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17 December 2014

The Games of the Year 2014

There haven't been any all-time classics in 2014, but the industry as a whole has made some promising innovations.

By Phil Hartup

2014 in video games felt like a year of experimentation – a year where many brilliant things happened in the overall field of game development, but where few of those innovations happened within any specific individual games, meaning that actual greats were somewhat thin on the ground.

But instead of focusing on the negatives, this will be a look at what these rough diamonds brought to the medium, as well as the best game of the year overall:

The Best Baddies: Middle Earth: Shadow Of Mordor
I think the Uruks are great. They have character, they have emotions and they have relationships with the player that are not born of some writers pen, but which had come about through the trials and tribulations within the game. Plus they are complete scumbags so it’s always sort of nice to go to town on them with a big sharp sword. Carnage aside, though, it cannot be stressed how important the creation of relationships – even adversarial ones, with non-player characters through the action of the game, rather than the pre-written narrative – is. As nerdy as it sounds, this is a big step up in game design. Mechanically there are great things going on with these warty murder-magnets and I cannot wait to see this built upon in other games.

The Best Story: This War of Mine
Finding a new way to approach both the subject of war and also the premise of the survival game in one fell swoop is a very impressive feat. In This War of Mine the world hasn’t ended, and there will be an end to the violence and misery – you just have to survive until that day comes. There is something more painful about such a localised horror, too. Typically in a setting like this the world is said to have ended, but in This War of Mine there is a real sense that, as in real life, there are billions of people completely untouched by the suffering in the warzone. Moreover, its approach to war, seeing it purely as a bad thing, is radical for a video game (perhaps worryingly so). In This War of Mine, unlike more heavily scripted stories, you don’t know if anybody is going to survive, you don’t know who the hero will turn out to be, you don’t know much of anything from one play through to the next and yet the game still manages to carry emotional weight.

The Best Strategy: Xenonauts
Because of its Early Access release this game feels like it’s been around a lot longer than just this year, but it deserves to be assessed on the quality of its launch build. As such it is a very good strategy game indeed. A first play through, without knowing what to expect from the specific alien species, is a brilliant experience, requiring the ability to improvise against new types of adversary on the fly, but also to adapt your strategy as the war goes on and you learn more about the foe. From how you manage your organisation’s construction, recruitment and research priorities, to how you marshal your interceptor fleet and control your troops in combat, every aspect is important and poses its own challenges. A lot of strategy games appeared this year, but none successfully nailed the use of multiple strategic layers in the way that Xenonauts does.

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The Best Mystery: Bayonetta 2
Are the Bayonetta games pornography, or a female empowerment fantasy, or both? Just what’s going on with it? If the All Powerful Mega-Feminist Cabal (that Youtube ethics experts assure me controls video games) could convene and provide a definitive answer, well, then that would be just peachy.

The Best Visuals: Spintires
Yes, I played Far Cry 4 and I played Elite: Dangerous and I’m still saying Spintires for this. What I saw in Far Cry 4 and in Elite: Dangerous was the refinement of visuals that I had seen before. Better technology, more time and effort invested and beautiful games to show for it, but unsurprising, almost inevitably so. What I saw in Spintires was mud. The best mud I have ever seen in a game. I saw mud that splattered and squelched and I saw water that flowed around in the treads of the tyres of my truck and pooled in the mud furrows. I would stare at it, and not just because I was often hopelessly stuck. It might be a low key game about trucks and trees, but there are a lot that other games should learn from Spintires*.

The Best Game of 2014: Alien: Isolation
The setting has already been mentioned, but there is a lot more to this game than just how it looks and sounds. Alien: Isolation represents a bold departure in the design of big budget games. It is a legitimately tough game to complete, plus it is scary in the right ways – you hide in lockers, enemies don’t leap out of them. It is an uncomfortable game to play with many elements of its interface, such as the save system, made purposefully unfriendly to increase the difficulty. It is a game in which the worst of the violence on offer is directed squarely at the player character.

In spite of the somewhat limited mechanics you would expect in a game about evading things the game finds ways to stay interesting for most of its length. The best examples of this are the Working Joe androids, the cheap and disconcertingly cheerful manual labourers on the station who provide a change of pace from dealing with the alien without compromising the tone or the feel of the game. That tone is something that the game gets right all the way through, even if the story does begin to misfire by the end.

The attention to detail in Alien: Isolation is also mindboggling. In an industry where time after time we see the same old content reheated and served back up, to see a game like this, where the creators have quite clearly slaved over every piece of scenery, every sound, every screen, every facet of the design… it restores a lot of faith.

This is not the sort of games that big studios typically make any more. It is a risky game to make, one that challenged the expectations of players and press alike and suffered for it with some mixed reviews. Alien: Isolation is the sort of game that we ought to want to see. It is brave, it is imperfect – certainly there are rough edges here and you can’t get through the game without banging into a few of them – but this is the consequence of a game that doesn’t follow the proven route for a first-person action game.

If we see a few more similarly brave games next year, it will be a very good year indeed.

(*Particularly how not to position and control the view in game.)

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