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Tom’s 2014 Must Play List: 20 to 16

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.

Honourable Mention (21): Bound by Flame
When’s the last time you played a game that was both great and awful? Well if you’re the kind of person who likes to categorise games into the good and the bad, Bound by Flame is here to teach you the folly of false dichotomies. It’s the best/worst game of the year and I love/hate it more every second I play it. You should/should not buy it immediately/when it’s on sale.

At the centre of Bound in Flames is some story about a demon that possesses your character. You must decide whether to allow this demon more control to harness its increasing power to defeat your enemies, or fight it and retain your humanity. Similarly I felt myself constantly torn by Bound in Flame. One minute I would be completely immersed in its dark fantasy world, carving up my enemies and carefully planning each encounter. The next minute I would be bored by insufferable dialogue (of which there’s a ridiculous amount) and my loathing for the characters would make it hard for me to continue to play.

It’s a weird game. The good bits aren’t just pretty good, they’re great. For example the combat and the levelling and the character progression is all brilliantly enjoyable and well designed. The bad bits meanwhile are so bad that I was sometimes starring at my screen in disbelief. On balance though, I would rather have a game that’s occasionally great than a game that’s consistently pretty good. No doubt that’s not how everyone will feel, and I can’t argue with anyone who says that Bound by Flame is badly written, technically rough, derivative and full of awful characters. Still, I didn’t finish Dragon Age 2 or The Witcher games or Amalur, but I finished this. Many games I finished this year have gone from my memory completely, but I still think of this game. So that has to count for something. Right/wrong?

20. Just Dance 2015
Probably the biggest reason for Just Dance 2015’s success is the production values and quality of the dancing videos and the accompanying visual effects. Whether it’s the way the song lyrics play out as animated swishes of colour in the unquestionably stylish rendition of John Newman’s “Love Me Again” or the childish picture book complete with farm animals in “What did the Fox Say”, the presentation is gorgeous, funny and charming. It also spans several different styles, with songs perfect for little dancing bubblegum princesses, camp 70’s loving uncles, or disco queen mums. The mix is eclectic, and even when you don’t like the songs, the videos often win you over with effusive enthusiasm and little background jokes.

With a strong song list comes a number of other clever decisions about how that song list is presented. Almost all of the tracks are available from the start, but for those who want to unlock more through progress, additional dances and modes can be obtained. There’s also some neat ideas for dances that are meant for sitting players, encouraging those who aren’t so enthusiastic to play from the sofa, and hopefully eventually convincing them to get to their feet. Each of the dances is also playable by up to eight players, with the game adapting simply to the number who want to play. Often dances are best with specific player counts (One lead dancer and two backing dancers for Gaga’s Bad Romance for example), but if you have either more or less, the game still gracefully lets anyone change their roles and adapts to the number of dancers. If everyone wants to be Gaga, everyone can be Gaga.

While some features are rudimentary, others are refreshingly unfussy. You can use a calorie counter if you are playing for fitness, but there’s no real organised fitness plan. Making play lists is easy though, and on Kinect the post-game video playback of your own performance is hilariously cringe-y to watch. You can see other peoples uploaded videos too, although that feature frequently made our party guests feel a little uncomfortable. We were also somewhat frustrated by the games constant recommendations to play with others online – something we absolutely had no interest in doing.

All of this is just window dressing for the real star of the show though – the dances. While FPS’s need solid weapons and platformers need good level design, dance games live or die on their routines, and Just Dance 2015’s are perfect. There’s an incredible variety, and almost all of them are fun to dance to. These dances have been created by professional choreographers and are performed by some of the best dancers in the world. As a result they look amazing, and they put every other dance game to shame. While dancing in (I know, I know) Dance Central feels like it’s been clumsily animated by a programmer on an animation package, the routines in Just Dance 2015 are full of life and rhythm and energy. You’re never in any doubt that you’re watching a real person dancing, and you feel like your dancing with them. And you really are, although you certainly don’t look like they do.

But you feel like you do. And that’s what Just Dance 2015 does so perfectly. It sells you the dream that you can dance, just like Guitar Hero sells you the dream that you are Jimmy Hendrix. And its also the only game on this list that might actually actively improve your life via increased fitness and health.

19. Destiny
I played so much Destiny this year. Far, far too much Destiny.

And if I did one thing more than play Destiny, it was defend Destiny. It was a game that struggled against the pre-release hype, and despite being a great game in its own right, it could never match the game people imagined it was going to be in their heads.

Was that Bungie’s fault? Well, in part yes. They really failed to convey what the game was, and as a result, we have either an FPS padded out with MMO elements, or a hamstrung MMO with some FPS combat, depending on your point of view.

There can be no doubt that the core of Destiny is solid. The more I played, the more I wanted to play. The “feel” of the shooting, the weapons themselves and the combat are nearly perfect. I can’t think of an FPS that feels more natural and more viscerally satisfying to play.

It might be the way the enemies die when you headshot them. The way The Hive fade away and The Cabal pop and the The Fallen shoot a beam of light into the air. Whatever it is, shooting things in Destiny feels good. Really good.

What’s not so good is the DLC. I got to level 29 and even tackled the Raid in Destiny. Playing with some friends was the most fun I had this year. The most fun multiplayer gaming I’ve ever had.

But with the arrival of the overly stingy, fantastically unambitious DLC, I can’t play Destiny any more. By locking existing players out of content because they haven’t bought a season pass, they’ve really shown a mean capriciousness that we shouldn’t have to tolerate. Bungie have really failed to live up to the standard they set themselves with their own game. Without some effort to reconnect with the community that supports them, they’ll endanger any future success they might hope to achieve. And they’ll find themselves in this position on GOTY lists instead of at the top, where they could have been.

18. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
With both Danganronpa 1 and 2 hitting Vita this year, I chose the first game purely because I have played it and haven’t yet played the second. From what I’ve played so far though, I can tell you that I’m happy to have a whole sequel stored and ready on my Vita for when I finish this one. Danganronpa is weird and very Japanese and well worth playing.

I think it’s best if I link to the review from Jaime as he knows the game much better than me. Suffice it to say, if you like games like Virtues Last Reward or Phoenix Wright, you probably need to play this too.

17. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
A lot of my best stories from 2014 come from Mordor. Turning five bodyguards against a War Chief then watching them straight up murder him will never get old.

But although the nemesis system in Shadow of Mordor is great, I never really connected with the other elements of the game. The story felt somewhat disconnected from the world of Tolkien. Indeed, it’s almost impressive to see a developer willing to literally contradict Tolkein’s own lore in a story set in Middle-earth, but nonetheless I always felt like the game would have benefited from being completely separate from the books and movies. The characters and the story seemed to have very little to do with The Lord of The Rings, and could have stood on their own.

I also didn’t love the game world in Shadow of Mordor. Admittedly Mordor itself is supposed to be ugly and dark, but as a place to explore it was overly gloomy and lacked variety. It never stopped feeling like a collection of levels stitched together, as opposed to a living, breathing world.

Still, the dynamic systems were well implemented and the game as a whole was a lot of fun. The combat worked well, and you can’t beat riding a Caragor into battle while brainwashing an army of orc bodyguards to betray their masters.

16. Transistor
There’s only a few games that look better than Transistor on this list, but there’s even fewer that sound better. Darren Korb’s soulful, yearning score is evocative and heartbreaking, and it probably does a better job of telling the story of Transistor than the dialogue and characters.

Based around an elegant turn based strategy system, Transistor offers both creative gameplay and a unique world to explore. It’s tells a melancholic story, but it will take some effort on the part of the player to tease out the details and meaning of that story. There’s a vagueness to the plot that requires real attention and effort if you hope to engage with the tale it tells.

Outwith the story, Transistor is good game if a somewhat limited one. The gameplay really only involves combat, with no interaction available in its beautiful game world outwith killing the same enemies over and over. Sadly, the combat system’s adaptability makes it somewhat exploitable, and I found that by halfway through the game I had a few basic techniques which saw off all enemies with ease and wrecked the difficulty curve somewhat.

Still, Transistor is an interesting game and Cloudbank is as impressive and essential a game world to explore as Rapture or Hyrule or Raccoon City.

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