2014 has been somewhat of an interesting year in gaming. While it was eventful in terms of “certain” controversies and the like which I won’t bother to talk about here, it was rather dry in regards to regular releases from the major studios. As the first official year of the next-gen, this isn’t unexpected at all with focus directed to releasing compilations and “remastered” older-gen games as opposed to funneling huge sums of money into developing new and more physically demanding titles more fitting to the leap (although small) in hardware capabilities.
This effect has been felt even in the PC market of which I am firmly in, where system requirements have seen a significant spike from the release of Watch Dogs to the more recent Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor. Although strangely, this spike has seemingly been more artificial then actually real with most gamers still easily running both those titles and many others with specs lower then officially stated.
And while there have still been many great titles released within the last year, 2014 is as much a year about disappointments then anything else, especially amidst the backdrop of major studios playing with brand new properties like Watch Dogs, or revisiting existing ones like seen in Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel or Assassin’s Creed: Unity.
But given the relative lack of activity from the larger studios, 2014 was also a year that conversely saw the release of many great smaller titles, or those lacking the budget or support from a major publisher, everything from Octodad: Dadliest Catch to Kickstarter projects like Wasteland 2.
Because of this, I thought it would be worthwhile to do an end of the year wrap-up of gaming, where I list what I personally consider some of the best, worst, and simply noteworthy releases from the last year. Keep in mind, that these only consist of games officially released in 2014 and of those I had time to play.
That said, Early Access titles have more or less been omitted unless they eventually did release within 2014. Also it should be expected that many deserving titles are not mentioned simply due to a lack of time or money on my part, or whether they happen to have been console exclusives.
It shouldn’t come as much surprise that this year’s most disappointing releases consists largely of launch titles. The first year of a new console cycle is typically populated by projects that were either rushed to the finish line or simply remastered older releases as a cost effective method of boosting an initially small catalog of games. But what differentiates the advent of the supposed next-gen this time around is a complete lack of any sort of technical or mechanical innovation to markedly divide it from its previous era.
Going all the way back to the third generation of consoles with the likes of the original NES, each subsequent generation could easily be distinguished by simply observing the massive leaps in visual fidelity and technical sophistication. The challenge of the newly released Xbox One and PS4 is overcoming a certain expectation of spectacle given they don’t offer anything new in comparison to their predecessors. For example, its not all that easy to distinguish Assassin’s Creed: Unity from Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag despite being separated by a whole generation. But on the other hand, the difference between Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII is astronomical and were similarly separated by a single generation.
And while it should be expected that innovation of all kinds should eventually start to plateau, the recent unwillingness to experiment by major studios doesn’t match up with the still exponential advancement in hardware capabilities nor the ever growing interest in the medium by the mainstream populace.
Simply put, the industry has arguably reached a tenuous state that sees an increasingly larger consumer base willing to spend large sums of money, but largely growing dissatisfied with receiving essentially the same few games repackaged and re-skinned as something entirely new. So lastly it also shouldn’t come as a shock that many of the titles that I found disappointing were not actually new properties, rather entries in already stagnate franchises that failed to reinvigorate any sense of interest or attention.
Watch Dogs was “the” game that dominated E3 the previous year and served as the talking point for gamers across the board. What seemed immediately so intriguing about it was seeing the open-world formula shift away from simply running and gunning. The initial reveal footage showcased a protagonist that utilized hacking to interact with the world as opposed to shooting guns or stealing cars. The potential for something entirely different was obvious, and was possibly a larger factor in generating buzz then its high graphical fidelity.
However as Watch Dogs closed in on its release date, it was looking more and more like just another open world shooter. With pre-order exclusives advertising such assets as weapons or vehicles, it became obvious that Watch Dogs might not be all that different from the likes of GTA or Assassin’s Creed. And sure enough the game utilized many of the same gameplay systems but simply modified them to fit a different setting. For example while players had to climb tall buildings in Assassin’s Creed in order to reveal new areas of the map, Aiden Pierce in Watch Dogs hacked into ctOS towers to the same effect.
Past its lack of mechanical innovation or an unwillingness to ditch a stale formula, Watch Dogs utterly failed in its writing department. The game wanted players to connect to hacker Aiden Pierce who had just suffered a loss in the family. For the most part, this loss drives Aiden to pursue the various objectives in the game but neither Aiden himself or the events succeed in drawing up any sort of sympathy. The characters are so dull and it is entirely obvious that they have been written around required events or gameplay. Aiden and the rest of the cast often come off as mere automatons simply doing things for the sake of progressing the story.
And from both a character and morality context, the game seemingly can’t make up its mind on who they want Aiden to be. On one hand he is supposed to be a vigilante hacker who utilizes his technical expertise to fight corruption, but on the other hand he comes off as a maniacal operator who is able to remorselessly murder countless police officers or private military contractors that might stand in his path. The game even throws in a morality slider, but it quickly becomes arbitrary and honestly a bit ridiculous. My full thoughts on Watch Dogs can be read here.
While it would be easy to call Thief one of the worst games in recent history, it would be somewhat of a misleading assessment. As a finished product from a major studio and from such a beloved franchise, Thief is inexcusably terrible. But this doesn’t necessarily mean it failed on all accounts.
Its core mechanics do seem to function and work to an acceptable level, but it is hard to get excited for Thief’s take on stealth when so many other games have done it better whether that be previous entries in its own series or the more recent Dishonored. At the end of the day, its nothing to write home about and sadly it might be its only redeeming trait.
The rest of the game is downright dull or quite literally nonexistent. As a reboot, Thief needed to introduce players to exactly who Garrett is and why he does what he does. At the very least it should have established some sort of simple conflict where players could feel motivated to take part in the course of action presented by the game. I don’t think such a demand is unreasonable, and from a narrative standpoint seems like common sense. But Thief fails to properly establish any clear motivations and leaves Garrett without any semblance of a personality.
And mechanically aside from its stealth systems, the game doesn’t offer up any other form of interaction past monotonous looting which players will find themselves doing plenty of. I’d actually describe my play-through of Thief as simply walking around and spamming the E key continuously. There are however trapped safes, tracking down combination numbers, and other facets to thievery that make it slightly more exciting.
But ultimately Thief proved to be arduous to finish because I couldn’t find myself caring about anything occurring within the events of the game. None of the characters were particularly sympathetic, and it was often difficult to gauge exactly what Garrett was trying to achieve or motivated by. The side quests were fairly characteristic of this, typically being nothing more then fetch quests or other unimaginative drivel that I imagine players will likely only bother with for achievements.
Admittedly I’m not the biggest fan of the Borderlands series at all so Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel wasn’t a title that I was particularly anticipating with any sort of grand expectations. However while I found the first Borderlands somewhat forgettable and bland, I found the stronger focus on narrative in Borderlands 2 intriguing. The somewhat grindy nature of its gameplay which used to feel monotonous and a chore, now had a purpose behind it with story and characters that I could actually care about. I even bought most of the DLC and the Season Pass which isn’t something I typically do.
With that said my primary interest going into Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel was seeing a continuation of the solid writing that was characteristic of its predecessor. I did have reservations however on its premise that seemed to suggest more of a spin-off or standalone expansion, then a proper followup. The name itself suggests that the game would not really offer any new insights or conflicts to the franchise rather stepping back narratively speaking. And while there was still ample opportunity to explore some of the returning characters from previous installments like Handsome Jack, the game made little attempt to do so.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel does however make attempts at injecting new mechanics and elements to the gameplay seen in the shift of the setting to the moon where oxygen and gravity play a factor. But when in action, none of these new additions really provides for anything innovative or exciting to differentiate it from Borderlands 2. After three entries that were largely carbon copies of each other mechanically, the franchise has become quickly dull and tiresome.
But none of this should be surprising at least for veterans of the franchise who had a fairly accurate idea of what to expect. However the lack of any sort of strong narrative made playing through Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel something I will likely not want to repeat. Because aside from the stale mechanics, nothing of significance seems to happen or unfold in the game. And while I will refrain from going into spoilers, the conclusion of the narrative seems to suggest that Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is more of a transitional piece to the next proper follow-up where there is little resolution for the main players featured. Not only is this utterly disappointing for those that actually played through the whole game and paid full retail price for it, it also supports accusations that Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is merely a beefed up DLC pack for Borderlands 2.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter might possibly be one of the most aesthetically beautiful games I have ever had the pleasure of playing through. The absurd level of visual fidelity and clever use of digital composition presents a space that is deceptively real yet still retains a dream-like glamor. In conjunction with an immersive musical score and intriguing premise, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was truly a game that I was completely ready to love and had high hopes for.
However after actually playing the game, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter left much to be desired and where its visuals excelled, its mechanics were characteristically lazy and uninspiring. As paranormal detective Paul Prospero, players explore a rather large open space filled with various crime scenes that need to be investigated. And through this investigation, players slowly unravel the mysterious disappearance of Ethan Carter.
In an attempt to avoid linearity, the crime scenes can be done out of order, but it is apparent that doing so makes the narrative somewhat jarring and fragmented. But the bigger issue is in the actual system of play utilized in connecting clues. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has players interacting with various objects in a scene to piece together a narrative of events. Mechanically the manner in which players succeed is simply interacting with the objects in the correct order. The idea is somewhat novel, but does often boil down into a game of guesswork and elimination.
The most disappointing aspect with The Vanishing of Ethan Carter however is in the dissatisfying resolution of events and poor methodology in guiding the player to both retain interest, but in also pointing them to the next objective. While it might seem unfair to judge a game largely on a potentially subjective ending, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter seems so dependent on players wanting to unravel some great mystery which itself creates an expectation of some sort of revelation or internal insight.
However while avoiding spoilers, the final payoff comes in the form of an M. Night Shyamalan type of twist which is utterly crushing and lacks the proper punch to make the events of the game meaningful. But in either case, before the dissatisfying resolution, the game itself was already a chore to get through and the appeal of its stunningly beautiful world quickly wears off.
Despite the game’s apparent universal praise from critics, Dark Souls II was simply a game that I couldn’t get into nor could ultimately even finish. While I do want to preface that my opinion of Dark Souls II is admittedly not an accurate gauge of the game’s merits given that I didn’t spend a great deal of time with it, I “personally” saw little to like about the game in my experience.
While it also bears mentioning that I’m not a fan of the series, Dark Souls was still an intriguing title because it used its brutal difficulty as a means of immersion and in its efforts to build up the sense of an utterly hopeless world. In other words, it wasn’t simply difficult to be difficult. Rather the challenging aspect of the game was meant to explicitly act as a device that created certain emotions in the player but also painted its setting as even more bleak.
Dark Souls II however seemed centered on merely creating a game that was immensely difficult regardless of whether it served any purpose. And ultimately difficulty itself wasn’t what drew me away from this title, rather the lack of incentives to keep playing. Dark Souls II is utterly lifeless, not in the sense that no one inhabits it, rather that the space and scope of interactions available to the player seemed altogether dreary and dull. The lack of a strong narrative or other internal driving force prevented me from ever caring about getting to the next area as it simply brought upon more difficult enemies that were often more annoying to deal with then mentally stimulating as proper challenges.
All that said, it’s hard to completely write off Dark Souls II as it still largely stands separate from the rest of its genre. There is nothing quite like it, and that alone might warrant some degree of merit regardless of my personal lack of motivation to play it. And given its widely devoted fanbase, clearly it has hit the mark with at least a certain segment of the gaming population.
But in either case, I can’t help but feel that Dark Souls II could have benefited from a stronger narrative or some type of substance that provided a push for players to actually take on the challenge. While its difficulty is surely novel, a brutal challenge shouldn’t be a sole factor in determining a game’s worth. If anything the shift in video games that has allowed it to move closer to a respectable medium is in distancing itself from simply being an interactive challenge or puzzle, but a means to mechanically tell a story in a way that film or text simply can’t. And in that, Dark Souls II ironically feels antiquated more concerned with appeasing a niche player base then creating something actually significant.
Arguably the most troubling release this year and quite possibly the lowest point in a continuously critically acclaimed series, it should come as little surprise to find Assassin’s Creed: Unity on this list. Plagued with technical issues on both PC and consoles and an over-abundance of micro-transactions made the game both offensive and simply unplayable to many.
But past some of Ubisoft’s questionable business practices and its technical pitfalls, Assassin’s Creed: Unity simply failed to impress and by many accounts felt like a step back. While Assassin’s Creed has been a relatively solid series, it has suffered from a lack of proper resolution or commitment to its ongoing narratives. The end to the contemporary conflict between the Templars vs. Assassins and Desmond’s personal journey came to an abrupt close in Assassin’s Creed III.
And while its followup Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was received mechanically well, it failed to establish a solid new direction for the series in terms of establishing a new player surrogate or narrative as an incentive to actually be interested in delving into the animus past playing through altogether random historical encounters. With Assassin’s Creed: Unity, it seems as if the developers completely abandoned the contemporary parallels being the first game in the series to not include a playable narrative outside the animus putting more emphasis upon the game’s sole lead of Arno Dorian, an individual caught in the chaos of the French Revolution.
This might have been acceptable if Dorian was actually an interesting character but like Ubisoft’s other major release this year Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed: Unity suffered from a lack of an intriguing narrative with proper characterizations. Dorian feels altogether forced into the role of an Assassin and his motivations or personal struggles are never satisfactorily explored, nor does his relationship with Elise ever feel genuine.
Ultimately Assassin’s Creed: Unity while not a great game is at its core not that divergent from the other past entries in the series. But unlike past iterations, this most current entry felt hollow, rushed, and uninspired. The mechanical framework was largely in place, there simply wasn’t any substance to hold it all together. My full writeup and thoughts on the matter can be read here.