I usually do things up much grander than this, but I'm too far behind to do up proper best presentation, best art direction, best gameplay, best performance posts. So let's just cut to the chase.
2014 had some standout originals, a ton of excellent indies (as usual) and some up-ports I'm really happy to have on my preferred devices. These are the best games of 2014.
yay for ports
Just as an aside, 2014 was a pretty big year for up-ports from the previous generation, across both the PS4 and Vita. Some people present this as proof positive that 2014 sucked. Those people are wrong. I would like it on record that I am thrilled to have Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition, Grand Theft Auto V, Tomb Raider Definitive Edition and The Last of Us on my PS4, and perhaps more pleased to have Dead Nation, Resogun, The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth, The Sly Trilogy and the God of War collection on my Vita.
Among all those heavy-hitters, if someone threatened to take away all of 2014's up-ports save one, and I could pick the one, I'd be hanging on to the Ratchet & Clank collection on my Vita - it is my most-valued up-port of the year - but please don't take Resogun or The Sly Trilogy or GTA V or TLoU, imagined bully! I love them.
Super good-looking and a lot of fun.
Classic gameplay, modern design, genius execution.
The act of playing this game is humbling and hilarious. Very special.
Beautiful presentation, zen-trance music and an uncompromising platforming challenge.
Everything a sequel should be. Bigger, better & more beautiful.
A wonderfully-presented throwback to action-platformers of old.
A darkly romantic survival puzzle Roguelike.
Not bad! It's great at orc-killin'. I cut off so many orc heads.
Simplicity personified and razor-sharp.
Resident Evil 4 had a kid with Silent Hill and it's pretty incredible.
GotY time is always when one realizes they haven't played nearly enough in the past year. I should have tried out Danganronpa, which nobody can stop talking about. I wish I had a Wii U so I could have played Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and Bayonetta 2, which - from what I hear - are both stellar. I wish I'd had the time to look into Tales of Hearts R or Freedom Wars on my Vita, but I made my bed, and now I find myself lying in it. Still, even having missed all that excellence, 2014 gave me a ton of titles to be very thankful for. These are my top ten games of the year.
|- 10 -|
Every year, there seems to be one C-list game that ends up capturing my cynical heart - a game with okay graphics and a cheerful, irrepressible spirit that zips past my defences and endears itself to me (Lollipop Chainsaw, Wet, Dead Island). This year's entry is Akiba's Trip: Undead & Undressed, a silly, sweet open-world RPG-brawler in which you win the day by stalking the streets of Geeksville, Japan and stripping the populous naked. The game's earnest writing, endearing characters and total willingness to have fun and be entertaining above all other concerns makes it one of my favorite games of 2014.
Seriously. Chain strips never get old.
|- 9 -|
The inFamous franchise has long excelled as an open-world action game where the moment-to-moment gameplay is the most thrilling, pleasurable thing about it. Where just running around and getting in to and out of trouble are more fun than any of the missions the developer has planned for you. That beautiful design was a bit muddied in (the admittedly gorgeous) inFamous: Second Son, where the act of running around Seattle was a lot less fun than it had been in previous games. Enter inFamous: First Light.
First Light corrects almost every misstep of Second Son, but the most important part is that the game's fun factor is leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor. Here, the cityscape is an open-world platforming dream as you launch yourself from rooftops to soar hundreds of feet before crashing into the pavement in an explosion of rippling neon light. With a more involving story, a better hero and more satisfying abilities, First Light is as an inFamous game should be - a dream of power and freedom.
|- 8 -|
Supergiant Games bring their now-trademarked mini-perfection to bear once again, and Transistor is at title that layers excellence upon excellence. It's an indie, which too-often mark games as sub-par in one aspect or another (usually presentation), but in Superguant's case, it only means the game can be beaten in a few hours. What you get in that few hours has been crafted and refined and polished to a mirror triple-A shine, within its little isometric perspective. Music, art, narrative, gameplay, depth of strategy - it's exemplary, in every facet.
|- 7 -|
I don't think anyone expected a Wolfenstein game to be around for GotY discussion, but The New Order, from young studio MachineGames, blew expectations out of the water while feeding in to our perception of what a Wolfenstein game should be. The series, born as a purely single-player, pulpy, gory revenge fantasy against the Nazi menace, is re-imagined here as... a purely single-player, pulpy, gory revenge fantasy against the Nazi menace - exactly what we want from the name. Its lurid, exploitive violence and soaring, beautifully fleshed out alternate-history fantasy is balanced by these repeated moments of deeply grounded humanity from its hero and those he would protect (while we're on the subject, if I did a Best Performance post this year, second place would go to Brian Bloom as BJ).
Using id's Tech 5 engine permitted MachineGames to let the game look gorgeous and run beautifully on every platform, and as you're appreciating its triple-A production values, great story and strong performances, you find yourself playing a beautifully arcadey, twitchy, old-school shooter in which the only way to get to cover is to move yourself behind it.
It's the FPS you imagined, when you played FPSs as a kid - just with bigger set-pieces, alt-fires and dual-wielding. Man, writing this just made me want to play it again.
|- 6 -|
That is to say, Fishy Tales of the Nekomata, A Cause to Daikon For, A Spirited Seven Nights' Haunting and Hell's Where the Heart Is, all taken together, as one complete experience. I'm not usually big on DLC, and this is the first time an optional piece of content for a completed game has ever appeared on my GotY deliberations - because this DLC is spectacular.
Like the Undead Nightmare content for Red Dead Redemption, the Genroku Legends DLC - which explore traditional Japanese folk tales within the framework of 2013's sumptuous orgy of flawless 2D visuals, amazing music, stylish combat and soaring melodrama, Muramasa Rebirth - requires and demands the player approach combat in an entirely different fashion with each new character. The heroes' combat styles range from exceedingly familiar with an entertaining twist to almost-completely alien, all of which make the smooth, silky combat of Muramasa feel fresh and inviting, again.
And then there's the stories themselves. Developer Vanillaware have always excelled at making bigger-than-life, operatic narratives resonate with the player, and with the Genroku Legends DLC, the developer cycles through themes and genres with grace and aplomb, bouncing from dark-tragedy to tragi-comedy to heroic-tragedy to dark-sex-comedy - deeply moving and hilarious in turn.
Wonderful, fresh gameplay, new stories with real heart and love and laughter (an excellent localization from Aksys Games!), Vanillaware's impeccable visuals, Basiscape's spectacular music, and content that can last you from twelve to a hundred hours - Genroku Legends is like a gift.
|- 5 -|
Obsidian Entertainment, who gave us western-developed rough-gem RPGs Alpha Protocol, Fallout: New Vegas and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, teamed up with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who've helmed South Park's crude, biting satire for nearly twenty years to make a South Park video game that felt authentic to the show. The result is probably the single best popular-property-to-video-game transition of all time.
The game plays like a full season (or more) of the show itself, with everything - the music, the look, the writing, the voices - genuinely identical to an episode of South Park. When characters move, they move the exact same way. Their facial animations are identical. You can literally see the texture of the construction paper - and that's just the beginning.
The Stick of Truth is far and away the most complete, polished game Obsidian have ever made, thanks in part to it being a much more focused effort than their previous work. With breezy but constantly-involving combat (in which your warrior can Roshambo their enemies, and, if perfectly-executed, kick them in the nuts so hard that everyone who sees it suffers the grossed-out debuff) and a story that goes out of its way to be as abjectly crude, creative and weird as possible, The Stick of Truth is the most constantly-entertaining game of 2014.
|- 4 -|
Full disclosure: I just finished my first playthrough of Inquisition last week, with a bit over a hundred hours invested.
I avoided the game earlier in the year (in favour of GTA's new-gen up-port) on the grounds that I never felt a Dragon Age game had really delivered on its promise, or potential. Origins was better than good, but its combat was a hassle. II looked great and had better combat, but it forgot that the point and purpose of a fantasy RPG is exploring a fantasy world.
Inquisition, despite the offputting name, is Dragon Age's promise, kept. It is the BioWare of Mass Effect 2 and 3 - BioWare at its best, in which combat feels tactical, precise and rewarding. Its environments are absolutely stunning, each sprawling zone offers the player dozens (!) of hours of content, exploration and story. In that exquisite experience only an RPG can offer, you feel not only a real sense of power and progression as you move from Anonymous J. Nobody to Grand Inquisitor Badass, who braves uncharted deserts and frozen wastes, who literally judges people while sitting on a throne, who plays James Bond at exquisite Orlesian balls, but you feel that you are in fact having a direct and meaningful hand in the direction of nations.
You'll never forget your first hike through the Emerald Glades, but moreso, you'll find yourself deeply invested in the relationships you have with your in-game allies. Its weird and wonderful characters feel more flawed - more human, more sympathetic, more relateable - than the developer has ever managed before, making you feel terribly guilty should you find yourself hurting their feelings, and making it terribly difficult to fall in love with only one of them (while we're on the subject, if I did a Best Performance post, Robyn Addison would win for Sera).
It brings to mind all the adjectives we normally apply to their better titles, but Inquisition is not merely BioWare at the top of its game - it's BioWare pushing past it, and offering something grander, more luxurious, more moving, more detailed, more involving than they ever have before. With its occasional bugs and occasionally ineffective animations yanking you from the experience, it's not perfect - but you can tell the storied developer is, as usual, within striking distance.
|- 3 -|
Along with South Park, Dark Souls II is an excellent reason to keep your PS3 plugged in.
"These are supremely beautiful, romantic games - deeply sexy, in all but the literal sense. The narrative, such as it is, is a pallid, secretive creature that only suggests the contours of its context, and coquettishly refuses to fill in the gaps - gaps that the player cannot help but paint full of passionate tones with their imagination.
-from the review-
It does so much with so little - with merely acceptable graphics tech pushing absolutely magical art direction, with a wisp of a story commanding so much mystery, dread and intrigue, with a simple combat system that spins out into a dizzying degree of depth - and cows all pretenders to its crown.
Dragon Age has all the trappings of an epic fantasy game with its ridiculous amount of content, entertaining, bickering companions and vivid little touches, but Dark Souls II has the soul."These ruins are ancient, and hold some unknowable power," your mage friend will tell you in Dragon Age. Dark Souls doesn't say anything. As soon as you see such a place, you know. You can feel it in the stones and hear it on the wind. Among the soaring spires and vertigo-inducing ramparts of this old beauty, within its darkest corners, evil has taken root and grown confident in the absence of good men and women.
|- 2 -|
Remember towards the end of Alien, when Ripley is in the hallway and the thing is like right on top of her but she stays quiet and tries to hold her breath and death is so close and it's like oh my God but she's able to slip away?
Alien: Isolation is twenty hours of exploring a brilliantly-realized world, with that feeling every ten minutes.
It's a perfect example of what can happen when a developer has a vision and refuses to compromise, and a publisher is willing to let them see it through. First: this is not Aliens, in which you bravely fight off waves of creatures with advanced weaponry - it is Alien, in which you must use your wits to survive against a predatory "perfect organism" who's famished. Second, it is a painstaking recreation of and iteration on the "lo-fi sci-fi" universe Ridley Scott created in 1979.
Its conduct and mechanics are entirely in service to the vision Creative Assembly had for what an Alien game should be - that is, a terrifying survival experience - and in pursuit of that, they offer a game that brings to mind the legendary BioShock, in which your environment is a tool and a weapon - ripe for exploration and rewarding for the effort as you discover story logs, hack terminals and pop open fuse boxes to turn off the air scrubbers in this area, permitting you to slip past your enemies. It's a survival-horror game, where resources are scarce and your weapons are, at best, tools - incapable of actually hurting the creature that hunts you. It's a stealth game, in which silence, patience and misdirection are your greatest weapons - permitting that panicked idiot at the end of the hall to unload his revolver at you without response, because you know something infinitely more effective than a bullet heard the shots, and will slip out of an air vent behind him in three... two... ohhh that had to hurt.
"Because the creature is so unpredictable, because the rooms are often so porous - there are always vents to slip in to and lockers to hide in - the gameplay never feels less than tense. You can never anticipate what will happen when you load up your latest save, because the Alien will stubbornly refuse to replicate any of the five ways it just caught you - it'll do something new.In combining these oft-disparate genres, Isolation pings the same pleasure receptors that thoughtfully-created worlds like Dead Space, BioShock, Thief: The Dark Project and Dishonored offer. By relying so heavily on survival and stealth, though, it feels like nothing else - and part of its success is how thoughtfully they've iterated on the Alien universe.
Isolation, then, becomes a game about learning the rules of its stealth - and your arsenal of toys."
-from the review-
"The Creative Assembly understands the Alien universe with greater clarity than any Alien film that followed Ridley Scott's seminal 1979 work. They get it. They broke it down and got to the why of every choice made."
-from the review-
It is as if the first film never ended, and we were permitted to walk off the deck of the Nostromo to continue exploring its dark world of function-over-form wonder which is then lived in by flawed, human creatures. Combine this with Isolation's frankly gorgeous graphics engine and perfect sound design, and you have something incredible.
"That is the entire experience of it - feeling like Ripley. Feeling like you're inhabiting that world, that universe - and that you have an unstoppable ultra-predator drooling from both of its mouths at the thought of your tender human flesh the whole way. It is the Alien game gamers have dreamed of, and Creative Assembly have given it to us.
Rare is the triple-A game that is so laser-focused on what it wants to be, and rarer still is the game that accomplishes it in such style - and Isolation is stunningly well-realized. It's an excellent survival-horror-stealth-adventure, but more than that it's a first-person frayed nerve-dive into the universe, the style, the feeling of one of the defining science fiction horror tales of our time.
An instant classic."
-from the review-
|- 1 -|
With Far Cry 4, Ubisoft refused to fix what wasn't broken. It is, at its core, exceedingly similar to the fantastic Far Cry 3 - just with a lot of welcome little tweaks and additions, Its story is less involving, to be sure, mostly because hero Ajay Ghale is almost entirely lacking in personality, and doesn`t go through the same pissing-scared-coward to king-of-badasses journey that Jason Brody did in 2012. FC4 doesn`t tread any meaningfully new ground, it doesn`t blend genres and mechanics to startling effect, it won`t make you think of video games in a different way, but it does one thing better than any other game in 2014.
Fun. And it plays beautifully.
It stands among this year's other major triple-A entries - Alien, inFamous, Wolfenstein - in terms of excellent overall presentation, but it outpaces everything on fun factor.
The bane of all open-world games is the fact that, more often than not, the side activities are shit. Some games address this by making them meaningless (Assassin's Creed), while others keep experimenting in the hopes that they'll land on some that work (inFamous: Second Son). Far Cry 4 does not suffer that. This is not a game in which you open your map, scan the objective icons and disregard most of them because they're crap - this is a game in which every single thing on that map is something awesome. Something you can't wait to try. Something rewarding. When the game offers you something new, you've grown so confident in Far Cry 4's intentions that the answer is always yes. When the game asks you to pick up some packages at point A and deliver them to point B - something that would be mundane and uninteresting in any other game - the answer is yes. Yes please, and thank you - 'cause this is gonna' be awesome.
As in the best open-world games, what happens on the way to whatever thing you've chosen to do next is half the fun as the game's AI goes on about its business, throwing around vicious eagles and honey badgers, the evil Royal Army forces, the rebellious Golden Path and the terrified local populous.
The game has too many moments to describe. Too many beautiful moments of stalking animals (and other prey) through sun-dappled forests, a trusty bow at the ready. Of gripping the wheel of a rickety truck festooned with Nepalese-inspired kitsch, pulling up a grenade launcher - like say, that grenade launcher in Terminator 2 - and firing it through your windshield into the vehicle you're pursuing. Watching the plume of flame, seeing the Jeep flip end-over-end, flying overhead as you swoop beneath it, pulling up to the next truck and leaping from the driver's seat to take your blade to the poor shlubs inside with a tap of R3.
You'll do some crazy secret-agent shit. Some Arnold-Schwarzenegger-in-True-Lies shit. You'll leap from mountaintops and soar. You'll walk along the beaches of Shangri-La.
The game permits a countless number of perfect action beats through its AI, animation and presentation, and how effortlessly the player is able to interact with them - how smoothly it lets you clap your blade through a foe's chest, draw his sidearm while using him as a human shield and land headshots on his buddies. That's not to say the game is easy - it's not, and much more challenging than Far Cry 3 (the more satisfying for it) - but it's still a game whose focus is to permit the player to experience and dictate this spectacular action. To effortlessly realize their most crazed action-hero intentions.
The truly amazing stuff - stuff that would be locked within a cutscene in any other game - is not only possible in Far Cry 4, it's a matter of course in a game that lets you swan dive from a clifftop, open your wingsuit and soar across a canyon, close your wingsuit and plummet onto an enemy knife-first, then notch an explosive arrow in your bow as you stand.
It's colossal, with over thirty hours of gameplay if you don't pace yourself, and much, much more if you do. It's gorgeous, far exceeding the art direction of FC3 in favour of a distinctly Tibetan aesthetic, with all the beautiful spiritual trappings that entails. It's challenging, with its grandest fortresses demanding a unblinking poise and perfectly measured violence from the player. It plays like a dream - but the fact that it suffers no real weakness is not the point.
It's so much fun, and it is the only game on this entire list I could recommend to anyone with a PS4, secure in the knowledge that they are going to love it.
But it's not my Game of the Year. And so...
|- g a m e o f t h e y e a r -|
"I've been waiting for you to talk about Don’t Starve. What do you think about it?"What a difference a year makes. What a difference is made by a Vita version of Klei's latest symphony of design. The ability to carry the game with me everywhere permitted me to stretch out with it, get to know it - fall in love with it. And yes, it requires an investment. And no, it doesn't spend its time worrying if you get it or not, 'cause Don't Starve is all like
"I like it, but it seems to require an investment it doesn't... earn? I guess is the word? ...it's very successfully-Roguelike in its barrier to entry. It doesn't hand hold - it doesn't actually seem to want you to enjoy yourself."
-Chamberlain & Chance
|-click here for the Don't Starve review-|
It is, specifically the Giant Edition, on Vita, that is my Game of the Year, and it's worth noting that the Giant Edition is inarguably the worst version of the game, from a technical standpoint. You'll start seeing slowdown when enough is happening onscreen - when it's running a hundred tiny simulations because you're too close to too much, or when you and your hired pig men have felled a forest of trees - but that's a small price to pay for a small version of such a... huge game.
|(He is flammable!)|
And I know it doesn't look it, when you see screenshots, when you see a bit of gameplay. It doesn't look big or even large - it looks like some little nothing - but Don't Starve is absolutely colossal, once you're finally able to perceive its actual proportions. I won't try to illustrate it, because it may well be impossible, but let me say that the amount of content in Don't Starve, the amount to learn and discover and master, the byzantine behaviors of its AIs, the way this item is a key to that, absolutely boggles the mind, and I am nowhere near its master.
Don't Starve hides the truth of its brilliance, the truth of its incredible breadth and depth, the truth of its rewards well away from those - like me - who would pick up the game, paw ineffectually at its inscrutable surface and put it aside in favor of something more accessible. And accessibility's not a bad thing - it's part of why Muramasa works so well and part of why Far Cry 4 plays so beautifully - but if Don't Starve began with an hour-long tutorial, it would rob the player of its greatest rewards, and rob the game of its purpose.
"Don't Starve wishes to be "an uncompromising wilderness survival game," and in that it is entirely successful. That objective purposefully withholds the accessibility of most any other game, because the soul of its experience is, yes, being lost, but then finding. Of learning, for yourself, how its flora and fauna interact and can be turned to your profit. Of exploring the terrible, lethal unknown and letting that fear burn away in the face of discovery is the entire point.
Our instincts shriek at us to stay back from that spider's nest, but only by stepping forward can we learn, for example, what happens when you step on a spider's nest.
For weeks, I refused to drop myself into a worm hole because who knows what the hell those things do - probably something awful - as nearly everything in the game is a two-sided coin, with death on one face.
On the other side is, invariably, one aspect of your salvation, if you'll earn the knowledge to wield it."
-from the review-
|The best way to fight off insanity (which, yes, is a stat you must maintain), is with a dashing sense of style.|
There is much to learn and much to know. In Don't Starve, even the trees have their secrets, and a player who is wood-wise can take a pine cone and turn it into a forest - which turns out to be incredibly rewarding.
Again, it makes an abysmal first impression. Your experience begins with nothing but frustration and failure, in which you poke everything in the world and observe how it will poke back with lethal ferocity, obliterating your progress via highly-educational tragedies, forcing you to start over - but that education is crucial to instilling a healthy understanding of just how keen the edge you teeter upon is as you make your way across its world.
Death can come for you at any time. Death wants you, in Don't Starve, and if you don't die to its satisfaction, it will send a pack of baying hounds to hunt you down and kill you. That is not a metaphor. The hounds come like, once a week.
|Fight a single hound unprepared, and it's not much of a fight at all. It'll just kill ya'.|
And challenge is underrated. It's a big part of why Dark Souls is so damned awesome - and like Dark Souls, Don't Starve is not a game about getting killed by impossible foes and impossible odds - it's about what it feels like when you overcome the impossible, and survive. Once you've won that education - once you don't merely know how tenuous your survival is, but feel it in your intestines - once you understand it and Don't Starve clicks open for you, the game explodes.
In its wilderness, every day lived is a victory, and its random, abject weirdness ensures you're never short on seductive opportunities for profit and immediate threats to your personal safety.
What this gives the player is a game in which every choice is a big choice, and of every game I played in 2014, only Don't Starve is so constantly engaged with the player. To put it another way,
every other game is boring by comparison.Once Don't Starve cracked open for me, no matter what else I'm playing, I find myself disappointed by how inconsequential most of my actions truly are, and how little my choices truly matter. In the back of my mind, I'm considering what my next move in Don't Starve should be, because is the only game that's so... honest.
It is the friend who tells you when you're being a dick. Those are the best friends.
|Success in such a gritty game requires a gritty gamer.|
Are you a bad enough dude to survive winter?
Here, the smallest choices are pregnant with potential and danger.
The spring rains are falling, and my grass farm is growing like mad. Should I harvest another sixty tufts, or spend the day slaughtering spiders from the nests I planted in the eastern plains? The spiders produce a crucial component for my healing salves - which I'm running low on - but if I don't harvest the grasses now, it'll be the middle of summer before I know it, and the grasses will wither and die in the drought... Okay, I'll harvest the grasses. Perhaps another crop will grow before the season ends.It can only have such meaning by being so dizzyingly complex, and so ostensibly cruel. When you win the day in Don't Starve, it's never because the game wanted you to show you the next cutscene and give you a trophy and tell you how awesome you are - it's because you earned that shit.
Ah, the Beefalo are here. ...and they're in heat. Stay back, Chester! They're all hopped up on wanton bovine hormones - they'll slaughter you if you get close. My God, look at all the butterfly carcasses. Wait, actually, come here. Give me my other hat. There we go... now I can become one with the herd. Stay here, I'll be right back with the grass.
Its victories, its adventures, its mysteries and discoveries still seem endless, to me. Just yesterday - for the first time in the four months I've spent with the game - I finally learned how to fight Tallbirds. A trial of necessity - they guarded the last clutch of good mining boulders on the surface of this terrible world, and I had never successfully dueled one before. In Don't Starve, when such a risk could mean an end to a half-year's worth of in-game progress, it is not a simple proposition.
But wading into what will surely kill you, without being quite sure what you're doing? That's Don't Starve. Coming out the other side of one of your countless insane gambits against this game's brutal mystery, alive and more dangerous for it?
That's the best game of the year.