The year of 2013 has been a busy one; between balancing the last year of my extended stay at University and finally entering the daily grind of the working world, time has gone by much quicker than I would have perhaps preferred. It’s important then to take the time for a brief retrospective, not only to supplement the lazy journalism that comes with the end of the year but because when I stop and think back, it has been another banner year for videogames.
Sony Get Their Mojo Back
Over the past three or four years the PS3 may have slowly been catching up with the Xbox 360 and the Wii on the sales front, but Sony have failed to demonstrate the swagger and confidence that almost appeared natural to them during the mighty PS1 & PS2 eras. This year marked a return to form spearheaded by the successful launch of the PS4 – while the brash, edgy marketing of yesteryear is long gone, the reveal and subsequent buildup to the console launch had gamers excited in a way I haven’t seen for many years, and the way that Sony poked fun at Microsoft DRM policies at E3 for example suggested some of the mischievous old spirit might be returning. Even if the software at launch perhaps performed below expectation (here’s looking at you, Knack), the PS4 has situated itself as the in-demand console for the next generation, and with the likes of Infamous: Second Son, The Witness and The Order: 1886 on the way in 2014 few would want to argue on that claim.
It’s not just the PS4 that has captured my attention though; some of the games released this year have demonstrated that we shouldn’t ignore the PS3 (and to a lesser extent, the Vita) just yet – for many critics, The Last Of Us has been the standout game of the year, with the likes of Gran Turismo 6 and Tearway keeping the approval ratings ticking over. And that isn’t to say anything of PS Plus; the subscription service which has been almost stupidly generous with the long list of top games it has offered for download. Sony has had their fair share of stumbles with the PS3, but it appears that glory days may be on the horizon once again.
The Twisty, U-Turny Tale Of Microsoft
The fortunes of Microsoft have been a godsend for news reporters this year – since the reveal of the Xbox One early on in 2013, barely a week passed by when the company wasn’t announcing a major u-turn in policy. Decisions on the state of online authentication every 24 hours, highly unpopular views on digital rights management and the requirement for an ever present Kinect camera have all been raised and dropped, and CEO Don Mattrick’s decision to jump ship to Zynga halfway through the year also created waves. It’s only been in the last quarter of the year that Microsoft appears to have got their stuff together and focused on the task at hand, by which point a lot of the damage had already been done. The Xbox One arguably has the stronger lineup of exclusive games at the present moment, but not strong enough to justify an extra £70 in the price tag over a PS4.
Besides the Xbox One’s uncomfortable birth, it’s been a below par year for the tech giants. With products across the board falling below expectation (the backlash against Windows 8, the struggle of the Windows Phone against competitors, dismal sales for the Surface tablet) Microsoft would have looked to the Xbox division to provide stability which simply hasn’t been there. Essential first party experiences on the 360 have been AWOL, and elsewhere they just appear short on ideas – take for example the ‘Games With Gold’ service introduced at E3 to combat against the aforementioned PS Plus. While PS Plus customers have received titles as recently released as this year (DmC and Bioshock Infinite are the next offerings for example), ‘Games With Gold’ was handing out six year old games like Halo 3 and Crackdown; sure, you get to keep them forever rather than the loaning system under PS Plus, but the difference in quality and breath of choice has been marked.
Don’t get me wrong – I’ve owned a 360 since 2008 and I’ve loved it, with many of my favorite gaming memories of recent years materializing out of the white lump. In February however, my subscription to Xbox Live ran out and I haven’t felt the urge to renew it. Now, in December, I can’t muster the urge to turn the 360 on full stop.
Nintendo – A Missed Opportunity?
I’ll be blunt: Nintendo have all but wasted the year’s head start they had on the PS4 and Xbox One by getting the Wii U to market in late 2012. Certainly here in the UK, the reception to the Wii U has been apathetic at best, and in spite of recent price cuts it seems doomed already to finishing this generation firmly in third place. And what is especially worrying about that is the fact that in 2013 Nintendo had their strongest line up of games for ages.
Super Mario 3D World was received as the best Mario game for years (in this – the Year Of Luigi!), The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD was achingly pretty and oddities including Pikmin 3 and The Wonderful 101 demonstrated great craft and charm. The 3DS had it even better; while the introduction of the 2DS ‘cheese wedge’ model appears to have confirmed that three-dimensional gaming was never anything more than a cheap gimmick, games such as Fire Emblem: Awakening, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Pokemon X & Y and The Legend Of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds affirmed the position of the 3DS over the Vita as the dominant handheld console.
So where does the Big N’s problem lie? It continues to stem from the lack of hardware power the Wii U offers – as much as we may want to decry the lack of originality in such titles and the people that continue to purchase them, as long as generic crowd pleasers like Call Of Duty, FIFA or Battlefield remain absent then the Wii U will fall behind. It also doesn’t help that the likes of Bayonetta 2, Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros have yet to materialize. Finally, even some of Nintendo’s most stalwart fans are starting to lose faith – the inevitable result of continuing to hype up another Donkey Kong rather than say, announcing a new Metroid or F-Zero. Nintendo are still quite confident that they can play against the big boys, but as the PS4/Xbox One begin to pull away and mobile gaming encroaches ever further into Nintendo’s beloved casual market it’s difficult to see how such a viewpoint can remain tenable.
Indies! Indies! Indies!
Looking at the way that Sony and Microsoft essentially sucked up to the independent communities at E3 by revealing plans for self publishing on their new consoles demonstrates the influence that small companies can have in the modern gaming landscape. The continuing success of Minecraft, joined this year by astounding funding figures for Star Citizen and critical hits including Gone Home and The Stanley Parable HD meant that the indie scene had another strong year. But is the promise and creativity offered by smaller groups of individuals beginning to wane a bit? My concern rests in the fact that much like the AAA-model that it diametrically opposes, it seems that only a handful of indie titles are granted fortune and fame, while the large majority are left by the wayside having failed to complete a Kickstarter campaign – with most of them being crappy rip-offs of Minecraft anyway.
Oh well; just give me Oddworld: New & Tasty and I’ll shut up again.
The Microtransactions Conundrum
One of the more worrying trends of the past year has been the way that microtransactions have sadly become more ingrained in the modern day gaming model. While once upon a time I could happily ignore them as part of a different world where unknowing kids could blow £100 on a crappy iOS game, now they’ve infested big money releases as well. While stuff like purchasing coins for Ultimate Team in FIFA has always been too pricey, seeing that one could purchase the most expensive car in Forza Motorpsort 5 for £32 almost gave me a heart attack. I despise the idea that ‘pay to win’ has become such a favorable option; what has happened to the days when skill was the only way to progress?
I blame the rap music.
The Bitter, Bitter Disappointments Of 2013
Warning – remembering the following events might leave you feeling blue
- Sim City; proving that even the most enjoyable of franchises can be ruined by requirements of being ‘always online’
- Seeing Insomniac’s Fuse turn from a bright and colorful idea to a generic third person shooter that everyone ignored
- Seeing Insomniac’s bright and colorful Sunset Overdrive be revealed…as an Xbox One exclusive
- Watch Dogs being delayed until next year
- The colossal mess that was the first few weeks of GTA Online
- The Ouya
The ‘Dazcooke’s Video Game Land Awards’ – 2013 Edition
Celebrating the third year of removing awards to streamline the article (cough cough clearly didn’t remove awards for Best Wii U and Handheld games because I haven’t played any).
Game Of The Year
It takes a detailed look back at the past 12 months to realize just how strong the release calendar has been in 2013. Early on it was Bioshock Infinite that took my fancy with its gloriously stylish floating city of Columbia and warped inhabitants, but in retrospective it was too linear and focused more on gunplay than scares than I would have hoped. Then came The Last Of Us which will probably end up as my favorite game of the year…when I actually finish playing through my mate’s copy. And by the end of September the juggernaut that is Grand Theft Auto V came wading in, representing probably the technical peak that gaming has reached thus far – but for me it lacked just that little bit of hard-to-define sparkle that makes me love say, Vice City or Red Dead Redemption just that bit more. And I haven’t even covered the games that I’ve yet to (but hope to) play including Tomb Raider, Rayman Legends, Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag or Saints Row IV.
So in the end, I have boiled my nominations for Game Of The Year down to three games that I wouldn’t have expected to pick when looking ahead in January. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance won me over with its fantastic action, great visuals and rocking soundtrack. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon gives the middle finger, quite literally at points, to everyone and everything by draping itself in the neon 1980s and providing a hilarious send up of the sci-fi films from the decade of excess. But my (surprise) pick for 2013 GOTY is an expansion pack – Brave New World – which with new leaders, improved victory conditions and a complete overhaul of vital game mechanics helped turn Civilization V into the game it always should have been.
Gaming Moment Of The Year
I’ve enjoyed a lot of game related things in 2013; I managed to take a trip down to London in September for Eurogamer, and thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere and stuff on show at what was my first gaming exposition. I heard ‘Aerith’s Theme’ voted as the third most popular piece in the Classic FM Hall Of Fame after a successful online campaign. I whooped and hollered with friends at 2am as Kingdom Hearts III was confirmed at E3. And finally, I finished a personal challenge lasting over two years to see the end of Ocarina Of Time with my own eyes. But what of moments from the games themselves?
- The opening scenes of The Last Of Us (SPOILERS; I highly recommend playing this first rather than watching) – You will rarely see a better choreographed and heart-wrenching opening than Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic gem offers. Watching Joel and his daughter attempt to escape the city as the virus takes hold of the population and chaos descends is a perfectionist’s study of how to draw people into the narrative of a game; equal parts thrilling, terrifying and tender.
- The Return Of Bubsy – The day that I turned on my computer to discover a brand new Bubsy platformer that I could play in my browser was a great day for science. Bubsy 3D: Bubsy Visits The James Turell Retrospective sees the feline mascot visit an art museum populated by giant frogs and then descend to hell in a coffin ride. Better yet, via the use of cheat codes you can then return into other peoples games and scare them as a massive Ghost Bubsy. It’s so crazy that it demands you play it.
- Raiden vs. Armstrong in Metal Gear Rising: Revenegance – Any boss battle from Revengeance could have fitted the bill here, but the final encounter gets the nod for being so deliciously over the top and achieving what so few other videogame bosses manage – the sense that the enemy is god damn undefeatable. NANOMACHINES, SON!
- Every reload animation from Blood Dragon – Never has a shotgun been reloaded with such casual, awesome indifference
My standout moment from this year however comes from Grand Theft Auto V – in a sandbox of such technical mastery, you might expect it would be a crazy chase through the city of Los Santos that got my attention, or one of the high-profile heists that pepper the storyline. But no; it’s the razor sharp comedic wit of the script, oft overlooked by those who have played it, that I want to praise. In particular, two moments really got me laughing out loud; first as Michael and Trevor drive to Paleto Bay to scope out a potential score, the cranky middle aged dad points out with troll-like precision how Trevor is the archetypal ‘proto-hipster’. Second, as he drives Mrs. Madrazo back to her husband after kidnapping and subsequently falling in love with her, the radio automatically adjusts to the sounds of Chicago’s ‘If You Leave Me Now’ which provide the backdrop to Trevor’s sobs and cries. Few other games can make the process of driving from A to B so consistently entertaining as GTA V…and to be honest even if it wasn’t the script, there were hundreds of other unique instances that would still be up there for the highlight of my year
Best Song In A Video Game
While the 1912 remixes from Bioshock Infinite undeniably have their charm and Power Glove’s techno beats for Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon will have you fistpumping until Vietnam War 3, the plaudits for best individual song of the year go to Jamie Christopherson for composing ‘The Stains Of Time’ from Revenegance.
Best Graphics In A Video Game
Its astonishing to see what has been coaxed out of six/seven year old hardware this year by developers, with the motion capture for PS3 duo The Last Of Us and Beyond: Two Souls showing there’s still plenty of life in the old girl. However, it only takes about five seconds worth of playing Resogun to see what graphical boundaries the next consoles will be pushing; all that talk about voxels isn’t just empty words – it’s absolutely stunning in action.
One To Watch For 2014
Watch Dogs would be the obvious choice for this accolade; the game that we thought would be in our palms in November was cruelly put back to next year, where although it might not have quite the impact that it would have had being released at the herald of the next generation will still surely be a great sandbox game. Infamous: Second Son will sorely test my desire to pick up a PS4, Persona 5 will make me want to finally get a PS3, another helping of Kojima madness in the shape of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is a welcome treat and I look forward to diving back into The Wolf Among Us.
And you know what – based on what I played at Eurogamer, I reckon I might pick up Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII as well. Haters gotta hate and all that.
Thanks for reading yet another year in review article – it just remains for me to say thank you all for your continued support, and have a smashing 2014!