As promised, here is my list! As with last year, I’ve highlighted noteworthy achievements, as opposed to trying to single out favourites (so you will see some that I thought were more interesting than fun). I’ll kick off with what I thought were the year’s overarching themes:
Theme of the year I: march of the small games. Every year has its notable short and/or cheap indie games, such as FTL in 2012, and in 2013 these included Skulls of the Shogun, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Papers: Please, and Gone Home. However, the year also saw a large publisher, Ubisoft, throw its hat into the ring with Call of Juarez: Gunslinger and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. Ubisoft is set to continue this trend with Child of Light, and it’ll be interesting to see the extent to which other publishers follow – especially after Tomb Raider missed Square Enix’s expectations, sparking the latest bout of soul-searching about the future of AAA games.
Theme of the year II: iteration. In 2012, my favourite games (XCOM, Wargame: European Escalation, Analogue: A Hate Story), as well as other notable titles (FTL, Journey) were all quite novel. Even XCOM, while thematically faithful to the 1994 original, was mechanically unique. 2013, though, was more like 2011 in its preponderance of evolutionary rather than revolutionary games, from the big end of town (Assassin’s Creed IV) to the little guys (Dominions 4), plus expansion packs (Civilization V: Brave New World, XCOM: Enemy Within). That said, we’ll see exceptions below.
Missed potential: Creative Assembly’s Total War: Rome II, whose campaign managed to botch almost everything that its predecessor Shogun 2 did right. My runner-up, Irrational’s BioShock Infinite, is different in that it was actually good – but it could have been even better with a coherent plot. BI also missed the opportunity to integrate gameplay into its narrative, unlike my next pick.
Most interesting concept: Lukas Pope’s Papers: Please, one of the most unique games I’ve encountered both in its mechanics (making the player check documents) and its themes (putting the players in the shoes of a minor functionary working for an authoritarian state). I found its beta more novel than fun, but I do plan to give the paid version another chance. As runner-up, I’d pick Starbreeze’s Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – this seemingly Ico-inspired fairy-tale adventure gives the player control of two brothers, and then maps each brother to a different half (control stick + trigger buttons) of the gamepad! Lastly, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger and possibly Logic Artists’ Expeditions: Conquistador deserve honourable mentions. Gunslinger‘s distinctive idea is so simple, yet so clever, that it’s a wonder nobody thought of it before – explaining away video game logic (such as protagonists who can mow down 100 enemies at a time) as the product of an unreliable narrator. Conquistador, meanwhile, is a King’s Bounty-like strategy/RPG set in an under-used period of history — the Spanish conquest of Mexico — where players must keep their followers fed, stocked with medicine, and in good spirits in between battles.
Favourite characters: Booker and Elizabeth from Irrational’s BioShock Infinite, who “grow, and change, and change each other” — by far the best part of that game’s story. For all the other storytelling flaws of BI, its heroes grew on me to an extent that, say, the titular leads of Brothers did not.
Most improved sequel: Paradox Development Studio’s Europa Universalis IV, which, together with 2012’s Crusader Kings 2, bucked a multi-year trend during which “Paradox titles often struggled to decide between being strategy games (which emphasise interesting decisions with clear results) and being simulations (which encourage detail for its own sake)”. My runner-up would be Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, which wed the series’ swashbuckling mechanics to a suitable Age of Sail setting, and– so far – shows a similar awareness of what its predecessors did wrong.
Favourite original IP: 17 BIT’s Skulls of the Shogun, a “short, sweet, finely honed, and funny” take on turn-based strategy. Its gameplay isn’t revolutionary – the likes of Advance Wars and Battle Isle blazed its path – but its setting, aesthetic and sense of humour were a breath of fresh air, wrapped around polished gameplay.
Most underrated game: Skulls of the Shogun, which failed to make a splash either critically or commercially. Looking at Metacritic, Skulls earned a 72% (PC) and a 81% (Xbox 360), versus 76% for Rome II, a game I would argue is worse. My Steam friends list tells a similar story – 10 people own Skulls (albeit that’s up from 7 a few days ago!), versus 19 for Rome II.
Best presentation: Level 5’s Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, whose fantasy world sprang to life through vibrant art and a magnificent soundtrack from Studio Ghibli veteran Joe Hisaishi. Proof that more photo-realistic games are not necessarily better-looking!
Game of the year: My two contenders have a lot in common: Eugen Systems’ Cold War RTS Wargame: AirLand Battle and Illwinter’s mythic-fantasy TBS Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension. Both are niche strategy games built around a similar philosophy – letting players pick and choose from an enormous box of toys. In both cases, I thought very hard about whether it would be fair to name them – they are evolutionary sequels (Dominions 4 more so), and ALB’s predecessor was already one of my top picks last year. But both are excellent in their own right, and both are tremendously replayable – after 150+ hours in the Wargame series and 10+ years since I discovered the original Dominions, I still enjoy tinkering with new troops and new tactics. ALB hooked me the most out of any 2013 release, and added a lot to the Wargame formula – but I’ve also enjoyed every moment of Dominions 4, and if I’d come fresh to the Dominions series, it would have snatched the prize (and even more of my time).
If forced to choose, I would ultimately pick Wargame: AirLand Battle as game of the year and Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension for lifetime achievement. They won’t be to everyone’s tastes; but if you are a devotee of deep strategy games, you must check them out.
Appendix 1 – My favourite pre-2013 games: During 2013, I played a great crop of older games, many of which would deserve awards of their own. For that matter, they would beat most of the games released in 2013! Telltale’s Back to the Future: The Game (2010 – unfinished), began as a hilarious homage to the movies but went on to develop its own identity – and even took a brief subversive look at the ethics of Marty’s time travels. Fallout: New Vegas (2010 – unfinished) was a clever “post-post-apocalyptic” or “reverse Western” tale of civilisation pushing back into the wilderness, and a very good RPG. Atlus’ Persona 4: Golden (2012 port of a 2008 PS2 game – unfinished) polished Persona 3’s mix of social simulation and dungeon crawling, which called on the player to make (and roleplay!) “interesting decisions” about what to do with the main character’s time. Tri-Ace/Square Enix’s Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth (2006 port of a 1999 game – finished) is a unique and atmospheric JRPG about a goddess and her retinue of spirit warriors on the eve of Ragnarok. And probably my favourite of the lot – Tiger Style’s exploration game Waking Mars (2012) which managed to capture the spirit of science fiction as few other games have.
Appendix 2 – Noteworthy games I didn’t play: The Last of Us (unbought) and Gone Home (sitting in my backlog).
Congratulations to the developers and publishers behind 2013’s winners, and may they keep up the good work! What were your favourite games of the year?