2014 is halfway done, and so far it’s been a pretty great time for gaming. Whilst its usually the holiday season that packs most of the game-of-the-year nominees into its hectic couple of months, the first half has been no slouch. Below are a couple of my stand-out moments the year has had to offer thus far.
Destiny (E3 Alpha Weekend) Bungie | Multiplatform
Destiny just wasn’t on my radar. I’d seen the announcement and the subsequent trailers and I just wasn’t fussed. It looked like classic Halo aesthetics and shooting shoehorned into Borderlands’ sense of exploration, level ups and loot – and this is still the easiest way to describe Destiny – but when I got the chance to try it over E3 I finally climbed aboard the hypetrain.
Destiny feels like the game Bungie have wanted to make for a while. Much like its forebear, it relishes in grand vistas, punchy shooting and a formidable cooperative experience. Whilst these blueprints serve Destiny well, Bungie aren’t afraid to deviate and offer something truly fresh. Despite being a hop-in/hop-out adventure best served with friends, Destiny has an innate loneliness to it that’s hard to shake. You’re not punished for venturing off the beaten path or abandoning your friends to check out the corridors of a crashed ship. Indeed, some of my favourite moments of the Alpha weekend were alone, exploring a desolate wreck or simply seeing how far into Russia the game would allow me to walk. Though the Alpha was extremely limited, the impressive scope of the game was still present and intimidating. It conjured up the intoxicating adventure of exploration I haven’t felt since the last Metroid title I played, and I was stunned to find it in a game I hadn’t given a second look ’til now.
The multiplayer was typically tight and grin-inducing, and the loot system and level ups were appropriately addictive, but it was this sense of being a pioneer that really sold me on Bungie’s latest. The Beta that launches later this month can’t come soon enough.
Watch Dogs Ubisoft | Multiplatform
Whilst I simply ignored Destiny, I was an active detractor for Ubisoft’s oft-delayed Watchdogs. Like the rest of the industry I was floored by its announce back in 2012, but after multiple setbacks and some concerning trailers that displayed a worrying divide between actual gameplay and E3 promises, I was dubious to say the least.
So, like the rest of my disillusioned comrades, I took to my soapbox and shouted to all that would listen that Watchdogs would be this year’s biggest flop. After grabbing it, however, it astounded me with its unique flavour of stealth, its dynamic action sequences and the great gunplay that punctuated the package. All of Watchdogs’ best moments occurred organically, with explosive results that left me breathless as I sped away from the carnage I wrought. Whilst it wasn’t the game that was promised to us, Watchdogs defied my expectations in the best possible way and delivered some of the most fun – in its purest form – that I’ve ever experienced in a sandbox game. And I haven’t even mentioned the spider tank…
Dark Souls II From Software | Multiplatform
Dark Souls II had a serious mountain to climb when it came to impressing me. The original remains to this day my favourite game of all time, so when I approached the sequel I did so with a mix of trepidation and excitement. I hoped I would simply get more of the same, but DSII refused to simply be a retread of the first. It dared to iterate on the success of its predecessors whilst carving out a unique identity for itself.
Drangleic was richer than Lodran, fuller, wider and more intimidating. What it lacked in focus and cohesion it made up for in unique locales, stunning vistas and an amount of content that floored me. The sword & board combat was as pulse pounding as ever, with bosses that seemed more insurmountable than anything that had come before, whilst the environment itself worked as hard as the AI to murder you. And finally, when computer-controlled beasties couldn’t best you, Dark Souls relied on its players to finish the job. It blurred the lines of multiplayer and single player experiences with a confidence that convinced even the most hesitant to PVP. But throughout it all, Dark Souls II offered incomparable challenge whilst adhering to an undeniable justice.
Praise the Sun.
Wolfenstein The New Order MachineGames | Multiplatform
I am a sucker for old-school shooters. I believe regenerative health to be one of the worst innovations in modern gaming. Wolfenstein didn’t have to work hard to win me over.
But that’s exactly what it did: MachineGames newest entry in the classic FPS series worked damn hard throughout its twenty hour campaign, and surprised me every step of the way. It’s gunplay was perfect, it’s dual wielding shotguns a shining example of how fun a game can be when you dumb it down to those base kicks. I just blasted a Nazi in the face with every barrel imaginable, and it felt great. I would have ranked it as one of this year’s greats for its adrenaline kick of violent fun – but Wolfenstein didn’t stop there.
Instead, it offered an immaculately crafted world where the Germans won World War II – a robust creation under even the harshest of scrutiny. Set in 1960, everything I encountered on my romp through this alternate timeline drew me in with absolutely infallibility. Set within these depressing confines, the storyline of a group of rebels hoping to simply kill as many Nazis as possible won me over with its excellent, unpredictable story beats and its cast of painfully human characters.
It’s level-up system, wicked stealth options and the wonderfully despicable villains just add to what might just be the best shooter since Half-Life.
Hearthstone Blizzard Entertainment | PC / iPad
It’s no secret I’m a massive fan of Blizzard’s free-to-play card game. It’s undoubtedly the game I’ve sunk the most hours into in 2014, and a real contender for my game-of-the-year. It’s simple, smart and ever so addictive formula guarantees I clock at least an hour daily, and this kind of dedication is something I find hard to come by in my usual what’s-next approach to videogames.
The rush of facing down opponents online is something most of us can attest to getting a real kick out of. I’ve felt it behind the guns of Unreal Tournament, the swords of Nidhogg, the steering wheels of Project Gotham and, of course, the thighs of Street Fighter’s Chun-Li . Add in the thrill of opening virtual packs of cards and pulling legendaries and you, my friend, have me hooked.
With a large expansion pack to the game (including a single player campaign and additional cards) coming this month, my addiction doesn’t show any signs of loosening its vice-like grip. I’m okay with that.
Transistor SupergiantGames | PC / Playstation Family
Bastion was a hard act to follow. Instead of simply matching it, SuperGiant chose to outclass it instead. Transistor is the rare case of an intimidating legacy gone right: forcing a team to knuckle down and outdo themselves instead of live in its shadow.
Transistor is a beautiful game – it looks great, it sounds great, and it plays like a dream. From its moving story to its flawless combat, Transistor sings. I truly enjoyed every moment spent within the deadly city of Cloudbreak, whether I was taking down Process in a carefully orchestrated flurry of fully customizable moves, or simply grabbing a slice at Junction Jans, I couldn’t help but fall in love with everything this title had to offer. Transistor is truly special, and definitely not to be missed.
Shovel Knight YachtClub Games | PC / Nintendo Family
Shovel Knight appeals to old-school sensibilities and lovers of a good challenge. Having come out recently, a lot of the approbation it received in its launch week is probably still fresh in your mind, with many even citing it as game of the year material. Having beaten it – and already started a second playthrough – I can’t argue with that statement. Even in a year with such stand-out titles as the ones I’ve listed above, Shovel Knight’s retro aesthetics and back-to-roots gameplay stands tall amidst them all.
What Yacht Club games has achieved is remarkable. With its fantastic level design, charming writing and irritably hummable score, Shovel Knight won me over instantly. Whilst I could namedrop its obvious NES inspirations, its more fitting to simply say Shovel Knight belongs amongst their ranks, as their equal. Despite these paralells its a title that is wholly original, and it took me back to a time when I’d sit cross legged in front of an old CRT and lose hours upon hours, wanting only to battle on as the birds outside my window began to chirp their morning reverie.
Diablo III: Reaper of Souls | Blizzard | PC
What Diablo III’s first expansion – Reaper of Souls – has accomplished is no small feat. D3 was one of the biggest disappointments in my gaming life, and for one add-on to turn that around is nothing short of amazing.
Gone are nearly all of the bugbears that plagued the vanilla version. In their place are smart – and humbling – redactions and redesigns. For a massive company like Blizzard to throw up their hands and say “we were wrong” is unheard of. A lot of what made the console versions great- Loot 2.0 and a lack of a real-money auction house being the main boons – are present, and many patches since RoS dropped have further fixed what was a troubled title. Legendaries drop at a satisfying rate whilst retaining that excitement their appearance conjures, and the new Adventure Mode and Nephilim Rifts make the game horribly replayable – like, to-a-point-where-for-a-long-time-I-had-a-serious-problem-replayable. The epic new act and the ridiculously cool new Crusader class – whilst being the meat and bones of the package – are relegated to icing on the cake. A re-baked, re-iced cake that bears little resemblance to that old gooey mess. And so Diablo was saved…
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Retro Studios | Wii U.
For all the “graphical shortcomings” we hear about when the Wii U is discussed, it keeps churning out some of the best looking games I’ve seen to date. Super Mario 3D World, Mario Kart 8 and Tropical Freeze, to name a few, are all some of the best looking games I’ve on any next gen system. Donkey Kong especially, with its varied locales and gorgeous level design, impressed me from start to finish. The gameplay that adhered to the classic SNES series’ punishing difficulty remained intact and wickedly fun, and some of the ‘set piece’ moments in the 2D platformer just blew me away. Oh, and if you needed any more reasons to fall in love with it, you only had to look – or listen – as far as the soundtrack, which stands unparalleled as the year’s best.
Retro Studios are inarguably the Rare of our time. Everything they touch seems to turn to gold; first the Metroid series and its glorious 3D rebirth, and now the Donkey Kong Country franchise. Tropical Freeze was the reason I bought a Wii U – so I was pretty frustrated when it got pushed back twice – but it was, of course, worth the wait.
So those are my favourite moments of the year, but let us know what you’ve enjoyed so far in 2014 by leaving a comment.