Welcome to the second-last day of 2014. If you listen closely you’ll hear 2015 frothing at the mouth to ram all 365 of its days down our bewildered throats. That’s a lot of days to swallow at once, so open wide.
With 2015 staring us in the face, it’s time for a spot of retrospection from the NAG Online crew. It’s been an interesting year for the gaming industry, with a few highs and numerous lows. Some of the highs we expected and others were a total surprise, which is always nice. Then, because this is the gaming industry, the expected lows came thick and fast, but it was the surprising lows that stuck in our gullets the most.
Head past this magical “Read More…” button to do exactly what the button’s label suggests. You’ll find that each of us has compiled a short synopsis of our highs and lows for the year; you may even find some personal GOTY choices in there as well.
Gamergate’s professed to be many things, but one thing that is clear is the intensity of the misogynistic harassment it has showered upon female game critics, writers, developers and their supporters — sexual violence, bomb threats, doxxing and continual online aggression under the banner of better accountability in games journalism.
Some have said that Gamergate will be a footnote in history, doomed to irrelevancy; I wouldn’t be so flippant, especially as women continue to be targeted even now. Gamergate will resonate into the medium’s future, just not in the way its proponents hope.
I wish the aforementioned abuse didn’t happen, but we’ve long thought that we were all on the same side; that if you’re a gamer your gender, sexual identity, race and ideals don’t matter, and anyone who says otherwise is the “other”. It does, and because it does, games are bursting from that chrysalis in which they formed, that defined what is and isn’t a game, and while some see that as an evolution, others see it as a death. One sees diversification and inclusion, the other dilution and heavy-handed political correctness.
Gamergate’s call for transparency and better ethical conduct — at face-value a noble request — was answered soon after its inception, with several gaming publications reviewing and updating their journalistic policies. Now it’s simply a maelstrom we need plug to do better by women in gaming as a whole.
As for my selfish, highly personal GOTY, it’s Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Part of its appeal was the fluid nature of combat, but it’s largely thanks to the Uruks, their society and their governing Nemesis System. Their personality and quirks, shaped by my hand (and many deaths), kept me invested in petty rivalries and retributive quests long after Talion’s tale grew stale. Here was that illusory promise made by many open-world games finally realised: a living world reacting to me.
–Rick de Klerk
Horror and hedgehogs
So-called “horror” titles litter the gaming landscape. They rely heavily on the standard clichés: loads of gore, zombies, shocking imagery and… evil little girls. Five Nights At Freddy’s takes a different approach, playing on your paranoia as you take on the job of a security guard in a children’s pizzeria filled with bloodthirsty animatronic animals. It’s no small task to expect players to be afraid of robots in animal suits, but this game pulls it off disturbingly well. Between feeling utterly helpless, being consumed with paranoia and the occasional jump-scare, Five Nights At Freddy’s is a horror experience that’ll stick in your mind long after you’ve forgotten the likes of F.E.A.R.
After a string of lacklustre titles, Sega decided on a different approach to the ailing blue mascot. They gave him and his comrades a new look, and, controversially, took a distinctly “western” approach in re-imagining the hedgehog’s universe. If the resulting game were decent, it might have been forgiven. Unfortunately, the game is dreadfully mediocre. And mediocrity mixed with glitches, long load times and dodgy controls is a recipe for disaster. Whether on the Wii U or 3DS, Sonic Boom may indeed go down in history as the game that killed Sonic.
2014 has been a strange year for gaming in many ways, but the name of this entry really sums up most of the blockbuster releases. “Buyer beware” is a new state of mind that gamers need to get into a habit of using.
We’ve seen the cycle before: a game from a respected developer gets hyped up beyond recognition, and then fails to deliver. Look at Watch_Dogs, which even after two years and a hefty delay couldn’t exactly deliver on its stellar announcement trailer. Destiny fell victim to this trend too. Bungie saw fit to saturate the gaming market with SO MUCH HYPE surrounding this title, and obviously it didn’t live up to it.
Another area where this happened was with Early Access games. Early Access is really the kind of thing that gets polarised opinions: some see it as a chance to play a game as it grows; others see it as a marketplace and excuse for selling broken games. Think of a title like The Stomping Land: a promising-in-concept dinosaur survival game. After taking money from early adopters, the development team went quiet and the game went extinct…
So where does this leave us, the gamers? Like I stated above: buyer beware. The gaming population is now more intelligent, aware, and downright cynical about games. Whether they are over-hyped mega-releases still under a review embargo, or a new survival game that hasn’t had an update in weeks, gamers will likely remember the lessons learnt this year and will hopefully learn to rely more on the people they can actually trust in the gaming industry: your faithful writers at NAG Online.
As for my GOTY, it’s got to be Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Honestly, I never thought a licensed game could get this damn good, and its gameplay is so engaging that I could play it for hours and make up little stories about the orcs I was hunting. In summary, I love Assassin’s Creed games, and Shadow of Mordor is the best Assassin’s Creed game I’ve ever played. [Zing! – Ed]
2014 for me was an interesting year because I watched the gaming industry turn on its head. I saw Ubisoft become the bad guy, shipping out a broken AAA game with big glitches affecting both performance and the game experience. I saw them fitting pay-to-win gameplay elements into that same game for no apparent reason. And I saw them causing mild panic throughout a week when they took off all their new games from the Steam platform, starting with Steam in the UK.
Better yet, the tables had turned for other studios as well. Rockstar became the bad guy when they removed licensed music from GTA San Andreas in addition to gameplay fixes and PC-specific additions they had recently made to the Steam version. On the other side of the fence, EA garnered support from gamers, shipping out Dragon Age: Inquisition to largely positive critique, and also letting Bioware use it as a platform to address social inequalities that people have to deal with in real life. They even went as far as to acknowledge that the release of Battlefield 4 could have been done better.
It’s equally interesting to see Activision, the company everyone loved to loathe last year, more or less completely change the way Call of Duty works. Advanced Warfare is now far more of an arena shooter than previous iterations in the series, and a lot of people are suddenly not complaining about the yearly franchise. It’s almost as if the game industry is fixing itself, but only getting to applying the band-aids and dressings really, really late.
My GOTY? It has to be Driveclub, Sony’s second in-house racer developed by Evolution Studios. I gave the game 75 in my review for the magazine, but every single update and addition to fix the game has really improved the formula. Buy it, borrow it, do whatever you have to to play it – it really is a rush.
New games? I just replayed the Half-life series
I think, if we take a moment to reflect and are brutally honest with ourselves, we can all agree on one uncomfortable and yet inescapable truth: 2014 was a pretty crap year for gaming. Still, it wasn’t without its merits. Titanfall stands out for me as a gleaming, overlooked gem of originality; a creative diamond in the rough of remasters and retreads. It reignited my love for fast-paced FPS anarchy while the likes of Activision released shooters that were difficult to discern from their predecessors, while an infinite number of other publishers simply released old games with a few more polygons. So perhaps I should appreciate the effort of at least slapping a new title on an old shoe?
Anyone silly enough to buy a new release this year was treated to something so buggy it felt like it was made in a single, cocaine-fuelled weekend. But those publishers willing to wait till 2015 have inspired some interest, even in a cynical old bastard such as myself. Topping this list of anticipated goodness is Evolve: the asymmetrical team-based shooter that I got a delicious taste of at rAge (even if that taste was delivered intravenously through Delano’s less-than-welcoming talons). It’s the promise of something new and exciting that has me all hot and bothered, and I hope that the full meal is as good as the appetiser.
So then, my impressions of 2014? A year spent passing time with old favourites (I replayed the entire Half-Life series, again) while waiting for something better to come along. 2014 felt like a kind of purgatory; a period of torturously bland nothingness that must be suffered through to get to the end of the rainbow.
Which, I hope, is waiting in 2015.
I’m trying really hard to think of the positives that lay scattered about 2014, but it’s proving difficult. I guess I’ll have to start with the bad stuff. Deep breath:
Gamergate; routine misogyny in the gaming scene; gamers finally proving to the non-gaming world that gamers really are basement dwelling assholes who cannot behave in polite company; me realising that I don’t want to identify myself as a “gamer”; Assassin’s Creed Unity driving the final nail into the coffin that holds my enthusiasm for that IP; the loss of multiple local gaming publications; Titanfall getting no local official release; microtransactions; Destiny and its horrific loot system that just seemed to get worse and worse the more Bungie tinkered; Early Access; the fact that I still haven’t played Watch_Dogs and that I’m totally OK with that; The Elder Scrolls Online; seeing Peter Molyneux at Gamescom but having a mouthful of food at the time so I couldn’t rush over to meet him; the anti-consumer practice of Sony and Microsoft buying third-party exclusives like No Man’s Sky and Rise of the Tomb Raider respectively; the fact that despite the load of critically acclaimed Wii U titles to come out in 2014, my console still gathers dust.
That’s all suitably depressing stuff in my mind, but luckily 2014 had a few standout moments and games. Despite Ubisoft’s failure to deliver on a number of AAA titles, they brought some gems as well. Child of Light was a breathtakingly gorgeous adventure, and Far Cry 4 is, to be honest, more fun than it should be. Then there’s the fact that we FINALLY got an Alien game that’s worthy of the title. Isolation was one of the best games to come out of this year. Sticking with licensed material, and I’m not the only one to mention this game, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor sucked me into its world and didn’t let me out for hours at a time.
My personal GOTY? Dragon Age: Inquisition. And this is coming from somebody who has never played a Dragon Age at all.
Match-fixing and card-collecting
Let’s be honest here – 2014 was a terrible year for gaming. The continuing rise of microtransactions and pay-to-win mechanics, the release of numerous incomplete and poor games, and scandals such as Gamergate have all brought the industry into disrepute. However, as an avid eSports fan, there can only be one particular occurrence from 2014 that stands out as the most disgraceful: the match-fixing in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
For those who need a quick recap, Polish team ALSEN placed bets on themselves losing matches in an ESL tournament and then proceeded to deliberately throw the matches. As the bets were made with in-game currency (which still carries a very significant monetary value), the legality of their actions is uncertain. A number of the players made public apologies after their actions were discovered and withdrew from all competition, but I, along with many others, am still deeply disappointed.
The problem lies in the fact that they have invoked the spectre of rampant match-fixing in lower-tier competitions throughout the world. The high levels of regulation of the ESL made it relatively easy to spot their crime, but at other ranks this regulation may be somewhat lax. Given the rapidly developing betting culture in Counter-Strike, which is well-explained in this video, this type of match-fixing is going to be a significant challenge to tournament organisers moving forward.
All of that aside, there were still a few rays of hope that shone through the general gloom and doom of 2014 and no game shone more brightly than Hearthstone. Easily my game of the year, Blizzard showed other companies that you could include in-game transactions in a game without ruining it or making it a pay-to-win title. In addition, Hearthstone was hardly a AAA blockbuster title. It made use of a simple visual style and wickedly absorbing gameplay to entice gamers. For someone that is extremely tired of the annual Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed garbage developers force-feed the masses every year, Hearthstone was a breath of fresh air and a sign that maybe, just maybe, 2015 could be better.