Nine Gaming Highlights From 2013
It's that time of year folks. Yup, it's time to look back at the year that was 2013 and the gaming highs and lows. Over the last 12 months, we've had some quality titles to play, with the indie scene going from strength to strength and storytelling taking a more and more central role ' it's all good. Well, almost...
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
My gaming year kicked off with a healthy dose of whimsy from the Japanese film makers, Studio Ghibli, who brought us Princess Mononoke and Laputa. Ni No Kuni offered all the visual charm of the film studio and wrapped it up in some traditional JRPG packaging. The game sold out, which goes some way to illustrate just how strong the lure of Studio Gibli is. The gameplay was fairly traditional, but the beautiful world and engaging characters made it a delight.
Tomb Raider Legend
Lara Croft got a reboot this year and it was probably the best received Tomb Raider game in at least a decade, if not more. For some diehard fans, the new Unchartered style gameplay and tone may not have been so easy to swallow. However, there's a lot to be said for the new, young Lara, who actually has a personality and a character arc. Way back, in the 90s, Tomb Raider inspired the games that followed it, but then it lost its way and Lara didn't even enter any tombs any more. Thankfully, the series is now looking to the new generation of action-adventure games for inspiration of its own. Legend sees Lara finally adapting, ensuring this iconic character lives to raid another tomb on next-gen consoles.
BioShock is one of those games that induces fervor and fans were delighted, this year, when Bioshock Infinite delivered another quality experience. No game creates a fantasy world that feels as solid and believable as the BioShock games do. Every detail is there for a reason and adds something to the story. Playing this game is like stepping into a twisted fairground - it looks pretty, with its bright colors and turn of the century architecture, but then you see the cracks and the dark story underlying everything. More than just a pretty face, BioShock Infinite is one to play for the story.
A 2013 round-up wouldn't be complete without an indie game and Papers Please is one of this year's stand-out titles.
This was the moment games grew up and tackled politics. Papers Please puts you in the shoes of a border control officer for a totalitarian government in a fictional, Eastern European-style country. Your character has no name and no face and no power. You must simply approve or decline people as they try to travel into the country. As the game goes on, the border control rules change, depending on the economy, terrorist attacks and other elements. The rules become more complex and it's harder to feed and house your family. Do you become corrupt and take bribes from people without the right papers, just to buy medicine for your family? How do you work a corrupt system in your favor? That's what Papers Please asks. This game isn't about fun and high scores; it's about making you think. And that makes it a gaming highlight of 2013.
Assassin's Creed: Black Flag
I always look forward to Assassin's Creed and Black Flag takes a new turn for the series. This game is vast and a textbook example of sandbox gameplay. It's got a crisp, shiny new graphics facelift, which many will adore, but I find too crisp and too far removed from the sun-bleached softness of previous games in the series. Black Flag has thrown everything, including the kitchen sink into its arsenal of tricks and they all hold together more successfully than AC III. However, I haven't taken to our new protagonist, Kenway, and feel the story isn't as engaging, but for sheer scale, Black Flag has to get a mention.
Grand Theft Auto V
The most anticipated game of 2013, GTA V managed to live up to its own hype and then some. It's bigger, better, funnier and more engaging than any of us even hoped it would be and that's saying something. It's an obvious contender for game of the year and combines the best of the GTA series, while bringing something fresh to this well-worn road of bank robberies, car-jacking and thuggery. The misogyny and bludgeon-you-over-the-head satire just bring GTA V back from game of the year territory for me, but you can't deny it's a triumph in balancing gameplay, fun, storytelling and technical mastery.
The Last of Us
The Last of Us is my game of 2013. This game was a real leap forward in storytelling and characterisation that couldn't be beaten by GTA V or the other great narrative hope, Beyond: Two Souls. Despite its over-familiar setting in a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested, urban dystopia, The Last of Us creates a relationship that feels real. Joel and Ellie's partnership is more than just a gameplay mechanic; it is the heart and soul of the whole game. Fantastic writing, engaging gameplay and top-notch graphics ensure The Last of Us feels cinematic without side-lining the player. It's not often games characters stay with you, but Joel and Ellie do, as well as the people they meet along the way - that's the kind of gaming I need more of.
Biggest disappointment of 2013: Beyond: Two Souls
This was one of those games that wowed at E3 and then just didn't deliver. Quantic Dream does deliver divisive games - you either love 'em or hate 'em. Beyond was simply a let-down. I didn't hate it. In fact, there's a lot I liked about it. I enjoyed chopping vegetables and shaking the controller to struggle free from a foe or grind pepper onto my food. I don't even mind the minimalist gameplay, which others have criticized Beyond for. Some say it doesn't feel like a game at all. That doesn't bother me. What really got my goat is, that we've got two great actors, boundary-pushing technology, ensuring that every nuance of those performances are brought to the game and the beginnings of a great concept. We've got all that and then it's force-fed into the worst b-movie plot ever. The games I've mentioned above prove that gamers are better than the dismal fare Beyond dished up. Quantic and David Cage want to deliver interactive storytelling. However, with Beyond they got the interactive bit, but need to go back to school when it comes to the story and staying true to their characters. Must try harder.
Biggest headlines of 2013: Unfortunately for Microsoft, Xbox One hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. In addition, E3 2013 sticks in the memory as the moment Sony K.O.ed Microsoft with confirmation that PS4 would have no always on, no restrictions on pre-owned and no integrated camera a.k.a. living room spying device. It was a victory for gamers, as Microsoft soon did a U-turn on its previous commitment to clamping down on pre-owned.
It's now almost a month since both consoles hit the shelves and I don't think anyone's winning the race yet. With no standout games at launch, the competition is pretty even at the moment, but both Sony and Microsoft broke sales records in their first weeks. The next few months are going to be interesting, as the key titles start trickling through, sorting the men from the boys. Watch this space.
So that's the year and a whole heap of great games that I didn't even get to mention here. The holidays are upon us, so gorge yourself on festive food and catch up on some of the key titles you've missed. See you on the other side in 2014! Happy Christmas and a Great New Year from me!
Most played: Assassin's Creed: Black Flag
Most wanted: Watchdogs
Tell Chella what you think! Email her at : Chella@gameindustry.com.