Tuesday, December 9, 2014

2014 - A Good (not Great) Year to be a PC Gamer

2014 is coming to a close so that means every gaming site worth their salt is publishing ‘year in review’ feature pieces and picking a ‘game of the year’. While sometimes the process of picking the defining title from the past 12 months is little more than a formality, this year I’m finding the task more difficult than usual. I think this is likely due to many good but few great games being released. A lot of titles were solid eight out of tens representing achievement within their genre but few transcended to be unequivocal must-own titles. While I intend to give my breakdown of the best overall games of 2014 next week, I figured I would whet the appetite by exploring my favourite PC exclusives.

Broken Age
As one who fondly remembers the heyday of the early 1990's Lucasarts graphic adventures, I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into a new title from one of the industries all-time greats. The puzzles weren't head breaking, but the script proved Tim Schaefer hadn't lost a step when it came to crafting esoteric settings and genuinely funny moments. We're all waiting for the conclusion which has, unfortunately, been pushed to early next year but perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Broken Age is that it hasn't exactly burned up the sales charts (despite a massively successful Kickstarter campaign) which may deter a resurgence in the genre.  

Civilization: Beyond Earth
Civilization remains the domain of the PC. Sure the format has been tried on consoles but it just never seems to translate well. Maybe the mouse/keyboard can't be beat when micro-managing an empire or maybe the PC breeds a different kind of gamer. Whatever the reason, the latest entry into the venerable series harkens back to the days of Alpha Centauri and explores a future where humanity has taken to the stars. The ethical implications of 'purifying' the indigenous lifeforms are front and center here and the game is definitely more than a well crafted mod for Civilization 5. That said, the hex-based combat is still cumbersome and the thin victory conditions heavily favour a domination strategy. I can't shake the feeling that Beyond Earth is one solid expansion away from realizing its full potential.

Divinity: Original Sin
Most RPG talk this year will revolve around Dragon Age: Inquisition but that shouldn't detract from Larian Studio's superlative take on the genre. Bringing back the difficulty curve where even trivial fights require planning and eschewing hand-holding tutorials, I can see how players not accustomed to traditional isometrics like Baldur's Gate may be taken aback. I implore these gamers to slog through the initial learning to uncover joys of mastering complex mechanics and the thrill of using them to overcome seemingly insurmountable fights. The story isn't too bad either even if it occasionally dips into the bag of fantasy tropes.

Okay, a bit of a cheat here as Hearthstone is slated for launch on a bunch of mobile formats as well, but it’s my blog and I'm calling it a PC exclusive for the purposes of my year-end review. Digital card games have been massively popular this year and have expanded well beyond the mediocre Magic: The Gathering titles we have seen in the past. Hearthstone exhibited its share of flaws through the handful of decks powered by a few woefully imbalanced cards at the championship tournament this year. But, for all the work that still needs to go into Hearthstone if it wants to truly become a competitive e-sport, it's impossible to deny just how easy the fundamentals are to grasp and the sheer fun factor to be had. Hearthstone is the rare game that works to span the gap between the hardcore and casual gaming crowd and with the second major expansion released this week, I think we'll be hearing a lot more about it in 2015.

Bringing refinements to the MMORPG format that focus on movement and spatial awareness instead of rotation memorization, it might be a bit early to write the obituary for WildStar but recent layoffs and the launch Warlords of Draenor spells a rocky 2015 for the often cocky development team. It's a shame because WildStar is, at least mechanically, the best MMO on the market and any player who has worked their way to the end game can testify that it's a blast (albeit with limited content). If it could have secured a large enough player base to keep servers full, with the most recent round of patches it would have been my runaway pick for PC game of the year.

Every one of the games I've mentioned is good but suffers a setback preventing it from being great. Broken Age is too easy, Civilization: Beyond Earth feels like it's missing major content, Divinity: Original Sin is unforgiving to novices, Hearthstone has balance problems, and WildStar doesn't have a sustained player base.  None of these complaints are sufficient to reserve my recommendation (and certainly I can say it's been a good year to be a PC gamer) but I have a hard time naming any as my choice for PC game of the year. If I have to choose, and I'm sure my readers say that I do, I pick Civilization: Beyond Earth.