In the final part of my look back at my personal gaming highlights of the year, I have decided to list my top 3 favourite games in rank order to reveal my Game of the Year 2013.
This year I have struggled to find a good reason to brush the cobwebs off my PS3, but with the release of Naughty Dog’s bleak and emotional The Last of Us, I was glad I reached for the duster. This masterful character driven game breathed new life into the console as the generation was preparing to make way for future hardware.
I wrote a blog post about the immersion breaking situations I often found myself in whilst playing The Last of Us, but this was more of an analysis of the problems of storytelling when creating believable worlds that players are then allowed to influence. To date, The Last of Us is possibly the finest attempt at tackling those issues, which is evident from my occasional dismay when the spell of immersion was broken despite the developer’s brilliant work.
It is that immersion within the world of The Last of Us and the connection to its characters which makes this game such a powerful experience. Whilst the majority of the gameplay is far from revolutionary, the implementation of the mechanics and the refined attention to detail makes the act of playing feel new.
The Last of Us is more than a brilliant story driven interactive drama that brings a fresh perspective to the tired themes of zombie apocalypse. As big budget, triple-A developments are considered to be burgeoning out of control and scope, Naughty Dog has proved that a large team of skilled developers can still create innovative and intricately polished products worthy of the attention they receive.
I have never found myself dreaming what it would be like to command a starship through the cosmos, engage in epic space battles or conduct interstellar diplomacy. That was until I played FTL!
FTL was often infuriating and seemed determined to punish me and my crew when we are at our most vulnerable, damning us to an inglorious death in the depths of space. Until I eventually completed the game, I went through numerous ships. Death by enemy boarding, oxygen starvation, deadly fires spreading…. But with each spacecraft’s passing, my determination to finish the game would grow and hopefully vengeance against the dastardly Rebels would be mine.
It was this constant threat and pressure that actually helped me become so invested in the outcomes of my crew and starship. Thanks to FTL, I was now weighing up the tactical decision of diverting power from my ship’s life support systems in order to direct a (hopefully) fatal blow to my attackers. The game was full of these tense and exciting moments that reminded me of some of my favourite situations when commanding my squad in the brilliant XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
I thoroughly enjoyed the game’s punishing and thrilling gameplay that made the eventual moment of victory ‘oh-so sweet’. However, the enjoyment would not stop there as FTL had great replay value with new ships to unlock, species to meet and secrets to discover.
I remember hearing about Gunpoint many months before its release as I was directed to the dev-log of the game’s creator, Tom Francis. As soon as I saw the early gameplay footage and heard the way Francis talked about his project, I knew that this would be a game to pay attention too. Fast forward to the release and it was great to see the game lived up to its promise and my expectations.
Here was a puzzle game that refused to constrain players to simple right or wrong answers, and instead provided a freedom to experiment and imagine the most unbelievable solutions possible. Using an innovative hacking device that allowed players to rewire a building’s systems, the game offered an opportunity for an inventive and unpredictably fun form of stealth not seen before.
With the invention of this brilliant hacking mechanic, Francis created a gaming environment for players to craft a level to their own wishes beyond his design. This experimental playground was presented in the beautiful pixelated world of a private detective, complete with its own alternative Film Noir murder-mystery plot.
Full of typical British cynicism and humour that seems to be a mirror of Francis’ personality, the game is constantly witty and hilarious. The old adage of ‘Always leave them wanting more’ is quite apt when talking about Gunpoint, which seems to end as quickly as it hooks you into its opening scene. That said, with the vast possibilities offered in each mission and the addition of a level editor I am hardly going to begrudge this game for its short story length.
Gunpoint is the most perfect blend of refreshing ideas, enjoying experience and accomplished production that I have experienced in 2013, and quite possibly one of the finest games I have ever played.
In 2013 handheld gaming was bigger than ever. Nintendo finally seemed to be returning to form with popular releases for the 3DS such as Pokémon X and Y and Animal Crossing. Sony’s Vita has also dusted off the cobwebs thanks to the PS4 Remote Play functionality as well as new exclusives such as the imaginative Tearaway.
However, it is mobile and tablet gaming that has interested me most of all this year within the handheld market. Aside from the mega-success stories of titles such as Candy Crush Saga, I have found mobile gaming to provide some secret gaming pleasures that kept me exploring the Android Play Store. Amongst the numerous titles I played this year, these are my favourites that make up my list of Best Handheld Games of 2013.
Plug It! is a first-time release for new indie start-up haveUplayed and is one of the finest mobile games that (sadly) no-one is talking about. Using their device’s tilt and touch controls, players must guide Goi the lizard around the platform puzzler to help him ‘plug’ a hole before lava spews forth and destroys the lizard eggs!
It is a beautiful ‘cutesy’ game, but don’t let that deceive you to its challenging puzzles and gameplay. Thanks in part to the use of tilt controls, Plug It! requires quick reflexes and can be quite demanding, but haveUplayed have finely balanced the control system to avoid punishing at the cost of player enjoyment.
Packed with a selection of unlockable game modes and bonus levels, Plug It! was one of those mobile games that I would pick up with the intention of briefly playing with a quick cuppa. However, I often ended up determined to beat just one more level then realising my cup of tea had gone cold. You will be hard pushed to get a better compliment out of me for a game if I don’t mind losing a cup of tea to it every now and again!
Coming from ZeptoLab, makers of the popular Cut the Rope series of mobile games, it was no great surprise I was impressed with their latest offering, Pudding Monsters. This is a delightful puzzle game where you have to slide jelly monsters across a dinner table so that they can form into a bigger creature to save themselves from becoming dessert.
Much like the previous titles from ZeptoLab, this game has a charming and glossy presentation that I enjoyed whilst pondering over the puzzles. As I progressed through the game I was introduced to new monster types that offered new problems and techniques which kept the game fresh.
By using an inventive new 3-star reward system the game encourages replayability by presenting each level in a new light. Players are encouraged to complete levels in a multitude of ways, rather than simply awarding stars based on score, as is often the standard. Like the best mobile games, this is quick and easy to pick up and play, but hard to put down once you’ve started.
In case you hadn’t noticed, mining is kind of trendy in gaming at the moment thanks to games such as Minecraft, although where most games attempt to copy the format of such titles, Pocket Mine decided to try something different. In a game that perfectly utilises the functionality of mobile devices, Pocket Mine presents a simple game where the player must attempt to dig as deep as possible in the limited time provided.
Using ‘one-touch’ gameplay, players must tap a block to ‘mine’ it, but each tap weakens your pick axe until it eventually breaks. However, as you mine you will collect valuable ores that can be converted into in-game currency which can then be used to upgrade your pick for future excursions. As this might suggest, there are in-app purchases which is usually a major turn off for me in a mobile game. Thankfully, they are easily ignored and do not provide much benefit beyond the ability to prolong playing duration.
I found that the default time limit was more than enough for me to have an enjoying trip down the mine shaft and attempt to salvage some of the varied collectibles and power-ups or complete one of the random challenges. One of my favourite features of the game is the act of unlocking and building a deck of modifier cards which are then randomly selected at the beginning of each game. These ensure that each game has a slightly different experience or challenge that gets more satisfying the more you play.
Roofdog Games have crafted a finely balanced mobile game that presents a variety of ever changing rewards and challenges that ensure each play through is as fresh as the last. There is no shortage of things to achieve or unlock in the game and I’m constantly encouraged to play it whenever I find myself with a few minutes spare. Each bite-size session leaves me satisfied yet still hungry for more, though I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to playing it… honestly, I’m not!
Most new games have a variety of multiplayer options tailored to extend their lifespan and provide additional experiences for players beyond single player pursuits. This trend for ‘games as a service’ is understandable in a modern world where people are finding more ways to connect and socialise digitally.
Personally, I tend to prefer dedicated multiplayer games to satisfy my desire for social gaming, as opposed to the often shoehorned multiplayer modes offered by some games. Many recent games have introduced interesting multiplayer components to compliment their single player features, but none of those have managed to entertain me beyond mere curiosity. I have selected the following as my Best Multiplayer Games of 2013.
What originally started as a Half-Life 2 mod released in 2010, Chivalry is now a standalone release built on the Unreal Engine. This new revamped version of the game retains the inventiveness of the original whilst providing a more polished presentation and control. The result is a multiplayer game that gives players the opportunity to experience firsthand the intense brutality of ‘medieval warfare’, but also offers unintentional black humour.
Spurred on by the surprisingly comical player controlled battle cries, heading into a brawl rarely fails to be an enjoying, unpredictable and tense scenario unavailable in most other games. Skirmishes often play out like a battle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail rather than a grisly melee to the death.
Comedic novelty aside, Chivalry’s combat is finely balanced to ensure that it can be quickly picked up by new players whilst more nuanced control can be learnt for a more skilled play style. This helps to ensure that skirmishes are frantic yet balletic displays that can be quickly changed by the addition of another player charging into the fray. It is dangerous, thrilling, refreshing and ultimately fun; a brilliantly enjoyable multiplayer experience.
Released last year, Guild Wars 2 and its player populace seem to still be going strong, whilst so many other MMO’s have been struggling to survive this year. This is perhaps in part due to continued development and community support despite its lack of subscription service.
ArenaNet promised big innovations to the MMO format and they have certainly delivered on a number of their guarantees following the game’s release. Guild Wars 2 provides a rich and varied world for players to explore, socialise and compete within that rewrites a number of the conventions of the genre. With their Super Adventure Box ‘April Fools’ prank this year, ArenaNet demonstrated just how much they were determined to cater to a unique and entertaining world for their player base.
Not afraid to step out from the shadow of World of Warcraft and attempt new ideas, Guild Wars 2 has proved that there is space for more than one MMO in the market. The way the game handles individual storytelling and employs more fluid multiplayer gameplay are techniques I expect to see mirrored by future multiplayer focused games, regardless of genre.
Those of you who read my Most Disappointing Games of 2013 post may be surprised as to how Battlefield 4 could be included on this list. Yes, the game has been plagued with issues since its launch at the end of October, and yes, the game has been almost unplayable at times. But, the inevitable disappointment that this caused is proportionate to how much fun this game is when you do manage to play it without issue.
Continuing the exciting unpredictability of previous releases, Battlefield 4 is one of the finest games this year for providing those amazing moments that you eagerly want to retell to your friends or share on Youtube. It is only in the multiplayer environments of Battlefield that the random behaviour of 64 players can produce unique spectacle on such a consistent basis that ensures watching a game unfold is just as entertaining as playing.
It may be suffering from technical issues, but compared to the alternative multiplayer shooter experiences available this year it still provides the most exciting and unexpected gameplay. Despite its teething problems, it is already the multiplayer game that I have committed the most time to this year, and I’m sure that it will continue to entertain for a considerably long time (once the issues are fixed..!)
Usually games featured in a category of ‘Most Disappointing’ would be hauled up in front of the snarling public and shamed with the badge of disappointment, held to account for their crimes against consumer’s expectations…! This is rarely a form of constructive criticism but often only serves to vilify developers’ efforts more than provide insightful critique.
This list of games is not about shaming the efforts of the teams responsible for them, but is a reflection on my own expectations and how this ultimately led to my disappointment. The following games all entertained me during my time with them, but there was just something that tainted that satisfaction enough to distract me from total enjoyment. In retrospect, that ‘something’ was probably due to my own expectations and not so much a fault of the game.
Here is my personal list of the Most Disappointing Games of 2013.
In EA’s parlance, I am a Battlefield ‘Veteran’ that has enjoyed playing the series since the original BF:1942 and most of the iterations since. With the announcement of Battlefield 4 I wasn’t exactly giddy with excitement at the prospect of a new version, given that I was still enjoying the frantic action of Battlefield 3. However, as the launch date approached I could not help but feel intrigued as to how the ‘Levolution’ events would play into the chaos of 64 player warfare and what new features would be added.
So, with the game finally released I decided to jump on board and see what the future had in store for the Battlefield franchise. So much of what I enjoyed in the previous incarnation was still here, as well as some seemingly small additions that still provided an invigorating freshness to some tired aspects. Before long I was caught up in the excitement of new weapons to unlock, assignments to complete and maps to explore.
Sadly, the excitement was intermittent. Problems such as crashes to desktop, loss of game audio, temperamental hit detection and latency issues to name just a few, all severely marred the game in its early days of release. Online community forums and outlets for the game were quickly inundated with complaints and concerns, though thankfully the game’s developers appeared to be making efforts to rectify the serious issues.
With 2 months passed since its release, Battlefield 4 is starting to find some stability but it is a real shame that the game could not be closer to the intended quality upon launch. Whether through over-ambition or an inflated confidence, EA and DICE have stretched themselves and the formula of Battlefields gameplay to far for their own goals.
Troublesome launches are nothing new for the Battlefield series, and even knowing that going into the latest iteration, I was still dismayed to see the problems that have plagued this game already. I am still playing the game and hope that this instalment will be entertaining me long after release as the previous titles in the series have done.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown was quite possibly my Game of the Year 2012 (had I actually awarded such a thing this time last year!). The sense of perilous excitement I felt whilst trying to ensure my squad of operatives, named after friends and family, survived insurmountable odds was an experience I have longed to encounter again. It was clear that any follow-up in the series would have a high standard to reach in order to recapture my sense of engagement.
With the release of The Bureau I saw an opportunity to revisit the world of XCOM from a new perspective during the inception of the secretive agency at its heart. Set amidst the conspiracy and propaganda of 1960’s Cold War, the premise of clandestine ops and alien invasion was a natural and interesting fit for an XCOM prequel, and one that I wanted to experience.
One major difference between the two games was the blend of 3rd-person cover/shooter mechanics with the turn based strategy synonymous with the series. I was eager to see how harmonious this marriage of gameplay would be and hopeful for a continuation of the tactical dilemmas presented in Enemy Unknown.
However, whilst The Bureau is a very solid and enjoying game, at no point did I feel the engagement and excitement of commanding my squad of operatives against the deadly alien threat. 2K did well to implement the tactical interface in such an easy to use format, but due to my AI comrades inadequacy during combat I felt no desire to utilise them. Missing the camaraderie and connection to my operatives that was such a key part of my enjoyment in Enemy Unknown, The Bureau was unable to satisfy my XCOM fulfilment.
If The Bureau was to exist in a world without Enemy Unknown, it may well have garnered more praise from reviewers and players alike. Unfortunately, I don’t think it could have existed without Enemy Unknown, and despite confidently attempting to introduce a new gameplay experience, it was always going to have to live up to the success of its older brother.
Before Hitman Absolution was even released it had managed to disappoint me with its questionable portrayal of women as sexualised cannon fodder in the much maligned E3 2012 trailer. Overt sexism aside (of which much on the matter has already been written), it also presented the game as an all out action blockbuster, rather than the methodical assassin fare I was hoping for.
It was with much trepidation that I bought the game amongst promises from Square Enix of catering to fans of the previous Hitman titles with hardcore gameplay options and modes. Indeed, beyond the stunningly updated visuals, the core of a classic Hitman game could be identified.
Here was a game that provided a multitude of varying locales and instruments of death to ply Agent 47’s superior skills, but to what ends? Missions were now segmented into small chapters of conflict, often with a lack of assassination target or objective other than move onto the next area. This segmentation was presumably to encourage replay-ability of levels and promote experimentation of the environment’s elements.
However, this partitioning of the content seemed largely in order to push the player through the stifling story line that the developers had decided to embroil Agent 47 in, complete with cartoon characters and clichéd plot. It severely detracted from the essence of Hitman’s historically professional attitude as a gun for hire, forcing the player into new situations and foregoing the briefing and planning phase before missions. I relished those moments in previous titles of best laid plans going drastically wrong and having to improvise to avoid failure.
Absolution felt like a game that attempted to cater to Hitman players new and old, and it would seem that in trying to appease both it unfortunately left neither party truly satisfied. It introduced some interesting and inspired features to Agent 47’s arsenal that I would like to see return in a new Hitman title. Hopefully, if such a game is released in the future, lessons from this title will be learned and fans of the series could have the game they hoped for this time around.
What does it mean for a game to be intriguing? It could be due to the mechanics of its design, or perhaps the form of its presentation. It is the hint of a deeper purpose beneath the initial façade of a game, or possibly just the promise of a new experience for the player.
The following games demonstrated these and many more intriguing qualities to earn a place on my list of the Most Intriguing Games of 2013.
It was way back in March this year when I first played this bureaucratic credential checking simulator by Lucas Pope. At the time the game was still in development but a browser based version was available on Pope’s website.
Despite the apparently mundane premise of the game and the simplistic mechanics, Pope managed to evoke a lot of emotional and ethical dilemmas to the act of checking virtual passports. What initially started as an interesting diversionary challenge one lunch break quickly led to me questioning my own morals and humanity! Quite a journey to take in 30 minutes with a browser based game…
With the release of the standalone version of the game in August, Pope introduced further human complexities and ambiguities within his world of fictional citizens. Drama, intrigue and despair would be revealed by each hopeful stranger that approached your booth, taking you on a doubt filled quest of questionable incentives.
Pope successfully managed to transform the act of administrative work into a social and psychological commentary of trust, authority and humanity in everyday life, all in the context of a game. Such powerful responses are rarely exploited in a game, let alone as masterfully as Pope does in Papers, Please.
In April, industry luminaries, press representatives and internet commenters were all in unison on social media talking about a new game craze simply known as Candy Box. Such was the fervour surrounding the game and its deliberate mysteriousness that word of mouth quickly took hold and this viral intrigue would play a large part in how the game would prove so popular.
What initially starts as a sparse browser page with a number slowly ticking up begins to unravel into an ever expanding ASCII graphic adventure that rewarded experimentation and curiosity. The crude art style provided a charming nod to text-based adventure games of the 80’s, but also masked the devious psychological nature of the game’s design.
The constant, measured trickle of reward and discovery quickly led to many players becoming addicted to furthering their progress in this fantasy world, hoping to uncover new secrets. However, this deliberate drip feed was no more than a simple time gate intended to draw players back to the game in regular intervals.
It is a design employed by the infamous Facebook games such as Farmville that so frequently received condemnation from many of the people that were now singing the praises of Candy Box. Here was a game that subverted the opinion of many people in the industry, myself included, as to what an acceptable method of controlling player’s enjoyment within a game could be. That unwitting realisation may not have vindicated such design practices, but it definitely captivated a seemingly impervious market and demonstrated how we are all susceptible to addiction.
The Stanley Parable is a brilliant and inspired game that originally started as a Half-Life mod. The experience of playing The Stanley Parable is directly linked to the individual playing it, and therefore in many ways it is difficult to quantify what may captivate a player. In my case, as a Level Designer, I was led on a fantastically humorous journey where I knew the setup to all the jokes, but the punch line still always managed to surprise and entertain me.
The essence of The Stanley Parable was to hold a mirror up to the very fabric of designing and creating a story driven game where the player controls the protagonist. It plays with convention and expectation of level design principles, as well as narrative structure and implementation within games. Therefore, when I looked into the mirror I felt justified, ashamed, fascinated, inspired, entertained and surprised every time I played as each time was different. In fact, I think I will have to go play it just one more time…!
2013 has provided us with the end of eras, the beginning of a new generation and a wealth of controversy and success in between it all. As this interesting year in the industry draws to a close, people begin to look back and rank their gaming experiences.
Ignoring all the news stories and studio closures, what of the games that are the very essence of this industry?
What follows is a collection of the games that have nestled in my gaming memories of 2013, though (disclaimer for nit-pickers) they are not necessarily games that were only released this year. So without any further ado, here are the categories for the Stuart Scott Game of the Year 2013 awards!