This hasn’t been a great year for blockbuster games, with most big publishers struggling to make a smooth and profitable transition to a new console generation. Many of the big game releases of the year have disappointed by being dull and faceless (Watch Dogs, Destiny), launching with serious glitches or broken features (Driveclub, Halo: The Master Chief Collection), or doing both (Assassin’s Creed: Unity).
It’s telling that most of the highest-scoring games on Metacritic for both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are remastered versions of previous generation masterpieces such as Grand Theft Auto V and The Last of Us. But look beyond the hype, and gaming is healthier and more diverse than ever before. The Steam ecosystem is a hotbed of innovation for indies, mobile gaming is growing beyond simplistic puzzlers, and poor sales aside, Nintendo continues to champion old-school games that are accessible, fun and challenging.
Wolfenstein: The New Order
If Quentin Tarantino was interested in videogames, this bloody, pulpy update to the Wolfenstein formula is the sort of thing he might approve of. Machine Games is right on target with the gunplay and the encounter design — it’s one of the few shooters where stealth and mayhem seem equally viable in most scenarios — but the real surprise is the sharpness of the writing. The preposterous B-movie premise of an alternative world where the Nazis won is handled with a subversive slyness — something that sets the game apart amid the dourness of most first-person shooters. Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
With its dreamy visuals and air of gentle melancholy, this beautifully presented puzzle game is reminiscent of Thatgamecompany’s Journey and Flower. The player guides Princess Ida through a world of bizarre, Escher-like geometry, manipulating perspective and environment to guide her to the end of each level. It’s not overly long or particularly challenging — the solutions to most puzzles are intuitive — making it a relaxing way to kill some time on flight or in a doctor’s waiting room. Perhaps the best mobile game of the year. Android, iOS
Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Here’s a real oddity: a war-themed game where the player barely gets to fire a shot. Odder still is that this game is set in World War 1, a conflict of which videogame makers have generally steered clear. Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts is a simple but sensitive adventure game with gorgeous, graphic novel-style art and memorable characters.
It’s a game about the personal struggles of normal people caught in the thrashing blades of the Great War; a tragicomic reflection on one of the darkest chapters in modern history. It’s such a brave and moving game that it almost makes up for Ubisoft’s missteps with its bigger titles this year. Android, iOS, Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Mario Kart 8
Sales of Nintendo’s Wii U might be wretched, but at least the company is still putting out some top-notch software for the system. Mario Kart 8, like the recently released Super Smash Bros for the Wii U and 3DS, is a refinement of a formula that already seemed perfect. But that’s what Nintendo does: it takes each new iteration of a flagship franchise and somehow manages to polish it an even shinier sheen and tweak its mechanics to be even tighter. And let’s not forget those visuals. Despite the Wii U’s inferior hardware (compared to the Xbox One or PS4), the game looks brilliant, is packed with personality and runs at a crisp 60 frames per second without a torn or dropped frame in sight. Wii-U
Though its snarky humour doesn’t always land, Sunset Overdrive is probably the best exclusive game on the Xbox One. Developer Insomniac’s post-apocalyptic world is a zany, colourful playground awash with over-the-top monsters and madcap weapons. Taking cues from Sega’s Jet Set Radio and Insomniac’s own Ratchet & Clank, this is a high-spirited, open-world game with energetic traversal, fun shooting mechanics and stunning visuals. Xbox One
Far Cry 4
Ubisoft’s blockbuster games this year have been hit-and-miss, but it thankfully nailed the next entry in the Far Cry series. Far Cry 4 doesn’t depart in any significant ways from Far Cry 3, but the Himalayan setting and the new toys in its sandpit keep it feeling fresh. There’s plenty of content to keep you busy in this long, open-world shooter, plus the visuals are impressive. Mission design feels a little better than the predecessor and the side tasks feel more meaningful. And additions like elephants you can ride and gyrochoppers offer new ways of sowing chaos on the battlefield. Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Beneath its cheerful visuals, this throwback to 8-bit platformers is a surly and demanding taskmaster. It expects exact timing from you, the ability to make wise risk-and-reward choices in a split second, and above all, lots of patience. In turn, it offers precise controls, mechanics that keep evolving, and plenty of content to dig into. Sure, it’s difficult and, by today’s standards, unforgiving. But it’s also finely tuned, deep and rewarding. Nintendo 3DS, Wii U, Linux, OS X, Microsoft Windows; PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita versions next year
Dragon Age: Inquisition
The criticism that Dragon Age 2 drew from critics and punters must’ve stung. Here we have one of the best games Bioware has made for years, one that seeks to silence everyone who criticised Dragon Age 2 for its repetitive content and lack of depth. Though the Dragon Age universe is fairly standard Dungeons & Dragons stuff, Bioware has always populated it with interesting characters and lore.
The same holds true here, but the developer has also addressed some of the other shortcomings of its roleplaying game (RPG) series. Combat has been tweaked to be more tactical and challenging; what’s more, the game’s vistas have opened up to offer the player more freedom. It’s all backed up with an immense amount of content, enough to keep one busy for dozens of hours. Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
It’s hard to believe that this sequel to the cult classic was only made because Nintendo stepped in to publish it after nearly everyone else passed. It’s sad to think that another sequel is almost certainly not going to happen, given Bayonetta 2’s lackluster sales on the struggling Wii U platform. Platinum’s sequel to the hack-‘n-slash title doesn’t reinvent the game, but hones its over-the-top combat to near perfection. Frenetic, wild and imaginative, the game is inviting enough to lure in beginners yet has plenty of technical depth for perfectionists to master in pursuit of the perfect combo. It looks great, too, with fluid visuals to match the speed of the gameplay. Wii U
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor
The abuse of Middle Earth lore might be enough to give aneurysms to the Tolkein purists, but developer Monolith has created one of the best open-world games of year here with it. Most games would be satisfied to build their mechanics around the Batman: Arkham Asylum-like combat and Assassin’s Creed-style traversal that Mordor does so well. But the real twist to the game — at least in the PC and new-generation console versions — is its nemesis system.
It’s essentially a procedural system for creating bosses for you to fight as you take on Sauron’s armies in Mordor. Each orc warchief and captain has a distinct personality, strengths and weaknesses. Kill one and an orc from the rank-and-file will move in to fill the power vacuum. Your enemies will remember whether they fled in your last encounter or gave you a thrashing. It makes the game feel dynamic and alive with emergent possibilities. Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Other 2014 games worth a mention
Alien: Isolation: Creative Assembly’s slow-paced horror survival game is a terrifying exploration of the Alien universe with spot-on artistic design and atmosphere. Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare: Developer Sledgehammer gives the tired Call of Duty franchise the kick in the pants it needed. Advanced Warfare has the series’ slickest multiplayer and tightest campaign in years. Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Divinity: Original Sin: This turn-based RPG from Larian Studios is refreshingly old school in its approach. It’s a rewarding and tactical game that is light on the handholding and heavy on the challenge. Linux, OS X, Windows
Driveclub: Evolution Studios’ flagship exclusive for the PS4 had a rocky launch with barely functioning multiplayer, but several patches later, it’s a whole new game. It has some of the best visuals in a new-generation console game — the weather effects and lighting are jaw-dropping — and superbly focused arcade racing. PlayStation 4
Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions: The adventure mode with its bosses and upgradable ships is fun, but it’s in the addictive score-chasing of the classic modes that this twin-stick shoot-em-up really shines. Arcade minimalism at its finest. Linux, OS X, Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft: This free-to-play collectable card game set in the Warcraft universe has simple rules and plenty of tactical depth. The presentation is as slick as you’d expect from Blizzard and its one-on-one online matches are engaging and rewarding. iPad, OS X, Windows, Windows 8 touch; iPhone and Android versions expected soon
Legend of Grimrock II: This challenging dungeon crawler improves on its predecessor in every way. With its tough but fair puzzles and gruelling combat, it’s an involving blend of old-school adventure and RPG. Windows; other versions under consideration
Titanfall: The Call of Duty veterans at Respawn Entertainment brought a sense of kinetic energy back into the first-person shooter with Titanfall. Though a little light on content and a tad overhyped, the multiplayer-only game is a rock-solid foundation for the inevitable sequel. Windows, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Transistor: An intriguing turn-based RPG about a mute, red-headed singer and her talking sword. It has an enigmatic science-fiction story and some of the most stylish music and visuals of the year. Linux, OS X, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4
The Talos Principle: A deftly constructed, cerebral puzzle game that wraps its diabolical brainteasers around a thoughtful metaphysical parable. Linux, OS X, Windows; PlayStation 4 and Android versions next year