2013 Game of the Year Awards: Numbers 3 and 2

With just three games to go, the stakes are high for top honors in this year's Game of the Year awards. Today's winners fell just shy of the number-one spot, but that's not to say they're lacking in any way. In fact, the two games honored today are perhaps the pinnacle of their respective genres.

Read on to see which games made it into our top three, and stay tuned for our #1 game of the year on Friday!

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#3 – The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

November | Nintendo EAD, Monolith Soft | Nintendo 3DS

It’s all about the music.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds may rely on longtime fans’ nostalgia for its predecessor, A Link to the Past, but even if this was a remake the music would be enough to justify a purchase.

And I mean that! A Link Between Worlds is a beautifully orchestrated game — the best on the 3DS. It’s one of those rare experiences in sound design that practically requires headphones. However, the sound is but one reason that this is, unequivocally, the single-greatest Zelda in the franchise’s history.

Where Skyward Sword added professional-looking cinematic elements to the series and more emotive and believable character performances, A Link Between Worlds carries the torch longer than its cousin ever did. Several times over the 30-plus hours it took to beat A Link Between Worlds I forgot I was experiencing this on a handheld. It’s that immersive: by merit of its sound, its art direction and its cinematic storytelling. This is the best a Zelda has ever been.

Maybe I just like old dogs learning new tricks, but a series with a rigid history of minute iteration taking a risk to allow open-ended dungeoning deserves recognition. A Link Between Worlds is a technically perfect Zelda title, which is not surprising. Lowered expectations due to a decade-and-a-half of unchanging game mechanics work in Nintendo’s favor here. So while upon first glance it seems as if the developers just copied what made A Link to the Past classic and updated the graphics, once you play it you find that this is its own game, with some of the best bosses and satisfyingly fun dungeons in the series’ history.

A Link Between Worlds makes callbacks to, but avoids imitating, its predecessor. Whether you own a 3DS or not, you owe it to yourself to play this game.

Aaron Thayer

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#2 – The Last of Us

June | Naughty Dog | PlayStation 3

The Last of Us is, like many other popular titles in recent years, a game with zombies in it, but any casual observer would've had a hell of a time figuring that out based on the game's presentation. That's no accident. The developer, Naughty Dog, went out of its way to make sure its first original game in half a decade wasn't misconstrued as a run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic scenario.

Sure, all the zombie-story tropes are present — shambling undead, scarce resources, cities reclaimed by nature, survivors driven to horrific means to keep living, and so on — but they're not what defines the game. That credit goes to the game's singular focus on the concept of survival — the bleak arithmetic of discovering how far a person will go to keep breathing.

For Joel and Ellie, the two protagonists of The Last of Us, it turns out that "survival" has more than one meaning. Joel's saddled with an immense and unforgettable loss, a scar he bore with him as he scraped by in the years following the outbreak. And because she grew up during the outbreak, Ellie's values are markedly different. But the relationship they develop — and the reliance they place on each other — defines their lives, and it lends a real, cumbersome weight to the actions you'll take as the player.

There's something almost obtusely traditional about the game's design. Crouching behind cover and shooting define a lot of your enemy encounters, and those aspects have never been Naughty Dog's strong suit. But unlike Uncharted's ineffable Nathan Drake, Joel and Ellie are constantly in need of more ammunition, more medical supplies, more time. The game's complete devotion to setting the right tone and scene sets it apart from being merely just another beautiful, high-budget production; instead, it's a meaningful, morose game that has something damn important to share with anyone who's willing to see its journey through to the bitter end.

Nick Cummings