So if the most disappointing category is a list of games that should have been better than they were, the most surprising category is the opposite. These are games that were better than they should have been. Just as disappointing is about falling short of expectations, these surprising games exceeded expectations and, in some cases, were among the best games of the year.
After the jump, the ten most surprising games of 2014.
10) Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
Why don’t I have more Call of Duty fatigue? Why do these Hollywoodized shooting galleries still hold my attention? I’m simultaneously surprised at how deeply worn the Call of Duty groove is and at how willingly I can travel down that groove for the handful of hours before I finish the single-player campaign, spend a few hours reminding myself that the competitive online scene has long since passed me by, and content myself with whatever co-op option is available. Send in the zombies with their power armor already, Activision! As a series, Call of Duty might be rote, but it’s never lacking energy, and that goes a long way.
9) Watch Dogs
You don’t have to play very far into Watch Dogs to identify that it’s yet another one of Ubisoft’s junky attempts at storytelling, with a main character who makes no sense in relation to the actual gameplay. But once you’ve resigned yourself to that, there’s a surprising amount of variety and freshness in the activities scattered around this cyber-sandbox in a stunningly realized version of Chicago. If it weren’t for Rockstar’s Los Angeles in the next-gen versions of Grand Theft Auto V, Watch Dog’s Chicago might have been the most amazing virtual place of the year.
It’s easy to dismiss Electronic Arts’ consummate corporate ability to safely package stuff that will sell. But sometimes, in the process of that safe packaging, they manage something special. Titanfall’s effective combination of nimble onfoot shootering and lumbering giant robot firepower is far better than many of us expected.
Behind the in-your-face crass humor and free-to-play business model, this is a really good shooter with a gratifying DIY weapon crafting and progression system. It’s no Warframe, but it’s close.
6) Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel
The Borderlands formula is so strong that even when 2K is obviously milking the franchise, it works. The Pre-Sequel boasts four sassy new characters, a few new twists to liven up the loot chase, a low-G airless lunar environment, and the series’ trademark affection and humor. Even though it was more of a grind this time, it was still more great Borderlands all over again.
5) Hyrule Warriors
There have been a few Dynasty Warriors games stripped of the mythology of ancient China, but none as accessible as this Zelda themed set of battles. It’s far weirder than I expected — which Zelda game had such a gratuitously chesty forest goddess? — but it’s eminently playable and as forgiving or challenging as you want it to be. It’s also a really good local multiplayer game!
4) Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare
Hey, look, Electronic Arts safely packaging stuff that will sell, and also designing a really clever game. Why am I surprised when EA makes good games? It’s a bit underwhelming on the last-gen systems, so get it on a latest-gen console or PC for best results.
Survival horror for trucks? That’s a thing? You bet.
2) Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Who thought a Lord of the Rings rip-off of the Batman games would be so well made? And who could guess the nemesis system wasn’t just a marketing bullet point, but a major gameplay innovation? And who would have figured that you don’t need to resort to the usual characters for a compelling take on Middle Earth? Gandalf who?
Never mind that stupid gamergate stuff; Driveclub was the most discouraging, exciting, and dramatically unpredictable story of 2014. Low energy preview showings that seemed to indicate a half-assed Forza clone, then a thrilling pre-release final build sent to reviewers the week before the launch, then a disastrous launch coupled with a no-show on Playstation Plus, then a limping process of updates along with the expected platitudes from Sony, and finally a tidied up, razor sharp, cleverly interactive racing game with excellent track design, phenomenal graphics, and even more phenomenal weather effects. It took a while to get there, but boy did it get there! In the final analysis, this one was dangerously close to making my top ten list along with Mario Kart 8 and The Crew. 2014 turned out to be an embarrassment of riches for those of us who like driving games.