"An affront to the Brodudes": Games of the Year 2013

It's not been a great year for gaming (the PS4 and XBox One launches have taken up a lot of developers' time), but there have been some good releases worth celebrating.

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.

Payday 2
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.

An in-game screenshot of Metro: Last Light. (Image: Deep Silver)

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge