2013 Year in Review: Day 1

For my usual game of the year writeup on Darkstation.com, we’re limited to only five games and two paragraphs for each, and well as a list of five for honorable mention. For some years this wouldn’t be an issue, but this year I played and finished far more games than I ever have in the past. I’ve never really had to struggle with what titles to put in my honorable mentions section, but it proved a bit troublesome to whittle the list down to an overall set of ten.  So over the next few days or so, I plan to use this space to talk about the games of 2013 that I really enjoyed. I won’t be doing this in any order, although you can find an ordered list in my GOTY feature at Darkstation. These write-ups won’t be solely positive analyses, but will also contain some constructive criticism on top of the usual GOTY style highlights. There won’t be any restrictions here other than the game being released in some form in 2013, so I’ll be talking about expansions and early access games here as well.  

Also, there will be spoilers.

2012 was a tumultuous year for the traditional AAA blockbuster game, at least in my eyes. Diablo III, Halo 4, and Assassin’s Creed 3 were just a few of the games that severely disappointed me through a lack of original ideas, depth, and overall polish and stability. It was great to see a return to form for some big developers this year, and this next game showcased a surprisingly singular vision that’s been seemingly fading in this era of multi studio productions.

7288-ellie-joel-in-the-last-of-us-SmallThe Last of Us

It was easy for me to be dismissive upon the reveal of The Last of Us during 2011’s VGA’s, as I was growing increasingly weary of zombie based games, and Naughty Dog’s  previous title Uncharted 3 being somewhat of a letdown. On top of that, I’ve been slightly tired with cinematic blockbuster crafted around beautifully choreographed cutscenes that don’t really utilize the strongest aspects of games as a medium. In that regard, The Last of Us still very much follows that structure, but takes it as far as possible through strong writing, impactful moments, and believable character arcs.

However, the moments that really resonated with me were the smaller in-game touches that didn’t require state-of-the-art motion capture or facial animations. Things as simple as Ellie seamlessly crouching beneath the protection of Joel while hiding in cover, or pressing triangle to high five Ellie after solving a simple traversal puzzle coalesce in building the relationship between these characters as much as any scripted sequence can accomplish.

The game meanders a bit by having a long and drawn out set of opening chapters to follow its gut punch of an introduction. The overall character arc and encounter design don’t really start to shine until you leave Boston, but from there on out events snowball in a satisfying and well-paced fashion that masterfully balances intense action with quiet moments of minor exploration and world building. While I have gripes with the lack of true tension in combat on the game’s default difficulty, the slower paced encounters were refreshing, and Naughty Dog is just a few tweaks shy of a really fantastic combat system.

The game’s puzzle design is mostly mediocre but never aggressively bad. Slowly moving yet another palette or ladder to let Ellie up to a high point that Joel can’t reach was a bit too repetitive for my tastes, but fortunately they don’t occur all that often. Also, I have to mention Naughty Dog’s strange obsession with meticulously drawing out sequences of boosting someone up to a ledge, or slowly team lifting some sort of gate. I assume they exist partially for technical reasons, but it always seemed rather strange that those scenes occurred so often and filled up more time than necessary.

The success of The Last of Us relies on its pacing, and while I already detailed my issues with the early part of the game, the latter half is absolutely fantastic. The aforementioned snowball effect here is very similar to that of Uncharted 2. It becomes increasingly difficult to put the controller down, however unlike that game’s horrible evil blue man reveal, The Last of Us’ narrative is incredibly strong and never falters in the run-up to the finish.

(Ending spoilers incoming)

Joel is a complete monster by the end of the game, and while it’s kind of ridiculous to be mowing down so many well-armed enemies in the game’s final section, it’s a testament to Naughty Dog’s ability to engross the player enough to inhabit the actions and emotions of a character. When the silent choice came to kill the doctors in the operating room, I acted without hesitation and brutally executed them. This player and protagonist sync, despite the obvious moral quandaries, is perhaps one of the interesting moments of player psychology in the medium.  It’s fascinating to be so engrossed into the emotions of a character to the point where we as the player become as irrational as the ruthless and nearly psychotic main character himself.

The Last of Us ends with a bittersweet conclusion: perhaps the only one that this game could have gotten away with. It’s succinct and leaves you wanting more, yet simultaneously makes me want to see these characters retired for good, as the story feels so complete and some of the questions presented are best left to our interpretation.

So yes, while The Last of Us isn’t without its faults, it’s still absolutely one of the best games out this year, and certainly addressed many of the concerns I had with Naughty Dog’s design direction after Uncharted 3. I’ve often lamented how this style of AAA game is one I don’t want to see the industry move towards, because very few developers actually have the rare synchronization of talent and near endless budget to do so. Naughty Dog stands at the top with those select few, and The Last of Us is perhaps their best game to date.

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