The Christmas Leftovers 2014: Part One

Boxing Day is Britain’s traditional day for taking everything that constituted yesterday’s Christmas dinner, and placing it cold between two slices of bread. Slap on some redcurrent jelly, and eat it no matter how full you are. It’s just the law. And so it is for gaming goodness over 2014. Despite gorging on 24 of the Best Bestest Games over the last month, we’ve so many other games we’re now putting in sandwiches. Below you’ll find the first half, in no particular order, of the Bestest of the Restest from this year. You can read the second half here.

The Talos Principle

Pip: I’m glad we picked this for GOTY. [Pip, we didn’t we went with Endless Le–] SHUT UP. I AM GLAD WE PICKED THIS AS OUR GOTY.

John: Released a month earlier, and I suspect this would have been played by enough of RPS to be a definite inclusion in the main awards. I further suspect it’s a game people will be talking about for a good long while, not thanks to its superb puzzles (and they really are superb), but thanks to the writing from Tom Jubert and Jonas Kyratzes. Its exploration of humanity, consciousness, and the soul, was a complete surprise for me as I wandered its Portal-sort-of puzzles and gorgeous Croteam world. But let’s not dismiss the skill behind the puzzles too – they constantly change their tools, preventing things from feeling repetitive, and require a really entertaining stretching of the brain. Lesson: never release your game in December.

Adam: I haven’t played a great deal of The Talos Principle yet, but I have played enough to know that I’m going to look back at our December Bestest Best games one night in early January and weep. It’s cleverly written, and the puzzles manage to grant me the Eureka moment (I play in a bath, of course) without the hours of frowning frustration that often precede it.

Nidhogg

Graham: Nidhogg would have been my game of the year I first played it, which I think was 2010. I spent every lunch break for weeks sat in an office, drawing crowds of people to my monitor as me and my colleagues stabbed and slashed, made daring slides through each other’s legs, and fell repeatedly to our deaths for no good reason. It was a marvel; a small game with a simple moveset, but in competition we found nuance and creativity. We started naming the ‘moves’ we used, including one disturbing crawl called The Widlebeest.

I still played and loved it when it finally got a commercial release, but I no longer had friends in proximity to play with, the online play was too laggy to function correctly, and 2014 was overrun by great, newer local multiplayer games.

Adam: I didn’t play Nidhogg until whenever it was that I first played it this year. That is to say, I didn’t get invited to any of the cool clandestine parties or events where it had previously been seen, or if I did I was too busy drinking the bar dry to notice the stabby multiplayer game in the corner. It’s great though. Not as good as Gang Beasts, but great.

The best thing about Nidhogg is that I managed to beat Graham one time and felt like I’d won everything, even though it was around 10-1 in his favour by the end of our session. Damn, I am good.

Alec: Nidhogg!

Gang Beasts

Graham: It’s still in early access, but Gang Beasts is already a giddy delight. Its characters are wibbly, physics-animated jelly babies and its fights are similarly toddler-like melees that clumsily mix punches, kicks and grapples. This turns out to be the perfect thing for a group of friends to play while drunk, everyone screaming at their own demise as they’re fed into a woodchipper, or cheering on their friends as they cling for life on the side of a high-rise building the roof of a moving truck, or the carriages on a spinning ferris wheel.

Pip Graham, how do I stop getting thrown in the cruncher?

Adam: By throwing everyone else in the cruncher, Pip.

Gang Beasts is my favourite multiplayer game of the year and yet I didn’t even consider putting it forward as one of our Top Bestest Best Favourites. That’s because it isn’t finished and I want to see what happens next before putting on the cap of judgement.

TowerFall Ascension

Graham: If Nidhogg was the respected but aging elder statesmen, and Gang Beasts was the young newcomer full of boundless energy but still a little too rough for primetime, then TowerFall Ascension was the perfect middle in the revival of local multiplayer games. It’s a single-screen platformer in which your only weapon is a bow and you start with just three arrows. In competitive multiplayer, the result is a tight, tense and tactical game where you try to tease out your opponent, trick them with some deft use of screen wrap, and attempt to catch their arrows in mid-air in order to render them benign. In co-op – a new mode, along with the campaign, which were added for the PC release – that means carefully re-collecting your fired as you learn enemy patterns and trying desperately not to kill your friend by accident. Or for a joke. If I was to recommend you sit on a couch with a friend this year, this would be why.

Adam: Oh, bollocks. Maybe this was my favourite multiplayer game of the year rather than Gang Beasts? Yes, I rather think it was. And it has a half-decent single player mode to go with the GRRRRRR local multiplayer.

I love local multiplayer, even though I was growling just then. It’s just very hard for me to make people sit down and play games on my computer because as soon as I’m in a room with more than three people I start dancing with them. Or AT them.

Invisible Inc

Adam: Klei have become one of the most interesting developers in the whole wide world and Invisible Inc is a fine example of their craft. It fits in with many of the year’s trends and manages to feel head and shoulders above many similar games simply by virtue of its quality rather than any one feature. It has perma-death, randomised levels and isometric turn-based tactics. It even has a great big globe as a mission selection screen. But is it an infiltration and espionage take on X-COM? Not really. It’s a punishingly difficult and incredibly rewarding piece of tricksiness that feels like cutting the wires to disable a particularly complicated bomb.

I love it.

Alec: This is the one that I’m most :( didn’t make it into The List of Lists. Invisible Inc delighted me, and was very much a lifebuoy at a time when I felt adrift in a sea of too many games that I wasn’t quite clicking with. It was a dark moment, to realise that the great dream of loads of X-COM inspired games had come true, but most of them weren’t really hitting the spot. Invisible Inc did, and it did so because it very quickly runs off in its own, distinctive direction – the turn-based strategy element is just part of a tapestry rather than overwhelming everything.

Realistically it’s too early to lionise Klei’s game fully, but at the same time it’s one of the better approaches to Early Access that I’ve played. It absolutely nails its key concept – turn-based stealth – and has bags of character too. I can’t wait to revisit a more bounteous version of Invisible Inc a few more months of dev time down the line.

Thief

John: A big part of doing our job well is to start any game with expectations put aside, to let the game be the game. That was especially tough with Thief, a game trying to follow on from what I will boldly call the best trilogy of games ever made. It was especially especially tough since the marketing for the game was bloody terrible, and it all looked like it was going to be a massive disaster. It was rather good.

It was so good, in fact, that I’m pretty disappointed that isn’t being better recognised. It made some enormous mistakes, not least the monstrous decision to use a default “action” button for most movement, rather than letting you feel free to jump at will. The script was also a massive stinkpile of awful, replete with series-irrelevant swears. But once that was swallowed down, the result was a surprisingly satisfying jaunt. Despite its clear flaws, I had lots of fun playing it, and most of all, once more encountered that shadow-crawling stealth-doing fun that had me dodging street lights in real life. It’s hard to knock it too hard when it achieved that.

The Banner Saga

Adam: The Banner Saga didn’t quite hang together for me. There’s so much about this most beautiful of games that I love, but the disconnect between the management of my travelling band of refugees and the repetitive turn-based combat frustrated me just a little too much. I’m looking forward to the sequel, hoping for improvements but also accepting that I’ll play it for the story and another peek into the marvellous melancholy world, even if the combat and trekking are more of the same.

Alec: Prettiest of the pretty things, but it’s not prettiness for superficiality’s sake. The Banner Saga’s crisp, Rotoscope-like art and the titanic scale it’s depicted at absolutely created a world, replete with bone-chilling temperature drops and the infinite sense of weariness of a people trudging onwards without the certainty of reprieve. Like Adam, I felt something was lacking in the combat, but on the other hand I’m aware that The Banner Saga ended up being a game I crammed into gaps in my gaming life rather than something I made my focus for a week or two. In another, better world I’d like to go steady Stoic’s game at the exclusion of all else and see how a deadly Winter trudge feels then.

I must say though, The Banner Saga’s look/feel/tone is exceptionally memorable. I don’t think there’s much else on our bestest or leftover lists which I can be instantly transported to – and feel similarly affected by – if I close my eyes and conjure its name in my brain.

Watch_Dogs

Graham: I hated the singleplayer something fierce, but Watch_Dogs multiplayer was the first time I got to experience the Dark Souls-style ‘invasion’ of other players. I went back to it again and again, particularly the mode that requires you to steal data from an opposing player by appearing in their singleplayer game, tailing them around, and selecting the correct moment to initiate a hack. Once started, as the hacker, you need to remain within the vicinity while the other player tries to find you. This is tense and exciting for both parties, but as the hacker, it also puts you in the unusual situation of trying to act like an NPC, since there’s almost never an opportunity to simply hide behind a low wall. Instead you’ll be running from gun fire, idling on street corners, and trying not to perform any animation that the computer can’t. Strong stuff, and I hope it returns in inevitable sequels.

Join us later today for the second part of this delicious feast.

41 Comments

  1. tobecooper says:

    The Banner Saga did hang together for me – I really enjoyed the combat, and tried to roleplay the management part. I got absolutely engrossed in the world of the game.

    But I know it didn’t work so well for everyone. It definitely has flaws. So, hopefully, in the sequel, they manage to vary the battle scenarios a bit more, and make managing non-combatants more meaningful. I wouldn’t mind that.

    Anyway, The Talon Principle skyrocketed to the top of my wishlist, and I’m looking forward to more tasty leftovers.

    • eggy toast says:

      The first time I played Banner Saga was right when it left Early Access. I played it like an Xcom type game, trying to do my best in combat and make the right strategic decisions. I didn’t really like it, I felt like I was constantly screwing up, I made it about an hour in.

      The second time I played Banner Saga, I read a comparison between it an Oregon Trail, so I played it that way and really enjoyed it. Wound up doing the whole story in two sittings in one day, quite enjoyed it. So my advice is to play it more as a story game with grid combat than as a tactics game with good art, I guess.

      • eggy toast says:

        I’m aware that The Banner Saga ended up being a game I crammed into gaps in my gaming life rather than something I made my focus for a week or two. In another, better world I’d like to go steady Stoic’s game at the exclusion of all else and see how a deadly Winter trudge feels then.

        Worth noting that the story is 11-12 hours long, personally I would definitely recommend fewer sittings as opposed to 30m at a time or something. It’s a story about survival and terror and uncertainty, and it really benefits from the player/audience staying put and absorbing that.

        • Thurgret says:

          It took me a single run of five and a half hours to complete it. How did you manage eleven? Are there parts of the game that it’s possible to inadvertently skip?

          • draglikepull says:

            My run through took about 12 hours too. No idea how you’d do it in half that. Maybe there’s more stuff that you can skip than I realised.

    • Steve Catens says:

      Whatever else The Banner Saga did/didn’t do successfully, it established a persistent mood, invested you in some interesting characters, and made you feel involved in a story. Those are rare achievements in video games, and in my opinion, it’s one of the best RPGs of the year on that basis alone. We love games for what they deliver, not for lacking weakness.

      I just wish that this game had benefited from a Dragon Age sized budget. We’d be talking about it for decade if that were the case. No other game has more clearly illustrated triple A ambition straining against a Kickstarter budget.

      • LexW1 says:

        I felt like it was a good thing Banner Saga didn’t have an AAA-level of budget, myself. As you, say, it had AAA levels of ambition, and a tight atmosphere, but I felt like the devs were, at times, being self-indulgent in it’s design in a way that just wouldn’t work in an AAA game, that would have come across less as bold and atmospheric and more as unpleasant (it’s hard to find the right word, precisely) with a really big budget (which I presume would include a 20 or 30 or more hour play-time). The design where some situations have fairly obvious-seeming solutions, which you’re simply not allowed to take, and where it’s fairly easy to get yourself into a situation where you’re in a death spiral just wouldn’t have worked. I know that when DA2 did the same thing on a smaller scale with decisions (really only 2-3 incidents in the whole game), it got a lot of pushback, even from people who otherwise liked the game. Dozens of decisions like that? Ugh.

        So I suspect that we might be talking about in a decade if it had that budget, but much less positively than we would be when it was low-budget and short.

  2. eggy toast says:

    Invisible Inc is definitely outstanding. Klei seem to knock it out of the park every time, with Invis Inc I have 50 hours already and I haven’t even played the most recent update. To me it’s the “Entered and still in Early Access game of 2014” hands down.

  3. caff says:

    Agreed on Watch Dogs 1 vs 1. Thanks to Graham, I didn’t uninstall the game after completing the dull single player storyline. The formula worked well and was the first time I’ve experienced tense cat-and-mouse since the early days of counterstrike defuse 1-on-1.

    • Crafter says:

      oh yes !
      I did a double take upon seeing Watch Dog mentioned, this ultra boring GTA clone with enormous game design issues and the worst storyline I can think of.
      But now that I think about it the multiplayer is indeed brilliant.

      I don’t care in the slightest if there isn’t a Watch Dog sequel but I really wish to see this DS invasion mechanic in way more games.

  4. Serenegoose says:

    Have you considered running your yearly That’s What I call Horace awards from October to October, with the results in december as they usually are? That way things released in that short window at the end of the year go into the new years rulings where they won’t be as spurned.

  5. Darth Gangrel says:

    Since I only play games for the singleplayer and am certainly not interested in the Dark Souls-style invasions, Watch_Dogs hasn’t been on my Watch_List. Even before I read RPS WIT, I got the feeling it wasn’t for me. Heh, Ubisoft does it again, making me not want to play their games, as if their Uplay requirement wasn’t enough to deter me. Well, as there were so many games this year that could have turned out really mediocre and dull, but which somehow didnt, I don’t regret that a game like Watch(underscore)Dogs disappointed me.

    Shadow of Mordor and Alien: Isolation could have been like most other recent games in their respective franchises, but fulfilled their potential and got praise from both RPS and others. Wasteland 2 and Divinity: Original Sin showed that kickstarter campaigns actually *can* produce some worthwhile games. I really liked the first Divinity game and Divinity: Original Sin seems like a masterpiece, to think that kickstarter made something like that possible. Wasteland 2 also seems very good and perhaps it’ll be featured in part 2 of this Leftovers article.

    In the Not Great But Probably Enjoyable category there are games like Lords of the Fallen and Styx: Master of Shadows. Both seem flawed and might not have any lasting appeal, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth playing and in a few years when the price is right and my backlog is (hopefully) thinner I’ll get them.

  6. Laurentius says:

    I became a fan of The Banner Saga combat once i realized that it is pretty rare system in turn based combat games because for the most part it takes away random generator system: to hit chance and damage number, it’s not X-COM style. It plays more like chess with varation, you can plan turns ahead with knowing who will hit who and for exact damage.

    Also no love for Faster Then Light :Adanced Edition ?

  7. Horg says:

    OTOH, Thiefourf was dreadful. Continuing to praise it is akin to saying ”the Phantom Menace was a great film if you ignore Jar Jar, the sterile plot, unnecessary retcons, reliance on CGI, deadpan acting, midiclorians, and the expectations set by the 3 previous installments.” I will not and cannot pretend those things never happened, and will not do so for Thief. It, along with Heroes 6, is one of the few games I genuinely regret buying.

    It isn’t getting any recognition, because after an initial positive review rush (I can only assume people were hoping it wouldn’t suck), nothing in the game captured peoples imaginations. The level design was poor throughout, mostly linear and drab. The open world was more restrictive then it initially appeared to be and offered little of interest anyway. All of the characters suffered from poorly written dialogue and bland or setting inappropriate visual design (take Erin for example, someone got the wrong end of the stick with the gothic influence). The plot was shit and no one should pretend it didn’t exist. The game controlled fairly poorly to the point that I never felt fully in control of Garrett, contextual actions being another negative that no one should feel compelled to ignore. About all Thief had going for it was a nice looking graphics engine, a positive point which was marred by the game being poorly optimised. You need more than the thinnest veneer of atmosphere and some pretty graphics to see a game getting praised long after release, and streetlamp dodging real world antics aren’t really going to help the case.

    • Legion23 says:

      I agree, Thief shouldn´t be defended and should be forgotten like the Syndicate FPS. Personally I´d like to add that the “no jumping, hit action key” alone was enough to kill the game for me even if the rest would have just been brilliant.

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        Henke says:

        Heh. I liked both Thief and the Syndicate FPS enough to play through both of em twice. I’m the wooooooorst! >:D

    • WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

      I agree entirely, I hayed nuThief passionately, and the Star Wars comparison is an incredibly apposite one (mostly because Jedi was considered by far the weakest of the three before TPM ruined everything forever).

      One of the least enjoyable games I have ever played, even putting aside the memories of the originals. Poor story, poor world design, poor stealth mechanics, badly optimised. Literally no redeeming features. Dishonoured and DXHR are much better ‘modern’ stealth games, play them instead.

      • welverin says:

        It is not at all, it’s a horrible comparison. If you take all of those things away from a movie you are left with nothing, you take them away from a game, and you still have the gameplay.

        • WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

          The gameplay was also shit, thus leaving you with nothing once again.

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      John Walker says:

      I had a thoroughly good time playing Thief, hence my writing how much I liked it, despite its abundant flaws.

      Oddly enough, reviews aren’t written on RPS based on an expectation of anything. We play the game, then write what we think about it. That we often do this before a game is released means we’re far LESS likely to be influenced by expectation or developed narratives of opinion. Never mind that – AS I WROTE ABOVE! – the expectation from previews and marketing was that it was going to be dreadful.

    • Dave L. says:

      Thief:John Walker::Bioshock:Kieron Gillen, seems like. John seems to be the only member of the hive mind who can muster a defense for it (and “just about every single aspect of the game is bloody awful but I had enough fun with it that it put me in the same mindset outside the game as the originals did” really isn’t the kind of defense that should warrant it a place on the Almost the Best Games of the Year list, imo.) with the addition that most other places weren’t terribly keen on it either.

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        John Walker says:

        I apologise for my transgression of your rules.

        • Josh W says:

          John you’re very defensive when you defend your opinions!

          I found the game pretty rubbish too, although I controller swapped rather than playing it intensively.

    • mikmanner says:

      Thief 4 was a much, much better sneaking game than episode 1 was a Sci fi film.

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      basilisk says:

      I wouldn’t call it dreadful. There was the embryo of a good game somewhere in it, but it was extremely obvious that the whole thing was hastily patched together from the material of many scrapped iterations, which is why literally nothing in it, from story to level design to mechanics, has any consistency to it. There are some great bits and some terrible bits thrown haphazardly together. A victim of protracted and unfocused development, I’d wager.

      • welverin says:

        Pretty much how I feel, except I fall on John’s side of things and liked it in spite of its flaws. It felt like they figured things out too late to turn it into a good game, as opposed to the latest Tomb Raider where you can see a bit of the same fumbling about, but where they figured it out earlier enough to make a real difference.

        Of course with that one, it comes from watching/reading some of the making of stuff to see some of the other directions they went.

  8. Eight Rooks says:

    Yes, it certainly is good that The Talos Principle was RockPaperShotgun’s Game of the Year. Also, why do people keep implying The Matrix had two sequels?

    (I’d quite like to play Endless Legend, it seems like a good pick and The Talos Principle certainly isn’t perfect, but… yeah. Definitely should have come out earlier in the year.)

    It’s great to see Thi4f recognised, honestly – thank you for that – but man, going back to John’s WiT the praise for The City seems like the ravings of a crazy man on a street corner. It really is a good game that didn’t deserve all of the hate it got, but as other, smarter people than me have pointed out (EDIT: as well as the inevitable angry people in these comments :P ), while it looks good at a distance the level designs are frequently dreadful. They make no sense, either aesthetically, practically or regarding the way they lead you through the environment – I would frequently turn around and find I’d forgotten what I’d been doing not ten seconds beforehand because the mishmash of the same doors, the same furniture, the same blocked-off pathways everywhere was just so bland and nonsensical it was impossible to hold an image of the way through it in my head. It’s one reason I still haven’t finished the damn thing, because a significant portion of the twenty-some hours I’ve spent on it so far have been spent turning round and round on the spot trying to work out where the hell I am. The flaws in the story (oh no, he did a swear!) pale in comparison, and AC: Unity’s Paris just demolishes it in terms of visuals, layout, potential for exploration, sense of freedom, everything.

    • Geebs says:

      The Talos principle is a better puzzle game than Portal (not necessarily a better game overall, but close). I realised this when I figured out how to get the star on top of the needle in the second world; then even more new and awesome stuff happened. Definitely one of my games of the year.

      Also, thifourthf was pretty decent if you ignored the plot. I had sneaksie fun.

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      John Walker says:

      I’m pretty sure that my review states that the city has no character and is painfully repetitive. But ho-hum.

  9. mikmanner says:

    I still can’t make my mind up about Thief, while I agree mechanically with the UI turned off, it was pretty strong and the level designs were enjoyable. I don’t think I could ever swallow the script and lack of creativity, there is so much to pull from previous entries, the intimidating Hammerites, mysterious Keepers, freakish pagans etc – so walking through environments which clearly were part of this history but never referenced and full of mundane, humorless guards was too big a disappointment for me to fully enjoy the game. I wish it wasn’t a Thief game.

  10. Eight Rooks says:

    Oh, and if you’re after a much, much longer analysis of Thi4f’s many, many mechanical and design flaws, Sneaky Bastards’ series of articles on the game might be worth reading, if there’s anyone who missed it.

    (EDIT: The BB code or whatever isn’t working – spam guard, maybe – so it’s sneakybastards.net/stealthreview/thief-design-analysis-contents/ )

    • jezcentral says:

      +1 for the Sneaky Bastards articles. (Also, they have a Steam Curators list, which I think is a good use of these lists. Specific topics are better than generic collections of games. Let’s face it, the most popular ones are pretty similar, give or take a few games.)

    • WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

      Funny that, I was just about to suggest in my previous comment that a Mr Plinkett style critique would be in order for nuThief, and that is roughly what you now give me! Cheers!

      • Eight Rooks says:

        Oh, I don’t completely agree with everything SB say, but there’s a lot of good stuff in there and it’s helpful to have it pointed out so diligently. I really do appreciate John standing up for the game, but I also completely understand why people hated it, and it wasn’t just misplaced nostalgia. Thi4f wasn’t a disaster, but for all its good points it was still a misguided, wobbling mess, like a drunk staggering home from the bar and loudly proclaiming how awesome he is to all and sundry, totally unaware what he actually looks like. “But there were tons of corridors!!!11! And things to steal!11!!!!1!” isn’t exactly the best defence someone could have mounted.

        EDIT: Also, “the marketing for the game was bloody terrible”? I thought What’s Yours Is Mine was one of the best slogans for any game I’d seen all year.

        • Geebs says:

          Given the millions of hairbrushes and bottles, the line should have been “What’s Yours Is Worthless, Oh Well, Guess I’ll Take It Anyway”

  11. FriendlyFire says:

    I still argue that end of year lists should count games from December of the previous year to November of the current year. I know there’s always a significant bias towards more recent games (a lot of releases in January seem to be forgotten in end of year lists), but as it is December releases don’t get enough play time to get into the lists at all, and then they can’t be included in the next year’s list.

  12. AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

    The Talos Principle’s inclusion makes me want to bring it up again that RPS should consider December to be part of the next year, so games that came out on December can have time to be properly honoured.

  13. horsemedic says:

    I wanted to like Thi4f. I really did. But a single unit, one chap, walks exactly the same patrol route down to the microsecond, forever, while you safely memorize it from behind a bag of potatoes three feet away?

    WHAT?

    That encapsulates RTS gaming for me better than any other examples I can think of.