Although I largely agree with fellow PUG writer Hayden Waugh’s assessment of 2014 being a false start for new consoles, that’s not to say the year hasn’t been without its highlights. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Mario Kart 8, Shovel Knight and countless others will go down in history as truly fantastic games, while titles such as Assassin’s Creed: Unity and Driveclub are likely to be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Today, I’m putting my cynicism to one side as I pay tribute to the games released over the past year that I’ve enjoyed the most. I’ve decided, in the interests of fairness, not to include remakes and remasters; GTA V and The Last of Us would undoubtedly have made the cut if I had.
Game of the Year: The Wolf Among Us
This year ended up being an extremely busy and hugely successful one for Telltale Games. The developer wasted precious little time in following on from the phenomenal success of their critically acclaimed episodic series The Walking Dead, with 2014 seeing the conclusion of The Walking Dead Season Two; the premiere of both Tales from The Borderlands and Game of Thrones; and, most recently, the announcement of Minecraft: Story Mode.
However, it was their take on the DC-published Fables series that caught my imagination the most – and indeed engrossed me more than any other game managed to throughout the course of the year.
The Wolf Among Us placed gamers in the titular role of Bigby (formerly known as the Big Bad Wolf), the sheriff of Fabletown, the New York City home to a secret community of exiled fairytale characters. Right from the start, players found themselves embroiled in drama, crime and gruesome goings-on, with Bigby turning detective – against a film noir backdrop – to try to restore order in the city and bring the perpetrators to justice, while at the same time battling his own personal demons and increasing public discontent.
The gritty, mysterious nature of The Wolf Among Us was delightfully at odds with the fantastical worlds depicted in the source fairytales, but it’s this juxtaposition that created so much intrigue and breathed new life into the formerly two-dimensional characters featured in the game.
Fans of Telltale’s other titles were able to feel immediately at home in Fabletown, with the developer’s narrative-heavy gameplay, rich storytelling and point-and-click adventure meets quick-time-event mechanics returning once again.
A stellar voice cast (including the returning Melissa Hutchinson, the voice of TWD’s Clementine) brought the game’s meticulously-crafted story to life in style. I think it worked so well because, despite the fairytale setting and fantastical goings-on, real human emotions and characteristics were evident throughout the game, with each of the characters having their own issues to deal with while adjusting to life in the ‘mundie’ world. Alcoholism, depression, violent crime and prostitution were but a few of the themes explored in the series.
Aesthetically, The Wolf Among Us’ heavily stylised cel-shaded graphics looked like they could’ve been taken out the pages of a comic book. Vibrant colours and lighting contrasted with deep shadows to help create a sort-of neon noir atmosphere, with the soundtrack adding a mix of ambient sounds, foreboding strings and ‘80s synth in equal measure.
Although it was a bit of a sleeper hit to begin with, The Wolf Among Us began to receive the critical acclaim it was due following the release of its conclusive episode, Cry Wolf, back in July. As always, players’ decisions throughout the series had a wider impact on the narrative of the game, with it all coming to a head in the series finale. Plenty of twists, turns and false finishes succeeding in keeping them, and me, enchanted from start to finish.
Honorable Mention: Watch Dogs
In what is surely to be an unpopular pick, especially amongst my Power Up Gaming colleagues, another game that successfully held my attention this year was Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs. Maybe it was because I didn’t see the now-infamous initial E3 trailer and wasn’t as drawn into the hype as much as most gamers, but the open world hacking game was a title I thoroughly enjoyed throughout, and indeed, I probably put more hours into it than any other during the course of the year.
Aiden Pearce certainly wasn’t the most affable of protagonists, nor was the story worthy of any Academy Awards, but Watch Dogs’ core gameplay mechanics appealed to me as they went against the trend of typical sandbox-style games, and seemed like a modern twist on open world exploration. I also appreciated the level of detail in Ubisoft Montreal’s realisation of Chicago.
Having seen the title in a barely playable, unfinished state at EGX in 2013, the game’s eleventh-hour delay and removal from being a current-gen launch title didn’t bother me as much as others; after seeing the game in action, I had expected it. For me, the extra time in development was well worth it. Perhaps Ubisoft had the consumer outcry caused by Watchdog’s delay ringing in their ears when they took the unwise decision to release Assassin’s Creed: Unity on schedule in its unpolished, bug-riddled state… but that’s a story for another day.
Outside of Watch Dogs’ hit-and-miss plotting, its side-missions and augmented-reality distractions proved to be worth completing, and certainly rivalled those of fellow open-worlder Saints Row (though perhaps not Grand Theft Auto V). Its always-online nature provided intrigue and played well into the hacking theme of the game, with in-game leaderboards for such quests providing further motivation to return to the title.
While its online offerings were widely criticised, I managed to while away many hours by diving into the game’s stealth-heavy hacking and tailing modes, which allowed for some particularly dramatic high-tech hide-and-seek games with fellow players, who were often initially (or thoroughly) unaware of another human player’s presence in their campaign.
For me, Watch Dogs brought some much-needed innovation to the open world game genre. I know I’m in the minority with this, but I’m hoping for a sequel that truly realises all of the franchise’s potential.