SLIDESHOW

Papers, Parables, and Portugal: We pick the best PC games of 2013

Who needs console launches? We select the ten best PC games of 2013.

IBM
It was a very good year

2013 has been quite a year, and now it’s drawing to a close. Time for us to round up every game that came out in the last 12 months, stick them all in a colosseum, and have them battle it out for Game of the Year honors.

Or rather, time for PCWorld staff to have long, heated debates about why one game deserves a spot on the list instead of someone else’s favorite. Discussions have gotten tense at times, but we’ve emerged with minimal injuries—and our final list.

The qualifications for contention: The game must be a stand-alone product that you can buy on its own, and it must run on a PC.

Let’s see who made the list, shall we?

10. BioShock Infinite
10. BioShock Infinite

BioShock Infinite didn’t match its potential. Set aside the fact that the middle chapter is a drag, and you’re still left with an extremely problematic story that never quite gets a handle on any of its themes.

And yet there were moments (particularly this one) that provided brief glimpses of the game it might have been, and even those brief glimpses were better than a lot of games. BioShock Infinite didn’t “save video games,” and it certainly didn’t have the same impact as the original BioShock, but those sky-high expectations were always unrealistic. It’s a shooter with a story that’s marginally better than those of most other shooters, set in a high-concept world that occasionally falters and shows its seams.

Just enough to squeak in at the bottom of the list.

9. Saints Row IV
9. Saints Row IV

If Saints Row were a presidential candidate, it would endorse Fun. Capital F.

“Restrict guns? No, I want the entire world to have guns,” says President Saints Row IV. “Oh, and here are some superpowers and a kickin’ soundtrack and—you know what, let’s just remake Crackdown, but make it silly.” I love Crackdown. Remake Crackdown but set it in the anything-goes, Saints Row universe, where every moment is a new pop-culture reference, and one of your many superpowers lets you turn yourself into a nuclear explosion? Awesome.

Plus, I think there’s an unspoken rule that any game prominently featuring Aerosmith’s perennial classic “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” has to make the GOTY list.

8. Tomb Raider
8. Tomb Raider

I never thought that in 2013 I’d be putting a Tomb Raider title on the Game of the Year list, but here we are. Developed by Crystal Dynamics, the new Tomb Raider is (like so many things these days) a dark, gritty reboot of the franchise.

In this case, however, it’s a gritty reboot that works. The iconic Lara Croft is younger here, not as sure of herself. She’s shipwrecked on a mysterious island where the locals are less than friendly, and from there the game plays a bit like an open-world Uncharted. And I mean that comparison in the most favorable way. Tomb Raider’s mechanics just feel right: The game has dozens of collectibles scattered around the world, and for the first time in a long, long while, I actually snagged them all, just so I could keep playing.

This game also wins our fictional prize for best bow-and-arrow mechanics—and believe me, the competition was fierce this year.

7. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger
7. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger abandons the self-seriousness of the last Call of Juarez game (The Cartel) and returns to the Old West, winning it the title of  best arcade-style shooter of the year.

You play as Silas Greaves, a grizzled bounty hunter and legend of the Old West. Greaves is actually the narrator of Gunslinger, relating his tales to a crowd of saloon patrons. And, as you can imagine, his tales are a bit…tall. Yes, you play the unreliable narrator of your own stories. The other people in the bar will call Greaves out on his lies, and the game world changes accordingly. “Now hang on, I didn’t say they were Apaches, I said they fought like Apaches!” Greaves says, and suddenly the Apache enemies turn into generic bandits.

It’s a refreshing approach—toying with game tropes without taking itself too seriously. And for only $15? It’s a steal.

6. Gone Home
6. Gone Home

It’s been months, and I still don’t quite know how to put my experience with Gone Home into words—or perhaps I don’t want to. The experience is intensely personal, and not everyone is going to get as much out of it as I did.

Gone Home is not, despite outward appearances, a horror game. There are no enemies to encounter, no middle act where you blow up the house and save the universe. Gone Home is a story of a family—and the secrets the family members keep even from one another, secrets that are hidden in the backs of old drawers and stashed under beds. What can you learn from the letter your mother uses for a bookmark? How about the box of papers in the basement? Or the details of an old rejection slip addressed to your dad?

A lot, it turns out. Gone Home takes people as its premise, and people are fascinating.

5. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon
5. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

Look at your shelf of films (or your Netflix account or wherever they live). Are a good portion of your favorites neon-soaked, 1980s action films? Ones that feature spandex, an abundance of one-liners, and cheesy synthesizer and saxophone music?

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon takes place in a post-nuclear-war 2007. Your name is Sergeant Rex Power Colt. You have an electronic eye and a cybernetic arm. Your character is voiced by Michael “Kyle Reese” Biehn. It’s basically the same game as Far Cry 3, except way more pink. And way more amazing.

Boot up Blood Dragon, and prepare to let off some steam.

4. Europa Universalis IV
4. Europa Universalis IV

Eu não falo Português. Still, that didn’t stop me from becoming eternal king of the Portuguese Empire, a globe-spanning operation that discovered the Americas before Columbus was even born, and that grew to control the entire New World.

In Europa Universalis IV, you take control of a country in the early Renaissance era and guide it toward empire. Or don’t. It’s a giant political sandbox. Want to know what would’ve happened if Ireland had thrown in with the French during the Hundred Years’ War? Or if the Holy Roman Empire had become an exceptional naval power? Go ahead and try it.

The complexity of Europa Universalis IV’s grand-strategy approach takes some getting used to, but stick with it and you’ll suddenly find you’re making political decrees at four in the morning, wearing a crown you fashioned from an old pizza box. Perfect.

3. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
3. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

After a swift fall from grace with the last two middling chapters of the Assassin’s Creed franchise (Revelations and III), I thought I was done. Burned out.

Imagine my surprise when I put 15 hours into Black Flag my first day. Sailing around the Caribbean, sinking boats just to cause chaos, with my crew of pirates belting out sea chanties—I liked being a pirate. Star of the show Edward Kenway is the most affable protagonist the series has ever had. While some lament the lack of plot progression in the overarching series, I’m actually glad proceedings are less self-serious this time around. Assassin’s Creed IV is pure, unadulterated fun.

Just make sure to keep a bottle of rum close at hand. Or this weird nonalcoholic rum for all you youngsters.

2. The Stanley Parable
2. The Stanley Parable

The Stanley Parable, once a mod for Half-Life 2, is now a stand-alone game. If you don’t know what The Stanley Parable is about, I highly recommend that you skip the rest of this entry and just go download the demo.

Choice is the operative word in The Stanley Parable. You play Stanley, a hapless office worker who suddenly realizes that all his coworkers are missing. Also, a British guy narrates everything. “Stanley came to two doors and walked through the one on the right, towards his boss’s office,” the narrator says cheerfully. Do you listen to him, or do you rebel and walk through the door on the left? Do you stand there, paralyzed by choice, for minutes on end? Or do you contemplate how utterly meaningless life is?

Let’s be honest: It’s probably the last one.

2013 PCWorld Game of the Year: Papers, Please
2013 PCWorld #1 Game of the Year: Papers, Please

In Papers, Please, you win the lottery. Unfortunately, it’s the labor lottery, and you’re pressed into service as a border-crossing guard for your vaguely Eastern Bloc country Arstotzka. Your job is to examine people’s passports and—as drab days stretch into miserable weeks—make sure no criminal scum is trying to get into the country using falsified documents.

Of course, the “criminal scum” is often people just like you—like the man who immigrates with no problem but whose wife has counterfeit papers. Do you let her in anyway? Or do you do your job and reject her? Keep in mind that if you let her in, there’s a good chance your pay will get docked and your family won’t eat tonight.

Papers, Please is brutal. Unforgiving. Bleak.

And all the better for it.

(Keep reading for our list of honorable mentions!)

Honorable mention—Battlefield 4
Honorable mention — Battlefield 4

What I’ve played of Battlefield 4 is fantastic. This is the most next-gen of games, so far, with incredible destruction physics, awe-inspiring graphics, and a scope and scale to its multiplayer gameplay that’s fun whether you’re a seasoned Battlefield player or a newcomer. It’s the best Battlefield game since Battlefield 2—and I don’t say that lightly.

The catch? The “What I’ve played” part has been sandwiched between frequent bouts of crashing (both client- and server-side) and all sorts of graphical glitches. While I have no doubt the game will improve, I can’t recommend it in this state.

Honorable mention—Civilization V: Brave New World
Honorable mention — Civilization V: Brave New World

As an expansion to an existing game, Brave New World isn’t technically new, which disqualifies it from the list. Still, it would be criminal not to bring it up in these discussions. With Brave New World, Firaxis has finally “completed” Civilization V. It feels like the game they originally set out to make, with interesting end-game content for each win scenario and refinements to the overall flow of proceedings. If you held off on getting Civilization V because the vanilla version seemed lackluster, definitely think about checking out the Brave New World expansion.

Honorable mention—Dota 2
Honorable mention — Dota 2

Dota 2, Valve’s popular sequel to the classic WarCraft III mod Defense of the Ancients, could (and would) have made our list this year—except that, even though it came out of beta in 2013 and technically qualified for our list, the beta began in 2011. So it feels as if Dota 2 was released quite a while ago—and we’ve been playing it, whether it was “in beta” or not.

I don’t want to understate Dota 2's importance: It’s an incredibly significant game and a huge player in the burgeoning eSports scene, but it just feels wrong to boot another game from our list to make room for Dota 2. And so this one lands on our Honorable Mentions list instead. Sorry, Valve.

Honorable mention—The Last of Us
Honorable mention — The Last of Us

The Last of Us is not on the PC (and thus is ineligible for our list), but it’s amazing. This post-apocalyptic title from Uncharted developer Naughty Dog is one of the standout games for the PlayStation 3—perhaps the best game of the entire console generation. It’s dark and mature on a level most games don’t even attempt, and it achieves this without coming off as manipulative or self-important.

Let’s put it this way: if there were a PC version, it would be near the top of our list.

Honorable mention—StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm
Honorable mention — StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm

It's not an evolution, by any means, but it is more Starcraft. While our review called the single-player game “overly designed,” Starcraft II’s multiplayer continues to thrive. Heart of the Swarm injected new life into an eSports scene that’s been dominated by Dota 2 and League of Legends, shaking up old strategies and forcing players to adapt. Starcraft II might not last an entire decade, as its predecessor did, but it’s not for lack of trying.