The version of me from January of 2014 couldn’t have possibly guessed that his top ten games of the year would look anything like this. I was convinced that Titanfall would occupy a spot high on the list. I would have expected to see prominent spots reserved for Batman: Arkham Knight, Evolve, and The Order: 1886. Instead, I was hit from out of nowhere with an addictive mobile game, a nostalgia-soaked indie title, and a Lord of the Rings game that blew me away. Some predictable titles made their way onto my list, but 2014 was filled with delays and surprises that shook things up considerably. This was an odd year for many reasons, but the entries on this list were fantastic and varied experiences that make me excited for what 2015 has to offer.
It’s a rare occasion that a mobile game really grabs me. Some titles like Jetpack Joyride, Kingdom Rush, Hero Academy, and 10000000 have really impressed me in the past, but they’re typically few and far between. More than any mobile game ever, Threes sucked me in and didn’t let go. I was immediately impressed by how easy it was to learn the basics of its sliding tile system, but the lure of a higher and higher score had me regularly reading up on its intricacies and strategies. I love the progression of a good run, as they start with haphazard swipes that gradually turn into precise, well thought-out moves as you get closer and closer to the big numbers. Threes has a beautiful interface, addictive gameplay, and it’s absolutely perfect for touchscreen devices. I can’t think of a better mobile game in this year or any preceding it.
Back in late 2011, I flew out to Obsidian to write a Game Informer cover story about a yet-to-be-announced (or even officially titled) South Park game. As a longtime fan of the show, it was fascinating to see a video game version that so closely resembled its source material. After speaking with Obsidian developers, Trey Parker, and Matt Stone, however, I left the studio convinced that the game would never see release. It seemed like a difficult development process, and numerous delays in the years to follow seemed to back up my suspicion. The beginning of this year shocked me not only to see the release of The Stick of Truth, but (more importantly) to learn that it was actually a really enjoyable RPG that did the license justice. It’s heavy on fan service at times, but it incorporates classic episodes and characters in a way that makes sense for the game. It’s one of the more unique titles in recent years, and it certainly stands as one of the best uses of a license for a video game.
When Sunset Overdrive debuted via a CG trailer at E3 last year, I saw the high-flying, wire-grinding action and thought “that looks cool and all, but this’ll probably be one of those games where the gameplay doesn’t match the early trailers at all.” I was glad to be wrong in this case, as the final product closely resembles the over-the-top nature of that first trailer. Shooting exploding teddy bears and lethal LPs while hanging off of phone wires is a cool visual, but it wouldn’t mean much if it didn’t control well. Insomniac managed to take these potentially-difficult navigation mechanics and map them to an Xbox One controller in a way that made the action feel effortless. After the soulless Fuse, it’s great to see Insomniac get back to their upbeat, fun roots.
Nintendo’s ultimate fan service franchise has done a great job of avoiding oversaturation since it debuted 15 years ago. Putting several years between releases proved to be effective once again, as this year’s release of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (and 3DS) felt like the right time to bring the publisher’s all-stars back for another entry. While the 3DS version introduced the roster, their moves, and many stages, it was this Wii U version that impressed the most. Eight-player Smash is a great addition to the series, and is certain to be a staple at game nights for years. Newcomers like Little Mac, the Wii Fit Trainer, and Pac-Man fit right in, with Mega Man’s weak arsenal sticking out as the only disappointment in the roster. Every element of this entry is firing on all cylinders, and I’ve never had as much fun with a Smash Bros. game before.
New “retro” games have been a hot item for the past couple of years, but many of them come off as nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. I grew up on the NES, but I don’t instantly fall in love with a game just because it tries to recreate the pixel graphics and sparse soundtracks from the mid-to-late 80s. Because of that, Shovel Knight wasn’t really on my radar prior to its release. Once it hit Steam and started getting some solid buzz via reviews and Twitter, I decided to check it out. I was immediately struck by how well it played, and it succeeded in making me re-experience the feel of the NES gameplay I grew up on...not just the aesthetics. It’s also one of the rare games that I liked so much, I started a second playthrough immediately upon finishing it. Don’t let the flood of wannabe nostalgia games sway you, as Shovel Knight is a genuinely great experience.
If you’re on this site, you probably have a good idea of how much I love Metal Gear Solid. That’s why I was losing my mind in January when I got to go to Kojima Productions in Japan and play through Ground Zeroes for a piece at my old job. We were given a few hours to play the game, and I was initially concerned that we wouldn’t be able to finish it. As the gaming world knows by now, that was enough time to thoroughly beat it about three times over. While the length of the game came as a shock initially, looking back on the experience (and playing through the new PC port) makes me extremely excited for the future. There may not be much story on display (although I love what’s there), but the core gameplay is without a doubt the best in the history of the series. The clunky nature of some of the series’ longstanding mechanics has been replaced with intuitive controls and fantastic new additions like the reflex mode that’s activated when you’re spotted. It looks and plays great, and does a great job of continuing the narrative path of Big Boss becoming a darker and eventually villainous character. Complain about the length all you want, but Ground Zeroes has made me more excited about an upcoming Metal Gear Solid than I’ve been since I played the tanker demo prior to Sons of Liberty.
4. Mario Kart 8
I work in an office filled with people that seem to be immune to Mario Kart’s (and Smash Bros.’, and Mario Party’s…) undeniable charm, but that hasn’t diminished my enthusiasm for this fantastic eighth entry. After spending over twenty years with the series, I always find myself excited for its new entries thanks to the consistent level of quality that Nintendo injects into each of them. I’m rarely disappointed by the output, but no previous entry in the series is as rock-solid as this one. Nintendo’s characters look gorgeous in HD, which is highlighted by the awesome replay system that showcases the hilarious facial expressions that you normally wouldn’t see. Courses are more stunning than ever, helped by the new gravity-defying corkscrews and upside-down sections. In a first for the series, it’s also introduced character and course DLC that are well worth picking up. Alongside Smash Bros., this was Nintendo’s year for improving upon their already firmly established franchises.
3. Bayonetta 2
Platinum Games established a great new action protagonist with the original Bayonetta, but something about that game didn’t hit me quite as hard as genre favorites like Devil May Cry and God of War. This sequel didn’t drastically change any element from the 2010 original, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t have way more fun with this one. I got excited as I walked into every one of the game’s many battles, and spent several playthroughs experimenting with different weapon combinations. With this sequel, Bayonetta has entered the elite level of its peers when it comes to this breed of action game.
2. Far Cry 4
I’ve heard several people sing Far Cry 4’s praises, followed by the caveat that it’s “basically more Far Cry 3.” While many elements of the game are reminiscent of its predecessor, I think that there are some key additions that helped push it up this far on my list. First and foremost is the co-op play, which I loved in spite of it not being available during story missions. Most of my favorite moments in Far Cry 4 don’t come from the story, but from the silly emergent gameplay situations that come from the freedom the game provides. I’m talking about moments like driving a C4-covered ATV into an enemy outpost and then detonating it, killing an elephant by ramping a jet ski into its head, and trying to shoot an eagle with a grenade launcher as I stalk it around Kyrat’s skies in a gyrocopter. These moments are hilarious, and the potential for chaos increases significantly when another player is added to the equation. I didn’t miss the story missions while playing co-op, as there are plenty of opportunities for multiplayer fun in assassination missions, hostage rescue missions, or plain old open world experimentation. Other additions like the gyrocopter and a more tolerable cast of characters helped my overall enjoyment of Far Cry 4, and the entire package is one of the best experiences I had playing games in 2014.
I’ve been long adamant about my dislike of the Lord of the Rings property, so it’s more than a little weird to see the words “Middle-earth” next to my number one spot. Despite the fact that I hate all things Tolkien, I decided to go into this title with an open mind considering good gameplay is enough to overcome boring source material. Sure enough, I spent over 30 hours killing orcs in increasingly awesome ways, with no real focus on dragons and wizards and crap to get in the way of my enjoyment. I heard a lot of hype about the nemesis system prior to release, and I was thrilled to see it put into place in such a meaningful and fun way. Many have said that it’s the first feature that truly feels “next-gen” on these new consoles, and I’m inclined to agree. I felt like I was forging my own path through Mordor, taking out this motley crew of enemy captains in whichever order and method I saw fit. It’s the first game in a while that had me playing long after I had beaten it in an effort to get every trophy and see everything it had to offer. Monolith knocked it out of the park with this one, and they deserve every bit of the praise that’s come their way this year.