Sunday, 15 December 2013

2013: Games of the Year

I was in two minds about listing my games of the year this time around. Perhaps the most important factor there was that I really haven't had the chance to play too many. Plenty of titles that have made it onto everyone's lists have passed me by, be it through lack of money, lack of time, or just a lack of hardware. I've not tried the excellent sounding Assassin's Creed IV, skipped over the latest Zelda and Mario offerings, and haven't yet had the chance to play through Bioshock Infinite or Tomb Raider. From that point of view this list might seem a little incomplete, but I can never resist the chance to write-up something about all that I have had the chance to enjoy this year. Whether you agree or disagree with my choices, I hope you enjoy going through them.

10: Kerbal Space Program

I absolutely adored playing with Lego when I was growing up, happily spending hours designing blocky spaceships and vehicles with my brother. Kerbal Space Program is one of those things I've always wished for: A virtual Lego set, that allows me to design and play with spaceships of my very own. Attempting to build working rockets by stacking giant fuel tanks to a cockpit and hoping for the best made for some of the funniest moments I've ever had playing any game. I'll never forget triumphantly taking twenty minutes designing a rocket in front of my friends and proudly launching it, before watching in despair as it fell to pieces a hundred feet off the ground and had us literally crying with laughter for the rest of the night. I've yet to master its surprisingly deep physics engine and have lost count of the number of poor Kerbins I've shot to their doom in deep space, but any game that can make me feel ten years old again is a winner in my book.

9: Pokemon X/Y

I fell out of love with the Pokemon games a number of years ago. Though I did play through Ruby/Saphire and Diamond/Pearl I was thoroughly put off by the creaky mechanics, which hadn't changed much at all since Red and Blue back in the day, and the lack of inspiration behind the design of the newer monsters left me cold. X and Y have attempted to freshen things up a bit, and are a good step back onto the right path for the series. The graphics have been spruced up nicely, some of the shonkier design flaws have been ironed out, and there was a very welcome focus on the older monsters that I know and love. It isn't perfect, but at least shows that Nintendo are willing to shake things up a little with one of their most important IPs. I'm just hoping that we'll see that big, online, console edition we've been waiting years for sooner rather than later.

8: Kami

You're not short of options when it comes to puzzle games on IOS, but Kami stands as one of the best of the lot. A papercraft tile flipping game, Kami has you attempting to transform its patterned screens into one colour with as few moves as possible. This is no high-octane puzzler that’ll keep you on your toes and stress you into frustration. Rather it’s a more considered, patient, calming affair. The lack of time limits and freedom to experiment makes Kami a relaxing pleasure, a Zen-like test of problem solving skills. The ability to dip in and out of levels and mull over possible solutions makes it feel ideal for train journeys or commutes. Kami may be a relatively lightweight experience, but it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable on.

7: Fez

While Fez first saw release on the Xbox 360 back in 2011, it finally came to PC this year through Steam, and as such I'm qualifying it here. It's one of indie gamings biggest success stories, having just recently broken the million copies sold mark and propelled its developer Phil Fish to perhaps unwelcome stardom. The success is completely deserved too; Fez is without a doubt one of the most inventive and charming games of the generation. Its dimension-spinning mechanic makes for some properly fiendish puzzles, as well as more than a few moments that had me actually laughing in delight. Combine that with the gorgeous retro visuals, a wonderful soundtrack, and so many secrets that I know I'll never see them all, and you have a truly wonderful game that deserves all the love it gets.

6: Papers, Please

Video games are about escapism. Playing the hero, saving the world, beating the baddies, and all that jazz. Papers, Please makes a point of turning that rule on its head, putting you in a mundane job in a drab setting and forcing you to do bureaucratic paperwork for hours on end. The glorious Republic of Arstotzka may not be somewhere you would want to escape to, but for the lines of immigrants waiting outside your border control booth every day it certainly is. Their stories, and that of your hapless paper pusher, are part of an incredibly inventive and intense puzzle experience. It's one of the most gripping and surprisingly moving games I've played in years, and further cements my notion that the most interesting work in the industry at the moment is being done in the indie development scene. Glory to Arstotzka.

5: Animal Crossing- New Leaf

You'd be hard pressed to find a company with a greater handle on charm than Nintendo. In fact, you'd probably be hard pressed to find a more charming series of games than Animal Crossing. Since the first game on the Gamecube (Or the N64, if you were lucky enough to live in Japan) countless people have happily made a simple second life for themselves in their own little village. The series hasn't changed very much in the last ten years, and New Leaf doesn't add anything particularly revolutionary, but the 3DS has proven itself to be the ideal home for the series. It's perfect for dipping into every day, seeing what happens to be new, meeting a few friends, or just tending to your plants. It's been a couple of months now since I last visited my town of Lordran, but I know that when I do I'll still be welcomed back with a smile by whichever residents still happen to be there.

4: Gone Home

For all their unique qualities, video games are still all too often derided for their limitations as a medium for storytelling. This is a perception that is going to change sooner rather than later, and we'll have the likes of Gone Home to thank for that. Set in 1995, Gone Home puts you in the shoes of Kaitlin, who returns home from months of travelling to find her parents' house empty and her sister gone. You unravel the story by exploring the house, finding hints and audio cues that slowly unravel the story of your family. It's a brilliantly compelling piece of interactive fiction, one that treats the player with a level of respect. There are no real puzzles, no dangers hidden around the house, but it boasts a wonderful atmosphere, helped by the little details of home life and the excellent use of period trappings that will delight anyone who grew up in the '90s. At just over two hours it's perhaps a bit too brief, with little incentive to go back and play again, at least immediately. But I prefer to treat it more like an interactive novella, one you can read through on a rainy afternoon or a quiet evening, and happily keep it on the shelf to revisit again another day. 

3: Grand Theft Auto V

It's difficult to know where to begin with Grand Theft Auto V. It's certainly big. A big world, with an almost-endless list of things you can do and places to see without even thinking about the actual missions. A big story, with three characters whose lives you can dip in and out of at will, each with their own stories to tell and people to meet. It's big on ambition, as Rockstar again push the boundaries of just how much they can cram into one game world, from the single player to the amazingly generous multiplayer modes. It's evidently big business too, having already sold more copies and made more money than any other game in the series. But most importantly of course it's big, big fun. From the perfectly executed heists to the numerous side missions, the anarchic online mode and the joy of just making your way around its world. You're never left wanting for something to do, with a vast county there for you to explore right from the start, and a handy vehicle is only ever a carjacking away. It's an important release as well, arguably one that has brought games closer to the forefront of cultural relevance and acceptance than ever before. That might be its greatest legacy in years to come, by which time I imagine plenty of us will still be playing it anyway, having failed to run out of things to do in the vast and brilliant San Andreas. 

2: The Last of Us

When I first caught sight of The Last of US during E3 2012 I was left a little cold. In fact, that's exactly what I wrote in my round-up of Sony's conference on this very blog. If only I'd known then that it would end up becoming one of the most powerful and impressive games I've ever had the pleasure of playing through. Enough has been written about The Last of Us by now that I can only cover old ground. I could go on about the fantastic narrative it leads you through, horrifyingly bleak and worthy of plenty of analysis. The protagonists Joel and Ellie are two of the best-written, acted, and developed characters I can recall from any game, their story utterly compelling from start to finish. The world is startlingly beautiful as well, with an absolutely astounding level of detail in every location you visit. It squeezes every last drop of power from the PS3, managing to produce some sights that literally had me stunned into silence. It even produced a riotously entertaining and brutal online multiplayer mode, which was the source of a fair few late nights playing with friends. But what made The Last of Us special in my eyes was the sheer tension it evoked. I found it difficult to play for too long at any one time, always terrified of where the next death might be coming from or just what might be waiting around the next corner. I can't remember the last time I felt so emotionally involved while playing a game, and for that reason it's an experience that will stay with me for a long time.

1: Salty Bet

I've yet to really write at length about my love for Salty Bet. Some might think it's a bit of a cop-out to top a list of games with what basically amounts to an interactive stream, but if Charlie Brooker can get away with announcing Twitter as one of the most influential games ever then I'm sure as hell claiming Salty Bet. Effectively a round-the-clock Twitch stream of the fighting engine M.U.G.E.N, which allows you to import character data from other games, Salty Bet randomly matches fighters from a database of thousands and allows you to bet imaginary money on the outcome of the fights. Since discovering it a couple of months back I've lost track of the number of hours I've spent with it, and am becoming more convinced than ever that it's one of the greatest things ever. But this certainly isn't a mutual feeling: I may love Salty bet, but it sure as hell doesn't love me back. It delights in sucking up every imaginary dollar I offer up, teases me with the glimmer of success before swiftly knocking me back down to size with a string of upsets. I could mention the excellent playlist, backing each fight with an eclectic soundtrack that ranges from classic game OSTs to hip hop to metal, but somehow just works perfectly. I could mention the chat bar, where the stream viewers talk up a storm that's equal parts offensive and tear-inducingly hilarious. 

But really the magic of Salty Bet comes from its sheer variety. Tune in any time of day or night and you're guaranteed to be seeing something new. I've won thousands betting on Dan Hibiki in a fight against a dog, and lost it all by foolishly presuming that Piccolo could batter fuck out of Sub Zero. I've watched The Flash beaten senseless by a giant squid, seen Mario forced through a mincing machine, and bet on more Dragon Ball Z characters than you could possibly imagine. There's always something different right around the corner, and any fight could be the one where you finally make your imaginary fortune. I haven't even mentioned the weekly Shaker Classic tournaments, the dizzying reams of stats on all the fighters available to paid-up “illuminati” members (a privilege I just couldn't resist), or the brilliant streak of humour that runs throughout. It shouldn't be as maddeningly compelling as it is, but I still come back to it almost every day. That I'm playing it while I write this, and have been non-stop since this morning, should say it all.

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