I don’t normally keep playing games after I’ve written about them. That’s just the nature of writing about games as a job. You experience them, you process them, you mostly move on. But as I look back over the games I played in 2014, I realize I spent an inordinate amount of time with games from 2013 and 2012. Guild Wars 2, Grand Theft Auto V, Diablo III, and Marvel Heroes were significant parts of 2014 for me. If they weren’t so obviously games from other years, they would most likely be on this list. In fact, one of them is, but I think it earned its place.
I spent a lot of 2014 with boardgames. I’m tempted to extend my fanatical platform agnosticism to include boardgames. But ultimately, I can’t reconcile the fact that boardgames are such a different type of experience, with unique advantages and disadvantages. I still intend to write about boardgames, but I’ve decided it’s proper to hang a curtain — not too thick a curtain, but a curtain nonetheless — between videogames and boardgames.
I fell out of love with the iOS as a gaming platform this year. Not to say it doesn’t have some exceptional offerings and a unique niche. But as I sampled various iOS games in 2014, time and again I felt that it’s not a gaming platform any more, but a business model. And I’m not interested in the business model it’s pushing.
Conversely, something really clicked with the Wii U this year, even alongside the sexy shiny newness of my new Playstation 4 and Xbox One. Three of my ten favorite games of 2014 are Wii U exclusives. On top of that, I was delighted with Star Wars Pinball (a standalone spin-off of Pinball FX) and Hyrule Warriors (a Zelda-fied Dynasty Warriors). Try as I might, I can’t resist that Nintendo magic.
Finally, I wish I had gotten the chance to play Thief, Wolfenstein: New Order, Infamous: Second Son, Batman: Arkham Origins, Elder Scrolls Online, The Evil Within, Hitman Go, Valiant Hearts, Tropico 5, Costume Quest 2, Lords of the Fallen, Little Big Planet 3, and Lego Batman 3. But onward to the games I did play!
After the jump, the top ten games of 2014.
10) Endless Legend
Developer Amplitude does an endrun around the problem of creating a competitive AI. Instead, they made game a based on factions that play so differently from each other, they might as well each be playing a different game. This does for 4X strategy games what Starcraft did for RTSs. Eight factions means eight Chick parabolas to climb before the disappointment sinks in!
9) Super Smash Bros.
A crazily generous toybox of a fighting game, building so successfully on the previous games that it sometimes feels like a remake. But there’s so much new stuff, and so many different ways to play, that you’ll shake that feeling soon enough. Also, there’s no way to maintain a critical eye in the unruly rumpus of eight-player brawls. Sheer insanity.
8) 80 Days
Not since Fallen London has prose been such an effective building block for a videogame. Infocom and Jules Verne would be proud. Read the review here.
7) Bayonetta 2
This generous and varied helping of empowered cheesecake is a litmus test for people who don’t understand the difference between sexy and sexist. It couldn’t have come at a more useful time! But it’s also a superb brawler and the perfect expression of everything that makes Platinum Games unique.
5) Mario Kart 8
This is the third Wii U game in my top ten list and it’s a game I didn’t even expect to like. I’m usually immune to whatever ineffable fun juice Nintendo puts into their games, but for whatever reason, Mario Kart 8 pierced my hard heart.
4) Infested Planet
Indie developer Alex Vostrov demonstrates that an RTS doesn’t have to be a AAA endeavor, a League of Legends clone, the usual resource management, or even a multiplayer game. Read the review here.
3) Age of Wonders III
At last a 4X strategy game with solid AI, distinct gameplay, and stellar graphics! Everything wrong with what Firaxis has been doing for the last several years is exactly right here, especially with the improvements in the Golden Realms add-on.
2) Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition
Blizzard carefully and craftily adapts Diablo III to consoles and then adds all the great stuff from Reaper of Souls, making this an irresistible loot chase, time sink, and action RPG rather than just a port. I wrote earlier that I felt like I spent an inordinate amount of 2014 playing games from 2013, but Diablo III on the Playstation 4 feels like the culmination of Diablo rather than a reissue of it.
1) The Crew
Like many driving games, open-world caRPGs certainly understand the love affair with the car. As technology advances, so too does the sheen of car porn (this is one of the few things the Forza games get right). But it’s easy to show that cars are sexy. What’s hard is to express the root of that sexiness: cars represent freedom. When you’re a kid, you need a car to get away from your parents. When you’re an adult, you need a car to unlock the world. A car frees you from the shackles of geography. It allows you to outrun responsibility, to break laws about who can go where when and how quickly, to achieve all manner of escape velocities. This is the point of so many movies about cars, and it’s what any driving game that isn’t set on closed tracks is grasping towards. Whether it’s the existential message of 70s classics like Two-Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point, or the foundation for 80s power fantasies like Road Warrior and Christine, or the shamelessly packaged demographic appeal of the Fast and Furious movies, cars are freedom.
More than any other caRPG or open-world game, The Crew understands this. It breaks out of the traditional one-city limit, thanks to a collaboration between the teams who made Driver: San Francisco and Test Drive Unlimited 2. They take this game from one end of America to the other, born in Detroit and then roaring through New York to New Orleans to Miami to Las Vegas to Los Angeles, moving to the western shore as sure as manifest destiny. It’s another one of Ubisoft’s inadvertently brilliant takes on America. Ubisoft is the accidental Alexis de Tocqueville of videogame publishers.
The Crew is a smorgasbord of varied scenery, wide open for wandering (I found a place called Chick’s Waffles on Cape Cod) or focusing on one area (I’m so close to unlocking the Miami license plates) or even two-hour races from shore to shore (and that’s not even the longest race). Furthermore, The Crew gets the gameplay right by appropriating MMO concepts, giving you a crazy long list of meaningful achievements to chase, and providing a gratifying driving model, even if it is hidden behind the “hardcore” setting in the options menu.
The Crew is deeply flawed in some ways and Ubisoft seems to have dumped it on the market without much confidence. I expect that it won’t find a wide audience, much less a place on many lists such as this. But I’ve spent more time with The Crew than any other game that came out this year, often just spinning my wheels to little effect, forward one more road, just past the next bend, just over the horizon. And that’s fine. Some of the best games just give you a place to be. The Crew gives me a car to be there in.
For comparison’s sake: The top ten games of 2013