Ah, video games. I love them and hate them. They seem like childish wastes of time one minute, and they’re engrossing adventures the next. I believe I’ve sworn myself off of gaming as often as I’ve come back to them. I hate the checklist-addiction that many modern games substitute for fun now, and yet, I still think new games have smarter, more efficient design than old ones.
Anyway, I thought it would be fun to go over the top five games that I enjoyed best this year. Keep in mind that only two of them actually came out in 2014, but if they’re on this list, it’s because they’re timeless.
#5, The Sims 4: A lot of folks complained about The Sims 4 when it came out. They bemoaned the divided neighborhoods, the load times involved in moving between lots, the lack of toddlers, etc. As someone who’s played The Sims since its first incarnation in 2000, I wasn’t surprised at this strip-down; every new game in the series cut out features that were added in expansions for the previous game. That sounds like it might suck, but every game introduced original concepts that made up for the loss, and I think The Sims 4 adds some meaningful new ideas that make it worth ditching The Sims 3 for.
First of all, creating characters and building homes, two activities that felt a little too much like work in the past, is much more intuitive in 4 than in previous Sims games. You just grab what you want to change with your cursor and pull. It’s quick and it’s fun, which means that you can get to playing sooner. Live Mode has been overhauled; Sims generally move and respond more rapidly than they did in previous games, they can perform multiple actions at once, and the retooled UI is sleek and lovely. Maxis has finally succeeded in moving Needs to the back burner, too. Emotions are what matter now, and it’s a lot of fun to see the differences in your Sims’ demeanor as their moods shift. Depending on how they’re feeling, they’ll move, talk, gesture, and generally carry themselves in unique ways. Emotions also affect what they feel like doing, and what they enjoy. There are tons of surprising, emotion-based actions to find, as well. Sims who are feeling Flirty can bake heart-shaped cookies. Playful Sims can paint cartoon characters. Confident Sims can “Pee like a Champion,” and more.
I like that Maxis scaled things back a bit, and returned the game’s focus to the dynamics of the household. My only complaint is that if you get addicted to it, as I did, it might feel like the well of surprises dries out quickly. Sometimes I felt myself struggling to come up with new ideas for my Sims to play out. Still, I find it tough to stop playing it whenever I start, so it’s earned a place on this list.
#4, Soviet Strike: Boy, am I glad I kept my PlayStation 2, because it turns out there are tons of fun and fascinating PlayStation 1 games that I simply overlooked during the system’s heyday. Soviet Strike is one of them.
Back in the 16-bit era, I read a lot about the Strike series of games for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis/Mega Drive (for simplicity’s sake, I’ll call it the Genedrive). I dismissed them because I completely misunderstood them: from the pictures, I expected them to be serious flight sims with complicated controls and slow-paced gameplay.
Man, was I wrong. Turns out they’re cousins to one of my favorite NES games, Solar Jetman. You pilot an assault chopper around massive battlefields, rescuing POWs, collecting fuel and ammunition, and blowing up everything else. The 16-bit games were still kind of slow, though. The explosions were weak-looking and poorly animated, the maps had few distinguishing landmarks, and there was no music during gameplay, so flying from one point to the next felt desolate. Even worse, the games had no HUD: you had to pause in order to check vital stats like armor, fuel and ammo. Not cool. When I first played Desert Strike on the Genedrive, I shook my head in disappointment. It was so close to greatness, and yet so far.
Soviet Strike, the first Strike game on the PSX, is something else though. The gameplay backbone was carried over, but improvements were made in several areas. The controls are more responsive than in the 16-bit games, your weapons have better aim, and the explosions look terrific. There are two camera settings, so you can play with the viewpoint centered behind your chopper now. There’s a HUD with all the important stats, but if it gets in the way, you can toggle it with a button press. And there’s music during gameplay now! When I started playing Soviet Strike, I couldn’t stop until I’d cleared every possible mission on the map. Then I wanted to jump into the next one. This game is the closest thing I’ve found to a Solar Jetman sequel, and that’s a big deal to me.
#3, Street Fighter Alpha 2: I grew up during the fighting game craze, so yeah, I’ve played this one before. Still, I never recognized just how gosh-darned good it is until this year. While all the one-on-one fighters around it made significant missteps, Alpha 2 just got everything right.
Alpha 2 is a Capcom standard bearer. It has bright, eye-popping graphics (cleverly animated to maintain timing), catchy musical themes (none of the bland techno stuff like in Alpha 3), hefty sound effects (I still don’t know why Capcom stopped using those sweet smacking punches), and a variety of unique abilities that are always at your disposal (no ISMs or single Super Arts). I’m no expert at the game, and I can’t work a super move into a combo for the life of me, but I can just feel it when things are going right. The game is consistent enough that you can shift between planning and improvising, pressing the attack and breaking away in a flash. It’s not so crazy that you can’t tell what’s going on, and it’s not so advanced that newcomers won’t stand a chance at it. My only complaint is that the AI can be a complete cheap-ass. Still, when I want a quick gaming fix, Alpha 2 is the game I’ve been going to this year, so it makes the list.
#2, Diablo III Reaper of Souls: Like The Sims 4, D3 took a lot of flak from gamers for “dumbing down” the series. I don’t really understand this. Diablo was never a very smart game to begin with. You click monsters, monsters die. What’s to dumb down? The most common complaints I hear are that it takes too long to get unique items, the monsters are too easy, and that move choices are too limited early on in the game. “Too much action,” they said, “not enough RPG!”
I find it tough to care about these things, though, when the action looks and feels this good.
That’s a typical scene from D3. There’s more shit blowing up and bodies flying around here than in most first-person shooters. Complainers say it’s all just so much bluster, but hey, I love bluster. Explosions, particles, rag dolls…I can’t get enough of it. That there’s a solid Action RPG beneath it, with fast-flowing combat, customizable moves, and endless randomized quests just sells me further. I’m very happy with the direction Diablo has taken, and if Blizzard keeps adding new features via patches, I can see myself playing it for yet another hundred hours. Still, as much as I love it, I can’t say it’s my favorite game of 2014.
#1, Medal of Honor: No, not the reboot. I mean the original on the PlayStation 1. The one that set the standard for World War II shooters with its objective-based gameplay, authentic weaponry, and superlative sound design.
It looks pretty crappy by today’s standards, but Medal of Honor has an atmosphere that keeps it engaging. The starry nights, the clattering guns, the distant blasts and gunfire, they all just wrap around you and pull you into them. The “war room” menus are also quite cool. The game just does a terrific job of putting you amid the agony and intrigue of WWII Europe. The action is tense and methodical, but never frustrating or cumbersome. The controls are surprisingly modern, too; it’s built to play with a Dual Shock, and there’s a setting to play using the familiar move/look control setup we all know and love.
Medal of Honor walks the line between the exploration-based design of Doom and the scripted spectacle of Call of Duty, and I love it. In fact, I find this “middle ground” philosophy to be quite common among PSX games, and I really enjoy it. The PSX carried the soul of the 16-bit era that came before it, even while it tried on some of the trappings of the oncoming future. We got big, crazy games with detailed 3D worlds, but none of the obsessive-compulsive, subscription-based, online-only, multiplayer-focused, on-disc DLC, micro-transacted bullshit we have to deal with today. I think I’ll dig a little deeper into the PSX library to see what other gems I missed. Who knows? Maybe my whole top five for 2015 will be made up of what I find!