Fall Preview 2014: Our Potential Game of the Year Candidates

We wrap up our holiday preview series with the games that we expect to be talking about for a long time to come.

For the past three days we've been examining this fall's biggest games, and today we look at the games that may end up being Game of the Year Contenders this holiday season. Click to read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Alien Isolation

Jeremy: I've been in love with this game since the moment I first heard that Creative Assembly was basing it on the original Alien. Not the good-but-mined-out sequel, but the first film, that eerie slasher flick in space. It's one of my absolute favorite films of all time — I'd put it in my personal top five, I think — and no one ever looks to it for video game inspiration. It's all space marines and power loaders.

Not Isolation. It draws on the slow pacing and relentless sense of helplessness that defined the first Alien and translates it into survival horror. You can't kill the xenomorph, only hide and run and pray for the best. The idea of an implacable, unstoppable monster stalking you is nothing new — the high-level concept here reminds me a lot of Sega's own Saturn cult classic Enemy Zero — but transposed into a digital world that fantastically captures the blue-collar mundanity of Alien's universe. God, it's so good.

I've played two different hour-long demos of Isolation in the past year, and both have been wonderful. I desperately want the full thing to hold up to those break-out sessions, because no film deserves to be translated perfectly into a video game more than Alien.

Bob: I've had the luxury of being able to avoid Alien Isolation as a member of the media, which has worked out well for me. As much as I'd like to confirm the rumors of its awesomeness, I'm content to wait and be surprised while I familiarize myself with the most basic of information. It's been a looong time since we've had a good Aliens game—the horrible memories of Colonial Marines still persist—and I think enough developers have ripped off the franchise, it's about time for Alien to have an amazing game of its own. I feel like Sega's been demoing this thing at just about every convention I've been to for the past three years, so I'm hoping all the glowing praise I've read hasn't been due to misleading demos. I guess we'll find out soon enough!

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Bob: Full disclosure: I'm no Lord of the Rings fan. Do I hate fun? Probably—but that's only slightly related. That said, if a game branded with J.R.R. Tolkien's famous series can get me to sit up and take notice, it has to be doing something right. Even though I don't know my Aragorns from my Elronds, Shadow's take on an open-world RPG is incredibly appealing—and it's an action-RPG at that. As a fan of

Dark Souls, my standards are pretty high, but it'll be interesting to see another developer's take on this genre—and, by the end of September, it's entirely possible I'll need a break from Dark Souls 2 once the third and final DLC comes to an end. It's taken more than a bit of effort to convince me a Lord of the Rings game is worth my time, but now, I'm honestly interested in seeing if Shadow can deliver on the word-of-mouth buzz it's generated over the past year.

Mike: J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth meets Assassin's Creed's open-world gameplay? Count me as intrigued. Shadow of Mordor was a game that I barely knew existed before I played it at E3. There may come a time when I'm tired of open-world adventure games - this holiday season will be the test - but I haven't hit that point yet.

Monolith Productions is trying something a little different with Shadow of Mordor. Sauron's Army isn't just a nebulous force, it's a number of randomly-generated orc generals and lieutenants working in concert. They interact with each other, forming alliances or having small-scale skirmishes. They'll even remember when they come in contact with you. It goes a long way to making it feel like you're playing in a living world where you choices matter. Do you take out a lieutenant, or head straight for his boss? Do you take control of a general and use him against one of his brothers? There's so many choices available in Shadow of Mordor; I'm just hoping the gameplay can stay fresh until the end.

Jaz After being extremely surprised - and wowed - by this at an unexpected preview event at the beginning of the year, I've been following it closely. Initially, it sounded like the game was almost too good to be true: a complex, open-world adventure set in Mordor, facing an intelligent enemy and a dynamic, hostile environment. To be honest, it sounded like the developers were biting off way more than they could chew.

However, each time I've spent time with the game, it's continued to deliver on its promise. It really does look phenomenal, gives the player enormous scope to play how they want, and features a really interesting story that links the events of the Hobbit with those of Lord of the Rings.

Of course, the only way we can tell whether Shadow of Mordor really does deliver on its promise is by playing it extensively, but if the different, excellent parts I've seen all come together to form a cohesive and compelling whole, this game is going to be up there with Skyrim.

Kat: I'm excited to play a bunch of games this year, including some of the ones I discussed back in Part 2 of this series, but Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor may well end up being my Game of the Year if everything goes right. Having spent the better of the year banging the "what's next for gaming as a medium" drum, which is admittedly a sad and lonely drum, Shadow of Mordor has definitely grabbed my attention with its exciting A.I. and its huge, living sandbox. I'm struggling so hard against using buzzwords like "emergent gameplay" right now, but god, Middle-earth is so... emergent!

Also, speaking as someone who is in fact a Lord of the Rings fan (how on earth are you not a Lord of the Rings fan, Bob?), I think it'll be fine in terms of the lore. Yes, the notion of a dead Ranger being taken over by a wraith responsible for forging the Rings of Power reads a little bit like fan-fiction, but that's spinoffs for you. I can tell you that I'm way more interested in playing Shadow of Mordor right now than I am in seeing the final Hobbit movie. Now that's a piece of Lord of the Rings media that really got screwed up.

Driveclub

There's a lot of wishful thinking here, because I'm dying for a top-notch driving game on PS4. I've sat behind the wheel of the game twice, and both times I've been very impressed.

Driveclub's looks and sounds are in line with its peers - Forza 5 and Horizons - and its gameplay similarly feels on a par. The game sits somewhere between sim and arcade - it feels very realistic, but is ever-so-slightly larger than life, so that skids, slides and drifts are controllable and hugely fun.

The game dials up its competitive aspect with dynamic goals and challenges, so that even if you're losing, you might still be able to achieve something that gives you a reward. That certainly makes it exciting, and keeps racers interested.

But will it be the racing game to have? I can't say conclusively at this point, but it's certainly looking like a contender.

Assasin's Creed Unity

Mike: Assassin's Creed has been my go-to game for a number of years now. Outside of certain missteps like Assassin's Creed III, the series has always treated me well. Last year's Black Flag stretched the formula with its seamless naval navigation, but the core of the game remained the same.

Assassin's Creed Unity looks to be the game where Ubisoft takes a long look at "why" certain Assassin's Creed features work the way they down. A new city and era is nice, but I'm more excited about the new Parkour Down system and the addition of a Stealth/Crouch system (stolen shamelessly from Splinter Cell: Blacklist as far as I can tell.) The Unity team is also taking care to add extensive customization in this game, something that could be a big new addition to the series. My body is ready.

Dragon Age: Inquisition

Mike: After my long wait and the disappointment that was Dragon Age II, Bioware looks set to deliver the Dragon Age sequel I've been looking for. Built from the ground-up in DICE's Frostbite engine , Dragon Age: Inquisition looks to be one of the biggest action RPGs since Bethesda dropped The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in our laps.

Unlike Mass Effect, which carried the story of Commander Shepard forward with each entry, Dragon Age is about carrying forward the world. Dragon Age Keep will allow you to import all of your choices from the first two games, but you'll experience the plot through the eyes of the all-new Inquisitor. That ties players to the previous games, while also giving them room to blaze a new narrative trail. The Warden, Hawke, and the Inquisitor are all different characters, but they're all be your avatar within the world.

If Bioware can pull off everything they're promising, Dragon Age: Inquisition may be may be my Game of the Year.

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker

Jeremy: Yeah, dark horse pick! What can I say? I'm in love with this game almost as much as I am with Alien: Isolation. Which is funny, you know, because the two couldn't be further apart.

Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker takes the surprising best part of Super Mario 3D World (the surprising best game of last fall) and builds on it with, I'm told, dozens of new stages. They're all puzzles revolving around a hapless explorer with no real offensive capabilities, just steely nerves and plucky resolve, and each of the half-dozen stages that I've sampled has been wonderfully different from the rest. You may ride a mine cart while tossing turnips at monsters, avoid an ever-rising flood of magma while puzzling out how to collect gems, or march along a speeding train patrolled by Goombas. And knowing Nintendo EAD Tokyo's previous work on the Mario 3D games, I expect some sort of twist after the end to double the game length and quadruple the challenge level. But regardless of the challenge at hand, it's always clever and always fun.

And that's what it's all about, right? All the other games on this list are so somber and serious. Most of them are violent. Captain Toad shows Nintendo being Nintendo, putting both heart and polish into the kind of game that any other publisher would treat as a B-tier throwaway. All-ages entertainment deserves to be treated with respect, too. Thank goodness for Captain Toad.

Tagged with Analyses, Dragon Age, drive club, hotline miami 2, Middle-Earth, Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, neverending nightmares, pillars of eternity, quadrilateral cowboy, USgamer.

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