Gamers had an embarassment of riches in 2013, with developers squeezing all of the potential out of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 they could before the new consoles rolled out. Here are the top five.
5. Devil May Cry - When I first heard that they were rebooting the Devil May Cry franchise and handing it off to the virtually unknown developer Ninja Theory, I was somewhat skeptical, especially since Devil May Cry has traditionally been a Japanese series and Capcom was letting western developers handle the reigns. Gone was the silver-haired wise ass from the previous games—the new Dante was dark-haired, full of angst, and dripping with edge. Fanboys couldn’t wait to trash the game before its release even though none of them had actually played the game. I was disappointed with the fourth entry in the series, so I was hopeful that a reboot would give the franchise a much needed kick in the ass.
Ninja Theory completely knocked this one out of the park. The game was given a look that was modern and fresh but with enough classic elements from the other games to keep it tied in with the series. The new Dante does take a little getting used to but the essence of the character is still intact—the cocky, sexy demon hunter was here to stay. He was raw, confrontational and cussed more but I really enjoyed watching Dante interact with the new cast of characters. The pulsating electro-industrial soundtrack perfectly accented the blazing fast action and got the adrenalin pumping. The storyline borrows elements from the cult film They Live and has a decidedly anti-corporation vibe.
Devil May Cry has always been about the action and the newest installment doesn’t disappoint. The boss fights are some of the coolest I have seen in a long time. The game controls like butter and they implemented an interesting system called “Angel Mode” and “Devil Mode“ which essentially gives Dante two completely different move sets. It adds a lot of variety to the game and gives you the ability to set up some crazy combos. On the negative side, they nerfed his iconic guns Ebony and Ivory—they are pretty much useless. Oddly, the game doesn’t have a way to target single enemies which makes setting up combos a little harder. Overall, Devil May Cry was one of my favorite game experiences of 2013 and I hope more people give it a chance. *
4. Dead Space 3 - After delivering two of the scariest, most intense love letters to the "Alien" movies with the first two Dead Space titles, developer Visceral took the last third of the trilogy in a different direction. Isaac Clarke thinks he's out of the marker hunting business, but they keep pulling him back in. Isaac is more of an action badass in this installment, and after killing thousands of necromorphs in the first two, it makes sense. Adding co-op play, surprisingly, added to the experience. It wouldn't have worked in the earlier installments, with their survival/horror flair. My favorite change was the addition of sidequests. When done well, I find sidequests addictive. I refused to move on in this game until every sidequest was complete. In a console generation filled with great trilogies, Dead Space is one of the best.
3. Grand Theft Auto V - I've played all of the Grand Theft Auto games since part III dropped a hydrogen bomb on the industry in 2001. They've all been fun, but I was never a big fan of the series. I'd quickly get bored or frustrated with the main missions and just go around destroying stuff after awhile. GTAV was a big surprise for me. Not once in my 35+ hours of playtime did I mess around, just trying to get into trouble. Rockstar managed to piece together a very good story, told from three different perspectives, of which Michael was my favorite. Everything good about the GTA series was tightened up in part V. Driving, mission checkpoints, gunplay, and character development (!?) were polished to near perfection. It's a very long game with lots of stuff to do after the credits role, making it the best GTA ever.
2. Bioshock Infinite - I hate using this phrase, but there truly are no words that could do justice to how staggering of a design achievement Bioshock Infinite is. It feels so futile having such little space to review one of the very best pieces of art I've ever experienced in my life.
The World of Columbia is seeping with a genuine, lived-in atmosphere. Not even in the original Bioshock did I feel such a magnetic force reel me toward every poster, every NPC conversation, and every possible tiny note or vintage advertisement that I could get my greedy eyes on. The first time the doors opened to Columbia, my chest felt fuzzy and electric. My mouth went dry with awe. I truly visited a new universe.
If I could pry out a single fault, I would say the core combat is lacking on Normal difficulty. Hard mode forces you to rely on every possible resource and Vigor, ensuring you squeeze every last drop out of the fun factor in order to progress.
Otherwise, on every possible level, Bioshock Infinite is masterful. The sound, music, graphics, story, gameplay, level design, you name it, it's pure gold. Not since the original Bioshock have I played a video game so endlessly thought-provoking and enormously satisfying from both intellectual and gameplay perspectives. The ending had my mind reeling for months afterward, absolutely blown away to the point of shouting ecstatically in my room. In my opinion, this is the pinnacle of game design of the last generation. **
1. The Last of Us - I have thirty five years worth of remarkable video game moments knocking around inside my brain, not the least of which include hearing Sinistar's voice raise my hair on end when I was a kid, witnessing Aeris' death in Final Fantasy VII, and confronting Andrew Ryan in Bioshock.
The Last of Us has multiple moments that stand with and even rise above those I just mentioned. It begins rather humbly, being that it's a post-pandemic game. Sirens are going off, everyone is panicking, and a gruff man named Joel is trying to convince his daughter and himself that everything will be okay amidst the chaos.
The events that transpire after this introduction are horrifyingly beautiful. Developer Naughty Dog, best known for the popular Uncharted Trilogy, was apparantely using those games as a means to perfect the Playstation 3 technology so that they could unearth this blood diamond.
This is not a simple tale of perseverance or good triumphing over evil. It is a brutal look at humanity 20 years after after the events in the introduction, when the pandemic started. The protagonist Joel is tortured throughout the game by the senseless slaughter of his daughter two decades prior. He is emotionally catatonic, insisting that "You either hold on to your morals and die, or do everything you can to survive."
Joel reluctantly takes on the task of looking after Ellie, a brash young teenager who some think could hold the key to saving humanity from the outbreak. Her optimism and naivete irk Joel at first, but she eventually endears herself to him.
Over the course of a year, they take a bleak cross country trip that unrelentingly tests their resolve. When in combat, Joel and Ellie face the finest enemy A.I. that I've ever encountered in a console shooter. I had to plan out every engagement carefully, whether it was against paranoid humans or infected beasts. While quietly walking the countryside, every look and word shared by Joel and Ellie serves a purpose. Sometimes they strengthened the bond that I felt between Ellie and Joel, other times they advanced the narrative. There is no filler material or padding in this game.
The music, artwork, sound effects, animation, voice acting and pacing are what give such weight to the characters' personalities. Naughty Dog had to get them all just right to pull it off. I have never been so personally attached to a video game character before. The Last of Us is emotionally draining to the point of exhaustion. Making friends and meeting people usually aren't great ideas in any post-apocalyptic story, and it's no different in The Last of Us. There were several moments that left me sobbing uncontrollably, due to either a shocking portrayal of grotesque inhumanity or the loss of someone who I had made an emotional connection with.
Playing The Last of Us is like playing a Coen Brothers movie. The developers unabashedly gush about using the sound design and pacing of "No Country for Old Men" as inspiration. This is a game that every adult should experience. It's a perfect example of how video games can continue to evolve as a storytelling medium.
* Written by Michelle Kisner **Written by JG Barnes