The best games of 2014 (so far!)

, | Features

It’s that time of year again! America celebrates her emancipation from all those tea-drinking monarchists loitering off the coast of Europe and I post a list of my favorite games so far. It might seem a bit arbitrary to pick out games at the half-way point of the year. But it’s not! Like movies, games come out at very specific times during the year. A publisher that wants to make a lot of money saves the big guns for October and November, to cash in on holiday shopping. So if you sit down in the beginning of July to consider the year so far, there’s less AAA noise. There’s more room on a top ten list — this isn’t the Academy Awards, so we can’t just make the lists longer — for smaller games.

That said, why is there a picture of Titanfall up there?

After the jump, the first half of 2014.

10) Watch Dogs
I can only sheepishly admit how much I like Watch Dogs, because it’s a terrible game in so many ways. But as an open-world cyber-sandbox for faffing about in a variety of ways, this is a perfect example of everything Ubisoft does right and everything Ubisoft does wrong.

From the review:

It is an elaborate trifle, a AAA time fritterer, a playground with skyhigh production values mired in a bog, a dessert tray without an accompanying meal. It is mostly hollow, almost entirely meaningless, and only accidentally relevant. And I’m having a grand time with it.

For instance, my friends and I spent some of the holiday weekend with Watch Dogs on the Playstation 4 and iPad. One player uses the Playstation 4 to evade pursuit, and the other player uses a free iPad app to hunt him down with a helicopter and a team of police vehicles. It’s a bit like what Ubisoft did for the multiplayer in Zombie U. These are the sorts of gimmicks that make Watch Dogs better than it is.

9) Titanfall
Nick Diamon’s review does a great job elaborating how Titanfall’s new elements raise it above the level of just another mere shooter. And I couldn’t agree more. It’s as if the publishers of the entirely forgettable Medal of Honor: We Don’t Even Need A Subtitle Here finally conceded that someone has to do the hard work of good game design to make a good game. And boy, did the folks at Respawn do it. Titanfall’s giant robots are just what the doctor for moribund me-too shooters ordered.

8) Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare
Speaking of EA realizing someone has to do the hard work of good game design! I unfortunately played — and reviewed — Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare on the Xbox 360, which suffers the complications of that red-headed stepchild of game development known as the last-gen. Ugh. But on a borrowed Xbox One, and presumably on the Playstation 4 when it’s released next month or on the PC version which is available now, Garden Warfare is a really lovely game, aesthetically and in terms of gameplay, that I’d rather play instead of the shooters that inspired it.

From the review:

To its considerable credit, this is a calculated design, obviously intended to be an actual game with long-term viability. The horde mode is disappointingly one-sided — plants only, please — but otherwise it has the depth of a Gears of War, with your choice of defensible positions, defensive emplacements, teamwork, and crazy boss waves. The full-on multiplayer can really sing, either as a team deathmatch or a zombie incursion across a sequence of plant defenses. These eight classes, divided among two impressively asymmetrical sides, have their own style, their own gameplay, their own exhaustive store of cosmetic and not-so-cosmetic upgrades. Rather than getting some in-your-face player tag onscreen when you get killed, you get someone’s customized monstrosity. An electric blue cactus. A paint-spattered rainbow mottled zombie with a crossbow. Hey, how’d he get a crossbow? Why is that pea shooter wearing a diving mask? I guess if that’s all I got from the sticker packets for my pea shooter, I’d equip it too. How many of these are intentional choices and how many are the tyranny of the sticker packet random number generator?

Come for the gameplay. Stick around for the wacky unlockables.

7) One Finger Death Punch
What a masterpiece of mad glee and over-the-top minimalism! I am so happy I spent the twenty seconds it took to try this game, and that I then spent the ensuing hours ducking into it for brief diversions, unlocking some of its new features, sussing out its scoring challenges, and grinning wildly. One Finger Death Punch is proof that more of less can definitely be more.

6) Xenonauts
Even though Firaxis cannily updated X-Com with XCOM’s modernized boardgamish approach, the original X-Com still has its appeal for those of us hardcore enough to suffer the bankruptcy, sudden deaths, loss, and unfolding global apocalypse of an actual alien invasion instead of one carefully engineered for the Best Player Experience. Aliens vs Humans on the iPad was a mostly beat-for-beat and occasionally clunky remake of the original X-Com and it was good. But Xenonauts, a reworking of the original X-Com model with some modern day conveniences and a balance overhaul that makes the strategic level matter more, is flat-out great.

5) Diablo III: Reaper of Souls
I already liked Diablo III. But the changes in Reaper of Souls, aimed as they are at the hardcore RPG aficionado who doesn’t give a wooden nickel about the fate of Deckard Caine, turned Diablo III up to 11 and made it the last action RPG you’ll ever need. From the review:

…unlike the “just add a couple of new things” approach in Starcraft II, Reaper of Souls is a fundamental adjustment to how you play Diablo III. The new adventure mode is a change in philosophy every bit as important as removing the auction house. Once you’ve gotten through the storyline, you’ll unlock adventure mode, which opens the entire map and randomly generates objectives. Here Diablo III concedes that it might as well be a series of desultory “go here and kill stuff” assignments without cutscenes or narrative justifications or a set sequence. Click to go wherever you want, chasing dynamic objectives at whatever difficulty level you want. All that “content” is diced, shuffled, remixed, perfect for fifteen minutes or five hours. Start a new character and play it entirely in adventure mode. You never again have to meet Leah or Cain or help the templar get his gear out of that chest or walk the enchantress through the desert looking for hidden footprints. Now Diablo III is unadulterated action, free to do what it does best: random acts of hack, slash, and loot, stretching before you for as many hours as you want to put into it.

4) Spintires
If you build a game based on making the player move back and forth across the world, your game will live or die based on whether your traversal is interesting. And one of the most amazing traversal games I’ve seen since Spider-Man 2 is Spintires, which is about scouting out the map with a jeep and then moving supplies around in various trucks to attain the map’s victory condition. It’s a gloriously messy battle of machines vs nature, the likes of which I’ve never seen in a videogame. Because the machines and the nature are modeled with such adoringly sophisticated models for differential gears and mud and running water and winch physics and traction and all these other things that go into making a great simulation, but most of which just get chucked in, say, a rally racing game because the conventional wisdom is that a good caRPG needs to be about speed. Spintires is the most exciting new thing to happen to driving games in a long time.

3) Mario Kart 8
I put a lot of work into being a hard-assed game reviewer who doesn’t “get” Nitnendo. But it can be exhausting. Sometimes you just have to relax already and admit that they often make great games. Reviewing Mario Kart 8 is a great time to do this.

2) Infested Planet
Just when you thought real time strategy games had all turned into MOBAs, along comes this fantastic indie RTS about holding back an endless stream of aliens. But it’s not just an indie RTS in the usual sense. It’s got a handful of truly subversive and truly ingenious twists that make it unlike any other RTS and uniquely suited for single-player gaming.

From the review:

Infested Planet is all about the flow of this dynamic give-and-take, back-and-forth, thrust-and-parry, feint-and-regroup, upgrade and counter upgrade. Other real time strategy games are battle lines smashing into each other, often won by sheer force or snowballing advantages, messy, fraught with loss. Infested Planet is a dance.

1) A Study in Emerald
I know what you’re saying right now: “Wait, what is this doing in here? It’s a boardgame on a list of videogames!”

Not quite. The list is for games. Do we need to draw a line between videogames and boardgames? Why? Do we need to draw a line between Xbox games and Playstation games? Do we need to draw a line between console games and PC games? Do we need to draw a line between single player games and online games? If so, why? What do any of those lines mean? How do they serve the conversation?

My career, such as it is, in covering videogames has been about putting videogames in the same context as other forms of entertainment, making them part of a wider conversation, applying to them the same criteria we would apply to a book or a movie or an opera. But what makes videogames unique from other entertainment is their interactivity. The people who make them give us systems that we operate to create experiences that we feel we have affected, if not effected.

And that’s exactly what boardgames do. Over the last few years, I’ve marvelled at the resurgence in tabletop gaming with or without a board, at the creativity, the inventiveness, the clever theming, the artwork, the interfaces, the interaction with other players, and even the AI (the solitaire game Navajo Wars has an AI that beats the pants off most videogame AIs). So why not acknowledge that it doesn’t matter what platform game designers use when they invite us to spin out new narratives with and against our friends, and sometimes even without them? A deck of cards is different from a Playstation controller which is different from my PC, but so what? They’re all ways for me to interact with a game design.

And some of my favorite game design this year, some of my favorite player interaction regardless of platform, some of my favorite narrative, some of my favorite gameplay has been in A Study in Emerald, veteran designer Martin Wallace’s weird wonderful cocktail. From the review:

A Study in Emerald is often at odds with itself. I say that out of admiration. It is a study in opposites, or at least juxtapositions. Here is a territory control boardgame and a card-centric deck builder. Here is a historical setting and a dark fantasy world. Here is a team game and an every-man-for-himself stampede. Here is an open-ended game clock and a collection of abrupt sudden-death victory conditions. Here is combat and subterfuge, bomb throwers and dirty tricks. Here is a zombie apocalypse a century before it was even invented. Here is a melange of detective fiction, existential horror, and the industrial revolution. Here is one of the best boardgames I’ve ever played, fitted with jagged edges and abrupt corners, yet still an elegant collection of systems, simultaneously non-Euclidean and elegant. It’s elementary: I have failed my sanity check. Or at least my saving throw to resist unique gameplay interpretations of H.P. Lovecraft.

Okay, now your turn. How is 2014 shaping up for you? What are your favorite games that have come out this year?