2014 has been a strange year for video games. Not a bad year—maybe not a great year—but definitely a strange one.
There have been plenty of memorable releases, but 2014 felt like a transitional one for the medium, both in the games themselves and the culture surrounding it. As developers accustomed themselves to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, a number of major releases slipped into 2015 while other games came out of the gate with major technical issues.
But even still, a host of exciting, daring, and satisfying games populated the last 12 months, reminding players of the capabilities of gaming. The year offered such a diverse array of options that picking one game above them all is tough.
So… EW didn’t. Instead, we’re taking a look back at many of the trends or single games that will linger the longest in our minds. Three EW staffers have each offered up some of their favorite gaming experiences of 2014.
1. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
At first glance, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor looks like a good licensed game, a solid mix of Batman: Arkham City’s combat and Assassin’s Creed’s stealth exploration. But once you dig into its innovative Nemesis system, you realize that it’s so much more than the sum of its parts. The game procedurally generates Uruk captains and warchiefs with unique strengths and weaknesses, and they engage in their own power struggles—which you gleefully bend to your will. Mordor had the best story in games this year, and it had nothing to do with cutscenes or voice acting. Rather it was the dynamic, emergent gameplay moments created by the Nemesis system that captivated me most this year. (I’ll never forget your ugly face, Pûgrish Blood Licker.)
2. Sequels that don’t do much new but are still awesome
3. Sunset Overdrive
Insomniac Games created a game where simply grinding and jumping around its colorful playground world was just as much fun as shooting all the ridiculous guns. Sunset Overdrive is giddily over the top in every way imaginable and a strong return to form for the developer.
4. Monument Valley
I’m not much of a mobile gamer, but Monument Valley utterly mesmerized me, sucking me into its gorgeous M.C. Escher-influenced world. I was so captivated by its clever puzzles that I played it all in one afternoon and then immediately purchased the expansion. Short but definitely sweet.
Titanfall did something I thought was no longer possible: it got me invested in an online multiplayer shooter. Respawn Entertainment smartly populated each map with enemy AI characters, so even if you’re not a hardcore competitive player, you can still run around in your giant mech and score some kills and have fun.
1. South Park: The Stick of Truth
Few games are genuinely funny, and even fewer games integrate that humor into the actual gameplay. But the oft-delayed South Park: The Stick of Truth integrates its incredible script and wicked sense of humor with the turn-based battles. Sure, it plays like a greatest hits of South Park‘s most memorable characters and jokes, but they’re all effortlessly mixed together in a game that is as hilarious as it is fun to play. South Park is actually an incredibly enjoyable RPG. No, it won’t offer the same depth as a Final Fantasy or Dragon Age, but it condenses the RPG formula into a much more manageable package for those without 80 hours to invest. The focused approach maintains a pace that never lets the comedy or enjoyment wane. And there’s just about no other game that will transform Canada into an 8-bit classic RPG.
Stick of Truth may not be revolutionary, but it proves a seemingly unadaptable property can be made into an incredible experience that pays service to the source material while succeeding in its own right as a damn fun time.
I played Threes more than I did any other game this year. Since I downloaded the game in February, I have played it at least once—OK, three or four—times every day since. Threes is a brilliant and cheerful blend of luck and skill in a puzzle game that seems deceptively light and easy. In reality, it will leave players attempting to master it long after their first game but never ceasing to enjoy it.
You also have it to thank for everyone playing 2048 when they were supposed to be working or studying, but trust me, Threes is better in just about every way.
3. The Last of Us: Left Behind
One of the best love stories told in gaming came in the expansion to one of last year’s best games. Left Behind feels like a distillation of what Naughty Dog would have created had The Last of Us not been such a flagship release, emphasizing story, character, and environment rather than gunplay. And the experience—and the players—are all the better for it.
Nintendo delivered in spoades this year with party friendly games like Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, but a little, retro-looking game called Towerfall: Ascension is the best experience for four friends gathered around a TV. The game has a similar setup to Smash Bros., but its fast and furious gameplay is one of the year’s most exciting experiences.
5. Valiant Hearts
Early this year, Ubisoft released a few smaller, focused games for download, and while Child of Light received plenty of love, Valiant Hearts was the real standout. Games have often used warfare as a setting, but World War I is rarely explored, and Valiant Hearts delivers a beautiful, touching portrayal of warfare with a unique focus on puzzles, not gunfire on the battlefield. Also, it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with the player’s canine best friend.
I was more or less instantly smitten when Supergiant Games announced Transistor, the studio’s follow up to their slam-dunk debut Bastion. There were few games I was more eager to play in 2014, and when it was finally released, I was completely taken in by what are slowly turning into design hallmarks for Supergiant Games: lush art you can’t help but stare at, involved and thoughtful combat, and a soundtrack worth spinning on repeat.
Is Transistor a perfect game? No, and I suspect that there are a significant number of people that didn’t like it. That’s fine—I understand why, I think. It’s not as instantly pleasing or welcoming as Bastion. It’s also not trying to be. Transistor feels like a maturation, the work of an confident studio actively trying to make something challenging. Transistor‘s story is somber and dark; its world is beautiful and empty, and the language of its systems are obscured—if you want to really understand Transistor, you have to really play it thoroughly. You have to make yourself uncomfortable. Maybe I didn’t play Transistor as much as I played other games this year, but I certainly thought about it more. I don’t think I’m done thinking about it, either.
2. Dragon Age: Inquisition
Like a classic arcade game that someone forgot to make, Luftrausers is the perfect quick hit of fun and challenging old-school gaming. It’s a dogfighting game that ascribes to the Buzz Lightyear approach to flight: you’re essentially “falling with style”…and some heavy weaponry. It’s pretty great.
Games are art, and the most compelling thing about any given art isn’t what it explicitly states, but what it suggests. P.T. says very little and hints at a lot, and not just in the sense that it was released to tease the very exciting-sounding Silent Hills project from Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro. P.T. came along by surprise and presented us with both a frightening horror experience and a creepy mystery—there wasn’t anything quite like it this year.
Hohokum very quickly got buried by buzzier games after its release this summer, and that’s a shame. Honeyslug’s strange-yet-warm free-flowing art game is one of the most pleasant experiences you can have with a controller in your hand. While there are certainly things to do and complete in Hohokum, simply moving through the game is an absolute pleasure thanks to its singular art style and one of this year’s best soundtracks. It was, and remains, one of the most interesting games I played this year.