Gaming in 2014 continued to widen its purview, providing unique experiences for all manner of gamers. Between the AAA market and new consoles, the booming mobile scene on iOS and Google Play and the rise of the indie scene, there's bound to be a game available that just about anyone can play and enjoy, whether your tastes are eclectic or more traditional.
Unlike its consumer-facing counterparts in the media, GamesIndustry.biz isn't the sort of publication to dole out "Game of the Year" awards, but that doesn't stop us from enjoying all the games out there and highlighting those that gave us the most joy.
So, in no particular order, here are the titles we really dug in 2014. Each staff member was asked to name just one game, so it was a tough decision!
Brendan Sinclair - Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is not a perfect game, but it was my favorite game this year, and the one that gives me the most hope for the industry going forward.
An adventure game set in World War I, Ubisoft's Valiant Hearts follows a small group of French, German, and American individuals whose stories intertwine throughout the conflict. Although it is a war game, players do more puzzle solving than lining up crosshairs with enemy noggins, and its primary goal is not "fun." While there are moments of levity, Valiant Hearts is at its best when it's most difficult to play, when the game conveys nothing but overwhelming sorrow.
The message of the game is simple: "War is hell." Valiant Hearts is by no means the first game to carry this message, even among the ranks of AAA publishers. Take-Two Interactive took that notion to its logical and literal conclusion with Spec Ops: The Line. But where Spec Ops took its cues from Apocalypse Now and focused on a personal manifestation of the insanity of war, the best parts of Valiant Hearts have more in common with Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, a lamentation of the systemic insanity of war.
Valiant Hearts can't escape gaming clichés entirely--one plotline has a soldier seeking revenge against a cartoonishly evil villain in the midst of the war, complete with boss battles--but when it does, it offers frequently moving insights into the realities soldiers and civilians alike faced in World War I. Valiant Hearts paints a compelling picture of a global tragedy, and then lets you walk around in it. Games like Valiant Hearts gesture at the enormous potential of games to deal with any and all topics, to foster empathy and understanding between people. For an industry that so frequently uses the First Amendment as a shield to deflect criticism, gaming has shown a hypocritical aversion to using its free speech rights to actually say anything. Thankfully, this is slowly starting to change, as Valiant Hearts shows.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is my Game of the Year not just because I felt it was the most fulfilling, edifying experience I had playing games in 2014, but because it's what I hope to see more of in 2015 and beyond.
Rachel Weber - Dragon Age: Inquisition
I'm not afraid of being the basic gamer here; my choice is Dragon Age: Inquisition. For its size, which gave me 70+ hours of gaming without a moment's boredom and for its writing, which made me feel like I was the star of my own Peter Jackson trilogy. BioWare makes epic, beautiful games but its biggest stars are its characters.
When I wasn't playing I fretted over whether or not things I said or did would ruin my chances with the bad girl elf Sera (they did, I got cookies but nothing else) and when I was I made decisions I knew were tactically wrong because I couldn't bear to sacrifice the lives of background characters. I wasn't doing those things because I wanted a perfect score or trophies, I was doing them because I didn't want a horned mercenary or a dwarf who writes smutty novels to be mad at me.
And when I finished? I sat through the credits before firing up a brand new character. This time Sera will love me, if I have to burn all of Thedas to the ground.
James Brightman - Mario Kart 8
A lot of games come and go and are thoroughly enjoyable, but once you're done, you're done. There are very few games that have the sort of lasting appeal that Mario Kart does. Similar to Rock Band in its heyday, Mario Kart is the kind of title that just keeps pulling me back in - even with what feels like "rubber band AI" at times.
But the AI matters a lot less if you're playing Mario Kart 8 with friends, which is when it's at its best. In typical Nintendo fashion, Mario Kart 8 shines as a local multiplayer game and conjures up the best of the old days, not just for its nostalgia but because it's equal parts accessible and deep. While more experienced players can perfect the timing on a turbo start or getting turns just right to execute turbo drifts, more casual players can have just as much fun and even win some races without using those or other techniques. Being married to a "non-gamer," there aren't many titles in my collection that my wife, her best friend and my brother-in-law can all play when they come over, but Mario Kart 8 fits the bill nicely.
With 16 new courses complementing 16 retro ones, hang-gliding and gravity defying mechanics, Mario Kart 8 truly feels like a perfect mix of the old and the new. It also doesn't hurt that it's one of the prettiest Wii U games made to date. I fell in love with it at first sight back at E3 2013, and it's certainly a keeper. Mario Kart 8 was the first game in a series of highly polished efforts, including Super Smash Bros. and the more recent Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, that's finally breathing some life into the Wii U platform. Let's hope the trend continues.
Dan Pearson - Endless Legend
I know what I wanted to be writing here, and that's Civilisation Beyond Earth. I've poured countless hours into the franchise over the years, in all of its variations, but BE left me cold. It feels...disconnected, superficial. Roll on the inevitable DLC fix. In its place, scratching my never-ending 4X itch, it has to be Endless Legend, a gorgeous new take on the genre from Amplitude, a studio with an enviably varied output which still maintains an undeniably consistent thread of quality and freshness.
Endless Legend was also the first game I ever bought on Early Access, and is still the game which I feel has dealt with it best. A skillful, gradual implementation of its systems managed to make it never feel like a broken game, merely an unfinished one, and the final product fulfills all of its promises. In short, it's exactly what I'd hoped the new Civ might be.
It's not an easy choice, though. Hours-wise, I'd say it's a close run thing between Dragon Age: Inquisition and Dark Souls 2, which I've clocked something like 70 hours of each. That's not to say they're just time-sinks, either, both are huge, beautiful worlds which act as neat parentheses for the spectrum of what I love about RPGs.
I'd also echo Brendan's thoughts on Valiant Hearts very closely, mostly because it actually made me cry. (Albeit only when a dog died, not any of the countless humans.) In addition, I'd urge you to check out Beeswing, a beautiful, sad indie game about mortality, discovery and Scotland which may well grow to be one of my favourites. Finally, a special mention for Darkest Dungeon by Redhook Studios. Still in progress, this IGF entrant is undoubtedly the most original game I played all year, despite being in that hoariest of genres, the dungeon crawler. Keep an eye out for it on Steam Greenlight in February.
Matthew Handrahan - Alien: Isolation
If you'd asked me this question a few months ago I would have said, without hesitation, that Dragon Age: Inquisition would be my game of the year. Indeed, the notion that EA BioWare's attempt to right the perceived wrongs of Dragon Age 2 would be anything less than stellar had never crossed my mind, and if by some small chance it disappointed there was always Far Cry 4. I certainly hadn't contemplated that I'd find both games guilty of the same basic crimes: bloat, feature overload, graphics and grandeur prioritised over focus and meaningful creative progress. Don't get me wrong, these are finely crafted games relative to their ambitions, but when it comes to a GOTY I demand a little more spark, and a great deal more invention.
I was on the cusp of just picking GTA V again, and then I played Alien: Isolation and suddenly the choice was simple. From the moment the 20th Century Fox logo appears - artfully distressed so the image resembles a well-worn VHS tape - it's clear that The Creative Assembly has thought long and hard about where pretty much every studio to tackle this storied IP has gone wrong, and followed its conclusions wherever they led. The resulting game features one of the most darkly beautiful environments I've ever explored, stalked the entire time by one of the most memorable antagonists. Alien: Isolation is, without doubt, the most distinctive AAA release of the year, replete with the sort of bold artistic choices that have all but deserted its competitors.
Now, in the spirit of Ridley Scott's penchant for Director's Cuts, I only ask that The Creative Assembly excise maybe five hours of Alien: Isolation's overly generous length. Do that, and this will be not just one of the games of the year, but one of the best releases of the decade.