Last year I rediscovered my love of The Grind, and that
willingness to engage with repetition has persisted into 2014. It's not like
I've finished any 60 hour JRPGs this year, but my word have I invested as much,
if not more, time in games which rely on that hook: 5 to 30 minutes where you
aim to do the same thing you've done 100 times before, only that little bit
better each time.
2014 was a pretty uninspiring year for video games and, depending
on your tastes, you might say that's reflected in the list below. I'm not that
cynical. I'd argue that each of the games below could've ranked in lists
amongst competition like Uncharted 2 and Red Dead Revolver; it's just that
there's a lot more chaff this time around.
5. Shovel Knight (played on Nintendo 3DS)
The indie 2D platformer with pixelated graphics, perhaps the
greatest gaming clichè outside
of the AAA dudebro shooter set in grey and brown corridors starring angry,
attractive white men. Still, Shovel Knight works as a love letter to the
classics of hardware generations past, and as a game in its own right.
Beautiful, challenging, and oddly touching.
4. South Park: The Stick of Truth (played on PlayStation 3)
It's a 13 hour long episode of South Park. For me that's Game of
the Year material, for others that may sound like some fresh kind of hell.
Despite the premature level cap and some of the worst tutorial
sequences I've ever had to suffer through, I dare say South Park: The Stick of
Truth is the best licensed console game since Batman: Arkham Asylum on laughs
3. Spider-Man Unlimited (played on iOS and Android)
Before this year, I didn't love Spider-Man. I love comic books
and read them regularly, but I was never the biggest fan of Peter Parker.
I read the first volume of Superior Spider-Man and found the
clumsy, though ambitious premise interesting, but I was still not a webhead.
Then I played Spider-Man Unlimited.
I was hooked for a good few weeks, but as per my review, the
punitive business model squeezed any joy I derived from swinging across New
York's skyline. I downloaded the game again about six weeks ago, while I waited
for a large Destiny update. It was amazing how much had been done to fix pretty
much every gripe I had with Spidey's battle with Freemium.
Ranking up rare characters was no longer a frustrating matter of
sacrificing lesser, though still essential members of my playing roster. There
were more Spideys, including Spider Women and the Superior Spider-Man. More
villains and environments were (and continue to be made) available, and rewards
are doled out more liberally. You can now do everything on offer, without
having to spend a cent. It's not that content and characters were explicitly
gated, but the amount of time and effort required to access everything without
investment has decreased significantly.
Now the joy of wall-crawling is almost completely unfettered. I
can swing, punch and kick without Gameloft cynically swiping at my wallet.
2. Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft (played on iPad and PC)
Carly, my beloved wife, rarely plays games anymore. She's a
dedicated professional who is rarely distracted from her life goal of improving
education for young women, so when you find her playing a game that isn't
Spider Solitaire, odds are it's good. Or distracting at the very least.
Hearthstone is both.
I've seen this game help people deal with trials and failures,
tantalising and preoccupying them with its impossible combination of art and
mathematics. You bump pretty pictures and numbers together, and it's somehow
one of the most compelling experiences I've had in years.
Its pull is strong, and it is constantly being improved. Yes,
there are still cards that I think are a little too powerful (most belonging to
the Hunter class), but Hearthstone's is a community that is monitored and well
Tiger Style a la Dr Boom
There have now been two expansions (one paid for, one free) which
have substantially changed the way the game is played. Deathrattles and mechs
appear regularly in my enemies' decks, but I still find myself sticking with
tried and tested cards and strategies. I have, however, learned how to use a
few more of the classes.
I text with a close friend whenever we come across a new
strategy, or pull off an amazing comeback. We are regularly surprised at each
other's ingenuity. That is the magic of Hearthstone.
(played on PlayStation 4)
This year, for the first time in my life, I lived alone. For just
over six weeks I did all the chores, I did all the cooking, and I played a
shitload of Destiny.
7 days a week, for anything between 2 and 8 hours, I would scour
the ruins of Earth and Venus, the catacombs of the Moon, and the orange sands
of Mars. I would hunt for guns and armour. I would help complete strangers
through increasingly difficult combat scenarios, and we would dance at the
Destiny is such a strange game in that it doesn't start until
about 20 hours in when you hit the standard level cap. From there, you enter
this endless cycle of Daily Heroics, strike playlists, and Crucible (player
versus player) matches. The struggles of the avid player rarely bears reward.
In fact, the arbitrary loot system trolls dedicated Guardians into fits of
I can remember one lazy Saturday where I was regularly
outperforming my teammates and our opposition in the Crucible, only to watch
them wreathed in purple. In one match I had literally doubled the score of my
nearest colleague and received nothing. Our weakest player, several levels
below me, and who failed to net a single kill, was awarded a legendary (read:
really reeeeeeeallly rare) hand cannon. I almost cried at the injustice of it
Still I persisted. Still I plugged away knowing that
Destiny is not a meritocracy, it is exactly as the title implies. Some players
are destined for an easy journey, gifted with the tools required to succeed,
earned off the backs of those who would work harder. Some are damned to toil
for what feels like an eternity before earning the privilege of tasting that
sweet purple stuff.
This year I've found it necessary to acknowledge the game that
most effectively said Come Back To Me (it's a dope song, don't deny it) in
2014. Whether it was in a hotel in Paris, on the road through rural New South
Wales, or flat out on the couch, there was one game that had me coming back
throughout the year.
That game was, and is, Marvel Puzzle Quest.
There are many ways in which Marvel Puzzle Quest can be
considered a better game than it was at this time last year, when it took out
top honours in the 2013 High Horse Audit.
First of all, is the continually expanding roster and the
maintenance of balance. With each month, a few new characters are brought in
and offered as prizes in PvE and asynchronous PvP events. Older characters are
not neglected: they may be boosted for specific events so that you have a
better chance of snagging new, rare heroes, or they may have received some
tweaks to make them more or less effective in battle. It may even be something
as subtle as changing character artwork, like with the recent Wolverine update.
Either way, the ever present team of Thor, Wolverine and Black Widow (Original)
has made way for a great many combinations. I still think Legendary characters
are a little too intimidating, but most fights are as fair as can be,
given the arbitrary nature of Match 3 puzzle games.
The Team Up system replaces environmental attacks, which were
rarely able to be used given their exorbitant cost. Now you can accrue a motley
crew of heroes and villains with single-use attacks that can be unleashed upon
building up Team Up points equivalent to the colour cost of their attack had they been in
your base, 3 character team. This adds a whole new level of strategy, and all
threats are transparently displayed before you enter any frays.
The variety of events has also increased to the point where
developer, Demiurge have been able to drop the Dark Reign subtitle. There have
also been delightful, once-off events like the Anniversary tournament which
implemented a less stingy reward loop. Single player events are still prone to
painful amounts of repetition, but at least the scoring system is a lot more
I've mentioned transparency a bit here, and I think that is the
key to Marvel Puzzle Quest's success. It has revealed more and more of its
secrets throughout the year, and those that were nasty or pointless have been
mitigated to some extent.
Marvel Puzzle Quest is still a Match 3 puzzle game, so if that
doesn't sound like your bag, then none of these changes are likely to sway you.
Still, it was staggering just how different the game felt after having
reinstalled it just before my trip to Europe earlier this year. Different,
better, and, at times, far more rewarding.
2014 was, for the most part, an uninspiring time for this pastime
The GamerGate hate movement represented a new low point for
cultural circles primarily interested in gaming. I am loathe to use the word
"gamer": one because it homogenises the diverse range of people that
love them some video games, and secondly, as a few commentators have pointed
out, the gamer is a dying breed. A dying, irrelevant group of dipshits thrashing
about and moaning about "ethics in journalism" whilst attacking women
developers and critics almost exclusively.
I tried engaging with those that responded to my GamerGate
related tweets. They argued there was some good at the heart of this torrent of
hate speech, but when they inevitably and passive-aggressively responded with
ad hominem attacks, I had the privilege of using Twitter's block button, and not
having to worry about having my details spread all over the interwebs. Being a
white man, it seems, is an incredibly effective means of dodging misogyny,
racism, and horrifying personal attacks.
This year I attended PAX and had the great pleasure of meeting
people I'd interacted with via Twitter and other forums, and the response was
unanimous: GamerGate is something that we were all ashamed of. Something that
we all wished would go away. Quickly.
Still, I can't nominate GamerGate as the most disappointing game
of 2014. Sure, it was the most disappointing aspect of gaming culture that
crawled out of some shit-infested tunnel this year, but that's not the point of
2014 will go down as the year of the re-release. With new
hardware, publishers are showing their courage by taking as few risks as
possible. Any half decent game that came out in the last two years is sure to
be fingered for a fresh coat of paint. A couple of weeks ago it was DmC: Devil May Cry, a
few months ago it was Sleeping Dogs, at the dawn of the new generation of
consoles it was Tomb Raider. If you're looking for innovation and the unknown,
you'd best read a book.
I'm part of the problem. I'm a sucker for nostalgia, for games
that I enjoyed as recently as September last year. I bought Grand Theft Auto V
again. I bought Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition. I'm encouraging this
bullshit through my own silly purchasing habits.
That being said, the most disappointing game of 2014 played on feelings of nostalgia,
but it wasn't a rerelease, or a reboot. It was a sequel. A sequel to a game my
wife and I played religiously.
The most disappointing game of 2014 was Mario Golf: World Tour.
Under the ZZZZZs
The last instalment in the series that we played was Mario Golf:
Toadstool Tour on the GameCube. Its course design went from whimsical to just
plain fiendish. Some holes would require you to smash the ball from tiny
platform to tiny platform. You needed to use boost to reach far away, and spin
to stop the ball on a dime. Expert play didn't take strokes off your game, it
allowed you to make par. It was hilariously difficult, and one of the best
sports games I've ever played.
Mario Golf: World Tour's course design by comparison is so
uninspired that even looking at the game's icon on my 3DS menu is enough to put
me to sleep. The visuals are technically proficient, but gone are the seemingly
impossible assemblages of surfaces that inspired hours of practice.
World Tour is clean and soulless. It speaks volumes to me that I
couldn't stick with it for more than a few hours. Carly and I invested months
into its predecessor, and we still fondly recall its cruelty and question why
we traded it in to afford a Wii. I'm not taking the piss.