2014 was the year that brought forth a new generation of gaming consoles and took us ever closer to the growing specter of virtual reality gaming. It had its share of controversies, most prominently with Gamergate, and more episodes of Microsoft and Sony trying to one up each other than you could shake a Wiimote at. At the end of the day, however, the only thing that gamers care about is whether developers are putting forth new ideas and executing them proficiently.
2014 saw the introduction of more games with an increased focus on the single player experience, both from major publishers and crowdfunded sites like Kickstarter. As far as multiplayer went, many developers sought to either integrate it in more meaningful ways than the typical deathmatch/capture the flag modes we’re used to seeing, such as through co-operative modes that meshed with the story. Others instead abandoned the idea completely, choosing to divert all their resources into the single player. Regardless of the approach, it made for a year filled with some truly fantastic titles and a few that weren’t so fantastic. So without further ado, let’s take a look at what I consider to be 2014’s best games, as well as its biggest disappointment.
1. Alien Isolation
Besides the fact that it was literally the best thing the Alien franchise had seen since, hell, 1986’s Aliens, Isolation proved itself to be a terrific survival horror game in its own right. What truly made it stand out from its peers was that the primary antagonist, the alien, was not pre-scripted in any way and thus made for a genuinely unpredictable opponent. Some didn’t get the idea, particularly gaming journalists in the United States like IGN and Gamespot. An AI that has a mind of its own and can’t be exploited or predicted? Outrage of outrages! 6 out of 10!
Meanwhile, many others appreciated the change of pace from what was quickly becoming a stagnating survival horror genre, in which players were either armed to the teeth (Dead Space, Resident Evil) or utterly helpless (Outlast, Amnesia). Isolation brought its own unique brand of survival horror that, ironically, made far more sense than anything the genre had ever seen. You were physically frail and doomed to a gruesome death if the alien came within five feet of you, but you had some means of defending yourself, and often times having a solid understanding of the layout of each level proved to be more effective than any weapon. In short, Isolation is one of my favorite games of 2014 because it brought its own unique gameplay formula to a stagnating genre and resurrected a seemingly dead franchise back to life.
2. Wolfenstein: The New Order
The original Wolfenstein 3D is regarded as the game that established the first-person shooter into the gaming monstrosity we’re all familiar with today. As was the case with other shooters of its time, Wolfenstein saw a number of contemporary remakes and sequels that stuck closely to the old school formula of running around at lightning speed while mowing down countless enemies, all framed around a throwaway plot. You can also see this with Doom 3 and Quake 4, for instance. Then along came Wolfenstein: The New Order, which pretty much wiped the slate clean on what was expected of a Wolfenstein game, and the result was just utterly sublime.
Besides having some of the best run-and-gun action I’ve seen in a very long time, The New Order’s world is so rich and detailed that developer Machine Games could easily expand upon it into a lengthier, more detailed experience that could last twice the length of the game’s 15 hour campaign. All of the game’s characters, even the Nazis, brim with life and personality that many larger scaled games could only dream of having. I genuinely cared about my allies, such as Klaus, Max, Fergus and Wyatt, because the game took its time to show all sides of their personalities while knowing when to rein things in, unlike Far Cry 4. As the campaign drew to a close, I could swear I felt the faintest hint of emotion, and there are maybe five or six games I’ve played that have managed to do that to me.
Despite being a fast-paced shooter, stopping to take in the alternative Nazi-controlled 1960s of The New Order is as much of a rewarding experience as stomping around in a Nazi battlemech to the bone-crunching polyrhythms of Meshuggah. You can tell that Machine Games cared about creating an immersive and detailed world, going so far as to create fake bands and recording Nazi-themed covers of some of the greatest hits from the 60s. You’ll certainly find this level of detail in games like Dragon Age, The Witcher and other similarly scaled games, but in the adrenaline-fueled blitzkrieg of The New Order’s old school FPS gameplay, the feeling of actually caring about what you’re doing and what you’re fighting for is a tremendously welcome change to the genre, and that’s why Wolfenstein: The New Order is one of my favorites from 2014.
3. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor
At first glance, Shadow of Mordor seems to be little more than a clone of the Batman Arkham games set in Middle Earth. Everything from the fighting system to the manner in which Talon navigates obstacles and vertical surfaces to the open world is highly reminiscent of the caped crusader’s highly successful series. Yet what makes Shadow of Mordor truly exceptional is its Nemesis System; a gameplay element that I don’t believe has ever been seen in a videogame before. Throughout game world you will encounter a number of Uruk officers of varying ranks, each with their own set of randomly generated appearances, personalities, strengths and weaknesses. As the player goes about his or her business , these Uruks, or Orcs as they are more informally known, will be engaging in their own activities independent of the player. Players have the choice to either go through the game without meddling in their affairs too much, but it would be a great disservice to the game, as immersing oneself in the Nemesis System is what makes Shadow of Mordor one of 2014’s highlights.
The truly wonderful thing about Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis System is that it allows you to create your own personalized narrative that runs parallel to the main plot. You could, for example, have one particular Orc that you surreptitiously aided during his rise to Warchief status, and then have that Orc dominated so that he became your slave that you could call on for any reason. He would then reign as one of Mordor’s most notorious figures, only to be deposed by you once he had outlived his usefulness. You could also have one particular Orc that was exceptionally difficult and kept on killing you, rising through the ranks as a result and becoming one of your biggest rivals, only to be taken out by another Orc while you were plotting your revenge. The diverse manner in which the power struggles within the Orc ranks ebb and flow allows for a playthrough that feels distinctly yours, and as a result each and every Orc you encounter in Shadow of Mordor isn’t just cannon fodder; they could potentially be the next major figure in your personalized journey through Mordor. In short, Shadow of Mordor is one of my favorite games of 2014 because it allows you to manipulate your enemies and the narrative in ways that no other story-driven action adventure game has.
4. This War of Mine
A classic case of David and Goliath, 11 bit’s thought provoking war survival experience deserves exemplary commendation for being a superior game to many of its larger budget counterparts from EA, Activision and Ubisoft, both in terms of story and gameplay. TWoM’s success lies in the fact that it is fundamentally and genuinely well crafted game that challenges players from a strategic standpoint. Many games that attempt to convey profound messages, like Spec Ops: The Line, sometimes suffer from mediocre gameplay, but this is not the case with TWoM. Of course, many will associate its true accomplishments with its realistic portrayal of war, unlike countless other videogames that have glamorized it into something that’s actually fashionable (coughCallofDutycough).
Despite lacking any voice acting, TWoM succeeds in evoking a genuine sense of guilt and moral dilemma out of players as a result of their actions. Do you raid a home with helpless, innocent people inside for their supplies, or stand by your morals but allow your survivors to suffer through deprivation? It’s a classic example of a videogame that generates much of its atmosphere by evoking it through the player’s imagination. There may be no voice acting, for example, but the characters have such lifelike qualities that you can “hear” them speak when they say something. TWoM, in short, is a very rare game that succeeds in using the player to define its narrative, while also triumphing as a challenging and deceptively complex game, and that’s why it’s one of my favorites of 2014.
And winning my award for most disappointing game of 2014 is Ubisoft’s Watch_Dogs. Now, don’t get me wrong; on its own merits, Watch_Dogs is a pretty decent open world game, with a functional, sprawling game world and some cool story missions that allow for a great deal of creativity with how you approach them. Aside from this, however, Watch_Dogs is essentially a game advertised by Ubisoft as the next triple A juggernaut that turned out to be a great deal of hocus pocus.
The biggest selling point of Watch_Dogs was its hacking feature; a very topical gameplay element that allowed you to hack into security cameras, people’s phones, traffic lights and barriers, enemy radios, and just about anything that used electricity. Here’s the problem: while this sort of stuff would be cool to see in a movie, or heck, in real life, there are already plenty of videogames out there that let you do this kind of stuff. There’s the Splinter Cell games, ironically also published by Ubisoft, in which you have access to an array of gadgets that let you disable electronics, remotely hack computers and whatnot. Then there’s games like Bioshock, in which you can manipulate the environment in various ways using your plasmids, the Thief games, Deus Ex games, Crysis games and God knows what else. The only difference between all these titles and Watch_Dogs is that the latter has you doing these things with your smartphone, something that nearly everyone today has. That is what Ubisoft was banking on with Watch_Dogs: disguising unoriginal gameplay by trying to thrill us with a setting steeped in smartphone culture, hacking and surveillance that is turning out to be scarily real.
Then there’s the game’s side quests, which is a bit of a misnomer, as many of them are little more than a bunch of insipid mini-games that take you into a virtual reality environment where you blast aliens, zombies, and everything in between. Again, what is so appealing about this when there are countless other games that let you shoot exotic creatures in exotic worlds with ten times the fun? Watch_Dogs tries to wow you with its near future world in which you can embark on ‘Digital Trips’, a la Total Recall. Um, Ubisoft? I already *am* in a digital trip just by playing Watch_Dogs, or any other videogame for that matter.
Combined with its uninspired characters and story along with its sub-par graphics (which were made slightly less crappy on the PC version thanks to the Worse Mod), Watch_Dogs turned out to be the first of several incredible letdowns by Ubisoft, who went on to put out the critically disappointing The Crew and Assassin’s Creed Unity later in the year. As a triple A publisher, Ubisoft really has no excuse for putting out three high profile games that utterly, utterly failed to even reasonably live up to their hype, and Watch_Dogs’s failure lies in its obsession with creating a world of hacking and surveillance based on current events while forgetting to create a world that gamers would even want to play in.