Mel’s Best of 2013

10. Outlast

When Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs revealed itself to be nothing but an overwrought short story devoid of any actual scares (not that surprising in retrospect considering it came from a studio known only for previously making an overwrought interactive short story), the gap for a great horror game in 2013 was left wide open. Enter Outlast, an interactive carnival ride through a spooky asylum full of jump scares, cackling mad inmates and tons of uncomfortable full-frontal nudity. What more could you possibly want?

9. Gunpoint

Elevator Action was once proven to be the greatest game ever made by a group of scientists in Reykjavik so someone’s gotta have a lot of guts if they think they have what it takes to step up to the 2D spy platformer throne and reach for the crown. Gunpoint may not impress Icelandic scholars the same way E-Action did back in the day but it was a unique platformer all the same, one which managed to properly convey a real sense of old school espionage even with its simple 2D style.

8. The Last of Us

It was pretty good.

7. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

No one thought it could be done. There was no way Platinum Games could ever craft a Metal Gear subtitle as brilliantly stupid as “Peace Walker”, a title so dumb that it sounds like it could be the title of the book Vin Diesel eventually writes about his relationship with Paul Walker. Kojima had hinted at greatness before with the incredibly stupid subtitle “Snake Eater” but “Peace Walker” made us rethink what we thought we knew about goofy-as-hell subtitles. It’s a testament to Platinum’s expert handling of the Metal Gear brand then that the bar was raised once again with “Revengeance”, a nonsensical joke of a title which is made infinitely better knowing that absolutely no one who worked on the game thought it was humorous.

Also, the game was great. You could slice up watermelons with a sword.

6. Papers, Please

Papers Please might’ve tried to disturb players with the bureaucratic horror that comes with running a dystopian society but it’s never been so much fun to be a cog in a horrible humanity-crushing machine.

5. Super Mario 3D World

In a bitter twist of fate, the year of Luigi was proven to be meaningless as Mario stole the spotlight from his older brother yet again with another classic platformer. Coincidentally, not long after its release Luigi was found naked hanging from the rafters of one of his many haunted manors with the hose of his magic vacuum cleaner wrapped around his neck in a clear case of autoerotic asphyxiation. R.I.P. Luigi.

4. Splinter Cell: Blacklist

Like all of Tom Clancy’s escapism-for-patriotic-middle-aged-men projects, the purpose of the Splinter Cell games from day one has been to empower players into feeling like the ultimate badass American who can defeat terrorism just by doing the splits between two walls a lot. Its plot and characters are boilerplate Clancy hogwash but Blacklist was one of the most mechanically sound action games of the year and made it effortless to become the gruff overpowered kill-three-bad-guys-at-once hero you want to be in a silly blockbuster like this.

3. Animal Crossing: New Leaf

I love Simpsons: Tapped Out as much as the next person but it seems to be part of a disturbing trend of games devolving into nothing but a routine of mindless time-consuming tapping in exchange for the false sense of creation. New Leaf felt like the antidote to games like that, one which appealed to our need for routine and progress but managed to do it in a way which was always engaging, charming and fun.

2. Gone Home

There’s nothing that new about Gone Home — since Adventure in 1975, adventure games have been using mundane exploration as their main means of storytelling. The measured search of the boarded cabin at the start of Zork is no different than the measured search of the house in Gone Home, it’s the same kind of atmospheric world being built up simply by the details and textures of the environment around you. The brilliance of Gone Home was in how dedicated it was to even the smallest of those details, creating a world so well-crafted that even the most insignificant piece of trash you might’ve found lying around still managed to tell you something about either a character or this universe they existed in.

1. Grand Theft Auto V  

GTAV showed more artistry in its announcement trailer two years ago than some games from 2013 did in their entirety. Gorgeous cutscenes with actual thought put into shot composition, great naturalistic voiceover from a good actor, brilliant use of the title track from the Small Faces’ eternally underrated classic 60s album “Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake”. In less than two minutes they managed to make something that was more cultured, nuanced and cinematic than whatever David Cage has been attempting to do his entire career.

The full game replicated that same kind of craft on a scale so immense that it almost defied believability. How thousands of people and multiple studios could make such a sprawling, multi-protagonist epic feel so singular in vision and voice was a stunning achievement. The game created a world as rich and defined as the one in Gone Home, just one that happened to be a few billion times its size.

Most impressive was how Rockstar ended the console cycle with a game which acted as a perfect summation of the leaps and bounds they grew throughout the generation. GTAIV supplied the engine which would act as the blueprint for all of the following games; Red Dead Redemption improved the narrative structure and better used the hardware to create a more ambitious world ; L.A. Noire saw them focus on the importance of acting and motion capture; Max Payne 3 addressed the problems they were having with combat. In a five-year span they managed to create five great games which built upon each other until they had polished their ideas and mechanics into near-perfection with GTAV. Now just imagine what they’re gonna do with the new consoles.

Review: Bravely Default Demo

Yeah it’s that time of year.  The time of year when even the virtual shelves are sparse with new games.  So I guess it isn’t surprising that I somehow I found myself downloading and playing the Bravely Default Demo, in hopes of finding something, anything new to play.  What was surprising was that I found myself sinking nine hours into the game.

There’s not a lot of story, the demo explicitly states that the events takes place outside of a the main game’s story, and your reason for combat is just a bunch of glorified fetch quests.  But, there is a lot of fun gameplay if you like turn-based jRPGs with job systems.  Which I do like quite a bit.  There isn’t a whole lot of fundamental difference between the job system and combat between say, Final Fantasy II.  But the game doesn’t pretend that a couple decades haven’t passed since that game has been released.  Success in the game requires some thoughtful managing of the various job roles in any given party.  The one original feature  of the game(which they named it after for some reason; maybe something is lost in translation?) is the ability to “brave” (take two turns at once) or “default” (defend and bank a turn for later).  This doesn’t seem all that interesting in the early stages of the demo, but you soon run across enemies that force you to use these systems well to succeed.  And, the enemies play the same rules, so you have to plan for enemies that might take a couple turns, or they might not.  It’s interesting.

There also is the promise that you’re going to carry certain parts of your progress in the game over to the main one.  I don’t know how that’s going to work out but it seems like a nice reason to play the demo.

There were other features that I just couldn’t comment on, but was curious about.  The game has several different social hooks that allow you to really take advantage of having friends who play, as well as encouraging you to street pass with other players.  But despite the fact that this was a free demo, I don’t have any friends playing and have been unable to streetpass with anyone so I have no idea if they work or not.

All in all, a pretty good experience for nothing.  It made me want to get the main game.  But it’s not in any stores and not in the E-shop yet.  So instead of getting my 40 bucks, now Square has to just hope I remember to buy it before I get something else.


If We Lived and Were Good, God Would Permit Us to be Pirates

Assassin’s Creed 4 is a silly game.  All Assassin’s Creed games are a little silly, but this really takes it up a notch.  For the most part I’d like to think it’s intentional.

Years of Ubisoft press conferences at various E3s do make me question that a bit.  It is completely within the realm of possibility that Ubi earnestly wrote themselves into their series about a century-spanning world-encompassing conflict between the Templars and Assassins that have driven all the major events of the world because they think it’s all real.  Because I like the game, though, I’m just going to choose to believe that it’s ironic.

Regardless of intent, the inherent goofiness of the out-of-animus  portion of the game made those sections of the game rather enjoyable.  Sure, the hacking games ranged from dumb to terrible, but the cockeyed look at the mythos of the Assassin’s Creed series was refreshing and actually managed to get me interested in just what the heck Abstergo and whichever God or Goddess they serve (I lost track two games go) is up to.  And the overall comedic tone of the material caused some of the more serious parts of game history you stumble upon to be almost poignant, as they hit you out of nowhere.

Unfortunately you can’t say the same thing about the main storyline of the game.  It’s really dumb.  I thought Edward was a pretty good character who had some neat moments, and even most of the side characters are interesting, complex characters in a game that oftentimes has a tendency to draw very distinct lines between heroes and villains.  But strong characters alone can’t make up for nonsensical plot.  I never cared about what was going on at any given time in the game.

Which might be why I have to say that I ultimately enjoyed playing it so much.  I could spend hours on side missions and random encounters and never feel the guilt I usually have in games when I’m not progressing the story.  I felt free–oftentimes even in the middle of story missions–to do what I wanted to do whenever I wanted to do it.

Sure, the combat has been scaled back signifigantly from its peak in brotherhood.  That needed to happen, though.  While there was quite a bit of fun to be had in forming literal piles of bodies at Ezio’s feet, or solving each battle with a series of gadgets as Conner, combat got very tedius in those games.  The simple rock/paper/scissors style of combat in AC4 at least sometimes put you in danger.

And sea battles–though repetitive at times–were a ton of fun.   You often fluctuate from the bully who rolls through gunships and schooners to the tiny insurgent taking on frigates and man of war ships with mortars from afar in the same conflict.  And the online/second screen component of the game helped make those battles justified, as you had a motivation to capture a wide variety of ships to add to your fleet (and thus earn you easy money to upgrade your ship even further.  Even though I’m done with the game, for the first time ever in Assassin’s Creed, I’m thinking about playing again just for the joy of the raiding ships.

All in all, Assassin’s Creed IV is a game you can play and enjoy without giving too much of a fuck about the actual plot of the game.  And the goofy out-of-the-animus bits work to actually justify this indifference.  I’m not sure what that means for the future of Assassin’s Creed.  And I’m not certain Ubisoft has a clear picture of that future either.  They centered the game around a fun mechanic that they’re probably going to have a pretty difficult time shoehorning into future games, while at the same time reducing the impact and playability of the story missions we’re much more likely to see in future games than ship combat.  The fact that they ask you to rate every mission seems like an acknowledgement of the fact they no longer are certain what it is players love about the game.

Oh well, that’s speculation for another day.  On Los Angeles Game Reviewers’  Play/Don’t Play/Hate Play scale, this game earns an “Ironic Play” the hidden 4th option.

I promise you, dear reader, that reviews won’t usually be this long.  This game just left me so conflicted that I just had to try to get a handle on the whole thing.