It’s that time of year again. A little later than I intended to completed it, it’s time to look back on the year of gaming that was in 2014 with the annual list of my favourite games of the past twelve months. They may not be the best games of 2014 but they are the ones that I loved the most.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
I’ve put about ten hours into Dragon Age: Inquisition so far and might be anywhere from 50 to 100 hours from its end depending on who you listen to. So I’m probably a bit too early in the game to call it my favourite game of 2014 but I’m going to call it my favourite game of 2014 anyway.
Sure, it’s not the best looking game out on next-gen consoles. The PC port is way too resource hungry for my liking and the controls could have used some work. But at the end of the day, BioWare needed to come out swinging with Dragon Age: Inquisition after the disappointments of Dragon Age II, Star Wars: The Old Republic and Mass Effect 3. A failure here could have spelled disaster for the whole studio, especially with EA relying on them to come through big with Shadow Realms, Mass Effect 4 and a new Star Wars game in the pipeline for the near future.
BioWare went back to the well and were able to successfully pull off a classic BioWare game. It didn’t really get back to Dragon Age: Origins with the combat but they were able to invoke a massive sense of scale with the game, put together a story where your role felt like it mattered and added in some interesting characters to make your journey just that little bit more compelling.
What most gamers and critics agree on is that BioWare got it very nearly right with their first major release since Mass Effect 3. They’ve learned from their 2011-2012 year from hell and put the lessons to use in DA:I. It’s not a perfect game but it’s a sign that EA hasn’t completely killed the BioWare that everyone loved.
The Walking Dead: Season Two
There was a danger that Telltale could have fallen flat on its face in 2014. After all, they had four games on its plate in 2014 between TWD:S2, The Wolf Among Us, Tales from the Borderlands and Game of Thrones. They aren’t a big studio, rely heavily on their story telling and are always dealing with someone else’s intellectual property. Add to that a pre-TWD reputation of putting out sub-par games and you can see why people might have been taking a wait-and-see approach to Telltale.
After a weak first episode, Telltale showed that they weren’t about to suffer a sophomore slump with their cornerstone franchise. While Telltale took a risk by making Clementine the lead character and having a ten-year-old girl make all the decisions and complete all the important tasks for her group but at least they integrated that into the story of the season which made it compelling to play through.
The other big plus this year was the work done on the supporting cast. A few of the supporting characters felt like throwaways but the likes of SPOILERS, Carver and Jane carried the episodes they were featured in and I’m not sure they could have pulled the same off with Lee as the central character. That and the ending seemed to have actual branching storylines which will be pretty exciting if they can pull it off.
South Park: The Stick of Truth
Being handed a licensed game by a publisher is often considered a death sentence for a development studio. Often it comes down to dollars and cents and the ability to adapt a property. Developers usually are left on the short end when it comes to budget handouts because money is being spent up front on paying for the license. Then they have to figure out a way of adapting a property to make it true to the IP and simultaneously making it a game. How many licensed games have been buggy or repetitive because of a lack of funds or unrecognizable because devs are trying to make a game?
South Park is no stranger to crappy video game adaptations. A trio of bad licensed games in the late 90s caused Trey Parker and Matt Stone to stop licensing South Park until the late 2000s when they opened up for a couple of Xbox Live Arcade games. South Park: The Stick of Truth was their first full retail release in 14 years when it came out earlier this year.
So this time, Parker and Stone were very involved in the development of the game and it shows. The game looks and plays like an episode of South Park despite being a whole new adventure for a video game. Not only was this a great licensed video game but this was one of the best RPGs of 2014.
Mario Kart 8
I don’t know if I ever mentioned my history of gaming because I feel like it’s relevant to my inclusion of MK8. I got an NES when I was four or five (much to the chagrin of my aunts and uncles who swore they would never buy their then-unborn kids video games because it would rot their brains) but it wasn’t until about 1998 that we got a PS1. It was a tossup between an N64 which was what my gaming friends played and a PS1 but it cost $40 – $50 more for a new release on N64 so Sony won that round.
So that meant that I missed out on a lot of classic games. When people look back on the greatness of the Nintendo 64, the likes of Super Mario 64, Goldeneye, Perfect Dark and Star Fox 64 are all brought up. The one that was always the indisputable tops was Mario Kart 64. Even when I was in university, you were never more than a couple of doors away from a race. Of course, I could have just been living in the cool building.
So that brings me to MK8. This is the first Mario Kart game that I’ve actually owned. Sure, I’ve played Mario Kart for SNES and N64 but there’s something special about playing your own copy of Mario Kart. Sure, it may never reach the heights of MK64 in terms of sales or legacy but that’s not to say that it isn’t a fun game. The graphics look great, the soundtrack is catchy and the racing is fantastic. Get a couple of friends together and it’s just like the good old days but in HD.
If there’s one thing that I miss about Crash Team Racing, it’s that it had a story mode that brought all the tracks and game modes together. I wish that Mario Kart 8 would have gone for something similar rather than isolated cup events. I know that’s how MK does it but that doesn’t mean that they could have added on some way to flow us into a longer story or championship arc. Even ModNation Racers managed it. One little thing, Ninty.
I’ve never been much of a hack and slash fan. I’ve played the God of War franchise and it was fun enough just mashing buttons and watching things disintegrate in front of me. Maybe I would have liked it more if I spent more time learning combos.
Bayonetta 2 might belong to the same genre as God of War but I think that they’re two very different experiences. As good a game and as good gameplay as Bayonetta 2 has, it doesn’t take itself as seriously as God of War. Platinum Games put fun first when putting together Bayonetta 2. The combat, the visuals, and the characters combine for a fun experience that you can’t help but want to keep coming back to.
From a technical perspective, the controls are tight, the graphics look great despite the poor reputation that the Wii U’s hardware has and it runs at 60 FPS despite how busy that the screen will get with enemies. Perhaps more than anything, as much as I like staying in my gaming comfort zone, great games like Bayonetta 2 make me want to go outside that comfort zone to try new things. That’s a sign of a great game.
Sega must really hate me right now. They sent me a review copy of this and I got about five hours in. Then a xenomorph grabbed me out of a locker and killed me because I used my motion tracker as it went out of sight. And this is why I don’t play horror games in the dark.
But if ever there was an amazing immersive sci-fi horror experience, it’s Alien: Isolation. While I understand that the game makes a turn for the worse in the latter stages of the game and drags on too long anyway, the start is absolutely fantastic. This was the first game that I played and could say was next-gen. From the graphics to the Xenomorph AI to the music engine which does so much to ratchet up the tension, this game screams next-generation.
If I get a little time during Christmas, I plan to power through the rest of the game and get a review out in January. Okay, there are a lot of games that I want to power through between now and the March release lineup but this is the one that I regret not being able to finish. And I did mean it when I said this game was more than worth it at 50% off during the Steam sale.
Crimes & Punishments: Sherlock Holmes
I doubt you’re going to see Crimes and Punishments on too many year-end lists but it’s not a list of the best games of 2014 but a list of my favourite games of 2014. I’d probably hazard that any objective list of the top 14 games won’t have this but I make no allusions to this being objective.
Crimes and Punishments greatest accomplishment is that it’s a detective game that was worthy of the Sherlock Holmes license. It brought the classic Holmes tropes of reading people like a book, seeing things that nobody else good and deductive reasoning to the gaming realm better than had been done before. And while the setting was Victorian London, the presentation was very much like the very popular Sherlock series. C&P put you in the shoes of the great detective better than any game that preceded it and it was a must-play for any Sherlock Holmes fan.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
I don’t think that I’ve spent quite enough time with Hearthstone to put it in the games I’ve played section of my favourite games but I do like it. Every couple of weeks I’ll go back to Hearthstone to play a few games against the AI while I’m downloading or patching something else. It’s a nice little pick up and play game. If I didn’t have a bit of competitive multiplayer anxiety, I’d probably play this a lot more.
Two things I love about this game are the soundtrack and the game board. Sure, they don’t really do much with the soundtrack but the one or two tunes I know can get stuck in my head. And the boards are just teeming with life if you’re willing to click around while waiting for your opponent to make their turn. The fact that the game plays as easy to learn and hard to master helps a bit too.
Before I wrote this up, I played a couple of hours of Grid Autosport. Sure, the multiplayer is just as non-existent as it was back at release but apart from that, this is just as much pseudo-sim brilliance as I remember it being.
There wasn’t a lot of racing games that came out in 2014. Assetto Corsa came out at the end of the year. Project CARS finally got a 2015 release date. Driveclub was a disaster at its delayed launch to the point where Sony didn’t release the free-to-play version for PS+ users. I don’t have an Xbox so Forza is never going to make this list. And Mario Kart 8 isn’t even really in the same genre.
Even without competition from other games, Autosport had to compete with the rest of the Grid franchise. Codemasters has been accused of losing its way in recent years and it certainly looked done for after Grid 2. However, they listened to the fans and critics for GA and brought out a multidisciplinary circuit racing game that Codies made their name on. Grid went back to a physics model that was more sim than arcade, got rid of the dumb mini-game type races and dropped the storyline that was the underpinning for Grid 2. They went back to basics and Grid Autosport was a far better racing game for it.
And as I tend to do on my year-end lists, here are a few more great games in 2014 that I haven’t played but certainly plan to as soon as possible.
Dark Souls 2
If you loved the first Dark Souls, chances are that you’ll like this one too. Granted, I’ve heard that the sequel is a bit easier than the first DS game and it has a jump mechanic that’s supposed to have a ridiculous control mapping but apart from that, it’s a Dark Souls game. It’ll still kick your ass. It’ll still make you question why you bought it. And it’ll still be fun while all that’s happening.
Super Smash Bros. for Wii U
Could 2014 have been the year of the Wii U? A new Smash, new Mario Kart, Bayonetta 2, Hyrule Warriors, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Sure, they don’t have the multiplatform games that you’ll see on the PS4, Xbox One and PC but they had the best exclusive lineup of any of the consoles this year.
Super Smash Bros. for Wii U was scored by critics as the best game of 2014 (according to Metacritic, anyway) and just narrowly beat Bayonetta 2 and Dark Souls 2 by one point for the honour. If you’re a Smash fan, past or present, its inclusion on the list shouldn’t come as a surprise to you. I’ve played around with it a bit an like it. Mind you, I also liked PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale so I might just have a blind spot for these sorts of games.
I was a little disappointed that Nintendo got rid of the story/campaign mode because it feels like it could do with something a bit more substantial in terms of single-player game modes. Still, you’re probably playing this with friends. As long as you have enough controllers to keep everyone happy, it’ll be a huge success.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
What was it that I was saying about licensed games earlier? One of the most frequent entries on many year-end lists was another licensed game that wasn’t South Park or Alien. While Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor might not say Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit in the title, it’s still based in Tolkein’s Middle-Earth universe.
It often gets compared to the Batman: Arkham and Assassin’s Creed in terms of gameplay mechanics. However, the Nemesis System is what sets Shadow of Mordor apart from games of similar style when it falls short on other areas like story and combat. Near as I can tell, Nemesis is a sort of organic storytelling system that remembers how you interact with NPCs as you play and tweaks future interactions as a result. When people talk about next-gen gameplay as a buzzword, I think this is pretty close to what they mean.
Retro-style games seem to be a dime a dozen right now but Shovel Knight is considered by many to be a cut above the rest. A loving homage to the 8-bit platformer genre that many of us, myself included, grew up on, Shovel Knight picked up a whole heaping helping of praise for its gameplay, art style and music. While there have been a lot of Kickstarter disasters, Shovel Knight can certainly be considered one of crowdfunding’s biggest successes.
This War of Mine
One of my favourite games of 2012 was Spec Ops: The Line. While it was presented as a generic military FPS, it turned out to be anything but. It was an exploration into the effects that war had on the soldiers in it.
This War of Mine looks at war from the side of the civilians and like Spec Ops, it’s not a fun game. It’s about the survival of your group of civilians in a besieged city. You hide by day and scavenge by night. Along the way, you’re forced to make tough decisions that are apparently very emotionally impactful. There need to be more war games that aren’t just about spraying bullets into everyone in a different uniform. This War of Mine sounds like a great start.