I’m on a couple days of vacation before going back to work, so I figured I would do a small write up about the best games I played this year. Playing games is one of my hobbies, but there are lots of great games I know I didn’t get to. But I definitely did play all of these games. The following is a list of great experiences I’ve had in 2014, either in solo play or with some friends. Hopefully I can sound out some reasoning for each game. Presented in no order:
Contender for most addictive game I've ever played. Has an extremely high skill cap, but games are compelling at even the lower level (my level). It's been around forever but I played more this year than any other and keep tabs on the competitive scene. Valve could potentially just ride this train straight to the bank, but they've actually made significant changes to the game during the year. More than simple balance patches, we've received new modes, heroes, runes, changes to the map and changes to the game that significantly alter how the game is played at both casual and competitive levels.
Top notch visuals and content from Valve, I can only knock it for the high learning curve of having to learn roughly 100 heroes and items before real understanding of the game starts to develop. At about a middle level of experience and a couple hundred games played, I’ve put it aside for a couple more months.
Oh Hearthstone. There's an uncanny nature to this game that I can always have at least a little fun watching or playing a couple games of Hearthstone. Even writing about it now makes me want to play a little bit. The amount of polish in the details and animation of this game are a something special. I think the new card expansions have made it more appealing to jump on the ranked ladder and play around instead of using the same 15 cards in every deck. The downside is that it's getting more difficult to put together a competitive deck without having to grind for two or three deck-making legendary cards. That's only a concern for people who are seriously playing, the regular experience is crazy fun and lends itself to feeling really rewarded for pulling of cool combos or crazy mind tricks.
Probably the most difficult and most rewarding game on this list. I never played the original Dark Souls which supposedly is set in a world with more depth, but Drangleic was more than enough for me. This is a game is a masterclass in mechanics and teaching the player to control the pace of battle. I appreciated how little hand-holding there was in the game and lack of "one true path" to victory. I was using the same armor I had in the first couple hours when I defeated the final boss. With undead and creatures in the full gamut of fantasy settings, I was engrossed and very rarely felt like I had died due to anything other than my own mistakes. Total deaths: 214.
Side note: I'm currently on my second play-through, this time as a spellcaster, and the game is significantly easier. Not sure if it's because I'm a much more experienced player or that combat is mostly balanced around melee characters.
Some might say my love of Zelda games is too strong. I even enjoyed playing Skyward Sword if that tells you anything. But this game is the one that made me impulse buy a 3DS and reminded me why I love Zelda games. A Link Between Worlds opened up the exploration of Hyrule (and Lorule) and let the player choose the items they wanted and areas they wanted to explore. The format was a refreshing change from the Forest Temple -> Fire Temple -> Water Temple -> etc routine that was a major chunk of the Zelda formula. The new wall mechanics integrated seamlessly with the feel of previous Zelda handhelds and allowed you to continue your exploration by changing how you thought about the world and your options in it.
This really shows that Nintendo is aware that Zelda games might be getting routine beneath their increasingly beautiful exterior and are warming up to the idea of changing that routine. I really can't say enough positive things about this game, one of the rare ones that I made a 100% run.
I picked this up late in the year after it had gone on sale. I'm really glad I picked it up before the end of the year, otherwise I would have missed probably the best open-world release of the year. While the story is enough to keep you moving, the real strength is the Nemesis system that dictates your interactions with Orc armies and their leaders. Ken Levine of the Bioshock series praised the system saying “Shadow of Mordor tells a story that could never exist in another medium...you can change the narrative in Shadow of Mordor—kill an important character, fail an important mission — and the story heals itself, because the system can create new characters on the fly. It does so without a “game over” screen or a request for the player to try again.” I think this is why Shadow of Mordor is a successful game much more than the Arkham-style combat and Assassin's Creed-style exploration.
The complaints I can level against the game come in the second half of the game when you gain enormous amounts of power that sort of trivialize your encounters with lower ranking orcs. Feeling powerful is cool, but the branding mechanic almost makes it too easy.
Never let it be said that I don't love to click on things. And clicking on things to make them explode is even better. After a lukewarm leveling experience in the original Diablo 3, I set it aside until I was tempted by the new act and Crusader class. With the removal of the Auction House and improved loot system, Diablo 3 again became a loot-fill power fantasy where I could blow up monsters and gain powerful armor. The new difficulty scaling and adventure end-game mode made playing though fun instead of a chore. Although I've put it down for now, I could easily see myself falling back in with some friends to battle the forces of evil (and complete that Firebird set).
The late edition to this list, I picked up Shovel Knight on my 3DS for flights home for Christmas. I had heard recommendations based on it's tight mechanics and honoring of SNES games. Although I had never played those games, I still loved the heck out of Shovel Knight. The graphics, soundtrack, dialogue and gameplay left me with a smile at the end of each session. As with Dark Souls 2 mentioned above, I'm getting a lot of enjoyment out of the challenge of New Game Plus.
The game so good I bought it twice. Fond memories of Melee and Brawl while in school has now transitioned into my adult life with Smash Bros Wii U & 3DS which keep me entertained on the subway and provide competition for me and my co-workers. The amount of content in these games is simply staggering. 50 characters, 46 stages, 8 bajillion game modes and trophies can keep this game running for me for a looonnnng time. Oddly enough, at this point I prefer to use my 3DS as a controller rather than the Wii U gamepad or (gasp) the Wiimote.
The Wii U version is beautiful, I'm still floored every time I play it. The 3DS version preforms admirably for how much is going on at any given time. More on this when we talk about Mario Kart, but Nintendo really know how to squeeze these systems. 8 player smash is bananas, shouldn’t work and is an incredible amount of fun.
All hail Nintendo, king of party games. I think Mario Kart 8 is one of the best multi-player experiences you can have right now with a console. Each track is gorgeous and fantastical, dripping with color and personality. I think there are certain things that only Nintendo can do, they have some real geniuses over there. The replay system is a fun feature that makes you wonder why it hadn't been thought of before. The DLC is excellent and enough to make me come back to do some more laps on my own.
Speaking of party games, here's another semi-party game from the developers of popular party game Castle Crashers. Battleblock Theater is a platformer with the funnest wrapper made out of puppets, cats, poop jokes and over the top narration. I remember being sold when the trailer offered "1,000,000,000p graphics" and convincing a couple friends to buy it with me. The level design managed to stay fresh for the entire story and we had a couple ridiculous nights playing in the 4 player battle arenas.
Wildstar - After a decently fun leveling experience, I found out there wasn't much to do aside from grinding for raid tiers.
Guild Wars 2 - My on-again off-again MMO game, I'll play for a week or two and then lose the desire to grind for that next tier.
Borderland: The Pre-Sequel - An extra helping of Borderlands 2 with some fun new mechanics. Beat it with some friends but haven't gone back to finish the second playthrough.
Borderlands 2: Assault on Dragon Keep - Speaking of Borderlands 2, finally played this really excellent DLC. Lots of fun for a couple days.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf - Really enjoyed this for the first couple weeks, but fun gradually faded into a chore.
Counter-Strike:Global Offensive - I play this with some friends who enjoy the competitive scene, but I’m way too terrible to boot it up on my own. Walk, don’t run.
Payday 2 - Again, a game I only play with friends, but we’ve had some good times moving from inexperienced crooks to fluid master criminals.