2014’s been another crazy year for video games.
We’ve unfortunately witnessed some incredibly hateful behavior this year. To see my favorite hobby and career linked to these outbursts is really shameful. :(
But it’s also been great! There are great people doing great things all the time. So, here’s my small contribution to the end-of-the-year celebration of this crazy industry. Hopefully you enjoy it! And thanks again for all the support! :D!
10. Dark Souls II
I was lukewarm on Demon’s Souls when it came out despite some crazy pestering from my long-term co-worker Geoff Soulis. He “got it” right away and evangelized the series from the very beginning. So, when Dark Souls was prepping for launch, he was banging the drum like crazy. I think the improvements from Demon’s to Dark were enough to grab me and Dark Souls ended up being one of my favorite games of that year.
Dark Souls II didn’t quite have the same hold as the first one on me. I was incredibly busy around its release so I didn’t manage to get all of the way through it, but it managed to capture enough of what was so compelling about the first one to keep me engaged for a good long time.
It’s going to be interesting to see how much Bloodborne deviates from the formula next year, but I’ll be one of the first in line to check it out! :D!
Ah, Call of Duty. I think that most game developers have a complex relationship with the Franchise to End All Franchises. Call of Duty’s been kind of up and down lately, with last year’s Ghosts failing to make a great impression, but Advanced Warfare is definitely a solid entry into the series.
I’m strictly a multiplayer CoD player (although I did load up the campaign just to check out the digital Kevin Spacey). I really enjoyed their return to the Black Ops-style “Pick 10” system which gives you a lot of freedom with how you construct your loadouts. The jetpack boosting is a solid addition that opens up the maps in a brand new way, although it probably would have felt a lot more novel if Titanfall hadn’t come out earlier this year!
I think it’s kind of weird that all of the modern shooters are kind of becoming the same game. Jetpacks are in Call of Duty and you can sprint and Aim-Down-Sights in Halo? What is the world coming to? I guess I’ll just welcome our new UR-SHOOTER and shut up. The production values are going to amazing and I’m sure I’ll be able to level up while shooting another person in the face so I’ll be happy no matter which game I’m playing. :D!
Couch co-op games have had a big resurgence, and my favorite one is easily Crawl. Its mega-chunky, glitchy, pixelated look is amazing and the 3v1 co-op/competitive environment that it breeds is ridiculously chaotic and fun. I also love how random the game can feel. It has more in common with Mario Kart than Counter-Strike when it comes to PvP and it’s a really nice change of pace after playing really hardcore competitive games.
I highly recommend Crawl to anyone looking for a great couch co-op game! :D!
Diablo 3 was a bit of a letdown. The Real Money Auction House felt like a weird cash grab, and that was reinforced by an unbounded economy and a loot system that didn’t quite give you what you wanted. The game also felt a bit too streamlined compared to Diablo II, and the story, writing, and voice acting were subpar for the modern age of video games.
The expansion pack felt like a tactical strike against the criticisms of the first game. The entire auction house was put out to pasture and the loot system was completely redone to make it feel more similar to Diablo II. There were tons of new enemies, new abilities, and new loot along with a great new class in the Crusader. They even added more of an end game with a randomly generated Adventure Mode that let you hunt the procedurally generated mini-bosses instead of grinding against the campaign content and static bosses. I didn’t have the time to spend on this aspect of the game, but it seemed like a super clever idea to keep ultra hardcore hack 'n slashers happy!
I love it when a developer can consume truckloads of feedback about their game, distill it down to its essence, and then create fixes and features that make the vast majority of their players happy. Blizzard is the undisputed master of this in my mind, and Reaper of Souls is another classic PC expansion pack that joins Brood War and Frozen Throne. After starting to think that Blizzard was falling off a bit in recent years I’m super excited to have two of their games on my list this year! :D!
It’s no secret that I’m a child of the NES. That old biege-n-gray brick formed roughly 95% of my taste in games. Mario 3 is still the greatest game of all time, and I will cut your face if you utter the words “World” or “Yoshi” in my presence! :D!
Shovel Knight is an amazing love letter to Mario 3, DuckTales, and Mega Man. The controls are super tight, the art is both beautiful and painstakingly faithful to the limitations of the NES, and the difficulty is tuned just right. I also loved the attention to detail in the level design. Each level is owned by a unique Knight Boss, and has its own mechanics that reflect the personality of their owners. This Mega Man flavor is something that I crave and Shovel Knight over-delivered in this department! Oh, and did I mention that the soundtrack is amazing too? :D!
I’m also a sucker for underdogs so on top of all of this Shovel Knight is also my favorite success story of the year. Developer Yacht Club Games Kickstarted this project, went without paychecks for several months to finish it off, and then ended up selling 300k copies! LONG MAY THEIR STEMS GROW! :D!
As a big Magic: The Gathering nerd I was really interested and skeptical when Blizzard announced Hearthstone. It was pretty obvious that this was Blizzard’s attempt to streamline Magic and find a wider digital audience, but would they dumb it down too much?
I liked Hearthstone right away. Having played tons of World of Warcraft really helped out--as much as I generally dislike the idea of sequels I kind of love it when a developer takes its IP in a new direction all Mario Kart style. Using the nine classes of WoW as the basis for players to build their decks was an excellent design choice and allows fans of the series to get right into it.
Experienced Magic nerds like myself definitely end up butting heads with the increased randomness and lack of interaction during the opponent’s turn, but overall the formula is super successful. It’s definitely a lot more casual than Magic and I’ve been into it and out of it over the last year, but with the first major expansion, Gnomes vs. Goblins, hitting just a couple of weeks ago my Hearthstone is rock hard right now. :D!
The good lady wizards and gentleman wizards at Wizards of the Coast keep cranking out solid sets of new magical cardboard year after year. They’ve essentially been making the same game for 20 years, but the open-ended nature of the game has allowed them to continuously keep the game fresh for its entire life cycle.
I put Magic on my list for several reasons: first off the new expansion, Khans of Tarkir, is a real testament to a great limited drafting format. They’ve blended old mechanics (Morph, Delve) with brand new mechanics (Raid, Outlast, Prowess) into a tri-color focused set that’s making just about everybody happy. We draft a lot at Double Fine and it’s gone over super well!
Secondly their latest incarnation of the digital, entry-level Magic game Duels of the Planeswalkers is really fantastic. A super slick redesigned UI (love those diamonds!) along with the ability to win packs of cards and finally craft your own deck made Duels ‘15 a great addition to the series.
And last but not least I had the incredible pleasure of getting to design my own card this year! As part of a digital game developer outreach program I got to make a card in conjunction with designers and developers at Wizards of the Coast. It was an incredibly huge honor to be a small part of the design legacy of one of my favorite games of all time! :D!
P.S. If you ever make a time machine you must promise me that you NEVER take a copy of this card back in time to show my 15-year-old self. There has never been a more surefire way to Unmake the Brad Muir you see before you today! :D!
I love roguelikes and rhythm games, so I knew that Necrodancer was going to be for me when I saw it at PAX last year. But when I finally got my chance to play it I was almost caught off-guard with how tight the design was. Turn-based roguelikes usually have to dump in a ton of complexity in order to make the gameplay interesting enough--tons of stats and numbers and what-have-you cluttering everything up. But since Necrodancer is essentially a real-time game, a lot of the complexity has been streamlined down to something that resembles Zelda more than a traditional numbers-loving RPG.
Your character has hearts instead of a double-digit HP, there’s no XP to speak of, and you have an incredibly limited inventory. Enemies are super discrete in the number of hits they absorb and the damage that they deal. Everything in Necrodancer is aimed at getting you into a fast-paced flow state of hopping around the dungeon. It feels incredible when you finally achieve a successful run through one of the Zone 3 levels!
The music is so important for this type of game and the soundtrack, from one handsomely bearded Danny Baranowsky, is so effing good! It really pushes Necrodancer over the top for me and it’s easily one of of my favorite roguelike experiences ever!
All of this and the developers at Brace Yourself Games (mostly one dude!?!?) are constantly updating the game in Early Access with new items and enemies. I can’t wait to see the final version of the game! Bring on Zone 4! :D!
2. Dota 2
Oh man it’s on here again! I feel like Brad Shoemaker is somehow to blame for this! :D!
Dota has fallen off a bit for me this year. I’ve just found myself with less time to play and it’s very hard to keep up when Valve (appropriately!) drops big-ass patches to keep the game fresh. I still have the MOBA-lust though and I’m still playing as much as I can!
I had the pleasure of attending The International again this year and it was incredible! The matches were not quite as good as last year, but the new venue was amazing and it’s really cool to witness the rise of eSports in the U.S. I’m really curious to see where the ceiling is for it!
I also got to play in the hilarious Rektreational league full of Dota scrubs like myself and I had a great time playing with Sean Vanaman, my brother, and the rest of my Potatoes for the Dota Today team. And even though we didn’t meet in the tournament I still want to make sure we have an exhibition match against Shoemaker and his dastardly League of Legends! :D!
I was late to the party on Mordor! I admit that I was not really impressed with their marketing for the game. It really looked like a me-too game taking Assassin’s Creed, merging it with the Batman games, and trying to cash in quickly by pasting the Lord of the Rings license on it while the Hobbit movies are still a thing. I also thought that their Nemesis system sounded great on paper but it was likely to crash and burn in reality and ultimately be received as kind of a poor gimmick.
I really like being wrong when it means I get to play a sweet game instead of a bad one! :D!
And holy crap was I ever wrong. There are tons of direct comparisons that you can make to both Ass Creed and Batman, but I think it’s more than ok because Monolith executed them so well. Combat is smooth, responsive, and flashy, and they do an excellent job with their upgrade tree to make sure that you’re feeling more powerful as the game progresses.
The Nemesis system is such a great concept and it’s executed so well. I loved interrogating Orcs to get information on the strengths and weaknesses of specific Warchiefs, especially when said Warchief has killed you earlier in the game! And Ass Creeding around as you sneak up on a Warchief to exploit his weaknesses created so many great moments in the tight dynamic world. I also loved how the Nemesis system gets even deeper later on in the game when you gain the ability to convert Orcs and Warchiefs to fight for you. I’m almost certain that the Nemesis system is going to be stolen and iterated upon for years to come and we’ll be seeing a lot more FEAR OF CARAGORS in the future. :D!
I do have a few minor gripes with the game. There are a couple of bad boss fights, the ending isn’t very good, and the story is pretty weak in general, but overall this was the most fun that I had with a video game in 2014. It’s fun right away, it stays fun throughout, and it doesn’t wear out its welcome. I think that’s everything that I want from a AAA game!