Category Archives: Opinion

My Favorite Games of 2016

It’s been said over and over again, but 2016 was a great year for games. It was also a little weird and more difficult to gauge than previous years. 2016 didn’t feature any massively hyped titles that blew everyone away and vaulted into instant classic status (like Halo, Mass Effect 2, Skyrim, and last year’s Metal Gear Solid V, for example). We usually get one of those a year, and many of 2016’s best games were total surprises steeped in doubt. Yet overall, it felt like there was a higher volume of legitimately great games than ever before.

Perhaps this is for the best too. 2016 felt like a strong, confident year for games that sold themselves. There was something for everyone, and everything from short indie experiences to the biggest annual shooter franchises seemed to deliver. In fact, there were so many great games all at once that it may have been too much, with stories of the fantastic Watch_Dogs 2 and Titanfall 2 underperforming, while instant classics like Dishonored 2 seemed to go unnoticed during some GOTY discussions. The game industry delivered such a strong year that they may have misjudged the size and appetite of the audience capable of devouring it all.

I was fortunate enough to play through nearly all of the big titles I wanted to, but even then a few big things fell through the cracks. Hitman? Maybe that will be my 2017 Old Game of the Year. Deus Ex Mankind Divided? It’s stacked in the backlog right beneath Human Revolution. Oxenfree? It seemed cool, but I have to get back to it.

Despite not playing everything, the games I had to cut from my top 10 were almost all painful cuts…

Quantum Break was wildly misunderstood, perhaps even by Remedy to an extent. It blended their trademark action gameplay and storytelling with a TV show and a short novel’s worth of reading. The presentation of all of that was a little uneven, but the end result was a coherent time travel story that stuck to its own rules to the very end — an incredible accomplishment.

Unravel was a beautiful, heartfelt puzzle platformer that may have been a bit too precious for its own good. For me, though, this one hit on a weird personal level. When I was a kid I always had this mascot platformer in my imagination — the main character was tiny, and had to navigate giant, real world environments. Unravel is basically that game from my childhood dreams. Besides that, it’s also a sort of spiritual successor to Cool Spot.

Then there’s Battlefield 1, a game that’s still going to war with my #8, #9, and #10 spots. It’s the best Battlefield game since Bad Company 2, with a weirdly great campaign and a new mode called Operations that’s up there with BFBC2’s Rush in terms of thrills. I just didn’t feel confident letting it climb my personal ladder because I ended up playing a lot more Titanfall 2 in 2016. This year, that may change.

There are many other games of note, some of which I talked about in other articles prior to this top ten list. But it’s time to get to the point.

severedI played Severed over a few sessions spread out throughout the year, starting with its release in April and ending just a few weeks ago in an attempt to get caught up and make this list. Each of my sessions was an enthralling joy. Severed is an eminently playable, beautiful dungeon crawler with Infinity Blade-esque touchscreen battles. I’ve bounced off of these sort of first-person maze dungeon RPGs before, but Severed’s perfect blend of that genre with action combat won me over. One of the Playstation Vita’s essential games.

hyperlightdrifter.pngA beautiful, dark, modern take on Zelda with a combat system Nintendo never would have made, but one that should be in all of Link’s future 2D adventures. Hyperlight Drifter is another realization of what games may have become if polygons and 3D graphics were never invented. With stunning pixel art and animation, a haunting soundtrack, and worthwhile secrets and exploration, Hyperlight Drifter is a stunning window into an alternate history of video games.

uncharted4I enjoyed the original Uncharted trilogy in spite of itself. The storytelling was a treat, but it was always compromised by excessive, drawn-out combat encounters. Uncharted 4 fixes this in several ways. Combat arenas are designed for the new grappling hook and stealth mechanics, and they’re spread more evenly through an adventure packed with variety and some of the series’ most thrilling sequences. That truck chase from E3? That gave me some Fury Road-tier goosebumps. Then there’s the story, which successfully humanizes the cast of Uncharted, digs into Nathan Drake’s flaws, and concludes with a flawlessly-executed epilogue.

titanfall2After the original Titanfall burned fast and bright, wowing us all before fizzling out, it was obvious that Titanfall 2 was a good idea. A sequel just needed to offer more variety and abilities — and maybe a proper single player campaign. Titanfall 2 not only does all that but it delivers a truly thrilling campaign that only the people behind Modern Warfare 1 & 2 could provide. The adventures of “The Pilot” and his robot buddy BT are packed with fun, memorable moments. On top of that, the multiplayer suite is somehow even more smooth and playable than it was in the first game. This thing puts current Call of Duty games to shame.

insideThe follow-up to Limbo secures developer Playdead’s position as an uncompromising team of true artists. Inside doesn’t resemble most traditional games. It doesn’t re-use assets or gameplay mechanics. From one moment to the next you navigate a uniquely crafted world made up of puzzles that have almost nothing to do with each other. Even moreso than Limbo, Inside doesn’t waste a second on repeated concepts. Despite that, Inside smoothly builds and builds to a crescendo. It saves the best for last, and its best is hilarious, shocking, and disgusting.

mafiaiiiFew games made me laugh this year like Mafia III. That’s not because Mafia III is a comedy, far from it. But it tells its story in such a delightfully entertaining way that it was hard to avoid cackling in agreement. From the moments where the documentary-style cutscenes very frankly spoil the upcoming story beats, to the sudden appearance of Joey Mother Fuckin’ Coco Diaz as one of your targets, Mafia III is full of fun surprises. The core gameplay may be straightforward, but it’s also polished and incredibly satisfying. Other open-world crime games should be taking notes.

dishonored2The differences between Dishonored and Dishonored 2 are subtle but profound, taking this stealth-action-play-how-you-want series from great to essential. Aside from some technical wizardry in some of Dishonored 2’s best levels, it doesn’t do anything vastly different from the first game. Where it excels is in the extra layer of craftsmanship baked into every bit of level design, world-building, and systems interaction. When it comes to Looking Glass-style games, Dishonored 2 may be the new king.

darksoulsiiiThis is going to sound weird, but I think Dark Souls III is underrated. Blame it on franchise fatigue, a fanbase that was already burned by Dark Souls II, or the proximity to the superior Bloodborne — whatever the case, Dark Souls III didn’t have the same enthusiasm surrounding it, and I think that’s weird. Simply put, Dark Souls III is the best Dark Souls game. The original Dark Souls fumbled in the second half, and Dark Souls II was good, but largely forgettable. Dark Souls III seems to get better and better as it goes, with cool reveals, memorable bosses, hidden quests, a branching storyline, and fearless, uncompromising challenge.

doomI’m not sure what I can say about the new Doom that hasn’t already been said a million times. From the combat design where you perform melee finishers to regain health, chainsaw enemies to get ammo, never reload, and run around at 90 mph; to the story, which is hilariously self-aware yet deeply serious; and the soundtrack, which sets the tone perfectly; everything about Doom is immaculate. This game shouldn’t exist, but it does and everyone should play it.

thewitnessThis game was my life for a little while. Jonathan Blow crafted a devious puzzle island that taught me its language, rewarded perception, and eventually became so much more than a series of puzzle panels. It’s a shame a game like this can be solved and used up. You can never get that first time back. Thankfully, The Witness makes sure you get your fill, and after dozens of hours, pages of notes, and an epic final challenge behind me, it’s an experience I will never forget.

Watch_Dogs 2 vs. Mafia III – The Importance of Sticking the Landing

With 2016 over, it’s time to discuss the year’s best games. Alongside a top 10, I’ll be posting a few “Versus” articles pitting two games against each other. Really though, it’s just a silly way for me to talk about some of the titles I may not get to in my final top 10 list. Enjoy!

Watch_Dogs 2 and Mafia III are two open-world crime games released within a month of each other. They’re both noteworthy for their progressive portrayals of blackness. Marcus Holloway of Watch_Dogs 2 and Lincoln Clay of Mafia III are both fully-fleshed out black protagonists, genuine to their respective times. A few years ago Ubisoft may have palette-swapped the original Watch_Dog’s Aiden Pierce and called it a new frontier. Today, these two characters were written with thoughfulness and care, and that feels like real progress.

It helps that both games are genuinely great. Watch_Dogs 2 reframes the solid gameplay from the first game in a more vibrant world with a cast of genuinely likable characters. Mafia III tells one of the great video game stories of our time, filling in the gaps between the excellent cutscenes with generic, but satisfying gameplay.

Both games succeed, but they excel in different ways. Watch_Dogs 2 is the standout in terms of gameplay, with tactical/stealth action that sits beside Tom Clancy-brand greats like Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six. Mafia III, meanwhile, seems more concerned with telling a complete, coherent, cinematic plot. Continue reading Watch_Dogs 2 vs. Mafia III – The Importance of Sticking the Landing

Virginia vs. Firewatch – A Tale of Two Frame Rates

With 2016 over, it’s time to discuss the year’s best games. Alongside a top 10, I’ll be posting a few “Versus” articles pitting two games against each other. Really though, it’s just a silly way for me to talk about some of the titles I may not get to in my final top 10 list. Enjoy!

Firewatch and Virginia are two excellent pieces of interactive fiction that I found impossible to fully enjoy thanks to rough performance on PS4. If you own a decent gaming PC or you aren’t sensitive to frame rate issues, you may take this as some pointless whining — but for me it’s a big deal. This lack of polish on tightly scripted, film-length experiences is inexcusable, distracting, and if I were writing for Giant Bomb, it would probably show up as my “Please Stop” nominee for 2016.

As a general rule, I think games need to pick a frame rate and stick to it. They should also strive to match or exceed the resolution of the device they’re being displayed on, with as few visual distractions (like screen-tearing) as possible. This isn’t because I’m some kind of graphics snob, and I don’t think it’s a lot to ask when many games of all sizes can meet these requirements. The reason is that for the keen eye, all these hitches and glitches are distracting. Continue reading Virginia vs. Firewatch – A Tale of Two Frame Rates

Infinite Warfare vs. Gears of War 4 – The Year of the Shooter Campaign

With 2016 over, it’s time to discuss the year’s best games. Alongside a top 10, I’ll be posting a few “Versus” articles pitting two games against each other. Really though, it’s just a silly way for me to talk about some of the titles I may not get to in my final top 10 list. Enjoy!

2016 was a great year for games, but one of the weirder phenomenons was the prevalence of excellent shooter campaigns. In a time when more developers are experimenting with multiplayer-only (Titanfall 1), succeeding brilliantly with multiplayer-only (Overwatch), or blending the whole thing together into an always-online experience (Destiny, The Division), the dedicated 5-10 hour single-player shooter campaign seems out of place.

Yet here we are with Doom, an instant classic that seems to have a tacked-on multiplayer if anything; Battlefield 1, which didn’t advertise a campaign at all, but came packed with an emotional collection of short war stories; and Titanfall 2, a complete package straight out of 2007 featuring fantastic multiplayer and a campaign that’s been compared to Half-Life 2. Continue reading Infinite Warfare vs. Gears of War 4 – The Year of the Shooter Campaign

When will Sony patch the PSVR & PS4 PRO?

The Playstation VR has been available since October 13, 2016. The PS4 PRO has been available since November 10, 2016. Neither platform has received a meaningful firmware update since launch, and both seem to have an astronomical number of issues.

I don’t own a Vive or Oculus Rift, so when the PSVR works correctly it is, for me, one of the most breathtaking gaming experiences I’ve had. But those instances where it works flawlessly are ephemeral. The PSVR view drifts over time as you play. Some games, like Thumper, are much worse about it than others. Motion controllers often lose calibration through the course of a single play session and begin jittering around the screen.

Players have been troubleshooting the hardware themselves on forums like /r/PSVR, coming up with massive lists of potential fixes. This results in a multi-step process just to start using the PSVR each time you play. First, it’s recommended that users fully reboot their consoles. Then, they should lay the PSVR headset on a flat surface and turn it on, waiting for 10 seconds before touching it. At this point they may as well run the calibration while they’re going to all this effort. Finally, they can put on the headset, grab a controller, and hope for the best. Continue reading When will Sony patch the PSVR & PS4 PRO?

Finishing up 2016’s GOTY Contenders

Staying on top of my game backlog is a strange, thankless hobby I can’t get enough of. I like to play everything big and important, small and noteworthy, and even some of the oddities in between. That task has always been impossible. As someone who doesn’t do *this* for a living, my time to get through games clashes directly with paying bills, maintaining an apartment and two cats, staying in touch with family, and any other hobbies I enjoy. I’m lucky enough to have a girlfriend who is just as committed to the game backlog as I am, otherwise I may have given up a long time ago.

Every year is the same. As the holiday release storm comes to a close, what was once a manageable endeavor becomes a herculean task. Up until now I thought I had a fair handle on this year’s game releases. Sure, I have to come back to a game or two from earlier in the year, but for the most part I played everything I wanted to.

Now that it’s nearly December that’s no long the case. So, in the spirit of hopes, dreams, and intentions, I’ve decided to make a list of everything I should really play before the year is through. What’s your list? Please share in the comments!

Watch_Dogs 2 – Because I’m already playing it, I already love it, but it’s a big game and I need to finish it!
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare – Because I also already started this one, and it’s a blast so far. I love a good shooter campaign, and this year has offered a ton of them.
Titanfall 2 – Because there’s a moment in it that everyone is talking about in hushed tones. If you follow enough podcasts it can be a death by a thousand tiny spoiler cuts, but I’m still not 100% sure what the big deal is and I’m excited to find out for myself.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – Because the Deus Ex series has eternally haunted my backlog, and I’d like to finish at least one of the “good” ones (ironically I managed to finish Invisible War).
Dishonored 2 – Because I finished Dishonored and all the DLC this year. The story is fresh in my mind and I want to see where they take it.
Hitman – Because it sounded like a great game all year long, and I finally got the entire collection for $30.
The Last Guardian – Because I loved Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, and even if I didn’t, I need to know what was worth all those years of work.
Final Fantasy XV – Because it’s a non-MMO Final Fantasy game getting positive reviews in a post Final Fantasy XIII world.
Gears of War 4 – Because I liked this series a lot in the past, and I’ve heard this one is a lot of fun. I just don’t turn on my Xbox much anymore.

My Favorite Games of 2015

As I find myself helpless against the call of The Witness it’s become increasingly clear that not only is 2015 over, but 2016 is already in full swing. My original goal was to spend a mostly-quiet January catching up on the handful of big games I wanted to play. The problem  — and I knew this was going to be a problem going into it — was that a lot of these games were too long to realistically play in that timeframe.

It was silly to think I could play Fallout 4 and The Witcher 3 in just a few weeks, and even sillier to think I could squeeze in Mario Maker, Dying Light, Undertale, AND finish up Telltale’s Game of Thrones and Tales from the Borderlands. I did manage to play SOMA and Her Story, two games I’m thrilled to have finished before writing this. I also played a good 40 hours of Fallout 4, more than enough to justify its presence in this list.

As for my shame pile, I have to say it’s pretty cool that I played so much this year and still have GOTY-tier titles that have overflowed into 2016. The Witcher 2 was fun, but overrated, so I’m super curious to see how this far more ambitious third game treats me, especially after several rounds of patches and improvements. I’m excited to see if Mario Maker grabs me — I see its elegance but I don’t have the same passion for 2D Mario games that people who put it on the top of their lists have. I’m curious to see how Telltale’s two series wrap up, and I’m interested to figure out what makes Undertale so beloved. 2016 is already threatening to sidetrack my backlog efforts but 2015 was so good that I doubt I’ll be swayed for long.

Anyway, credit to those games aside, the real winners are the ten games I truly loved in 2015:

fallout4.jpg

10) Fallout 4 – I’ve put exponentially less time into Bethesda RPGs with each entry. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of hours I put into Morrowind, but that number shrank to 120 with Oblivion, 90 with Fallout 3, and finally 20 or so with Skyrim. Fallout 4 broke the curse — not necessarily because it’s a better game than Skyrim — it’s just more Fallout, and it’s the thing Bethesda has been doing for over a decade now. But I find myself drawn to this new world despite the weird allegiances and strained attempt to tell a “main story”. I go off the beaten path and I find the thing Bethesda has always done so well — a story to discover, a moment lost in time, or an unexpected comment from a robot that thinks he’s a hardboiled detective.

Syndicate-4.jpg

9) Assassin’s Creed Syndicate – Syndicate is my favorite Assassin’s Creed game since AC2 & Brotherhood made the series something special. Annualized to hell, Assassin’s Creed blew it with AC3’s ending and has been scrambling to recover ever since. Sure, AC4 was a cool departure, but when AC:Unity brought the series back to its roots of historical parkour, it was clear Ubisoft was struggling to find where to go next. And now, only a year later, Syndicate feels like a step back onto solid ground. Jacob and Evie are the best characters since Ezio, the present day plot seems to be building back up to something worthwhile again, and they finally got AC to play like a decent stealth game. It’s time to take a break, and I’m glad that Ubi seems to be taking a year off, but Syndicate was a great note to pause on.

her-story.jpg

8) Her Story – Blame Serial, Making a Murderer, and the gaming press hype machine, but I was a bit intimidated by Her Story. I’d heard anecdotes of its open-ended narrative where you stop playing when you’re satisfied. I’d heard of people with notepads trying to piece everything together and conflicting theories raging on through message boards to this day. So it was a little weird when I finished the game in two hours, satisfied that I’d cracked the mystery. Her Story’s brilliant police database format allows you to be a video game detective, and offers up a great excuse for some classy FMV acting, but it also earns its place as an inviting first salvo into potential genre I’d love to see more of.

Until-Dawn-characters.jpg

7) Until Dawn – Until Dawn is a way classier game than it has any right to be. Yes, it’s about a bunch of idiot teenagers trying to get drunk and hook up in a cabin in the woods, but that’s only the start. Everything from the characterization, to the clever framing devices, and the explanation for all the spooks and scares is more carefully crafted than most horror films. It’s playable, choice-driven, replayable, ambitious, and still manages to outdo the film genre it’s inspired by in a lot of ways. One of 2015’s great surprises.

life-is-strange-ep1.jpg

6) Life is Strange – Life is Strange is a strong case for games about things besides shooting people. I want to play more games about life choices, relationships, three-dimensional female leads, and sitting on park benches. It’s almost a shame that the end-of-the-world time-travel stuff keeps Life is Strange from truly being about normal day-to-day life. That said, the sci-fi stuff helped push the narrative down some paths I never could have imagined. There were few things more exciting in 2015 than the lead-up to a new Life is Strange episode, mainly because the writers outdid themselves with every cliffhanger.

GrowHome

5) Grow Home – Ubisoft Reflections has now made two of my favorite and most indescribable games. First they made Driver: San Francisco, a story-driven racing game about a comatose ghost man that possesses the city’s drivers. And now they have Grow Home, a game about jumping and climbing to higher heights, exploring a world, searching for collectibles, and building up the environment yourself by riding a giant growing flower. It looks like an experiment in many ways, from the sparse graphics to the weird physics-based animations, but the sum result is a magical experience that feels like a nostalgia trip and a revival of 3D platformers all at once.

DestinyTTK.png

4) Destiny: The Taken King – Often Destiny is a game about sinking hundreds of hours into a game, wishing it was something better, and knowing that it could be. Bungie still has a lot of growing to do before they can make the game people imagine, but The Taken King showed they are capable of getting there. Simply put, for a few months Destiny was incredible — a nightly ritual among friends who all loved it and felt no shame about the time they sunk into it. The sheen has worn off as the content has run dry and Bungie has gone quiet, and Destiny once again feels more like a chore than a joy, but for a little while there, my hobby wasn’t playing video games, it was playing Destiny.

Soma.jpg

3) SOMA – The story that drives Frictional Games’ successor to Amnesia is one of the smartest and thought-provoking sci-fi tales I’ve ever experienced in a game. The performances are perfect, and the twists are stomach-churning. The gameplay is the same sort of horror-corridor exploration that worked in Amnesia, but the world and tale at the heart of it is on an entirely different level. Frictional’s name is no joke, they make games that bite back, and SOMA is often so scary that it’s almost unpleasant to play, yet I couldn’t stop because I needed to know what would happen next.

bloodborne-big

2) Bloodborne – This year, From Software proved that they could redefine the Souls games. Bloodborne fundamentally changed the language of combat away from Dark Souls slow, defense-heavy combat, to something much more aggressive and fast. It was both a challenge to die-hard fans of Dark Souls and an invitation for an entirely new audience. Bloodborne is every bit as uncompromising and brutal as Dark Souls, but it’s also the most appealing and well-realized this series has been. No one makes games like this, and this is one of From Software’s best.

Metal-Gear-Solid-V.jpg

1) Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – For all the insanity that Kojima crams into the Metal Gear games, I don’t think anyone expected him to make a game like The Phantom Pain. At the heart of Kojima’s swan song is the best stealth action gameplay ever, not just for MGS, but for the genre as a whole. The sheer breadth of tools and options the game gives the player is staggering, and infiltrating a base never gets old because of that. It’s the first Metal Gear game that you can recommend to people who have no interest in the story. That’s enough to put MGSV on this list, but what cements it at the top is the sheer ambition on display. MGSV offers up over 50 hours of gameplay, dozens of guns and tools, companions to take on missions, a robust base-building system, a weird online invasion mechanic, crazy twists and turns, an incredible soundtrack, and Nintendo-tier playability and polish.

Perhaps even more incredible is where that ambition falls short. Take the character Quiet, for instance. She’s both a problematic excuse for titillation and one of the most compassionate and interesting heroes in the story. Then there’s the overall plot, which goes to some insane and dark places, nearly incapable of holding back before ending abruptly thanks to supposed content cuts. That a game as massive as MGSV could potentially have cut content is already insane — that it feels like a small tragedy is even stranger.