First, this was the year that AAA gaming got smart and indie gaming got dumb. Yeah, that's a pretty sweeping pair of statements (and I'm sure you can find plenty of exceptions), but I think the story more or less holds up. For quite a few years now, the complaint has been that AAA games were stale, formulaic and dumbed-down to appeal to the lowest common denominator. I've never quite bought that story (not every AAA game is Call of Duty), but even if there was a touch of truth to it, 2014 is the year that it went away. We've seen a lot of innovative and risky AAA titles this year; games which seek to challenge as much as they do to please. At the same time, indie gaming really does seem to have fallen into a rut. The number of "retro style pseudo-8-bit roguelikes" on the Steam store is really starting to take the piss now; so many of these games are cut from the same template and trying to prove themselves different - in exactly the same way. There have also been some outright howlers, such as Gone Home and Depression Quest, which sought to "redefine our understanding of games" or whatever, but which those of us who aren't intellectually insecure hipsters can admit weren't actually very good. Oh, and then there was Gamergate. If there's one aspect of that whole sorry saga (from which nobody emerged well) that didn't get reported widely, it was that the whole shitstorm- in-a-teacup originated in the indie gaming scene and largely stayed there. Most AAA developers quite sensibly either said nothing or put out carefully worded statements distancing themselves from the whole thing (the only sensible thing to do).
Second, the next-gen consoles have yet to prove what they are actually for. I own a PS4, an Xbox One and a Wii-U but, to be quite honest, I'm still not 100% sure why. Don't get me wrong, the PS4 and Xb-One are nice enough machines and, as games consoles (but definitely not yet as media players) they are a big step up on their predecessors. But with almost all multi-platform games coming out on PC these days (and PC versions almost inevitably being technically superior), it's hard to justify buying an (often much more expensive) console version. Single-platform exclusives have become few and far between and some of those have underwhelmed. And then there's the Wii-U, which must now surely be dead in every meaningful sense of the word. Never a great console to begin with, its releases have slowed to a crawl of almost entirely single-style platform-exclusives (fine if you like said style, not so fine if you don't - and I don't). Bayonetta 2 is fun, sure, but one game cannot justify a platform's existence. I think I've done a much larger proportion of my gaming on PC in 2014 than in any year since 2001 (the year I first got a console and became a multi-platform gamer).
And third, the industry really needs to get serious about quality assurance for big releases. It's not unusual to have one or two big releases in any given year which are horribly buggy at launch - but in 2014 it has been far more than one or two major titles which have ranged from the "unpleasant to play" to the "downright unplayable" at launch. Some of the games in question have been patched and have gone on to be very good - but that doesn't justify unfinished products being pushed out the door. It can't be coincidence that many of these games came out in the pre-Christmas rush. Yet another sign that the annual death march to get games released in that holiday window does nobody (developers, publishers or customers) any favours at all.
Anyway, with that out of the way, on to my top 10 games of 2014 (excluding remakes, ports, expansions and DLCs), in descending order:
10) Bayonetta 2 - (Wii-U) - The only game on the Wii-U that I've actually liked this year. It's basically more of the same from the first game, but that's no bad thing at all. Stylish, fast-paced precision brawling, with a decent upgrade system and lots of optional stuff to do along the way. Could do without the irritating kid, though. Would be interesting to see what this would have looked like on more capable hardware, though as the game wouldn't have happened without Nintendo's cash, I guess we can't complain.
9) South Park - The Stick of Truth - - (PC, also 360 and PS3) I confess I hadn't realised that South Park was still airing. I used to love the show - about a decade ago - but fell out of the habit of watching it. So this was a pleasant surprise. A remarkably well-done semi-open-world RPG, whose humour is far more "hit" than "miss". Gave me possibly the only boss battle ever which I've had to pause because I was laughing too hard to play. It's short for an RPG, probably because the developers knew that their gameplay mechanics weren't deep enough to support a longer game, but nevertheless provides good value for money.
8) Danganronpa - Trigger Happy Havoc - - (Vita) I'm not normally the biggest fan of visual novels, but this strange game nevertheless kept me glued to the Vita's screen for longer than anything else bar Persona 4 has managed. It's not even quite a proper visual novel. You spend a lot of time walking around in 3d-exploration mode and some of the key conversations depend as much on rhythm game mechanics as on dialogue choices. There's nothing else really like it (other than its sequel, I guess, which I own but haven't played yet).
7) Far Cry 4 - (PC, also PS4, Xb-One, PS3 and 360) - Basically Far Cry 3 done a bit better in every respect. Intelligent open-world shooter which looks and feels right in so many respects. The over-the-top animal life makes for much hilarity. Plot strikes an interesting balance between "thoughtful", "uncomfortable" and "YAY EXPLOSIONS". Some have reported stuttering issues with the PC version, but I seem to have dodged them.
6) Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor - - (PC, also PS4 and Xb-One, with greatly diminished versions on PS3 and 360) - One of those risky, intelligent AAA games I was talking about above. A smart, well executed open-world game that takes on Assassin's Creed on its own turf and kicks its arse (having combat that isn't a painful chore helps immensely). Widely dismissed as a gimmick when first announced, the Nemesis System really is a game-changer, which does a fantastic job of putting a human (well, orcish) face onto procedural content. Also the game that convinced me to upgrade my graphics card - the visuals are seriously impressive if you have the hardware to do it justice.
5) Forza Horizon 2 - (Xb-One) - Goes a long way to restore the reputation of the Forza brand after the disappointing (though eventually patched to the point of bearability) Forza 5. Beautifully put together open-world driving game, which wisely pares back the dudebro trimmings of its predecessor in favour of a purer driving experience. I've slightly mixed feelings about the off-road races (which feel less polished than the on-road equivalents), but overall, this is pretty awesome.
4) Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns - (PS3, also 360 and PC soon) - Ok, this one is going to need a bit of explanation. See, Final Fantasy XIII was a pretty bad game. The gameplay was shallow and repetitive, the characters were thin and, after a promising start, the story wrote itself into a corner and ended up being resolved with a cheap and cheaty deus ex machina. Final Fantasy XIII-2 was somewhat better. The plot was still mostly incomprehensible and the characters were still shallow (though at least a bit more upbeat), but there was some semblance of gameplay this time. And then Lightning Returns comes along.
Lightning Returns is a very different beast to its predecessors; as much action/adventure game as RPG (Dark Souls features heavily in its inspirations), and with the entire game subject to a constantly-ticking countdown clock to the end of the world (and the game). If there's one big problem with Lightning Returns, it is that you really do need to have played both of its predecessors (the first of which is a chore). Other than that, I found this a really powerful game that left a strong impression on me. The characters suffer slightly from being imported from those predecessors, but they're only really there as foils for the plot and themes anyway.
Because what Lightning Returns really wants to do is provide an outside perspective and commentary on fundamentalist Christian salvation theology. This is the Book of Revelations with chocobos (or the Left Behind series for non-Christians), where Lightning (as a thinly-veiled Christ-figure, very much bringing not peace but the sword) returns to a dying world in its final days to lead souls to salvation, acting ostensibly in accordance with the will of an Abrahamic god who combines all the harshest elements of the Old and New Testament versions. It's very much the outside view and has some wild tonal inconsistencies - you can dress your Jesus-substitute up as a bikini-clad catgirl if you want - but it is smart and does work in a curiously powerful way. Not necessarily and easy or fun game to play (the ticking clock makes it intensely stressful), but definitely one of the most striking of the year.
3) Dragon Age: Inquisition - (PC, also PS4, PS3, Xb-One and 360) - Feels a bit risky putting a Bioware game that I haven't actually finished yet at number 3, after the clusterfuck that was the Mass Effect 3 ending, but I'm at around the 20 hour point and the game has already done enough to earn its spot. Effectively a grand apology for Dragon Age 2, this is a vast, deep and sprawling game. With its large wilderness areas and well-hidden sidequests, it feels somewhat like a hybrid of World of Warcraft with the original Baldur's Gate. Bioware definitely seem to be back on form.
2) Wolfenstein: The New Order - (PC, also PS4, PS3, Xb-One and 360) - After the really disappointing reboot a few years ago, I had low expectations for this. Fortunately, it defied them and is one of my favorite games of the year. Very much a traditional (and intelligent) shooter, with non-linear maps, no regenerating health or two-weapon limits and actual tactical decisions to make, this is a fantastic antidote to years of bland, generic spunkgargleweewee. The plot is also much better than I'd expected - don't expect Schindler's List so much as Inglorious Bastards - and manages to go some uncomfortable places without ever feeling either po-faced or crass.
1) Alien: Isolation - (PC, also PS4, PS3, XB-One and 360) - Despite many other very good games this year, this was the only real candidate for my top pick. For many years, mainstream survival horror games have become more and more action focussed; Resident Evil became a shooter series, Dead Space was always a shooter series to begin with and only the low-budget indie sector was producing actually scary games (and having to do so on a shoestring). Isolation takes smart survival horror, in which the player is a perpetually frightened and disempowered entity, and throws a huge budget at it, with spectacular results. This isn't a game that's been designed to go down the easy route to audience-pleasing; it's brutally difficult, requires constant thought and planning ahead and viciously punishes almost every "normal" fps behaviour. It's also, largely thanks to the amazing AI powering the alien (as well as the visual designs which emphasise the alien's sheer physical power and horror) an intensely scary game. Just as South Park was the first game I've ever had to pause because I was laughing too hard to play, so Alien: Isolation is the first game I've ever had to take a 30 minute break from because I was too scared to press on. And to top it all off, rather than putting together a simple 6 hour campaign and being content to run quickly through a bag of tricks without outstaying its welcome, the game actually includes a massive and well-plotted 15-ish hour campaign, which can be extended further through Metroidvania-style exploration. Astounding stuff.
And now, in alphabetical order, the games I liked this year but which, for one reason or another, don't make the cut for the top 10:
Akiba's Trip - Undead and Undressed - (PS4, also PS3 and Vita) - Oh dear, the game that puts the "guilty" in "guilty pleasure". Technically, it's a complete mess; areas can be run across in just a few seconds, with interminable loading screens between them, the graphics would just about have passed muster in a PS2 launch title and the less said about the animation the better. I did triy the PS3 version, but it's unplayable due to NPC pop-in issues that make fighting quest NPCs a nightmare and framerates that drop to low single figures during combat. The PS4 version remedies these issues, though not some of the lesser ones (and is still butt-ugly). Get past those, however - and past the fact that this is a game about pulling peoples' clothes off in public and the game becomes curiously likeable. Its rendition of Tokyo's Akiba district is painstakingly detailed and feels like a real labour of love, the dialogue can be hilarious in places (thanks in part to a fantastic English translation) and even the combat system is deeper than it first appears.
Among the Sleep - (PC) In a generally poor year for indie gaming, this stood out as one of the few bright spots for me. Short but well-put together psychological horror game, with a unique perspective-character. Charming and scary in equal measures.
Atelier Escha and Logy - (PS3) - This series is basically a big JRPG comfort blanket; cute, upbeat, slightly grindy, never too taxing. The latest installment neither disappoints nor pushes the envelope particularly. Its anime adaptation was better than expected to boot.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare - (PC, also PS4, PS3, XB-One and 360) - This year's crop of spunkgargleweewee is one of the better vintages. That said, after Ghosts, even a blank screen would have been an improvement. Still, Advanced Warfare benefits from having some fairly snazzy technology under the hood, as well as a focus on faster-paced free-flowing gunplay, at the expense of the cover-based mechanics that usually dominate the series. The story is a pile of arse on a stick as usual, but is at least less offensive than some other installments in the series.
Civilisation: Beyond Earth - (PC) Atmospheric (though ultimately perhaps slightly short-lived) "sequel" to Civilisation V. Makes an enjoyable change of pace from its predecessor, though the mechanics start to get a bit thin rather faster than I would have liked.
Dark Souls 2 - (PC, also 360 and PS3, PS4 and XB-One coming next year) - Ooooh, so conflicted. Almost put this in the "disappointing category". It's not a patch on the first Dark Souls. For the most part, it is content to be a simple (and slightly flat) retread of its predecessor. Where it does depart from the older formula, for example through its health penatly on death, all of its changes are for the worst. In addition, the best content is locked away in paid DLCs, which is a pretty shitty practice. On the other hand, it is still miles better than most other games.
Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls - (PC, also PS4, PS3, XB-One and 360) - I played Diablo 3 at launch (in the rare intervals where I could connect to battle.net) and really didn't like it. I did a playthrough of the campaign and then stopped. Coming back to the game for its expansion, I was gobsmacked by just how much it has been improved since then. The loot system works now. There is an actual end-game now. A totally different, and much better experience. Plus the expansion content is good as well.
Divinity: Original Sin - (PC) - I'm still not all that far into this, because to be honest, I find it a bit intimidating. Still, it's an amazingly well put together traditional RPG, in the mould of Ultima VII and the original Baldur's Gate. More games like this would be no bad thing.
Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD - (PS3 and Vita, PS4 coming next year) - Remastered version of one of my favorite installments in the Final Fantasy series, plus the generally- underrated Final Fantasy X-2. Not much more to say about it, really.
Goat Simulator - (PC) - Because who doesn't want to be a goat and run around messing shit up?
Halo - The Master Chief Collection - (XB-One) - Another one I'm conflicted on. Historically, I don't much like the Halo series. In fact, I hold it directly responsible for some appalling tropes that ruined fpses for the better part of a decade (2 weapon limits, regenerating health, checkpoint-only saves). However, there's no denying that this is an interesting package and a well presented slice of gaming history. I gather it has some issues with its online modes, but the chances of me playing a Halo game online are only slightly higher than those of me playing a Call of Duty online (ie. practically non-existant).
Hatsune Miku: Project Diva F Second - (PS3, also Vita) - Highly polished, immensely difficult but surprisingly deep rhythm game. Probably represents the state of the art within its genre outside of the arcades at the moment. To be honest, it's kinda worth playing just for the fact they use Ievan Polkka for the tutorial song.
Hyperdimension Neptunia: Rebirth - (Vita) Possibly the worst game released for the PS3 gets totally remade into a... fairly good Vita RPG. Seriously, the improvement is shocking. It does help that the TV series actually got me to like the characters.
Infamous: Second Son - (PS4) - I might be going a bit soft on this - there's no denying it had some serious flaws. It was also, however, something passable to play on the PS4 during what has, frankly, been a slow year for the console as far as I'm concerned (most of its best games also being on PC).
Lords of the Fallen - (PC, also PS4 and XB-One) - A fairly mechanical attempt at making a Dark Souls contender, which slightly misses the whole point in a number of ways and falls short of both Dark Souls and its (inferior) sequel. It is still, however, a decent and generously-sized game, which goes some interesting places with its visuals. Wins a secondary award for "most irritating use of AlienFX lighting" this year, after making my study look briefly like an 80s themed discotheque.
Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare - (XB-One, also PC and PS4) - I don't often play online shooters these days, but this one is curiously relaxing to play. Cute, cheerful and charming, with some surprisingly robust mechanics underpinning it.
Senran Kagura: Bon Appetit - (Vita) - The best Strip Cooking-Battle Rhythm Game I've played this year.
Sunset Overdrive - (PS4) - Self-consciously silly open-world action game. In some ways, quite run of the mill, but with Insomniac at the helm, it was always going to contain some ludicrous weapons to make the gunplay stupidly enjoyable. Delivers on that front and made me chuckle once or twice as well.
Tales from the Borderlands - (PC) - A cautious recommendation, as only the first episode is available so far. However, said episode appears to nail the tone and feel of the Borderlands universe pretty much perfectly - better, in fact, than 2k Australia's "Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel" (see below).
Theatrhythm: Curtain Call - (3DS) - Definitive version of the rather-spiffy Final Fantasy music game. It's like the previous version but better. Not much else to say, really. Amusingly, when I bought this in Game (the UK's largest specialist games-retailer), a staff member called security on me and accused me of sticking a false discount sticker on the box. Happily, security had the sense to check some of the other boxes. But... Customer Service Ho!
The Banner Saga - (PC) - The other indie bright-spot of the year. Wonderfully atmospheric (and occasionally punishingly hard) norse themed game. Gets a bit grindy in the later stages and I must object to the name. Everybody knows that "saga" refers to candy-matching games, not to vikings and giants and shit.
The Last of Us (Remastered) - (PS4) - I didn't like the PS3 version. In fact, I found it nigh on unplayable, due to its catastrophic levels of input lag. The PS4 version almost entirely fixes that and maintains the framerate at a silky 60fps, meaning that I could finally enjoy the game as it was intended. And yes, it's very good. I still don't quite find it the masterpiece that some people seemed to, but I did really enjoy this version.
Valkyria Chronicles - (PC) - Thank GOD this got a PC release. Of all the games of the PS3 generation that need to be preserved for posterity, this ranks top of the list. It's probably the best game ever released on the PS3 and now it's available on PC. And the port is actually pretty decent as well!
Xenonauts - (PC) - I played this through early access, but it had its 1.0 release this year. It's basically a rebuild of the original X-Com on modern technology. It improves the UI and adds higher resolution graphics and a few small pieces of streamlining, but at heart, it is the old X-Com, warts and all. Interesting counterpoint to the (excellent) Firaxis re-imagining.
And now the disappointments; the games which were either poor, or which might have been quite good but nevertheless fell far short of expectations:
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel - (PC, also PS3 and 360) - Sits alongside Dark Souls 2 in the camp of "disappointing follow-ups to my previous games of the year", eccept this one is worse.. Basically feels like an expansion pack for Borderlands 2. Except it's full price. And some of the level design is really, really bad. And the new NPCs don't particularly shine. And none of the new playable characters seem to be adding all that much. And it's buggy as hell.
Destiny - (PS4, also XB-One, PS3 and 360) - The supposed saviour of console gaming turns out to be... a flat, dull and soulless fps/rpg hybrid, which does a really bad job of incorporating basic MMO mechanics. At heart, the game is basically an always-online version of Borderlands 2 - only with less humour, worse area and mission design and weaker gunplay.
Hyperdimension Neptunia: Producing Perfection - (Vita) - We finally get an idol game in the West, but it turns out that its game mechanics are so pared back that it's basically little more than a visual novel. Disappointing - I had curiously high hopes for this one. Can we have a Western release for IM@S2 now please?
Mario Kart 8 - (Wii-U) - Slightly better than Mario Kart Wii, which I hated, but doesn't solve the problem of having just too many racers and too many weapons on the track at the same time. Driving and skill once again take a back-seat to the slot-machine rolls on weapons.
Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment - (Vita) - The immensely popular and sometimes-entertaining anime series gets turned into a fairly sloppy by-the-numbers action RPG. Could have been so much better, but crippled by a lack of ambition around its gameplay and plot.
Super Smash Brothers - (Wii-U, also 3DS) - Takes away the story mode (by far my favorite part of Brawl) and crams too many characters onto the screen at a single time. Brawl was my favorite first-party game on the Wii. This, on the other hand, is just disappointing.
The Evil Within - (PC, also PS4 and XB-One) - Given its pedigree, this should have been much better. The opening level is promising, but the game quickly becomes "just another slightly dark action game". Had the horrible misfortune to launch almost simultaneous with Alien: Isolation.
And now for the obligatory bad games. Just two this year, thankfully - from very different ends of the commercial spectrum:
Gone Home - (PC) - I'm not going to try and argue it isn't a game. Rather, I'm just going to state that it's a very, very bad game. Walk around an empty house uncovering tedious domestic drama. Get undergraduate-level identity politics rammed down your throat. The entirely irrelevant and unnecessary survival horror trappings kept me hoping that maybe Pyramid Head was about to jump out and start cutting shit up, or that maybe the alien would drop down from the ceiling and do the whole face bitey thing. Even that zombie shark from the first Resident Evil would have done nicely. But no, it's just a very, very dull walking simulator. It's not big, it's not clever, it's just annoying. Please go away.
Watch;Dogs - (PC, also PS4, PS3, XB-One and 360) - A total mess of a game. Barely playable through the thick layer of technical glitches and bugs (I gather Assassin's Creed Unity was the same, but I'm not spending money on that). Even when it does work, it hardly seems worth it. The plot is nonsensical and it has the least interesting open world ever created. The sad thing is, there are one or two moments during the actual story missions when you can see glimpses of a better game, buried deep and struggling to get out. A smaller, more linear mission based game, with development resources diverted onto resolving technical issues and getting the whole thing to actually make sense, might have been pretty good. As it is, this is just a catastrophe.