For all the hype surrounding a new generation of consoles, 2013 demonstrated that mastery over the form is more significant than the number of particles pushed onto screens. The vast world of Los Santos layered glistening beauty upon gruelling grit, while The Last Of Us cut through an overcrowded genre with a refined script and unflinching creative vision. Both are standouts of a year in which big-budget games pushed at the limits of size and polish, but were otherwise content to refine genres rather than reinvent them. Again, the indie scene picked up the slack, daring to tell stories of emotional hardship and the nature of choice. But even it seemed focused on the promise of consoles to come, with a number of games slipping to 2014.
Oddly, it’s a maturing wave of hardware – 3DS, Vita and Wii U – that delivered the biggest surprises of 2013. The two portables have seen a turnaround in their fortunes, thanks to developers who understand their audiences and are taking risks with new ways to play. These span from the iterative, such as Fire Emblem Awakening, to the wildly inventive, such as Tearaway. Wii U, meanwhile, continues to sell dismally, but has produced a standout gem that might save it in Super Mario 3D World. And that’s the key: as the E3 fallout made abundantly clear, the videogame industry is only as good as its games.
10. Papers, Please
Format: PC Publisher/developer: Lucas Pope
Papers, Please takes the vocabulary of the adventure game – checking and comparing information, retaining details, and critical analysis – and applies it to a study of the tyranny of bureaucracy. Understated but powerful, it demonstrates the power games have as persuasive tools and it does so by teaching, not lecturing, you.
Further reading: our Papers, Please review.
9. Dota 2
Format: PC Publisher: Valve Developer: In-house
The year’s standout success in eSports, Dota 2 has a tremendous ability to draw out the personality of its players. Valve has steadily improved the game’s accessibility while pioneering new ways for fans to contribute to it, express themselves, and even earn money from their contributions. It’s the biggest game on Steam right now for a very good reason.
Further reading: our Dota 2 review.
8. The Stanley Parable
Format: PC Publisher/developer: Galactic Cafe
This intelligent firstperson exploration game guides you through variously funny, sad, exciting and unnerving meditations on the nature of games. It strikes a masterful balance of tone and achieves a tremendous sense of personality by treating the player as a player and not as a problem to be solved. It features some of the year’s smartest writing, too.
Further reading: our The Stanley Parable review.
7. Rayman Legends
Formats: 360, PC, PS3, PS4, Vita, Wii U, Xbox One Publisher: Ubisoft Developer: In-house (Montpellier)
Legends has an unstoppable rhythm, a bevy of ideas and a world of content. It’s forever urging you on and always showing you something new, serving up multiplayer combative football, rhythm-action platforming, and daily challenges. Legends takes its handful of verbs – jump, run and punch – and gets as much mileage from them as Nintendo on its best days.
Further reading: our Rayman Legends review.
6. Fire Emblem Awakening
Format: 3DS Publisher: Nintendo Developer: Intelligent Systems
Permadeath is callous. Awakening humanises it, its network of player-forged relational bonds meaning defeat snatches away not generic soldiers but beloved allies. Keeping everyone alive is a challenge, yet a Casual mode means this is also the most approachable Fire Emblem yet. It’s a rare strategy game that warms not just your grey matter but also your heart.
Further reading: our Fire Emblem Awakening review.
5. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Formats: 360, PC, PS3, PS4, Wii U, Xbox One Publisher: Ubisoft Developer: In-house (Montreal)
This pirate sim barely needs the Assassin’s Creed name, but heading to open ocean liberates a series once tangled in its historical trappings. Black Flag revels in the freedom, its vagabond wanderings across turquoise waters spiced with bountiful distractions and ship-to-ship combat beyond compare.
Further reading: our Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag review.
4. Super Mario 3D World
Format: Wii U Publisher: Nintendo Developer: In-house
Back in the shade you go, Luigi. Just as with 3DS, and so many Nintendo systems of yore, it’s Mario that’s made Wii U an irresistible proposition. 3D World is the archetypal Mario game – a relentless succession of ideas formed, finessed and thrown away to make room for the next one – and if there’s any justice also a shot in the arm for Nintendo’s confused platform.
Further reading: our Super Mario 3D World review.
Format: Vita Publisher: SCE Developer: Media Molecule
Tearaway’s heartrending conclusion will live long in the memory, but so will the adventure that precedes it. We upholstered an elk, pinned a moustache on a pig, and drew malformed flames and wonky snowflakes. We mugged endlessly for the camera. Media Molecule’s latest gem flings one thing after another at you, each more playful and more joyful than the last.
Further reading: our Tearaway review.
2. The Last Of Us
Format: PS3 Publisher: SCE Developer: Naughty Dog
There was never any doubt that Naughty Dog would spin a ripping yarn, but the sheer scale of its achievement caught us on the hop. The game’s sombre riff on Uncharted’s magic makes for a journey that is at once more human and more affecting than past videogame adventures, one that leaves you wishing all others could match this remarkable standard.
Further reading: our The Last Of Us review.
1. Grand Theft Auto V
Format: PS3, 360 Publisher: Rockstar Developer: In-house (Rockstar North)
Once upon a time, while playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, we would lean back and wonder what such a game might look and feel like in the future, its rough edges smoothed out, its ambition explored in more detail. In September this year we found out – and the reality exceeded our daydreams. Given that it’s made up of so many moving parts, Grand Theft Auto V should collapse in on itself the moment you begin messing with it, but instead its countless pieces work in concert like a mesmirising symphony. For its self-belief, its scale, its art, its soundtrack, its three-way character twist, its lightning-cracked skies, its churning waves, its mountain-top parachute leaps and its desperate, bodywork-mangling storm-drain escapes, it is our game of the year.
Further reading: our Grand Theft Auto V review.