Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Counting down my ten favorite games of 2016, as one does

As we're all eager to shelve the year 2016, there are two important things to bear in mind: (a) Next year will be probably be worse because he hasn't even taken office yet, and (b) as we're recoiling from a bunch of major celebrity deaths and the realization that there are a lot more closet white nationalists in this country than we'd imagined, it's healthy to also reflect on the good things that happened in 2016, overshadowed as they may be.

It was a good year for games. Not an all-timer, not a 1998 or a 2007, but there were enough great releases this year that I filled my top ten with considerable spillover.

Let's discuss the honorable mentions, then. First is Reigns, a neat little kingdom-sim-meets-Tinder that revolves entirely around yes-or-no questions. It's funny and clever, though I discovered after the fact that the game takes an awful lot of cues from Sort the Court, hence its removal from my top ten. Dark Souls III offered little that we hadn't seen before but gave the series a fitting and nostalgic sendoff, and for those Souls fans looking to fill the gap, DarkMaus is my favorite of the wannabes. Darkest Dungeon also earns a mention almost by default given how much time I've spent with it, though I still haven't finished it, and given some of the late-game frustrations, there's a question mark over whether I ever will. Do play it, though.

Finally, I do want to mention Pokémon Go for being one of the most fascinating experiments in social gaming that I've ever seen. It's not "good" by the standards that we highfalutin critics hold, even after a number of patches have tightened the screws, but it's a use of technology to expand the definition of gaming beyond simply giving us prettier graphics every few years. Plus, it's probably the first game that my mother and I like, so that's noteworthy. She usually plays Bejeweled or whatever.

Before we kick off the list, I want to note that I was on the GameCritics Game of the Year podcast this year, which conveniently went up right around the time I finished this article. Go ahead and listen to that for an exhaustively thorough look back at the highs and lows of 2016 in gaming.

Right. So here are the top ten.

10. Grim Dawn (PC)

I'm told from virtually every source that Diablo III eventually became a stellar game after its nightmarish launch. I don't doubt it; I could probably go play it right now, in its current state, and have a blast. But it's a matter of principle - I gave the game its time of day, and it was a broken mess, and I've moved on. Maybe it's just good timing that Grim Dawn finally rescued me from my starvation for a Diablo-style click-'em-up, but what do you want from me? With an outstanding dual-class character-building system and a setting that reminds me more than a little bit of Bloodborne (all blunderbusses and floppy hats and forbidden sciences), Grim Dawn hit exactly the right notes for me and, what do you know, actually worked properly out of the figurative box. If you're into this sort of game - you know who you are - you need Grim Dawn yesterday. (Review.)

9. Severed (Vita)

DrinkBox Studios' previous game, Guacamelee, was full of personality and light on excess. But it was also a Metroidvania, making it the easiest of easy sells for me. With Severed, they took on the task of winning me over with a grid-based dungeon crawler, a genre which (to put it politely) typically inspires extreme apathy from me. They succeeded by giving it the same lavish visuals and atmosphere, by pumping full of Metroid design philosophies where the world unravels as your inventory expands, and shifting the combat from grinding and number-crunching to Fruit Ninja. I enjoyed it enough to earn a Platinum trophy, one of only three games I've ever done that with. On a more personal note, I only found room on this list for one handheld game, so it may as well be the title that actually served me well on the road - Severed is partly to thank for getting me through a particularly grueling overnight stay on a sidewalk outside of Madison Square Garden. (Review.)

8. The Witness (PC)

Jonathan Blow pulled off a remarkable trick this year: He figured out how to turn Myst into something I actually want to play. My long-running problem with that game is its lack of a central, driving mechanic. The puzzles shared no relation to one another; you were effectively wiping your acquired skills off the slate every time you moved to a new challenge. The Witness takes the same premise - you're trapped on a beautiful island full of odd mechanisms with very little explanation as to why they're there - but ties it all together with line puzzles that introduce new twists at a perfectly accelerating rate. Every puzzle solved grants you skills that can be taken forward and applied to new situations. That's how all games should work, and certainly how Myst should have, all these years. The Witness never talks to you but constantly finds ways to teach you. Don't look for narrative weight where there is none; just get lost in a relaxing and perfectly paced exploro-puzzler. (Review.)

7. Overwatch (PC)

Now that Valve seems to have more or less retired from game development and spends its days maintaining Dota 2 and making every digital gaming storefront that isn't Steam look bad, perhaps Overwatch is the closest thing we'll ever get to a Team Fortress 3. While Blizzard has more experience fine-tuning large-scale multiplayer games than anyone (and should be commended here for one of the smoothest launches in recent memory), this is their first stab at a competitive shooter. For them to replace the formula this well, balancing nearly two dozen classes and consistently making every player feel important, is a titanic accomplishment even when the game has very few of its own ideas. The dry, witless writing means Overwatch likely won't linger after I've put it aside for good, but Blizzard can remedy that by simply giving me reasons to keep coming back, and their ongoing support, coupled with the game's overwhelming popularity, has left little to be desired. (Playcast.)

6. The Last Guardian (PS4)

By purely objective standards, there are plenty of 2016 releases more deserving of a spot on this list than The Last Guardian. They had better controls, smoother framerates, smarter AI, and less nausea-inducing cameras. But I don't think about those games as much as I think about The Last Guardian. I have a rocky relationship with Fumito Ueda's previous work, so take this with a grain of salt, but I think his long-awaited third game is his best. It preserves the gorgeous-yet-imposing environmental design and deep, dialog-free relationships that are a staple of his work, and while he's yet to produce a game that handles well, he's wise enough here to at least avoid putting you in situations where quick reflexes are required. I was watching, and the game was out for several weeks before a plot synopsis showed up on the game's Wikipedia page. It was like an unspoken agreement between fans: Don't spoil this for yourself. Develop this bond with Trico yourself and witness the pitch-perfect manner in which Ueda closes it. (Review.)

5. Redout (PC)

This is not simply a game that I enjoy. I've thought about it and I'm convinced that Redout is the absolute best of its genre, the new standard by which I will judge all anti-gravity racers. It mixes the slick audiovisual style of Wipeout with the until-now unparalleled sense of speed exhibited in the F-Zero series, and adds just enough subtle twists of its own - namely the need to pitch your craft up and down to match the contours of the track - to establish an identity of its own. Redout is still pretty obscure, no thanks to a lack of buzz and a somewhat hefty $35 price tag, so the multiplayer scene's been pretty dormant from the word go, but the game finds value in its surprisingly substantial single-player campaign. And, at the end of the day, it just feels so damn good to play and master this thing. I promise to only use the word "exhilarating" twice in this article, and this is one of those times. Using any other adjective would do a disservice to the interactive roller coaster that is Redout. (Review.)

4. Titanfall 2 (PC)

I made a grave mistake in 2014 when I neglected to put the original Titanfall, one of my favorite multiplayer games in recent memory, on my top ten. In retrospect, the move seems outright prophetic. Though I absolutely got my money's worth out of the first game, its omission of a single-player campaign makes it look downright incomplete next to its sequel, which not only includes a story mode but knocks it out of the damn park. If not for Doom, this would be 2016's true antithesis to the modern military shooter, a blazing and large scale romp that's short enough on fat to never be dull but sensible enough to save its most exciting material for the final act - a true rising action. The multiplayer features only minor tweaks, but the dynamic between on-foot and mech combat is so strong that I've already put over 70 hours into this thing and have no intention of stopping. What a grim mistake it was for EA to release this game the week after Battlefield 1. It deserves an audience. (Review.)

3. Owlboy (PC)

I struggle to summarize Owlboy in a single paragraph because the game is just so full of wonder, every level shining for its own reason. Maybe there's an exciting set piece, maybe a neat new mechanic is introduced, maybe a quirky new character shows up, maybe the story takes a surprising turn, maybe that background art just looks particularly nice. D-Pad Studio began working on Owlboy - one of the most passionate tributes to classic 2D gaming I've seen in the modern era - all the way back in 2007, but when I play it, I don't see development hell. I see patience, the desire to make every moment playing Owlboy memorable, even if it takes nine years to finish the damn thing. I had no issue deciding on my top three for 2016 but agonized over the order; it's painful to me that a game as beautiful, charming and creative as Owlboy can only place third. (Review.)

2. Superhot (PC)

You think you've seen everything, and then every once in a while a game like Superhot comes along to remind you how much juice there's yet to be squeezed out of this medium. While bullet-time has been done to death in video games, Superhot's approach - to make time only move when you do - gives its combat a turn-based vibe the transforms goofy '80s action movie scenarios into outright puzzles. It is, refreshingly, a blood-pumping action yarn that requires all brains and zero reflexes. It is a game that gives you the power to do impossibly awesome things. Its surprisingly cool meta-narrative (which had an amusing impact on social media the week of its launch) is a bonus bit of window dressing, but even if Superhot had been presented as a series of static challenges with no connective tissue, it'd still be fresh enough - and, in an impressive show of restraint, lean enough - to make for one of the year's easiest recommendations, even for a relatively high entrance fee. Because it is, after all, the most innovative... yeah, surely you know the line by now. (Review.)

1. Doom (PC)

For years, the AAA shooter scene has subtly deteriorated into something murky and unpleasant, and not without good reason. I'd rank Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and the original Gears of War among the best and most influential games of the last decade. At the time, the idea of an entire console generation's worth of shooter take their cues would've made me salivate. That happened, and look where it got us: overrun with creepy American nationalist fantasies. I have to assume that Call of Duty went to space this year because, as per series continuity, we've run out of people on Earth to murder.

And Gears? I used to buy those things on day one, yet a new one came out this year and I still haven't touched it. 2016 is the year when I finally hung up on Gears, when I officially lost my patience for spending the majority of a so-called action game with my face in the mud because my character's armor weighs as much as a tank but still can't protect him from more than a couple of shots before he needs a timeout. (I did wind up putting Gears 4 on my Christmas list, because if I'm gonna play it at all, I'd rather someone else paid for it.)

I could go on - about how Halo has collapsed under its own narrative weight, or how Destiny is a toy box with no toys in it, or how The Division is that very same toy box but painted grey - but the point is that Doom looked at the state of the AAA shooter and proclaimed, "I reject your bullshit." It's fast. It's gruesome. It's metal. It does everything in its power to keep you out of cover and in the action. And it features a silent protagonist who cares as little about the plot as we do. No sappy piano cover of "Mad World" as supporting characters die. No ruminations over the cost of war. These are demons from hell. Give us a goddamn shotgun.

I want to spend paragraphs talking about how intricate Doom's level design is, and how satisfying its weapons feel, and how perfectly it runs, and how much you're cheating yourself if you're not experiencing this baby with a mouse and keyboard. But what ultimately makes Doom my favorite game of the year is that it is precisely the game that I needed at this very moment. I can now signal the end of the era in which the best modern shooters are the ones like Spec Ops: The Line and Wolfenstein: The New Order primarily for pointing out how awful modern shooters are. We've gotten the postmodern stuff out of our systems, and now, hopefully, we can go back to basics, when shooters were breezy, exhilarating, fun. And leading that charge? Doom. (Review.)

And now on to the miscellaneous categories.

Most overrated: Inside
Most underrated: The Witness
Most overlooked: Redout
Most visually striking: Owlboy
All-out best-looking game: Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare
Best story: The Last Guardian
Best writing: Reigns, I guess? Weak year
Best character: Geddy (Owlboy)
Best original soundtrack: Virginia
Best licensed soundtrack: Forza Horizon 3
Biggest surprise: Doom
Biggest disappointment: ReCore
Most enjoyable bad game: Furi
Least enjoyable good game: The Banner Saga 2
Best PC port: Titanfall 2
Game that I spent the most time with: Overwatch
Game that I spent the least time with before judging: We Are the Dwarves
Game that I most wanted to play, but didn't: Fire Emblem Fates
Game I literally own that I most wanted to play, but didn't: 7th Dragon III: Code VFD
Best game that I still haven't finished: Darkest Dungeon
All-out worst game that I played: NightCry
Best non-2016 game that I first played in 2016: Elite Dangerous
Best remake/re-release: Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir
Most anticipated game this coming year: Yooka-Laylee

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Review Shots: December 15, 2016

Hi there. We're rapidly approaching the end of the year, and I've got several blog entries in the works summarizing what I feel are the most remarkable gaming experiences of 2016. (I'll also be on the GameCritics Game of the Year podcast for the first time, which I'm very excited about). With that said, I wanted to do some year-end cleanup and quickly talk about a handful of games that I never formally voiced my opinions on throughout the year. I've dubbed this "Review Shots," and I think it'll become a regular thing for me.

Darkest Dungeon (PC)

This is one of my most-played games of 2016, clocking at well over a hundred hours (albeit often while listening to podcasts or binging TV shows with one eye, because that's the kind of game this is), and I've actually bought it twice, on PC after the PS4/Vita versions turned out less than ideal. You'd think I unabashedly love it and that it's a lock for my top ten, yet I've hit an unfortunate roadblock. This is a roguelike, turn-based dungeon crawler with Lovecraftian setting and a focus on your characters' mental well-being. It's deep, it's stylish, and it gets its hooks in you. But it's also damn brutal, and once the later dungeons are unlocked, getting a party wipe can be utter hell, since raising a new party for prime-level questing takes hours of questing. It's discouraging, and a way to bypass more of that early-level grinding would make the endgame stuff more enticing. I've had a great time with the game and highly recommend it, but I can't say for certain that I'll ever see all of it. 8/10

Furi (PC)

Here's an odd one. Furi is basically a feature-length boss rush, a character action game that divides its time between frantic swordplay and bullet-hell schmupping, and consists of nothing but boss battles as the lead character kills the prison guards holding him captive. It's actually full of design choices that I would loathe in games where bosses comprised only a fraction of the playtime, like multiple phases (as in, say, five or six per battle) and pattern memorization. Plus, the dodge function, key to survival in many cases, has an infuriating delay that forced me into many restarts. I didn't enjoy Furi. Yet there's something about its style, openly inspired by the very strange works of Grasshopper and Platinum, that kept me going. It's got a great eye for empowering moment (even when you'll be restarting a lot), and the amazing soundtrack, by a collecting of house artists, almost gives Furi the pulse of a rhythm game. Plus, the story actually goes somewhere interesting! Honest! 6/10

Song of the Deep (PC)

Why the hell does this game exist? It was developed by Insomniac, the AAA development team responsible for franchises like Resistance and Ratchet & Clank. They have the kinds of resources most smaller developers would kill for, and here they are, making the sort of vaguely quaint Metroid knockoff that'd barely inspire attention if a first-time dev churned it out (minus the production values, which are admittedly lovely). Even the novelty of setting a game like this underwater, with players in control of a submarine, was already done earlier this year in The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human (which I also didn't like, though that one at least took some chances). Even as someone who's always on the lookout for a solid Metroidvania, this one's been too generic to keep me interested. I hope Insomniac got this all out of their system and goes back to using the tremendous power they have more productively. 4/10

Severed (Vita)

Dungeon crawlers are typically the sort of thing I can only play with one eye while marathoning a TV show, but developer DrinkBox Studios pulled all of the right tricks in making Severed more accessible to me: removing unnecessary grinding, shaving the campaign length to a lean eight hours, giving the combat a more interactive and frenetic nature (thanks to the Vita's touch screen), basing the whole thing around a Metroid-like upgrade-based progression system, and infusing the whole package with the sharp visual style that was a hallmark of the studio's previous release, Guacamelee. That game made my Game of the Year list, and I suspect Severed will, too. It's one of the few games for which I've bothered to earn a platinum trophy, and a perfect fit for the Vita, given its smooth combination of tradition and touch screen controls. Terrific release; DrinkBox Studios is officially on my "check out everything these folks make" list. 9/10

Reigns (PC/Android)

Another game I liked so much that I purchased it twice, after realizing that the game would be a much better fit on my fit. It controls, after all, like Tinder, as the players are simply tasked with swiping left or right as they're confronted with yes-or-no questions while reigning as a medieval monarch. It's simple and delightful, boosted by both its strong (yet also concise) writing and the surprising amount of depth involved as players are forced to balance the four pillars of the state (church, population, military, and treasury) without any of them either collapsing or becoming too powerful. Also, the game actually has an overarching story! I love Reigns, though it admittedly lost a few points when I learned that an game called Sort the Court did something awfully similar first but never quite caught on the way this one did. 8/10

Mirror's Edge Catalyst (PC)

I actually kind of hate the original Mirror's Edge. The controls never once felt comfortable to me (first-person parkour platforming is a very tricky thing to pull off), and the game's ultra-linear structure never gave the mechanics room to breathe. Moving the franchise to a sandbox setting makes total sense to me, and Catalyst actually feels a lot more responsive this time; I'm wondering if playing on mouse and keyboard helps, as being able to easily control where you're looking is a big advantage in these free-running scenarios. So the parkour's actually something of a thrill for once, but EA DICE is struggling to give this series a backbone. The story, characters and world are all still pretty much negligible, and the campaign pretty much just amount to a series of fetch quests and time trials while the important stuff is handled by people who can do more than just run really fast. It's a step in the right direction, but Catalyst is still little more than a very pretty, slightly above-average sandbox release. 6/10

Let It Die (PS4)

Grasshopper Manufacture, that weirdo studio headed by Suda51, recently surprised us with the late-year release of a free-to-play title called Let It Die. It's a roguelike dungeon-crawler with Souls-esque combat, set in a post-apocalyptic world where people wear traffic cones on their heads and murder each other with improvised weaponry. Pretty basic stuff, though injected with trademark Grasshopper strangeness; your guide, for instance, is a skateboarding Mexican grim reaper who calls you "Senpai." I kinda wish the combat was deeper, though Let It Die deserves kudos for being perhaps the first game in history to actually handle weapon degradation well -- most weapons only last for a handful of fights, but drops are so frequent that one of the game's hooks is constantly having to experiment with new arms combinations. Not one of Grasshopper's best games, and certainly not one of their most unique, but it's an addictive enough game, and you can't argue with free. 7/10