As aggravating as the last few months have been, this year has been chock full of incredible games. Not a week went by without discovering something new to keep my phone, handhelds, consoles and PC busy. That said, I felt there were only eight games that stood above the rest. Apart from the last one, which happens to be my true game of the year, none of these are meant to be taken in any order of quality.
Jazzpunk is an altogether rare specimen; it’s a comedic game that actually manages to be funny. It’s never “random,” because as far-fetched as the gags are, they are all connected to your actions and the world around you in an intelligent, wry way. It pumps out jokes at the speed of a pitching machine, never dwelling or repeating (unless repetition is at the core of the humor), moving onto the next amusing gag. The stylish intro alone says a lot about Jazzpunk’s confidence in its joke-telling abilities, and the material itself hits far more often than it misses. Jazzpunk is Airplane! for the modern age.
The Fall might be the first chapter of a planned trilogy, but even if we never get the chance to see the two sequels, it stands just fine on its own. A deserted planet, a robot who must abide by their pre-programmed laws, and an A.I. doing its best to mimic human traits are just a few of the enticing elements spread throughout your adventure. Asking players to find clever ways around imposed restrictions leads to some of the more ingenious puzzles seen this year, and the writing and acting are both top-notch. This is science fiction at its finest.
Leave it to a crew of ex-Starbreeze developers to do the impossible and make Wolfenstein relevant in 2014. Wolfenstein: The New Order nails the shooting (few things are more satisfying than walking through a Nazi submarine with two rapid-fire shotguns), but more importantly, it deftly balances camp and a heartfelt story. It’s the best sort of popcorn blockbuster, building sympathy for a lovable cast of rebels while peppering in deliciously camp villains. They even managed to include a level set in a concentration camp without feeling gross or exploitative! Hats off to MachineGames for breathing new life into the granddaddy of shooters.
Smash Bros. has always been torn between the concerns of two very different parties; the hordes of players who just want a fun, goofy party game and the community that prefers fierce, competitive brawls. With an exhaustive level of customization and plenty of wild new items, Nintendo caters to both groups while experimenting with unique ways to Smash (some more successful than others). The verdict is still out on its place in the professional scene, but you’d be hard-pressed to find something better to break out amongst a group of friends.
The blockbuster phenomenon trades its rather questionable portrayal of war against various Eastern countries for a science fiction battle between two faceless PMCs, and I couldn’t be happier. While the laser rifles and mute charges are lovely new toys, the real star of the show is your Exo-assisted movement; it straps a pair of thrusters to an already-quick game, and soon you feel like a ballet dancer with guns. The campaign is also fantastic, partially thanks to Kevin Spacey. You can’t help but fall in love with this charismatic executive, even as he turns heel and attempts to take over the world. Surprisingly, the biggest disappointment comes from having to “betray” the villain; they might have made Spacey a bit too lovable.
If this were “Most-Played Game of the Year,” Forza Horizon 2 would win by a landslide. I find myself returning day after day, eager to hop into yet another car and race along its vast European landscape. It takes the open world of Burnout Paradise, the kudos system from Project Gotham Racing (rewarding points for drifting and other stylish moves) and the extensive list of vehicles from Forza, mixing them into one irresistible package. Though they’ve been introducing plenty of DLC cars and races, I’ve thrown 30+ hours into the base game and I’m not even halfway through the initial gauntlet of races offered. Forza Horizon 2 will have a place on my hard drive for quite some time.
It would be a crime to play Threes without ever turning on the volume. Sure, the joyous puzzle game doesn’t need audio for creating multiples of three until you inevitably fail, but it’s the cherry on top that makes everything so much better. The playfully inquisitive theme never gets old, and the salutations each block makes is unquestionably adorable. This cozy atmosphere significantly softens the blow of failure: ending a game of Threes with a low score never feels miserable, especially when you’re only a few swipes away from re-entering the fold. This is a puzzler for the ages, an app that will always have a place on my touchscreen devices and in my heart.
I could go on about the awe-inspiring visual design that intelligently expands on the retro-futurism on display in the first Alien, with its VHS artifacts and chunky CRTs. I could talk about its intelligent placement and scarcity of resources, or the unsettling Working Joes that just want to “help” by choking the life out of you. I could lovingly talk about so many elements of Alien Isolation, but it’s the alien itself that steals the show and deserves all the praise. I have never faced a more menacing A.I. There is a laundry list of precautions you have to take just to survive, and even then, the alien often bursts through your expectations and ensures that you will never feel safe.
It will yank you out of lockers. It will smell you under tables. Make the slightest noise and it comes bounding toward you with horrifying thuds that quickly increase in speed. Once the alien is on you, there is no such thing as safe, and there will never be again. It’s frustrating, it’s thrilling, it’s positively lively, and there isn’t a game out there that comes close to matching the brain inside that alien. Alien Isolation is an astounding achievement on so many levels, and it’s easily the best thing I’ve played this year.