A surprising year of video gaming has passed us by. Award season recently ended, and titles from “The Walking Dead” and “Journey” to “XCOM: Enemy Unknown” and “Far Cry 3” have taken home coveted Game of the Year awards, with barely any nods going to industry heavy-hitters like “Halo 4” and “Call of Duty: Black Ops II.” This is rightfully so; 2012 saw some of the best adaptations, original IPs and series reboots in gaming history. 2013 promises no less, with a slate of incredibly anticipated titles at the ready.
When first attempting to compose a list of the five games that demand attention in this coming year, I hit a brick wall. I stared dumbfounded at the release calendar, as it seemed just choosing five would be impossible. So I made a decision: no ongoing franchises are included on this list.
Before I begin, honorable mention must go to those ongoing franchises, whose newest installments look phenomenal: “Grand Theft Auto V,” “Bioshock: Infinite,” “Pokemon X and Y,” “God of War: Ascension,” “Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs,” the “Tomb Raider” reboot and more all had to remain off of the list, as regrettable as that may be. Now, for the countdown:
5. “Slender: The Arrival” (PC, Mac, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, Nintendo Network)
Throughout the past months, you may have heard of a little free PC and Mac game titled “Slender: The Eight Pages.” And if you heard of it, you may have played it. And if you played it, chances are you were busy cleaning the pee stains out of your bedroom or living room carpet the next day. Based on the Internet horror phenomenon Slenderman, the game put the player in the shoes of a disoriented protagonist trapped in a dark forest, tasked with gathering eight pages before the teleporting faceless horror sneaks up on you and scares you to death. “Slender: The Arrival” is the first officially published title under the “Slender” name (and therefore, I deem it fit for inclusion on the list). With more environments, gameplay improvements and a storyline to go with it, this is shaping up to be the preeminent horror gaming experience.
4. “South Park: The Stick of Truth” (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
“South Park” hasn’t had great success in the world of video gaming. A collection of games has been released in the past (unrelated, so it isn’t technically a franchise!) to mostly negative reception. However, all of that changed when THQ and developer Obsidian Entertainment (of “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II” and “Fallout: New Vegas”) revealed a new “South Park” RPG that would be developed in close coordination with the show’s masterminds, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. If you were not aware that you were watching footage of the game, you would think it was just another episode of the show. All of the characters have their original voices, the visual style hasn’t changed, and Parker and Stone also penned the script. Kyle’s character class is the “High Jew Elf.” Not much has changed, right? Throw in the good pedigree of developer Obsidian and features like the ability to use the Xbox 360’s Kinect to verbally berate Cartman, and “The Stick of Truth” looks to be not only the funniest game of 2013, but also one of the absolute best.
3. “Beyond: Two Souls” (PS3)
If you have never heard of the title “Heavy Rain” from developer Quantic Dream (of “Indigo Prophecy” fame), then you missed out on one of the best storytelling titles the industry has ever seen. Featuring very little gameplay aside from walking around and a few quick-time events, the game wove a heartbreaking, frightening and deeply disturbing tale about a collection of characters all tied in some way to a rising serial killer. Now, the studio behind this somewhat overlooked title is gearing up for the release of “Beyond: Two Souls,” a similar game that explores the difficult theme of life after death. The developer’s track record is enough for this game to warrant notice, but the deal was sweetened when Quantic Dream revealed whom their star would be: motion-captured Academy Award nominee and “Juno” and “Inception” star Ellen Page. Games like “Beyond: Two Souls” do not come around very often. They are a different type of experience altogether, ones that call the audience’s own morals into question and force them to see the consequences of their actions. This isn’t “Mass Effect,” though; these decisions will haunt you long after you turn off your console. Do not miss this one.
2. “Watch Dogs” (PC, PS3, Xbox 360)
When Ubisoft Montreal (of the “Far Cry” and “Assassin’s Creed” franchises) announced “Watch Dogs” at the Ubisoft E3 press conference, no one knew what to expect. One demonstration later, and it was one of the Internet’s top trending topics. Taking home numerous awards for its appearance at the high-profile expo, this open world game made a strong impression due to its high-quality graphics, the dark, cinematic feel and innovative gameplay and setting. The game centers on information warfare in a futuristic imagining of Chicago, where the entire city is run on its own operating system, “ctOS,” which can be manipulated by the protagonist, hacker Aiden Pearce. He can hack any electronic wired to the ctOS, and the gameplay demo saw Pearce controlling a traffic light in order to cause crashes, jamming and tapping cellphones and retrieving data on non-player characters, all connected by smooth parkour-style movement and third-person shooting. Words do not do the game justice; it needs to be seen to be believed. Ubisoft Montreal has been on the cutting edge of gaming lately, and this creative new IP shouldn’t disappoint in any way.
1. “The Last of Us” (PS3)
The number one game to look forward to in the new year is the newest title from Naughty Dog, the developer responsible for the acclaimed “Uncharted” franchise. The gameplay of the series, while derivative, has been applauded as a near-perfect collection of the best mechanics from the industry’s biggest games. Think the gunplay of “Gears of War” with “Tomb Raider” style platforming. Other praises have been directed toward the phenomenal graphics and Indiana Jones-esque stories and setpiece moments. “The Last of Us” is an improvement on the award-winning formula, with similar gameplay but a completely different feel. Taking place in a parasite-ravaged United States controlled by the vicious infected and gangs of ruthless survivors, the protagonist Joel and his young companion Ellie must fight to stay alive. Naughty Dog has been vocal about its quest to raise the standard of video game storytelling, and footage of the game has shown staggering production values and some of the most brutal gameplay ever produced. Sure, Kratos from “God of War” can rip a demon’s head off to a gory effect, but when Joel bludgeons a bandit that is begging for his life with a lead pipe, that is the image that induces nausea. Video games have been steadily maturing, and “The Last of Us” may very well be the first step in a new, bolder age of gaming.
Photo Courtesy of Adam Chitwood