It was always likely that 2013 would be a quiet year in terms of games with the arrival of new consoles largely stealing the show, and so it turned out to be. Even GTA V, one of the biggest success stories in media history, was very much an exercise in following the proven route. The surprise hit of the year was Gone Home, a game that was such a brazen affront to the warrior spirit of Brodudes everywhere that it will likely lead to the downfall of western civilisation as we know it.
With the Xbox One and PS4 going head-to-head, and Steam OS entering public beta, it looks like 2014 will be a very interesting year. Alas, 2013 has largely been spent watching the players take their places; it will be 2014 when they start hitting each other with chairs, demanding paternity tests and bleeping at each other vociferously.
However despite the creeping sense of being in the calm before the storm there have been some great games this year, and, in no particular order, here are my three favourites (and some honourable mentions).
Metro: Last Light
At the start of the year I thought I was done with the corridor shooter, having not really enjoyed one since FEAR way back in 2005. In an increasingly tired format - hold down W, click on all the faces with the left mouse button, eight hours later game complete - Metro: Last Light renewed my faith.
What Last Light managed to achieve in a way that recent Call of Duty, Bioshock and Halo titles failed to do is make the game actually interesting both through the use of game mechanics and the level design. The giant spider monsters, for example, must be deterred from attacking with light and are bulletproof all over except for their squishy underbellies. This means if you want to kill them you have to chase them into a corner with a torch, causing them to flip over in an angry, shrieking mess so you can shoot them. This is rarely practical, so some parts of the game you just have to fend them off with the light because you don’t have the ammo, the time or the battery power left in the torch to fight them. Because you don’t usually have to kill these monsters to proceed, you start to question whether you are even supposed to kill them, if they will just keep on coming anyway; you start to wonder if the game is telling you to run, if you are fighting a losing battle. Bringing that sort of creeping doubt into a linear shooter is genius level game design.
The game also encourages you not to kill. Human life is valuable, even the lives of your enemies, with the human race as an endangered species. You are encouraged to avoid or knock enemies unconscious, rather than murder them all in honourable combat. The stealth system is not the best, forgiving almost to the point of comedy at times, but it provides an alternative to just blasting everybody. This is a game in a genre characterised by ever increasing levels of pointless brutality and yet you can go through it without actually killing another human being. That in itself is bordering on revolutionary.
The story has a slightly crumby ending but it is gripping until you get there, and is at times genuinely moving. This is not a post-apocalyptic setting like that of Fallout, where the ruins of the old world are the stuff of legends and fables; this is a game set within living memory of the apocalypse itself, there is rawness and hopelessness to it. Lastly, the game is absolutely beautiful to look at - it's far and away the best looking game of this year, or any year for its type. The tunnels are suitably closed-in and creepy, while the outdoors is simply mesmerising, not just from the technical standpoint that it looks incredibly lifelike, but the design of it, the mournful majesty of it all, is incredible.
Wargame: Airland Battle
There is something beautiful about the Wargame series, something that speaks to what games design should really be about. There was no mass media hype, there was no attempt to court controversy or bait people for attention, there were no concessions made in the complexities for the sake of accessibility. Eugen Systems made a game, like the game before it, better; they charged a fair price; they fixed the bugs in a timely fashion and they provided additional maps and units over the months following release without charging extra for them. This should not be remarkable behaviour for a developer and yet in 2013 it is.
Airland Battle is a real time strategy game set amid the cold war, pitting NATO versus Warsaw Pact in a Scandinavian theatre of war. There is none of the bombast and jingoism of the World in Conflict or Company of Heroes series, the game takes a naturalistic and pragmatic approach to the warfare of the era avoiding the easy stereotype of hordes of ill equipped Soviets against technologically superior but outnumbered Westerners.
The game itself is phenomenally good - intuitive and absorbing enough to feel like a simulation, but balanced and designed carefully to provide a fair challenge. The result has a far greater feeling of veracity than something like Company of Heroes 2, while at the same time being easy to pick up. The inclusion of elements like cooperative play is also a very welcome improvement from the original and a good way to learn the game from more experienced players without going through the process of getting relentlessly battered by them in competitive games.
There is so much to hate about this game: the incredibly mean way that it withholds things like weapon upgrades and customisation options; the fact that it promised all manner of different heists and delivered instead a master class in location recycling; the fact that by the time your character is high enough level that you’ve unlocked the abilities required to be a sneaky criminal you have the firepower and armour to not need to sneak; the fact that the developers managed to turn armed robbery into a grind where losing your saved game can put you back to square one. All these things are easy to loathe. Really this game shouldn’t be anything like as good as it is, but so help me it’s just so much damn fun.
Functionally Payday 2 is a cooperative arena shooter, but it frames itself as a game about armed robbery, which wouldn’t you know it is a vastly more compelling scenario than getting swarmed by zombies as is standard for this genre. When everything comes together Payday 2 feels like you’re playing through the big heist scene from Heat, and the game is designed well enough that it comes together more often than not. This is a great team game, tense, challenging and satisfying.
While Payday 2 will always feel like something of a disappointment because of how much better it so easily could have been, it still deserves a lot of respect for how good it actually is. A lot of games have cooperative arena fight modes, from Mass Effect 3 to Call of Duty to Left 4 Dead and Killing Floor, none of theirs are remotely as good.
It is also an interesting measure of where we are as a society when a video game about robbing banks and shooting vast numbers of policemen isn’t considered remotely controversial.
Honourable mentions this year
Saints Row 4: I couldn’t really call this one of the games of the year since it is such a markedly weaker offering than the second and third games in the series. However, it’s not bad, and if you absolutely, positively, have to end a series like Saints Row this is how it should be done. Hopefully this is the end. Much as I love the Saints Row series I would love to see the developers do something new.
Tomb Raider: The return of Lara Croft provided a game that was not outstanding in any specific area but which managed to do everything that it attempted to do very well. This sounds like faint praise, but in retrospect, just looking at how many things Tomb Raider attempted, and succeeded at, it is actually quite a feat. It will be interesting to see what becomes of the franchise from here.
XCOM: Enemy Within: Polished up and fleshed out the already pretty shiny and fleshy XCOM: Enemy Unknown. More missions and more things to do on top of an original game which was already very good can’t be a bad thing. Disappointingly, however, the developers chose not to address the problems with the difficulty curve that blighted the original game. If anything the MEC troopers just make the game even easier.
Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes: To sum it up very simply, this game is Civilisation set in a fantastical world of magic and monsters and it is very, very good. This is one of those games that you can lose whole days to; and they will be good days, spent in that comfy, contemplative state that only a proper grand strategy game can provide.