Some great games debuted in 2014, but I feel like it was an in-between year. Last year, the previous generation of consoles peaked and the next-generation consoles debuted. This year, more big titles were supposed to arrive. But some highly anticipated games like Evolve, Dying Light, and The Order: 1886 slipped into 2015.
That made it seem like 2014 was actually a disappointment compared to 2013, when titles such as The Last of Us and BioShock Infinite held me spellbound. I am glad that my pick for my favorite game of the year, Watch Dogs, made it out the door after more than five years of development. But I’d hate to think that every big game has to take that long to complete. I also don’t want to criticize the developers who did ship some beautiful games this year. I hope to use my visibility to encourage and inspire developers to make awesome games on every platform.
These games below are epic achievements. Some are long and some aren’t, but they consumed many hours of my life this year.
It’s good to see from my picks that the next-generation consoles are holding strong. The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 became strong platforms for both heavy-duty console games and indie titles delivered via digital means. The consoles were my preferred platform for most of the games on this list. Steam and the Windows PC were also great platforms for strong computer games such as Civilization: Beyond Earth and indie titles like Ultimate General: Gettysburg.
Mobile gaming also rose in prominence this year. Two of my picks were great iOS games: Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft and Vainglory; and I also played The Walking Dead: Season 2 entirely on the Nvidia Shield Tablet. These picks show that the mobile devices are becoming more and more powerful, and that it doesn’t take a huge amount of processing power to run a well-designed game. Next year, I hope to see something different, like a virtual reality game on my favorites list.
I am disappointed in Nintendo this year. It shipped some great games like Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U, but those titles are getting old to me, and I find them unoriginal in comparison to so many other fresh brands. But Nintendo did what it needed to do this year to make the Wii U into a healthy platform, and it extended its dominance with the 3DS handheld.
I’m sure that many readers will find this list to be uninspired. It’s full of commercial blockbusters, but I have to say that the big companies really delivered this year. A few of the games show my own unique biases. I’m sure that many folks didn’t have the grit to fight through the enormously difficult Wolfenstein: The New Order. But difficulty isn’t always a bad thing. And hey, it’s my list.
For the sake of comparison, here are my favorites from 2013, 2012 and 2011. And be sure to check out the GamesBeat staff’s own votes for Game of the Year and the best individual favorites of the staff next week. We’ve also published the top original games of 2014 and the best indie games of 2014. The links for the games go to our full reviews or other significant related stories. Be sure to check out the runner-ups at the bottom and our reader poll where you can sound off on these choices.
1) Watch Dogs
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Platforms: Windows, PS4, PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U
Ubisoft’s cyber-thriller about a rogue hacker who takes control of a modern city lived up to its billing. It was original, had a good story, and the characters were interesting. The game had its faults, and its writing wasn’t as strong as some of last year’s big titles. But I poured hours into it, and so did 9 million other people who bought the game and made it one of the most successful new game franchises of all time. The game held my attention for dozens of hours, and that’s more than I can say for a lot of the blockbusters this year. After playing this game, I could understand why people become hackers. It’s such a power trip, and it sucks you into a life that you really don’t want to leave. Through the character Aiden Pearce, a vigilante who is guilt-ridden about the harm he brought down on his own family, Ubisoft captured the contradictions about whether hackers and vigilantes are really good or bad for society. The game also raised an alarm about the wisdom of connecting everything in our electronic lives.
Many reviewers felt that Watch Dogs didn’t live up to its hype. But if you played it all the way through, for somewhere around 40 hours, you’ll come to see that it is an enormously complex game on the order of Grand Theft Auto V. At the same time, it was simple to learn and control. Driving was fluid and easy. Hacking into the smartphones of other people was fun. You could peer into their private lives and feel like a voyeur. Pulling tricks on people was half the fun, and it wasn’t too hard to do. When a police car was chasing you, all it took was a well-time button push to raise a drawbridge and watch the cops fly into the water below. You could cross an intersection and cause some cars to crash. And you could raise concrete pillars and watch your pursuers smash into them.
But life on the run was tough. The police were relentless in trying to hunt you down, and sometimes it took a half hour just to get them off your trail. I also enjoyed some epic gunfights against gangs and cops as they surrounded me. All of that speaks to the vast breadth of gameplay in this open world.
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: Windows, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Titanfall didn’t have a single-player campaign, but it was full of innovations and fun with its multiplayer combat that combined futuristic ground infantry and hulking Mechs. It gave you instant action as you fell to the planet from orbit in a single-person pod. You emerge into a world of combat. That’s a rush, and it’s just the beginning of an intense firefight. The game had such nice touches. You could run on walls and jump to the top of buildings, thanks to the power of your exoskeleton.
And even though the multiplayer was fierce, the developers wisely chose to put non-human grunts into the action. You could shoot them more easily and score some points. So you never went through a match where you were completely skunked by the other players. That was a nice touch that made the first-person shooter more accessible. And then, if you earned enough points, you could get in a Mech. I loved jumping into a steel machine and spraying grenades in every direction. No other game this year had so many explosions per second. Its only drawback was its short level cap. But Titanfall brought a lot of joy to a crowded and tired genre.
3) Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: Windows, PS4, PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Nobody is a bigger Lord of the Rings fan than me. I’ve read the trilogy multiple times and read every word of it out loud to two of my three kids. (I’m working on the third one). But as much as I would like to play an awesome Lord of the Rings game, I can’t say I ever have.
That’s why Shadow of Mordor was such a surprise. It started with a mysterious story about a Ranger whose family was murdered. A good Wraith, or ghost, helps him escape death. The Wraith turns out to be a character that the evil Dark Lord tricked many years ago into making the Rings of Power and a means to enslave their wielders with the One Ring. Slowly, it dawns on you that this is a pretty epic tale.
As the Ranger, your job is to go into the evil land of Mordor and subvert Sauron’s forces before he can grow too powerful. With its Nemesis System, you can identify the orc leaders that you have to take out. You can take them out in any order, but if you fail in one attempt, the orc leader rises in the hierarchy and becomes more powerful. So the next time you try to kill him, he’s harder to beat and is surrounded by more troops. This means that the game gets harder to play over time, and you have to really think hard about how to win. It’s also highly replayable.
Combined with the great story, the Nemesis System makes Shadow of Mordor an excellent game.
4) Alien: Isolation
Developer: The Creative Assembly
Platforms: Windows, PS4, PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Let’s hear it for interesting heroines in games. Ellen Ripley, the main character of Ridley Scott’s original Alien movie, was of the strongest female leads in film. She survived against the odds while fighting the acid-blooded xenomorph, one of the most terrifying creatures ever imagined. Now, many years later, her daughter Amanda Ripley has returned to find out what really happened to her missing mother. She goes to a space station that has lost all communications and finds herself facing the same alien threat that her mother fought.
As Amanda Ripley, you live in a constant state of fear. First, you have to find out what happened on the ruined space station. Then, once you find out about the alien infestation, you have to evade the monster. And the monster isn’t your only enemy. You have to watch out for humans and rogue robots. In short, you are isolated and afraid. But you can stick to the shadows, hide in lockers, hold your breath, and then assemble whatever weapons you can to fight the terrifying creature.
This game brings back the suspense of the original movie as well as its sense of horror. The game also pushes you to solve puzzles, find clues, and figure out how to survive against the odds from a position of complete vulnerability. Your only real tool is a motion detector that tells you when you’re about to be attacked. You die a lot in this game, and you pay very dearly for the smallest of mistakes. You can only survive by stealth and silence. And that’s what makes it a good game.
5) Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
Developer: Sledgehammer Games
Publisher: Activision Publishing
Platforms: Windows, PS4, PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Like the song in The LEGO Movie suggests, everything about Kevin Spacey is awesome. The actor took what could have been an ordinary role as a mercenary corporate executive and he turned it into a memorable performance. Now that the Cold War is over, it isn’t easy for shooter game script writers to come up with menacing and powerful enemies. But Spacey runs a private military corporation with global ambitions, and he wants to become mightier than any government when it comes to military prowess.
Set in the future, this game introduces all sorts of cool weaponry including an exoskeleton that enables you to jump far and a infrared grenade that reveals enemies that are hiding behind cover. The single-player campaign is tough and it steadily introduces you to new capabilities and weapons. The set pieces are still gripping like a Hollywood action movie. You’ll never forget standing on the Golden Gate Bridge as it collapses. And toward the end of the game, the firefights and action scenes become massive and they push the next-generation consoles to the limit.
And in the multiplayer sessions, I’ve actually been able to continuously improve my scores. Sometimes, the multiplayer requires so much skill that the less-capable veterans and neophytes don’t stand a chance. But I’m steadily leveling up, and I still find a quick multiplayer match as a nice treat at the end of a long day.
6) Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Platforms: Windows, Mac OS X, iPad, iPhone, Android
I came to Hearthstone late after hearing so much about it from my colleagues and friends. I am not a fan of card games, but this one was easy to learn and addictive. The characters were somewhat familiar from my good old days of playing Warcraft games. The system is easy to understand, and there are so many players that you never have to wait a long time to find an opponent. You draw your hand of cards and use the cards to either defend yourself or attack.
The only trouble is when you’re winning a match and someone plays a card that you’ve never seen before. They can use that card to rip your hero to shreds. The battles ebb and flow, with one side winning during one round and the other side coming back in the next. When I’ve barely lost a match in this free-to-play game, that’s when I feel motivated to buy packs of cards — in the hopes of getting a good one that will let me dish out some pain to other players.
7) Civilization: Beyond Earth
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: Windows, Mac OS X, Linux
I’m a sucker for Civilization games. I love the strategy involved in building a civilization and making it thrive against competitors. So I was going to like this game no matter what. But it took a lot more imagination because this title starts where most of the other Civ games end. Humanity takes to the stars in search of a new habitable planet. From the moment I landed on a new world, I was in trouble.
Giant siege worms and other creatures kept on attack my lone city. I expanded until I ran into another civilization. And while I was busy waging a war against the aliens, my neighbor launched a surprise attack on me. I had to fight off that evil bastard and try to keep my economy from sinking at the same time.
Civilization games are complex by their very nature. But when you get the hang of it, there’s no better feeling. It’s like winning a chess match against a grand master. And in this case, everything is fresh. You have to research all sorts of cool sci-fi technologies, build the right armies, collect resources, and learn about the alien life at the same time.
8) Wolfenstein: The New Order
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: Windows, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360
There is a lot of disturbing imagery in this follow-up of id Software’s classic first-person shooter game. In this tale, the Nazis have won World War II. You have to play the last surviving American fighter, William “B.J.” Blazkowicz, who is injured in the war and is in a coma for 14 years. He wakes up with the Nazis in total control of the world and on their way to conquering space and the moon.
The game is a difficult shooter, but it also has a complex story and some interesting characters, both on your side and on the German side. There are times when you will feel like you are inside the film Inglourious Basterds. In contrast to the old Wolfenstein game from the 1990s, this isn’t purely a one-way corridor quest. You have large fighting spaces and multiple options to clear them. You can go in with guns blazing or just use stealth and a knife.
The game is really long. You can shoot Nazis forever, and they just keep on coming. You are always the underdog, except when you steal a Nazi Mech vehicle at a concentration camp. You move from one impossible firefight to another, and you have to deal with some memorable bosses like the London Monitor. This game was so tough that I almost went wacko playing it. But it was very satisfying when I was finally done.
9) The Walking Dead: Season 2
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Platforms: Windows, Mac OS X, PS4, PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, iOS, PS Vita, Ouya, Android
Sequels usually aren’t that much fun. But Telltale has The Walking Dead series figured out. The zombie apocalypse has come, and the zombies always force you to make tough decisions like choosing which one of your family members or friends to save.
That’s wrenching enough when it’s adults making these decisions. But in Season 2 of the Telltale series, you play Clementine, a little girl who has lost her parents. Clementine gets thrown into the gladiator pits, and she has to quickly figure out who her friends are and who is likely to get her killed. The choices are tough because the characters are almost always flawed.
She’s a tad too mature for her age, but she’s a well-crafted character. I’ve come to expect that from the folks at Telltale, who have learned to tell their episodic stories with high drama and suspense. I’ve had to make a lot of hard choices in this game, and then, at the end of each chapter, I get to see how my decisions stack up against everyone else’s. That’s a formula that will keep me coming back.
Developer: Super Evil Megacorp
Publisher: Super Evil Megacorp
Vainglory is a new breed of hardcore game designed for the tablet experience. It takes the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre popularized by League of Legends and simplifies it for a touchscreen experience. The result is a game that is easy to get into and effortless to play. But it is also engaging enough to keep you furiously pounding on the tablet screen with your fingers for a half hour for just one match.
The title has just three human players fighting against three human opponents, compared to a typical 5-vs-5 MOBA. But there are plenty of tactical options. You can charge down the main lane with your minions, but you have to take out some big guns along the way. Or you can disappear into the Jungle below and attack gold mines, sneak up on enemies, or free the deadly Kraken, the giant monster that will deal a lot of damage to your enemy.
I haven’t spent much time with MOBAs, partly because they’re just too fast for me to grasp. But Vainglory has held my attention, and it’s an accessible game that makes it easy for anyone to learn. That’s an important accomplishment, since it could have hundreds of millions of potential players. As with Hearthstone, I love the give and take of the chaotic battles. Just because you get the Kraken on your side doesn’t mean you will win. Individual effort matters. And you can turn out to be the loser or the hero multiple times within the same match. That’s what makes it a high-adrenaline experience.
Runners-up: Dragon Age: Inquisition, Flappy Bird (yes, it started in 2013 but became a worldwide hit in 2014), Monument Valley, Destiny, Far Cry 4, Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, Company of Heroes: Ardennes Assault, Ultimate General: Gettysburg, Sunset Overdrive, and Threes!. I was very tempted to pick The Last of Us: Remastered, as the PS4 version is a considerable improvement on the PS3 version that was my favorite pick for last year. The same was true for Grand Theft Auto V, which debuted on the next-generation consoles this year. There were also a lot of great games that I didn’t have time to play, but I guess that’s a vote in itself.
What’s your vote? Let me know in the comments. And check out the poll below.