Now that 2014 is well and truly dead and in the ground, I've finally decided to get off the couch and drag myself to the Best Games of 2014 party. Of course, having arrived, I see that you are already cleaning up and there's hardly any barbecue meatballs left, but sure, I'll finish off the punch. Thanks for asking.
You see, I don't like doing any kind of best of the year list until the year is actually over. It's just a thing of mine. Sure, by December 19th, we've pretty much seen all that we were going to see, but you never know when you'll be surprised by joy during those last two weeks. I mean, had I done a best movies run-down before Christmas, how would I have included The Interview? Too bad I wouldn't include it anyway, but you see my point.
That, and as a public education employee, I had a nice little two-week break for Christmas, so I had time to polish off a few games I missed and had been meaning to get to. Granted, I didn't have as much time I thought, given that by the time our breaks come around, my wife and I (who are both educators) tend to just pass out for a few days, but some is better than none.
So, what follows is my picks for the best games of 2014. Before I go further, a little disclaimer. I write the "Games, Gamers, and Gaming" column for Library Journal and have done a best-of list for them already. That list included games I did not play, as it was intended more as a rundown of the key games librarians needed to be aware of for including in their collections for patrons to check out, so I research reviews and what gamers themselves are saying and—along with my own game play experiences—come up with a best-of list that highlights key games from the past year. After all, with no review copies and only one column a month, I can't address each hot new release as it comes out in a timely manner.
I mention that because, if you care to, you can probably dig up the article online, now or in the future, and I just wanted y'all to know that every game on this best-of list was one that I played for at least a significant portion of time, if not finished.
I'm so over debating whether or not this is a game. If you want to split hairs, it's interactive fiction, fine. But interactive fiction is, when it comes down to it, a type of game—so there.
It was one of my picks for the best of the year because it was so powerful and eye-opening, even (or especially) because of its simplicity. It was the first game I played that was about real people trying to make it through real struggles in the real world. You were up against an enemy that was difficult to understand and had no identifiable weakness—and you made that enemy stronger as the game progressed. Your mission objectives were mundane, yet incredibly challenging given your handicap—keep your job, keep your girlfriend, get your friend off of your back about your health, try not to admit that you need medication.
This was a sobering glimpse at what video games can be if they tried hard enough, a reminder that every game doesn't have to be about power armor and magic spells and sniper rifles. A video game can be about life and the quiet hazards therein.
This War of Mine
Another game that casts ordinary people as the player-characters, this is not an easy game to play. Yes, it requires a great amount of strategic thinking, relies more than a little on luck, and demands constant resource management. But it's also not easy in the sense that it is bleak and real without apology.
If you're not familiar with this game, you really should be, even if it isn't your cup of tea. You manage a group of scavengers as they struggle to survive in a war zone. During the day, you use meager supplies to strengthen your defenses, cook food, and tend to physical needs of exhaustion and sickness. At night, one of your scavengers runs out to find supplies at a nearby location which may or may not be inhabited by others who are willing to do anything to survive. Meanwhile, your shelter is prone to attack, resulting in the loss of your supplies or even one of your housemates.
Much has been written about the horrible things that the game asks you to do to survive, and they're true. During my first play through, I lasted sixteen days. During one scavenging run, I came across a gun-toting survivor. His back was turned to me, and he was guarding the only exit from the room. I sneaked up behind him and dealt him a critical hit. He turned around, and even as I started beating on him to finish him off, he begged me to stop. I didn't. He had a gun, that I could use to defend my own shelter, and how was I to know that he wouldn't shoot me as soon as I dropped my guard. Also, he was blocking my exit, and he had other buddies patrolling the same building. I had to escape. He was in the way.
Challenging in all the right ways, this is a game that will humble and disturb you. It's good art, and means something, on top of being a well-designed game.
The latest entry in the retro/throwback genre, this might be the best 8-bit Nintendo game that never was, until now. In all of its vibrant, colorful glory, this off-beat fantasy tale is that of a valiant knight armed with a pretty awesome shovel, on a quest to save his fellow champion Shield Knight from the clutches of the Enchantress. Shovel Knight will traverse many lands via carefully-timed jumps and interjecting quick attacks during breaks in an enemy's attack pattern, and you will love every bit of it.
This game oozes charm, with a well-realized fantasy world populated by anthropomorphic animals and game play that smashes together the best bits of Mega Man, Duck Tales, and Dark Souls (you read that right). The controls are simple, but there's a depth of strategy rarely seen even in today's technological marvels, with multiple items to use and a sizable chunk of unique enemies. What's more, the challenge in this game doesn't feel artificial. I spent a solid hour trying to beat the boss Specter Knight, and stuck with it because I never felt like I was in an impossible situation; I died because I messed up, plain and simple.
In an ever-increasingly crowded pool of retro-styled games, Shovel Knight rises above—shovel held high—as a true stand-out.
Dark Souls II
True confession—I no longer have this game. I bought it, played it for several weeks, got frustrated and impatient with it, and then promptly let the GameStop monster gobble it up for a cool $17.50. That is one of life's regrets. At least a remaster is coming out for PC.
I loved the combat of the game. It demanded skill and timing. Killing an enemy felt like an accomplishment. Reaching a campfire felt like falling in love for the first time. This game was the very definition of tough love; it wanted you to succeed, but wanted you to work for it.
I miss that feeling, and will be getting it again. It's not what every video game should be, but it gives you something that most video games don't: a sense of pride and accomplishment.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Easily my pick for game of the year. I can't say anything about this game that hasn't already been said. It was fun, challenging, and felt organic and alive. I'm in the minority in actually thinking that Talion is a fairly interesting character, and wouldn't mind seeing more of him. The ending was disappointing, yes, but I'll be first in line for the inevitable sequel/follow-up/spiritual successor.
Five Nights at Freddy's
This game can rot in the bottom pits of Hell. I absolutely love it.
Proving that the best games are built on simple mechanics interacting in complex ways and the most horrifying terror is in the quiet hours of the night in a quiet place populated by things you don't understand, this was a welcome reprieve from the many, many games that confuse "scary" with "gory." It had a well-developed narrative given its minimalist assembly, and the fear experienced is bottom-of-the-gut real.
In a quest for deeper immersion and more elegant design, developers would be wise to look to this game for inspiration. It pulls you in and toys with you, all without you ever—so to speak—leaving your seat.
I love first-person shooters, but have always had a love-hate relationship with competitive multiplayer in that genre. Whether it's because of a toxic community, the fact that certain games reward more skilled player with more tools to destroy gamers trying to learn the ropes *coughCallofDutycough*, or not being Team Fortress 2, most FPS games just don't hit much of anything for me when it comes to competitive play. I walk away frustrated and full of regret, wanting to have fun and let the competitive spirit carry me through but coming up short.
When I booted up Titanfall, however, the world opened up for me. I logged on, found a match, and started playing—and you know what, I was having fun. I got killed many times. I was on the losing team more often than not. I called BS on one-shot frags (Remember when we called them frags? I miss that.). Even so, all the while, there was a smile on my face. Slaughtering bots helped me feel like I was actually contributing to my team's efforts; knowing that I was going to get a Titan no matter how slowly my kill streak added up gave me hope for doing something awesome and empowering; the big levels never left me without a way to escape.
More than anything, however, I found joy in the Smart Pistol. An auto-aiming weapon that still requires skill and dexterity, it should be a federal trade law that every competitive FPS game include a similar weapon. Trading tactical position and movement for stop-and-pop aim-down-sights precision, the Smart Pistol is this games great equalizer, giving every gamer—regardless of skill—a way to get into the fight and be something more than a bullet sponge.
It's a shame that this game has burned out, with a low player population and late-to-the-game co-op game play, but it's still a fun ride. I can't wait for the sequel.
So that's it, my top picks for 2014. I plan on cracking into Far Cry 4, Divinity: Original Sin, and Wolfenstein: The New Order in the next few weeks. I have heard nothing but great things about these games, and I'm sure at least one would be added to the list had I played it already.
So here's to 2014, a year with so many solid games it was the best we've seen since 1998. And here's to 2015, the year that Half-Life 3 will be announced!
I can dream. Don't judge me.
My name is Brandon. I used to watch my aunt and my mom play Frogger while I was a baby, and I've been a gamer ever since. My paying job is as a librarian. I currently write Library Journal's "Games, Gamers, and Gaming" column so that librarians all over the nation are informed about games and gaming culture. I'm on Twitter and Steam as level250geek, so feel free to look me up.