2013 was a pretty important year for videogames. We saw not only tons of great games (again) but also the start of a new generation of consoles, which only happens once every eight years or so. I decided I would write about my favorite five games from 2013 and talk about what makes each so enjoyable to play. Some notes before I begin: I don’t have an Xbox 360/One, 3DS, Wii U, or PS4 and I don’t play games on PC so games like Gone Home and the Stanley Parable, which I hear are pretty good, won’t be on the list. The console in parenthesis is the one I recommend playing on.
Honorable Mention: THE WALKING DEAD by Telltale Games (Vita).
The first “season” of five “episodes” of the Walking Dead originally released in 2012 on PS3, Xbox, and PC to much fanfare, and I got to try it out late that year in a sale. On the PS3, I really didn’t like it. The story is very slow in the beginning and the gameplay not particularly engaging. I dismissed it, saying I would try it out again if it ever came to Vita as it seemed much more suited for the portable. And thankfully it did come in 2013, as I got to finally play through the whole game and understand all the rave reviews it had been getting. The story is very well told and it is very easy to get invested in the large cast of characters, especially Lee, whom you play as, and Clementine, the orphaned little girl you try to protect throughout the story.
However, that story is really the only remarkable thing about it. The gameplay is really reminiscent of 2010’s Heavy Rain by Quantic Dream, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but just doesn’t give me the same enjoyment from it. The game proudly features plenty of choices that affect how the story progresses, but I found most of the choices to not be quite as impactful as people had proclaimed. Only one choice actually had a serious impact across multiple episodes. Characters still die whether you choose to save them or not. Most of the “choices” end the same way regardless of what you choose. In that sense, the games is really more of a personality test, to see what kind of person you are, which still makes for good conversations with friends. The game also lets you choose how you respond in conversations, a la Heavy Rain, and this was admittedly pretty enjoyable.
Finally, the game is really buggy. It freezes for several seconds every time you switch from a conversation scene to an action scene and also crashed my Vita the first time I opened the game. Overall, it’s a pretty good game that I’d recommend playing through (on Vita), but I don’t think it’s anywhere near Game of the Year caliber that it was proclaimed to be back in 2012.
Number 5: HOTLINE MIAMI by Devolver Digital (Vita).
Hotline Miami was initially released in 2012 on PC but it didn’t come to PS3 and Vita until 2013 and that’s where I got to experience it on. I’ll admit Hotline Miami didn’t appeal to me at first, but after trying it out from PlayStation Plus I was pleasantly surprised. This game is a top down super fast paced game with retro style graphics and an absolutely superb soundtrack to match its 80s setting. And it is reaaallly fast paced, perhaps the fastest paced game I’ve ever played. It’s also pretty violent, which I understand is part of the message of the game but it just became a little too much for me at times, and so that’s why it’s only number five.
Besides that, the fast paced gameplay is actually really fun. Every time I died I would quickly restart and try to get through the level again. In that sense, it’s almost a puzzle game in the sense that you have to figure out the fastest way to get through each level. And the story actually genuinely surprised me in what it accomplishes, and does things only a videogame can do. The character you play as receives these strange phone calls that tell you where to go but as you go through his house you notice these subtle and not so subtle changes that show how he’s losing his mind as the game progresses. I recommend playing on Vita, as the mechanics are a lot better there than the PS3. And honestly this game was the only one here that I’m not really super passionate about; I needed a fifth game and couldn’t find any others I truly enjoyed this year.
Number 4: LIMBO by Playdead (PS3/Vita).
Limbo actually debuted on Xbox Live Arcade back in 2010 but was released on PS3 and Vita this year, and like Hotline Miami I played through on the Vita. I just find the Vita to be the perfect device for these smaller gaming experiences and leave my PS3 to the big AAA games. Anyways Limbo is like the mirror image of Hotline Miami. Whereas Hotline Miami is a super fast-paced violent and colorful action game, Limbo is a very quiet all black and white puzzle game where you play as a young boy and you will die many times in pretty violents ways. It’s dark. The world you go through is really dark in its aesthetics, and the deaths are pretty dark too. In that sense the gameplay and aesthetics go hand in hand, which I thought was really cool.
Limbo is first and foremost a puzzle game though, and the puzzles just have really good level design. They’re really challenging but not impossible. All of them have really simple solutions that you can’t screw up by pushing a button at the wrong time (well except for some at the end) and all you need to keep going is just examine the situation and try to find the answer. It’s really gratifying when you finally find a solution all by yourself without help online (which you’ll probably need). It’s Limbo: a dark and eerily quiet place. You’re all alone and the atmosphere and gameplay mechanics really fit the theme so well. And it all leads up to perhaps the single best ending moment of any game I’ve experienced to date.
Now if you follow me on Twitter (@TiJoHimself) you can probably tell what the next three games are. These three games were all so good that I would say they weren’t just my favorite three games of 2013, but my top three of all time so far. They make up a really nice end to a console generation.
Number 3: TEARAWAY by Media Molecule (Vita).
Tearaway, like Limbo and Hotline Miami, is a game I played on the Vita but unlike those two, Tearaway is exclusive to the Vita. People frequently complain about how the Vita has no “killer app (game worth getting the system for)” but I’d say it does now. Tearaway is just that good. The game stars both you and a messenger named either Iota or Atoi depending on the gender you choose and a pair of narrators that guide your story. In the end, the story accomplishes a lot more and is a lot deeper than you’d think a simple little game like this could accomplish. And the final act gets really surreal. But the thing that really sets Tearaway apart from everything else is just how goddamn charming it is. The whole world, and I mean everything in it, from the snow to the pigs to the waterfalls to the flowers, is made of brightly colored paper that you can just run around in as you progress through the story.
It uses the Vita’s features really ingeniously, more so than any other game on the system, like the camera putting you in the sun and crazy customization you can make on your character and parts of the world. The creation tools just work so well. You can change your character at any time and then it’s rendered on your character from then on in the game and in the cut-scenes until you choose to change it again. It’s the opposite of Media Molecule’s other famous IP, LittleBigPlanet, in that where LittleBigPlanet was a 2D platformer that allowed you to fully create the world but not your character, Tearaway is a 3D platformer where you create the character but not the world. In fact, I won’t spoil it but there’s one moment that the creation tools allow you to do in here that gave me one of only three times in gaming where I’ve genuinely thought “Holy fuck this is crazy and something I’ve never seen before.“ You won’t be able to tear yourself away.
Number 2: THE LAST OF US by Naughty Dog (PS3).
The first PS3 game on the list, this game is Naughty Dog’s first game that they’ve done after the original Uncharted trilogy, and I’m glad they’ve moved on because this was way better than any Uncharted game, and is the best game exclusive to PlayStation. The game is set 20 years after a virus infected some people and devastated the world. The Last of Us stars Joel and Ellie (you play as Joel), two people who get joined together in order to search for this group of rebels called the Fireflies. And this story is where the game really shines. The characters are really well developed and you really feel for them during their journey. Joel’s a man who’s had to survive 20 years so far in a deteriorating world, while Ellie’s a 14-year old girl who’s only ever known this kind of world. The story is just so well written and the pacing just so right. Plus there are these little touches that are really nice like Ellie’s attempts to whistle and her terribly good jokes and how Joel will adjust his arm around Ellie when they’re crouched down avoiding enemies.
The Last of Us has the perfect balance of story and gameplay, and the gameplay does a great job of complimenting the atmosphere and world they’re in. The gameplay can be just brutal at times, and that violence that has become so commonplace really highlights just how messed up the world has gotten during those 20 years. It almost makes the player uncomfortable at times and much more aware of the actions they’re doing, as opposed to some other popular games. This is heightened by how all of the villains don’t have helmets or masks, so it’s more impactful than the desensitized violence in other games and movies. In fact, a large portion of the gameplay comes from trying to be stealthy so you can get through sections of either infected or bandits without confrontation. You have really limited ammo and resources and so you’re forced to try and avoid confrontation, and that’s pretty cool from a gameplay perspective. You really do need to make every shot count.
Trying to get through some of the areas can be genuinely hard and lead to very tense situations. It took me close to ten tries to get through one early area as I tried to get past a group of infected. The AI of the enemy bandits and infected are top notch, and the AI for Ellie is probably the best AI for another non-playable character (NPC) in videogames. Another cool thing is you end up not only using but also needing to use everything in your inventory, which most games don’t do, and this emphasizes the need to make do with what you have in their collapsed society. I also appreciate how they got rid of all the corny puzzles from the Uncharted series and just focused on the core gameplay. Plus the ending was a great way to finish up that amazing journey. There are really two endings that people talk about when discussing the game: The ending scene and the very last cut-scene. Both are really fitting ways to end the game.
The visuals are also stunning. The game features arguably the best graphics of any game of the PS3/360 era and for a game that’s set in such a dire world, there is a surprising amount of color to the world. There are a lot of vibrant greens and some bright blues and rusty reds The environments and levels are just so well designed that exploring them can tell you as much about the world as the actual story does. The soundtrack is also the probably the best soundtrack of any game, and the main theme is genuinely one of my favorite songs. The multiplayer was actually surprisingly fun too. It’s a lot slower paced than most games and there’s a much higher focus on teamwork, so having a mic and communicating with each other will give you a decent advantage. Whereas Tearaway is the game you should get a Vita to play, The Last of Us is a game you should get a PS3 to experience.
Number 1: GRAND THEFT AUTO V by Rockstar North (PS3).
I debated for a long time whether to have Last of Us or GTAV at No. 1, but in the end I gave it to GTAV because although the Last of Us had a much better story and overall experience, GTAV was a much better game in my opinion. It’s enormous. It pushes the limits of the PS3/360 farther than I ever thought possible. The say it’s bigger than Read Dead Redemption, San Andreas, and GTAIV combined, and I’d definitely agree. It cost Take2 Interactive, the publisher, over $240,000,000 to make GTAV, which is not only more than every game ever but more than every movie but one (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which cost $250,000,000), and it really shows. The game takes place in the fictional Los Santos, Rockstar’s take on Los Angeles, and the surrounding Blaine and Los Santos counties.
You start the game near the city, where you can drive below the high Los Santos skyline and admire how tall the skyscrapers are. After you’ve sufficiently gotten used to the city, which itself is as big as most other games, you go out into the vast deserts and huge forested mountains and lakes to the north of it. I remember driving out to the ‘VINEWOOD’ sign and looking over the hill it’s on for the first time, seeing all these small lighted communities in the distance and thinking, “There’s no way you can go way over there too,” but no, you can go there and even farther on too. Then you find a plane to fly and just fly across the world, thousands of feet up, where the humongous skyscrapers you awed at before just become small anthills in the distance and can only think “Holy fuck this is crazy and something I’ve never experienced before.”
It’s beautiful. This game in addition to having the largest area to explore is just so gorgeous it’s unbelievable. There are just the most vibrant greens and blues and yellows I’ve ever seen in a game before, and it’s amazing. It’s just so refreshing to see colors this bright in a time where most other games these days are just boring shades of grey. And the level of detail they put in goes above and beyond(!) anything you could imagine. I’m just really glad they made this game, because it’s just so beautiful travelling through this world in the array of vehicles you can pilot. It’s fun. The thing that really sets Grand Theft Auto V above the rest for me is just how many game mechanics there are in this game. There’s running, bicycling, shooting, parachuting, golf, darts, swimming, boating, submarine diving (yes, they animated the whole ocean floor too), flying with both various airplanes and helicopters, driving with well over hundred different vehicles and motorcycles that each have a different and unique feel to them, and a great deal of races using those vehicles on land, air, and sea.
AND you can do all that stuff online with your friends. And honestly playing this game with a group of friends online was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a videogame. All those mechanics just work so well together too. There are no loading or performance issues once you’re in the game, which is surprising considering just how expansive and gorgeous it is all the time. For these reasons I’ve given GTAV my Game of the Year, since it’s just such a marvel worth experiencing. In fact, if they ever remake GTAV for the PS4 with better graphics, I would gladly buy one just to experience GTAV again. It’s that good.
-Tim Jones, @TiJoHimself