Though 2014 was the year that publishers finally started cranking out worthwhile content for the PS4 and Xbox One, I continued to be impressed by the work of a few indie developers thanks to my rapidly expanding Steam library. Before I kick off my list, I’d like to throw out some honorable mentions for Alien: Isolation and Dragon Age: Inquisition, which are two games that I haven’t played yet, but know I will love the hell out of them when I get them as Christmas presents from my mom.
Many MMORPG’s have tried to capture me with their siren song of online heroism, but The Elder Scrolls Online was the one that came the closest to succeeding. Not as cartoonish and mainstream as World of Warcraft, ESO channeled the old school D&D vibe that I grew up on. Not only did the game open up the entire continent of Tamriel for exploration, but it offered the same gameplay and customization nuances that made Skyrim such an amazing piece of interactive entertainment. My trial period for the game lasted 3 months, during which I merely scratched the surface of the game’s potential. If they tacked on an extra free month, they might have had me hooked for life.
9) Age of Wonders III
There were a lot of great additions to the 4x genre this year (I was really, really close to giving this spot to Amplitude’s Endless Legend), but Age of Wonders III was the one that stood out to me the most. Triumph Studios was able to capture a rare balance of old-school gaming nostalgia and new-school aesthetic. The game is absolutely gorgeous, offering up vividly-rendered landscapes to conquer, along with enough class/racial customization to please the most hardcore RPG fan. For those who appreciate the fantasy genre for its ability to create a temporary escape from reality, Age of Wonders III is well worth the countless hours you’re likely to spend with it.
Perhaps the most jaw-droppingly beautiful game on this list, Transistor also manages to throw a new spin on the top-down platformer. Taking control of Red, a lounge-singing murder suspect on the run through a neon, circuital city presents a unique type of combat that rewards strategic planning. It’s engaging enough to hack your way through hostile robots, but it’s really the game’s design that makes Transistor stand out. Supergiant has taken the melancholy and tech-saturated environment of Final Fantasy VII’s Midgar and given it a neo-noir jumpstart. It’s my go-to example when someone steps to me about video games not being an art form.
7) A Bird Story
This effing game. It looks like it’s just going to be a harmless story about a boy and his bird, told through pixelated graphics and wistful music–which it was, if you think uncontrollable sobbing is harmless. The term “video game” can only be loosely applied to A Bird Story, it is nonetheless a powerful piece of storytelling. The only interaction that the player has with the story comes from thoughtfully-placed intervals that make you an emotional bitch when you have to push a button but really, really don’t want to.
There’s something about the strong contrast between Valiant Hearts and other games about war–which, let’s face it, there are a ton of. While your Call of Duty and your Battlefield glorify the act of war, Valiant Hearts offers a more realistic and heart-wrenching perspective. Like A Bird Story, Valiant Hearts is more of a visual short story that the player interacts with solely for the sake of the tale’s progression. It shifts perspectives between multiple characters, occasionally finding them working together, and overall, it leaves the player with a different perspective on how war not only decimates buildings, terrain, and the lives of soldiers, but it also strikes a vicious blow to cultural morality as well.
5) Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
Even though it felt like Hearthstone was developed on a whim by Blizzard, it managed to become one of the most addicting, free-to-play games out there–and it didn’t help that I’ve been a fan of Magic: The Gathering since high school. It would be easy to argue that Blizzard simply leveraged the popularity of World of Warcraft into the world of free-to-play gaming if Hearthstone wasn’t so damn fun. Perhaps my favorite aspect of this game is the fact that, though players can pony up actual cash for new packs of cards, you totally don’t have to for it to be an enjoyable experience.
A video game for the Breaking Bad generation. GTA V doesn’t just settle for a gigantic, vibrant virtual city, excellently-tweaked vehicle controls, and enough Easter eggs to satisfy the most anal-retentive of gamers. Instead, it uses all of the above to craft a story that would make for award-winning television. Hell, why settle for TV? Give it the Oscar, already. Admittedly, I stuck around to see what seedy adventures were in store for our trio of ne’er-do-wells, but the cinematic quality of the gameplay and that feeling I got after completing my first heist were unforgettable.
After years of being a Lord of the Rings fan, and having suffered through several mediocre games based on the property, it’s so nice to have found one that does Middle Earth justice. Taking control of Talion the Dark Ranger and letting him loose in the Orcish fortresses of Mordor is a Tolkien fan’s dream. And the combat system! I loved it in the Batman: Arkham games, and it’s even better with swords in both hands–it’s all about the mid-combat beheadings. In addition to the above-mentioned awesomeness, Shadow of Mordor‘s Nemesis system creates a living hierarchy of enemies that grows and evolves along with your character–something I’ve never seen in a game before. I imagine the number of virtual bad guys that I’ve slaughtered is pretty substantial, but I remember very few of them. Each Orc that I put down in Shadow of Mordor makes damn sure that I remember our fight.
Oh, the online playground that is Destiny. Despite the game’s lackluster storyline, when you simply view Destiny as an excuse to get with some buddies an blow the hell out of hostile aliens, there’s something very special here. By streamlining the MMO format and throwing some top-notch graphics and Bungie’s penchant for tight FPS controls, it’s something that is enjoyable in small bursts or when investing a few hours in the six-player Vault of Glass raid. I’m already struggling to contain my giddiness for the upcoming expansion–four-barreled shotgun!
I fully realize that listing this title as my favorite title of the year is 100% an act of self-indulgence, but I can’t remember the last time a game appealed to such a large combination of my gaming interests. Dungeon of the Endless plays like a mixtape of the last few years’ most popular gaming trends. Usually when developers try to create a game that tries to blur the edges between gameplay dynamics, you get something like Brutal Legend–clunky, watered-down, and ultimately disappointing. Dungeon of the Endless pulls it all off very nicely, and it does so with great audio and visual style. It’s ambitious without being pretentious, and FlybyNo’s excellent soundtrack elevate this title into territory that is both familiar and new–and that’s what I love about video games.