It is that most wonderful time of the year when critics far and wide try to compare games with nothing in common other than the system on which they were played. Was it a "good year"? Was it a "bad year"? How did developers handle the twilight hours of the PS3 generation and prep us for the PS4? This is likely to be the last year in which all ten games at the top of the form will be available for the PlayStation 3. There could be a PS3 game on the list next year, but it will almost certainly be dominated by the PS4's first full year of glory. (For the record, six PS4 games made the top 20 below -- 10 runner-ups and 10 best -- but ALL are also available on the PS3).
So, what do I make of this year overall? At the very top of the form, there are three undeniably spectacular games. After that, it gets a bit lackluster well before you get to 20. The fact is that one could sense a bit of apathy in the gaming world this year as developers likely put more time and energy into PS4 games than PS3 remnants. It was a notable trend in sports franchises, as the best sports game of the year was one of the cross-gen titles ("NBA 2K14") and PS3-exclusive ones seemed to tread water. Even the action market felt dull and uninspired, especially until the cross-gen games like "Battlefield 4" and "Ghosts". Very surprisingly, family/kids games had a nice uptick in quality with truly fun titles like "LEGO Marvel Super Heroes," "Skylanders Swap Force," and Sony's delightful "Puppeteer." Many of the hit franchises continued along predictable tracks with new "Assassin's Creed," "Grand Theft Auto," "Call of Duty," and "Battlefield" games doing little to diminish the love for those entertainment juggernauts. I wish there were a few more surprises this year and it was actually difficult to get to ten titles that I wholeheartedly recommend but I do think we're on the verge of major changes in gaming development. The PS4 is a marvelous machine and 2014 is going to be a landmark one for PlayStation fans. Until then, here's the 20 games from 2013 that you should play before you move on.
Runner-ups: Call of Duty: Ghosts, Crysis 3, Diablo III, Injustice: Gods Among Us, LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, NBA 2K14, Need For Speed: Rivals, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, Puppeteer, and Skylanders Swap Force
"Ghosts" and "Battlefield 4" may have the edge in terms of graphics (and definitely do in the multiplayer arena) but the single-player campaign in “Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist” is the action-packed, spy thriller game that we wish we could get from a "Call of Duty" title. Unlike most action games of this generation, the narrative here is actually engaging, building plot twists and developing characters in ways that the "CoD" and "Battlefield" folks would be wise to use as inspiration for their next campaigns. The mechanics are smooth, the graphics are gorgeous, the voice work is strong through, and even the co-op and multiplayer offerings are tighter than any Tom Clancy game in recent memory. While you were busy exploring the world of "Grand Theft Auto V" and counting the days till "Ghosts," you may have allowed this great title to slip under the radar. Correct that before you move on to the PS4.
8. Dead Space 3
There was deep, dark criticism of the third "Dead Space" when it came out very early in 2013. Is it as masterful as the first two games in this franchise? No. But should that be the standard? We're comparing this title not to older games but to other ways to spend your hard-earned money and the fact is that "Dead Space 3" is still a very good game. I think it was an issue of tonal expectations. The first two games are terrifying, suspenseful experiences. They are "Alien" and this one is "Aliens." It is action set-pieces, non-stop carnage, and an intense narrative. The plot gets a bit too repetitive at times but it looks fantastic and drives without let-up from beginning to end. It's not just a ride, it's a bullet train, and I wish there were more games with this breakneck intensity.
A great platformer can make a gamer feel like a kid again. I long for those days of wonder with titles like "Super Mario 64" and "Donkey Kong Country" but the fact is that the simple beauty of titles like those is much harder to replicate than you might think. Platformers need to be creative enough to appeal to a wide range of demographics. Which brings us to "Rayman Legends," the best platformer and one of the most straight-up enjoyable games in YEARS. Everyone should play the level built around a mariachi version of "Eye of the Tiger." I loved every minute I spent in the world of "Legends" and can't wait to see what the Rayman team does on the PS4. They're leading the way in their genre.
Narrative issues aside (and, really, the "plot" here makes almost no sense), it is the world of "Grand Theft Auto V" that makes it such a remarkable game. The sense that the environment around you is alive -- that things are happening behind closed doors and down alleys -- has never been stronger in video game history. And the pride of authorship is stunning. Your experience is your own. You could spend a day just driving around, completing side missions, playing a round of golf, and hitting the strip club when you get bored. Or you can barrel through the well-staged action of the piece. A few of the story missions are poorly designed and the overall narrative sags with inconsistency but there are some elements of "GTA V" that are unmatched in modern gaming. I can't wait to see the DLC for this title and the inevitable PS4 "GTA" game.
If you like multiplayer action, the must-buy game when Santa brings you a PlayStation 4 is EA's latest in the "Battlefield" series, a breakthrough in terms of online combat. With deep customization, incredibly well-designed maps, and the most realistic FPS graphics in history, "Battlefield 4" is so intense that it's actually kind of terrifying at times. When you're pinned down under cover that's shattering around you, it rattles you like no combat game has before. The attention to detail here is simply breathtaking and if the single-player campaign, while admittedly better than "Battlefield 3," had been as good as the multiplayer offering, this would be the game of the year. It's the game I expect to play the most as we open 2014.
The biggest surprise of 2013. I've long thought the "Assassin's Creed" games to be overrated. They look great but their plots are often repetitive and the gameplay can be frustrating to the degree that it no longer becomes enjoyable. And so no one was more surprised than I was at the incredible fun to be had in the world of "Black Flag." The game arguably looks better than any other on the PS4, features a deep sandbox in which to play, and even includes a more gripping narrative than previous "AC" games. It's the best in the franchise by some stretch for this gamer and a title that floored me in terms of actuality vs. expectation more than any other in 2013.
3. Tomb Raider
I'm so happy that Square-Enix is upgrading and releasing this title for the PS4 early in 2014 for two reasons. One, it means more gamers will get to play one of the most underrated and simply fantastic games of 2013. Two, it means the company may not be giving up on this rebooted franchise. More than any other game this year (even the one at the top given that title's sense of closure), I want a sequel here. I want the best action gameplay of the year to return with a new narrative, new characters, and new locations. I play a lot of games -- it's part of what I do for a living -- and what I VERY rarely have time for is to be able to go back after a narrative concludes and look for collectibles, treasures, etc. As SOON as "Tomb Raider" ended, I didn't move on to the next game. I fired it back up and continued to explore on my way to 100%. I didn't want to leave this world. I wish more games hooked me that completely. Too few do.
2. Bioshock Infinite
I honestly didn't think this game would be topped for the title of 2013 Game of the Year when I lifted my jaw off the floor after finishing it. It would have been my #1 in most other years of the PS3 generation but it happened to come out in the same year as one of the most essential games of all platforms of all time. Make no mistake, "Bioshock Infinite" is a masterpiece. It is a remarkable sequel in the way its developers refused to just recall and replay the moments of its beloved predecessors, choosing instead to play with themes and ideas of a lost past and future more than just a straightforward sequel. It is a game that transports players and then, more than all but one title this year, captivates you with a narrative that you won't soon forget. Simulation games, sports games, platformers -- these are genres of design that deserve praise and acclaim but the games that stand the test of time hit the player narratively and emotionally as well. Roger Ebert famously said that video games weren't art. I think if he had played the top two titles on this list, he may have changed his mind.
1. The Last of Us
One of the best games of all time and a title that you simply have to play if you own a PlayStation 3. It's worth buying a PS3 to experience "The Last of Us," a vision of a zombie-infected future that is more about the survivors than the enemies. No one who plays through "The Last of Us" will ever forget Joel and Ellie. And when I think of the gaming moments of 2013, at least half of them are from "The Last of Us" -- that tear-inducing intro, the ambush, hanging from a ceiling as Ellie is descended upon, the protagonist shift, winter, and that ending. Oh God, that ending. It's a game that reaches the caliber of great film and fiction while also being stunningly fun to play at the same time. If you retire your PS3 and move on to the PS4 before playing it, you've wasted your time.