For my money, no big-budget game released this year proved a better example of what smart, talented developers can do with cutting-edge tech than Shadow of Mordor. In a year that saw a remarkable number of third-person open-world games released, Monolith's first stab at the genre was the only "AAA" game of 2014 that sucked me in and offered a glimpse of a potential future for game design I'd very much like to see realized.
Regrettably, that potential isn't evident up front. Shadow of Mordor doesn't really shine until you've sunk some time into unlocking and mastering its mechanics. You could be forgiven for bailing after a few hours because it's too violent, too rote, and too reluctant to empower you with its full suite of tools.
But if you stick with it, Monolith's trump card -- the vaunted Nemesis system -- starts shuffling the game's deck of monsters against you in an unprecedented way. Enemies that kill you grow stronger, jockeying for rank among their peers and taunting you for past failures even as you come to know their names, their strengths and their weaknesses.
The underlying systems seem straightforward enough -- auto-generate a name and descriptor ("Narbokk the Butcher") when an orc kills you, then tie it to a procedurally-generated set of abilities and weaknesses and pull proper barks based on previous encounters -- but Monolith ties these systems together so elegantly that the antagonists of Mordor come alive in a way I've never seen before.
It's a brilliant example of big-budget design work, one that foreshadows a level of simulated intelligence in games that the industry has been pushing towards for years. If we look back at how the field of game design has evolved over the past decade, it's easy to see where the industry appropriates popular mechanics from trailblazing games like Gears of War, Wii Sports, and Arkham Asylum; going forward, I hope Monolith doesn't mind if the rest of the industry borrows liberally from their Shadow of Mordor playbook. - Alex Wawro
A lot of people won't "get" Rust. When you first log in to a server, you awaken -- you're born, really -- probably in the middle of a field, with a stone, some basic first aid, and a torch that hardly would last through the night.
The world of Rust doesn't wait for you or feel obliged to ease you in, and neither does its often ruthless inhabitants. It's like merging with heavy traffic: If you make a wrong move, you'll end up smashed up on the side of the road. Student drivers will end up in a mangled heap more often than more experienced drivers.
Rust, an Early Access game from Garry's Mod studio Facepunch, abandons preconceived, tailor-designed structure: quests, skill trees, narrative arcs, level designs, etc. are all out the window. Everything revolves around a straightforward crafting system and your ability to live and learn on Rust Island.
What Rust does provide is the foundation -- the crafting system and the island -- for players to build a social framework, to have experiences and interact with one another in a wilderness survival setting. Facepunch is a small team of developers, so creating framework and countless systems and producing endless content wasn't really an option. Just as Rust conforms to the way players play, it conforms to the way the developers develop.
As someone who doesn't typically play (or "get") "these kinds" of games, Rust has opened my eyes to virtues of emergent design in games with large groups of people. It's "missing" a lot of features we've come to expect in video games -- maps, morality meters, level design -- and it works wonderfully. - Kris Graft
My enthusiasm for local multiplayer games was summed up this year in raucous four-player matches of Samurai Gunn, designed by Teknopants (aka Beau Blyth) and published by Maxistentialism.
While many seem to prefer the more deliberately-paced, power-up heavy TowerFall, it's the fast-paced, quick-reflex nature of Samurai Gunn that won me over when playing with other people. This game doesn't reward blinking; sometimes even the winner doesn't even know what just happened. Lucky kills often look like amazing skill shots, while your amazing skill shot will be alleged to be pure luck.
With one sword and three bullets per life, the game mechanic verbs here are plain and simple: run, shoot, jump, slash. Throw in three other players, a variety of levels, and a simple points system, and you've got what I consider the best local multiplayer game of the year. - Kris Graft
Shovel Knight isn't just a love letter to the NES; it's a complete deconstruction and rebirth of the design elements that made so many of the games on the system enduring classics. It's a brand new book written in an ancient tongue.
What makes this game is special is that Yacht Club Games is truly fluent in that language. The developers carefully considered the lessons the old games taught; if the initial thesis statement was that "NES games are still fun" then this game is sound proof.
There's a difference between aping what has come before and creating something new. This is a living tribute that succeeds with its own vitality. - Christian Nutt
For me, Threes! is one of those games where a session starts out as a distraction -- maybe you'll play it while binging on a Netflix series you've already seen a dozen times, glancing back and forth between your smartphone and the TV. But after a few lucky breaks with block placement, a few smart swipes, and as your score starts to build, your attention eventually turns wholly to these talking blocks.
The simplicity of Threes!, like many cool things, was hard-won. It took designer Asher Vollmer and graphic artist Greg Wohlwend over a year and many iterations (and lots of emails) to come to a game that conveys a second-to-second feeling of risk vs. reward (it's so satisfying when that new block slides in just where you need it; devastating when it doesn't), a perfect skill curve, and replayability that's limited only to your desire to keep trying to go for a high score. It seems like a "casual" game -- and to some degree it is -- but Threes! is also something you can get "good" at by learning what strategies work, and increasing your skill with the game.
Threes! is tactile, stylish, and imminently replayable. And the score by Jimmy Hinson will play in your head forever. It's mobile game perfection. - Kris Graft