An endless stream of “DEFINITIVE”, “REMASTERED” and “GAME OF THE YEAR” reissues.
A surprising dearth of quality AAA first-party exclusives one full year into the PS4 and Xbox One’s lifecycle.
A dispiriting number of AAA titles released in various states of disarray and/or on fire.
A Valkyria Chronicles PC port.
Yeah…2014 was a weird year.
I’d be a liar and a fool however if I said 2014 as a whole was a flub. Among the burning car crashes and potatoes that were passed off as games, the last 12 months brought us quite a few impressive, functional and genuinely surprising titles. While there were many titles on my radar, a handful naturally didn’t make the cut by virtue of me not finding the time to play them (Sorry, Titanfall, The Talos Principle, Divinity: Original Sin, etc.)
That being said, part of my year was spent righting a few wrongs which, being a lifelong gamer, have haunted me for years. For one, I finally stuck with Ocarina of Time (the 3DS remake) and saw it through to its now classic, celebrated conclusion. I also got to experience the sheer insanity and mind-boggling meta-commentary that is Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, a now classic example of auteurship in video games.
But enough of that. This is about 2014 after all, not decade old games! First off, here are a few titles that, while impressive in their own right, didn’t make the shortlist. Nevertheless, these deserve a mention (and you should probably play them):
– Astebreed (PC)
– Bayonetta 2 (Wii U) (I’m only 2 hours in but DO IT)
– Transistor (PS4/PC)
– Hitman GO (iOS/Android)
– Super Time Force Ultra (PC)
– Gang Beasts (PC)
– Broforce (PC)
– Threes! (iOS/Android)
– Year Walk (PC)
– Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (Wii U)
– Monument Valley (iOS/Android)
NOW. Onto the list!
10. THE FALL (PC)
Next to persistent online worlds and catastrophic launches, Kickstarter campaigns have sort of become the latest craze in video-games, for better or for worse. A quick glance over at the crowdfunding platform reveals a handful of popular, over-funded projects bearing coveted developers of yore or ties to an established franchise and about twice as many deserted ideas. Suffice it to say there hasn’t exactly been an incredible amount of success stories, let alone completed games that have emerged from the crowd-funding platform.
Enter The Fall, an episodic side-scrolling adventure game from Vancouver studio Over the Moon. While only the first episode is currently available and no concrete details regarding how future episodes will roll out have been revealed, what’s currently there is incredibly compelling. Not unlike last year’s The Swapper, The Fall lays on the atmosphere extremely thick and sets out to tell an involving story that’s not only mysterious and occasionally very funny but also happens to shape up into one of the year’s best. While the combat isn’t anything to write home about (despite having some of the most satisfying headshots of any game this year), The Fall‘s intriguing setup, an AI controlled suit in a race against time to save its human pilot from death, and brisk plotting make up for its shortcomings. The wait for episode 2 is already excruciating.
9. MARIO KART 8
Aggressive Rubber Band AI? Check. Annoying ink and lightning bolt items galore? Check. Not one but TWO Rainbow Roads? Check. Check. Check. CHECK. Aside from an underutilized anti-gravity gimmick and a few new items, Mario Kart 8 is just that; another Mario Kart game.
So why the hell couldn’t I stop playing it?! By far the most immediately alluring aspect of Mario Kart 8 is its slick presentation, from its great sense of speed and colorful HD graphics to its lively, guitar-laden soundtrack and chaotic in-game sound effects. The folks at Nintendo continue to showcase their artistic prowess in an HDMI world; their flagship racing series (Sorry, F-Zero…) has never looked better than it does here, running at a buttery smooth 60 frames in single player. More importantly, the kart racing itself feels incredibly responsive and remains as frenetic and enjoyable as ever, with a nice variety of gorgeous locales to race around. Most surprising of all however, the game’s online multiplayer not only works but also happens to be lag-free and incredibly addictive.
Simply put, Mario Kart 8 is the best Mario Kart game in a long time. Just don’t try Battle Mode…
8. SHOVEL KNIGHT
Yet another successful Kickstarter title, Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight is, in many ways, the perfect homage to a bygone era. With an appropriately driving chiptune soundtrack and a meticulous attention to detail within its vibrant pixel-art aesthetic, Yacht Club Games have done a fantastic job paying tribute to the classic games that have left such an indelible mark on them.
What’s most impressive about Shovel Knight however is simply how good it feels. Platformers live and die by their, well, platforming (one of the key reasons I never really enjoyed the LittleBigPlanet series) and Shovel Knight is no chump in this regard. Similarly to Team Meat’s excellent, teeth-grittingly challenging platformer Super Meat Boy, Shovel Knight does its best to kill you over and over again and, while it never reaches the cuss-filled tantrums of the former, it equally avoids being cheap or unfair; every death is a direct result of your own actions, not of some unseen or unpredictable projectile or rabid rubber band AI.
Just as the retro platformer market is starting to feel crowded and devoid of life, Shovel Knight arrives to prove that there’s still some fun to be had in Mega Man knockoffs, especially when they’re injected with this much style and precision.
I’ve never gotten into Collectible Card Games. Sure, I had Pokemon cards, Digimon cards, Yu Gi Oh cards and even a Magic: The Gathering deck growing up but I mostly appreciated them for their aesthetic, never really taking the time to learn their respective rulesets.
So how did Blizzard’s Hearthstone become one of the deepest time sinks of the year? Simply put, Hearthstone is incredibly approachable. It not only sports an incredibly gentle learning curve but also gives even new players incentive to mess around and experiment with different card combinations. Before I knew it, I was deep into deck customization and preparing my latest traps and onslaughts. Even better, Hearthstone sticks to an incredibly fair Free-To-Play model, doling out an impressive amount of content free of charge. It may feel a bit bare-bones or simple to veterans of CCGs but Hearthstone is nevertheless an enticing proposition for both newcomers and fans alike.
Your pulse is racing. Nothing stands in your way apart from an orange, sword-wielding man, aching to end you. You’ve reached the final door and yet victory feels so far away. You embrace this challenge and charge ahead. The man pulls back his sword and launches it at your yellow head. You narrowly roll under its arc and trip the orange man before snapping his spine with your bare hands. You enter the final room to cheers and celebratory chants from the bleachers, a sense of accomplishment finally washing over. You let out a concentrated burst of joy and do a victory lap across, reaching a perched cliff. Standing atop it, you feel ecstatic; you’ve just spent over 20 grueling minutes trying to reach this cliff and those cheers. Nothing can ruin this moment. Noth-OH GOD IS THAT A GIANT FLESH WORM?!
Nidhogg is a game of duels, stripped down to its barest, leanest essentials. You will scream. You will shout. You may even cry. But you can never escape the flesh worm at the end. Have some friends over, grab a beer or six and prepare to ruin some friendships.
5. MIDDLE EARTH: SHADOW OF MORDOR
I expected Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor to be a colossal mess. There, I said it. While it looked nice, its gameplay seemed incredibly derivative of other popular titles, its open world sounded like a haven for useless collectibles and its signature Nemesis system, while genuinely novel and fascinating on paper, seemed like yet another PR move to instill more buzz in a Lord of the Rings property. I mean, there’s no way they’d actually go through with a system as full-fledged and intricate as that one, right?
I wish I had bitten my tongue. Not only is Shadow of Mordor‘s Nemesis system as fully-featured as Monolith claimed it to be but navigating through a constantly shifting hierarchy of unique and uniquely disfigured Uruks allows you to craft your own incredibly personal, venomous tales. While the game’s opening portion is a bit of a slog through open world basics and the game’s story missions are unfortunately bankrupt of ambition (one mid-game mission is a Caragor riding tutorial…a full 10 hours in), the dynamic adventures and seething vendettas which occur between Talion and any Uruk of your choice, as well as between the orcs themselves, form an infinitely more riveting and rewarding experience. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor may not be revolutionary in any other aspect, but its one new trick is absolutely stunning and worth seeing through. I look forward to seeing it in other games.
4. VALIANT HEARTS: THE GREAT WAR
Valiant Hearts has a lot of issues. It also has some truly jarring tonal shifts, haphazardly cutting from somber, powerful moments to lightweight sections involving cartoonish antagonists. Some of its puzzles feel overlong and incongruous with the rest of the experience. One of its more promising key characters is given the most derivative of back stories. At a bit over 7 hours, it also feels a tad too long, especially given its other shortcomings.
No, Valiant Hearts is by no means a perfect game and yet, even in spite of its numerous flaws, Ubisoft has crafted a truly heartfelt experience like no other. A gorgeously stylized and yet equally harrowing glimpse into arguably the least glamorous of wars, Valiant Hearts wisely turns its focus on the brave civilians who fought hard and long through World War I to survive such atrocities as trench foot and mustard gas. What follows is an incredibly personal and mostly on-point tale of survival, love, camaraderie and loss rife with emotional resonance.
That Ubisoft has finally found a way to tastefully implement collectibles is a staggering achievement in its own right; each collectible serves as a nugget of history, giving context to the many items you’ll interact with as well as providing some truly fascinating history lessons on an oft-forgotten war. Never exploitative and almost always genuine, Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a game worth seeing through to its jaw-dropping conclusion. Don’t forget the tissues.
If Valiant Hearts was a sobering take on war and a reflection on the sheer bravery often required of its unwilling participants, Luftrausers is the amphetamine-munching distant cousin who can’t get enough of Top Gun’s badass aerial dogfights. An arcade-style aerial shooter set on a 2D plane (heh), Vlambeer’s latest is about as slick, smart and simple as they come; you choose your plane’s loadout, you take it to the skies and try your best to outlive the ever-expanding swarm of aerial and sea crafts while taking as many down with you in the process.
What makes Luftrausers so endlessly replayable and addicting however is its incredibly varied level of customization and rapid progression; swapping plane engines, body parts and weapons becomes integral to success, with many of the game’s later challenges relying on your ability to mix and match accordingly. Better yet, each change done to the plane’s core parts is reflected in the game’s intense, grimy theme song. Did I mention how absolutely insane this game looks and sounds? Luftrausers‘ audiovisual presentation, from its sepia pixel art to its bombastic, teeth-clenchingly wild soundtrack, elevate what’s already an incredibly fun experience into a sensory assault that cannot be passed up. Now if you’ll excuse me…I have some more blimps to shoot down. *swallows handful of pills*
2. WOLFENSTEIN: THE NEW ORDER
I really wish more developers were as smart as Machine Games when it comes to revisiting age-old yet nostalgic franchises; Wolfenstein: The New Order may very well be one of the liveliest shooters I’ve played in years. Not content with simply telling another loosely construed revisionist history tale, Machine Games have gone the extra mile by crafting an engaging underdog story with a pulse and somehow finding a way to humanize its lead protagonist, the infamously named B.J. Blazkowicz. It’s truly impressive just how well directed and animated The New Order‘s cutscenes are; taking on the form of a pulpy revisionist tale of vendetta akin to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds with a small dash of Malick-ian existential poetic musings, it’s an absolutely enthralling ride from beginning to bloody end.
While the emphasis on narrative is an enormous leap forward for the franchise, Wolfenstein: The New Order also sticks to its guns where its series’ strengths are concerned; the act of unloading on Nazi scum and their mechanical monstrosities. In this respect, Machine Games have retained many of the series’ old-school mainstays while offering some subtle, modern tweaks such as the ability to carry every weapon at once or the sheer joy of dual-wielding devastating automatic shotguns which take up most of your field of view.
More surprising however is just how satisfying The New Order‘s stealth component feels; sneaking around and carefully knifing or silencing commanders while finding alternate routes to circumvent large shootouts is not only a possibility but sometimes a viability. If you’re spotted however, Wolfenstein: The New Order does little to penalize you, instead offering you numerous tools of destruction while transitioning naturally from quiet sneakiness to wanton carnage.
I never expected a Wolfenstein title to show up on my top 10 list, let alone in 2014. Machine Games has proved me wrong and I now anxiously await their next project. Kudos for making Nazi-decimation fun again!
1. SOUTH PARK: THE STICK OF TRUTH
There were a ton of reasons to be wary of South Park: The Stick of Truth‘s success; Obsidian Entertainment’s surprisingly shoddy track record regarding performance issues and bugs, numerous last-minute delays mere weeks before a release date, a chaotic development cycle that involved the dissolution of a publisher and a court battle with another, a history of borderline terrible South Park games. The list goes on and on! Let’s face it. Licensed games are notoriously bad, partly due to their protracted development cycle and a lack of passion that’s usually intrinsic to this field.
I consider myself a big South Park fan, having grown up around the show and still watching it to this day. Even if consistency isn’t the show’s strong suit (and really, how many shows remained consistent for 18 years), Matt Stone & Trey Parker still manage to craft some truly exceptional slices of pitch black satire at least a handful of times per season.
South Park: The Stick of Truth is the first game written by the duo and that much is made clear right from the very start. Gone are the low-res audio bites ripped and removed of context from prior games, instead replaced with original voice acting from the pair and an expansive script that feels right at home with the best the show has to offer. In fact, everything about the game’s presentation is staggeringly accurate, from the show’s quasi-cardboard cutout aesthetic to the brilliant use of the show’s bumper music every time you load a saved game. Obsidian Entertainment have gone to great lengths to replicate the show’s look and feel to its most minute details and the result is not only impressive but absolutely commendable.
What’s most surprising however is just how well the jokes and the gameplay coalesce into one extremely funny whole. Using a JRPG framework reminiscent of Chrono Trigger, The Stick of Truth manages to be a fun, albeit simple, game rife with humorous references to the show’s world as well as some hilarious jabs at modern game design. If its gameplay only exists as a vehicle to tell more jokes, it also manages to be a fun and highly customizable, if breezy experience.
Not only does South Park: The Stick of Truth completely rewrite what’s to be expected of licensed games; it manages to be one of the most lovingly crafted bits of fan-service I’ve ever seen, representing everything a fan would possibly want, old or new, without being obnoxious about it. This is the quintessential South Park game many have been waiting for, a densely plotted and consistently riotous journey packed with surprises and collectibles worth seeking out. A round of applause is in order for Obsidian Entertainment and South Park Studios, who went through hell and back to get this game made. Be thankful they never gave up.