The best of the best
2014 is over, and that means for one short moment before we all get hyped about the wealth of releases in the new year (Pillars of Eternity, The Witcher 3, Batman: Arkham Knight, et cetera) it's time for us to look back on the past year. Which games stood out? Which games have we already added to our mental canon?
The rules: All 10 games had to be fully released in 2014, meaning no Early Access games or expansions in the official list. All games had to be released on PC. Also, this list is in no particular order—there's "Tied for Second Place" and then there's "Winner," and that's it.
Without further ado, let's start with a game from Ubisoft. And no, it's probably not the one you're expecting. And it's definitely not Assassin's Creed.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Hayden: In a year full of subpar releases, I hope Ubisoft takes a hard look at Valiant Hearts: The Great War and learns from it. It's not a huge game. It's not a bombastic game. It's not a long game.
But this passionate tribute to World War I manages to awaken more emotions in the span of four hours than Assassin's Creed: Unity, Far Cry 4, and Watch Dogs combined. It's not the most complex game, nor the best-playing game, but from start to finish I was captivated by this tiny little puzzle platformer.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
Hayden: It was a great year for RPG fans, and there was none bigger than Dragon Age: Inquisition, either in terms of budget or in terms of sheer content. While not all of Dragon Age's fabled 120 hours of content is up to BioWare's usual par, there's a great story core that should more than satisfy fans.
Let's hope Mass Effect 4 has even a fraction of the depth and the sense of exploration found in Inquisition.
Dark Souls II
Hayden: Die. Then die. Then die again. That's basically how playing Dark Souls goes, and the sequel's no exception.
And while sure, Dark Souls II is just more Dark Souls—well, I think that's what everyone wanted. There are more treacherous corridors to explore, more bosses to murder, and this time the PC version isn't a broken piece of garbage. It's an all-around success for From Software.
Brad: Like other Souls games, DS2 is sly in its storytelling—a corpse strategically placed here, an item with a glimpse of backstory there. Unraveling Dark Souls II's bleak world is an absolute (if uncompromising) treat.
Far Cry 4
Hayden: Far Cry 4 is a snow-covered retread of Far Cry 3 in nearly every way. I know that. You know that.
And yet it's testament to how fun the core feedback loop is that the response is, "sure, give me more," instead of "ugh, this boring old trash again." Zipline off the top of a radio tower, jump off a cliff, glide with your wingsuit to the valley below, leap astride an elephant and ride it into the nearest enemy base with a grenade launcher in hand to obliterate any enemies foolish enough to stick around—only in Far Cry 4.
It's a hell of a rush.
Brad: Yeah, Far Cry 4 is astounding. But even if it weren't, I'd be tempted to drop it in the list for its preconception-shattering (and utterly spoilerific) secret alternative ending.
Legend of Grimrock 2
Hayden: Take the original Legend of Grimrock's retro grid-based dungeon crawling, make it so you get to go outside once in a while, and you've essentially got Legend of Grimrock 2.
And it turns out that's also exactly what the series needed. The original was great, but moving everything to much larger, more consciously "designed" spaces (beaches, forests, et cetera) adds a sense of exploration and uncovering hidden worlds that was missing before.
Hayden: Here's a game I never expected to see on this list. I spent preview after preview getting fed up with Creative Assembly's Alien interpretation.
Only after I got my hands on the full game was it clear that the alien of Alien: Isolation is actually the least interesting part. It's the underlying corporate subterfuge between Weyland-Yutani and Seegson Corporation, the tragedy of the Working Joe, the station itself that are really the highlights of the game. And it's a much better tribute to Ridley Scott's universe than any other Alien game out there.
Brad: No game has ever made me feel so tense, so hunted. Alien: Isolation forces you to think about every move, and punishes you mercilessly if you make the wrong one. Highly, highly recommended—just don't rush it. Take your time. Bask in the terror!
Wolfenstein: The New Order
Hayden: If you'd asked me a year ago whether I thought Wolfenstein: The New Order would be a major contender for Game of the Year, I would've laughed in your face with the strength of dual shotgun blasts. And yet here we are.
Wolfenstein: The New Order alternates between deadly serious and seriously dumb, and it pulls off both with aplomb. This is easily the best shooter of the year, and a strong contender for (surprise) best story of the year too—at least as far as big, dumb, shooty stories go.
Divinity: Original Sin
Hayden: Imagine if, instead of dying in the early 2000s, the isometric CRPG genre had kept evolving that whole time. That's what Divinity: Original Sin is like. By allowing for more environment interaction—for instance, making lightning spells actually electrocute anyone in a body of water—there's an enormous amount of depth added to the game.
Combine that with some incredible dialogue (especially when talking to animals), and this is one CRPG you definitely don't want to miss. And with Larian already announcing two more games in the same engine, we're in for a bright CRPG future.
The Talos Principle
Hayden and Brad: The Talos Principle is the best puzzle game since Portal. Period. The game's full of "Eureka!" moments that feel like true victories—like when you realize lasers can be beamed into adjacent arenas, or that prisms can be placed on a box, then floated in the air with a fan.
But that only scratches the surface of what makes the game so special. There's also a poignant examination of religion, of what it means to be human, and whether there's a purpose to life tied throughout.
It's so good, it came this close to pulling off a last-minute Game of the Year upset. But instead the honor goes to...
Game of the Year: Wasteland 2
Hayden: Here's basically how our Game of the Year conversation went: "So Wasteland 2 takes it, right?" "Yup."
Wasteland 2 isn't perfect. This post-apocalyptic follow-up to a 25-year-old game has its share of weird quirks. However, both Brad and I agree it's the game we had the best time with this year, and it's a lot of time too—I'm rocking 50+ hours, and Brad isn't far behind. It's a great showing for what's possible with Kickstarter—the resurrection of the dead CRPG genre!—and a great showing for PC gaming in general.
Brad: The writing shines in WL2, but it's the sheer flexibility of the game that wows me: Every obstacle can be conquered in multiple ways, and you're held accountable for every decision. The cries from burning Highpool still haunt me.
[Read on for our list of Honorable Mentions.]
Hayden: The only time I thought our Game of the Year conversation might come to blows was when I told Brad I didn't think Transistor deserved to be on this list if it meant leaving one of the other games off. It was like I plunged a knife into his child.
I don't want to come to blows with Brad, though. He's huge and intimidating. As a compromise, Transistor makes its way onto our Honorable Mention list, and my spinal cord (with accompanying poor posture) remains intact.
Brad: Every part of Transistor is so artful, so elegantly crafted and perfectly harmonious with every other aspect of the game. The music. The haunting voiceover. The art. The insanely customizable combat system. Transistor gives Talos Principle and Wasteland a run for their money as GOTY in my book.
Honorable mention—Elite: Dangerous
Hayden: I'm having a lot of fun with Elite: Dangerous now that it's fully launched—cruising around the universe, gathering data on various far-flung star systems and selling it off for exorbitant amounts of credits.
But I've put probably thirty hours into the game since launch and my official verdict is...well, it's not done yet. I mean, it is. It's playable and it's got a ton of stuff. The game needs a better way to guide players into stories though, and there's just so much to see that I feel I've barely scratched the surface of an enormously broad but somewhat shallow pool.
It's basically an MMO, with all the benefits and problems that entails. For now, it lands on our Honorable Mention list as we try and explore more of its 400 billion star systems.
Honorable mention—Crypt of the Necrodancer
Hayden: Crypt of the Necrodancer is still in Early Access and thus ineligible for this list, but that's a shame because it's by far one of my favorite games this year. It's a roguelike dungeon crawler, except all movements and attacks are tied to the beat of the music. I put more time into Crypt of the Necrodancer this year than I put into some games that were actually released.
It's even more intense when you hook up that crappy old Dance Dance Revolution pad you hid shamefully in the closet at your parent's house after moving away for college.
Honorable mention—Dreamfall: Chapters
Hayden: The only problem with Dreamfall: Chapters is that it isn't finished. All we've seen so far is the first of five scheduled chapters.
But I'm a Longest Journey fan and a Dreamfall fan, so even a taste of this long-awaited sequel is enough to earn it a spot in the honorable mentions. Fingers crossed that the quality keeps up and the full game ends up on next year's Game of the Year list.
Honorable mention—Forza Horizon 2
Hayden: The only big racing game that came to PC this year was The Crew. Meanwhile, the Xbox One got Forza Horizon 2 which is miles and miles ahead in terms of quality arcade-style racing.
Being a console game means it's ineligible for PCWorld's Game of the Year list, but it would be pretty high up there if it showed up on Steam.
Honorable mention—Shadowrun: Dragonfall
Hayden: Shadowrun: Dragonfall started life as an expansion. It later got a full release as a standalone title, but for some reason we still felt weird throwing it on the actual Game of the Year list, so we compromised and put it here instead.
Dragonfall keeps the wonderful writing in the base Shadowrun Returns campaign, but it also rectifies a number of the game's mechanical issues. If you skipped the original but are a fan of CRPGs, be sure to pick up this one.