There’s that bit in Home Alone when the church bells ring out as the clock strikes eight and Kevin has to run back home to prepare all the traps for the arrival of the wet bandits at nine. With that same moment of realisation, it’s six o’clock on new years eve and I just realised that I haven’t even posted my top 10 games of 2014. I already did my top 10 movies before Christmas, but I’ve had a bit of catching up to do as far as games are concerned. So here it is handed in before the deadline, before 2014 passes and all yearly lists will be rendered totally irrelevant.
In truth, 2014 was an okayish year for games, one that was mired by controversy with gamergate, nefarious hacking scandals and the alarming trend of the release of broken unfinished games. I remember back to this time last year and all the gaming goodness we were drowning in, The Last of Us, Gone Home, Papers Please, Brothers, The Swapper, Super Mario 3D World, Saints Row IV and oh what a fantastic year that was. This year was supposed to be the year that the next generation got up and running, but unfortunately, it hasn’t really happened yet. Sad face. Maybe next year hey?
So let’s get this list started!
10. Desert Golfing
Desert Golfing is a xen version of angry birds. It takes away all the anger, all the birds and pigs, all the colourful visuals, all the physics based chain reaction destruction and plonks you in the desert. Whilst it is, yes, a golfing game, it is free of all the pretension associated with the sport. In Desert Golfing, there is a ball and there is a hole and the infinite desert sprawling out in front of you. You must get the ball into the hole. There is no one around to judge you or laugh. The desert is indifferent to your progress, but gradually you will probably become your own most savage critic. Look deeper at the simplistic graphics and you marvel how the ball scatters sand as it drops. I’m on hole 1394 now, pass the 1000th hole and the game will start throwing things to surprise you. At one point I suddenly came across a cactus standing there all green within the orange brown hues of the desert. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen all year in gaming. I do have a screenshot of it, but I hesitate to share it with you because it is my cactus. Little things like this only compel you to keep playing and see what else the game has up its sleeve, though the desert is indifferent to your progress.
9. Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker/Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zero
The trend for many big open world games seems to be providing you with a gigantic world teaming with all innumerable activities that will take you a lifetime to complete. In someways this is become exhausting and with my time being limited, all this ingame content becomes somewhat meaningless. Luckily there is a counter trend emerging with an emphasis on smaller scale locales as a basis for richer experiences. Captain Toad and Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes are both great examples of this trend, which is partly why I’ve decided they occupy the same spot.
Captain Toad is a charming spinoff from his appearance in last year’s Super Mario 3D World. You play as Captain Toad an adventurer and collector of treasure, he is dropped into these small elegantly designed worlds and must get to the end whilst collecting any gems and other secrets. In the absence of jumping, each level is a puzzle to be solved. It contains all the ingenius level design that made last year’s game so appealing and ramps up the difficultly surprisingly towards the end, just in case you thought it was too childish.
Ground Zeroes on the other hand is a prelude to next year’s The Phantom Pain. In previous years the Metal Gear Solid demo came on the demo disc of an Official PlayStation magazine, whilst the demo for MGS2 came with Zone of the Enders and now we pay £25 to get our introduction to the latest iteration of the infamous series with Ground Zeroes. Though the game opens with a great cutscene to the soundtrack to Ennio Morricone’s Here’s to You, the cutscenes and codec conversations are kept to a minimum, leaving you to get your ‘tactical espionage action’ on. Snake now looks like a one eyed Chuck Norris and his movements feel so precise and concrete, each step having weight. It just feels so tangible along with the small base you must infiltrate. It can be completed in 20 minutes easily, but there is endless ways to replay it, which I did again and again, hence Ground Zeroes makes it one to my list.
Upon first meeting the screaming skulls of Luftrausers’s title screen, one can’t help wondering if we are supposed to be the baddies. You probably are a bad guy, it explains why everybody wants to kill you and why so many things are shooting at you. On the surface, Luftrausers is an old school arcade shoot em up, in which you pilot a lone aircraft blasting away everything and I mean everything that comes your way. Your ship will heal itself when not shooting, so you have to pick your moments during the game’s rampant always escalating trajectory to recharge shields.
Digging a little deeper into the mechanics and you quickly start unlocking modifications for your aircraft. You have three slots, weapons, engines and chassis. You start off with the basics but things become a lot more interesting when you unlock elements such as the gun engine, that fires bullets that propel your craft forward, or the nuclear bomb that explodes upon death taking everybody along with you in one massive cathartic boom that says fuck you to everybody in the world ever. Changing the build of your craft effectively changes the nature of the game, but it also modifies the soundtrack, which is just an ingenius element of the game’s exceptional design.
The soundtrack is amazing by the way.
It all plays out over a retro sepia artstyle that reminds me of that old grainy footage of the initial tests of the H-bomb. Amidst the horizon separating sea and sky, all things are exploding as if an affront to nature. Luftrausers is an angry game, as stated by the game’s developers in an illuminating article, everything is against you and you have to find time to stop firing to recharge your shields. To get really good at Luftrausers you almost have to keep yourself calm and measured against the relentless onslaught of enemy fire that fills the screen. Let go of the hate Luke. Let it go… (Oh fuck, I guess that’s a Frozen thing now). So in the end you may be playing as one of the bad guys but when the music rises and breaks into the the more heroic melody (at 1.14), your skill elevates you and your flying machine to the untouchable domain of LEGEND.
You should also check out Vlambeer’s Ridiculous Fishing on iOS and Nuclear Throne on Steam Greenlight. Their track has been largely bulletproof.
7. Middle of Earth: Shadow Of Mordor
There were two Assassin’s Creed games released this year and Shadow Of Mordor beats them both on nearly every front. It also manages to do this by being an openly gay epic fantasy set within the Lord of the Ring universe, which in this year’s gamergate climate is extremely brave. Just don’t tell any of the gamer gaters out there who probably voted this as their number one game on IGN in between sessions harassing indie game developers and illuminating ethics in games journalism.
“How can you call Shadow of Mordor gay? It’s only the manliest game of the year! It’s about vengeance, about free flowing combat and brutal finishers, it’s about domination, it’s about slavery, heavy industry and blacksmithing, it’s about scaling ghost towers erected skyward to the heavens. It’s about orcs and warriors and NO WOMEN WHATSOEVER it’s about muscles, it’s about leather, it’s about heavy armour, it’s about man filth out in the wilds hunting beasts and sleeping in tents. It’s about stabbing orcs again and again and again and again, because your just full of vengeance for the death of your virtual family. It’s about developing relationships with your enemies and manipulating the flow of power. It’s about man and man elf coming together, souls entwined to become the best of all men. Like Transformers before it, Shadow of Mordor is totally not gay in the slightest!” That’s what they’ll say.
The queer theory book is yet to be written about Shadow of Mordor and indeed all of these overly macho murder simulators. It will be an illuminating read.
Everybody marvels at the game’s nemesis system, or the means the games procedurally generates a hierachy of orcs to oppose you, each with their own unique traits and mannerisms, so let’s say something about that. The nemesis system may be one of the first trends that will come to define the next generation of video games. It has the potential to create a character out of any enemy you face in the game, in more advanced terms it begins to humanise antagonists, leading to more complex, more intimate storylines. By the end of my game, one of the orc captains had clashed so many times with me in battle, I was informed that it was painful for him to chew food. It may be the result of a clever algorithm but it feels real and a more personal grudge.
Shadow of Mordor’s central story is a bit rubbish really, and mainly a foil to the flow of the nemesis system. The stories that emerge are unique to you and always evolving. This is the reason you’ll keep coming back to Mordor. To truly get ahead, you need to know your enemies to an intimate detail.
6. Dark Souls 2
I don’t think I was ever very good at Dark Souls or Demon’s Souls, but dammit, I actually completed Dark Souls 2. Generally speaking I loved every minute of it. Well okay, that may not distinctly be true… some parts were a slog, like my first time going through Heide’s Tower of Flame or the endless losing battles I fought against the Pursuer and come to think of it, there was that bit where I lost 30,000 souls whilst venturing through the giant spider infested area of the latter half of the game. Generally speaking however, I loved exploring the world and crossing it’s many thresholds, walking forward with my shield raised cautiously oblivious to the horrors that lay ahead.
Some of the Souls purists have frowned down upon Dark Souls 2, since it lacks the influence of the series founder Hidetaka Miyazaki (skipped Dark Souls 2 to work on next year’s Bloodborne). It also included a number of elements which made the experience easier, which is depreciates the experience for the die hard fans but is great news for wimps like me – Captain ‘roll off the cliff to a bottomless drop whenever necessary’ me. If I’m honest a lot of the game’s sticking points were remedied by help from co-op buddies or cowardly chipping away at an enemy’s health with poison arrows from some blind spot in the level’s geometry. I preferred the game being more open however, it felt as if I was able to participate more effectively. I grew to love the co-op elements of spawning in fellow players and having an epic fight with one of the bosses. You defeat the boss with a mighty blow, it dies magnificently, you achieve victory and then you and your comrades do a little dance or a warcry before pointing at you and solemnly bowing to you as they vanish from your session.
I feel a lot of game designers are kicking themselves over why they didn’t come up with Nidhogg. A two player competitive sword fighting game, in which opposing players must battle each other to the death and advance ahead to the end of the level. It’s a constant tug of war which turns on a dime, players constantly gaining and losing ground all in an effort to one day reach the finish line and be swallowed by the giant wormlike Nidhogg itself. It’s benign smile perfectly offsetting the game’s tight controls and sense of drama. It simply demands two players on a couch, and preferably an audience. It may be the perfect party game, its easy enough for anybody to play with enough complexity for some truly epic fights. I think this is what video game genius looks like.
4. Alien Isolation
When Sega announced Alien Isolation early on in January, I was skeptical to say the least. After goofy sci-fi comedy Prometheus and Colonial ‘fucking’ Marines, it’s been a long time since the Alien franchise has actually delivered something with even a modicum of the greatness of Ridley Scott’s original movie and James Cameron’s shooty bang bang sequel (Alien Infestation for DS excluded). In some ways Isolation is a more effective sequel to Alien than Aliens. Taking the same stifling claustrophobic atmosphere and the familiar 70s sci-fi aesthetic and placing you within Ripley’s space Reeboks to see how you fare against the galaxy’s perfect organism. The alien cannot be killed, there are no pulse rifles, it can only be evaded by hiding and keeping quiet. If it hears you, you are dead, if it spots you, you are dead. It makes for some truly heart stopping moments. It’s not a game that you clear easily, the alien doesn’t follow scripted waypoints or patrols, it’s movements and behaviour are random and largely unpredictable, yet it always seems to know where you are going. You may go through parts of the game not seeing him, only for him to drop from an air vent when you least expect it.
The fact that Sega, of all people, released a game so against the popular grain and actually managed to get it right is quite frankly flabbergasting. I’ve written extensively about my admiration for this game in a previous article – dat alien tail though…
3. Bayonetta 2
Bayonetta was absolute bonkers, but Bayonetta 2 is something else. Once again you play as Umbra witch bayonetta a Sarah Palin lookalike with guns for stilettos, her overtly sexualised representation only matched by the game’s trailblazing committment to lunatic setpieces that really have to be seen to be believed.
Within the first 15 minutes of Bayonetta you are fighting off angelic hordes on the back of a jet plane as it weaves in and out of skyscrapers to a jazzy J-pop rendition of ‘Fly me to the Moon’. Standard Bayonetta you may think. The first game started with you battling angels on a clocktower face through a crack in time and space. But the next thing you know, you’re fighting a hulking cherubic monster off the back of a train. The monster vomits green gunk at you when it’s not dismantling the bridge behind you. But that was just a pre-boss. The real boss fight is with a giant dragon monster made out of your own hair. You fight it by sprouting butterfly wings as it clambers up the side of a skyscraper. You finish it by summoning an even larger hair monster to masticate on it. And the game only gets crazier from that point on. It may sound like a lot of flash, but Bayonetta 2 has a nuanced fighting system that dares you to maintain the offensive and building up combos with the ability to slow time after successful evades in which you can land in a couple more hundred of blows.
2. Mario Kart 8
I always had a love/hate relationship with Mario Kart. What’s the point of a game in which you can be utilising pure skill to stay ahead in a race, when some lesser skilled player can summon a blue shell to screw up your perfect run? Winning was never really the point of Mario Kart of course, it’s about the frantic wacky races styled battle to the finish line rather than who comes first. It is something the end of race highlight reel is able to capture so marvellously along with all those HD Nintendo visuals which justifies the existence of the Wii-U and then some. Mario Kart 8 looks amazing, both in its imagination of its colourful anti-gravity race courses that loop and in how it conveys a sense of speed.
Everything about the craftmanship of Mario Kart 8 is nothing short of masterful. I would also recommend the DLC which includes Link as a playable character and even a race course set in Hyrule with rupees instead of coins. Surely a smash brothers styled kart racer is next for the series?
Titanfall is the best thing to happen to first person shooters in ages. Oh sure it may be a little thin on content and some playlists have become ghost towns since the game’s megahyped release back in April, but Titanfall is still a blast to play. Mobility is one of the ways Titanfall excels above other shooters in a year where the likes of Destiny and even Call of Duty embraced the concept of the double jump. You start the match jumping from a great height from a drop ship and then you begin running through the level in search of the enemy boost jumping across roof tops and wall running across vertical sections. Chaining these moves together allows you to traverse a level at great speed. You no longer are thinking of levels from a top down perspective with open spaces and floor plans with fixed entries, exits and choke points, you’re thinking more vertically. When you really begin learning levels, it can be possible to navigate through them without your feet ever touching the ground. It’s fast and exhilarating, especially with all the ground war theatrics popping off below and above you.
Once enough time passes, you can then call in your titan. With a single click you mark its dropzone, the immortal lines ‘standby for titanfall’ are uttered. You hear the distant thunder of multiple eruptions in the sky heralding the descent of your titan. It lands with an earth shattering boom in a crouched position awaiting your orders. You clamber inside from whichever angle, and armour encloses all around you and the mech’s interface turns on. Suddenly, you are stomping across the battlefield in a walking battle tank, squishing enemies underfoot and rocket boosting around scenery battling enemy titans. You go from being small, fast and mobile to big, heavy and heavily armed and the transition is seamless.
Even if you aren’t very good at shooters, each match contains legions of expendable ground troops to shoot at. Even if you lose, each match carries an epilogue wherein the losers must evacuate the battlefield via dropship before the time limit runs out. It’s just the urgency that comes with only having one life and using all the game’s manoeuvrability mechanics to make it to the evacuation point in one piece just as the ship warps into orbit. It leaves you breathless by the end and there is a quiet moment to compose yourself as you stare out of the window at the hues of infinite space.
Without putting to fine a point on it, Titanfall is just fucking awesome. Which is about 10x better than just plain ordinary awesome. Plus Respawn have been updating the game with a number of new game modes and playlists, giving the modest community a reason to keep coming back.
It is better to think of Threes as an affliction rather than a game. I have sunk so much time into Threes over the past year, it became a problem and I had to uninstall it from my phone. It got to the point in which I didn’t even realise I’m playing it. I would watch TV and out came Threes… I would miss bus stops because I would be playing Threes… I would lose sleep at night because I played Threes before I went to bed. Make no bones about it, Threes is an affliction, but I like to think it improves your peripheral senses, which could come in handy when the world inevitably ends. Like all the classic puzzle games, Threes is grounded on a very simple premise, match up matching numbered tiles to create larger numbers. It’s the elegant interface and presentation that makes Threes sing, sliding tiles together becomes extremely addictive. The quirky voices of each of the tiles as they get paired off with one another like some kind of dating/breeding program, I’m not sure which of the two it is really. I’m a big fan of Captain Triad – PREPARE TO BE BOARDED!
I played other games this year, here are some I liked which didn’t make the top 10.
Wolfenstein: The New Order – Nobody was expecting anything from the next game in the Wolfenstein series. The Nazi blaster is as old as the first person shooter genre itself. Oh sure, the Nazis conquering the world alternative timeline is silly, but the characters themselves are likable whilst the villains are darn right detestable. I marvelled at how flexible the gameplay was in allowing you to be stealthy or going in full rambo. Blowing Nazis away with duel auto-shotguns is a triumph yet at the same time they manged to turn BJ Blaskowisz into a credible and likeable character. His first initials are BJ for chrissakes. One of the biggest surprises of the year most definitely.
Jazzpunk – I feel really bad for neglecting this from my list, because it’s like Monty Python made a video game. The less you know about it, going in, the better. Expect humour though.
Monument Valley – It’s been an incredibly strong year for mobile games. Monument Valley follows in the wake of Limbo, Bastion and Fez as you manoever a lone childlike character through a dreamlike Escher landscape.
Counterspy – A unity built pulp 60s spy movie version of Shadow Complex which involves espionage on both the West and the East. Which in itself is a great premise for a game. It may not be that deep mechanically, but there is a certain satisfaction in pulling off a silent headshot or stealing top secret plans from a hard to find filing cabinet.
Broforce – Just a dumb little 2D contra styled shooter starring a whole bunch of recognisable movie action heroes from yester year.
Hearthstone – A kickass card game which may just be the greatest free to play game ever made.
South Park: The Stick of Truth – I think I dodged a giant pair of swinging testicles at some point in this game. I may have been dreaming, the underpants gnomes were present also…
Destiny – There’s a lot of things about Destiny that make it disappointing, but there are moments when collectively working with others to bring down a boss or by uncovering new loot and gear that make it all worth it. I wouldn’t have put so many hours into it if it wasn’t a great time. Now, who wants to join me for a Raid?
Farcry 4 – Eh… play Farcry 3 again, or better yet BLOOD DRAGON.