The best video games of 2014

From colorful roads to dark dungeons

108

When it comes to video games, much of this year has been overshadowed by Gamergate; the movement has hovered over the industry like a dark, ugly cloud, dominating the discussion about games and the people who make them.

And that's a shame — because it turns out 2014 was an absolutely amazing year for new video games.

Nintendo released two of its best games ever with the new Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart for Wii U, while mobile gaming continued to push forward with the likes of Threes and Monument Valley. 2014 saw the start of exciting new franchises like Destiny, Sunset Overdrive, and Titanfall, while familiar faces including Dragon Age, Far Cry, and Call of Duty all made strong cases for the power of the sequel. This year even proved that licensed video games can be amazing thanks to Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor and Alien: Isolation.

Picking just one, definitive game of the year is an impossible task: after all, how do you compare something minimal and refined like Threes to a sprawling epic like Dragon Age? Instead, The Verge staff picked our own personal favorites.

Chris Plante: Far Cry 4

I am worn down by killing people in video games, and yet much of what makes Far Cry 4 excellent is its inspired approach to murder. In the first-person shooter from Ubisoft, set in a fictional stand-in for the Himalayan nations, you alternate between quiet hunter and one-man death squad. In one mission, you might stalk a dozen targets protecting a fortress, then slowly pick them off, hiding their bodies in the shadows. But when a guard catches you mid-kill, the game pivots and becomes a bombastic action sequence, full of heavy artillery, rampaging elephants, and military-grade helicopters.

Far Cry 3, released two years ago, featured a smaller version of this concept, but Far Cry 4 benefits from the more powerful new consoles, which allow the world to feel like an endless and seamless strategical playground, instead of a map of discreet enemy encampments. That a friend can join you in this hybrid ninja-Rambo simulator, deciding to help out or blow your cover, makes the moment to moment insanity all the richer.

That its violence is more strategic and better polished elevates it above its contemporaries. But what makes Far Cry 4 my game of the year is its absorbing world. The fictional land of Kyrat is a patchwork of beautiful vistas and wildlife. While imperfect, Ubisoft does a commendable job keeping the adventure through Nepal’s culture from devolving into the ultra crude stereotypes, a la the The Adventures of Tintin era. I love base-jumping, jet-skiing, hang gliding, ATVing, and helicoptering through this world, even more than I love killing.

Far Cry 4 is a magnificent game, I just wish the best method for touching the hearts of its many interesting characters wasn’t with a bullet.

Honorable mentions: Bounden, Towerfall Ascension, Kentucky Route Zero: Act 3, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Metro Redux, The Yawhg

Ross Miller: Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition

We've all come to accept that game development doesn't end at the release date. Diablo III is one of the best examples. Blizzard, the game studio with a near-perfect record of hit large-scale games, is known to support its titles long after their release (the original StarCraft was last updated in 2009, more than a decade after it originally came out).

Diablo III was something different entirely. Yes, it was released to critical acclaim and became the fastest-selling PC game, moving 3.5 million copies in the first 24 hours. But this year, Blizzard went ahead and ripped out the entire auction house component (which allowed you to use real-world money) and revamped the item drop system — which, if you've played a Diablo game before, is basically the biggest component outside of actually pushing buttons. Then it released an expansion pack, Reaper of Souls, with an entirely new story chapter and other features.

(Let's pause here to make sure everyone understands Diablo III. Basically, you choose a character and fight hundreds of on-screen monsters simultaneously while running through a variety of dungeons, finding new weapons and armor that make you look really cool and powerful. Rinse and repeat.)

All that leads us to Diablo III: The Ultimate Evil Edition, which feels like a game now fully realized. Turns out, this iconic PC game plays extremely well with a controller. Better still, it has one of the best couch co-op modes I've played in years — the game adjusts for character level imbalance, so your buddy's level 12 monk will have no problem playing toe-to-toe with your level 65 wizard.

Honorable mentions: Grand Theft Auto V, Hitman Go, South Park: Stick of Truth, Mario Kart 8, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U

Andrew Webster: Mario Kart 8

Any year with a new Mario Kart is a good year. When the best Mario Kart ever made comes out? It's an amazing year. A quick glimpse at Mario Kart 8 might make it seem like a slightly updated version of past games, but it's so much more. Yes, the basic gameplay is the same, with fast-paced, hectic racing action that's incredibly accessible to players of all levels. But Mario Kart 8 turns the series on its head — literally.

The biggest change in the Wii U racer is the new anti-gravity karts, which let you stick to the road even as it twists and turns in impossible ways. It might not sound like a major change, but the level designers at Nintendo have taken the idea and run with it, creating all sorts of insane, gravity-defying tracks that infuse Mario Kart 8 with a new, invigorated sense of life. The new Rainbow Road just might be the craziest Mario Kart track ever made.

Mario Kart 8 also keeps getting better. Now that Nintendo finally seems to understand this whole "downloadable content" fad, it's managed to put it to good use with its iconic racing series. The first batch of new content, which launched in November, adds eight new tracks, four karts, and three racers — including the debut of Link and his horse-shaped motorcycle. The new tracks are just as brilliant as those featured in the base game, and more will be launching next May, as well.

Mario Kart 8 might just end up being my favorite game of 2015, too.

Honorable mentions: Threes, Monument Valley, Sunset Overdrive, Velocity 2X, Alien: Isolation, Hohokum

Titanfall

Sam Byford: Titanfall

Titanfall is my game of 2014 because it was by far the biggest surprise. I didn’t expect to have anything nice to say about a multiplayer-only first-person shooter from the Call of Duty creators, but that’s just why Titanfall is so good; its inventive design and sheer originality make an often inaccessible genre fun for regular people.

Here are just a few of the things that anyone can do in Titanfall: run along walls parkour-style; double-jump in mid-air like Crash Bandicoot; start each game with a magic pistol that automatically locks onto enemies’ heads; turn invisible; stop bullets in flight like Neo at the end of The Matrix; command a gigantic mech to fall out of the sky every couple of minutes (and then you get to pilot it). Each of these things would completely debase a regular FPS’ balance, yet in Titanfall they’re all integral to the spirit of the game.

The result is a chaotic whirlwind of combat that, despite its seeming complexity, anyone can get something out of — whatever their skill level. Titanfall’s tight controls and winding levels make the simple act of moving around each environment feel like a minor revolution after years of uninspired Battlefield and Call of Duty clones. I’ll never be great at Titanfall, but every second I’ve spent with it has been a ton of fun. For that, and for helping me rediscover a genre that I thought had lost me forever, Titanfall is my game of the year.

Honorable mentions: Bayonetta 2, TxK, Desert Golfing, OlliOlli, Luftrausers, Mario Kart 8, Transistor, Sunset Overdrive, Towerfall: Ascension

Rich McCormick: Dark Souls II

Dark Souls II isn't Dark Souls. It doesn't have its predecessor's layered game world, it doesn't imbue its gothic architecture with the same senses of mystery, magic, and malice. It feels more disparate than its predecessor, the product of design by committee rather than the single-minded creation of one person. It doesn't have the same curves — the arcs of difficulty and mastery that lined up perfectly in Dark Souls now oscillate up and down in the sequel.

But despite this — as a testament to the perfection of From Software's 2011 action-RPG — its sequel was still my favorite game of 2014.

Its land of Drangleic may be an imitation of Dark Souls' Lordran, but the nation is still sad and storied, more intriguing a play area than any other series' home. It hides its secrets well, revealing plot information through items found on dead bodies and chance meetings, taking the video game developer's mantra — "show, don't tell" — as its own. The sequel has clarified some of Dark Souls' more arcane innovations, too, decking this year's iteration out with a covenant system that changes how you play the game, letting you prey on the weak, punish the evil, or defend your designated home.

Most importantly, Dark Souls II keeps its predecessor's tight and tense combat. I fought pirate zombies, fire-breathing salamanders, hovering metal cyber-knights, elephant men, and a thing that had locked itself in a pitch-black prison cell with a spiked mask digging into its face for generations. Unlike most games, Dark Souls II's dungeons are always dangerous, and its fights always remind the player that they are but a few seconds away from death. Each foe, from bog-dweller to balrog, could have killed me in a few hits, but often worse were the other humans along for Dark Souls II's journey. The game allows players to "invade" other worlds, appearing as vengeful (or sometimes helpful) spirits, coalescing in the murk to assist in the game's eager aim to slide a knife, or sword, or lance, into your back.

This perpetual threat meant I had to learn to live in Dark Souls II's world, and I came to love it. This year I spent more hours in Destiny, but I skidded across the surface of Bungie's game. I turned the sound down on my TV and the volume up on whatever podcast I was listening to, and did something else with my brain while my hands were occupied with grind. When I was playing Dark Souls II, I was in Dark Souls II. Eight months after its release, and with three pieces of excellent downloadable content fleshing the world out further, I still visit regularly.

Honorable mentions: Dragon Age: Inquisition, Destiny, Divinity: Original Sin, Wolfenstein: The New Order, Elite: Dangerous

Adi Robertson: Dragon Age: Inquisition

I overlooked the Dragon Age series for years because of its setting. Good high fantasy has to overcome some terrible conventions; even if Tolkien could turn stultifying lore, hatred of all things modern, simplistic moralizing, and an obsessive fascination with European culture into something beautiful, there’s no reason an entire genre had to follow him. Dragon Age: Inquisition, a last-minute end-of-year purchase, hasn’t entirely allayed my concerns  I pity whoever had to write the hundreds of songs, folktales, landmark descriptions, and letters that I’ve picked up and mostly ignored. But 20 hours in, it’s won me over by embodying the best of open-world games and high fantasy.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is true escapism, in the most positive sense of the word. Its combat will meet you where you like, whether that’s button-mashing with one party member and letting an AI handle the others or pausing between every attack to micromanage. The environments aren’t just huge and full of secrets to find, they’re absolutely beautiful. Each one feels lovingly designed, a real region instead of a substrate for quests and collectibles. I’ve never noticed a game’s terrain so much. The characters have nuance and humanity while remaining true to the broad epic heroism of the world; their conflicts come from a genuine sense of idealism that’s tested by a complicated world.

But what puts Inquisition in a league of its own is that I’ve rarely felt so welcome in a big narrative game. After months spent dealing with angry people who think any queer or female character is a dangerous, "unrealistic" capitulation to political correctness, it’s great to end the year playing something where they’re an unquestioned and natural part of the world  especially in a genre that’s often full of medieval stereotypes. I’d rather spend my time thinking about what religion might look like if magic were real, or deciding whether to flirt with my brilliant political advisor or a dashing warrior mage, than have to re-fight the battle to just be considered a human being.

If George R.R. Martin’s books demonstrate how to deconstruct the ugliness of fantasy, Dragon Age: Inquisition is an example of what you can get by embracing its strengths. I’m glad Bioware helped me find them.

Honorable mentions: Darknet, Titanfall, Nidhogg, Shadowrun: Dragonfall, The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo

Vlad Savov: Civilization: Beyond Earth

My first submission to this list was the latest Dota 2 patch, but the bureaucratic overlords of The Verge Selection Committee demanded that it must be a whole new game from 2014. That left me with a tough choice between The Banner Saga and Civilization: Beyond Earth. A big part of me would like to give the nod to The Banner Saga because of its humble indie origins, immersive narrative, and refreshingly novel take on turn-based battles — but this is a fight for the title of best game and the latest Civ is just that little bit better.

Civilization has always been a thinking player's game. Carefully calculated forward planning is imperative to building a healthy empire, and the Civilization series sets the gold standard for recreating the various conflicting goals that a good emperor must balance: from industrial and geographic expansion to social and cultural well-being. It's also a game of moral dilemmas: I'm a devout pacifist and atheist in the real world, but in Civ I habitually find myself building temples and barracks.

Sid Meier's team has taken all the complexity and depth of Civ, strapped it to a rocket, and produced an extraterrestrial version of the world's favorite empire-building game. Now, instead of choosing between a centralized economy or laissez faire finance, I'm tasked with deciding how humanity should approach its colonization of a new habitable planet. Should the incumbent alien species be treated like wildlife or as man's equal? What role will machines play in our off-world development? By the time I'm done making all the small choices that build toward a victorious or ignominious conclusion, each game of Beyond Earth manages to develop its own distinct character. Sometimes I end up with a race of mechanized cyborgs. On other occasions, I'll have an army of alien hybrids that thrive in the miasmic emanations from the planet's crust.

With some streamlining of the ever-present demand for micromanagement and a few surprising twists along the way, Beyond Earth presents a pleasing mix of the historicity of traditional Civilization games and the always-alluring hypotheticals of off-planet exploration.

Honorable mentions: The Banner Saga, Titanfall, Smash Hit