Sunday, December 29, 2013

THE BEST OF 2013 - The Best GAMES Of The Year


- It was a strange year for me and videogames. I was more backlogged than ever when it came to games. Sitting in my bookshelf were games like Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider, just begging to be played. And yet, due to a combination of factors, I probably played less videogames than ever before. Am I just getting old? I'm not yet married and don't yet have kids, but I'm finding it harder and harder to immerse myself in the kinds of late-night gaming sessions during which I traditionally get in the bulk of my play time. I'm not any less interested in gaming. I still love games, and I still am passionate about the industry and the artform. 

What I realized is that games are *hard.* And I'm not talking difficulty level. I'm talking about hard to fit in within increasingly compartmentalized lifestyle. Like many of my fellow pop-culture junkies out there, the only way I can fit in all of the media I'm into in my life is to very carefully budget my time. If I have 22 minutes to spare, then great, I can fit in a new episode of Parks and Recreation. If have 44 minutes to spare, then I can squeeze in an episode of Justified or The Walking Dead. On a Sunday morning, I can allow myself a half-hour to read through a couple of chapters in a book, or a few new comic books, before getting out of bed and starting my day. But games? Games don't quite fit into a neatly-planned routine. To me, they're best enjoyed when you can set aside a few hours, forget about all outside distractions, and just play at your own leisure. Unfortunately, those precious evenings when I've got all the time in the world come few and far between these days. And when they do come, I (sadly) all too often find myself asleep on the couch before I've even scratched the surface of a new game. 

What's strange is that games I loved as a kid would actually be much more amenable to an adult's busy schedule. I could breeze through a level of Mega Man or a world of Mario before dinner, and within a week I could play through a whole NES game. But today's games are giant, sprawling, seemingly never-ending affairs. I've barely got time to get through The Last of Us, let alone see every nook and cranny of Skyrim. 

To that end, I'll more and more find myself gravitating towards quick-play games like this year's WWE2K14. I can get home from a long day at work, fire up the game's "30 Years of Wrestlemania" mode, and move on to the next battle in ten or fifteen minutes. Similarly, fighting games are a great way to get a sense of accomplishment in a short burst. Especially when the games have an involving story like this year's Injustice. This year, I often popped Injustice into my PS3 instead of something like Tomb Raider, because it was easier and less intimidating to knock out a couple of quick rounds of superhero fighting than embark on Tomb Raider's giant-sized quests. 

And yet ... big, immersive, cinematic games like Tomb Raider and The Last of Us are among my favorites. When I think about the possibilities of the medium, these are the games that seem to be stretching the limits of what videogames can do. I want games to continue to present us with multidimensional characters, innovative storylines, and fully fleshed-out worlds to explore. To me, The Last of Us is the kind of game that (hopefully) represents where the medium is going, not Angry Birds.

But why can't we have the best of both worlds? I think it's time that game developers figured out how to deliver these great, involving, epic games in more manageable portions. Think about a great TV show like Breaking Bad. It's consumed in 44 minute installments, but it all adds up to a much larger whole - a long, epic storyline, but told episodically. Games right now are not designed to be consumed in digestible chunks. We're starting to see more episodic releases - like Telltale's Walking Dead game. And man, I loved The Walking Dead and named it 2012's Game of the Year. But one "episode" of that game was still a multi-hour commitment. At the movies, we deem a movie too long if it stretches past the two-hour mark. Games that go for 15, 20, 30 hours just seem extravagantly lengthy - especially now that we're not kids with whole weekends to waste away. 

More and more, I hear people talk in terms of gamers vs. non-gamers. To me, that's a little silly, and sort of sad. When I was an eight year old kid playing Super Mario Bros. on my NES, I didn't go around proclaiming myself a gamer. I just loved videogames, as did everyone else I knew. But now, the people who grew up playing games are playing less and less. Why? Because the games industry has increasingly ghettoized itself, making gaming into a hobby that can only be kept up with by the hardest of the hardcore. People who have lives and jobs and families find time to fit in movies and TV shows, but games tend to take a backseat because they are, now, more of a commitment than ever. I am case in point - I love games and have definitely not lost interest with age. But I have lost a good deal of interest in 20+ hour mega-games that require months of one's life to complete.

What's interesting is that games are, more than ever, emulating movies and TV in terms of their presentation. But they are still stuck in the 90's where there's that mentality of "more=better." I think it may date back to when CD-based games boasted of the amount of content that was packed onto the disc. I remember before then, it'd be the rare game like Final Fantasy or other JRPG's that boasted about length. Now, every game does it. 

Mark my words - when a great game on the level of a Mass Effect or Uncharted comes along that delivers compelling, immersive content in TV episode-style, half-hour or hour-long chunks, it will catch on like wildfire. 

Anyways ... I thought that 2013 was a really good, really interesting year for games. The sheer number of great games that came out for the last-gen consoles was pretty staggering, and it sort of made the shiny new systems a tough sell. After all, was there really anything this year on the PS4 or XBOX One that could compete with The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, or Grand Theft Auto V? 2014 is going to be all about the new consoles, and I think we'll start to see heavy conversion next holiday season. But for now, a lot of people (like me) are still making their way through all the games that came out for our several-year-old systems in 2013. 

Going forward, it remains to be seen if Sony or Microsoft will pull away with a clear edge in the next-gen console race. History has shown us that the tide can often turn halfway through a product lifecycle, but we'll see. Since I'm a Sony fan, I wouldn't mind seeing them gain some ground on the competition this go-round, and it seems like they're doing so, so far. Again, I think this is a good thing because it means bigger audiences for Sony-exclusive franchises like Uncharted. And man, Nintendo is starting to get to a pretty perilous place. They've finally got a well-reviewed Mario game out for the Wii U, but one game alone does not sell a system. It feels like the PS4 and XBOX One have just leapfrogged right over Nintendo in this generation, and Nintendo is really going to have to pull out something special to avoid falling into serious trouble. 

More so that ever before though, a lot of the best stuff going in gaming is happening on the fringes. Indie games, digital-only games, retro games, and more experimental games are making a lot of noise these days, and I think that will continue to be the case in 2014. Expanding on my earlier point, I think a lot of gamers are looking for something new and different beyond the big blockbuster franchises, and have had their fill of Call of Duty or Assassins Creed. The indie game movement is filling the void that's there in the retail space - where the offering feels increasingly homogenized and limited.

Perhaps the most exciting thing in 2014 will be seeing what new franchises emerge as the next-gen system sellers and must-haves. What will be the next Mass Effect, the next Uncharted, the next Bioshock? Hopefully, the next gen brings with it just as many groundbreaking new games as the last one did.


I didn't play anywhere near as many games as I'd like to have this year. And of those I did play, I often didn't get to play as much as I would have liked. Much of my gaming time in 2013 was spent still playing some of the previous year's big titles - The Walking Dead, for example.

But my Game of the Year for 2013 is an easy choice: 

1.) The Last of Us

- To me, Naughty Dog is the best development team in the business. They combine great gameplay with immersive storylines and eye-melting graphics like no one else. They've done it through three Uncharted games, and now they upped the ante even more with The Last of Us. The Last of Us was reminiscent of last year's The Walking Dead in that it made you deeply care for its characters, and the gameplay became all the more intense and involving because you were playing not just to succeed and progress, but because you wanted to do everything in your power to help the characters on their journey. This game was also just plain scary and creepy. The zombie-like "clickers" had to be some of the most pulse-quickening enemies ever in a game, and the game crafted some truly nightmarish scenarios for you to navigate - made all the more intense because you - playing as middle-aged Joel, wanted desperately to keep your teenage charge Ellie out of danger. The post-apocalyptic environments in the game were gorgeously rendered. There was so much lived-in detail here that it was almost scary. Ultimately, Naughty Dog - as with Uncharted - found a way to seamlessly merge cinematic storytelling into a compelling gameplay environment. The story unfolded with you playing it, not via static cutscenes. It's an art that most games have not yet perfected, but Naughty Dog is leading the charge. The Last of Us may have arrived late in this generation, but it quickly became one of this era's defining, definitive gaming experiences.

2.) Bioshock Infinite

- Disclaimer: as of this writing, I've still only just scratched the surface of Bioshock Infinite. But I already feel confident in declaring it as an all-time great game, on par with the original Bioshock. Like that game, this one has atmosphere to spare, dropping you into an alternate-reality city in the clouds that is both visually striking, and the setting for some fascinating, politically-charged storytelling. The guys at 2K Games have, again, knocked it out of the park. The way they make their games into true experiential journeys is truly amazing.

3.) Tomb Raider

- I was a fan of the old-model Tomb Raider games, but this series reboot really succeeded in taking the storied franchise to the next level. Borrowing heavily from Uncharted, this new iteration of Tomb Raider gave us a much more human and relatable version of Lara Croft, and a much more cinematic experience than in previous games in the series. Whereas previous games were about exploration laced with hair-pulling puzzles, this one was much more of a roller-coaster ride. I dug it. And man, it looked incredible, with some of the best graphics ever on the current-gen systems.

4.) Injustice: Gods Among Us

- This one-on-one fighting game is a fanboy's dream - pitting a who's who of DC Comics heroes and villains against each other in Mortal Kombat-esque battles (and in fact, the game was developed by MK's Neversoft). The gameplay was sharp and on-point, and the fighting fast and furious. But what made this something really special was, surprisingly, the well-written, well-acted storyline - a super-fun yarn about a Superman who turns to the dark side, leaving only a ragtag band of revel heroes between him and world-domination. 

5.) Ducktales: Remastered

- A straight-shot of nostalgia. There were better games this year, I'm sure, but none brought a goofy grin to my face like this HD remake of the old Capcom-published NES game. Nothing beats classic Capcom 2D platforming, and this game delivers it in spades. The crystal-clear cartoon graphics are a joy to behold, and the redone soundtrack and voice-acting (with the original cartoon cast!) are also fantastic. The funny thing is that playing this game was a reminder of just how hard these old platformers could be (better do pre-play finger stretches - you're going to need 'em). But in a world of overly complex games that challenge patience more than reflexes, this reissue is an awesome blast from the past - a reminder of a simpler time in gaming.

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