Chasing GOTY: The Almost Games of the Year for 2014

While 2014 will almost certainly be remembered as the year when the video games market began finally normalizing again after the boom ushered in with Nintendo's Wii, there was one group of gamers who had plenty of new stuff to play all year ‘round: Computer RPG fans. I gotta tell ya, in a year slim on releases it’s a great irony that choosing GUO’s 2014 GOTY was the most difficult on record. It was only the rock-solid presentation and lack of technical issues that led to Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor being chosen over one other, equally Earth-shattering title: Divinity: Original Sin.

It was perhaps a little suspect when established developer Larian Studios took to Kickstarter in order to fund their fourth Divinity game. Their justification? They knew they could make one of the greatest RPGs off all time. They’ve been trying, and coming close, for over 10 years. Larian stated that in order to finally succeed and create the game they always dreamed of they would have to go it alone, free from the influence of bean-counting marketing executives. The results speak to the wisdom of Larian’s vision.

At first blush, Divinity: Original Sin is a step back into the second golden age of CRPGs heralded by Baldur’s Gate. One glance at the screenshots is enough to make old farts pine for the times when store shelves were lined with isometric, party based adventures like Icewind Dale, Arcanum, and Torment. I know my first few moments with Divinity were spent with a goofy smile on my face and the phrase “They sure don’t make ‘em like this anymore,” on my lips.

I hadn’t even finished the tutorial dungeon by the time this thought was proven incorrect.

 

I had pulled a torch off the wall and thrown it into a poison gas trap. It exploded in a satisfying wall of fire. What I had not counted on was a vent that actually fed the gas trap was still spraying the deadly mist into the hallway; A hallway that was now full of fire that immediately ignited the fresh gas being pumped into the room. Oops. It was only then I noticed a conveniently placed barrel off to the side I could use to stop up the gas vent. Using telekinesis I chucked the barrel at the offending vent. The fire shredded it in a instant, dumping it’s watery contents all over the area. The water from the barrel put out the fire and I was left standing in front of the same wall of poison I started with, now sans the obvious, barrel-tastic solution to the puzzle. After a bit of noodle-scratching, I concocted a desperate plan. I removed my warriors armor and threw it at the vent. It held! The party passed unhindered and my armor was reclaimed afterwards thanks to a little telekinesis magic.

I was wrong. They NEVER made ‘em like this! While a number of studios have been cashing in on the nostalgia of elder gamers by way of producing titles just like we remember them, Larian has produced a brilliant vision of what CRPGs would be today had they not fallen out of vogue.

Another close contender for Game of the Year also comes from the world of computer role-playing games. While I was late to Shadown Returns, it stole my heart with it’s twisted, magic fueled, cyberpunk murder mystery and easily takes the cake for being the best written (In terms of sheer quality of prose) video game ever created. While it’s DLC-turned-sequel Shadowrun Dragonfall doesn’t quite live up to the spectacular narrative or wordplay of its predecessor, it does blow the doors off the original in terms of gameplay.

Shadowrun Dragonfall’s new format apes the Bioware RPG formula with spectacular results. It features a discrete three act structure where the second chapter gives you free run of a world littered with quirky characters, dubious deeds, and loyalty missions to uncover the dark secrets lurking within your party members. Also, in true Bioware tradition, it’s this disconnected assortment of missions that are the shining stars of the game as opposed the the more mundane “Kill the Foozle” main plot. Moral decisions also feature quite heavily throughout with real consequences and, even better, no good/evil scoreboard temping you to min/max your worldview. A role-playing game where you’re free to play your role. Go figure…

The combat in Dragonfall remains unchanged from Returns and that’s a very, very good thing. While the un-rotatable isometric viewpoint can still be a minor bother, the Xcom-ish turn-based tactical battles are just a fast and fun as ever. Even better, Dragonfall’s increased emphasis on gameplay gives the player many more opportunities to indulge in strategy and flex their tactical muscle. I couldn’t put Shadowrun Dragonfall down for the entirety of its lengthy 30+ hour campaign. And even after that there’s a wealth of user created content  to indulge in thanks to its included game editor and optional Steam Workshop integration. There’s also a mobile port available for those looking for a more mobile way to run in the shadows. You’ll never find more quality gaming for $15 than Dragonfall.

Continuing on 2014’s trend of being a good year for niche PC gamers, fantasy 4X turn-based strategy games got plenty of loving with the release of Warlock II, the long overdue Age of Wonders III, and the truly standout Endless Legend.

Endless Legend (EL) is particularly worthy of note. One can’t help but think that Endless Legend’s gameplay mechanics exemplify the changes that Civilization V attempted but failed at. Rather than killing the ‘killer stack’ EL puts expensive restrictions on the number of stacks you can have in play. Rather than removing city micromanagement, EL limits you to a single city for each particular region of the map. Gone is the traditional tech tree. Technological progress is instead gated by ‘Ages’ where the player is free to pick and choose which ones he needs to fit their empire’s plans without being forced to take unnecessary prerequisite techs. Minor factions (Think: city-states) can be ‘pacified’ by leveraging either force, cash, or performing randomly generated quests to with their favor. Once pacified, said factions can then be integrated into your empire allowing access to unique units and special bonuses based on the number of factional villages residing in your terrain. It doesn’t hurt that EL also features the most elegant UIs in a 4X game since Civilization III. Combine this with a fresh coat of paint to the well-trodden fantasy stereotypes (The elves have only recently climbed out of the trees and look like Star Wars’ Twi’leks while the '”Delver” dwarves always wear skull masks) and you’ve got a title that is a must play for fans of the genre. The AI may be a bit passive, game pacing a tad slow (even for a 4X), and the game map eye-squintingly cluttered, but the artistic and mechanical twists put on the formula make Endless Legend well worth it.

Endless-Legend-Review-460219-14While there were some truly stellar titles for PC gamers this year, I can’t help but feel disappointed in the lack of stand-outs for both console and mobile fans. While at least our GOTY choice, Shadow of Mordor, got a cross-platform release, mobile is a stickier problem. App installs are down and the player base now seems quite adverse to spending even the small amounts of cash they were before. Large publishing companies dominate the tops charts with half-baked free-2-play time sinks based on popular franchises. Well, at least some the great PC titles are getting ported to that little computer in your pocket such as the Shadowrun games, the spectacular starship RPG FTL, and even Bioshock.

Here’s hoping 2015 is as kind to all gamers as 2014 was to PC folks.

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