And of course you can get it in these places, as usual:
Games that were left off the list, but are worth mentioning.
Hoplite – Super fun indie roguelike that’s big on tactics and a bit too small on content.
Vainglory – iOS MOBA that changes the way people should look at mobile platforms yet again.
Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- – One hell of a 2D fighter, wearing the pretty clothes of a 3D fighter, that I didn’t play enough of.
Luftrausers – A Vlambeer-flavored ship shooter with all the customization you can handle.
Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS – Smaller Smash with greater options that everyone abandoned when the Wii U version launched.
Bravely Default – All of old school console JRPGs strengths with all of their weaknesses.
Divinity: Original Sin – Tactical RPG goodness married to the sort of narrative depth western RPGs have made famous. Sadly, I played so very little of it.
Velocity 2X – Space shooter sequel who innovates and succeeds more than it doesn’t.
And now, the list proper:
“This year’s hottest 7 out of 10” are the truest words ever spoken about this game. Not only is Destiny one of the most imperfect AAA titles to become a bonafide commercial smash, it’s aggressive mediocrity had the whole industry spinning in an existential whirlpool. The “gameplay is king” crowd couldn’t get past how empty and soulless the game felt, despite having some of the best shooting mechanics in a modern shooter. The “story first” crowd were immediately put off by how all these really cool concepts never seem to be any more than that. It’s a lose-lose to the die hards
Or is it? Even as more and more mediocre reviews came out, this game still kept selling in droves. People, myself included, who bought it at launch still kept waiting in the Tower for friends to party with and gun down evil aliens with extreme prejudice. I had finished all of the narrative content well before the soft level cap of 20, yet still have a level 28 warlock with legendaries for days. In fact, the only really good reason I’m not still playing this game is because there’s no matchmaking for the weekly tasks or raids, so unless I could personally find two to five people to play with me at any given time, I can’t do any of that content. Spoiler alert: I couldn’t.
But the reason people come back to that game is because it is, at its core, the most basic interpretation of every gaming experience you’ll ever have. You play, you’re rewarded, you repeat. This is a well made skeleton, but without the sumptuous flesh of a sprawling, choice-based narrative or big set piece explosion-fests, you start to feel awkward about the attraction you’re gaining towards it. It’s not an excuse really—Destiny is admittedly more blunder than bastion, but it’s not the disaster that its most vocal critics paint it as.
Hearthstone was one of my favorite games this year. It’s another by-product of the “Blizzard Effect”: a theory I made up that states that Blizzard can always find a way to take a game and make it simpler/better. Starcraft is that concept with RTS, WoW is that concept with MMOs, and Hearthstone is that concept with TCGs.
It takes the incredibly simple, basic play structure of Magic: The Gathering, cuts the deck in half, and removes the phases and overly complicated “stack” (a theoretical priority list of what affects what and when as cards are played to react to other plays.) It also removes the need for things like mana—that you automatically gain one more of each turn (to a max of ten) that replenishes every turn. And the cards themselves have cool effects and really interesting mechanics that make for a fun, fast paced card game that anyone can get into.
The big problem: The higher level meta is so amorphous and ever changing that you never know when your deck just doesnt work anymore, thanks to the rising popularity of its counter. Also: most of the cards you need for these cool decks are locked behind boosters that you can buy with real money or ingame gold. You can also create cards with “dust,” but the dust you need to make certain cards far out paces the dust you get from any other resources. So unless you’re into grinding for gold or dropping real coin on boosters often, you’ll be stuck with a mid-tier deck forever. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll be stuck with one even after you do those things.
Transistor’s first boss fight is one of my favorite moments in games of 2014.
Up until that point, when you meet a distraught Sybil, who blames you for what has happened to her and the city around you, you know very little. Red, your protagonist, has just drawn the sword-like Transistor from the body of a man she knew, and is dragging it through a city that’s under attack by strange creatures. All of this info is gathered from the games excellent use of minimalist (yet ironically rapid) dialogue streams from the voice in the Transistor. Before you finally meet Sybil for the duel, you spend much of the time taking in the scenery, and with it, the story of everything and everyone in it.
Including Red, who you find out was once a parlor singer, but by the time you step into her shoes, has lost her voice completely. The music feeds you bits and pieces of a neo jazz/soul tune that may or may not have been what Red sounded like before. You see posters of her, and with it, slowly begin to understand how much weight her celebrity held in the city. Through the vandalism to some of them or the candle vigils under others, you begin to realize her influence was also social-political.
Then you step into the club, on the stage Red was famous for illuminating with her voice every night, and see Sybil, mad with jealousy (and possessed by the aforementioned creatures) ready to prove why she should have never played second fiddle to Red. The music crescendos, the action is fierce, the script sharp and poignant.
Then the fight ends. Then six hours pass and you realize that, though the game remains beautiful and mysterious, it never replicates that moment again.
There’s a reason the App Store named this their Game of the Year. Threes! isn’t just a great example of how simple design is often the best, but it’s sort of become a cultural phenomenon. And a target for clones and copiers looking to scalp tickets to the hype train.
I’m convinced that the only sorts of people who don’t like Asher Vollmer’s puzzler are people who don’t like anything.
Easily the perfect party game, its two button controls make it easy for anyone to pick up play. Even if you’ve been drinking, you still get the concept quickly: stab the guy who’s not your color, run to the endzone. Practice brings you into that next layer of player, the one who knows how to make the games tricks work for them. They do flashy jump kicks, throw swords, rip out hearts, etc. But they’re always a single stab away from none of that really mattering. That’s the real, timeless beauty of Nidhogg.
Playing it alone does expose its weaknesses. There are no other modes besides the default. There are only four maps. You can’t even really choose different colors. But sit on the couch next to your friends and fire this game up, and when you’re done, try to tell me that game isn’t excellent.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
The best of the Dragon Age games is one that looked around at its contemporaries—the Skyrims, the Fallouts, the Amalurs—and said, “I can do that better.” It was right.
I am 90+ hours into my first playthrough, a mission away from what I can only assume is the end, and I just now stuck my toes into one of the games vast, open locales. The ability to get sidetracked by the smallest of things is astounding. This is achievable thanks to Bioware’s focus on making every inch of this world look and feel believable. It’s almost like every leaf on each tree has a backstory. Part of how enriched the world is comes from the game’s characters, all of which are fully realized and well acted members of the melting pot of sociopolitical stew that is Thedas. Though many are somewhat archetypical, they still find ways to surprise you. Be it tender moments of dialogue or shocking revelations about their past, they keep you interested.
The battle system—which is effectively both Dragon Age 1 and 2’s systems stitched together—is still somewhat of a downer in comparison to everything else the game does well. It’s serviceable, but not incredibly inspiring. That said, there’s plenty to learn about it, and it does take a bit of time to master it on higher difficulties. Also, I’d put Inquisition’s dragons up against Skyrim’s any day.
The Banner Saga
Hardcore strategy is making a comeback, and if there was any game worth studying and learning from, it’s The Banner Saga. Consequence seeps through every pore of this Norse-inspired tale. Not only must you command forces in turn-based combat, but you must also be their political and spiritual leader otherwise.
Melding the best parts of Oregon Trail, Telltale-style narratives, and Ogre Battle/FF Tactics series, The Banner Saga is a true innovation in the realm of genre blending. Resources—be they actual game currency, time, or hit points—are scarce and fleeting. People will always suffer because it’s not about right and wrong, it’s about do and do not. People tired of games holding their hands or super binary morality systems will need to stop into their Steam stores and pick this up before the sequel hits sometime in 2015.
The modern hipster version of all of your favorite NES games, Shovel Knight is the grassroots game design dream made manifest. From Kickstarter stand out to award winning action platformer, Yacht Club Games knew they had a winner on their hands from jump street. I absolutely love this game for what it does to the games I used to love. It almost makes the idea of going back and playing old Mega Mans or Ducktales that much less appealing now that I know Shovel Knight exists in my Steam catalogue, and does those previous games’ schticks far more competently.
Its an incredibly charming game, that manages to be surprising and heartwarming through the incredibly minimal narrative it provides. The quest to save Shield Knight is sometimes a challenging one, requiring deft platforming and duelling skills not seen in some modern platformers. Ian promises more content, with potential campaigns playing as other characters like Shield Knight or any one of the many villains. I’m skeptical of these lofty ambitions, but I wait with baited breath anyway.
Shadow of Mordor
Shadow of Mordor is this years Injustice: Gods Among Us. A smash hit of a game that no one expected it to be. And it’s not the license that sold this game, but the incredible attention to the popular game mechanics of today’s adventure games and the drive by Monolith to make them all better. It’s probably also not a coincidence that both Shadow and Injustice were published by WB.
If you’ve never been a fan of Assassin’s Creed-style parkour/platforming or Arkham-style combat, I urge you to try this game. The way Talion moves and acts are quite similar to these other games, but getting places and beating people up is far more straightforward and intuitive. The story, while not terrible, isn’t going to turn heads, but the acting is remarkable. And then there’s the Nemesis system, the number one game convention every single game should steal from now on.
Dark Souls 2
“People will forget about this game come GOTY,” I remember telling my peers. Looking at the way the year was shaping up from March on, Dark Souls II didn’t look like it was going to be the experience that stays fresh in peoples minds for nine more months. Even after the disastrous holiday quarter for many of the year’s biggest releases, and the laundry list of games that were pushed out of 2014 altogether, Dark Souls II still had stiff competition. This game is still better than all of them.
Dark Souls II doesn’t really reinvent anything its already established in previous entries. It opens the world up a bit, making it more exploratory in a Castlevania sort of way. But it’s still the same game that reintroduced the world to an unflinching and uncompromising set of rules. Rules you could only learn by dying. A lot. But they could be learned, and when you finally get into the guard-parry-slash tug of war, you really start to see this game for what it is: one of the best action puzzles of our time.
It’s still rough around the edges like its predecessors, and has one of the most overrated UI’s in the industry. It also has a lot of numbers and makes no efforts to tell you what any of them do. Unlike the major unifying theme for the rest of my list (simple games that are executed well) this game is nothing short of complex and superfluous in almost every element but its raw gameplay and its barebones narrative. But people looking for that hardcore console action gaming experience need not look any farther, because even in its faults, this game supports its thesis better than every other game this year.
BONUS ROUND: The Wolf Among Us
This game was on my list last year, and to avoid naysayers crying foul, I decided to keep it from the list this year. But the rest of its episodes were damn good, and a fine example of that Telltale style adventure narrative at its best.