Time for the Scientific Gamer Totally Made Up Awards Ceremony 2013! If this were a real awards ceremony it’d be an entirely self-serving affair where a captive games journalism machine showers pointless awards on whichever publisher had the largest marketing budget to pay for them this year, but happily I’m entirely free of corporate sponsorship (seriously, I’m disappointed in you guys) and so I can do whatever the hell I like. As a result these awards may be a little unusual and totally biased in favour of my opinion, and if you don’t like them you can go start your own blog. Or argue in the comments. Either’s good.
Best Expansion Pack: Brave New World.
That I like the concept of the expansion pack is a matter of public record, and 2013 saw a brief resurgence of the format with the release of Heart of the Swarm, Brave New World and Enemy Within. That being said this is possibly an odd choice considering that I didn’t actually like Brave New World all that much, but I can’t deny that it was very well-designed and added much that was worthwhile to Civilization V. Anyway, the other two fell some way short of what I hoped they would accomplish, with Enemy Within being just kind of good and Heart of the Swarm actually being… not bad, as such, but so boring that it made the previously-dull background extra Matt Horner seem like an interesting and well-written character. With that in mind Brave New World wins by default, but I’m not going to fault the other two for trying.
Best Soundtrack: Sang-Froid.
I let Sunday Soundtracks slide since getting the job, but this doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention to the audio side of things and this year had a lot of games with outstanding soundtracks. Payday 2 backed up the excellent acoustics of its gun battles with a thumping techno soundtrack, while Desktop Dungeons supplied a surprisingly meaty aural accompaniment to its fiendish puzzling. For my money, though, nothing quite approached the thematic period music that came with Sang-Froid: Tales of Werewolves. This was somewhat unexpected considering the dirt-cheap production values of the rest of the game, but I can’t deny that it’s absolutely bloody brilliant: unusual, catchy, and appropriately boisterous for slaying creatures of the night. I’d like more games to do slightly off-kilter soundtracks like this one, please.
Best Implementation Of Aircraft In An RTS: AirLand Battle.
Aeroplanes are something that the RTS genre has traditionally had a bit of trouble with: how do you balance a unit that can go anywhere and attack anything? Most RTSes dodge the problem by ignoring air units completely, and when they’re included their implementation has varied from sensible (Red Alert) to baffling (Dawn of War: Soulstorm), but I haven’t seen a game that’s nailed air warfare anywhere near as well as the jet fighters in AirLand Battle. They move well, look good and sound stunning, especially if you zoom down to ground level where an incoming airstrike is like being hit by the fist of God. Given that this is historically something that’s been very difficult to get right – and continues to be; something that caused me actual physical pain earlier this year was the flight animation of the aircraft in this Shipbreakers trailer – I thought it was worth mentioning, especially since AirLand Battle itself is rather excellent despite being the niche-iest of niche games.
Best Kickstarter Game That I Backed That Was Actually Released: Shadowrun Returns.
Otherwise known as the only Kickstarter game I backed in 2012 that was actually released this year. (Broken Sword 5 doesn’t count because they’ve split it into two parts.) Fair play to Harebrained Studios: they made their pitch, brought in far more money than they thought they would, issued a revised release date, and then proceeded to miss this release date by only a couple of months. They at least know how to do the process of game development right, and the resulting game – while not without some significant flaws – was for the most part a very respectable RPG that scratched a certain cyberpunk itch, and should be the poster child for Kickstarter success stories. Unfortunately it’s the exception to the rule, with several of the other projects appearing to languish in development hell after achieving their short-term goal of a Steam Early Access release. Maybe I’ll have a bit more to include in this category next year, but I’m not holding my breath.
Best Swamp Level: Metro Last Light.
Swamp levels are one of my pet hates in videogames. I’ve never understood them: these are virtual worlds and developers can build practically any sort of level they can imagine, and yet they persist in making me endure dreary, dank, and depressing swamp levels, which invariably bear all the hallmarks of being filler content that the player has to slog through before they can get to the good stuff. They are visually uninteresting and mechanically dull — or at least they were, until Last Light surprised me by actually doing some fairly imaginative things with the setting, obscuring the player’s view and surrounding them with murky, treacherous water and the unsettling sound of something out there stalking them. It’s all the more damning for the rest, I suppose, since Last Light proved it is possible to have a good swamp level. It’s just that the vast majority of games just can’t be bothered, and I still stand by my opinion that if your game has a swamp level in it then you automatically lose any respect I might have had for it because it proves you just ran out of ideas.
Best Attempt By Blizzard To Take All Of My Money, Again: Hearthstone.
Ah, but we should talk more about this one in the new year when it will (hopefully) be in open beta and everyone can try it. Suffice to say that I’ve already spent money on it despite being not all that sure that I actually like it – and I’m usually quite resistant to the siren call of the microtransaction. As a method for extracting cash from people with a big pair of pliers Blizzard have hit upon another surefire winner here. As a game, though, I’m not quite so sure.
Most Broken Game: Rome 2.
I really wish things hadn’t turned out like this, but as it stands this is the award with the fiercest competition. Three high-profile games came out this year that, on release, turned out to be so completely and utterly broken and buggy that they were all but unplayable.
SimCity suffered server overload after the baffling decision to make it online-only; it was only several months later that things had calmed down enough for basic game features like Cheetah speed to be turned back on. Meanwhile players had to contend with awful agent pathfinding that always took the shortest possible route to a destination, resulting in absurdities like 21 buses jammed in gridlock as they all tried to pick up a single sim from the same bus stop. However, even if SimCity had been released in perfect working condition I’m not convinced that it would have been any good as a game; the bugs and server issues merely compounded the core problem of it being terrible. This is why SimCity, broken as it is, misses out on this particular award.
Over a month post-release and Battlefield 4 still isn’t working properly. The stress of releasing for five different platforms simultaneously seems to be getting to DICE, as they recently proclaimed that they’d stopped all other work to focus on Battlefield’s constant connection errors and crashes. If this is what they’ve actually done then it’ll probably make things worse, as there’s a point in game development where you hit Too Many Cooks and you can’t fix software issues like this by throwing more people at them. I think that at this point, however, it really doesn’t matter; the damage has been done and – anecdotally – very few people I know are even playing it any more. It’s just not worth the hassle. Perhaps next time EA and DICE have the gall to charge a yearly subscription for a Premium service they’ll actually make sure that service works out of the box. I’ll believe that when somebody lowers a thermometer into the underworld and tells me that hell has in fact frozen over, though.
Despite the stiff competition, however, no game I played this year was quite as disappointingly broken as Rome 2. There were two particularly infuriating things about it. First, a large proportion of the bugs and design issues to be found in the game were mistakes that had been repeated from previous Total War games, with the imbecilic battlefield AI in particular being rather reminiscent of my experience with Empire. Game development is usually an iterative process, but you can’t iterate when you apparently have the institutional memory span of a goldfish. Second, though – and far more annoying– is that underneath all the AI bugs and UI issues and incomplete features, somewhere underneath all of that is a good game. Rome 2 is hardly bereft of good ideas. There was a lot of stuff in it that I quite liked in principle, such as the tech trees and the new province system. It had potential, far more so than either SimCity or Battlefield 4; those games were bad (or mediocre) games that happened to be broken, whereas Rome 2 could have been an excellent Total War title had it been executed properly. That it was not was almost entirely down to the rushed release date and subsequent crippling bugs and design issues; with another six months of development it probably would have been a solid entry in the series, but as it is it is merely frustratingly awful and if we’re judging this in terms of nixed potential then Rome 2 easily takes the prize.
Most Perfect Game: Spelunky.
I want to emphasise something here: “Perfect” doesn’t necessarily mean “Best”. Whether you like Spelunky or not is going to be very much down to personal preference; however, several months of attempting to complete the Daily Challenge has led me to appreciate just how well-made Spelunky is. It is a game that knows what it wants to be, accepts its limitations, and excels at literally every single thing it attempts within those narrow boundaries. The art is gorgeous, the mechanics are so polished they’re practically mirror-like and even the music grew on me after the hundredth dungeon crawling session. I usually don’t like to sing the praises of indie games that already get plenty of attention from mainstream gaming sites, but sod it: Spelunky is superb and it deserves every accolade that gets thrown its way.
Best Game That Was So Utterly Horrifying I Still Haven’t Finished It: Papers Please.
I can’t even write about that damn game. I’m pleased it exists, and I’m pleased that I played it, but oh my god is it an uncomfortable experience.
Best Worst Game Of 2013: SimCity.
You know, I’m actually kind of glad I played SimCity, since without it there would be nothing I’ve played this year that really merited this award. Last year there were plenty of games that made me so angry I couldn’t even talk about them in polite company without turning the air blue, from the ineptly-made Carrier Command to the disgustingly not-a-game Swords and Sworcery, but this year… well, maybe old age is mellowing me a bit. So it’s a good thing I played SimCity; it’s utter badness kept the rage smouldering for a good couple of months and even now thinking about it makes my palms itch. Almost every aspect of its design and execution was a car crash from start to finish, from the computing limitations of the agent AI that meant it couldn’t simulate a city larger than a postage stamp to the AI itself being so incredibly stupid that the most efficient city layout was a single incredibly long road. The resulting simulation was utterly unlike a real city, or even a simplified approximation of one, and so SimCity rather failed at both of the core features implied in its title. I’m actually a little amazed that Maxis have the gall to be releasing an expansion pack for it next year, since I still think the core idea of the GlassBox engine is so fundamentally flawed that anything else built on top of it is going to collapse in utter ruin. But then I guess if you’re Maxis and/or EA that’s the last thing you’re going to admit. I suppose it’ll just have to wait for the inevitable hand-wringing in a post-mortem article a couple of years down the line. Right now, though, SimCity is bad, will always be bad and is all the more bad for being a rather undistinguished coda to what had been one of the PC-est of PC gaming series.