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Game of the Year 2014 Nominees
Developed by Creative Assembly
Published by Sega
Released October 7, 2014
Available on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One.
Alien: Isolation - PlayStation 4
A truly frightening survival horror game told in first person, Alien: Isolation lives up to Ridley Scott's vision of the Xenomorph like no other game has before. The Alien is a deadly implacable force and it is looking for you.
The mark of a truly effective piece of horror lies not in what it does, but in what it doesn't do. A piece of art that can terrify you without even having to show anything, that can make you afraid without a monster, without something leaping out of the shadows, has accomplished something rare and powerful. Alien, the movie that spawned one of the most inspirational science fiction franchises in history, knew this well. For all the moments that we actually see the titular Alien, its those moments where we don't know where it is, where there's no trace of the extraterrestrial killer, that are the most fear-inducing... Alien: Isolation is at its scariest when it's not doing anything, and I don't mean that as an insult. This is a game that not only understands its source material, it lives up to it.
The audiovisual presentation matches the quality of the scares, and are crucial parts of building an oppressive atmosphere. What I love most is just how authentic everything feels. From the beige padded walls to the steam-spewing pipes and tubing that always looks like a Xeno in the corner of one's eye, everything in Isolation looks like it belongs right in the original movie's universe. Never has an Alien game tried so hard to look, sound, and feel like a real part of franchise, and never has one been so successful.
Dragon Age Inquisition
Developed by BioWare
Published by Electronic Arts
Released November 18, 2014
Available on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Dragon Age Inquisition - Xbox One
It took BioWare long enough, but the veteran RPG designer was busy making a monument to everything players love about huge, sweeping epic fantasy stories. The third Dragon Age is one of the year's best games, but it deserves special accolades for how it allows you to play the role you want to play.
The story is full of twists and reveals - often referencing previous Dragon Age games and DLC. An important meeting between the Templars of the Chantry and the Mages who rebelled against them in Dragon Age II is disrupted by a huge explosion and your character is the only one there who survived. Finding out how and why takes up the bulk of the plot, but there are some interesting discoveries as to the nature of the darkspawn adversaries in Origin and the religion of the Chantry as a whole.
The new healing system does create a nice feeling of exploration and, well, occupation. The areas you explore in Inquisition are gigantic. According to the materials provided by BioWare, the first open area you encounter, the Hinterlands, is bigger than the total explorable area in Origins and Dragon Age II combined. Now, bigger is not always better, but what these huge areas give the player is a sense of the growing power and influence of the Inquisition.
Far Cry 4
Developed by Ubisoft Montreal
Published by Ubisoft
Released on November 18, 2014
Available on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One
Far Cry 4 - Xbox One
Departing the tropical theme of previous iterations, Far Cry 4 heads to the Himalayas and fine-tunes the open world shooter series' mechanics to a bayonette point. After the amazing opening sequence showcasing the vocal talents of Troy Baker playing the flamboyant antagonist Pagan Min, the fictional region of Kyrat opens up for you to explore however you want. Far Cry 4 even features weaponized honey badgers - what more needs to be said.
The amount of flexibility you're given in almost any firefight is almost overwhelming. You can chuck grenades around like a madman, snipe enemies from afar, sneak around and stab guards in the throat, or emulate John Rambo by finding the biggest gun you can and holding down the trigger until the hammer goes "click". And those are just the more straightforward methods of Far Cry 4's action, as you can now experiment with throwing bait around to lure predators down on enemies or riding an elephant into battle and smashing cars aside like toys. Aside from a few missions where you're forced to approach an objective in a certain way, Far Cry 4 does a fantastic job of giving players a large degree of agency in how they'd like to engage with its action sequences. There is no funneling into a glorified hallway as seen in other shooters.
A definite highlight of the game is seen in the Shangri-La missions. As you collect parts of a thangka, you're treated to "visions" of an ancient warrior who has traveled to the mythical land of Shangri-La. This beautiful world is filled with rich red and golden color aesthetics, and the darkened teal and blue of lurking masked demons. While more linear than the rest of the game, these missions are more evenly-paced and a welcome break from the bullet-filled Kyrat.
The main antagonist, Pagan Min, at first acts like he's little more than a Saturday-morning-cartoon-style villain who does evil "just because," while taunting you via your radio from time to time. But as the story progresses, he'll have a few poignant moments where he will openly express regrets at not giving up rule of Kyrat to instead live a simpler life with your mother in America, making him seem a little more human than a stereotypical evil-doer.
Developed by Blizzard
Published by Activision-Blizzard
Released March 11, 2014
Available on PC, iOS, Android
We at The Escapist have made no secret of our love for this digital card game. Hearthstone just works on every level as a free-to-play game that feels fun and rewarding no matter how much money you throw at it. You can spend nothing and still love it - what other strategy game from 2014 can say that so emphatically?
Hearthstone is the epitome of casual. It's easily approachable. It's free to play. There are plenty of microtransactions. You can also sink hours and hours into it without realizing it, even though a match can take as few as five minutes. Most importantly, it's highly addictive. Whether you're drawn to the collection side of things, powering through Arena runs (which we'll touch on later) for the prize pack, or drawn to the competition available in Ranked play, if you've got a compulsive bone in your body, you'll have a hard time putting it down.
Hearthstone is the kind of game that virtually everybody can enjoy for at least a while. Some will burn out quickly, and others will play for a long time to come, but it's hard to imagine anybody that simply doesn't appreciate the simple elegance that is the stripped down ruleset of Hearthstone. If you love Magic, Hearthstone will offer a good diversion, even if it may seem a little simplistic in light of your experience. More so, if you just want to love Magic, but don't have the wherewithal to plod through 200 pages of rules, the barebones Hearthstone is exactly what you need.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Developed by Monolith Productions
Published by Warner Bros. Interactive
Released September 30, 2014
Available on PC, PS4, Xbox One
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor - Xbox One
The works of J.R.R. Tolkien mean a lot to us, and Shadow of Mordor throws it all out the window. It's a story the grand fantasist would never tell, but Shadow of Mordor is the first game that let you feel like you were mucking around in Middle-earth. The combat was counter-based and addictive, the open nature of the nemesis was excellently implemented, and the plans you enacted were awesome, or not.
It is difficult to sum up in words just exactly how this system is so fun to play around with. Once you learn the rules, it's a really a strategy game you play out in third person action. In order to take out the war chiefs, you have to target the bodyguards first. To discover the weaknesses of the bodyguards, you have to get intel on them. You get intel by interrogating specially marked orcs called "worms" which means keeping them alive while you murder the group they are with. Once you finally get the intel, you use it to find the captain's location and exploit his weaknesses. You lure him near a caragor cage and release the beast just at the right moment for it to throttle the poor bastard. You put together plans and see them through. Or, you improvise when things go wrong. You create diversions. You maximize advantages and try to minimize disadvantages. All this is done to avenge your family. It's remarkable.
So many games set in Middle-earth fall into the same tired tropes of heroic fantasy. The theme of revenge is one Tolkien rejected in his writing, yet it is refreshing to see it explored in Shadow of Mordor. Boromir wanted to use the One Ring to attack Mordor but his views were ignored by the Council of Elrond - Tolkien did not support using the tools of the enemy and favored forgiveness over revenge. Shadow of Mordor posits what would have happened if the power of the Rings had been used against the orcs. Does committing evil act as recompense for the evil you have suffered? Is it more important to see justice served than to live your life? Talion and the wraith possessing him do not ask these questions explicitly, but the theme is clear from the dialogue and the mechanics of the game itself. At points, I was not playing the game in the most effective way because I was blinded by revenge against the orc who killed me. I can't say Shadow of Mordor was the deepest narrative I ever experienced in a video game, but it was more successful than most at conveying a human truth.
Super Smash Bros. for Wii U
Developed by Sora Ltd.
Published by Nintendo.
Released on November 21, 2014. Available on Wii U.
Super Smash Bros. - Nintendo Wii U
Fighting games like Super Smash Bros. have the potential to nail its competitive gameplay so well that it will be played and discussed for decades. The developers accomplished a game that's fun to against (and with!) 8 of your friends, choosing from a massive roster of Nintendo characters to duke it out. Even in single-player or online mode, it just works, and Super Smash Bros. is just what the ailing Wii U console needed.
Smash is delightfully colorful in HD, with style and animation easily making it look better than games running on platforms twice as powerful. The sprawling eight-player stages look superb, as do the lightly retouched versions of favorites returning from Smash-es past - like the Donkey Kong level from the original, which retains the chunky polygons and saturated colors of the N64 era. The characters and animations look excellent, and it's a continual wonder how the cartoonish design of Pikachu looks good next to the fantasy aesthetic of the Fire Emblem characters - but it does.
This is one of those games where it's easy to say "just one more match" for five hours longer than you wanted to play. It absorbs and addicts you, drawing you further and further into screaming obscenities at not just your friends, but at obscure challenges and events built into the game itself. At the same time, it's surprisingly easy to have someone join you for co-op midsession or transfer over to multiplayer matches when a third person shows up, and since basically any match counts for unlocking you don't feel like you're not getting anything. Smash is as good as a video game gets - it's fun, accessible, easy to play, and absolutely packed with features at its price point.
The Walking Dead Season Two
Developed by Telltale Games
Published by Telltale Games
Released October 14, 2014 (retail version)
Available on PC, iOS, Android, PS Vita, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
The Walking Dead: Season 2 - Xbox 360
The first season of Telltale's adventure game set in the Southern United States after a zombie outbreak has killed most of the population was a favorite game of 2012. This second season of five excruciating episodes follows the adventures of Clementine, a young girl dealing with growing up and the terrible decisions facing humans surviving amongst the walkers. Every bit as heart-wrenching, the second season fully abandons adventure game puzzles in favor of nuanced conversation choices and a branching story. Get your tissues.
Telltale continues to prove why it's among the masters of storytelling in videogames today, with an almost unmatched grasp of how to write believable characters, meaningful situations, and create a sense of tragedy and horror that truly engages with the player, thanks to a depth and nuance that you just don't see in other games.
The strongest element of [final episode] "No Going Back" is its ability to tie together everything we've seen previously in the series. Story elements that seemed to be filler, or to have no lasting effect on the narrative, are thematically brought into the final episode. This is most true of Carver, whose influence on the story comes to a vicious head, with Kenny at the forefront.