And now, a few words on the missing.
Remember Me–It was #10, right before Tearaway happened. I feel bad about that and it deserves a mention. Nothing else that came after does what that game does and isn’t likely to. And that makes me feel equally bad.
COD Ghosts–Nope. Still ain’t good. Says everything that the story of how the Ghosts got their name is the best thing to happen in these games since Modern Warfare (except maybe the hilarious DRUG LORD MACHETE RAMPAGE! in BLOPS 2), and it all happens in the game’s CG intro.
Battlefield 4–Still have a general malaise about the genre, but I give the game its due credit for having a much stronger handle on making the assorted military chaos potent and personal hour after hour instead of the instant numbing effect of COD, and for giving me protagonists and NPCs I actually enjoyed being around, and understood the motivations for. It’s also fucking GORGEOUS on the next gen, but that’s almost a foregone conclusion at this point.
The Last Of Us/Bioshock Infinite–Two games that just fly to pieces the more thought you put into them. Neither game is bad, by a long shot, but certainly less than the sum of their parts. In Bioshock‘s case, it’s the fact that it’s a serviceable FPS that wishes SO BADLY to not be an FPS, and the ending writes a creative check that borderline insulting DLC refused to cash. For The Last Of Us, it’s a decent game, held together by some great, restrained post-apocalyptic storytelling, and ne’er the twain shall meet. Both games have disparate parts I would gladly hold up as some of the best moments I’ve had holding a controller this year–for The Last Of Us, that includes one of the best ambiguous endings ever–but as complete projects, neither makes the cut.
Tomb Raider–In the same boat as the above, though all my problems are tonal. As gameplay, I’ve never enjoyed a Tomb Raider game as much as this, and I’m totally willing to use that next-gen Definitive Edition as an excuse to have another go with it.
The Wonderful 101/Super Mario World 3D/Wind Waker HD–Games that probably would’ve made it if I owned a WiiU. Haven’t played anything from either game so far to hit a sour note.
The Wolf Among Us–Naturally, it’s just unfair to only put the first chapter of something on a list. For all we know, Episodes 2-5 might make a spectacular show of shitting the bed. But it’s worth mentioning that Episode 1, Faith, ended on a note that made me ravenous for part 2 right then and there more than any sequel coming down the pike right now. Pretty sure this’ll end up getting its full due on this list this time next year.
When it comes to letting the pretentions of your studio/creator get the best of a game, there’s flying up your own ass, much like Final Fantasy has done, and then there’s Metal Gear, which is essentially playing a decade-long game of anus Dig Dug at this point, with no signs of Kojima coming up for air, if the MGS V trailers are any indication.
Revengeance, on the other hand, wants no part of that. Revengeance‘s insanity is squarely where it belongs: The gameplay. There’s no question whatsoever this was forged from the same maniac genetic material as Bayonetta, and throwing those sensibilities at the military-industrial wank of Metal Gear universe, Konami hit paydirt. Revengeance is what Ninja Gaiden would look like to someone having a psilocybin trip inside of the USS Intrepid during Hurricane Sandy. It’s 4 hours of lightheartedly slicing people, places, and things into mozzarella, while a contest for Who Wants To Be The Next KMFDM happens on the soundtrack. It’s big, ambitious, imaginative, while also uncontrollably goofy, and it’s unabashedly proud of that, in stark contrast to the main MGS titles. I haven’t had this much fun with a game in this series ever, and wanted to go back and relive it almost immediately when the credits started rolling. Even with the game’s extremely short length, it proved that quality not quantity is still a viable ethos for a game these days. More of this, please.
Contributing Factors: Platinum Games. That pretty much covers it right there.
Moment To Savor: Final boss. Nope, don’t care how cheap he is, it’s a cyborg soldier fighting a Hulked out United States Senator who rides around in a giant robot spider. This is the greatest final boss.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “You’ll believe a man can get dismembered and come back as a sadomasochistic robot samurai with Batvoice. YOU HEARD ME.”
It wasn’t so much that Devil May Cry had hit a rut–DMC 3 is only two games back, after all, and it still holds up like a motherfucker–but more that one could tell the rut had been hit with how Devil May Cry 4 had aged with Walter Donovan speed. Rather than let the series suffer Resident Evil‘s wheel-spinning fate, they completely reinvented it.
This new Devil May Cry is its own very American beast, brought into the 21st Century with a lethal dose of smartass youth, energy, and ingenuity in everything from the aesthetic, to its dialogue, to its approach to the goth horror that made it famous. It’s a world and a feel that has no business working, and yet Ninja Theory makes the sucker work. Somehow, they made me root for the kind of kid most guys my age would want to deck on sight, to make him want to methodically dismantle Hell itself, and do it in wonderful, free-flowing style. The feeling of exhilaration when you succeed is nigh unmatched, and again, it’s a place I wanted to return to immediately after it was all over.
Contributing Factors: Alex Garland. Noisia and Combichrist. Whoever at Ninja Theory decided to ignore most of the previous 4 games.
Moment To Savor: That Bob Barbas boss fight puts a smile on my face every time I think about it, but the skyscraper stage is the part where everything–the humor, the character, the horror, and the gameplay–all sing in harmony.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “That time spent keeping Alex Garland away from a Dredd sequel was worth it. I guess.”
Me and the Playstation Vita have only glanced at each other from our respective corners of the gaming cafe, but it was the PS4 that introduced us formally, primarily to keep the option of playing Resogun on the john open. Tearaway represents the split second I thought maybe we should go steady.
Tearaway is the first Vita game I’ve played that felt like the future of what a portable was capable of was finally in reach, where the line between player and avatar was virtually nil. I am both God and partner to little Iota/Atoi, and the world around me, minus the snarly Scraps that pop up, wants nothing more than to exercise our creativity to the fullest. While Media Molecule’s bread and butter, LittleBigPlanet, felt like a toy box, with a game they slapped together forged out of the contents, Tearaway feels like a full fledged game world where the story isn’t complete without my ideas, my personality, my input, and the game world will try its absolute damndest to make you happy as a reward, be it by bringing the colorful, creative world out to ours through papercraft, or by simply letting you enjoy interacting with your new, happy best friends. It’s the textbook definition of charming and there is absolutely nothing else like it on the market. The Vita’s needed a killer app for the longest. Mission accomplished.
Contributing Factors: The Vita finally getting to employ its full bag of tricks in unison. Genuine, unforced warmth.
Moment To Savor: Any number of moments where your voice, face, or patterns from our world gets into theirs. But I’m partial to making the snowflakes that fall during an entire stage.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Save a horse, ride a papercraft pig!”
As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t know how we got to this place where the best thing about being an Assassin is being a pirate, but I’m glad we’re here. Black Flag conglomerates everything that works about games past into one package. It’s a game with a sense of humor, a lightness in its tone and step, and the mystical Illuminati muck that always felt like an obstacle in the way of the player and the sweet, sweet stabby action is minimized to trace elements. It’s the best kind of open world game, where doing NOTHING feels like the best thing in the world. Your first big trek around the West Indies involves going from one side of the game map to the other. It’s a half hour long journey, minus the random acts of small time piracy I couldn’t resist, but the fact that long stretches were spent just enjoying the sunrise, listening to my crew sing shanties, and swimming out towards random islands just to walk around is the greatest feeling in the world. And then you find yourself circling a level 30 barge, fighting to the last man, while Poseidon gets his lightning-infused wrath on, trying to overturn the both of you.
I still can’t really say whether this new development, with Assassins Creed taking the last train to Funsville, is going to be the way of things from here on, but I can definitely say the turn was welcome.
Contributing Factors: The pretty. Sweet Jesus, the pretty. Also, UbiSoft remembering that, yes, this series is allowed to be more than just Forrest Gump with wristshanks.
Moment To Savor: In the Animus: Any time you just get behind the ship’s wheel, the cheers of your crew behind you, the Caribbean sun above, and songs of the scurvy being sung right before you blow the shit out of some poor merchant’s livelihood. Out of the Animus: Desmond’s ultimate fate being explained with minimum visual, maximum OH FUCKING HELL CREEPY
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “You can stop trying now, Jerry Bruckheimer.”
The Interactive Drama experiment continues to press on, and with each step, David Cage gets closer to something resembling the promised land. This year’s model saw Cage not just correcting Heavy Rain‘s most engregious problem, which is trying to not crack up laughing during a serious scene when everyone sounds like Christopher Walken playing a stroke victim, but going the step further to giving players a life to live, a character to care for, a burden to carry. That journey feels far more kinetic and free, given its supernatural subject matter, and given the game’s well-played timeline jumping story. Yes, this means that experiment succeeds on both fronts handily, with Page giving a strong, fearless, nuanced performance to what very easily could’ve been all weeping, all the time, surrounded by folks operating on her level, and supported by the technology to translate that to the digital stage. Jodie’s life isn’t a happy one, but both director and actress hit the sweet spot on how to keep us caring, and rooting for her the entire time, in an experience that remains unlike anything else you’ll play anywhere else.
Contributing Factors: Cage raising his game in every way, Page just doing what she do.
Moment To Savor: The section with Jodie homeless on the streets of New York got screened at Tribeca for a reason.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “As far as games go, Beyond is totally boss.”
Brothers was the big surprise of the year, comparing what it sounded like on paper versus the grand fantasy journey it actually offers. It’s a small story, about two kids trying to find magical medicine for their sick father, being told on an ever-expanding stage. In practice, it’s two brothers cutting a path through a magnificently parsed world, reacting and causing reactions specifically by nature of their own personalities, with a brain-bending single-player-co-op control that’s deeper and satisfyingly trickier than advertised. It’s a world of helping trolls escape slavery, of trawling the horrors of a war against giants, of working as one unit to outsmart a vicious dog, of playing games with a lonely scientist, of tandem climbing a castle to rescue a trapped bird. There’s not an inch of this world that doesn’t contain some new wonder, and being able to experience it as two very different personalities in such an organic, yet simplistic way is almost miraculous, and it’s hard to imagine this working the same any other way.
Contributing Factors: Your own brain tripping over itself. Doling out the visual beauty in pieces. Not being afraid to get its hands viscerally dirty when appropriate.
Moment To Savor: The simple, yet completely heartshattering way you get past the final challenge.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “All of the companionship, none of the wicked Indian burns.”
Since Last Light has hit, we’ve had a cool dozen FPS titles hit just this year, and zero percent of them have been able to have even half the effect this did. Nothing in the genre this year has scared me more. Nothing this year has made me feel more like I’ve earned every additional step I’ve gotten to take. Nothing has made me want to advance more to succeed.
Moreover, it’s just plain DIFFERENT. This place, these people, this situation, the very tone and timbre of Last Light are all new and foreign, even among the Fallouts of the world. This is a world I’ve never visited on its best day on its last legs, raging against going gentle into the good night, failing from the horror eating away at any chance of returning to the surface, and the political horror threatening to step in and finish the job in the stations. Every trip to the outside world doesn’t feel like traversing some vast overworld between actual stages. You feel more alien here than the mutants that overrun it now. You simply don’t belong here, and every moment spent there, hoping your mask filters, your ammo, and your ability to run like hell hold out raises your blood pressure, and keeps your trigger finger shaky. This is an experience unlike any other FPS, besides its predecessor, and maybe Half-Life 2. Actually, Half-Life‘s a bad example. You still had hope in Half-Life.
Contributing Factors: Fantastic setting. Taking off the typical FPS leash. Ranger Mode welcoming the true hardcore into its unforgiving embrace.
Moment To Savor: Pick any flashback. But walking down a corridor, being molested by the fleshy hands of the nuclear dead deserves a shout out.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Это лучший шутер от первого лица в году. Я буду говорить больше по-русски сейчас. Волшебные нос дельфинов, играют в прятки с брюки гномов в Берлине в следующий вторник.”
What Gone Home is matters less than what it represents. What Gone Home is is the simple story of a girl coming home after traveling abroad to an empty house, and piecing together the why of it all. What Gone Home represents is the medium taking a baby step forward, expanding what kind of tales can be told here and telling them in a way that couldn’t be done any other way. That all-important why is heartfelt, earnest, and very young–in the best possible light of that word–but it is also the kind of experience this medium has needed. This isn’t world-building happening here so much as life-building, letting the player explore the story of years and people missed instead of telling it all the way through (which was Dear Esther‘s mistake), and how much the player gets out of that experience comes down to the emotional investment, not how quick one’s trigger finger is. The why isn’t necessarily a twist or surprising, but with the state of this house looming over all, the increasing and unavoidable dread and/or hope only gets heavier with time. The game represents the distilled form of storytelling every game writer has been trying to inject for years, but not with this much heart, empathy, and sheer emotion. This is the mature kick in the ass the medium needs, and needs often.
Contributing Factors: Inclusionism. Forethought. Characters we give a shit about that we NEVER EVEN MEET. Also, not that it has any effect on quality, but the Fullbright folks standing behind their game’s ethos and telling PAX to fuck itself is still the ballsiest thing to happen in games all year.
Moment To Savor: Kind of a cheat, but really, the whole game is that moment. Every single thing you can interact with or read is wonderfully anticipatory, not just as checkpoints between cutscenes.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “It’s okay, you’re not a stalker if it happened in a video game.”
All UbiSoft had to do was copy-paste Rayman Origins into some new stages, using the exact same backdrops, ask for $60, and they’d have it. Instead, Legends is crammed to capacity with joy. Platforming joy. Musical joy. Happy happy joy joy. This is the imagination of all those folks who’ve been trying to make the next Mario since 1989 completely unshackled to run rampant over all. There’s no limits to just how deliriously insane the game goes with its art style, and that lack of creative modesty extends to the gameplay, where every stage is equal parts skill, timing, and sheer skin-of-your-teeth luck. Even moreso than Origins, Legends is not above throwing the player an uncompromised ass-kicking, but the process is just so very bright, colorful and, well, animated that the smile you have failing the first time is still there after the 30th. The game’s coming to next-gen in February. They’re getting my money again, and I will be glad to be rid of it. This is the platformer or our literal wildest dreams.
Contributing Factors: EVERYTHING. Boils down to the staunch commitment to create a living, breathing, cartoon world.
Moment To Savor: I keep thinking the music stages will eventually lose their charm. A couple dozen times later? Nope. Hasn’t happened yet. Thinking it probably never will.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “Happiness is a warm Lum.”
Brain or heart.
This is what it ultimately came down to in trying to pick one of these to take the top spot this year. Do I pick the game that is, objectively, the biggest, most ambitious gaming achievement ever, or do I pick the game that gave me the most joy, with the people I would gladly spend 100 more hours with given the first chance.
Ultimately, the answer was, “Fuck it.”
Both GTA V and Saints Row IV both represent the best things to happen to gaming this year, this gen’s equivalent of smashing a guitar into a drum kit and screaming “Fuck you and good night” into a mic. Saints Row finally achieved true, quantifiable greatness after fighting tooth and nail to dig out from the GTA also-ran grave it dug itself into early on, with not only the best superhero game ever, one of the most fun, fully customizable third person shooters ever, but also the funniest game to happen this year. It’s the one to cement for all time just how much I’ve come to love hanging around with this band of puckish rogues, and obviously, so does Volition, and the game gives them all the closure they need to live violently ever after once the credits roll and the gang has their last dance. This is a game full dedicated to the cause of fun above all else, even bringing in its own grim, glitchy past along for the ride, with no small measure of good-natured ribbing against itself for being such.
GTA V, on the flipside, takes it that next step into flat out self-loathing and further examination. That isn’t to say GTA V has gone completely joyless–some of the most hilarious moments the series has ever created, and some of the coolest moments the series has ever created reside here–but it’s not without a measure of clarity. Rockstar’s journey this gen has been the one with the greatest success, but the cost and risk of glory is high, and they know it. So, here we have probably the biggest, most detailed, and fully realized game world ever conceived, where virtually any and every interaction one can have with the real world has been translated here with the same psycho bent as games past. It is a massive, stunning, Herculean achievement they’ve done here, and we are meant to explore it as the Ghosts of GTAs Past, Present and Maniac Future, as people and by proxy a series worried about its place and purpose, and we witness the ultimate making of peace with that over 60 hours. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Michael, Franklin, and Trevor are likeable, relatable protagonists, but they’re endlessly fascinating ones that are most definitely worth exploring, as the guys we explore this GTA game with, and as ciphers for the whole gaming landscape right now. The journey’s dark, unfriendly, which makes the moments of undeniable thrills and catharsis all the stronger. Fun may not be enough to carry these people, and gaming into the promised land, argues GTA V, but it is important, and while the questions Rockstar asks from GTA V are equally important, their commitment to making games has never been proven on such grand a scale and ambition as this.
So. Fun or purpose? Brain or heart? One cannot live without the other. Gaming, in the 21st century, doesn’t get to function without either. It’s only fair that the two greatest examples of both win 2013.
GTA: 266 million dollars. Rockstar swinging for the fences in every single conceivable way. Tangerine Dream. Taking a vicious chunk out of the hand that feeds.
Saints Row: The Volition staff’s inner 12 year olds. Remembering that Saints Row 1 did actually happen.
Moment(s) To Savor:
GTA: Pick any post-switch Trevor scene. Pick a heist. Pick any of Franklin’s final choices. Pick any of Michael’s meta, self-aware conversations with his kids. The Loneliest Robot In Britain. The chaingun reveal during the bank heist. Michael’s Enter The Void-ish drug trips. Danny McBride’s radio show. Kifflom! The final conversation against the sunset during the “good” ending.
Saints Row: Professor Genki co-op with Johnny Gat to The Boys Are Back In Town. The blissful, superpowered race through Steelport with the Shaundis. Pick a romance option (though Kinzie’s is first, shortest, and best). The Boss’ strut in the 1950s simulation. The Touch. The Dubstep Gun. Death From Above: Nuke. Saints of Rage. Piper. Keith David. Piper fighting Keith David. Both hilarious DLCs. “No, Kinzie. It’s POWER ARMOR.” The Boss’ strip club moment. We could do this all day.
CHUD.com Pull Quote: “There’s never been a better time or place in history to be a mass-murdering psychopath with disposable income.”