It’s that time of year again. A time for giving, receiving, remembrance and, most importantly, a time to reflect on all the wonderful (and shitty) games of the past 12 months and put them in an arbitrary list to somehow pit them against each other in a competition of significance so you, the person reading this right now, can get a better idea of who I am as a person. Maybe you’ve played most of these games, maybe you disagree with most of my list… the important thing is that this is my list of my favorite games of the last year and there is nothing you can do about it. Except read it.
Please, for the love of god read it. Also, comment below if you agree or disagree. Or don’t. I can’t make you do anything.
So straight up, this game was kind of shoved onto the list last minute due to how silly and awesome it is. I started playing it recently and, while I liked Saints Row: The Third, fell in love with that very same sense of humor. Where The Third may have felt a little reined in a bit to make a more “grounded” experience (AKA, an actual city environment), Saints Row IV basically says “nah, fuck that… have fun with this stupid story!”.
It’s hard to really pin-point what has made this game so great; maybe it’s the fact that the game starts off with your character as the President of the United States climbing up a nuclear rocket as it flies in the air with the intention of making it self-destruct as random members of your gang/cabinet tell you how much they like you to the tune of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing”. Or maybe, it’s that from that point, it never really slows down and let’s you just kind of do what you want. It’s just… fun!
This is on this list simply for the reason that it was such an unique experience this year. People more prolific on the internet will sing the praises of Gone Home as a boon for video games as an expressive narrative and thought-provoking exercise in how to tell a story in the medium, but in all honesty I just kind of found the premise of walking through an unknown person’s house and going through their shit kinda fun in a voyeuristic sense.
There is a slight disconnect when it comes to Gone Home from me from the story however, which I have mentioned in our spoiler podcast of the game on the site. Although I enjoy the process of uncovering the hidden story of what happened to your game’s avatar’s sister, I have no personal interest in the actual story at all. Why should I care about this person’s sister? Sure, she had some problems with self-discovery much like we all do but there is no personal involvement for me, the player, being long out of my angsty teen years. Luckily, the unhappiness in the family flows like a terrible river as there are plenty of mini stories you uncover about the father, mother and even a bit about the girl you play to form the greater picture of this family.
Again, I may not exactly enjoy some aspects of the story, but Gone Home did something almost revolutionary this year by hiding said story in the game and forcing my interaction to actively discover it for myself, which is a huge accomplishment in it’s own regard.
What was always regarded in my mind as “another Diablo 2 clone”, Path of Exile surpassed my rather lukewarm expectations and continues to do so everytime I load it up. Sure, the first time I saw it at PAX I was excited but playing in the beta was an exercise in boredom as I started to think “hey, maybe I don’t actually WANT another Diablo 2…”, but here we are a few months after the official release of the game and I sit in awe of how well this clone stands on it’s own two feet.
Grinding Gear Games does a fantastic job of taking old design philosophies from Blizzard’s game and making a new, different feeling experience that is both satisfying right from the start and motivates you to find the loot, upgrade your stuff and take on impossible odds either alone or with friends.
The “abilities” are done in the form of gems rather than spells, meaning you can upgrade certain abilities in different ways and link them to other gems for differing effects. For example, a piece of armor might have three gem slots with a line connecting them. In this piece of armor, you could put in a gem that makes all your arrows Lighting Arrows linked to a gem called Fork, which will make your Lighting Arrows split into threes to hit more enemies linked to a Blind gem, which will make all hit enemies have a chance of being 75% less likely to hit. With such a robust system, Path of Exile gives a player full control of what skills and build they want to play with and allows the freedom to mix-and-match very easily. This is complimented by a skill-tree system that is reminiscent of the entire Sphere Grid system Final Fantasy X had, only instead being double the size and for one single character.
Sound daunting? It is. Path of Exile is very much made for a hardcore audience who will be willing to learn the systems it lets you play with almost completely alone and offer very little adjustment if you go down a skill tree path you may not have wanted to go down.
Oh, did I mention it’s free to play?
The most last minute of decisions, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger was recommended by Nathan awhile back, but the recommendation fell on deaf ears as every time I hear a title starting with “Call of…”, I automatically check-out of the conversation. On a whim, I decided to try it out recently and low-and-behold, Gunslinger became one of my favorite gaming experiences of the year.
Sure, it’s another first-person shooter and falls to many pitfalls of the genre and even then, it falls short of the genre standard set by the Call of Duty and Halo games in terms of controls. But who cares? What Gunslinger does best is draw you into the western tales of Silas Greaves as he narrates his life as an outlaw, a lawman and bounty hunter. As your character is recounting his story in a saloon with drunks, there are many times he will exaggerate and get called out for doing so or throw in loopholes to see if his “audience” is actually listening, and each time the game will respond to his words by redrawing the scene or throwing in more enemies or even making you replay a section from a different perspective as it’s told.
For what it lacks in super polished game play, Gunslinger more than makes up for in personality and, it seems that might be enough for me.
What makes State of Decay great isn’t necessarily that it brings anything new to the table, but rather steals great ideas from other games and combines them successfully into it’s own purposes for making a fun game. If you look close enough, you can almost see the checklist of inspirations that Undead Labs likely drew from with an open world similar to something Rockstar would do in Grand Theft Auto, a combat system akin to what you’d find in Dead Rising and even some strange character traits you might see in a game of The Sims.
This combination makes for an unparalleled survival simulator in a world that gives you a series of small victories instead of some grand goal of trying to save the world. In State of Decay, ridding a small community of the zombie threat and creating outposts are the top goal and just keeping your characters alive is the fullest achievement you can reach. It’s just kind of nice sometimes to play a game that throws you into an impossible situation and doesn’t expect you to overcome it so much as just to exist in it and for that reason, State of Decay is one of the funnest zombie experiences I’ve had this year.
I feel like I may have to make a quick distinction for this game: Papers, Please was one of the most unique and interesting games I’ve EVER played… NOT in any way the funnest.
It’s hard to think that a game set in a Cold War era European border office reading documents would be intriguing at all, but it’s just so different than what we’ve come to expect from games. It’s bleak and mundane but there is something about the simplicity of just doing your “job” and making sure you do it correctly that adds a strange sense of worth and accomplishment, much the same as Cart Life did last year. Papers, Please may not have been a game I could go to at any point this year but every time I loaded it up, I got one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had playing a video game.
Whether or not people hail it for being genius or condemning it as “just another boring shooter with tired Sci-Fi story elements”, Bioshock Infinite hit all the right notes at the time of its release for me to thoroughly enjoy most of what it has to offer. The floating city of Columbia almost rivals Rapture in its well realized ambiance and was a treat to trek through slowly to try to unravel all of it’s secrets. The story is well-paced with the right amount hooks and revelations to keep you motivated enough to want to uncover more and not feel like you’ve wasted your time in doing so. The characters are more fleshed out than many others in the first-person shooter genre and the series standard combination of weird magic abilities and weapons make for some pretty satisfying combat situations.
While I may not have loved the long, drawn-out sections of bullet-sponge enemies and just completely despised the “rail system” of moving around, Infinite carries the Bioshock name with the quality of story and gameplay fidelity we’ve come to expect of the series.
Rogue Legacy was released at a very bad time for me; it was right around the time that I had become the most cynical I’ve ever been about indie game developers and their games. With the proven success of indie games in the last couple years, it seems like every person with a computer at some point has put out a game and, for whatever reason, people eat it all up as if they owe it to the developers.
Rogue Legacy was one of few exceptions for me this year. Made by the dudes who brought you such flash game classics as “Don’t Shit Your Pants”. Rogue Legacy mixes the perfect combination of Metroidvania like exploration with Spelunky rogue-like brutal game play and adds a neat twist of progression throughout your “heirs”, each of which continue the game with the amount of gold of your previous attempts to upgrade and possibly get further next time. It’s an addictive formula that makes the game near impossible to put down and motivates you to get better to power through.
I’ve stated before that as I get a bit older, video games with a long and engaging story become less important to me than games that I can create my own story. Well, that’s what Dota 2 is. Dota 2 is the medium in which stories of glorious success and disappointing failures are able to flourish. It’s the tool to get four friends together, choose from a wide variety of heroes to learn (all of which play differently, by the way) and play the most intensive “team building exercise” in existence.
It’s understandable why so many people would probably never look at Dota 2; the community is ravenous, the game itself is hard to learn and it requires a lot of time and effort to be able to do the most basic of stuff in it. I promise you though, after that initial hump it’s easily one of the best experiences you’ll ever have in gaming. Just, trust me on this one.
GAME OF THE YEAR:
If you had told me I would ever have a card game as my favorite game of the year, I might have had you institutionalized with no chance of ever getting out. I knew many people growing up who loved Magic: The Gathering and I could never understand why, thinking it as no more than an even nerdier hobby than the video games I played and loved.
Enter Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft beta access in my email. Although I had been following it as a curiosity simply to see what Blizzard was working on in their spare time, it was upon playing the game that I realized Hearthstone was the perfect game for me this year. Take everything I love about Dota 2, then subtract the terrible experiences of playing with people you don’t know and trying to learn the game while everyone who should be supporting you is almost trying to see you fail. This is what Hearthstone is: the perfect, self-contained experience that is easy to learn and play but hard to fully master.
I had debated for a long time putting this game on my list for a few reasons, not least of which being that the game isn’t even officially released yet but is still in beta. In the end, I feel that although Hearthstone might still be in closed beta, it has provided me with the most consistent enjoyment and entertainment of any other game this year, which is really saying something. To think that a game that isn’t just incomplete, but consistently changing and being fixed, was the game I enjoyed the most all year speaks volumes about its quality. Also, not to look to far ahead yet, but I doubt this will be the last time this game is on one of my “Games of the Year” lists…
See you next year!