Starting with my first quarter at the Art Institute of Atlanta, my routines changed a lot last year. I began to work a bit on film projects before and after class. My commute became extremely long compared to my job (which I quit soon thereafter). My number of articles faltered even more than before even as Interactive Friction went on hiatus. But even so, I did get to play some video games.
Upon the completion of writing this I noticed that a lot of the big budget titles failed to impress me, even when they were good, but most of the side projects felt like they had a lot of heart put into them. There may be as many disappointing games on here as favorites, but that’s more because I didn’t have enough time to play everything I wanted to (especially in the ever growing indie-scene). To put it simply: don’t let my list deceive you. This was a fantastic year for games.
My Favorite Games Of The Year
Dragon Ball Xenoverse
There’s really only so many times one can fight Frieza as Super Saiyan Goku before the lines can be repeated verbatim. With the release of Dragon Ball Xenoverse, instead of trying to make up new arcs, Bandai Namco decided to go with letting me create my own characters and live out those pretend battles on the elementary school baseball field. The sheer joy from seeing my custom character appear in those well-worn cutscenes is pure, nostalgic, fun.
There are a lot of times that I distinctly remember laughing out loud during the Ginyu Force Saga. A couple were during moments when characters would ask my opinion and comment on my silent demeanor. One specifically though was when I stepped in front of Goku to change bodies with Captain Ginyu (to hilarious effect). More than two decades after the shows original debut, and almost a decade since I stopped enjoying about the games, they were still able to make me care about the story that I already know by heart because I finally got to be my very own Super Saiyan.
Dropping a fully equipped and armored tank on your friends in the middle of an all-or-nothing standoff is probably one of the most dick moves I’ve made, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t get a good laugh out of it. Helldiver’s entire set of systems is built upon dolling out those moments as much as possible. Everything from accidental friendly fire to “accidentally” driving off a cliff with a buddy in tow is possible, and even we were on point the enemies came at us with such a kamikaze-like fervor that the entire team’s survival was never possible.
Even when we felt we were all completely in sync, the random placement of the reinforcement pods (read: respawns) meant that often someone had to sacrifice themselves without a chance for a rebuttal.
Things will never go according to plan in Helldivers, and that’s the joy of it.
I don’t particularly like Mad Max when all of its systems are considered. The story is kind of paper-thin garbage, the characters aren’t terribly engrossing, I usually play with the music off, and even the on foot combat falls ever so short of the Batman games it’s taking inspiration from. There is one thing Mad Max does so well though that it bears mentioning.
I adore exploring the desecrated, forgotten, and all but empty world Avalanche created. Long stretches of once tarmac-paved road slowly give way to literal mountains of dust and sand creeping in from every angle. The horizon lacks for civilization except for a scant few barely inhabited towers of metal. Sometimes there’s nothing but more sand as far as the eye can see.
Often I would load this game up with a podcast and begin Avalanche’s checklist, though the brief stints of combat and hostile denizens were only speed bumps in my glorious journey to discover the vast nothingness. I love the roar of Max’s car when he jumps inside. I love watching the natural ground deform beneath my man-made tires. I love finding untouched zones where the only thing left is a highway exit sign and yet more sand, piled into endless dunes around me.
I was told a lot when I was younger that everything is about the journey, not the destination. I think Mad Max is perfectly exemplary of that.
I wish I could say something about Undertale that hasn’t already been beaten into the ground, but being a game as small as it is there’s not much left. The combat encounters are much funnier than I expected going in, the soundtrack is great, and the way it recognizes and treats save-scumming and multiple runs is really neat. Both The Beginner’s Guide and Undertale released an unbridled torrent of articles about the nature of game design upon my Twitter feed this year, and I ultimately was pushed away from the former because of it. I’m glad I played Undertale though. Anime trash lesbians and ghosts who wanna eat and then lie on the floor and feel like garbage are much more my speed.
Rainbow Six: Siege
What a comeback for the Rainbow Six series! I really enjoyed the Vegas duo from years ago, but to be honest they missed the point of the first few R6 games by a wide margin. As great as they were, they were ultimately Gears of War with a tactical edge. This year Rainbow Six got a lot less flashy and a hell of a lot slower. My nerves are always on a razor’s edge during the first few minutes before bullets are fired because when they are, either I’m dead or one of their sole five members, and neither of us are coming back. I’ve caught myself letting out quick yelps and screams at the sight of red on my screen, and if I’m lucky enough to survive my speech is usually stammered and repeated when trying to give callouts. It’s a pretty taxing game to play.
While some may be quick to dismiss the operator classes as a gimmick, added merely because everything incorporates MOBA elements today, it might actually be the single most fascinating part of the game. The match dynamic has completely shifted from under my team if we happened to lose the vital thermite member (whose the only Op capable of blowing through reinforced walls), and there exist hard counters like Jager’s grenade stopping “Magpie” for Fuze’s cluster charges. Without this Siege could still hold its own, but with the most important part of any match being intel the extra layer of specifically spec’d out characters adds an incredible amount of flavor to each round.
Supporting the new operator system is the nearly fully destructible environments. They’re not on the level of Red Faction: Guerilla, as there’s no ability to tear down the supports of a building, but almost any interior wall can be smashed full fully, or players can opt to make tiny “murderholes” to shoot through. With the right knowledge, or just dumb luck, I could also score kills by shooting blindly at a wall as the bullets fly right through. These two systems bring into play a lot of mindgames, and here’s a fun recent example of that.
My team was situated on the second floor of a building holding a capture point. I was on the floor below watching a staircase through a hole in wall I made. When a guy with a shield called Blitz walked by I shot at him, but didn’t land enough hits to kill him. Since he only had a pistol his best bet was to walk around to the doorway and use the flashbulb on his shield (his Op ability) to blind me for an easy kill. What he didn’t account for was me playing Kapkan, whose ability is to set laser tripwire traps on doors and windows. As he edged toward the doorway I started shooting to keep him focused on me and sure enough, he walked through the trap and blew himself up.
Black Ops 3 also tried to add in classes for a similar rhythm, but it feels rather slotted into an already fitted formula. Rainbow Six was willing to completely uproot itself and start fresh with its concepts, and I feel that’s why everything works so well together. The only shame is that the XP boosters have left me looking like a raving lunatic when I tell people that they don’t matter, and that the general press for Siege has made me worry that the community will die off sooner than I hope.
I could be wrong though as the people that I have seen have been pretty fantastic for the most part. While I’ve encountered the occasional jerk I’ve discussed with others that maybe the difficulty of the game has kept most people who aren’t willing to work together away from Siege. It’s certainly possible to ace an entire team alone, but against a group coordinating together it’ll be an uphill battle every match.
Games like Rainbow Six: Siege have been around for a while, with the likes of Insurgency, ARMA III, and the upcoming SQUAD, but I’m so glad that Ubisoft was willing to pour as much budget and work into the game as they did. It’s seriously one of the best multiplayer shooters I’ve played since Call of Duty 4 in 2007.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, & Fallout 4
I didn’t pair any of these games up to be reductive. Their open worlds are all unique from each other in their settings and characters, but none of them really grabbed me in any particular way. The Witcher 3 has a great setting, but the gameplay never really kept me engaged, and the story can be brutally slow for most of the hours I played. MGSV has one of the best set of systems ever put into a stealth game, but without a good story or traversable world to back it up, the enemies become no more than moving ragdolls. I can easily tell they want to kill me, but why? My goal has very little to do with them personally, and I never get to interact with any of them or understand their motives beyond being a soldier of the era. That’s tangentially related to the overall story of Outer Heaven, but I don’t believe that’s intentional or especially meaningful in this case.
I fell of Fallout 4 after some 10 hours because the systems that were already barely being held together crumbled in an impossible number of different ways, and that’s not acceptable for me this many games in on this specific engine. I also cannot find the will to care about my avatar’s son Shaun, possibly because it’s an all too worn down trope to get someone exploring, or because I’m a sociopath.
None of this is to say these games are “bad”. They’re totally comparable, but this year I found a lot of smaller games with great narrative hooks and bigger ones trying out new gameplay ideas. I wanted something I could pick out from these games and say “look at this really neat thing it does” (possibly for some kind of game-of-the-year list), but I never found much.
My Biggest Bummers Of The Year
Life Is Strange
Back when the first episode of Life Is Strange released I had a really hopeful outlook on the series. It set up a world I hadn’t seen much of before in the realm of video games, had some good (if cliche) characters, but set up a supernatural hook that I worried would get out of hand. Fast forward to the debut of the fourth episode and I couldn’t even bother myself to finish it until the fifth and final was released. I can’t help but feel that Life Is Strange squandered its potential to break free from it’s stereotypical character archetypes and unimpressive doomsday plot. Worse, the game’s story structure falls apart around episode three and never fully recovers, and the “time-traveling to rewind choices” mechanic ultimately made said choices feel entirely too hollow and meaningless in its own universe.
I still enjoyed parts of the series because of its presentation. The sudo-painted effect that smears textures between slightly different shades is quite unique. The sketchbook journal with little drawing and extra notes was a cute way to mask an otherwise bland “last time on” script. The soundtrack was so good that I’ve become a fan of the composer’s band and the other licensed groups.
DontNod has proven before that they can create a really good world with Remember Me, and again with Life Is Strange, but they fail to understand exactly what to do with it. It’s art without direction.
Bloodborne was the first of a few releases this year that I wanted to like so much more because of the past entries in its series, but ultimately fell out of. Loading it up the night of release I was bombarded with reviews saying it was a spectacular new push for the Souls series with a great aesthetic and fluid, brutally-paced combat. Those arguments weren’t necessarily wrong, but the longer I played the more I felt I was being dragged down by the poor new design decisions.
The first of which I noticed was the use of one-time consumable blood vials instead of regenerating Estus Flasks from the two prior Dark Souls games. It’s a good bit like the grass consumables from Demon’s Souls, only leagues more pace breaking because I could only carry a paltry 20 for the length dungeons and numberless deaths. Grinding the same two enemies near the beginning of the game put me off of playing for months.
When I did make it further in the game after that break, it slowly dawned on me that the variety of locals in the city of Yharnam and its surrounding areas were as limited as they were detailed. They’re exquisitely designed, but for the places the story goes with its very Lovecraftian horror there could be excuses made to make up more styles of areas that don’t follow normal principles of natural or architectural design. The variety problem even extends to the weapon and class options, which are more restricted than they’ve ever been in series history. Pure magic builds are all but worthless, and even dexterity builds are severely lacking in my experience.
I’m a little ashamed to say that I was glad to hear Dark Souls 3 would be the last for that series, because for the moment before I realized there will likely be another Bloodborne (or game like it) the following year, I thought there might be a chance for this kind of game to rest for a while. I feels like it could use it.
Batman: Arkham Knight
Arkham Knight is the final send off for Rocksteady’s Batman series, and it feels like a firework that burns slow and dull until it’s put down and left. It tries to set itself up as the final test of Batman’s, and Bruce Wayne’s willpower, but it was pretty apparent that Rocksteady failed that test themselves with the familiar and excruciating reappearance of The Joker. Even his death couldn’t keep the plot from worming his way back into the story, and it did nothing but impress upon me that Rocksteady wasn’t confident enough that they could make a game without him. Sadly enough, that may be true as the arc of the other villain, the titular Arkham Knight, is a shameless rip of the story Under The Red Hood. Even if I hadn’t seen the film, knowing the backstory of the Red Hood prior to playing the game all but smacks you in the face with the identity of the villain in the events directly before the fight with him.
The odd part of this rogue’s gallery is that this rendition of The Scarecrow is voiced very well by John Noble, and his stitched together look is the creepiest he’s ever looked in the games. Scarecrow could have taken the show with more screen time alongside Batman and the other villains, but he’s left to wait until the end of the game while the Arkham Knight and Joker quip at Batman every few minutes. Only at the very end does Joker have a genuinely fascinating character moment, with Scarecrow getting a little bit of his due before and after that sequence. Even so, it doesn’t make up for the grind that going through Gotham became. I really wanted Batman Arkham Knight to be the explosive conclusion to the series, but in the end they couldn’t give up the ghost.
Persona 4: Dancing All Night
Persona 4: Dancing All Night was made by the same people who created the Hatsune Miku Project Diva series, and it shows in the gameplay. It’s system of rhythmic taps, holds, and swipes that syncs very well with the music provided, and the visual flair of the characters moving around the stage in whatever you choose for them to wear is good, if simple, fun. The addition that Dancing All Night brings is a fully fledged storyline, and it all but ruined the game for me.
Much like the two fighting games and dungeon crawler before it ATLUS and those on the Persona team must have mandated that the game have a story by any means necessary, and it shows in it’s completely dull delivery. Using a classic visual novel setup, the game forces the heroes against yet another host of shadows that threaten the only thing that teenagers in this universe deal with; issues of identity. Personal issues can be a fascinating thing to tackle, but it’s already been done several times in this series alone.
I question whether there’s a single new teenage character introduced in the Persona 4 universe who lives a happy and functional life devoid of issues of the self. By the time I had encountered the 4th or so person on my “to-be rescued” list whose shadow I had to dance away because they couldn’t just be themselves, and watch them come to the same exact realization as all the other characters in this series in the exact same way, I gave up.
It’s hard to think of a rhythm game being ruined by a bad plot, but because I can’t simply play all the songs in free-play mode without unlocking them first I couldn’t make myself slog through the same tired arc yet again. For fans of pop-music rhythm games I would highly recommend the aforementioned Project DIVA F series instead. It let’s the music stand on its own.
Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Trees Woe and the Blight Below
Without much knowledge or interest in the Dragon Quest series proper, I popped into DQH more as a very recent fan of the Omega Force musou games. I really wish that that was enough to carry me through the relatively lengthy campaign, but surprisingly it was the extra features socketed in that stopped my advancement.
Dragon Quest Heroes borrows its creatures and characters from the series it hails from, but it also takes on the RPG elements as well. This means that characters level up, gaining attribute points and the need for new equipment as well. While it sounds neat in concept, it means that the pace dramatically swings between intense action and slow, cumbersome inventory management. It could just be my fault for trying to level all of the 12 characters up at first, though I quickly gave that up. Even so, with just a roster of 6 or less, I still hated having to buy new gear every time someone leveled up, and was pretty upset that there were some characters whose full potential I could never experience without some real grinding.
That aside, even in battles the game falters in one key aspect that I felt the Omega Force games have been doing well for a while. Most missions placed my team in defense of some object or general zone, with hordes of monsters coming to us in organized waves. I feel this betrays the style of a musou game at its core.
I loved that in Samurai Warriors 4 I was always moving forward and making direct, visual progress by capturing zones around the map. It’s no less repetitive than the defense missions of DQH but the speedy movement of the characters worked in tandem with the countless nameless enemies and easy combo attacks to consistently create the feeling of tearing through a battlefield. It’s a very kinetic feeling when a musou game is working well, with bosses only causing me to bounce around like a pinball for a few moments before I soared off again.
Dragon Quest Heroes has a really great base series to work with, and some funny characters and scripts, but it lacks that genuine aggressive flow of the game’s it’s trying to be like.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate
There’s a moment during the last mission of AC: Syndicate wherein Jacob and Evie are undercover at a ball. Late in the evening Jacob has to reach the other side of a rooftop to gather his gear, and he does so in formal button down shirt, with a matching charcoal jacket and set of pants. There’s no ridiculous top hat or hood, no flashy belts or dazzling colors on his attire. He has no guns, no fist weapons, and no grappling hook. So he climbs the building the way one did back in the first Assassin’s Creed game, and it was in this amazingly brief moment that I realized Assassin’s Creed had long since gotten away from me. For that tiny point in the pool of explosions, gruesome executions, and endless banter I was marveling at the detail with which my player avatar climbed this very detailed building in a uniform that did its best to not stick out. I felt like a real Assassin again for all of ten seconds.
That feeling was something I really appreciated about last year’s AC: Unity. The character customization there allowed me to dress in period appropriate clothes that, until the last unlocks, made Arno blend into the crowd visually better than the last three protagonists. The assassination missions from that game were also spectacularly set up, which makes it not surprising at all that Syndicate cribbed them wholesale. The story, for it’s melodramatic faults, tried to touch a more personal angle instead of focusing on the grand and now completely trite Templars vs. Assassins war.
Syndicate mimics a lot of what Unity did while trying to add in the much more action based flavor of AC: Black Flag, and it’s that re-addition of overly-flashy combat peppered with endless high-octane explosive set pieces that kept me from digging into this one as much as last year’s. Considering the love for Black Flag and the complete dismissal of Unity I’d suspect that this series will never dare to be quiet again, and it’s a shame. As well designed as Syndicate is, it’s simply too ridiculous for me now.
Rise of the Tomb Raider
Tomb Raider should be my favorite game of the year. It’s the sequel to one of my personal favorite games, keeping the style of Lara Croft that I love with the excellent mix of shooting and platforming across beautiful environments. A few days after purchasing it and some hours in though I found myself having to work to pick the game up and instead caught myself replaying the prequel one morning.
The sheer gluttony of features might be one cause of my dropoff. The general areas are much more open and the arenas have also been expanded a good bit. Both are supposed to work in conjunction with the greatly bolstered crafting system to mix up the rhythm of combat, but it mostly comes off as busywork. In the exploration zones there’s a lot of warping between campfires and backtracking just to look for the last material needed for a new outfit. During combat the enemies, even on the hard difficulty, didn’t rush me so ferociously that I could never get a bandage or poison arrow crafted. The (theoretical) need for more materials also greatly tangles the pace of the game, as I felt I absolutely had to get every item in a particular area in case I needed loads of wood for whatever reason. Platforming became less of me gazing at the gorgeously rendered houses and rocks I was mounting and more of me checking the map every few moments to make sure I wasn’t missing some material or salvage or coins or other collectible. It’s slow, it’s tedious, and it makes me frustrated when I just want to book through an area to get to the next bit of interaction.
The technical end of Rise also leaves me sorely wanting. Not necessarily the graphics, as they’re well detailed with a great use of varied colors and lighting, but the framerate. The game runs at a seemingly stable 30 frames per second, but I swore during a few sessions that something was wrong with my TV when I spun the camera around. The animations are more varied than before, but they’re hard to appreciate when the camera movement in and out of aiming feels like it’s moving through sludge.
This will probably not matter to most people at all, but having played Tomb Raider 2013 at least three times on PC and once on PS4 at 60 frames per second each it’s nearly impossible to go back. There’s a stunning fluidity to the action in TR2013, especially when hot-swapping between combat and platforming, and that line can’t be crossed back when I can see the older game running right next to the new one. The PC version that recently released at least fixed this problem, but the pace breaker that is the crafting system in Rise of the Tomb Raider might have left me with only one game to love.
As a bonus category, here’s a couple of games I played this year that I really enjoyed, but didn’t do enough with to honestly say whether the entertainment will hold up later on.
Xenoblade Chronicles X
The world and style of Xenoblade X looked amazing to me when I saw some footage of it, but having played with the combat system of Xenoblade for the Wii I kept away from the game for a while. Right before Christmas while I was shopping I decided to pick it up as a gift to myself, and I’m really glad I did. That planet of Mira is staggering in it’s scope, WiiU or otherwise, and there’s a real guttural intensity when a battleship-sized monster is provoked. The combat is largely unchanged from the original Xenoblade, maintaining a very MMO-esque “positioning for bonuses” style, though there are a good amount of options between the selectable classes.
I can’t say whether this will change in time, but most of the characters come off as typical archetypes of anime characters. There are a few exceptions to this, with Elma the military lieutenant liking to poke a little fun at the cast when she’s not trying to be super serious about the mission at hand. The Skell (read: mech) pilot Doug however is almost ironically fantastic in his earnestness of being a modern soldier dude.
Whether that pans out or not, what will keep me playing for hours at a time is the promise of more to uncover. I’ve only explored most of the first continent and part of the second one, but there’s a very vertical aspect to some of the landmarks that I can’t quite get to yet. I’d bet if there’s anything up there, it wants me dead.
Knowing that one day I’ll get to pilot a Skell and completely change the scale of Mira in relation to me sounds like it’ll be one of my favorite moments of next year.
I played a few racing games this year upon realizing that I’m a crazy person who only wants to play sims from the cockpit view, and most of them were pretty good! Project Cars, Forza Horizon 2: Storm Island, and others all excelled at modeling the individual car’s interiors and exteriors, with Forza specifically paying special attention to environmental detail and weather effects.
For all the detail in the world, there’s one thing that none of these games demonstrate. The unbridled terror of driving a two-ton piece of metal nearly 100 miles per hour without any real sense to control it. Dirt Rally leans entirely on that moment with every race. Quick tip: turn off the entire heads up display first. It will certainly make the game a little harder, but it also made my co-driver, who gives callouts on upcoming turns, feel like some kind of God to me. Barrelling down a pack of lined up dirt that can barely be considered a road and having my new friend say “hairpin left” just before I slammed on the brakes in time to feel my back-end kick out and go over the side of a cliff is a feeling of adrenaline and nausea that my body take in large doses, yet can’t get enough of.
The sad reason that this didn’t make the list proper was because I couldn’t play as much of it as I wanted to. Much more so than the games prior to it, Dirt Rally is a video game that demands you step up to its level, and it will barely help you. When I first booted it up I wanted to changed the co-driver’s callouts from directions and numbers to detailed descriptions (i.e from “left 3 into right 4” to “easy left to tight right”) and there was nothing for me. Similarly there are less overall assists available to new drivers. The big gut punch however was when I finished the first championship, composed of some four locales with four races each, only to discover that I didn’t do well enough to advance. I was expected to do it again, and do it better this time. In most other games I would have given up at that exact moment, but Dirt already has me good.
And that’s it! It took me a little longer than I expected to do all this, and I still ended up cutting a few pages worth games because I didn’t feel my interest was strong enough one way or the other. I enjoyed it quite a bit though, and I hope to do much more creative work this year than the last. More Interactive Friction, more personal montages, more glitch art, more Photoshop work, and of course more written essays. It’s going to be a hell of a year.