My Top 10 Games of 2014

For me, personally, 2014 definitely had a few high points, but there were also a fair number of things that took a lot out of me. I managed to do some traveling, have some fun new experiences, and make some new friends, and those are always great things. But the year brought with it frequent stress, and the low points, due to both my own mistakes and some things out of my control, were low enough and frequent enough that I’m glad to see the year come to a close and am trying to make 2015 a year of growth.

In the gaming world things weren’t much better. More than a few high profile, big-budget triple-A titles ended up falling far short of expectations. While some merely failed to deliver on promises of scope and content, others were released in such a ridiculously broken state as to render them nigh unplayable. Most disturbingly though, I can’t recall a year that caused me to look upon my favorite hobby with more shame than this one. What began as an arguably misguided but passionate and well-intentioned movement against corruption in games media degenerated into an effective banner for despicable, narrow-minded, misogynistic hate-mongering. I’ve said it before elsewhere and will say it again here. The fact that some people continue to doubt women in their fandoms for no other reason than that they’re female, let alone have the audacity to threaten them (or gay, trans, or any other non-straight white male oriented gamer) with violence, is inexcusable and deeply troubling. It’s been the reason I’ve rarely had any desire to play a game online for years, and only shows how little we’ve grown as a community. God forbid anyone should try to open our minds to new gaming experiences, challenge us to think about the social implications of what we create, or encourage us to treat each other with some basic human fucking decency. Bah!

All that said, there were still some great things about the last 12 months that managed to shine through the ugliness. Despite some of their colleagues stepping away from the industry (and really, who can blame them?), there remains some strong female voices out there continuing to make themselves heard in the midst of it all, making games, writing about games and game creators, and in the wider geek culture scene, and that’s profoundly encouraging. I’m also hopeful the discussions that have arisen in the wake of such hatred will force more to take notice and strive to make a change or speak out against it. In more inspiring news, as a community we came together in late October to raise more than $5.4 million for children’s hospitals around the country in the annual Extra-Life for Kids charity event, which I was proud to be a part of for the second year running. Both E3 and Sony’s PSX event in early December heralded some incredible game announcements I’m really looking forward to in 2015. And while few would claim 2014 was one of the best years in gaming, there were lots of wonderful surprises that rose to the top of the pile. So without further ado, here are the games I enjoyed most this year.

10. Threes! (iOS/Android, Sirvo LLC)

Threes!_app_iconForget 2048 and all the other copycats. The original Threes! is the puzzle game you want to play. Everything from the deceptively simplistic way it teaches you how to slide like-numbered tiles together, to the minimalist aesthetic, to the light and inviting soundtrack, to the quick, silky smooth movement proves this is the superior experience. Threes! is as welcoming as a game can get, luring you in with its cute, charming faces and personalities that respond to your movements – or lack thereof.

It seems easy enough, just match the numbers together to make higher ones; a neat little math game any number geek can get into. It wasn’t until I saw my initial scores, then looked at the leaderboards and stared in confusion at the impossibly high scores of my peers that I wanted to dig deeper. Once I learned some strategy and started being able to deconstruct how the game works, I almost felt like I was breaking the rules and was able to rack up higher and higher scores. At that moment, when the genius of its algorithm was revealed to me like the code of the Matrix, Threes! changed from a delightful little five minute distraction perfectly tailored for smartphones to a deeply satisfying 20+ minute per round strategy title. It remains a game I keep loaded on not just my daily use Android, but also my old iPhone 4 and iPad 2 so I can pull it out at any time for a round of number matching.

Threes screenshots

9. P.T. (PSN, 7780s Studios)

PT title picThere are those who don’t consider P.T. a game, and in some ways I can understand why. There’s only one environment; a regular, ordinary, L-shaped hallway. You’ll walk down this hallway several dozens times before you see all there is to see. Your interactions are limited to being able to zoom in slightly on things you want a closer look at, and….that’s about it. Heck, even the game’s name stands for Playable Teaser. But as a free interactive announcement for a new Silent Hill game from the mind of Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro, it’s incredibly effective at selling you on the idea.

This hallway may look like any number of hallways you’ve seen in any number of houses you’ve seen your entire life, but P.T. is quick to layer on heaps of atmosphere and unease. Nuggets of backstory are sparingly doled out via a static-y FM radio. Each trip down the hallway incorporates subtle changes that must be meticulously searched for to find. The dark, foreboding lighting, the rain storm outside, the subliminal messages I could swear I’m hearing and seeing, all make the mere act of exploring such a small environment increasingly unsettling. Are the eyes in those photos following me? Is someone outside looking at me? Did that scratchy radio voice just tell me to look behind me or did I imagine it? Even though I never knew what to expect with each subsequent trip, the nuances messed with my senses and made it extremely easy to buy into P.T.‘s world.

The experience isn’t perfect. In order to progress with each pass through the hall, you’re basically required to figure out the specific set of movements or the one obscure thing to look at to trigger the next iteration. You’re rarely given hints as to what those might be, so it can be frustratingly obtuse at times when you think you’ve looked at everything and moved every which way and nothing seems to be changing. But once I did find each trigger action and the creepiness ramped up again, the payoff was always well worth it. Whether it’s a game or not, P.T. is the most intense, unnerving teaser trailer I’ve ever experienced. I’ve never cared about any of the Silent Hill games, and Silent Hills may not be anything like this, but I’m sure as hell paying attention now.

PT screen shot

8. Destiny (PS4/XOne, Bungie)

Destiny box artI went back and forth about Destiny for quite a while. On paper it sounds incredible. A Borderlands-like open-world FPS loot fest from the company that brought us Halo? Yes please! Destiny should’ve been the best game of the year. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite hit the mark. Maybe it’s that I’ve already played two Borderlands games and I’ve had my fill of this type of game. Maybe it’s that the loot, while enticing, doesn’t come nearly as fast and furious as the constant stream of new gear from Borderlands or Diablo. Maybe it’s the fact that the missions are boring and the story failed to keep me interested. Or maybe it’s simply that it was so ridiculously hyped and had the hugely popular Halo pedigree to live up to that the expectations were unreasonably high. Whatever the case, Destiny was not the game it should have – or could have – been.

That being said, it’s what Bungie did right that still earns it praise. New loot is more sparse than what we’ve grown accustomed to, but the gear you do get feels more carefully and deliberately crafted, making it feel more rewarding and meaningful. Even though I had trouble remembering or even caring where I was going and why, actually getting there, the minute to minute gameplay, just felt right. It’s the old idea of the journey being its own reward. The shooting is smooth and polished to a degree that every headshot feels not only easy to pull off but also incredibly satisfying. The environments too often feel desolate and barren, but the speeder bike helps with that, and when I did get back to the action, I was excited to jump back in the fray. Every time a random public event showed up, it felt impactful and I couldn’t help but smile as I made my way over a hill to see other players descend from wherever they happened to be in the map so we could join together to fend off wave after wave of Fallen. The rousing orchestral soundtrack, clearly born from the minds who brought us the Halo score, brings it all together and never failed to make me feel like what I was doing was epic. To top it all off, the game looks absolutely stunning. It made me wish there were more going on in the environments. Sadly, they’re mostly static and lifeless. It’s disappointing Destiny failed to live up to its potential, but when it’s on, it’s exceedingly fun. And isn’t that the whole point?

Destiny screenshot

7. Bayonetta 2 (Wii U, Platinum Games)

Bayonetta 2 box artBayonetta 2, like its predecessor, is batshit insane in the best kind of way you could only expect from Platinum Games. The first game in the series was already full of the best character action combat out there, and bravo to Nintendo for having the guts to support its sequel when no one else would. Otherwise this game wouldn’t even exist.

If you play Bayonetta 2 and are able to explain the story with any competency or detail by the end, let me know. It’s so off the wall and convoluted I stopped trying to pay attention. I’m also not entirely comfortable with the way the main protagonist is hyper sexualized. She’s a strong, independent gal, to be sure, and one can’t argue the fact that she’s extremely empowered. But that doesn’t mean the camera has to slowly leer over every curve of her body like she’s sponsored by Maxim magazine. One of the first shots in the game has you watching as the camera zooms in and slowly pans down her frontside and between her crotch. Come on Platinum, really???

Assuming the fact that the cinematography looks like it was done by a 13-year old doesn’t turn you away however, what you’ll find in Bayonetta 2 is some of the smoothest and well-executed combat you’ve ever played, in some of the most outlandish, ridiculous settings you’ve ever seen. The first level has the title character facing off against hordes of horse-like hellspawn on top of a fighter jet flying through downtown, followed by a battle with a giant dragon climbing up the side of a tower. And it only gets crazier from there. The combat includes enough combos to learn, upgrades to purchase, and difficulty levels to satisfy any skill level. If you want to shoot for 100% perfectly-executed combos with every encounter on the hardest difficulty level, have at it. But for those of us with less than savant-like dexterity, the witch time mechanic is easy to pull off and slows things down enough that just mashing away on the attack buttons is surprisingly effective, and still results in enough flashiness to elicit a maniacal grin. Not since God of War III has character action combat left me more satisfied and blown away at its bombast.

Bayonetta 2 screen shot

6. Alien: Isolation (PS4/XOne, The Creative Assembly)

Alien Isolation box artConsidering that the majority of games to come out of Creative Assembly are from the Total War series of strategy titles, the fact that Alien: Isolation is as good as it is is pretty shocking. After the massive disaster that was Aliens: Colonial Marines, I was prepared to completely ignore Isolation. It wasn’t until it came out and the reviews started hitting that I was ready to give it a chance. While Colonial Marines was an action FPS intended to be a spiritual sequel to Aliens, Isolation goes in a different direction entirely, and is all the better for it. Using the original Alien movie as inspiration, this is a survival horror game that manages to not only distance itself from the game prior, but knocks the look and feel of that first film completely out of the park.

The industrial, 80s-future aesthetic of the ship, CRT-looking design of the interfaces and monitors, and sound design all invoke the film perfectly, and do an excellent job of setting a creepy, unnerving atmosphere. By the time the title creature was revealed I was fully invested and sufficiently terrified. The fact that the alien cannot be fought or defended against, only hid from, ensures my tension levels never fall too low as I slink around the ship from one area to the next. When the alien does find me and I hear its deep footsteps getting louder and louder, only to turn around and find it barreling toward me, ready to strike, is incredibly intense.

I’m not even close to finishing it yet, so I can’t speak to the game’s length. If it’s as long as I’ve heard it’s very possible the impact won’t last all the way through for me, but so far Alien: Isolation is more than enough to wash away the bad taste of Colonial Marines.

Alien Isolation screen shot

5. Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition (PS4/XOne, Blizzard Entertainment)

Diablo III Ultimate Evil Ed boxThat’s right, I’m putting Diablo III on my top games list two years in a row. In my defense, the Ultimate Evil Edition is more than just the previous game with the Reaper of Souls expansion bolted on. The visuals have been enhanced for the new generation of consoles, the difficulty tiers revamped, the brutally fun Crusader class has been added, and the new adventure mode presents an end game that is so much more satisfying than simply replaying the campaign over and over again to continue your level grind. Sending you to one of the maps with a specific goal focuses your attention and adds a quest-like feel to the progression. You’re not just playing for new loot and experience anymore, you’re doing it to check off tasks in a list, and we all know by now how addicting that is. As you move through each quest, random side chests and rescue quests will present themselves, further increasing the drip feed of accomplishment. Slaying demonspawn by the thousands, gaining experience points by the millions, entering deeper and deeper levels of Nephalem Rifts and Greater Rifts, sorting through and equipping endless amounts of ever-stronger gear and enhancement gems, watching your character look more and more aggressive, Diablo just keeps getting more and more fun. Between World Of Warcraft and Diablo, Blizzard have proven themselves the unquestionable masters of addictive loot/quest grind, not to mention art design. If there’s anyone that can make Diablo look like a pussycat, it’s Maltheal. I mean, just look at him with those hand-scythes and wispy skeletal wings. So cool.

Diablo III UEEd Maltheal

4. Monument Valley (iOS/Android, USTWO)

Monument Valley cover artI couldn’t be more pleased that mobile games are getting so good that they can compete with full-scale $60 console releases in terms of quality. Monument Valley is a puzzle platformer that tasks you with getting from point A to point B, but getting there is anything but clear cut. The self-contained environments are set up like M.C. Escher paintings. As you manipulate platforms and gateways to guide your cone-cap-endowed friend to the exit platform, you’ll constantly be reminded that the laws of physics don’t really apply in this surreal world. None of the levels get difficult to the point of frustration, but there is a definite retraining of the brain that must take place as you shift and rotate pieces of a structure to reveal new paths that shouldn’t be possible. The art design and soundtrack blend beautifully to create an atmosphere that is simultaneously eerie, lonely, and enticing. It all comes together in a wonderful, intriguing adventure in non-Euclidean geometry. It can be finished in a mere hour or two at most, but at $4 for 10 levels, plus $2 for another 8 in the Forgotten Shores DLC expansion, it’s one the best values in gaming at the moment.

Monument Valley screen shots

3. Shovel Knight (PC/Wii U/3DS, Yacht Club Games)

Shovel Knight coverAnyone over a certain age remembers going back to that game they adored as a kid and thinking, “huh, am I playing the wrong game or was I just crazy back then?” Playing Shovel Knight is like playing that beloved game from your youth and having it be exactly as amazing as you remember it. It’s the tight, focused gameplay, epic boss battles, and energizing chiptune soundtrack of games like Mega Man and Duck Tales without the 8-bit era annoyances your rose-colored nostalgia glasses seem to forget. The graphics are old-school pixely but detailed and colorful in a way the NES could never have pulled off. It’s exceptionally challenging at times, but rather than feeling cheap, it always managed to make me believe I had the skills necessary to conquer it. That I could learn the enemy strategies and patterns, I could discover the weaknesses, and I could execute the timing and the techniques to take down every boss. For someone like me who grew up playing crushingly difficult platformers on the NES, a sublimely smooth difficulty curve like this is the best kind of carrot on a stick. These days it’s a thing so many retro-focused games try for and fail to pull off, but Shovel Knight absolutely nails it. Quite simply, this is retro 2D platforming modernized to perfection.

Shovel Knight screen shot

2. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (PS4/XOne, Monolith Productions)

Shadow of Mordor box artNot since Darksiders has a game taken elements from other games and so expertly meshed them together. But Monolith didn’t stop there; they took that formula, which would have already made for a great game, and layered an entirely new mechanic on top of it all to elevate Shadow of Mordor into something greater than the sum of its parts.

The mission structure and minute to minute gameplay here are straight out of Assassin’s Creed, but there’s lots of little touches that make simply traversing the map and tracking down side missions and collectibles so much more enjoyable. Every item and side mission is marked on your map, and rather than forcing you to meticulously search for every plant and hunting mission, little pop-up messages present themselves when you’re on your way somewhere and happen to cross by them. Not only is there a fast travel system, one of the first abilities you unlock is a burst of speed when you hop over a rock or down from a ledge. Conveniences like these ensure that going from one side of the map to the other and searching for every item never becomes tedious.

The combat is ripped right from the Batman: Arkham games, except instead of punching and kicking enemies into submission (because, you know, Batman doesn’t kill), your character is armed with a sword, dagger, and a bow and arrow, and isn’t afraid to eviscerate every uruk he sees with them in a merciless display of brutality. It’s a lot more violent than the Batman combat, but incredibly satisfying. The button prompts and transitions between moves are smooth and seamless, and as you unlock more abilities, you gain more versatility in your ability to take down the hordes of Mordor in flashy new ways. By the end of the game you’re pretty overpowered, but it’s so damn fun that I was always enthusiastic about jumping right in the middle of a pack. Even the stealth combat is skillfully executed, if you’ll forgive the pun, and sneaking behind a powerful uruk captain or pouncing on him from above to deliver a killing blow never got old.

Tying all this together is Monolith’s Nemesis system. Disappointingly absent from the PS3/X360 versions of the game, this system so fundamentally changes the way you play to the point that it makes the previous console versions pale in comparison. How many times have you continually lost to the same enemy over and over, but you keep coming back for more until you finally conquer him? The Nemesis system personalizes this loop by making every enemy unique, with a set look and personality that persists until he dies. Every captain is lurking around on the map somewhere, waiting for you to find him. When you do, you’ll get a slow-mo briefing with his name and title, and he’ll taunt you. Every enemy you fail to take down will remember the encounter. Not only do they remember it, you’ll see the wounds you gave them the next time you meet them on the field as they spout more abuse your way. You can look into the minds of certain enemies to gain intel on every captain’s strengths, weaknesses, and fears, and use these to plan your attack. If you’re killed by a lowly no-name uruk, they’ll bend down and tell you how weak and pathetic you are, then you’ll see them get promoted within the army of Mordor, gaining a title and respect among his peers. To watch an enemy get better armor, become more powerful, and get promoted up through the ranks because he took me out, only to encounter him again and have him laugh in my face about it; it makes for an incredibly powerful motivator for coming back to the game. It’s so good that it actually overshadows the main story. I cared less about seeing it through to the conclusion and more about systematically going after every captain who’d done me wrong, then targeting the elite captains once I’d cut down his henchmen. It’s a little disappointing the story isn’t more interesting, but every time I challenged a captain in battle I stopped caring. At that moment every other enemy was insignificant and any other mission I was on was forgotten about. The only thing on my mind in that moment was having my sweet sweet revenge and holding it over his ugly uruk face.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor™_20140923180750

1. South-Park: The Stick of Truth (PS3/X360, Obsidian Entertainment)

Stick of Truth box artI wanted The Stick of Truth to be good for so long, but as the years went on and the stories of it’s hellish development stacked on heavier and heavier, plus the fact that every single South Park game to this point have been steaming piles of crap, I’d resigned to myself that there was no way short of a miracle it was going to be a quality product. But one thing The Stick of Truth had going for it that no other South Park game before did was the direct involvement of Matt Stone and Trey Parker. This, combined with the guidance of Ubisoft creative consultants, seems to have been the secret sauce that has allowed it to overcome all odds and live up to its full potential.

If you’re not into the mature cartoon then you’re not going to find much to like here. But if you are, then The Stick of Truth is exactly the game you want out of the franchise. The light RPG mechanics aren’t especially deep, and it gets a bit repetitive toward the end as you get strong enough to take down pretty much every enemy without much trouble, but fun new gear, items, and spells come fast and furious, and the combat is enjoyable and quick enough to not overstay its welcome. Most importantly, all the South Park-ness wrapped around the combat is top notch. Everything you love about the antics of Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny are here. Underpants Gnomes, Crab People, Al Gore, Mr. Hanky, the complete irreverence for itself and willingness to make fun of anyone and anything. Rather than fall into the trap of simply reusing the same jokes you’ve heard for over a decade, Matt and Trey have found new ways to package the material at the heart of those jokes in ways that make them seem fresh and apply in a video game environment. They have a knack for knowing what they’re making fun of. They’re gamers, and that’s obvious when you see them ripping on trope after trope. South Park‘s lovable kids are basically playing a Lord of the Rings-style RPG with each other, with cardboard forts, homemade costumes, and fart magic. As you would expect, their quest not only grows to encompass all kinds of insanity from aliens to Nazi zombies, but manages to push the envelope in terms of raunchiness in several places. Again, if you’re not into the show’s brand of humor, you won’t appreciate the places the story goes. Even as someone who has a very broad and open-minded sense of humor, there were points when I was rendered speechless with shock and disbelief, even as I was laughing my ass off.

To top it all off, Obsidian nails the look of the show exquisitely. There are slight performance issues, as every transition to a new area is met with stuttering, but aside from that every animation, piece of art, and spell effect looks like you’re basically controlling one long episode of the show. And then there’s the Canada level. I don’t want to spoil it here for those who might not have played it yet, but oh man is that Canada area incredible. I could go on, but basically if you love video games and love South Park, you owe it to yourself to play The Stick of Truth. It’s the masterpiece game the show has always deserved, fully realized at long last.

Stick of Truth screen shot

2014’s 2013 Game of the Year

Gone Home (PC, The Fullbright Company)

Gone Home coverI’d heard a lot about Gone Home when it was released in the Fall of 2013 but didn’t get around to playing it until January, which is a bit of a shame because it undoubtedly would have made the cut for my Best of 2013 list. Like P.T., Gone Home is more interactive story than game.

You play a girl who’s arrived home from Europe to find her house empty. Left to search the for her parents and younger sister alone, with a nighttime rainstorm outside, you quickly get the sense that this is a horror game and that things will get creepy at any moment, but that doesn’t happen. Nothing jumps out at you, there are no ghosts and no unexplained phenomena. But that doesn’t mean all is well with this family, and while there are no horror goings-on per se, there still remains an atmosphere of dark tension that manages to be slightly unsettling. There are no big action scenes or “ah-ha!” moments. You’re left to spend as much time in this eerily-lit house as you want, and interact with as much or as little of it as you want, but you’re greatly rewarded for looking in every nook and cranny. Set in the 90s, the house is chock full of things to see and interact with. You’ll read notes left on tables, listen to cassette mix tapes made by your sister, and smile as you pick up rows of X-Files VHS tapes as you piece the story together.

You’ll learn about the lives of this family, and in doing so you’ll gain insight into their fears, frustrations, hopes and dreams. It’s nothing on the scale of battling aliens or solving complex puzzles, but that’s the point. Gone Home is a story about the personal, the moments in our lives that mean nothing to most people, but that mean everything to us. Gaining a glimpse into the lives of this normal, everyday family, especially as someone who spent my most formative years in the time period the game is set in, easily took me back to my own youthful moments that in the grand scheme of things don’t mean anything. But to me, they mean everything about who I was then and who I became. In Gone Home, the most touching story is your sister’s, an awkward teenager discovering new things about herself and who she is. Saying much more than that would be too much; suffice it to say that by the time you get to the end you’ll realize the story you’ve been uncovering has culminated only minutes before you arrived at the house, and it left me joyful and sad at the same time. It’s a deeply personal tale, full of heart and heavy on the feels. For anyone who loves a subtle, quiet, yet lovingly put together experience, exploring Gone Home is a wonderful way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Gone Home screen shot

Honorable Mention

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare (PS4/XOne, Sledgehammer Games)

COD Ad Warfare box artI pretty much wrote off the entire Call of Duty franchise after Black Ops 2. I had absolutely no desire to play COD: Ghosts, and didn’t plan on playing this installment either. But Sledgehammer Games, consisting of many of the minds who made the first Modern Warfare so new and fresh, have somehow managed to give the modern military shooter new life yet again. It’s nothing that completely changes the game, but the new abilities afforded by the futuristic exo-suits give you more mobility in combat, and the near-future weapons, grenade types, and drone options bring just enough newness and “oooh shiny!” to the series that I enjoyed Advanced Warfare more than any Call of Duty game in years.

Even the story somehow had me more invested than I expected. There’s still plenty of anti-terrorist military psycho-babble, but there’s also a bit of a Metal Gear Solid vibe added to the mix as Atlas Corporation, a massive private military corporation, takes center stage in combating the evils of the world, even if its means may not justify the ends. Jonathan Irons, voiced by a creepily lifelike Kevin Spacey, turns in an excellent performance as the company’s CEO, and the situations you’re placed in throughout the game somehow manage to be thrilling and powerful without falling into the last few iterations’ dull philosophy of “everything is exploding and everyone is dying around you all the time because holy shit everything is crazy!” The only problem with Advanced Warfare being as good as it managed to be is I’m not really sure where the series can go from here and still be as impactful. Activision is showing no signs of ever letting the yearly COD cycle end, so we’ll know soon if they can keep this up.

COD Advanced Warfare screenshot

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Posted on February 1, 2015, in Games and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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