I think it’s fair to say that 2014 has been a bit of a discouraging year. Sure, sales have been up, but so have player expectations. Big behemoths such as Watch Dogs & Destiny, which sold very well, were not reviewed so highly, while plenty of indie’s stepped up to surprise us once again. Across the board, in fact, many games have been receiving polarising reviews from different outlets, with thousands of passionate fans leading the charge on both sides of the debate. (Lets not even get started on #GamerGate!) And yet, despite all the controversy, 2014 has still managed to be one of the strongest first years of any generation, with a number of achievements that equally deserve recognition.
When it came to preparing our annual awards, however, the GC team was so conflicted in opinion that it was seemingly impossible to do anything conventional. In fact, there wasn’t even one game from 2014 that all of us had played, which, in itself, was a great example of the diversity in this industry. As a workaround, we decided to take yet another unconventional approach, and, in turn, asked each of our writers to pick just one thing from the past year they thought stood out as a positive. Naturally, this is all based on our opinions, but I think it highlights just how much good came out of a rather conflicted year in gaming. Hopefully, it is also a sign of the great things to come in 2015 too!
If you’ve had a chance to experience P.T, you’ll likely understand why I’ve chosen to talk about this game. For those who haven’t, P.T is a playable teaser for Silent Hills; an upcoming project from Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro. Although, when it released as free download on PlayStation Store earlier this year, nobody actually knew what it was.
Basically, it’s a game that takes place within a single looping corridor. It sounds limiting, but the way it works is that every time you solve a puzzle and loop back to the beginning, something about the environment will have changed. Being both first-person and a horror game, it focuses on the smaller details of the environment; encouraging players to examine every square inch of their surroundings. As you progress, the puzzles will escalate in difficulty as the hauntings become much more intense. We’re not talking about the occasional “boo scare,” either. It’s a near-perfect blend of scaring players with what they can’t see, while still being able to show its teeth when it counts the most.
As it was meant to be a surprise announcement for Silent Hills, Kojima also did his best to make the puzzles so obtuse that it would take weeks to figure it out. True, some were able to fluke their way to the ending, but uncovering the method was an online phenomenon that I’ve never seen before, and it was absolutely thrilling to be a part of it. Despite being a “teaser,” P.T is still its own experience, with impressive visuals and lighting, as well as a totally original approach to interactive horror. Basically, it’s a system that doesn’t follow any clear set of rules, and that’s what makes it so terrifying to play through. P.T is both a revolution for the horror genre, as well as a big milestone in game design.
This was my rough initial reaction to hearing the announcement of Wolfenstein: The New Order: “Ugh, really?” The last thing we needed was another instalment in a declining series, and we especially didn’t need yet another brain-dead FPS. Yet somehow, not long before release, the marketing finally got me interested. The story finally broke free of its WWII secret-war occult themes and showed us a world where the Nazis won, and a 1960 where peace, love and flower-power is nowhere to be found. Also: moon-Nazis. I found the first 20 minutes or so of The New Order are a little ho-hum, but it didn’t take long until I was grinning from ear to ear. By pure accident, I discovered weapons could be dual-wielded immediately and was unleashing carnage with the excellent combat mechanics.
An intuitive upgrade system adapts to your own style of gameplay while the game design allows you tackle levels any way you like while remaining challenging. Stealth is fairly simple but excellently handled, which is a massive win in my book. There’s a mix of modern shooter and old-school sensibilities that works incredibly well, and is more importantly fun. The biggest surprise is the extra effort MachineGames put into The New Order’s story. From the start, there are flashes of the emotional depth explored with series protagonist BJ Blazkowicz, which slowly develops. This time around he’s scarred, sick of war and dreaming of a simple, happy life, which is all developed in a genuine, heartfelt way. Feeling feelings in a Wolfenstein game? Yeah, I was shocked too. It’s interesting how a game like this could do more than just tug at our patriotic or righteous cords, but hit at some fundamental themes like love and hope.
The ability to tell a story in a unique way, with a greater level of immersion than any other medium is what I love about video games. Spec-Ops: The Line’s reinterpretation of Heart of Darkness stands as my go-to example of the power of gaming narrative. However, as is always the way with big-budget media, there is always a tendency to just replace story with explosions – Destiny being a prime example of that.
With this in mind, it’s nice to see a studio that consistently has a focus on narrative rather than “next-gen” glossiness. Telltale Games have produced amazing stories in the form of the Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Tales from the Borderlands and, more recently, Game of Thrones.
Their minimal gameplay focus, rather than being a detriment, actually deepens the immersion; allowing the story to tell itself around the choices you are forced to make. Coupled with the episodic nature that Telltale typically releases their games in, they make for great conversation among fellow players. Furthermore, It’s amazing how often any discussion of a Telltale game involves the sentence “and then I made the wrong choice,” often accompanied by a thousand-yard stare. This stands as a testament to the writers at Telltale, that, no matter what decisions you make, you can still get blindsided by tragedy; which does kind of make them the perfect studio for Game of Thrones.
Telltale Games are generally some of the first mentioned in any defense of video games as art and for keeping the light of narrative alive and well in mainstream gaming. The studio is my personal pick for 2014’s best narrative experience.
As a gamer, you’ll likely always want the next big thing in technology, but it’s hard not to feel ripped off when a new console is necessary every few years. Of course, they have their benefits but there are drawbacks too; the biggest is always that the shiny new toy is almost never compatible with the games you’re already playing.
This is where the Wii U wins out the best value award: all the games, accessories and controllers from its predecessor move forward to this new generation console. Personally, this makes the parent side of me happy AND the broke gamer side happy too. Working for a game retailer has driven the obvious value home for me; it’s an easy sell for parents, and those that don’t want to see beloved games become redundant. Nintendo knows how to keep game hoarders content to move forward with progress, without making us leave behind titles that may never get remastered releases. Thank you, Nintendo and Congratulations.
There’s a concept in game design called ‘harmony’. If all the pieces of the game come together to complement one another, then the game experience will be better because of it. This isn’t just good design or excellent music gelling with nice graphics, this is every aspect of the game bouncing off everything else to complement the game as whole. It’s like a good curry or picking the right pasta to match the sauce, and Nidhogg is linguine drowning in carbonara.
From the inexplicable soundtrack to the distressing art syle, Nidhogg’s elements all cultivate an air of weirdness. Right down to it’s core mechanics, the game oozes a bizarre and disturbed energy, and every detail strengthens the rest of the game. It’s difficult to remember any one aspect of the game without it being associated with everything else, and that’s a good thing. From style to execution, Nidhogg is a gestalt head-trip, and that’s why it deserves this award.
One of the most important elements, when establishing a video game’s identity is the cover artwork. People say, “presentation is everything” and “first impressions last,” and, from my experience as a graphic designer, both statements are accurate. This is a fundamental rule in all product design as it will certainly impact profits once on the market. Admittedly, there were quite a few noteworthy covers this year, so it was quite a challenge to pick an undisputed winner (narrowing my list down to just three games). Honourable mentions go to Dragon Age: Inquisition for its fantasy-themed artwork, and Mario Kart 8 for its vibrant backdrop and cast of characters emphasising the fast-paced nature of the driving. However, the clear front-runner for me was the critically acclaimed first-person shooter featuring elite assault pilots and 24-foot, heavily-armoured mechs – Titanfall, by EA and Respawn Entertainment.
The artwork is masterfully crafted using mixed-media techniques with great attention to detail, making it, in my opinion, the most iconic video game cover of 2014. The gaming elements of Titanfall are on display and gives the viewer a sense of what the game is all about without exhibiting a slogan or summary. The colour scheme is dry and matches the multi-layered ruins of the post-war cityscape perfectly. It emphasises the destructiveness of war while not taking too much attention from the real heroes of the cover. The pilot, armed with a rifle and standing on the arm of an armoured titan epitomises bravery while presenting the two diverse gameplay styles without any need of action. Carefully tailored artwork gives you a story instantaneously, and its thought-provoking nature helps the game stand out from the rest. Without a doubt, Titanfall ticks all the boxes for being the best video game box art this year.
Mario Kart 8’s first DLC release adds two new cups, three new racers, and a few new karts. This isn’t just normal MK content, though. Among this content is Link from The Legend of Zelda, a race around Hyrule Field and Castle Town, and even tracks based on F-Zero and Excitebike. Every reference to other Nintendo properties is so reverent to the source material, letting you collect rupees, race around randomly generated Excitebike courses and use F-Zero’s healing strips. All the streamers and tassels are here too; Zelda’s ‘chest opening’ music plays while picking up an item in Hyrule, and F-Zero’s results screen music plays after each race through Mute City.
This DLC finally takes Mario Kart in the direction I’ve been dreaming of for years. Firstly, the days of 8 cups of Mario Kart per generation are over. We’ve got two new cups, we’re getting two more next year, and I hope the trend continues through the Wii U’s life. More importantly though, the gates have been opened to other Nintendo characters to join the race. Will we see Kirby, Samus, Fox? I hope so.
If that weren’t enough, the new and returning Mario Kart tracks are just as great as the tracks on disc, and that’s impressive. New tracks provide trickier races for more seasoned players, while returning tracks introduce anti-grav and HD graphics to classics. The robust and diverse track selection of MK8 has gotten even more impressive.
The cherry on top, though, is the great pricing. For content that is essentially equal to a quarter of a Mario Kart game, this is well worth the money, and Nintendo even offers a discount for ordering DLC Pack 2 with the initial purchase.
With 2014 having been set up as a pretty big year for the triple A market, a vast number of consumers ended up feeling let down throughout the year. Consequently, I have seen many forum posts stating this year was a “horrible year for gaming.” And yet, despite these shortcomings, the indie market has worked away yet again this year to produce some genuinely outstanding games, such as Transistor, Shovel Knight and Crawl. With the latter being a truly creative take on the hack and slash, dungeon crawler genre from an Australian indie team called Powerhoof.
Basically, Crawl is based around a very distinctive mechanic where in the event that a monster in the dungeon kills the hero, the monster then becomes the hero. In turn, I found this creates a compelling local multiplayer experience; as you and your friends gang up on the hero trying to steal their life and make yourself the protagonist, only to the thrown into the same situation yourself in the next room. As an added layer to the hero swap system, the most efficient way to acquire gold (needed to purchase weapons and upgrades) is by acquiring blood, which has to be taken from the hero while you’re playing as a monster. This means, in order to be effective as the hero, the player has to strategically give up their life and fight as a dungeon monster to acquire blood; at the cost of precious time that could be spent levelling up the hero. As a result, these mechanics have led to Crawl becoming one of my favorite games of 2014.
Looking back on this past year, you’d be forgiven for thinking that gaming consisted almost entirely of MOBA’s and first person shooters. “Other” games have just been funny little distractions for the community to argue over every now and again, apparently. The problem is that these competing MOBA’s and FPS’ aren’t trying to compete by being different from one another. They’re not trying to be unique or interesting, no, they’re all trying to desperately clone LoL or DotA. There isn’t exactly a lot, or any, variety out there. Or there wasn’t, at least, until BattleCry came skipping into the scene with fantastic art direction and swinging ridiculously named weaponry high overhead.
BattleCry is an unconventional MOBA/Third-Person Shooter hybrid that has no guns. Set in an alternate timeline to our own where gunpowder has been abolished, a “pansophic” revolution has taken place instead of an industrial one, and “wars” are now fought by small, elite teams of soldiers. The appearance of the battlefield will wane and change to reflect how you’re doing in battle, and there are plenty of subtle visual hints as to the world around you. There seems to be a lot of subtle story telling going on through gameplay, something I’m eager to see in online multiplayer games in general. What really has me interested, however, is that BattleCry isn’t really easily described.
I gave you a rough description up there, sure, but that’s not all there is to the game. There’s a diverse class system, leveling and abilities, borrowing from various genres to feed into this strange creature. Whenever I try to describe to friends and strangers what the game actually is, it sounds like it has more elements than a game has any right to, yet it still some how works. I know it works, I’ve seen it, played it for myself and it’s f***ing rad. It’s going to be a good year.
Change can be a wonderful thing; breaking away from the shackles of worn out ideas to bring new innovation to the table. However, in saying that, change is also a double-edged blade as new ideas are not always be well received. Furthermore, Developers who are willing to take risks seldom revert to what made them special, and no company sums this up better than Bioware. Or, at least that was until Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Bioware had long been close to my heart, but with the changes made in both Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 2 onwards, I was starting to believe the romance was over. In the beginning, Bioware games were all about epic, branching stories and deep character development. However, in recent years, they seemingly moved towards corridors and cookie cutter personalities. Attempts made at shaking up the formula seemed to get worse; even ruining what seemed to be one of the greatest trilogies.
It’s not easy to win back the trust of fans, but Dragon Age: Inquisition felt like a heartfelt apology; with Bioware taking a much-needed step back. While, with most romances, you would want more than one-step back, this step was such an amazing step that they have more than earned my trust back. Awarding Bioware “Best Return to Form” is not just accepting their apology, but also wishing they stay on this path for many years to come.
2014 saw many releases from independent studio (and even some larger developers) who took inspiration from past eras of gaming. The most obvious inspiration is often with the visual design adopting so-called “8-bit graphics,” which many people remember fondly from their childhood of playing NES and Master System games.
However, it is worth noting that some retro-inspired titles this year sought to do something new, with more of a respectful nod to the past. Games such as Broken Age spring to mind, where Doublefine leaned on the gameplay and nostalgia of past adventure games as opposed to capitalizing on the visual design. Of course, there were still those games which use that classic 8-bit visual appeal, as well as titles that straight out sought to recapture that glorious era of nostalgic goodness from the NES days, such as Double Dragon Neon. And yet, while there are many games that draw inspiration from a bygone era, using some ideas and themes or attempting to reproduce something from times past, there is one game, in my opinion, that stands head and shoulders above the rest this year: Shovel Knight.
If you read my review of Shovel Knight, you’ll know exactly why I think this is the case. Shovel Knight drew inspiration from 8-bit platformers in all aspects, from the sound, graphics, music, and gameplay, through to the boss fights and story structure. Developer Yacht Club Games nailed every single aspect of the 8-bit era, but also threw in some great humour and irreverence; not taking themselves too seriously. The titular character uses a shovel after all! Shovel Knight not only ticks all the boxes for a fantastic retro game, but is a highly polished experience in every way, so it gets my vote as the best retro-inspired game of 2014.