Friday, January 02, 2015

20 Games I really dug in 2014

OK - so here's the real deal. As usual, I tossed all preconceived notions to the wind, didn't rank according to score or preference, just slapped together this list of 20 games I had a great time with in 2014...

20 Games I Played and Loved in 2014
(... in no particular order)

Dark Souls II – Dense, diverse, and relentless. Even with the razor sharp teeth of Demon's and Dark filed down to be merely “very very pointy”, Dark Souls II remains a beautifully executed game that focuses on slow and steady exploration, character building, and learning through experience. No other series is really quite like it, and while it's not for everyone, Dark Souls II's subtle changes under the hood make it just that little bit more accessible. Whether it stands up artistically to its prequels will likely be debated for years, but it's an amazing piece of work irregardless, and one of the best games of the 7th generation. If you've held off until now – there's a version hitting PS4 and XboxOne in the very near future...

Destiny – Bungie's “shared world” shooter may have divided many critics, but I for one found it to be a wholly original, beautifully executed experiment that combines stunning technical feats woth Bungie's awesome penchant for world building and gob-smacking design. It's not an MMO, nor strictly a shooter, but a unique hybrid of both genres that manages to stand on its own. Above all else, it feels empowering, and allows you the player to take the role of an interstellar bad ass with friends or without. I don't say it often, but this is very nearly the perfect game, and undoubtedly would be the Blast Processing collective's unanimous choice for game of the year, 2014.

Watch_Dogs – Ubisoft made waves a few years back when it demoed a very early version of Watch_Dogs at E3 and stunned a totally unsuspecting crowd. It went on to become a poster child for Next gen gaming, There's no way in hell the game could withstand the level of hype that followed. What Ubisoft delivered however was a refreshing spin on the GTA formula that featured a hacker vigilante rather than a hardened thug. Sure the gameplay was “open world 101”, but the city of Chicago was beautifully realized, and the storyline really set the game apart from its peers. I actually prefer it to GTA V's narrative-lite sandbox, and I make no apologies for that.

Lords of the Fallen – One of the teams at Polish Developer CI Games has clearly played the 'Souls' series, and with a talented bunch of veteran artists (including guys who worked on the superlative “The Witcher” series) they've not only managed to give us gaming's first “Souls-like”, but they've made it one hell of a great game to boot. Harkyn's quest to destroy the titular lords isn't one of the most detailed or narratively brilliant romps, but the fantastic combat mechanics, flexible customization, abundance of cool gear and weapons, and truly stunning artwork make this one a must play for fans of a good action adventure title. It's decidedly more accessible, while still maintaining that unforgiving difficulty the Souls games are known for. There's already a sequel in the works, and I hope that in a decade's time, the “souls-like” genre is a thing, especially if the games are all up to this quality.

Dragon Age: Inquisition – Bioware's return to medieval fantasy can only be described as a resounding triumph in pretty much every respect. Stunning visuals, great characters, gob-smackingly expansive worlds to explore, and a great plot that unfolds with a deliberate pace. Inquisition is everything you remember from the golden age of Pc RPGs like Baldur's Gate and Fallout, but presented with true next gen panache. Plan for at least 75-100 hours to be devoured, and don't make your first sitting any less than 3 hours. This one isn't a game for power players who just want to tick off objectives on the way to the next cutscene, this is a world that you need to get enveloped in. Hats off to Bioware on this one, they've really outdone themselves in a colossal way.

Shovel Knight – Yacht Club's successful kickstarter rubbed me in pretty much every wrong way initially. The idea of a knight with a shovel instead of a sword, the retro throwback nature of the game, which is getting a tad overdone, and the side-scrolling “Duck Tales” looking gameplay. The end result however is anything but lackluster. The gameplay is a hodgepodge of everything awesome in the 8-bit/16-bit era, and in truth it feels like one of the first retro throwbacks to embrace modern design ideas rather than go “slavish reproduction” with warts and all. It's a big game that combines elements of classic Capcom, Castlevania, and even Mario with precise controls and off the wall humor. It's charming as hell, fun as hell, and feels just right. All hail the Troupple king!

Alien: Isolation – Pure abject terror. That's what the guys at The Creative Assembly have managed here. Tension, fear, death. On top of that, they've also created the most memorably terrifying setting this side of Bioshock's Rapture, a beautifully atmospheric space station that echoes the tone and tropes of Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi classic that serves as its prequel. You play as Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen, as she journeys to Sevastapol Station in search of the black box from the mining ship Nostromo. Rather than gaining insight into the whereabouts of her missing Mother, Amanda comes face to face with the same terrifying force, and it is indeed terrifying. Elements of the aforementioned Bioshock, and even Metroid work their way into what is undoubtedly one of the most beautifully realized game-from-movie titles ever conceived. Sure, as a group we might have chosen Destiny, but Alien: Isolation is a very strong contender for Game of the Year in my own book...

Assassin's Creed: Rogue – The yearly battery of Assassin's Creed titles took a bizarre turn in 2014 when Ubisoft decided to drop Rogue exclusively to last-gen consoles (for now) while Unity carried the 'next gen' flag. To those who loved last years 'Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag', Rogue is just what you're looking for. Naval combat, ship building, exploring the staggeringly gorgeous (especially for antique hardware) North Atlantic, and an extremely cool protagonist in Assassin – turned – Templar, Shay Cormac. You get some familiar faces, and even a fair amount of backstory on characters from the series' past in the “modern day” chunks of the story. Overall it's a great and worthy entry in the series, and ties up the “Americas” section of Assassin's Creed in fine fashion.

Wolfenstein: The New Order – Newcomer, Machinegames, headed by several guys from Starbreeze studios (they gave us The Chronicles of Riddick, The Darkness, and Syndicate) have re-booted Wolfenstein as an alternate history shooter wherein Nazi Germany has marched on North America. A lengthy single player centric game with some great visuals, great weapons, and above all, a thoughtful and very well told plot, succeeds in such spectacular fashion as to make 'The New Order' one of those games from 2014 that no one should really miss. This is the third time Wolfenstein has been kicked off from scratch, and it's probably the best the venerable series has ever been. Don't miss out!

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare – What? A Call of Duty title Steve? Really? Yup. Based solely on a single player campaign that is one part techno thriller, one part James Cameron action spectacle, and with a diversity in the campaign that hasn't been seen in Call of Duty... well... ever, I have to applaud this one. Sledgehammer wisely ignores the woeful sci-fi steps taken in Black Ops II and reboots “Future-COD” with their own vision of PMCs, powered exosuits, and high tech weaponry that more closely resembles the phenomenal Killzone series than anything that's come from Call of Duty in the past. There's also a fantastic villain played by Kevin Spacey, and enough diversity in the bad guys to keep things interesting throughout (except maybe for the final mission). It's the best game in the series since the original Modern Warfare in 2007.

Driveclub – Evolution studios took a lot of fire over Driveclub when it launched (in what I'd consider to be unfinished form), but once the bugs were ironed out and the first big content patch hit, Driveclub, in its finished form, is really quite a thing. For car fans, it's about the purest “driving” experience you can get on a next gen console, there's no open world shenanigans here, just hardcore racing that straddles the line between sim and arcade rather well. It is also one of the most beautiful looking games ever, and undoubtedly the most staggering driving game ever conceived from a visual standpoint. The 'tour mode' is also addictive as hell as you struggle to earn just one more star, and shave seconds off of lap times. Top that off with a robust online suite based around social interaction between driving clubs and challenges, and you've got a fantastic straight up racer.

Mercenary Kings – Tribute games was yet another face in the Kickstarter crowd this year, and much like Yacht Club Games and their awesome 'Shovel Knight', Tribute has managed to pull off 'retro ready' in style with Mercenary Kings. It's Contra or Metal Slug in all the arcadey glory crossed with an insanely deep crafting system and hints of Borderlands. Retro style mixed with modern design. There's also a fantastic approach to tone that echoes '80s action films and G.I. Joe. I had a TON of fun with Mercenary Kings, and it's well worth checking out.

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor – There are certain narrative elements one might expect to see when you encounter something with Middle Earth emblazened upon the cover, and while Shadow of Mordor does initially set things up very well, there was a distinct lack of narrative pull for me as I played through. That said, the combat feels phenomenal, the concept of a Ranger of Gondor possessed by a powerful elven wraith from Middle Earth's distant age is a very cool one, and the technical merits are nothing shy of astounding. Chief amongst the boons is the games 'Nemesis' system, which sees grunts become more powerful chiefs and even boss-like figures as they survive encounters with your Ranger. It's a brilliantly executed bit of programming, and what works well for the game easily overpowers what nitpicks I have with the narrative (being a huge Tolkien nerd). As far as Orc-slaying sandboxes go, this is the one to have.

Bound By Flame – I'm going to say this outright – Bound By Flame is NOT a great game. It's a good, solidly executed fantasy RPG that faintly echoes both Mass Effect and Dragon Age in its design, and it pleasantly surprised me with a stable of interesting characters and solid gameplay. It's also a decidedly ambitious title from a small studio on a minuscule budget, and the fact that it turned out so well in that regard deserves some praise in my mind. If you're desperate for an action RPG fix, you could do much worse. The big let down is that the whole affair feels so brief, and the narrative hits a brick wall two thirds of the way through, with an abrupt final act that feels more like a prologue to the real tale than a full game. It;s here because, yeah, I really enjoyed it. And If you dig vaguely narrative action RPGs with a Euro flair and some heavily customizable gear, you might as well.

The Elder Scrolls Online – Another big title that came and went without much fanfare, The Elder Scrolls Online does more right than it does wrong. Great character customization that echoes the Elder Scrolls “proper”, combined with emphasis on exploring a VAST world. On the upside, it feels just different enough from your average MMO, with plenty of solo content for those of us who prefer a single player game, the downside, it really lacks that “lived in sandbox” feel of past Elder Scrolls games, and instead borrows a little too much of its structure from games like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2 to really feel truely unique. That doesn't stop it from being a polished, well presented, and ultimately worthwhile game though.

Assassin's Creed: Unity – What? I know what you're saying? Isn't this a mess? Well... No... not really. Overshadowed by the technical hiccups and the resolution issues, What the general public, and indeed Games journalists failed to discover, was that Assassin's Creed: Unity is actually one heck of a solid game. The plot, set during the French Revolution, unfolds in deliberate fashion, and sets up the protagonist, Arno Dorian, as one of the more memorable characters in the series. From the amazing prologue, to Arno's time in the Bastille, and onward to his induction into the order of Assassins, Unity feels at once fresh and familiar, and in spite of the well publicized issues, the game looks stunning, both standing still and in motion, and the whole game really does a phenomenal job of adding just the right level of “flair” to Assassin's Creed's mechanics. There's more weight to the combat, more precision to the free-running, more life on the streets. In spite of its shortcomings, all brought on by just not enough time in the oven, Unity is a high watermark for the series, and a must play for fans.

Infamous: Second Son – The worst thing about Infamous: Second Son is that it came so early in 2014. It will undoubtedly be forgotten rather quickly. Sucker Punch has once again shown their skill at weaving together open world environments and some kick ass platforming, which in and of itself is a great thing, but where Second Son really succeeds is in the “good or evil” narrative choices, and in the weaving of the overall tale. Delsin is a great protagonist, and the supporting cast is equally memorable. Beyond that, the facial animations and technical prowess made it the first game on PS4 to really sock me in the jaw from a visual standpoint. I'll also say I dug the decision to get away from the more “over the top” comic art style of the first two games to settle into a more realistic style, it made it that much more relatable for me. It does get a little too mired in formula at times, a problem the first two games had as well, but when it's firing on all cylinders, which is more often than not, man is it ever awesome.

Wasteland 2 – I make no secret of my love affair of all things Fallout, but I'd never played the spiritual predecessor, Wasteland. When Inexile entertainment announced that they'd regained the rights, and started in on Wasteland 2, I expected something in much the same style. I was mistaken. Sure, Wasteland 2's gameplay is post apocalyptic, and the old school PC-RPG feel is completely intact, but underneath lies the heart of a very different beast. The story is decidedly more bleak, with a much darker, less satirical sense of humor, and the world is a ripe, wide open apple waiting to be picked. Gone are the '50s nuke-powerd tropes, replaced with a Mad Max meets Wild West sensibility. It was a very pleasant surprise, and if you're a fan of the sort of old school gameplay that hearkens back to the golden age of the PC RPG (right around 1998), you owe it to yourself to play this one.

Far Cry 4 – If you've played Far Cry 3, you know what to expect here. No, Far Cry 4's narrative isn't as thoughtful as 3's was, and our hero protagonist isn't quite so memorable, but my god, that Tibet/Eastern influenced setting is just a joy to traipse around. There's also Pagan Minh, who is a fantastic antagonist (be sure to check out the secret ending!), and that wonderful Far Cry feel to the action that is at times both frantic run and gun and strategic cover shooter. Expect to spend a lot of time exploring, and playing around with an unparalleled level of toys. Every compound you attack, every objective you meet, is a shining example of emergent gameplay at its finest. No other series manages to cast of the shackles quite so well, and while the narrative may not be up to past entries in the series, the sandbox is more expansive than ever.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War – Yet another Ubisoft entry on the list. There's not a lot I can say about this one. It's hand drawn, side scrolling, almost entirely based around simple puzzle solving, and yet manages to be heartwarming, heartbreaking, and utterly captivating as it weaves it's tale of several characters caught up in the events of the First World War. It bears more resemblance to classic titles like Another World (or Out of This World) or Flashback, but moves at a much faster and more accessible pace, And while it never outright stumps, there were occasions where I had to stop and really examine my surroundings to deal with the clever puzzles. There's also just the right mix of action stages and boss battles. Just a wonderfully executed, and creative game.

There ya have it. Any thoughts? Anything I missed? Feel free to let me know!


Anonymous said...

Great write up Steve...can't wait for the podcast. Good to hear about Assassin's Creed: Rogue. I was on the fence about that. Watched my friend play a small chunk on his 50" plasma and made me appreciate what develops can still get out of last gen hardware.

SteveTP said...

Thanks for the feedback! Rogue was really such an impressive thing; I kept thinking to myself (well outside of They totally got St. John's WRONG!) I can't believe this just might be the last "new" PS3 title I buy... and it's THIS good!

Anonymous said...

Are you active on any gaming forums? The veridct forums are really quiet now days.

SteveTP said...

Not so much, no. I've really gotten tired of what gaming fandom has become with the last two generations, It's gotten so you can't be critical of anything without starting some unholy console jihad. So I tend to keep to myself outside of Facebook.