2013 was a weird year in gaming. Old consoles winding down, new consoles stumbling out of the gate, and Steam growing bigger, stronger, and stranger all the time. According to all the previews, we have the promise of VR goggles, touch-pad controllers, and kinect skeletal-scans to look forward to in the future. Gaming in 2014 might not look anything like gaming in 2013.
But that's in the future. In 2013 there were still plenty of great games to play with a good old controller and monitor. Here are the BEST of them that I personally played.
It feels a little odd to proclaim Bioshock Infinite the best game I played in 2013. After months of watching the internet pick apart the game's shooting, storyline, ending, and "problematic content", you could almost forget that Bioshock Infinite was actually pretty damn great!
I'm not going to say Infinite was a perfect game, but I will say I enjoyed it. I liked exploring the beautiful, yet deeply disturbing world of Columbia. I enjoyed the interaction between the lovably wide-eyed Elizabeth and the jerkass sour Booker. And yes, I did enjoy breaking necks with the Skyhook, I am THAT guy. Give me a world where I can mutilate and ignite a bunch of racist crackers, and I'm probably going to do exactly that.
Some of my favourite gaming moments from 2013 came from Infinite. Listening to the Lutece twins bicker back and forth about quantum mechanics, watching Elizabeth dance on the boardwalk, and stumbling through the surreal ending sequence; these are the things I'll remember about Infinite, not how the gunplay was a little old fashion.
Bioshock was the game that propelled me to pick up a 360 and join the last generation of gaming. It seems oddly poetic that Infinite should be the swan song of that system. A beautiful note to go out on.
Runner up: Rogue Legacy
The genealogical "rogue-lite" Rogue Legacy is one of the tightest, most enjoyable games I've ever played. Jumping over spike pits, executing down-thrusts, and dodging traps, it was like stepping back in time to the glory days of SNES platforming. Only better. And with more irritable bowels.
Rogue Legacy managed to take the best parts of the harsh world of roguelikes, and marry them to more gentle world of progression based RPGS to create something incredible. Every run into the dreaded castle is still a tense "one-life, one-chance" affair subject to the whims of the RNG, but the ability to upgrade your homestead for future generations gives you a sense of progress and accomplishment – even when you prematurely impale your colourblind wizard on a spike.
More than great mechanics, Rogue Legacy has a lot of heart and charm. Maybe I'm a big softie, but I really appreciated the "anyone can be a hero" tagline of the game and the loving treatment of all manner of personality traits and medical conditions. It was a refreshing change to see a game celebrate imperfection.
Honourable Mention - GTA 5
I went into GTA 5 feeling a bit cynical. I wasn't exactly chomping at the bit for another GTA, but Rockstar did their usual magic with a few well crafted trailers and some excellent soundtrack announcements and, begrudgingly, got me on board for another go.
In the end, I'm glad I gave it a shot.
I have a lot of quibbles with GTA 5. The missions that have to be done "just so", the insanely lethal cops, the choice between a far too easy and unsatisfying auto-aim, and the floaty, frustrating cross hairs of the free-aim. There are a lot of little nagging problems.
That said, it is fascinating to watch GTA grow up. Rather than re-tell the sorry old "from hood to Kingpin" story again, GTA 5 has more complicated narrative split between three conflicting personalities. A narrative that challenges the very core of the GTA mythos with a middle aged wash-out, a young sell-out, and a batshit lunatic, and says "hey wait a sec, maybe crime doesn't pay after all." Watching the lives of the three protagonists continually turn into dogshit because of their choices felt way more convincing than Niko Bellic wringing his hands about being a criminal from the comfort of his new penthouse apartment.
I loved the city, I loved the soundtrack, and I loved the heists. I even loved the online when it worked. Despite all the little annoyances, I had a damn good time with GTA 5.
Okay, you want to know a secret? Enemy Within is my real GOTY. Yeah yeah, I know it's actually just some DLC for a game that was released last year, but nothing else blew me away this year like Enemy Within.
It's a masterpiece. XCOM: Enemy Unknown was already my favourite game of 2012, and Enemy Within took everything I loved about that game, made it better, added in a bunch of new stuff, and corrected some of the bugs and foibles of the original. The addition of new enemies that punish your old habits, the incentive of the new Meld upgrade to move faster and more aggressively than ever before, and a wealth of new classes, equipment pieces, and upgrades to experiment with makes Enemy Within play more like an entirely new game than some piece of DLC.
This is DLC the way it should be. Meaningful content that makes the game better, deeper, and doesn't feel like some tacked on cash grab. If there is one thing I would to see from the industry in the future, it would be less map packs and skins, and more Enemy Within.
We had a bumper crop of indy treasures this year and it's hard to pick a favourite, but Rogue Legacy edges just ahead of the crowd. Like I said above, its a fantastic game that I'd recommend to anybody.
Runner up - Gone Home
While most games thrive on the bombastic and spectacular, Gone Home is a celebration of the small and the personal. It is a quiet, introspective tour of a few relatively mundane lives and the minutia that makes them tick.
And that's amazing.
I adored my time in the Greenbrier home. I had more fun picking through the family VHS collection and snooping through their personal correspondence than I did nailing any sick headshots this year. As an unabashed pop culture nerd who grew up in the 90's, it's a given that I loved the obsessive level of detail the Fullbright team went to in their recreation of a mid-90's home. But more than that, I felt an emotional connection to the characters in Gone Home. I cared about them. I really wanted Sam to be happy and live the way she wanted, I was rooting for the dad with his schlocky sci-fi novels, and I was hoping things would turn around for the mom and she'd stop eyeing up the hunky park ranger.
If Gone Home did one thing, it proved that a well written, well presented, personal crisis can be more compelling than any alien invasion or nuclear threat.
Honourable mention - Papers, Please
If you ever dreamed about living in a Soviet state, going day to day on a government stipend, never sure when the boot of oppression was about to crush down on you, boy have I got the game for you. Also, seek help.
Papers, Please isn't a feel good game. It's a game of intense pressure, frustrating clutter, and uncomfortable moral choices. Putting you in charge of the Arstotzka border crossing, it's up to you to enforce the rules of the state on every travel seeking entry into the country, no matter how byzantine the documents get, how sad the old lady's sob story is, how sick your son is back at home, or how much unrest is brewing within the populace. Or not. Maybe you feel like you should take a bribe from that sketchy terrorist group and move the family into a higher class of domicile. Or maybe you'll take a kickback from your soldier buddy and detain a few extra suckers who's papers didn't measure up. Or maybe you're thinking it's a good time to start heading for the border yourself.
Despite your stationary position at the border crossing, there are an awful lot of choices hidden away in Papers, Please, and not many of them offer a clear distinction between good and bad. The game forces you into unsettling compromises and makes you come to grips with being a cog in a terrible machine. It's like nothing else I've ever played.
It isn't a horror game? There are no ghosts that need busting after all? Nope, it's way more awesome than any of that! What a lovely surprise.
Runner up – DmC
Hey, it didn't suck nearly as bad as everyone said it would! In fact, I really enjoyed myself!
Fact: I will never get tired of kicking that little shit-stain Nightwing through a skyscraper.
Injustice might not be as deep or as smooth as some other fighting games on the market. True to NetherRealm standards, there is a fair amount of jankiness and weird character imbalance to be found in their latest title. But you know what? None of that really matters because Injustice is fun. After a few years of highly technical fighters full of 1-frame links and arthritis inducing joystick gymnastics, it was great to break out a fighting game I could play with a few friends on the couch and have a good time with.
Injustice takes the recognizable faces of the DC universe, translates their weird powers and abilities into a 2D fighter better than I would have imagined, and pours a healthy helping of crazy-sauce over the whole thing. You have a single-player story where Superman is the badguy, Aquaman feeds his opponents to a shark, and people get launched into orbit on a surprisingly regular basis.
Step to my Lex Luthor and I'll show you what a man with a kryptonite axe and satellite death-ray is capable of.
This isn't a tie, it's a combination winner. While I wasn't super blown away by either game on their own, I think playing both games one after the other benefits them both and creates an experience greater than the sum of their parts.
There are a lot of similarities between Machine for Pigs and Outlast. They are both modern "non-combat" horror games where you have no way of actually fighting the monsters and have to focus on escaping or hiding from them. And they both explore the similar subject matter, just at different ends of the century – Machine for Pigs wallowing in the misery of industrialized London, and Outlast exploring the cruelty of a mental asylum/medical research lab operated by a modern American corporation.
The "gameplay" in Machine for Pigs is remarkably thin. The puzzles are generally straight forward, and the sanity meters and tinderboxes of the original have been replaced with a much greater emphasis on story and narration. It's less of a game and more of a visual tour of a story.
So it's a good thing that the story is great and the visuals are every bit as disturbing as you'd expect from an Amnesia game.
Outlast, ironically, cleaves closer to the original Amnesia's game design, exchanging batteries for your night-vision camcorder for lamp oil. It is the exact same mechanic, forcing you to scrounge and explore for resources to keep things nice and illuminated, and ramping up the pressure as you get turned around and lost. You can't help but begrudge every wasted second as your batteries run dry.
Amnesia weaves a classic Gothic tale of a desperate man broken by his prophetic vision of the 20th century, while Outlast uses the trappings of the modern found-footage horror film to trace back the lurid history of the past century and the horrors that have been committed in the name of progress. Machine for Pigs does a better job of creating a palpable atmosphere, while Outlast provides the game mechanics to balance it out.
The two couldn't have dovetailed any nicer if the developers had planned it!
In a year crammed with amazing sequences, I would have NEVER expected that my favourite gaming moment this year would happen in Outlast.
But then again, nobody told me about Dr. Trager.
In a game full of disturbing imagery, traumatized and broken people, and unhinged psychotics trying to kill you, hearing Dr. Trager's voice over the intercom, urging you to the safety of his medical ward, is a light in the darkness. Finally, somebody sane in this place!
Too bad Dr. Trager is probably the most unhinged psychotic of them all, and expressly intends to turn you into a traumatized and broken person.
With a perfect blend of pitch black comedy you can't help but giggle at, mixed with truly terrifying acts of malice, Dr. Trager's introduction is by far the stand out sequence of the game. It was the moment I went from kind of passively enjoying Outlast with an indifferent attitude, to REALLY engaging with it with white-knuckled intensity.
And oh God, what that man does to your fingers...
Runner up – XCOM Base Attack
It isn't any kind of surprise when it happens, but the mission to defend the XCOM HQ in Enemy Within had me grinning ear to ear. Then grimacing. Then crying.
After taking it to the aliens in the field time and time again, I felt surprisingly vulnerable fighting them on XCOM's own turf. Underneath it all, it's the same old mechanics with the same old enemies. But seeing them stomp all over your own digs? Having to send out rookie XCOM security guards as cannon fodder while your real squad makes their way through the base? It feels like they've invaded, broken some kind of unwritten rule of the game.
Fending off carnivorous Chrysalids under the glow of the XCOM strategic holo-globe is a moment I won't soon forget.
Honourable Mention - Bioshock Infinite, Girls just want to have fun
Unlike a lot of people, I didn't have as big a problem with the violence in Infinite. Still, the best moment of that game is undoubtedly touring the fair ground with Elizabeth. Her childlike excitement at finally being out of the tower and meeting new people is such a tender and wonderful sequence. And when “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” comes on over the circus calliope, it's just a perfect moment.
I know, I know, NOBODY CARES ABOUT MECHWARRIOR BUT YOU, WRENCH! But it's my list and I'll sulk if I want to.
Look, I don't think anyone who played MWO's protracted open-beta for any length of time was expecting miracles. After the harrowing near-year of disasters, set-backs, position reversals, and outright developer hostility, most of us kind of knew that MWO's launch wasn't going to be everything we might have hoped for.
Still, even the lowest of standards couldn't have prepared us for the wet-fart of a launch we got.
After more than a year of promises about a launch that would feature a new and improved UI, a switch to the fabled DX11 graphical drivers, bug and balance fixes galore, and the dangling carrot of role playing as a Mechwarrior for your chosen House in GRANDSCALE community warfare, MWO's launch did NOTHING. It was little more than PGI peeling off the beta sticker and insisting to the roiling masses that, yes, the Emperor did have new clothes, and yes, they were FANTASTIC.
It's not just that PGI made a bad game (and they did). It's that they squandered so much potential. The MechWarrior franchise has been begging for a new game for years. The fanbase was so passionate for this game, so willing to spend crowd funding bucks to get it going, and so eager to support the developer and oblige them during every disastrous patch that broke the game in strange new ways. The background lore for BattleTech is so rich, and bizarre, and campy, and ready for a fresh take. All the stars were aligned for a triumphant return for this once beloved PC gaming institution.
But instead of tapping into any of that, the lead developers at PGI loosened their belts, pulled down their slacks, and took a big old dump on all of it. Months after launch and we're still hearing the same lies they were spinning this time last year, the gameplay is more stagnant and broken than ever, and the predatory F2P hooks more greedy than you could believe. Grab your $500 Golden Clan mech now! What a deal!
Fuck you MWO, you broke my Goddamn heart.
Ok, you can call it a gimmick, but it was a gimmick I LOVED. Infinite's use of chronologically displaced pop hits set to turn of the century rag-time tunes and instrumentation not only subtly conveyed a bunch of information to the player about Columbia without a lot of clumsy exposition, it also sounded amazing. I ended up listening to the old tymey versions of “Everybody Wants to Rule The World” and “Happy Shiny People” long after I was done with my time in Columbia. I'm flatly embarrassed at how much I loved the calliope rendition of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”.
Runner up - Risk of Rain
Risk of Rain is an odd game that I don't expect everyone to love. But EVERYONE should at least listen to the soundtrack. I maxed out on chiptune stuff a few years ago, but Risk of Rain brought me back in a big way. Probably because it's so different from the regular chiptune milieu. Instead of driving beats and an emphasis on aggressively electronic bloops and bleeps, Risk of Rain comes at you obliquely, with sad stray piano notes and haunting strings. It's beautiful and sad and hits me straight in the heart. Look out for Chris Christodoulou, I bet we'll see him composing for games a lot more over the next few years.
Honourable mention - Machine for Pigs
Sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, the soundtrack to Machine for Pigs is imperative to the experience. The strings may eat you.
I might have enjoyed shooting the racist shitheads in Columbia a little too much.
Origins was a bit of a let-down, but by God I just love snapping limbs as THE BAT.
You could smell the internet shit storm a mile away. I still think the Xbox One turned out OK, but that announcement with it's emphasis on sports, TV, and restricting used games will haunt them for years to come. A total meltdown.
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About Nic Rowen
Nic (formerly known as Wrenchfarm) has been an active member of the Dtoid community since 2010. After toiling away in the Cblog mines and Recap Team workhouse for years, he made the jump and became a staff member in 2014. He likes robots, coffee, and pictures of robots enjoying coffee.