Not "Top 5," not "5 Worst." Just some games that I played, and have opinions on.
Since I started writing this list in December it's been through several permutations. The truth is, there were so many interesting games that did so many different things in 2014 that any list I've read says far more about the lister than about the games themselves. It's in this spirit that I present my year of gaming in 2014, trimmed to a neat listicle format. If anyone wants to know what games were "important," well your humble writer here can only guess (Destiny, probably?). I haven't pit these games against each other in some Battle Royale to determine winners and losers. Games are complicated, and so are our feelings on them. Since I don't often enough reflect on the games I've played, this is probably more for my own benefit than yours. Nevertheless, let's get started!
This game almost snuck by me. For a collaboration between some of the biggest names in JRPGs, it seemed to generate hardly a fraction of the buzz I felt it deserved. Part of this is probably by design. Despite its typical world-saving narrative, Fantasy Life is not a game of grand ambitions. It's a game of minor pleasures.
Unfortunately, time has dulled what was first a whirlwind love-affair with this game. I could blame my ever-expanding backlog and short attention span, or I could blame the game's overly-grindy back end. The cause probably lies somewhere between, but don't let that turn you off. For a solid 40-plus hours this game brought nothing but big smiles to my face, and though I no longer play it in marathon sessions, my occasional jaunts into Reveria have yet to lose their magic.
While Fantasy Life tasks you with solving the JRPG-standard world-threatening magical crisis, you will probably not remember the specifics (I didn't. Something about meteors?). Like Animal Crossing, the game is strongest when it lets its quirky characters shine.
Developers Level-5 have always been among the best in the business when it comes to localization, and Fantasy Life is quite possibly their finest work to date. The game is practically bursting at the seams with hilarious and well-written characters. No matter which "Life" (the game's take on RPG classes) you choose to start, you'll inevitably meet all kinds of lovable and idiosyncratic NPCs, most of whom can be recruited into your party. Tonally it's closer to their wonderfully charming and silly Dragon Quest games than their more recent epic, Studio Ghibli-flavored Ni No Kuni, but while Dragon Quest was a JRPG through-and-through, Fantasy Life is both simpler and more difficult to quantify. In gameplay it's a bit like last year's Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, only with stronger action-RPG elements in the mix. It's structured like the best kind of open-world game; a series of escalating challenges and areas that can be explored multiple times for different purposes. And while the end-game content (unfortunately added as paid DLC) is disappointing in the sense that it essentially requires you to master a wide range of Lives that you may not be interested in, it cannot retroactively harm the wonderful time I had playing through its story and living my fantasy.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Being a budget-conscious gamer, it's rare that I'll succumb to preordering. Rarer still that I'll take that leap with something I'm not 100% confident on. But some spirit possessed me to preorder this game over what seemed at the time like a much surer bet (Civilization: Beyond Earth, released on the same day) and thank Gandalf for that, because Shadow of Mordor turned out to be everything I could ask for from an open-world action game and then some.
Pre-release expectations among critics seemed medium-to-low, as far as I could tell. The Nemesis System got some lip service, but the question remained how well it would work in-practice; could this really add something fresh to the ol' shooty-stabby formula? If all we're in for is Mordor's Creed: Shadow of Arkham, then one might be forgiven for thinking that no amount of fancy behind-the-scenes procedural generation could elevate it to something interesting and remarkable. But interesting and remarkable it was. And most importantly of all, terrific fun. How they do dat?
Shadow of Mordor has perhaps 1/10th the "bullet point features" of the Creed or Arkham games. There are no homesteads to build up; no riddles to solve; no full-featured minigames or competitive multiplayer. In Mordor, there is Talion, and there are nasty orcs (or uruk, take your pick). Your relationship to them is the whale's relationship to plankton. They are as much "the enemy" as they are a force of nature. You cannot "clear" their strongholds. You will never simply walk into Mordor, free of their presence. No matter how many hundreds you slay, turning a corner will only reveal more, charging to their grisly deaths. It is this bleak environment where Mordor's single-minded devotion to the mechanics of violence and power pays off big time.
The term "power fantasy" is often leveled as a criticism against certain kinds of brain-dead action games, but it is also a very useful descriptor for a specific kind of pleasure that games can offer. There is more to a good power fantasy than simply making the player feel powerful; otherwise, any game that's easy to play would provide it. The best kinds of power fantasy offer a delicate balance of risk and reward; failure and triumph. If a game can make both victory and loss meaningful, then the act of playing it well creates the fantasy of ultimate confidence and, well, power. It's a fine line to walk, and its exact location is rarely the same for two players, but for my money, Mordor positively nailed that sweet spot for its entire duration. The game's downright-myopic focus on the mechanics of orc-murder ended up serving it tremendously well; I don't boot up this game to find collectables (although I picked up many in the course of my travels) nor to help NPCs (the game offers them too). My focus is forever and always on killing (and eventually, enslaving) the orcs of Mordor. The game gets tremendous mileage out of its core mechanics, each of which felt honed to a sharp edge. The satisfying thunk of arrows into skulls; the caragor tearing a path through a group of enemies; the deep and rich brawling system; the layouts of the strongholds and their many options for traversal; and most of all, the colorful and unique enemies with whom I inevitably clash.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch
My love for puns all but guaranteed I'd end up buying this game, and my love for slapstick all but guaranteed I'd enjoy it. What surprised me was how enduringly fun the experience has been over the last year. Octodad has become my go-to game to show people who may or may not be gamers for a couple reasons: one, because it's at its funniest when inexperienced players are struggling to figure out the controls, and two, because anyone who's unmoved by the antics of a human-impersonating cephalopod navigating family life just might not be worth staying friends with. Harsh, but truth.
Octodad succeeds by making the frustrating and obtuse nature of the controls a consistent and organic source of humor. However unlike mechanically-similar "fumblecore" (bleh) games such as QWOP and Surgeon Simulator, Octodad apes the presentation of a Pixar film (...well, okay, maybe a Dreamworks film), opting for a bright, cartoony world full of outsized caricatures and hilarious gags. Aside from simply fleshing out the titular dad's story and world, this also adds a certain depth to the mechanics. While Surgeon Simulator and QWOP both feel like arbitrary and gleefully preposterous interpretations of real life, Octodad presents a whole Looney Tunes universe where the clumsy controls are merely a small part of the bigger absurdist picture. In a world where an octopus can maintain a human impersonation long enough to father children (!!!), his comparative lack of fine motor skills is entirely reasonable.
At a length that doesn't overstay its welcome, and with some consistently inventive level design, Octodad was a pure delight for me to play throughout. I see that same feeling light up my friends' faces whenever I thrust a controller in their hands and tell them "you've got to play this."
Most importantly, the award for Special Achievement in Theme Songs goes to... [drumroll] Ian McKinney!
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes
When this game came out for consoles I was thoroughly uninterested. At the time I was on the outs with the Metal Gear series as a whole, and the criticisms of its short runtime and small map seemed both widespread and fully justified. Honestly, they still do. The difference is that, after playing it, those complaints don't bother me a bit. They are so outweighed by the game's successes I only mention them as an afterthought.
I've been a fan of the series since Metal Gear Solid blew me away on the PlayStation. The weekend I rented it was a whole heap of notable "firsts" bundled into one amazing experience. It was my first stealth game, introducing me to the joys of snapping necks and patiently waiting in ducts. It was the first game that I beat because I truly cared about the story and characters, not because I'd simply become good enough at playing it to reach the end. It was the first game that I finished and immediately booted up again, this time consulting the internet to plumb its secrets. In 1998 it felt like I'd looked into the future of gaming, and it was so very good.
Yet somehow, a few years later my PlayStation was collecting cobwebs in a box, and I was no longer gaming at all. I missed the subsequent Metal Gear games; Sons of Liberty's fake-out protagonist and gonzo conspiracy theory sci-fi, Snake Eater's anime-esque take on the Vietnam war, they both simply passed me by unnoticed. When I finally got a PlayStation 3 Guns of the Patriots was one of my first purchases, and yet I abandoned playing it several cutscenes in, utterly confused by its story and unengaged by its mechanics. It would seem like me and Metal Gear were through. But when Ground Zeroes popped up on a Steam sale, my curiosity won out, and before I knew it I felt as if I'd never left Hideo Kojima's wonderfully insane embrace.
Ground Zeroes adds some much-needed gameplay tweaks, such as improved movement and animation for Snake, the ability to tag enemies with your binoculars á la Far Cry, a bullet-time-esque feature to allow for quick takedowns before an alarm is raised, and a simple new visual and audio indicator for the enemy's awareness (though fans of this won't be disappointed). These changes may sound like Kojima has simply stolen features from other successful games and bolted them on to his own, but I cannot overstate how much they've added to the gameplay experience. When playing Snake Eater on the HD rerelease I struggled constantly with being spotted by enemies I'd not noticed, or in cover that seemed like it should've hidden me. Raising an alarm without even knowing what mistake you've made is supremely frustrating in a game based on stealth mechanics. The new gameplay features in Ground Zeroes improved player feedback, while also keeping the core values of the series intact. Like the best stealth games, it gives us a system begging to be poked, prodded, and experimented with. Unlike some other Metal Gear games, it actually makes this process of discovery fun instead of infuriating.
As for the size of Camp Omega, when trying to come to grips with the gameplay, I actually found it a blessing. Your first playthrough will introduce you to all the base's main locations and teach you basic strategies for moving through them. Subsequent playthroughs of side-op missions had me flat-out ignoring my mini-map except to check for objectives and secrets, content to rely on my eyes and memory for the rest. The size of the compound works perfectly for me; varied enough to offer dozens (hundreds?) of interesting angles and approaches, yet small enough to be understood spatially without need for constant map-checking. And for the $13 I paid (sale price), the hours of pure fun I had made it feel like a bargain.
So yes, it's true that the main mission essentially amounts to two tasks, and it's true that you could fit perhaps a hundred Camp Omegas in one Los Santos. It's also true that some gamers may have felt misled by its price tag (at $40 I would have too). But from my perspective, the game more than makes up for its shortcomings with excellent stealth design, top-notch production, and the kind of macho-ludicrous story that Metal Gear tells best.
Crusader Kings II - Way of Life Expansion
Although Crusader Kings II was first released nearly three years ago, the good folks at Paradox Interactive have remained hard at work since then, and that's not even taking into account the other excellent games they've put out. In 2014 alone they released no less than three major game-enhancing expansions for Crusader Kings II. When one considers the six previous expansions, along with a base game that will provide hundreds (thousands??) of hours of replay value, you end up with one of the most interesting and deep gameplay experiences available anywhere, albeit one that requires no small commitment from the player to fully appreciate. The reason I want to talk about Way of Life specifically is that, in some ways, it feels like the game Paradox should have made in the first place.
Other expansions have broadened Crusader Kings' scope to an almost absurd degree; what once was a fully interactive 400 year history of the major historical players in Europe has ballooned to over 700 years, spanning from Greenland to Tibet. Each expansion added a significant new wrinkle to the core mechanics; The Old Gods gave us viking factions with the ability to pillage, The Sunset Invasion posited an alternate history where the Aztec empire challenged Europe, Rajas of India introduced Hinduism, Sons of Abraham Judaism, etcetera. This is not "DLC;" these are expansions in the truest sense of the word.
Bucking this trend, Way of Life doesn't introduce any new factions to play as, nor lands to reign over. What it does instead is crystallize many aspects of the core gameplay that drew me in to the game in the first place. For a new player struggling with the game's incredibly dry interface and language, The Way of Life just might mean the difference between becoming a fanatic like me or consigning it to the darkest pits of the backlog.
In the simplest terms, Crusader Kings II is a marriage between strategy and role-playing game set in the real world, and with a strong emphasis on actual history and politics. While the elements may sound familiar (and, honestly, a little boring), it's really a very unique game. Unlike most pure RPGs, your decisions will always have wide-reaching and difficult-to-quantify effects (eat your heart out Bioware). Unlike pure strategy games, you are no faceless omnipotent deity, but rather a series of interesting and often flawed human beings whose fortunes will rise and fall.
What Way of Life does is enhance the basic game's RPG elements, turning it into something more familiar to most gamers, while also reducing the downtime between major events. You are now allowed to select a "Focus" for your main character, not unlike an RPG class, which will often open up new narratives outside of the major world-shaping events you normally participate in. In essence, it gives you an easier opportunity to latch on to your character's story, thus making all the other decisions more impactful.
Now I should make clear, Way of Life is no total-game conversion. If you gave Crusader Kings a chance and found that it wasn't for you, then this expansion is very unlikely to change that. You are still required to understand and apply concepts like de jure and Agnatic primogeniture. The story still unfolds via pop-up text boxes and obtuse-seeming data points. Way of Life simply offers a gentler introduction to the game's fascinating systems. The options it opens up will help you get on the game's odd wavelength, and if you're like me, you'll find it's an awesome place to be.
...On to 2015!
This is hardly a full picture of my year in gaming. I'd love to talk about Jazzpunk, but my thoughts can also be summed up with: "Hilarious. Play it." By necessity this list also leaves out many interesting, older games I played this year, such as Fire Emblem: Awakening for the 3DS or Rogue Galaxy for the ps2, not to mention the games I loved but didn't complete yet, such as Endless Legend or Dark Souls (yes, the first Dark Souls... This stuff takes me a while!). My thoughts on some games are too long and involved for the "year end list" format (hello Spacebase DF-9), so I hope to write more about them soon... But for the time being, my plan is to bask in last year's bounty, reflecting on all the good times and bad. Thanks for reading, and happy gaming!
pocoGRANDES breathes oxygen while commenting on Talk Amongst Yourselves, the Kotaku reader blog, and that is all you need to know.