So it’s the start of a new year and if you’re anything like us, you spent yesterday evening with plenty of friends seeing in the new year with lots of fireworks, alcohol and Auld Lang Syne.
2014 is looking like it’s going to be a promising one, with plenty of upcoming games to get excited about – we’ll be taking a look at those soon in a separate article – but for now it’s time for us to look back at the year that just was and pick our favorite – and least favorite – things from the world of gaming. 2013 was an interesting year for the Games Industry, with shiny new console hardware, plenty of sequels, plenty of HD Remakes and a lot of controversies, scandals, revelations and moments that made us cringe. Here we take a look at some of our standout games of the year and a few other things in our first annual end-of-year awards list. Got something to say? Then let us know! Or email us with your own lists by getting in touch with us via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most Improved Sequel
Winner: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Our score: 9/10
After boring us half to death with a combination of rote gameplay and the dullest protagonist in recent memory when they released Assassin’s Creed III last year, Ubisoft took the criticism on board and presented players with the best game in the series since Ezio Auditore strutted onto screens in Assassin’s Creed II. Providing a massive world, a likeable protagonist and impressive additions to its core gameplay features, Assassin’s Creed IV proves that you can teach an old Assassin new tricks after all.
Runners-up – Dead Rising 3; Need for Speed: Rivals
Most Disappointing Sequel
Winner: Batman: Arkham Origins
Our score: 4/10
After a pair of games that redefined people’s expectations of superhero games and saw Rocksteady’s take on hand-to-hand combat mimicked by a number of titles since Arkham Asylum‘s release back in 2009, hopes were high when Warner Bros announced that 2013 would see the release of a new title in the award-winning franchise. Hopes were dashed however when the title was released. While new studio Warner Bros Montreal made a decent effort, a short development cycle led to it feeling like an undercooked effort designed by a publisher keen to fill a gap in their release schedule and get a bit more money before the release of next-generation console hardware. The fundamental gameplay remains as enjoyable as before, but a lack of progress and a litany of technical issues hurt what should have been another solid effort.
Runners-up: God of War – Ascension; Hitman Absolution
Biggest Disaster of the Year
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Once an absolutely revered series, the Sim City franchise has found itself utterly tainted thanks to a litany of design mis-steps and online woes. Publisher Electronic Arts also found themselves in hot water after claims that the game’s design made the always-online requirement a necessity were exposed as little more than a pack of falsehoods. Despite their claims to the contrary, hackers soon found that the game worked absolutely fine once files had been amended to remove the need to log in to EA’s origin servers. This revelation also demonstrated that the publisher’s claims that the game used the power of cloud computing to calculate it’s simulation were totally unfounded – the game works just fine without an internet connection. Meanwhile, the game suffered from a litany of baffling design decisions – far from being cities, the limited building area in SimCity means that the largest creation can never extend beyond the size of a small town, and players are forced to interact with each other if they hope to see their “city” reach it’s full potential – something that is completely at odds with the genre’s appeal as a largely solitary pursuit enjoyed by budding city architects.
EA attempted to deflect criticism by pointing to high sales of the game. But as we all know, it’s what purchasers experienced after buying that caused the stink. Hopefully EA learn from their mistake and make the next game something to remember, assuming they don’t just put the series out to pasture.
Runners-up: Microsoft’s Xbox One announcement, Nintendo’s failure to replicate the success the Wii.
Best original IP
Winner: The Wonderful 101
2013 was a slender year for new IP, as publishers attempted to wring the last bit of cash out of existing hardware and franchises before the new home consoles were unleashed upon the public. For sheer invention and fun though, Platinum Games’ Wonderful 101 led the charge and found a sweet spot between accessibility and strategy whilst providing a good amount of personality. Released on Nintendo’s struggling Wii U console, the game may have not set till ringing around the world but it proved that inventiveness isn’t dead and was the first of a series of must-have games on the Wii U this year. It isn’t without issues, but Wonderful 101 is still a great game and we hope that it’s the start of a series that manages to make the Strategy genre more accessible to console gamers.
Runners-up: Sleeping Dogs, The Last of Us
After a rocky start, Nintendo’s handheld really came into its own this year with a seemingly endless procession of titles which combined to make the little console an essential purchase for both casual and serious gamers alike. Whether it was tickling our ears with Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy, providing excellent sequels like Luigi’s Mansion 2 or acting as an indie showcase with titles such as the superb Steamworld Dig, the 3DS has finally found its feet and become the handheld of choice, proving that despite the dominating presence of mobile platforms, traditional handhelds still have a place in the industry.
Runners-up: Playstation 4, Wii U
Best series revival
Winner: Tomb Raider
Our score: 8/10
As the industry matures, it looks more and more to the past as a source of inspiration and for the chance to recapture previous glories. 2013 saw a whole host of remakes, reinventions and revivals of franchises long since thought demised or past their sell-by date. One such title stood out above all others though: Square Enix’s re-imagining of Tomb Raider.
It didn’t offer much in the way of gameplay that hadn’t already been achieved before by many others, but Tomb Raider managed to bring a tired series up to date. The multiplayer may have felt tacked on but it was solid and managed to win some diehard fans. It was also a game that found itself the victim of no small degree of controversy, with many players and critics zeroing in on the explicit death scenes and perceived misogyny.
But despite those issues Tomb Raider was eminently playable, providing a large degree of enjoyment as well as a well-realized game world.
Runners-up: Pikmin, Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition
Winner: Naughty Dog
Following up a highly successful trilogy of Uncharted games, Naughty Dog provided one of the strongest and most-loved titles of the entire year with the release of The Last of Us. Marrying the developer’s talent for character development, dialogue and proven gameplay mechanics, The Last of Us rightly holds a place as one of the standout releases of the year. Providing tense moment-to-moment gameplay, a well-crafted sense of isolation and a cast of characters that you genuinely come to care about, Naughty Dog proved that their modern-day talents extend beyond simply providing a genocidal alternative to Indiana Jones.
Runners-up - Ubisoft Montreal, Nintendo EAD
Best Indie Game
Winner: The Novelist
Our score: 9/10
The popularity of Indie games has continued to rise this year with a huge variety of titles that have picked up critical acclaim and proven that despite the domination of the major publishers, true innovation continues to reside in the imagination and creativity of the little guy. 2013 saw amazing games in the form of Steamworld Dig, Awesomenauts and Path of Exile. But for sheer bravery and as an experience which sticks in the mind long after the credits have rolled, The Novelist stands head and shoulders above all others. Well-written and genuinely moving, The Novelist is well worth the time of any gamer looking for something more than yet another chance to shoot things with big guns.
Runners-up – Gone Home, Monaco
Best Mobile Game
Winner: Mega Dead Pixel
Don’t listen to the naysayers – mobile platforms are home to a huge amount of genuinely excellent games. With a little thought about the controls and a bit of inventiveness, touch-screen devices can easily provide experiences that rival anything found on other platforms. It can, however, be a bit difficult to find them; a raft of me-too clones of popular games and an endless procession of match-3 puzzlers and Endless Runners can often feel like mobile developers are simply content with cashing in on the latest craze. Dig a little deeper though, and there’s a rich seam of gaming to be mined.
Mega Dead Pixel is one of those games. Though the gameplay is simplicity itself – simply move left or right to either crash through or brush up against the shapes as you fall through its endless void – a combination of toe-tapping chiptune music, a well-judged sense of difficulty and a good sense of player reward means that it’s a game you’ll return to time and time again. The mark of a good mobile game is one that stays on your device longer than a day or two. Mega Dead Pixel is one that will be there for a long time.
Runners-up: Knightmare Tower, The Room 2
Best Handheld Game
Winner – Steamworld Dig
Our Score: 10/10 (PC version)
People keep saying that the handheld console market is either dead or dying and they may have a point, with the Vita effectively on life-support and the 3DS taking over a year to gain any sort of sales traction. But if it’s on its way out, then you can be damn sure it’s not going to go quietly. Some phenomenal titles have graced Sony and Nintendo’s handhelds this year – from Tearaway and Persona 4 Golden on Vita, to Link Between Worlds, Animal Crossing: New Leaf and Pokemon X/Y on 3DS.
But one game came out of nowhere and immediately impressed with a combination of tight, addictive gameplay, expert pacing and simple yet stylish visuals. Released on Nintendo’s 3DS eShop back in August, Steamworld Dig immediately surprised gamers and critics alike and picked up a raft of high review scores and no small number of fans. While the game itself is fairly short and the mechanics beating at its heart are simple, it’s the sort of game that you tell yourself you’ll only play for five minutes before suddenly losing an hour plumbing the depths of its caverns. There were many bigger games this year – and many that sold more copies – but for us, Steamworld Dig epitomizes what a handheld game should be – easy to learn, simple to play, addictive and fun in both short bursts and extended play sessions.
Runners-up – Tearaway, Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
Best PC Game
Winner - Rome II: Total War
The revival of the PC as a popular gaming platform has continued unabated this year with a huge number of high-quality, high-profile releases. One genre in particular has seen a lot of love – the humble strategy genre. Whether it was breathing new life into Civilization V with the Brave New World expansion, adding new layers of strategy in XCom: Enemy Within or sending prisoners to the electric chair in Prison Architect, 2013 was undoubtedly the year of the Strategy Game on PC.
It hasn’t all been strategy though – The Stanley Parable examined the constraints of player freedom in games, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and Outlast scared us senseless and DOTA2 finally made the MOBA genre a bit more accessible to newcomers.
For sheer scale though, Rome II: Total War takes the award. Another excellent entry in Creative Assembly’s series of historical strategy games, Rome II is not only utterly gorgeous to look at but absolutely vast. Complex without ever being intimidating, a huge amount of options means that each turn can have you pondering your choices for hours before finally committing to your decision and clicking the next turn button. On the battlefield, you’ll grin from ear to ear as a horde of stampeding War Elephants are scattered like bowling pins as your army roll boulders down the hill.
In every single area that matters, Rome II is bigger than anything seen in the series before. It has some balancing issues, and when it was first released some technical problems meant that you could happily make a cup of tea while you waited for the computer-controlled opponents to resolve their turns before being able to get back in the driving seat, but Rome II: Total War proves once again that when it comes to deep, engaging gameplay and stunning visuals, the PC simply can’t be beaten.
Runners-up: Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm, DOTA 2
Best Console Game
Winner – Grand Theft Auto 5
Our score: 9/10
Few game series’ achieve such high public awareness that the release of a new installment manages to make it on to the evening news. Grand Theft Auto is one of them though and when GTA5 came out in September this year, you could barely pick up a magazine or watch a news show that didn’t mention it. Breaking records left, right and center, picking up a slew of awards and generating – as usual – no small amount of controversy, Grand Theft Auto 5 returned to the anarchic sense of fun that had been somewhat missing from the previous mainline series entry.
Whether it’s the utterly huge and frequently beautiful world, the seemingly endless amount of side-missions, activities and secrets to find or the eclectic and brilliantly realized cast of characters, Grand Theft Auto 5 was not only the biggest game release this year, but also one of the best. Its online mode may have experienced some teething problems which frustrated gamers the world over, but with so much fun to be found in its expansive single-player mode, such issues fail to take the shine off.
Runners-up – The Last of Us, Assassin’s Creed IV
Game of the Year
Winner: Super Mario 3D World
Our score: 10/10
Nintendo’s Wii U has had a tough year. Launched with a lack of titles, all but abandoned by publishers and suffering from a lack of sales not helped by a lackluster marketing campaign, people could be forgiven for thinking that the console was dead on arrival. But while sales continue to be a problem, things are improving on the software side. With releases such as Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate, The Wonderful 101 and Wind Waker HD, the Wii U has been home to some of the best titles of the year. But they saved the best for last.
Upon it’s announcement, many wrote off Super Mario 3D World as being little more than an up-scaled rehash of Super Mario 3D Land, released in 2012 on the 3DS. But World is so much more than that. Packed with invention, it throws out new ideas at such a pace that it consistently surprises and delights. A lesser developer would build entire games out of the concepts Nintendo has built some of the levels in 3D World around; but Nintendo EAD is not a lesser developer, and no sooner has it introduced an idea than it throws it away, never to be used again.
Finishing the package off with gorgeous visuals, superlative multiplayer and the unparalleled feeling of responsiveness that has been a hallmark of the series since the very beginning, Nintendo managed to silence the naysayers with a game which will stand the test of time as one of the best platformer experiences ever created.
The Wii U may be on life support, but Super Mario 3D World proves that Nintendo’s premier mascot remains in rude health and has finally gifted the little box with its first genuinely essential purchase.
Runners-up – The Last of Us, Grand Theft Auto 5