Why Some of 2017’s Best Games Missed My Top 10

The following games could easily be someone’s top 10 of 2017. It says a lot about the quality of games in 2017 that I have ten more games I liked more than these. The problem is, we all like top 10 lists. They’re fun exercises, and I had to make some harsh cuts. The following games all meant a lot to me. I want to honor them all with a shout out, but also explain why they missed the mark. I’ll follow up soon with my actual top 10 list. Enjoy!

Destiny 2
I wish I could bottle up my first few weeks with Destiny 2 and come back to them whenever I need a nostalgia trip. It truly felt like Destiny had started to realize its potential. But the more I played, the more I noticed the holes. Where were the cool secrets, like the Black Spindle quest from Destiny 1? When were we going to return to the stories of Eris, Variks, and The Queen? Where was the endgame? At this point Destiny 2’s situation has gotten much worse, with the controversy around microtransactions completely overtaking the conversation. But man, those first few weeks were really good.

Wolfenstein II
My love for developer Machine Games’ work goes all the way back to Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. Needless to say, I was over the moon for most of Wolfenstein II. Unfortunately, the last act rushes to the ending, as if the team was suddenly forced to finish the story under duress. The tone and pacing was off in a way that cast a shadow over the rest of the game for me. I was distracted enough to take a more critical look. And if I’m being entirely honest, Wolf II just wasn’t very fun to play.

Nier: Automata
The biggest issue with Nier: Automata is that it’s a Platinum game that doesn’t live up to the Platinum pedigree. Platinum’s involvement was supposed to fix the flaws of the original Nier. Instead, we got a repeat of Yoko Taro’s revelatory storytelling…and a repeat of gameplay that can’t quite live up to it. For many, this was enough. For me, it was a bit too much déjà vu. If the collaboration ever happens again, I hope we get the same Platinum that made Bayonetta 1 & 2.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Breath of the Wild is a brave and unexpected game coming from Nintendo. It has more in common with Far Cry 2 than any previous Zelda game. It can also be incredibly boring and directionless if you wander in the wrong direction. Journey to a tower in the distance and it’s more or less guaranteed that it will start raining by the time you get there, preventing you from climbing it. The main quest often fails to capitalize on the systems-driven open world, drawing more attention to its limitations than its strengths. BOTW is so much more than these complaints, but these issues were enough to keep me from devoting hundreds of hours to it like so many others.

Mario Odyssey
Mario Odyssey goes for it. Few ideas seem to be off limits, and the result is a game full of incredible highs, and enough lows to keep it off of my top 10. New Donk City is one of Mario’s all-time great worlds, but you have to pass through a few pretty dry locations to get there. The Bowser encounters are incredible, but the Broodals are ugly and uninspired. The movement controls blossom into something incredible once you start combined long-jumps, dives, and hat-throws; but, they’re soured by bad, mandatory motion controls that are completely impractical in the Switch’s portable mode.

Splatoon 2
Nintendo’s platform is the biggest obstacle between Splatoon 2 and true greatness. It’s cute that so many people love the game as a “solo multiplayer” game, but that’s no excuse for Nintendo’s Y2K-Dreamcast-tier online service. When I did manage to get friends together to play (with voice chat courtesy of a Google Hangouts call),  Splatoon 2’s excellent gameplay rose above the hassle. Plus, it convinced me that motion controls can be truly great if done right.

Doki Doki Literature Club
Doki Doki Literature Club feels like generic anime wish fulfillment for a couple hours. And even when it suggests that there is more going on behind the scenes, there’s really no reason to trust it yet. When the turn happens, though, it’s brutal, upsetting, and reframes the opening hours with value and purpose. DDLC is a tough game to recommend outright, but if you’re interesting in a mindfuck, this is for you.

Player Unknown's Battlegrounds
Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds was a phenomenon I didn’t expect to experience in 2017. Luckily I got my hands on a capable gaming PC right at the end of the year. I get it now. PUBG introduces a level of tension and anxiety to multiplayer combat that I haven’t experienced outside of a handful of games. PUBG also represents the most time I’ve spent playing games with a mouse and keyboard since Half-Life 2. This game is cool, but personally, I’m more excited for the first console/controller-focused copycat.

Dirt Rally and Resident Evil 7 demonstrated that dense, fully-featured games can work in VR. Statik, on the other hand, is a reminder that a game that works within VR’s limitations can be just as satisfying. This puzzle game confines you to a chair with a strange device shackled to your hands, giving a perfect 1:1 sensation of sitting in a chair with a controller. From there it presents a sequence of really fun and creative puzzles with some light storytelling stringing it all together. The game ends sooner than I would have liked, but that also means that each puzzle is a wholly original idea.

This is where this list starts to give me some trouble. I loved Prey. It’s a game I intend to return to. My issues with it are minor. I even loved some of the things that people criticized it for — namely, the ending. Prey is a systems-driven game in the Thief-Bioshock-Dishonored-Deus-Ex-mold. It’s rumored that it may have been called System Shock 3 at one point, and it lives up to that distinction. It features a massive, fully-realized space station packed with possibilities. And while we got lucky with this sub-genre in recent years, these kinds of games are still rare, and they take a hell of a lot of work to create. Developer Arkane should be proud of what they did here.

Gravity Rush 2
My number 11 game of the year. Gravity Rush 2 is ambitious, unique, and refreshing. Exploring its world is an absolute joy. I didn’t want it to end. I was surprised by the strange and wild directions the story took. Sure, it felt like they threw in the story of Gravity Rush 3 just in case they never get to make another one (and they probably won’t), but that just made it feel like a true journey in the end. Most of all, Gravity Rush 2 had some things to say about class structures, wealth, and poverty, which it told through the open world and gameplay in an impactful way.

Destiny 2 is Failing its Most Important Audience

Destiny has always had ups and downs, and they’ve always been pretty predictable. You can set your watch to the times when its community will be praising Bungie or cursing them to the ends of the Destiny subreddit. A new content drop typically keeps the audience happy for a month or two, but then as the events taper off, the secrets are discovered, the content becomes stale, and the playerbase starts to discover the holes. Few games are as voraciously and thoroughly consumed by a large audience. The ones that are devoured like this tend to throw so much content at the players that even the most dedicated will struggle to see it all.

At its very best, Destiny has always felt content-starved compared to other games people play every day for months at a time. Take any MMO, even one just getting started, and it likely has more hours of actual unique content than all of Destiny and Destiny 2 combined.

Destiny started life as a highly replayable loot shooter. The fantastic gameplay was always there. Destiny is Bungie’s previous game, Halo, but powered up with new abilities and modern design. Both Halo and Destiny were almost infinitely replayable before monthly events and quarterly expansion packs were the expectation. I could boot up Halo: Combat Evolved on Legendary difficulty right now and have as much fun with it as ever, and Bungie has been riding that hook for over 15 years. Continue reading Destiny 2 is Failing its Most Important Audience

Annabelle: Creation – Film Review

Most people would say they go to horror movies and haunted houses for the same fundamental reason: to be scared. That said, I have to hope most people expect a bit more substance from a movie, and while Annabelle: Creation is an effective jump-scare delivery system, it doesn’t have much else to offer.

Set as an origin story for the Annabelle doll from both The Conjuring films and the previous Annabelle, Creation tells a story no one really needed to know, in a setting that couldn’t be more dull.

Set in small town America in-or-around the 1950’s, the film opens with the Mullins family — a father, mother, and daughter — living happily in their large, isolated house outside of town. The father, Samuel, is launching a new line of porcelain dolls, the first of which is completed just before a tragic car accident takes the life of their daughter.

Twelve years after the accident, Samuel and his now bedridden wife Esther take in a nun and several orphaned girls in attempt to bring some life back into their home. Of course, it’s not quite so simple, as the girls start seeing phantoms and the danger quickly escalates.

What follows is a by-the-book haunted house scenario devoid of fresh ideas. The creaky, isolated, 1950s house doesn’t leave much room for the kind of cool scares or creative kills that set one horror movie apart from another. Meanwhile, the plot treads well-worn horror territory while doing very little to surprise us with Annabelle’s origin story. The explanation for Annabelle feels like something writer Gary Dauberman was forced to come up with out of obligation — like some last minute homework thrown together on the school bus before class.

And yet, the jump scares are quite effective. I’ve often said a comedy can be about anything as long as the jokes land, and so I have to at least give some credit to Annabelle for being a horror movie with real scares. As dull as the actual plot was, as little as I cared about the moment-to-moment, as much as I felt like I’d seen it all before, I still left my seat a few times. I think that has to count for something.

That said, I don’t think jump scares count in horror the same way laughs count for comedy. Jump scares are a fleeting thrill, and without dread, psychological horrors, interesting plot, or compelling characters backing them up, I don’t think Annabelle: Creation is worth your time.

Logan Lucky – Film Review

Logan Lucky hit theaters with seemingly little fanfare — but don’t let that fool you — this is a clever heist film with an excellent cast and some crowd-pleasing twists and turns.

I went into the film with no expectations, sold simply on director Steven Soderbergh and a cast that includes Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and Daniel Craig. I was surprised to find a spiritual successor to Soderbergh’s previous Ocean’s trilogy. It bears the same all-star-cast-centered-around-a-big-score premise of those films, but transports them into a blue collar setting.

If Ocean’s took its cues from James Bond and The Italian Job, then Logan Lucky shares more DNA with Breaking Bad. The film’s central heist has many moving parts, but they revolve less around fancy suits and casinos and more on homemade bombs and NASCAR. That said, the setting and cast is refreshing, and as implausibly brilliant as everyone seems in hindsight, it’s so much fun in the moment that it hardly matters.

The last time I spent serious time writing on Red Ring Circus I spoke about the importance of sticking the landing. I come back to that here because Logan Lucky’s third act highs put such a huge smile on my face that I’m still smiling thinking about it. The film takes it’s time getting there, but the story builds and builds to a perfect crescendo.

And that’s about as much as I want to say about it. There’s a lot more detail in the character motivations, and the film is about more than just a heist, but I’d prefer that you go into it almost as blindly as I did, because there’s a surprisingly great film to be watched — don’t miss it!

The Nier: Automata hype train nearly ruined a great game for me

If you follow a lot of gaming websites and podcasts, you’ve likely heard at least a few things about Nier: Automata, the latest game from eccentric game director Yoko Taro. It’s a special game for sure, and many members of the media have been eager to talk about it. Unfortunately, if you’ve been paying attention, but haven’t had the chance to play Nier: Automata yourself, the discussion around the game may have already set some damaging expectations for you. I know it did for me.

I finished the game a few days ago, and while I ultimately enjoyed it, my experience was deeply compromised by the discussions I’d been exposed to through reviews on sites like Kotaku, as well as podcasts like the Giant Bombcast, Waypoint Radio, and Rebel FM.

If you have no idea what Nier: Automata is, then enjoy your ignorance and go play this beautiful game. But if you’ve heard about the game’s various quirks, you may want to read ahead, because I need to set the record straight on a few things. My goal is to keep this spoiler-free as possible, and ensure that you can enjoy and appreciate the game more than I did.


On Multiple Endings…

You’ve probably heard that Nier: Automata has 5 core endings, A, B, C, D, and E, plus an additional 21 gimmick endings that are entirely optional. Seeing endings A through E are essential to getting the complete experience, and depending on who you listen to, that means replaying the game upwards of five times.

The truth is that you don’t even have to play through the game four times. Yet here is Kotaku’s Mike Fahey in their review: “My second playthough granted me a completely different way to destroy enemies. My fourth granted me a new Berserk mode, sacrificing defense for ridiculous attack strength. Who knows what my fifth will bring?”

And here is Eurogamer writer Jeffrey Matulef saying something similar: “First things first: you don’t need to play Nier: Automata four times to get its true ending. That’s a myth – one based on the first Nier that actually did require such a task. No, instead Nier: Automata is comprised of four different campaigns, which is a very different situation.”

I honestly have no goddamn idea what these two writers are talking about. There is no fourth playthrough or campaign. There is an initial playthrough culminating in ending A, followed by a replay from a different perspective that culminates in ending B. From there, players unlock a wholly new, shorter campaign that culminates in either ending C or D, depending on a choice you make. After that choice, a chapter select is unlocked, allowing players to go back and do side missions, or jump back to the end and make the alternate choice. Once both endings C and D are unlocked, the true ending begins.

The important detail here is that there are only three distinct “playthroughs”. Endings C, D, and E can all be viewed within 15-20 minutes of each other.

This may all sound like semantic nonsense, but when you’re playing through the C route under the impression that there are many more hours of revelations, it makes the game’s final moments more confusing than enjoyable.


On when the “real” Nier begins…

Nier: Automata begins when you start playing it, and offers a steady stream of plot points, surprises, and revelations throughout. Yet many critics, such as Waypoint Radio hosts Austin Walker and Patrick Klepek, have implied that the game doesn’t really start getting interesting until you begin route C.

Armed with the false notion that Nier: Automata had far more content in store for me after finishing route B, I took this all to mean that I had to “work” through the first two playthroughs before the game would truly blossom.

Route C did have some cool twists and turns, but it’s also the final act of the game. I went into it thinking it was the middle chapter. When the credits started rolling for good, a mere half hour or so after watching the C ending, I was baffled, deflated, confused, and worst of all, a bit disappointed.

Only after realizing how much my expectations had been established by forces outside of the game’s control was I able to reflect on Nier: Automata and purely appreciate it for what it was.


On that true ending…

Strangely, a lot of people have deemed it totally fine to spoil the true ending of Nier: Automata. An article about the ending was plastered all over Kotaku the day after the game came out, and podcasts like Giant Bomb and Rebel FM have featured hosts clumsily explaining how the ending works, even when they didn’t actually play the game themselves.

The problem here is that it’s a lot better if you don’t know anything about it. And if you do know it’s coming, it’s important to know that the game will be VERY clear about any big choices you have to make.

Unfortunately for me, I knew enough to be unreasonably anxious, but not enough to fully understand what was going on. This made the entire final sequence confusing and stressful. I knew the “what”, but without the “how” or “when” I was left scrambling to make sure I wasn’t doing anything wrong.


My ultimate point is this — think of Nier: Automata as a three chapter story with an epilogue. Playthrough A, B, and C/D are the chapters, with E as the epilogue. Try to enjoy it from beginning to end, rather than waiting with baited breath for the “crazy stuff”. And lastly, if you know anything about the nature of the ending, don’t get stressed about it. This whole thing may be a bit ridiculous, after all, I just wrote a 1000-word guide on how to enjoy Nier: Automata…but man, do I wish I knew all this a week ago. I hope it helps someone.


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

Game & Film Opinion by Joe Donato