Friday, January 3, 2014

Note from Jamaal Ryan: I embarrassingly made the mistake of calling Andrew Ryan "Adam Ryan". I apologize for the obvious mistake, and will practice better editing next time. 

2013 was as good a year for video games as it could get. While this holiday was light on stellar titles thanks to a console launch (and I also like to blame the absence of Watch Dogs), the bulk of last year had some of the best titles this generation.

I myself didn’t get to some of last year’s cream of the crop such as Gone Home, Rogue Legacy, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, however I’ve had the opportunity to play and review some of last year’s highest acclaimed titles. Here are my top 10 favorite games of 2013.

10. Tomb Raider

 Lara Croft’s latest adaptation in and of itself earns one of 2013’s most empowering female leads, but Tomb Raider was a pleasant surprise on multiple fronts.

Part Uncharted, part Arkham Asylum, Tomb Raider was an excellent showcase of last gen’s most influential titles. It balanced stealth and action almost as well as Rocksteady’s poster bat, and handled gunplay far better than Uncharted has ever managed. Metroidvania games succeed when players bring themselves back to previous locations numerous times even outside of the game’s demand. Tomb Raider’s layered item system incentivized me to uncover every secret, and most rewardingly, every tomb.

Lara Croft’s oddly paced story and abysmal multiplayer managed to leave a few blemishes, but blemishes that pale in comparison to the core Tomb Raider experience.

Read the review.

9. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

If there was any JRPG that deserved you attention last year, it was Ni No Kuni. Level 5 and Studio Ghibli’s collaboration was a true palette cleanser, a breath of fresh air from the modus opperandi of the genre. Ghibli’s distinctive art style is enchanting, bringing the warmth of their feature films to this fantastic RPG.

The JRPG sub genre has relied on the turn based battle systems too heavily long past technical necessities. Ni No Kuni’s real time combat is that thin strip of ginger that added to this game’s palette cleansing qualities. It’s incredibly deep and surprisingly demanding to manage your party’s buffs as well as their offensive and defensive positions in real time.

Outside of battle, much of your time is spent on chasing down new Familiars and fetching equipment and items needed to metamorph your party members. The errand side quests are inevitably mundane, but pay off well enough.

But with its fresh aesthetic and excitingly novel battle system, Ni No Kuni is one of the best titles of the year, an honor that JRPGs haven’t universally earned in quite some time.

Read the review.

8. Grand Theft Auto V

By sheer metrics, Grand Theft Auto V bleeds the capabilities of last gen systems in ways we may not have even imagined. The powerful lighting system, the massive size of the city, and the detail rendered in the very cracks of it, GTA V is a stunning location from sky box to sea floor.

But the actual game that exists within this city showcases Rockstar’s best efforts. With the gunplay of Max Payne 3, the driving of Midnight Club spiced with the spontaneity of Red Dead, GTA V was certainly the best playing installment in the franchise.

But the odd trifecta that is Michael, Franklin and Trevor that exists in GTA V’s story was the key ingredient that concocted gold standard mission design in the open world genre. It wasn’t as liberating as we would have thought it to be however. I couldn’t always play as Michael if I wanted to, or switch to Franklin whenever I pleased, but missions that involved more than one character was a sure guarantee to be highly entertaining.

And then there’s the rest of the city. GTA V brought back the gleeful sandbox that was missing in some respect from GTA IV. To this day, there are new videos posted of people’s antics as they f**k around with any and everything from Los Santos to the boonies up north.

Grand Theft Auto V is a fantastic ride when you need it, and bottomless playground of your own discretion.   

Read the review.

7. Metal Gear Rising Revengeance

Even as the lowest scoring game on this top 10 list, Metal Gear Rising still managed to leave an even more lasting impression on me than some of this year’s most popular games.

This might have been my lack of understanding, or Platinum’s habit of cryptic communication, but Rising’s combat didn’t quite click for me until more than half way through the game’s campaign.

It was then when I figured out how to “break” the combat system, and when Rising changed into a completely different game. Empowering players to be able to manipulate their enemies at their will by brutal kinetics while still maintaining a high level of difficulty is what separates good action games from great ones.

Gunning at full sprint as I chop away at fodder and refuel my Nano Charge with liberal use of Rising’s Blade Mode made me feel like a god in a way that I haven’t felt from an action game in years. Once I got a full handle on Rising’s non-transparent combat system, the campaign that took me seven hours to complete the first round reduced to four the second time.

And it was a liberating four hours, ones that ended with chunks of cyborg meat and fallen bosses that had once given me grief within my first play through. Though it isn’t earned the highest score I’ve issued an action game this year, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is my favorite action title of 2013.

Read the review

6. Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag

The fact that an Assassins Creed game has made it on my top 10 list, as someone who hasn’t enjoyed an Assassins game since AC 2, speaks volumes as to how damn good AC IV turned out to be.

Assassins Creed IV bests every installment before it by not quite being an Assassins Creed game. One part Assassins game, three parts pirate power fantasy, Black Flag is the pirate game we’ve always dreamed about.

Part of the franchise’s charm is the enjoyment of exploring rather than gathering and collecting. Without relying heavily on the series’ core formula, AC IV rolls out an entire ocean to explore away from the roof tops of the densely packed cities.

Unlike any other open world title this year, AC IV managed to keep me away from continuing to my main objective. It did so not by having a sh*tty campaign like Saints Row IV, but encouraged me to open up my own opportunities to venture out on my own, something that GTA V couldn’t even bring me to do.

Assassin Creed IV: Black Flag is a pleasant surprise after the truly mess of a game AC III was, and has managed to be one of my top favorite holiday games of 2013.

The Disappointments of 2013

As we take a look at some of 2013’s best, there were a number of games that have garnered high hopes only to disappoint last year.

5. Dead Space 3

Dead Space 3, like most of the games on this list, isn’t a bad game. In fact, it’s a great game with a significantly refined combat system thanks to the complex weapon crafting economy.

However if the game itself was reskinned as an action title without the horror aesthetics, we would have a fantastic title. Unfortunately, Dead Space 3 DOES try to be a survival horror game, one that fails almost as miserably to do so as Resident Evil 6.

Dead Space 3 accomplishes horror only by its atmosphere. However much of the scares fall into an exercise of predictability, which is something that no piece of horror fiction ever wants to be accused of. To make matters worse, a powerful arsenal and a cocky protagonist only further prevent this game from being scary.

Dead Space 3 is a great game, but a bad survival horror one at that.

Read the review

4. Saints Row IV

I’ve already briefly mentioned how much I didn’t like the campaign in Saints Row IV. In a game that’s driven by your ability to fly over tall buildings and run faster than even the fastest sports car, Saints IV’s story removed that empowerment from me far more often than I would have liked.

And while tossing cars and running up buildings was the epitome of its entertainment value, it made much of what allows Saints Row: The Third to be one of the best sandbox titles ever made obsolete. Don’t ask me to get in a car, because I can blow right past them. Don’t ask me to fly a jet, because I can fly on my own. Saints Row IV didn’t manage to scale up everything to match your enhanced super powers.

Take the time to flip through your list of purchasable upgrades, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Read the review

3. God of War: Ascension

No one asked for GOW: Ascension.

Kratos’ story was concluded in GOW 3, and not much time has passed since the Spartan warrior’s swan song. But nonetheless, after an impressive E3 showing, none could complain about getting another God of War game since the series has yet to release an underwhelming title.

But Ascension wasn’t only a disappointing game, it wasn’t a very good one to begin with.

The God of War franchise has managed to do a decent job at narrating Kratos’ rage filled quest for vengeance. But Ascension’s delivery was weak on all fronts with meaningless characters and a severe lack in “epic”.

Adding more to this unwarranted release, Ascension’s combat has worsened; attacks are looser with a notable delay and some annoyingly non-interruptable moves. But this GOW’s biggest offense sits in its inexcusable use of provocation. The formerly titled “Bros before Hos” trophy continued the franchise’s disrespectful messaging towards women after the appalling “I didn’t do it, but I wish I did” trophy from GOW 3. And its childish use of suicide imagery in the game’s multiplayer was completely uncalled for.

Ascension manages to pull through with a surprisingly enjoyable multiplayer, however it’s better to forget that God of War: Ascension even existed.  

Read the review

2. Call of Duty: Ghosts

I speak to the Call of Duty fan base about this one as many will quickly resort to, “Well Call of Duty’s sucked for years!”

Every Call of Duty game’s campaign has managed to be mindlessly entertaining with a few moderately successful attempts at compelling story telling. However the director of Syriana’s contribution to Ghost’s story has done nothing to save it from being unequivocally bad. From the weakest narrative to completely un inspired pacing makes Ghost’s campaign the first I recommend against playing.

There’s not much to say about the multiplayer either. The map design is bloated and unnecessarily convoluted making Team Deathmatch surprisingly uneventful in some cases. Some of these maps can be saved by different match types, such as the hardcore mode Cranked, but Ghost’s maps fail to adapt well to different styles of play.

Multiplayer also seems to try too hard to fabricate longevity. With a light feature set outside of the awesome Extinction Mode, having to unlock an overloaded list of perks, weapons and attachments, Call of Duty’s multiplayer feels more like a chore.

As Giant Bomb’s Jeff Gerstmann said, “This is exactly what Titanfall needed”. In March, I’ll gladly hang up my dog tags for a jet pack and a Titan.

Read the review

1.Beyond: Two Souls

Beyond 2 Souls is the lowest scoring game I’ve ever reviewed, which is an utter surprise after Quantic Dream’s previous offering which still sits among my top three PS3 games of all time.

Beyond was a shockingly bad effort in both story telling and game design. The writing was poor, mildly evocative at best giving us no real chance to build an emotional connection with it; and its completely disorganized and out of order sequence did nothing to enhance its delivery.

And while some slight distractions such as the gorgeous visuals, Ellen Page’s performance, and an excruciatingly small handful of interesting narrative attempts, Beyond never rises up above being a terrible video game. The lack of player agency is severe and borderline offensive, robbing you of any meaningful choices until the game’s conclusion.

Beyond: Two Souls is a full step backwards in every way imaginable from the studio that brought us the truly excellent Heavy Rain.

Read the review

Now, for the remaining 5 of the best games of 2013

5. Bioshock Infinite

Infinite’s significance is nearly entirely recognized by its ending. That one-two gut punch of Rapture followed by the Comstock reveal is what Bioshock Infinite will be remembered by.

The writing was bold and unafraid to gets its hands dirty with depictions of religion and racism. Disappointingly however, those subject matters weren’t pervasive throughout the game’s entirety and only served to emphasize how twisted of a society Comstock has created after we’ve seen [Andrew] Ryan and Sophia Lamb’s failings.

Infinite’s sense of narrative agency is powerful, giving the player plenty of responsibility to piece together the city of Columbia. And though the gameplay itself seemed divorced from the fiction, it offered a successfully energetic approach to combat as opposed to the original’s methodical pacing. The sprawling battle arenas threaded with sky lines presented impressive mobility. And the Vigors helped close the gap or reach enemies from afar.

Bioshock Infinite stands as a wildly successful title, acing nearly everything it strived to accomplish.

Read the review

4. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Spoiler alert

Bioshock Infinite’s biggest criticism was that the gameplay bared little resemblance to its narrative of the city of Columbia. Brothers manages the exact opposite, where the gameplay itself is a direct representation of the story.

Controlling both brothers independently with each analog stick was admittedly awkward, but worked for the gameplay and worked even better for the story. Puzzles and encounters offered a satisfying challenge, not only because of the split controls, but because they were creative and engaging in their own right.

Brother’s wordless dialogue only heightened the surprisingly dark tone and emotional interactions. It brought us to pay attention to body language and non verbal communication unlike any other game has.

But Brother’s highest achievement comes after the older brother’s death. It’s emotionally heartbreaking not only because of the passing of a companion and the uncomfortable burial of his body, but the entire control scheme reacts to his death, mimicking the emptiness the younger brother felt.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is easily one of the most emotionally effective games of 2013.

Read the review

3. Hotline Miami

The cult hit from 2012 returned in 2013 and invaded Playstation Vitas for your homicidal pleasure.

At its roots, Hotline Miami is an arcade game with a very simple “clear the room” objective. However its electrifying head bobbing soundtrack, tight as f**k controls, instant respawns, and incredible depiction of violence made this murderous hyper trip down-right hypnotic.

Hotline Miami’s level design is centered on rapid problem solving. Its tools of mutilation allowed me to feel empowered, yet its one-hit-kill punishment made me feel very vulnerable. You can either die a dozen times, or eviscerate a dozen foes in 12 seconds.

To this day, Hotline Miami is still my favorite title on Vita.

Read the review

2. Super Mario 3D World

Even if Wii U’s library was filled with strong third party support offerings, there’s no denying that few could have measured up to the impeccable craftsmanship in Super Mario 3D World.

3D World’s masterful level design is gleeful, joyous, and unpredictable. Picking up a Cherry power-up for the first time made my girlfriend scream in excitement. The same reaction was elicited from me when a flag pole sprouted wings and began flying away.

Super Mario 3D World’s replay value is immense, and had me go back multiple times with multiple characters to scrape up every single collectable. 3D World’s highly difficult stages, once conquered, brought me back for intense speed runs, Mario’s oldest form of replayability.

Multiplayer brought some of the most fun I’ve had with friends in a Battlefield and Dota 2 era. The series of vengeful griefings and happy accidents can only exist in a couch co-op experience, and I’m glad Nintendo stuck to it. My favorite line from playing multiplayer was, “David, you’re a butt” as the couple in my living room chased each other to throw one another off a cliff.

It’s been several years since we’ve been graced by a stellar console Mario title, and Super Mario 3D World is the best proper Mario game since Galaxy 2.

Read the review

1.The Last of Us

They say that we love the ones who hurt us the most; I suppose that’s the kind of relationship I have with The Last of Us.  

The Last of Us was grimy, dingy, and very uncomfortable to experience; and it was for those very reasons why I kept coming back. Easily, The Last of Us boasts the best visuals and performances on Playstation 3. Naughty Dog didn’t need to visually replicate the talent behind Joel, Ellie (Troy Baker and Ashely Johnson) and the other strong characters in order to convince me they were real people.

The “on the edge of my seat” cliché is most appropriately used to describe my complete emotional reaction to The Last of Us. Creeping around Runners and Clickers, examining new characters with caution and mistrust, and not knowing just what the hell was going to happen towards the end; The Last of Us had me hooked every second.

The complimentary stealth action gameplay was a perfect pairing for The Last of Us. It represented the desperation of the post apocalypse and adapted effortlessly between silent avoidance and direct confrontations.

Next to its shocking ending, The Last of Us’ multiplayer was this game’s biggest surprise. I can’t think of a multiplayer game that has managed to closely replicate its single player counterpart as The Last of Us did. It didn’t only do this with its methodical mechanics, but it did so with its harrowing sense of desperation.

As one who’s responsible for a growing survival camp, your actions in multiplayer directly affected the fate of your survivors. And the inclusion of names and their personal updates made you feel as if your tasks were that much more important. I say that The Last of Us hurt me, and I meant that quite literally. One multiplayer match triggered so much anxiety, that it gave me chest pain. No video game in my 20 year history has ever had that effect on me.

The Last of Us isn’t only my pick for the top game of 2013, it defines AAA accomplishment for the last console generation, and has become my favorite game of all time.

Read the review 

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