2013 Game of the Year Awards: Numbers 10, 9 and 8

Welcome to the Game of the Year awards for 2013! The format remains the same from last year, and today we will highlight numbers 10, 9 and 8 on our Top 10 list. Deliberations were heated. We spent hours planning, arguing, debating, and politicking to narrow a preliminary list down to the Top 10 you will see from here on out this week. It's a varied list: games from every major platform appear (bar the brand-new Microsoft Xbox One and Sony PlayStation 4), including PC and mobile. There are triple-A barn burners, classic series, all kinds of genres and all lengths of games. We love all kinds of games and this list reflects that. It's a labor of love.

So please, dig in and share. We look forward to seeing your thoughts on our choices, but for this week, please fasten your safety belt and enjoy the ride.

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#10 - Gran Turismo 6

December | Polyphony Digital | PlayStation 3

In this year’s Game of the Year deliberations, there were two questions from the rest of our panel about Gran Turismo 6 that hit the closest to home: Is it better than Forza Motorsport 3, and is it your humble writer’s favorite game of the year?

The definitive answer to both of these questions is yes.

This is the best Gran Turismo title both for its content and for how little it does to keep the player from having fun. It also benefits from even closer ties to the real-life car community.

As proof of how close GT and real life are getting, earlier in December BMW announced the newest iteration of its storied M3 sports coupe line, the new M4. The same day it was unveiled to the world’s press, it was also added to Gran Turismo 6 and featured in a challenge; complete the challenge, and players would win a version of the car for their digital GT6 garage. While it’s certainly good advertising, it also shows the trust that manufacturers have in Polyphony Digital to allow them early access to the car. It’s a big deal.

A huge problem facing simulation driving games (like GT and Forza Motorsport)has been single-player progression. How do you want to move forward in the game? How will you move from tier to tier? Gran Turismo 6 has solved this issue by borrowing from Angry Birds: Each race is worth three stars, and progression is regulated by how many stars you have. But in a turn that is emblematic of the whole game, those career gates are never strict — for example, the National B series has 30 races for 90 stars total, but the gate to move to National A is just 20 stars. It sounds silly, but it provides the guidance and pacing that's been needed for years.

That solves the biggest complaint I had with Gran Turismo 4 and 5 as games: They were keeping players away from the fun. They had great driving physics hampered by poor game design. By finally streamlining the user interface and progression, Gran Turismo 6 allows players to keep rolling from race to race with minimum headaches.

Most importantly, the refinement of the form in Gran Turismo 6 allows series creator Kazunori Yamauchi’s vision to be its purest. There’s less coming between car fans and enjoying the cars in this version of the game. The game’s ties to real life car manufacturers have grown: the Vision GT project in the game will line up 24 car companies and design firms (including Nike and Brand Jordan) to create concept cars specifically for the game. Red Bull is featured (including voice-overs by reigning Formula 1 World Driver’s Champion Sebastian Vettel) and there will be sub-sections highlighting the careers of racing legends Mario Andretti and Ayrton Senna. You can take cars up the coolest driveway in the world at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Oh, and you can drive on the moon.

Gran Turismo 6 is high-octane car geek fuel. The series always has been. That it now makes that even more accessible for people to pick up and play is a huge step forward. It’s the new gold standard in console racers.

— Doug Bonham

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#9 - BioShock Infinite

March | Irrational Games | OS X, PlayStation 3, Windows, Xbox 360

Twelve months ago, I would have considered BioShock Infinite a shoo-in for 2013’s Game of the Year. Its predecessor, BioShock, is on my personal short-list as one of the highlights of this just-finished generation of console hardware. Early promotions portrayed BioShock Infinite as a remarkably ambitious title aiming to poke at the hypocrisy of American exceptionalism. The question prior to its release wasn’t so much could developer Irrational Games pull off the promise of Infinite, but rather would they.

BioShock Infinite released to high critical praise but what began as a low murmur of criticism grew louder as the year went on. The first BioShock drew acclaim for the way it set the bar for narrative in games; in the five-plus years since its release, the bar was raised even higher. Infinite is not a great sequel to BioShock, it is not a great American social critique and it is not a great interactive narrative. What BioShock Infinite is is a sum of very masterfully made parts, including stunning art direction, impressive sound design and uniquely engaging first-person combat.

The city of Columbia evokes a level of familiarity that BioShock’s Rapture never did, but at the same time it is strikingly more fantastical. The visual splendor of the environments combined with the anachronistic song choices creates a sense of place that most games, especially shooters, could only dream of. What Columbia lacks is some of the interactivity demonstrated in other action-and-adventure titles released this year, but Infinite’s universe allows the player to experience the world in ways no other medium could. I’ve ridden real roller coasters, but that doesn’t make the sky lines of Columbia any less exhilarating in the heat of combat.

Even the loveliest city wouldn’t mean a thing if BioShock Infinite wasn’t fun to play. The upsetting distinction for some is that Infinite does not play like a sequel to the original. It is a faster game that expands upon similar ideas, namely guns and powers working in unison while exploiting the environment. To me, no other game combat this year delivers the thrill of being on the brink of death, distracting enemies with a Murder of Crows, escaping with the sky hook and launching mortar volleys from above.

The true promise of what Ken Levine and the staff at Irrational Games attempted to deliver with BioShock Infinite may have eluded them, but what remains is one of the most superbly designed games of 2013, taking chances that other triple-a titles wouldn’t dare.

— Tyler Martin

Oh, BioShock Infinite. Your combat system is incredible, your world-building is excellent, and you’ve created perhaps the most complex non-damsel assistant in videogame history. So why are you down at #8?

Let’s get this out of the way first: We all knew BioShock Infinite was going to make this list. It’s been anticipated pretty much since 2007, and it embraced the same attitude as its predecessor: Big morals, big science, and big mindfuckery.

Fan power alone was also cause for adding this game to the top 10 list. I may or may not know people who own Art Deco portraits of the game’s heroine, Elizabeth. And they may or may not be frickin’ gorgeous.

And it is that last quality that keeps it here. In this game, you hop through different time periods in a matter of seconds. The all-powerful charismatic leader of Columbia controls so much more than you ever expected.

I still remember when I first learned that the Handymen weren’t just mindless cogs—they’re men dying of cancer who were given metal bodies to extend their lives. For the purpose of science, of course.

The reason why Infinite doesn’t rank higher on this list is simple lack of uniformity. I’m all for blasting soldiers with a machine gun or taking down a zeppelin. But doing it right after a touching moment of story? Eh, no thanks. I’m not in the mood.

Therein lie the rub: Infinite is frankly trying to be too many things at once, and it vastly hinders gameplay. A straight-up shooter, true to the original BioShock, would have been much more approachable. So would have been a mostly story-heavy RPG.

Infinite attempts to straddle both of these categories, and the result is awkwardly placed combat sequences and many instances of needing to replay a recording to hear the story detail after the gunfire has ceased. The combat and storytelling are both excellent, but they’re so cobbled together you may suffer whiplash.

I count this game as one of the best game purchases I made this year, and only partly because I’m such a fan of the character Elizabeth (yay, a non-passive assistant character!). This game is frickin’ beautiful and wasn’t afraid to deal with themes like racism and exceptionalism.

Plus, conjuring up a swarm of flesh-eating crows is just so incredibly satisfying. Way more than it probably should be. Combine that with a wonderfully mixed PANG sound of the melee claw, and you’ve got yourself a good time.

Brit McGinnis

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#8 - Rayman Legends

September | Ubisoft Montpellier | PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Wii U, Windows, Xbox 360

At the start of this generation, platformers were an endangered species of video games. Twenty years ago they were the blockbusters of the 16-bit era. Mario never really faded from the spotlight, but titles like Donkey Kong Country and Sonic the Hedgehog were as popular as Call of Duty and Halo are today. However, gamers grew up, and as more mature titles rose in the sales charts, fewer and fewer platformers came to market. This reached its apex around 2006 with the release of Gears of War, the anti-platformer.

Then something happened: the patrons that played platformers in their youth, people like me, graduated from college, acquired skills and started making their own games. And how does any auteur begin their career? By emulating the nostalgia of their youth. This led to a second renaissance of platformers that began with indie titles like Super Meat Boy and Braid and has culminated with classic homecomings like Nintendo’s New Super Mario Bros. and Ubisoft Montpellier’s Rayman Origins.

2013’s follow-up, Rayman Legends, exceeds its predecessor in every perceivable way. Rayman Legends is the kind of game that Nintendo should have made with its New Super Mario Bros. games. There is little hand-holding, yet the game is only as challenging as the player wants it to be. There’s nothing requiring playing every level or the collection of every Lum and Teensie, but the challenge is there for those who seek it.

Legends has the familiarity of platformers of old but what makes it exceptional is the diversity it provides in its levels. A single title capable of delivering the speed of Sonic the Hedgehog, the compelling exploration of Yoshi’s Island, the tight controls of Super Mario Bros. and creativity largely unseen in the genre. It does all this while being one of the single most gorgeous video games I’ve ever had the delight of playing. Its hand-drawn 2D art is stunning. Rayman Legends is a game that deserves to be played by everyone. It can be played by everyone, too, since it’s on PC, Wii U, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Vita right now and the next-gen consoles this coming February. Rayman Legends revitalizes a style nearly expired but it never comes across as dated; it’s an exquisite remix of the old and the new.

 — Tyler Martin