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Brad Shoemaker's Top 10 Games of 2014

Brad has escaped the horror of Brothers jokes only to face an even more terrible reality: Destiny jokes.

Hmm, yes, "2014 was a weak year" and "consoles are taking forever to prove themselves" and so on and so forth. You've heard plenty of that by now, so let's just move on to the good stuff, huh?

While I feel like every game on this list comes with a caveat of one sort or another and there weren't any standouts that felt like true, indelible classics, there was also a huge number of good games that I really enjoyed this year, too many to make it onto this list. Wolfenstein: The New Order was better than it had any right to be, and I actually managed to enjoy a Call of Duty campaign for the first time in years with Advanced Warfare. If I'd finished the former or spent more time with the multiplayer in the latter, either could very well have ended up on this list. Other games I wish I'd put more time into include Bayonetta 2, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Captain Toad, and Shovel Knight (and I hope to catch up on those over the coming months). But then, you can only speak about the games your natural interests led you to play, right? Maybe if those games actually rated on my list, I'd have played them more.

10. Crypt of the Necrodancer

It's not just early access, it's very early access; the initial release was missing a lot of content, but the way the game plugged the holes where that content was supposed to be was pretty clever. But the content that was already included made Crypt of the Necrodancer my favorite indie pick-up-and-play game this year, combining the fast-paced precision of a rhythm game with the variety and depth of a rogue-like. And lord, that Danny B soundtrack. I almost dismissed this as "that game they show at every PAX that you have to play with a dance mat," but I'm very glad I finally stopped and gave it a look. They're adding in that missing content on a regular basis (and communicating what's new and what's coming to the audience pretty well), and I'm excited to see what the game looks like once it all comes together.

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9. Grand Theft Auto V for PS4

Yes, it's a rerelease, and yes, the PC version will probably be even better in January, and... yes, I had some issues with the original game last year, but somehow GTA V finally clicked for me on the PS4 this time around. While I still wish Rockstar populated this open world with a wider variety of structured side content--something I think Red Dead Redemption did a better job of--I came to appreciate the act of simply existing in and traveling around this incredible faux Los Angeles, rendered as it is with both enormous breadth and a staggering level of detail. The huge improvements to the visuals and the ability to drop into first-person view to get an up-close look at the inventory of some shitty Beverly Hills-esque boutique or the revolting squalor of Trevor's methed-out trailer made the world feel that much more real, and somehow that helped me get more invested in the storyline on my second try.

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8. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

Metal Gear has always gotten by on thematized weirdness more than solid play mechanics, so I was as surprised as anyone at how much fun I had sneaking around the Cuban base, tagging guards from afar, shooting them in the head with a tranq pistol and then dumping their bodies out of sight. The game has robust enough AI routines and physics that it hits all the right open-world notes, even if it's on a dramatically reduced scale, and damn does it look good. Too bad the story is nine-tenths bland and uneventful (and the other tenth needlessly graphic), but if The Phantom Pain is just going to be a couple dozen more hours of this in a much larger world, I'm all in.

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7. Sunset Overdrive

Sunset Overdrive is the most an Insomniac game has ever grabbed me (Ratchet & Clank and Resistance never really did anything for me, and let's not talk about Fuse). Bright, cheery, irreverent, hyperkinetic, good-natured and funny (mostly), it's just a splendid time. While the lineup of guns didn't quite click for me and the urban bouncing-and-grinding traversal felt like it was only about 80 percent of the way to perfection, spending a dozen hours in Sunset City was still a heck of a lot of fun. Great boss fights and a nicely executed ending, both of which are too rare in big-budget games lately. I sure hope they get to make another one.

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6. Transistor

Sure, I know a lot of the people who made this, so grain of salt and all that, but I love how obvious it is that Transistor was made by people who used to make strategy games for a living. The quasi-turn-based combat and endless combinations of abilities (I love the idea that you can sacrifice an active power to turn it into a related passive effect) make for a type of strategy that's not quite like anything else I can remember playing. The slightly nebulous, mysterious world-building is really intriguing and builds steadily as you move through the story, and I found the setting that blends low-level computing concepts into the everyday life of the populace to be really interesting. And, of course, the visuals and music in particular are just some of the best in video games. Ultimately, Transistor didn't hit me with quite the emotional gut-punch Bastion did, but every aspect of this game is made with such an incredible degree of craftsmanship that I just can't not respect the hell out of it.

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5. Far Cry 4

Far Cry 3 tumbled down my list in 2012 due to its enormous bummer of a storyline, so you might think that Far Cry 4--which marries numerous improvements on the same formula to a story that's both more interesting and better told--would be right up there at the top this year. Where 3 was a revelation in terms of its open-world design and mission structure, though, 4 is... more of that. That's not a bad thing (unless Far Cry 5 etc. etc.), it's just inherently less exciting. At the time of this writing I'm still having a hell of a lot of fun soaring around the Himalayas on a little jury-rigged lawnmower/helicopter, shooting a grenade launcher at convoys below or setting up elaborate land mine traps before taunting a herd of rhinos. There's so much open-world nonsense to get into that I haven't even made it to the second area of the map yet. It'll probably be ages before I finish this, and that's just fine, because as of right now I don't want it to end.

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4. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

This is practically the perfect open-world game. Extremely satisfying components--climbing, stealth, melee combat--that are in some ways better than the games they take inspiration from. Tons of side content that's actually fun to do over and over. But it's the dynamic named enemies of the Nemesis system that really elevates Mordor and makes it feel like a wholly original, invigorating experience. If open-world or sandbox games are all about creating unique moments specific to your experience that you're going to remember, Mordor takes that idea and codifies it with the single freshest new game mechanic I saw this year. Pity the storyline is all over the place and largely inconsistent with Tolkien (and just kind of bad), or this could have been at the top of my list.

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3. South Park: The Stick of Truth

Alex's review summed it up perfectly, so I'll just paraphrase that: It's hard to imagine how you could make a better video game out of South Park. The game is just packed so densely with good material, the writing is really sharp, and even the JRPG mechanics become good fodder for humor. I haven't watched the show in several years and often found it to be pretty hit-and-miss, but very little of the content packed into this game misses and there are so many absurd or disgusting or downright unbelievable moments that it'd be hard to remember them all. Of course, you have to mention how perfectly Obsidian recreated the show's visual style, but one of the things I love the most is the wide array of clever makeshift fantasy trappings created out of everyday objects, like the weapons and armor you can buy or the medieval tavern recreated in someone's living room. As much as the characters in South Park exist as vehicles for Parker and Stone's unapologetic sense of humor, Stick of Truth's make-believe world reminds you that they're also, you know, kids.

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2. Destiny

Destiny is one of the best games in 2014. Boom. I said it. Try and argue!

Actually, you could mount a pretty stiff argument against Destiny. There's too much item grind at the end. (They've relaxed some of that stuff.) There's just not enough content. (The raids and heroic and nightfall missions are way more interesting though, seriously!) The storytelling is shockingly barebones. (Yeah, not much rebuttal for that one.) There are plenty of valid reasons that you might play Destiny to the end of the story, such as it is, and walk away from it feeling some degree of disgust. Clearly many people have.

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There was something undeniable about Destiny, though, that ensured I couldn't stop playing it. No, I don't think Destiny is the "best" game of 2014, by whatever objective standard of bestness you want to apply. But I do think you have to make serious concessions when you're having this much fun with a game for this many hours, whatever aspects of it you wish were better. At least I do. The shooting is just so damn good, and so varied, with all the combinations of different weapon and damage types, classes and subclasses, difficulty modifiers and level offsets. Call it Best Shooting of 2014. I still lust after various guns and armor. I like the way the game looks and feels and moves. I like how it's set in our solar system, and how all the future space machinery has the same drab, form-before-function look of today's modern space machinery. I like to pretend that Destiny actually happened.

OK, I decided to check. 91 hours and counting, and I haven't even played that new raid yet. Thanks for reading.

1. Dota 2

I've found it. My GOAT. The old desert-island video game what-if used to make me roll my eyes--who could possibly choose only one game for the rest of their lives?--but now I answer it without hesitation. As long as there's decent Internet, I'd play Dota 2 forever.

Before you ask, I really don't care if it didn't "come out" in 2014. Dota is over a decade old. The beta of Dota 2 ran for years before it technically went into release. And even this year, the evolution of Dota 2's free-to-play model and the mainstream cultural impact of The International meant that Dota 2 was more "important" than most games that did come out this year, if you care about such things.

That more and more people seem to respect Dota is nice from a big-picture legacy standpoint, but I'm happy just to keep spending time getting better at it and playing it with other people who love it. Last year I discovered how much I actually enjoy playing this game and what an incredible job Valve was doing curating it. This was the year that I settled into a more comfortable, familiar rhythm with Dota, integrating it a bit better into my everyday life. For me it remains a game of phenomenal depth and complexity, the most stressful and exhilarating ups and downs, endless room for my own improvement, and socializing with a bunch of friends I wouldn't otherwise talk to much, or wouldn't even know without the game in the first place.

It's worth mentioning how much Valve actually monkeyed with the formula this year. Between drastically reworking the skills of a number of old heroes and making major changes to sacrosanct game elements like the way runes work and the very layout of the map, Dota continues to undergo changes that radically shake up the state of the game on a frequent basis. This is a refreshing contrast to the couple of years I spent with StarCraft, where balance changes are fairly drab and stat-driven. With Dota, every patch tends to make the game feel even fresher and more exciting.

It would get a bit rote for me to just put this game at the number one position from now until the end of time, and nobody can say what next year's lineup of game releases is going to look like. But I'm confident that no matter how many of next year's games prove to be wonderful (and a lot of them look promising), Dota will always be hanging around in the background, making it difficult for me to finish every other game that comes out.

Brad Shoemaker on Google+