It’s been a strange year, really. Normally with two new consoles being released, you’d assume the stellar titles we’d get every year would dry up. But no, instead, this has – yet again – been one of the very best years for gaming.
An absolute wealth of stunning, immersive titles have been in and out of our disc trays and download queues, reminding us (as always) that there’s never been a better time to be a gamer.
Of course, we’d love to hear your thoughts and picks for this category too, so please leave comments at the end of the article. In reverse order then, let’s get it on!
Martin Baker: There was never a doubt in my mind that Saints Row IV was going to be a hugely entertaining title but, when you think about it, Saints Row the Third was such a high point for open-world games that there was a lot to live up to. However, when you add on top of that the upheaval of moving from THQ to Deep Silver, you could be forgiven for thinking that there could have been something lost in the transition. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. Saints Row IV is a massive acheivement for the franchise, a true high point.
The story is absolutely nuts, there are points when it doesn’t even make sense, but that doesn’t for a second mean that you’ll stop having fun. You’ll spend hours soaring across the virtual city of Steelport, running up and down the various buildings and generally being the greatest superpowered badass you can be. From the start of the game, all the way through to the very end, Saint Row IV is charming, funny and a great game to lose yourself in. One of my favourite gaming moments from the last year was driving through the city with Pierce, singing Paula Abdul’s ‘Opposites Attract’. It may be a recycled joke from the last game in the series, but I still loved it.
The entire experience is a love letter to the whole Saints Row series. The missions, the characters you’ll create, everything, it all pays homage to the Saints. And deservedly so.
Sean Smith: The best Pokémon ever, on 2013′s best console, pound for pound. Staggeringly huge, lovely looking, and genuinely pushing the envelope for a series that has traded on familiarity, even being set in a place resembling France couldn’t take the shine off of this bad boy.
James Bowden: Pokémon X and Y are somewhat reserved in terms of their narrative design, particularly after Black and White. In fact I’d go as far as to say X and Y’s campaign verges on lazy, with characters throwing HMs in your face before asking your name and a villain that’s practically signposted in nuclear neon, but to say that ignores everything the game gets so right.
Pokémon X and Y finally drags the series into the polygon era, which is obvious and adds some much needed gravitas to the animal conflicts, but it’s the core combat that shines, and X and Y do a lot to really bring it to the forefront. The new EXP share removes the grind (many people confuse grind with difficulty), super training makes Pokémon’s in-depth training mechanics a little less obtuse, and Mega Evolutions and Fairies add some long overdue spanners to the well sculpted machine.
Ben Skipper: Picking up Pokémon X was like being a kid again. Nothing will ever match playing Pokémon Red aged 8 in the midst of the initial Western hysteria, but X came close. It looked glorious (so long as the 3D was switched off) and included many more of the original 151 than I ever expected. The moment I was won over came early on as I fought a Pikachu for the first time and realised they had used his cries from the cartoon – nostalgia overload!
James Bowden: One thing first. Rayman Legends is horribly presented. Like, awfully so. I mean, I just beat a world, killed a huge dragon, then ran out of the castle to a song that generates guaranteed foot stomping at student nights, so why show me a text prompt? How is that an acceptable reward?
Perhaps it’s how bad the stuff outside the levels is that really highlights how good the stuff in the levels actually is. From medieval castles to an underground Bond base to Greek mountains, the variety of Rayman’s environments, and the challenges contained within, is truly commendable, and the design attitudes often evoke a flair and artistry rarely seen in platformers post SNES. The opening of Toad Story, in particular, reminds me of Donkey Kong Country 2’s Bramble Blast – it’s a melancholy tune played over a serene environment that evokes more tucked away feelings than the typical ‘gotta go fast’ attitude you associate with run and jumpers.
Beautiful, in all of its in-level aspects, Rayman Legends’ stages are eye and ear massaging gameplay bliss.
Martin Baker: The development of Rayman Legends was fraught with bad luck. A game which should have been a system seller for the Wii U – for which it was originally meant as an exclusive – was suddenly delayed for almost 6 months as well as getting developed for the other consoles as well as the Wii U. It was always going to be a difficult journey for Rayman Legends, especially coming after the critically acclaimed Rayman Origins, but the team at Ubisoft Montpellier faced the challenge head on, and managed to come out on top.
Despite all of these difficulties, Rayman Legends is still one of the best games of this past year. The high of Rayman Origins was maintained and carried over with even more aspects being added. That addition of mini-games, daily challenges and the leaderboard take a game that was amazing but noticably lacking when it came to give the player something to do once the credits had rolled, and gave them enough stuff to ensure that if they don’t want to, they’ll never run out of things to do. These latest adventures of Rayman show that the armless wonder still has it in him and Rayman Legends was absolutely one of the best games of 2013.
Sean Smith: How could Ancel follow the majestic Origins? We got a taste when the demo wed Black Betty to rhythm action platforming. Once the game hit, we got more classic Rayman platforming, more genius musical stages, excellent online-based challenges and an overall package that is almost overwhelming in its generosity.
James Bowden: Smile, it’s Mario. Beam, it’s Mario dressed up as a cat. Grin, those little Goomba’s are drifting about in inflatables. Super Mario 3D World is Happy: The Game. Where other titles try to tell captivating tales, Mario is happy with giving you a bunch of platforms, a goal, and the most athletic virtual plumber around, and that’s enough.
Oh, and jazz.
It’s just so surprising. The pipe trips, the cannon shots, the challenges, the enemy behaviours. It’s Mario, but it manages to do things Mario has never done before. That no other game has done. Yet it does it all with a comforting familiarity that warms the cockles and tweaks the corners of your sound hole. Super Mario 3D World is a celebration of creativity and pure refinement of control. Go on, beat my best time on World 1-1, I dare you…
Sean Smith: Always likely to be troubling this list, 3D World is a fresh and exciting new Mario universe, with some jaw dropping new gadgets, surprisingly tight multiplayer, and Goombas inside a giant ice skate. What more could you ever want?
Mick Fraser: If you read my review of Ubisoft’s fifth full Assassin’s Creed game, you’ll know I was impressed. More about pirates than assassins, Black Flag marries a huge open world with the best naval combat ever featured in a game, a likeable protagonist and an interesting story to deliver a massive, superior package. There’s just enough mystery left in the “real world” segments to ensure interest in the next game, and yet Black Flag also manages a satisfying conclusion of its own. The second best Assassin’s Creed game ever, and one of the best games of 2013.
Martin Baker: The Assassin’s Creed series of games are some of my favourite video games of all time. The combination of action, intrigue and historical settings sings to everything I look for when choosing a game to play. I didn’t dislike Assassin’s Creed III as much as a lot of other people, but I did find it the weakest title in the series and my fire for the franchise on the whole died a little bit.
Due to that I wasn’t that excited for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. The setting was interesting, and everything we saw from the title looked impressive, but I’d thought that about Assassin’s Creed III and we all know how that turned out. However, once Black Flag had finally been released, not only were we blessed with a return to form for the franchise, we were given a game that’s only a few minor factors away from being the best game in the series.
Whether you get Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag for the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 or the Xbox One/PlayStation 4 you can be sure that you’re treating yourself to not only one of the finest games in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, but one of the examples of 2013′s pinnacle of gaming.
Ben Skipper: “Assassin’s Creed III is really boring,” cried the masses. “Okay then, ‘ave some pirates,” replied Ubisoft. “Yes please,” yelled the masses as they broke out their wallets/purses (equality is important). The promise of an Assassin’s Creed game in which you play as a BLOODY PIRATE ASSASSIN was instantly sellable and instantly bought by the gaming public. Last year was a misstep, but in Black Flag the Assassin’s Creed series has found its best game since Brotherhood and has been saved from a lull many were worried would come after III. Where next? Well it has to be a samurai right?
Robin Parker: Before this reboot title, that last few Tomb Raider game releases had failed to capture the imagination of games players to the same extent that they used to. The action-adventure genre had moved on and Uncharted was the new benchmark by which other titles were measured. So how do you beat Uncharted? Copy it shamelessly, that’s how!
Tomb Raider took all of the usual Lara Croft adventuring, but added the cinematic bombast that Uncharted made popular. Big action set pieces and cinematic escapes, for example, gave the game a greater sense of scale and drama. Of course, new gameplay elements unique to Tomb Raider were also added, the bow and arrows being the most noticeable; for combat, for hunting, puzzle-solving and even zip-lining around the environment.
It may come across as somewhat of a cheap tactic, to copy the Uncharted formula so closely, but remember that Uncharted began its life being compared to Tomb Raider, and being labelled a rip-off. So really the Tomb Raider reboot is more of a return to form, rather than a carbon copy of another title. Tomb Raider is back where it belongs.
Mick Fraser: I expected Lara’s newest adventure to be something of a damp squib. I wasn’t even all that interested until I played a segment at Eurogamer in 2012 and realised that Crystal Dynamics knew exactly what they were doing with the franchise. Closer to “modern” action games like Uncharted and Hitman than the old-school platform shooting for which the series was once so well known, Tomb Raider 2013 is an incredible example of open-world adventure, and injects some much needed grittiness into a franchise that had started to jump the shark far too often. And what’s more, it completely wiped away the stains left by Angelina Jolie’s awful movies.
James Bowden: A Link Between Worlds is a smart revision of what Zelda was, is and could be. Minimal hand holding, instant items, a free-form structure. Link Between Worlds is Zelda boiled down to its gameplay bones, and it’s a streamlined, driven adventure that remains. Yet, A Link Between Worlds’ virtues extend further than its pure design – this is also a remarkably ‘believable’ Zelda. The world feels less like one made for you, and more like a Hyrule of characters.
Talk to residents every now and again and you’ll find incidental dialogue. Keep your eyes open and you’ll see a world more reactive to its story. Visit the Milk Bar and a bard duo will play minimalist versions of the game’s extensive, and glorious soundtrack. You could complain that the game is ‘short’ but A Link Between World’s virtues exist outside of simple progress, which is one of the best things to say after a line of Zelda games with painfully lacking over-worlds.
Colm Ahern: Sometimes, it’s really cool to be negative. In this day and age of “LOLs”, “bantz” and general Internet culture, taking popular things and cutting them down within an inch of their life is “cool”. I’m not one to be easy on a game either. If something is terrible, it should definitely pointed out, but with Irrational Games’ BioShock Infinite, I wasn’t one of the “cool kids”.
From start to finish, Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth had me. I rigorously listened to every single piece of dialogue between the two and collected as many voxophones as possible – aiming to learn as much as I could about Columbia and the deplorable people inhabiting the floating city. That opening sequence was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had with any form of media. Walking through the fairground-like attractions and seeing the adulation for Zachary Comstock was hypnotic. Of course, that soon turns ugly as you learn what Columbia is really all about.
But, what the “cool kids” really had a problem with was BioShock Infinite’s level of violence. It was something that many felt was unwarranted. I, however, feel that it’s integral to the narrative. Booker is a war veteran with a chequered past and both Comstock & Columbia are, on the surface very affable, but deep down, their dark passenger has long overtaken them, covering both in blood. While playing Infinite, every gun felt important, every kill was deliciously devastating and, like Booker, I wrestled with the fact that I was enjoying what was happening on-screen. I’m happy to be on the outside of the popular group on this one.
Ben Skipper: Okay, so BioShock Infinite has its problems – chiefly that there’s too much combat, but there’s so much to love in Infinite’s story and design that it deserves a place among the games of the year. Ken Levine is essentially a David Cage-like character, but one who realises he’s working in the video game business and not Hollywood. Sure Colombia isn’t as good as Rapture, but it’s still a supremely made game and one of the best-looking ever.
Mike Stubbs: BioShock Infinite had a hell of a lot to live up to. The first BioShock game was simply a masterpiece and one of the finest games ever made, following that alone would have been difficult enough but the extended development time of the game offered up even more expectations. Fortunately it delivered, and then some.
Gone was the fallen city of Rapture, replaced by Columbia a floating city in the sky, gone were the big daddies and splicers and gone were the little sisters. Despite all the changes Infinite still felt like a BioShock game, solid gameplay backed up by an amazing story and whose cast were more than enough to create a great experience; and it’s one I certainly won’t forget for a long time. BioShock Infinite certainly wasn’t without its issues but these were minor complaints in what was an otherwise almost perfect game.
Mike Stubbs: If there is one game that has changed my opinion of what a truly amazing game is, it has to be The Last of Us. The game does not put a single foot wrong during its extensive single player campaign and despite the multiplayer not being my kind of thing, it’s still mightily impressive. Never before have I seen a game that does so much right; the gameplay, the story, the level design, the acting and the world that is created are all near perfect.
The game is most definitely one of the most impressive games I have ever played, but it’s not the one I have enjoyed the most, in fact its quite a way off that mark, but from a critical point of view there is very little to complain about. I may not have enjoyed The Last Of Us as much as some others but one thing is for sure, games have a new bar to reach in order to match The Last of Us, and it definitely wont be easy to get there.
James Bowden: The Last of Us is a game that you keep thinking about. It might not necessarily be a game that you replay time and again, unless you really like its multiplayer, but it is a game that seers itself into your memory. It’s the perfect marriage of narrative, world design and gameplay, and each element is designed to leave you thinking.
The story is morally gray, the combat is distressingly brutal, and the world is believably twisted. You don’t just play The Last of Us, you question it. You question the characters. You question other games. You question you. Games that are nominated for GotY are those that best present the virtues of the medium, and The Last of Us is certainly the current front runner for demonstrating linear narrative and believable game design, and I can’t see it being bettered any time soon.
Colm Ahern: I’ve grown up with Grand Theft Auto. The DMA Designs-developed original was released at the exact right time for me, as were GTA III, Vice City and San Andreas. But GTA IV felt like it left a lot of the fun behind and GTA appeared to be changing its ways. Enter Grand Theft Auto V to rectify much of that.
Ludicrous sequences like Michael falling from the sky after a drug trip and Trevor’s general behaviour, captured that feeling that many of the older entries gave me – the sense that anything can happen. The same can be said for the heists. While I would’ve liked more, what was on offer was terrific. Going into a jewellery store and looking at their CCTV system before taking millions of dollars worth of merchandise – how could you not enjoy that!
The addition of controlling three characters was such an inspired choice too, as it gave players the option to hop between characters if you got tired of one at any time. It has its problems in areas and Franklin is incredibly boring for the most part, but the populated world of Los Santos made up for a lot of the game’s shortcomings. Around every corner, there was something to do. When developers talk about these expansive worlds they’re creating, they really need to take notice of GTAV and realise that a game world is only fun if the player has things to do in it. Like, you know, the stocks.
Mick Fraser: Grand Theft Auto may have been around for years, but it will always be known as a franchise that heavily influenced this generation. GTAV is both an excellent way for Rockstar to bid farewell to PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and a wonderful swansong for the generation as a whole. Technically amazing and hilarious throughout, it only really begins to falter during the final few missions, but even then, it offers so many alternatives to the main story that you simply can’t get bored. Huge, beautiful, wilfully offensive and unapologetically cliche, Grand Theft Auto V is the ultimate escape, a sprawling playground in which to enact all your basest fantasies – or just go sight-seeing if you fancy it. Truly epic.
This time around, Colm and I are taking on the Top Gears lads, who have set a very good time around the test track in Forza 6. Catch up on Score Attack via this handy playlist. And subscribe, obviously.