2014 was a crazy year for gaming.
It was a year of change, in some ways. New titles forged forward to change up genres. Some reminded us of the past, some pointed us towards a brighter dawn. But it was also a year of regression. Major titles fell prey to buggy launches and undelivered promises.
As a community, we saw harassment and schisms, declaring opposite sides as this enigmatic “other,” going nowhere. But we also saw growth and great achievements. E-sports had a banner year, with many different tournaments numbering in the hundreds of thousands in viewers, and even millions. Events like Twitch Plays Pokemon brought together the community in a way never thought possible.
So, it was a mixed year. Many people are willing to simply look ahead to what looks like a landmark year in 2015, but I’d like to take you back, and share with you my ten favorite titles of the past year. Some were assets for change, some were historic pieces of video game history, and some are just plain fun. All are deserving of your time. So without further ado, my ten favorite games of 2014!
10. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
I remember the first time I played Call of Duty, back when it was set during World War II, portraying moments of history like the boat crossing into Stalingrad and the Battle of the Bulge. The first time I played Modern Warfare, my jaw dropped during the frantic dash up the side of a sinking ship. I dumped more hours than I could count into MW2’s multiplayer, and still have fond memories of spawn-killing my friends with the grenade launcher.
Many entries into the yearly CoD series have failed to ever recapture those same feelings, but Sledgehammer Games’ take on the franchise’s formula is reinvigorating and exciting. Boost movements keep the combat fluid, maps have a much better balance, loot drops and custom weapons keep me working for that new supply drop.
Add in a setpiece campaign with interesting mechanics, Kevin Spacey and some incredibly fun sandbox-style missions, and you’ve got a title that goes above and beyond the yearly standard. Advanced Warfare hasn’t reached the heights of its standout predecessors, but it has set the bar for those to come and given me new hope in Sledgehammer, and in Call of Duty.
Transistor is a game that is at once both reminiscent of its spiritual predecessor, and a giant risk that pays off in amazing reward. There are a lot of things that could have gone wrong with Transistor – its strange mix of action and turn-based strategy, a mystifying aesthetic, forcing the player to adjust their playstyle to learn more about the world through Functions.
Yet in finds the same mix of music, atmosphere and combat that made Bastion a standout, and makes that strange concoction its own brand of wonderful. Logan Cunningham nails another performance, and the musicians behind the tunes create a haunting atmosphere. Also, it featured one of the best boss battles and antagonists of the year.
As the world falls apart, Transistor keeps it together, and creates a solid experience that earns anyone’s time. Also, it featured one of the best boss battles and antagonists of the year in the form of Royce.
8. Shovel Knight
I didn’t know what to expect when I first started Shovel Knight. A nostalgic combination of many retro games and styles from throughout my childhood, it seemed like both a time capsule and a trailblazer, forging ahead by reminding me of what made games special.
The boss knights brought back memories of Megaman, and the overworld reminded me of Super Mario World. In the towns, I was greeted with a 2D side-scrolling view similar to Castlevania or The Legend of Zelda 2, while the game’s death system styled itself like Dark Souls.
A love letter to childhood greats, Shovel Knight is a simple reminder of how games can just be fun. The game has solid controls, beautiful aesthetics, and a charming story about a retired Knight picking back up the shovel. Shovel Knight is truly a fantastic experience.
7. The Talos Principle
I never thought that a few days out I’d be completely tweaking my top 10 just to fit a late entry in, but Talos Principle managed to make many of us at the site scramble to find space for it.
Released right around the time we started deliberations, Talos is both a puzzle game and something more. You are a being, mechanic yet filled with life, let loose in a garden of puzzles to grow and learn, guided by the voice of your creator Elohim. The pact between you and your creator is simple: you will be allowed free reign in the garden, to learn and one day join your creator at his side. In exchange, you must follow his rules and obey his commands, including his warning about a nearby tower. “You must never go there, for if you do, that will surely be the day you die.”
Do you follow his commandment? Should you? How can you be sure this Elohim created you? There are computer databases littered around the ruins you call home, containing seemingly irrelevant messages, yet something tells you they’re related to your current situation. The Talos Principle challenges you, to both solve riddles and to develop your own path. It comfortably switches between gorgeous puzzle game and confounding philosophic journey, and will keep you up at night thinking about the day’s session. The Talos Principle’s only crime is releasing so late in the year, as many would be remiss to not put this in their list of favorites for 2014.
6. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
The first Binding of Isaac had already absorbed countless hours of my time, so when Rebirth was announced I knew I was already on-board. Many remakes and remasters released this year, and Rebirth could have easily just cleaned up the graphics and called it a day.
What we received instead was a complete reimagining of the game, built from the ground up to make the Isaac experience even better than ever before. A multitude of both new and reworked items, new areas to explore, new bosses to fight, new gameplay mechanics like Faith and Boss Rush rooms… the list goes on and on, but suffice it to say, Rebirth is one of the best roguelikes around, and this version is exactly how it should be experienced.
5. South Park: The Stick of Truth
Licensed titles have difficulty matching up to their source material. South Park is an especially hard one, as games have trouble catching the same charm and humor of the show. Stick of Truth was Obsidian, and Matt and Trey, finally spending the time to create a game that was South Park in every way. From the battle system to the game’s setting and theme, playing Stick of Truth feels like playing through a season of the show.
Filled with clever references and running gags from throughout the show’s run, Stick of Truth is an amazing experience. The battles strike an amazing balance between being somewhat challenging and entertaining, mixing in standard attacks with Cartman’s shock collar attack and Jimmy’s vulgar bard songs. Playing as a new kid also meant you got to develop your own persona, in appearance and abilities, and play the straight man to the crazy happenings going around you.
You’ll travel to Canada, get abducted by aliens, fight off undead Nazi cows, and Kenny might die a few times. The length might be a bit shorter than most would expect, but it is still a must-play game for any fan of the show, and as a South Park fan since I was young, it easily numbers among my favorites for the year.
4. Dark Souls 2
The Souls series is one that both fascinates and infuriates me. It begs me to progress, baiting me with new areas of wonder and deeper understanding of the calamity that ruined the land. Yet when I attempt to progress, it bats me back, demanding I master its combat and magic systems enough to earn passage.
Dark Souls 2 is criticized by some for not matching up to the first game’s heights, but in my opinion, the game sought to develop as its own and more than succeeded. Dark Souls 2 cleans up the combat of the first, and develops new ideas and mechanics to keep the experience fresh. The Flexile Sentry fight, for example, has water gradually leaking into the area, so the player is forced to either recklessly fight for an early win, or play slowly and gradually lose mobility as the arena becomes more and more submerged.
It hits on the same notes as the first, where the player is tasked with completing a strange pilgrimage and exploring the ruins of a once-glorious land. The combat is fluid, the difficulty challenging, and each new area is unnerving and intriguing. Dark Souls 2 is an experience that pushes the player to become better and learn from failure, rather than hand-hold them through to the finale. It may not be for everyone, but it is certainly worth your time to experience.
3. Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
Normally a free-to-play game in my top 3 might make some ask, “Eric, did you hit your head?” Blizzard is the company that could change my mind, and Hearthstone is, simply put, a must-play title.
Starting out as a pet project of the dev team at Blizzard, the game has skyrocketed into fame, and what was once a simple card game now has thousands of viewers on Twitch and entire World Championships, all within the span of a year. By taking the mechanics of a card game and tooling them to work as a video game, instead of forcing physical mechanics into the virtual realm, Hearthstone captures the essence that has made so many addicted to TCG’s in the past.
The port of the game to tablets only solidified this game as one of the best of the year, making the mechanics of the PC entry easy to use on the go. Nine different classes, hundreds of cards, and a fascinating Arena to grind for (12-0 the dream), Hearthstone is easy to play and a bucket of fun to master. I’ll be playing this one well into 2015, and if the recent expansion pack is any indication, you can expect to see this game thrive well into the future.
2. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
The sleeper hits are always the best, and amidst a sea of disappointments, Shadow of Mordor managed to sneak in and surprise just about everyone who played it, myself included.
With a mix of open-world gameplay, Arkham combat and Assassin’s Creed-style stealth sections, I was already interested in Shadow of Mordor. The Nemesis system, however, is a game-changer, and easily the best gameplay innovation in recent memory. The thrill of having an Orc you recently burned and let run off in a fight come back with a vengeance, charred scars on his face, screaming for your head in the middle of an assassination attempt on another Orc captain is unlike anything I’ve played in any other game.
Throughout the game, I was constantly being surprised by how well Monolith Productions managed to keep it all together in the Nemesis system. I was always seeking out ways to usurp Warchiefs, to install my own Orcs and slowly rise them through the ranks in order to turn them against their comrades at the perfect moment. I would hunt down those who had killed me in the past, quietly stalking them to find the perfect place to ambush and overwhelm them. My memories of that game are not of the built-in story, but the emergent narrative I built within the Nemesis system. Don’t miss this title, as it is likely to be one of the most influential games to come out of 2014.
1. Dragon Age: Inquisition
It was a difficult choice to decide my top pick for the year. If it was the game I played the most from this year (sans Dota 2), it would easily be Hearthstone. If influence and surprise was the factor, Shadow of Mordor would easily take the top spot. Dragon Age: Inqusition, however, managed to cover almost every base of what I consider to make it my top game.
The world is expansive and diverse, spanning rolling hills and stormy coasts, winter crags and sand dunes. The characters are diverse and interesting, having some of the greatest depth of any Dragon Age game yet. Combat plays out fantastically, and while I miss the companion tactics of previous games, I still had a blast developing my Inquisitor into a walking force of nature and magic.
As I played through Inquisition, I saw choices I had made years ago affect the game world I played now. Seeing the Hawke I had played as in Dragon Age 2 and talking with him, now playing as the Inquisitor, was surreal. Leading my forces to fight Corypheus and seal the rifts was thrilling, and the heights that the story campaign reaches are amazing. This is Bioware back on their A-game, delivering the same experiences that made me a fan years ago.
Are there faults with Inquistion? Certainly, as with just about any game. But every time I think about 2014 as a year, as I pour back over what I’ve played and best remember, I see Inquistion. I see my party of Cassandra, Sera and Dorian, heading out to take another fort. I see Iron Bull and Varric, Blackwall and Vivienne, Cole and my advisors. I go back to memories of my first dragon kill, of unlocking my specialization, of racing through Haven to desperately save my people from an archdemon. This is easily the most memorable, most entertaining, and my favorite game of 2014.
For more of the Gaming Trend staff’s favorite games of the year, check out our GOTY coverage hub.