Games of 2014
At the end of the first full calendar year for new gen consoles, we survey the winners amongst the big budget titles and the blind-siding indies
2014 marks the first full calendar year of the new generation of console hardware, so it was heartening to see that after totting up our Games team’s picks of the year, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo were all awarded a top ten spot via system exclusive titles. Add to that, a couple of PC-only indie titles that are pushing the envelope in ways other than technological clout and we reckon we’ve come up with a pretty broad snapshot of the best the year had to offer.
1. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (Kojima Productions)
Love them or hate them, Metal Gear Solid games are renowned for their lengthy cut scenes and occasionally laboured exposition. Those traits couldn’t be further from the reality when it comes to Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. Set up as the prologue to upcoming main event The Phantom Pain, Ground Zeroes makes it into our top ten for being the epitome of quality over quantity. The setting is, for all intents and purposes, based around Guantanamo Bay and the subtext of what black sites stand for. Whilst its main campaign lasts for only a couple of hours, if you take your time you can expect that to lengthen to ten.
For the first time in Metal Gear history you’ll find yourself in a non-linear sandbox experience, which essentially changes everything. You can infiltrate areas in any which way you choose and the insanely well-crafted AI responds accordingly. You can tell that painstaking care was taken in every facet of the game and nothing feels supplementary; everything is there for a well-defined reason. Whilst stealth is still Ground Zeroes’ bread and butter, the difference is you’re now given the freedom to approach missions in any way you wish and there are many different ways of completing objectives. Whilst it might not be as lengthy as other titles, Ground Zeroes is about as pure a gameplay experience as you can get. [Tom Hillman]
2. Dark Souls 2 (From Software)
812 million. That’s how many deaths Dark Souls 2 players have collectively racked up during their time in the forsaken kingdom of Drangleic, according to the game’s official statistics site. Yet for all that hurt, Dark Souls 2 is a game that’s nigh on impossible to put down. In this sequel, From Software mastered the formula it laid down in Demon's and Dark Souls to create a deep and challenging action RPG, all while managing to make the game a little more accessible to new players and without alienating its hardcore fanbase. Perhaps more important though is the sense of community that From Software has fostered around Dark Souls 2.
The developer’s decision to make in-game systems more transparent and flexible has encouraged players to experiment with character builds and gameplay styles to share their findings on YouTube, Reddit and beyond. A vibrant community has sprung up around the game replete with its own in-jokes and memes, giving Dark Souls 2 a lifespan far beyond the 60 or 70 hours it takes to finish the first time around. Three substantial chunks of DLC released later in the year that easily match anything in the original package haven’t hurt either. [Jodi Mullen]
3. Kentucky Route Zero: Act III (Cardboard Computer)
Released just a month after his death, Kentucky Route Zero’s third act maintains the reverence for Gabriel García Márquez exuded so enchantingly in its prior instalments, borrowing the author's renowned magical realist style to depict a Kentucky caught between times and realities in which the boundaries between ordinary life, folklore and computer simulations are becoming increasingly difficult to discern. No less elusive is the purpose of player choice, which in this third act seems as arbitrary as ever. On several occasions the player is given licence to dictate how past events occurred, but the sort of decisions they get to make – like whether or not the protagonist takes sugar with his coffee – are ultimately negligible.
An untimely death; a lost love – the critical details of Cardboard Computer's obscure, circuitous road trip are seen only in the rear view mirror, yet the extent to which players may arrange the details and author the meaning of these events via dialogue options ensures that they always feel like they're in the driving seat. It might be “too late” to change course, as we're told repeatedly throughout Act III, but Kentucky Route Zero continues to be a fascinating and personal journey. [Andrew Gordon]
4. Valiant Hearts: The Great War (Ubisoft Montpellier)
Games that make it into end of year lists usually excel in one of the following areas: gameplay, visuals, sound design or narrative. Valiant Hearts: The Great War firmly finds its place on our list because of the latter. The game drops you in on the advent of World War One and as soon as you're introduced to Karl, a German national, his French wife Marie, and their newborn son, living in France, you know things aren’t going to be black and white. The outbreak of war utterly tears this family apart and they’re just a few of the protagonists who will give up everything for what matters most.
Valiant Hearts is a 2D side-scrolling puzzler – you’ll find yourself pushing blocks, throwing items, pulling levers etc. but more importantly you get to experience the war from viewpoints that aren't traditionally explored such as from a nurse or the type of animals that served and died for their country. Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a fantastic achievement – it's a game that’s about kindness rather than killing and one which will make you feel something; by the time the game finishes you’ll feel like you have a better understanding about how this terrible war changed the world and more importantly, people’s lives. [Tom Hillman]
5. Titanfall (Respawn Entertainment)
“Prepare for Titanfall,” intones the AI voice as you call in your titular mech companion. What follows next has to be one of the coolest moments in video games this year, a hulking great killing machine blasted down from space before your eyes, ready for you to jump in and take control. That was the initial giddy thrill of Titanfall, but slowly the game reveals it meticulous layers of systems, the yin and yang of its singular battles and its stripped down, no nonsense presentation. Nothing in Titanfall is there without good reason and it’s clear that Respawn have tested their baby to breaking point, such is how flawless and seamless it all hangs together.
It’s also a great deal of fun for all abilities, a game where noobs can careen around in a Titan, enjoying themselves and maybe scoring the odd lucky hit without impinging on the more tactic-based gameplay of those who have played it a little too much (ahem). Titanfall may well have helped turn the fortunes of Microsoft’s Xbox One around but more than that, it absolutely rejuvenated the first-person shooter by making it simple, accessible and most of all, fun. Prepare for Titanfall indeed. [Darren Carle]
6. Alien: Isolation (The Creative Assembly)
Alien: Isolation could be viewed as one long tech demo from a small development team testing the waters with a simple idea and incorporating it into a mainstream first person shooter. That idea was to create a believable creature which was unpredictable whilst reacting realistically to the changes in environment brought about by the player. In simpler terms, the beast central to Creative Assembly’s canonised Alien sequel is quite unlike anything you’ll have seen in a video game before. Though it’s a linear FPS campaign, the potential for emergent, unscripted moments in Alien: Isolation is chiefly impressive whilst Creative Assembly’s reluctance to hand players the power and weaponry normally afforded within this genre is a brave one.
You’ll spend far more time cowering under tables whilst checking your scanner in order to plot your run than you ever will using any of the game's weapons. An indie-minded game bolstered by a triple-A budget, and one that gives some serious consideration to its source material, Isolation almost feels too good to be a video game movie tie-in, such has been the guff foisted on players over the years. However, Alien: Isolation proves that when you spend as much time working on how your characters think and act as how they look, everyone wins. [Darren Carle]
7. Far Cry 4 (Ubisoft Montreal)
If there’s one word that neatly summarises Far Cry 4, it’s ‘excess’. Everything in Ubisoft’s latest FPS instalment is larger than life, from the towering mountain peaks of the war-torn Himalayan nation of Kyrat to protagonist Ajay Ghale’s burgeoning arsenal of weaponry and the sheer variety of things to see, do and blow up. Thankfully, in a year that Ubisoft saw its Assassin’s Creed series draw the ire of critics for falling back on the same well-trodden formula one time too many, Far Cry 4 also delivers fun in abundant quantities.
It’s a game that encourages and rewards simple play, its best moments coming from ignoring the story missions and simply setting out into the hills with a couple of guns on your back and a pouch full of explosives to wreak havoc on whatever you happen to run into. Too many sandbox games fall into the trap of overwhelming the player with too many repetitive tasks to complete and forgetting to allow them to enjoy themselves. While Far Cry 4 is not without its share of bloat, Ubisoft have made sure that fun is central to the experience and few titles this year match the joyful gameplay that its emergent systems are capable of throwing up. [Jodi Mullen]
8. P.T. (Kojima Productions)
The mysterious P.T. was teased at Gamescom and subsequently released in a masterstroke by Hideo Kojima to market the development of a new Silent Hill game. Whilst it's not available to download anymore, anyone who played it will know that this self-contained experience was something very special indeed. Set in a regular house, the sort you might find just down your street, you awake time and time again to play out the same sequence of walking down a hallway. Sounds boring, right? Wrong. Every time you wake up the experience within the loop changes and the suspense and horror which Kojima is able to illicit is incredible.
There's no combat or any other mechanics aside from exploring the house and looking at things. We took a journey through the house again, with a group of friends at Halloween; a few wore grimaces, some had their hands clamped over their mouths and one pretty much hid underneath a blanket the whole time. Whilst P.T. has a few jump scares, its strength is creating a slow burn that hooks you in and gets under your skin as the sense of familiarity warps into something far sinister. If this ever goes back on the PlayStation store you owe it to yourself to play one of the finest horror video game experiences ever created. [Tom Hillman]
9. Mario Kart 8 (Nintendo)
Wii U adopters can often be heard defending their flagging machine with the riposte that Nintendo continue to deliver the best system-exclusive games for any machine. With the release of Mario Kart 8 back in May, that boast finally began to sound like more than hot air. After the lacklustre GameCube and Wii efforts, Nintendo’s flagship series finally became a killer-app once again, with Mario Kart 8 proving there was still plenty of mileage in the moustachioed ones’ go-karting side line. Like Super Mario Galaxy before it, the new star of the show is gravity, with Nintendo creating some incredible, vertiginous tracks thanks to the game’s anti-gravity karts.
It’s also a quite incredible looking game, running as smooth as a Koopa shell in glorious HD for the first time in the series. Yet despite the show-stealing aesthetics, it’s the sheer fun of Mario Kart, coupled with a more balanced weapon system, that cements this as one of the games of the year. Whether you play on your own, online or, best of all, with actual friends in the same room, Mario Kart 8 is a potent reminder of the unbridled joy, and apoplectic rage, that the series can still elicit after all these years. [Darren Carle]
10. Three Fourths Home (Bracket Games)
Three Fourths Home is a game about coping with problems you can't pin down. For 24 year-old Kelly, this means the nuanced, gnawing anxiety that comes with being out of work and having little idea about what the future holds. For her father, it's a debilitating phantom pain, an ailment that eludes concrete explanation and for which he can't afford the medication. Neither circumstance is easily corrigible, and this is central to the game’s message: whereas most video games are about solving problems, players in Three Fourths Home are asked simply to come to terms with them.
Clicking through the telephone conversation between Kelly and her family, players can decide the kind of person they want her to be: when scolded by her mother for disappearing unannounced for instance, does Kelly snap at being treated like a child or reluctantly acknowledge her mum’s concern? While the difficulties afflicting us might be outwith our control, Three Fourths Home is an indispensable reminder that how we respond to them is up to us. Like Kelly, caught in a torrential storm during Nebraska’s tornado season, you’ll never know when you’ll wish you acted differently. [Andrew Gordon]