Best of the Rest: Earnest's picks of 2014

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Best of the Rest: Earnest's picks of 2014
ATTENTION: The year 2014 has concluded its temporal self-destruct sequence. If you are among the escapees, please join us in salvaging and preserving the best games from the irradiated chrono-debris.

Forza Horizon 2

Don't let the checkered flags and supercars speeding from point to point fool you, Forza Horizon 2 is not a racing game. It's a driving game; a game that's equally entertaining whether you're speeding from point A to point B in a pack of supercars, or languidly navigating a scenic highway on the Italian coast.

Say what you will about the game's less-than-realistic physics modeling (the polite term is "arcade-style"), but developer Playground Games absolutely understands what makes cars cool. Driving endless laps around a tarmac track might work for NASCAR, but vehicular works of art like the Lamborghini Aventador need equally picturesque surroundings. Southern Europe works nicely, but the impressive bit is that Playground Games managed to capture all the aesthetic highlights of the region in a relatively small space tuned explicitly for racing.

It's a good thing the setting works so well, because once you've arrived it's hard to leave. Not just because the driving mechanics feel so right, and not because the game's leveling system is fiendishly moreish, but because the virtual world is stocked with a truly vast number of races and events. 120 levels in, I've seen maybe 20 percent of what the game has on tap. At this rate, Forza Horizon 2 isn't just one of the best games I played in 2014, it's probably going to be one of the best games I play in 2015 too.

Diablo 3 Ultimate Evil Edition

When Blizzard announced a console version of Diablo 3, I scoffed. At the time, I'd put over 200 hours into the PC game and refused to believe the gothic loot hunt could work as well without a keyboard and the constant click of a mouse.

Having now put over 200 hours in the console game, I stand totally corrected. Not only does Diablo 3 Ultimate Evil Edition work as well on consoles as it does on its native PC platform, I actually prefer it. At least on the PlayStation 4, the graphics are fantastic, the framerate is rock-solid and the game's controls feel surprisingly natural and intuitive on a gamepad. And that's to say nothing of the comfortable demon slaying experience provided by a soft living room couch and sizable HDTV.

The highest praise I can pay Diablo 3 Ultimate Evil Edition is that it's the game I repeatedly find myself coming back to when other games get boring. The cathartic flow of the game's elegantly simple combat system is a great mental chaser and stress reliever. Granted, the story's not great, but it's hard to care when you're too busy marveling at all the new loot you just found.

Pokémon Omega Ruby and Pokémon Alpha Sapphire

Yes, it's more of the same Pokémon role-playing fluff. The story is a reheated leftover from the GameBoy Advance era and there are no really major advances in gameplay. That said, Pokémon Omega Ruby and Pokémon Alpha Sapphire are the most thoroughly polished Pokémon entries to date, providing both a perfect jumping on point for neophytes and the richest, most engrossing adventure to date for fans.

It's the little touches that elevate Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire above mere rehashes. From catching Pokémon to setting up trades online to navigating the world map, every action has been tweaked to make the game that much more comfortable and intuitive to play. The core concept of Pokémon - that of traveling the wilds and catching amazing creatures - remains as inescapable as ever, but never before has it been presented this well. Developer Game Freak even went so far as to vastly flesh out the post-game content, silencing one of the few legitimate complaints fans could level at Pokémon X and Y, and demonstrating that the studio either has a keen understanding of what makes it's games fun, or that it has the wisdom to listen to the people who know Pokémon best, the fans.

The Walking Dead: Season Two [Season 1 spoiler ahead]

After Telltale knocked it out of the park with the first season of its adventure game adaptation of The Walking Dead, I saw little hope that the studio could do the same a second time. Not only was the first season uncannily good - and not just "video game good" either, it's better than the hit AMC TV series - but it ended with the death of the main character. Where do you go from there?

The answer, as fans well know, is Clementine. She provided the emotional heart of the first season, but in the second she's more grown up. Having lived without Lee's protection has hardened Clementine a bit, but this is where the second season thrives. Clementine's story is one of survival in a world populated by horrific zombies and even more horrific people, but, more specifically, it's the story of a young girl whose inherent, kind naiveté is being gradually stripped away by her hellish surroundings. I think it's the grim novelty of the story that gets me most: Few games manage to convey a gripping character arc, but even fewer have the chutzpah (not to mention talented enough writers) to push the protagonist - a young girl, no less - down an existentially depressing path that feels satisfying despite its despondency. I can't say that The Walking Dead: Season Two is better than its predecessor, but it does handily demonstrate why Telltale is currently making the best story-driven games in the business.

Wolfenstein: The New Order

When I hear the word "Wolfenstein," I get a distinct mental image: A pixelated, first-person view of a spinning chaingun barrel spitting a torrent of lead into the angry face of a mechanized Adolf Hitler. This is not a series from which I demand historical accuracy or even a solid understanding of physics. Wolfenstein is the 1980s action movie of video games, and Wolfenstein: The New Order is the rare modern remake that manages to hit all the right notes.

I won't pretend that Wolfenstein: The New Order is anything but a corridor shooter with the same cinematic elements that have riddled the genre since Half-Life popularized the gimmick in 1998. It's exactly that, but the game strikes a perfect tone for the story it's trying to convey. Wolfenstein: The New Order drops players into the boots of BJ Blazkowicz, but they're actually playing as the righteous embodiment of justice, forged by alternate history shenanigans to destroy the futuristic Nazi war machine - and that's how the gameplay feels much of the time. Whether BJ is fighting Nazis on the moon or firing his shotgun (which sounds like a volcano) into the maw of a giant iron dog, Wolfenstein: The New Order feels and sounds like you're, not in a war, but in a pretty convincing war movie. That's exactly what I want from my escapism.
[Images: Microsoft, Blizzard, Telltale Games, Bethesda, The Pokémon Company]

Joystiq is highlighting its 10 favorite games of 2014 throughout the week. Keep reading for every writer's personal picks in Best of the Rest roundups.
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