It's safe to say it's been another great year for video games.
The first full-year of the new consoles has seen a mix of fresh IP and refinements of popular franchises, and the ever-impressive imagination of the indie dev scene has more than held its own against the goliath of traditional publishing.
Below are our picks for what we believe are the best games of 2014.
James Batchelor, Editor
Monument Valley (Ustwo Games)
The beauty of Monument Valley lies in more than just its ingenius premise: manipulating each level’s architecture to create M.C. Escher-style optical illusions that create a clear path for the game’s protagonist. The finely tuned mechanics create a smooth experience in which you can bend the levels to your whim without fear of the app breaking or crashing.
This core mechanic is far from under-utilised. Ustwo experiments with its level design and gameplay in every conceivable way (or so we thought before the equally wonderful Forgotten Shores expansion). Monument Valley’s brain-teasing puzzles are among the most satisfying to solve, easily standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Zelda’s dungeons and Portal’s devious test chambers. That these labyrinthine monuments set the stage for a subtle but poignant storyline gives the game a similar tone to acclaimed hits such as Journey and The Unfinished Swan.
Even with more rudimentary graphics and controls, Monument Valley would shine but the high quality of the game’s presentation – from its welcoming pastel colour palette to the serene and responsive sound design – makes it one of the most complete and accomplished games available on mobile.
Mario Kart 8 (Nintendo)
Ahead of any major Nintendo release, naysayers will despair at the apparent lack of innovation from the platform holder, accused of rehashing the same franchises over and over again. Post launch, the critics are silenced – and the arrival of Mario Kart 8 was no exception.
Everything the game offers is both fresh and welcomingly familiar at the same time. The gameplay that retains the same rules as the original SNES version has been fine-tuned to perfection, particularly when it comes to handling – it’s now possible to blast around the traditionally merciless Rainbow Road without touching the sides.
The zero-G racing, something that could easily have become half-hearted gimmick, enables some of the craziest, most exhilarating courses in the series’ history. And the step into HD is more than noticeable: this is one of the best-looking releases of the year, and not just on Nintendo’s platform.
It’s the little touches that really complete Mario Kart 8. The customisable replay videos, the myriad of shortcuts lurking on each course, the variety of vehicle designs and handling styles and, yes, the Luigi death stare – it all points to the long-running sentiment that, while clichéd, continues to set Nintendo apart from the rest: that video games are meant to be fun.
South Park: The Stick of Truth (Obsidian Entertainment)
“We have been betrayed,” Cartman rasps. “The peace we once knew shattered like glass. First came the goblins. Then underpants gnomes. Vampire kids. Hippies. Crab people.”
So began the announcement trailer for South Park: The Stick of Truth, way back at E3 2012. The promise: an RPG that was a video game first, a licensed tie-in second. The game finally arrived in March, and more than delivered.
The influence of series creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone is more than obvious: the feels just as much a part of the South Park catalogue as the movie and every weekly episode. That the show’s humour and overdramatised story structure fits perfectly with Obisidian’s RPG makes you question why such a partnership hasn’t happened before.
Not just a title for South Park fans (although obviously that’s a distinct advantage), The Stick of Truth is also a brilliant satire of RPG tropes, from the hilarious tutorial to the retro Canada section. Rather than padding the game out to 100 hours of content, the main quest weighs in at a more manageable 15 to 20 hours, making this just as well-crafted a tribute to lengthier RPGs as the show’s episodes are to Hollywood movies.
Craig Chapple, Deputy Editor
It’s not often a game offers a completely fresh experience, but that’s something Creative Assembly took a risk with this year with Alien: Isolation, and it paid off in spades.
You’ve heard all the praise by now, the game is “terrifying”, “atmospheric”, evoking the “horror” of the original Alien film. But it’s not just the Alien, which had me hiding in events through sheer panic or running desperately for my life with no clear goal, it’s the other methods the developer uses to build up tension.
The first hour or so before the Alien even turns up still had me frightened to death as I cowered in the corners and in nearby lockers… over what turned out to be nothing but well placed lighting and carefully composed and cued music.
The game could definitely have been shorter, with four of its five or so endings cut out, but everything else about it was masterful. By far, Alien: Isolation is my game of the year.
I’m a big fan of the InFamous series, so it was great to see that Sucker Punch ventured into familiar territory with InFamous: Second Son but ratcheting up the action. It’s also a great technical demo of what the PS4 is capable of thanks to its stunning graphics. But the most important thing of all, the game was just huge fun to play.
Then there's This War of Mine. This is actually the most depressing game ever, but clearly the sadistic part of me enjoys playing it and failing miserably at getting anyone to survive more than a week during wartime. It’s a refreshing take from the typical man versus world shooters we always see, because honestly, who needs another Call of Duty clone?