With the amount of hype given to major releases, sometimes you know (or maybe just hope) that a new game is going to be good. But sometimes a new release takes a little longer to garner our attention. These aren’t necessarily the best games we played all year, but they are the ones that caught us off guard, for whatever reason.
So without further ado, here are Dork Shelf’s Most Surprising Games of 2014:
It seems so basic. You’ve got a golf ball, a desert, and a never-ending series of holes. You drag your finger to aim and let go to shoot. There’s no menu, no options, not even a way to reset your progress. But the mechanics don’t need dressing up. Hitting the ball feels just the way you think it should and as your stroke count climbs into the thousands you develop an intuitive and deeply satisfying mastery of the game.
Desert Golfing is all about shattering expectations. Seemingly impossible challenges have the most elegant solutions. Holes that look trivial become mind-bending physics nightmares. The appearance of a nondescript rock some 500 levels in actually inspires amazement. But what surprises me most of all is that a $1.99 iOS app delivered the most authentic and compelling golf experience I’ve ever encountered in a video game.
Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls
When Diablo 3 launched in 2012, it underwhelmed die-hard fans with a brain-dead storyline, uninteresting weapons and armour, and a real-money auction house that had more players bartering for the best items instead of actually playing the game. It was like going out for Halloween and ending up with nothing but plain Hershey’s chocolate bars. Not terrible, but not quite what you’re looking for.
The 2014 expansion Reaper of Souls was like swapping out the Hershey’s with tins of Quality Street. You can enchant your weapons to get the right stats for your character’s build. You can change their appearance so that they don’t look like a fatal accident from the Willy Wonka factory. A slew of new Legendary items changed the way you played and surprised you every time they dropped.
The new act also includes some of the most gorgeous locations and set designs in the entire game. I’ve easily sunk more than 200 hours into Diablo 3 since it received a new breath of new life, one that just so happens to have a new Angel of Death.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor
After the previous run of halfhearted Lord of the Rings games, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor was barely a blip on my radar while it was in development. I had heard vague rumors about something called the Nemesis System, but it was couched in what I assumed would be just another bland Tolkien game so I paid little attention.
When every day one reviewer seemed to have a unique story about struggling against their own personalized mob of orc captains I decided I had to try it for myself. Soon I was devouring the game like an addict. I’m already imagining what other developers will do when they expand on Mordor‘s dynamic storytelling (as BioShock creator Ken Levine recently discussed), making Shadow of Mordor as surprising for its impact as its excellence.
Infamous: Second Son
I held off on Infamous: Second Son until a few months after release. I had enjoyed previous Infamous games, but I always lost interest and never finished them. With Second Son I finally felt that the story was compelling enough to continue and the game mechanics had been fully fleshed out. The powers in Second Son (smoke, neon, video, and rock) were all incredibly fun to use and in under two weeks I had completed every story and side mission in the game.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes
I came to Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes with considerable trepidation thanks to its overly negative advanced press. When I played the main campaign in a single sitting with my brother, however, I was left with the kind of dumbfounded amazement that Solid Snake would only be able to express by vocalizing an ellipsis.
It turns out that nearly every complaint leveled against Ground Zeroes on its release (and there were a ton of complaints) ended up being a reason for me to love it, a two-hour Metal Gear game comprised entirely of sneaking with refined controls, an open map, an insane amount of tension, and no codec calls to interrupt the gameplay. It’s something I didn’t know I wanted, but boy-oh-boy did I actually want it badly.
Ground Zeroes also surprised me in a negative way, with an ending that contained an unprecedented and absurd level of brutality against women in MGS. But in the end, Ground Zeroes is the most fun game with the most problematic ending I played in 2014, which is itself a major surprise considering it was supposedly just a glorified and insignificant demo.
Wolfenstein: The New Order
Wolfenstein: The New Order wasn’t the best game in its genre this year, nor was it the most technically sound or beautifully rendered. But it might be the most lovingly crafted. The cut scenes are nicely done and the story manages to humanize BJ Blazkowicz, a character often depicted as a square-jawed Nazi-killing Terminator. One tense scene aboard a train showed a vulnerability and fear never expressed in a Wolfenstein game before, and the fact that the developers managed to make me care about its main character is already a huge surprise.
Aside from a few missteps in gameplay (like the need to press a button to pick up ammo and health), Woflenstein: The New Order is action packed – a throwback to a simpler time in FPS gaming – and the biggest surprise of the year.
South Park: The Stick of Truth
South Park was one of the cornerstones of my media diet when I was in high school, but it’s been five or six years since I regularly checked in with the show. The Stick of Truth was an unexpected reminder that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are still a lot funnier – and far, far more daring – than nearly everyone else in entertainment.
What was truly surprising was how well The Stick of Truth adapted the show’s comedic sensibilities to an interactive format. The game took advantage of the medium to poke fun at RPG conventions and in the process displayed an astonishing grasp of the mechanics that make the genre fun. The result was better designed than many of the targets it was mocking. The Stick of Truth is a tight RPG with straightforward, intuitive systems and a concise structure that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
It also helps that the game is flat out hilarious, delivering several moments that are so shocking and extreme that they’re guaranteed to be memorable when so many other games are immediately forgettable. South Park: The Stick of Truth blended the best aspects of the show with the best aspects of gaming, upping the bar for a medium that has traditionally had a more conservative approach to humor.