It’s that time of the year again, when it’s good to think back over all the games I’ve played throughout the year and appreciate all the good experiences that I’ve had with videogames. Admittedly though, 2014 has been a bit of an odd one, with a lot of waiting around for “next-gen” games to materialise and a whole bunch of stuff getting disappointingly pushed back to 2015. It gave me an opportunity to play some back-catalogue on the PS Vita and the Wii U was given several moments in the spotlight with some really standout games releasing throughout the year. This year I’d already decided to change my usual format before Destructoid announced their categories, but I might as well plagiarise and come up with my own winners and runner ups, along with my own two categories near the bottom. The usual caveat applies though, I’ve not played through every single game released in 2014 (obviously) and some notable omissions that I intend to play next year include: Dragon Age: Inquisition, Wolfenstein: New Order, Danganronpa, Danganronpa 2, Persona 4 Arena: Ultimax. So if your favourite game isn’t included, my apologies, I either haven’t played it or in my opinion it missed the top spots for these categories; although feel free to leave a comment as I’d love to know what I’ve missed. Also, I’m still in the middle of playing Bayonetta 2, which I’m enjoying very much and will give a great review at some point. Anyhoo, onward to the winners in their various categories!!
Shadow of Mordor borrows a lot from already established games such as Assassins Creed, for the open world template and terrain traversal, and the Batman Arkham games for the counter-based combat. The reason why it escapes its generic trappings and wins this award is because of the utterly genius “nemesis system”, which really felt like a true next-gen feature had finally turned up in a videogame. Killing the antagonist Orcs only to have them return battle scarred from the way you had dispatched them and remembering exactly how they snuffed it the first time ‘round was fantastic, even better when they got one over on you and were promoted as a result, making them a worthy adversary to extract some revenge upon. This complex system running in the background revolutionises the “feel” of an open world game and makes all those NPCs wandering around into something more personable and real. I expect to see it copied in future videogames.
A runner up in this category has to be Transistor, which has a wealth of excellent mechanics working in unison to make what could have been a simple hack’n’slash game into something much deeper and more rewarding. The (turn) based combat and all the upgrades and augmentations from combining sets of items were utterly fantastic and addictive! P.T. might seem like a strange choice, since the “mechanics” are basically walking about and looking at things, but I’ve giving at a runner-up spot for the pure fact they made an enjoyable and terrifying experience lasting a couple of hours in nothing but an L-shaped corridor!! *That* is genius game design in my opinion.
When I decided to play Alien: Isolation, I first psyched myself up by watching the original 1979 movie, and thus was utterly gobsmacked upon firing up the videogame for the first time. Painstaking effort has been put into faithfully recreating this sci-fi universe right down to the minutest detail, and it really feels like a genuine sequel to the motion picture. That alone might cause me to give Alien: Isolation this award, but the development team went further and spent a *lot* of time on the lighting, atmospheric effects, sound design and the structure of the environment to create a real character in the setting of Sevastapol. The shabby derelict deep-space station might be a fictitious work of science fiction, but it feels familiar in lots of ways and is often analogous with our current financially unstable times; the tale of a successful business and community falling into ruin as the result of economic collapse is all too close to home.
As a glimpse of “next-gen” open world building Infamous: Second Son might not have done anything shockingly different, but it did do the familiar really bloody well. The city of Seattle is lovingly rendered into the perfect playground for your superpowers and the missions throughout the game make great use of its verticality both above and below ground. Dark Soul II is often derided for its inferior world building compared to its forebears, but people often forget that while it might be a step down from the first game it’s still head and shoulders above many others (although arguably Lords of the Fallen gave it a run for its money this year).
I missed The Last of Us the first time ‘round on PS3 and this year was a good opportunity to see what all the fuss was about with The Last of Us: Remastered on PS4, replete with all the downloadable content including Left Behind. Suffice to say, I was blown away by the storytelling and characterisation, and for my money it’s still one of the best games available on Sony’s consoles. The DLC is surprisingly good as well and really opens up the character of Ellie, shedding new light on several sequences of the main story and adding a further layer to the themes explored in this excellent videogame. The Last of Us: Remastered is also important because it showcases how to construct a “cinematic” gaming experience without taking anything away in terms of gameplay, control/agency or sandwiching the entire experience between big black bars. I hope there is never a sequel, it’s perfect the way it ends, and should be preserved as a modern classic.
Despite all the ups and downs, mainly downs, I’ve stuck with the Final Fantasy games through thick and thin over the years, but in my opinion the best game in this series since Final Fantasy X is actually Bravely Default. Some of the reasons for this are mechanical, the battle system for instance is superb, but on a simpler note this game was great because it gave us a solid story and great characters to drive the whole thing along; and this has been sorely missing from modern Final Fantasy games. Dark Souls II might seem like an odd choice, but despite being a step down from its predecessors it still didn’t compromise and present us with a straight up narrative (like Lords of the Fallen) and there is still the joy of piecing the story together yourself by using environmental clues, dialogue from characters, and item descriptions. Or, like me, you can watch Vaati Vidya.
When I started writing this blog entry I thought about taking this category out, since I just don’t play many online multiplayer games. Then it clicked, I’ve played *loads* of multiplayer games this year, but they’ve mostly been locally on my WiiU, and the cream of the crop in my opinion has been Mario Kart 8. One of the reasons I pick up Nintendo’s consoles is that at some point I know there will be a new entry in this series released, but I couldn’t anticipate that the eighth entry would be the best one yet. It’s just so much fun to race, both on and offline, but best in a four player split screen as you howl with laughter shelling each other up the backside. The two-player split screen is also great fun, looks beautiful and runs like a dream! Nintendo released some DLC for Mario Kart 8 that I would *highly* recommend picking up too, as it adds in eight new tracks and three new characters, for quite a low price. If you go online at the time of writing you’ll find loads of Links screeching around the F-Zero circuit; brilliant stuff.
Super Smash Bros. for WiiU has caused me to go out and buy little plastic figures once again. An absolute blast to play in local multiplayer as you smash the snot out of each other, this is a game that was designed to be enjoyed with others; the ability to add in an Amiibo AI companion further adds to the hilarity. At the moment I’m training up my Link and Marth to be able to fend off the psychotic Kirby of my significant other, and jumping into team-based scraps with your Amiibos against someone else and their Amiibos is multiplayer like no other, just pure unadulterated fun!! Another game that I discovered this year through an updated ‘remastered’ edition is Soul Sacrifice Delta, which is kinda like Sony’s answer to Monster Hunter (I’ve not played Freedom Wars yet and concede that it might be even better – gonna play it in the new year on my PSTV) only I’ve enjoyed it *much* more than Capcom’s game. It’s good fun to grab a couple of other sorcerers and battle giant demonic beasts, and has that crack-like addictive loot-dropping character customisation focus that really grabs me and keeps me playing.
Every year I do these Game of the Year lists I always feel it’s a crying shame that some of the best experiences I’ve had in the year go unmentioned because they’re older games I’m just now discovering, even if they might be the best things I’ve played. A videogame falling into this category is Persona 4 Golden on PSVita, which I’m actually still playing at the time of writing this blog entry; and *loving it*! Undoubtedly, this I one of the best videogames I’ve played in a long time, and I’m kicking myself for taking this long to try it (especially since I’ve had the original PS2 version sitting on the shelf and in my backlog for years now). A lot of praise is heaped upon this series and it has gathered a vast cult following, after playing both Persona 3: FES and now this newer entry I can certainly see why. An eclectic mix of social-sim and JRPG there is very little like it and I’m so hooked I’ve currently dropped all other games just so that I can spend all my time with it. I’ve picked up a PSTV console now too, so I can play on both the large screen HDTV as well as on the PSVita, swapping the save file back and forth across PS+. Sublime.
When I finally got hold of a PSVita this year, the first thing I did was pick up all the games in its back catalogue that I missed upon release, and one of these was the fantastic Gravity Rush. Similar to the Infamous games, this videogame presents you with an open world in which you have awesome super powers. However, using the PSVita’s unique control scheme setups Gravity Rush controls and works in quite a different and unique fashion to most other games in the genre, and I had an absolute blast playing it. The story is excellent too and the graphics looks *stunning* on the small screen (can’t PSTV this one due to all the touch and motion controls). I can completely understand why it has such a strong following and I’ve not joined the ranks of those praying for a sequel. Make it happen Sony, on PSVita again please!
Here it is, Game of the Year 2014, and for me the obvious choice was Alien: Isolation, as I can’t remember being as gripped by another game all year, and it received the highest rating from me in my review. I love a good survival horror game, and I love difficult games that present a challenge of the mind, well this game delivered on both. An example of a meticulously crafted game, the AI controlling the Alien was sublime and the reward for learning it’s behaviour patterns and successfully navigating a level was akin to beating a challenging boss in Dark Souls. The atmosphere, lighting and sound design also really stood out for me, as well as the fact the game felt *solid*(I don’t remember encountering any glitches or anything that would take me out of the experience), which was somewhat rare for 2014. It was a long and gruelling experience, but one that I would happily play through again at some point, or go back to tackle the survival missions such as the original 1979 Alien scenarios.
If you had told me The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth would be one of my most played games at the start of the year I wouldn’t have believed you, but here at the end of 2014 I’m still occasionally dipping in and out of its procedurally generated dungeon. I’d not played it before it was given free with PS+ and I was surprised at the insane replayability of this videogame, not to mention the high level of challenge; at this point I’ve died a ridiculous number of times and completed the game only twice! I love the art direction, hilarious sound design, interesting and disturbing themes, and being able to share save files between my PS4 and PSVita, ensuring it never really leaves my side. Another standout game for me was Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, which swooped in under my radar and provided my first glimpse at something approaching “next-gen” this year. Never mind that the game was exceptionally well made and polished, and that the ‘nemesis system’ was all it alleged it could be, the game was just a *lot* of fun. I never would have thought that a game based on Tolkien’s license could be such a high quality product and genuinely be one of the best games released this year. Great, great, game (only just missed the number one spot)!