I already know what my 2015 Game of the Year will be, because I put it in the title. But what about 2014? I feel silly doing a top 10 list, because the idea is so overplayed and the internet is so full of lists that I might as well be throwing a stone into a giant pile of similarly-sized and otherwise unremarkable stones. However, now that I’m trying to make a game and half-heartedly market it, I thought it might be a good idea to give everyone an idea of what I like. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my top 10 list would be scattershot enough that I doubt there is another exactly like it.
For a lot of folks, 2014 was a disappointing year. Some games were delayed. Others should have been. Buggy and underwhelming releases abound. I’ve seen several people comment that it was hard to even come up with 10 games to put on a top 10 list. I didn’t have that problem, but I guess I’m not picky. Or maybe I’m just weird. Sure, AC Unity had a shitty framerate. Driveclub and Master Chief Collection were broken. Watch_Dogs fell so short of the hype that I almost forgot it existed while I was coming up with this list. But for the most part, those weren’t games I cared about that much anyway. But in the end, I thought 2014 wasn’t too bad. So here are my top 10 games of the year.
There are a lot of games I simply didn’t play this year that might have made it onto the list, based on what I know about them. I haven’t even touched Tropico 5, The Evil Within, Alien Isolation, Civilization: Beyond Earth, Titanfall, Sunset Overdrive, Divinity: Original Sin, and D4 because either I didn’t have time or didn’t have the proper platform (a better PC or Xbox One).
Of special note here is Far Cry 4, which I am now a few hours into. The opening missions were fun and I’ve heard it’s mostly just more Far Cry 3, which sounds great me. If you disagree with any of my picks, just replace it with Far Cry 4.
Beware, large gifs ahead.
10. Infamous: Second Son
Infamous was a gorgeous game when the PS4 needed a gorgeous game. The combat is fun in bursts and appropriately difficult until you get the hang of neon head shots. Some people said it was too short, or bereft of content compared to other open world games. Then those same people went on to hate on Watch_Dogs and AC Unity for all the repetitive content piled onto their maps.
The voice acting and motion capture is surprisingly good, too, which isn’t something you see in a lot of non-Rockstar open world titles.
9. Drakengard 3
Hey, did you want more Drakengard? You know, that game from the PS2 era? That terrible fantasy Dynasty Warriors ripoff? With a soundtrack almost entirely composed of dissonant 3 second loops of screeching string instruments? Yes? I guess I’m not the only one. Just like the original Drakengard, this game is a mess. The frame rate is atrocious. The combat is repetitive. The characters are bizarre. Nothing makes any sense. Everyone is yelling at each other, mostly about having weird sex. It kind of still looks like a PS2 game.
Despite all of this, this game was made and it was released in North America. And it ends in a near-impossible rhythm game section. Just like it should. So it gets on this list. Just for that.
I understand why some people hated Destiny. I especially understand why it was the most disappointing game of the year for many critics. Destiny probably had the most hype of any title outside of the Grand Theft Auto franchise and, yeah, it failed to deliver. The story–to the extent it existed at all–was delivered via the monotone, ineffectual VO of Peter Dinklage and weird trading cards you could only view on your computer. Content seemed stripped out of the game for DLC. The expansion broke the economy in weird ways that I still don’t understand.
All that said, the moment-to-moment gameplay in Destiny is the best pure console FPS gameplay outside of the Call of Duty franchise. I replayed mission after mission, grinding for engrams that turned into terrible green and blue loot drops. It was fun. It’s still fun. I loaded it up for the first time in a month to make the gif above and, despite playing multiple FPS games in that month, the Destiny controls were immediately second nature. The game is incredibly responsive. The individual encounters are well designed and almost never frustrating. I could still go back, run the same damn missions that I’ve played several times already, and it would be more exciting and enjoyable than most FPS games the first time through.
7. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor
As much as I want my top 10 list to be eclectic and unique, I can’t ignore the game that seems to be near the top for everyone else. Shadow of Mordor is the natural evolution of Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum, paired with a new, perhaps revolutionary, idea in the nemesis system.
Almost every developer should look at the nemesis system and re-evaluate how they handle character interaction and mini-bosses. The idea of dynamically generated “rivals” and (later in the game) “allies” could be applied to almost every genre, but especially other open world action titles. If the next GTA game doesn’t use something like the nemesis system to create evolving crime families/gangs, someone has fucked up.
Also, bonus points for being a licensed Lord of the Rings game in 2014 and having very little to do with Peter Jackson’s overwrought Hobbit.
Transistor had the unfortunate fate of being the follow-up to Supergiant Games’ first title, Bastion, and didn’t do nearly enough to prevent a comparison between the two games. For example, did Transistor really need to have large amounts of voice over work delivered by Logan Cunningham, the narrator in Bastion? No. No it didn’t.
Because of this, much of the conversation about Transistor has been about how its story isn’t as good as Bastion‘s. That’s probably true, though the comparison isn’t fair. Bastion told its story through a narrator speaking directly to the audience. Transistor… Well, it barely even told its story. It left players to piece together what happened from dialog, audio logs, e-mails, and scattered computer consoles. Anyone going in expecting a reprise of Bastion‘s story was naturally disappointed.
Lost in this comparison is that Transistor is way more fun to play than Bastion. There was nothing wrong with the gameplay of Bastion, which was a fairly standard action-RPG with a decent variety of weapons. The best part of how Bastion played was how you could mix-and-match almost any combination of weapons and have an effective loadout. Transistor doubles down on this by allowing you to set any skill as an attack, passive ability, or modifier on an attack. Experimenting with the thousands of combinations (and finding most of them viable for one purpose or another) made journeying through the beautiful environments and listening to the awesome music worthwhile, even if the story barely made any sense.
5. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
Let’s just get this out of the way first: Call of Duty Ghosts sucked. The campaign was weird and gross and without any of the winks/nods of prior games that made me feel like at least some people on the team were trying to undermine the glorification of the military-industrial complex. The multiplayer was boring, which is something that I’ve never thought about any CoD game. I can’t even recall what the third mode was. Aliens? I think it was aliens for some reason. Fuck, that game was bad.
Call of Duty needed a comeback. And Kevin Spacey. Actually, every game needs Kevin Spacey but Advanced Warfare was the one to finally go out and get him. In the campaign, CoD gets back to playing at subversiveness by co-opting the old Hideo Kojima playbook and telling a story about a Private Military Contractor gone mad with power.
Honestly, the campaign is just so-so and I’d rather go back and play an MGS game again. But hardly anyone plays CoD for the campaign.
More importantly, Advanced Warfare finally adds to a CoD multiplayer formula that had become stale by increasing mobility and verticality via–what else?–jet packs. That’s right, we finally got a sci-fi Call of Duty and now you can double jump, float through the air, and dodge quickly to the left or right like an anime mech. The multiplayer maps are designed with this in mind, and they’re probably the best since the first Black Ops.
If you gave up on Call of Duty, it’s finally worth going back to.
4. Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns
The Final Fantasy XIII series has gotten a lot of shit from a lot of people, most of it well-deserved. For example, there was no need for there to be a “Final Fantasy XIII series” in the first place. Adjusted for historical context, XIII was probably the worst mainline entry in the series and had exactly two characters anyone could give a shit about, neither of whom were playable in the second game (Fang and Sazh). Surprisingly, XIII-2 rehabilitated the brand a little bit by not starting with a 20 hour tutorial and adding Pokemon-lite companions. Also, by featuring the third character worth giving a shit about in the series, Liam O’Brien hamming up the most anime dialog in video games, aka Caius Ballard.
Final Fantasy XII: Lightning Returns is not a Final Fantasy XIII game. It’s not even really a Final Fantasy game. It’s a Valkyrie Profile game and I fucking love Valkyrie Profile. “What?” you say. “But it even says ‘Final Fantasy’ on the box! What does this have to do with Valkyrie Profile?” You’re right, but hear me out.
Imagine that I told you that Square-Enix was putting out an RPG in which a female main character dressed like a Norse goddess descends from heaven on the orders of a god who has a secret agenda to save the souls of mortals before the end of the world. She is on a time limit, which is represented by an actual in-game countdown, but that limit can be extended by saving enough/the proper souls. The battle system is a mix of Final Fantasy‘s ATB system and real-time maneuvering around the battlefield, and certain enemies will need to be attacked from certain angles to be effective.
Surely, this game is the long-awaited Valkyrie Profile 3: Hrist, right? Nope, it’s Lightning Returns and it’s probably the closest we’re ever gonna get to another VP.
3. Bayonetta 2
The first Bayonetta is the best character action game ever made. I played through it on every difficulty level. I unlocked almost everything. If I had to come up with a top 1o list of all the games in the 360/PS3 generation, Bayonetta would be near the top of the list. And, for the most part, Bayonetta 2 is more of the same. So why isn’t it my favorite game of the year? There are a few reasons.
First, it’s on the Wii U. That shouldn’t be a knock against the game, but I had to play it on a controller I’m less familiar with. For a game with very tight, exact controls, this was a big deal. I ended up playing on a classic controller, which was better than the Wii U gamepad, but nowhere near as comfortable as the PS4 or 360.
Second, the weapon selection is underwhelming compared to the first game. The grenade launchers, shotgun, and ice skates are all gone, replaced with far less interesting options. The chainsaw and hammer were too slow to be useful in my play style, the bow was ineffective, and the “Undine” clubs were just a lesser version of the “Durga” claws. Whereas I could switch between almost all the weapons in Bayonetta, I spent most of Bayonetta 2 with only the pistols, swords, whip and scythe. That offered some options, but not nearly enough in comparison.
Third, the difficulty was all out of whack. The original Bayonetta was just challenging enough on the default normal difficulty. It wasn’t frustrating, but it wasn’t easy. It was just hard enough that it eased me into higher difficulties. On the normal difficulty, Bayonetta 2 is a cakewalk. I died twice through my entire playthrough, and the jump up to the next level was far more jarring.
Bayonetta 2 is a great fucking game. Don’t get me wrong. It just isn’t Bayonetta. Fortunately, it comes with a Wii U version of Bayonetta so it’s a pretty great package no matter what.
2. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc/ Danganronpa: Goodbye Despair
Both Danganronpa and its sequel came out in 2014, so I’m combining them into a single entry. As someone who greatly appreciates an insane story, the Danganronpa delivers in spades. The best way to describe these games is Phoenix Wright by way of Battle Royale. Sixteen high school students are trapped in their school (or on an island, in the sequel) and the only way to escape is to kill a fellow student and get away with the murder.
The high schoolers are goaded on by a maniacal teddy bear by the name of Monokuma. One after another, the students are picked off by their classmates and its your job to solve each murder as it occurs. To say any more about the plot would be a disservice to anyone who hasn’t played it yet.
Ultimately Danganronpa succeeds because of its writing. Since the plot is nonsense–amazing nonsense, yes–it’s really the characters who stand out. When you have a cast this large–and especially when you introduce them all at once in the beginning of the game–the biggest challenge is differentiating everyone. Anyone who writes in a dialog-heavy medium has fallen into the trap of their cast talking too same-y. Dangranronpa avoids that. Each character has a unique voice, which is hard as hell to convey with very little voice acting and the limitations of a text box. Even better, almost every character is likable, which just increases the dread leading up to each inevitable murder
If you have any interest in visual novels and you own a Vita or PS TV, give Danganronpa a chance. I know I’m speaking to a small subset of people when I address Vita owners who don’t know about Danganronpa, but I bet some of you are out there.
1. MLB: The Show 14
Did you expect anything else? MLB: The Show 14 is the best baseball game ever made. Arguably, it is an incremental improvement over the 2013 edition, but years of refinement have honed the MLB series down to an incredible realism. That wouldn’t be enough to make it my Game of the Year, but context is important.
Most annual games suffer in their first next-generation outing. See the aforementioned Call of Duty: Ghosts, Madden 25 and NBA 2k14. Corners are cut, resources are shifted towards graphical performance and away from features–and usually the graphics aren’t even that great. MLB avoided that trap. It looks fantastic, both in screenshots and in motion. It plays just like every game before it. Probably even better. They seem to have worked out beginner hitting settings for the first time. And, most notably, there is nothing missing. Road to the Show and Franchise mode are just as robust as ever.
I played more hours of MLB: The Show 14 than anything else this year, and it wasn’t just because of my World War K series. Even without that, I probably would have put hours and hours into the game between my sidearming knuckleballer in Road to the Show, my Cardinals franchise, various exhibition games, and the gifs I make to post to twitter.
MLB: The Show 14 owns, and the consistent high quality of the series should be recognized. Just because it’s been great for years doesn’t diminish its achievements. And this year Sony Santa Monica brought the game over to a new system, fully intact, with some of the best graphics the PS4 has to offer.