Last year saw some incredible games grace the screen, but there was a handful from years past that found new life in 2014. This is about those games.
Grand Theft Auto V (Xbox One/PS4) (actual release date: September 2013, Xbox360/PS3)
Grand Theft Auto V was the best game released in 2013 — there’s no getting around it. Rockstar Games built an incredible world filled with personality and detail, wove a compelling and engaging narrative into it, and continued to innovate and improve the gameplay and mechanics of the vehicle-stealing, gun-shooting, open-world sandbox mayhem of their flagship product. No surprise then that the new-gen update (released Nov. 18th, 2014) of this game continues to refine what is already the finest entry in the GTA series. For starters, the game is absolutely jaw-droppingly gorgeous — not to say that the last-gen release wasn’t; it was one of the best looking titles I ever played on the Xbox 360, especially considering how MUCH of it there was to look at. I could ramble on, but this video pretty much sums it all up:
It’s worth noting that in addition to making everything pretty, the new-gen release populates the world with a plethora of new flora and fauna that, while not game-changing (pardon the pun), really makes the world feel more fully realized: stray cats wander in alleyways; dandelions and weeds peek through sidewalk cracks in crummy neighborhoods; out in the wilderness flowers adorn the tips of grasses that sway in the breeze; the list could go on and on at great length about these subtle, beautiful additions, but I’ll leave it at this awesome example: the updated oceans (where maybe 1% of the game takes place) are now so well populated that someone actually made a fictional nature documentary built entirely with gameplay footage.
The biggest addition to the re-release of GTA V is the ability to play the game in first-person mode, which is a first for the series and, unlike the aesthetic tweaks, is absolutely game-changing. It is also, in a word, horrifying. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a really fantastic new way to enjoy a game that I already thoroughly enjoyed once, but it puts you a little too close to the action at times. While GTA has long been abhorred by anti-violence video game activists and held up as a shining example of everything wrong with gaming culture, its violence was, at least, a bit detached thanks to the series’s third-person perspective. The first-person perspective puts you right in the middle of the action; it can be very exciting in the middle of a heated gunfight, even helpful, but the ability to go into a bloodthirsty rampage (or pick up a prostitute… and then kill her – seriously, NSFW) when you can literally look into the eyes of your victims walks a line. I’m not going to go off on a tangent here — I’m not here to take a moral stance, and I’ve played and will continue to support video games with violent, even graphic, elements; however, some of the first-person possibilities in GTA V make me a little uncomfortable. Then again, I might just be getting old — though, for what it’s worth, killing civilians (just like picking up hookers) is entirely optional; there are no missions that require it, and there are no benefits for doing so. So there’s that. On a lighter note, I’ve nicknamed the first-person mode “Call of Dirty” because guns… and superviolence. Ha ha.
It’s also worth noting that beyond the gorgeous world, rich campaign, fun gameplay and variety of viewpoints, Grand Theft Auto V also comes with Grand Theft Auto Online, completely free. GTA Online drops up to thirty players into their own open-world San Andreas map where they can shoot each other, do missions, race, and — coming soon — perform intricate heists.
It’s a great way to burn a lot of hours (probably a lot more when Heists drops), and even more fun when you play with friends. And best of all, it’s free: free to play, free to download expansion DLC — all free. Rockstar may push the envelope, but they consistently do damn fine, genre-changing work and they’re among the (if not the) greatest company in regard to the way their treat their fans.
Sid Meier’s Civilization V: Brave New World (PC) (actual release date: September 2010)
Civilization 5 is a black hole — and I mean that in the nicest possible way. I’ve dumped more hours into this game than any other game that I’ve ever played in my entire life, bar none, hands down, no contest. My Steam account claims I’ve dropped over 700 hours into this monster and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight, especially since this year’s release of the Brave New World DLC (released July 9th, 2014) that turned a fantastic strategy game into the greatest strategy game of all time.
I’ll take a step back — here’s a quick primer for the uninitiated: the Civilization series takes gamers through roughly six thousand years of human development, from the advent of agriculture through the information age and beyond. The core game was a delightful romp through the great epochs of mankind, making players balance technological, cultural and military development, all while dealing with their neighboring civilizations and city-states in a long trek toward victory. The “Gods and Kings” DLC (released in June 2012) added espionage and religion to the mix while refining some of the original game’s features. In July 2014, the “Brave New World” DLC landed to universal acclaim, adding trade routes, retooling culture to include ideology, great works of art, archaeology and tourism — and, arguably most importantly, adding the World Congress into the mix (essentially the United Nations) which adds a much-needed layer of complexity to the late game.
As a series, Civilization is arguably as much a masterpiece for strategy fans as it is for history buffs. Civilization doesn’t just allow you to recreate history (through a handful of historical scenarios), but to create new history: to forge alternate timelines and tell new stories where, say, the Shoshone Nation builds the Great Library of Alexandria, wins the space race and eventually escapes Earth on a giant interplanetary ark, or where the Arabian Kingdom constructs a great fleet, controls the oceans, and strips the world of their ancient artifacts, establishing the most influential culture in the world — the possibilities are endless, and that’s not much of an overstatement given the great bounty of options available. Every game is a protracted endeavor (I tend to spend six to twelve hours per campaign on my games, though I’m not a stellar player by any measure) and each milestone or tribulation you encounter echoes through the remainder of your history; all of your choices matter, and each turn is another page in the historical narrative that you are creating. It’s an addicting experience to say the least, and is on track to be the hallmark of 4x strategy games for years to come.
Kerbal Space Program (PC) (actual release date: June 2011, alpha)
Kerbal Space Program is a realistic-physics-based spaceflight simulator that takes place in a roughly accurate, scale model of the solar system; it has has a rabidly loyal community of players, modders and aerospace professionals, it is likely the biggest winner of 2014 and is also one of my favorite stories of creative development.
Felipe Felanghe is a programmer who works for Squad, an interactive multimedia studio in Mexico City that builds installations to sell international products (Nissan, Samsung, etc) to the Mexican market, and despite his career he always wanted to make games. Much to his surprise, his bosses approved of his dream and Kerbal Space Program was built with Felanghe’s vision and Squad’s backing. Beginning as a simple sandbox alpha demo with a single moon, a handful of rocket parts and very little guidance, it was painfully difficult but the game took off (pun intended) and began spreading across the internet. Early versions of the game offered a simple premise: pay X amount for the game as it is now, and every future update will be free. For example, I paid something in the ballpark of $12.50 about three years ago on the Squad website, and now the game retails for $29.99 on Valve’s wildly popular Steam gaming service and is consistently a top seller on the site.
As previously mentioned, the modding community took a quick liking to the game, and began developing new parts, features and options. Squad, in their infinite wisdom, began incorporating features from those mods into their updates and the end result is a game with a distinct vision that has been carefully guided by the ingenuity and creativity of the fans to become an outright phenomenon.
A handful of KSP‘s fans work for a tiny, underfunded organization known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and those fans brought official endorsement and support to their favorite game. On April 1st of 2014 (no fooling), Squad and NASA announced that they had been working together on a special new mission pack, based on NASA’s next-generation mission to lasso and redirect an asteroid. The free DLC came with new parts, NASA logos, and populated the vast emptiness of KSP‘s space with the occasional asteroid. Gameplay-wise it was a minor update, but the endorsement of the greatest space program on Earth to a team of less than two dozen developers is a wonderful badge of honor for Squad to wear.
The addition of asteroids, while it may sound precarious, is very much the opposite; Kerbal Space Program is a large, LARGE game that revels in its scale. There’s a thrilling beauty to catapulting around Kerbin (the Earth of KSP) and screaming toward the Mun (moon), watching for minutes (unless you use the fast forward time-warp function) as the grey sphere grows larger and larger until its gravity grabs you; soon it fills the whole screen and, with a little finesse, you can land and victoriously plant a flag.
As 2014 drew to a close, KSP continued their epic year: a game that was once just a sandbox of parts and planetoids added a career mode that introduced science experiments that can be performed across the system to generate science points that unlock new parts (rather than having the whole lot at the start). In December, shortly after the Rosetta spacecraft landed on an asteroid for the first time in human history, the ESA lent their logo to the Kerbal Space Program while KSP took its own giant leap from alpha status to a full-fledged beta release. The beta release introduced a well fleshed-out career mode complete with random missions, science, money AND reputation to take into consideration when guiding your very own space program. In 2015 Squad promises a full release of a finished version of Kerbal Space Program, with new missions, more parts, refined physics, planetary mining, and (finally) female kerbonauts. 2014 was a banner year for Squad’s niche masterpiece, and 2015 is looking to be just as promising — the sky’s the limit for this game.