Game of the Year discussions are by their very nature massively subjective, although there often tends to be something of a consensus between both press and public over which games are supposedly the "best" in any given year.
This year, high-profile, high-scoring titles such as The Last of Us and BioShock Infinite are getting the most scrutiny and plaudits. Both were extremely well-received on their release, and both are finely-honed examples of their craft for sure -- though pick away at both of them and you'll expose plenty of flaws. Nothing's perfect, after all.
Some had alternative picks. Some heaped praise on the excellent Super Mario 3D World, for instance, while others chose titles as diverse as 3DS title The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, free-to-play PC game Path of Exile or "safe choice" Grand Theft Auto V; others still had more of an indie focus and specifically chose to honor some of the lesser-known, smaller-scale games out there.
There's one game that's been fairly consistently overlooked in all of these Game of the Year celebrations, though: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Despite the game's high quality and very positive reviews on its original release, it's received seemingly little consideration as a genuine contender for Game of the Year -- so let's rectify that, shall we?
A Realm Reborn is less about people pouting angstily at the camera and more about moogles, chocobos, Magitek armor and airships.
A Realm Reborn had everything stacked against it prior to release. For starters, seemingly pretty much everyone knew that the original incarnation of Final Fantasy XIV was somehow a "disaster" -- though interestingly, when probed, very few people can actually say why. Not only that, but the Final Fantasy brand is far from the shining beacon of consistent quality that it used to be: for every person like me who actually quite enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2, there's at least one who absolutely hated it and wishes that Toriyama would just move on from his Lightning obsession. Howling stinkers like atrocious mobile game Final Fantasy: All The Bravest certainly didn't help public perception that Square Enix was seemingly putting the brand through the wringer, either.
On top of all that, it was an MMO -- one of many genres that everyone seems to have decided is "dying," particularly in the subscription-based format that A Realm Reborn adopts. Dying or not, despite the astronomical (albeit slightly waning) popularity of Blizzard's World of Warcraft, MMOs are still seemingly considered to be something of a niche interest by both press and public: the domain of hardcore gamers who would rather spend eight hours at a time raiding extremely challenging dungeons and yelling at people who don't make use of a perfect DPS rotation than going outside, eating or sleeping. While this may have been true once, the fact is that modern MMOs have never been more accessible and friendly to more casual players than they are now -- and A Realm Reborn is no exception to this.
Given the odds against it in the run-up to release, then, it was both surprising and delightful to discover that A Realm Reborn not only corrected the mistakes of its previous incarnation -- not to mention the criticisms levelled at its MMO predecessor Final Fantasy XI -- but also made for a spectacularly good Final Fantasy to boot. For those who have been hungry for another game in the mold of the spectacularly good Final Fantasy XII, A Realm Reborn is that game. For those who wish modern Final Fantasy would be less about people pouting angstily at the camera and more about moogles, chocobos, Magitek armor and airships, A Realm Reborn is the game for you. For those who like the idea of multiplayer RPGs but feel the storytelling in games like World of Warcraft falls significantly short of what's on offer in single-player games, A Realm Reborn is… you get the idea by now, right?
I'm successfully using the game to gradually conquer my own chronic, social anxiety-induced fear of playing cooperative games with strangers.
What was even more surprising was that A Realm Reborn managed to be a good MMO as well as a good Final Fantasy. The questlines in the run up to the level cap teach you brilliantly how to play your chosen class most effectively; the ability to change classes at any time eliminates the need for a million "alts" to fit different situations; the dungeons and boss fights involve confrontations that are far more complex, technical and demanding than simple "tank and spank" battles; the endgame content is deep, meaningful and provides plenty of options for players to pursue once they hit the level cap -- even more so with the recent A Realm Awoken content patch; plus it looks, sounds and plays great with both keyboard and mouse or controller, with every class feeling very distinct to play from one another.
Since the game's launch in August, I've been playing it pretty consistently -- though admittedly not quite as much as some other people I know. I have, however, invested something in the region of 200 hours into my character, which has brought her to the level cap of one combat class (Black Mage) and one gathering class (Miner); acquired a selection of high-quality endgame equipment; finished the main story; battled through the new 24-player Crystal Tower dungeon; acquired the powerful Relic weapon for the Black Mage class; and battled Hydra more times than I care to count to help other people out trying to get their hands on their own Relic.
Not only that, but I've made some good friends in the Free Company (guild) I'm a member of, and am successfully using the game to gradually conquer my own chronic, social anxiety-induced fear of playing cooperative games with strangers. The Player Commendations I've racked up by being voted the player who "left the most positive impression" on my companions after completing a dungeon certainly suggest that I'm not doing an altogether bad job, either, which is always nice to know. Plus it's fun occasionally getting the opportunity to be "The One Who Knows How the Bosses Work in This Dungeon" as I improve my own knowledge and skills at the game. One day I might have the guts to try tanking; I've already taken some tentative steps into healing as an experiment.
The future looks very bright indeed for Eorzea. I have no qualms whatsoever in declaring A Realm Reborn my own personal Game of the Year.
I've actually been quite surprised at how I've stuck with Final Fantasy XIV. I've only ever reached the level cap in one other MMO -- Wrath of the Lich King-era World of Warcraft -- and never really got into endgame content, but I'm thoroughly enjoying what A Realm Reborn offers and, with the exception of a bit of a "dry spell" in the mid-40s -- now somewhat corrected by the addition of daily, repeatable quests around that point -- found the road to the level cap to be well-paced and enjoyable to proceed down.
My enjoyment of the endgame content and continuing to play the game after beating the "final" boss may be something to do with the fact that in the last year or so, I've taken a lot more to continuing to play games I really enjoy after the end credits roll, whether that's to see alternative endings or attempt to attain platinum trophies. Or it could be the fact that it's enjoyable to play with others when they are as pleasant to team up with as the seeming majority of A Realm Reborn's community or my Free Company. Or it could simply be the fact that A Realm Reborn continues to keep things interesting and narratively compelling even after you've "finished" it -- and that only looks set to continue with the major content updates coming every three months.
Whatever the reason, I can see myself continuing to play A Realm Reborn for a very long time yet, and for the game to only continue to improve over time. If the recent A Realm Awoken update is anything to go by -- four new dungeons, four new standalone boss fights, an extension to the main story, a hilarious sidequest focusing on "gentleman investigator" Hildibrand, new music, subtle but believable changes to locations to reflect the passing of time in the game world, and tweaks to game systems that needed it -- then the future looks very bright indeed for Eorzea. And it's for this reason, coupled with the amount of enjoyment and playtime I've already got out of it since August, that I have no qualms whatsoever in declaring A Realm Reborn my own personal Game of the Year.