Friday, December 6, 2013

The Best of 2013 : Biggest Surprise!

Every year has its share, but 2013 had some smack-in-the-face shockers that we won't soon forget.  From the Vita's rise to relevance to the echoing thuds of some next-gen announcements, these are the most-surprising gaming events of the year.


When Sony touted the concept of "cross play" on the E3 stage a few years back - playing a game on your PS3, uploading that save to the cloud and then continuing on the Vita - I don't think anyone's skirts were particularly blown up.  The Vita didn't have any library to speak of, at that point, and we didn't yet see the device as one that was really capable of even playing the types of games we'd enjoy on our PS3s.  2013 was the year that proved the wisdom of cross-buy and cross-play.

Being able to jump, brawl and Luchador (which is totally a verb) my way through a few hours of Guacamelee on PS3, pop that save up to the cloud and continue where I left off on my lunch break at work by sliding my Vita from my pocket is sweet.  Clearing ten dungeons on Dragon's Crown while waiting in a doctor's office, firing that save up to the cloud and pulling it down to continue on when I get home is just... feels like the way gaming should always have been.  This is my game.  I choose where, when, how to play it.  I play it at my convenience, and I'm not tethered to my living room if I want to enjoy my favorite games.  It seemed like pandering crap, the first time they talked about it, but - surprise! - it's actually really, really cool.

(It doesn't suck!)

This could have been a match made in Hell.  Capcom's Devil May Cry franchise - the gold standard of the brawler genre, which had grown a bit stale, had reliably-crappy stories.  New developer Ninja theory (Heavenly Sword, Enslaved) had developed a few pretty-okay games, but the combat of their titles always... kinda' sucked.

But one could hope.  One could hope that Ninja Theory's penchant for striking, beautiful art direction and well-directed, well-presented narratives would be their contribution, while Capcom could, perhaps, bring their sleek, technical combat to the table.  Both houses were capable of great things, but each had weaknesses - and no one, I'll admit, really expected Ninja Theory to produce a great brawler.

DmC : Devil May Cry is a fantastic brawler.  It is all of Capcom's strengths - fantastic, fast-paced, expressive combat with depth far exceeding your expectations - and all of Ninja Theory's strengths, combined.

Easily the best technical brawler of the year, DmC proved a very pleasant surprise.

A week after I unwrapped my Vita, I declared I'd never witnessed so much potential in a handheld.  It's an old chestnut that a platform is only as good as its games, and 2013 was the year that the Vita fulfilled its promise, and became a piece of gaming kit I never want to be without.  I may actually have more "favorite" games this year on Vita than I do on PS3.

Guacamelee (cross-play) is a beautiful, superfun Metroidvania brawler with a healthy dose of Mexico.

Killzone Mercenary is a visually-stunning, rock-solid FPS.

Tearaway is a beautiful, relentlessly charming, completely adorable adventure-platformer.

Dragon's Crown (cross-play) is a gorgeous, infinitely-replayable 2D loot-crazy fantasy action-RPG.

Muramasa Rebirth is a gorgeous, sprawling Metroidvania-lite brawler through Genroku-era Japan.

Hotline Miami (cross-play) is the biggest indie of 2012, reborn with sharper controls.

The Walking Dead is literally 2012's VGA Game of the Year, and it's on Vita too.  The list just keeps going, and my Vita now has a backlog of unplayed games that far outpaces my PS3's.  I want to put more time in to Ys: Memories of Celceta, Spelunky, Malicious Rebirth and Atelier Totori Plus.  I want to finish Stick It To The Man, and once I've done all that, I want to go back and replay those first six titles.

In my entire gamer life - a condition which spans decades - I've never been into handhelds.  When I was a kid, I never saw a friend's Gameboy and said "man, I wish I had one of those."  I bought a Vita day-one because here, finally, was a system that I believed could support the types of games that I love to play - gorgeous, big, fun, solid games you can play for hours and hours and hours - games you can't wait to show people, without the need to drop the age-old caveat of the portable gaming machine.

The Vita's best titles aren't pretty awesome for a handheld.  They're just awesome.

honorable mentions

After a press conference with few new game announcements (The Order : 1886 notwithstanding) but a ton of cool indie support for the PS4, Sony's slow-and-steady, let's-just-give-them-what-they-want philosophy paid off in the conference's final minutes with the showstopping announcement that... nothing was really changing.

The crowd literally rose to their feet in a standing ovation for a list of things that Sony wouldn't be doing with their next-gen console.  They wouldn't be changing the rules of game ownership.  They wouldn't be imposing DRM on disc-based games.  They wouldn't require an always-online connection to enjoy your games.  Their box didn't have a 3D infrared camera that you'd need to have pointed at you all the time or the system wouldn't work.

They wouldn't pull the same shit Microsoft was trying to get away with, and by merely rattling off a list of things they wouldn't be doing, they brought the house down, and won E3.

It was a beautiful moment.

Sony had incredible momentum and gamer goodwill coming out of E3, and Microsoft was hemorrhaging it with every passing minute.  Xbox figurehead Larry Hyrb lost his patience with an interviewer, asking the poor fellow if he was a systems engineer and famously saying they couldn't simply "flick a switch" and turn off the Xbox One's always-online requirements.  Then-Xbox boss Don Mattrick (who quickly left the company) was roasted alive for proclaiming that members of the armed forces serving overseas who wanted an Xbox One weren't much of a concern, as "we have an option for them, it's called the Xbox 360."

Ohhh we hated them so goddamned much.  There was an explosion of webcomics vilifying Microsoft,

-penny arcade-

and a rising choir gaming journalists lambasted what Microsoft was trying to do with the One.  We could see the good in their plan, we just weren't prepared to acquiesce to giving up our rights in the process.

It took about ten days for Microsoft to completely reverse their policies surrounding the One, and try to spin it as an example of them "listening to your feedback," as if they're your buddy.  Rare was the gamer who was prepared to just take Microsoft back with open arms, and I was no exception - but (Game Informer news editor) Michael Futter put it well :
Looking at worldwide sales, currently - a mere few weeks after the 8th generation of consoles have launched - Sony is enjoying a merely slight lead, and many journalists have suggested that the One's slightly-wider library makes it the better box.

Me?  I'm sticking with Sony, of course - similar to the Vita, I see more potential in that console than the other - but with Microsoft and Sony now on more-even footing, both sides will have to compete for our attention.  Whoever loses, we'll win.

biggest surprise of 2013

We all kinda' suspected that Sony was gonna' pull the rug out from under Microsoft at E3, and we all figured Microsoft would do something to patch up their tattered image, but I don't think many of us actually expected Lara Croft to star in one of the best games of 2013.  By like, a wide margin.

Tomb Raider hasn't been relevant in over a decade.  The original owners beat the property into the ground with repeated re-treads, finally giving up after the abysmal Tomb Raider : Angel of Darkness.  The property went on to Crystal Dynamics, who released some... not terrible - but not particularly great - games for the 6th gen.  By the time Lara appeared on the PS3 in 2008's Tomb Raider : Underworld, the games had again grown stale and felt profoundly last-gen - particularly after Uncharted had come along and done the whole globe-trotting adventurer thing far better than Lara ever dared.

After Crystal Dynamics, under the umbrella of Eidos Interactive, was purchased by Square Enix in April 2009, we expected Square to resume beating the franchise to death.  What we got, instead, was far and away the best Tomb Raider there's ever been - a confident re-imagining of the franchise and a step up to the bar that triple-A devs like Naughty Dog had raised in Lara's absence by a developer who'd never come close to it.

More than a game that meets the standards, Tomb Raider pushes at them with slick, fast-paced platforming that far outpaces Naughty Dog's and vicious combat that capped out the brutality meter until Naughty Dog redefined that with The Last of Us in June.

Tomb Raider is the glorious return of one of gaming's old guards, a successful underdog story and the proud proclamation that a studio named Crystal Dynamics is still relevant, in an age when triple-A studios are shuttering their doors at an alarming rate.

The fact that it's so damned good is a the biggest surprise of the year.

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