Welcome back! Now that the last of the Christmas leftovers have been eaten, and our New Year hangovers are naught but a dim (and painful) memory, we’re kicking off 2015 with our second annual Game Awards. What really impressed us in 2014? What was the biggest letdown? And which developer will walk away with our Developer of the Year award?
Of course, 2014 wasn’t all good news; while it was certainly a memorable year for our beloved hobby, it wasn’t always memorable for the right reasons. Whether it was female developers receiving death threats from a bunch of idiots, a litany of games which didn’t work properly at release, or an avalanche of rehashed “remasters”, sometimes we were left wondering whether there was anything left to feel good about.
Then Dragon Age: Inquisition came out, and reminded us just why we love gaming in the first place.
Here’s the full list of this year’s awards. Click to jump to relevant category, if you don’t want to view them all:
Most Improved Sequel
Winner: Dragon Age: Inquisition
Our score: 9/10
We said: “a masterful representation of its genre and sets a new standard for RPGs to live up to.”
In a year filled with lackluster sequels, one game stood head and shoulders above the rest and blew gamers away with a combination of deep and rich storytelling, a cast of characters you wish you could hang out with in real life, and more content than you can shake a stick at. In fact, we’re still playing it now – such is the sheer amount of content that Bioware crammed into the game, and the amount of choice granted as you shape how its epic story unfolds.
After Dragon Age 2 outstayed its welcome by the time the credits rolled, thanks to its endlessly repeated environments, dumbed-down combat and lack of overall challenge, Inquisition is a game that you can easily plunge over a hundred hours into and still want more. Small, visually dull environments have been replaced by epic vistas and zones that you can spend hours exploring, while Bioware made combat far more tactical and rewarding for the series’ third outing.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is the perfect example of how to do a sequel – increase scale, increase depth, improve on narrative, introduce new mechanics, and create a world that players never want to leave.
Most Disappointing Sequel
Winner: Assassin’s Creed: Unity
Our score: 6/10
We said: “The overriding sense is that Assassin’s Creed has lost its way, and Ubisoft needs to do something pretty impressive next year if it wants to convince us that the series still has what it takes to remain in the big leagues.”
To be honest, this was a difficult award to pick this year, such was the sheer volume of sequels in 2014 which did little to build on their predecessor. But Unity stands out due to reversing almost all of the progress and innovation found in 2013’s Black Flag. Ironically, Black Flag won our “Most Improved Sequel” award last year. How the mighty have fallen.
While 18th-century Paris is undoubtedly a remarkable visual achievement, it’s married to rote gameplay, an uninteresting narrative, and the overhauls to both movement and combat utterly failed to solve any of the problems that have always plagued the series; if anything, they made them even worse. [pullquote]To add insult to injury, Ubisoft locked a large amount of content behind not just one, but two external apps[/pullquote] – the Initiates browser-based game, and a companion app on tablets. And then there were the micro-transactions. For a game that already came with an inflated price tag thanks to Ubisoft’s persistence at hiking up the prices of their games, to be asked to spend more money to curtail the artificial grinding felt like a complete lack of respect for players.
Such was the anger surrounding Unity that it forced the publisher to issue a public apology, cancel the season pass and give DLC away for free, as well as promise to change its relationship with the press (who were unable to review the game until the day of release).
Here’s hoping that this year’s Assassin’s Creed: Victory ends up in a better place, otherwise Ubisoft’s flagship franchise could find itself assassinated by their own hands.
Runners Up: Thief, The Sims 4
Biggest Disaster of the Year
Winner: Halo: The Master Chief Collection‘s broken multiplayer
Our score: N/A
We said: Nothing. The problems have been so bad that we simply haven’t been able to properly assess the multiplayer.
On paper, it sounded great. A compilation of Halos 1-4, a shiny new overhaul of Halo 2, and every single multiplayer map ever created for those games.
In practice? Erm…
As great as the single-player campaigns are, let’s face it: for most people, it’s multiplayer where Halo really shines. It’s the game that revolutionized multiplayer shooters on consoles, it popularized and arguably spurred the growth of online services on home consoles, and it’s enjoyed by millions all over the world. Alongside the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield, no other series defines online multiplayer shooters as much as Halo does. So needless to say, plenty of people were looking forward to logging on and spending hundreds of hours killing other players’ virtual selves.
Then it was released, and while the single-player was as good as we hoped, the multiplayer was completely broken.
At launch, online multiplayer for Halo: The Master Chief Collection simply didn’t work for the vast majority of players. There were – and still are – reports of people waiting over 2 hours simply to connect to a game. And once you finally did manage to start a match? You would be frequently booted back to the main menu without warning. It didn’t help that in order to even play multiplayer, you first had to download a ludicrously big 15gb day one patch – because Microsoft clearly thinks that bandwidth is no longer an issue for anyone.
[pullquote]It was, quite frankly, a clusterfuck of epic proportions. [/pullquote]
Developer 343 Industries subsequently issued a number of apologies for the game’s shoddy state, rushing out patch after patch in an effort to rectify all the issues, even promising the addition of Halo 4‘s Spartan Ops missions and Halo: ODST‘s campaign in free content updates. But problems continue to this day (though, in fairness, not anywhere near as bad), and for many, the damage had been done. If 343 Industries wishes to salvage its reputation after this fiasco, then this year’s Halo 5 Guardians needs to be no less than perfect right out of the gate.
Runners Up: Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Driveclub
Best New IP
Our score: 10/10
We said: “This is an utterly fantastic game that exudes polish from every digital pore. If you love card games, love Warcraft, or just love games in general, you owe it to yourself to play Hearthstone.”
A free-to-play card game for PC and tablets hardly sounds like the most exciting prospect. But when it’s coming from Blizzard, a developer who has arguably never made a single bad game in their entire history, you tend to sit up and take notice.
Blizzard has a long track record of taking once-niche, complex genres and making them more accessible to newcomers, without sacrificing any of the depth or tactical considerations the genre is known for. They did it with World of Warcraft, did it again with Diablo, and Starcraft is so popular that it’s actually considered a national sport in some countries. So when Hearthstone was released, we were expecting something good. But, in the words of Illidan the Betrayer, we were not prepared.
Hearthstone is one of those games which perfectly encapsulates the expression “easy to learn, difficult to master”. Its mechanics are effortlessly simple to understand – players draw cards from a deck of their own creation, and spend mana from a pool each turn in order to play the cards in their hand, summoning creatures and casting spells in an effort to whittle their opponent’s health down to zero.
But through careful balance and the introduction of hero characters, each with their own unique ability and exclusive card sets, Blizzard made sure that the final result was nigh-on perfect. [pullquote]Hearthstone is simply one of the most addictive, compelling and thought-provoking games of the year.[/pullquote] It’s a game that you’ll spend hours agognizing over which cards to include and which to swap out, trying to identify that special combination that will decimate your opponent. It’s a game where you can snatch victory from your opponent and turn it into a crushing defeat in a single turn. Hearthstone took the familiar principles and mechanics of the genre, and applied its own touch of magic to them. It also plays beautifully on mobile devices, the touch-screen interface actually feeling even better and more intuitive than using a mouse on your PC.
2014 saw a number of great new IPs, but none quite got under our skin in the same way that Hearthstone has.
Best Visual Design
Winner: Alien: Isolation
Our score: 9/10
We said: “The Creative Assembly sat down to make a game that fits the style, aesthetic, and tone of the original Ridley Scott film and they hit it out of the park in doing so.”
We have to admit, expectations were low when Alien: Isolation was first announced. After all, Ripley’s nemesis has suffered over the last decade, with games ranging from mediocre (Alien vs Predator) to so bad that you actually want to find a facehugger to attach yourself to (Aliens: Colonial Marines). It didn’t help that the project was attached to Creative Assembly, a developer who, while certainly talented, is probably the last studio you’d think of to craft a compelling horror game.
But then we played it, and were left with nothing but praise.
Simply put, Alien: Isolation is a masterwork, and a huge amount of that is down to the stunning craftsmanship that went into the game’s visual design. The art team gained unprecedented access to terabytes of archived material from Ridley Scott’s original 1979 masterpiece. [pullquote]Thanks to the hard work of Creative Assembly, the Sevastopol feels as though it genuinely inhabits the same universe as the original film.[/pullquote] Everything from the clinical, padded and hexagonal corridors, to the chunky low-fi greenscreen CRT monitors is there to put you firmly in the world that we first saw over 3 decades ago.
But it’s the Alien itself which is the real star, and it’s a thing of monstrous beauty. Dominating the screen and standing at an imposing 10 feet tall, this hulking beast is a faithful recreation of the monster from the first film, rather than the decidedly smaller, skittish creatures in the subsequent sequels. It even has the semi-transluscent head, through which can be discerned the vague outline of a human skull.
And then there’s the lighting and fog effects, which create a thick atmosphere of dread even when the Alien isn’t anywhere to be found. Far from feeling like an artifical space created for a game, the Sevastopol feels tangibly real in a way that we haven’t seen in a game since Half-Life 2. Family photos are stuck to crew quarters; ruptured pipes send steam and smoke into the air, clouding your vision; and the flamethrower sports possibly one of the best renditions of fire yet seen in a game.
It may have let the side down slightly with some stiff character animation and uncanny-valley faces, but in every other respect, Alien: Isolation’s visual design outclasses anything else released this year.
Best Sound Design
Our score: N/A
We said: Nothing, we didn’t review it – mainly because it’s actually just a glorified demo. But you can watch Kyle’s Let’s Play video here.
Plenty of games wowed this year with impressive graphics and gorgeous worlds to explore, but few married those visuals to equally stunning sound design.
P.T. was different. It may have sported incredible visuals that arguably came the closest we’ve yet seen to photorealistic graphics in a game, but the playable teaser for the next Silent Hill really stood out thanks to its genuinely nerve-wracking audio. Garbled messages cutting through news reports on the radio, suitably ominous creaking doors, and sudden, shocking noises behind you that will have you jump out of your skin all combine to create one of the most nerve-wracking experiences in recent memory.
[pullquote]A game where you simply wander through the same corridor over and over again should have been the most boring thing in the world.[/pullquote] Instead, Guillermo del Toro and Hideo Kojima managed to deliver possibly the most terrifying game of the year (even if it is just a teaser for a larger project) – and they did it mainly through their masterful use of audio.
George Lucas once said that sound makes up 50% of the experience in a film. P.T. is the perfect example of that ethos. Sure, it’s little more than a teaser for a larger project – but if the next Silent Hill can live up to the gauntlet thrown down by P.T., we’re in for a pant-soiling treat when it arrives.
Developer of the Year
Winner: Blizzard Entertainment
After a couple of years where it seemed as though World of Warcraft was starting to wind down, Blizzard knocked it out the park in 2014. Not only did they manage to reverse the ailing fortunes and player numbers of their flagship MMO, they also managed to fix almost every single problem with Diablo 3 with the release of the excellent Reaper of Souls expansion and delivered one of the most addictive games of the year in Hearthstone.
Not content with that, the ongoing Beta of upcoming MOBA Heroes of the Storm shows that the developer is bringing their keen eye for accessibility and strategic depth to the MOBA genre, while the unveiling of Overwatch at Blizzcon sees the developer moving hard into the competitive multiplayer FPS genre with a game that already shows remarkable polish, some truly gorgeous graphics, and a diverse cast of characters which instantly had fans arguing over which was their favorite.
It wasn’t all good news, of course. The news in September that Project Titan had been canned raised eyebrows, not least due to analyst estimates that its protracted development may have cost upwards of $200m. But Blizzard has never been afraid to ditch a project that just wasn’t working out – just look at Starcraft: Ghost and Warcraft Adventures. [pullquote]They’re perfectionists, and they take their time to ensure that every title they put out is as polished and playable as it possibly can be.[/pullquote] That they manage to release anything is something of a minor miracle, given that exacting approach to development; but 2014 saw no less than 3 major releases, all of them excellent, all of them representing the pinnacle of their respective genres.
This year looks no different – Heroes of the Storm is a fantastic experience even in Beta; Overwatch looks like it could take the esports world by storm; and, of course, we’re likely to see the second expansion for Starcraft 2, which is likely to be at the top of the most-anticipated list for many an RTS fan.
Runners Up: Bioware, The Creative Assembly
Publisher of the Year
Nintendo completely knocked it out the park this year.
While the Wii U continues to struggle in the sales department, it’s also played host to some of the standout games of the year. Third parties may have abandoned the console in droves, but Nintendo is nothing but tenacious – and 2014 saw the Wii U finally starting to come into its own with a veritable laundry list of excellent exclusives that put both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One to shame. They didn’t rest on their laurels with the 3DS, either – delivering an excellent new Pokémon game, announcing a more powerful hardware revision, and bringing a cross-platoform enabled port of Super Smash Bros. to the world’s most popular handheld.
Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros. Wii U, Bayonetta 2, Captain Toad, Pokémon… Across both the Wii U and the 3DS, Nintendo published hit after hit this year.
2015 looks to be another sterling year for the Nintendo faithful. Xenoblade Chronicles X looks set to deliver one of the must-have RPGs of the year, Splatoon sees the Tokyo giant taking on the FPS genre, and of course there’s new Legend of Zelda and Starfox games to look forward to.
Not bad for a company that’s now 125 years old.
Runners Up: Electronic Arts, Microsoft Game Studios
Best Mobile Game
Winner: Monument Valley
Our score: 9/10
We said: “Mobile gaming is so frequently disparaged as a place for the inept or the greedy; games like Monument Valley show us that it can also be a space for the artistic and the delightful.”
2014 was arguably an even better year for Mobile games than it was for big-budget console and PC releases. Hearthstone, Vainglory, Republique and Hitman GO all demonstrated that mobile phones and tablets are perfectly capable of playing home to some excellent gaming experiences – all it takes is a little imagination when it comes to marrying simple ideas and compelling gameplay to intuitive touch-screen controls.
Monument Valley instantly stands out as our pick of the best mobile games of last year, though. Along with its beautiful art design and Escher-inspired, multi-layered puzzles which see you manipulating the world around you, Ida shows remarkable personality in her little animations, even though she never speaks and is nothing more than a simple outline.
The original release was brief, able to be completed in just a couple of hours. Thankfully, developer Ustwo then released two more expansions, which not only upped the scale and ambition of each stage, but also significantly increased the difficulty, leaving us scratching our heads for ages until we finally had that magical “Eureka!” moment.
Monument Valley is evidence that the simplest ideas, executed well, can result in some of the most satisfying gameplay experiences. We hope there’s a sequel, but even if there’s not, Ustwo has managed to put themselves firmly on the list of Mobile game developers to watch.
Runners Up: Hearthstone, Hitman GO
Best Console Game
Winner: Super Smash Bros for Wii U
Our Score: 10/10
We said: “Super Smash Bros is what Nintendo has always been about, regardless of what their detractors may say, even in their 125th year. Simply put, Super Smash Bros for Wii U is fun.”
Nintendo had a stellar year in 2014 – hence why they netted our Publisher of the Year award – and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U is an excellent example as to why.
Sure, it’s a sequel to a long-running series that first debuted on the N64; but [pullquote]Smash Bros. on Wii U is also a love letter to Nintendo’s entire back catalog.[/pullquote] With over 50 characters, fantastic multiplayer modes, and some stunning presentation, Super Smash Bros manages to not only be a surprisingly tactical fighting game (something which you wouldn’t guess from the limited movesets of its fighters), but excellent fun in multiplayer, with a one-more-go appeal which will have you going back time and time again. It’s also utterly crammed with content.
The absence of a single-player mode is no great loss, either; let’s face it, Subspace Emissary was a bit rubbish. In fact, Brawl as a whole was something of a disappointment.
Super Smash Bros for Wii U is, by contrast, a breath of fresh air – a game which is just sheer, unadulterated fun, and the perfect game to humiliate your friends with after a night out.
Many other worthy contenders on consoles came out in 2014, but in a year dominated by reports of technical glitches (Assassin’s Creed: Unity), lack of content (Destiny) and broken multiplayer (Halo: The Master Chief Collection), Super Smash Bros. for Wii U stands out all the more for being technically solid, great fun, and something you’re likely to come back to time and time again long after release.
Best PC Game
Winner: Elite: Dangerous
Our score: Watch this space (we’re still working on our review).
We said: See above
Elite: Dangerous is everything a PC game should be – gorgeous to look at, possessing incredible depth of gameplay, and providing an experience which simply couldn’t be replicated on consoles.
The triumphant return of the classic series which kickstarted the entire space combat genre, Elite: Dangerous sticks players in a mind-bogglingly massive galaxy with a puny ship, a handful of credits, and asks you to make a name for yourself – by whatever means necessary. Want to trade slaves? You can do that, just be careful that the authorities don’t scan your cargo. Want to hunt down other players, either for bounty or simply to steal their cargo? You can do that, too. Perhaps you want to explore the universe? Elite: Dangerous has literally millions of star systems to chart.
In recent years, developer Frontier Development has become known for creating smaller, dare we say it, more casual games – be it Kinectimals, Zoo Tycoon, or this year’s upcoming Screamride, they’ve veered heavily towards a more mainstream audience over the course of the last decade. Elite: Dangerous, however, is as hardcore as they come – a game which demands mastery over its physics, a game which practically demands you use a joystick to get the most out of it, and a game which reminds us all just why David Braben’s original was so beloved in the first place.
Elite: Dangerous isn’t just a stellar sequel to an iconic franchise; it’s a triumphant reminder that PC games still have what it takes to deliver experineces that home consoles simply can’t hope to match.
Runners Up: World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor, Divinity: Original Sin
Best Handheld Game
Winner: Pokémon Omega Ruby/ Alpha Sapphire
Our Score: 9/10
We said: “Pokémon Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire is simply an excellent game – packed with content and enough new additions to more than warrant its existence.”
Handheld consoles weren’t short of great games this year, but there’s no denying that one title stood head and shoulders above all others when it came to content, compelling gameplay, and outstanding craftmanship.
It’s easy to dismiss ORAS, as it’s known, as just another cash-grab in a series which seemingly churns out new titles and side-games at an alarming rate. To dismiss this gem, however, would be to overlook the best handheld game of the year. Pokémon Omega Ruby/ Alpha Sapphire is simply amazing fun, packed so full of things to do that you can easily sink hundreds of hours into it and still not have rinsed its content.
Add to that the wonderful 3D presentation, which finally brings the series kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, and it soon becomes clear that if you want a compelling, addictive and strategic experience to while away the hours on the go, you can’t do much better than Pokémon Omega Ruby/ Alpha Sapphire.
Forget the naysayers who scoff at the series and preach that it’s for kids – Pokémon is just as deep and strategic as any other game. In a year that was relatively light on handheld RPGs, ORAS stands out, and we can only wonder what Game Freak has planned next.
Runners Up: TxK, Kirby: Triple Deluxe
Best Indie Game
Winner: The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
Our score: 9/10
We said: “Any route you take to reach your destination is an adventure, and that’s exactly what Ethan Carter is.“
2014 was a superb year for the Indie scene, and this category is the one that generated the most debate here among the team. As larger publishers and their internal studios struggled to deliver titles that lived up to the hype, the indies simply got on with things – delivering excellent game after excellent game. More than once this year, it felt like the Indie scene was genuinely the great hope of the industry’s future; The Old City: Leviathan asked us to question the nature of madness, reality and philosophize about our own place in the universe. Deadcore saw us speed-running across platforms suspended thousands of feet in the air; and Jazzpunk… well, God knows quite what Jazzpunk is, but it made us laugh more times than we count.
But it was The Astronauts, with their masterful storytelling, gorgeous presentation and confident approach to not holding players’ hands, who really stood out. The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is an absolutely stunning debut – an intriguing supernatural murder mystery, a beautifully presented world, and a compelling narrative which pushes you to uncover every last one of its secrets. It may not last long – your playthrough is likely to last just 4 or 5 hours – but it will stick in your mind long after completion, and the world you inhabit is so beautiful that you won’t want to leave.
Plenty of indie developers wowed us this year; but few managed to make quite the same impression as The Astronauts. We can’t wait to see what they come up with next.
Runners Up: The Old City: Leviathan, This War of Mine
Game of the Year
Winner: Dragon Age: Inquisition
Our Score: 9/10
We said: “Bioware has created a jewel when so many expected them to unveil a lump of coal, and reestablished themselves as masters of the genre.”
We had to wait a long time for the standout game of 2014, but it was worth it.
Brushing aside all lingering concerns over their ability to deliver a standout experience following Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age 2, Bioware delivered one of the deepest, most rewarding, most content-rich games to have graced any system in recent memory. Dragon Age: Inquisition has it all: A rich, detailed universe; a narrative filled with memorable characters, intrigue and high adventure; humor and tragedy; and a winning combination of accessibility with tactical depth.
Not content with delivering well over 100 hours of single-player content, Bioware even found the time to include an actually-not-rubbish multiplayer mode. Building on the multiplayer modes of Mass Effect 3, Inquisition‘s multiplayer sees players selecting their class and battling through a series of multi-zone levels, each with their own micro-narrative, and each just as detailed as anything you’ll find in the main game.
But it’s the companions which truly elevate Inquisition to the status of being the most accomplished game of the year. Each and every one of them will stick in your mind long after the end credits have rolled. Dorian’s witty rejoinders, Sera’s immature but hilariously blunt comments, and The Iron Bull’s matter-of-fact approach to viewing violence mean that you enjoy your time just roaming around with your troupe just as much as you would your friends in real life. Their interactions in the field stand out, too – every possible combination of companions has unique dialogue with each other, and their conversations as you explore the world of Thedas are frequently hilarious. “What’s the matter? Not enough slaves around to rub your footsies?” Iron Bull asks, after Dorian complains about the cold. “My footsies are freezing, thank you,” comes the reply.
[pullquote]Special mention has to go to Bioware’s ongoing role as the most inclusive developer in the industry.[/pullquote] Dragon Age: Inquisition features asexual characters, heterosexual characters, lesbian characters, gay characters, bisexuals, transexuals, and even a character who could be described as being firmly on the Autistic Spectrum. In a medium where most female protagonists are treated as little more than sex symbols, and straight white males dominate with macho bravado, Bioware’s ongoing effort to represent every facet of the human condition is to be welcomed – particularly in a year which was notable for a rise in political conservatism among some quarters of the gaming community.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is, without a doubt, the best game of the year. Engrossing, possessing plenty of depth, and a game which can easily last you months before plumbing all of its depths; it’s a welcome reminder of what the medium can accomplish, and what it should strive to achieve in future.
Runners Up: Hearthstone, Mario Kart 8