5. Destiny (dev. Bungie): 2014 saw a number of dopey, half-hearted attempts at triple-A franchises. Watch Dogs is a mess of contradictory mechanics, boring itself before the two-hour mark; Eidos Montreal scuttled its Thief reboot with an overworld that was a chore to navigate and dull enemy AI. New entries in Wolfenstein and Call of Duty existed. Yay. Destiny was a marginal breath of fresh air, and that’s in spite of itself. Bungie’s galactic histrionics aside, the game is simply an efficient shooter. Halo‘s easy-to-learn controls mapped onto a string of same-y gunfights. The way kills come fast and littered with rewards recalls how WoW and Farmville prodded the brain’s pleasure centers, as does the commitment-free utilitarianism of co-op. Players can gather and disperse based on mutual need, blow off tension between battles with goofy dance-offs, and, if they like each other enough, become a Fireteam and raid the forces of Darkness. It only scratches around interesting ideas about collectives and camaraderie, forever in service to a ridiculously thin plot, but at least this was big-budget gaming by people who knew what they were doing.
4. South Park: The Stick of Truth (dev. Obsidian): At its best (i.e. when not recycling gags from the television show or other games which joke about gaming tropes), Stick of Truth is vicious. Gaming represented as an endless war, fought by psychotically indifferent boys over a piece of wood. Parker and Stone’s kids have the excuse of being grade-schoolers, at least, staving off the boredom of small town living by indulging their imaginations. Frequently, the boys deploy mundane items to simulate both the mechanics and visual language of turn-based, fantasy RPGs, including Stan using a laser pointer to summon his canine companion, Sparky. This celebration of childlike play presents some small redemption for the lampooned, otherwise-toxic culture represented by finding the original joy gamers cling to.
3. The Consuming Shadow (dev. Ben Croshaw): Wandering around darkened corridors, fending off monsters and madness with weak swats and piss-poor aiming while trying to find out which god is trying to turn earth into a void. Consuming Shadow is a game of incremental gains in a Sisyphean task. Protagonists can and will die several times over, the only hope that at least enough experience is gained for the reborn self to pick up some useful tricks.
2. This War of Mine (dev. 11-bit Studios): Oregon Trail goes to Bosnia. Though heavy-handed with its moral choices (going so far as having characters praise players for choosing to help neighbors), there’s still a desperate, by-any-means quality to This War of Mine. Supplies dwindle quickly, if they aren’t outright stolen. Since you can only send out a scavenger (and only one) at night, days are spent fortifying the home and constructing amenities. Lacking the resources to do so can mean sitting around bored, waiting for nightfall or an infrequent visitor to trade with. When one of your housemates is fallen severely ill, and you haven’t had medicine (or the ability to make medicine) for days, looting becomes terribly enticing. More so if you can reach a location occupied by unarmed civilians, struggling as much to survive as you are. 11-bit Studios cultivate this cycle of scarcity, boredom, fear, violence, and atrocity, victims and victimizers as interchangeable as the two sides battling around them.
1. Alien: Isolation (dev. The Creative Assembly): This is, tonally, aesthetically, the total opposite of something like Destiny. Punishing, frustrating, often nerve-wracking, with an obsessive Alien likely to hang outside your hiding spot until either you give away your location or you attempt to bolt in desperation, Isolation refuses to reward the pleasure centers at all. What the two games have in common is focus: Bungie made a pure shooter, Creative Assembly made a pure survival game. Weapons come in handy, but Amanda Ripley is better off if her player doesn’t try to make her into Master Chief, since the Alien is unkillable and desires her above all the other prey aboard Sevastopol. Humans are equally likely to be a threat, sense and community having broken down along with the station’s equipment. Better to crawl around, slide under desks or gurneys, throw out distractions, then wait for an opening. This is the feeling of being alone, in an environment hostile to your very presence and hunted by something that aims to violate and/or murder you. Keep your wits about.
Also Liked: Kentucky Route Zero – Act III
What I Would Like to Have Played: Far Cry 4, The Evil Within, Deus Ex: Human Revolution-Director’s Cut, Xenonauts, Wasteland 2