Monday, January 5

High Horse Audit 2014: The top 5 games of 2014

Last year I rediscovered my love of The Grind, and that willingness to engage with repetition has persisted into 2014. It's not like I've finished any 60 hour JRPGs this year, but my word have I invested as much, if not more, time in games which rely on that hook: 5 to 30 minutes where you aim to do the same thing you've done 100 times before, only that little bit better each time.

2014 was a pretty uninspiring year for video games and, depending on your tastes, you might say that's reflected in the list below. I'm not that cynical. I'd argue that each of the games below could've ranked in lists amongst competition like Uncharted 2 and Red Dead Revolver; it's just that there's a lot more chaff this time around.

5. Shovel Knight (played on Nintendo 3DS)

The indie 2D platformer with pixelated graphics, perhaps the greatest gaming clichè outside of the AAA dudebro shooter set in grey and brown corridors starring angry, attractive white men. Still, Shovel Knight works as a love letter to the classics of hardware generations past, and as a game in its own right. Beautiful, challenging, and oddly touching.

4. South Park: The Stick of Truth (played on PlayStation 3)

It's a 13 hour long episode of South Park. For me that's Game of the Year material, for others that may sound like some fresh kind of hell.

Despite the premature level cap and some of the worst tutorial sequences I've ever had to suffer through, I dare say South Park: The Stick of Truth is the best licensed console game since Batman: Arkham Asylum on laughs alone.

3. Spider-Man Unlimited (played on iOS and Android)

Before this year, I didn't love Spider-Man. I love comic books and read them regularly, but I was never the biggest fan of Peter Parker.

I read the first volume of Superior Spider-Man and found the clumsy, though ambitious premise interesting, but I was still not a webhead. Then I played Spider-Man Unlimited.

I was hooked for a good few weeks, but as per my review, the punitive business model squeezed any joy I derived from swinging across New York's skyline. I downloaded the game again about six weeks ago, while I waited for a large Destiny update. It was amazing how much had been done to fix pretty much every gripe I had with Spidey's battle with Freemium.

Ranking up rare characters was no longer a frustrating matter of sacrificing lesser, though still essential members of my playing roster. There were more Spideys, including Spider Women and the Superior Spider-Man. More villains and environments were (and continue to be made) available, and rewards are doled out more liberally. You can now do everything on offer, without having to spend a cent. It's not that content and characters were explicitly gated, but the amount of time and effort required to access everything without investment has decreased significantly.

Now the joy of wall-crawling is almost completely unfettered. I can swing, punch and kick without Gameloft cynically swiping at my wallet. 

2. Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft (played on iPad and PC)

Carly, my beloved wife, rarely plays games anymore. She's a dedicated professional who is rarely distracted from her life goal of improving education for young women, so when you find her playing a game that isn't Spider Solitaire, odds are it's good. Or distracting at the very least.

Hearthstone is both.

I've seen this game help people deal with trials and failures, tantalising and preoccupying them with its impossible combination of art and mathematics. You bump pretty pictures and numbers together, and it's somehow one of the most compelling experiences I've had in years.

Its pull is strong, and it is constantly being improved. Yes, there are still cards that I think are a little too powerful (most belonging to the Hunter class), but Hearthstone's is a community that is monitored and well listened to.

Tiger Style a la Dr Boom

There have now been two expansions (one paid for, one free) which have substantially changed the way the game is played. Deathrattles and mechs appear regularly in my enemies' decks, but I still find myself sticking with tried and tested cards and strategies. I have, however, learned how to use a few more of the classes.

I text with a close friend whenever we come across a new strategy, or pull off an amazing comeback. We are regularly surprised at each other's ingenuity. That is the magic of Hearthstone.

1. Destiny (played on PlayStation 4)

This year, for the first time in my life, I lived alone. For just over six weeks I did all the chores, I did all the cooking, and I played a shitload of Destiny.

7 days a week, for anything between 2 and 8 hours, I would scour the ruins of Earth and Venus, the catacombs of the Moon, and the orange sands of Mars. I would hunt for guns and armour. I would help complete strangers through increasingly difficult combat scenarios, and we would dance at the close.

Destiny is such a strange game in that it doesn't start until about 20 hours in when you hit the standard level cap. From there, you enter this endless cycle of Daily Heroics, strike playlists, and Crucible (player versus player) matches. The struggles of the avid player rarely bears reward. In fact, the arbitrary loot system trolls dedicated Guardians into fits of rage.

I can remember one lazy Saturday where I was regularly outperforming my teammates and our opposition in the Crucible, only to watch them wreathed in purple. In one match I had literally doubled the score of my nearest colleague and received nothing. Our weakest player, several levels below me, and who failed to net a single kill, was awarded a legendary (read: really reeeeeeeallly rare) hand cannon. I almost cried at the injustice of it all.

Still I persisted. Still I plugged away knowing that Destiny is not a meritocracy, it is exactly as the title implies. Some players are destined for an easy journey, gifted with the tools required to succeed, earned off the backs of those who would work harder. Some are damned to toil for what feels like an eternity before earning the privilege of tasting that sweet purple stuff. 

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