Welcome to the annual (if slightly belated) BIGsheep Birthday Honours! The time of year where I pay homage to the games that I enjoyed most over the last 12 months. It’s not an exhaustive list and may not contain a comprehensive set of categories but when it’s your birthday you can choose the rules.
Services to storytelling: Bioshock Infinite
Since its release in March I’ve seen a fair amount of criticism towards Infinite’s sci-fi storyline with certain quarters calling it sub-Hollywood schlock. That seems incredibly harsh for a game that seemed to have most of the industry’s media wrapped at the time.
Whilst it may not be perfect, the story of the private detective, the flying city, and the escape of a girl guarded by a monster had me hooked. There was a relationship between Elizabeth and Booker that grew with each gondola ride and was more touching than anything I can remember from recent years. As their bond grew the backdrop – a city in revolution and a timeline in equal flux – added further levels of drama. It provided the twists, the absurd, and, mostly importantly, The Beach Boys.
As the tale headed towards its conclusion I couldn’t put the controller down. Ignoring my wife for a whole evening I chewed through the last four hours, barely glancing up from the screen. Just like a good book I was locked in and as the credits rolled I was not left wanting.
Honourable mentions: Thomas Was Alone
Service to looking spiffing: Tearaway
Released to its detriment right in the middle of the next-gen skirmish, Tearaway can at least take solace in looking better than anything else launched last year. It may not have the poly-count, the high-res sprites, or the shiny shaders of others, but was it does possess is a cohesive and charming style that permeates into every byte of its being.
From the early screenshots of paper elks and squirrels it was always going to have an interesting aesthetic but it was how completely Media Molecule bought into the concept that made it more than just a look. What has always disappointed me about the Lego titles is that only most of the world is made from bricks, they fail to fully commit, but here every single rock, wave, and creature is sculpted from paper.
Honourable mentions: Battlefield 4, Rayman Legends
Services to portable platforming: Guacamelee
2013 was a fine year for platforming, and for me my Vita played a starring role. Indie darlings and Frenchmen with floating limbs joined me on my journeys round the country but the most fun I had was with a Mexican farmer with a secret identity.
Beyond its wry sense of humour there was an action platformer that showed incredible pacing. Early on both jumping and fighting were interesting but as the layers of complexity built it swiftly turned each section into a series of fascinating set pieces. Special moves could see you leap half way across the screen or deal deadly pile-drivers to your foes, leaving you feeling like a luchador god.
Guacamelee ticked a lot of boxes: it played in the style of Metroid; it had Mexican wrestlers at its centre; and it had a Viva Piñata reference in it. How could I not love it?
Honourable mentions: Thomas Was Alone, Rayman Legends, Rogue Legacy
Services to open-world: Lego City Undercover
This is the Lego game I had been waiting for. Traveller’s Tales brick-based games had been growing slowly but surely over the years and this open-world adventure was the obvious culmination. What was pleasantly surprising when it did arrive though was just how polished and fleshed out the world was.
From the opening credits as I sang along to Catrina and the Waves the classic Lego sense of humour was there, but so too was a city teeming with depth. Residential areas gave way to industrial docks, forests with hidden ninja temples overlooked busy, high-rise financial districts, and cars and minifigs were everywhere breathing life into the world. Every building seemed to hide secrets, too, with Chase permanently finding cars to race, criminals to spy on, or parkour tracks to vault through. You were never short of things to do.
I’ll say it again: better than GTA.
Honourable mentions: Saints Row IV, Dead Rising 3
Services to destroying any spare time I thought I had: Animal Crossing New Leaf
The 3DS does me no favours by tracking my exact time spent on each of its game, and when one in particular looks more like a cricket score than a play clock I resent it even more. Between Ali and myself over 250 hours were spent last year roaming round Buneaton, picking fruit, catching fish, and keeping the local raccoon mafia sweet.
Thankfully I don’t have to explain myself away to too many people. The large majority of my family and friends were also bitten by the bug. For a period questions such as “what fruit do you have?” and “how’s the stalk market?” were considered very standard conversation. If the other half in the exchange looked perplexed then all that meant was a chance to pitch the dream of being a Mayor to a doe-eyed newbie who would then join the clique.
Honourable mentions: Tiny Deathstar
Services to justifying next-gen: Dead Rising 3
When it comes to the next-generation of consoles I want more for my investment that a higher pixel count. What I feel is truly progressive is utilising the extra horse power of these machines for something that affects gameplay. With FIFA this has come from throwing hundreds of extra animations in to flesh out the realism, in Resogun we’ve seen a world made of voxels whose tendency to explode layers on the feeling of destruction, but it’s with Dead Rising 3 that I felt I had seen a glimpse at what was to come.
The original had ushered in the previous generation with its copious zombies but that pales in comparison to the those that Capcom litter the streets of Los Perdidos. Towards the end of the game you can literally wade through hundreds upon hundreds of the shambling fools as you try and make it from one end of a street to the other. Though numbers alone don’t make an experience, their presence just shows how rich a world can be when priorities are focused on an experience rather than just hitting 60Hz.
Honourable mentions: Resogun, Ryse
Best Game: Gunpoint
Out of all my time lashed to a keyboard and/or controller last year, this debut title from former journalist Tom Francis proved the most memorable for me. He bravely stepped to the other side of the fence and built a wonderful game that drew upon all of his experiences after years of reviewing games.
What he created was a story of a private detective who could leap tall buildings in a single bound, whilst also being a dab hand at hacking security systems. It could have been a relatively straight forward side-scrolling stealth game but the systems that were layered into each level allowed a freedom in how each was tackled. With a certain amount of timing it was possible to run through punching your way to success but it was far more satisfying taking a little more time.
Whether it was clinging to ceilings and leaping through closing doors before scuttling back in the shadows or rewiring the building so that door switches instead electrocuted the unsuspecting soul, there were so many options. The beauty was the sheer number of ways you could tackle each level and I would spend ages planning a solution of Rube Goldberg proportions.
Towards the end Gunpoint may have lost some of its appeal as certain puzzles seemed only surmountable through a modicum of brute force but the replayability of the early portions more than made up for that. For your first game to be so funny, full of experimentation, and of such a length that it left the punters wanting more, it is a huge achievement and I’ll be watching out for more from Francis in 2014.