Tuesday, January 13, 2015

2014 Year in Review

Wow, I haven't reviewed anything since April 2014. I've definitely played many games since then. My favorite gaming forum (Quarter To Three) just started their annual vote for best games of 2014. This got me thinking, a year in review post would be an easy way to get me writing again. I've meant to write some reviews several times throughout the year, but it never quite panned out. Playing a game with the intention to review it is quite a different beast than just playing for enjoyment. If you've read my reviews before, I tend to be more detailed than the average review you'll find on mainstream sites. My reviews probably aren't as entertaining as those written by more skilled writers, but hopefully they're helpful. Without further ado, below are the games released in 2014 that I've played enough to form an opinion on.

Best of 2014 

1. Dark Souls 2 

Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 are simply my favorite action / RPG games that feature melee combat. Combat is more about reading enemy animations and learning their moves than having ultra quick reflexes and memorizing complicated combos. The environments are great to explore. I typically don't get involved with multiplayer, but I had so much fun participating in PvP combat in the Bell Tower, both as a guardian and trespasser.

2. Dragon Age Inquisition 

For a game that had many things I didn't like about it, Dragon Age: Inquisition managed to overcome its weaknesses and break into my top games of 2014. For me, DA: Inquisition was all about the story, character banter and exploration of the beautiful world that Bioware crafted. The world was huge for a game of this type, with many locations to stumble upon. The combat was somewhat disappointing. It just wasn't as tactically involving as I would like, revolving around abilities that have cool down periods. There wasn't any detailed scripting of party members behavior either. The mouse and keyboard controls were absolutely horrible, but luckily using a controller provided a much smoother experience.

3. The Walking Dead Season 2 

The Walking Dead games are more about participating in a story than about the gameplay (which is limited). I didn't get as attached to the characters in Season 2 as I did in Season 1, but it was still a great ride. Lee + Clementine in Season 1 were probably my favorite duo in any game, but Clementine still shined in Season 2. I think any fan of the TV series would enjoy the storytelling in the Walking Dead games, just don't expect great gameplay.

4. Hexcells Plus 

Hexcells, Hexcells Plus, and Hexcells Infinite are interesting puzzle games. Basically the player needs to figure out which of the hexes are the marked ones by using logic to put the clues together. For example, there can be clues to specify how many within a column are 'marked', or how many of the surrounding hexes are marked. There are a variety of clue types that need to be assimilated to figure out the puzzle without making mistakes. They start off pretty easy as they introduce the concepts, but can get devilishly difficult by the end. No worries though because the game just tracks your mistakes but you can continue to make progress.

5. Endless Legend 

Endless Legend is a fantasy-themed 4X strategy game that isn't afraid to stray from the norm. It is this willingness to try new things that makes it stand out. The world is comprised of regions, which can only host 1 city, so city spam isn't a problem. This also provides some interesting decisions about where the city should be located. Each faction is more varied than in many 4X games. Factions are more than simply applying some bonuses. Each has a unique faction quest that can be followed as one of the victory conditions, along with some unique mechanics. Research is more open ended than in many games too. At release I did find the game a bit too easy, but hopefully the AI has been improved in the meantime. I also had some harder difficulty levels to try. Endless Legends is worth a try if you're looking for a different 4X game.

6. Lords of the Fallen

As a fan of the combat in Dark Souls, Lords of the Fallen is a natural fit for me. In many respects it plays very similarly to Dark Souls - but without multiplayer and it's more forgiving. I found the environments to be not quite as interesting as the Dark Souls games, but some areas were a bit complex to explore. Lords of the Fallen also lacks some of Dark Soul's character. There were also some stuttering of the graphics engine, but it never really compromised the play.

7. Age of Wonders III 

Age of Wonders III is a 4X game that focuses more on the tactical battles than the more traditional aspects of 4X games. Sure it has exploration, city development and research, but those features exist to support your war machine. The tactical battles are well done. The game suffered from some weaknesses on release, as I discuss in my review, but it was still a good game. From what I've read, the updates and expansion really have improved the game but I haven't gotten around to trying the improvements out. Otherwise Age of Wonders III may be higher on this list.

Worth Playing

The following games may not have cracked my tops for the year, but they are still worth playing if you have an interest in the genre.

8. Defense Grid 2

DG2 is a solid follow up to one of my favorite tower defense games. I think the towers may be a little better balanced and there are more upgrade options, so there is a bit more variety. Some maps can actually be changed mid scenario by spending some energy to do so, but it was rare that I did this. Each map has a leaderboard to spark some competition among your friends. The first DG grid had a lot of character in the story mode. In DG2 the characters are mostly annoying. Still very solid tower defense gameplay.

9. Wolfenstein :The New Order

The New Order provides solid action and story from the long running franchise. The story takes place in an alternate timeline where the Nazi's won World War 2. The dialog can be a bit cheesy at times, and I found the handful of missions that take place at 'home base' to be a waste of time, but worth playing overall.

10. Space Run 

Space Run provides an interesting twist on what is basically tower defense gameplay. Each mission starts with ship design by placing components on your ship. Weapons have different firing arcs, so placement matters. Success is based on how fast you complete the delivery, so you have to balance engines (for speed) vs survivability (weapons). The ship design also has to keep the cargo safe. Missions can get hectic as some components have abilities that need to be clicked to activate.

11. Out of the Park Baseball 15

For those who aren't aware, OOTP Baseball is a baseball simulation that focuses on decision making. There is no action / arcade game here. OOTP Baseball has been around for a long time and is the best choice for players who want flexibility with how they approach their baseball world. The player has control over the size of their league, what era to base the league on, whether to use fictional or historical players, and so much more. The player can take on various roles that interest them - making draft choices and trades, setting the pitching rotation, depth charts and lineups, and even making managerial decisions during the game. In my youth when I was a baseball fan this would have been awesome - replacing my All Star Baseball and Strat-O-Matic games.

12. Wasteland 2

Wasteland 2 is a RPG set in a post apocalyptic world. It's hard to decide where exactly to place Wasteland 2 in this list. I've only put about 10 hours into it because when it first came out I heard there were problems with broken quests, so I postponed my play. I enjoyed the story and tactical combat up to where I played, but there is still a lot of game left. Wasteland 2 is chock full of stats and abilities in the old school RPG sense. Combat is action-pont based, which I tend to like. Before buying I'd look into whether the problems were fixed. If so, there is a good game here.

13. Might & Magic X: Legacy

Here's another new take on an old school RPG. This one set in the fantasy world of Might and Magic. Legacy features tile-based movement like the old games - take steps in small increments, turn 90 degrees, etc. Gameplay is typical - explore the world to complete quests, defeat enemies in turn based combat, collect loot and level up. But, if you have a hankering for a classic RPG of this type, I think this one mostly satisfies despite some quirks.

14. The Banner Saga

The Banner Saga is a highly story driven RPG with turn based tactical battles. Without saying too much, the player leads their clan away from their homeland because of an approaching enemy. There are story based decisions to make and tactical battles to fight. The battle system does have a quirky design in that each side alternates moves regardless of if one side outnumbers the other. So whittling down the enemy doesn't reduce the number of attacks the enemy gets - until they are down to 1 unit. The Banner Saga has a unique artistic style and pleasant music throughout the game.

15. Warlock 2: The Exiled

Warlock 2 is a more focused follow up to the original, which streamlined the city management and research aspects of a game like Civilization and set the game in a fantasy world. It's very combat based. If you're familiar of Civ V's 1 unit per hex system, this will be very familiar with Warlock. Warlock 2 improves on the end game slog of the original by breaking the world into smaller shards. As more cities on the front lines are founded, others can be turned into specialized cities that don't require any management. This is one of those games where I did enjoy my first playthrough of over 20 hours, but I never really felt the desire to go back. Depending on what you pay it can still be worth it even if 1 playthrough is all you do. It is designed to be replayable - like most 4X games.

16. Door Kickers

Tactical battles that you plan out ahead of time and intervene when your plan starts to fall apart. Plot your squad's movement and actions, then move time forward to see it in action. Door Kickers reminds me of single player in Frozen Synapse, but I think the controls and feedback in Frozen Synapse were a bit more polished.

17. SteamWorld Dig

A simple game of exploration and loot finding with some very minor platforming elements.

18. Divinity Original Sin 

For some reason this didn't impress me like it did many people. It was basically an OK party based RPG with tactical battles. It didn't capture some of the humor from their other games and the story just didn't interest me much. Combat felt too gimmicky - relying too much on environmental damage and things like exploding barrels. The city quests were too tedious and required running back and forth. You could do worse but I wouldn't consider it a must play.

19. Tropico 5

I haven't played enough to form a well informed opinion, but I've played the first 2 or 3 missions in the base campaign. I've always liked the core city building mechanics of Tropico - people walk  and drive to the various locations to fulfill their needs. I prefer this to the radius-based system some city builders use. I've gotten pretty tired of the attempted humor and the music. I set the difficulty to hard and so far the campaign has challenged me more than Tropico 4 did. The lack of challenge in Tropico 4 was my main complaint.

21. Rise of Nations: Extended Edition

I'm not a big fan of RTSs anymore, but this update of Rise of Nations is pretty well done. Even though it is slower paced than many RTSs, it can get too fast paced for me. If you're a fan of the genre you should definitely give it a try.

22. Gridiron Solitaire 

This is a simple solitaire-like game with a football theme. It really does a good job capturing the feel of football. It might not be enough to occupy yourself for hours and hours at a time but a nice little game for smaller moment of downtime. My review is here.

Games I Wish I Skipped - Starting with the worst

1. Always Sometimes Monsters

After a couple hours I just didn't care about the story or dialog. It should have grabbed me by then if it was ever going to.

2. The Last Federation

After about 8 hours, there just wasn't anything making me to want to play this game. Could it have been due to a lack of understanding? Maybe. The game just felt like I was tweaking numbers by small amounts to see what happened. The combat system was interesting enough, but not enough to hold the game together. Applauds to Arcen Games for always trying something new, but it just didn't work out for me.

3. Banished

Very attractive city builder, but after building my first city up to 100+ population, it just felt like the same process could be used to continue to grow the city. I'm sure disaster could have struck and wiped out most of the population, but I don't think it would have made the game more interesting. Lots of positive reviews on Steam, but it seems more of a grind to me.

4. Last Knight: Rogue Rider Edition

A very simple action game where you joust your way through a cartoony landscape. I didn't like the feel of the controls and to me it wasn't always easy to see whether I was lined up to hit the enemy. It probably was a game that accomplished what it set out to do, but I just don't find it worth the time.

5. Diablo III + Reaper of Souls

It's not that I thought Diablo III was poorly done, I just think Diablo's gameplay doesn't appeal to me anymore. I got bored of the click to kill gameplay and messing with my character build to see how efficient I could make him wasn't interesting to me. So, it wasn't you Diablo, it's me.

6. Shadowgate

A tough adventure game with a unique clue system based on the difficulty. Environments are attractively done. I didn't always find the puzzles to be completely logical and required some guesswork. I think hardcore adventure game fans may enjoy this but it wasn't for me.

7. Thief

I found navigating through the city to be repetitive and a chore. Some of the missions themselves were good enough. Suffered from some framerate problems. 

8. Civilization: Beyond Earth

I didn't play Alpha Centauri until after I played Beyond Earth, so it wasn't nostalgia that was interfering with my enjoyment. Admittedly Civ V is my least favorite Civilization game, but I was hoping the new setting would liven things up. Beyond Earth lacks any personality, is poorly balanced and has many tedious gameplay elements - like trade routes. There are some good ideas buried in the game - like the tech web and little decisions to help customize your faction, but on the whole it's just a bland, bland game.

9. Bit.Trip.Flux

Bit.Trip.Flux is like a crazy version of pong that played too much beer pong. Things are expanding and shrinking, dots coming at different angles, very busy. But my biggest problem was moving the mouse up and down to control the paddle as sometimes very fast, precise movement was needed.

10. Shadow of Mordor

Mordor made a good first impression. It had a nice looking world to explore and Batman:Arkham City-like combat - except with a sword! The mobs can get very large, and combat repetitive. The Nemesis system wasn't enough to keep it fresh. I know this is many peoples' game of the year, but the mid and end game fell apart for me.

These lists vary so much from person to person that I'd expect many people to hate the games I love and love the games I hate. Hopefully 2014 was a great gaming year for you and 2015 will be even better.

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