2014 was a weird year for video games. Lotta ups, lotta downs, lotta what-have-yous. But while the year had its share of bummers and disappointments, it was not without some lovely surprises, too.
Last week, we chronicled the biggest disappointments of 2014. Today, like we do every year, we're offsetting that post's bitter sadness with a post celebrating the best surprises of the year. (here are 2012's best surprises, and here's 2013.)
I've assembled this list with input from our entire staff, and they're listed in no particular order. There'll be plenty more time to reflect on all the bad things that happened this year, but for now: Happiness! Beauty! Unexpected delight! Here we go.
Ever since the announcement of the Wii U, we've been wondering what it would look like when Nintendo got their feet under them and started to find their stride. Turns out, it looked a lot like their presence at this year's E3. Nintendo showed up cool and confident. They debuted a bunch of interesting new games, from the multiplayer shooting/painting game Splatoon to the tactical steampunk comic-book game Code Name S.T.E.A.M. Meanwhile, the Nintendo Treehouse maintained an enjoyable, ongoing stream throughout the show, with Smash Bros. tournaments and all kinds of fun interviews and fan events. We were glad to see all of it: When Nintendo steps up their game, everyone wins.
No one was expecting Hideo Kojima to team up with Guillermo Del Toro to make a new Silent Hill game called Silent Hills. Nor was anyone expecting that they'd announce it in a weird-ass playable trailer thing that would wind up being one of the more interesting video game phenomena of the year. I mean… come on, right? The whole thing sounds like some sort of outlandish joke one of us would make up a few drinks into a Kotaku meetup. "Yeah, like… now Kojima will announce he's teaming up with… like… Guillermo Del Toro… and they're making a Silent Hill game."
"Yeah, and it'll be called SILENT HILLS!" [everyone laughs]
Leaks happen. Sometimes people send them to Kotaku, and other times, they post them in forums around the Internet. In January (!), a NeoGAF poster going by ntkrnl shared a bunch of what he claimed were Microsoft's plans for the Xbox One in 2014 and beyond. The surprise here was that many of the things he reported—Sunset Overdrive and a remastered Halo 2 for fall, Halo 5 for 2015, Forza Horizon 2, a new Crackdown, a white Xbox One—turned out to be legit. (He was wrong about a disc-free Xbox One... or is that coming next year?)
Microsoft may have had a lot of their 2014 surprises spoiled by a leak, but that didn't stop them from having an outstanding year. Last fall, the Xbox One lagged behind the PS4, and not just in terms of sales. Over the next 12 months, Microsoft refocused their message and removed the bundled Kinect camera. The latter move allowed them to cut the console's price by $100. With a new, lower price, they slowly and steadily built their box into a formidable competitor, and thanks to a series of good software updates, a strong fall games lineup and some software screwups and delays from Sony, managed to oustell the PS4 for a spell. Competition is good for everyone, and it's nice to see Microsoft get back in the game.
Sometimes when a game is "in development" it's kind of… not really. Like, some people somewhere are talking about it? And maybe there are some design documents somewhere? But that's it. So when Square Enix announced that Final Fantasy Versus XIII had become Final Fantasy XV proper, we were excited, but wary. Thus, it warmed our jaded hearts this year to see actual footage of the game, which not only appears to be deep in development, but also looks pretty darn great.
When it comes to competitive gaming, people generally expect to see wins from the usual suspects: The best players, controlling the best characters, using the best gear. 2014 had some terrific surprises in this regard, as underdogs won a few notable competitions. No one was expecting Se Jun Park to whip out the relatively underpowered Pachirisu in the Pokémon World Championships, let alone win. And no one expected to see Meltdown's Olivier 'Luffy' Hay win EVO 2014's Ultra Street Fighter IV tournament playing as Rose while using a PS1 controller. Everyone loves an underdog, and we all had a lot to love in 2014.
Sure, Valve. Whatever. We totally believe that we'll be able to stream our Steam games to devices all around our house even if the game isn't installed. Wait… it works? It works kind of like… like some form of technological cyber-magic? Wow! We actually weren't expecting that at all.
If you booted up Destiny any time during the first month or so it was out, chances are you could visit this one cave in Russia and find a handful of high-level players standing out front, blindly shooting aliens for hours on end. While exploits (or, "exploits") like The Loot Cave have been around for years, there was still something special and unexpected about the one in Destiny. It was a distinct chance to finally get a leg up (or at least feel like we were getting a leg up) on a game that brazenly, coldly undermined our every attempt to feel rewarded. We were sad when Bungie closed the cave for business and while there have been other Loot Caves since then, it's never really been the same. RIP, Loot Cave. We'll never forget you.
"Okay, so it's Assassin's Creed with orcs, right?" That's pretty much what we thought Shadow of Mordor was going to be. Then we started hearing some whispers about the game's "nemesis system," and how it was this neat idea (short version: enemies all have names and distinct personalities, and if they kill you they become more powerful). We try not to count too many chickens until they've hatched, so we waited for the full game. Turns out, good news! The nemesis system is a fascinating, extremely enjoyable bit of game design that elevates a fairly standard sneak-and-stab-em-up to a new level. It's one of those brilliant new ideas that seems destined to be copied and iterated upon until it's as commonplace as "press Y to counter." Fine by us.
The King's Quest series holds a special place in the heart of many gamers, and so news that the series was being resurrected, along with the Sierra brand, made us all very happy. Sure, they could screw up the whole thing and ruin our fond memories of the series, but honestly... I mean, King's Quest: Mask of Eternity already happened, and we're all still here. This is probably a good thing.
Could anyone have predicted that one of the defining games of 2014 would be something like Flappy Bird? Doubtful. A game so brutally difficult that people either loved, hated, or hate-loved it. A controversial game, and one that Kotaku didn't handle all that well at first. Flappy Bird returned on Amazon's Kindle Fire, of all things, but it remains absent from other app stores. If you're lucky enough to still have Dong Nguyen's oddity installed on your iPhone (or if you've found a version to install on a different device), it's a good feeling, you know? Like you've preserved something worth preserving. There's a weird majesty to Flappy Bird, something beguiling about its stark difficulty. As Ian Bogost put it, "It is a game that is indifferent, like an iron gate rusted shut, like the ice that shuts down a city. It's not hard for the sake of your experience; it's just hard because that's the way it is." We wouldn't have it any other way.
It's not as though Blizzard needed to go and have their best year ever. But they went ahead and did so anyway. Not only did they continue to kick ass on their home turf with the PC releases of Hearthstone and the much-lauded Warlords of Draenor expansion for World of Warcraft, they brought Hearthstone to the iPad, where it immediately became one of the very best games for the system. Add to that the excellent console version of Diablo III, a port so good it often eclipses the original PC version of the game, as well as new Android and soon-to-follow iPhone versions of Hearthstone, and you've got Blizzard cranking home runs on consoles, mobile, and PC. All that, and they managed to effectively repurpose their cancelled "Titan" MMO into a peppy new competitive shooter called Overwatch, which looks like a great bit of fun. What a year for Blizzard.
After years of petitions, emails, and outright pleading from the press and fans alike, Sony and Konami finally announced that the beloved JRPG Suikoden II would be joining its predecessor in the PSN store. Thanks to the cruelty of fate and timing, I was the one to write up that news post, and not Jason, despite the fact that the announcement was the culmination of his life's work up to this point. Don't worry, Jason. I'll make it up to you by finally playing Suikoden II.
I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect with the new-gen versions of GTA V. Better graphics, maybe a couple new little features, but generally the same game. I remember pouring some coffee on the morning the first-person mode was announced, watching the video, and thinking, "Welp. Uh. This looks pretty... um, amazing." Cut to the new version's release: I tried the first-person mode out, and yep. It's pretty great, alright. In fact, it transforms the experience of playing a GTA game, and moves the series in an entirely new direction. We were expecting a higher-res GTA game, and what we got was a new identity for the series.
2013's The Last of Us was a lot of things: a tragedy, a coming-of-age journey, a grim tale of survival. But it most decidedly was not a love story. Imagine our surprise, then, when 2014's downloadable chapter Left Behind functioned not only as a bit of bonus backstory for Ellie, but also as an unusually touching tale of video-game romance. With a deft touch, writer Neil Druckmann used video-game mechanics—throw the brick, hide with the gun, win the fighting game—to illluminate the quiet corners of the relationship between Ellie and her friend Riley. That the romance itself was between two young women was welcome, too. Given the high quality of the original game, we were expecting Left Behind to be good. But we weren't expecting it to be quite this good, in quite this way.
Every year, we dream of the return of Grim Fandango. It's one of the great lost PC games, widely held to be one of the finest adventure games ever made, yet it has been bafflingly unavailable on modern machines. No longer. At Sony's E3 press conference this year, development studio Double Fine revealed that they've been working on a redone version of Grim, with updated graphics and controls, and that it's coming not just to PS4 and Vita, but also to PC, Mac and Linux. That means that a whole new generation of gamers is going to experience a bona fide classic for the first time, and the rest of us can join them. We can't wait to see Manny again.
The further we got from it, the more critical consensus around 2013's BioShock Infinite seemed to find focus and reform itself, as a variety of well-argued critiques pointed out a number of flaws in the ambitious, divisive game. Our expectations for the DLC expansion, which Irrational announced would let gamers play as Infinite co-star Elizabeth, weren't particularly high. The first episode was disappointing, a slight chunk of a game that bit off more than it could chew. So what a pleasant surprise that the second episode, in which we were finally allowed to play as Elizabeth, was a rousing success, and much more interesting than everything that had led up to it. It tied the Irrational BioShock games together and made Infinite a more satisfying enterprise in the process.
This fall told the tale of two Assassin's Creed games. One, a much-hyped, beautiful-looking, new-gen-only game set in Paris. The other, an underhyped, last-gen-only game set in North America. The first one, Assassin's Creed Unity, was a real bummer, and something of a low point for the series. The second one, Assassin's Creed Rogue, was an unexpected delight. It introduced radical twists to the series' formula, bringing in aspects of previous games' competitive multiplayer modes to give Rogue's solo players the experience of playing as a character who hunts—and is hunted by—assassins. Plus, they brought back sailing, but this time with enemies who will raid and board your boat. For whatever reason, Ubisoft decided to pretend like Rogue didn't exist. They shouldn't have.
2014 was a hell of a good year for PC gamers who grew up with the likes of Fallout, TIE Fighter, Ultima VII and Baldur's Gate. Thanks largely to a series of successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaigns, the CRPG had a banner year, with games like Divinity: Original Sin and Wasteland 2 actually getting a commercial release, and others like Torment: Tides of Numeria and Pillars of Eternity not far behind.
Meanwhile, we saw great progress on not one but two hardcore PC space sims: Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen. After a series of increasingly polished betas, Elite got a polished "1.0" release just last week. Meanwhile Star Citizen continues to sprawl in all sorts of neat-sounding directions, and while our inner skeptics may wonder how all of that stuff will fit into a single game, it's pretty cool that anyone's even trying. Add some fine PC strategy games like This War of Mine and Endless Legend, as well as a revitalized Counter-Strike GO settling into a groove as one of the most popular games on Steam, and the picture becomes clearer: 2014 was a standout year for the kinds of games that made the PC great to begin with.
Those were our favorite surprises, but we're sure you had your own. Let us know what your favorite surprises of the year were in the comments below, and if one of your favorite things was "Kotaku gets even better," well, thanks! We'll take it.