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Gamasutra's Best of 2014: Alex Wawro's Top 5 Games

Gamasutra's Best of 2014: Alex Wawro's Top 5 Games

December 18, 2014 | By Alex Wawro

Gamasutra editor Alex Wawro continues our end-of-the-year series by sharing his thoughts on some of the best games of 2014.

As the temperature drops and the game industry continues its sleepy shuffle through the holiday season, many of us turn to reflect on a simple question: what the hell was this year all about?

For me, it was about coming to appreciate timeless games over timely ones. At the outset this year seemed like it might herald a wave of fresh, creative work from some of our industry's best and brightest, but in my experience many of 2014's most high-profile ventures -- Watch Dogs, Titanfall, Destiny -- proved impeccably crafted, easy to get into and just as easy to forget about.

These games are well-made, but they just didn't grab hold of me the way Hoplite, Dark Souls and Spelunky did. Few games do.

Every year that number grows, and I'm thankful that there are so many talented game developers in our industry striving to create work with lasting impact. I think 2014 saw the release of some remarkable games that will influence where we go from here, so I've taken the liberty of remarking a bit more on some of the games I was most fond of this year.

This War of Mine from 11 Bit Studios

Rust, DayZ, Don't Starve -- quite a few excellent survival games have come to market in the past few years, and none have held my interest for more than a week. This War Of Mine is different.

More than a month after release I still find myself thinking about it when I'm supposed to be working and playing it when I should be sleeping. 11 Bit's work here is brilliant; the studio deft deftly blends practical resource management and life-or-death decisions that see you weighing the moral cost of stealing from the less fortunate against the promise of keeping your people fed for another day.

This War Of Mine delivers these bleak challenges with finesse, but it's hardly the first game to do so -- so why does it stick with me, when similar games slip past?

I think it's the eyes. See, in most survival games you can't see your character's eyes -- you're usually riding behind them in first-person, and if you pop out to a third-person perspective your character model is often little more than a rough-hewn facsimile of a person.

The character portraits in This War of Mine are different -- they stare out at you peacefully even as you guide their corresponding avatars, laden with fatigue, to build rainwater stills instead of sleeping or shovel through the rubble of blasted-out buildings with their bare hands. Sometimes those eyes blink at you, if you look at them long enough. Every once in a while the character bio they're attached to will be updated with a new diary entry describing how that person is dealing with the trials of life in a region at war, trials that -- more often than not -- your choices have forced them to endure.

It's a surprisingly affecting bit of narrative design that evokes empathy in a way I haven't seen since Telltale's inaugural Walking Dead game in 2012. But unlike Telltale, 11 Bit doesn't march you towards a clear ending; instead, you face a never-ending series of difficult choices in a daily fight to survive. Fail, and you start over again from day one. If there's an end to the game, I haven't yet found it. I can't seem to stop trying.

Divinity: Original Sin from Larian Studios

This year Larian managed to release a sprawling, robust PC RPG the likes of which I haven't seen since BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins, and in my eyes that's a feat worth celebrating. Divinity: Original Sin hooked me the way Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale did back at the turn of the millennium: by building a vibrant world packed with interesting systems and places to explore, then opening it up for players to approach however they like.

But Larian didn't just pay homage to those classic titles; it improved upon them in terms of both form and function. Original Sin features some excellent bits of design work, including a narrative that can be seen and solved from countless angles of approach and a deceptively simple solution to the problem of implementing real-time cooperative play in an open-world game with turn-based combat.

The makers of Original Sin also deserve a nod for crowdfunding and releasing a commercially successful game that Larian founder Swen Vincke says they've been trying to make for over a decade. Sure, claiming you've succeeded in making a niche game that no publisher would buy thanks (in part) to the pocketbooks of the people is a good PR line, but it also echoes similar sentiments I've heard from developers at studios like inXile and Frontier.

Larian's success funding Original Sin suggests there's room for mid-size, niche-minded studios to survive and flourish using alpha funding tools like Kickstarter and Early Access. The game's triumphant (if slightly delayed) release reinforces popular trust in those funding tools, rendering them stronger for other developers who rely on them. Perhaps I'm being too optimistic, but I hope success stories like Original Sin can make it easier for other developers to crowdfund in the months ahead.

Jazzpunk by Necrophone Games

Creating a genuinely funny game is incredibly difficult. Making one within the bounds of first-person perspective with a tiny team seems nearly impossible, but Toronto-based Necrophone Games managed to pull it off in spectacular fashion this year with Jazzpunk.

The game is laced with a dry, surreal sense of humor much akin to that of another first-person title released by an indie duo: Galactic Cafe's much-lauded 2013 comedic walking simulator The Stanley Parable. But to my eyes Jazzpunk is better because it's more interactive and, frankly, weirder -- Necrophone manages to weave a steady stream of deadpan humor and sight gags into a noir spoof decked out in eye-straining patterns and hues so audacious you can't help but laugh.

From a design perspective, Jazzpunk plays with the conventions of first-person games in eminently charming ways. The lion's share of such titles treat their objects and environments as tools and obstacles, things to be used and overcome in pursuit of your objective. In Jazzpunk, the world itself is your objective: every level is a gaudy playground filled with things to clamber on, play with and laugh at. Plus, as far as i know you really can't die, which means you're never in danger of killing a joke by having to play through it multiple times.

I could go on about this game for pages, but doing so would spoil the experience of playing it for the first time, and I dearly hope you'll do just that. It's a fantastic example of comedic game design that I think everyone, developer or otherwise, should play.

Hoplite by Doug Cowley

Including this game is a bit dodgy if we were only talking about games that came out in 2014; Doug Cowley's mobile strategy game Hoplite finally came to Android this year, but the original iOS version actually slipped out at the tail end of 2013. Despite its late December release I didn't pick it up until some time in February; once I did, I didn't really put it down all year.

To this day it's my go-to game whenever I have a spare moment, and Cowley's adroit blend of turn-based tactical play and endless, procedurally generated levels continues to keep me coming back to prove that this time, I can play a bit smarter. Last a bit longer. Become a bit better.

Put simply, Hoplite is an elegant roguelike that's easy to pick up and hard to put down. Your core challenge is to guide a little Grecian soldier across a series of procedurally generated hex grids representing levels of Hell, each of which is studded with demons, an upgrade station and the exit to the next level. Every time you act, everything else on the map does too. Die, and you start all over again.

You'll die often, and you'll always know why because the rules that govern the enemies, abilities and hazards in Hoplite are clear and absolute. You can master them, then exercise that mastery to reach seemingly impossible depths. In this respect Hoplite shares much in common with mobile roguelikes like Michael Brough's 868-HACK, but its idiosyncratic approach to movement and unlockable abilities (which incentivize novel tactics and allow you to effectively develop your own character builds) differentiates it enough from Brough's work to stand alone as one of my favorite games of the year. Whenever someone asks me for a mobile game recommendation, I start with Hoplite.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor from Monolith Productions

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.

Honorable Mentions: Just about anyone who managed to ship a game in 2014. This has never been an easy industry to work in, and this year saw some particularly rough patches.

Also Shovel Knight, The Fall, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Tomodachi Life and Child of Light. Each inspired moments of pure joy, surprise and satisfaction during the year that I won't soon forget.

Check back for more of Gamasutra's staff picks over the course of the week! Read EIC Kris Graft's top 5 right here, blog director Christian Nutt's list here, senior contributing editor Brandon Sheffield's list here, UK editor Phill Cameron's here and editor-at-large Leigh Alexander's here.

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