My Games of 2013 – Gregg
Ah, 2013. I wouldn’t say it was a busy year for games, personally, yet a look-back over a list of ones beaten perhaps says otherwise. Plus, I was sure to play some of the big releases, and certainly ones that will find their place among other people’s GOTY picks. So, where to begin…
I’d actually been ignoring this game pre-release, under the impression that the big Lara Croft outings were severely underwhelming and not worth my time. In fact, the only thing I had enjoyed in recent years was the superb Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. Then I caught a glimpse of some form of the ever-popular ‘developer diary’ and my interest was piqued. Whether or not this reboot and its story was any good was of no importance, it looked like a mixture of the Uncharted series and Rocksteady’s Arkham series, i.e. a Metroidvania-style mixture of third-person action and combat with a heavy dose of exploration and some (very) mild puzzling.
Fortunately, it lived up to these expectations, delivering a tight, well-paced adventure and with a smart cover system that allowed for delightfully hectic combat without becoming overwhelming. The environment design is beautiful and particularly clever in its scale and how paths unfold, even giving you the odd occasion to carefully plan your assault on enemies before taking the first shot. Movement itself is also really enjoyable, as Lara runs and scrambles about the place, everything working and controlling intuitively while the animation lends it a tangible air of exertion and struggle; noticeably more than when Nathan Drake climbs on things that inevitably fall apart as he goes. Plus, who doesn’t love the ‘thwip’ of arrows connecting with bad people’s faces?
The story itself is perfectly serviceable with some decent character moments and it does a good job of resetting the franchise, though it’s certainly the weakest part of the game and perhaps a little too earnest in parts. However, the overall experience was definitely satisfying, considering I ran into a game-breaking bug right near the end and had to play through the whole thing again (this time, souping up the rifle enough to become utterly invincible…)
It was certainly a surprise hit and a game well worth playing.
THE LAST OF US
I was a little late to the party on this one, mainly because I’m a little apprehensive when it comes to any games involving stealth and/or survival horror elements. They just ain’t my bag. And this game certainly proved that, as I spent much of the early game blundering through everything that required some sort of finesse. Fortunately, as time went on it all began to…click (*shudder*)
The strength of its stealth gameplay is that you do get the opportunity to hightail it out of there, should you be discovered, rather than resorting to full-on combat or triggering an automatic failure. In fact, after having initially written off the gameplay as something I’d effectively have to ‘suffer’ through in order to enjoy the rest, it was this level of forgiveness combined with the subtle complexity that really drew me in. Once I’d successfully confirmed a spur-of-the-moment theory regarding a patrolling enemy, a booby trap and a thrown brick, I was sold.
And so, besides finding the story compelling, I gradually became an unstoppable predator who set traps, shivved from the shadows and used molotov cocktails whenever possible. Yet, despite this power, every encounter stayed extremely tense and occasionally frenetic as I fumbled to find weapons with ammunition or find a quiet enough spot in order to heal or build more traps and bombs. And, of course, your aim is never 100% accurate, further compounding the struggle to stay calm and shoot straight. There was more than one occasion where I just about scraped by, low on health and grabbing a well-needed stash of ammo just in time to finish off a dangerous enemy. It’s safe to say, I hadn’t played anything quite like it.
And it would be remiss not to mention the story. It’s all told beautifully through both cutscenes and exploration, with some mighty fine acting from Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson that is conveyed not just through voice but body language and even facial expressions. There’s a real argument for the power of motion capture and good animators in service of the quieter moments as well as action set pieces.
And, also…giraffes. Yes, giraffes.
FIREFLY: THE GAME
Yes, I’ve decided to include a board game on this list. So sue me. Press X or Die is actually full of board and card game enthusiasts, and it’s become very popular recently, so it only seems appropriate.
Two things before I begin. One, I am a huge nerd for Firefly, and two, I haven’t played many board or card games in the overall scheme of things. So when I say that this is the most wonderful marriage of theme and mechanics I’ve ever seen, you know where I’m coming from.
“Find a crew, find a job, keep flying.” Those words spoken by the show’s main character, Mal, as to what he intends to do now that the war is lost are precisely what the game is built upon. You become the captain of your own Firefly-class ship, put together a crew and seek out work. It’s built on the foundation of pick up-and-deliver games (a style which I’ve never played before) but mixed into that, you’ve got ship upgrades, gear and all sorts of crew abilities and nuances.
Because of the way it’s designed, you’ll need to put together a well-rounded crew and find some good gear, but there’s a certain flexibility in what sort of jobs you tackle and from where you draw these skills. And each and every turn along the way bring its own decisions. Whether or not you’ll make it to your destination without being interrupted or even if you’ll have enough fuel; whether or not to draw more jobs/supplies, knowing that you’re simultaneously exposing more options to your opponents; whether or not to risk a shorter smuggling route that includes flying close to the Reavers or Alliance, who may have the opportunity to catch you during an opponent’s turn; whether or not your moral crew members will stick around after you finish an immoral job; or if you can get away with not paying certain members their cut, knowing that this makes them easy pickings for other captains or likely to leave, themselves.
All the while, everyone is trying to race ahead and complete their own jobs/goals, going through the same balancing acts of crew abilities vs. crew cost, buying crew and gear vs. getting on with completing jobs, cargo and smuggling space vs. fuel space, slow, safer travel vs. quicker, potentially dangerous travel. For me, it’s this constant risk/reward factor, this tangible sense of both power and risk-taking, that so enamours me to the game. And, of course, there’s the theme…
Fans of the show will recognise lots of the characters (even background ones given increased roles) as well as plenty of references, from Jayne’s ‘Public Relations’ label to mechanics (skill tests on illegal jobs are known as ‘misbehaving’) and even scenarios that pop up as you’re travelling the ‘verse. Even the way luck, both good and bad, figures into things feels entirely appropriate.
It’s all this, along with its sandbox-like nature and the promise of further expansion, both official and unofficial, that makes it one of my favourite games of the year.
Honourable mentions: Grand Theft Auto V, Spec Ops: The Line, The Walking Dead, Alpha Protocol, and TMNT: Out of the Shadows (what?)