Friday, January 2, 2015

Best of 2014: Part Nine and Ten

Well damn, isn't this just peachy? Here I was, all on schedule to get this list done in time for January 1st and what happens? I forget to schedule the update to automatically post. Brilliant, Nick. Well done.

Happy New Year, by the way!

No matter! Lucky for the rest of you, the final four spots of the list are all rolled up into one big super-update, the likes of which the world has never seen before! So buckle up and hang on because we're taking this list into overdrive. Here come my top four games of 2014!

Miss out on the previous entries? Never fear, hyperlinks are here!


4. Transistor (Supergiant Games)
The game also has an amazing aesthetic that really can't be denied.
It's just gorgeous, honestly.
Bastion is one of my favourite games of all time, and was my pick for Best of 2011. Supergiant Games came out of nowhere, basically, and delivered a unique and compelling experience the likes of which the gaming world had never seen. It oozed character and held admirably entertaining gameplay, and managed to stand a head taller than the other releases that year because of it.

Three years later, Supergiant Games gave us Transistor, its sophomore effort and, while they did not strike quite the same blow, the managed to give us another title that will stand the test of time and showcases how games can be more than just controls and graphics.

You play a character named Red, a female singer whose voice has been stolen. The world you live in seems to be entirely digital -- a city called Cloudbank where all the denizens are implied programs -- and it is being attacked by evil programs called the Process. It is up to you, and a talking sword that looks like a USB drive, to find the leaders of the Process, defeat them and ultimately save Cloudbank. Combat is played in a hybrid of turn-based gameplay and real-time, and you can pick and choose different Functions to suit your playstyle.

The big thing that you need to know about Transistor is that it had the best soundtrack of 2014. It's a bold claim to make, especially in the face of such blockbusters as Destiny and Alien: Isolation, but it's true. Don't believe me? Just take a listen to any of the tracks from the game. They are sublime. Of course, it's more than just the music itself that makes the soundtrack so memorable -- it's the use of music in-game that has set Supergiant Games, and Transistor, apart.

There's a button included in the controls that will stop everything you are doing and have Red hum along with the soundtrack. The game actually allows you to stop and take some time to listen to the music, simultaneously showcasing the brilliant composing and showing you that Red was the best singer in Cloudbank and wishes to have her voice returned.

It's a beautiful and tragic tale, one that needs to be experienced, and one that I really can't do justice to in explaining. Supergiant Games knows how to create a compelling experience, both in gameplay and in music, and their games simply must be experienced to be understood. Go and play Transistor right now. You won't regret it.

3. Magic: The Gathering (Wizards of the Coast)
To establish how much of a nerd I am, I have already admitted to playing tabletop miniatures games and superhero board games. How much nerdier could I get?

This year I started playing Magic: The Gathering again. Hell, I even managed to get my wife playing -- on our honeymoon, no less! That's how nerdy I am.

I'm not really sure what sort of pictures to put for this entry.
So here are some people playing Magic. They are not me.
I had played MtG a long time ago -- I had first gotten into it around when New Phyrexia was the new set of cards -- but I had never given it much import, nor had I delved into the deeper recesses of the game. But in 2014, on a whim, I grabbed a box of two decks from a hobby shop while we were on our honeymoon and brought the cards back to the hotel. And I taught my wife (and myself, a bit) how to play Magic.

Here we are, several months later, and both my wife and my best friend were gifted new Magic Commander decks to play with. I have constructed a Standard-legal deck that I am eager to take to the next prerelease in January. I have collected cards from both the last set (Theros block) and the newest (Khans of Tarkir). I have plans on constructing my own Commander decks. I have plans on doing an ongoing article for the blog about my Magic exploits, complete with commentary from some of my friends.

Needless to say, Magic is my current big hobby. And why not? It's an endlessly fun game, one that can be equal parts frustrating and rewarding, and one that scratches so many itches (like collecting, playing, planning, et cetera). All in all, I am glad I got back into Magic -- and at such an excellent time as well! The story behind the latest set is quite intriguing and I am eager to see how it resolves.

Anyway. Let's continue, shall we?

2. Dungeons & Dragons (Wizards of the Coast)
Go back into the archives of this blog and you'll be able to read the exploits of my gaming group as they have gone through the trials and tribulations of my biggest D&D campaign to date, Return to Ravenloft. An adventuring party that numbered five to begin and has since dwindled to three still manages to put up a valiant fight against the evil vampire lord Strahd and has very nearly managed to free the valley of Barovia from his maleficent presence.

I am always impressed by the artwork for Dungeons & Dragons. It is almost always excellent.
I have led the party through worlds of pure nightmare. I have led them deep into forests, seeking the aid of werewolves, only to fend off encroaching hordes of undead. They have delved deep into the heart of a volcano, fighting a dragon as the mountain erupted around them. They dove to the bottom of a lake, battling ghosts and spirits while entirely underwater. They climbed to the highest summit and solved the puzzles of a mad mage. They have gone into pure darkness to seek the light within. And now the group sits at a precipice, the calm before the storm, as they gather their strength to siege the castle Ravenloft and bring Strahd to heel for his crimes.

In all seriousness, though, this year has been the greatest year of RPG gaming I've ever been a part of -- and it's largely thanks to the group I have managed to acquire. Dallas, Nick and Dave are all fantastic guys and, though the adventure started with a number of other people, they have been consistent throughout the year and have formed the only remaining members of the party. It has been a pleasure and an honour leading Paelias, Jack and Gustav through this campaign and I will be ecstatic to see them bring it to a close.

One session away, boys! Let's get cracking!

1. Dragon Age: Inquisition (Bioware)
This game is simply amazing. It is gorgeous, meaningful and,
most importantly, fun. What more could you ask for?
If you were legitimately curious as to what my number one pick is, I'm not sure you know me well enough.

From the minute I booted up Inquisition and delved into the incredibly deep character creation process, I knew Bioware had created something special. The endless customisation was followed closely by meaningful and compelling characters and a plot that was simply intoxicating. The combat system, completely overhauled from Dragon Age 2, certainly took some getting used to but after you have spent some time familiarising yourself with the controls it becomes rewarding and exceptionally complex -- or, at least, as complex as you want it to be.

Players have always known that the world of Dragon Age is huge but it took until Inquisition to fully realise the potential. Origins only gave us a taste and DA2 was a major step back in that regard but Inquisition has you venturing to every corner of both Orlais and Ferelden, two enormous countries in Thedas, and spending countless hours exploring the world around you. And yet the game never feels stale. Every landscape, every region you explore, feels fresh and new. You are exploring parts of the world you have never seen before and it is thrilling.

Bringing the hammer (or axe) down on the competition!
A confession: in the first week Inquisition was available I managed to rack up around 80 hours of gameplay. In the first week. This game has hooks and it drew me in so deep I spent more time playing it than I did working at my job. Hell, I actually took time off work just to play it! I was excited about the game before it came out but it took actually playing it to fully realise its potential, and it just would not let me go back to a normal life until I had finished my quest.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is a game like no other. The scope and grandeur of this game are enormous and, though it suffers from some pitfalls in the final act, there were no other games that even came close this year. It rightfully gets my Best of 2014 award -- and will mostly likely be getting another playthrough out of me in the next month or two.

And there you have it, folks! My Best of 2014 list has finally been completed -- a bit late, perhaps, but better late than never!

If you managed to stick with me through the whole thing, I thank you; this was a nice exercise for me and I am very proud that I managed to stick it through to the end. There were delays, of course, but it still managed to reach its conclusion -- a far cry better than my previous attempts, I definitely have to say.

I have been planning things for the upcoming month but I am unsure when I will be able to get them to fruition. Nevertheless, keep an eye posted on this blog because, though I promise no set schedule as of yet, I do have plans for the future!

Until next time, my friends: keep well, happy new year, and good gaming!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Best of 2014: Part Eight

Part Eight of the Best of 2014 list has arrived! Read and be amazed at the incredible games this close to the top of the list! Marvel and wonder at what games could be ranked higher than these illustrious titles!

Miss out on previous entries, or want to skip ahead? Fear not, beautiful reader; we've got you covered:


And now, the feature attraction:

6. Destiny (Bungie)
FPS gameplay at its finest!
If there is one thing that Bungie knows how to make, it's a first-person shooter; as the developers of Halo, Bungie has solidified a spot in the annals of video game history as the fathers of the modern generation of shooters. Halo redefined an entire genre of video games and gave cues to other franchises to turn them into the powerhouses we know them as today (Call of Duty and Battlefield, among others).

With that sort of pedigree, when Bungie gave up the reins to the Halo franchise and announced a brand new intellectual property, most everyone was excited: Bungie can do no wrong, after all, so whatever they want to develop will be gold. Or so everyone thought.

Destiny is a strange creature. It is an excellent first-person shooter -- truly one of the best, if merited purely on gameplay -- but the world-building left a bit to be desired. The game successfully melds several elements from different genres -- FPS gameplay mixed with MMO questing and RPG experience and loot grinding -- but suffered from a lack of defined direction. As with most multiplayer-only titles, the connection issues were frequent and frustrating. And let's not even talk about how Destiny has one of the most awesome casts in video games and completely squanders it with trite dialogue and lacklustre performances. "That wizard came from the moon" indeed.

Even better than Titanfall, Destiny masters the hybrid model
of gaming, melding multiplayer and singleplayer together seamlessly.
But despite all of these issues, Destiny remains an excellent and entertaining game because there is something there for everyone to enjoy. Want to put together a fireteam and take on some story missions? Done and done. Want to play solo and grind out some XP, shooting bad guys left and right? You can do that. Want to pit yourself against other players in some PvP? Yep, that too. Want to go back and replay an awesome story mission you loved before? Absolutely. Want to join a massive group of friends to take on one of the excellent raids, facing off against massive bosses, environmental dangers and incredibly bad odds? Okay, you sadist, get to work!

Destiny is a game that has gotten an enormous amount of backlash even despite the enormous successes it showcases. Bungie may not have hit the exact mark they were looking for but, dammit, they got as close as anyone has before. Destiny is excellent and is a game to be remembered and admired!

5. Dead of Winter (Plaid Hat Games)
The components are gorgeous and so is the artwork. Just... wow.
Dead of Winter is the best board game I've ever played.

Yeah, that's one hell of a way to lead off a number five entry on this list but bear with me and let me explain why.

Basic premise: Dead of Winter has each player controlling a small group of survivors during a zombie apocalypse. The game is semi-cooperative which means that, though there is a set objective for everyone to work towards as a group, each player also has their own personal objective in order to truly "win". These personal objectives are secret and, better yet, may declare you as a traitor which then forces you to work against the group in order to succeed. But remember: the goals are secret, so no one knows if you are actively a traitor or if you are simply working towards your own goal.

That is a big part of the game because if the rest of the group thinks you are acting too shady they can vote to exile you from their community. This is not player elimination, however; your group of survivors is simply evicted from the colony and are forced to fend for themselves, complete with a brand new "Exiled" objective. This can be to help the other players survive or completely screw them over. However the game progresses, however, it forms a narrative -- which is where the real beauty of Dead of Winter comes into play.

Zombies at the door, trash piling up, not enough food,
weapons running low... It's an apocalypse, alright, and I
can feel the tension building already.
Now I realize zombies are pretty played out at this point but Dead of Winter approaches the subject matter with a respect and seriousness I've never seen in games before, and it all revolves around the "Crossroads" mechanic. Every turn, the player to your right draws a card from the Crossroads deck and reads it silently. These cards have triggers that, when activated, give the active player a moral decision to make. These choices often have two sides but neither is ever a clear cut "good" or "bad" decision -- much like life, both options will have their benefits and drawbacks. Of course, the card may not trigger at all on your turn, making the content on each card rare and compelling when it does happen.

There's a lot to say about Dead of Winter -- too much to really say in such a small amount of space -- so let me just sum up by repeating: Dead of Winter is the best board game I've ever played. There are so many different mechanics all working in tandem, creating an extraordinary experience unlike any other in board games. If you like board games, you need -- need! -- to play this.

Part Eight
This entry got away from me a bit but the higher we get on the list, the better the games get and the more I have to say about them. Nevertheless, there are only two updates and four titles left in the list! Make sure you check back this week as we quickly approach the number one spot! Until next time, intrepid readers, game well!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Best of 2014: Part Seven

Merry Christmas, one and all! I hope the holidays were good to you and yours this year. I know I had a wonderful time celebrating with family and friends!

But now, with the holidays mostly passed, we must return to the task at hand: the Best of 2014 list! Part Seven brings us number seven and eight, and one step closer to the top of the list! In case you missed them, here are the prior entries:


Let's go!

8. Infamous: Second Son (Naughty Dog)
Did I mention this game is incredibly pretty?
Because that's not a cutscene above.
As I mentioned when talking about Legendary, there is something awesome about superheroes. There's something about having incredible powers impossible for the normal person to wield that is inherently inspiring. Thus, playing games that pit you as a person with said impossible powers fulfills a very persistent itch that you can't really scratch any other way.

Enter Infamous.

The entire Infamous series is various shades of excellent -- the original was quite good, if not a bit unpolished, and the sequel was entertaining -- but Second Son is the true master of the franchise. You play as Delsin Rowe, a delinquent from a native tribe near Seattle, who inadvertently absorbs the powers of other "bioterrorists" when he comes in physical contact with them. At first, you start with the power of smoke, being able to pass through wire fences and throw fireballs at people, but quickly gain the ability to control neon, TVs and, eventually, concrete.

Second Son also featured an ARG called Paper Trail, that
had you alternating between in-game missions and searching
for clues on the internet. It was most excellent.
The first thing you might notice is that all of these things are fairly unconventional for superpowers -- and Second Son embraces that whole-heartedly. The entire Infamous world is fairly unconventional, really, pitting you against gangs of thugs or squads of soldiers with similar powers to you. There are conspiracies But, for all of the moral quandaries and personal plot points that Infamous is known for, it always comes back to that all-important power fantasy.

You can snipe people with neon blasts while hovering through the air in slow-motion. You can transform into smoke and go shooting through air ducts all the way onto the roof of a building. You can form a ball of concrete around you and roll down the street, steamrolling all enemies in your way. Everything in Second Son is a continuation from the previous entries and everything about it is fantastic. Second Son is an excellent addition to any game library -- and, as a PS4-exclusive, is an absolute must for any Sony gamer.

7. Alien: Isolation (The Creative Assembly)
Forget the motion tracker: it's already too late.
Science-fiction is my bread and butter -- I love it more than any other genre -- but, when it comes to all fiction, sci-fi horror is the true pinnacle for me and it all has to do with the fear of the unknown. The best way to scare people is to present them with an unknowable evil, something just beyond our comprehension, and nowhere is that done better – H.P. Lovecraft notwithstanding -- than with the depths of space and whatever might be out there. And it all started with Alien.

Alien: Isolation is the game that fans of the Alien franchise have wanted from the beginning. Forget Alien vs Predator, or the complete shit-show that was Colonial Marines -- Alien fans want to be scared. They want to experience what is what like to be Ellen Ripley being hunted through the bowels of the Nostromo as her crewmates died one-by-one. They want to hide in a vent, their motion tracker frantically pinging as they desperately looking back and forth, trying to find an escape route. Alien fans (and horror gamers in general) want an imbalance of power: they want to feel vulnerable to the xenomorph and no game has gotten this more perfect than Alien: Isolation.

The xenomorph isn't the only thing you'll have to worry about
on Sevastopol Station: the androids and other humans are
dangerous in their own right and not to be crossed.
The game is true to the source material perfectly: the 70's-era computers, the aesthetic of every inch of Sevastopol Station; everything channels Ridley Scott's masterpiece to perfection. It is in that perfection, in the imbalance of power between the all-powerful xenomorph and the helpless player, that Alien: Isolation creates the perfect sci-fi horror experience -- and the most authentic Alien experience gamers have ever encountered. Even the plot feels true to the universe -- you play Ripley's daughter Amanda following a lead to discover what happened to your mother -- and that is a feat where licensed material usually fails.

I love Alien: Isolation, even though I usually can't handle the stress of survival horror games, and it’s because it's truly a love letter to the original movie from 1979. It is one of the best licensed games ever created and the only reason it does not rank higher on my list -- sorry, Darren -- is because I still haven't managed to finish it. I need to go back to Sevastopol Station, despite the gnawing dread in my gut, because I need to see Amanda's story to the end -- xenomorph be damned.

Part Seven
And there is Part Seven completed! Part Eight will be coming tomorrow, most likely, so stay tuned all this week when I hammer out the rest of my Best of 2014 list!

Get anything exceptionally awesome for Christmas this year? Think that I'm insane for not placing Alien: Isolation higher on my list? (I already said I'm sorry, Darren! Jeez.) Drop me a comment and we can chat about it! I love hearing about cool presents and swag, and I always love discussing video games!

'Til next time!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Best of 2014: Part Six

Welcome back to a very festive entry of my Best of 2014 list! We've finally cracked the top 10 games I've enjoyed this year; I hope you're excited because these ones are truly excellent.

Also, fun fact about this particular entry: neither of these games were released in 2014 at all! That being said, I played both this year and both ranked high enough in my memory to deserve spots on this list. So, without further ado, let's begin!

Actually, quick ado before we start: With the holiday fast approaching, I may not follow the schedule as written to this point and may move the next update to Monday: given that Thursday is Christmas I'm not sure I'll have the opportunity to put another update online until the following week. This may cause our previous deadline of January 1st to be postponed until the 2nd but fear not! I fully intend to complete this list in full!

Missed some of the list so far? Fear not!


And now, with that out of the way, back to your original programming:

10. Legendary (Upper Deck)
Legendary comes with an awesome board that allows
for easy setup and play. Well, easy play anyway...
Who doesn't love superheroes? Without getting into the big debate of Marvel vs. DC, or even the Avengers vs. the X-Men, most everyone can agree that the concept of superheroes is pretty awesome -- and why not? Having superpowers, vanquishing villains: everybody has dreamed about it at one time. There have been plenty of games, both digital and not, designed around superheroes but I have yet to find one that is as entertaining as Upper Deck's Legendary.

First and foremost, you should know that Legendary is a deck-building card game. What this means is that, as you play, you spend resource cards from your deck to "buy" new cards. These new cards are added to your deck and, when you play them, have bigger and better effects than your starting cards. This was a genre of board game pioneered by Dominion but has really been perfected in Legendary with the theme of Marvel superheroes.

Each card you can add to your deck are abilities from different superheroes and, given the theme, most revolve around defeating villains before they escape off the board. Complicating this are a number of different factors, chief among them being the Mastermind: representing the big bad guy of this particular story, the only way to win the game is to defeat the Mastermind before they can complete their evil scheme.

A game with tight mechanics and dramatic vignettes, Legendary is a staple in our home. Most nights with friends will end at 2AM, long after most people have gone, while me and a small few valiantly face off against Galactus or Apocalypse, teaming up Iron Man and Punisher in order to bring peace back to the world. Legendary is also a game with numerous expansions and spinoffs; just recently, they released a small box with the five Guardians of the Galaxy! How awesome is that!

Legendary is a game that intends to stick around for a long time and, given the amount of fun the box holds, I can't imagine it leaving anytime soon.

9. Gone Home (The Fullbright Company)
The game is set in the mid-90's, so expect some
dated references and culture beats.
Easily the most thought-provoking game on this list is Gone Home, an indie title with a gigantic heart. Released in 2013, it made a huge impression on both critics and consumers alike, almost entirely because of the masterful way it crafted a narrative through exploration.

As far as video games go, Gone Home is one that eschews all genre: it is a game from a first-person perspective but there is no shooting anywhere. There is exploration but only inside the confines of a single house. There is tension and suspense but it is not a horror. Really, the only real way to explain Gone Home is to talk about the narrative -- but discussing it somewhat ruins the experience. I really don't want to spoil it for anyone -- it's really that good -- but know that it is a powerful experience, one that has no true counterpart in the current market of games.

It is truly crazy how eery a normal house can seem
when you are exploring it for the first time.
To get a bit of an idea of what you'd be getting into, I'll explain the premise: you play a young adult, Kaitlin Greenbriar, returning home from a year abroad. The mansion where your family lives is expansive, detailed and empty except for you. You spend the entirety of the game exploring the mansion, finding ways to access different wings of the house, all the while finding bits and pieces of information that eventually form a story as to where your family is.

The game is spectacular and will stick with you for some time. The message at the end of the game is beautiful, if not delivered with a bit of a heavy hand. Nevertheless, it is worth the two or three hours it will take you to delve into the Greenbriar home and discover what has become of Kaitlin's family. Truly excellent storytelling is something that is hard to come by in video games -- any title that succeeds as spectacularly as Gone Home deserves to be in your library.

Part Six
Part Six is complete! Huzzah! As mentioned above, the next update most likely won't hit until the 29th -- but fear not! The list will continue and will finish by the end of next week. Until then, dear readers, I wish you all the happiest of holidays and a merry merry Christmas!

Missed any entries, or want to skip ahead? Check out the whole list here:


Monday, December 22, 2014

Best of 2014: Part Five

And here we are, at the halfway mark! The Best of 2014 just keep getting better so, without further delay, let's finish off the bottom half and make our way to the top!

Missed out on the previous entries in the list? Fear not: with handy links, we can get you up to speed in no time!


And on we go!

12. Company of Heroes 2 (Relic Entertainment)

So many troops! As in real-life,
the western front can be a slaughterhouse.
As you may have guessed from my description of Banished from the previous entry, I have a soft spot for real-time strategy games. When I was very young, I began playing video games by delving into Age of Empires; my dad owned a copy of the original -- a disc I still have to this day -- and I enjoyed delving back in history as much as sending my catapults to destroy the enemy barracks. But there is truly no better real-time strategy game on the planet than the original Company of Heroes. While other RTS games focus on micromanagement and actions per minute, CoH rewards tactical thinking and defensive posturing in a way that no other game has even come close to managing.

The sequel to the 2006 masterpiece takes quite a few cues from its predecessor and tries to expand on them. Both games are set during WWII but, while the original focused more prominently on the eastern front of America fighting the Nazis, CoH2 jumps to the western front and focuses on the Russian forces. There are plenty of new features – weather matters, it’s easier to move around the battlefield, and so on -- but there are still some things that the sequel doesn't get quite right when compared to the original.

A more conventional view of Company of Heroes 2.
Still lots of troops, now with explosions!
All that being said, CoH2 is still a magnificent RTS and remains the go-to game for playing with some of my friends. There's nothing better than gearing up our forces together, setting objectives and missions for ourselves and fighting off the AI as they come rushing towards our defensive positions. We've each picked out our specialties on the field -- I'm known for building near-impenetrable defenses with infantry, while another of our group is our designated "quick-response force" with mobile units to respond to threats -- and we have managed to form a cohesive group that can fend off most threats.

Though the game was released in 2013, this year brought a much-needed expansion returning the Americans as a playable force -- and brought back much of the magic that the original held. Company of Heroes still remains the greatest RTS I've ever played -- it got so much right that other RTS games simply don't understand -- but CoH2 is a valiant return to the front, and one that I will enjoy for years to come.

11. Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (Monolith Productions)

So much motion blur...
By now I'm sure we've established that I'm a huge nerd: beyond the fact that I like video games, I'm also a Star Wars junkie and even play tabletop miniatures games. So it will come as no surprise that I also love the world of Lord of the Rings and, by extension, Middle-Earth itself.

It was because of that love that I was instantly intrigued by Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor -- a game that would allow you to openly roam through a part of Middle-Earth, discover some of the lore hidden within and even delve into subplots that would have been occurring during the events of the books/movies? Sign me up! Thus, I was ecstatic that Shadow of Mordor also proved to be an incredible journey full of intense combat and some genuinely entertaining gameplay to sink some hours into.

The game sets you as Talion, a ranger from Gondor tasked with guarding the Black Gate into Mordor. At the beginning of the game, the Black Gate is attacked by some of Sauron's lieutenants and, unfortunately, Talion (and his wife and son) are killed. Instead of passing on to the afterlife, however, Talion is bound to the spirit of a wraith who you eventually come to know as Celebrimbor. The two of you are set on a path of vengeance against Sauron, hoping to one day fight and strike down the Dark Lord.

Did I mention that there's also a big stealth aspect to the
game? I'm sure I must have mentioned that...
Monolith did a lot of work ensuring that the plot of Shadow of Mordor stayed true to the source material while still trying to instill some of their own creativity, and I believe they did a fine job. There are some parts of the game that seem a bit unnecessary -- some encounters with Gollum spring to mind -- but, by and large, the game is not to be played for the plot. If anything, you should play Shadow of Mordor because you get to behead more orcs than Aragorn ever thought of doing.

Seriously, though: the combat system is smooth and intuitive, drawing some serious influence from the Batman: Arkham series. Each blow should be measured and timed just right, but it never feels difficult and is always incredibly rewarding. Add to this the Nemesis System, which will have orcs who struck you down returning stronger than before, or orcs you thought were dead coming back to haunt your every move, and you have a truly excellent game. Shadow of Mordor belongs on the shelf of every gamer this generation, and not only if you love Lord of the Rings.

Part Five
And on we go! We've reached the halfway mark; we can only go up from here! The top half of the list features some heavy hitters, some unorthodox choices, and a few games that are fairly old in comparison to the others. Still, we have lots of work to do and we're only halfway there.

Until next time! 

Missed any entries, or want to skip ahead? Check out the whole list here:


Friday, December 19, 2014

Best of 2014: Part Four

I was trying to come up with a fancy little rhyme to kick off Part Four of my Best of 2014 list but I suck at poetry so I decided to stop trying and just stick to prose. So here's Part Four!

Missed any entries, or want to skip ahead? Check out the whole list here:


And now: on with the countdown!

14. Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game (Fantasy Flight)
A long, long time ago in a galaxy far away...
We rolled dice to kill each other. It was a good time.
Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures is one of the most entertaining tabletop games I've played this year, and certainly one of the best miniatures games I've ever played. (For those not familiar with miniatures games as a concept, each player comes to the table with miniature models representing their forces and is forced to use their own tactics and cunning to defeat their opponent. This is all done on a tabletop surface usually 4' x 4' in size.)

Where other miniatures games (Warhammer and Malifaux, for example) find themselves lost in a mire of minute detail and math, X-Wing distills the experience to its core components and thrives because of it. Instead of measuring distance with a tape measure (and arguing over every millimeter), you are given sticks with set distances that the units must obey. For combat: instead of comparing dice results against a huge chart to determine the outcome, each player rolls dice and certain results cancel each other out. It's all very intuitive and extraordinarily fun.

Heck, Fantasy Flight even managed to eliminate the component of miniatures gaming that stops most people from ever trying it: the painting. Most miniatures you buy are unpainted (and sometimes even unconstructed) so the hobby is generally seen as much an art thing as it is for the gameplay. It’s a hurdle that I still have yet to fully get over: as much as I love the tactical gameplay, having to glue together and paint my own models in order to play is simply not for me. Luckily, all X-Wing miniatures are prepainted and assembled – and let’s not understate the collector itch that having the models scratches! Each of them are wonderful recreations of spaceships found in the Star Wars franchise and would look at home on any Star Wars fan’s bookcase!

It is obvious that Fantasy Flight came into this project with the intent of creating a streamlined experience while trying not to sacrifice depth, and they have certainly succeeded. Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures is an intuitive and easy-to-learn game that rewards strategic thinking as much as the more granular experiences, while also managing to streamline things into a more digestible format. I wholeheartedly suggest checking it out!

13. Banished (Shining Rock Software)
Winter: beautiful and dangerous.
The real-time strategy genre is one that runs deep and gets increasingly more murky the more you search around inside. There are classic RTS titles (Age of Empires), turn-based strategy games (Civilization), MOBA titles (League of Legends), city-builders (SimCity) and even the rare FPS/RTS hybrids (Natural Selection). There are games that span entire ages of existence (Rise of Nations) and there are games that focus on very specific gameplay (Diablo).

And then there's Banished.

I guess Banished could most easily be lumped in with the city-building games -- the entire conceit of the game is building a settlement from scratch, helping the population survive and thrive, without ever really having a win condition beyond "have fun". But where its peers focus on the grand scope of such accomplishments, Banished focuses on the minutiae of building a medieval town from scratch and sustaining the people therein.

You start with a very small group of people that must be assigned jobs but, with such a limited number of people, you have to be smart about what you tell them to do -- and the danger always seems to be surviving through the cold winter months. It's good to have farmers in order to harvest food for the winter but you also want to have tailors making winter clothes because food is only so good if you freeze to death. It's good to have lots of builders to make homes for people to stay in but make sure you don't use too much lumber or you might not have firewood to burn. Mining for stone is lucrative and helpful but is also dangerous and can kill unwary townsfolk, thus reducing your working population.

Town hall and sheep. Fun fact: sheep are incredibly useful!
Banished is a game about risk and reward, and about doing things at the right time and in the right order, but that is not to say that it is stressful or even that difficult. The aesthetic of the game is beautiful, the sound direction is serene and the pace of the game is slow, allowing you to digest things at your own pace. Banished presents a challenge to be overcome, certainly, but never one that feels out of your reach -- and is always entertaining, if for no other reason than the narratives that emerge as you watch your town develop. Definitely play this indie darling!

(If you are at all interested in seeing what this game is like, you should really check out my video series: with seven whole videos devoted to the town of Bondsbriar, you get a really good idea of what Banished has to offer.)

Part Four
And there you have it! Part Four of my Best of 2014, and the first entry to showcase a non-video game title! Next entry will be a return to the more common ground of digital media but may have some surprises regardless. Stay tuned, my friends!