Everyone who writes about games must create a top ten list at the end of every year (it’s part of our religion, which also dictates that we must qualify them as not being “authoritative”). So here are the Best Games of 2014, according to me.
You may get to the end of this list and wonder why I haven’t included a perfectly excellent game in it. The answer is very probably, “Because I didn’t play it.” The volume of video games released every year now makes it mathematically impossible to play all of them, even discounting time one needs to eat, sleep, and make jokes on Twitter. Far Cry 4, Watch_Dogs, and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare never had a chance.
Beyond that, I don’t own any current-gen consoles – I opted instead to build myself a glorious PC gaming machine. This means that console-exclusive titles aren’t represented, which furthermore means that I’ve played nothing released by Nintendo during a year when the company has finally seen the WiiU come into its own. So Bayonetta 2, Mario Kart 8, and Super Smash Bros. were simply never in consideration.
There are a lot of games I wish I’d played this year and simply didn’t have time for. A friend bought me a copy of Divinity: Original Sin for Christmas, and after an hour of that I realized treating it fairly was going to require investing 60-100 hours into the game. It’s not on the list, but I have a strong suspicion it would be had I started it earlier in the year.
All that said, here are the games of 2014 that I really, really loved.
While EA has been diligently trying to destroy every beloved old ‘90s franchise it’s been able to get its filthy mitts on, including SimCity – TWICE – there are companies out there who understand what made the original titles so delightful. Banished is the result of one such house’s work. There is no “social” element to Banished, forcing you to connect with other players. There’s no always-online requirement. There’s not even a backstory. It’s just you and your plucky band of settlers trying to set up a settlement in the unforgiving wilderness.
It’s a wonderful return to basics, not just in concept but in practice. The choice and placement of each new structure demands careful consideration in the strain it places on your resources and the workers you can spare to extract them. All of this happens in a very lovely game world of trees and rocks and streams that is also brutal – when you see snow start to collect on the roofs of the wood and stone homes your exiles have built, you start getting nervous about whether you’ve supplied your woodcutter with enough material to keep everyone warm, and if you’ve collected enough hides…
Suffice to say, Banished is well worth the jilted Sim City fan’s time. It ranges from challenging to punishingly difficult depending on the settings you choose, but it always results in that wonderful flow state that the old Sim games used to prioritize.
I suppose at this point I’m dating myself to say that I cut my gaming teeth on the graphics capabilities of the Atari 2600 and Commodore 64. Everything old is new again, though, as plenty of games are now cashing in on that sense of pixel nostalgia. But there’s a lot more to Nidhogg than its trippy, retro look would have you believe. This is a 1v1 fighting game between an orange person and a yellow person, each holding swords, where you need to fight each other in a fencing tug-of-war for the honor of being consumed by the dragon that gnaws at the root of the world.
But the lore doesn’t matter. This is a game about stabbing, feinting, and dodging your friends. There’s something about the tight controls and the weird, trippy backgrounds that makes Nidhogg an experience unlike any other.
For decades now, Blizzard’s MO has not been innovation, but refinement of existing ideas. Their free-to-play collectible card game Hearthstone is a perfect example of this. Stripping out a lot of the more confusing rules featured in other card games (like Magic: The Gathering’s turn phase system), Hearthstone becomes a much snappier and approachable game that still contains a lot of strategic depth.
With the game now available on iPad and Android tablets and two expansions out, it’s now harder than ever to avoid the “one more game” draw of Hearthstone.
A mixture of XCOM-style turn-based tactical combat, Oregon Trail’s journey management, and beautiful animation evocative of the Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit, Stoic’s The Banner Saga weaves a bleak but fascinating tale about the end of the world in a Norse-inspired high fantasy setting. Humans and giants live in a begrudging truce strengthened by the advent of an ancient evil that has reemerged to destroy the remains of civilization, and as the leader of several bands of survivors and warriors, your decisions have lasting, and often depressing, unintended consequences.
Machine Games has done what many thought was impossible in Wolfenstein: The New Order – they’ve taken perennial Wolfenstein square-jawed hero-meathead William “BJ” Blaskowicz and turned him into a (somewhat, at least) likeable protagonist. Following a traumatic brain injury sustained in a D-Day-eque assault on a Nazi fortress, Blaskowicz comes to in a Polish rest home in an Axis-occupied 1960. What follows is a welcome return to classic shooter form and not a little grindhouse camp (the Nazis store their nuclear launch codes in a vault on the moon). But the characters in the story – Blaskowicz, nurse/love interest Anya, resistance leader Caroline Becker, and others – elevate The New Order above its forebears and make it one of the best shooters to emerge in the past year.
Titanfall’s March 11 release was followed by one of the most precipitous and undeserved drop-offs in player interest I’ve ever witnessed. Sure, the absence of any meaningful campaign mode (instead, you have a series of multiplayer matches) probably had something to do with that, but the sheer freedom of movement provided by jet packs and wall-running make Relic’s Titanfall a unique FPS experience.
There are also, of course, gigantic robots which you can pilot. There’s still something thrilling about calling in a mech and watching as it hurtles toward earth and lands with a satisfying bassy “thump,” and having it reach down and snatch you up to pop you into the driver’s seat is wonderful.
EA has had the game deeply discounted for a couple months now, so hopefully the player base will expand as more people discover this largely overlooked gem from 2014.
I have my problems with the latest entry in BioWare’s other tentpole RPG series: It’s bloated with MMO-style filler quests, for example, and at launch the keyboard and mouse controls were nearly unusable. But the sheer size of the world and the fascinating people who live in it make Inquisition a worthy successor to Dragon Age: Origins and goes a long way toward undoing the disappointment that was Dragon Age 2. Built on EA’s Frostbite engine, Dragon Age: Inquisition is absolutely gorgeous, and a dizzying amount of writing has been included in books, scrolls, songs, and character banter to create an imminently believable universe – one that I keep going back into for hours at a time.
Running around a filth-filled basement as a nude young boy spraying a constant stream of tears at creator Edmund McMillen’s Freudian nightmares may not sound like a good time on paper, but The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth manages to be fun, challenging, and addicting in equal measure. Adding seeded runs to share with friends, support for analog gamepads, and a host of brand new content over the first iteration of the game, Rebirth is also available on Playstation 4 and PS Vita. You can read the full Bitter Empire review here.
You don’t need to be a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s genre-defining (for better or worse) fantasy books, or Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of them, to appreciate what Monolith has done with Shadow of Mordor. Far from being the usual movie-license cash grab, Shadow of Mordor introduces what is arguably the first truly next-gen mechanic in video games: the “nemesis system.”
Each named enemy in the game is assembled from a pool of characteristics, and these orc captains vie for primacy within Sauron’s army hierarchy. Death takes on a new meaning in Mordor, as orcs who best you in combat rise in rank and power, which they use to defeat rivals and gain followers.
Shadow of Mordor’s other game mechanics aren’t terribly novel – it’s the open world of Assassin’s Creed and the combo and counter-based combat of the Batman: Arkham games. But Shadow of Mordor does both so damn well that it eclipses either series effort. Read the full Bitter Empire review here.
2014 saw the release of several notable horror games, including the hotly anticipated (and subsequently disappointing) The Evil Within and the surprise hit/jump-scare fest Five Nights at Freddy’s. But it was Alien: Isolation that I was looking most forward to, thanks to developer Creative Assembly’s assurances that the game was going to hold true to Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece.
And boy, did they ever. Not only are the environments in Isolation stunning in their adherence to Scott and Company’s original designs, the core gameplay manages to evoke the constant dread fostered by Alien’s unstoppable monster. The creature in Alien: Isolation has been made so familiar as to be banal thanks to constant iterations, pop culture references, and plastic toys over the intervening 35 years, and yet, thanks to a game that denies you effective weapons or thick body armor, it once again is truly terrifying.
Sure, the game overstays its welcome in places, and can sometimes seem unfair (the alien often seems to “rubber band” to the player), but the fact that it puts you in a decrepit space station with another entity, rather than a series of scripted encounters, makes it a truly amazing achievement and my pick for the number one spot in 2014. You can read my full review here.