Chris Thursten's 2014 personal pick
Along with our group-selected 2014 Game of the Year Awards, each member of the PC Gamer staff has independently chosen one game to commend as one of 2014's best.
My pick of the year is Blade Symphony—Jedi Knight multiplayer brought into the modern era, with formalised rankings, deeper swordplay, and a slick lobby system. I love it, despite stalling in my long journey to be not-terrible at it. The one-on-one competitive format is less common on PC than it is on console—StarCraft being one notable exception—and getting some of that intimacy and depth here is very welcome. There's nothing like the feeling of anticipating an enemy play, parrying, and landing the blow that ends the match—all while others watch, waiting to face you. The fantasy being realised here is a very specific, very compelling one.
While not quite a perfect simulation of swordfighting—it's more like a simulation of cinematic swordplay—Blade Symphony's mechanics are deep enough to showcase real expertise (or its absence). It's a mixture of Street Fighter-style interactions between moves (hit windows, cancels, counters and so on) and a degree of fluidity provided by 3D freedom of movement. This creates a strange verisimilitude—you feel like you're really engaged with another person, even as you bash sci-fi swords together. Duels can be elegant or brutal, dexterous or messy. They have personality, and that's a big win for any competitive game.
I spent most of my time with Blade Symphony shortly after release, but it's still a viable prospect for players picking it up today. This is, perhaps thanks to the game's complexity, a small community, and that's one of the things I enjoy about it. It reminds me of the time I spent online in my teens, when you saw the same people regularly enough that making friends on a TF2 or Counter-Strike server (or, indeed, a Jedi Knight server) was possible, even likely. The personal feel of Blade Symphony's combat accentuates this: you get to know people by the way they fight. In my time on the ladder I gained friends, rivals, tutors and tutees. I'll always be grateful to the person who schooled me out of my dependency on foils, and the Master-rank player who stuck with me for 22 rounds until I finally beat him.
This is a difficult game, but one that rewards your investment of time and energy with a sense of being a real presence in the game's competitive environment. The built-in global ladder is a big part of that. Climbing into the double-digits of Blade Symphony's leaderboard was almost certainly my most gratifying gaming moment of this year. (I've long since slipped down, of course.) More importantly, the game understands just how to present this information. I defy anybody to watch the opening sequence of a duel, where the contestants face off against each other, their names and ranks broadcast on title-cards, and not want to get involved. I suppose there may be people who've never fantasised about climbing the ranks of a global swordfighting league. I really don't understand them, though.