As the staff of Quarter to Three goes home for the long holiday weekend, we’ll leave you with a touch of our own fireworks in the form of an annual half-year list that may or may not include The Last of Us. Why else would there be a picture of it up there?
After the jump, the ten best games of the year so far.
10) Soul Sacrifice
A deliciously dark action RPG for the Vita that’s so well written you might not even notice the grind. From the review:
You might have figured out by now this isn’t one of those “grand tours through lots of content” games. You’re going to fight the same monster over and over, and even when you’re not fighting the same monsters, you’re often fighting reskinned versions with different attacks and vulnerabilities. Like any great action RPG, the game is about tuning a character build, and shepherding it through increasingly difficult variations of the same things you’ve been doing all along, with friends, strangers, or an AI along for the ride. But unlike many such games, it’s got one hell of a story, insidioiusly barbed gameplay hooks, and the sort of infinite lifespan that makes your Vita worth the money you spent.
Until Sang-Froid, I never thought of myself as a Team Jacob kind of guy. From the review:
Games this good don’t come around often enough, and this one could probably only come from a group of independent and inexperienced developers who don’t know enough to know that what they’re doing is, well, kind of unprecedented. Did these guys really mean to reinvent tower defense by premising everything on their cannily imagined Canadian werewolf mythology? Or were they just making a game they thought would be cool? Some genius is inadvertent. Whatever the case, Sang-froid: Tales of Werewolves is one of my favorite recent indicators that strategy gaming is alive, well, and thriving creatively.
At last, a fresh new take on god gaming! From the review:
Most god games suppose people are a resource. For instance, the idea behind Molyneux’s god games is that gods want people to worship them, whether out of fear or adoration. But Reus is more accurately about a planet, and the planet wants prosperity, and prosperity takes something more than plants, animals, and minerals. Prosperity takes the crafting hand of humankind, which can be unpredictable, warlike, greedy, and treacherous. You don’t usually lose a game of Reus. But when you do, it’s because humanity has betrayed you.
7) Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine
A latter day Thief, with modern game design sensibilities, and seriously retro graphics, and even more seriously retro score-chasing, and some of the best co-op this side of sex. From the review:
As befits any heist in France, things often get screwball and you’re running around like Keystone Kops, perfectly accompanied by Monaco’s playful piano score, trying to make the best of a plan gone pear shaped. No, don’t lead the guards over here! Oh, look, I’m dead and you have to sneak past those guys to save me, but now The Mole has attracted attention by tunneling directly onto the dance floor, so why don’t you run over here real quick. Good lord, you just stepped through a security door. Wait, go back and resurrect The Gentleman first. Perhaps there’s no honor among thieves, but there’s plenty of hilarity. At this point, Monaco is no longer about a high score. It’s about refusing to admit you’ve been beat by emergent chaos. And isn’t that what crime is all about? Chaos subverting order and winning? Don’t forget to clean out the cash registers.
Listen to the podcast with designer Andy Schatz here.
6) Don’t Starve
I haven’t gotten around to reviewing this yet, because I feel I haven’t seen enough of it. I keep dying, at which point I have to start over from square one: sticks, flint, a mining pick, find the gold to make a science machine, then make a backpack, etc. Rabbits and berries all the while. And I’m okay with the constant death, because this is a game about trying not to die. So dying is going to happen sometimes. Okay, all times. But, like over half of the games on this list, Don’t Starve demonstrates that great games don’t have to be grim or serious. My strongman has tied a garland of flower petals around his head to calm his nerves because he gets scared at night. Now let’s go see what’s cooking in the crock pot. Tomorrow, we fight bees.
5) Metro Last Light
When is being on rails not a bad thing? When it’s one of the Metro games, conveniently set in a subway. From the review:
…the folks at 4A understand how to maximize the narrative value of a linear shooter. They do it as Irrational and 2K did it in Bioshock and Bioshock 2, without getting tangled in the narrative ambition of Bioshock Infinite. They understand setting, mood, lighting, emotions. If a game is just going to trundle you along an amusement park ride of shooting men and monsters, sometimes quite literally on rails, with breaks to overhear conversations if you’re so inclined, this is how to do it. And this is also how long to do it. Some will call Last Light a short game; I call it a game without any filler. I also call it one of the best straight-up (neat, no chaser, no RPG elements, no branching storyline) shooters since Half-Life, mute protagonist and all.
4) Lego City Undercover
It turns out open worlds don’t have to be grim or crass or even particularly serious to be great. This bright vast joyous place might be the last open world you ever need. From the review:
Lego City Undercover is ample proof that Lego wasn’t good because it had R2D2 or Gollum or Jack Sparrow, but because it was good. And it’s never been as good as it is here, stripped of anyone else’s universe. The UK branch of Traveler’s Tales, formerly the guys who made handheld ports of so many of those licensed Lego games, has taken an unlabeled bag of Lego gameplay and created a imaginative, generous, marvelous flight of fancy with its own sense of identity and a steadfast confidence in the laidback appeal of exploring and collecting.
3) Wargame: AirLand Battle
This is how I used to feel about real time strategy games when Big Huge Games was in business. They’d roll out an ambitious imaginative world like Rise of Legends, as true to itself as true could be, or they’d refine an idea to near perfection as they did with Age of Empires III, or they’d craft a perfect jewel like Rise of Nations. And I’d think, “Goddamn, I’m glad I like real time strategy games”. That’s how I feel as AirLand Battles dances under my fingertips. From the review:
One of the harsh realities for developers of real time strategy games is that an RTS needs to be three separate games. It must be a single-player campaign with a narrative and some sense of progression. It must be a skirmish game playable against an AI that understands how to play the game as it’s designed. And it must be a multiplayer game capable of supporting a community of fans, balanced to allow different asymmetrical factions to play against each other, but also balanced for co-op and competitive gameplay. In short, an RTS needs to be three separate but related games, each with its own unique demands, all with top-notch production values (woe betide the RTS with merely adequate graphics) and a bitchin’ interface. Very few RTSs do all three things well.
Wargame: AirLand Battle does all three things spectacularly.
2) State of Decay
Arguably the most comprehensive and soul-crushingly effective zombie apocalypse you can play. From the review:
State of Decay appreciates better than any game about zombies that isn’t called Rebuild or Undead Nightmares for Red Dead Redemption that the zombie apocalypse is equal parts zombie and apocalypse. It is a far-reaching phenomenon that touches many places, many characters, many issues, many dilemmas. It is hunger and sadness and loss and awesomely grotesque head-splatterings. It is shambling hordes and empty streets and sieges and lonely abandoned houses where absolutely nothing happens.
Listen to the podcast with designer Richard Foge here.
1) Tomb Raider
Crystal Dynamics does for Lara Croft what Christopher Nolan did for Batman and what Sam Mendes did for James Bond: by reinventing her, they made her relevant again, and they did it with unique appreciation for the medium. Just because a game is well-written and has a powerful focus on narrative — whether it’s an ambitiously trippy story (Bioshock Infinite) or heart-achingly expressive characters (Last of Us) — doesn’t mean it has to be a tedious game design or a poorly arranged bag of systems. Tomb Raider understands perfectly how videogames can be as good as movies without having to sacrifice being as good as videogames.
The game diary starts here.
Finally, a note about The Last of Us, a story about characters I liked a lot in a game that I only liked a little. The most emotionally powerful moment so far this year is the title card after the opening credits. Naughty Dog’s unforgettable prologue, which is the best zombie movie I’ve ever played, closes with a sustained minor note as the opening credits play. Then the “Twenty Years Later” title card is a devastating gut punch that does more to instill a sense of despair and hopeless, setting the stage for its post-apocalypse, than any gameplay or level design. Say what you will about Naughty Dog’s game design (which I did here), but their storytelling can rival the best movies.