Most surprising games of 2013

, | Features

The best case scenario for any game is that it will be better than you expect. So if it’s worth calling out games that fell short of expectations on a most disappointing list, why not call out the games that exceeded expectations? Why not call out the pleasant surprises alongside the unpleasant surprises? So here is the opposite of this year’s most disappointing list.

After the jump, when expectation management goes wonderfully right.

10) Devil May Cry

These games have left me behind for so long. I never expected Capcom would pause and look back at those of us playing God of War, Darksiders, Bayonetta, and other games meant for mere mortals without deeply ingrained Dante fetishes. “Hey, look at all those other guys,” Capcom said to developer Ninja Theory, “Let’s make a game for them!”

Read the review here.

9) Super Mario 3D World

While it’s not one of the year’s best platformers, it’s certainly more appealing than the tradition-bound Mario platformers that have me scratching my head wondering why people care. It’s got all the cleverness of a Mario Galaxy game without even needing a crazy sci-fi backdrop.

The game diary begins here.

8) Call of Juarez Gunslinger

It was a good year for middle-tier shooters. Shadow Warrior and Rise of the Triad were both effective reboots/callbacks, full of enthusiasm and playful splatter. But the one that really surprised me was this score-based shooter shot through with picante Western flavor, drawn in playful cel-shading, sporting hearty gunplay, and sewn together by a broad skill tree. With Dead Island and now this, developer Techland is finally demonstrating a solid grip on the fine art of game design.

7) God of War Ascension

I can take or leave the single-player, which is just another retread of the usual graphical spectacle swirling around Kratos. But the real hook here is the awesome Kratos-less multiplayer. Who knew a God of War game could tap so effectively into the stuff that makes good multiplayer work?

Read the review here.

6) Defiance

I was underwhelmed by this MMO shooter when it came out. But over the course of the year, I revisited it a few times and lolled about inside a vast sometimes aimless shooter, ideal for occasional forays to spit out scads of ammo at bandits and bug-like critters, with loosey goosey driving in between, as inconsequential as it is persistent. Basically, Rage Online, without id’s ponderous “it’s teh tech, bitches!” self-importance. Defiance is a quintessentially American game: guns and cars, online, with a fastfood throwaway sensibility. It’s even got an awful TV tie-in. USA! USA! USA!

Read the review here.

5) Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed

The best driving game this year is a kart racing game? With cars, planes, and boats? With sublime level design? With a wonderful campaign progression? With a Sonic the Hedgehog license?

4) Injustice: Gods Among Us

The Mortal Kombat veterans at NetherRealm Studios who knew enough to reboot Mortal Kombat apply everything they’ve learned to the familiar stable of DC Comics characters. Roll over, Marvel vs Capcom. Sometime fighting game fans like me have a new best friend.

Read the review here.

3) Monaco

The retro mega-sized pixel appeal to nostalgia mostly doesn’t work on me. I don’t pine for the Atari 2600. Instead, I’m glad we have actual graphics these days. But under Monaco’s appeal to nostalgia, you’ll find a set of distinct characters, some vivid world building, and a unique new take on multiplayer gameplay. Who could have guessed the spiritual heir to the sandbox level design of Looking Glass’ Thief would come in a package like this?

Read the review here.

2) Diablo III

I guess I always knew Diablo III would work well on a console system, if only Blizzard would do the necessary work to adapt it. What I didn’t know is that the notoriously console-shy Blizzard would do the necessary work to adapt it, and that they’d do the work so well. What I furthermore didn’t know is how well the game would fare without its awful auction house, and how much better it works as a same-couch co-op game.

Read the review here.

1) Marvel Heroes

The biggest surprise of the year is how well Marvel Heroes turned out. Behold the power of pure licensing, as awesome and terrible and mystifyingly effective as any tesseract! I wouldn’t like this game as much if it wasn’t for groundwork laid by The Avengers, and Wolverine: Origins, and Iron Man 3, and Captain America, and even the dopey Thor movies, not to mention games like Marvel vs Capcom and Marvel Ultimate Alliance. But Marvel Heroes’ effectiveness doesn’t feel crass, because it’s not developer Gazillion’s fault that I’ve been incepted with these silly culture triggers, and it’s certainly not their fault that I’m susceptible to any solid iteration of the Diablo model. Their job is to just not screw it up. They’re mostly good at their job. Mostly. And one of the best things I can say about their bald pandering to my Pavlovian hack/slash/loot trigger is that they’ve hit on a way to do free-to-play without compromising their design.

Read the review here, but note that it took a few more months of fumbling around before Marvel Heroes got as good as it is now.

The top ten games of 2013
Most overrated of 2013
Most disappointing of 2013