Well, here we are: the end of another year. 2014 is just about wrapped up, so I wanted to write one last post to reflect on the highs and lows of this year in gaming from my perspective.
Other sites have covered the biggest news stories, the best & worst games of the year, and every other kind of list imaginable. So, rather than retread tired ground, I'll just provide my take on what I played, what I liked, and what really captured my attention.
NEXT GEN GETS CURRENT WITH THE GAMES TO PROVE IT
As with each generation of consoles before it, what was "next gen" or "new gen" in 2013 became less new as all three of the major consoles picked up steam during 2014.
The early months of the year felt a little barren on both Sony's and Microsoft's boxes with HD remakes like Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition and AAA disappointments like Thief capturing much of the year's early headlines. Relatively quietly, though, Nintendo released Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze in February, which is, in my opinion, the first major console hit of the year. Despite it not using the GamePad at all (unless you're playing off-TV, it's just a black screen), it's a beautiful, charming and challenging platformer.
Things picked up in March with Xbox getting Titanfall (critically praised but turned out to be a passing fad on the multiplayer scene) and PlayStation 4 getting inFamous: Second Son (beautiful and very fun but a little on the short side). While Titanfall released on both Xbox One and Xbox 360 (a very faithful port by all accounts), I decided against getting it due to its multiplayer-only approach. With so many games still to finish from 2013 and more games to look forward to in 2014, a game that doesn't have a finite single player campaign really doesn't appeal to my gaming habits. Second Son, however, was a real blast to play; the inclusion of multiple powers let the series get significantly more inventive, and its fictional take on Seattle was a wonderful pairing of great level design and virtual tourism.
In May, a number of big games dropped, including Watch_Dogs (much hyped but with its fair share of issues), Wolfenstein: The New Order (a somewhat out-of-left-field sleeper hit) and the Wii U exclusive heavyweight Mario Kart 8. I've played some of Watch_Dogs and I have Wolfenstein in my backlog, but MK8 is certainly already one of the great games of the year—and generation. If earlier Wii U games hadn't already made the point, the gorgeous visuals in Mario's latest karting adventure (complete with a show-it-off, slow-mo mode) proved that Nintendo's console was more than capable of delivering some jaw-dropping graphics. Off and online multiplayer round out the package; and, of course, the continued rollout of DLC (featuring Link!) makes this game a gift that keeps on giving.
The summer was relatively quiet on the game release front thanks to June's massive E3 conference. I covered each of the major three conference, along with other announcements and reveals. To avoid repeating myself, you can see all the E3 coverage here. Ultimately, though, I thought it was an overall exciting E3, with Nintendo's digital event surprising everyone with its humor, polished presentation, and direct developer feedback.
Note: Fall/Winter thoughts coming soon. This post took longer than expected!
INDEPENDENT GAMES, STRANGE EXPERIMENTS, AND OTHER CURIOSITIES
Indie developers contributed to the early months, too. PlayStation 4 got an unusual (and quite frightening) horror title, Outlast, via the PS Plus service in early February. The environmental puzzles aren't always easy to solve, it's a little too graphic sometimes, and it's a bit rough around the edges, but it's perfect if you want some good scares. In April, all three platforms (plus Vita!) got the beautiful 2D JRPG Child of Light. I'm actually just now playing that on my Vita; it's a great game to relax with before bed. April also brought one of my favorite indie games of the year, Octodad: Dadliest Catch. I mean, that name is awesome, right? I actually reviewed it earlier in the year, and I highly recommend it if you're willing to give in to the strange controls.
June marked the launch of Shovel Knight on both Wii U & 3DS (coming to PlayStation platforms in 2015!). It's a really clever side-scroller with 8-bit-esque graphics and gameplay that mashes up Castlevania, DuckTales, and Mega Man in a wonderful package. In July, on all platforms except 3DS, Guacamelee, a Mexican-wrestling-themed, Metroid-inspired platformer debuted and wowed critics and gamers alike. Again, this is a game that makes a perfect fit on Vita, which is wonderful home to more graphically advanced indie games that 3DS can't quite manage.
There's also the strange case of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. A sort of paid demo, this Xbox One/360 and PS3/4 title was confusing on all fronts. To start, each version of the game (last gen vs. current gen, digital vs. boxed copy, etc.) had a different price—which publisher Konami actually changed at least once prior to its release. Then, the game released to positive, but heavily caveated reviews, as the primary experience was short: two hours short. As a lead in to The Phantom Pain, the main game of Metal Gear Solid V due out sometime in 2015, it served its purpose, but many, including myself, felt that the price range ($20 - $40 depending on the platform) was a little hard to swallow. Since Ground Zeroes, no other game has tried this sort of approach, so it's possible (hopefully) that other publishers saw the negative press and decided to steer clear of developer Hideo Kojima's tactic.
Interestingly, even Kojima himself tried something completely different later in the same year, albeit many months later. During August's Gamescom convention in Germany, a free, "available now" demo simply called "P.T." was released on the PlayStation 4's PSN Store. It turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the year: it was a Playable Teaser" for a new Silent Hill game (called Silent Hills this time around) created jointly by Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro and staring The Walking Dead's Norman Reedus. In my book, this was one of the most brilliant marketing moves in gaming in as long as I can remember, in no small part because the game (experience? demo?) was legitimately creepy and didn't cause a stir by having a hefty price tag. You can still download it if you have a PS4, but be prepared for chills.
VIRTUAL REALITY, VIRTUAL CHARACTERS REALIZED, AND BRIDGING WORLDS
When Facebook bought virtual reality (VR) darling Oculus Rift, many gamers and Kickstarter backers threw a fit, but the reality is that we still don't know what to expect to from VR. Sony is working on the Project Morpheus (code name) headset for PS4 as well, but there isn't any kind of release window for that. Will VR change the world, or will it just make a bunch of people a little nauseous before they toss it in the back of the closet with their Rock Band instruments? Will Facebook manage to make VR a truly mainstream, social device?
Honestly, there are more questions than answers right now when it comes to VR headsets. Back in April, I raised the question of how much VR we might really want, and I still don't think anyone really knows. And, while Sony appears to be making good strides in hardware and software development of Morpheus, President of Sony’s Worldwide Studios Shuhei Yoshida told IGN, "We haven’t even announced that we would bring this to the market. Definitely our intent is that but we haven’t even announced the final product." So maybe we won't even see it until PS5!
On the other side of the spectrum, Nintendo made some major advancement in bringing the virtual world into the real world with the announcement and release of their "amiibo" figures: small, plastic statues that can communicate with the Wii U's GamePad via NFC (Near Field Communication) technology. Launching aside the mega-popular Super Smash Bros. for Wii U title (but compatible with other titles, including Mario Kart 8), these figures have sold so well that certain characters were immediately reselling on eBay for inflated prices, with Nintendo unclear on whether they will meet the incredible demand with more supply. I bought an initial supply of four figures, but that's grown to fourteen and counting. My only complaint is where to put them, as the high build quality makes them collector's items regardless of the game functionality in my book.
Finally, Nintendo released the latest iteration of its Wii Fit line with Wii Fit U's release in very early January. While the game used the existing Balance Board, it debuted alongside a new bit of wearable tech with a name that's more than a mouthful: the Wii Fit U Fit Meter. Despite the lengthy moniker, the actual device is a small, pedometer that also tracks your level of energy, altitude, body temperature, etc., is quite a little marvel. Beaming the data into the Wii U GamePad is a fun way to start your workout because you can review graphical day/week/month representations of your out-of-game physical activity and combines them with in-game exercise stats. Even more interesting was the way Nintendo monetized the content: a free, one-month trial of the digital software (again, using your existing equipment) could be permanently unlocked by purchasing the $19.99 Fit Meter and registering it with your console. I still use mine daily!