My Favorite Games of 2014

A lot of the gaming press is lamenting 2014, calling it a slow, disappointing year. I don’t agree, but maybe that’s because I had gaming years during N64, SegaCD, and 3DO eras. Those were lean times, my friend.

The PC continues to be a magical platform for gaming. While Steam is still the storefront of choice to buy digital PC games, it no longer has a virtual chokehold on the PC game market. EA’s Origin is a disaster, but it is required to play any Electronic Arts PC games. More positively, Good Old Games has gained momentum this year in the PC game ecosystem, with the value-added proposition of selling every game DRM-free (Steam is in itself a DRM platform, and its games can have additional DRM schemes).

Linux is slowly taking off for gaming, due in no small part to the Humble Bundle store. These games are also DRM-free, and often cross platform (in an OS way), as well as cross desktop/mobile platforms. Unfortunately, a disappointment for Linux gaming this year was the slowness of SteamOS getting out of the gate, as well as the delay of Steam Machines. Whenever these do release in mature states, they have the potential to inject some seriousness into the Linux gaming space. Of course, anyone wanting to take shortcuts and do it themselves can merely buy a small motherboard and make their own machine, then throw SteamOS beta on it. Plug in some controllers and you have a great living room console that plays PC games and is also… a PC.

The console space I can’t really speak to with any authority, so you can definitely ignore the lack of XBone or PS4 exclusives in my list. I do have a Wii U, but missed a few of the major releases like Smash Brothers.

Mario Kart 8

Mario Kart 8

Although Mario Kart made a lot of the Best Of lists this year, I was surprised to see how many claims there were of it being repetitive and “more of the same”. It’s no major departure, but Mario Kart 8 introduces as many innovations and features as I can remember in the series.

Many people lament the changing of Battle mode courses, since they are the same as the Cup racing courses, but I really enjoy this change. It gives beginning players a bit of a chance to run away if they haven’t memorized the item block placement, and it allows a few different strategies besides “get the 3 green shell powerup and slam into people”. We also can’t forget this is the first Mario Kart in HD, the addition of anti-gravity, and the addition of DLC and Amiibo characters. This was the first Mario Kart I had to play since the Gamecube version.

Valkyria Chronicles

Valkyria Chronicles

This game is only new for PC (it is a console port). Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series is one of my favorites, and while Valkyria Chronicles is vastly different in its game systems, it is also a Japanese strategy RPG with engaging characters you really care about. The alternate reality where steampunk elements meet World War II (roughly paralleling the invasion of Poland I think?) is a surprisingly fresh take for a WWII-based video game. I honestly haven’t explored this game very deeply yet, but the way you can plan a map strategically in the beginning, and the variety of options in the turn-based action, make this game a blast to play. It’s so great to see turn-based games getting a renaissance on PC.

The Banner Saga

The Banner Saga

Another game that satisfies my strategy RPG itch is The Banner Saga. But much more importantly, this is a beautiful game that tells a brutal, at times nihilistic story about Vikings in the midst of the apocalypse. Humans and a race of giants are forced to unite against machine-like invaders called the Dredge, while a giant serpent threatens to destroy the Earth. It’s a good spin on the Norse sagas. All of the cutscenes are painstakingly animated, so much so that in between battles you can sit back and watch a cinematic cartoon.

Some dislike the combat, but the brutal mechanics seem to mirror the story. You must make harsh decisions, and a lot of times the odds will be stacked against you. Enemies get every other turn in the order no matter what you do. This can be unfair at times, but it does allow you to keep around enemies who aren’t a threat so that you can get more turns in.

The weakest part of the game is indeed the traveling sections. They are sort of like Oregon Trail, in that you have to keep an eye on supplies and your caravan, but the mechanic feels a bit underdeveloped. Worse, the traveling section contains severely important events, the results of which can have you lose up to two heroes. But there’s nothing indicating if this truly is a supply cart in trouble, which will cost a day’s worth of supplies, or if it will result in the death of your favorite unit. You will be missed, Gunnulf.

Wasteland 2

Wasteland 2

I never played the original Wasteland, but I adore the spiritual successor of the series, Fallout. Wasteland 2 at first seems like a throwback, and perhaps a little too retro for its own good. However, the cheesy dialogue and Full Motion Video cutscenes of the opening really gave me nostalgia for 90s video games, and the story and combat have a wonderful combination of modern and retro. This is a game about planning and choices, hard numbers and decisions. Which is refreshing these days, and ironic that this is now considered “indie”, since this style of RPG was everywhere in an earlier time.

Skyrim (SkyRE)

T3nd0 Skyrim REdone

Yes, I know Skyrim is like 3 years old. But early this year, I installed the overhaul mod (meaning a mod so large, it changes most game systems radically enough to be considered a different game) Skyrim REdone. This in addition to a few mods for racial abilities (and my personal favorite that allows you to trade dragon souls for perks) is all you need to make a completely altered, and in my opinion, vastly superior game to the original release. The difficulty changes in the sense that the same spamming of attacks (or just ignoring magic) will get you quickly killed, but once you learn the skills introduced like timed blocking and using the revamped spells, the game becomes an immensely more enjoyable experience.

Also I should note that this project has morphed into an even bigger mod called Perkus Maximus. As the name implies, it takes a much more comprehensive approach to overhauling the perk system in Skyrim. The mod is still early, and I haven’t spent too much time with it, but it looks like another great addition to the game that won’t end, Skyrim.

Hearthstone

Hearthstone

I tried to avoid Hearthstone’s black hole-like gravitational pull for over a year now. Since I never really cared about the Warcraft mythos, and I had never really played card games (let alone digital versions) I figured Hearthstone really wasn’t for me. Being that I got an iPad at work, I figured one of the best games for it would be Heartstone.

Alas, I was immediately hooked. The expansion, Naxxramas, and the latest addition, Goblins versus Gnomes, have introduced a lot of crazy strategies, and has made every class fun to play. Even silly or dumb strategies (Angry Chicken is a personal favorite) have the potential to pay off wonderfully, and there’s always a motivation to try to get just one more pack of cards. My “best class” has changed several times, which is a testament to the balance that Blizzard has implemented with card changes. Although, at the higher tanks, Zoo always wins.

Divinity: Original Sin

Divinity: Original Sin

This is another game I haven’t spent a ton of time with, but I can already tell it will be one of my favorite RPGs. It has a novel approach where you have a male and female character to play and switch off as. Better yet, if you play cooperatively with someone, you can control each character. Co-op in RPGs is infamously rare, and usually is an afterthought, forcing you and a friend to complete a sidequest or install numerous mods, so that alone is worth a great deal. The skill system and combat are pretty in depth, and the dual character system ensures future replays.

Gauntlet

Gauntlet

Perhaps being a child of the 80’s allowed me to overlook the many flaws of Gauntlet, but it continues to just be pure, unadulterated fun. It manages to be a deep arcade game, which is an achievement in itself, but it feels like a new game while still being Gauntlet. With a combination of item acquisition and simple achievements, you can make progress without ever becoming overpowered or trivializing the levels. It is amazingly fun in co-op multiplayer and in fact becomes a whole different game. As long as the developer continues to make more content for the game, I have no hesitation to call Gauntlet one of the best PC arcade games in recent years. Although, you would have to also check out Castle Crashers, Metal Slug 3, Battleblock Theater, and D&D: Chronicles of Mystara to make a fair comparison.

That’s it for now. I might add some honorable mentions or some games that actually merit space later (I don’t have Dragon Age: Inquisition, and I’m pretty sure it’d make it).

Written on December 29, 2014