GOTY 2014 - Aaron's Honorable Mentions

No process—even a process six years in the making—is perfect. And while our collaborative list of the top ten games each year is the result of an equal effort from each of us, there are also bound to be casualties of the debate. That's where Honorable Mentions come in, serving as a sort of Home for Wayward and Misunderstood Games. Today, we'll take a look at Aaron's list of favorite games that didn't make the cut.

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Forza Horizon 2

Playground Games | September 30, 2014 | Xbox 360, Xbox One

White males see representations of themselves in Western society every day. Games constantly ship with white guys on the box art, and most game protagonists are of a certain caucasian persuasion. Quite frankly, it sucks.

Forza Horizon 2 doesn’t do anything to make gaming more inclusive. In a lot of ways it actively alienates non-white, non-male gamers by playing out like the wet dream of America’s spoiled, new-money 20-something hipsters.

You, an emotionless human cipher with dead eyes, white skin and (I assume) a penis, zoom across the Mediterranean in a succession of supercars, tearing up ancestral vineyards without giving much of a shit about Italian farmers’ livelihoods. At first I laughed at the absurdity of the whole production, then I cringed for a few hours. A conflict emerged: the driving, off-roading and hot-dogging were riotously fun; but what I was asked to do felt disrespectful.

Eventually, I found peace in the game’s photo mode – the perfect way to lampoon the obliviousness of the game’s overall delivery. Photo modes are a hot thing this generation, and while the Xbox One doesn’t yet have an independent screenshot feature akin to the PlayStation 4, Playground Games carried over the in-game photography tool familiar to franchise devotees. Rather than taking the game seriously, I found pleasure in freezing time to pluck choice moments among the bacchanal of a rich people’s European music and car festival.

The game isn’t perfect. But looking past its upholding (and, it could be argued, reinforcing) of the largely white, largely male system symptomatic of game development, there’s a starkly muted charm hidden in snapshots of hipsters waiting for pizza and strung-out concert goers screaming themselves hoarse.

In making fun of Forza Horizon 2, I found perhaps the strongest argument for continuing to push developers to be more self-aware of the experiences they put on store shelves.

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Hitman Go

Square Enix Montreal | April 17, 2014 | Android, iOS

The Hitman franchise hasn’t been relevant since the PlayStation 2 days. Sorry, but it's true.

Regardless of the miniscule improvements found in Blood Money and Absolution, the stealth genre moved on years ago. Splinter Cell’s Sam Fisher now blazes his guns with the rest of ‘em, and Metal Gear Solid isn’t so much about “Tactical Espionage Action” anymore as it is a cinematic delivery system for Hideo Kojima’s psychosis.

Before his appearance in Hitman Go, Agent 47, the series' stalwart protagonist, was the gaming equivalent of a Disney Channel star: known to a hyperactive subset of weirdos, but also largely forgettable. To put it another way: he didn’t matter.

Hitman Go does more to invigorate the franchise than any third-person action title with improved graphics ever could. As a board game, Hitman Go shows appreciation for the series’ strategic roots. Its stylized game piece aesthetic is brilliant and unexpectedly appropriate for the subject matter: in the core games, it was easy to imagine your kills as a series of carefully calculated moves on a chessboard.

Hitman Go succeeds in a year with so many other action/murder simulator distractions because it pulls focus to the core mechanics of planning and strategy, and away from the developers making death more realistic.

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Sunset Overdrive

Insomniac Games | October 28, 2014 | Xbox One

Sunset Overdrive tried far too hard to be edgy. On the whole the game does its grungy, punk-inspired apocalypse right, but the carpet bombing of expletives and too-cool sarcasm of its protagonist meant this game wasn’t going to do well on a top-ten list.

Still, Insomniac created a neon-soaked cartoon playpen that was liberating in its lack of structure. Its self-awareness was its greatest strength, and I can only imagine that the inevitable sequel will buff out the numerous blemishes. Maybe next time we’ll get less tower defense and more agility-based traversal puzzles and high-wire combat?

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Valiant Hearts: The Great War

Ubisoft Montpellier | June 24, 2014 | Android, iOS, PlayStation Network, Xbox Live, Windows

I still haven’t finished Valiant Hearts: The Great War, but it deserves mention.

How many World War I games even exist, and aren’t just dogfighting simulators or mods for popular shooters? Very few, sadly.

The Great War is an oft-overlooked conflict, a hazy memory in the shadow of the heroically obvious good-versus-evil of World War II. While more wartime games aren’t exactly needed, experiences like Valiant Hearts, which released near the 100th anniversary of the start of the war, does more to humanize the soldiers of all sides than anything since All Quiet on the Western Front was turned into a film.

As a game, Valiant Hearts disappoints. It plays like an endless runner: ever-moving forward (which, to be fair, does feel realistic to trench warfare) but rarely making sense. Grenades can be thrown, which doesn’t work well on iOS, but the bits of combat included pull away from the drama and heartache of the wonderfully written story. Similar to another quasi-educational release this year, Never Alone, Valiant Hearts sprinkles gameplay with real documents: photographs, excerpts and artifacts from WWI.

It’s not often that I can recommend a game solely on what players can learn, but Valiant Hearts is the best educational game of 2014. It treats its subject matter with respect and reverence, but doesn’t shy away from telling the dark, horrifying tragedy of one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history.

If you know nothing about WWI, you have to play Valiant Hearts.