Friday, December 27, 2013

My favorite video games of 2013

2013 was an odd year for the video game industry.  The major triple-A games saw varying levels of success, while the independent scene grew and innovated more than ever.  We went through a strange version of growing pains, as we waited for the PS4 and Xbox One to launch.  I bought both consoles, and have been enjoying them for different reasons.  However, I also got a new gaming laptop earlier in the year, and I played more on the PC than ever before.  But what excited me most was that more developers made a conscious effort to tell worthwhile stories, in new and different ways.  Of everything I played in 2013, here were my favorites!

(Disclaimer -- There are plenty of games I didn't get to put time into, so this list isn't meant to be all-inclusive.  I'm not a professional critic!  The format(s) I played on are in parentheses, although some games are available on more formats than what I have listed.  Also, this list is my personal opinion, and does not represent my employer.)

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon (X360) -- An 80's action film re-skin of my favorite game of 2012.  Having a button dedicated for flipping the bird?  Genius.

Gears of War: Judgment (X360) -- People Can Fly took some risks with the campaign (focusing on Baird, bite-sized level sections with optional challenges built in) that I thought worked pretty well.  I also had fun with the Battlefield 'Rush'-like game mode Overrun (even if the maps felt a little too small for it), and I liked playing as some of the higher-powered Locust characters.

Killzone: Mercenary (Vita) -- The best looking handheld shooter to date, and plays pretty well too.  It gives me hope for what the Vita is capable of accomplishing.

Outlast (PC) -- I like when games set goals and accomplish them.  This game has one goal:  Scaring the living crap out of you.  And it's super effective!  I don't think I have even a full hour into it, and I will more than likely not finish it.

Payday 2 (PC) -- A big improvement over the original in terms of friendly AI and mission variety.  It's still better to play with a group of people who know what they're doing, but fortunately there's a strong community around it (and they're largely noob-friendly), so you shouldn't ever have to play alone.

Rise of the Triad (PC) -- Unabashedly old-school corridor twitch shooter.  I never played the 90s original, but I played enough Wolfenstein and Doom to where I enjoyed this quite a bit.

My favorite games of 2013:

15.  Splinter Cell: Blacklist (X360 / PC) -- The stealth aspect of the series has all but been removed, and that disappoints me.  However, as a straight action game, it's still pretty good.  My favorite multiplayer game mode (Spies vs. Mercs) came back, but it felt more like a cover band than the brilliant original from Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory.  However, the co-op levels are the real star of the multiplayer, and make it worth recommending.

14.  Surgeon Simulator 2013 (PC) -- Nothing I played this year had me laughing more.  The bad-on-purpose controls are a thing of beauty.  Probably the best $10 I spent this year.

13.  The Swapper (PC) -- A deceptively simple puzzle game on paper, but it gets brutally hard about half-way through.  I still haven't finished it because I'm trying to avoid cheats / FAQs, but I'm hoping some time away will help me come at it fresh again.

12.  Killzone: Shadow Fall (PS4) -- One of the better console launch shooters since the first Halo.  Jaw-dropping graphics, a respectable story (stay after the credits!), and an enjoyable multiplayer suite (even if it feels a little slow when compared to other FPS).  Multiple batches of free DLC will be coming next year, so I'll keep coming back to it.

11.  Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (PS4) -- A major improvement over the last installment.  They took what was best about part 3 (the boats!), removed all of the nagging tutorials, and just hand you the keys and say 'Have fun!'  I have minor complaints about some scripting and bugs in some missions, but it's nothing that we haven't dealt with in previous games in the series.  I can't wait to get back on the seas and start pillaging again.

10.  The Stanley Parable (PC) -- Poor Stanley.  Trapped in a game.  Or ... is it a game?  Is it a story?  Is Stanley me?  Where did my coworkers go?  If you love GLaDOS and her irreverent sense of humor, you should download the demo (which is a completely separate experience) and see if it's up your alley.

 9.  Grand Theft Auto V (X360) -- This is what a very talented group of developers can do when they have access to an almost unlimited amount of time and resources.  Was it worth the wait?  From a technical standpoint, yes.  It's massive, and runs as stable as any open-world game on a console to date.  However, we get three playable characters, yet not one of them is even remotely sympathetic.  Each is a step back from Nico in part IV, and I found myself not wanting to spend time with any of them.  Also, the online mode was hugely ambitious, but by the time they got it working properly, I'd moved on to something else.

 8.  Saint's Row IV (PC) -- GTA V wants to be a Michael Mann film.  Saint's Row IV wants to be Billy Madison.  When it comes to interactive entertainment, sometimes it's more fun to light bags of dog poop on fire and leave them on Old Man Clemens' porch.

 7.  Gone Home (PC) -- More of an interactive short story than a game, but it invokes real and honest emotions.  It's only two hours long, but it's something everyone should experience, and the less you know about it before you start, the better.

 6.  Animal Crossing: New Leaf (3DS) -- The most relaxing game I've ever played.  It's hard to explain to people who haven't tried it.  Either you get it or you don't.  I got it, and put literally hundreds of hours into digging up fossils, fishing, catching bugs, selling things at the shops, etc.  I finally walked away from it a couple of weeks ago, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about turning it back on so I can make snowmen.

 5.  Battlefield 4 (PC, XB1) -- An improvement over the previous game in many ways.  More destructibility, more vehicles, better overall map design, and more variety in the weapons and gameplay options.  It makes Battlefield 3 look like a beta for this game.  So why is it only #5?  The constant connectivity / server issues that plague each version make it hard to defend.  At least one game website went back and lowered their review scores because of these issues.  I still enjoy the game, and I'll be putting more time into it on multiple formats, but I really hope they fix the online stability.

 4.  Tomb Raider (X360, PC) -- An almost perfect reboot of a once-great franchise.  The campaign is long and yet almost never loses its pacing, and the graphics are outstanding.  I did get tired of the quick-time-events ("Press X to Not Die"), but fortunately there are less of them the further you get into the game.  They've announced a next-gen version coming in early 2014, and it may have me buying a third version of it.

 3.  Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (PC) -- I started to type a synopsis of what this game is about, and then I deleted it.  Just play it.  Take some time to get used to the 'two player co-op on one controller' setup, and let it draw you in.  You won't regret it.  The comparisons to 'Ico' and 'Journey' are valid in a lot of ways, and the last 30 minutes are some of the best in any game I've ever played.

 2.  Bioshock Infinite (X360, PC) -- Irrational Games had a tough path in front of them:  Meet or exceed the expectations set by the greatness of the first Bioshock.  I think they were successful.  It's not perfect though.  The gameplay is a little lacking (not much weapon variety, fewer 'Plasmid' powers than before), and the final 'boss' battle felt like a victim of a couple of bad decisions made late in development.  However, the setting and graphics are one-of-a-kind and instantly iconic.  The skyhook makes getting around in the levels unlike anything else you've ever played.  And then there's the story, which will have you scratching your head for 99% of the game, and then that last 1% drops on you and you feel like you stood up too fast, and have to instantly get on the internet to find out just what took place.  It was a real head rush of a game, even if the gameplay didn't innovate as much as I'd hoped it would.

 1.  The Last of Us (PS3) -- I avoided the hype as much as possible.  I tried to look at it as 'just another post-apocalyptic game'.  But I knew Naughty Dog would deliver.  And deliver they did.  They're the best triple-A developer in the business, hands down.  They understand their tools and craft better than anyone else, and while their graphics are some of the best you'll ever see on a console, they put more attention into their scripts and performances than any other.  But I still wasn't fully prepared.  If the Uncharted series are game versions of the Indiana Jones films, then this is Cormac McCarthy's The Road:  Bleak, unforgiving, and relentless.  The lengthy campaign stays impressive through almost 20 hours of gameplay, with only one or two very minor missteps, and you remain constantly in fear for Joel and Ellie's lives.  The human touches that Naughty Dog bring to the game make it even more impressive.  Early on, the two characters keep their distance in combat, but as the game progresses and Ellie grows to trust Joel more, she starts to huddle close to Joel when they're hiding, using him as protection.  And then there's the subtle way that Joel looks at his broken watch in some cutscenes, as if he's remembering a simpler time.  Most games have yet to nail this level of humanity in their characters, but Naughty Dog makes it look easy.

A lot has been said about the ending.  Some loved it, and others hated it.  I won't spoil it here, but I will say that I didn't like it at first.  Then I slept on it, and I realized that there was no other ending that made sense for the characters.  I can't say I loved it, but it's just 'right' for them.  In the final chapter, you'll be doing things with the lead character that you may not agree with.  However, much like a book or a movie, you ultimately have no control over what the character does.  It's a story, and you're experiencing it.  Whether or not the ending is emotionally satisfying to the player, it's emotionally honest to the characters, and that's what matters most.

I'll be the first to admit that not every video game is "art".  However, this game is incontrovertible proof that games CAN be art.  To even attempt to debate the question now is laughable.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

My favorite albums of 2013

2012 was a great year for music, and yet somehow, 2013 topped it in many ways.  A lot of new bands surprised me, and quite a few bands made comebacks that were above and beyond any expectations I had.  Here were my favorites:

15.  Cult of Luna -- Vertikal.  When Isis called it a day, I was pretty bummed out. However, I wouldn't have been as bummed if I'd have known there were bands like this who could fill that gap.
  -- Favorite Track:  In Awe Of

14.  Portal -- Vexovoid.  The sound of pure evil.  Their previous albums had the production and the theatrics, but this new album brings some memorable riffs that I didn't think they had in them.
  -- Favorite Track:  Kilter

13.  Scale the Summit -- The Migration.  Virtuoso instrumental guitar work.  These guys are consistently amazing.
  -- Favorite Track:  The Traveler

12.  Altar of Plagues -- Teethed Glory and Injuries.  This industrial black metal album took time to grow on me.  It's not an easy listen at first, but it was worth the extra effort to push through the 'idea' of what it should be and to actually appreciate it for what it is.
  -- Favorite Track:  God Alone

11.  Gorguts -- Colored Sands.  A great comeback album from a death metal band that has always been better than their name lets on.
  -- Favorite Track:  Colored Sands

10.  My Bloody Valentine -- mbv.  Speaking of comebacks, it took 22 years for this one to release, but it lived up to my lofty expectations.  No other art-rock band sounds quite like they do.  Not then, and not now.
  -- Favorite Track:  Who Sees You

 9.  The Ocean -- Pelagial.  The most consistent listen in their catalog, and the purest vision of who they are as songwriters.  Call them prog-rock, or post-metal, or alternative ... they're all those things and more.
  -- Favorite Track:  Mesopelagic: Into the Uncanny

 8.  Karnivool -- Asymmetry.  "Australia's Tool" steps away a tiny bit from the easy Tool comparisons.  While not as immediately listenable as their last album (Sound Awake), it still rewards repeated listens.
  -- Favorite Track:  We Are

 7.  Carcass -- Surgical Steel.  Another comeback from a seminal death metal band, and this one washes away the poor aftertaste of their 'final' album (Swansong).  Can't wait to see them tour next spring!
  -- Favorite Track:  Captive Bolt Pistol

 6.  Dillinger Escape Plan -- One Of Us Is The Killer.  After a couple of inconsistent albums that saw them struggling to find a middle ground between poppy spaz-rock and the math-metal genre they helped create, they've finally found the sweet spot.  Their best since Miss Machine.
  -- Favorite Track:  One Of Us Is The Killer

 5.  Spiritual Beggars -- Earth Blues.  The 70's never died!  Their previous albums didn't feel as playful as this one, and it's all the better for it.  Fuzzy production with lots of Hammond organ and cowbell.  Great for long highway drives.
  -- Favorite Track:  Turn the Tide / Legends Collapse

 4.  Alice In Chains -- The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here.  Either I've finally put Layne Staley to rest in my mind, or this is the best full-length album they've released since Dirt.
  -- Favorite Track:  Hollow

 3.  Amorphis -- Circle.  I first heard this Finnish band on their breakout folk metal album "Tales From The Thousand Lakes" in 1994, but I lost track of them when they started experimenting with different genres like electronica.  However, if they have other albums that are as instantly catchy as this, I have a lot of homework to do.   Great sing-along choruses and radio-friendly production?  I'm surprised they aren't more popular.
  -- Favorite Tracks:  The Wanderer / Hopeless Days

 2.  Tesseract -- Altered State.  One of the bands that helped create the 'djent' genre goes through yet another vocalist change, and redefines their feel without losing what makes them who they are.  I still miss Daniel, as his ability to float between aggressive and angelic vocals was inimitable, but Ashe is still a definite improvement over Elliot.  This band continues to get bigger, and I wouldn't be surprised if they're headlining a major metal festival by the time their next album releases. 
  -- Favorite Tracks:  Nocturne / Retrospect

 1.  Deafheaven -- Sunbather.  Someone described this band to me as 'putting black metal, post-rock, and shoegaze in a blender".  What a horrible idea, right?  Then I heard Sunbather, and they've been a mainstay in my ears ever since.  I'm a sucker for bands that can combine beauty with brutality, and Deafheaven might be the best at this since Opeth stopped being a 'metal' band.  The shrill vocals feel oppressive, but the warmth of the production and songwriting draw you in.  It just WORKS.
  -- Favorite Track:  Sunbather

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Authority Zero -- The Tipping Point.  Consistently catchy.
  -- Favorite Track:  Undivided

Black Dahlia Murder -- Everblack.  The AC/DC of death metal.
  -- Favorite Track:  Every Rope a Noose

Cloudkicker -- Subsume.  The best one-man instrumental prog band out there today.
  -- Favorite Track:  He would be riding on the subway...

Clutch -- Earth Rocker.  Who doesn't like this band by now?
  -- Favorite Track:  D.C. Sound Attack

Editors -- The Weight of Your Love.  British indie-rock that doesn't sound like it's trying too hard.
  -- Favorite Tracks:  Sugar / A Ton of Love

Living Sacrifice -- Ghost Thief.  Christian metallers' triumphant comeback album.
  -- Favorite Track:  Ghost Thief

Queens of the Stone Age -- Like Clockwork.  Something about this record feels 'off', and I like that about it.
  -- Favorite Track:  I Sat By The Ocean

Ulcerate -- Vermis.  Not as good as their last album, but still soul-crushingly heavy.
  -- Favorite Track:  Vermis

White Moth Black Butterfly -- One Thousand Wings.  Former Tesseract vocalist brings soul to a Massive Attack-like rock group, with surprising results.
  -- Favorite Tracks:  Ties of Grace / Omen

My not-so-scientific predictions for 2014:
  -- February releases from both Behemoth and Cynic will dominate my ears for most of the year, and both will end up high on my 2014 list.
  -- The new album from Skyharbor will release in the fall, and will be my #2.  I didn't hear their 2012 debut (Blinding White Noise) until this year, but they have my full attention now.
  -- The new album from Anathema will release in the summer, and will be my #1 for the third straight release of theirs.

My favorite movies of 2013

So here we are.  Another year gone!  And for the first time since the blog began in 2004, I'm not doing an actual 'top films' list.  I saw 50 films that were released this year, which is up from last year's 36, but there are still SO many I didn't get to see.  On top of that, I can't say I saw 10 films that I enjoyed enough to recommend.  That doesn't mean this year sucked for film; perhaps I was watching the wrong ones!  But when a TV show put every film I saw to shame, it makes doing a year-end list a moot point in my eyes.  Having said that, here are a few movies I saw this year (in alphabetical order) that deserve some praise:

Captain Phillips -- Greengrass turns down the 'shaky cam' and turns up the tension.  Over two hours just flew by.  Even though I knew how it was going to end, it was still very enjoyable.  The final few minutes were improvised on the set, but might be the most powerful moments in the film.

Gravity -- The best technical exercise I've seen in years.  The opening shot is marvelous (even if it's a little too dependent on CGI trickery).  I still think that Children of Men is Cuaron's best film, but this might be the most intense 90 minutes I've spent in a theater.

This Is The End -- My favorite 'dumb comedy' of the year.  The stars play amped-up parodies of themselves, and you can't help but laugh at how much fun they have with the script and setting.

Upstream Color -- Arthouse for the sake of arthouse.  Hard to recommend to anyone other than the nerdiest of film nerds.  The plot is almost impenetrable, but boy is it beautiful.  I'd be scared to see what Carruth could accomplish with a real Hollywood budget.  It's no Primer, but I still couldn't take my eyes off of it.

Warm Bodies -- One of the better mainstream teen comedies I've seen in a while, and it managed to do something a little different with the zombie genre too.  It possesses a gory heart of gold, and was a lot better than the trailers let on.

Films from 2013 that I still really want to see (in alphabetical order):

12 Years A Slave
The Act of Killing
All Is Lost
American Hustle
Dallas Buyers Club
Fruitvale Station
Inside Llewyn Davis

Safe Prediction for 2014 -- The Raid 2 will kick every single ass.