As pointed out in Vincent Smith’s excellent article, Heavy Meta – The AAA Games Industry: Too Fat to Fly, 2014 in gaming played host to a number of troubling trends in the medium. The release of unfinished or even broken games was especially disheartening, but 2014 did have a number of gems that helped ease the disappointment of some of the year’s most hyped games.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Developed by Monolith Productions and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, players take control of Talion (Troy Baker), a Gondorian ranger tasked with guarding the Black Gate and preventing the evil armies of Mordor from pouring out into realm of Men. Due to Sauron’s rising influence and power in the region, Talion’s entire regiment and family are brutally slaughtered in front of him by the Dark Lord’s most loyal servants.
Seemingly killed, Talion is later resurrected, but his body now plays host to an angry, vengeful wraith wanting to lay waste to all of Sauron’s minions. Possessing great powers of influence and manipulation, Talion learns that he can control the most savage of Sauron’s Orc/Uruk warriors and chieftains. Using this ability, Talion wages a one-man guerilla war against the armies of Mordor.
The manipulation and control of enemies is where Shadow of Mordor’s greatest gameplay mechanics are put to fantastic use. This is seen through the “Nemesis System,” which randomly generates unique Uruk captains and war chiefs. Every Uruk leader has their own personality, appearance, fighting style, strengths and fears. Depending on the player’s actions in-game, the Uruks will adapt and react differently to Talion’s presence. Gameplay wise, Shadow of Mordor is amalgamation of Assassins Creed and the Batman Arkham series. Expect to stab and skewer more than a few hundred orcs throughout the game’s 20 hour campaign.
Looking for a game that scratches that nostalgic itch? Well, Shovel Knight is the game that does that in “spades!” Get it? Gamers take control of the blue armored Shovel Knight, a warrior who prefers to fight the many enemies of his medieval world with a shovel instead of your typical sword and shield. Following his code of “shoverly,” (which involves much digging and the bashing of heads), Shovel Knight’s grand quest is to find his beloved companion and 8-bit lover, Shield Knight. His side-scrolling adventure pits him against the most dangerous of foes known only as The Order of No Quarter, who take glee in their new found power and love of ridiculously awful puns.
Anyone who is nostalgic for side-scrollers reminiscent of the NES or Sega Master Sytem will be right at home with Shovel Knight. Yacht Club Games, honors past side-scrollers like Super Metroid, Castlevania and Super Mario while giving their game its own unique personality, look and combat system. The game’s surprisingly fulfilling eight hour campaign is even worth a second playthrough, and New Game+ mode gives retro game fanatics a chance to go back to grind for treasure and more powerful upgrades. Plus, it’s filled with puns. The puns are for you, Brian. All for you!
Created by developer Creative Assembly, well known to PC gamers for their multiple iterations in the Total War series, Isolation is billed as a pure survival horror experience. Taking place 15 years after the events of Ridley Scott’s Alien, Isolation follows Amanda Ripley, who is investigating the disappearance of her mother, Ellen Ripley, and the the Nostromo. Learning that the Nostromo’s flight recorder was discovered by the space station Sevastopol, Amanda travels with a small crew to a massive ore refining space station. Unbeknownst to her and the crew she is traveling with; an Alien is aboard the station and has been methodically killing off the inhabitants.
Anyone expecting a James Cameron styled action film will be disappointed going into Alien Isolation. The game prides itself on its atmosphere, stealth mechanics and enemy A.I. The game’s Alien, murderous androids and bands of human survivors will try there hardest to kill you, and players will spend most of their time sneaking or hiding on the decrepit space station. Using everything from flares, noisemakers and the occasional flamethrower, you’ll learn quickly that the only way to outsmart the many enemies is to stick to the shadows. Though the game has some pacing issues (the middle of the game’s campaign is particularly arduous,) you’ll find no game this year that replicates the horror and aesthetic of a film better than Alien: Isolation.
Mario Kart 8
Nintendo has had a rough few years with its newest console, the Wii U. With a confusing marketing strategy and little third party support, Nintendo has had to rely on its first party developers almost entirely. Thankfully, the Wii U hasn’t been short of some pretty impressive games in 2014, and Mario Kart 8 was yet another success in a year filled with some truly remarkable and well-polished titles on the console.
Being the eighth game in the popular kart racing series, Mario Kart has only gotten better in terms of its visuals, gameplay and level design. With dozens of tracks and racers to choose from, Mario Kart 8 gives gamers their cart racing fix while improving on existing mechanics featured in the series. Nintendo fans will be pleased to see that multiple versions of customizable character carts, including motorcycles, hang gliders and hovercrafts are all present. With 30 racers to play as, over 30 tracks, a steady stream of DLC and the return of a number of fan favorite courses like Wario Stadium, Toad’s Turnpike, DK Jungle and Rainbow Road, Mario Kart offers near infinite replayability.
If you want to play a party game that offers overwhelming amounts of fun and mayhem, then Mario Kart 8 is the game most deserving of your time this year. Whatever you do though, don’t you dare even think about cutting off Luigi. That guy will fucking obliterate you.
Broken Age: Act 1
Developed by Tim Shaffer’s Double Fine Studios, Broken Age: Act 1 is the first point and click adventure game from the studio since 1998’s indie darling, Grim Fandango. Players follow two characters attempting to uncover a mystery that surrounds certain aspects of their lives and worlds. Those who have been following Broken Age’s development are familiar with Double Fine’s Kickstarter efforts to get the game made and perhaps even more aware of the studio’s numerous delays on the product they promised consumers.
The first playable protagonist, Vella Tartine (Masasa Moyo) is a teenage girl who lives in a cultish society that worships the Mog Chothra, a monster that is routinely offered young girls as sacrifices. Vella, among several other girls, is chosen to be sacrificed to Mog Chothra. Hoping to escape her death and save the other girls, Vella concocts a plan to kill the creature. The second protagonist, Shay Volta (Elijah Wood) is teenage boy and the only living passenger on board the spaceship known as Bossa Nosta. Told that he is the last surviving human by the ship’s motherly A.I., Shay lives a boring life doing seemingly mundane tasks. Seeking to know more about the worlds outside of his ship, Shay begins to unravel a conspiracy far more complicated and alarming than he ever expected.
A single screenshot of Broken Age showcases its beauty. The hand drawn look of the characters and environments feels warm and inviting to gamers and animation lovers alike. The art is only improved by the writing and dialogue, which features Shaffer’s notable humor. Whether it’s the calm dulcet tones of the A.I. aboard Shay’s ship or the robotic spoon that loves putting things into his mouth, Broken Age is a standout in terms of style and story.
The Wolf Among Us
Telltale achieved critical acclaim with The Walking Dead, but many questioned whether that particular game was going to be a one-hit wonder for the company. All of those questions were swiftly answered with The Wolf Among Us, an adaptation of Bill Willingham’s popular Vertigo series, Fables. The game, much like The Walking Dead, received praise from players and critics alike for its art style, writing and characters.
The Wolf Among Us takes place in 1980s New York City. In this game, fairytale creatures have abandoned their stories after an apocalyptic event destroyed their homes. In “Fabletown,” fables are forced to live in rundown tenements, while struggling to provide for themselves and their families. The player controlled character, Bigby, originally The Big Bad Wolf, now operates as the town’s sheriff and chief investigator of a series of mysterious murders.
Forced into a position he did not think he was qualified to have in the first place, Bigby struggles to help the people of Fabletown while trying to prove his past as a villain doesn’t represent who he is today. Being a former bad guy allows players to play Bigby two different ways. Should Bigby try to show everyone that he genuinely cares for them, or should he prove that he hasn’t changed at all since his days of preying on grandmas and blowing down houses? Those decisions are up to the player.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
BioWare, the company behind Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire, was the first Western developer to launch a massive AAA RPG for the year, and it did so with great success. After the much maligned Dragon Age II, Dragon Age: Inquisition feels like a return to form for the Canadian developer, and its newest game offers one of the most immersive stories and game world’s seen in quite some time.
After surviving a catastrophic event that kills a hundreds of well-respected and powerful leaders in Thedas, the setting of Dragon Age: Inquisition, the player character, who can be one of four customizable races, is surprised to learn that he or she has inadvertently involved themselves with the Inquisition, and organization that has the power to shape the political and societal structure of empires. Burned with a magical mark that is capable of closing demon-spewing rifts that have recently appeared across the land, the player character is sucked into a world gone mad. Templars and mages fight for supremacy, a civil war rocks a nearby nation and a mysterious cult claiming to worship an entity known only as The Elder One are only a handful of the problems that players must overcome. In time, the Inquisition’s most respected advisors choose the player as the leader of the Inquisition, and it’s at that point that the world of Dragon Age really opens up and reveals its wealth of content.
In terms of open world exploration in 2014, nothing comes close to touching Dragon Age: Inquisition. Players will travel to lush tropical forests, barren deserts, snow covered valleys and more than a few ancient tombs filled with all sorts of abominations and demons. Not only will players be gallivanting through the realms of Orlais and Ferelden, but a significant amount of time will be spent building the infrastructure of the Inquisition. Everything from supplying your soldiers with equipment, to helping your companions on personal quests to modifying your customizable castle of Skyhold will be at your fingertips.
The game even offers players the chance to act as judge, jury and executioner during key points throughout out the 90+ hour campaign. Want to force a barbarian war chief into servitude? Go for it! Want to make a snotty Orlesian noble into your personal court jester? You can do that. Want to cut of the heads of every single person who dares to cross you? You can lop of their heads yourself! Dragon Age: Inquisition provides enough side content that can engross players for days and it can be completed or ignored at the player’s own discretion.
Super Smash Bros.
Yes, yet another Nintendo title that deserves recognition for its polish and addictive gameplay is Super Smash Bros Wii U, the fourth game in the highly popular series.
Like all of Nintendo’s first party developed titles, Super Smash Bros. is exceptional when it comes to pure gameplay. The cast of characters all feel and fight as they should. Mario’s signature fireballs and jumping is fluid as ever and Link’s slashing sword attack and whirlwind move has that satisfying impact. Most of the games 51 playable characters are balanced, with no one in particular feeling over or under powered. Series newcomers Mega Man and Pac-Man are welcome sites and are appropriately honored with their own nostalgia inducing combat styles.
In addition to returning characters and battle modes, the series has introduced “8-Player Smash,” which allows up to eight players to smack the shit out of each other. Anyone thinking that the series’ usual four-player battles are chaotic will certainly be overwhelmed by the sight of eight Nintendo characters battling for supremacy. All in all, Super Smash Bros. is yet another reason to never count Nintendo out when to delivering quality software.
Dark Souls II
From Software wants players to die, painfully. Gamers will meet their demise more times than they can count in the developer’s newest entry in its strangely addictive third-person action/RPG, Dark Souls II. Taking place in the world of Drangleic, Dark Souls II follows an Undead known as the “Bearer of the Curse.” Traveling to the ancient kingdom of Drangleic, the unnamed Undead seeks to cure their afflicted body while battling the many horros and monsters that now plague the accursed realm. Seeking the souls of the Old Iron King, the giant arachnid Freja, The Rotten and the Foresaken Lost Sinner, the player controlled character believes they can cure there zombified form and become human once more.
Although the game’s lacks an easily identifiable narrative, it makes up for it with its challenging gameplay. There’s no better feeling than finally beating a particularly nasty boss. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been impaled, gutted, burned or knocked off the side of a cliff. The euphoria of finally defeating that single enemy that has been your kryptonite for two hours straight gives you a video game high like no other. That being said, much like Demon Souls and Darks Souls, Dark Souls II is not for everyone and its level of difficulty requires a steep investment in time and an infinite amount of patience. Still, those wanting a rewarding, but insanely difficult gaming experience can’t go wrong with the game that prides itself on killing you in so many wonderfully sadistic ways.
Unlike the PS4’s lack luster year of exclusive titles (anyone remember Drive Club?), the Xbox One has leaped ahead of its console competitor in terms of delivering new quality software. The standout title being Sunset Overdrive, the first Xbox One exclusive developed by Insomniac Games.
Players are thrown into the fictional open world of Sunset City. Gamers customize their own character and navigate a world just recently overcome by the apocalypse. Don’t let the sound of the premise fool you. The dystopian environment of Sunset City is as wacky and as colorful as a Warner Bros. cartoon and the game wears its wickedly funny sense of humor on its multi-colored customizable sleeve.
After witnessing the outbreak of the apocalypse at a public celebration for FizzCo, creators of a deadly and mutant spawning soft drink called Overcharge, the player controlled character escapes and attempts to survive the bat shit craziness that has started to engulf the city. While fighting the games’ signature enemies, the monstrous orange OD, the player encounters a number of human factions who have quickly embraced the sheer insanity of the apocalypse.
Sunset Overdrive’s combat system and movement is particularly outstanding due to the game’s focus on agility. While the game offers a fast travel option, the process of getting to a destination by grinding, wall running and bouncing is far more enjoyable and rewarding. Whether it’s finding the games plethora of humorous collectibles along the way or blasting a few OD with the TNT Teddy, the ultimate weapon that fires explosive stuffed animals, the process of traveling to the next mission is usually just as much fun as that mission.
Instead of a cover based mechanic found in most third-person shooters, the player is encouraged to constantly move throughout the environment while fighting. Using weapons like the electrified record spewing gun called High Fidelity and the beloved shotgun known only as the Flaming Compensator, the protagonist wages a one man/woman war against the creatures and roving bands of violent bandits plaguing Sunset City.
Supergiant Games is a bit of an indie darling among many gamers. Developers of the widely popular and critically acclaimed Bastion, Supergiant Games had a lot to live up to with their newest title. That title in question being Transistor, a game with a isometric point of view set in the beautiful futuristic 1920s looking city of Cloudbank.
The game follows Red, a famous singer, who is attempting to escape robotic assassins from a group called the Camerata. Through a series of events, Red comes into possession of the Transistor a greatsword that was supposed to be the weapon used to kill her. She finds the sword buried in a seemingly random person’s chest. The sword, having absorbed the very essence of the man, speaks to and advises Red often throughout the campaign.
Sporting one of the best scores in video games this year, Transistor is yet another example of an indie title that can stand head and shoulders alongside any AAA release.
Far Cry 4
Ubisoft has had a particularly terrible year in terms of the AAA games it has released throughout 2014. The much hyped Watchdogs disappointed many, The Crew was very much not the racing game it sold itself as, and Assassins Creed Unity was a broken mess of a game. Still, if Ubisoft can breathe one sigh of relief, it’s that Far Cry 4 delivered mostly what it promised.
Anyone who has played Fary Cry 3 knows how damn good that game was. Featuring a large open world, excellent FPS gameplay and a memorable villain, Far Cry 3 will be remembered as one of the best games on last generation of consoles. Far Cry 4 has all of those things and anyone wanting to play a Far Cry game set in the Himalayas instead of a tropical island will be pleased with Ubisoft’s latest entry in the series.
Returning to the fictional country of Kyrat, Ajay Ghale, a native of the nation and the player controlled protagonist, is on a mission to spread his mother’s ashes. He learns that a civil war is being waged throughout the country and that Pagan Min, the tyrannical and fabulously dressed dictator of Kyrat, is slaughtering both rebels and civilians for fun. Joining the rebels, Ajay becomes an important leader and combatant against Min.
Outside of the story missions, players are able to free roam the entirety of the impressive open world map. Hunting the native wildlife, infiltrating outposts, riding elephants and assisting the many over the top characters living in the region are available to players right away. If the game has one problem is that it barely uses its villain, Pagan Min, who happens to be voiced by the very talented Troy Baker. In the end, Far Cry 4 is an exceptional game that give players more Far Cry, and that’s not a bad thing is it?
Wolfenstien: The New Order
Wolfenstien is a series that has been around for decades. The adventures of B.J. Blazkowicz have captivated gamers for ages, but fans of the series will be the first to say that many of the games have lost their luster over years. Because of this, Machine Games took it upon themselves to develop Wolfenstien: The New Order, a soft reboot of the series. Their creation turned out to be a shot in the arm for Wolfenstien, by providing fun gameplay and a fantastic story.
Taking place three years after the events of the original Wolfenstien, The New Order follows Blazkowicz and the Allies 1946 invasion of General Wilhelm “Deathshead” Strausse, the Nazi scientist responsible for the recent German dominance in the war. Eventually failing to kill the general, Blaskowicz end up in a coma and is placed in a Polish Mental Health Facility. Eventually waking from his coma, Blazkowicz leans that 14 years have passed and that the Nazis now rule most of the world. Joining a resistance group, Blazkowicz fights against the terrible creations of the Third Reich while trying to maintain some semblance of a normal life.
Being both ridiculous and dramatically poignant, Wolfenstien is able to tell a well written story with complex characters and is able to balance it with the more over-the-top aspects of the series itself. Players might find themselves laughing while slaughtering Nazi spaceman on the moon, or feel a heaviness in the pit of their stomach while slowing walking through a Nazi death camp in Germany. It’s kind of unbelievable that a Wolfenstien game could deliver one of the best stories in gaming in 2014, but Machine Games did just that. Plus, duel wielding rocket launchers and shotguns doesn’t hurt the game’s narrative either. It improves it actually!
South Park: The Stick of Truth
Licensed games are so rarely good. Yes, there are a few notable exceptions, but for every Batman: Arkham Asylum and Alien: Isolation there’s a Superman 64 and Alien: Colonial Marines. Thankfully, South Park: The Stick of Truth falls into the category of being a well-made licensed game. Developed by Obsidian, a studio with a reputation of releasing buggy, unfinished games, South Park: The Stick of Truth not only breaks the developers long losing streak, but it shows that when a game studio actively involves themselves with the creators of a property, the results can be totally cool you, guys.
Placed in the role of the “New Kid,” nicknamed “Douchebag,” players join Cartman’s Kingdom of Kuppa Keep, and use the archaic battle system of turn based combat to wage a war against the evil marauding forest elves, who seek to steal the Stick of Truth, the most powerful object in all of the Universe. The Stick is eventually stolen and Douchebag goes on a lengthy quest to get it back while meeting the locale of the quiet little mountain town. The quest becomes more complicated overtime as Douchebag encounters probe loving aliens, zombified Nazis, undead aborted fetuses, underwear gnomes and Al Gore.
In a way, The Stick of Truth acts as its own season of South Park, and even harkens back to the days when Kyle, Stan, Cartman and Kenny would go off on their own adventures, and didn’t spend their time criticizing the latest craze in pop culture. The presence of Matt Stone and Trey Parker is immediately felt, as both wrote and voice acted their signature characters. There are also numerous callbacks and references to earlier episodes throughout the series’ 15 seasons. Some of the jokes and references are obvious, but South Park aficionados will enjoy looking for the hard to spot Easter eggs.
Much like the series, The Stick of Truth is crude, hilarious and extremely graphic in terms of violence and sexual content. It’s basically the perfect South Park game ever made. If you still need a reason play your PS3 or Xbox 360, South Park: The Stick of Truth is a pretty damn good reason to do it.
Now these are just 14 games worth playing, but there are many others that have been released this year that are deserving of attention. Did you enjoy TellTale’s The Walking Dead Season 2? Perhaps Sucker Punch’s Infamous Second Son? Maybe Bayonetta 2 was your Game of the Year? What game was your personal favorite? Let us know in the comments below!