Jason’s Top 7 Games of 2013

2013: what a year in gaming! We were finally introduced to and got our hands on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, meaning the promise of next-generation gaming (er, now current-gen gaming–still gotta get used to that) is no longer a promise but an actual, physical box in our living rooms. We also got a bizarre 3D-less model of the 3DS, a refreshed PS Vita, smartphones with 64-bit processors, an explosion of the indie gaming scene, an Android-powered free-to-play-only console, a handheld/streaming/controller hybrid, and our first look at Valve’s Steam Machine initiative to bring PC gaming into consoles’ traditional wheelhouse under the TV. Even the Wii U, which floundered during a mostly abysmal 2013, got in on the action late in the year with a pair of attractive bundles, a pseudo price drop, and its first true killer app. On a personal level, I also finally snagged myself a 3DS XL, entered the next generation with PS4, and attended my first E3. As we head into an exciting slate in 2014 full of questions, let’s first pause to highlight some of the shining stars that came out last year.

The Usual Disclaimer: we at Nerds on the Rocks are part-time contributors that do this on our own free time and on our own budget simply because we love all things about Nerd-dom. An unavoidable side effect of that reality is that there is no possible way for us to have the time or money to cover absolutely everything that should be considered when rounding up the year’s best. With that in mind, the following games were not up for consideration for my list due to my lack of significant playtime with them, although I believe they could have been contenders: Super Mario 3D World, Tearaway, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Beyond: Two Souls, Ryse: Son of Rome, The Stanley Parable, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and Total War: Rome II. Additionally, episodically-distributed games that did not finish their seasons before the end of the year will not be considered until next year’s list, such as The Wolf Among Us, The Walking Dead Season Two, and Republique. Without further ado, here are what I consider to be the best 7 games I played this year:

7) Grand Theft Auto V | Rockstar North
A game likely to appear on many others’ lists, GTA V needs no introduction. Being a California-raised gamer, Rockstar’s latest installment in the satirical crime saga has an element of hometown appeal since I am familiar with Los Angeles’ (Los Santos in the game) sprawling urban neighborhoods, bikini-infested beaches, and general obsession with glitz and glamour. All these qualities are captured perfectly in GTA V, the lone exception being the missing satire of the city’s celebrity culture (just for transparency, I am currently only about two-thirds of the way through the main story).  In the past, GTA has always been a series I’ve respected for its scale and attention to detail more than I’ve actually enjoyed playing it. While I still have certain issues with GTA V‘s mechanics (why is driving so damn slippery!), it is without question the most polished game in the series to date. I particularly enjoyed the heist missions, which introduced elements of choice in setting up crews and approaches and required the completion of several sub-missions to prepare for the big event–a nice twist on the sometimes rote progression model in open world games. The scale and detail within the game is up to Rockstar’s typically elite level, and the graphics in particular really squeeze every last ounce of the Xbox 360 and PS3 (those draw distances though!). A revolving cast of unique, well-written, and perfectly acted characters keep things interesting in typical Rockstar fashion, especially the dynamic relationship between the game’s 3 protagonists. I look forward to closing out Michael, Franklin, and Trevor’s tale to open 2014, but the significant portion I’ve already played was enough to earn a spot on this list.

6) Splinter Cell: Blacklist | Ubisoft Toronto/Montreal/Shanghai
Fans who have been playing Splinter Cell games for awhile have witnessed a series that often tries to reinvent itself. Look no further than 2010’s Conviction, which eschewed the traditionally hardcore stealth elements for a mobile, fluid, and action-heavy experience that invoked Jason Bourne and Rocksteady’s Batman games more than “pure” stealth. While I personally loved the change in tone, many series stalwarts rejected it as a misguided attempt to appeal to the masses. Enter Blacklist, which perfectly straddles the line between Conviction and its clandestine predecessors. Blacklist‘s Sam Fisher retains the fluid movement of Conviction as well as other signature mechanics like the last-known-position ghost, objectives being projected onto in-game geometry, and the cinematic Mark and Execute system. However, Blacklist is also unmistakably a stealth game, forcing Sam to cling to the shadows, weave through guards’ patrol patterns, and use various gadgets to neutralize enemy advantages. Theoretically, the game is designed to be able to be played full-on action or full-on stealth, but I found the run-and-gun method to be extremely difficult and unenjoyable, while the sweet spot was found using stealth tactics offensively to surgically take out enemies one by one. Mark and Execute rewards this approach by loading you up with the ability to take out multiple enemies at once, which creates a nice flow to the gameplay so it never feels like a grind nor like an easy action-platformer. The return of the PS2/Xbox generation’s asymmetrical Spies vs Mercenaries multiplayer mode was also a very welcome addition that plays perfectly into the game’s mechanics and design. While an uneven narrative, sub-par voice acting (Michael Ironside’s absence is sorely felt), and occasional technical hiccups prevent Blacklist from achieving true greatness, it is, in my opinion, the quintessential Splinter Cell game.

5) Pokemon X/Y | GameFreak
The last Pokemon game I played was Diamond, and I loved it–it was just as addicting as I remembered the GameBoy iterations being when I was younger, and at the heart of the childish aesthetic was a robust JRPG. With the 3DS’s first entry finally promising a 3D world, 3D models, and actual animations, I needed little excuse to return to the venerable series just months after finally picking up my own 3DS XL. The flavor I tasted was Y, but I understand there are even fewer deviations than in past Poke-generations. To me, Pokemon Y did pretty much everything a “real” 3D Pokemon game had to do. It’s beautiful on this hardware, and I love finally being able to watch fully animated models of Pokemon duke it out. Some of the more annoying parts of previous games were streamlined: EXP Share made training Pokemon in between gyms less of a grind, roller blades and running made movement easy and fluid, and re-usable TMs made me less paranoid when choosing new moves. The heart of the game is still unmistakably the same formula that’s been used since the original Red and Blue games, only its prettier, more varied, and more fun. Ultimately, that last quality is what earns Pokemon X/Y a spot on my list–it was just so much damn fun. For the week or two I played it, it was all I could think about, all I wanted to play, and while I was playing I loathed the idea of putting it down. It tapped into the memories and joy of my childhood experiences with the series and brought them into a long-desired polygonal era. My only real complaint is that the game doesn’t take full advantage of the hardware’s stereoscopic 3D capabilities as only a handful of specific areas in the overworld are 3D-enabled; the environments could have really popped with the added dimension. Additionally, while the animated battles came to further life in stereoscopic 3D, they would also suffer from a noticeable framerate drop. At the end of the day, however, there is just a certain, undeniable charm to this game that left an impression on me unlike many other games can.

4) Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon | Next Level Games
To be honest, I didn’t expect much from Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon; the original GameCube game was a fine game, but nothing especially extraordinary, and I mostly picked up the sequel with my 3DS this year just so I could take advantage of a promotion that would nab me a free copy of Super Mario 3D Land. Little did I know that in the Year of Luigi, the greener brother’s portable outing would fittingly out-charm even his sibling’s stellar 2011 platformer. Everything about Dark Moon is whimsically delightful. The protagonist is notoriously easily-frightened, making him a comical star for a game about combating evil ghosts in haunted mansions. And that is mansions, plural, as the game trades its predecessor’s massive single estate for several smaller themed manors. Every little detail pulsates patented Nintendo charm, such as when Luigi whistles along to the background music or when he observes the ghosts playing pranks on each other when nobody else is around. The base gameplay is surprisingly engaging, too, requiring Luigi to stun ghosts with a charged-up blast of his flashlight before vacuuming them up with his trust Poltergeist-3000. The game unfolds over several chapters within each of the six mansions, and each chapter takes you into new corners with more secrets. The camera angles and the opalescent ghosts really lend themselves well to the system’s 3D capabilities and really pop when 3D is on, although annoying tightrope sections are unplayable in 3D with their misguided attempt to utilize the gyroscope. Over the course of the whole game, though, Next Level Games proves adept at level and enemy design, banking on a likable, entertaining protagonist to carry a wholly unique adventure that will paste a smile on your face until the credits start rolling.

3) Fire Emblem: Awakening | Intelligent Systems
In case you haven’t realized yet, Nintendo reaped an incredibly strong software lineup on the 3DS this year (it’s no accident that this is the year I finally took the plunge on adding an XL to my collection of gaming hardware). My favorite of the illustrious bunch would have to be the strategy RPG Fire Emblem: Awakening. The light fantasy theme allows for a ton of interesting characters that also double as a wide variety of unit types. The turn-by-turn strategy combat is as fun as its ever been in the series, and the option to disable the notorious perma-death of characters who fall on the battlefield removes a lot of the stress from playing the lengthy game without compromising its challenge level. The art style is beautiful and inspired, utilizing no less than four types of character models to seamlessly marry its gameplay and story: 2D sprites in menus and maps, fully drawn 2D models for conversations, low-res polygonal models for animated battles and story encounters, and my favorite, the fully animated and 3D-enabled anime cutscenes to capture the story’s most pivotal moments with flair. There is also a ton of depth in the game’s various systems, with different types of weapons, different classes, seals that can change classes, and more adding nuance to gameplay and inventory management. Awakening also features an entire side-story campaign to go along with StreetPass battles and DLC. Perhaps most interestingly, Awakening allows the player to heavily customize one of the main characters in ways that aren’t only cosmetic but actually have an impact on the emotional story. I lost countless hours to this vibrant world and it’s cast of memorable characters, and I loved every one of them.

2) Tomb Raider | Crystal Dynamics
One thought permeated my playthrough of Tomb Raider perhaps more than any other: this is how to do a reboot. In a gaming landscape featuring Naughty Dog’s venerable Uncharted series, it became clear that the classic iteration of Ms. Lara Croft was handicapped by its antiquated approach to the action-adventure-explorational-platofrming-with-a-mildly-historical-backdrop genre. Crystal Dynamics went back to the drawing board, completely re-imaging the protagonist, her world, and her gameplay, and the result is a stunning and refreshingly modern journey through the darkest corners of a remote island. Tomb Raider mixes Uncharted‘s cinematic platforming, presentation, and obsession with ancient relics with mini sandbox level design, finely tuned gunplay, and Metroid‘s knack for incorporating a progression of abilities and equipment with both combat and level traversal. Tomb Raider is simply an exquisitely-designed game all around, further buoyed by an astonishing attention to detail, gorgeous graphics, terrific voice acting, and mesmerizing set-pieces. On top of all that, Crystal Dynamics really captured the growth of Lara’s character from beginning to end, and you as the player see and feel her maturation over the course of the game. Though she at times becomes brutal in her methods, there is a certain human element that connects you to the character throughout her journey and the range of emotions and obstacles she must overcome to survive. This new iteration of the industry icon is among my favorite female characters in gaming, and Crystal D’s masterful reboot is one of my favorite games not only this year, but this entire console generation.

1) The Last of Us | Naughty Dog
People love to compare the new flavor of Tomb Raider to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, but I actually enjoyed Lara’s adventure significantly more than any of Drake’s. However, Naughty Dog was determined to have the last say. The Last of Us dropped in the summer window typically bereft of high profile releases, placing an emphatic period on an E3 week dominated by next generation consoles and reminding everyone that the PS3 was not quite yet buried. The Last of Us is an exceptional execution of an ambitious vision in nearly all aspects of its design. It’s gorgeous, genuinely begging the question whether all that next-gen horsepower is really necessary to exert top quality graphics. It’s artisticly brilliant and devilishly detailed, with its decrepit vision of a crumbling, anarchic America brought to life with countless carefully placed touches to each and every room of each and every environment. It’s wonderfully written, providing an emotional journey that plays on expectations and provides genuine character growth. It’s plot is well-placed and structured to include a variety of environments and gameplay scenarios, while Naughty Dog again proves adept at penning deep, emotionally complex characters whose qualities are demonstrated through interactions with others. Voice and performance acting match the script, and “performance capture” proves its value beyond a back-of-the-box buzzword; it genuinely adds a level of polish to animations and character interactions that would not otherwise be possible. And at the heart of all this wonderful window dressing, all these great things that make the game a fantastic narrative experience, are gameplay mechanics that are perfectly married to the themes and tones. Joel and Ellie are survivors; they must scavenge areas for just enough supplies to stitch together a much-needed piece of equipment at the most critical time. They must delicately pace their way through enemy-infested areas, both human and infected, and use their environment and each other to scrape by. It’s uncomfortable, it’s stressful, it’s powerful and relieving, and gameplay perfectly communicates all the up and down emotions during Joel and Ellie’s journey across the country. And during the few times when you have just enough ammo, health, and open space for an enemy encounter to settle into a familiar cover-based shooter, Naughty Dog has proven it can finally–finally!–nail the feel of third-person shooting (long the Achilles heel of the Uncharted games, in my opinion). The Last of Us is one of the bright stars of gaming and of interactive fiction. It is the pinnacle of Naughty Dog’s style of game design, and a must-play experience for any gamer, particularly those who like playing with stories and real, imperfect, tangible characters. It is, all things considered, the best-crafted game of this year, this generation, and probably all-time. I just hope it doesn’t turn into another cheap AAA franchise, because what I love most about this game is that it shows what immensely talented studio can do when the reigns are let loose.

Jason Ragatz

Follow me @RaggySays

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