well into 2014.
4. Rayman Legends [Wii U, also on PC, Xbox 360, PS3]
What a year for platformers! Despite a long delay, the return of Ubisoft's limbless mascot Rayman was well worth the wait. Rayman Legends is one of the most inventive, gorgeous, and flat out fun 2D platformers since the glory days of Mario on the NES.
Level design is what makes any platformer, and Legends features some of the best in the genre. Each course is full of secrets, and little whimsical graphical details that will bring a smile to your face. Without a timer, you're free to explore the levels at will and revisiting them to find that last hidden Teensie you missed is never a chore because you'll always feel like you're discovering something different.
On the Wii U, the game makes excellent use of the gamepad with auto-run stages where you guide an AI-controlled character using the touchscreen to keep them from danger. It's more passive than the normal stages, but it breaks the monotony, and each level becomes its own little self-contained puzzle as you're forced to think and react quickly to not only keep your character alive, but find the correct sequence of events to reach those out of the way secrets.
Last, but certainly not least, are the musical levels, which are a combination of rhythm game and platformer. Rayman speeds through to a silly re-recorded version of a well-known tune, requiring precision button presses. These faster-paced levels are a real treat, so much so you could probably make an entire game out of them honestly.
But that's STILL not all! Revolving daily and weekly challenges will have players competing for high scores and faster times online, and there are 50 levels from Rayman's previous game, Origins, to be unlocked as well - making this essentially two games in one. The real marvel is that you'll absolutely want to experience it all because each level of each world is so ingeniously designed that finding everything becomes an obsession.
3. Tomb Raider [Xbox 360; also on PC, PS3]
I truly expected nothing from Tomb Raider, the reboot of a once-great franchise that had fallen into disrepair. It seemed with each new release, the series moved further and further away from what made the original such a classic back in the early days of 3D platformers. Much to my surprise, Eidos - now owned by Square Enix - proved me wrong. Dead wrong.
This is not the polygonal Lara Croft with impossible curves gamers drooled over back in the mid-90s. Indeed, one of the most commendable things about the new game is how it has taken a gaming icon and turned her into a flesh and blood character instead of a sex object. Lara is vulnerable, yet strong and determined to survive - a true heroine in every sense of the word. Dressed in modest clothing, with a much more realistic figure, Eidos did the daring adventurer justice, but it all would have been for naught if the gameplay wasn't fun.
Luckily, nothing could be further from the truth. Tomb Raider reminds me of the first time I played Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Every death-defying leap saw me holding my breath and exhaling as Lara jammed her climbing axe into a cliff face at the last second. Sneaking around enemies and picking them off with her trusty bow was exciting and tense. Discovering and solving the game's hidden tombs was thrilling. Every facet of the game was nothing less than a joy to play.
If there's any gripe I have, it's that the story is semi-forgettable gobbledy-gook, but when the world you're thrown into is so much fun to explore it doesn't really matter. I searched just about every nook and cranny of the island Lara and her crew are shipwrecked on, and I loved every second of it.
2. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds [3DS]
Sequels are a tricky business. The risk of merely copying what had been done before, or worse, ruining a great franchise runs high. These risks are immeasurably magnified when it's a sequel to one of the greatest video games of all time. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is not only the best game on the Super Nintendo, in my opinion, it is the best entry in the storied franchise. It was the epitome of the SNES itself - taking the experiences we loved on the original NES and amping them up with new graphics, new gameplay mechanics, and beefier sound, much like Super Castlevania IV or Super Mario World.
After more than two decades, Nintendo has returned to the version of Hyrule first seen in A Link to the Past, but miraculously, they've made a sequel that not only scratches that nostalgic itch old schoolers have for it, but brings fresh new ideas.
A Link Between Worlds is, simply put, sublime. Strolling through the hills of Hyrule to the now-famous overworld theme left me with a broad smile on my face, but discovering all new secrets and traversing the new world of Lorule keep the game from feeling like a rehash - thanks in large part to the absolutely brilliant new shifting mechanic.
Early in the game, Link earns the ability to turn himself into a 2D painting, which he can use to flatten himself against walls and access areas otherwise unaccessible, as well as enter fissures that will take him between Hyrule and Lorule. This mechanic is so well-implemented, it's impossible to imagine the game without it. It's integral to the puzzles, as well as optional secrets.
Like previous Zelda games, each dungeon is a self-contained puzzle, and solving them is incredibly rewarding. What's more, boss battles will even tax your brain at times and rank among some of the best in series history. For the first time, however, Link is free to go pretty much anywhere at any time with the option to rent items such as bombs or magic rods needed to open up and complete certain areas. This eliminates the aimless wandering of previous games when progression was stunted by the necessity of finding a specific item at a specific time, but it still feels distinctly like Zelda every time you set foot into another dungeon.
A Link Between Worlds, like A Link to the Past before it, is nothing short of a masterpiece that captures the magic of the classic entries in the franchise, while simultaneously pushing it forward.
1. Super Mario 3D World [Wii U]
I almost passed on Super Mario 3D World. Since it was released on the same day as A Link Between Worlds, and I felt I'd reached my saturation point with Mario games, I almost didn't spend the money. Boy am I glad I did.
This is, without question, the most fun I've had with a Mario game since Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES, which remains (to this day) the single greatest platformer ever made. This is vintage Nintendo. Every level is unique. Every level offers something new to make you exclaim "that is SO cool!" Every level is a blast to play. This is the most inspired, inventive Mario game since the Galaxy series on the original Wii. After several serviceable, but ultimately hollow, 2D entries in the New Super Mario Bros. spin-off, I didn't think Nintendo could pull off a game of this caliber anymore. Shows what I know.
Let's start with the cat suit, which is arguably the best power-up in the whole franchise. It's not just the incredibly adorable and detailed animations of Mario and friends padding around on all fours, head bobbing like a real feline's - it's how incredibly useful it is to the game. Levels were designed with the functions of the power-up in mind, much like Mario 3 when the raccoon leaf allowed access to otherwise inaccessible secrets. Mario can scale walls, claw at enemies, and even dive at them mid-air, making this the most multi-functional suit I can think of.
Finding every green star or hidden stamp elicits a shout of triumph at my own cleverness, and Nintendo's exceptional level design. Even the dreaded auto-progress stages are fun here as you race to stay ahead of the constantly moving corner of the screen. The camera is perfectly positioned to capture all the action, but should you choose you can manipulate it to some extent as well, meaning you'll rarely - if ever - have an excuse for dying other than your own clumsiness.
Levels are so varied that each one could support an entire world. The standard Mario themes are there - grasslands, desert, ice world, etc. - but peppered in each overworld map are stages that break the mold, aesthetically and otherwise. Some stages will have you rushing through them with only 100 seconds on the timer to start, while others task you with guiding a Toad who cannot run or jump to safety, collecting stars along the way, in a rotating 3D maze. Perhaps my favorite level was part shadow play, as Mario is obscured by wall with only his shadow on the other side to guide the player and uncover items.
Fans will also be delighted to see Luigi, Peach, and Toad return, exhibiting the same abilities they did in the classic Super Mario Bros. 2. Luigi can jump higher, Peach can float for a limited time, and Toad is a speedster, and each of them offers benefits and advantages when going through levels. Even better, three other players can join in the fun and you can all race through the levels together to earn the coveted crown. The crown doesn't do anything, but it creates a competitive meta-game when your friends are all vying to strip it from you.
Even the soundtrack is sublime. While familiar Mario tunes are present, they're not repeated ad nauseum like in the New SMB games. Other tracks range from jazzy grooves to silly circus fare, for appropriately themed levels, to dreamy ballads. The graphics match the brilliant soundtrack, creating an audio/visual feast that stands out in the landscape of modern gaming's "realistic" browns and greys. This is a downright beautiful game that proves that art direction is every bit as important, if not more so, than high resolution textures.
Super Mario 3D World makes me feel like a kid again. This is why I fell in love with gaming in the first place. It was Mario who got me hooked, and Mario who reminded me why it's still my favorite way to pass the time. There's a sense of whimsy and wonder in every single level of the game, and a sense of love and care from the designers that is passed onto the players. This is gaming at its purest form. Thank you, Nintendo.