2014 was the year I took a step back from writing and dug into my backlog without worrying too much about whether I should pen my thoughts or not. Yet, despite playing more than usual, this list is somewhat shorter than my previous years’. That probably makes it about normal size then.
Some games I haven’t really played enough of yet to be absolutely sure they belong on here, games like Hitman GO, Deadnaut, Velocity 2X, Spintires, Sportsfriends, and Towerfall: Ascension. Then there’s Julian Gollop’s Chaos Reborn which is still in development but nevertheless most excellent already. Maybe next year for that one.
Some games fell short like Sir, You Are Being Hunted which ran out of tricks a bit too early in the game to sustain my interest, but it was really cool otherwise. There was The Witcher, which had me enthralled for several acts before bogging me down with side quest after side quest traipsing through the same environments over and over again. WHY AM I DOING THIS. I’ve not returned to it yet. In Shogun 2 the naval AI fell apart to such an extent that auto-resolving seemed like the only fair thing to do, but where’s the fun in that? Bayonetta had a few too many cheap deaths and for the majority of the game I didn’t really feel like I was getting much better. It also had the same goofy/serious split personality of Vanquish that just didn’t quite sit right with me. There was Dragon’s Crown which I sunk a lot of time into before the tedium of loot, character and gear management caught up with me and said: “You don’t like this. Stop now.”
And, y’know, there were some games I just didn’t like. But we’re not here for those, we’re here for the games I played in 2014 and thought were gud. In no particular order:
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (Sept, 2013)
I can’t deny that my experience with Journey had me a little worried when it came to finally playing the much praised Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Here was another game that looked gorgeous and was apparently totes emosh. Whatever Brothers, whatever. We’ll see. In the space of three measly hours however, 505 Games managed to deliver an experience that far exceeded my expectations. The central conceit of using each thumbstick to control each brother is novel, but it’s used to tremendous effect throughout the game and is anything but a gimmick. At once unique, epic, intimate, confident, composed, heartfelt, beautiful and intelligent, Brothers is a rare game that doesn’t rely chiefly on dialogue to communicate its story so much as it does action, and in more ways than one.
If you haven’t already, then you really ought to put an evening or two aside to experience Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. I wish we had more games like this that manage to do so much in such little time.
The Wonderful 101 (Aug, 2013)
Before Bayonetta 2 Platinum Games released The Wonderful 101 to little fanfare, despite being one of the Wii U’s earliest notable exclusives. The demo, which was my first experience with the game, didn’t exactly sell it. It felt messy and incredibly busy. Where was the tutorial? What the hell am I doing? How do I control this thing? What is happening? How in the–? What do I–? Some people believe the demo actively dissuaded potential buyers and I’m inclined to agree, but then again, I’m not sure what Platinum could have done with the demo to better represent the full experience because it’s a game that becomes more enjoyable as you learn and understand its idiosyncrasies and ultimately come to master it. Anyway! In the end, I threatened to buy it and a friend generously went ahead and gave me his copy (cheers Ryan!).
And I’m glad I dismissed my concerns with the demo because The Wonderful 101, despite a few flaws (like the occasionally finicky camera and controls, and the poor in-game explanations) just gets so much right: the Saturday morning cartoon vibe and style, the glorious and epic (EPIC!!) soundtrack, the ingenious idea of forming giant weapons out of lots of super powered little dudes, the challenge and thrill of perfecting levels, the outrageous set pieces and bosses, the genuinely funny dialogue (I laughed out loud numerous times which is no mean feat), the unexpected but clever puzzles and twists and mini-games, the pop references littered throughout the game, the satisfying combos and spectacle of it all clicking together — it’s just an absolute blast. If you have a Wii U and can get past the quirks and steep learning curve, definitely consider this because it really is unlike anything else. The Wonderful 101 makes me smile just thinking about it.
The Stanley Parable (Oct, 2013)
The key to truly appreciating The Stanley Parable lies in how much you understand the structure of games and specifically how gamers behave within that structure. I’m a real sucker for games or films or performers or anything really that’s able to show some self-awareness. As we become more literate, we see patterns and adjust our expectations accordingly so for an artefact to wryly subvert or acknowledge them excites me; it’s unexpected and shows a level of respect and hunger to surprise and engage the audience. The Stanley Parable relishes this, but moreover, it does a remarkable job of reacting to the player’s actions so it becomes as much a game of seeing how far the developer went as it does simply exploring and seeing where this unusual experience is going. And often I feel like games are merely being examined by me, but in The Stanley Parable I felt like I was being examined by it as well, not unlike the way GLaDOS pokes at you in the test chambers of Portal. It’s as much a mirror to game design as it is to players and I still find that incredibly refreshing and invigorating.
For further reading (spoilers etc.) I’d highly recommend Joel Goodwin’s The Stanley Paradox which comprehensively unpacks a lot of the game’s meaning, and AJ’s review where she expresses concerns over its tone and pointed commentary on choice.
HAWKEN (Feb, 2014)
HAWKEN landed on Steam around the same time as Titanfall was released, another mech game that I was incredibly excited about, especially after the buzz generated by our first play session at EGX 2012. Two closed beta weekends later however and my desire to come back and play more — and ultimately buy the game — just fizzled out. This isn’t usually the case, so what was it about Titanfall that made me switch off so easily? I’m still not entirely sure, but another factor working against it was it being a full price Origin-only game so it was going to be a nigh on impossible sell to my usual multiplayer friends. Plants versus Zombies: Garden Warfare suffered a similar fate too, though I’m still itching to play that.
Enter HAWKEN: free-to-play on Steam and exceptionally pretty for a first-person shooter from a small (but well funded) outfit. Back in March I wrote:
I’m not a mech fetishist but HAWKEN is home to some of the coolest looking mechs I’ve ever seen, apparently drawing heavy inspiration from Kow Yokoyama’s Maschinen Krieger ZbV 3000. The world that Adhesive Games have crafted to harbour these heavy metal harbingers of doom is beautiful and refreshingly varied too, and a great example of careful art direction and execution trumping that of AAA behemoths like Titanfall.
In the last few weeks I’ve sunk over 60 hours into HAWKEN which is bloody impressive, particularly for a F2P title. I think what’s made it stick with me is the higher time to kill meaning firefights are decidedly tense and skillful affairs; the moment-to-moment mech management: hiding and self-repairing, watching your weapon heat and fuel levels; the verticality of the maps; and the game’s unique Siege mode which sees both teams gathering and delivering energy units to launch a battleship at the enemy’s base, all while duking it out over a central anti-air battery to maintain dominance over the skies. It mixes elements of capture the flag, king of the hill and control point into one really exciting and dynamic game mode.
Mario Kart 8 (May, 2014)
Despite being perhaps the game I’ve played the most all year, and with my girlfriend too, Mario Kart 8 nearly didn’t make it on to this list because it feels a little too conservative and by-the-numbers compared to the bold and brilliant Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed.
For starters, Mario Kart 8 has an absolutely lousy single-player mode and somehow manages to ruin the series’ staple battle mode by using the racing courses instead of bespoke arenas. This doesn’t work Nintendo (not that I care much for the mode anyway). The gliding, underwater and anti-grav sections don’t add an awful lot to the races compared to Sonic’s flying and wave racing sections. The stunt boosts aren’t nearly as interesting, risky or rewarding as Sonic’s. The courses themselves feel pedestrian after the likes of Adder’s Lair, Dragon’s Canyon, Sanctuary Falls and Rogue’s Landing, with their thrilling transformations from lap to lap. There’s no voice chat in-game so you can’t communicate with your friends without using some third-party hardware and software. Seriously Nintendo, what the actual fuck? And as usual, you’ve got to pray to the Mario Kart gods that you don’t get shafted by special items on the last lap.
So I have my issues with it. Nevertheless, I think it still warrants a place on this list. One of the things I both love and hate about Mario Kart 8 is how family friendly it is. Sure, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed may be more hardcore with tiered boost starts, chain drifting, stunts and risk boosts while allowing plenty of ways to counteract and dodge even the best pick-ups, but Mario Kart 8 always levels the playing field for better or worse, so even the most experienced players can lose to newcomers (as well as the AI). As infuriating as it is to get knocked off your perch by a blue shell, locked down by a salvo of red shells then smashed out the way by last place shooting past as a Bullet Bill, I think it more than makes up for it if your mum or little brother or granddad stand a chance of winning and are encouraged to keep playing. Crucially, it’s not knowing how each race is going to pan out that makes Mario Kart 8 such an appealing party game.
What’s more, there’s always been a certain weightiness to the handling in Mario Kart and a solidity or dependability to the vehicles and world that I’ve come to respect even more in recent years. Thankfully, Mario Kart 8 very much continues this trend. I mean, just look at the screenshot above. Rock. Solid. As good as Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is, it felt a bit flimsy at times, with odd collisions, clipping and quirky physics occasionally undermining the experience.
Overall though, Mario Kart 8 is just a really solid albeit safe addition to the series. Here’s hoping they can learn a trick or two from Sumo Digital next time. Well done on the replays though Nintendo, without which we wouldn’t have been able to immortalise moments like this:
Infested Planet (Mar, 2014)
Many years ago I played a little known indie game called Attack of the Paper Zombies where you controlled a squad of soldiers fending off hordes of zombies continuously pouring from hives dotted around the map. The aim of the game was to eradicate the zombie infestation by destroying all of the hives. Soldiers could be given different weapons and could lay down turrets and minefields to help hold back the tide long enough for you to get your guys in and hit the hives where they hurt. Every time a hive was destroyed the zombies would evolve in some way and become trickier to deal with forcing you to adapt your strategy.
Last year in April I spotted a game called Infested Planet receiving five stars on Quarter to Three. I’d never heard of it before but on closer inspection, I realised that this was Attack of the Paper Zombies again, but with years of development under its belt and bugs instead of zombies. Lots and lots of bugs.
Like, seriously, lots of bugs. Watch that trailer.
In one 30 minute mission on Infested Planet, my four or five dudes killed over 100,000 bugs. That works out at about 55 bugs per second (BPS).
But BPS isn’t what makes Infested Planet a magnificent, intense and downright ingenious strategy game, it’s two things: firstly, the resource model and the way in which it allows you to change your strategy on the fly, and secondly, the way in which the alien evolutions kick back like a mule, forcing you to adapt, experiment and exploit the flexibility that the resource models affords. In Infested Planet you can reallocate your resources at will without penalty and lost units are automatically replenished free of charge. Resources can be acquired by securing caches or by taking down hives, but remember: killing a hive causes the enemy to evolve in some way. These sudden evolutions can quickly overwhelm you allowing the infestation to grow and reclaim lost territory, so often it’s a case of falling back and holding a position until you can work out a way of safely carving into the writhing masses again.
There’s this very palpable sense of power shifting back and forth throughout Infested Planet, but it never swings so far that you feel all is lost. You only ever lose ground and time, so as your resources remain intact, so too does your resolve. It’s a remarkably elegant design and such a refreshing change to be able to explore different options and strategies without being railroaded to failure because you selected the wrong upgrade or bought too many of these types of units or placed some defences poorly.
There’s a hefty and challenging campaign, procedurally generated skirmishes and side missions, daily challenges and leaderboards. It’s probably my favourite RTS.
But don’t take my pause button away please. I’m not that hardcore.
Dungeon of the Endless (Oct, 2014)
Including this one is technically cheating because I started playing it a day or so into 2015 but it’s a 2014 game and one I adore, so it’s here to stay. Dungeon of the Endless is another game set in Amplitude’s Endless universe alongside their recent Endless Legend, and their first title Endless Space, which Brandon wrote about back in… wow, 2012. Was it really that long ago? Anyway, Dungeon of the Endless is the oddball in the series, firstly because it doesn’t start with Endless, secondly because it employs a lovely 2D pixel art aesthetic, and thirdly because it’s not out and out 4X.
No, Dungeon of the Endless is a strategic roguelite with tower defence and light RPG elements that sees you commanding a squad of heroes that have crash landed deep in the bowels of an alien dungeon. Your job is to get them out of there by protecting and escorting a crystal which powers rooms, resource structures, defences and ultimately the numerous elevators that will carry you all to the surface. Levels are procedurally generated, death is permanent, and the difficulty comes in two flavours: Easy and Too Easy, which is misleading because Easy is very hard. Amplitude are obviously trolling us.
What makes Dungeon of the Endless tick though is its unrelenting stream of interesting, exciting, terrifying and important decisions to make. This isn’t a game that bogs you down with direct control, targeting and tedious micromanagement, you simply worry about the bigger things: which rooms your heroes should be in, what they should be equipped with, what structures should go where, what should be researched, which rooms should be powered up to prevent monsters from spawning, what resources to prioritise and ultimately what door to open next.
Dungeon of the Endless is turn-based so the game only progresses when you open a door and doors can have all sorts of surprises behind them (hence the really charming and clever ‘What’s behind the door?’ teaser trailers). As you ascend through the dungeon’s many floors it becomes a survival horror of sorts with every door potentially being your demise, and with each run taking anything from five to eight hours the stakes get higher and higher as you get closer to the surface. It’s exhilarating stuff that demands players use their head, keep their cool and stay focussed.
All this is wrapped in a very neat package: numerous characters to choose from, each with their own abilities, strengths and weaknesses; different shuttles to crash land in that determine how you play; amusing dialogue; a refreshingly clean UI; an evocative ambient score; co-op multiplayer (that admittedly hasn’t proven stable enough to safely use yet); gorgeous 2D art and animations mixed with surprisingly effective use of real-time lighting and shadow. At £10, it’s a steal.
Well, that’s all folks. Let us know what your highlights of the year were. Have a great 2015!
- Nidhogg for making my face ache from laughing so hard.
- Threes for being so damn elegant and charming.
- Kami for being as taxing as it is relaxing.
- Blip Blup for managing the same as Kami. Ustwo went on to make Monument Valley which I haven’t played yet.
- Clairvoyance for being such a cool asynchronous multiplayer strategy game where you customise and program little block robots to destroy your opponent.
- Luftrausers for some hard-as-nails score-chasing and a thumping chiptune soundtrack that changes based on your ship’s loadout. As addictive as it is maddening.
- Woah Dave! for bringing a taste of Vlambeerian Super Crate Box-esque score-chasing to the Vita. A simple pleasure. My girlfriend’s hooked on it too.
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