The Year of Surprises: Five great games from 2013 that I didn’t see coming

Unconventional Games

By on December 4, 2013 at 1:57 pm

One of the things I generally complain about to fellow journalists and friends is that lack of “surprise” that increasingly comes from entering a new game.

Developers and publishers constantly promise new mechanics, experiences and technology, but generally fail. As games become more expensive to produce, bigger studios start to feel the pinch from their overlords — niche systems, ideas and creativity don’t sell franchises, and those franchises that make incremental changes rather than wholesale overhauls allow for players who want to be comfortable. After 20-odd years of gaming, I don’t want to be comfortable anymore — which is why I’ve been enjoying the flood of new indie experiences that actually attempt to work against the status quo.

But it’s not just new experiences — it’s also refined ones. These five games were the titles I played this year that delivered those surprising moments — whether improving on classic systems, creating new ones or just making great use of creative prompts, such as humour, sadness or even politics. We’re coming up on the end of the year, and GON’s official GOTY awards are not far away – but this feature is designed to reward those titles that may not be showered in kudos, or simply forgotten on top of all the BioShocks and Last of Us‘s that whitewashed Metacritic this year.

If you haven’t heard of some of these, or have and haven’t got around to checking them out, I highly recommend you do.

Hearthstone

This choice may be the most conventional out of the five, but bear with me. Blizzard came out of nowhere with this one, and its in that reasoning alone that it becomes unconventional.

If you told me that I would have spent an entire month during the release of GTA V playing a collectable card game online, I would have told you to get back in your box, you insane bastard. My loathing of advanced card games was grown from the overly complex and expensive Magic: The Gathering — an obsession of many friends during my high school years. Thanks to the various expansions, rules and ongoing outlay, I just could not enjoy any of the matches I attempted to play. Blizzard, as it did with Warcraft, StarCraft and Diablo previously, stripped back what made this past-time so inaccessible, and simplified the base to allow new players to get into the game immediately — making Hearthstone the first card game with a very clever, staged tutorial that actually makes sense.

The beauty of Hearthstone is in the age old mantra of successful game mechanics — easy to learn, hard to master. The conditions are simple: like any MMO or RPG, the skills or minions cost mana to cast. Creatures and Demons have health and attack attributes. There are limits on both, but they can be buffed via additional skills. There are special cards that apply various unique effects. All of these rules are well known by almost anyone who has been near World of Warcraft in the past decade, and their conversion into card form was a genius move that leveraged that same player base already warm and cosy within Blizzard’s grasp. Then there’s the impeccable polish, presentation, sound and visual effects. The fact it will be able to run on almost any modern device you own. Its F2P system that still rewards players not willing to drop any coin. There have been times I’ve launched the client just to muck around with a deck, and ended up playing for 4 hours.

Hearthstone makes, and tops, this list because it did what very few things manage to do to a 30 year old man — change his mind. I, like many, scoffed at the original announcement of this title. I lamented that it was a colossal mistake by the developer to assume regular joes would be keen to swap real-time adventuring for the card based equivalent. It’s easy to say that I have been well and truly proven wrong.

Neverwinter

One of the first assignments I pitched when I began writing for this fabulous portal of PC goodness was covering the wild and wonderful world of F2P MMOs. It’s safe to say I’ve played over 80 of them in the past 3-4 years, from the dismal (RaiderZ) to the especially heinous (Rusty Hearts). It says something about the wholesale throughput of the Korean games industry when only one game out of the many still perks my interest to this day — and it’s about sailing. So it was with absolute pleasure that I discovered Neverwinter, which I was fully expecting another vomitous morsel of a burned out WoW clone, instead ended up with one of the best examples of the genre I’d ever played.

Like Hearthstone, Neverwinter succeeds in its dedication to simplicity. Stripped of the overcomplicated rubbish of many F2P games, Cryptic took their many years of experience and used it to make something rather pure. The battle system focused less on hotkeys, cooldowns and mana management, instead taking full advantage of the mouse to make combat significantly more entertaining. Your class is flexible, quests are short, and the time based challenges add a bit of spice to necessary tasks that can normally feel like arbitrary busy work. The game world is huge, with heaps to do and a great party system that supports players easily jumping in and out of it.

Most importantly, Neverwinter respects you, and it respects your time. It doesn’t attempt to goad you into paying for anything you don’t want, nor does it attempt to monetarily restrict you from anything that prevents development. Its successes are so prevalent that it actually managed to tear me and my friends away from Guild Wars 2, arguably one of the best retail MMOs ever made, because of its exceptional polish, performance and easy partner recruitment (free games tend to be easier to sell). This one will be tough to top.

The Stanley Parable

The Stanley Parable has the best game demo in human existence. As a demonstration of gameplay, it both fails and succeeds at the same time, a statement that would only make sense to those who have gone through it. Never before had I laughed so much at the various dry slights at game tropes, nor did I mind that for about 45 minutes I actually did very little other than walk around and press the odd button. But this is the beauty of The Stanley Parable, as it successfully utilises the original Matrix film’s advertising trick of asking the viewer to guess what the content of the production is actually going to be. It does this through the narrator, who questions your every move and action as if he had already known what you were going to do.

Literally everything about this game is genuinely unexplainable. The game effectively forces you to investigate exactly what it is, while at the same time parodying the limited choices it gives you and lampooning the distinct lack of narrative that is truly available when player “freedom” is a complete illusion. I initially struggled to understand the point of the game, but after an hour I began to realise that this was actually its innate genius – every dry joke and flat insult to your abilities and progress is a direct and perfect commentary on what modern games are and the tricks they play to create the illusion of immersion.

But at the same time, every choice you make (and there are a lot of choices) matters, and everything adds up into one of a plethora of various endings that begin to make a tiny amount of sense before the narrator decides things are becoming too normal. What makes The Stanley Parable so great is also what makes it so bewildering, frustrating, rewarding and ridiculous at the same time. There haven’t been many games where I’ve wanted to replay anything from the very beginning again, but I couldn’t wait to see what this stack of crazy came up with next.

Rogue Legacy

Since Fez and Super Meat Boy hit the mainstream in what seems like an age ago, platformers have entered a new golden age of innovation — from Rayman Origins to Spelunky, the success of this genre alone over the past few years is likely to have increased the amount of Big Picture use tenfold. Of them all, however, Rogue Legacy has stuck in my mind as probably the best example of how taking one element, the fleeting, almost constant death of the protagonist, and mixing it with another — heritage — to build a very solid example of both how and why roguelikes don’t have to be stupidly frustrating or repetitive.

Your first death in Rogue Legacy is likely to be extraordinarily quick — your character can only take a couple of hits against a crop of enemies inspired by Mega Man X levels of difficulty. Once you die, you essentially become your son, who incorporates the traits, look and even some of genetic flaws (flatulence anyone?) that make being a human so magnificent. The longer you live each time, the stronger you can become thanks to selective evolution alongside some help from your blacksmith and enchantress friends.

Any game that can at the same time both force you to relish your avatar’s life but at the same time welcome death is very clever, and the beauty of Rogue Legacy is in how much fun it is to actually play. You can see how your character evolves each time you spawn, how certain features are incorporated, and how various skills and traits balance themselves out to create both challenges and strengths. Each spawn also spins the roulette wheel of enemy spawns and room placement, removing any sense of continuity in the environment and forcing you to quickly adapt to the new world. Each death means something, even if it is just a bit of gold, and dying after a hard fought run can feel like a devastating loss. But that’s life.

Oh, and if you don’t have a controller, get a controller. If there was ever a game made to be enjoyed for Big Picture, it was this one.

Papers Please

Papers, Please is one of those titles that really goes above and beyond, mashing a ton of various themes, ideas and philosophies into one brilliant title that made me think from the moment I began playing. You are a border agent within an imaginary Eastern European hellhole. Your job is to process as many citizens through your checkpoint as efficiently as possible, avoiding the advances of the various undesirables who attempt to subvert your clever eye. The spoils? Barely enough money to cover bread and medicine for your family, and even that pittance dependent on how hard you work.

The game is not fun — at least not in a conventional sense — as the day in, day out monotony of checking and stamping passports loses its flavour, with each new week introducing some ridiculous new visa or passport requirement. But its at this point you realise that there’s something bubbling under the surface — that the game is specifically making you bored, frustrated and tired, to let your eyes glaze over as the ground begins to shift under your desk. Letting this woman escape her violent spouse could cost your son his meal for the night. Taking a bribe could mean medicine for your sick uncle. Helping a burgeoning revolution could cost you your life.

The choices you make define how the game progresses, and you can see the results as people becoming increasingly desperate, some attempting to rush the fence in a gritty, 8-bit cutscene where they gain nothing but a bullet for their efforts. But the game doesn’t pretend that you are some kind of superhuman hero. You never leave your desk, but the power you wield as a bureaucrat becomes, in essence, stronger than any weapon. Who you trust and what you feel is right will be questioned when you least expect it. Take my word for it folks, you will never look at Immigration control the same way again.

10 comments (Leave your own)
Artful-dodgeR

Very interesting list James, well played!

 

Umm, Neverwinter is the very definition of fast food F2P where the game constantly goads you towards spending money.

The ramp up in difficulty from lvl 45 to max is such that without a co-op partner, the only way to proceed is to kite like crazy or sink cash on one of the companions that are actually worth a pinch of sh#t.

Even the in game method of accruing astral diamonds (the only currency worth anything, gold is nigh useless at end game) is an insulting abasement to the gods to give you a few crumbs that won’t even make a dent on that one piece of gear you’ve been eyeing off on their impenetrable marketplace. Crafting is a grind that rewards people that constantly check the online page from their workplace (yay…). Or you can get AD from those obnoxious deals to buy stuff or do survey (a hallmark of some of the most rubbish skinner boxes out of Asia).

Add to that the complete reduction of anything vaguely approaching D&D complexity, you might as well be playing any other 3rd person action/adventure.

 

and i did not play a single one…

 

Risk of Rain would have to be my one, only picked it up on a whim on the humble store. It’s a great Rogue-like game (even surpasses Rogue Legacy!)

 
James Pinnell

war:
Risk of Rain would have to be my one, only picked it up on a whim on the humble store. It’s a great Rogue-like game (even surpasses Rogue Legacy!)

Thanks for the tip! Will have to check it out!

 

Couldn’t disagree more about Rogue Legacy, and I’d discourage anyone from playing it. The concept behind the game may have promise, but the flawed execution shows how combining elements can go wrong. Having permanent progression means the game gradually gets easier with each run, making it feel like a grind to raise stats rather than a challenge to overcome by skill.

However what ruins the game, and should serve as an example for all future games, is the (over)use of breakable objects. Your progression is tied to currency dropped randomly by enemies and breakables scattered throughout the level, which forces you to smash every breakable to maximize your chance at progression. Since unspent currency is lost each run and the prices of everything increase with each purchase, failing to get enough gold in a run means its wasted.

Worst of all, this problem only becomes apparent once you’ve invested time into it. What starts out as a fun mash up your favorite games soon becomes an insane exercise in furniture destruction. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but this game makes me question why any game would encourage the player to smash every object in hopes of finding treasure.

Which is sad because there is a lot to like about the game. Traits like dementia, which causes hallucinations, keep the game refreshing. The game feels so close to being great, but certain flaws kill it for me. After seeing so much positive buzz surrounding this game it was that much more disappointing finding out the mechanics brokedown late game.

 
James Pinnell

blazo,

Blazo – I understand where you are coming from, but I don’t really feel that the game gets easier for the sake of being easier – each death makes you stronger on purpose, using a reverse difficulty curve, rather than the standard elements of difficulty ramping up as you go along. I loved the feeling of heritage strength personally.

Thanks a lot for your perspective however!

 

blazo,

Recommending people don’t buy a game because it has breakables is odd. That would rule out a fairly hefty percentage of all games ever made.

A rogue-like is, by nature, repetitive. If you don’t like that, you won’t like the genre – it is in no way a failing of Rogue Legacy.

+1 to Risk of Rain too, it’s pretty awesome co-op fun.

 

ooshp,

Its not that it has breakables, its that breakables are a core part of the game. I love rogue-likes and don’t mind the repetitive nature so long as it serves a purpose. The way Rogue Legacy is designed strongly encourages you to break every single object on most playthroughs, which is tedious and it detracts from the rest of the game. Tying progression to a repetitive, unskilled action is not what I look for in a rogue-like.

It sounds like a small thing but it really highlights a glaring flaw in the game(for me at least) that just kills your motivation to finish it. A few tweaks and this game would be perfect, but in its current state its disappointing.

And Risk of Rain looks great, I should have grabbed it when it was on sale.

 

22+ Hours spent on Rogue Legacy so far:) One of my surprise games of the year that’s for sure. I can see where BlaZo is coming from as-well, it can get tedious at times to get as much gold as possible so you can upgrade the character(s).

There are runes you can pick up that enchant your gear to make enemies harder as-well if you find it getting too easy once you buff up. They also make the enemies drop more gold when you kill them.

 
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