The next generation is finally here, and we’ve broken down everything you need to know about the PS4 and the Xbox One. But as we noted in both of those reviews, the launch libraries aren’t terrible, but they are most definitely thin. The options available to gamers who have decided to stick with the PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PS Vita, and the 3DS are far richer and much more varied. The first half of 2013 saw 10 stellar releases, which we ranked here.

The second half of the year provided 10 more (11, actually, with a tie for the soccer crown) in time for the new year. Read through to see where they rank, and check out our year-end rankings on the final slide.

Note: Many of the titles listed here are available on the PS4 and Xbox One, where noted, but this list excludes any game made exclusively for those platforms—the top exclusives for those systems are listed in our console reviews. This list focuses on the platforms that predate the PS4 and Xbox One.

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10) Assassin’s Creed IV

Available on: PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PS4, Xbox One

Of all the AAA franchises that have received annual iteration treatment, none would less likely than Assassin’s Creed. And yet instead of feeling like the last drops of blood from a stone, AC IV: Black Flag breathes new life into the series with its balance of land and naval missions and access to an open world pretty much from the opening minutes. More than any Assassin’s Creed game before it, you plot your own course through this story, and with so many cool new quirks of gameplay, it feels brand new.

9) Pro Evolution Soccer 2014

Available on: PS3, Xbox 360, 3DS

TIED WITH

FIFA 14

Available on: PS3, Xbox 360, PS4, Xbox One, 3DS, PS Vita

Putting Pro Evo and FIFA side-by-side doesn’t lead to the kind of black-and-white comparison you might expect. Hence, both of these games are tied here at the Number 9 spot. Most notably, they represent different licenses and the playing mechanics are drastically different. But while FIFA has the bigger publisher in EA, and the more recognizable license (at least in the U.S.), the more hardcore playing experience belongs to Pro Evo. It demands a higher level of precision from the player when it comes to passing, ball handling, and attacks. But it’s not hard to figure out why FIFA is the more popular of the two titles. With an opening presentation narrated by Patrick Stewart, a hip soundtrack, and a play-by-play crew who makes every friendly feel like a World Cup Match. For its part, Pro Evo embraces its role as the niche title; everything about it seems to scream, “We’re different!” — instead of a movie trailer-like intro, Pro Evo’s opening title is scored with Opera music.

Which one should you play? If you’ve never played either and don’t follow English Premier League, FIFA is the obvious choice for the casual fan. But if you’re a player who tends to pick up one of these every year, the annual iterations of each franchise don’t differ tremendously, so if you’re a Pro Evo guy, it’s a fine year to pick up FIFA. Likewise, FIFA traditionalists would do well to see why Pro Evo enjoys its cult-like following. Wherever you stand on this one, the grass is greener on the other side of the pitch.

8) Killzone: Mercenary

Available on: PS Vita

The war between the Helghast and Vektans continues beyond the Killzone trilogy in this Playstation Vita exclusive where you play as a mercenary who’s only in it for the money and couldn’t care less who ultimately wins. It’s a nice touch to see a little nuance like that in a first-person shooter, but moreover, it’s nice to see the Vita finally get a FPS that runs the way it should. The AI isn’t great, and the campaign flies by pretty quick, but the overall experience is pure fun—the Vita’s only true must-buy for shooter fans.

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7) Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate

Available on: PS3, Xbox 360

The big winners in the fighting genre over the past few years—Injustice: Gods Among Us and the Mortal Kombat reboot—kept players in thrall with simple combo systems and story-driven single player experiences that aimed to rival the big budget games that dominate the market. Those games kicked serious ass, but it’s still cool to see that the Dead or Alive franchise is happy to remain the standard-bearer for the old guard, with the focus on a complex fight engine that hearkens back to the golden age of the arcade fighters. Of course, the plot is as thin as ether, but that’s also part of DOA’s charm, a hardcore experience through and through.

6) Batman: Arkham Origins

Available on: PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC

The third installment in the Arkham series might be third-best, but that doesn’t mean you should miss out on this adventure, set in the Dark Knight’s earliest days as a vigilante, with Gotham police hot on his trail. This game looks beautiful, plays perfectly, and tells a great story; it ranks behind Arkham Asylum and Arkham City not because it necessarily does anything wrong, it just doesn’t innovate in the way those titles did. (A shift in developer from Rocksteady to WB Montreal likely made the new crew a bit risk averse.) But considering Origins’ forebears were two of the greatest games of the generation, it’s a fine shadow to live in. What you loved about the first two games is still here, or if you’ve yet to jump on the Arkham bandwagon, now is the perfect time.

5) Call of Duty: Ghosts

Available on: PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PS4, Xbox One, PC

Who needs yet another Call of Duty game? You do! Until proven otherwise, Call of Duty “fatigue” is a myth perpetrated by haters who can’t stand to see the billions this franchise keeps raking in. Ghosts proves that developer Treyarch is still bringing its A-game with a compelling single-player story that sees the United States knocked off its pedestal as a superpower in one devastating attack. All that remains to protect what’s left are the Ghosts, a small but elite fighting force that can’t risk open warfare, striking from the shadows. Even better than the campaign is the redesigned multiplayer suite, which is so deep with options you might just be playing until the next installment rolls around.

4) Super Mario 3D World

Available on: Wii U

What else can be said about Mario? The character has literally defined videogame fun, and continues to do so nearly 30 years after Super Mario Bros. debuted on the NES. Mario’s latest title: Super Mario 3D World for the Wii U, deserves huge props for not playing it safe. If anything, 3D World is one of the most unique Mario games to date, combining an open 3D environment and 2D platforming mechanics; it’s the perfect combination of freedom and speed. With four-player local co-op, you can take Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Princess through the same level at the same time; one player can even carry another through tough areas if need be. In an era of gaming where mature titles rule the landscape, Mario reminds us that the core elements of what make a great game can be put to use without soaking the screen in blood.

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3) Splinter Cell: Black List

Available on: PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC

How much life is left in the Splinter Cell tank? Judging by the polished experience of Blacklist, we should expect to see a hell of a lot more out of Sam Fisher in the years to come. After a terrorist attack on an American military base, the group claiming credit threatens that it’s only the first of many if the US doesn’t withdraw all troops from foreign countries. Fisher goes right back into action in missions that see him showing off a skill-set inspired by krav maga and parkour. His interactions with the environment are some of the most unique and fun to execute you’ll see in an action title this year. The late Tom Clancy would be happy to know that his biggest contribution to the gaming world is destined to entertain fans for a long, long time.

2) Beyond: Two Souls

Available on: PS3

Beyond: Two Souls could easily be the most visually arresting game ever released for the Playstation 3, pushing the old hardware to a limit that surpasses many early PS4 games. Its gripping story, delivered with stunning mo-capped performances by Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, would also have to be in the running for best writing of the generation. In a nutshell: You control Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page) during important episodes throughout her life, visited out of sequence. Jodie is tethered to a soul from beyond named Aiden, imbuing her with special powers and creating circumstances that turn her outcast. It sets the stage for researcher Nathan Dawkins (Dafoe), to discover the roots of Jodie’s powers in an amazingly ambitious story of self-discovery that spans the globe.

Nevertheless, Beyond was met with mixed reviews when it came out in early October, and its detractors have an excellent point: Beyond isn’t actually much a game. For huge swaths of it, you’re asked to do little more than follow a series of quick-time prompts, and there isn’t much challenge in merely guiding Jodie through a game that stays firmly on the rails from start to finish. But to discount the experience because it fails to challenge misses the point. Since the dawn of gaming, developers have chased the dragon of “interactive cinema”—and whatever Beyond’s shortcomings might be, there’s nothing that’s come as close as it has to reaching that elusive peak. When you finally make it through the gut-wrenching finale, you’re not going to be thinking of how the gameplay could have been more creative. You’ll be too busy contemplating your own mortality—and if you don’t consider that a gaming benchmark, then you have a very narrow view of what games can be.

1) Grand Theft Auto V

Available on: PS3, Xbox 360

GTA V delivers what previous iterations could not—compelling reasons to jump into mission after mission to move the story along and not just bum around the city reveling in brutal and lascivious mayhem. This is as polished as a Grand Theft Auto experience has ever been, and despite the much-hyped size of Los Santos and the surrounding areas—the biggest sandbox world ever created for a videogame—the more impressive thing that Rockstar did was seamlessly blend so many different genres. The driving, shooting, and flying portions are all crisp enough to hold their own against games that specialize in these mechanics. You’ll find that marathon sessions with GTA V pass by as quickly as they do when binge-watching a great show: The action is solid, but what you’re really chasing is the next bit of dialogue between these finely-etched characters.

The Top 10 Games of the Year

  1. Tomb Raider
  2. The Last of Us
  3. Grand Theft Auto V
  4. Bioshock Infinite
  5. Beyond: Two Souls
  6. Injustice: Gods Among Us
  7. Splinter Cell: Black List
  8. Super Mario 3D World
  9. Call of Duty: Ghosts
  10. Batman: Arkham Origins

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