Best of 2013 #1: Fire Emblem Awakening
Handheld games have an unfortunate tendency to be overlooked in the copious GOTY awards at this time of year, but the lack of this in the popular lists – not this one, then – is a tragedy. Good for Animal Crossing and Zelda, which are great, but here we have a B-tier Nintendo franchise upping its game on a spectacular scale.
The 3DS has had a spectacular year, by all accounts, and its earliest hit was my favourite. Its presentation is lovely, from the personality-filled 3D models to the animated cut-scenes that almost justify the stereoscopic effects on their own. It’s the perfect standard bearer for the features of the 3DS, introducing me to StreetPass, SpotPass and the rest through well thought out integration. Plenty of free DLC as well. Sad that that seems like an aberration today.
Credit, too, for 8-4‘s brilliant translation. True to the setting and humorous without being obnoxious, even while including Internet memes in its dialogue – something I still find hard to believe is possible.
Awakening is a great starting point for Fire Emblem neophytes, with little baggage from the previous instalments and even – cover your ears, purists – the ability to disable what was once the series’ USP: permadeath. This nod to accessibility should be praised rather than reviled, for this game’s unexpectedly strong sales performance – who knew that a good game on a system that was starved of great software would result in sales? – look to have kept it alive.
If the standards are this high, here’s to many more.
Best of 2013 #2: Grand Theft Auto V
GTA, how I’ve missed you. We’ve suffered numerous instalments of your pretenders since we last set foot in Liberty City, but they just weren’t the same.
I feel like I’m in a minority in standing by my high opinion of GTA IV, a game I felt certainly had flaws but did more than enough to justify the acclaim. Honestly, if they patched out the inane and annoying friendship system, I’d have no reservations about awarding that game a perfect score. Did it have as much to do as San Andreas? No, but it had different ambitions and fulfilled them admirably.
GTA V, meanwhile, strikes a balance that seems to have achieved the feat of pleasing everyone. It boasts the storytelling ambitions of IV – while arguably doing it better – and offers a ridiculous amount of content. It looks gorgeous, even on outdated hardware. Much credit, too, for the seamless character switching in an open-world game, which is an achievement both technically and narratively. I expect that to be much imitated in a genre that frequently follows the path forged by this series.
So how does Rockstar top this? Oh, I think you know.
Best of 2013 #3: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
A Zelda sequel just seems weird. Sure, Majora’s Mask technically takes place directly after Ocarina of Time and the Links in the first two games are the same incarnation, but to use the same map, the same world, even the same visual style? What’s next? A new one every year?
But it works. A Link to the Past is long enough ago that my memory of this map is far from perfect, and it hardly seems like we’re on a slippery slope to talking about Zelda 2015 next year – although I wouldn’t complain if there was Majora’s Mask 3D in time for next year’s list. A Link Between Worlds looks hideous in screenshots but lovely in motion, the rock solid 60fps, even in 3D, ensuring the same level of responsiveness as the SNES game.
My only complaint would be that a couple of the noble experiments with the tried-and-tested Zelda structure don’t really work. The rental system, for example, takes away the fun of revisiting past areas with new items and, as far as I can tell, adds only unnecessary frustration when dying. Rupees are so abundant that it’s no great hardship to buy your items outright, and from that point the rental system has no reason to exist. The game’s also very easy, without much of a difficulty curve that is clearly a symptom of its lost structure.
Still, it’s Zelda, and it’s the best in a while. Should this turn out to be the first in a Mario-esque cranking out of a familiar Nintendo series, and the quality stays this high, I won’t complain.
Best of 2013 #4: Tomb Raider
Possibly my surprise of the year. What a hopeless PR campaign led me to suspect would be a QTE-laden Uncharted knock-off instead was a thoroughly enjoyable open-world adventure that I felt, in its platforming and exploration, actually outdid its inspiration. But I was right about it being QTE-laden.
It’s funny because the talk before launch was about its narrative ambitions, and that part of the game turned out to be complete guff. Bland stereotypes posing as characters and a big helping of that good old ludonarrative dissonance weren’t enough to overcome some cool enemies and interesting setting. The mix of angry pirates, supernatural Japanese cults and World War II infrastructure had great potential but ultimately was little more than a fun place to climb around.
But I’m always inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to disappointing storytelling when it’s supporting solid gameplay – otherwise you might as well just watch a movie – and I loved the time spent with this new Lara Croft. Exploration, hunting, combat and the Metroidvania-style push to return to past areas with new abilities were superbly designed, and that was enough for me.
Best of 2013 #5: The Last of Us
I’m confident that The Last of Us will be sweeping up more than its share of awards this season, so understand that this isn’t an attempt to be contrary. If I’m criticising BioShock Infinite for propping up an ambitious storyline with flawed gameplay, it’s only fair that the current darling of Naughty Dog’s ‘dedicated’ fan base gets the same treatment. The Last of Us suffers from gunplay that hasn’t really improved since Uncharted, occasionally frustrating stealth mechanics, a poor final act, and generally fell foul of my boredom with the whole zombie thing.
But enough criticism. This is a celebration.
Like BioShock, this game hangs an impressive storytelling achievement on that somewhat uninspired skeleton. The Last of Us’s story is downright brave, hitting an early high with its opening sequence and peaking with the horrific winter chapter. The performances of its cast put most games to shame, both in the work of the actors and how they’ve been rendered digitally. In that respect, The Last of Us is the fulfilment of the promise that Uncharted showed within Naughty Dog. The characters are likeable, subtle, understated. They’re like actual human beings.
It’s only my opinion that the actual game side of things lets down the achievements elsewhere that keeps TLOU out of the highest echelons of my list. And if it wasn’t for the need to counteract the more enthusiastic cheerleaders out there, this entry would appear more flattering than it is.
Best of 2013 #6: BioShock Infinite
I take it as an indication of the quality of 2013′s games that BioShock Infinite, a game that seemed a shoo-in for copious awards come this point in the year, now looks likely to be frequently overlooked. I’m kind of the same now that the lustre has worn off and the rough edges – prosaic shooting, an occasionally annoying AI companion, bullet sponge enemies, that boss – have become evident.
But the original BioShock did very little… original, gameplay-wise. That achieved its plaudits through its setting and story, and while Infinite’s Columbia doesn’t grab me as firmly as the glorious Rapture and its rug pulls can’t touch BioShock’s, I played through the whole thing in two sittings because it kept me enthralled, keen to see what it would do next. The pre-release hype hinted at parallel universes and time travel, but it still surprised me in how quickly and to what extent it ran with those themes.
Just imagine the praise that would be heaped on its shenanigans had it been a Christopher Nolan film, say. Gaming as a mature storytelling medium? Never in doubt.