Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Five-star games; six months into 2013 and we have 10. Best year for gaming ever?

It's ridiculous to claim that any single year is, objectively, the best year ever for gaming. Not only are you competing against nostalgia (a powerful force, that), but every year produces great games. To say one is better than any other is to ignore the achievements of games from previous years.

Nonetheless, 2013 has had an incredible first half, turning up no fewer than 10 five-star games. At Digitally Downloaded we're not so silly to say that a five-start game is perfect (our system is more like a five-star hotel in that it's the very top of what is currently available), but just taking a quick look at these games below and you'll see that across almost every genre and platform, 2013 has already thrown up incredible (and important) games that everyone who is a genuine fan of games absolutely must play.

What's most impressive about all this is that it's the second half of year where the really big games tend to release. So, if we've had such a great start to the year, just imagine what's to come. Exciting indeed.

Without further ado, the ten five-star games that we've seen in 2013 so far:

Pandora's Tower (Nintendo Wii) - Pandora's Tower is a game that people outside of America  have been playing for a long time, but 2013 finally saw it released in the US. People should be sending the publisher, XSeed, some lovely letters of thanks for doing so. This is a game that nearly-perfectly marries narrative and gameplay together into a title that is deeply affecting, and yet at the same time a lot of fun to play.

It's the real swan song for the Nintendo Wii, and in fact is probably the finest game that you can play on your Wii U that has been released so far this year. It offers something for fans of action games and RPGs alike and it offers something for people that consider games to be art. It's a game for everyone.


Fire Emblem Awakening (Nintendo 3DS) - Arguably the finest tactics RPG ever made, Fire Emblem Awakening is a ridiculously deep game that has been brilliantly worked to appeal to both newcomers and strategy veterans. In itself that depth helped the game to find a new audience, but what makes Fire Emblem so much better than most of its peers is that it is so brilliantly written.

Every single character in this game has a fully-fleshed personality, and the traditional Fire Emblem trick to have these characters converse with one another to develop meaningful relationships is really ratcheted up in this game. Between every battle are dozens of conversations to listen in on and they range from the deeply funny, to the deeply affecting, the romantic, and even a little bit of the sexy. Heck, the characters can marry - it takes some really confident script writing to even try and pull that off.


Frozen Synapse for iPad (iPad) - 2013 has been a good year for tactics fans on the go. Once you're done with Fire Emblem Awakening, you can jump on your iPad and delve into an even more tactical and innovative game. Frozen Synapse is a four-a-side skirmish-level combat game where two players map out their moves at the same time, and then after both have hit the "play" button the game plays out in 30-second increments.

It's an uncommon approach to turn-based play, but it works so very well, as players need to understand not only what they're doing, but what the likely strategies of their opponents will be as they play. Coupled with a brilliant online infrastructure, Frozen Synapse is an essential game for anyone who likes their games smart.


Tomb Raider (PS3/ Xbox 360/ PC) - The fact that this game managed to sell millions of copies, and yet be considered a "failure" by the publisher, Square Enix, is disappointing, but the game itself is anything but. Taking a character better known for her massive, heaving chest, and humanising her was a masterstroke, and completely redefined Lara Croft as a serious icon of the gaming industry.

The game itself is also a very clever take on the Uncharted style of play, with tight controls and a series of interesting environments for those fights to take place. The "tombs" themselves are puzzle rooms and completely optional, which itself was a clever way for the developers to keep them out of the way of people that want the all-action experience while not leaving behind the puzzle element for veterans of the franchise. A masterfully considered game in every way.


XCOM for iPad (iPad) - THREE tactics strategy games earned five stars from us? What madness is this? At a time where gamers across the world are supposed to be buying up nothing more than shooters, and variations on shooters, along comes XCOM, a full-budget, AAA-game that... makes people use their brains?

And to top that off, XCOM on iPad is a game released at a premium price on the iPad when iOS gamers are meant to only buy $0.99 minigames and freemium Farmville clones? It's like a double dose of crazy. 2K Games really went against the grain twice to port XCOM to the iPad, and it did a brilliant job with it. No game on Apple devices is more rewarding than this one.


Ridiculous Fishing (iPhone) - Sometimes games just need to be fun. They don't need to have AAA-budget 3D animation, they don't need to use every gimmick available in the hardware, and they don't need to include copious amounts of gore to pull people in. Sometimes, just sometimes, "fun" is enough.

Ridiculous Fishing is fun. It doesn't take itself seriously at all, and instead focuses on bringing hugely amusing animation and tight, interesting gameplay to a game that is, mechanically, a $0.99 minigame on the iPhone. But fear not, for this isn't a game that relies on microtransactions to make it "fun" - this is a game that is perfectly playable at its entry price, and from start to finish you'll be amused and rewarded without spending a pennny more.


Ni No Kuni (PS3) - Through most of this console generation there's been a section of the community that have insisted that the JRPG is dead. They point to the controversy over whether the Final Fantasy XIII games are worth playing and the lack of a HD Dragon Quest game as somehow proof of this death. Those people are wrong. They have completely ignored the emergence of the Atelier and Hyperdimension games as modern JRPGs for a start, but more crucially, they've ignored the Ni No Kuni, which is one of the finest JRPGs ever made.

A collaboration between Level-5 (the guys that made many Dragon Quest games), and Studio Ghibli (you know... Spirited Away), there is not a second of Ni No Kuni that doesn't drip class and tightly designed gameplay. It's a beautiful world, a beautiful story and a brilliantly-designed, very classical JRPG. The genre isn't even close to dead.


The Last of Us (PS3) - We had a good old debate here at Digitally Downloaded about whether The Last Of Us qualifies as art. I, personally, don't think it does. Others do. You can read the comments of the review for some of that discussion. What is undeniable, however, is that The Last Of Us is a very, very (very) good game.

Expertly designed by the masters of action - Naughty Dog - The Last Of Us takes players through a post-apocalypse filled with a rarity in the games industry - zombies that aren't a cliche. With a Hollywood-class script and some of the best voice work you will ever hear in a game The Last Of Us is more believable and intense than almost any other game you could play - it's a full generation ahead of anything else on the market right now.


Ace Patrol (iPad) - No way... a fourth strategy game?!? Ace Patrol marks the return of legendary designer, Sid Meier, and this iPad exclusive reminds us all why he is so good at what he does. Ace Patrol is one of the most tightly balanced tactics strategy games you'll ever play thanks to the inherent differences in the way early-era airplanes moved and fought their battles.

Players need to account for height above the ground, and some long turning curves that mean that unless you can work your way behind an enemy plane so that you're following it, you're only going to get one attack before you need to spend a few turns wheeling around for a second go. It gets challenging, but it's a unique twist on standard tactics games that is very compelling.


Bioshock Infinite (PS3/ Xbox 360/ PC) - Ok, we cheated a little here. While we have given 10 games a five-star rating, one of them - Snake on the Vita - would seem a little silly on this list, especially considering that the Snake review takes up all of two words. It's a five-star game for sure, but not in the sense that Bioshock is a 4.5-star game that many would rank up there with all the other games on this list.

Bioshock is the challenger to The Last Of Us for the game that will be remembered by most gamers as the stand-out example of how AAA-games should be made this generation. The similarities in terms of production values are hard to miss - Hollywood-class acting, stunning visual presentation, visceral, hyperviolent combat. It's another game that is hard to fault and were we to post a second-opinion review of the game at Digitally Downloaded it may well have scored that five-star rating.


So there you have it - ten games that prove that 2013 has, already, been one of the finest years for gaming ever. Gamers are utterly spoiled for choice across every gaming platform and across every gaming genre. This list doesn't even include the many 4.5-star games that also may as well be considered essential; the likes of Atelier Ayesha, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Guacamelee!, Dead or Alive 5 Plus, Persona 4 Arena... yes indeed, it's a good time to be a gamer.

So as we look back at the first half of 2013, what would you say your favourite games are, and how has this year stacked up for you?


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