Burrrrrrrrrp. And welcome to the first day of not-Christmas-for-aaaages. In the UK we call it Boxing Day, because it’s the day that we all traditionally climb into our hibernation boxes and sleep until New Years Eve. But not at RPS, where rest is for the weak, and healthy balanced work-lives are for saps. We’ve still got so many other favourite games of 2013 we need to talk about! Read on for our first batch of our favourite games that didn’t sneak into the Calendar.
The means by which we pick our 24 favourite games can’t be explained with human science. It’s an elaborate and mystical combination of arguing, compromising and giving up. And that means that there are games left over – some that some of us loved but didn’t successfully argue into the pre-Horacemas celebrations, and some that just deserve honourable mentions. That the pile is so big this year is further proof of what a splendid year 2013 was for PC gaming, and especially indie gaming. Here’s the first batch of leftovers – and don’t panic if the game you’re championing isn’t here yet – there’s more to come. They appear in no particular order.
Graham: I can’t write about Gunpoint, because I worked with Tom Francis at PC Gamer for eight years. You can’t possibly trust anything I’d have to say about the game, because Tom is the reason I got hired there in the first place. I’m probably entirely corrupt, because I’m thanked in the credits of the game.
If I could write about the game, I’d want to celebrate the methods by which it relates its funny, twisting crime story. If you could trust what I had to say, I’d emphasise that it allows you to express yourself through dialogue options, shaping spy-for-hire Conway into a sarcastic jerk or an empathetic friend. If I wasn’t entirely corrupt, I’d convince you that the best thing it does is give you in-game, plot-relevant ways of expressing your lack of interest in the story, should you not care at all.
If only I could write about the game.
Jim: There have been a long history of novelty comedy games, and I think Surgeon Simulator falls into those. Created as an experiment in a game jam, it evolved into a gore-spattered commercial exercise in slapstick body horror. Opening up someone’s skull to do brain surgery has never been such a light-hearted escapade, and the numb flailing of trying to control Surgeon Simulator’s disembodied arms has reduced many people to that state where you can’t help watching, but really want to look away.
Perhaps the weirdest moment with this game was watching people at Rezzed playing it with an Oculus Rift. They might have come to that expo expecting to have a go on the latest VR experiment, and find themselves in a haunted castle or a spaceship. Instead, they found themselves fumbling for a hammer with which to do heart surgery in an operating theatre. That’s a memory that’s going to stick.
Alec: A beautiful, fascinating failure. it’s hard to resist comparing the expensive excess and blinkered ambition of Irrational’s supremely glossy shooter to the city-follies it aims to document, but at the same time that does seem a fine legacy to leave were the series to end now. I always did and still do feel let down by quite how much it prided art over substance, how too much personality was sacrificed at the altar of what felt at times like fan-fiction of itself and how what messages it tried to have were drowned out by blood and thunder, but I couldn’t say I’d prefer a world in which I hadn’t played Infinite. Much as I wish it had more time for something far beyond mystery and glamour, and that it was a little less in awe of its own bottom-gas, I really do enjoy getting to see a game pushing as hard as it can in one direction. Whatever else it stumbled at, however much it felt like design by committee, there was none more lavish this year.
Jim: Ken Levine’s fever dream writ large. A hallucinogenic rollerocoaster of a game, and one that has enormous positive sentiment. There are a million things we can identify as wrong in this mix, but it has a good heart. It’s about many things, but it’s mostly about being human. There’s no denying the mad penetrating beauty of this game, and I even seem to have a cameo in the opening moments, with a Mr Rossignol trying to seduce a lady with oysters or something. It’s a carnival of deranged visual ideas, like a Gilliam movie with gunplay. Sadly, though, it’s the gunplay that truly lets it down. Despite all the flourish and imaginative magic, the game never really grips, and the experience feels one-sided. This is far more about the vision than the game, and as such it’s the player who gets let down.
Graham: Sometimes I think people hold supposedly “lofty” culture to higher standards than anything else. Was Binfinite the ingenius skewering of American exceptionalism and racism that we hoped it would be? Nope. Did it really have anything to say about religion? Not at all. As a story, it steered closer to incoherent mess than profound exegesis of American history.
What it did have was a beautiful, exciting world to explore, fantastically dramatic setpieces, and thrilling, vertical, sky-rollercoaster combat. There was no better spectacle or scripted first-person shooter released this year.
Alec: Sadly I’m not sure this quite managed to throw off the taint of its unwise if temporary Windows 8 exclusivity. It really is a terrible shame, as it was such a smart and characterful distillation of turn-based strategy. All but the barest essence cut away, and then those precious remnants polished into something fresh and clever, without drag.
Advance Wars through a microscope perhaps, though directly comparing it to anything else is an unfair disservice to a setup that felt familiar but wasn’t quite like anything else. It’s one of those games where nothing is even faintly redundant, where every unit is (in the right hands) as deadly as any other, and where devouring a downed foe’s skull is as much about trolling as it is the HP boost.
I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t ever try the more liberated Steam version as I was the one person in the known universe who completed it on Windows 8, but some lazy, impossible weekend I’m sure its quickfire, high stakes, high involvement multiplayer will drag me in.
John: If you’d asked me if I ever wanted to play another block-pushing puzzle game again, I’d have stabbed forks through your feet to pin you to the floor as I ran away. Also, Ittle Dew is so much more than that. It’s also a Metroidvania-meets-adventure-cum-RPG, with engaging characters, and splendid sarcasm. The puzzles occasionally get frustrating, and the pacing is a little off, but there’s so much to love in here.
Plus, blocks of rock that float an inch above the ground and freak out because they’re scared of heights are just funny. That’s science.
Jim: As my interest in Planetside 2 faded, I thought that I’d not find another multiplayer focus in 2013, but I did, and it was in a wonderful place: the top down spell-brawl of Wizard Wars. Magicka’s element-mixing spellcasting was always a brilliantly chaotic piece of game design, but it’s the constraint of bending it to a comprehensible multiplayer combat system that has really brought it to life for me. Wizard Wars’ team-based arena combat is pacey and tight, TIGHT, with a stupid crisis-avalanche sort of dynamic that sees talented players clawing back defeat from the edge. It’s a brilliantly conceived an executed piece of multiplayer design that hasn’t even left alpha. I can’t wait to see how it turns out once the Paradox team bring it to that inevitable final version.
Loads more games to come over the next couple of days.