Monday, 19 January 2015

Best of 2014

Video Games

Another year, another list, and video games have continued to provide a lot of fun again this year. It wasn't a terrible year of games, although there has been a lot of controversy and negativity in the press over a few topics surrounding the larger publishers. We've still had peaks and troughs in the quality of the games released, but I think the peaks were few and far between and generally just not quite as high as the previous few years.

I've dropped disappointment of the year this time around despite the troubles with 'bad games' getting released this year, which I don't totally disagree with, but I've avoided some of the games that brought about this. In fact, I've played quite a few of those games and they've been fine for the most part. People just need to learn that it's maybe not always great to pre-order games they are really looking forward to, to get an extra weapon, car or whatever crappy upgrade is on offer for the game. Games can quite frequently be found heavily discounted a month, or even weeks, after release when all of the Day One issues have normally been resolved by then so you are free to enjoy the product you paid for. Not to make excuses for those big publishers and developers out there that came under criticism this year, they still need to get their shit in line and it’s not good enough to release what is known to be a broken product.

One thing that may need addressing is that while almost half of my favourite games are Ubisoft products, I think the fact they are in the lower part of my top 10, shows that they have had a good year and put out some good games, but were just not quite all there in terms of quality and all had some niggling problems that held them back from greatness.

... and finally I got the next-gen train this year with the purchase of a PlayStation 4. I now see that there are enough games (upcoming and current) to make a big enough library that would be meaningful to my collection. It was also nice to just put a disc in the machine and play the game without messing around with settings for half an hour first.

Game of the Year 2014

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor - PC 

After about 20 hours in the Shadow of Morder I wasn't sure if this was a better open world game than Watch_Dogs, as the only other open world game I'd played at that point, but when I thought about it and compared to the 60 hours it had taken to complete Watch_Dogs, I realised I was having much more fun and had only got part of the way through the game.

In the run up to the release I had heard a little talk about the game and I wasn't even expecting to play it at release. Maybe it would be one of those games you pick up cheap in a Steam sale and never actually play, but this one came out of nowhere and surprised brilliantly, and I'm sure not just for myself. It has to be the biggest surprise for me this year as most Lord Of The Rings games are not well received, so it was great to see how good this game was.

The Nemesis System is really a standout feature of the game which adds an extra meta-layer to the gameplay. You may be going about your plan to complete a mission, but the game has other plans for you because a Warcheif is in the area, so you have to rethink your approach. It's the confidence the game has in its design which really makes the system work, and the fact that it will throw a overpowered enemy at you at any point, and is something I'm quite sure we will see in many variations in future games.

Messing about and just having fun with random stuff in the world outside of the game's main quests and missions is something I don't normally do much. Even in such a huge world as in Grand Theft Auto 5 the emergent gameplay doesn't really entice me all that much. I think it's down to the fact that Shadow of Mordor has a much more condensed world I wasn't as overwhelmed with all the possibilities. On that point, Shadow of Mordor proves that a smaller world allows for a more polished, albeit concentrated environment, but can still produce an impressive experience, so it's something that smaller teams should consider when they don't have the resources of and budget of somebody like Rockstar.

Weather a stylistic choice or not the cinematics match to the look and feel that I remember from the films. I think that this works well though as it feels like you are experiencing an extension of the films. Agree with it or not, other elements were included to tie into parts of the films such as the inclusion of Golum, and the mission where you compete against Torvin for the most kills was an instant call back to Legolas and Gimli after The Battle of Helm's Deep in The Two Towers film.


2. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth - PC

Although I again played more Binding of Isaac than any other game this year, it doesn't mean that I could justify giving it the top spot even though I had so much fun with it. Maybe, had I not played so much of the original version I would have been so blown away by this remake, but not to say I was ever bored, but at times I did feel a little burnt out, and that's after not playing any Isaac for over a year.

The addition of a few new enemies and bosses, along with a new alternative way to complete the game keeps the variety high, but what does place the remake so high of my list is the new items that have been added, and how the synergies work so well between them and the extra work done to make those synergies better than in the original version.

If I'd have bought my PlayStation 4 sooner, and got the free copy given to everybody with PlayStation Plus (and had a Vita to play anywhere, anytime) I think I would have been torn to what was top of the list.

3. FTL: Advanced Edition - PC
Subset Games

I played some FTL a short while after its initial release but burnt out on it pretty quick, maybe from watching too many Let's Play and live streams of the game so I felt like I knew all of the content when I was actually playing. However, the additional content of Advanced Edition proved to be very refreshing to the gameplay and provided enough variation that I was drawn to the game much more this time around. The combat is still just as fun, and getting to the final boss is still tense. Even when you think you are overpowered, it can all fall away so quick if you make one mistake.

Along with Rebirth (and many others I've not played) it's been a good year of Indie games getting a reboot with extra content to keep them alive and potentially draw in new audiences.

4. The Crew - PlayStation 4
Ivory Tower and Ubisoft Reflections

One thing I remember from the announcement trailer of The Crew was the use of the 'blown up' versions of the cars and how all the pieces came together to form the vehicle. The level of detail even under the body of the car was really impressive, and I was really happy to see this actually make it into the game which is something you'd expect to see as a marketing gimmick to get people interested in the game, but isn't actually possible, or intended for the final product. I had to go back and watch the trailer again, and it still stands out as one of the most impressive and cool trailers I've seen for anything.

Along with this there are some really stunning (even if they are pre-rendered) cut scenes, none of which were in that original trailer, so that was a surprise to see, and they are probably the best I've seen in a game actually. The cars themselves have a lot of detail in them and each one can look completely different in the 5 specs. Also taking a car off-road makes the cars get dirty in a progressive manner which feels real, and the damage models are well implemented with the same progressive visuals. There is a wide range of customizing options, which I was happy to see. I've been waiting for a system that does it anywhere near as good as the Need for Speed Undergorund series, and The Crew comes as close as anything since.

The Crew also has some interesting visuals in it's user interface, and despite a passing interest in creating interfaces, while playing games the UI design is not normally something that I think about too often. However, The Crew implements spatial elements really well and generally has a really clean interface and presents a lot of information in an understandable way.

Pre-release, Ubisoft promised a coast to coast drive across the USA and even though the game world maybe scaled down some from the real USA, it still offers a huge world. I do think though that all this effort maybe a little wasted on the average player that will just blast through the main story missions as you only get to see about 20% of the world at most this way. Completing the whole game and most of the side content, I still have patches on the map I've not travelled to. I think I'd be rather disappointed had I being the person that worked on those areas that maybe only 5% of players will ever see. One of the skill games takes you through a theme park full of interesting assets which had to be bespoke for that area as there's limited use for them in the rest of the game.

One common complaint I share of the early game is the car handling. It does get better as you progress and upgrade your car, however, it is quite frustrating for the first few missions of the game and I don't think it was designed that the handling goes from terrible to reasonable. The other annoyance I found was the constant quips during the main missions of the story characters where if you drop below 1st place and then regain it, but it's just about bearable.

The story isn't really all that interesting, but when have we ever had a game, or film in fact, that has fast cars and a good story? The Fast and Furious series has attempted it, but on that scale, The Crew is the video game equivalent to the original The Fast and the Furious film.

If Shadow of Mordor had fallen into the pit of 2014's delayed games, then this would have won biggest surprise for me after it was so poorly received in the press and reviews. If it's not clear, I think The Crew is a totally solid driving game, and I hope to see The Crew 2 with a new setting (I'd say across Europe would be a safe bet) and after learning from a few lessons.

5. Far Cry 4 - PlayStation 4
Ubisoft Montreal

In a year that has seen also an overwhelming number of open world games, Far Cry 4 stands out to me with its visually stunning world. At times you are teleported to side levels which normally seem out of place in open-world games. Like when you visit North Yankton in Grand Theft Auto 5, but visiting Shangri-La was a really enjoyable experience just for how the level looks so amazing in contrast to the main world of the game. For me, Far Cry 4 has the best environments in a game this year because of how inspiration is taken from real world, but still has plenty of imagination applied to it as shown in areas like Shangri-La.

While progressing through the game I feel like there was lots of busy work where you are progressing, but not really doing anything. The emerging aspects of gameplay are a prime example of this. They can sometimes take up a few minutes of gameplay and don't really offer any reward. I soon realised this and stopped participating in them. The main story missions bring nothing new to this type of game, but are still very much fun and quite frequently surprised in where they take Ajay, the character you play as. Along with Ajay, there are some really great characters, which is something I normally don't care too much about. Regi and Yogi are great examples of how the game can show a flip side in its storytelling and their missions are a lot of fun, for example, by transforming the environments in really interesting and unexpected ways.

6. Watch_Dogs - PC
Ubisoft Montreal

Another example of a Ubisoft title this year that had lots of negativity around a few areas of the game, and  I can't argue with some as I experienced a game-breaking bug which took two weeks to be fixed (luckily I was away on holiday when this happened and was fixed when I got back). As with GTA5 last year, Watch_Dogs provided an amazingly good looking world, and provided some interesting story beats along the progression of the main storyline.

I think for so many people they were expecting this to be the real start of the next-gen for consoles, but playing it on PC unfortunately (or maybe fortunately for this reason) made it just another game in the Steam library. I still enjoyed my time with Watch_Dogs and it introduced some interesting aspects. In fact, I think the some of the mini games, such as Cash Run and Digital Trips, could be spanned out into more, and even feature as main mechanics in a title of their own.

7. OlliOlli - PC
Roll7 and General Aracde

After the let down of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD in 2012, I was instantly impressed by OlliOlli. Firstly, it has awesome soundtrack. Exactly what you'd expect from a Devolver Digital game and what I expect would be in a modern day Tony Hawk Pro Skater game (we will see this year with the promised return of Tony Hawk to consoles in 2015). OlliOlli has the "just one more try" gameplay, combined with the objectives set for each it level keeps you playing and trying to do better each time you play a level. Unfortunately though, I did find the difficulty curve a little too steep so I didn't play that much in the end. Hopefully something that will be addressed in the announced sequel to make the experience a little more accessible.

8. Trails Fusion - PC
Red Lynx and Ubisoft Shanghai

"Welcome to the future! Man, machine, the fusion." Ahhh, I love Trials alone for the awesomely dumb songs in the soundtrack. But speaking of games with step difficulty curves, once again I played through most of Trials Fusion and got to the extreme tracks before admitting defeat. The addition of tricks was interesting, but didn't feature prominently enough throughout to really make a meaningful addition in this version. What was a real addition to the game were the challenges, which extended the use of each level and held the ability to even transform a level you know really well into a new level again. The season pass is very much a few more sets of the same levels based around themes, meaning whole new sets of visually interesting environments. In most games that would probably be a bad thing, but the way Trials' levels work is that all you want to do is play another level and another level... It's one reason why the map editor is now an essential part of the Trials' series.

9. The Walking Dead: Season 2 - PC
Telltale Games

After really enjoying Season 1 of Telltale's The Walking Dead series, I was really excited for Season 2. I played the first episode of the new season as soon as it was available, but as new episodes came out (even following the industry as close as I do) I wasn't aware of them. On that note, it seems that the rest of the season wasn't actually all that well received, but maybe that's just because it's in comparison to how much everybody loved Season 1. The time I spent playing with Episode 1 was enjoyable and provided that same emotional ride with well crafted gameplay sequences. I wish I had more to say about the rest of the season, but it is high on my backlog.

10. Grid Autosport - PC
Codemasters Racing

I was a little disappointed with the 'updates' from the last iteration of Grid to Autosport. It features mostly the same tracks, and still not a very wide selection of cars. One city track still has buildings under construction as they were in Grid 2, and it would have actually been really cool to see those buildings completed now. I have battled with what Codemasters' idea of game difficulty is in previous titles, and again here I still have troubles. It feels like the AI drivers have a slight boost out of every corner, so unless they've made a mistake, then you have little chance of overtaking, unless you throw yourself up the inside on the next corner.

On a more positive note, each of the 5 disciplines do bring something interesting to the racing (tire wear in endurance and reverse grid order in touring etc) and some of the mistakes the AI make can actually create some pretty spectacular crashes leading to cars flipping into barrel rolls, or multi-car pipe ups. This can happen right in front of you on track and you have to react quickly to not get caught up in the aftermath.

Early Access 2014

Nuclear Throne - PC

As a birthday present to myself, I bought Early Access to Nuclear Throne and had a lot of fun for the short period I played, but I intentionally limited the amount I played so I'm not burnt out when the final product is released. The game has received regular updates which has keep me actively interested and jumped in for a game or two as new features are added. What placed Nuclear Throne at the top of my Early Access experiences this year is the way Vlambeer are going about sharing the progress of development with the community and involving the community in the experience with live streaming the game's development. It makes me wish larger studios could do the same to lift some of the secrecy around development of their games. I think there's plenty of developers out there that have a thing or three to learn from Valmbeer about how to put a game through Early Access.


Cavern Kings - PC

After seeing about two minutes of gameplay I knew Cavern Kings was a game for me and I chipped in for the Kickstarter campaign shortly after. So far, the game has shown signs it has a lot to offer with a great set of mechanics and some cool items. This gives each playthrough the potential for crazy combination allowing runs to become quite out of control, making Cavern Kings stand out from other similar rouge-likes. My major complaint about the current versions is that you can go from being in a really good position to dead really quick by getting mobbed by enemies, but I'm very much looking forward to the final version which doesn't seem to be far away at this point.

Next Car Game: Wreckfest - PC

For any racing fan this game has to peak your interest. It looks great and the physics are amazing. You have to wonder how it can have so much physics processing at one time and why every game can't have the same level of destruction in the vehicles and environments. As somebody that grew up with games like Destruction Derby and Carmageddon, this is the closet that's come to reviving those memories (despite Early Access opening for the Carmageddon reboot this year which was a little lacking in features and gameplay for me at this point). I've being a little disappointed by the lack of updates, but what is available is really good and the Sneak Peak you get for backing the game alone is almost worth the price of entry. All in all, I'm really looking forward to playing the final game, and happy to wait and play a small update every now and then.


Pulse: Volume 1 - Android
Cipher Prime

In terms of aesthetics and gameplay, Pulse is probably one of the most beautifully simple, and that's not meant in a negative way. It was actually quite refreshing to play a game with only one mechanic that can provide so much enjoyment. It's easy to fall into the trap of bolting on more and more mechanics while designing a rhythm game as we saw through the progression of the Guitar Hero series, but as Cipher Prime proves here that keeping it to a minimal and can really work well.


Kingdom Rush: Frontiers - Android
Ironhide Game Studio

Frontiers is more of the same as the last Kingdom Rush games again with a few updates to the gameplay which is fair enough to keep people coming back as the gameplay is quite enjoyable for a genre which is very popular. I did however run into the same problem as the last games where I hit a level that I couldn't beat so had to drop the difficulty level to progress which then made the rest of the game almost too easy.

Splice - Android
Cipher Prime

Although an older game, it finally made it to Android this year, and as always with Cipher Prime games the music is a key element here. The way the rewind ability works in Splice is more than useful and some puzzle games would benefit from including it (and it's always a plus when the music rewinds with the actions on screen like in Briad which is a really cool effect).

Rymdkapsel - Android

There's a pretty simple gameplay concept in Rymdkapsel which is a good idea for a mobile game, but that is also the game's downfall by making the it quite easy and by the end of the game the simple mechanics become repetitive. I think an expanded version of the game with a few more mechanics could help this, but I will be interested to see what grapefrukt does next.

QuizUp - Android
Plain Vanilla Games

QuizUp as you may guess from the name is a game based around answering questions on wide range of topics, both current and old, but what makes it interesting is that you can play synchronously or asynchronously with friends or anybody playing the same topic. There is a levelling up system which keeps you playing, but I think the metagame of levelling up could be extended somewhat to make it more interesting and would have kept me interested for longer.

Old game of 2014

Rocksmith 2014 - PC
Ubisoft San Francisco

After many attempts to learn bass over the past 10 years or so, Rocksmith is about the only thing that's actually kept me playing bass for an extended period of time. What's kept me interested is the continually extending collection of DLC. It may be a little expensive and I've now probably spent more on Rocksmith than any other game franchise (including Guitar Hero), but it's a game where I don't mind paying good money for the DLC as it is actually pretty good value for money when you look at it compared to price of taking lessons. I'm sure there's a good argument for taking lessons, but something like Rocksmith will always make a good supplement to those lessons and gives you a reason to play anytime at home.

Honourable mentions

God of war: Ascension - PlayStation 3
Santa Monica Studio

I've not played The Last Of Us yet, so for me, this is probably one of the best looking games on PlayStation 3. As you expect with a God Of War title, there's plenty of incredible set pieces and environments that really pushed the hardware's capabilities. As with the previous games in the series there's just enough innovation in the combat that it feels fresh, but still uses similar systems so you could jump in even on the harder difficulties. I did come across a few minor technical problems with collision and it felt like there is less variety in the enemy selection with some enemies even getting reused which I don't feel was a problem in the previous games. The first hour is packed full of action, and from there on it's pretty much everything you want from a god of war game.

Guacamelee! Gold Edition - PC
DrinkBox Studios

One standout of Guacamelee is it's soundtrack. It fits really well with the visuals and the overal theme of the game. The combat system is really good and a lot of fun, which almost makes it an instant recommendation to anybody who likes 2D action or platformers. But fuck Jaguar Javier! That's one tough boss fight. The difficulty curve shoots through the roof here which is about half way through the game, then drops off again and rises again slightly here and there. The point is you don't know when the next hard part is coming, which can actually be quite frustrating at times.

Please Stop

One thing about an open-world game with a very large map means more places to put collectibles. As a completionist, this year Ubisoft have really pushed the boundary of what I'm willing to do to get all of the collectibles. I feel this trend has got worse over the past few years and an example I think back to is Sleeping Dogs which had 181 collectibles across 7 types, but this year from Ubisoft we've had:
  • Watch Dogs with 221 collectibles across 10 types
  • Far Cry 4 with 285 collectibles across 5 types and
  • The Crew with 371 collectibles across 3 types in addition to 580 skill games.

This is the world map of The Crew showing all of the collectibles and skill games, but at least there is a fast travel system with massively reduces the time to get between locations. Without this it would be a massive undertaking to even think about travelling to the 242 landmarks spread across the vast map, and even though I quite enjoyed the skill games, trying to do 500 for an achievement is quite something. So I ask to developers, please stop using collectibles simply as a way to keep people playing your game. I'm sure looking at the stats of achievements obtained by players it's clear that only a fraction of player are obtaining all of these collectables. If you want to continue including so many, they should be there in a meaningful way such as Shadow of Mordor did to add context and meaning to the game world.

The backlog got bigger again this year...

Assassin's Creed: Blackflag
Gone Home
One Finger Death Punch
Splinter Cell: Blacklist
and I finally got The Last of Us Remastered this year with my PlayStation 4, so add that to the backlog too.


Wow, so much good music this year. I don't know if there was actually more music suited to my tastes than previous years or I just happen to hear about more albums I wanted to listen to, but there's so much more than this list that I've listened to. I think a list for 'Albums I missed in 2014' may be in order for next year, and there's the return of so many of my favourite bands early next year, I'm sure I could already potentially name half of my top 10 for next year's list.

Album of the year

Foo Fighters - Sonic Highways


2. Rise Against - The Black Market
3. Devil You Know - The Beauty of Destruction
4. Royal Blood - Royal Blood
5. Hellyeah - Blood for Blood
6. Feed The Rhino - The Sound And The Sorrow
7. Black Stone Cherry - Magic Mountain
8. Killer Be Killed - Killer Be Killed
9. Mastodon - Once More 'Round the Sun
10. Bill Kiley - MAGICABIN

Honourable mentions

Decade - Good Luck
Finch - Back to Oblivion
Guano Apes - Offline
In Flames - Siren Charms
Karma To Burn - Arch Stanton
Machine Head - Bloodstone and Diamond
Miss May I - Rise of the Lion
Slash - World on Fire
The Colour Morale - Hold On Pain Ends
The Used - Imaginary Enemy


True Detective Season 1


2. Game of Thrones Season 4
3. Homeland Season 4
4. Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways
5. 24 Season 9
6. Shameless US Season 4
7. Orange Is The New Black Season 2
8. Silicon Valley Season 1
9. Walking Dead Season 4.5
10. Elementary Season 2

Honourable mentions

Black Mirror: White Christmas
Chosen Season 3
The Tunnel Season 1


The Wolf of Wall Street


2. Her
3. Lucy
4. X-Men: Days of Future Past
5. McConkey
6. Gone Girl
7. Boyhood
8. The Maze Runner
9. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
10. Particle Fever

Honourable mentions

Assualt on Wall Street
If I Stay
Need for speed
Gamer Age

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Music Mini Reviews (December 2014)

Dead by April - Let The World KnowCheck it out

Stand out track: Peace Of Mind

There's quite a few tracks at the start of the album that have sections with a dubstep influence, and combined with the main metal feel of the album, dubstep metal doesn't work for me. During my first listen to the album I skipped most tracks because of the repetitive electronic elements and I'd probably enjoy the album much more without them. I'm sure there's an audience for this, but it's not me apparently.

Feed The Rhino - The Sorrow And The SoundCheck it out

Stand out tracks: New Wave, Behind the Pride, Revelation Not Revolution

The opening few songs of this album are brilliant and I had high hopes first listening to it, but then that pace falls away. Not every album has to be up-beat throughout, but I feel like 'The Sorrow And The Sound' trials off about half way through. However, this album is very much a grower, and after listing through quite a few times I've decided I want to check out the band's other work.

Mastodon - Once More 'Round The SunCheck it out

Stand out tracks: The Motherload, Once More 'Round The Sun, Aunt Lisa

With 2011's 'The Hunter' I feel that Mastodon made progression away from the stoner rock roots of 'Blood Mountain'. Not to take anything away from amazing older songs like 'Sleeping Giant'. That's why I say 'progression' from the older material as I think the new Mastodon material is much more rounded and well produced, and this album is another step in that direction.

Royal Blood - Royal BloodCheck it out

Stand out tracks: Careless, Ten Tonne Skeleton

This has to be one of the strongest debut albums ever. To sum up for me, quite a few songs feel like The White Stripes but without the annoying bits, so is it coincidence that both bands are a duo or is what you get with only two instruments? There's also some Billy Talent upbeat feeling rhythm sections in there. This is normally not quite what I would listen to, but it gripped me after about two listen throughs and makes a refreshing change. And they are opening for Foo Fighters in 2015.

The Used - Imaginary EnemyCheck it out

Stand out track: Revolution, Cry, A Song to Stifle Imperial Progression

Has that unique sound of an album from The Used but lacks the energy of their earlier albums. Imaginary Enemy starts out with a few good, energetic songs, but then trials away with the title song offering a slight peak again towards the end of the album. 'Revolution' stands up there with the likes off older songs like 'I'm A Fake' , and 'Cry' and 'A Song to Stifle Imperial Progression' is melodic with that slight bit of madness I like from The Used.