Two thousand thirteen has been a surprising year in gaming. While the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 became international news and focused the attention of the entertainment world on the gaming industry, developers and publishers were releasing groundbreaking title after groundbreaking title. Even without the new systems, 2013 was a very good year in gaming.
But which games really stood out in this bumper crop? We posted our nominees last week in categories ranging from Best Art to Best Mechanics to, of course, the Game of the Year. And now it’s time to see who won. So without further delay, we present our 2013 Digital Trends Games of the Year.
When Tomb Raider returned in March of this year, we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. We knew the game was going to reboot Lara Croft, but it also completely overhauled the gameplay, beyond just the mechanics. It offered several pulse-pounding moments, including set pieces and shootouts, and just kept offering new twists. To top it off, it was all paired with a story that actually made the numerous life-or-death sequences poignant, which in turn gave them more weight. All in all it made for an excellent experience, and offered our favorite action of the year.
As good as graphics may get in the coming years, nothing will ever beat good art design. It doesn’t matter how realistic something looks if it’s bland and visually unappealing. For us, no game exemplified how far good art design goes more than SCE Japan’s Puppeteer. The story is charming, the gameplay is solid, but the art made this game something special.
Expansions to games are nothing new, but in the last few years post-launch add-ons have taken on a new life. They give developers the chance to try new things and explore ideas that may not have fit in the vanilla game. Case and point: Borderlands 2: Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep. It would have been difficult to fit Dragon Keep in the main campaign without it feel jarring, but as a post-launch add-on, it’s a refreshing addition to the already sizable content offered. It lets you play in a totally different setting, yet it fits. It’s also very, very funny. Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep makes Borderlands 2 an even better game than before. You can’t ask for more from DLC than that.
Mobile games aren’t quite a dime a dozen, but innovation tends to be a rare delight when price tags fall to $5 or less. Big credit then goes to Simogo for shaking up the typical tap-and-swipe foundation of most mobile titles with Device 6. Equal parts ebook and puzzler, poor Anna’s surreal, multi-chapter journey feels like an outtake from BBC’s surreal cult classic, The Prisoner. It’s also a rare game – on any platform – that produces a tune as memorable as this one.
Best Online Game
Grand Theft Auto 5’s online mode had a rough launch, but once it stabilized and began introducing new content, it became our favorite online experience of the year. The world of Los Santos and Blaine County are huge, and the variety is incredible. You can jump into one of the several events, or just make up your own game with friends. There are very few limits in what you can do, and to make it even better, Rockstar continues to add new content and game modes, all for free.
Knights of the Old Republic
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic needs zero introduction. BioWare’s decade-old smash hit continues to endure as a shining example of both Star Wars storytelling and inventive RPG mechanics. All of that was distilled by perennial port-maker Aspyr Media into an absolutely outstanding iPad version that combines pitch-perfect touch controls with a silky smooth performance. KOTOR has never looked better.
Best Real-life Simulator
First, we have to note that this award is specifically for the next-gen edition of NBA 2K14, but that’s not to take away from the current-gen version. In terms of gameplay, the current and next-gen games are almost identical, but the PS4 and Xbox One versions offer more content; that includes a revamped create-a-player mode with a deeper story, and a new online mode where you can wander around a digital playground and watch other, real gamers play. It makes a great game into one of the best the year.
Best Small Studio Game
Small teams did big things in 2013. It’s tough to single out just one, but Davey Wreden and William Pugh – the two-man team at Galactic Cafe – delivered a bitingly clever send-up of gaming tropes in The Stanley Parable. The duo had some help, particularly with the fabulous voice talents of Kevan Brighting, but Stanley’s journey through a seemingly mundane office space is as complex as it is memorable. Coming from just a two-man team makes it all the more impressive.
Best Team Game
There were several games this year that demand you work in unison with a team, but few do it as well as Payday 2. If you want to run off and do your own thing, your team will be lucky to complete a mission. If you worked together though, when things click and everyone is on the same page, the game absolutely sings. Anyone that is looking for a cooperative way to game with friends, should consider Payday 2.
It’s the rare game that makes you cry, but Gone Home goes further. The Fullbright Company built a double-sided ghost story into the Greenbriar family home. Again and again, you’re led in one direction, only to later realize that assumptions and expectations steered you wrong. When the veil lifts and all is revealed in the final moments, the powerful “AH HA!” moment leaves you breathless. That’s when you cry.
Most Thought Provoking
Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us deserves praise on several levels, but one of the things that really elevates it above many of its peers is the way it challenges your ideals. On the surface, it’s a zombie game. The zombies are technically infected rather than undead, but they fill the same role. At its heart though, it is a dark journey through an increasingly desperate human population. The zombies are a threat, but the humans are the monsters. And through it all, there is a story of two people dealing with each other’s imperfections. It’s a smart and mature game, and a sign that the gaming industry is growing up, and fast.
Best Handheld Game
Oh, Nintendo. You still know how to tap into geek nerve centers. Nowhere was that more clear in 2013 than in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. A sequel to the beloved fan-favorite SNES title, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, this 3DS-fueled return to the mirror worlds of Hyrule and Lorule is packed with fresh concepts that pay homage while, pushing the franchise as a whole in exciting new directions. Within 15 minutes of starting out, you’re dumped into the open world with little direction and minimal constraints. It’s glorious.
Best Microsoft Exclusive
Microsoft had a strong showing when it came to its exclusive next-gen launch titles, and the best of those was Forza Motorsport 5. The cars look amazing, the tracks are realistic, and the overall presentation is quintessential Forza. But it really just comes down to the driving, and that’s where Forza 5 shines. Of all the Xbox One launch titles, this is the one we’ll probably still be playing a year from now.
Best Nintendo Exclusive
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds had some stiff competition from other Nintendo first-party offerings in 2013, but the game’s welcome mix of nostalgic backward looks, and foundation-shattering design tweaks – notably, Ravio’s equipment rentals for granting players a more open-ended approach to tackling dungeons – wins it top honors as the best Nintendo title overall.
Best PC Game
Gone Home isn’t an impossible game to bring to other platforms, but it hasn’t yet made the leap. In the realm of interactive entertainment, one of the most emotionally powerful experiences of the year is only available on Mac/PC. There’s no contest here. Much love to all other contenders, but Gone Home takes it again.
Best Sony Exclusive
The gaming industry is maturing, and for proof of that you need look no further than Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. It isn’t just the settings that depicts an America in a state of decay, or the gameplay that makes you run away more often than killing everything you see. It isn’t even the graphics that push the PS3 to its limits. It’s the depth of emotion the game confronts you with. The Last of Us melds gameplay with storytelling in an expert way, and confronts you with a thought-provoking plot that continually surprises, and ultimately enriches you.
Game of the Year
It’s a reflection of the landmark year we’ve had in interactive entertainment that a tiny, two-hour indie game beats out blockbusters with nine-figure budgets for the top prize. The Fullbright Company demonstrated that video games can leave a lasting impression without the aid of death and misery. Your quiet exploration of the Greenbriar home on a dark and stormy night ebbs and flows between tension and relief, as new facts shed additional light on the central mystery. It’s a double-edged ghost story, expertly crafted to lead you down one path before ripping the veil off and revealing another. As we said in our review: Gone Home is a game that can be played by anyone, and should be played by everyone.