Every December we shine a light on the very best games of the year. From the obscure to the overlooked to the very obviously great, here’s the 20 games I think you need to play from 2014.
10. Wolfenstein: The New Order
I suspect Wolfenstein: The New Order will appear very high on many GOTY lists. As a throwback to more exuberant FPS games of the past, it eschews modern FPS conceits like open worlds and overt RPG elements and replaces them with duel wielded shotguns, dual wielded miniguns, dual wielded lasers. Dual wielded everything really.
It’s a fast run and gun affair, and with a surprisingly deep and emotive story, it’s a thrilling ride from start to finish.
My main problem with the game was its anticlimactic ending. Having established a great antagonist and giving you a hundred reasons to hate him, the games closing scenes are, well, very poor. It’s a shame, because so much effort was put into the set up that I felt sure the payoff would be equally good. It’s not.
And without going into spoilers, I can’t really say why. And I won’t spoil Wolfenstein: The New Order because it’s still a really solid FPS, and you should play it anyway. It’s a great old fashioned FPS, but also a great FPS in its own right.
Maybe it’s because it didn’t really stick with me. I remember enjoying it, but also I remember struggling to get into it. The first half of the campaign felt like a struggle. I was never sure if I was using the right weapons or fighting in the right way. I also found the side missions pretty frustrating, so I ignored them all. As a result, I often wondered if my character was under-leveled and that was why I was struggling to make progress.
In the latter half of the game though everything clicked. I found I progressed really quickly, and before I knew it I was looking at the credits. I don’t think it’s a particularly short game, it’s just that when I had the hang of the unique movement and traversal, I was having so much fun that the game was over before I knew it.
Still, even if I don’t think much about the game now, I had fun while playing. The bosses were clever (even though there wasn’t a lot of them) and the humour started to appeal to me later in the game
I think of all the games on this list, Sunset Overdrive is the one I’d most like to revisit. Maybe some of those side missions will be more fun than I remember.
8. Monument Valley
Earlier in the year, I went on a big rant about the death of mobile games. The formerly vibrant scene had been lost amidst a sea of terrible freemium titles and flappy clones. It was a race to the bottom, as one dev after another reskinned terrible, popular games in a cynical attempt to make a quick return.
Then right in the middle of my proclamations that mobile was dead, a whole bunch of amazing mobile games come along. Framed, 80 Days, The Room 2, Crossy Road and Bounden. And of course, Monument Valley.
Monument Valley is a stunning game. Beautiful, clever and with an amazing score, it exceeds the expectations of what a “mobile game” can be. It’s not just the best mobile game of the year, it’s one of the best GAMES of the year. For me, it represents the best perspective-based-puzzler of all time, overtaking games like Fez due to its superior level and puzzle design and more accessible gameplay.
7. The Banner Saga
Of the 20 games on my shortlist, The Banner Saga is the one I feel I’m most ill-equipped to assess. That’s because I simply haven’t played enough of it. Crucially though, every time I manage to sit down and play a little more of it, it moves further up the list.
There’s a lot to love about The Banner Saga. For one, the setting is genuinely fresh. The Nordic themed world, filled with Vikings and giants, is a largely unexplored mythos within games. We have a surfeit of sub-Tolkein fantasy nonsense, but if Tolkein himself were still alive he would hate them all. If there was a game setting he would be interested in, it would be the world created in The Banner Saga.
Of course this is all hypothetical nonsense, but the point remains that The Banner Saga is inspired by and set in a far more interesting world than most RPG’s. While the characters and story might hit upon conventional RPG tropes, there’s far more to The Banner Saga than the (excellent) turn based strategy and stat building gameplay.
There’s hints of The Oregon Trail, as your caravan of warriors and wonderers embark on a journey. Maintaining their morale, finding supplies and letting them rest when necessary are key tasks you’ll be set as the leader of this group. Difficult decisions are a strong feature of this game, and there will be repercussions to deal with for each choice you make.
As well as the unique setting and original gameplay, Banner Saga is beautiful. The sprites and their animation is different from anything you’ve ever seen in a game before. The games look is more reminiscent of classic animation. At its best, it evokes Disney and Miyazaki. In particular, the tiny, well animated sprites trudging over the huge, barren landscape provides a sense of scope and scale that few other games manage, making nature seem at once beautiful and savage.
The Banner Saga is a true one-off. A cult hit, and a game people will remember even more fondly in ten years than they do now.
6. Alien: Isolation
Alien: Isolation is a fairly long game, and throughout the campaign you’ll travel through a lot of different environments. There is some backtracking, but it’s done in a way that makes sense for the plot and there’s actually an impressive variety to Sevastapol. The medical area looks like a whole different station compared to the industrial area, and again the lighting can totally change your perception of a place in the game. When the red sirens are flashing the whole station looks terrifying, and when there’s a fire in one area and the whole room is burning, there’s a palpable sense of fear that conflicts with your desire to look deeply into the pretty flames.
I think Alien: Isolation backloads quite a lot of its best moments. I’m not sure if the game gets less technically shaky later on, or if I just got used to it, but I think the second ten hours of the game are much more of a visual treat than the first. In particular, a flashback sequence to a very familiar Alien scene is now one of my favourite sections in a game… well, ever. I won’t spoil it, but it made me feel like I was actually IN one of the greatest moments in movie history. It was beautiful and terrifying and it will stick with me for a long time.
Alien: Isolation shows that games have come a long way. There was a time when any game based on a film had to be a platformer, then there was a time when every game based on a film had to be an FPS. Now we don’t have to shoehorn the tone, atmosphere and setting of a film into a pre-exisiting game genre. Because there are so many different types of games each with their own gameplay systems, you can combine these disparate systems to create something that closely resembles the original source material. The Creative Assembly have Frankensteined together a game from these elements: the crafting of RPG’s, the item paucity and unstoppable enemy from survival horror, the skulking and hiding from stealth games, the hacking and puzzles from adventure games. They’ve created something new, and while you can still see the joins from where the different systems have been grafted together, they have nonetheless created the best Alien game ever made. By some distance.
Oh, and is it scary you ask? Yes. Yes it’s scary.