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YEAR IN REVIEW

Brooding 'Last of Us' topped year of excellent games

In “The Last of Us,” Joel and Ellie work together if they hope to survive their journey across a post-apocalyptic United States, where people are killing each other for food, weapons and whatever they can get their hands on.

In the past 12 months, gamers have traveled across post-apocalyptic America, sailed the Spanish Main and explored a cloudtop city. And that was before the arrival of a new generation of consoles that delivered eye-popping graphics and expanded gameplay opportunities. The year 2013 was definitely great for gamers.

In our opinion, the best of the lot was “The Last of Us,” a PS3 exclusive developed by Naughty Dog. You play as Joel, a grizzled survivor leading a teenage girl named Ellie on a cross-country trek to find a cure for a pandemic that has changed most humans into zombielike creatures.

This is a title of many accomplishments. But its biggest draw isn’t having the best graphics of the previous generation nor the enticing balance of survival-horror moments and finely tuned item upgrade mechanics. What “Last Of Us” does best is tell a story, and it's a tale that grabs you and doesn’t let go until the final scene. We get to watch captivating characters confront a humanity on its last strings, complete with difficult moral choices and heart-rending twists and turns. The characters are deep and compelling enough to make you really care what happens to them as their trying adventure unfolds.

Coupled with the amazing production that Naughty Dog is well-known for, and you’ve got an unforgettable game. Oh, and there’s multiplayer.

But while we were wowed by “The Last of Us,” several other games were nearly as good and many others were definitely worth checking out. Following is an alphabetical listing of our other favorites.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Somewhere at the intersection of wacky and life-simulation sits the “Animal Crossing” series, and the 3DS iteration is by far the best. This version includes online and local multiplayer, thousands of collectible items to customize your town and house, and great StreetPass functionality that lets you explore cool ideas from friends and strangers alike. Get this game to see what the 3DS is all about.

Platform: 3DS

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag

“Black Flag” is the best “Assassin’s Creed” title since the original game. It might even be the best of the lot when you take into account the gameplay refinements made since Altair’s outing – and the fact that you get to play as a pirate. You can explore a huge open world filled with ships to plunder, forts to capture, treasure to find and scallywags to fight. The activities are so many and so diverse that there’s never a dull moment in this Caribbean adventure.

Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, PC

Battlefield 4

This is the game that best demonstrates the difference between the console generations.  The Xbox 360/PS3 edition of the game is an unexceptional shooter. The new-gen version delivers significantly better graphics and the ability to play matches with up to 64 players. In many games, adding more players doesn’t much more than chaos. However, “Battlefield 4” does an excellent job of corralling the action and giving it form, purpose and fun.

Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC, PS3, Xbox 360

BioShock: Infinite

The developers who gave us the underwater dystopia of Rapture look to the heavens in this adventure. A former soldier named Booker DeWitt visits the flying city of Columbia where he finds Elizabeth, a young woman who can reach into other dimensions. The action is wild, the story is intriguing and Elizabeth is one of the most compelling sidekicks in this year’s crop of video games. It’s a combination that would have landed “Infinite” in the top spot in a normal year.

Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC

Call of Duty: Ghosts

The latest entry in this franchise delivers the online action that fans crave, but also offers an engaging single-player campaign and two fun cooperative modes. “Extinction” allows up to four players to fight together to reclaim a small town invaded by buglike aliens. “Squads” lets you join friends or form a team of AI companions to fighting battles based on the formats and maps used in the multiplayer battles.

Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, PC, Wii U

Dead Rising 3

Is facing 300 zombies in a narrow street a death sentence – or an opportunity? In most zombie games, your prospects would be pretty bleak. In “Dead Rising 3,” you just need to hit the gas pedal of your flame-throwing steamroller and let the good times roll. This Xbox One exclusive offers a decent-size open world jam-packed with thousands of zombies and enough raw material to make almost any weapon or vehicle you can imagine. The gameplay is addicting and the story is offbeat and often ornery. So far, it’s the best game that’s exclusive to either of the next-generation consoles. 

Platform: Xbox One

Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

What’s old is new again. “A Link Between Worlds” combines the best of old-school Zelda ideas with one super-flat Link to make a fun and light experience. Highlights include a great soundtrack, well-integrated StreetPass competitive mode, and the fact that nearly all items are available for use from the start of the game. Plus, at a mere 10-12 hours, the game won’t take over your life like Zelda normally does - a welcome change of pace for the series.

Platform: 3DS

Lego: Marvel Super Heroes

For fast, frantic, family-friendly co-op fun, it's be tough to top the thrills offered in this game. All your favorite Marvel characters come together in a funny, action-packed open-world adventure that should serve as an example to others of what a superhero game can be. Easy-to-pick-up gameplay means anyone can enjoy the thrills of being a superhero in Manhattan, and more skilled players will find their reflexes and problem-solving abilities tested by environmental puzzles and elaborate boss encounters. Good times, guaranteed.

Platforms: Xbox 360 and One, PS3 and 4, Wii U, Nintendo DS and 3DS, PS Vita

Metro: Last Light

In the years after a nuclear holocaust, Moscow’s subway tunnels have turned into a dark battleground. You play as a Ranger fighting unreformed Communists, unrepentant Nazis and low-life brigands, with mutant critters lurking on the surface. Ammo is in short supply so stealth and conservation are vital to victory. In addition, a karma system encourages you to use restraint and show mercy. If you think good shooters revolve around running and gunning, this game might change your mind.

Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC

Pikmin 3

Is it “Pikmin” or “Super Mario” that reigns supreme on the Wii U? Let’s just say I’d hate to be the Wii U owner that has to choose just one. “Pikmin 3” has all the hallmarks of its strategy-laden predecessors, and it makes one of the best uses of the the Wii U gamepad of any game to date. On top of that, it’s received unprecedented support from Nintendo in the form of downloadable content.

Platform: Wii U

Plants vs. Zombies 2

New plants? Check. New Zombies? Check. New touch abilities, level mechanics, upgrade systems, challenge levels, and awesome humor? Check. “PvZ2” is a masterpiece of the defense genre and casual gaming. It’s also all the proof you need that iPads and other mobile devices can just as great gaming platforms as anything else when carefully crafted.

Platforms: iPads/iPhone, Android devices

Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm

The competitive scene may have taken a back seat to “League of Legends,” but there’s no denying it’s still thrilling millions on players Battle.net and spectators around the world. New units, new strategies, and an amazing ladder system keep this game vibrant every time you sign on.

Platforms: PC, Mac

Super Mario 3D World

Forget “Nintendo Land,” and definitely forget “WiiParty U” – “Super Mario 3D Land” is the first viable four-player game on the system, and it’s incredibly good. Each new level is a bit of addictive gaming candy that you just can’t get enough of. There’s level variety, a large collection of new Mario power-ups, and a host of expert challenges in this adventure.

Platform: Wii U

Tomb Raider

The grand dame of video games gets in impressive face-lift in this game. This prequel tells the tale of Lara Croft’s early days as an archaeological adventurer. It offers graphics, game play, story and character development that are far superior to anything found in its predecessors. It’s a great treat for fans of the franchise and newcomers alike.

Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC

Indies with heart

Big-name developers weren’t the only ones dishing out the fun. Independent gamemakers had the following to offer.

Antichamber

Imagine walking around through M. C. Escher drawing. Brain hurt yet? This mind-trip literally turns first-person genre on its head. Then on its side. Then it drops the floor out from under you, then ...  well, you get the idea.

Platform: PC

The Stanley Parable

A game about decisions that quickly dissolves into a satire about decisions. Expertly narrated, and amazingly meta. Probably the greatest gaming satire since Conker’s Bad Fur Day.

Platform: PC

Brothers: Two Sons

A touching, heart-felt puzzle/platformer that has you controlling two brothers as they make their way across an extremely well-imagined fantasy world in search for medicine. The twist: each boy must be controlled at the same time by two joysticks.

Platforms: Xbox Live Arcade, PSN, PC

Bonus entry: The year's biggest let down

SimCity

SimCity’s was a mess at launch back in March. Somehow, many months and countless patches down the line, it’s still a mess. Users can login and play regularly, but cross-city statistics don't work like they should, ads and costly DLC mar the experience, and you still have online-only play for what has historically been a single-player game. There's still a good game trapped somewhere inside, but Maxis hasn't been able to dig it out. Stick with “Civilization 5,” newly improved with the “Gods and Kings” expansion, for your sim fix.

Platform: PC, Mac

bowers.brian@stripes.com

laney.sam@stripes.com
Twitter: @StripesSam

venables.sean@stripes.com

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