With our Biggest Disappointments of 2014 out of the way, it's on to more positive things once more, namely our biggest surprises of 2014. There's nothing better than a game surprising you, and no finer moments than when previous scepticism is utterly blown away by excellence. if new-gen got off to a bit of a slow start, at least in 2014 there were several titles that really got it right, not to mention some industry changes that blazed trails of redemption and resurgence.
Matt | Alien AI
Aside from a mobile game ending up being one of my favourite games of 2014, there were a few other pleasant surprises in 2014. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare reinvigorated what has been, for me at least, a series lacking purpose and direction outside of just retreading old ground. Advanced Warfare felt like the breath of fresh air that the series needed, even if I would have liked a little more freedom to play around with the campaign's wonderful toys.
Others further on have highlighted the new-gen gameplay features and mechanics to be found in Middle-Earth, so I won't talk much about Shadow of Mordor except to say that Ubisoft should take a long, hard look at how Monolith beat them at their own game this year.
But on the subject of progressive mechanisms in games, something that we were crying out for with this new generation of games consoles, I think my surprise of the year goes to Alien: Isolation. Not since Silent Hill 2 has a game gotten underneath my skin so completely. I never would have believed that the studio most famous for Total War would have created one of the defining survival horror titles to be seen in years. I argued this year that if The Evil Within was indicative of a greatest hits compilation of survival horror's past, then Alien: Isolation was its future. The dynamic Alien was a masterpiece in AI design, a figure that filled me with absolute dread, and truly made me feel like I was being hunted.
But Sevastopol itself had its own part to play, it's creaking pipes and mechanical shrieks cultivating an oppressive, twitchy atmosphere, helped on by dynamic lighting casting flickering shadows that looked awfully Xenomorph-esque. Alien: Isolation worked its way into my brain and still hasn't completely left. It's the best Alien game there's ever been, and I say that while still hiding in a cupboard from the terrifying monstrosity roaming the vents outside. I'm not sure I'm ever coming out.
Brendan | Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor is one of the best games of 2014. I certainly didn't expect to be writing that after seeing the first bits of footage, especially given there hasn't been a decent LOTR game since the PS2 days.
We feared just another Assassin's Creed clone and the game certainly had lots of 'inspirations' from other brands. But with the Nemesis system, Monolith have created something other games will look to recreate. Enemies that defeat you in battle will go on to get promoted and will remember you next time they see you. To make sure it doesn't happen again, you're able to interrogate other orcs for intel on their weaknesses, which could be abused in such a way, you might not even have to attack them personally. There's an incredible amount of options and that's before you get onto possessing enemies to infiltrate Sauron's army from within. Fingers crossed Warner greenlights a sequel soon, because we've been desperately short on innovation in games in recent years and Monolith are certainly onto something here.
Carl | The Nemesis System
When the recent crop of games were touting “next-gen features” it was usually from a graphical perspective. More FPS, more of those 1080p’s (or near enough), more polygons on those player models, and more objects on-screen to create a populated feel in the game world. Sure, those things are great, but despite making for impressive visuals it doesn’t change the game in terms of new experiences. Thankfully, Monolith saw the now current-gen consoles as an opportunity to deliver something new, and that came in the form of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis System.
I remember seeing it in action back at Gamescom and being impressed by the perceived variation on offer, but the issue with those sort of demonstrations is that without getting hands-on it was hard to not dismiss the feeling of “it might be elaborately choreographed for us press” in the back of my head. So, when I did get hold of a review copy it I realised that had Monolith pulled it off, as the reactionary nature of the Nemesis System made my entire playthrough more personal than any sandbox title this year. You only have to watch my YouTube mini-series The Hunt to see why – my journey to kill the Warchiefs was a unique story, and the virtual rivalries forged during it became real to me.
The thing is, in truth what Monolith created wasn’t revolutionary, but it is the first step towards that revolution. “Power struggle” computations happen off-screen unless that player directly influences scenarios in real-time, making it feel like the world is frozen unless Talion is around or dead. This meant that the system relies on the player being pro-active or emotionally invested in their defeats, watching as the Orc in question moves up the ladder, for only then was the Nemesis System truly alive.
Those observations aside, it is still an important step towards creating organic and unique experiences for gamers, and Monolith’s first crack at it is worthy of applause. It was my favourite surprise of the year because it worked despite its limitations, and I cannot wait to see developers evolving the idea in the future. An open world crime fighting simulator with the Nemesis system, anyone?
Jon | Xbox Ascendant
I've never seen such a big company move so fast.
This time last year the Xbox One was a bloated media box that cost £429.99 and was being thoroughly trounced by the triumphant PS4 and even the resurgent Wii U. Twelve insane months later and a desperate, ruthless and magnificent campaign of corporate triage has turned Microsoft's console into a fit, lean £329 contender with some excellent games and irresistible console bundles.
Spencer had to sacrifice an awful lot, and did so without hesitation. I couldn't believe that Kinect was axed so soon, let alone the RRP or Xbox Live Gold's entertainment restrictions. It was a wild rollercoaster of a year for Xbox owners, pundits and gamers alike as the new guard cleaned house, scraping Don Mattrick's residual slime out of the corner office, off of the brand and announcing some absolutely cracking exclusives in the process.
It was astonishing. I've never seen anything remotely like it before in such a short timeframe, and hope that a newly resurgent Microsoft can keep up the pace.