After a year in "new console limbo", games started getting back on their feet again in 2014 (started being the key word). There weren't many far-and-away blockbuster smashes that made assembling this list easy, but that doesn't mean I didn't have an interesting year playing games. My list ultimately ended up being comprised half with games that started showing what next generation consoles were capable of (beyond graphics), half that hearken back to games of yore, and one iOS game that inexplicably ruled them all. Also on this list: A lot of fantasy RPGs that begin with the letter D.
5. Dark Souls 2
The "of course" award.
I'll say it up front, Dark Souls 2 is not as good as its predecessor, which I consider to be one of the best games of the last generation. That said, no one has come close to matching the systems-driven, incredibly rewarding gameplay found in the Souls series. There are not many other games around these days that empower me with the feeling that I'm actually leveling myself up, instead of filling up meters and watching numbers tick up.
4. Divinity: Original Sin
The "make me feel 12 again" award.
Divinity: Original Sin hearkens back to the computer RPGs of the 80s and 90s, where the games went out of their way to set rules expressly for the purpose of being broken. Divinity:Original Sin brought me right back to my glory days playing Fallout 2, where I'd opt to construct a Rube Goldberg-esque ticking timebomb contraption to kill foes instead of just shooting them in the face.
Like the original Fallout games, Divinity: Original Sin perfectly balances the occasionally hilarious consequences of experimental problem solving with great story and engaging tactical combat. Poking and prodding at a (sometimes serious) fantasy world has never been more fun. I lost countless entire Saturdays to Divinity: Original Sin.
3. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
The "That's what a beefier CPU can do" award.
Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis System was the only truly "next-gen" feeling feature in any game I have played in recent memory. Here's an open-world assassination game that is not just pretty to look at. It's a living, breathing organism. Constructing my own story as I cut through the ranks of the orc horde was as intriguing as any intentionally constructed game story.
Shadow of Mordor has the honor of not just being a game that is exceptionally crafted. It sets expectations for the future of the genre (just look to how this year's Assassin's Creed felt in comparison). It also sets the bar for how developers can experiment with more powerful hardware. More than cranking up post-processing effects, crafting fully interactive worlds that respond directly to the player should be the goal for every developer in every genre as we speed forward into this new console generation.
2. Dragon Age: Inquisition
The Kitchen Sink award.
As someone who appreciated on a conceptual level what BioWare was going for with Dragon Age 2 (indeed, I still think that game has some of the best companions in any BioWare effort) I felt conflicted going into Inquisition. Here was a game that, for all intents and purposes, is an apology for a game I actually liked. BioWare turned in more than that though: Dragon Age: Inquisition is BioWare's mission statement for this new generation of console hardware, and I couldn't be happier with the result.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is a massive RPG that will keep me entertained for months to come. The supporting cast is outstanding. The massive game world feels handcrafted and intentional, unlike the generic medieval sprawl of some RPGs, and it actually feels changed as a result of the player's actions. Occasionally, the glut of side content works against it, and it seems BioWare focused more on filling the world with tedium than bulking up the narrative. But when cruising through story missions and sidequests, this is the best the genre has to offer.
1. 80 Days
The underdog. The "how the heck did this end up on my list?" The Game of the Year. 80 days is 99% exposition, but the world-spanning emergent gameplay lets every player tell their own story. This $5 iOS gem proves that games driven by (engrossing) dialog and storytelling don't have to be a linear experience from A to B that is the same for each player. When conversations amongst my friends turned to 80 days, the room lit up with unbelievable stories of eluding authorities, taking breaks from the journey to solve murder cases, and months spent busking under a bridge in Hungary to scrounge enough money for airfare.
Honorable mention: Wolfenstein: The New Order, Persona Q