Monday, January 12, 2015

Best Games of 2014

I own all three current generation video game consoles, and the one that had the best slate of games in 2014 was... the Wii U. Most people probably didn't expect that, but that's how things turned out. The PC was also a great place to play games, but if the only thing you have is a PS4 or an Xbox One, I honestly feel bad for you. Most of the games on this list were not exclusive to one platform, though, so everyone had plenty to play.

Best of 2014

10. Sunset Overdrive (XBO)

It's great to have the old Insomniac back. By my reckoning, this is their first good full length game with a real sense of fun since 2009. Overdrive's punk rock attitude doesn't always work, with some of the humor falling flat and feeling a bit out of date. On the other hand, we got a AAA game that involved such plot points as forging a magic sword in a nuclear reactor and throwing a concert to make some sick kids happy, so there's something to be said for just trying weird ideas out. The combat and weapon system doesn't work as well as the great Ratchet and Clank games, but the game looks and plays great, especially when you're usually the extremely fun traversal mechanics to make the whole city your playground. I liked this game a lot, and if they get to make a sequel, it could be truly great.

9. Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker (Wii U)

This spin-off of Super Mario 3D World takes the look and basic building blocks from last year's game and turns them from a party platformer into an adorable, often genius little puzzle game. Captain Toad can't jump or throw fireballs, but he uses his wits, some throwable items, and the ability to look at the world from any angle to solve dozens of small, inventive levels. I pursued the extra items more than I usually do in Nintendo games, because the fun of it is truly in exploring every nook and cranny to see what the designers managed to cook up. It's a bit light compared to some of the meatier experiences this year, but almost every moment is a pleasure.

8. Jazzpunk (PC)

If you played and enjoyed Blendo Games' oddball retro espionage adventures like Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving, you have an idea of whether you might like Jazzpunk. It doesn't have the narrative deftness of those games, but it does expand on the general idea while also stuffing every corner of every level with some truly bizarre and usually hilarious bit of comedy. Some of it's clever, some of it's referential, all of it is stranger than what you're used to seeing in video games. It's no surprise that this was published by Adult Swim. It doesn't have deep, satisfying gameplay, but the few hours it lasts are a comedic blast.

7. The Fall (Multi)

I usually don't include unfinished games on these lists, but I made an exception for The Fall. This is partly just because I'm not sure that subsequent episodes won't be released as separate titles, but also because despite it ending on a cliffhanger, it feels like a complete experience. You play as an AI controlling a space suit with a disabled pilot inside, your goal to get him medical assistance before time runs out. It has some simple yet effective combat and puzzle mechanics, but what makes The Fall really work is its dark (but not humorless) atmosphere and its story, where you have to subvert expected AI behavior in order to meet your goals, leading to some great cerebral questions about your priorities and some well executed twists. It's a few hours that will be hard to forget.

6. Wolfenstein: The New Order (Multi)

The New Order begins poorly with a boring opening sequence, but once you get past the scripted part and start the real game, you start to realize how much there actually is here. Lots of situations let you take a stealthy or guns-blazin' approach, and both are a ton of fun. Sneaking past guards, throwing knives, taking out commanders before they can radio for reinforcements is a blast. So is pulling out two of almost any gun in the game, from assault rifles to shotguns to even sniper rifles, and destroying everything that passes in front of your eyeballs. The story is also surprisingly good, with a fun alternate history setting, lots of well-executed moments, and human relationships you can actually believe in. MachineGames was founded by former Starbreeze developers, and they seem to have maintained their ability to create engaging, unique first person shooters.

5. South Park: The Stick of Truth (Multi)

The Stick of Truth is the most I have enjoyed South Park since... let's say season 9, back in 2005. I still watch the show, but the video game captures its spirit perfectly, and provides more laughs, shocking moments, and flat-out charm than the show actually has in a long time. It expands on the show's idea of the town as an ersatz Middle-earth, and drops references to tons of great moments from the entire run of the series, without ever feeling like it's only dropping references to something you already like. It's also a light but mostly fun RPG, with an enjoyable battle system that holds up through the game's 15 hours, and tons of fun side missions and collectible items (which also always reference the show). The actual show this year didn't knock my socks off, but The Stick of Truth reminds me that Trey and Matt still have a ton of ideas left in them.

4. Shovel Knight (Multi)

As someone who doesn't actually have a lot of reverence for the action games of the 8-bit era (just a bit before my time), Shovel Knight had to earn my admiration by itself, but it did that handily. The closest analogue is definitely Mega Man, but the influences are obviously from all over the place in that period. You play as Shovel Knight, who must travel through dangerous lands, avoiding traps and monsters, in order to defeat the Enchantress, save the world, and get a ton of treasure in the meantime. The level design is smart and devious, the art and sound direction know when to shirk the strict limitations of the hardware they're paying homage to, and the many boss fights are always fun. I also have to mention that the story is surprisingly effective, conveying a grand sense of adventure and smaller human moments with some pretty basic text boxes and animations. The year's best new old game.

3. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (Multi)

And this year's best adaptation of the work of J.R.R. Tolkien is not the latest (and probably last) big budget epic film by Peter Jackson, but an action game by a revitalized Monolith that combines what works from the recent Batman: Arkham and Assassin's Creed games and tosses out what doesn't. It takes place between the two Middle-earth stories we all know about, and has you playing a fallen ranger who is forcibly joined with an ancient elf spirit and let loose on the hordes of orcs roaming around Mordor. The story is pretty poor and best when ignored, but the game is pretty great. Sneaking around, group-based combat, and open world structure are all familiar, but also executed very well, and the nemesis system that everyone talks about is terrific. Any orc who manages to defeat you in battle is promoted into the command structure, which can be investigated, exploited, infiltrated, and ultimately defeated in your quest for revenge. It's a cool system that buoys an enjoyable game, and will hopefully be stolen and improved for years to come.

2. Valiant Hearts: The Great War (Multi)

What's amazing about Valiant Hearts is that it presents a cute adventure story and depicts the horrors of one of history's most devastating wars without either really contradicting each other. The animated art style looks tremendous, and provides the basis for the gameplay, where you navigate battlefields and occupied villages, solving entertaining puzzles and doing what it takes to stay alive and see your family again. The game is packed with historical details that make it educational as well as entertaining, and the game also knows how to handle the weight of its setting, especially when you get to its brilliantly handled ending. There's also a cute, helpful dog in most of the levels that you can pet.

1. Bayonetta 2 (Wii U)

I liked the first Bayonetta, but I didn't love it. It was tough to find a good balance of challenge and agency in the combat. Bayonetta 2 nailed this for me though, and the result is one of my favorite pure action games in years. The core fighting mechanics feel great, the weapons are diverse and well balanced, and there's enough variety to easily carry you through the whole game and leave you wishing there was more. When it tried to explain the convoluted story I got bored, but the more immediate moments in the plot are more enjoyable and provide some incredible set-pieces, and I actually found myself emotionally affected by a specific point near the end. It's fantastic Nintendo was willing to do what it took to make sure this game saw release.

Delayed Entry

This is the best game that wasn't released in 2014 but I didn't play until then.

The Swapper (Multi)

I liked The Fall a lot, but it was actually only the second best existential sci fi side scrolling puzzle game I played in 2014. In The Swapper you are marooned on a mysterious space station, where you have to create clones of yourself and jump consciousness between them to solve puzzles, try to figure out what the hell is going on, and hopefully escape. So basically you win by killing yourself over and over. The very premise of the game is deeply unnerving to me. It's smart, moody, difficult in that great puzzle game way, and unforgettable.

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