Games are great, and if you don’t think so, get out. They allow us escape, exploration. They indulge our fantasies, and focus our realities that bit sharper. They entertain and educate. The interactive medium, right now, is the most progressive form of artistic expression out there. And yeah, you can shoot stuff up real good, too.
All of these games are particularly good. They make up Clash’s 7 Of The Best (of 2014 so far).
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Mario Kart 8
(Wii U. Developed by Nintendo EAD/Bandai Namco. Published by Nintendo.)
A delight to play with friends in the flesh, complete strangers online, or alone against AI racers or your own fastest lap times, Mario Kart 8 is everything Nintendo needed it to be.
This is the best Mario Kart yet, and its loving remixes of tracks from previous iterations, combined with 16 excellently realised new courses full of anti-gravity sections, makes for great longevity – you’ll be beating your quickest performances for months to come. Customisation options for your chassis, wheels and glider means that each track can be raced in different ways – go for grip over top speed, or take a chance on swift acceleration at the cost of weight enough to stand up to the bumps of powered-up rivals.
The first properly HD entry in this long-running series (dating back to 1992), Mario Kart 8 looks beautiful, running at a consistently smooth 60fps on single-player, and experiences no discernable lag when played online. A triumph, basically, and one that even the repeated impacts of spiky blue shells can do nothing to tarnish.
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(iOS and Android. Developed and published by Ustwo)
Small but perfectly formed, Monument Valley is the most gorgeously designed, gently probing mobile puzzler seen for some time. Based on the impossible architecture of MC Escher, its stages require the player to manoeuvre walls and stairways, rotating entire buildings to open new paths for the game’s silent protagonist, Ida. There’s a story to the game, but it’s never forced onto you – take as much of it as you want from clues left on later stages, and from the limited prose of a ghostly guide.
What is certain, regardless of whether you construct a meaningful narrative from proceedings, is that Monument Valley will resonate on an emotional level – its art and design matched to its ambient soundtrack convey a palpable melancholy. It takes some cues from predecessors – there’s many a critic who’s identified some Fez DNA in here, and a healthy glug of Echochrome physicality – but such is Ustwo’s commitment to realising a concise experience that can be enjoyed in a single, rewarding sitting, that this game really does stand apart from any contemporary peers.
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South Park: The Stick Of Truth
(Multi-platform. Developed by Obsidan Entertainment. Published by Ubisoft.)
Did anyone see this coming? Games based on the South Park franchise have been terrible in the past. But The Stick Of Truth benefitted from the direct scriptwriting involvement of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and all of the role-playing experience that Obsidan has to offer. The result is a hybrid RPG that uses real-time combat alongside timed cool-downs and menu systems more synonymous with the Final Fantasy games. It’s also hilarious – and that’s coming from someone who’s not watched the show in years.
Some of the action cuts a little close to the bone for those of a sensitive disposition – the Khloe Kardashian foetus boss fight is the stuff of nightmares. But a wealth of good-humoured nods and winks to gaming conventions and genres, beside a torrent of clever in-jokes and gameplay that challenges without offering insurmountable odds – you’ll want to play to the end, for the story to tie together its multiple surreal tangents (spaceships, Nazi zombies, Game Of Thrones-style warfare) – makes this a surprisingly compelling affair.
Easily the best game to carry the South Park brand, although it’d only need to be half as good as it is to carry that honour.
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(PlayStation 3, PS4, PC, Mac. Developed and published by Die GUte Fabrik)
First impressions count. The new Thief sluggishly revealed itself, and there’s no shame in admitting to falling away from its questionable thrills. Watch Dogs opened with a cavalcade of waypoints and quest options so overwhelming that it was easier to just tune out and go on a rampage. Sportsfriends, though, struck with the sweetest kiss.
This multiplayer four-pack of bonkers quasi-sport events is an absolute blast from the first moment the controller’s in your hand and you’re thwacking a ball on a washing line (I guess) from one side of the screen to the other with what’s a cross between a pole vaulter’s most essential piece of kit and… a great big floppy dong. That’s Super Pole Riders, but equally squeals-worthy is BaraBariBall, where the aim is to dunk a ball into the opposing team’s water while avoiding their attacks. Someone, somewhere, rightly called it Super Smash Bros. meets Speedball 2. And if they didn’t, we’re having that.
And then there’s Johann Sebastian Joust. Which no amount of on-this-screen explaining will do justice to. So, look here instead.
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(iOS and Android. Developed and published by CMA Megacorp)
Another mobile puzzle game, but unlike Monument Valley, Kiwanuka may well short-circuit your brain attempting work out just how to progress. The pitch is Lemmings on acid, which is reductive for sure but does summarise this game’s aesthetic dimension, as the player controls a leader figure with a magical staff, whose powers are used to guide a gaggle of followers to a level-completing doorway.
Initially, it’s easy, showing you how to best manipulate this crowd of acolytes into towers and bridges, enabling the traversal of otherwise deadly terrain (or lack of – a lot of the time there are just Big Gaps Everywhere). But pretty quickly the difficulty ramps up and it becomes a game of quick reactions as much as lateral thinking. A quick tap here to break a bridge might seem suicidal, but it is actually the only way to drop your little fellows down to safe ground. So tap already, tap.
Addictive to the extent where even some repetitive (powered by dubstep!) music can’t have you putting your iPad down – mercifully, this isn’t an Impossible Road-style mute-is-the-only-option experience – Kiwanuka is a rare treat on an App Store full of hollow-promise F2P titles. Pay your money and take away your game, all neat and tidy, likes. You need nothing more.
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Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes
(Multi-platform. Developed by Kojima Productions. Published by Konami)
Never should quality be confused with quantity in gaming, unless you’re one of those complete freaks who gets all of their kicks from grinding through RPGs in order to level up so highly that the first boss you battle proves as difficult as scraping mud from a shoe. Ground Zeroes is short, well done you for noticing. It’s so short that its main missions – all two of them – can actually be finished in less than four minutes. That’s both of them, in under four minutes. Seriously. Here’s the proof.
So, £20 for a game that could be over quicker than the time it takes to listen to Ed Sheeran’s latest number one single (assuming you can stomach it) – doesn’t sound like brilliant value for money, does it? But Hideo Kojima’s prologue to 2015’s next-Metal-Gear-proper The Phantom Pain offers great depth and acres of replay value if you choose to explore it. The single environment offered – a 1970s US black site based in Cuba, named Camp Omega here but serving as a transparent Guantanamo analogue – offers a wealth of strategic options to complete its pair of core mission objectives. Sneak, slaughter, shuffle, put ‘em all to sleep – this game world is yours to exploit how you see fit, and it’s never a dull place to be, even on a third or fourth playthrough. For most people, an initial run through the game will take between 60 and 90 minutes – and after that comes a series of bonus missions to undertake.
Ground Zeroes strips back its maker’s cinematic tendencies – the top-and-tailing cut scenes are relatively brief for Kojima, who thought nothing of inserting a 71-minute sequence of them into Metal Gear Solid 4 – and focuses instead on raw action, of a kind flexible to suit any play style. It’s visually arresting, spotlights dancing over rain-soaked clothing and weapons, and Keifer Sutherland’s introduction in the lead role of Snake isn’t as jarring as fans of David Hayter’s performances were fearing. It positively oozes quality, so to dismiss it on account of brevity is to miss out on a brilliant distillation of Metal Gear Solid’s enviable qualities.
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Valiant Hearts: The Great War
(Multi-platform. Developed and published by Ubisoft)
War is hell. Valiant Hearts tells us that much: through its uncomfortable audio of screams and explosions, a distinct contrast compared to the cartoony look of its UbiArt Framework engine (also used on Rayman Legends and Child Of Light), and a great deal of background information about the game’s settings and events. Set in World War I and taking its narrative cues from letters written between friends and loved ones during the globe-consuming conflict, this is an important game which educates through immersion.
Some might think its presentation of this-actually-happened facts heavy handed – games are supposed to be enjoyed, after all, and there’s no pleasure taken from learning of the Germans’ use of poison gas during the second battle of Ypres in the spring of 1915, or the true horror of what happened at Verdun, where over 700,000 soldiers fell. Yet, this reality frames the player’s navigation through the battlefield and its trenches, during which time conflict is minimal, the game focusing instead on puzzles. Nothing is too difficult – Ubisoft Montpellier, the team behind Valiant Hearts, wants to speak to you on a personal, emotional level, to explain how these men and women, children and animals (a dog is a key companion), suffered so that the next generation didn’t have to. Or so they hoped.
And Ubisoft has really succeeded. Valiant Hearts is small, and could be easily overlooked with so many more war-themed games on the market. It doesn’t put you behind a gun too often, something that will confuse those raised on a steady diet of Call Of Duty games. It’s not the most thrilling few hours you’ll spend in the company of a controller in 2014 – but it does really drive home the sacrifices made during The Great War, sending the player away permanently changed.
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Words: Mike Diver
Related: The Clash Games Column