Monday, 6 January 2014

10 Good Games of 2013

WHAT YEAR? As Kyle Reese furiously demanded from the lowly Police officer at the start of Terminator.

The festive season has ended, giving way to yet another January. The festive glow and holiday cheer fades like the twinkle in the Eleventh Doctor's eye as it is suddenly replaced by the frowning bewildered brow of Peter Capaldi. It's cold, it's dark, time is forever moving on and the future is largely uncertain and scary. Happy new year!

In all this end year excitement I forgot to post my top 10 favourite game list of 2013. It is my understanding that everyone who aspires to write about games must have a top 10 list. So here it is.  


10. Luigi’s Mansion 2: Dark Moon
Luigi ain't afraid of no ghost. Psyche. He's petrified of them. The big wuss.
Nintendo have released some great games this year across the 3DS and Wii-U. I took advantage of Nintendo's summer 4 for 3 promotion, getting Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon, Animal Crossing, Donkey Kong Returns and Fire Emblem: Awakening. Four stellar games that had me engrossed for hours. To pick just one feels wrong, but Luigi's Mansion 2 was probably my favourite. The game is a sequel to the original game that was released alongside the GameCube back in 2001, but feels like a complete expansion of the format and more of an actual game. As Luigi, you are tasked with going around a number of haunted houses in search of ghosts, treasure and the old MacGuffin, a shattered crescent moon, you must put back together to restore peace to the galaxy (I think). 

The 3DS's 3D functionality was once seen as a gimmick that was detrimental to the developing eyes of children. In Luigi's Mansion the 3D is used to draw you into the immaculately conceived interiors, giving a depth and immersion to the cartoony shenanigans that feels great, almost like peering into a doll's house. Levels typically involve the hapless green plumber tasked with some objective which usually involves backtracking from one end of the mansion to the other in search of a mandatory item like a bucket full of water to make a plant grow. The real delight of the game is exploring each of the rooms for treasure and rare gems, as well as capturing the many ghosts that haunt the premises. The mechanics are surprisingly deep and elaborately expanded for a wealth of different purposes. You startle ghosts with the torch before sucking them up with your vaccum cleaner, causing Luigi to fly around the room like some kind of paranormal rodeo. Basically, Luigi's Mansion is Nintendo doing Ghostbusters and its great.   

Incidentally the Luigi's ringtone is now my ringtone.       

9. Tearaway
Supposedly Tearaway isn't selling so well. This is a tragedy. The game is a little miracle.
Despite Sony’s valiant efforts to transfer the full PlayStation 3 living room experience to a portable device, the real strength of the Vita has been Sony's relentless pursuit of all your indie favourites. Here's a list, Hotline Miami, Lone Survivor, Thomas Was Alone, Proteus, Spelunky and Terarria are all available on the Vita. And Fez, Rogue Legacy and Minecraft are on the way… The Vita is fast becoming my favourite platform, a luxury device to enjoy all these indie titles. Who needs a PS4 or a Xbox One, or even a souped up PC, when you have a Vita? You don’t even need Tearaway really, or any of these games on this top 10 list. Just get yourself a PlayStation Vita and, y’know, walk the earth… and miss all of it because you are knee deep in Terraria.  

We've had Uncharted, Little Big Planet and a Vita tailored Assassin's Creed, but for the first time, Tearaway feels like a game unashamedably made for the Vita. The game incorporates all of those gimmicks – the rear/front cameras and touch screens in new and imaginative ways. You play as this envelope person who must travel through a world made completely of paper populated by all manner of origami beings to deliver one simple message. It’s not very challenging and at times feels more like a tech demo, but every so often you capture a glimpse of the game world’s sun, in which your face is captured via the inbuilt camera, teletubbies style. It catches you off guard, but when it happens you are nearly always smiling. And you can’t argue against that, can you?

The ending is also one of the best endings to a video game this year.

8. Tomb Raider
These days all women carry bows. 
I’m strictly an old school Tomb Raider fan. The original game was what got me into gaming and indeed tomb raiding in the first place. Despite the clunky controls there was a calculated precision to the platforming. Lara had a particular distance she could jump, you could extend this with a run up and sometimes you would need to grab the ledge on the other end of the jump. Some times you would have to perform a series of backflips and sideways jump to navigate timed gauntlets. Miscalculate and you overshoot the jump and you fall into a spike trap or pirahna infested rivers. You always felt more accountable over your actions making the accumulative progression through the game feel like a challenge and a journey you were in charge of. This level of precision is missing in Tomb Raider's contemporaries, your Uncharted trilogy and yearly Assassin’s Creed, where climbing and jumping are practically automated. You’ll press the jump button, your character will jump, and automatically grab the ledge, they’ll show signs of strain as they dangle precariously over a chasm, perhaps a bit of the ledge breaks next to them, perhaps you have to press 'Y' to correct your grip, but you don’t really feel the drama like you did in the first five Tomb raider games because you can’t fail the jump.  

Crystal Dynamics took over Tomb Raider when Core Design closed down after the failure of Angel of Darkness (great orchestral soundtrack). Tomb Raider began to emulate Prince of Persia's quick acrobatic platforming, much to serviceable and muted success. These games were fine, but the likes of Uncharted and Assassin's Creed had taken over the throne. Something had to give, and the result was this year’s reboot, in which Lara Croft was given the full gritty origins story, in which she is deconstructed to a time before she became the twin pistol slugging ‘Tomb Raider’. She is 21 years old, na├»ve and unsure of herself and shipwrecked on a nightmarish island existing in perpetual storm populated by a tribe of nomadic woman killing cultists, wolves and sharp pointed sticks. 

In many ways the game is another Uncharted clone, a highly cinematic experience forgoing the Saturday morning action adventure style for the gritty survivalist theatrics of The Descent. Venturing through claustrophobic crawl spaces, the sharpened pick axe to the temple, the emergence and baptism from the lake of blood. It’s all here. Nathan Drake was an affable type, whitling through action sequences with a ‘crap!’ and a shrug. In Tomb Raider, each waypoint is heralded by a weary eye as Lara affirms herself “I can do this” a further test of survival that inevitably transforms. 

Along with her growth as a character, the game also contains the gradual attainment of weapons and tools which are used to unlock further areas of the island, giving you access to more collectibles. To be fair some of these collectibles feel a little rudimentary and there for the sake of it. Yeah Lara, you burn all the evil men's flags down. The game is by no means perfect. Gradually, the game does descend into the old running and gunning schtick as Lara brings down the hurt on the boys. At times the voice actor playing Lara does sound like a pissed off gap year student, and the game makers do seem to sadistically follow the mantra that she has to be broken before she can be built, hence all the impalements and beatings she faces, which is a little too excessive at the most of times. In one section of the game, you must pilot Lara as she is carried off by rapids, hit the debris at the sides and you are witness to a real sticky end, which feels overly excessive. The stick going through her chin and out the top of her head, whilst she flails about in death throes.  


Oh come on man, really?
So there are a couple of problems with Tomb Raider. More so than other games? Maybe. Overall however, Tomb Raider is an engrossing experience and a visual treat. Most importantly, this is the first Tomb Raider, in which Lara is put first, and as a fan of the series I think she deserves nothing less.   

7. Prison Architect


Get busy living. Get busy dying. Or just play more computer games. 
Technically this was released last year. Though technically it hasn’t been released yet because it’s still in beta. On paper its Theme Hospital or Sim City… but set in a prison. The tutorial involves you building an execution chamber. The guilty party is being read the last rites as you endeavour to construct the new wing to the prison.  You are told what is needed - a hallway, a solitary cell and the room enclosing the electric chair itself. Once you have connected the chair to the prison’s electrical grid you are given the option to add further flourishes. Lighting, paved path leading to entrance, maybe you fit a window into the cell, a bookshelf, little things to make the doomed prisoner’s final night a little bit more pleasant. It’s quietly affecting from this 2D isometric viewpoint.

Once you have constructed the electric chair, the prisoner is escorted to his final destination, in which you see his backstory – he was once a school teacher who after catching his wife sleeping with another man, proceeds to gun them both down. You then see how the school teacher gives himself up by confessing to a priest, who convinces him that the only way to atone for his sins is to give himself up to the authorities for judgement. So he does, and now he’s for the electric chair you just built. 

The design and graphics of the game are brilliantly subversive. The character designs are all very simple, a head with eyes and hair on top of burly head and shoulders, each given a name. They are just an entity within this prison, a bunch of numbers and data to be processed, not people of course. Well... this is your first impression of the game. The design is consistent for every character whether depicting a prisoner, a victim, a security guard, a builder, a priest, or even the statue of Jesus on a cross in the chapel where the school teacher confesses. It attaches a degree of humanity to the process, that makes you consider the morality of the justice system. Not everyone has the moral fibre to manage a prisoner but this game provides a glimpse at what it may be like. And its tough.   

6. Saints Row IV
...
You’ll notice I haven’t included GTAV on this list. I definitely did play that game this year, but as far as open world crime sims go, Saints Row IV is better. Not only is it funnier, and more fun to play, it has a better soundtrack, better characters, superpowers and a dub step gun. I think the other thing it has over GTAV is the fact that Saints Row IV just has its heart in the right place, it doesn’t need to give you a meticulously designed world or beautiful skyboxes, it isn’t permeated by a constant stream of misogyny or an ill-advised torture sequence. It just puts you into a Matrix inspired computer world, where you gain superpowers and fight against an evil empire of alien invaders led by a posh debonair overlord called Zinyak who has a love of the classical music and readings of Pride and Prejudice. Sometimes you fight rouge AIs within the system, who pose as akimbo uzi wielding toilets with a desire to kill. You also get a dubstep gun. Did I mention that already. It never once gets old. 



The series has always excelled by giving the player full control over the appearance of their character, and now, with added superpowers it is one of the few games in which you can feel empowered as a morbidly obese ginger haired man with a woman’s voice - wearing no pants. 

The superhero elements effectively mean that cars become meaningless and the game begins to emulate Crackdown, as you super jump from rooftop to rooftop, running up skyscrapers in the collection of skill points that serve to make you even more powerful. This is all pitched against a soundtrack of licensed music that just seems to work with whatever it is you are doing. Jumping serenely 50 feet into the air to Aerosmith's Don't Wanna Miss A Thing before ground stomping a group of aliens just works. Running at super speeds parting traffic to thrashing dubstep, just works. 
  
The game frequently goes back to its history, most of which I had no real context of understanding, but it only made the game more endearing. Neil Patrick Harris does one of the voices for a character who appears in one of the side missions for Christ’s sake! It may not be the best looking game ever, the world map is basically identical to the previous games with a couple of extra gubbins, but you feel the developers really care about the characters and the world they’ve built within the shadow of GTA, and you’ve got to respect that. I spent all of the August bank holiday playing this game, and I had a blast.    

5. Papers Please
Adding border control to the old CV. 
Papers Please is set in 1984 in a fictional Eastern bloc country called Arstotzka. You play as a citizen, who by means of a lottery wins employment within border control, in which you man an inspection booth and process a lengthy queue of immigrants, meticulously checking their documents against the requirements of entry. Based on this, you judge whether they are approved for entry or are rejected.  

The game plays out through the working days, at the end of which you must spend your wages on food, medicine and shelter for your family. Each day brings new challenges, a suicide bomber, a fence jumper and a host of new rules that making processing the queue of people harder and more difficult to earn your keep. On paper, it may not sound like a great game, but there is something addictive about processing through all the virtual paper work, the 16 bit cohesiveness of the visuals, trying to make sense of everything and permitting entry. You feel yourself learning the system and becoming more efficient at your job, despite the dire circumstances. 

The ways in which stories and character are implemented aside to these mechanics is also marvellous. You have the old man who is behind all the shifting legislation, appearing in line each day routinely bringing the wrong credentials. The wife trying to get to her son. You have the people trying to bribe you, visits from superior officers and the ability to detain individuals and perfom strip searches for weapons and explosives. The further you go the more abilities you unlock. Things like hotkeys that allow you to interface with your display that much quicker. Sniper fire to put down fence jumpers. The mechanics are progressive, even when the bureaucracy is not.  

This isn't a game with black and white moral choices. If you play the game right, you are submitting to the role of a humble cog in the machine of a corrupt socialist state. There are a total of 33 different endings to unlock in Papers Please and I’m not sure if any of them can be classified as ‘good’.  

4. Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
It's so very very good.
Here's a thing, until 2013 I had never actually completed a Zelda game. Sure, I've played Ocarina of Time, the Wind Waker and Skyward Sword. There just comes a moment through every Zelda game that I stop and do not feel compelled to go forward. Then came a Link Between Worlds and I literally couldn't put it down. 

Very much like the tri-force, the series revolves around, that three triangled artifact signifying the balance between wisdom, power and courage, Zelda has always been a series that has always administered fantastic balance against the myriad components of gaming. There is the 'aha' moment of puzzle solving, the reward through exploration, the snappiness of combat and slowly growing your arsenal of tools and weapons.

A Link Between Worlds feels more accessible than ever thanks to the ability to rent all weapons and tools from the outset. The game also allows you to simply have at the game world. Giving you the freedom of finding your own way. Hyrule is a compact world to roam, based of the same map as A Link to the Past on the Super Nintendo, but it is brimming with secrets and challenges. I couldn't put it down until I completed it. And when it was finished I was going back to find all the things I missed.  

The music is also incredible 

3. Gone Home - PC
Feel the 90s nostalgia. What do you mean there's no references to the Crystal Maze?
Gone home is such a simple idea, it’s a wonder that it hasn’t been implemented before. You play as a woman in her early 20s, who returns from backpacking around Europe to an empty house on a dark and stormy night. The house is largely unfamiliar as it was inherited from a deceased relative, in addition your family are nowhere to be seen with little clue about their whereabouts. And so you explore the house through the first person perspective gradually piecing together what happened to your family through clues and text. It’ll only take 3 hours to complete, but Gone Home is an engrossing and heartfelt experience based on a less is more approach. The way the game manages to make you feel like a stranger, yet come to know each of the characters is one of the most satisfying experiences in gaming this year.   

2. The Last Of Us
He's the cranky old curmudgeon who would rather look after himself and she's the feisty kid who's only known the world in post apocalyptic terms!
I'm also thinking of the top 10 movies I've seen this year. But do you know what? The Last of Us probably tops that list as well. Similarly, 2013 also saw the conclusion of Breaking Bad play out through a string of episodes that was the televisual equivalent of having your head netted in a plastic carrier bag whilst somebody strangled you. In terms of gruelling experiences, the only thing that even came close to that stifling feeling was playing The Last Of Us.

There is nothing particularly original about the game’s premise of course. The Last of Us is another gritty post-apocalyptic game involving zombies and scrounging for resources within the sad remnants of civilization as the world moves on and nature reclaims the land with greenery. What makes the game great is its implementation, its characters and the story connected to them. It begins quite slowly, but as you near the half way mark, the game ramps up and simply doesn't let go. 

I’ll be the first to admit it, a lot of what The Last Of Us does great is invested within it's cutscenes. As exemplified by the Uncharted trilogy, the game takes Naughty Dog’s pioneering ability to create natural characters through motion captured actors that bounce off each other and are capable of displaying real emotional nuance. Rather than the light action movie heroics of Uncharted however, The Last Of Us goes for a harsher tone. This is a game set alit by its moments of subtlety and ambiguity as much of its scenes of enormous violence and startling vistas of decayed civilisation. 

You'll still be gratified when you blow a clicker's head off with a shotgun, but less so when strangling a man to death with your bare hands through the most protacted one button takedowns yet seen in games. Violence always feels like a last resort, because resources are so scarce but also thematically. Each of these characters represents the last of us, the last of humanity.


The giraffe sequence
Story and characters are put first, to create a thoroughly cohesive and adult experience. There are a few games that are witness to gaming's growing maturity in the mainstream market, its happening all over the indie scene of course. But in a world of modern military shooters where Call of Duty has the US getting invaded again, where budgets upward of $100M must result in the world exploding, The Last of Us is testament to what you can achieve with all the resources and a consistency of tone. It's quite simply a masterpiece.

1. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Stop whatever you are doing and go play this game. 
Anybody, could play and enjoy Brothers thanks to its control system that is so effortlessly simple yet so versatile in its application. With one stick you control one brother, the wiser older brother on the cusp of manhood and with the other stick you control the younger more juvenile brother. The left and right triggers are action buttons corresponding to each brother. That is it. 

Between these controls the games has you face myriad situations, each using the controls in different ways. Sometimes you will be controlling the characters to work co-operatively or independently of each other. It may be working co-operatively carting your sick father to the village doctor at the start of the game. It might be providing the younger brother a leg boost, it may be through fishing, or paddling a canoe, or riding mountain goat up a precarious mountain trail, it may just be stopping to sit at a bench and just drink in the scenery. 

Brothers is the latest game from Starbreeze Studios, who have made their reputation creating dark uber violent FPSs including Escape from Butcher Bay, The Darkness and last year’s Syndicate reboot which divided audiences like marmite. In contrast, Brothers feels like a palette cleanser, a bite size adventure through a Germanic fantasy world seasoned equally by moments of violence, empowerment, whimsy, wonder and despair. It is the brainchild of Swedish film director Josef Fares, the game drawing upon his own experiences, growing up in civil war. Whilst so many games are content with being an interactive movie, Brothers knows that it is a game and is prepared to work within the medium’s mechanisms and constraints to produce something that is profoundly unique of the medium.

Everything leads up to a powerful ending, which is heartbreaking but ultimately life affirming. It really is quite magical. And anybody can seemingly pick it up and enjoy it.     

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