Sunday, April 23, 2017

Why 30 minutes of Nier: Automata was enough for me

After sitting in a GameFly envelope for something like a month while I polished off Zelda, Mass Effect and Horizon, I finally gave Nier: Automata a spin last night, eager to learn whether or not the civil unrest over my editor Brad's unenthusiastic review of the game was justified. My reaction to the original Nier was mixed (to put it charitably), but reactions to its follow-up have been far more universally positive, and the involvement of PlatinumGames always fills me with hope, Star Fox Zero notwithstanding.

I will now walk you through my experience.

I boot Nier: Automata up and the first thing it tells me is that the game doesn't have an autosave function. Okay. Hopefully that won't be an issue.

The game opens with a straight-up vertically-scrolling shmup sequence as my character pilots a jet. Okay, fine. The original Nier drew a lot of influence from bullet hell shooters so it's fine that the sequel is being more direct about it. This sequence switches perspectives rapidly - one minute it's scrolling vertically, then it's horizontal, then the camera is stationed behind my craft, then I transform into a mech and can fire in any direction with the right stick. This is all fine.

This is a very grey game, at least based on this opening level and every damn screenshot I've seen of it. It's particularly bad timing that Automata should be released so soon after Zelda and Horizon, two games which taught us that robot-infested post-apocalypses can be lush and vibrant. There's some talk about the "Old World" and I've had enough of this sort of thing lately.

My character begins fighting on foot. The game is still switching perspectives a lot, and it's all very high-energy, but man is this some shallow, bog-standard character-action-game combat. Your quick attacks, your strong attacks, your dodge move, your pea shooter ranged attack with unlimited ammo. I remember the combat in the original Nier being just as dull, but I'd hoped Platinum would expand upon it, since this is the one thing they consistently do well. Alas, it is not to be.

So I spend quite some time wandering through bland industrial environments, hacking through what must be at least a hundred samey robots, all while my character tells her partner that emotions are forbidden. This game doesn't have a lot of personality so far, but there's a brief mini-boss against a giant buzzsaw arm that's moderately entertaining. Later, I have fight two of them at once, and my character clips through one of the buzzsaws, gets stuck inside, and dies horribly.

Then I remember that the game doesn't have an autosave function, and learn from a few Twitter friends that you have to complete this lengthy intro without dying, which is tough to do when you can just clip inside a mini-boss and die with no chance to recover. The game gives me a fake-out ending, which makes me wonder if my death was staged and the game's pulling a meta-trick on me, but nope - I'm back at the very start and have to slog through that whole dull opening level again.

Except I don't want to. One of the controversial features of the Nier games is that they must be completed multiple times to unlock all of the story content. I don't see the appeal of that, and it's something that's made me hesitant to jump into Automata. And here I am, struggling to work up the energy to replay just a single 30-minute chunk of the game. How will I later justify replaying the entire thing, or at least substantial pieces of it?

I won't. Not on the tail of so many other massive games that took hold of me far more readily than this one did, not when major new releases are happening at such a rapid-fire rate that I can't afford a time sink that isn't meeting me halfway, not when I still have yet to touch Yakuza 0 or Persona 5, not when I've still got plenty of Nioh left. As a critic, I have no obligation to play Automata, so I can only approach it as a game-loving adult with limited free time who must determine, in a busy release season, which games just aren't clicking for him. Automata is going back to GameFly and that's the end of that.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Review Shots: April 22, 2017

So that was a hectic month or two, huh? I imagine most of us still aren't out of the wild yet, in fact. I myself still have a ways to go in Horizon: Zero Dawn (I still can't get a clear answer on whether a colon belongs in that title or not), Yooka-Laylee just came out a couple of days ago, and my GameFly copy of Nier: Automata is still sitting next to my TV, untouched. It's a good thing I'm not into Persona or this would still be full-on busy season.

But the release schedule is about to cool down considerably, which gives me time not only to catch up on the games I haven't had the chance to release yet, but to do some short write-ups on all of the releases I've played but haven't been able to discuss in detail. So, it's time for another round of Review Shots, a set of rapid-fire takes on whatever I haven't reviewed elsewhere. And since my shiny new Switch has dominated my attention over the last month, this installment will be largely devoted to what I've been up to on that thing.

P.S. I wrote this intro a while ago, so as of the time I've posted this, I've finished Horizon, Yooka-Laylee has been out for a couple of weeks, and I've dipped into Nier: Automata and determined that it's not my thing.

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone (PC)

January was when I finally mustered up the courage to return to The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and sure enough, as soon as I'd gotten back into the game's rhythm, I couldn't get enough. I'm still working my way through the game's second DLC, but Hearts of Stone ranks as perhaps the best self-contained story in a game full of great self-contained stories. This thing is a cavalcade of good characterization - Shani is a great romantic match for Geralt (and his, erm, "other side"), the often-despicable Olgierd's dip into immortality makes him bizarrely humble and sympathetic, and Gaunter O'Dimm is easily the series' greatest villain yet, a fearsome and mysterious force. Two of the dungeons late in this quest (one set in a painting, the other in a riddle) are a bit of a chore and an obvious attempt to get players more involved in what is largely a hand-off piece of storytelling, but this is a worthwhile addition to a base game that wasn't exactly skimpy on great content to begin with. 8/10

Resident Evil 7 (PC)

This is several months old now, and although I never formally reviewed it, Dan and I did rave about it for an hour and a half on my first and likely only stab at hosting the GameCritics podcast. Still, since this'll get serious consideration on my best-of-2017 list far down the line, I want to put it into writing that Resident Evil 7 acknowledges the ill-fatedness of Capcom's attempts to recreate RE4's magic, and therefore turns Resident Evil into a horror franchise once again, disempowering the player and scaling the setting almost entirely to a single estate. It's almost a return to form, except it's smarter, scarier, and more fluid than the originals ever were, and it tells perhaps the first story in series history that can actually be taken somewhat seriously (though the protagonist is admittedly a bit of an emotional vacuum). After Resident Evil 6, I would've been ready to call it a day on this franchise, but Capcom really turned this thing all the way around. Buy it if you've got the stomach for it. 9/10

Super Bomberman R (Switch)

There is absolutely no circumstance in which a new Bomberman game, in 2017, should cost $50, no matter how long it's been since we've played a proper Bomberman title, no matter how eager we are to wash the taste of Act Zero out of our mouths, no matter how much we're itching to make use of our pricey new Switch consoles. At its absolute best, Super Bomberman R is a repackaging of the same formula that's seen, what, 33 iterations? The trouble is that it's often not at its absolute best - the single-player campaign is pointless (despite the cute animated cutscenes), and at least half of the online matches I've played have been so laggy as to make the game nearly unplayable. (Both Splatoon 2 and Fast RMX have had perfectly adequate online functionality, so the problem is with the game, not the service.) Were this a bargain-price eShop download, I'd still be hesitant to recommend it. At $50, well... I can't say I expect better from Konami. 3/10

Blaster Master Zero (Switch)

As a fan of the original Blaster Master (though not enough of one to have known that there were several other follow-ups before this one), I expected to like this more than I did. It's certainly faithful to the series formula, which mixes side-scrolling, exploration-based action-platforming in a tank with top-down linear bits on foot. Weirdly, my biggest issue with Blaster Master Zero has more to do with the Switch hardware - specifically, the left Joycon's lack of a true d-pad, which makes retro-style 2D games such as this one rather awkward to control. Maybe this is something I'll grow used to as I spend more time with my Switch in handheld mode and Zero was unfortunate enough to be the first guinea pig. Also, while the tank segments are fun, the top-down sections feel way less inspired, and that's unfortunately where the bosses tend to be set. It captures the look and feel of the NES classic, but I guess I wasn't as hungry for this as I'd imagined, and it's probably the Switch release I've spent the least time with. 6/10

VOEZ (Switch)

Even amongst Switch's thin launch period lineup, VOEZ is already shaping up to be one of the console's most overlooked titles. I only picked it up (a) out of desire to get more use out of my Switch now that Zelda's been shelved and (b) because my embarrassing attachment to the Hatsune Miku titles means Japanese rhythm games may actually be my thing. VOEZ was a good investment - its presentation is both attractive and minimalistic, and its song selection exceeds a hundred, all of them available right from the start. Mechanically, it's nothing terribly unique, but I like that it forces you to play with two hands at once, mimicking the sort of multitasking required to, say, play the piano (something I've always been in awe of). Plenty of variety in the music, as well - it's not just J-pop, but also violent rave electro and some delicate symphonic tracks. It's a mobile port, but don't let that scare you away - VOEZ is worth buying if you're into this sort of thing. 8/10

Dark Souls III: The Ringed City (PC)

A year ago, I was still fully on board the Souls train, confident that From Software could keep it running forever, yet these final two DLCs, purportedly the last Souls-related content we'll be getting for the foreseeable future, have done a lot to sour my good will toward the franchise. This one is marginally better than Ashes of Ariandel, mainly for its visual appeal, but way too much of its challenge is derived from having players jump from cover to cover while invincible enemies fire projectiles on a strict timer. It reminds me of the bits in Demon's Souls where you had to dodge dragon breath, and I hated those sections. The bosses are decent on paper but have way too much health, a lazy method of inflating the game's difficulty, and it's a twist of the blade that this DLC's story ultimately links back to Ariandel when I'd rather have just forgotten about that whole affair. A huge disappointment as the swan song of Dark Souls, and if Miyazaki and crew are really this out of good ideas, maybe it's time for a break after all. 5/10

Snake Pass (Switch)

This is one of the most unique 3D platformers I've ever played, and has stolen an awful lot of Yooka-Laylee's thunder, if you ask me. Since you control a snake, the objective is to navigate levels not by jumping, but by contorting your body, looping around objects and creating a tight enough grip that you don't fall. The controls are a major adjustment but super consistent once you grasp when to raise or lower the snake's head, or when to tighten or loosen your grip. Some of the acrobatic stunts the later levels ask you to complete are pretty grueling, but only a handful of Snake Pass's collectibles are mandatory; the rest are there if you're looking for an extra challenge, as I was, enamored with the game's charm and originality. The camera is an occasional nuisance, especially since your right thumb won't always been free to move it around, but otherwise, this is one of my surprise favorites of the year. 9/10

And now, for some actual reviews:

For Honor
Hollow Knight
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Mass Effect: Andromeda
Torment: Tides of Numenera

And hey! I was on the latest GameCritics podcast, in which we discussed the Switch and Zelda.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

A scoreless review of Fast RMX

It is easy, relatively speaking, to make a racing game look good and run well. Most of the scenery is far out of reach, players can't study it anyway because they're moving too quickly and focusing on the road, and not much is actually happening - it's just happening very quickly. The flash factor is why a good launch lineup usually includes a racer. When PlayStation 4 and Xbox One both went on sale several years ago, Forza Motorsport 5 was the prettiest title across both platforms, and briefly fooled me into thinking that the Xbox One had a bright future ahead of it. Oh, the naivete.

So while Zelda is certainly a stunner on the tiny Switch, the most immediate demonstration of the tablet-sized console's power to produce big boy visuals is unquestionably Fast RMX. On a TV, running in full 1080p, it looks comparable to your average budget-level current-gen release. In handheld mode, though, this thing dazzles. It runs at a rock-solid 60fps while the Switch's brilliantly bright screen showcases its wonderful color palette. Again, it's largely due to the genre, and I wouldn't go about expecting every Switch game to look this good - I mean, Zelda often struggles to hold 30fps - but man oh man is Fast RMX gorgeous.

It's a remastered version of Fast Racing Neo, a Wii U release that several people recommended to me last year when Redout reinvigorated my interest in futuristic, ant-gravity racing games. (I'll come back to Redout later. It's important.) This edition packs an impressive 30 tracks and is available on Nintendo's eShop for $20.

If that sounds like a suspiciously good deal for a blazing technical showcase with a generous heap of content, know that at its core, Fast RMX is a relatively basic affair. It's arcade fluff, which isn't necessarily a bad thing - in fact, its compatibility for short play sessions makes it an ideal fit for the Switch's handheld mode. But Fast RMX is mechanically shallow and short on variety. It's a budget release; don't go in expecting more.

When assessing an AR racer, the question inevitably comes up: Which of the two big genre staples - you know the ones - does it more closely compare to? Fast RMX cleanly falls into the F-Zero camp, borrowing both its overwhelming sense of speed and its dated-even-in-the-'90s hair-metal cheesiness (complete with an announcer who says things like, "Totally awesome!"). It's particularly at home on Nintendo consoles, where the absence of an actual new F-Zero game grows increasingly frustrating by the year. It's been over a decade now.

Fast RMX's one unique mechanic is an Ikaruga-like color polarity system, where players must alternate between orange and blue to take advantage of boost pads and jumps. If you touch an orange boost and you're blue, it'll actually slow you down. Likewise, hitting a jump pad of the wrong color will just send you tumbling downward. It's not a bad idea.

Unfortunately, there's little else to Fast RMX on a mechanical level. Sliding has virtually no use, and beyond that, it's simply a matter of pointing your craft in the right direction and hitting the gas. If you're wondering what else I could possibly want out of a racing game, well, put that question on hold for just a few more paragraphs.

Fast RMX is also skimpy on modes. There are bog-standard tournaments with three difficulty settings, as well as something called Hero Mode, in which vehicles can actually take damage and death means game over. Good concept in theory, but it's hurt by the game's camera, which is positioned so low that it's often difficult to see incoming obstacles. And since crashing into something can mean instant death, well, you can see how it gets frustrating. The camera also has this habit of sometimes - not always, but sometimes - staying level with the ground even when your vehicle hits a steep bank. It's weird and uncomfortable, and when playing in handheld mode, I was often involuntarily tilting my Switch to try to compensate for it.

So it's... fine, I guess. It's a functionally bare-bones AR racer that somehow manages to get camera control wrong, but it's gorgeous, good in small bursts, and sports enough track variety to not be a waste of time. I think $20 is a fair price, especially now, when we're desperate to make the most of our shiny new Switches and so little else is available for the system (though I'd sooner recommend VOEZ, a lovely little J-pop rhythm game that I've been enjoying considerably lately).

But! Remember Redout, that game that recently reinvigorated my interest in this genre? It's currently exclusive to PC, where it doesn't seem to have much of an audience (hence why I'm probably the only person you'll presently hear raving about the game). As luck would have it, though, later this year, Redout will be making its console debut... on the Switch.

Which raises the question: Can I recommend the average but affordable Fast RMX when a far superior AR racer is right around the corner? I guess that's up to you. My Redout review from last year can hopefully fill you in on why I consider it to be the top of its class. Maybe timing will be a factor. Maybe it'll come down to price, since Redout will cost twice as much. I say it's worth the wait and the price, but perhaps Switch fans aren't as picky as I am. Or maybe, Nintendo fans as they are, they're just starved for something to fill the F-Zero-shaped hole in their lives. Fast RMX does a solid enough job of that.

(P.S. Fast RMX makes pretty neat use of the Joycon's "HD rumble" function as your craft interacts with the environment. On a desert track, for example, passing through a whirlwind actually causes a sort of spinning sensation to ripple through the controllers.)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Let's predict the Oscars or whatever

Best Picture: La La Land
Best Director: Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
Best Actor: Denzel Washington (Fences)

Best Actress: Emma Stone (La La Land)
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis (Fences)
Best Adapted Screenplay: Moonlight
Best Original Screenplay: Manchester by the Sea
Best Animated Feature: Zootopia
Best Documentary Feature: OJ: Made in America

Best Foreign Language Film: The Salesman
Best Cinematography: La La Land
Best Costume Design: Jackie
Best Documentary Short Subject: The White Helmets
Best Film Editing: La La Land
Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Star Trek Beyond
Best Original Score: La La Land
Best Original Song: "City of Stars" (La La Land)
Best Production Design: La La Land
Best Animated Short Film: Piper
Best Live Action Short Film: Sing
Best Sound Editing: Hacksaw Ridge
Best Sound Mixing: La La Land
Best Visual Effects: The Jungle Book

Some stray notes:

• Best Actor is a close race between Casey Affleck and Denzel Washington. Affleck deserves it - his performance was more understated, and Denzel's already won twice before - but I already have Manchester by the Sea beating out La La Land for writing and I'm trying to minimize my disappointment, so I'm putting Denzel.

• I don't have Arrival winning anything and that sucks. It at least deserves to win Sound Editing, but that one tends to favor war movies. It's also more deserving of Editing than La La Land, but that movie's gonna win just about everything, so what can you do?

• Sound Mixing always favors musicals. As many have pointed out, the sound mix was one of the few universal complaints about La La Land, so it's dumb that it's going to win this category, but here we are.

• Also, am I crazy, or was "City of Stars" not that great?

Suicide Squad is up for Makeup and Hairstyling. The makeup was one of the few aspects of that movie that didn't suck, but I'm putting down Star Trek Beyond because I can't bear the thought of Suicide Squad winning an Oscar. Plus, Star Trek 2009 won this category.

• I could see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them pulling an upset in either Production Design or Costume Design.

• I liked La La Land just fine, but jeez.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The Essentials

Last night on Twitter, I asked a question: What games would you consider essential - required reading, if you will - for anyone who wishes to be an expert in the medium?

It started as a personal project for me. While I do a solid job of keeping up with big, important releases nowadays, there were decades when I didn't have the capacity to do that - particularly before 1990, when I was, uh, born. Since I write about video games on a regular basis, and since I seek opportunities to become more knowledgeable on the subject, I'm looking to gradually fill the gaps and catch up on all of the games throughout history that I feel it's my duty to be familiar with. If there were such a thing as a video game historian, what games would they need to play, to know about?

In just the last few years, I played through Final Fantasy X, Silent Hill 2 and Ico for the first time. Even if I hadn't wound up enjoying and respecting all three games, I'd welcome my expanded knowledge on some of the industry's most notable releases. Almost anyone would label those three games as must-plays. I missed them the first time, but I've finally rectified that.

I'm looking to do that with everything else, hence why I turned to Twitter for suggestions. But since I'm limited to 140 characters there, I didn't have the space to lay out exactly the sorts of games I'm looking for. I've come up with five categories.

1. Pioneers. These are the games that changed the industry, that made it what it is today. Games that innovated, opened new doors, left their marks on future generations. This is the most self-explanatory category; if it's a crucial piece of gaming history or has become a part of our language, it belongs on this list.

2. Trendsetters. Some of the most important releases in gaming history didn't invent the wheel so much as they popularized and standardized the wheel. Trends don't spawn out of nowhere; some game, at some point, paved a path to success, and other developers and publishers decided to capitalize on it.

3. Time-tested classics. Certain games come up in conversation constantly for no other reason than that they are held as the golden standard for their respective genres. I say "time-tested" because even the best games, if lacking any particularly distinctive or groundbreaking qualities, run the risk of being surpassed. Over two decades later, for example, no mention of history's greatest JRPGs is complete without mention of Chrono Trigger. Some games are just unbeatable.

4. Cautionary tales. "Important" is not synonymous with "good," and some of the industry's most notorious disasters and disappointments warrant just as much attention as its greatest successes, if only to understand how not to design games or treat consumers.

5. Important franchises. Many of the games on this list belong to franchises, and it's often easy to pinpoint the most noteworthy entries in a series. In the case of particularly iterative franchises, however, there's no need to get bogged down with specifics. I think any gamer worth their salt should be familiar with Pokémon, for example, but I couldn't care less which one you play. So for certain entries on this list, I'll be naming not one specific game but an entire series.

What you see below is the initial draft I've put together for a required-playing list. It's almost certainly incomplete, so if you have any suggestions for games that should be added (or removed!), bearing in mind the guidelines listed above, please send them my way on Twitter. This began as a personal project, one with which to gauge my knowledge of the medium, but I'd love for us to work together and assemble a list that anyone can use for a similar purpose.

Bear in mind that this is not about favorites. Some of the best games I've ever played have been omitted from the list. This is about the games that the community collectively agrees are the most important in understanding how the industry arrived at where it is today. It's about not being left out of the most relevant conversations.

I've played the vast majority of the games listed here. Once this is finalized, I'll pick out the games I need to catch up on, list them in a separate article, and continue to gradually post updates as I push through them.

The 7th Guest
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Animal Crossing
Assassin's Creed series
Batman: Arkham Asylum
Beyond Good & Evil
Bomberman series
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Chrono Trigger
Civilization series
Contra III: The Alien Wars
Command & Conquer series
Dark Souls
Day of the Tentacle
Deus Ex
Devil May Cry
Diablo II
Donkey Kong
Dragon Quest V
Duke Nukem Forever
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem
F-Zero series
Fallout: New Vegas
FIFA series
Final Fantasy IV
Final Fantasy VI
Final Fantasy VII
Fire Emblem series
Gain Ground
Gears of War
Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved
Gone Home
Gran Turismo series
Grand Theft Auto III
Grim Fandango
Guitar Hero series
Gunstar Heroes
Half-Life 2
Halo: Combat Evolved
Harvest Moon
Heroes of Might & Magic III
Hitman series
Indigo Prophecy
Katamari Damacy
King's Quest V
League of Legends
The Legend of Zelda
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards
The Longest Journey
Madden series
Mario Kart series
Mass Effect trilogy
Mega Man 2
Metal Gear Solid
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!
Mortal Kombat
Mortal Kombat 2
Oregon Trail
Panel de Pon
PaRappa the Rapper
Persona 4
Phantasy Star IV: The End of the Millenium
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
Planescape: Torment
Pokémon series
Portal 2
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Quest for Glory: So You Want to Be a Hero
Resident Evil
Resident Evil 4
River Raid
The Secret of Monkey Island
Shadow of the Colossus
Sid Meier's Pirates!
Silent Hill 2
SimCity series
The Sims series
Solomon's Key
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Space Invaders
Spider-Man 2
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Star Wars: TIE Fighter
Street Fighter II
Super Mario 64
Super Mario Galaxy
Super Mario Bros.
Super Mario Bros. 3
Super Mario World
Super Metroid
Superman 64
System Shock 2
Team Fortress 2
Tecmo Super Bowl

Thief II: The Metal Age
Tomb Raider
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar
Ultima VII: The Black Gate
Uncharted 2: Drake's Fortune
The Walking Dead: A Telltale Games Series (Season One)
Wii Sports
Wing Commander
Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord
World of Warcraft
X-COM: UFO Defense
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

Once more, if you have any recommendations for this list, shoot me a line at @MikeSuskie. Any feedback will be appreciated. Thanks!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A ranked list of every 2016 release that I played

Hi. I do this every year and I doubt it warrants an explanation anyway. The only note I want to make is that I adore Skyrim but felt that the Special Edition was a lame cash-grab, hence its low placement on this list.

* re-releases or remasters of old games
^ games I'm still working on

68. NightCry (PC)
67. Energy Hook (PC)
66. Star Fox Zero (Wii U)
65. We Are the Dwarves (PC)
64. XCOM 2 (PC)
63. Attractio (PS4)
62. Fractured Space (PC)
61. Necropolis (PC)
60. Tom Clancy's The Division (PC)
59. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition (PS4) *
58. ReCore (PC)
57. House of the Dying Sun (PC)
56. Inexistence (PC) *
55. Abzû (PC)
54. Song of the Deep (PC)
53. Seasons After Fall (PC)
52. Inside (PC)
51. The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human (PC)
50. Salt and Sanctuary (PS4)
49. Virginia (PC)
48. Hyper Light Drifter (PC)
47. Firewatch (PC)
46. Hexoscope (PC) ^
45. Grow Up (PC)
44. Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (PC)
43. Deus Ex Go (Android) ^
42. Devil Daggers (PC)
41. Evolve Stage 2 (PC) *
40. Sky Break (PC)^
39. Out There Somewhere (PC)
38. Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen (PC) *
37. Watch Dogs 2 (PC) ^
36. Ratchet & Clank (PS4)
35. Furi (PC)
34. Pokémon Moon (3DS) ^
33. Battlefield 1 (PS4)
32. Mirror's Edge Catalyst (PC) ^
31. Unravel (PC)
30. Final Fantasy XV (PS4)
29. The Banner Saga 2 (PC) ^
28. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (PC)
27. Hitman (PC) ^
26. Valley (PC)
25. Let It Die (PS4) ^
24. Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition (PC) *
23. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (PS4)
22. Pokémon Go (Android)
21. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (PS4)
20. Dishonored 2 (PS4)
19. Another Metroid II Remake (PC) *
18. Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight (PC)
17. Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest (3DS) ^
16. Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir (PS4) *^
15. Beholder (PC)
14. DarkMaus (PC)
13. Dark Souls III (PC)
12. Darkest Dungeon (PC)
11. Reigns (PC/Android)
10. Grim Dawn (PC)
9. Severed (Vita)
8. The Witness (PC)
7. Overwatch (PC)
6. The Last Guardian (PS4)
5. Redout (PC)
4. Titanfall 2 (PC)
3. Owlboy (PC)
2. Superhot (PC)
1. Doom (PC)

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