Continuing what will be a 3-part series, here are the video games I loved the best this year. Come back tomorrow to see my favorite movies of 2014. And if you missed it, here’s my favorite books I read this year!
Before I talk about all the good, I must address a game that had been hyped above all others and utterly failed to come close to what was promised.
As a longtime Halo fan, I was massively pumped to play Bungie’s newest IP. The art and atmosphere is top-notch, the shooting mechanics shine, the levels are massive, and the soundtrack thrums. Alas, Bungie neglected to provide anything approaching a story. The overarching overtures are amateurish at best, involving humanity’s concerted push against the various forces of – wait for it – The Darkness. Yes, capitalized. And, yes, it’s as cheesy as it sounds.
Such a lame meta-story might’ve been okay if the in-mission stories hummed like Halo of old. But instead, every mission involves you escorting your personal drone/bot (voiced by a half-awake Peter Dinklage) to a place on the map, initiating some sequence, and then fighting off enemies. Every. Single. Time.
There isn’t even an end to the ‘story’. The only indictator that you’ve completed the campaign is a final cutscene that holds no meaning because you are not invested in any outcome. They give so little consideration to the story that you don’t even get an achievement for beating the game. That has to be some kind of first.
Destiny is not about the last bastion of humanity in some dark future. Instead, it’s a soulless grind to level-up characters and gear in a never-ending arms race that serves no purpose. Everything in the game is built in service to the grind. The story was but an offering to that foul altar, a mewing lamb brought to slaughter.
I bought Destiny at launch, something I rarely do because I have a healthy backlog of games. I doubt I will buy the eventual Destiny 2, at launch or otherwise.
My Favorite Games of 2014
These didn’t necessarily come out in 2014. I just played them this year. Presented in reverse order:
6) Lego Lord of the Rings
5) The Witcher 2
A mature RPG with branching story lines, where the player is given agency over the story’s eventual outcome. The game’s systems have some clunkiness to them, and I never really bothered much with the whole alchemy piece unless forced by the narrative. The world offers an interesting take on fantasy cliches. Elves live in ghettos and racism is rampant. Geralt, the Witcher, is more anti than hero, and the player is given leeway to act accordingly. Looking forward to the Witcher 3, due out in 2015!
4) Wolfenstein The New Order
A FPS that refreshingly doesn’t try to be all things, but instead focuses solely on telling a rousing single player story in an alternate world where the Nazis won. Combat is smooth and satisfying, the story hits the right notes, and the level design allows for multiple problem-solving approaches.
The game I bought my Xbox One for (not really – I was waiting for a good deal and a free pack-in of Titanfall was enough to get my dollars). Like Destiny, the ‘campaign’ is wafer-thin. But unlike Destiny, Titanfall never promised a grand story. On offer is the next evolution of Call of Duty-type multiplayer gaming, and in that it is successful. The gunplay is as balanced as CoD, but the verticality of the level design, made possible by the player’s jump-jets, really put Titanfall in a class of its own. Wall-running never gets old. And then, of course, you have the Mechs. Piloting one of the colossal machines of war calls back to my time playing the MechWarrior tabletop RPG.
2) Skyrim (modded)
I bought Skyrim at launch for the 360 and spent something north of 100 hours exploring its varied nooks and crannies. I aided the rebellion, raided ancient crypts, and saved the world from destruction. I thought I’d seen everything Skyrim was capable of. And then I got it for the PC, loaded up a bunch of mods, and doused my hair in kerosene.
Modded Skyrim bears the same genetic material as its vanilla console brethren, but they are distant cousins at best. They could marry and it would be kosher in all 50 states. It’s that level of separation that we’re talking about. My favorite mods introduce survival elements: simulating the danger and effects of hypothermia, or needing to eat and rest on a regular basis.
1) Shadow of Mordor
I said Lego Lord of the Rings is the best LotR video game in a long time, and that was true until this little precious came along. Liberally borrowing elements from the Assassin Creed’s and the Batman Arkham series, Shadow of Mordor hones these subsystems into a razor-edged blade. Shadow of Mordor is far more than a simple cut & paste exercise and a splash of Tolkien-flavored paint.
Where to start? The nemesis system, wherein dynamically-generated named NPCs challenge you on sight, is inspired. If an orc chief escapes (or defeats you in battle), he remembers you next time, and his dialog reflects the nature of your previous encounter. Enemies have strengths to avoid and fears to exploit, but here’s the cool part – you as the player can directly influence what those fears are. Early in my adventures in Mordor, I set a previously unnamed orc ablaze. He ran off screaming, only to return later as a chief with a mortal hatred of flames. It isn’t just that such moments are cool, it’s how smoothly they occur during gameplay, and how nimbly the game adjusts.
Combat is satisfying – the brutal executions never get old – and navigating the levels is a breeze. The game includes RPG-lite elements, allowing your PC to develop along skill trees and unlock new weapon abilities.
The open world environments are massive and filled with all manner of interesting things to see and do. And though Shadow of Mordor also inherits hunting for items in the open world, it is neither as annoying as in AC or as difficult as in Arkham. There aren’t nearly as many objects to locate, and each includes a bit of world-building, usually delivered via dialog. Finding the objects then is not only a way to clear icons from your screen, but also to fill in some of the player’s backstory.
I’m still working through the main story but am loving my time in Middle Earth, and it’s a no-brainer for my favorite game of 2014!
Games I only spent a few hours with as the year winded down.
Level navigation is smooth and responsive. Plays like Tony Hawk with cartoony over-the-top violence.
Dragon Age Inquisition
Addicting. I’ve only had it for a few days but it’s rarely seen the outside of my Xbox since.
Mass Effect 2
I know, I know. This game came out forty years ago (or so it seems).
The Wolf Among Us
Gripping in a way that the Walking Dead series of Telltale games never quite was for me.