2014: The Year in Review / by Benjamin Sawyer

2014 has swiftly come and gone. The next generation of consoles have been the current generation for a full year, a bevy of titles releasing for both. Gamergate took the gaming world by surprise and left a quagmire of unsavory, garish internet hostility floating on the surface of everyone’s minds. And industry names changed hands or outright closed with surprising frequency, from Irrational laying developers off to Microsoft buying Minecraft from Mojang for a stifling 2.5 billion dollars.

However, despite this year’s scale and ambition, I can’t help but feel underwhelmed. Now, while you may feel that evaluation is ill-based or even borderline ungrateful, let me explain myself. This is going to be a long conversation. Pour a cup of coffee and pull up a chair.

This year was massive when it came to games. With the new consoles getting comfortable in their new digs the year began with an air of promise to it. New consoles meant new games, many of those new games being new IPs (Intellectual Properties) that brought an astounding amount of potential to the table. From the freshman studio (albeit it made of veteran developers) Respawn Entertainment’s all-out, mech-heavy shooter Titanfall, to Ubisoft’s cyber-security action game Watch Dogs. From Warner Bros’ delightfully dark Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor to Insomniac’s comically outrageous Sunset Overdrive. A lot of games hit the shelves this year, but only a few stood out. A problem, in my opinion, not based so much on the merit of the games themselves, but with the manner in which they were released.

The first half of the year was lackluster with a few bright spots. Thief had a tepid comeback and Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare effectively fell on deaf ears. Titanfall stole March, and for a good reason. The new IP from ex-Infinity Ward developers was polished, intelligent, and stepped onto the scene as if it were no different than a Call of Duty sequel; with confidence (even with its laughably reduced persistence system). The rest of March was pretty solid as well, with genuinely good titles like Dark Souls II, Yaiba: Ninja Gaidan Z, and Infamous Second Son rounding out the lineup. The only real blight was Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, a game that should have been priced differently, should have lasted longer, and could have just as easily been released as a part of the larger Phantom Pain, planned for release in 2015.

Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs, a game that had people antsy for its release for more than a year, stumbled into our hands in late May and, despite all of its hype (or, perhaps, because of it), played a relatively boring game of limbo with the bar that it had set itself.

Then (after a long, meh, summer) came Destiny, Bungie’s first title since Halo: Reach. But Destiny, despite its merits, was underwhelming for many people and garnered a very mediocre reception. The sci-fi, action-adventure epic seemed to be missing something. A lot of something, or somethings. A bare bones story, a punishingly unfair reward system in which part of your currency was a reward, a severely unbalanced multiplayer, the problems seemed to just stack up. Fortunately, Bungie developed Destiny to a high level of polish, the game had no real gameplay flaws, which proved to be just enough to keep people playing while they addressed balance and loot issues via a collection of swiftly released patches. Yes, Destiny had its flaws, and still does, but Bungie’s involvement with their community has proven key to the revitalization of their project.

October is when things began to pick up (for better, or worse) for releases. October alone had Alien Isolation, Driveclub, Borderlands the Pre-Sequel, Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition, The Evil Within, and Sunset Overdrive. All highly anticipated titles. All flawed, either by design or by poorly-timed release. Alien Isolation had AI problems for the first two weeks that almost broke the game for some. The Xenomorph literally appearing from thin air seemed to not sit well with players. Driveclub suffered crippling online issues. The Evil Within was another game that received mediocre reviews (despite the fact that Game Informer gave it a 9 out of 10 its metacritic just meets 75). In the wake of these games, Borderlands and Sleeping Dogs felt overlooked.

But not nearly as much as Sunset Overdrive did, and I blame November for that.

The Insomniac developed title was unique, fun, and downright refreshing. A game as self-aware and satirical as Borderlands, fused with Tony Hawk, with a comic book attitude, and a punk soundtrack. It was everything I wanted in a new IP. But then November hit.

A week after Sunset’s release, the new Call of Duty came out, a week after that Assassin’s Creed Rogue, Assassin’s Creed Unity, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham. A week after those came Far Cry 4, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Grand Theft Auto V on next gen, WWE 2K15, and Little Big Planet 3. Ten games in three weeks. Just like that, Sunset Overdrive got buried by games with established histories and, especially in GTA V’s case, proven and resounding success. Even if you bought a game a week in November that still swiftly added up, and despite Sunset Overdrives promise, the more proven games got players’ money. After all, Sunset was a new, unproven IP that, if purchased, would dent your bank account just enough to make pulling off November an exercise in fiscal responsibility.

Even with the technical flaws that plagued Assassin’s Creed Unity and Halo, most of the titles released were overwhelmingly quality. Call of Duty took its already over the top cinematography and gameplay to a whole new level with the addition of VO great Troy Baker and Oscar Winner Kevin Spacey. ACU’s ambitious co-op, though initially flawed, was a huge pull for gamers, and now proves itself as one of the year’s best cooperative iterations. Halo 2, remastered, is a delight, and having all four core Halo titles on one disc is paramount. Far Cry 4, while a bit of a rehash of Far Cry 3 (but this time with elephants!), is a solid title that deserved the Best Shooter award. Dragon Age: Inquisition is a masterpiece, enough said.

The number of games titles that hit shelves this fall was truly astounding. But the success of the game industry as a whole took away from the successes of the titles as individuals. Dragon Age needed more elbow room. As did Sunset Overdrive and Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor (yeah, that came out in September, amid the outcries of disappointed Destiny fans). The Last of Us and Bioshock: Infinite, arguably two of last year’s best titles, and quite possibly for the entire console generation, released in June and March, respectively. And while I understand the release of games in the fall from a business standpoint, from a consumer’s standpoint I felt overwhelmed, even exploited. My friends and I have games still sealed (or barely played) because we just didn’t have time to get to them. Did 2014 have a game on the same playing field as The Last of Us, other than the remastered version of Last of Us? I would say no.

But this isn’t the first time that the fall game season has been overloaded. It’s a yearly event. So why did this year it hit a little harder, especially for gamers in possession of the newest hardware? Before September there were only a few quality titles worth putting hours into. Everyone was looking a few games to bolster their repertoire. So when we were confronted with the surplus that was this fall, we were all craving so much more than what we had. If you didn’t understand the marketing behind this, you should now.

In the end we have a 2014 that, on paper, looks amazing. A new Call of Duty, two full Assassin’s Creed titles (for the first time ever, mind you), the Halo collection, Far Cry 4, GTA V, Dragon Age, Destiny, Titanfall, Sunset Overdrive, Infamous: Second Son, Watch Dogs, and Shadow of Mordor. But how many of those games have you gotten the chance to play? How many have you beaten? There are at least four award-wining games in that short list, and I left a lot of games out. We should have the opportunity to play all of them without refinancing our homes.

For those of us that did buy all the games that we really wanted, now, instead of reveling in a collection of solid games, we are digging through a stack that feels a lot more like homework than recreation. I think 2014 could be a good year. I just need to get to the bottom of the stack first. That shouldn’t ever be a burden.

@CalebTSawyer
~Caleb