Another year has passed into the mists of time, one that has become much-maligned thanks to a spate of celebrity deaths, elections and division about leaving the EU. For games, though, it has been more of a mixed bag. A quiet year for Microsoft it has to be said, but a good one for Sony, while Nintendo announced their new, exciting console. As for PC it feels like it’s growing even stronger, despite a ton of crappy launches that highlighted how developers and publishers still feel like they’re taking the platform for granted.
Like every year there’s also a lot of titles I missed, many of which probably stood a very good chance of making it onto my list. I’m speaking primarily of Overwatch, Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2, all of which were critical hits and all but one of were commercial successes, too. Plus as always I’m a PC and Xbox gamer, which means I miss out on Nintendo and Sony exclusives, such as the mighty Uncharted 4. And that’s not to even mention the myriad of smaller indie games that slip through the net, many of which I’ll hopefully get to play throughout 2017.
So let’s get through some honorable mentions first, shall we? Click on the game’s name to read my full thoughts.
Planet Coaster: Zooming down into the animated crowds of this theme-park creation suite reveals hundreds and hundreds of surprisingly expressive A.I. characters as they venture around your park, eating food, riding the teacups, buying the merchandise and eventually going on the custom rollercoaster you spent ages making. Very, very addictive.
Mad Games Tycoon: a game about making games. It’s like Inception, but without the Christopher Nolan induced headaches. It’s also a very rough around the edges indie game developed by one person who presumably had way too much time on his hands.
Seraph: taking the aiming out of a side-scrolling shooter sounds like a bloody stupid idea. As it turns out, it wasn’t. Seraph is a blast from start to finish.
Reigns: mechanically Reigns doesn’t really deserve to be on this list. It’s a mobile game in disguise, with one concept: left or right? Each one corresponds to a choice, which can often boil down to yes or no. And that’s it. Somehow it’s incredibly good, though.
Offworld Trading Company: it’s war, but with economic buildings instead of infantry and tanks. If that sounds boring you’d be wrong. Surprisingly fast-paced this is a very enjoyable little strategy game.
Layers of Fear: it’s another one of those often despised walking-simulators, except this one takes great delight in constantly playing with perception so that when you turn around everything has suddenly changed, or perhaps even creepier just one thing has changed.
Blood & Wine: it couldn’t make the full list because technically it’s just an expansion for the Witcher 3 and not a full game. But it’s amazing. And the Witcher 3 is still amazing. So basically it’s twice the amazing.
Right, with the honorable mentions out of the way let’s get on with the list proper. As always this is in no particular order, and it’s my own personal list, so games you love may not be on here for a variety of reasons.
XCOM 2 would like very much for me to fail miserably, not just in the game but in life in general. Like its predecessor mercy is something XCOM 2 has only heard of in passing and is quite convinced is nothing more than a myth to give hope to the weak and pitiful. With this ruthless nature comes pain. But soon that pain becomes part of you, and gives way to beauty.
Without a doubt in my mind XCOM 2 was the best strategy game I played all year, and one of the titles I’m most eager to return to over the coming quiet months. It’s a masterclass in making every decision feel vital to the war effort. Sometimes that can be frustrating because a decision you make early on can bite you in the ass much, much later without warning, and that can be unfair when there was really no way for you to see it coming. Most of the time, though, it feels incredibly satisfying. Chances are you’ll fail on your first run-through. And possibly many more times. Eventually you’ll achieve victory, though, and it will feel like you truly earned it.
But victory doesn’t matter compared to the sheer exhilaration and sadness that the game can make you feel because of how unreasonably attached you become to the soldiers under your command. Many of them will die throughout the course of the game, but due to the fact that venerable troops are so good and that the moment to moment gameplay is so tense you’ll feel every loss. The men and women you field will build stories around themselves, forging their own legends before falling to just some stray shot or in an epic final stand. You’ll remember them, and miss them. Few strategy games have ever made me feel like that.
Contained within Dishonored 2 sits not one, but two examples of the best level design in 2016. I am of course referring to the beautiful Clockwork Mansion and the mechanically brilliant A Crack in the Slab. The first is simply a joy to explore using your arkane (see what I did there?) powers, and the second strips those powers away and then introduces a form of time-travelling.
It isn’t just level design that makes Dishonored 2 great, although it certainly helps as the entire game is chock full of nooks, crannies, and routes to discover. No, it’s the fact that Arkane took one of my favorite games of all time and made it better in just about every way, with the exception of the poor PC port which left a lot of players unhappy, and rightfully so. The point is from a gameplay perspective Dishonored 2 isn’t a radical departure from its forebearer, playing it pretty safe, but it takes what was awesome and makes it awesomer.
In most stealth games getting discovered feels like a complete failure, even if you’re allowed to gun or run your way out of the situation. But in Dishonored 2 slipping up just feels like another chance to play around with the intricate systems. Slow down time, position a guard in front of his mate’s gun and watch the carnage. Chain multiple foes together, summon a doppelganger of yourself, chain said enemies to that as well and then kill the doppelganger. Instant awesome. Toss in great movement mechanics, a beautiful art style, improved combat, lots of reasons to replay and a fascination world. God I love this game. But seriously videogame industry, get your shit together when it comes to PC launches. 2016 was a bad year for them.
Having previously brought Wolfenstein back from the grave in the astonishingly excellent Bethesda pulled the same trick again, resurrecting a series I haven’t touched in years: DOOM. They didn’t just pull up its rotting corpse and sling some clothes over it, either. No, they went full-on necromancy with this bad-boy, returning DOOM from the hellish afterlife before proceeding to use their black magic to augment it into a new beast that is both recognizable and bloody awesome.
It’s nearly unparalleled when it comes to speed and smoothness of gameplay, creating an exotic dance of death where the tune is the constant orgasmic sound of the stellar armory you carry with you and the fleshy sounds of demons being turned into chunks of gory meat. It’s freaking glorious. Best of all it’s topped off with a ludicrously awesome heavy metal soundtrack that gets you so hyped up that Barney Stinsen would be proud. Yes, I managed to fit a HiMYM reference in here. Deal with it.
There’s more, though. I love the way Doomguy casually wrecks a computer which was busy delivering an exposition dump, the kind you’d have to sit and listen to in any other guy. It’s a dismissive attitude that reflects the player’s desire to just kill stuff. And I love the brutal executions. I love how stopping means death and moving means living. health pickups need to be grabbed and taking the fight to the demons is a reliable way of recharging health. It’s all about strafing and firing.
If that wasn’t enough there’s a solid multiplayer mode and a fun snap-map system for creating your own personal levels.
All said and done DOOM might is the best singleplayer FPS campaign I played this year, although clearly I missed out on a few other shooters. The point is it’s good. Great. Amazing. Fucking awesome.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
I have a confession to make; even though Mankind Divided is among my top ten games of the year I haven’t completed it. I’m not even close. I bought it to review after review code never came in, but got busy covering a load of other games. Since then I’ve been making pretty slow progress and therefore even though it’s on my list I can’t say that the rest of it isn’t going to suck. It might. I doubt it, though.
Like most sequels these days it’s a fair criticism to say that Mankind Divided plays it very safe. There’s nothing new to be found within its gameplay, no exciting innovation or clever pieces of design that will endure the years. But what Eidos Montreal did was take an already solid foundation and build something awesome atop it, improving on the existing systems while adding in some new features as well. There’s an intriguing story, fun leveling up, better stealth and gunplay and great level design that provides plenty of opportunities to flex your trigger finger or your stealth skills. There’s plenty of reasons to go back and play the whole game a couple of times over just taking different approaches.
And Jesus Christ, that bank! Sitting right in the open world there’s a bank just waiting to be robbed, and its wonderful level design has led to many happy hours of dodging lasers, breaking into offices, barely avoiding cards and getting lost. It’s not a mission. You don’t have to do it. But you’ll want to.
Having drowned people in toilets, stabbed them while they wait for a massage, thrown them off high spots, dropped various heavy objects on them and at one point dressed up as a vampire magician I feel confident in saying that Hitman might just have been the most pleasant surprise of the year. Going in me and a lot of other people were apprehensive about the episodic nature of the game, and while I still can’t say that it was the right decision the final product has proved to be a lot of fun.
It’s not flawless, for sure. The story, for example, is instantly forgettable dross and there’s plenty of immersion breaking oddness to be found in A.I. behaviors or animations. Mission quality isn’t as consistent as I’d like, either. And then there’s the weird online connection system which means offline and online saves aren’t compatible, something of an issue when the servers are prone to failing. There’s a lot of reasons it shouldn’t be on my list, really.
But the variety of ways to eliminate targets is just hugely entertaining and I’ve found myself repeatedly returning to the same locations just to play around thanks to some great level design. I keep finding new ways to kill people, like dropping an entire stalactite on a lab. Since I started reviewing a lot more games I’ve noted that I rarely go back and replay any of them, or spend much time just mucking about like I used to when I’d only get a few new games each year and had to get the most out of them. Hitman has helped bring that side of me back to the surface, encouraging me to replay levels numerous times, turning the experience into something akin to a puzzle game. The first attempt at any mission is always an example in winging it, but after that it’s all about exploration and planning. Can I get up on that church tower with a sniper rifle and gun down the target while he looks through a telescope? How much damage can I cause while dressed as a priest?
I suppose the big question is whether it’s better than the beloved Hitman: Blood Money. I say yes. Blood Money has better premises for its missions at times, but in almost every other area this new Hitman trumps it.
I was going to review the game as a complete package but never did get around to it. Hopefully, I’ll find the time in early 2017.
It’s good to be bad. Or sort of bad. It depends, really.
Tyranny doesn’t try to be an innovative RPG. It wears its inspirations on its sleeves proudly, and for that I love it. Oh, and the fact that it places you into the shoes of a character who has helped conquer a nation, and has plenty of blood on his or her hands is pretty awesome, too.
Yup, Tyranny is not concerned with painting you as the hero of a grand tale, rather it prefers a much more interesting and nuanced world where morality isn’t always quite so clear. Doing good is possible in this isometric adventure, but it’s almost a bad thing in the eyes of many others, and many of the choices you make are still going to result in pain or a lot of people paying the price. The end result was a story I was hooked on from start to finish, with a world I wanted to know more about and a combat system that was tactical and rewarding.
Having finished up the game and most of the side-quests to I’ve gone back and played through it another twice, and do very different things, like opting to side with neither faction and instead just betray everyone. Because I can.
The grand strategy genre is one of my personal favorites, even if it is entirely capable of consuming huge swathes of time if you aren’t careful. And sci-fi is tied with fantasy as my favorite genre in games, movies, and books. Mix the two together and you have my interest.
Coming from Paradox Entertainment Stellaris is all about growing your own culture, spreading across the galaxy in a race for domination while forging alliances. Now, I didn’t play the new Civ game this year so it’s very possible that it would have taken the place of Stellaris, but that’s all theoretical. The important thing is I didn’t play Civ, but I did play Stellaris, and Stellaris wound up keeping me enthralled for ages, even if the later game isn’t as good as I would have liked.
Still, it’s fair to say Stellaris almost got knocked off this list by another Paradox grand strategy game by the name of Hearts of Iron IV, a great game in its own right. Ultimately the reason Stellaris won out was due to its freedom, while Hearts of Iron is more constrained due to its historical trappings.
I’ve spent many happy hours building up my culture, forging alliances and waging war, all in the name of becoming the most supreme species in the galaxy. I’ve mostly managed to cock it all up, too. I mean my first game ended because some evil space-faring race decided to turn up and invade the entire galaxy from my little corner of it. They entered from the edge of the map, naturally the one place my own fleets weren’t because how was I to know such a thing could happen? What happened next was a long slog of me attempting to forge quick alliances or find ways of embroiling my opponent’s in the war while constantly pumping out new ships. Defeat came, though. I couldn’t hold them off. My civilization fell. My culture was wiped away. All that history. All those people. Just gone.
And that’s a story I’ll remember for a long time.
The art of the boss battle seems to have been lost somewhere along the line, with fights in most modern games feeling frustrating or underwhelming unless you happen to be Dark Souls. However, Furi wants to prove that boss battles can still be immensely satisfying by saying, “screw it” and hurling a series of challenging, lengthy boss battles at the player and very little else.
But damn are those battle something to behold. Each on pits you against a unique foe with their own fantastic design and attacks. These fights can easily last 30-minutes of frantic back and forth action as you attempt to learn patterns and use split-second dodges to avoid damage before launching into a counter attack. It boils down to just one, the bad guy and your own skill. It’s like Dark Souls concentrated into a much slimmer, more compact package with a visually stunning style and tight mechanics. It’s like nothing else I’ve played.
And talk about satisfaction. Every time I defeated a boss my hair was a mess, I was sweating and I was breathing hard. I needed to take a break. But damn did I feel proud of myself in a way that I often don’t with other games where the developers so clearly want you to win. Furi wants you to win, too, but it wants you to earn that victory with a few deaths and a lot of swearing. It wants you to be better, faster and to anticipate. It wants you to be a game in the very best sense of the word.
Battlefleet Gothic: Armada
Y’know, I spent a lot of time deciding whether or not Armada should make this list, because when you really sit and think about it Armada is not an impressive game. It’s pretty normal, really. Nothing about it stands as a beacon of brilliant design or as a prime example of gaming done right. I doubt it has made many other people’s lists. But…but I’ve spent a lot of time playing it, and thus can only conclude that it did something right in order to keep me hooked for so long. In fact, while writing this I redownloaded it again and have sunk many more happy hours into tactical fleet battles.
Maybe the real reason it’s on this list is because I want to see a sequel. There’s a lot of potential here for more customization of ships so that when you face off against a friend it really feels like you’re putting your fleet design against theirs, there’s loads of scope for larger battles as well as the smaller skirmishes and the campaign could be brilliant.
As of right now, though, it’s a really solid tactical game. And it has giant spaceships blowing the crap out of each other. Who doesn’t like that?
Gears of War 4
I am a self-confessed Gears of War fan thanks to the original game being veryinfluentialn in my decision to go with Microsoft’s Xbox 360 over Sony’s PS3. From there I fell in love with the absurd macho antics of Marcus, Dom, Baird and Cole before wrapping up the original trilogy a few years back.
And then Gears of War came back, this time with a brand new developer at the helm and a lot to prove. Not all that shockingly they chose to play it very safe, and I can understand if that lack of innovation turned you away. But for me stepping back into the absurdly big boots of a COG soldier (former or not) was like coming home. It was familiar. I quickly slipped back into beautiful cover mechanics and began gunning enemies down with ease. Sure, the new characters haven’t clicked just right with me yet, but I found them to be likable, and having the original crew come back as the surly supporting cast helps make it feel like the torch is being passed.
I just wish it didn’t end so quickly. The campaign is a blast from start to finish, but the finale comes just when it feels like it should still be going, ending the journey abruptly.
But hey! There’s the awesome Horde 3.0 and competitive multiplayer to delve into, both offering up many hours of happy murdering. These helped ease the blow of the campaign just…stopping.
I’m excited to see where the story is going to go, and how the series will be evolved, assuming Microsoft are willing to let The Coalition have more freedom now that they’ve proven to fans that they can create a good Gears game. As much nostalgic joy as playing a Gears of War game again brought me I don’t want to end up playing basically the same game another few times with minor changes. I say that, of course, but I probably would end up playing it, because Gears of War.
Categories: Opinion Piece