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Staff Picks 2014: Leo McCloskey

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If you listen to enough people, 2014 was a pretty bad year for video games. I suppose that’s not entirely inaccurate. Driveclub was pretty broken, as was Halo: The Master Chief Collection – and let’s not even get started on Ubisoft’s rather questionable year. Destiny didn’t quite live up to everyone’s expectations, lots of stuff got pushed back…

Okay, 2014 was slightly crummy.

But it wasn’t all bad, there were still plenty of highs. There were at least a few dozen top, top games that came out last year. And, speaking personally, whittling them down into just ten was pretty tricky. So tricky, in fact, that I stuck a whole bunch of honourable mentions at the bottom.

Over the next week or so, we’ll be looking at the staff’s individual top picks for 2014 and then revealing our overall games of 2014. Enjoy!

SPOILER WARNING: We’ll try not to give too much away but, when necessary, there may be spoilers for the games below.

Jump ahead to Vaughn’s picks    Jump ahead to Dan’s picks

Here’s my top ten:

10. The Banner Saga

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I’ll probably never forget the first party member I lost in The Banner Saga. Faced with losing a food cart over the edge of a cliff, I sent him to save it. The cart was lost and so was he. I remember the description of his mangled body. I remember sending someone to check that he was truly gone. I remember that silent echo that comes to you when you realise you done messed up. He was my best guy and an integral fighter in my team.

The Banner Saga is a constant stream of impossible choices. Managing the well-being of the people in your caravan; preserving food reserves while making progress across the land; choosing whether to risk allowing strangers into your group. Important choices are rarely without consequences.

And that’s all before you ever get into the turn-based combat. It’s certainly not as intricate as an XCOM or a Fire Emblem, but it’s deep and challenging enough – and made all the weightier by the game’s greater struggle. Also, there’s giant vikings with horns. Like, actual horns that stick out of their heads. Big ones.

9. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

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I like to imagine Shigeru Miyamoto and Satoru Iwata cackling maniacally at the prospect of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze being released upon unsuspecting fans around the world. DK looks and sounds great in the way that first-party Nintendo games do, but the level of challenge is an interesting caveat.

It all works well, though. Character movement is tight – and embellished with the inclusion of multiple partners for Donkey Kong, helping navigate stages in different ways. There’s tons of collectibles (if that’s your thing), many of which are well hidden, and the visual and mechanical variety in level design is great. Boss fights are fun and imaginative, too.

8. A Bird Story

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After debuting in 2011 with the wonderful To the Moon, it’s striking that creator Kan Gao only seems to be getting better. A Bird Story retains Freebird Games’ familiar 90s JRPG aesthetic but tells a simpler, more succinct story than its predecessor.

There’s no text and barely any on-screen prompts, but the tale of a young boy restoring an injured bird to health over weeks and months is distilled masterfully into a sixty-minute adventure. Gao’s ability to add weight to nameless, speechless characters while thickening them out with whimsy and charm in such a way is a rare gift.

The events that unfold resonate accordingly with a gravity that many games fail to achieve after hours of exposition. If you have about an hour and less than a fiver to spare, A Bird Story is essential for those who place value in video game storytelling.

7. The Last of Us: Left Behind

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Speaking of which. Left Behind, if you haven’t played it yet, is like the perfectly placed jab to anyone who might have forgotten why The Last of Us was many people’s game of 2013. Of course, it reprises the combat of the original, which is as tense as ever. The same overgrown, mouldy, rotten post-outbreak world still provides the platform. But the humanisation of the characters within was always as key as any other aspect.

I like to invoke Spinal Tap whenever I can, so to embrace the parlance, Left Behind turns this most important of elements up to eleven. Focusing on Ellie’s relationship with series debutant Riley, a prequel setting for a character not involved in the vanilla game comes with a sense of foreboding. It’s amazing, then, that Naughty Dog manages to inject so many heart-warming moments into such a hopeless world.

It flits between heightened tension and carefree exuberance effortlessly, and even the game’s inevitable downturn is handled with real tenderness. Having both been bitten, Ellie and Riley’s decision to go on to the bitter end together no matter what is so much more than throwaway sentimentality.

Left Behind builds to this moment throughout the whole chapter. It earns the scene. The exchange in the game’s last ten seconds is as believable as anything I’ve encountered this year. And the future possibilities it presents are exciting to pause upon.

6. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

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If someone tells you that you can finish Ground Zeroes in less than an hour then, well, they’re right. Sort of. You can certainly barrel in there, pick up the kid with the bolts in his ankles, extract the lady with the bomb inside her and put the game back down forever. But to do so would be a misstep.

While Phantom Pain is what we’re all really waiting for, Ground Zeroes uses what it has really well. In spite of the numerous missions all being stationed in the same medium-sized sandbox, the use of different times of day, weather and start points make the world feel varied.

Apart from the surprising variety, Ground Zeroes is perhaps most noteworthy for the fact that (say it quietly) it’s actually the best-playing Metal Gear game yet. No really. The world looks glorious, the AI is good, there’s plenty of easter eggs and Hideo Kojima shows up at one point. And Raiden.

A cash cow in the interim, for sure. But still well worth playing.

5. Dark Souls II

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Perhaps the fact that I’ve never fully committed to a Souls game before helps me get past some people’s reservations. It certainly feels less challenging than past games, but I can’t say that bothers me. In fact, the fact that enemies disappear after being farmed for long enough actually helped me engage more deeply than ever before.

And, essentially, it’s still just more Souls. The world is as solemn and ambiguous as ever, combat is challenging but oh-so rewarding, and the tension rarely lifts. Even with more bosses than before, the combined glee and relief of victory is a hard feeling to replicate.

4. South Park: The Stick of Truth

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There’s something about fighting a giant, undead Nazi fetus that really stays with you beyond the moment. Shocking content apart, South Park: The Stick of Truth is a good game. Now this is important because there has NEVER BEEN A SINGLE GOOD SOUTH PARK GAME BEFORE. EVER.

Honestly, give Chef’s Luv Shack a go. I dare you.

And the fact that it’s enjoyable is no mean feat given that it was delayed by a full year amid the turmoil of THQ’s closure and the transition to eventual publisher, Ubisoft. It’s certainly light on RPG mechanics, but Obsidian deserves credit for making a faithful South Park game without simply relying on the South Park brand.

There’s plenty of vulgarity for those who want it (giant testicles, anyone?) but there’s genuine comedic highs to be found, too. The entire Canada sequence, for example, is among the funniest moments in video games this year.

3. Shovel Knight

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There are dozens of games that take chiptune audio and 8-bit era visuals and market themselves as a retro experience. But visuals and audio are simply products of the time. The reasons we hold such reverence for Mario Bros., Megaman and the like go beyond how these games look and sound.

It’s how characters move, how levels are designed. It’s why modern Mario platformers are still great while most modern Sonic games are terrible.

Yacht Club games gets platformers. Like, really gets platformers. It’s not that Shovel Knight has pixel art, it’s that it has a wonderful colour palette, blending aspects of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. It’s not that it has an era-appropriate backing track, it’s that Jake Kaufman’s composition is so full of energy that the world feels more urgent and exciting.

Jump physics feel perfectly balanced to the world Shovel Knight asks you to navigate. The game expertly introduces new elements to traverse with each passing stage – and no two stages feel the same. There’s more modern inclusions, too, including a Souls-esque risk/reward setup with any money you’re carrying. Boss fights are incredible.

I reviewed Shovel Knight and struggled to find reasons to give it only a 9.5

2. Heavy Bullets

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The only game that sounded better than Shovel Knight this year is Heavy Bullets. Without doubt this is the most atmospheric game I picked up this year. And I’m not using the word ‘atmospheric’ because I can’t think of anything better. This mother has ATMOS-flipping-PHERE.

You get plonked down in a polygonal neon rainforest. Things with big teeth jump out of the bushes, then you shoot them with the chunkiest six-shooter in video games. After that, monsters turn into little bits of geometric viscera and you carry on.

Doseone provides an ebbing, grimy soundtrack that peaks and fades as action comes and goes; there’s an ostinato of rustling and chirruping that becomes a white nose as time progresses; and there’s even an arcady plink and plonk to dropping bullets.

Oh, also, it’s a first-person shooter roguelike-like thing where you die forever – except if you carry certain items or use banks randomly located in the world. If you do that, then you might get your money back. You use your money to buy stuff like homing missiles which are neon-green/yellow and the bosses are really hard. Also you can pick up your bullets after you use them. 10/10.

1. Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

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I didn’t so much enjoy my time with Hearthstone as I did willingly suffer through it. I’m pretty sure I spent most of my time holding my head in my hands and uttering profanities under my breath. After hours of finely tuning a deck, there’s no feeling quite like executing the ideal game plan, only to be crushed by that perfect card your opponent had been holding the whole time.

But the wins. Oh, the wins. The satisfaction when you draw the perfect card at the perfect time. The noise it makes as your opponent explodes in a rumble of dust and glass. The crater they leave behind. The last few coins you need to purchase a new pack. The twinkling noise a new pack makes as it waits to be opened.The Scottish, dwarven brogue announcing that you’ve unlocked an epic card.

The overall presentation of Hearthstone is typically Blizzard, but goes far beyond what you might expect from a free-to-play TCG. Addictive, gorgeous, maddening. There’s thousands of pages online dedicated to the various decks that can be built, such is the depth to this game.

Best of all, it’s a free-to-play game that can be enjoyed, y’know, for free. There’s no pay to win, and in-game currency can be earned at a rate that lets you build your deck steadily. Blizzard, yet again, has created a monster.

Honourable mentions:

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Bayonetta 2, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Valiant Hearts: The Great War, Wolfenstein: The New Order, Nidhogg.

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