This year, rather than attempting to collate our favourite games into rank order, the IncGamers staff decided to each write an individual piece detailing some of the games we really loved. Fans of award ceremonies need not fear, though, as there’ll also be a communal piece in which we’re picking out some of the more peculiar gaming achievements of the year.
Trying to pick your favourite games of the year is really, really hard. If there’s one question that gets on my nerves it tends to be “so what are your favourite games, then” which is the first question everyone asks you when they learn you’re a games journalist. Doing a list like this? It’s basically the annual version of that question.
So, using completely scientific methods, I pared down a list of games from this year into a personal shortlist. Then I glanced over at what Paul and Peter were writing so that I could try to write about some things that were slightly different, because all of us wanking on about Dishonored would get a bit boring. Then I wrote this list.
Tastes differ, and I’ve made absolutely no attempt to be objective here. I can’t guarantee you’ll like these games as much as I do. That said, I feel pretty comfortable in stating that – unless you’re either a horrible twisted shell of a human being, or the sort of person who writes 0/10 reviews on Metacritic (and those two often go hand-in-hand) – any of the games on this list should give you a good few hours of joy and entertainment. They certainly gave that to me.
Legend of Grimrock
Yeah, there was no way this wasn’t making my list: Legend of Grimrock is basically what I’ve been waiting for since I first played Dungeon Master sometime around 1990. Eye of the Beholder? Bloodwych? Dungeon Master 2? None of them held a candle to that 1987 dungeon crawler, and I still make a pilgrimage into Lord Chaos’ domain every year.
As for Legend of Grimrock – well, that’s basically what Dungeon Master would’ve been if it was made today. In terms of looks, sounds, combat, puzzles, devious design, and sheer bloody-minded sadism, it’s the Dungeon Master sequel that never was. (Dungeon Master 2 doesn’t count, and neither do the Japanese-only games. I’ll give Chaos Strikes Back a pass, but that was an expansion.)
Oddly, the one thing that’s stuck with me more than anything about Grimrock is the presentation. Sure, I can remember a few of the more devious teleport traps or the horrible moment when you pick up that item and the walls open and oh no giant fire beasts, but for a grid-based RPG set in a series of dungeons and caves – the most grey and brown of all terrain types – Grimrock looks gorgeous. The textures are lovely, the lighting system is superb, and the monsters are not only perfectly balanced, but superbly crafted and animated. To the extent that this is the only game this year that I had to stop playing until a spider removal patch appeared. Brr.
And now there’s a map editor, so I can finally get to work on recreating Dungeon Master in this lovely new engine. Grimrock is easily one of my favourite games of the year and is absolutely recommended to anyone who wants an old-school dungeon crawler. And, as it’s regularly on sale, you should even be able to find it for less than a fiver if you’re a thrifty spender. At that price, I’ll recommend it to everyone.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
So… I guess that’s two spiritual successors to games from past decades on my list, then.
Firaxis’ reboot/update/whatever of the original X-COM games is a success on almost every level. It’s a beautiful homage to the original titles, and it’s instantly familiar – you’re a secret paramilitary organisation fending off alien attacks on Earth through a real-time strategic map and turn-based tactical battles. You will be stomped into the ground early on. You will capture aliens, research their tech and their corpses, and try to find a way to stop them once and for all before they take over the world.
Cleverly, though, it doesn’t make the mistake of just replicating the original. APs are gone, replaced with a very simple two-point system, so you’ll never have to perform arcane calculus to figure out how far you can move while still being able to shoot. There are now classes with special abilities, adding a bit more personality to your A-squad and throwing a bit more flavour into your tactics. Maps and squad sizes are scaled down, so you’re never scouring maps for ages looking for that last alien. It’s more accessible. It’s simplified.
But “simplified” is not the same thing as “made easy”, and XCOM is bastard hard. You will lose soldiers. You will fail missions. It’s entirely possible that you’ll lose an entire campaign. The game’s accessible enough for anyone to play, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Really, XCOM teaches a harrowing lesson: “things can and will go wrong.” Every move, every shot, and every power use is – at best – a calculated gamble. A 95% chance of success is not the same as a 100% chance of success, and the game’s seat-of-your-pants joy comes from both the sheer tension of making a move when you know it might turn your plans to shit, and scrambling to survive when your plans unexpectedly do go to shit. In that, XCOM has absolutely captured the spirit of its predecessors, and for that I applaud it.
Far Cry 3
Ubisoft did well with this one. Let’s put that in context: I’ve stated before that, while playing it, I pondered if this might be the first review I’d write that had a big fat 10 in the scoring box at the end.
It didn’t get a 10, obviously, but Far Cry 3 is bloody marvellous anyway, managing to marry the best bits of Assassin’s Creed to the best bits of Far Cry 2 and somehow making it all work. It’s the sort of game that makes me want to write “the setting is king,” before remembering the voice acting. At which point I’d write “the voice acting is king,” and then I’d remember how enjoyable the combat was. So I’d write… well, you get the idea. It’s a showcase of excellence.
The shooting feels marvellous. The stealth, while occasionally a little silly, is both tense and empowering. Michael Mando deserves some sort of award for his performance as Vaas, and Ubisoft’s animators deserve serious bloody credit for just about every piece of dialogue and every cutscene in the game. The setting – all green and blue tropical hues – is a far cry (I’m so sorry) from the greys and browns that we usually complain about, and the general graphical quality is probably the highest I’ve seen all year.
Far Cry 3 looks, sounds, and plays fantastically. As far as mostly-open-world games go, this is pretty much the one to beat right now.
FTL: Faster Than Light
Finally, a game that is neither sequel nor update. FTL has the dubious honour of being one of the first proper releases brought to us by Kickstarter, but fortunately, it’s a bloody good ‘un.
FTL, in short, places you in the incredibly demanding role of starship captain. Not starship pilot, or starship gunner, or starship engineer, but captain. You’re not swerving to dodge laser blasts, or directly returning fire. You’re the one ordering crewmen to stations. You’re the one making the Big Decisions. And, from the start, you’re in a relatively rubbish ship with a completely inexperienced crew, on the run from a rebel fleet that wants you dead.
In terms of being one of the tensest games ever made, despite letting you pause to give orders whenever you like, FTL is right up there with XCOM. The engine’s on fire, your gunner’s dead, and there are two aliens ripping apart your life support systems. What do you do?
With a plethora of different ships to master, a randomly generated set of sectors each time, and a whole host of mods that turn it into everything from Star Wars to Firefly, FTL is a phenomenally cheap way to thoroughly enjoy a few dozen hours of your life.
The Secret World
If you read this site regularly, then you saw this coming. For once, though, I’m not going to write a few thousand words blithering on about it. I already did that, after all.
So what can I say about The Secret World to sum it up quickly and explain why I love it, without repeating myself? Let’s try this: in an MMO, do you want to be a sword-wielding warrior clearing out a mine full of kobolds, or would you rather be a pyrokinetic with an assault rifle battling your way through a haunted fairground in New England, culminating in a fight against a chainsaw-wielding zombie clown amidst a fleet of bumper cars that are careening out of control?
Yeah, I thought so. Also: superb writing, decent voice acting, unique setting, intriguing mechanics, varied quests, excellent dungeons, blah blah blah blah blah go read the other stuff I said about it.