Only one review in the last month? I feel like I’m slipping from my usual regular ouput, but with my Christmas break fast approaching I should accept the writing is on the wall and I’m not going to invest enough hours into any game to sneak a final review in under the wire. This is a shame since I was hoping to at least get some time in on Elite Dangerous before wrapping up for the year, but as I’ll shortly be spending a week in a place where only integrated graphics chips can follow me it seems like a better idea to attack that in the new year when I can get properly invested in it.
It’s not all bad news, though — the end of the year brings with it the annual Scientific Gamer Completely Made Up Awards Ceremony! Secretly this is actually a fairly worthwhile exercise since my opinions tend to mellow somewhat over time and it’s useful to take a second look at some games with the benefit of six months’ reflection, but mostly it’s a convenient excuse for me to look back on the year just gone so that I can regurgitate some of said opinions at you. So without further ado, let’s get stuck into the Best (and not-so-Best) games of 2014.
Best Slowly-Sapping-My-Life-Away Game: Hearthstone
Hearthstone is a game that’s had a lot of criticism levelled at it. It’s too simple. It’s too opaque. It’s too random. There’s no skill involved. There’s so much skill involved that it creates a high barrier to entry. That it draws such contradictory statements from across the gaming spectrum is, I think, a sign that Blizzard have pitched their Warcraft-derived deck-builder just right. My involvement with most other games have been temporary dalliances at best. Even Spelunky, superb as it was, flamed out around May, while I finally quit Dota back in August. Hearthstone, though, remains firmly embedded into my playing habits, and it’s a rare day when I don’t play at least one match. It’s cheerful, it’s genuinely free, and it dispenses a finely-tuned adversarial multiplayer experience in ten to fifteen minute chunks. Every time it seems like it might get stale Blizzard release new expansions to revitalise the metagame, which is why I’ve been able to play nearly two thousand games of Hearthstone without getting bored. It’s the epitome of free-to-play done right.
It’s been two years since the great Kickstarter rush of 2012, and since this is the average gestation time of a PC game this category has slightly more competition than it did last year. To my substantial surprise, very few of the Kickstarted games I played this year were out-and-out terrible. They were all flawed in some way or another, but with the possible exception of Shadowgate I enjoyed each of them for what they were, and nearly all of them delivered on their initial pitch. There are two that stand out above the rest, though: Planetary Annihilation was a great RTS marred by a bizarre online-only requirement, while Divinity Original Sin was one of the most engrossing RPGs I’ve played in years even if its cliff-like difficulty curve did eventually cause me to quit the game in rage. Both of these issues look like they’ve since been fixed; Planetary Annihilation can now be played offline, while Larian have spent time overhauling the latter half of Divinity to bring it up to the high standard of the game’s opening area. I had great fun with them both, and since this is a bunch of made-up awards I feel perfectly comfortable declaring them joint winners. I’m looking forward to revisiting each of them when I have time.
(An honorable mention goes to Xenonauts here — it was solid rather than spectacular, but I’m frankly amazed that they finally finished it after an arduous five-year development process that was almost totally transparent. It was fascinating to watch, even if the final product wasn’t everything I’d hoped.)
Best Wargame: Wargame Red Dragon
Wargame reviews are becoming something of a yearly fixture on this blog. Eugen had my buy-in from the very first iteration of the series; this most recent version isn’t the step-change in graphics and gameplay represented by Airland Battle, but it’s still one of the most devastatingly complete strategy experiences you’ll have this year. Red Dragon introduced some great single-player campaigns complete with persistent unit attrition that meant you had to carefully husband your forces from battle to battle, and some downright apocalyptic co-op skirmishes against the AI prove that it’s still got that multiplayer juice. I was a little down on it in my review thanks to the ships not having the global impact that fighter aircraft did, but with the constant improvements Eugen is making to the series, and given how spectacularly Rome II failed when it was released in September last year, I’m ready to say Wargame has supplanted Total War as my PC strategy game of choice. Certainly I’m baffled as to why it doesn’t get more attention from the PC gaming press1, because it’s absolutely superb.
Best Unexpectedly Not-Terrible Game: Wolfenstein
(Runner-Up: Dragon Age Inquisition)
If you asked me at the start of last year which game would be least likely to show up on this list, it would be this one. Wolfenstein not being an awful formulaic cash-in on its famous name was surprising enough; I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be the best FPS I played in 2014. Sure, Titanfall aside that’s partly a function of the competition being the usual dull military claptrap, but that sounds too much like damning Wolfenstein with faint praise. It’s a good game that stands on its own merits, and a surprisingly thoughtful throwback to an era when FPS protagonists could carry around ten weapons at once and find uses for all of them. Shadow Warrior tried the same thing and mostly succeeded, but at the cost of also bringing back some older FPS elements that should have remained firmly rooted in the past. (Like that sodding poison gas level.) This makes Wolfenstein all the more impressive; it wasn’t a sure bet that they’d pull it off as well as they did, and so while it wasn’t exactly an all-time classic it still beat the odds to become an extremely competent game that’s also making it onto a lot of other people’s Best Of lists this year.
Best New Mechanic: Shadow of Mordor
Titanfall drew my attention early on with its flawless free-running and crowded battlefields full of AI bots for you to crush beneath your metal feet, but Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis System has the potential to be downright revolutionary if other developers have the courage to pick it up and run with it. Imagine an Assassin’s Creed where your targets are dynamically assigned based on your actions, or a superhero game where your arch-nemesis starts out as a simple street thug and slowly increases in power over the course of many battles; Shadow of Mordor proved that this idea can work, and work well. It worked so well, in fact, that –excellent combat system aside — SoM didn’t even suffer that much from being rather sickly in terms of other content.
Best Soundtrack: Warlords of Draenor
I know. I was surprised too. Blizzard have some very talented composers on staff who ensured World of Warcraft had some classic themes used to good effect, but it peaked (quite literally) with Wrath of the Lich King; the music in Cataclysm was a disjointed mess, while Pandaria’s was like somebody had tried to create the most low-effort, generic oriental themes possible2 and stuff them into an expansion pack that was just terrible all round, really. They’ve come to their collective senses with Warlords, however, which is probably the most coherent soundtrack of any Blizzard game since the Burning Crusade3. It sums up the brutality of the Iron Horde’s war machine perfectly, as well as finding time for some amazing zone music. And if you liked the Stormwind theme from vanilla WoW, oh boy does Warlords have you covered with its Alliance garrison music. It also has the best main theme since vanilla WoW. Warlords of Draenor has temporarily revitalised WoW, and it’s at least partly down to the soundtrack making Draenor itself an outright pleasure to explore.
Best Game Where You Run Down A Church Steeple And Use Missiles Being Fired At You As Stepping Stones So That You Can Totally Cut That Giant Robot In Half With Your Nano-Katana: Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance
And let me just emphasise that this is how the game opens. The ending is far sillier and one of the most perfectly pitched pieces of comedy I’ve seen in gaming for a long time. Metal Gear Rising is a fantastic parody that knows exactly what it’s doing, and even if you take it at face value it’s still a great action game. Everything about it fits together well, from the soundtrack to the gore to the lengthy philosophical debates with your arch-enemy while beating the crap out of each other on top of yet another giant robot. This is a Metal Gear game I can really get behind.
Best Worst Game of 2014:
A difficult one this time. Thanks to life getting in the way I’ve played less games than I usually would have this year so I have a smaller sample size to choose from, but even from those thirty it’s hard to think of one that out-and-out enraged me like Swords and Sworcery or SimCity did. Legendary Heroes was incredibly dull, but I wasn’t exactly expecting it to be exciting. Ditto for Thief; it was hard to be annoyed at how bad that game was when I could see the warning signs from several thousand miles away. Space Hulk is probably the game that irritated me the most in terms of totally and utterly missing the point of both the boardgame and the previous Space Hulk video game adaptations, but it wasn’t anywhere near bad enough to get this award, which is reserved for games that are outright technical or mechanical failures (or preferably both). Perhaps I’m getting soft in my old age, but this year the Best Worst Game award goes unclaimed. Well done, gaming industry. You didn’t piss me off too much.
Most Disappointing Game of 2014: Civilization: Beyond Earth
Now this is an award that has a lot of competition, since this year there were plenty of games that simply weren’t as good as they should have been. The Banner Saga didn’t live up to the promise of its fantastic art, while Transistor ended up being a less-sophisticated and less-interesting retread of Bastion rather than forging out into new territory as it should have. No game disappointed me more than Beyond Earth, however; Firaxis are one of my top three favourite developers, but my opinion of them took a big dent after they released this paper-thin, poorly-balanced mess of a game. It’s particularly galling because Beyond Earth has a lot of good ideas that simply weren’t given the time or polish they needed to truly shine. The tech web, the affinities, the aliens – all of these were potentially great mechanics that deserved a much better game, only to be wasted on this one. Beyond Earth pulled the usual 4X thing of surfacing practically none of its fiction, instead preferring to bury it all behind the scenes in the Civilopedia, but what it failed to understand was that despite having the Civilization name this wasn’t Civilization. We intuitively understand irrigation and chemistry and tanks and can accept those at face value, but we don’t understand biowells and floatstones and the Promethean and we need these explained to us. Strong fiction goes a long way towards papering over the gaps in a game — god knows Alpha Centauri isn’t perfect, and is fondly remembered because it did exactly this. Beyond Earth has forgotten this lesson, however, and in presenting its vision of the future to the player bereft of any context it reduced everything to a pure numbers game. And that’s something it really isn’t very good at. Beyond Earth could have been something special, but instead it came across as something Firaxis made just because they didn’t have any real Civilization games to release this year. If it was a real Civilization title we’d at least have the consolation that it would eventually be patched into something worthwhile, but I suspect this bastard offspring of the series will be swiftly disowned by its creators. That one of my favourite developers has slipped up so badly on a game that had no real reason to be as bad as it was makes this something of a double whammy in the “crushing disappointment” stakes, ensuring Beyond Earth easily takes the prize.