2014 was a pretty wretched year for the video game community that saw some incredible unsavoury behavior directed towards people in the industry from a vocal but niche group of gamers who were feeling increasingly threatened by challenges to the status quo over the representation of women in gaming. Although their profile has diminished somewhat in recent months, they still remain an active community, targeting the outspoken and lashing out at them with personal attacks. It has bee a sad and sorry chapter for the video game industry.
In general, there also seems to be a building sense of frustration that this generation of consoles (the PS4 and Xbox One in particular) has yet to deliver the desired level of improvement that was anticipated over their predecessors. Storytelling in high profile games such as Destiny remains disappointingly shallow and rudimentary. Graphically, a lot of titles struggled to maintain a steady frame rate or deliver a noticeable increase in fidelity over last gen games. Games such as The Master Chief Collection and DriveClub have launched missing key features or in a semi-functional state. There is a disappointing lack of creativity or progress in most major titles. There wasn’t really a flagship game in 2014 that captured the imagination of the gaming community collectively. The big new IPs like Ubisoft’s Watch_Dogs and Respawn’s TitanFall felt underwhelming and were quickly forgotten.
Although 2014 was pretty lacklustre for gaming as a whole, there was still plenty of terrific individual games that I can look back upon. Games like Bravely Default: Flying Fairy on the 3DS which offered fans of JRPGs a chance to experience something that felt straight out of the Square Enix vintage of the Nineties. Games like Valiant Heart which offered a clever and creative way to educate players on the first World War. And even games like Destiny, which, for all the shortcomings it had in the storytelling department, still offered a compelling gaming experience once you cleared Level 20 and entered the post-game.
Anyway, here it is. My ten best games of 2014.
Destiny is ever-changing.
At launch, when I anticipated playing some magical hybrid of Mass Effect, Halo and World of Warcraft, I felt crushingly disappointed with what I got. A terrible story, forgettable characters and four barren planets that suggested a game that would have limited replayability.
Over a hundred hours of gaming later and its safe to say I’ve been hooked by the peerless shooting mechanics and the relentless grind towards capping out my guardian at Level 32. The game is a weird mix of skill (in combat), planning (which activities you do daily to harvest the necessary Ascendant materials) and luck (the dreaded RNGesus who randomly doles out new weapons). Bungie have periodically introduced patches to change the game experience that I have both appreciated (the boost from 5 to 10 bounties on the go, a more generous RNG and the new model for exotic weapons) and some that I haven’t (the new parameters for acquiring Legendary weapons blows).
At launch I wrote a review and rated this game 2 stars. I haven’t been able to stop playing since. Destiny is one of the most devisive games I can ever recall. I was once one of the detractors. Now, I’m a believer. Destiny wasn’t quite what I thought it would be, but Bungie has still crafted a memorable experience.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
As a huge fan of the original Donkey Kong Country games on the Super Nintendo, I had great expectations of Retro Studios’ new instalment on the Wii. For some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, Donkey Kong Country Returns didn’t quick click with me. I think it mostly boiled down to finding the controls unnecessarily fiddly on the Wii remote. I wanted the pin point accuracy and immediacy of button pressing. I hated having to shake the remote to get DK to barrel-roll.
Happily, the controls have been remedied with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, a game with more conventional controller layout. Once you get settled into the play mechanics (Donkey Kong still handles noticably different to more fleet footed characters like Mario, Ratchet or Rayman) you are in for a treat. Tropical Freeze is a game that has everything you’d want out of a platform game. It has gorgeous and colourful environments to traverse. Thoughtful level design that is challenging but not unforgiving. The bosses are wildly diverse in design, requiring concentration to learn their patterns and eventually defeat them.
Platform games don’t enjoy the high profile that they once had in the Nineties and as a fan of the genre, I take what I can get. With Tropical Freeze, what I got was one of the best platformers I’ve ever played. A pleasant surprise after the disappointment of Donkey Kong Country Returns.
Dangan Ronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
Dangan Ronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is a weird and wonderful interactive story, akin to Phoenix Wright in Japan or The Walking Dead in the West. The set up for the story is attention grabbing to say the least. It’s basically an amalgamation of ideas from Battle Royale, The Hunger Games and Phoenix Wright. Twelve new students enter Hope’s Peak Academy expecting to start their first year of university. Instead they discover that they have been cut off from the outside world and are forced to enter a murderous game of survival. The twisted ruler Monokuma explains that if any of the students can murder their peers and successful trick the rest of their classmates in a trial by jury, they will be allowed to leave.
The game itself delivers plenty of plot twists, edgy humour and court room battles that are pretty similar to the excellent Phoenix Wright series by Capcom.
In a year that gave us plenty of ho-hum, me-too titles, there wasn’t much out there that compared to the content in Trigger Happy Havoc.
Mario Kart 8
Game of the Year
Mario Kart 8 won’t win any awards for innovation. It’s been a gradually process of iteration since the first game power slided onto the Super Nintendo 21 years ago. And yet Mario Kart 8 is so supremely polished in its presentation, so generous in its content and so endlessly fun to play, that it stands as one of the best gaming experiences I had in 2014. The Wii U is a game console operating on decade old hardware architecture and yet the team at Nintendo EAD have crafted a visually stunning game that wowed fans with its butter smooth frame rate, colourful racing tracks and hilariously animated kart racers. An enduring video game meme from 2014 was the infamous Luigi death stare that he fires off when he blasts his hapless opponents with turtle shells. This game oozes character and charm. It’s the best of the year for me.
The Last Of Us: Left Behind
The Last Of Us was my favourite game of 2013 and one of my favourite games on the Playstation 3. In 2014, Naughty Dog gave us a little bit more in the form of Left Behind, a new short story DLC. Left Behind didn’t just give us more of the same. It tells the story of how Ellie bonded with a friend Rilee before she ever came across Joel. Naughty Dog shows this bond and friendship through a series of charming, interactive sequences where the two girls play together and goof around. This quiet serenity is juxtaposed with a more action-centric sequence in which Ellie has to escape a shopping mall with medical supplies for Joel by wiping out an army of bandits. The action sequences give us more of the great play mechanics of the original game. But its the sequences with Rilee and Ellie that are the highlight. These moments have a tonal and narrative sophistication that is practically unheard of in the industry. It reminds us that Naughty Dog are absolutely at the forefront of storytelling in the industry. In fact, Left Behind suggests they are so far ahead of the pack, I don’t expect the others to catch up for many, many years.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War
This was a pleasant surprise. I’d never heard of Valiant Hearts during its development. I just downloaded it on a whim when it popped up on the Xbox One dashboard.
Valiant Hearts is an educational puzzle adventure which follows the fortunes of four people in the first World War. There’s a chef, an African-American solider, a nurse and a German with a loyal dog. None of them are world-conquering bad asses that turn the tide in the war. They are just one of the millions affected and force into conflict. Its a wonderful tonic for anyone burnt out on the Michael Bay influenced stylization of war that we see in the Call of Duty series.
Each chapter of the game is interspersed with educational cheat sheets about different facets of the war – medicine, famine, children, refugees etc.
The puzzles in the game are designed to be gentle challenges. Most should be solvable in a matter of minutes and shouldn’t require the help of an FAQ. The meat of the game is getting engaged with these four personal stories, each tinged with the sadness and horrors of war, with no guarantee of survival. In fact, the beautiful but morose art style and the somber narration often had me recoiling in anticipation that one of these characters wouldn’t make it to the end.
Valiant Hearts is a thoughtfully crafted game about war and the feats of heroism by ordinary people.
South Park: The Stick of Truth
In the fifteen year history of the South Park cartoon series, there has been many, many gaming iterations about the boys from Colorado. They’ve almost always been uncomfortable amalgamations with ill-fitting genres. Kart racers. First person shooters. Pin ball games even.
What fans have always craved is an actual South Park game that looks like the cartoon (surely not a big ask in this day and age?) and one that captures the anarchic fun of a typical episode. At long last in 2014, Obsidian delivered a fantastic South Park RPG, co-written by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. It is an impeccable piece of fan service featuring virtually every character from the show’s history (including Cornwallace) and looks exactly like the show.
The Stick of Truth was an fantastic satire of role playing games and brilliantly captured the trademark humour from the show.
After the poor sales of the original game and indifference from prospective publishers, we never thought we’d get a Bayonetta 2. Salvation came from the unlikeliest source – the typically family friendly Nintendo. I’m glad they did however as Bayonetta 2 shows Platinum Games at their creative best.
For the uninitiated, Bayonetta is a sort of spiritual successor to Devil May Cry and the reigning queen of spectacle in the action game genre. The first level of the game has the eponymous witch standing on the back of a fighter jet, battling demons from another dimension as a hailstorm of bullets and explosions envelope the entire city. I repeat – thats the first level. It only gets crazier from there.
Bayonetta 2, like the original, is a game with a highly sexualized and fetishistic tone that is mixed with religious and spiritual iconography. Bayonetta herself is an all-conquering, take-no-names bad ass who has gun-stilettos and spars verbally with the men in the game constantly, trading barbs about gender and who is the alpha.
It’s certainly not a game for everyone but for fans of action games and edgy characterization, look no further.
The Walking Dead: Season 2
The first Walking Dead game developed by Telltale Games was a sensation back in 2012 and my pick for Game of the Year. In 2014, we pick up the story of Clementine and her ongoing struggle for survival. This second season brings back a couple of characters from the first season and introduces a host of new ones, including a Governor style character that we’ve seen previously in the comic book and tv series. The game is not as revelatory the second time around but its still highly enjoyable fare. Clementine remains my favourite character created by Telltale and I really enjoyed the journey her character took in this game. I had a bit of good luck with the choices I made in the story and it ended up crafting an excellent redemption story for one of the most divisive characters in the first game.
Telltale have branched themselves out pretty thin with the licenses they’ve taken on (Game of Thrones, Borderlands, Minecraft) but I hope they make time to return to The Walking Dead for a third season. A final season in which Clementine completes her transformation into a fully independent adult would be most welcome.
Bravely Default: Flying Fairy
Square Enix, the company credited with popularizing the JRPG in the West, is in miserable shape. They took an age to release the critically savaged Final Fantasy XIII, confounded fans by making two further sequels for it, and they still have no fixed released date for Final Fantasy XV (formerly Final Fantasy XIII: Versus) – a game that has been in development for eight years.
But despite the disappointment and frustration, somewhere in the company exists the talent that is capable of putting together a rock solid RPG that fans remember them for. The most recent example is the excellent Bravely Default: Flying Fairy, a game that blends the classic turn based mechanics of JRPGS in the Nineties with some fantastic modern touches – the excellent Brave and Default battle system that allows you to stack multiple attacks, an adjustable scale for random battles and the ability to change the speed of battles which makes level grinding a cinch.
The game veers into an ill-advised sequence of repetition towards the end but overall, Bravely Default is a wonderful callback to the glory days of Square.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes – a tantalizing short snippet of what we can expect with a next gen Metal Gear game.
Alien Isolation – an incredibly faithful game that captures the look and feel of the first game. Could well have been a top ten game but I haven’t had a chance to play it fully.
Shadows of Mordor – an open world Middle Earth game that cribs its play mechanics from the Batman Arkham series. Not particularly inspired but a lot of fun.
Inazuma Eleven – a football RPG on the 3DS completely with levelled characters, random (football) battles and more.
The Last Of Us Remastered – more of the same, but prettier and with a cool photography mode
Hyrule Warriors – an excellent blend of Koei’s classic Dynasty Warriors game and Nintendo licensing
Little Big Planet 3 – Bend delivered a fantastic iteration of LBP on the Vita a couple of years ago and they’ve done it again with LBP3. Like Alien Isolation, this could’ve cracked the Top Ten if I had more time to play it in 2014.
Previous Games of the Year
Top Ten Video Games of 2013
Game of the Year – The Last Of Us (Playstation 3)
Top Ten Video Games of 2012
Game of the Year – The Walking Dead (Xbox 360)
Top Ten Video Games of 2011
Game of the Year – Clash of Heroes: Might and Magic (Xbox 360)
Top Ten Video Games of 2010
Game of the Year – Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360)
Top Ten Video Games of 2009
Game of the Year – Uncharted 2: Amongst Thieves (Playstation 3)
Console of the Year – Wii U
The Wii U never really got out of the blocks or came close to capturing the sales and mind share that is famous predecessor did. But against all expectations, it not not only weathered the storm of Xbox One and Playstation 4’s arrival in the last twelve months, it actually thrived. With no drop in hardware price, it fell to Nintendo to deliver the goods on the software front and thats exactly what they did. 2014 was an exceptional year for the Wii U with a host of great games – Smash Bros, Mario Kart 8, Hyrule Warriors, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, Bayonetta 2 – all of which of course are exclusive to the system. They also added some great Gameboy Advance titles to the Virtual Console platform and they released the hugely popular and high addictive Amiibo range at the end of the year. As a result, sales went up, gamers raved about the system and it was my most played system of 2014 and the one I garned the most enjoyment from.