The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
Publisher/developer: The Astronauts
The jaw-droppingly beautiful supernatural adventure/mystery The Vanishing of Ethan Carter sucks you in from the opening scene. “This game is a narrative experience that will not hold your hand,” the handwriting says in the intro, and the it delivers just what it promises.
You play Paul Prospero, an “occult-minded detective” responding to a troubling letter from a little boy. You explore the boy’s area of Red Creek Valley, where folks are dying in mysterious ways and the titular kid has, well, vanished.
The world is open. Nothing directs you to the next place to go. You’ll wander across clues that lead to more clues, in a twisty narrative that keeps you driving forward. It’s possible to lose the trail, but the game’s gorgeous graphics and thoughtful supernatural storyline will keep you engrossed. I want scenes from this game as the moving desktop on my PC.
GamesBeat previewed, but did not review, this game. Metacritic awarded an 82/100 score from reviewers and a remarkably consistent 8.2/10 from its readers. It’s short, at around 4 hours, but also cheap, at around $20.
The developer plans a PS4 version in 2015.
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Developer: Insomniac Games
Platform: Xbox One
Some entries on this list are Serious Business. Sunset Overdrive is anything but. Set in a near-future where a soda company launches an energy drink that turns everyone into slavering zombie-aliens, this game is an irreverent lark, pure violent and platforming fun.
The platforming bits are hectic and wildly unrealistic, asking you to grind skateboard-style on rails and building edges, launching off with wild multijumps that catapult you in physics-defying arcs across the landscape. Stay on the ground and you die; live in the air and win, often with the help of over-the-top weaponry.
You use that weaponry to blow up the mutants into explosions of orange soda, and buildings into mushroom clouds. The game manages to poke fun at a half-dozen genres and itself in the process.
GamesBeat gave Sunset Overdrive 85/100 in our review, declaring it a “gleeful combination of Tony Hawk Pro Skater and combat.” It’s even more fun in multiplayer.
Publisher/developer: Yacht Club Games
Platform: Wii U, Nintendo 3DS, PC, Mac, Linux
It’s rare to see a new platformer that can challenge the classics, the Marios and Mega Mans who dominated the field for decades. Shovel Knight may just be it.
Yacht Club Games developed this hit; I didn’t know them before, either, but I’ll sure be paying attention to them now. Shovel Knight combines superior action and silky-smooth production values to create retro-platforming, side-scrolling fun.
You’ll happily careen, running, massively leaping, and shovel-smacking your way through the levels. You never die; you just lose the gold you use to buy desperate-needed upgrades. The 8-bit aesthetic somehow pairs nicely with the more-modern aspects: the endless, deathless run, the cool weapons and power-ups that make you invisible or give you added abilities.
GamesBeat gave Shovel Knight a well-deserved 93/100 in our review, saying it could be a classic. I’d say it already is. The developer tells us PlayStation 4, PS3, and Vita versions are in the works.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Platform: Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC
I wrestled with including either Titanfall or Destiny on this list and then struggled with which to list before the other.
In truth, they both offer the same thing: a sci-fi shooter experience that does not rely on previous games or source material. Both show that you can build a blockbuster experience without trodding down the same tired intellectual property paths previously broken by other games. Both are, despite their issues, excellent games for both graphics and gameplay. Titanfall offered smooth transitions between wall-running, superagile pilots and heavy, collect-all-the-bullets-and-throw-them-at-all-the-things mechs.
But in the same way a small-budget game can delight with how much it achieves, both of these megamillion hits had significant flaws that led them to accomplish less than their potential.
Titanfall included a few too many tropes in its mech/soldier combat, and its reliance on multiplayer-only action limited gamers. Destiny suffered from bugs, and its pricing model, which doesn’t allow players to participate in all content without buying new downloads, leaves a sour taste.
The Talos Principle
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platform: PC, Mac, Linux
A first-person puzzler for PC, The Talos Principle provides one of the most immersive experiences I’ve seen since Portal. You are an android, designed for who knows what, set loose in re-creations of Earth’s most meaningful human ruins.
You solve locked-door puzzles with large objects, redirecting lasers, jamming bombs, floating yourself and your tools with fans, and so on. As you work, you hear the voice of Elohim, your master and jailor, see traces of other androids who have been there before you, and learn more about what happened to the human race — and what role you might play.
It offers both physical challenges and philosophical ones. The voluminous supporting materials (primarily text and audio clips) you consume inside the game lead you to question the very nature of existence and what it means to be a person.
GamesBeat gave this a 90 out of 100 in our review, declaring it “one of the better puzzle game presentations [we’ve] ever played.”
Want still more great games? Check out our gallery of six games that almost made the list: