Here at the end of 2014, I feel like I've done more explaining of my top five and top ten personal games of the year than I ever have before, both at work and elsewhere. Was is just that kind of year? Seems to me that we (the collective gaming "we") all haven't really rallied around one outstanding release, but instead have chosen our own multiplatform favorites, our own innovators, our own expectedly awesomes to top our lists. And that's a good thing! A broad spread of contenders for end-of-the-year honors is a sign of a healthy artistic medium, if you ask me. So here are some of the many games that delighted me in 2014.
10. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
I love games that teach me how to play them, and Shadow of Mordor's lesson was a harsh one: you are weak and you will die. It was after one particularly glorious undoing that this one finally hit home. I had tamed a Caragor and was riding up to bite the head off the bastard who just killed me, and in my moment of chomptacular glory, he nonchalantly slays my ride and skewers me. Immune to Beast Finishers, apparently. I never quite found the perfect groove for combat or exploration or nemesis system-scheming, but this uncertainty kept me on my toes and kept me interested.
This game was the cause of some missed transit stops and way too many irresponsibly long bathroom breaks. Clean presentation, simple gimmick, but oh, the depths of strategizing and prognosticating and bet-hedging and flat-out praying it took me too. I'm still not that good at it, but damn if I don't want to get in a quick round right now.
I could praise the beautiful, melancholy art in which the flair of Red's hair burns as both a beacon of hope and a flame of regret. I could talk about the combat system that encouraged me to experiment while keeping me on edge. I could write about my affinity for a world that presents itself to you as if you belong there and have pre-existing knowledge of it, goading you to assimilate yourself and build your own worldview. Or I could just say that Transistor has a button dedicated to singing, and it is my favorite single thing in all of video gaming this year.
7. Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth
Civvin' ain't easy, especially when you're doing it on an unknown planet full of aliens. I loved the way Beyond Earth reinvented the early game in Civ. Exploration was intriguing and rewarding, not to mention possible very early on with embarkation. The quest system helped start the story of each playthrough by kindling my imagination with inventive scenarios. And the aliens required a more subtle approach than the simple kill-'em-all barbarian tactics of previous games. Plus, there's a late-game unit that is a huge floating octopus with an orbital death laser and that is just space metal as hell.
Whether it was in the office, in my home, or at PAX, Nidhogg was a spectacular way to make friends by pitting yourself against them. Easy to pick up and get the hang of and practically built for talking smack while playing, this is the kind of game that draws people in to give it a shot even if they aren't super confident gamers. The cartoonish blood spurts and the vicious sacrifice to a flying flesh-colored demon worm set the tone just right.
5. Wolfenstein: The New Order
Blasting the hell out of video game enemies is a pastime I enjoy immensely, dear reader, as you may have guessed. But it's so much better when the game makes your enemies villainous and your allies sympathetic. The gunplay in The New Order was brisk, brash, and challenging, which I really liked, but the characters were interesting, multifaceted, and charismatic, which I loved. The romance of BJ and Anya, the "romance" of the Frau and Bubi, the fatherly love of Max and Kalus, and the troubled, cynical brilliance of Tekla all gave this game life and vigor and purpose and heart.
I was hyped for this game. It did not live up to the hype. But such is the peril of hype; the weight of expectation can set us up to dislike something we thought we'd be into, and it's tough to shift that disappointment back into balance. But that's exactly what I managed to do with Destiny. As my coworkers and I pushed on towards level 30, slowly but surely, we banded together for strikes, crucible runs, and raids. This camaraderie not only made my time with the game more enjoyable, it enhanced my appreciation of it significantly. The shooting mechanics, the environments, the enemy design, the gear and weapons, and the dancing (yes, the dancing) all ended up distilling into socially-fueled fun that I'm still enjoying.
3. Dragon Age: Inquisition
The Chantry. The Mages. The Templars. The Fade. The Circle. The Maker. Ever notice how terms from fantasy universes can sound so bland and disconnected until you actually start caring about the world? That's how I felt about Dragon Age until I became The Herald of Andraste (there's another one!). As I explored the world and met new people and figured out what kind of character i wanted to be, I became engrossed. Now I travel to distant corners of Orlais and Ferelden to learn more about these places and to learn more about my traveling companions. I may not be taking the most direct path through the game, but it's my path, and it means more to me each time I play it.
I was hyped for this game. It lived up to the hype. Double-jumping and wall-running are fairly well-trodden video game tropes, but in a first-person shooter? No one has done it like Titanfall. Map knowledge has always been important in competitive shooters, but this game had me keeping my eye on the curves and corners of each and every building in the hopes of exploiting them to my advantage. Nailing a long run to flank, evade, or hunt down opponents is so, so satisfying. Throwing grunts and spectres into the mix made these 6v6 battles punch above their weight, and speaking of punching, those titans. Tactical and brutal, yet well-balanced against pilots, these things were an absolute treat. There may not have been a lot going on outside of the core competitive action, but that action was superb.
1. The Last of Us: Left Behind
Human relationships are often built, in part, through the shared experience of play. One of the marvelous things about video games as a medium is that they allow us to share in play with the characters that developers create. This can be used as a powerful tool to cultivate not just player engagement, but also empathy, respect, and love. These three sentiments aren't the most frequently addressed in video games, but they are among the most important. The way that Left Behind uses captivating character performances and subtle writing to engage with these things is wonderful, but it's the way that it uses gameplay mechanics to do so that makes it brilliant. Left Behind is the essential game of 2014, the one that speaks powerfully about my love of video games and leads boldly into the future.