The last year has been quite the ride for video games. We saw some of the best and worst of the industry, the steady decline of quality Triple-A titles and the rise of indie games to fill the void. I played a lot of games I’ve enjoyed this year and, after debating for a good week through the entire list, finally have a top ten I can agree with.
If you had asked me whether Far Cry 3 was a contender for the best game of the year two weeks ago, you may have been witness to a few snarky comments I would soon regret with a save file having little more than an hour play-time recorded and no real interest to return. Now however, with a good eight more hours or so added on, I’ve come back around on my initial impressions. I realized that what Far Cry 3 does well shouldn’t be overshadowed by its many faults or underwhelming ambitions compared to its predecessor, Far Cry 2. What Far Cry 3 does well is allow a player to explore a lush, rich island while throwing handfuls of objectives out that can be worked on whenever. While far from the top “best games of the year” in my mind. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy wandering the beautiful environments laid out before me, stalking prey with a bow-and-arrow and stealthily reclaiming outposts from pirate scum.
This was a tough sell for me for a while due to my history with Shank. I made a stupid mistake on wanting to get all the achievements in Shank and, due to fatigue on the last couple levels, decided that I was done with Shank’s game style. The animation and Klei studios as a whole. Shank 2 did nothing but reinforce this in my mind and even when Mark of the Ninja came out with the industry clamoring. I couldn’t care less. Fast forward a couple of months later and I decided to give Mark of the Ninja a try. While Mark of the Ninja lacks in quality story it more than makes up for it by combining some of the cleanest stealth mechanics of the past decade into a very satisfying and smooth side-scrolling experience. While nothing it does may be ground breaking, as many of the stealth elements are obviously borrowed from games like Arkham Asylum and the Splinter Cell games. I had an overall enjoyable experience, putting my previous doubts to bed and in the end exceeding my expectations.
For most, Slender likely did little more than provide a scary 15 minute experience. The effects Slender had on the independent game community, however, was on a scale I hadn’t seen in a long time and reinvigorated a love for horror in the minds of many. What Slender does goes beyond “scary dude follows you in the woods” and pits the players’ own psyches against them; hallways are a chore to walk down, turning corners become a feat of determination and even trees turn into obstructions potentially concealing your worst nightmares. Slender is the perfect example of the old horror adage “less is more”.
This is, in the very basic definition of the word, a surprise entry. Steam was having a sale and I acquired the SEGA Collection pack which included Binary Domain among many other games and it was on a whim I decided to actually try it out. What Binary Domain does as a game is less than exciting in premise than in execution; third-person cover-based shooters with squad mechanics have been done to death since Gears of War (arguably) perfected the genre back six years ago. Many studios have taken the Gears of War style of mechanics and have made mediocre to terrible titles with it but Binary Domain stands out of the crowd showing that personality really does go a long way. The pacing keeps a steady enjoyable flow of combat moments, crazy set pieces and intriguing story that eventually culminates into a decent plot twist. Okay, okay… the final fight kind of sucks, but whatever.
Trials Evolution is likely how most “outsiders” view video games; a time-wasting toy that will never amount to any real artistic standards. On the surface, the idea of a game where you just drive a motorcycle through an obstacle course would admittedly be a hard sell as a counter-argument against this but… who cares? If we take Trials Evolution for what it is, essentially a physics-driven digital toy, it does what it sets out to do flawlessly and is the perfect game to throw on to kill a couple of hours while listening to music or chatting with friends. There was a time when all video games strived to achieve the sort of entertainment that Trials provides and it is easily one of the best games of the year in this regard.
I probably had no right to love this game as much as I did when it came out earlier this year. All year I’ve read and heard nothing but pure vitriol when it comes to the ending of Mass Effect 3 and some of the shady dealings of Bioware (see also: Electronic Arts) with on-disc downloadable content. While these things may taint the overall experience in a negative way, none of it had any effect on my personal experience. What I got was the final chapter in one of my favorite series, a reunion of my favorite characters, an even more polished game and a bittersweet ending. I knew coming in that it was likely I was going to be upset by the ending and it’s in Bioware’s favor that they were so ambitious to create something they very likely knew could never properly end to satisfy anyone. While I might feel truly sorry for anyone who decided to take Mass Effect 3 on as their jumping-off point in the series, it felt like a fine way to close out the story of the Shepard.
As a Resident Evil fan, I’ve put up with a lot of crap from Capcom. Resident Evil 5 was a less than stellar foray into the birth of a more action-oriented take on the survival horror genre I had grown up with but I still enjoyed it on whatever little merits it had, all the while hoping another ‘true’ Resident Evil would arrive. My prayers were answered with Resident Evil Revelations for the Nintendo 3DS hitting shelves earlier this year. Stepping away from the bigger set pieces and environments trend that Resident Evil 4 started, Revelations brings the series back to an uncomfortably claustrophobic feel by setting most of the game in an ocean liner filled with strange and disturbing mutations waiting in every hall as you scrounge every last bit of handgun ammo you can find. Not to say it’s by any means one of the best games in my mind to hold the title of Resident Evil, Revelations was easily one of my best personal surprises of the year.
It’s possible that Cart Life might be the best example of what a video game should be since… well, ever! Don’t let the rather simple graphic style fool you; there is nothing easy or amateur about this game. Cart Life perfectly blends the boundaries of narrative and game play to the point that the narrative is directly affected by the player’s actions and really writes itself based solely on how you play. It may sound redundant, but you basically control a person’s life and their stories are what you make of them as you play. For example: one of the main characters you can play is named Andrus, a Ukrainian immigrant with a very limited grasp on English, who moves to the United States to run a newspaper stand in the hopes of starting a new life. Knowing his origin, you control every minute of his monotonous life and are expected to help him survive with such skills as shopping for your coffee stock, serving customers in a timely matter and even feeding Andrus and his cat. Cart Life is easily one of the games that consistently impresses me with how deep it gets… now only if I could play it for longer than an hour a day without getting genuinely stressed out.
“Tell me another tale of the Shepard”? Fuck that, let me tell you a tale of getting lost in space with Mantis killing my crew and a hole in my ship’s hull as the broken oxygen system slowly drains the life from my sole crew mate. Let me tell you how against all odds I made it to a repair station just in time to buy a repair drone to fix the oxygen system just after the intruders on my ship asphyxiate to death and let my captain heal in the medical bay while I hired two new crew members to continue my journey. What makes FTL special isn’t just its attention to detail or the stressful situations it presents but how it uses these basic components to help you craft a random and personal experience that gives you something to get excited about. Oh, it’s the first successful video game Kickstarter campaign and blah, blah, blah.
GAME OF THE YEAR
Hotline Miami is the game parents warned you would rot your brain. Everything about it feels like a drug; from the power fantasy of being able to eliminate a full building full of guys with guns with nothing more than a knife to the pounding music and visuals that perfectly represent the feel of being on some bad cocaine or something just as harsh. But this isn’t why Hotline Miami is in many ways the best game of the year.
What makes Hotline Miami so poignant is its uncompromising stance in making the player both feel like a badass and a terrible person at the same time. It KNOWS you like to kill people, you come to it to kill people and it pays off with game play that is as satisfying as solving a puzzle for the first time as it is as brutally honest about how making you feel like your actions should not be condoned. Subtle beats like having to walk through the carnage you’ve just shed at the completion of a stage really gives way to an almost introspective look into yourself, both cringing and smiling at the same time. It’s been a long time since I’ve encountered a game so shockingly violent for no reason other than it wants to be and makes no winking gestures or knowing glances about it, neither glorifying or condemning it.
I absolutely love the world of The Walking Dead and TellTale’s story following a group of survivors in the Robert Kirkman universe is hands down one of the best experiences I had all year. I would wait with baited breath every month for my next fix and, when released, would make sure the situation to sit down for two hours was perfect to get the most out of my experience. The characters are well done, story is compelling and I really got into the art style. So why is it not one of the best games of the year?
Well I find it hard to personally call it a “game” in any basic use of the word. The interactivity that is presented to the player is largely similar to that of a “Choose Your Adventure” novel, flipping to specific pages to continue the story down a variety of well hidden paths that all end at same roadblock to carry the story forward. Sure, there are parts where quick-time events or “reaction events” add a little more game play (specifically gun play) but it’s probably better to ignore those anyways as they are some of the worst parts of the experience. Now sure, there are the basic tropes of adventure games that makes it necessary to progress through the story but they’re more-so time wasting filler in between story beats that are largely uninteresting (searching an abandoned shop for batteries, etc) and if we’re going to focus on those as main game play elements to take into account, it fails as a game solely based on making me not want to play those parts anyways. Looking at what I have included above, it’s a hard sell in my mind to put something so focused and narrative driven as The Walking Dead alongside the likes of FTL or Mark of the Ninja that accomplish a satisfying experience in the most primal of video game needs, mechanically, with or without narrative as a crutch.