Meant to do this over a week ago, but holidays, work and the flu (still recovering) combined to slow me down. My excuse is now that 2017 is well over, and everyone has some breathing room where late in the year games have lost their release glow. Of those games, what 10 were your favorite experiences this year, and why? I love knowing what and why people are attracted to stuff, especially if I missed out on something interesting.
I’ll start things out with my 10 favorites counting down:
10. Persona 5
I’ve always wanted to see more JRPGs take influence from simulation games, and doing a life sim on top of dungeon crawling is a fun combo. Persona 5 struggles a bit with localization and some story beats, but the dungeon crawling, characters, and just vibe of the game draw me in. Maybe there is some diminishing returns after multiple games, but this is easily the most stylish entry...all the way down to the UI itself.
9. Super Mario Odyssey
Not personally a big fan of Mario games, with the last ones that grabbed me being Mario Galaxy 1-2, due to their creative and diverse level design themed around planets. Odyssey provides that new layer of gameplay through an influx of Kirby, gaining abilities of enemies, just less sucking action and more hatting. Each world opens up new avenues to do new things, keeping the experience interesting.
8. Dishonored: Death of the Outsider
Dishonored is probably my favorite new IP in the last decade. It combines the dense, creative and varied level design of Thief that I wanna explore, with a bevy of powers that allow for extremely varied play like Deus Ex. While this expansion is solid, it’s also lacking in the 2 comparison areas I just described. The only real stand-out level is the bank heist, which to be fair is among the best in the series, and offers the most choice in how you complete it. A bigger problem is that while you get a new set of gadgets/abilities, the size of the toolbag is smaller, so the possibility space shrinks with it. However, just OK Dishonored is better than most other games, and I want a 3rd main entry if Zenimax doesn’t shut down Arkane.
7. Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Whether Nintendo intended this or not, they created the most Bethesda-ass game I’ve seen in a while. So many of the accolades for the open-world are driven around landmarks in distance, quests you can begin or end at any time, a set of systems in the game world to make it feel alive while leading to emergent moments, and steers away from the map marker vomit of Rockstar/Ubisoft design…so you know...discover stuff for yourself. All things I felt while playing Skyrim, but Breath of the Wild eliminates the jank of Bethesda, provides more traversal options, and some light survival mechanics I only got from Skyrim mods in a more colorful package.
6. Mario+Rabbids Kingdom Battle
Before I saw a gameplay trailer, assumed this would be just another crossover mini-game focused thing like Mario Party. Then I saw half-cover, hit chance, and turn-based Mario with a Mega Man blaster…oh they made cute X-COM. Probably the most accessible take on X-COM as well, complete with unique mechanics and environment interaction that fit in with the Mario world. Always fun flinging your friends to get vantage or flank enemies. Even the Rabbids charmed me, which is probably the biggest achievement.
5. Horizon Zero Dawn
Another surprise this year. Who’d have thought the dour Killzone military shooter guys would go colorful, tribal, and then have giant robo-dinosaurs. Game hooked me pretty early on, with the mystery of how this setting came to be, and how fun it was to hunt these things. I mean “hunt” too, because unlike games that make hunters an action hero, quickly these creatures get too big and deadly to face head on. Instead you stalk, set traps, and lure them until you can hit their weak points. Still need to play the expansion.
4. South Park: The Fractured But Whole
South Park is one of the only shows I’ve watched since I was a teenager, and still like now. Stick of Truth was a solid 1st take on making a game feel like a season of the show, but the actual gameplay aspect was weak, and repetitive while the humor got me through to the end. This entry substitutes the kinda boring Mario RPG fights with a mini-grid based tactical combat, and opens up some actual challenge/strategy. So now I actually like playing the game on top of it being a funny story that charmed me from beginning to end.
3. XCOM 2: War of the Chosen
Already XCOM 2 was the best entry in the series due to the more robust troop customization, varied mission types/levels, and legit mod support. Now this expansion makes a take on Shadow of Mordor’s nemesis system, with 3 boss enemies always following you, causing problems, and getting stronger with time. Also some Darkest Dungeon phobias your troops get, but countered with
bondmates the power of friendship, and a bevy of new gadgets harvested from aliens I murdered. Just such a dense game I’d easily play through again, but with mods so everyone is a character from Archer.
2. Divinity: Original Sin 2
Without a doubt, Larian’s games are the strongest reason for why CRPGs deserve to comeback. The 1st game was my 2014 GOTY, and this 2nd entry is the jump Baldur’s Gate 2 was from 1. I personally dug the 1st game’s quirky sense of humor tale, but this game retains the whimsy with stronger lore, a easily better central plot, and one of the best takes on player origin. You can play as a fixed character that has their own sub-plot through the game, or you create your own character with a tag system of personality/background traits the world reacts to.
I want to emphasize “reacts”, because jeeze does this game have conversations constantly adjust to who your character is, and consistently open up new options that make me wonder why I bother with Bioware games anymore. All entirely voice acted (including animals), with the best turn-based combat system in existence, and lets me play with 3 friends instead of 1. They even made a D&D campaign creator because they’re awesome.
Immersive Sims are easily my favorite kind of game, and always have been since I first experienced them in the late 90s with Thief 1-2, Deus Ex, and yes System Shock 2. I’ve been lucky enough to see Deus Ex get continued, Dishonored fills the Thief gap, but nothing has filled the void of System Shock 2. Bioshock existed…I guess...but it was always the dumber stripped down shooter cousin, sacrificing systemic depth, in cool looking but ultimately linear settings.
Arkane though decided to make a modern System Shock without the concessions, refining just enough to make the experience more accessible to a new audience.You are put in this giant persistent interconnected space station, filled with dense spaces worth exploring, and I’m allowed to find my own way. I don’t have 2d menus to interact with, I move a cursor on a real-life computer or num-pad. Everything not strapped down has physics, even the big objects, and I can turn any of them into their core elements that I then craft with. Of course I can go out into space, and skip ahead to another part of the station. Weird creepy aliens shape-shift as any object? Well then I’ll analyze what they are with my sci-fi goggles, stick a needle in my eye, and get to use their power.
Prey exceeds in the areas I care about in games. It gives me a fascinating world, densely pack with detail, non-linear while constantly encouraging my agency, and letting me poke/prod it in a myriad of ways. The sense of place in this game is palpable, and no game has gotten as close to that this year. Deserved to sell better in my eyes, but everything is going to be okay because Mick Gordon is great:
Honorable Mentions: RUINER, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, Oxygen Not Included, They are Billions, The Sexy Brutale, Dead Cells, etc. something else I’m forgetting.