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Tom's Favorite Games of 2013

In reverse order, to add some suspense.

NBA 2K14

I had to make an important choice during my collegiate years: hone my analytical craft so I could dissect video games professionally or practice my midrange jumper to make a splash in the NBA. We all know what decision I made, but NBA 2K14 gives me a taste of what my life would have been like if I had set my sights on signing shoe endorsements and embarrassing Carmelo Anthony. Turns out that being drafted by the Utah Jazz and suffering through agonizing losses every night isn't too bad when Steve Kerr is calling me by my rightful nickname (The Mayor) as I continually get to the basket against the Bearded Matador, James Harden. I had so much fun showing off my killer crossover and unstoppable post-up fadeaway that I briefly considered giving up my GameSpot eligibility to enter the NBA draft. But I really don't want to be the last guy stuck in the green room.

Beyond: Two Souls

Beyond: Two Souls displays a profound empathy toward those who suffer from addiction. There's one long section in which Jodie finds herself utterly lost, questioning what place she has on this earth and scared to be near anyone who could exploit her spectral powers. After collapsing from pure exhaustion, she awakens in a homeless encampment populated by kindhearted people with serious problems. One man's life has been destroyed by drugs. His body craves sedation, so he scrounges for money during his few sober hours and then drifts into the ether when pacified. It's a terrible, debilitating existence. And Jodie releases him from his prison. The relief on his face afterward, the knowledge that he is finally free, is an image that really hit home for me.

Gone Home

I was selfish and immature during my high school years. While my brother was tormented by those who could not accept an openly gay person in their conservative town, I was more concerned with basketball tryouts and Nintendo 64 games. I was never willing to sacrifice my own free time to at least help my brother feel safe and secure in his own home. I regret being so self-centered back then, though I don't blame myself for the rift that has subsequently formed between us. Gone Home offered a chance for me to see what life might have been like for my brother during those trying times. Samantha has parents who don't respect her lifestyle and who instead shun her for being who she is. And it's heartbreaking that she can't find support from those closest to her. What drew me in was not the darkest aspects of Samantha’s life, however, but the beautiful relationship that slowly develops with Lonnie. As she first becomes friends with Lonnie and then later realizes there are deeper feelings within her heart, and the two slowly learn who they are together, I could only smile. And wonder. Did my brother go through the same highs and lows when he was a teenager? Someday, I hope to show him this game, and talk to him about his past that I had ignored the first time around.

Super Mario 3D World

My wife doesn't play video games. Her disconnect from my passion is good for me, because I would happily immerse myself in games all day, every day if given the chance, though I do try to give her glimpses into games, so she can understand why I love them so. Super Mario 3D World has made improbable strides in this area. For the first time, we've played something cooperatively, and as we shriek while avoiding probing searchlights and guffaw when one of us snatches every power-up, I can see the understanding form in her eyes. 3D World is that rare experience that can be enjoyed by all people, no matter their tastes or skill level. It's pure fun in a beautiful, digital tapestry that perfectly melds superheroic athletic abilities with ordinary human fragility. Scurrying up the sides of walls delivers that freeing sensation that anything is possible, and yet your ego never raises too high because there's always a bottomless pit waiting to welcome you. It's joyful chaos that expertly communicates so much of what's right about games, without my having to utter a single word.

Guacamelee

I have no love for luchadores. Honestly, the masks have always freaked me out a little. I even skipped Lucha Libre back when I still enjoyed the comedic styling of Jack Black. Despite such baggage, and despite not having any interest in the world or characters, I was enamored with Guacamelee. So many games hold the title of Metroidvania like a shield, deflecting attacks from critics because it's one of only a few games in a small but beloved genre. Metroidvania has almost become a four-letter word, a warning, and yet, in just one trip through Dia de los Muertos, my hostility was brushed away. Guacamelee not only understands its roots, but goes even further than its progenitors. Exploration and growth have been mastered by the likes of Super Metroid and Symphony of the Night, but it's Guacamelee that has elevated combat to an art form. That makes sense given the luchador backdrop, but still, there's a savage pleasure to fisticuffs that was almost hypnotic, a whirring of fist and feet that repeatedly brought me back to deliver one more rising uppercut to the frisky undead.

The Stanley Parable

I'm a critic. That doesn't mean that I enjoy insulting every miniscule defect in games; it just means that I love dissecting them to see how they tick. As much as I enjoy deep analysis, it's a lot of work, so it was nice that The Stanley Parable did the hard stuff for me. The demo was a scathing assessment of the state of modern game design. I imagine that if I were part of a development studio I would be angry at Galactic Cafe for pointing out how often genuine emotion is faked by cutting-edge technology, or how strict linearity punishes you for having any creative aspirations. But as a lover of games, I could only nod along at each of these stinging barbs, and laugh at the irreverent delivery. Ironically, the game proper was much more focused than the scattershot demo. In the main game, it's the nature of choice that's put on the operating table, and considering that decisions and consequences fascinate me more than any other individual design element, exploring a game devoted to the machinations of this process was amazing. How much choice do we really have? And what happens if we do veer off the narrow path in front of us? If only I could have a sarcastic British voice narrating my life.

Tomb Raider

I love Uncharted, but I fear that it has had a negative impact on this industry. It's so linear, so suffocating, that when less-capable hands craft an adventure in that mold, they're more likely to trigger an onset of claustrophobia than a release of endorphins. In fact, I had already started to compose an editorial in my head on how Tomb Raider's spirit had been destroyed by jumping on Naughty Dog's game design boat. And then, I played Lara's latest adventure, and realized how deceiving prerelease footage can be. Rather than being a tightly structured journey, Tomb Raider is free and exhilarating. You feel one with Lara, intrigued by the remnants of an ancient civilization but fearful of the unknown dangers that await. Such emotional fluctuations are so real, so poignant, that they help you understand her slow transformation. After being hunted for hours upon hours, she finally cracks in the last act and attacks the aggressors as revenge for taking her innocence. Not too shabby for a game that looked like torture porn in the trailers.

Rogue Legacy

If it were possible to throw a parade for the idea of randomness, I would proudly stand along the side of the road with a handful of confetti and a loud horn. Unfortunately, because randomness is just a concept and not a returning astronaut, I don't have that option. So instead, I must type a few modest words in recognition of unpredictability. Rogue Legacy was the lone game released this year that altered my sleep schedule. So desperate to investigate the haunted castles and creeping forests of this challenging adventure, I would wake up one hour earlier than usual to make a bit more progress before I needed to head to work. I love venturing forth with only the faintest hint of what lies before me, wondering where the treasures hide or if giant skeletons would ambush me. Such mystery kept me glued to the keyboard, and when I eventually found my end, I would quickly start over, eager to bring my latest ancestor one step closer to vanquishing the ultimate evil.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

I have been painted as a Zelda hater for having the gall to declare that Skyward Sword was merely good. But it's because I have so much love for the franchise that I often appear so harsh toward it. I high expectations foreach Zelda, and am always taken in by Nintendo's claim that it has learned from past mistakes with every new release, only to find another flawed game that further taints its legacy. To say that A Link Between Worlds is a revelation is a severe understatement. This is the best entry in the series in at least two decades, which is preposterously long considering how short a time video games have been around. It's as though Nintendo asked me exactly what I wanted from a Zelda game and happily obliged. The Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past are the two best games in the franchise, and Nintendo combined their best ideas into one incomparable adventure. Yeah, I'm gushing, and I apologize for that, but you have to understand where I'm coming from. This is the game that I knew Nintendo was capable of, that I had been begging for, and to finally see it materialize? Well, I'm floored.

Spelunky

Reread my frothing praise for A Link Between Worlds and see that I've placed Spelunky above it. That gives you a taste of the impact his game has had on me. Spelunky is the second-best game I've played this generation (behind only Dark Souls) and one of the finest games that has ever been created. I like games that are challenging, that have no problem repeatedly hitting me in the face because they know that if I'm strong enough, if I really care, I will overcome anything put before me. And if I'm not? Who cares, there are plenty of people out there who want to be treated with respect. I have had more than 1,000 runs on just the Vita version (which doesn't include what I've done on the PlayStation 3, PC, or Xbox 360), and have survived only a handful of times. And yet, I've become more determined, and smarter, upon each death. I know that if I keep working I can finally conquer hell, that I can defeat Olmec in less than eight minutes, and so I keep pushing myself. When I look back on 2013, I will remember marrying my amazing wife first, followed by purchasing our first home. And then? Spelunky Vita.

I dig my hole, you build a wall

Note: The following contains a spoiler 3-4 hours into Bastion.


Perched on my tower of critical analysis, I knew that Bastion was a great game. There's an enticing relationship between your actions and the story that I've rarely seen before, and the delicate artistic style presented a serene landscape that was easy to get lost in. Fast combat kept diverse by new weapons and varied enemies demanded focus. But if you've played any of Bastion, you already know the intricacies that make it tick.

Even though I was fully aware of all the things Bastion was doing really well, I didn't ultimately care. I can point to the extremely linear level design or iffy long-range aiming as slight problems distracting me from the tasty goodness everyone seems to have been devouring, but I know that would be disingenuous. There aren't any tangible problems in Bastion that could leave me with a feeling of indifference; I just didn't have any emotional connection. It happens in every art form. No matter how impressive the craftsmanship is, it won't resonate with everyone. I resolved to keep playing, because it was still fun and I wanted to see what lay ahead, but it felt more like a duty than a passion.

And then I reached The Singer.

When the level began, the narrator started talking about something I couldn't quite understand. "There the kid hears something he ain't heard in a long while. How's it go again?" Up to this point, the narrator talked about your story and actions, things The Kid had experienced or was doing first hand. I could hear, faintly in the background, an acoustic guitar start up. Quietly at first, and then louder, with vocals slowly coming in. A woman's voice, beautiful, sad. The narrator continued, after a short pause, "That's the one.... timeless."

And I was finally invested in the world. The structure of this level is the same as the previous ones – switches, enemies, rising pieces of land forming a path – but it was much easier. Enemies were less prevalent than before. The narrator quieter. It was about the music, and it was mesmerizing. "Some day your bird is gonna fly."

It's not often that I play a game that fully realizes the emotionally potential of a masterful piece of music presented in just the right way. Whereas the visuals and combat moved me on an intellectual level, it wasn't until I was struck by the melancholy beauty of this song that my emotional side was piqued. I stood still for long stretches, just soaking it in, hoping it wouldn't stop. And when I reached the end, a singer was sitting in the grass. I had initially assumed the narrator had broken the fourth wall by recognizing the soundtrack, but that wasn't the case at all. The Singer was as real as The Kid. And I stood next to her, listening to the words and the music repeat over and over.

Zia's Song

Here's to 50,000 more

I've been hard on Microsoft recently. Their unrelenting focus on the Kinect is a serious bum out, and I'm still in denial about what they've done to my beloved Rare. But despite the many bad decisions they've made the last few years, Microsoft still managed to implement the most meaningless yet compelling feature this generation: achievements.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who scoffed at the idea when these was first announced. Why would I, an adult man, possibly need a happy chime to signify my progress? I'm not a petulant baby who needs to be coaxed and coddled to play a video game; I play because games are inherently fun. And yet, I can't deny the temporary pleasure I get every time that little gray box pops up on screen. I've never been one to chase after the more tedious ones, but when I pull off a particularly difficult task and receive a notification confirming that I am, in fact, a badass, I can't help but smile.

Anyway, I earned by 50,000th point tonight. Is that a high number? I have no idea. It does seem like a rather significant milestone, though. I've been eying the slowly growing number the last couple weeks, ever since I realized how close I was to reaching that lofty score. And I was hoping that I would get there playing a game I thoroughly enjoy, instead of something utterly lame or forgettable.

Well, at least I did justice to my exquisite taste. I leapt past that mark after finishing Alice: Madness Returns for the second time (the first was on PC), so there's no fear that I tainted my good name. And, it was for something other than the standard pat on the back for playing through the game like every other person who picks up the controller. Nope, the achievement that pushed me over the mark was a special one:

Achievement

Anyway, I'm sure this isn't super interesting to anyone out there (even I'm kind of bored), but it is a high number, and I have been known to like big things. So, yeah, go me!

Cutting room floor

Last week, we compiled a list of predictions from our editors in a feature called E3 2012: A Look Ahead. I spent a couple days ruminating about future possibilities, and couldn't think of anything to say other than "Wii U will be there" and similarly obvious ideas. So, when I did type something out, it was painfully stupid. So dumb, in fact, that when Giancarlo (our Feature's Editor) looked it over, he said he couldn't possibly publish it.

But nothing is too stupid for my blog. Enjoy!

"Dinosaurs. Just reading the word is exciting. I imagine a world where Thunder Lizards rule the countryside. A new Gran Turismo set in the Cretaceous period would be a good start, but why stop there? Call of Duty: Dino Assault and Assassins Creed: Adventures in Dinoland would breathe new life into stagnating franchises, and injecting a bit of dino DNA into Rock Band could resurrect an entire genre. I'm sure Nintendo recognizes the appeal of these extinct kings. We saw how the Wii U could turn the simple act of window sniping into a riveting experience, but that's just child's play compared to the dino parade they'll set lose on the unprepared masses. Dinosaur will be the buzzword on everyone's lips, and the defining image that carries us through E3 2012."

I still hope my prediction comes true. Give me dinosaurs or give me death!

Six Fine Games for the First Six Months

I've never been one to shy away from the elegant beauty of symmetry. Six months of 2011 have faded away, leaving exactly six games worth remembering. What are the odds of that? Very low, by my calculations. I've spend at least some time with every game that piqued my interest from the first half of the year, and came up with a tidy list of treasures that make me thankful that I got into playing games in the first place. There were some other games that were interesting or fun, but nothing stood out quite like the ones you're about to read about.

On with the show!

Outland – I've heard this game dismissed as "Ikaruga mixed with a platformer." As if such a thing could possibly be construed as bad. If Outland came in a box, it could slap that quote proudly on the cover and lure in people who have been craving a color-changing party but had no outlet for their hunger. Of course, Outland doesn't just flaunt this gimmick while the other elements crumble from neglect. Level design, boss fights, artistic style, soundtrack – everything is exceptionally well done. Heck, there's even a fantastic co-op mode once you've mopped the floor with that pesky end boss. What's not to love?

Child of Eden – And now I begin the "How does this game exist!?" portion of my list. Rez HD is one of my favorite games ever, and I just kind of assumed it would stand apart from its peers in its own uniquely awesome way. I never expected a spiritual successor. Thankfully, Eden lived up to my massive expectations. When you think of games like Eden (and Rez), it's easy to focus on their artistic splendor. The enchanting visuals, the way the soundtrack melds perfectly with the action, these are immediately recognized and devoured. But if you strip the aesthetic brilliance away, you're still left with a game that is incredibly fun to play. And really hard! Like Rez HD, I know I'll be going back to Child of Eden years down the road. It's not only mesmerizing, but it's timeless as well.

Alice: Madness Returns – Another game that I'm shocked exists. A sequel to a PC-exclusive platformer from last decade? Kind of a strange idea when you think of it. But Electronic Arts decided to fund this, and the results are incredible. Talk about artistic design. Every level is absolutely gorgeous, making it worth playing just to see what new area you'll visit next. And there are so many little touches that just make me giddy. I especially love the way Alice holds her Vorpal Blade when she runs. It stick out at a sharp angle from her side, which makes her look crazed, maniacal, and all those other happy terms that fit eerily well with this damned heroine. Oh yeah, and it's also really fun to play. I finished my first play through on PC last week, bought it on the Xbox 360, and started a new game tonight. It's just an amazing world that I don't want to leave.

Shadows of the Damned – Seriously, how does this game exist? A combined effort from Goichi Suda and Shinji Mikami, two of my favorite developers in the world? With music by Akira Yamaoka, my new favorite composer? I am flabbergasted. If I could choose a hypothetical pairing, this would be it. And the game exceeded my dreams. It's not only hilarious and utterly bizarre like I expect from Suda, but it's also really darn fun to play. Imagine that. Crazy demons, hellacious boss fights, and some genuinely awesome light-based puzzles. Plus, this may be the best soundtrack I've heard in years. I have no idea why EA decided to fund this game that's clearly going to bomb at retail, but I'm giddy that they did. An amazing game that I'm thankful was somehow made.

Portal 2 – Valve is a special developer. As soon as I played through Portal 2, I had no choice but to replay Portal and Half-Life 2 because no one else in the world can design levels like they do. They have a knack for making everything flow in a natural way while still making you put serious thought into how you're going to move forward. It's organic and pure and I just love how they do it. Portal 2, of course, is more than just a series of test chambers like the first game. The writing is so smart and witty that I would just put the mouse down so I could listen to the random bits of dialogue from the characters. Everything about this game is just so well done, and it's one of the finest ending sequences I've seen in years. I love this game. Now bring on Half-Life 3!

Terraria – Believe me, I'm as shocked as you. Somehow, this tiny indie game trumped every other game from the beginning of the year. How is that possible? I spent the first few hours in this world-building game bumbling around like a fool with a pickaxe. This is an open-ended, directionless game, and it took me a while just to understand what I was supposed to do. And then, slowly but surely, it clicked. I found a cache of iron and began to craft new tools. I found an underground jungle and was promptly killed by a raving hornet. How could I be strong enough to survive? The same thing happened when I ventured into a purple place called The Corrupted Land. I died, but I wanted to know what secrets were buried there. A boss attacked my base out of the blue one night. What the heck? I was confused, but I couldn't pull away.

I constructed elaborate tunnels under my base. Built a strong home so I could recruit new members to help me. I found pockets of silver and gold. I found an island hidden in the sky. Heart pieces increased my life. A cloud in a bottle let me double jump. I was making progress. I killed a boss and forged powerful weapons from his remains. I dug an elevator to hell so I could plummet to the bottom of the earth whenever I wanted. I joined a multiplayer game and helped build a conservatory. I was in charge of plants.

Clearly, this is a difficult game to explain, but it's even harder to pull away from. Terraria gives you loose objectives (kill stuff, explore), and sets you lose. You control where you go and how you get there. It's empowering and punishing in all the right ways. I cannot recommend Terraria enough. The modern trend is for games to become easier, to hold a player's hand every second. It's to point you in the right direction so you don't miss anything. But that destroys the sense of discovery. Terraria is about being a kid and exploring your backyard for the first time. It's poking a dead frog with a stick or investigating a sound in the night. You die, you get lost, you fail. It's life. Because without those setbacks, there's no pleasure from succeeding.

E3 2011 -- Pouring a little viva in my cafe

There's nothing quite like the build up to E3. I leave for my seventh E3 in little more than fourteen hours, and I'm trying to imagine what's going to be revealed that we'll all be talking about in the coming year. In a video the great Shaun McInnis filmed yesterday, my coworkers and I babbled on about the one or two games we're most excited to see. Obvious/awesome answers such as Skyrim and Dark Souls cropped up (two of my most wanted), but I've never cared about seeing more details of known properties. I just want to play those games so any more information than I already know is a tease. Same goes with Uncharted 3 and Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon. No more details, no hype. Just shut up and give me the goods.

So here's a couple of predictions for what the Big Three will show off. And I added a couple "No Way This Will Happen But A Fellow Can Dream" scenarios.

Microsoft

Real Prediction -- Lots of Kinect stuff. I've been ripping on this peripheral ever since I used it in a non-dancing game because the darn thing just doesn't work right. But I've been told time and time again that it's the developers fault. It's a new technology and it's not easy making games for it. OK, I'll buy that, but I need to see some real games to dispel my doubts. I think Microsoft will do it. There will be one or two big time games at E3 that not only give players full control over their character, but actually work properly as well. It has to happen at some point, right? Oh, and I still think they're going to release a Nunchuck-type add-on. We'll see.

A Man Can Dream -- Rare earns their freedom! Microsoft has sucked the creativity and passion from my favorite developer. It's depressing to see, but there's a chance they can still be redeemed. If Microsoft frees them from their jail cell, they could rejoin Nintendo and make the Cafe really shine. Or they could go rogue, making games as an independent studio and showing the world what they're capable of when they don't have a publisher breathing down their neck. I know they still have it in them. I just have to hope Microsoft has the compassion to let them live again.

Sony

Real Prediction -- Steam partnership. The foundation was laid earlier this year when Portal 2 on the PlayStation 3 connected with its PC counterpart, but it's time for these companies to take one step more down the road of commitment. It's a win/win prospect. Sony has proven they can make top-notch consoles and games, but they're online is behind the competition. By putting internet connectivity in the hands of someone more qualified, they solve their biggest problem in one quick move. And for Vavle, they finally enter the lucrative console market, expanding their influence even further than it is now. I don't really see a downside, and I think this will happen in the next year or two.

A Man Can Dream -- War of the Monsters 2. I was talking to Giarcarlo earlier this week about a forgotten PlayStation 2 gem called Robot Alchemic Drive. For the uninitiated, you played as a person (imagine that!) controlling a giant mech. Part of the difficulty was figuring out how to get a good position to watch your thirty-story-tall mechanical monster destroying cities, and the sense of scale was absolutely staggering. Developer Sandlot also made a cult classic in Earth Defense Force, where you fought insect the size of blimps. And did I mention the UFO that covers an entire level? When you throw Shadow of the Colossus into the mix, it's clear that last gen did scale better than this one. Aside from two sections in God of War III and a few bosses in Castlevania (and EDF, of course), I can't think of any game that matched the scale of these PS2 classics. So, Incognito needs to make a new War of the Monsters. Please?

Nintendo

Real Prediction -- Dream Team, assemble! Nintendo's first party output this generation was severely lacking compared to what they usually publish. Why? Because they don't have enough high-quality developers anymore. That has to change next generation. Nintendo loves making money, and they could rack in even more moolah if they are constantly churning out must-have games. I'm not sure who they'll partner with. Obviously, Retro needs to be expanded. These guys are immensely talented. I'd love if they had two or three teams so we could get a steady stream of their games. Maybe they'll partner with Silicon Knights again? Or form a new studio with ex-Rare founders The Stamper Bros? I'm not sure what will happen, but Nintendo is going to make another Dream Team. Book it.

A Man Can Dream -- The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword releasing on the Cafe this year. Why not? The Wii is virtually dead after it's fantastic lineup last year, so I'm not sure where Nintendo's income is going to come from in the next 18 months before the rumored launch of their new system. So get it out the door this year, port Zelda over, and I'll be buying this thing Day One along with millions of other giddy players.

And with that, I'm off. Enjoy the show next week!

The Witcher 2 doesn't care about your feelings

I survived my first fight in The Witcher 2 with a devil's flare. A couple of wimpy soldier boys brandishing weapons they had no right pointing at me fell before I even figured out what I was doing. Oh, right click is a strong attack? E is my block button? Who cares? I choose who dies, and you are going to die by my sword. I don't need to dodge or use magic with a couple greenhorn fools standing before me. Only suckers die in the beginning of a massive role-playing game anyway. I have dozens of hours ahead of me to hone my skills before the real fights begin. I've danced in this ball before. No surprises here.

Second fight, I died like an aardvark in the ocean. I was matched up against two (TWO!) soldiers this time and I moved in with the cocky swagger of an undefeated boxer taking on the weakest kid in junior high. Who needs strategy or tactics in the second fight in the game? Well, turns out I did. I missed with my overly aggressive sword strike, leaving my backside unprotected, and they cut me down in three quick strikes.

The sad part? I restarted my game, once again tore through the yellow-bellied suckers in the beginning, and faced my conquerors with respect and patience. I would win this time. I was ready. I kept my distance, used a few spells, rolled away when they closed in, and still ended up dying.

The Witcher 2 is incredibly difficult and I couldn't be happier. It's such a relief playing a game that doesn't care about my feeling. It doesn't baby me. It doesn't hold my hand and give me a cup of cocoa. It shoves a dagger in my throat and doesn't care that I'm crying. I love that The Witcher 2 is geared toward players who want a serious challenge. Who think that immersion goes beyond atmosphere and story. Who know that to truly feel a part of a world, you need to be bested by it as often as you beat it down. It's a really tough game, and I cannot wait to get back to it.

Now that's an introduction

Half Life 2 is one of the finest games ever created, so I'm sure there are essay across the internet dissecting its brilliant design choices. Consider this my own small contribution to this collection.

An hour ago, I downloaded Half Life 2 so I could remind myself that video games are awesome. I have to do this from time to time when I'm reviewing a truly horrendous game. Anyway, within a minute, all of the positive memories came flooding back. This is my favorite shooter of all time, and it's stunning how it hasn't aged a day, even though it's nearly 7 years old.

I could write about the oppressive atmosphere being so artfully conveyed without the need for cinemas, or how the muffled voices of the police force is so much more terrifying than if there were allowed to speak clearly, but I'd rather focus on something else that hit me so forcibly I had to stop what I was doing to document my experience.

A few minutes into the game, you find yourself in a chase through the dilapidated rooms of a crumbling apartment complex. The combine have sensed an extra person in this compound, and they immediately set out to exterminate the interloper. At this point in the game, you have yet to find a gun, so you can only run away as fast as you can.

The chase starts on a stairwell. Armed soldiers are coming up the opposite stairs, so you duck up the nearest flight and head toward the roof. Snipers are taking aim and you can hear the yells of a gathering force, but you don't have time to look around. If you stop, you die, so you just have to keep moving as quickly as possible and hope you can make it through alive.

Unarmed citizens are all too happy to help you escape. They usher you into their homes, waving you to hurry on, and then seal up the entrance to slow down the following threat. It's an exhilarating chase, and the brilliant level design makes progression through this apartment building logical. You don't have to spend time figuring out where to go next, you just head for the open doors and let the events unfold around you.

After a few minutes of this, a pair of armed troopers appear in a doorway directly in front of you. I stopped and turned toward the other door. That too busts open and soldiers bear down on me. I turn around once more, back to the wooden stairway I had climbed down seconds earlier. I take one step, then another, and then the stairway crumbles under my foot. I turn around, the combine are closing in. They take out their electric zappers. There's no way out. I can't even fight back.

The screen goes white and I hear a voice in the background. A savior? A few muffled punches, someone collapses, and I open my eyes. Alex is in front of me, smiling. Across the room lay six soldiers, knocked out cold. What happened?

It's such an incredible introduction. The feeling of camaraderie when you're being helped by strangers melds wonderfully with your feeling of helplessness. You're unarmed, you need all the help you can get. And then this unseen power rescues you from harm. It tells so much story in such a small amount of time, without hitting me over the head with exposition or taking control away from me to watch non-interactive cutscenes. It's a truly masterful opening.

And now, back to City 17.

Stupid prediction of the day!

Nintendo announced Project Cafe today with this carefully worded message:

Project Cafe announcement

Right smack dab in the middle they say, "We will show a playable model of the new system and announce more specifications at the E3 Expo," which everyone has latched on to as confirmation that Project Cafes will line Nintendo's booth and everyone will be able to get their grubby hands on this fabled system and its magical new controller.

I disagree. That statement seems to have been written by a master lawyer -- a modern day magician of lies -- in the way that sets up expectations without promising anything. Playable model? Who speaks like that? Deceivers, that's who. My bet is that Nintendo shows off the hardware itself and some early, prototype games running on a giant screen. And that's it. There will be no controller reveal, and the press will not get their hands on this system. It's not coming out for 18 months, after all, and they wouldn't want to get everyone excited now only to make them wait forever before they can actually spend their money.

I hope I'm wrong and Nintendo floods the LA Convention Center with amazing new games. But in reality, I think they'll focus on that new Zelda game for the Wii and a sackload of snazzy new 3DS games. Either way, I'm intrigued.

Oh, and shout out to Shaun McInnis for coming up with the best name ever for their new system: Dolphin Revolution. It sells itself!

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