Since this is a personal list about my favorite games I played this year, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. I played that and the first Metal Gear Solid this year for the first time, and both games have opened my eyes in some expected and unexpected ways. First of all, I now know what everyone is talking about when they talk about “crazy endings” and “Kojima is insane” and “Solid Snake sure is a cool action guy.” But aside from feeling like a part of the club (which, like any good club, requires a grueling initiation), the games also demonstrated to me the creativity that is possible within the medium. The fact that other games don’t include more bonkers solutions to problems or Easter eggs or hidden sub-plots is a shame. If the rest of the industry took just ten percent of Kojima’s “crazy” and incorporated it into their games, I have a feeling we’d see far fewer complaints about all games being the same these days.
That said, 2014 still managed to produce some bangers:
10. Shovel Knight
Maybe it’s just the word “Knight” in the title, but this game reminded me of Rocket Knight Adventures, so I immediately found it endearing. I also appreciate a throwback game that manages to look and sound good and authentic without seeming like it’s pandering to your nostalgia. I mean, that’s exactly what Shovel Knight is doing, but the game itself holds up as more than just a rip-off of some old game you liked, so I’ll allow it.
9. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
I don’t usually like open world games. I always feel torn in too many directions, and instead of bouncing between them, I just stop playing. These games also love to give you one big objective that absolutely must be done right now, so I end up just mainlining the game and never want to go back and do any of the side stuff. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, however, felt completely different. I felt like I finally had the freedom to do what I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted. Those phrases have been thrown around since video games began, but this game finally made me feel it, which is a big deal in my book. I’m not big on the look of Mordor, and I’m not sure I’ll ever complete the game, but it feels like, at last, an open world game has delivered on its promises.
Destiny is a lot like going to an upscale sushi restaurant. If you go in expecting to leave stuffed and satisfied, you will be sorely disappointed. The trick is to put yourself into a zen-like state. Carefully consider that slice of fish laying on your plate. Examine the care with which it was placed on that perfectly formed block of rice. There isn’t any soy sauce or wasabi here; just pop it in your mouth and study its consistency and flavor. The small morsels you are served taste wonderful, but you’re probably going to have to hit a greasy fast food joint when you leave.
7. Alien: Isolation
I’m a huge fan of the Alien films, so it didn’t surprise me when I accidentally spent 30 minutes in the tiny ship the game starts you in just walking around looking at stuff. Everything from the color palate and film grain to the icons above the doorways remains faithful to the films, and it sucked me in right away. I was also glad to see that Alien: Isolation treats the alien like the first film does: a perfect organism designed solely for eviscerating you, not just one of dozens of dumb AI enemies you could mow down with your pulse rifle. Your inability to kill the alien goes a long way in establishing a tense atmosphere which produced some fantastically scary moments, particularly when one of the game’s Working Joe androids snuck up on me and caused me to scream aloud, alone in my apartment. I’m looking forward to playing more of it; I just hope it varies up the action a little.
6. Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
I am terrible at Hearthstone. I haven’t even beaten all the AI opponents yet. Despite this, when I hear its name I can’t help but think “man, I could really go for some Hearthstone right about now.” I’m a big fan of card battling games like Ascension and SolForge, but I realize those games are pretty much for huge nerds like me. Hearthstone, on the other hand, is a game I can recommend to anyone. It’s one of those rare games that casual players can have fun with, but retains a level of depth that anyone can dive deep into. Who knows, the next time you talk to your mom she might tell you all about the sweet Fire Elemental she just got.
You start NaissanceE seeing nothing but elongated grey blocks. They don’t even make recognizable forms, just monochrome prisms extending off into nowhere. You lack even a sense of scale. Am I big or small? Is this a real place or completely abstract? The game is so restrained in the way it shows you new things that when you first see a block at an angle, forming a triangle above a doorway-sized opening, it’s a revelation. This carefully calculated pacing not only makes what you see later in the game all the more impressive, but pulls you through the game. Instead of a story cliffhanger, it’s a curved surface. Not everyone finds virtual architecture compelling, and some of the puzzles can be frustrating, but I found it hard to be mad at a game that showed me something I had never seen before.
4. Valiant Hearts: The Great War
The first thing you’ll notice about Valiant Hearts is its beautiful hand-drawn art style. The gameplay is slowly paced and simple, so you get a chance to enjoy the visuals, especially when you get stuck on some of the more obtuse puzzles like I did (when in doubt, try digging). The story is touching in parts, and gives the game a certain gravity without totally bumming you out, which is saying something considering it’s set in one of the darkest periods in human history. It’s a history I know embarrassingly little about, which is why I absolutely loved the anecdotes and descriptions of equipment the game peppers throughout in the form of easy-to-find collectables. I’m not usually a collectables guy, but I was determined to find all five before I moved on to a new area.
3. This War of Mine
This War of Mine is all about the constant struggle to keep your characters alive. You are consistently making decisions about who to feed, who should take from the dwindling medicine supply, or who risks their life scavenging for resources come nighttime. Even seemingly innocuous choices can ripple through your game like an artillery shell through an apartment complex. Decided to have your beleaguered characters sleep instead of keep watch? Surprise, bandits came in the night and took half your stuff. Decided to help a stranger raid a first-aid supply drop? Now the authorities are knocking at your door. While raiding a person’s home at night, do you sneak around and waste valuable time, or kill the occupants, risking your own health and sanity (killing makes your characters depressed)? It can feel overwhelming at times, but I always resisted reloading from a save, since the story I was making with my characters felt like it was mine. “The Sims in war-torn Bosnia” may not ring everyone’s bell, but it sure rings mine.
2. Fates Forever
If you would have told me a MOBA would be on my list this year, let alone this high on my list, I’d have called you a big fat liar. I’ve tried League and Dota, but neither held my attention like Fates Forever. I think this is mostly due to the concessions made to make a MOBA playable on a tablet. The game is simpler, distilled. That said, it still retains the frenetic moment-to-moment action and long-game strategy the genre is known for, just in a more accessible package. No other game this year had me thinking about it more when I wasn’t playing it, or had me spending hours researching different characters’ attack ratings and hit points. I caught the bug, guys. It’s not a debilitating sickness (yet), but it’s definitely lingering.
1. Wolfenstein: The New Order
I’ll admit I’m a sucker for all things first-person shooting and World War II, but if Wolfenstein: The New Order had been only that, there’s no way it would be at the top of my list. Where the game really shines for me is how deftly it balances stealth and action. At each encounter I felt that both shooting my way through and sneaking around stabbing dudes were both perfectly viable options. Moreover, I never felt like I ever explicitly decided which route I was going to take; stealth and action flow so seamlessly together that you drift in and out of both naturally, which never leaves you feeling like you’re “playing the game wrong.” Couple that with interesting, believable characters and a story that, while ridiculous, I enjoyed, and you’ve got all the makings of my Game of the Year.