With E3 in our rearview mirrors, everyone's laser-locked on up-and-comers like Destiny, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and Grand Theft Auto V remastered this holiday, but 2014's been a pretty solid year for gaming so far. Here's our list of picks so far.
So what if it's basically Final Fantasy V reimagined, or that the game's latter half has serious shortcomings if you're not a fan of repetitive filler? Bravely Default stands as a love letter to fans of fantasy games that eschew restrictive D&D-style class systems and make no apologies for combat mechanics that unfurl turn by turn, though in Bravely Default's case, the latter design vamp seems novel enough: a hedging system, whereby you can either save or deficit spend battle points against enemies.
Child of Light
Ubisoft's budget-priced side-scrolling fable -- told using poetic stanzas -- riffs on roleplaying tropes while serving up an evocative, hand-drawn fantasy pastiche with traces of Yoshitaka Amano and Hayao Miyazaki. It's an experience that deftly melds its painstakingly painting-like environs and allegorical fable-inspired narrative to a first-rate battle system: one unapologetically inspired by Final Fantasy-style roleplaying games, but with its own hidden depths and wrinkles.
PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U, PS Vita
Dark Souls 2
Does it matter whether Dark Souls 2 is the greater (or lesser) Dark Souls? It shouldn't -- not when it's this good. Series newcomers Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura recapture most of what makes Dark Souls feel like a Dark Souls, scaffolding to foundation, the world swathed in plaintive John Barry-ish piano strains, melancholy lighting and baffling alien architecture. Ironically risk-averse, the sequel plays like an extended version of the original moody hack-and-slash.
PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
Everything's lovably off-kilter and kaleidoscopic in Nintendo's throwback Donkey Kong Country platformer, which tills well-plowed ground, but deftly. It's not the breakthrough Wii U game Mario Kart 8 turned out to be, so much as a reminder that games like this can still be guilty pleasures if you're not allergic to throwback side-scrollers replete with clever puzzling twists.
You can't really lose in Entwined, you just swing back and forth along a tug-of-rope-style progress meter, which fits the game on a shelf somewhere between "relaxation exercise" and "pattern puzzler." The goal is to unite an origami-like fish and a bird, which you do by piloting each discretely with left and right thumbsticks through target chains. The trick is getting your single-tasking brain to coordinate those left and right actions simultaneously.
PS4, PS3, PS Vita
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
Part of the allure of Blizzard rolling its bejeweled horse carriage through the hoof-tramped mud of a played-out genre is the Blizzard name. And that's what you'll get in this free-to-play confectionary: an otherwise vanilla collectible card game wrapped up in Blizzard's trademark audio-visual razzle-dazzle. Playing Hearthstone is too easy and compulsive not to play Hearthstone, which is why the game's clocked over 10 million accounts since it launched in March 2014.
Infamous: Second Son
Infamous: Second Son gets unfairly compared to Grand Theft Auto V because they're both lazily categorized as "open world" games. But Infamous: Second Son is about letting you do crazy, cathartic, building-bounding superhero stuff in the best-looking metropolis-playground yet devised for a video game (until GTA V remastered arrives late this year, anyway). That, and developer Sucker Punch spins a decent yarn with more than passing emotional resonance, thanks in part to visual technology that allowed it to craft character performances even more lifelike than the ones being touted in Activision's ballyhooed Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare spots.
Mario Kart 8
Imagine a carnival of race tropes, a grab bag of driver profiles, tactics and race types, a melange of little gameplay iterations and configuration tweaks and “Holy crap, I’m racing up and down that?” moments jammed into a single game. To sum up my affection for this best-of-all-Nintendo’s-Mario-Karts-to-date in a few words: lavish, kaleidoscopic, gasp-inducing, ingenious, exotic, balletic and — let’s switch from words to statements — something worth playing for a long, long time.
Remember Karateka? Nidhogg feels kind of like that: a game about dueling to your left or right with some light environmental (walls, ledges) vamping. Part of the charm's in the pixellated look, of course, coupled with the overblown kinetic scenery and crazed, oscillating backgrounds teeming with strange, wriggling creatures.
Shovel Knight would have been a winner had it arrived back in the 1980s alongside obvious inspirations, like DuckTales for the original Nintendo. Bask in its unabashed genuflection to 1980s game design tropes. Bathe in its classic NES color palette. Chuckle at the notion of a horn-helmed knight nobly brandishing a sharpened spade he can bounce on like a pogo stick. William Faulkner said it best: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Faulkner would have understood (and probably played) Shovel Knight.
PC, Wii U, 3DS
South Park: The Stick of Truth
No one expected much from this oft-delayed South Park tie-in, but Obsidian delivered the goods: a comedy roleplaying game that lets you explore the looney, deftly satirical world Trey Parker and Matt Stone built. And the funny stuff's really funny for a change, not just funny-for-a-video-game.
PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Titanfall is for that certain kind of highly competitive someone with more of an e-sports mentality. If that's you, Titanfall plays like hitting the jackpot. It’s not a galvanic shift in shooter-dom, it’s about placating highly competitive, multiplayer-only, twitchy shooter wonks with an oiled smorgasbord of shooter tropes and tactical wrinkles.
PC, Xbox One
Transistor may not be quite up to Bastion's sky-high standards, but it's still an interesting foray for developer Supergiant Games. In some ways it's bolder, shifting its focus from Bastion's clever narrative payouts to a complex turn-based battle system that reads, literally, like a stack of math equations. The tactical engine suffers slightly in asking that you make exacting choices using an inexact isometric interface, but on balance, it gains more than it loses for trying.
Watch Dogs was supposed to be this grand genre-bending hacking game, but you'll do almost nothing of the sort. That's a good thing, though what you do instead -- mostly shooting, sneaking and speeding around a fantasy version of Chicago -- dithers between inspired and imitative. The reason to play Watch Dogs isn't its forgettable story, its boring lead character, or its dull side-activities, but the battles, where you'll hop around the field disembodied, zipping camera to camera like a cyber-poltergeist, triggering hazards or distractions — like cranking the volume in a guard’s headset to ear-splitting levels or pulling the virtual pin on someone’s belted grenade. It’s combat through a laboratory lens, and a blast every time.
PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U
Wolfenstein: The New Order
At times, Wolfenstein: The New Order feels as calculated and observant as BioShock, if in the end, less ambitious. When it swerves from camp to cool cogitation, it does so knowingly, the latter moments unfurling during interludes spent wandering a resistance base chatting up other resistance members, your patriotic gusto threatened by a mirror MachineGames keeps holding up. It’s that unexpected attention to The New Order‘s world-building that makes this single-player-only game more than just a shooting gallery with a few new tricks — the sort of camaraderie and reflection in adversity, steeped in creeping dread and philosophical exposition, that made something like The Matrix more than just an expo for bullet time.
PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360