We spend a lot of time talking about the future. What's on the horizon, what's coming, what's the next big thing. Between the hype-laden developer diaries and the publisher-approved preview events, you'd be forgiven for thinking there's no room left for surprises in video-game land. But of course, you'd be wrong.
2013, like every other year before it, was host to its share of pleasant surprises. Sometimes, we thought a game was going to be lousy and it turned out great. Other times, a fantastic game blindsided us. Still other times, a developer or publisher did something amazing and unexpected. Surprise!
Last week, we brought you down with our list of the biggest gaming disappointments of the year. Today, we'll be countering that by listing, in no particular order, the most pleasant surprises of 2013.
Riley, The Call of Duty Dog
Admittedly, we're partially responsible for Call of Duty Dog's unlikely internet fame. The moment we saw his big smiling face during the Xbox One press conference, we couldn't help ourselves. We wanted to pet him, to scratch his ears, and to help shepherd him (so to speak) on to immortality. Then again, Riley did a lot of the work for us. Somehow, a happy-looking Alsatian became the poster-boy for one of the dumbest, least human video-game series on earth, and added enough levity (and awesome helicopter takedowns) to the pre-release hype cycle to keep things interesting. He may not have been enough to make his game interesting, but it was a pleasure to have him. More first-person shooter pet mascots in 2014, please!
A Rebuilt Final Fantasy XIV Is Excellent
Mike Fahey Writes: Final Fantasy XIV was once the absolute worst numbered game in the world's most popular Japanese role-playing game franchise. Released as Final Fantasy XIV Online in late 2010, the massively multiplayer online game was an unnecessarily complex, unfinished mess. It should have died, but Square Enix wasn't about to leave a massive black mark on its most beloved property.
Instead, the developer rebuilt the game. New class and profession systems, more in keeping with MMPRPG standards, were put in place. The story was strengthened, giving the players a bigger part to play in the epic fantasy world. Everything was streamlined and simplified. While they were at it, they made it even prettier than it already was. Innovation was sacrificed in favor of creating a more traditional MMO experience, but as it turns out that's exactly what the players wanted.
No one expected much of the relaunch of Final Fantasy XIV, now subtitled A Realm Reborn, certainly not me. So when I discovered Square Enix had taken that sad sack of code and whipped it into one of the most fulfilling MMO experiences in years, it was a most pleasant surprise indeed.
Cart Life Wins Big at GDC
Every year, people like to say things like, "The indies have finally arrived." But watching Cart Life win the Grand Prize at the 2013 GDC Awards still felt like a watershed moment. Richard Hofmeier's humble, personal work beat out several big-budget, AAA games for one of the most prestigious awards in all of gaming. After winning, Hofmeier donated his space on the GDC show floor to Porpentine's Howling Dogs, spraypainting another artist's name over his own booth placard. It really was a special GDC.
The Last of Us Multiplayer Is Pretty Great
Call this the annual Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer Award. (Which we forgot to give to Mass Effect 3. Sorry!) No one expected The Last of Us to have good multiplayer. At best, we were expecting something along the lines of the Uncharted games—fun and decently well-made, but never all that memorable. Instead, Naughty Dog managed to create a lasting and darkly enjoyable experience that frequently conjured the focused, deadly cat-and-mouse of the singleplayer. What a surprise, that The Last of Us should wind up having not only one of the best singleplayer stories of the year, but many of the best multiplayer ones, as well.
Real Drama at E3
This one's perhaps not quite a "surprise," given that we were expecting some manner of fireworks at E3 this year. But given how corporate and play-nice most video game competition has become, no one was quite expecting Sony to come out fighting quite as fiercely as they did. From the endless game announcements to the #PS4NoDRM shout-out to the hilarious used games video above, Sony took the fight to Microsoft like old-school console warriors and, as they closed out by announcing a PS4 launch price $100 below the Xbox One, landed the first major blow of the coming next-gen competition. That most of the things they were proudly touting were good for consumers—games, no DRM, no always-online, a decent price—was nice, too.
This one could've gone either way. A "gritty" reboot starring a young, vulnerable Lara Croft. Hmmmmm. And yet Crystal Dynamics nailed it, and their Tomb Raider was one of the more enjoyable games of the year. More actual tombs to raid in the sequel though, guys.
Streaming on PS4
Yes, the incomplete video sharing features on both next-gen consoles were among our disappointments of the year. But the sheer coolness of PS4 streaming deserves a mention here, as well. It sounded good when Sony said that we'd be able to press a button and instantly stream our gameplay to Twitch or UStream. But in practice, it's so simple and seamless that it really becomes possible to imagine the shared, social utopia that game companies keep trying to sell us. Now if only they'd allow for Twitch YouTube archiving...
State of Decay
It's yet another zombie game, available digitally on Xbox Live. It was a first-time effort by a new studio, and arrived with minimal pomp and/or circumstance. It was visually unremarkable and had lots of technical issues, from floaty combat to weird collision detection to regular framerate drops and screen tearing. And the first thirty minutes or so are a real drag. No sale, right? But if you'd walked away from State of Decay for all those reasons, you'd be missing out on one of the most enthralling zombie games yet made, one of the most successful games in the history of Xbox Live Arcade, and one of the most welcome surprises of the year. Best of all, it's now on Steam, so even more people can play it.
Mere months before the launch of the PS4, Sony released Puppeteer for the PS3. What could've been a forgettable late-era flop instead wound up being an unsung gem, a whimsical and weird platformer not quite like anything else out there. Certainly one of the pleasant surprises of the year.
The DualShock 4
At first glance, the DualShock 4 looked nice enough, but not all that different from the PS3's DualShock 3. And then we used it for the first time. Rarely has a controller made such a potent first impression. It's difficult to describe to those who haven't used one, but the whole thing just feels "right" from the first moment you hold it.
The 3DS Becomes The Champion
Even in the early days of 2013, we had seen the writing on the wall: The 3DS was about to come into its own. But still, from Fire Emblem: Awakening right up through The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, it was a pleasure to watch Nintendo's handheld go from life-support to must-own. Here at the end of 2013, a large number of our favorite games were 3DS games, and the hits will just keep on coming in 2014.
Simogo's Unlikely Twofer
If you'd been paying close attention to mobile gaming, you'd know that two-man Swedish video game studio Simogo were worth keeping tabs on. But no one predicted that they'd be responsible for two of 2013's best games, mobile or otherwise. That a tiny studio could release two games as lustrously polished and entirely distinct as Year Walk and Device 6 in the same year almost defies belief, particularly given that their last game was the rhythm-puzzle joint Beat Sneak Bandit. 2013 was the year Simogo stepped into the spotlight, and we'll be expecting big things from them in the future.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Most people looked at the Xbox Live Summer of Arcade lineup this year and more or less thought the same thing: "Huh." It just didn't look as exciting as past years, and there didn't seem to be a Braid or a Limbo to break out. How wrong we were. Starbreeze's Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons came out of nowhere to break all of our hearts, and prove once again that mechanical innovation and emotional storytelling can go hand-in-hand.
Mass Effect: Citadel
BioWare probably could've just walked away. They could've left their Mass Effect trilogy as it was, with the slightly modified ending and the cadre of angry fans and with most people saying "Hey, not everyone agrees on the ending, but Mass Effect was good on the whole." Instead, they decided to pull every character together for one glorious last hurrah that was far, far better than it could've been. In fact, it was one of the greatest Mass Effect things to ever come down the pipe, a bit of heartfelt fan-service that gave us one last chance to hang out with the characters we'd come to love over the last six years. Equal parts funny and sad, Citadel emphatically demonstrated that everyone at BioWare loves and "gets" Mass Effect just as much as we all do. What a note to go out on.
The New 3DS StreetPass Games
We all felt the same dread when that Rabbit turned up in July to sell us new StreetPass games on our 3DSes. Had Nintendo finally gone the way of Zynga? Did the future of this promising handheld lie in a ruin of microtransactions, and would any of these silly Streetpass games be worth it? The answers to those questions would be, in order, "No" and "No" and "Absolutely!"
As it turns out, the new StreetPass games are so much fun that you'll be hard-pressed to stop playing them, and they can often get in the way of other "real" games you may be playing. It's enough to make us wish we could leave our primary games suspended and spend as much time as we want with them. What could've been a cheap cash-in instead has become a collection of deep, perpetually entertaining games that will have you carrying your 3DS with you to the corner store in hopes of recruiting a few more helpers.
Earthbound Comes to Wii U
This one's a straight-up surprise; in fact, we even put the word in our headline when Nintendo announced it. After years of begging and pleading from fans, Nintendo finally put their classic RPG Earthbound on the Wii U eShop. We would've loved the opportunity to play this on 3DS as well, but we'll take it on any platform we can. Hopefully in 2014, Nintendo will bring the rest of the Wii U eShop up to snuff.
Companies Actually Listened to Fans
Often, fandom can feel like shouting into a void. The massive corporations that make games can seem unfeeling and uncaring, only interested in the bottom line, uncaring about the desires of their hardest core fans. "But your fans are responsible for your bottom line," we cry at them, as they go about ruining everything. This year, there were a number of happy instances where large gaming companies actually listened to their fans and instituted major change, often completely reversing unpopular policy decisions and changing things for the better.
The most notable of these was Sony's onstage E3 call-out to the #PS4NoDRM campaign, as well as the Xbox One's subsequent DRM reversal, which leveled the playing field between the consoles and tasked both companies with adding optional innovations to set themselves apart. But smaller but no less notable reversals like League of Legends' reverse on restrictive player contracts, Dota 2 bringing back Diretide, and Nintendo relenting on their nonsensical ban of Super Smash Bros. Melee from streaming during the Evo fighting game tournament.
Those were the biggest and best surprises of 2013 for us, but surely you had some of your own. Please share them in the comments below, and remember: For all the things we think we know about 2014, there are doubtless dozens of great surprises in store. As always, next year should be fun.