If you’ve been here before, you’ll know we don’t really go in for traditional “game of the year” stuff. As we’re human beings we all have different opinions, so we mostly leave that sort of stuff up to you, the public, and then we chip in with our own personal favourite picks of the year.
Then we do our Alternative Awards, which is what you’re reading right now.
This is where we honour games that have left a bit of an impact on us, or highlight particular mechanics that impressed, amused, or bemused us. They’re not meant to be deadly serious or even particularly po-faced – as you’ll probably discover quite quickly – but we do tend to have a reason for every single award we’ve given out, whether it’s because we feel that a game deserves a bit of a nod for being something special, or if it’s because a game deserves a bit of a nod for being really quite bad or containing a truly silly mechanic. Those tend to be rarer, though: as with most of our awards, this is really about celebrating the games of the last year rather than denigrating them.
Best Assassin’s Creed Game 2014: Shadow of Mordor
Peter: In all fairness here, I haven’t played Assassin’s Creed: Rogue (as it’s not yet made its way to PC,) but I’m still fairly confident in declaring Shadow of Mordor as the best Assassin’s Creed game. Not in terms of creating a lovely, open-world city based on the Italian renaissance (Mordor is generally too brown and sparse for that,) but by virtue of making actual assassinations meaningful and fun to plan.
I’ve spent my time in Mordor gathering useful intelligence, maneuvering turn-coat bodyguards into striking distance of my quarry, and plotting how best to approach the target based on my knowledge of his weaknesses. You know, planning an assassination. The sort of thing you might have expected from a series called Assassin’s Creed, but which basically disappeared entirely after the first game.
Mordor’s protagonist may be almost as wooden as Assassin’s Creed 3’s Connor, and its rickety strongholds don’t really match up to the startling architecture of Rome or Paris, but the game sure knows how to make you feel like a proper, death-dealing spirit of vengeance.
Creepiest Laugh of 2014: Shuu Iwamine (Hatoful Boyfriend)
Peter: Fending off stiff competition from “pretty much any Dark Souls II NPC,” it’s Hatoful Boyfriend’s deeply troubling school physician. Doctor Shuu pops up throughout the game, usually to mention how ‘cool’ it would be if your character were to ‘disappear’, and always attempts to disarm his non-too-subtle threats with a cheery “hohoho.”
Except it’s not cheery. At all. Even in silent text form, it’s downright creepy; and the perpetual accompaniment of Shuu’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies theme only serves to make matters more disturbing.
The ‘happy’ ending with Doctor Shuu involves forced cannibalism and an emphasis on entirely the wrong kind of head for a long-term relationship. He is an incredibly messed up Partridge.
Most Absurdly Aggressive Avians: Far Cry 4
Tim: This could quite possibly have been another win for Hatoful Boyfriend‘s Shuu Iwamine, but even he pales in comparison to the horror of Far Cry 4‘s goddamn eagles.
You’re roaming around. You’re driving cars, shooting soldiers, picking up little knick-knacks to sell, and maybe completing sidequests. And then, out of nowhere, an eagle swoops down and eats your face. It doesn’t help that – after inflicting damage – they’ll fly up into the air again, becoming very hard to hit, before eventually swooping down at you again. They’re an abject bloody nightmare to kill, and while they’re probably not going to outright murder you, they might cause you to waste ammo, give away your position, or otherwise screw things up far, far more badly than you should because of a bird.
Pretty much everyone in Far Cry 4 has the correct reaction to one of these total bastards: shout “Eagle!” and then unload all ammunition. At first, I thought this was a comical overreaction. Now I realise that it’s a sensible survival mechanism.
Best Game We Barely Wrote About: Legend of Grimrock 2
Tim: If there’s one game this year that deserved a lot more article time than we actually gave it, it’s probably Legend of Grimrock 2. It’s an utterly sumptuous game, dragging the gloomy, puzzle-filled, dungeon-delving of its predecessor out into the light. Almost literally, in fact; what was once a linear descent through a single claustrophobic labyrinth is now an exploration of an entire island full of claustrophobic labyrinths.
Despite the very different atmosphere, though, Grimrock 2 is a very familiar game. You’ve got the same combat that rewards dancing, sidestepping, and positioning to sitting there trading blows. There are still the same devious puzzles that stretch your mind in different ways (some of which now involve block-pushing, to my eternal dismay, but there are very few of those). There are still secrets to unlock, loot to gather, and a party to customise and equip.
It’s an excellent game – around the same level of excellence as its predecessor, and yes, I could probably write articles debating which is better – and it’s one we didn’t talk about very much. So here’s to you, Grimrock 2. You deserved better.
The Best Dark Souls Game That Isn’t Dark Souls: Lords of the Fallen
Peter: Let’s be honest, videogames thrive on pilfering great ideas from one another. Look at how often “the Batman: Arkham combat” has appeared in games in various forms over the past couple of years. Or how many titles have used “gosh, look at these helpfully-placed expository audio logs” since System Shock 2.
It’s not a bad thing, really. Later on we have an award asking other people to steal Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis System. It only starts to get embarrassing when companies start chasing what they foolishly imagine to be guaranteed money-spinners (World War 2 Shooters, MMOs and, most recently, MOBAs.)
Bits of the Souls series have crept into other releases (look at the “invasions” in Watch Dogs, for example,) but until Lords of the Fallen came along nobody had really aped the beloved combat style of the series. CI Games’ release was not a bad effort, capturing a moderate amount of the Dark Souls essence while offering a couple of new twists of its own. It was a bit of a tribute band, but one which had at least bothered to rehearse all the songs properly and dress the part.
But in truth this category is mostly a set-up for the next one …
The Best Dark Souls Game That Is Dark Souls: Dark Souls (Steamworks Edition)
Peter: Thanks to Dark Souls getting a much-needed airlift from Games for Windows Live and being set down on Steamworks for some rescue blankets and hot cocoa, we have a totally legitimate reason for giving the game more awards. Like this one.
The Steam transfer wasn’t entirely flawless (far as I know, multiplayer stuff is still region-locked,) but it helps the long-term health of the title on PC and brought us an unexpected gift: the debug mode. Accidentally released during one of the Steam version updates, the Dark Souls debug build allowed people to mess about with the guts of the game, resulting in jolly jaunts as playable Sif, and answering important questions like “who would win in a fight between a Bonewheel and Crossbreed Priscilla?”
Tim: I’m not sure whether I’d have gone for this or Dark Souls 2, but I’m hardly complaining about either. Is this the third year in a row Dark Souls has won an Alternative Award?
Peter: Well deserved, every time.
Award for Getting an Award Three Years in a Row: Dark Souls
Tim: Well done, Dark Souls. FromSoft keep finding ways to make you relevant to our incredibly nebulous awards system.
Best 5/10 Game I Have
80 90 Hours In: FIFA 15
Peter: FIFA 15 honestly isn’t all that great. It’s a serviceable FIFA game, which in recent years means “absolutely everything is geared towards Ultimate Team mode.” Except the game’s online aspects only work properly about half the time, so even that doesn’t ring entirely true. Career mode has remained basically unchanged for about half a decade, complete with match report errors, transfer funding bugs and a scouting system so obtuse that it’s easier to just look players up on a third party website. All manner of things EA hasn’t bothered to fix because 12 year olds can’t spend pocket money on them.
And yet, I still played said Career mode for about 12-15 hours over Christmas. FIFA 15 (or whatever year it happens to be) in Career mode is my de-stressing game. It’s easy to play with no sound, and apparently utilises a completely different part of my brain to the one which listens to and absorbs podcasts. I’ve tried to play stuff like Crusader Kings II and do podcasts at the same time: it doesn’t work at all. Thank you, FIFA 15, for being incredibly straightforward to play and allowing me to catch up with plenty of interesting audio.
It’s just a shame EA has effectively allowed you to stagnate for the better part of four years.
The Spider-filled Game That’s Most Friendly To Arachnophobes: Dark Souls 2
Tim: A lot of games have spiders. Some of them are deeply, deeply unpleasant about this fact, reducing us poor arachnophobes to either not playing them; waiting for mods; or to inching through the game bit by bit, pausing and then running around the house in muted terror every time something with a ludicrous number of legs skitters onto the screen. (I’m not kidding: this is how I played Limbo. The spider section took me about an hour, simply because I was pausing every three seconds to take a minute-long break.)
This award nearly went to Grimrock 2 for entirely pushing its spiders into one area, giving you ample warning before they appeared, and letting you leave that area as late as you like… but thinking about it, it’s surely got to go to Dark Souls 2.
I love Dark Souls 2. I have played it through, and played the DLC, and started a new game, and fiddled around with different specs. I’m not exactly a hardcore Souls player, plugging away at bosses again and again, or min-maxing stats, or continually competing in PvP, but I enjoy the games a lot. So imagine my joy when the spiders (which are reportedly incredibly nasty) are in an area that you can completely skip. Considering Dark Souls 2 doesn’t even have the decency to let me pause in panic when one of the eight-legged nightmare machines leaps onto our faces, I am very thankful for this.
I’ve never been to Brightstone Cove Tseldora. Someday, I might gird my loins and go there, but up until this point I haven’t even unlocked the first bonfire there. I don’t have to. The gate that unlocks the rest of the game can instead be unlocked by grinding – and on your first playthrough, you honestly don’t even need to do that. I don’t know why this decision was made, but I’m thankful it was, because otherwise my Dark Souls 2 adventure might have stopped considerably far short of the end.
Speaking of loins, girded or otherwise…
Best Game Containing Lethal Giant Testicles: South Park: The Stick of Truth
Tim: South Park: The Stick of Truth contains a boss battle in which you are shrunk down to tiny size, and fight an enemy on your parents’ bed. While your parents are having sex. So you occasionally have to Press X Not To Get Smashed By Your Dad’s Giant Swinging Ballsack.
I’m not sure there will ever be a greater award.
Best Game That Is Inexplicably Not Total Shit: The Legend of Korra
Tim: If I were to say to you “Activision have licensed what is ostensibly a kids’ TV show (although a really, really good one that everyone should watch) and have charged some developers with creating a cut-price, download-only game for it”, the sensible ones among you would probably run in terror. There is no way the resultant spawn can actually be any good.
Prepare to be baffled.
The first clue that this might be worth at least a picosecond of attention is that the developers charged with making it were PlatinumGames, the rather superb Japanese studio that made Bayonetta, Vanquish, and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. And as it turns out… um, it’s actually quite good.
Now, I’m not going to lie: The Legend of Korra is not a fantastic game by any stretch of the imagination. Its levels go on for a bit too long and are a bit too bland, the pacing is off, it doesn’t make the best use of its excellent property, and it does that really annoying thing where you get access to all of your powers at the start of the game and then immediately lose them all and have to spend the next few hours earning them back.
But it’s still a surprisingly entertaining game, and I’d totally recommend it to anyone who’s even remotely intrigued by it. It’s beautifully animated, it doesn’t shit all over the license, and its combat system – while not particularly deep – is a thing of pure joy. Platinum do good combat systems, and Korra is pretty much their take on weapon-switching combos, with you manually alternating between different bending styles to rack up the hits and smash, splash, blow, or burn enemies into unconsciousness. It’s even got some wonderfully silly minigames, like a (not actually endless) endless runner where you ride Naga through streets, or the occasional pro-bending match.
So Korra is varied, fun, and totally worth a punt at its £10 price – which is quite a shock, if you’re even half as cynical as I am. Well done, Platinum.
Most Tedious Use of Loading Zones: Thief (2014)
Peter: A lot of games hide loading zones behind short animations (Bioshock Infinite’s spinning airlocks, for example) because it keeps players somewhat immersed in the world and bypasses the need to cut back to a still image with annoying tips like “REMEMBER TO FIRE YOUR GUN AT THINGS” 8 hours into the game. Veteran players can pretty much always spot where this is happening, but for the most part they’re fairly harmless.
In 2014’s Thief, movement between different sections of the open-ish world map nearly always involves a detour through somebody’s house. That means Garrett has to jimmy open the window in a rather slow and tedious animation (because it’s actually a stealth loading zone) and then make his way through. So far, so familiar.
Except the illusion breaks down completely on the occasions when you realise you’ve made a wrong turn and need to head back (which happens more often than it should with Thief’s confusing map design,) because then Garrett needs to jimmy open the exact same window he was hopping through 15 seconds ago. From inside the house.
After 20-odd hours with that game, you begin to wish he would just start breaking the fucking things.
Most Unconvincing Use of Amnesia as a Plot Device: Thief (2014)
Peter: I have to keep writing Thief (2014) with these to make sure people don’t get confused and think I’m talking about Thief: The Dark Project sixteen years too late.
Anyway, amnesia. Often used as a videogame plot crutch to artificially turn the main character into a blank slate, allowing them to ‘learn’ things at the same rate as the player. System Shock 2 was doing it back in 1999, but that was sort of acceptable because you’d been in cryo-sleep for who knows how long and SHODAN had messed with your marbles.
Tim: The poster boy is probably Planescape: Torment, though, which managed to weave an incredibly compelling narrative around what was – even in 1999 – an incredibly over-used and groan-worthy trope.
Peter: The circumstances of Garrett’s memory loss in Thief make a great deal less sense.
At the end of the game’s prologue, Garrett and the most irritating partner in history are hiding above the place where Baron Barely-Appearing-In-This-Game is doing a mystical ritual with his sparkling McGuffin. Thanks to his irritating partner doing something unbelievably irritating and stupid, the roof collapses and Garrett is buried under significant amounts of rubble. The pursuing Thief-finder General is satisfied that Garrett is dead.
Cut to a later scene where Garrett is on a cart being returned to the city. “Oh,” you think, “people can often survive for a while under rubble; he got dug out.” But in a later mission you visit your trusty fence Basso and find out this is all actually taking place ONE YEAR LATER.
No wonder Garrett has memory issues. His body is so decomposed and shriveled that it’s pushed all that recollection-juice out of his ears.
Best Easter Egg Ending for Doing What You’re Told: Far Cry 4
Tim: These days, games tend to have two methods of telling players what to do. One is to slap a big fat objective marker on where you’re meant to go, while a voice in your ear shouts GO HERE AND DO A THING. The cleverer method is to not outright tell a player something, but to gently lead them forward through smart use of level design and catching the eye with certain bits of scenery to make the player intrinsically understand where they’re meant to go. Far Cry 4 manages to use both of these at once, while tricking the player into believing that one is the “correct” choice.
Early on, you have a dinner with tyrannical dictator Pagan Min, interrupted when he goes off to use the phone. You’re told to stay put and he’ll be back shortly… and then you’re given control, so you’re free to wander around the big mansion you’re in. Doing so eventually leads to you discovering some horrible torture, hooking up with rebels there to rescue you, and basically getting on with the game.
Or… you can actually do what Pagan said and stay put until he comes back about 15 minutes later, neatly circumventing the entire game and getting an entirely different ending. It actually reveals a couple of plot points that you’d normally only find at the very end of the game, so I’d suggest not actually doing this until finishing it “normally”, but Ubisoft gets some serious bonus points for throwing something like this in. The Far Cry series has had some fun with player agency and expectations since Far Cry 2, and this continues that theme nicely.
Best Cat Possession Simulator: Murdered: Soul Suspect
Tim: I feel like Murdered: Soul Suspect got a bit of a short shrift. On the one hand, yes, it’s got a lot of rubbish stealth elements. On the other hand, it’s a well-written, spooky, and genuinely interesting supernatural murder mystery… which is unfortunately marred by a lot of rubbish stealth elements. Seriously, I feel like those were shoved in pretty much for marketing purposes, rather than because they add anything meaningful to the gameplay.
But we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here because Murdered: Soul Suspect, when you’re not dodging evil ghosties or investigating a serial murder case, has you find ways to get into new areas… and one of the ways you do that is by possessing cats, and using them to climb things. It’s fantastic. Seriously, you get a “Meow” button, and everything.
Best Feline Romance: Divinity: Original Sin
Peter: Since we’re doing cat-based awards now, Divinity: Original Sin trots away with Best Feline Romance. Okay, it’s perhaps not the most auspicious award this game has won in the past couple of weeks (our very own readers gave it Game of the Year,) but it does encapsulate Larian’s free-form approach to quest design. Also it involves more cats.
You can’t even get this quest without the “Pet Pal” perk, allowing your party to chat with local wildlife in the game’s first major town; and you won’t trigger it unless you bother talking to the resident bar cat Unsinkable Sam. He pines for Maxine, a fancy cat who lives with the town’s Mayor. Will their love ever be able to transcend such class boundaries? Woe, woe.
As it turns out, Maxine quite likes Sam but is concerned that he’s too old to father a litter of kittens. The solution is … for your adventurers to retrieve Sam’s expensive collar from a giant crab. For some reason. But look, ignore that. And maybe ignore the fact that male cats have barbed penises because that’s just horrifying.
It’s a lovely, cat-centric romance dealing with class divides, age discrepancies and their possible effects on childbirth. And no barbed penises whatsoever.
Most Acrobatic Feline: Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance
Tim: Continuing on with the cat theme, let’s take a quick look at one of the most bizarrely acrobatic cats in gaming. And considering how bizarrely acrobatic everything is in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, that’s saying something.
Once you’re done with Revengeance‘s tutorial level and Raiden gets all of his amazing robo-ninja upgrades, you’ll be eager to try them out… and on the beach where you start, there’s a cat. While you might think there’s a bit of potential here for some serious animal cruelty, you’d be wrong: the cat is a better ninja than Raiden will ever be, swiftly backflipping out of the way of any attack you’d care to make.
It’s a gleefully silly little hidden moment in a game that is all about a cyborg ninja posturing his way through a delightfully over-the-top hack-and-slasher. Which is pretty silly in itself, come to think of it, but nothing beats that cat. Literally.
Stupidest Game Name of 2014: Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance
Tim: Now, that said… “Revengeance“? Really, Konami? Really?
Peter: Nanomachines, son.
Most Bizarrely Successful Marketing Campaign: Hearthstone
Tim: It says a lot about how invested people are in Blizzard that, when the Big Blizz say “Hey, come and play our digital card game based on Warcraft lore”, the internet goes apeshit. I can’t think of many other developers who’d get anything close to that reaction. Hell, I can’t think of many developers who’d manage much more than being ignored.
Peter: This is secretly the “Power of Name Brand Recognition Award” isn’t it?
Best Accidental Edutainment Game: Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers Remake
Tim: Edutainment has been a dirtier word than that one you’re currently thinking of (you filthbag) for, ooh, about as long as games have been around. Forget Carmen Sandiego and Oregon Trail; chances are “edutainment” will conjure up images of dreadful Space Invaders clones that pose maths problems and ask you to shoot the correct number. Or they do if you’re as old as I am, anyway.
But I maintain that educating someone over the course of a game can actually – gasp! – be a good thing. Like, say, when it serves the game instead of getting in the way.
This is exactly what’s done in Gabriel Knight, a macabre, southern gothic point-and-click adventure. You’ll learn a lot about voodoo (and Vodoun, and Hoodoo, and gris-gris) over the course of the adventure – by attending a university lecture, and chatting with a man who owns a museum of historical voodoo – and none of it feels shoehorned in, because the character actually has to learn about voodoo. And grisly murders and ancient cults aside, it all appears to be well-researched and pretty accurate, as near as a layman like me can tell.
If there’s a better way of getting people to learn about something than by weaving it into a decent narrative and creating a compelling reason for the protagonist to actually learn and make use of this information, I don’t know what it is.
Best Use of Raspberries in a Videogame Plot: Defense Grid 2
Tim: Game plots often thrust you into some sort of power fantasy, or at least, a fantasy role. You’re an elven space marine theme park owner, and you have to build a base and lead your troops into combat against the hordes of alien orc robot demons while staying in the black! Defense Grid 2 does this (er, insofar as it puts you into the power fantasy role of Defender of the Human Race – it is not a game about being an elven space marine theme park owner, brilliant as that would be) but some of the plot fluff surrounding this is… a little unusual.
Players of the first game will recall Fletcher, the AI general with a penchant for raspberries. Players of the first game were perhaps not expecting his obsession with the juicy red berries to actually become a rather important plot point.
While the plot and characters never manage to reach the bizarrely emotional highs of the previous game, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t thoroughly enjoy the voice acting, the script, and the way raspberries actually ended up mattering. How often do you get to write that about a game, eh?
Best Closet Interiors: Alien: Isolation
Tim: Ostensibly, Alien: Isolation is a game about exploring a space station while being stalked by one of those xenomorph things from the movie Alien. As far as I can tell, it’s a fascinating and in-depth exploration of the world of closet and locker interiors.
I mean, sure, I could go out and try to avoid death at the hands of murderous robots and a slithering Alien hell-bent on biting my face off, but I’d much rather examine the lovely textures on the inside of this locker. Wouldn’t you?
Most Unexpected Use of the Escape Key: Final Fantasy XIII
Tim: I certainly wasn’t expecting the Escape key to instantly transport me to the magical land of Windows Desktop, at least.
Most Amazing Escape Music: BattleBlock Theater’s Finale
Peter: It’s … beautiful.
Game Mechanic We Expect to See Copied: Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis System
Tim: I’ll be honest – I don’t know if I’d say I expect this to become as widespread as modern-day shooters or closet-investigation simulators, but I’d be kinda surprised if nobody uses this idea again within the next couple of years. Even if it’s just Monolith or Warner Bros slapping it onto a different property.
In case you missed it, Shadow of Mordor‘s Nemesis System was the one really clever and original thing the game did (which isn’t me complaining about the rest of it, which was pretty much Assassin’s Creed done well). Your primary foes throughout the game are randomly generated chieftains fighting for power, each of whom has his own strengths, weaknesses, habits, and immunities. Each one, then, requires a unique strategy to take down… and if they get away from you or kill you, they’ll increase in power, and the next time you fight them they’ll be a bit stronger than before.
Which means you’re essentially creating your own major villains to take on. It has a few flaws (not least because, once you get very good at picking off these warchiefs, you won’t see most of them more than once) but it’s a brilliant way of adding a bit of unique flavour to the game, and forcing you to actually plan out most of your assassinations rather than just doing them in a scripted mission.
It’s clearly a system that requires a fair bit of work, but I’d be surprised if this was the last time we heard of it. With a bit of evolution it could offer a genuinely entertaining new twist on pretty much any genre of game, and I’m really eager to see some of these possibilities get realised.