It's fair to say 2014 has not been a vintage year for gaming. So many of this year's titles have failed to live up to expectations. It comes down to a combination of factors. The gaming public continues to set ever higher standards and the big developers, still struggling to harness the power of the latest generation of consoles, have failed to meet our expectations. Mostly though, I just get the feeling that this year, more time and money has been spent on viral marketing and hype than actual game development. It's shocking how many developers and publishers have risked permanent damage to their reputations by releasing sub par products, especially with such revered franchises. But it's not all doom and gloom. 2014 has still seen some quality titles released, even if they may have slipped under the radar of many gamers. This year has also seen the revival of the Wii U, which seems to have risen phoenix-like from the ashes thanks to some excellent first party titles from Nintendo. Hopefully we will see this trend continue into 2015 for a console that has been neglected for too long.
Now on with the list...
Favorite Game Released Before 2014, Played in 2014: Animal Crossing: New Leaf
Without doubt, this 3DS title has been my most played handheld game. Looking beyond the simple visuals and casual gameplay, the sheer depth and scale of this mini life sim never fails to impress. After 150 hours as the Mayor of my own little town, I've met dozens of unique and quirky characters and enjoyed some of the most relaxing and rewarding gameplay moments of this generation.
To anyone unfamiliar with Animal Crossing, I think the Guardian's original review described it best: "New Leaf is a world on a cartridge slightly bigger than a stamp, one full of beautiful, wise and hopelessly optimistic observation of humans as social animals. It is a magical creation."
5. The Castle Doctrine
In a clogged indie marketplace, finding the best titles can be tricky, but The Castle Doctrine stands out from the crowd with it's simple, powerful gameplay mechanic: protect what's yours. This deceptively deep MMO about burglary and home defence is as intriguing as it is brutal.
Developed by Jason Rohrer, each player has a family and small sum of money, which they must safeguard from other players. They can do this by constructing traps and elaborate home defence systems involving such things as shotguns, electrified floor panels or pitbulls. which can be combined in countless creative ways. Then they head out into the night to break into other players' homes in the hope of beating their security systems.
Featuring an unforgiving permadeath system as well as the ability to view security footage of other players burglarising your home, this addictive little strategy title is always open on my desktop.
4. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
As someone who didn't really spend much time with earlier Middle-Earth titles, Shadow of Mordor really snuck up on me. It's essentially Assassin's Creed crossed with Batman, but set in Tolkien's much loved universe. The developers stayed close to the movie adaption's vision of Mordor, crafting a beautiful game with stunning vistas, tight combat and fluid free-running mechanics.
The combat is so good, in fact, that I found myself constantly abandoning the campaign to indulge in random acts of carnage against legions of Orcs, whilst riding around atop huge Mordor hellhounds. Because why not?
Losing sight of the campaign is a shame, however, as Shadow of Mordor holds a rich and enjoyable story, featuring some solid performances and a compelling character progression.
3. LittleBigPlanet 3
Released to literally zero fanfare, LBP3 has built upon the success of its last gen predecessors. The original developers, Media Molecule, have handed the reins to Sumo Digital, who have kept things on the straight and narrow, delivering an experience fans expected and deserved as well as implementing just enough new content to keep things fresh.
The continuing adventures of Sackboy still entertain and the story mode is just as crazy and enjoyable as ever. The Creator Mode is now even more powerful, and it's here that the game really shines. Partying up and playing through the wild and wacky creations concocted by the LBP community is always lots of fun and never fails to impress. And as this release is backwards compatible with content created in the previous two games, you literally have access to millions of individual levels all waiting to be explored.
2. Alien: Isolation
One of my most anticipated game releases of recent years, Alien Isolation finally gave fans of the franchise the game they deserved. Going back to the roots of the science fiction horror genre, Isolation represented the epitome of Giger's original vision. In a complete change of direction from previous instalments, Isolation championed an action-stealth approach to survival horror, ramping up the tension and giving players a true taste of life in Ridley Scott's dystopian future.
Armed with three terabytes of unseen film footage and set data, courtesy of 20th Century Fox, Creative Assembly lovingly and painstakingly crafted a believable analogue world of CRT monitors and cassette decks, even going so far as to include a full scale replica of the original Nostromo for players to explore alongside the cast of characters from the original film.
Alien: Isolation helped bury Sega's sins of the past and set new standards in the survival horror genre, paving the way for a new era of Alien games.
1. Elite: Dangerous
30 years after the Elite launched for the BBC Micro, original developer (and my personal hero) David Braben and his team have rebooted what many gamers still regard as "the best game ever."
Backed by a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, Elite: Dangerous (along with its cohort, Star Citizen) has proved that the appetite for space sims is just as strong as ever. Having backed the game earlier this year and followed its progress through beta and gamma testing, I have been constantly amazed and enthralled at the amount of new and exciting content this small development team have managed to output.
The game, which released officially on 16 December, features over 400 billion star systems, many of them accurately modelled on actual systems visible in the milky way. You can visit all of them if you have the time, although finding time may prove difficult due to the sheer amount of other things you can do in this game.
Combat, trade running, piracy, bounty hunting, exploration, asteroid mining. It's all here in abundance. The visuals and sound design are exceptional, so good in fact that this game has prompted me to upgrade my gaming rig throughout the year to experience the all the wonders of the milky way. I've purchased a HOTAS flight stick and throttle controller, a new sound system and subwoofer for my gaming chair, even flight pedals and a Track IR system so I can look around my cockpit unhindered. Combine these peripherals with an Oculus Rift VR Headset and Elite: Dangerous is easily the most immersive experience you can enjoy with today's technology. This is as close to Ready Player One as you will get.
The game has also been enhanced by the creativity of the community which is backing it. Players are sharing tips and tricks to help each other get the most out of their space piloting experience, such as sharing voice recognition profiles that allow you talk to your ship and control it with verbal commands ("Punch it Chewy!" has become a popular phrase to engage the ship's frameshift drive for hyper jumps between systems)
Elite: Dangerous is easily my Game of The Year. For the sheer time I've spent just flying around with a huge grin on my face, it has been worth price of admission. And this is just the beginning. Braben and his team are committed to providing regular updates for the foreseeable future which, in this galaxy, is looking very bright indeed.
Honorable mentions:Super Smash Bros, Mario Kart 8m Dragon Age Inquisition; Transistor, Dark Souls II