It hasn't been a bad year for video games. The newer consoles, Microsoft's Xbox One and Sony's PlayStation 4, are finding their feet with some neat exclusives around the time of their first anniversaries.
A number of titles have proved better than expectations, from an overdue South Park game (that was actually funny) in the shape of The Stick of Truth, to Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor's all-action sideways take on Tolkien's stories. Factor in Alien: Isolation and Telltale's second season of The Walking Dead and it's been an entirely decent year for licensed games. Outgoing machines have hosted excellent releases, too, with Dark Souls II the sort of swansong that the long, celebrated histories of the PS3 and 360 warranted.
I can go on: Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare refreshed the series with an adrenaline shot of outright silliness; Bayonetta 2 smashed the Wii U's kid-friendly reputation into smithereens; Monument Valley turned your smartphone into a brain-teasing work of art; Far Cry 4 proved the pinnacle of the first-person shooter franchise so far (and is the year's best gun-perspective adventure, a visually stunning affair throughout); and Dragon Age: Inquisition is the Game of Thrones game that fantasy fans have lusted for without ever getting a properly licensed title of any merit.
It's hard to disagree, though, with Metacritic's scores-aggregated "revelation" that the best two games of the year have been ones initially released in 2013. Last year, the PS3-exclusive The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V, for 360 and PS3, pretty much swept the awards board, gobbling up acclaim like Pac-Man does power pills, chasing all other contenders away from their respective turfs.
The trailer for The Last of Us Remastered
The former, an intimate examination of close-to-the-edge emotions in the guise of a stealth-action game, is one that's stayed with me since first contact. I happily paid my $20 for the three-hour-long Left Behind DLC that came out earlier this year, elaborating on co-protagonist Ellie's story, revealing events that occurred before her meeting with Joel just an hour or two into the main game.
That perfectly penned, single-sitting-compact add-on struck me profoundly, unlike a video game has since (honestly, I don't think that another game has imprinted itself on my forever-memory in quite the same way).
Developer Naughty Dog's high-water mark thus far, The Last of Us, is a masterpiece, albeit one that I can only enjoy in relatively modest sessions—and rarely right before bed, such is the tension of creeping through darkened halls and stinking sewers knowing that a lethal insta-kill Clicker, blind but deadly at close quarters, is but a few paces away.
Right now I'm playing through its PS4 remaster, a sort of ultimate edition version that includes Left Behind on the disc. Suffice to say, the lights have been left on longer than usual of late.
The game's visuals are improved, the frame rate locked at 60 fps, which makes the dramatic instances of gunplay all the more electric and allows the swarms of runners to move with a grace more grotesque than ever. There's a photo mode, too, for sharing its more beautiful moments with friends on PSN. But, essentially, this is the PS3 game ported to appeal to 360 loyalists who moved not to the Xbox One, but to Sony's rival console, the current market leader.
It says a lot about the PS4's slow start in terms of genuine platform-exclusive must-haves that The Last of Us Remastered is, without a doubt, the one title that all owners of Sony's newest not-so-little black box should pick up.
But if you already played the game on PS3, perhaps stall that acquisition, as the improvements—while noticeable—don't dramatically alter the story mode experience. (I have yet to play the PS4's multiplayer component, so can't comment on that.) The plot hasn't changed any, but that's fine, as it remains a sometimes shocking, always compelling (quite literal) journey—and seeing it play out with richer visuals just nails home the myriad subtleties that add up to a seductive whole.
Need I really stress that spoilers will follow? It's probably too late, but, yeah: spoilers, right now. When Tess faces up to her imminent demise, the long exhalation she offers as a last word seems to hang in the air that much longer on the more powerful platform. When Ellie stares out the window, as Joel cat-naps ahead of them leaving Boston, where the game "proper" begins, the rain that runs down the outside of the pane is that much sharper, enough to take an already memorable scene and make it more striking.
When Joel and Bill stumble across the final act of resistance from the latter's ex-partner, Frank, the scene pops with a heart-wrenching clout the previous-gen version only hinted at. The criticism that The Last of Us is more movie than game still stands, despite its many sections of concentrated action. But, on PS4, it's as affecting a film as you'll see in 2014.
The Last of Us follows Joel and Ellie as they cross America, from Boston to Salt Lake City. It's a game of grand horizons, in theory—but most of the play is reserved for tight, closed-in areas set along the route, so that you never truly get a sense of motion across a nation ravaged by a pretty severe fungal infection, and the environments change behind cut-scenes and loading screens.
Grand Theft Auto V is set only in a single (very small) state of the US, its San Andreas an analogue of California with Los Santos its take on Los Angeles. And yet the player can cruise its every inch, seeing the weather change as they go, mountains giving way to the desert of Blaine County, the city fading in the rear view mirror as one floors it all the way to the northern beaches of a map measured at approximately 100 square miles. So while it's set in a much smaller "world" than The Last of Us, Grand Theft Auto V is much the bigger game.
And it's a game that's been massively overhauled for its current-gen release on Xbox One and PS4 (a PC port is coming too, in 2015). Everything positively sparkles—and it's not like the game was ever ugly on older machines. (Indeed, I gazed slack-jawed at my rattling, original 360 as it played the game first time around, dumbfounded as to where Rockstar had found all this extra juice for my aging white brick.)
Meteorological improvements mean that the city changes mood completely when the rain falls, lights bouncing from the flooded streets, and the sunsets: gorgeous. It's not like anything in GTA V is photo-real, but at certain times of day its environments look so good you want to reach through the screen, feel the sun on your skin and kick the (rather more widely dispersed) litter that plugs gutters from Vinewood to the Del Perro Pier.
Much like The Last of Us, the central premise of GTA V for new consoles is unchanged: You control three distinct characters as each of them looks to make a stack of cash, for quite different reasons. If you don't pay attention to on-mission discussions that usually play out while on the move, you'll miss details that color the campaign: comments on collusion, and on characters' murky pasts.
The wince-worthy moments are untouched—again, spoilers. Seeing Trevor torture Mr. K for information so that Michael, across town, can ruin a party in murderous fashion, still feels unnecessary, and it's an uncomfortable mission that could well have been edited out without losing any narrative momentum. If you're the sort who likes to 100 percent their collection, you'll also have to play through a stripper mini-game where touching goes, so long as the bouncer doesn't see. It's awkward and entirely unsexy, and again might have been cut were it not already part of an (albeit pretty rare) achievement/trophy.
GTA V: first-person experience
However, it's not quite as unsexy as the first-person humping that you can now indulge in, you filthy perverts. And that's probably the biggest draw of the new GTA V—its anytime (save cut-scenes) first-person mode. Pick up a hooker and you can "enjoy" the sight of her still-clothed frame bouncing about in front of your character's eyes. I really wouldn't, though. As Kotaku's Keza MacDonald noted, the sex is the saddest thing about GTA V.
Rather better when viewed first person is the combat, both ballistic and in the kicking and punching sense. It lends a previously absent lurch to proceedings, a physicality to the brawling. It's a bit like Mirror's Edge meets Sleeping Dogs, only with an overweight 40-something as the aggressor.
Running around Los Santos in first person is dizzying, like the rush of some kind of substance that's got hold of the retinas and dialed everything up to awesome. It's not without its problems, most obviously when it comes to driving. I did get my car around a few blocks unscathed, taking it easy, but when the heat's on you and you've got to hammer it, it's best to switch to a behind-car position.
Inside the vehicles, Rockstar has gone to town—the dials all respond to your fingers on the triggers, rev counter and speedometer twitching as they should, and changing the station will alter the display on the radio. Speaking of which, most of the game's music channels are expanded, with Taylor Dayne's "Tell It to My Heart" and Bobby Brown's "On Our Own" among my own favorite newcomers to the Non-Stop Pop frequency (which says more about my age than my taste in music).
Grand Theft Auto V and The Last of Us represent both of 2014's best "definitive editions," which the year's hardly been short on, and also its most outstanding "new" releases. Joel and Ellie's story remains unchanged, but is an absolute must for anyone who didn't already play it on PS3. And the overhauled GTA V is just an astounding achievement of game design, something that manages to build on an already 10/10 experience without adding anything that feels simply superfluous.
The PS4 and Xbox One will see classics of their own emerge in the coming years, there's no doubt about that. But, in 2014, they were dominated by echoes from the previous era, all-time essentials that have transitioned to current technology and not only retained their prior appeal, but proven themselves better than ever.
Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.