And here we are. Much like the films post from last week, here is a list from ten to one of my top games of the year. Sadly, top is a little relative this year, since it seems to have been rather a weak year for gaming. Very little came out in the first few months, then the lead up to Christmas featured a slew of titles that seemed to be either broken or mediocre in other distinct ways. While I stand by these ten choices in terms of them being the best of 2014, I’m not certain they would have stood much chance in a year with a better line up.
Before getting properly started with number ten, I would also like to throw out a mention for those games that I never quite got around to playing enough of to decide their position in any top ten list. In alphabetical order, they are: Assassin’s Creed Unity, Child of Light, Dark Souls II, The Evil Within, Freedom Wars, Mind Zero, Murasaki Baby, Murdered: Soul Suspect, South Park: The Stick of Truth, Valiant Hearts: The Great War, Velocity 2X, and Wolfenstein: The New Order. Some may have made the list, others I would highly doubt it. As it stands, the list is final. It serves as a benchmark for where things lay at the start of the new year. I am, however, not opposed to re-evaluating it in a separate blog post in a couple of months. We’ll have to see.
10. Jazzpunk (Necrophone Games)
What is there to even say about a game like Jazzpunk? It’s genuinely so weird, I don’t really know where to begin. Saying that it’s a spy comedy wherein every character is a stylised bathroom sign is technically true, but it really doesn’t do the game justice.
The truth is, there isn’t much in the way of actual gameplay in Jazzpunk. It’s more like the more recent walking simulators like Gone Home or Dear Esther, only made in the style of an Adult Swim cartoon rather than trying to tell a deep or compelling story. Perhaps most refreshingly, it’s also short. Usually, that’s not a selling point, but in the case of a game aiming to be funny, I think there’s something to be said for knowing when to stop, rather than trying to drag a concept out for twice as long as necessary.
And that’s the real problem with picking a comedy game as one of my top ten. The entire appeal of it lies in the jokes, and spoiling any of those would be to spoil the game itself. So what I’ll say in closing is this: If you find the absurdity of something like Aqua Teen Hunger Force or even some of the more adult and subversive elements of Adventure Time funny, you will likely get something out of Jazzpunk.
9. Outlast (Red Barrels)
I wrestled a bit with putting Outlast on the list, since the PC version was released in 2013. But then I took a look at what would have been bumped into the number ten spot (for the record it would have been either Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes or The Walking Dead Season 2, neither of which I liked as much), and I took a look at the rest of this list and figured this is actually one of the less contentious entries. So, fuck the police.
When it works, Outlast really works. It was the first of these modern crop of horror games I had played, and I have to say that being unable to defend myself in any way was utterly terrifying, at least for around four of the five hours it took me to complete the game. The old survival horror mainstay of resource conservation rears its head in the form of batteries for your camera. Without them, you can’t see in the dark. And a late-ish sequence where the camera is taken away altogether is perhaps the most tense of the whole experience.
Unfortunately, Outlast does stumble a little. While the parts in and around Mount Massive Asylum are incredible, a late game location change robs the ending of all the tension they managed to build over the first few hours. Had the game ended stronger, I could have seen it maybe breaking the top five.
I wrote a much larger piece on Outlast here, although this does come with a huge spoiler warning.
8. Infamous: Second Son (Sucker Punch Productions)
I really thought this was going to be the one. My number one game for 2014. I’ve always liked the Infamous series, and I thought that Second Son stepping away from the brooding Cole McGrath and his single set of powers into a more likable protagonist with a wider array of abilities would be enough to push it into the stratosphere.
The sad part is, they came really close. Delsin Rowe is a likable protagonist, played well by the ever present Troy Baker. His interactions with his brother Reggie (played by Baker’s real life BFF Travis Willingham) and fellow conduit Fetch (played by Willingham’s wife and Baker’s other friend Laura Bailey *cough* nepotism *cough*) are well written and a joy to watch unfold.
Similarly, the new powers are tremendous fun, each one feeling unique. Smoke functions like a pistol of sorts, sturdy and reliable, but not necessarily the most powerful. Neon works like a sniper rifle, excellent for getting precision shots on limbs or heads, depending on whether Delsin is going down the paragon or renegade path. And video (yes, seriously) is like a machine gun, rapid blasts shooting from Delsin’s fingertips. And the particle effects as you draw on each of them are some of the best I’ve ever seen, especially draining the neon from huge signs in the night time portions of the game.
But sadly, it’s all held back a little. For one thing, the story is of no consequence to the world at all. In the first two games, Cole decided the fates of entire cities and populations. In Second Son, the only thing at stake is whether Delsin can defeat the big bad in time to go save a few people back home. There is a time and place for smaller, more intimate stories, but in this case it feels like going from reading Civil War or Infinite Crisis to a story about whether or not Spider-Man can get Aunt May her cough medicine.
The other issue is that Sucker Punch still can’t make a city feel alive. I’m not sure why their audio department is so lacklustre, but there is no ambient sound whatsoever, and it makes Seattle feel dead. It was an issue with the first two games, and it’s an issue with Second Son. I just found it impossible to fully immerse myself without the background noise I would expect from a big city.
7. Far Cry 4 (Ubisoft Montreal)
This is maybe a bit reductive, but if you’ve played Far Cry 3, you’ve pretty much played Far Cry 4. Two areas, a south and a north, each full of radio towers and outposts to conquer with a variety of weapons. A memorable antagonist who shows up sporadically throughout the game to taunt the player, and a series of misadventures with crazy side characters (including a welcome appearance by sociopathic patriot Agent Willis Huntley from the previous game).
The truth is, I did enjoy Far Cry 4. But not quite as much as Far Cry 3 and definitely not as much as the infinitely more interesting and less accessible Far Cry 2. Maybe it’s a case of diminishing returns, especially since this feels more like a reskin than a full fledged sequel. I like the franchise enough to see a Far Cry 5, but if I’m still doing the same Ubisoft open world stuff, I’m just not sure that can sustain my interest for another 20 hours or so.
That said, they have learned some things from the reactions to Far Cry 3. The most evident being that Pagan Min, the antagonist introduced at the start of the game (played by the omnipresent and omniscient Troy Baker) is the antagonist throughout. No Vaas and Hoyt bait and switch this time. While he doesn’t get as much screen time as I’d have liked, he is a constant source of amusement over the in game radio, and is easily the game’s standout character.
The other improvements are smaller, but no less welcome. The quick time event boss battles are gone. While what they’re replaced with isn’t great, it’s a step forward. The new vertical setting makes for exciting wingsuit related moments, and it’s available to buy from the start, rather than relegating it to the second half of the game. And finally, some of the faction intrigue from Far Cry 2 makes a return in the form of the conflicted leaders of the Golden Path. While it’s not quite up there with the former game’s APR and UFLL, it’s still an interesting take on things, and leads to slightly divergent mission design.
For fans of Far Cry 3 there is a lot to like here. But I hope the next game in the series is more of a departure. Ubisoft’s formula is wearing thin, I’d like to see them take some risks.
6. P.T. (Kojima Productions)
This is an interesting inclusion. Is P.T. even a game? I mean, the name stands for Playable Teaser, and there’s not really a whole lot to it. You sort of walk around and look at things, while stuff happens, then solve an incredibly obtuse puzzle to finish. It’s Jazzpunk without the scale or humour, instead opting to take place in a single hallway, with a single antagonist.
But what it does with the tiny amount they give it is breathtaking. Although confined to just the one hallway, it is perhaps the most lovingly rendered hallway I have ever seen. It’s practically photorealistic, perhaps the best looking game I’ve ever played. And that extends to the ghostly antagonist Lisa, as well. She mostly haunts from afar, and her appearances grow more and more terrifying each time she shows up.
I won’t beat around the bush here, this game gave me nightmares. Hell, I still think about it sometimes when I’m in the house by myself late at night. And it still makes my heart beat a bit faster than normal and puts me on edge. I hate this game for that. But I also love it at the same time. Regardless of whether it’s a game, or merely a clever bit of advertising for the new Silent Hill, P.T. has stuck with me more than any other game featured on this list. And that’s why it’s worthy of inclusion.
I wrote a much larger piece on P.T. here, although this does come with a huge spoiler warning.
5. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (Monolith Productions)
Shadow of Mordor‘s nemesis system is the kick in the teeth that the third person open world genre has needed for a while. It’s certainly the aspect of the game I’ll most remember, and I imagine it’s the element that will be borrowed and plundered by games over the next few years.
Essentially, it’s a system wherein certain Orc captains are given names and personalities, and the player encounters them over and over again in the field. Every time you die, they are promoted up the ranks, gaining in power and becoming harder to kill. And sometimes killing them will result in them returning later, with a horrific scar and an eye missing, taunting about how you just can’t seem to finish the job.
It’s a system that really gives the world and its enemies a lot of personality, which is good because protagonist Talion (played by our lord and saviour
Taylor Swift Troy Baker) is a bit of a blank slate. The actual plot of the game, concerning him taking revenge against the Black Hand of Sauron for the death of his family, is very generic, and seems to only serve to throw in as many references to Lord of the Rings lore as possible. Look, it’s Gollum! And Saruman! And even Celebrimbor, remember him? No? Well, it doesn’t matter.
Shadow of Mordor‘s larger arc may be disappointing, but the smaller procedural stories created through the clever use of the nemesis system more than make up for it. If the actual plot had been as strong, this would have been in with a shot at taking the number one spot on this list.
4. Dragon Age: Inquisition (BioWare)
BioWare needed this. After the dual disappointments of Dragon Age II and Mass Effect 3, they needed something to prove they could still bring it. Inquisition is a huge return to form for the franchise and the company.
The story picks up shortly after the events of the second game, with a peace summit between the Mages and Templars. Unfortunately, before they can get started, it’s interrupted by an explosion that tears a rift in the sky from which Fade demons start invading the world of Thedas. There’s only one survivor, the blank slate player character, who in my case was a female wood elf rogue named Ellana.
The first thing to note about Inquisition is that it is massive. Easily bigger than any BioWare game so far, it opens up several areas of both Fereldan and Orlais, each with their own quests, big and small, and an overarcing story quest tying the whole thing together. Throw in companion quests, romances, and time spent just looking around the detailed environments, and there has to be easily over 100 hours of content here.
My final play time came close to 50, but I sadly ended up rushing the last part of the game in order to move on. I’m hoping to return to Inquisition at some point over the summer to do a more in depth playthrough at my leisure, where I can do and see everything in the game.
As it stands though, I had a great time playing Inquisition, and even though not all of the content stands up (some of the aforementioned small quests are a little too MMO grindy for my liking) the majority of the story content is worth seeing. Welcome back Dragon Age. I’ve missed you.
3. Transistor (Supergiant Games)
Supergiant’s previous game Bastion was a very pleasant surprise for me when I picked it up on a whim, so to say I was anticipating Transistor a great deal would be an understatement. Thankfully, it more than delivered.
There’s not really much of a story to it. Red is a singer in the city of Cloudbank. She is attacked at a concert by a group of four people called the Camerata, and their robotic force, the Process. Upon the start of the game, she finds a glowing sword called the Transistor in the body of an unknown man, and it talks to her and guides her along on her quest for revenge against the Camerata.
As far as the story goes, that’s pretty much it. The more interesting aspect of Transistor is its gameplay. Each time the sword levels up, it gains a new function. Functions can be placed into one of three categories. Active abilities are the main attacks. Passive abilities act as buffs for Red, giving her extra health, or a shield, or some other benefit. Enhancement abilities latch onto actives as a means of making them more powerful. The trick is balancing out all the functions to find a setup that works. And the real beauty is that there are so many combinations that everyone I know who played it had a different one by the end, and we were all convinced we had discovered the optimal one for most encounters.
Ultimately, that last paragraph either meant something to you or it didn’t. Transistor is built around a complex system that is even more difficult to explain. But getting to grips with it and figuring out my perfect build for Red was one of the most satisfying pure gameplay experiences I had all year.
2. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair (Spike Chunsoft)
Speaking of hard to explain… First of all, yes I’ve put two games in one slot. I personally enjoyed the sequel more, but both came out this year, and both were worthy of inclusion on the list. Rather than using two slots, I decided that I would simply amalgamate them into one.
The set up, once you get past the DanganRonpa name itself (while it’s derived from the Japanese words for bullet and refutation, people seem to think it’s a dumb title or something) is devilishly simple. The first game focuses on a high school called Hope’s Peak Academy. Sixteen students are invited, each of whom is the best at something. In typical Japanese fashion however, their talents are things such as Ultimate Fan Fiction Writer, and Ultimate Biker Gang Leader. The player is cast as Makoto Naegi, an average person picked from a raffle, who is bestowed the title of Ultimate Lucky Student. However, upon arriving at Hope’s Peak, they are locked in by an evil bear named Monokuma who extends a challenge. The only way out is to murder a fellow student. When a murder takes place, the entire class gathers evidence for a trial. If the class successfully figures out who did it, the murderer is executed. If not, the killer goes free and the rest of the class is executed.
Danganronpa 2 has a similar setup, but with a tropical island setting rather than the school, and a new cast of characters. To say much more would be to spoil the stories, and since the games are essentially visual novels with a bit of Phoenix Wright style gameplay thrown in, the stories are what they are really built on.
What really did surprise me about the games were that despite being built on anime archetypes, each character ended up having a lot more to them than initially met the eye. Like the Ultimate Baseball Star who secretly wants to quit sports to be a musician instead, or the Ultimate Team Manager who has to deal with his irritable bowel syndrome, which while played for laughs occasionally (“shitting myself would totally shame me as a maaaaan!”) really does end up adding a depth to the character.
The Danganronpa games were my first real foray into the visual novel genre, and much like Persona 4 Golden last year, I was left with that familiar sad/empty feeling when they were over. Bring on Danganronpa 3. Sooner rather than later, please.
1. Alien Isolation (Creative Assembly)
For my money, Alien Isolation is the perfect mix of modern and classic survival horror gameplay tropes. It has the claustrophobic first person perspective and invincible antagonist of something like Outlast along with the difficult combat, resource conservation, and open ended environments of Silent Hill or Resident Evil. Throw in possibly the best game setting since BioShock‘s Rapture, or Rocksteady’s take on Arkham Asylum, and this game is a winner all around.
The main story is that of Amanda Ripley and her quest out to Sevastopol Station, where a small time competitor to Weyland-Yutani, the Seegson Corporation, is holding the flight recorder of the Nostromo. Upon arrival, Amanda discovers that Sevastopol is a wreck. Most people have already left, and Seegson is doing a poor job of holding the place together. Their androids, the Working Joes, are on a rampage, and most people who are left behind are looters or otherwise unfriendly psychopaths. And then of course, there is the titular Alien.
Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Alien Isolation is that it does its source material proud. It’s one of the first of these games based on the first film in the franchise rather than James Cameron’s more action oriented sequel, and Isolation does an excellent job at building that low tech atmosphere. It is perhaps at its scariest when the alien itself isn’t on screen, when it’s just making noises in overhead vents, waiting to jump down at any moment.
I will also credit the game for having the best use of the PS4 controller’s unique features that I have seen so far. All the motion tracker blips come through the DualShock 4 speakers, and the light bar flashes in time with it. Given that I mostly played Isolation in the dark, it was a nifty little feature.
Ultimately, Alien Isolation is my game of the year because it takes elements of the genre I love most and actively moves it forwards, rather than taking it in a different direction entirely. I loved the vast majority of my time with it, and I am highly anticipating what Creative Assembly do with the brand next. After the disaster that was Aliens: Colonial Marines, something needed to be done to redeem the IP. Isolation managed that, and more.
I wrote a larger piece on Alien Isolation here, although this does come with a huge spoiler warning.
But wait! Don’t go yet!
Regular readers will know that at this time last year, I attempted to guess what this list would be based on my first impressions of the games due out this year. I will now quickly run down that list, just for the fun of seeing how wrong I got it.
10. Dragon Age: Inquisition – Ended up at number four. Good going BioWare!
9. The Order: 1886 – Delayed until 2015.
8. Dying Light – Delayed until 2015.
7. The Division – Delayed until 2015.
6. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Delayed until 2015. This is starting to look like Groundhog Day.
5. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number – Delayed until 2015. I’m just copying and pasting by now.
4. The Evil Within – Only managed to play two chapters so far. Perhaps my biggest regret in terms of finishing games in time.
3. Destiny – The lack of story in the beta had me concerned. By the time the game came out, all my interest in it was gone. I just don’t want what Bungie are offering me, so I didn’t buy it in the end.
2. Watch Dogs – Oh dear. 2014’s most disappointing game.
1. Infamous: Second Son – Ended up at number eight. Must try harder Sucker Punch.