Critical Intel’s mission is to explore the overlapping space between video games and real life in order to enrich the reader’s appreciation for both. In doing so, I may stumble across a game that has one spectacular element that deserves mention – even if the rest of the game isn’t spectacular.
This Critical Games of 2014 doesn’t compile the best games of the year. Inclusion doesn’t constitute an award, or even suggest that the entry is a good game. Instead, it serves to highlight one extraordinary aspect of a game that merits attention. This could be a brave mechanic, a well-executed story or a great character.
For a game to appear on the list, it must have released in 2014 and I must have played it. This unfortunately meant many excellent games were left out, and if you think a particular game’s missing it’s likely because I haven’t gotten around to it.
Critical Game of the Year: To Be Determined
Critical Intel’s “Critical Game of the Year” isn’t supposed to pick the best game of the year, but to highlight the most vital, transformative game published that year. In 2012 it was Spec Ops: The Line because it changed our conception of the entire genre. After playing Spec Ops, it’s impossible to look at shooters the same way again. A Critical GOTY should transform both the industry and its players.
I didn’t play anything in 2014 that accomplished this level of change, and that’s okay. Not every year will give us a game that transforms us, and I’d rather have the slot sit empty than give it to a game that merely got close. This isn’t a dig at any of the games on this list – they all show wonderful craftsmanship – but an acknowledgement that this was a rebuilding and consolidation year. Studios and publishers took many technical risks, but few artistic or gameplay ones. Sequels and re-releases dominated the industry as companies placed sure bets. It was a respectable business decision, even if it led to safer entries. For the record, Shadow of Mordor was probably the tightest and most mechanically innovative game I played this year, while Alien: Isolation and Wolfenstein stood as my overall favorites. A frustrating issue with my Steam account has kept me from playing This War of Mine, which might have appeared here if only for its revolutionary perspective shift.
Yet since I wasn’t able to play everything, and I’m an optimist, I’ll leave this slot open. Perhaps I’ll play something that changes my mind – and if that happens I’ll update this entry.
Outstanding Adaptation: Alien: Isolation
Games see many rocky adaptations from films and novels, but Alien: Isolation hits the sweet spot in delivering what made the original Ridley Scott film a success. The tone and gameplay evoke the film’s dread and claustrophobia, and while the Xenomorph AI can be tricky and frustrating, random attacks enhance the horror. Environmental design plays the greatest role, at times copying the film’s look with startling accuracy. Puffy walls make the player unconsciously think of an insane asylum, and characters look sweaty as if the ventilation system’s on the fritz.
As difficult as it must’ve been to reconstruct Alien‘s unique look, it’s truly impressive how well the new material fits into the established universe. Cut-rate Weyland-Yutani competitor Seegson feels right for the setting while lending some dark comedy. Working Joes work as uncanny valley monstrosities. Pervasive advertising captures that late-’70s to early-’80s skepticism of consumer culture. These elements must’ve taken a great deal of planning to get right, and made Alien: Isolation not only the best sci-fi game I played this year, but one of the best game adaptations ever.
Most Affecting Story: Valiant Hearts
My biggest regret this year was that I never got around to writing about Valiant Hearts. Valiant Hearts isn’t a great game, it isn’t even a good one when it comes to gameplay, but it tells an affecting and nuanced story that hasn’t left me since.
Valiant Hearts posits that for individual people, war is something to be endured rather than won. In place of explaining the political origins of the First World War, it follows families split apart by the conflict as they try to preserve some semblance of the lives they lived before the world went mad. Players perform an archaeological role, unearthing artifacts from the war that hint at life in the trenches and back home. There are aspects I didn’t care for – the absurdly stereotyped German officers, for instance – but the caricature art style enhanced the horror I felt at the pervasive slaughter. Historically I have some problems with how it depicts the war’s violence, (violence toward the player and his allies is grim and bloody, but his attacks on enemies are cartoonish and often nonlethal) but thematically it’s a tight ship. In place of attacking other humans, the heroes in Valiant Hearts attack the machinery of war itself – the tanks, airplanes and cannons – driving home that it’s war that’s the real enemy, not the men in the opposite trench. The game’s flawed, but the story’s well told.
Most Fully Realized Setting: Assassin’s Creed Unity, With a Major Caveat
I struggled with this category. My instinct was to give the nod to Unity since I considered Revolutionary Paris the more difficult achievement than Far Cry 4‘s Kyrat, but the game’s release bugs held me back. In the end I caved – with a caveat.
Unity reached very high with its setting, and it’s this great ambition that makes me want to excuse all faults. Revolutionary Paris has an architectural diversity and dynamism it would’ve been difficult to imagine only five years ago. Side missions and Paris Stories enrich the environment, weaving historical figures and events into the game’s fabric and maintaining an illusory depth. While Ubisoft touted the game’s enormous crowds, what impressed me were the diverse occupations and actions the NPCs had, whether carrying a flag or fixing a wagon. Look too closely and you’ll see repeated faces, it’s true, but step back and the city forms a cohesive whole, like a pointillist landscape.
The caveat, of course, is that multiple release bugs marred the experience -so I’m also naming Far Cry 4 as a close second. Is Kyrat Nepal as I saw it? Yes and no. Careful research clearly went into crafting the world, from quest-givers that look remarkably similar to the old women you see in the villages to an island temple that’s ripped straight out of Pokhara, but the fictional culture leaves a lot to be desired. The game’s nowhere near as deep as Unity‘s Paris, but the sense of place overwhelms you with every step. If you can’t stand the idea of Unity getting this nod, consider Far Cry 4 to have received it instead.
Most Mind-Bending Puzzles: Monument Valley
I’m surprised it took this long for someone to think up M.C. Escher perspective puzzles, but I’m glad it did – had we gotten a game like this earlier it might not have been as elegant and polished as Monument Valley.
While comparisons to Journey spring up due to the game’s art, it reminds me more of Portal in how it trains the player to think in an unorthodox fashion before throwing out puzzles that break all logical and physics. This format gives over about half the playtime to tutorial, but a recent expansion added more meat on the bones, since you’re able to skip past the training and jump right into puzzles.
Monument Valley marries abstract thinking to abstract beauty.
Franchise Resurrection: Wolfenstein: The New Order
There’s a special place in my heart for games that set out to be rise above their schlock material, and this year The New Order staked out a camp there and started setting up razor wire. I picked up the game expecting to savage its treatment of history, and while I have issues with the exploitative manner it presented concentration camps, I found a lot more going on under the hood. There’s surprising historical nuance in how it presents a world of propaganda and counter-Nazi terrorism, and an ongoing theme of resistance via witnessing atrocity gives the violence a deeper layer.
The New Order provides a textbook example of how to reboot a franchise: retain what made the original game memorable (Nazi-killing action) and rethink the elements that no longer work (the jingoistic and cavalier attitude toward violence). Were it not for some reservations I have about the camp level, I might have named it the Critical Game of the Year. Even so, it’s an excellent game and makes me excited for Wolfenstein‘s future.
Top Political Game / Best Espionage: Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes
I’ll keep this brief since I wrote an entire article about it. Games about spying and black ops come out ten a year. “The Infiltration Mission” has become the new “Vehicle Section.” Ground Zeroes stands apart from that by actually having the player engage in intelligence gathering and analysis. It’s the first game in the series to actually deliver on the premise of Tactical Espionage Action.
But more than that, it’s the only game this year that showed real interest in real-world abuses. The off-the-record torture and inhumane conditions at Camp Omega mirror the Camp X-Ray temporary detention facility at Guantanamo Bay (closed in 2002) and the infamous black site Camp No. If anything, the recent CIA Torture Report makes the game more vital now then at its release date, and it’s the only big release this year that mustered outrage over the politics it addresses. It might have been Critical GOTY, but I refuse to give that distinction to a paid demo.
There were many games this year that had individual aspects that stood out, even if the game wasn’t exceptionally innovative or interesting overall. They were:
- Sunset Overdrive, for its diversity-positive character system. In a gaming landscape where we’re so often tied to same-looking avatars, I enjoyed being able to change my appearance, race, gender and clothing at any time. A game where you can play one mission as a Hawaiian beach girl, the next as Freddie Mercury and a third as a knight? Incredible.
- Goat Simulator for iOS. Definitely the best goat-related simulation game I’ve ever played, and possibly the most fun I had this year. At times while slogging through 40+ hour open world games I’d take a break to cause some mayhem.
- Middle-earth: The Shadow of Mordor for its Nemesis System, which – though it still needs refinement – shows exciting possibilities for the open-world genre.
- Halo: The Master Chief Collection for its visual redesign of Commander Keyes. The original Miranda Keyes looked like a knock-off of Denise Richards in Starship Troopers – a pouty lingerie model in a uniform. The new Keyes, by contrast, actually resembles a naval officer. She’s a little gaunt and grey, with thin lips and eye bags from working too hard. Her face has character, and I love it. Bravo.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.