When compiling these selections there was no shortage of titles to choose from given the relatively large number of titles that came out this past year. And sure enough for most of my lists I had more difficulty eliminating titles then I did in coming up with them. But when considering those few select games that really did something special or was a cut above the rest, there was hardly any excess to consider.
This isn’t to say that the games that I don’t mention in the following selection are not great games, rather that 2014 just wasn’t the most impressive year in regards to significant output by either major publishers or smaller indie developers. But also to a certain degree, many noteworthy titles simply wouldn’t have made the cut given one or two serious flaws holding them back. For example Wasteland 2 provided some of the most meaningful RPG play in a long while but the experience was plagued with technical issues and a complete lack of QA testing. It’s worth noting that the extent of the issues wasn’t merely a minor annoyance, but often game-breaking making it an experience I will likely not ever repeat despite being one of the most impressive traditional RPGs I have played in years.
And while output was quantifiably strong in 2014, it was also a year that was significantly marked by joke releases or those perpetually stuck in Early Access that relied on meme humor over substantial gameplay. Titles such as Goat Simulator which successfully sold countless copies and had every notable Youtuber playing, but failed to actually deliver any sort of lasting appeal aside from the simple ridiculous fact that it existed.
Other releases like Spintires while providing some immensely complex and innovative mud physics, seemed more like a tech demo then a proper fully developed game. And ultimately most of the highly anticipated titles from 2014 utterly failed to meet player or critical expectations such as Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, or Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel.
In either case, the following selection lists the video games from 2014 that I found were near perfect works that could either serve as pinnacle examples of their respective genres, or simply excelled to abnormal heights in many areas of its production. I could easily see any of these crowned with the arbitrary “game of the year” label and are likely the releases I would find myself recommending others to check out on a regular basis.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is without a doubt the game that impressed me the most this year. While it’s not a title that could be described as innovative or bringing anything new to the table, what it does it does extremely well. Mechanically it doesn’t diverge too heavily from the play that characterized the series in the past, opting to favor its arcade-like senseless shooting, but also adding in new elements of stealth and espionage to break up the otherwise nonstop train of action.
While the gameplay could seem rather uninventive, it is absolutely in harmony with the character and narrative of the game, of which sees a level of complexity never before seen in the franchise. Blazkowicz and his companions are explored fully in regards to their personal motivations and struggles, and even the Nazis while still clearly evil, are not merely the faceless hordes of the past.
Most striking however is in the opportunity to explore a Nazi-run totalitarian state from the inside out. While Blazkowicz explores the castles of old, he also gets glimpses into concentration camps and other spaces not normally seen in Wolfenstein’s previous installments. In a sense, Wolfenstein: The New Order is more focused on straying away from the series’ attempts at caricaturizing evil in the past, and rather presents the threat as a completely dominating pervasive force that has been wholly institutionalized. The Nazis aren’t simply soldiers or literal monsters to be physically combated, rather Blazkowicz and crew must fight against society itself and the beliefs that have now become harshly enforced.
Wolfenstein has always been a series reliant upon traditions of horror, but the very believable world of Wolfenstein: The New Order paints an altogether uniquely frightening look into a “what if?” scenario of the worst possible outcome.
Revitalizing old franchises like Wolfenstein that previously relied on schlock and exploitative caricaturization presents a difficult task, especially when considering the shifted standards of both the industry and the widening player base that has resulted in a much more discerning audience. And attempts to reintroduce Wolfenstein’s contemporary franchises like Duke Nukem were abysmal failures that completely seemed out of touch with what player now deemed acceptable.
Under that context MachineGames achieved something particularly special with Wolfenstein: The New Order that simultaneously retained the franchise’s identity but also modernized it to current sensibilities. And even its narrative and shifted focus which is largely divergent from what veteran players may have been used to, could be seen as a reboot of sorts, but one that didn’t necessarily retcon the events of the series thus far.
While I used to be a devoted follower of Bill Willingham’s Fables, it’s a comic series I eventually grew tired of. Partially due to the rather heavy-handed allusions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but more due to the lack of clear direction after the war with the Adversary was resolved. Despite this, Wolf Among Us was still a title I was cautiously interested in based on Telltale’s already immense success with The Walking Dead.
And in comparing the two, while I absolutely loved The Walking Dead: Season Two, Wolf Among Us is the title that I enjoyed more from 2014. Not so much for its basis in the Fables world, rather utilizing Telltale’s proven storytelling mechanics into the genre of film noir. And everything from the series’ expert writing to the meticulous attention to detail in its mise en scene leads to an extremely singular experience that can be enjoyed equally by both fans of the comic series and those new to the Fables world.
But it’s worth mentioning that those familiar with the comic series prior should gain a fair bit of extra insight into major characters and their relationships through playing Wolf Among Us which has officially been deemed canon. Particularly players experience the manner in which Bigby felt and acted around Snow before they ever got together romantically, and also the crippling isolation that he suffers from a community that simultaneously resents and fears him all while he does everything in his power to keep them safe.
Furthermore Telltale’s choice mechanic is absolutely fitting to the detective work involved in Wolf Among Us. Players must actually be attentive to the clues in their environment and pay attention to cues in dialogue when considering future choices that could skew Bigby towards the truth or away from it. It’s a system of play that successfully simulates the sense of being an investigator without feeling like one is merely operating in the formalistic systems of a game, unlike L.A. Noire for example which failed in its own efforts despite its rather bloated attempts at facial realism.
Lastly out of the various significant releases in the last year, Wolf Among Us is likely the game I find myself recommending to the widest selection of possible players. Like the rest of Telltale’s catalog, there isn’t any sort of skill requirement or systematic familiarity preventing non-gamers from being able to play it. And its availability on everything from major consoles to mobile devices provides a wide breadth of accessibility. But more importantly and despite its connections to a larger property, Wolf Among Us provides a completely captivating and emotionally gripping film noir narrative that absolutely beats out previous attempts at the genre such as Max Payne or L.A. Noire.
My complete thoughts on Alien: Isolation can be read here. The game has been often called the first true Alien game and a “must play” for both fans of the franchise and those with an attraction to the horror genre. Unlike past attempts at transcribing the world of Alien into video games, Alien: Isolation is the first release to actually aim for the same sense of fear and helplessness felt by the Nostromo crew in the first film. And for that alone Alien: Isolation is worth checking out.
While it wouldn’t be completely fair to say that all the past attempts at games were failures, the vast majority seemed to miss the mark simply because they took the route of least resistance by trying to bend the property into the already existing mold of a run-of-the-mill action FPS. Over the years xenomorphs merely became another enemy to shoot at then a source of terror.
Alien: Isolation on the other hand takes a more refined and laid back approach. Players will likely feel tension and anxiety even in moments when the xenomorph isn’t present. The game completely bleeds atmospheric tension in the same manner as Silent Hill or Alan Wake, and is absolutely relentless in its pursuit to make the player’s journey as unnerving as possible. And in Alien: Isolation, the xenomorph is largely singular. For the majority of the game, players as Ripley are continually stalked by the single creature who is unkillable and extremely intelligent.
Unlike previous stealth titles that all too frequently suffered from faulty AI that was easily exploitable, the xenomorph in Alien: Isolation doesn’t fall for the same old tricks and there are truly no safe havens. Simply running into a vent or hiding in a closet by no means guarantees safety and often poses more danger.
While the narrative itself and character development leaves something to be desired, the game does a decent job of immersing players into the struggles of Ripley personally whether that be through mechanics or atmosphere. And quite possibly the greatest testament to the success of Alien: Isolation is that at the end of the day, it doesn’t simply feel like a game adaptation, rather as a proper entry among the film canon of the original series.
My write-up of South Park: Stick Of Truth can be read here but in summary it’s a must-play for both fans of the original television show and of the RPG genre itself. With the direct involvement of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the authenticity of the game’s writing is a sure thing. And quite possibly the best way to describe it would be to state that it actually plays like an extended episode of the television show that happens to also be an interactive turn-based RPG.
Everything from its art direction to the lack of a complex invasive UI makes the games visually appear as if the player is actually transplanted onto the show itself instead of merely a game adaptation. And while the content of the game’s writing and humor will largely be entirely subjective, it’s fairly safe to assume that fans of the television show will completely love what they find in South Park: Stick Of Truth given the original writers’ involvement.
But what is more significant is in the complexity and careful translation of the South Park world mechanically into gameplay systems of combat or movement. The turn-based system while reminiscent of Final Fantasy or other staple JRPGs, is still incredibly engaging and thoughtful while still maintaining a steady stream of humor. And the decision to keep South Park: Stick Of Truth in a flat platformer-like viewpoint maintains a coherent aesthetic while also offering clever workarounds in order to still provide a certain degree of movement and interaction.
And while 2014 was by no means chockful of significant RPG releases, South Park: Stick Of Truth does easily beat out the competition which is definitely surprising given its licensed nature, of which typically suggests questionable and uninspiring development. South Park: Stick Of Truth however might stand out past its specific gameplay merits for its sense of being a love letter to the genre itself. The game frequently drops references from everything from oldschool top-down JRPGs like Final Fantasy when players venture to Canada to more modern day fare like Skyrim.
South Park: Stick Of Truth is an absolute nostalgia trip that recalls everything from actually playing in tabletop sessions to Saturday morning cartoons while also maintaining its own wildly entertaining sense of comedy. But given its reliance or strong bond to South Park which has largely been a sort of love it or hate it type of affair, it’s also safe to assume that the game will have a similar dichotomy. If one simply doesn’t see the appeal of Stone and Parker’s attempts at humor, they will just as likely find it difficult to look past it to enjoy any sort of mechanical merits in South Park: Stick Of Truth.
I’ve talked at length about Telltale’s The Walking Dead here and here in the past. There is definitely something to be said about two of Telltale’s productions showing up on my selection of what I considered the year’s best and primarily it’s due to the consistent quality of their writing. And while I have yet to play Tales from the Borderlands, the first episode of it has already received stellar reviews. In either case, it should be interesting to see how long Telltale can consistently produce their own take on the adventure formula while maintaining both critical acclaim and avoid being mechanically over-done. But currently their formula is still fresh and entirely adequate in providing a more then decent framework for their narratives.
Without a doubt, I was a massive fan of the first season of The Walking Dead. When I initially played through it, it was easily one of the most emotionally gripping experiences I have ever gotten through the medium of video games. While admittedly there have been criticisms that Telltale adventures are little more then interactive films, I never really saw that as necessarily a bad trait.
While simplistic in its structure, Telltale games have always struck me as putting narrative first, and thoughtfully injecting gameplay around it to enhance the experience. So while choices in the first season may not have resulted in completely divergent narratives, the simple mechanic of making a choice does flavor the experiences in a different light.
In either case Season Two largely addresses this criticism by actually having multiple branching endings dependent on the choices players make. These endings without getting into spoilers are all thoughtfully written and it isn’t explicitly clear whether one or more endings is more valid then the others.
And while this might not sound like a big deal, often when video games have injected alternate endings, they were exactly that, “alternate” meaning not the correct one. So while a series like Mass Effect has largely been advertised as one about personal choices, there is still a sense of what is unofficially a “canon” play-through.
But aside from its endings, The Walking Dead: Season Two does one particularly remarkable thing that isn’t isolated to the video game medium only. It both successfully places players in the role of a child, but also provides meaningful characterization that is both coherent with her depiction in Season One, but also goes through fitting development dependent on a player’s play-through.
Shadowrun Returns was quite possibly one of the most anticipated earlier Kickstarter games to eventually see the light of day. As one of the more popular tabletop franchises, it never seemed to gain enough traction in the video game market past a long forgotten SNES game. But like many Kickstarter proposals, the eventual release seemingly didn’t deliver on many of its stated goals and features.
Criticism was mainly aimed at its simplified mechanics and barebone interactions that felt more point-and-click then actually engaging any sort of thought. However as far as the initial campaign Dead Man’s Switch was received, despite the mechanical concerns its narrative and writing were incredibly impressive. The lack of robust gameplay in light of the strong writing was almost forgivable since it merely served as a secondary system meant to enhance the narrative instead of the other way around.
But this still left concerns and disappointment over notions of Shadowrun Returns being a system wherein players could create their own campaigns and content. And while the game did see Steam Workshop integration, the content and tools players had to work with did leave something to be desired. And by all accounts, the quantity of user submitted content was definitely disappointing.
However personally as someone who primarily went into Shadowrun Returns for the single-player experience, I was mostly satisfied and impressed by how well it was able to replicate the same feel of actually playing an organic tabletop session as opposed to a stringent formal video game. This isn’t due to any sense of relative freedom since the game completely lacked in that department, rather on the absolutely gripping narrative and meaningful characterizations.
With Dragonfall, Harebrained Schemes completely outdid themselves and also made strides to remedy previous concerns. Adding essentially a sourcebook-sized amount of new content to the game did quite a bit in regards to rectifying concerns over player creation potential. And sure enough the Workshop did get a noticeable uptick in activity after its release ensuring countless extra hours of play.
But from my own experience, Dragonfall is particularly memorable for its own self-contained campaign that had me continuously questioning my actions and choices which is altogether odd for a game that doesn’t really feature any sort of branching narratives. The experiences themselves are relatively self-contained and does speak volumes on how easily one can get immersed in both the events and world of Dragonfall’s Berlin.