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Game of the Year Watch 2013

It’s getting to that time of the year again.  The time where we, as gamers, look back at the year that was and dissect the titles that graced our consoles, to figure out just which one was the best.  Which one was the game of the year.

Now, every publication has it’s own “award” it gives out for Game of the Year.  After all no two gamers think alike.  Many people thought last year’s Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead was the best of the best, where as I felt ThatGameCompany’s Journey took that spot.  In 2009 it was a battle between games like Uncharted 2, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Left 4 Dead 2 and Assassin’s Creed II, with each of them earning the honor from various outlets.

I say this because I want to be clear, the games I talk about here and opinions expressed are just that, they’re only my feelings about what has been released so far, and maybe even a little about what’s to come.  Here’s seven titles I think could be considered as the top released in this jam-packed year in gaming.

The Front Runners

Grand Theft Auto V – Rockstar North

grand theft auto v

Rockstar North releases it’s first GTA in over 5 years, to great success.

Why it should be considered – The better question (and we’ll get to that) is why it shouldn’t be considered.  Rockstar has always had a reputation for putting out the highest quality games no matter the competition, and with the Grand Theft Auto series they basically created the entire sandbox genre.  As we’ve stated in our reviews in progress, GTA V is the evolution of everything Rockstar has managed to put into their games over the past half-decade.  With fantastic visuals, a gripping story, memorable characters and a living, breathing and might I add, simply gigantic world to play in, it’s no fluke that the latest Grand Theft Auto is shattering all sales records that came before it.

The tightest game play in the series to date, with shooting borrowed from Red Dead Redemption and Max Payne 3, the freedom and exploration of Grand Theft Auto IV and LA Noir, driving from Midnight Club 3 and a newly re-imagined heist component combine to make it one of the most compelling games of the year.  The heists specifically will remain some of the most memorable contributions of this generation, and something I hope Rockstar can continue to improve upon and add to in the future.

What holds it back – As with any game of this size, there are some technical hiccups that Grand Theft Auto V has encountered.  Attempting to load such a massive world is bound to result in the occasional texture pop, but what I’ve encountered thus far has resulted in entire streets and sections of the city failing to appear until I’m halfway down the street, or cars and trucks literally warping three lanes over into a dead stop in front of me, causing my character to be jettisoned face first into traffic and to their ultimate doom.

Additionally, the ambitious online component of GTA V has been a fairly massive let-down upon it’s launch.  Intentionally delayed until two weeks after the game’s mid-September launch, for nearly 72 hours, many fans were left without the ability to log into the service to even create a character, let alone participate in the multiplayer mayhem.  Combine that with the games companion app, the iFruit (only available through iOS devices at the moment) barely working due to server issues, and it shows a bit of an oversight on Rockstar’s part when it came to preparing their infrastructure for the heavy load that GTA would inevitably suffer.

The Last of Us – Naughty Dog

last of us

Meet Joel and Ellie, you’ll grow to be emotionally destroyed by them.

Why it should be considered – When Naughty Dog announced it’s Uncharted 3 follow-up, The Last of Us, it was shrouded in secrecy.  Just a few teaser images and a very short trailer showing the games protagonist Joel in action, defending the young girl we would come to know as Ellie.  What sets The Last of Us apart, even from other Naughty Dog games, is the attention to detail and emotional scope of it’s story.  Set in a destroyed, dilapidated future where mankind sits on the brink of destruction at the hands of a deadly mutated fungus, players are introduced to Joel, the quintessential anti-hero who we learn is willing to do everything and anything to get the job done.

As he falls into the unenviable task of having to transport young Ellie across the dangerous open land of the United States, you become so emotionally attached to Joel and to Ellie, as well as many of the unique characters they meet along the way.  You begin to feel, just as Joel, that the darkness you are willing to accept into your soul to protect this girl is more than you ever could have expected.

Combining that emotional connection with a brutal and physical approach to stealth combat all helped to piece together one of the most complete game world’s I’ve ever seen.  The attention to detail is unparalleled, and it becomes clear that this dystopian future isn’t just cluttered for clutter’s sake, it’s a living, breathing environment, and every piece of rubble, every overgrown shrub and every downed building has a specific place in the world.

What holds it back – Joel isn’t a good guy.  He isn’t a nice guy, and he’s not the guy you feel you want to be by the end.  Some people were turned off by that fact.  As Joel, you really do become a murderer, and by the end, you make a choice that many would not have agreed with, or carried out.  The game puts you in an emotional and ethical grey area and some feel that Naughty Dog went the opposite direction than they wanted.

On top of that, the games stealth mechanic and overall escort-mission structure were at war with the design of this game.  When testing The Last of Us, Naughty Dog found that in order to combat the problem of Ellie being seen by the ravenous Zombie-like infected of the world at nearly every turn, they were going to have to break down the coding at a near base-level, completely rewriting the AI.  This would have delayed the game near indefinitely and rather than do that and disappoint the fans, they decided to work around it by making the companion character nearly invisible in the world until Joel himself had been spotted and engaged in open combat.  Many saw this as a flaw of the game, and an immersion breaking element in an otherwise expertly crafted world.

The Bubble Games

Bioshock Infinite – Irrational Games

BioShock: Infinite

Irrational Games returns to Bioshock, this time going into the clouds, rather than under the sea.

Why it should be considered – Bioshock is a force to be reckoned with in the gaming world.  The first eye-popping, jaw dropping immersive experience of this generation, the original game came out to critical and fan praise in 2007 on the Xbox 360, and was later ported to the PS3 and PC market.  After a brief oversight with Bioshock 2 (which wasn’t handled by series creator Ken Levine or Irrational Games) the series came back with a force in 2013.  Bioshock Infinite is wonderfully told story about an early 1900’s American off-shoot, the city in the sky Columbia, which is under the tyrannical leadership of Zachary Comstock.

Comstock, the religious and spiritual leader of Columbia as well, has imprisoned young Elizabeth, a girl with the strange ability to open rifts into other worlds, and who the games protagonist, Booker DeWitt, is charged to rescue in order to clear his crushing gambling debt.  The first person adventure to rescue Elizabeth, who doesn’t see herself as a prisoner at first, takes you through the wondrous world of Columbia, allowing you to take in it’s visually unique and enrapturing city that blends history with fantasy unlike any other game we’ve seen this year.

The game is heralded for it’s story, which is anchored by a mind-blowing ending that gamers continue to talk about nearly 6 months after it’s release.  But for me it’s the games wonderful take on modern day (comparatively) pop-music hits that remain just as memorable as it’s ending.  From the opening moments in Columbia, where you’re brought face to face with a barbershop quartet rendition of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”, to the emotionally draining gospel version of CCR’s “Fortunate Son” and the ending credits accompaniment, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” covered by the game’s leading voice actors Courtnee Draper and Troy Baker, the music in Bioshock Infinite is every bit as important as the game play itself.

What holds it back – Unfortunately, the biggest detractor for Bioshock Infinite’s case for Game of the Year is the game itself.  The game play isn’t bad, per say, but it is entirely unremarkable.  Other games have perfected the First Person Shooter genre well before this game, and the mechanics of this game simply do not stand up when compared to those.  It is a fairly loose feeling shooter, with a vigor mechanic that doesn’t stand up to the bar set by the original Bioshock’s Plasmids.

Beyond just the game play being fairly basic, the game’s beloved story is also fairly straight-forward until you get into the games final act.  Bioshock Infinite is possibly the greatest example of a fantastic twist ending making the entire experience better.  When you finally reach the conclusion, you find yourself looking upon the entire game as a mind-blowing experience, when in reality, it’s simply that the ending is so well written that it alters the entire rest of the experience.  The sad truth is that for about 75% of the game, the story is simply good, but unable to hold up when compared with the insanity that comes in the games closing hours.  Had the entire experience been on-par with the ending, this game would likely be in the Front Runner category, but as it stands, it’s a great game that falls just short of the brilliance of the first two games on this list.

Rayman Legends – Ubisoft Montpellier

Rayman-Legends-Banner

One of the best 2D Platformers ever, Rayman is just pure fun to play.

Why it should be considered – Rayman Legends is a nearly perfect platforming experience.  I’m not sure there’s much more I can say about it than that.  Ubisoft has had a gem on their hands since the mid 1990’s when Rayman first debuted on the Atari Jaguar, but with 2011’s Rayman Origins, they hit it out of the park.  Taking the tried and true game play that long-time gamers have come to love from franchises like Super Mario and creating a fast-paced, twitch-reaction platformer with charming style and beautiful graphics, Rayman Origins was one of the best games released in 2011, and Rayman Legends does nothing but improve upon everything Origins did so well.

One of the most memorable aspects of Rayman Legends are the now famous music levels like Castle Rock, which was first seen in one of the game’s debut trailers.  The music levels take the games timing-based platforming and add a new element with the background music being re-imagined popular songs that fit perfectly with the action on-screen when played properly.

The game’s emphasis on classic game play and new school mechanics make it one of the most solid releases of the year, and one every old-school gamer should play.

What holds it back – The only thing that keeps Rayman Legends from being a front runner for the game of the year is the sheer scope of it’s competition.  Despite it’s solid design and perfect game play, when you sit it next to games like GTA V and The Last of Us, it simply cannot compete with ambition of those titles.  The art style is perfectly suited for a 2D platformer, but it doesn’t measure up to the realism and immersion of the world’s created in those other games.

Don’t let that dismay you from trying Legends for yourself, though.  It is every bit a worthwhile candidate for Game of the Year, and could absolutely be a dark horse to take the crown, as it may be the game with the least amount of negatives going for it in 2013.

Tomb Raider – Crystal Dynamics

Remember Lara Croft?  Not like this, you don't.

Remember Lara Croft? Not like this, you don’t.

Why it should be considered – The reboot of the massively popular Playstation 1 Tomb Raider franchise took me by complete surprise when I played it early in 2013.  I was expecting it to be a fun game that follows in the lofty footsteps of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series. (which took many of it’s cues from the early Tomb Raider games…inception!)  Instead, what I got was one of the most visually stunning and emotionally engaging action games of the generation.

Taking Lara Croft back to her roots and out of her element, this Lara is not the battle hardened world-traveler that we have come to know and love, instead she is a young upstart, marooned on a distant island after she and her crew became lost at sea in the midst of a dangerous storm.  More of a stealth action game than before, Tomb Raider takes you all over the island, collecting parts for power-ups and uncovering ancient mysteries to begin the archaeological career of Lara Croft.

By the end of the journey, the tag-line (clumsily thrown on screen at the very end of the game) “A survivor is born” is very apt, as you feel that Lara has just begun to scratch the surface of her adventures as a treasure hunter.  A sequel is already in the planning stages, despite parent company and publisher Square-Enix stating that the game’s sales (3.5 million units in the first month, which was actually exceptional) were under their projections, causing them to be slightly underwhelmed by it’s performance.

What holds it back – Timing, more than anything else.  At the end of this generation, Tomb Raider has the misfortune of being too similar to past titles like Uncharted, and released in a year where many other companies have had plenty of time to perfect their craft and release the absolute best games they could offer.  The story, while engaging, doesn’t hold up to games like Bioshock or Last of Us, and the open world exploration feels limited when compared to Grand Theft Auto.

Also, the game had unfortunately tacked-on multiplayer that doesn’t at all hold up when compared to the single player campaign.  The death-match style multiplayer was a wasteland from moment one, and a completely unnecessary addition to the game that brings down the entire experience a bit, due to it’s broken mechanics and lackluster feeling when compared to the main story.  Had that not been included, Tomb Raider might be in consideration a bit more seriously, but as it stands it is on the outside, looking in.

The Future Prospects

This last section focuses on two titles that are yet to be released, but that I feel have a real shot at being Game of the Year candidates.  This is based purely on speculation and developer history, as well as the games’ lineage and preview builds.

Batman: Arkham Origins

Return to Gotham this October, it's been too long.

Return to Gotham this October, it’s been too long.

What gives it hope – Sure, it’s not developed by Rocksteady (not to be confused with Rockstar), the developer who so expertly crafted the first two Arkham games and first gave us a glimpse at what it might really feel like to be the Dark Knight, but WB Montreal has, by all hands-on accounts, taken over the reigns of the Batman franchise with gusto and vigor, and looks to be delivering a worthy prequel to 2009’s Game of the Year candidate Arkham Asylum.

Taking place on Christmas Eve, Arkham Origins tells the story of a younger, less experienced Batman, who must survive the dangerous night as 8 of the deadliest assassin’s in the world have been hired to take out the fledgling vigilante.  Confirmed villains include Black Mask, Bane, Death Stroke and, of course, The Joker, though this will be the first time in the series that he’s not voiced by the illustrious Mark Hammill.  No need to fret, though, the incomparable Troy Baker (you know him from every other game this year, including the lead role of Joel from The Last of Us) will take over for Hammill, and if the preview of his iconic laugh is any indicator, the character looks to not miss a beat in translation.

The only question mark for Origins looks to be the newly added Multiplayer mode, which is a first in the series.  It looks to be a lot of fun, but as we’ve seen with Tomb Raider, a poorly implemented multiplayer mode could spell the nail in the coffin when considering which game is the total package.

Watch Dogs – Ubisoft Montreal

Protecting Chicago, one smart phone at a time.

Protecting Chicago, one smart phone at a time.

What gives it hope – The surprise game of the show at E³ 2012(Ubisoft has that market cornered, they repeated that success this year with Tom Clancy’s The Division), Watch Dogs came out of left field to reveal a vibrant looking sandbox game with a near-future appeal and tech-savvy protagonist.  You control Aiden, a cyber criminal who has the ability to use his technical prowess for either good or evil, depending on your own particular choices.  Using the recent Northeast Blackout of 2003 as the basis for the paranoia-driven version of Chicago, Ubisoft has created a world which has turned to technology to solve all of it’s concerns and problems.

By creating a city-wide network of security devices and cameras, Chicago has unknowingly given Aiden and others like him free reign of the city, by allowing them to hack any electronic device in town via his cell phone.  This allows players to see many intimate details of every citizens life, including their banking history, online traffic tendencies and propensity for being either victim or perpetrator of crime.  This allows you to decide how to approach any given activity that is presented to you, including attacking someone who has a high chance of committing a crime, or follow someone who might end up a victim, and stop it before it goes down.

A visually stunning and gigantic world to explore, with some great implementation of the hacking mechanic, and the promise of drop in and drop out multiplayer has had Watch Dogs on every radar known to gaming for over a year, and this holiday with the launch of the next generation of hardware, this day-one title might take everyone by surprise and be the best this year has to offer.

The unrealistic sentimental honorable mentions

Just a last bit of titles that have little chance, but I still believe people should check out before the end of the year to decide for themselves.

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch – Level 5 Studios

Beyond: Two Souls – Quantic Dream

Injustice: Gods Among Us – NetherRealm

DMC – Capcom

The Wonderful 101 – Platinum Games

The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD – Nintendo

 

About Josh Barnett

Josh Barnett

Josh is a professional Nintendo apologist and self-loathing Carolina Panthers fan. He does NOT like long walks on the beach, rather he prefers strolls through the snow. You can catch him every week on the Free For All Podcast.