2017 Yearbook: Brian’s Top 10 Games

Another twelve months closer to the end of the world, and all I’ve got to show for it is this lousy t-shirt.

Anyways, let’s get started.

SPECIAL HONORABLE MENTION: Star Wars Battlefront II (EA Dice. PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC)

Let me be honest right off the bat: Battlefront II is probably not the eleventh best game of 2017. It’s probably not the 15th best game, either. Or the 20th. But in lieu of me playing some of the good PS4 exclusives, I figured I could at least write something more interesting about this game than say, Fire Pro Wrestling World.

Despite the inherent awfulness of the microtransaction scandal surrounding this game, I actually sort of like it. The first Battlefront remake, despite making the cut for my first year-end games list, wasn’t actually a real game.

Battlefront II, for all its faults, feels like one. Someone put actual effort into the single player campaign. It isn’t good, especially in light of how many legitimately great FPS campaigns there have been the last couple of years, but it’s solid. The multiplayer components have all been tweaked to where they’re actually fun to play and not just a distraction. It’s a real game. It’s not a great game, and it might not even be a good one, but it’s a game. A Star Wars game. Feels like it’s been way too long since one of those came out.

More Honorable Mentions (aka Games Better Than Mass Effect: Andromeda)

  • Injustice 2
  • Batman: The Enemy Within
  • Fire Pro Wrestling: World
  • NBA 2k18
  • Fortnite: Battle Royale

Games I Haven’t Played Yet That Should Probably Be Here

  • Persona 5
  • Nier: Automata
  • Horizon: Zero Dawn
  • Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds
  • Cuphead
  • Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
  • Splatoon 2

Now let’s get into it.

#10) Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (Naughty Dog. PlayStation 4)

One half of one of the strangest comebacks of 2017, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is, in all but name, one of the oldest and most archaic video game conventions come back to life: the expansion pack. Released a year after the base game Uncharted 4, it’s a new story with old characters and the same engine that’s about half the length of the original and half the price. Not since the early 2000s has there been anything really like this, and it’s remarkable how okay with it people were.

Not that they shouldn’t be. $30 for a good game is a great deal, and The Lost Legacy is nothing if not a good game. Starring Uncharted 2’s Chloe and 4’s Nadine, TLL is in a lot of ways the ideal Uncharted experience. It doesn’t have the personal storytelling depth of the fourth game nor the expressive creativity and wild abandon of the second game, but it legitimately might be better than the other two, and for one simple reason: it does not overstay its welcome. Some of its level design is also interestingly open-ended, which bodes well for the future of the series.

In the end, its sort of just Another Uncharted Adventure™, but honestly, what else do you want from this series? TLL is proof that you can make a good Uncharted game without Nathan Drake. It’s a proof of concept, an expansion pack and a highly polished big-time AAA release all in one, and that at least makes it interesting.

#9) Dishonored: Death of the Outsider (Arkane Studios. PS4, XBO, PC)

The other half of the weird diptych of expansion packs masquerading as full games, Death of the Outsider also stars a female side character from a previous game in a slightly-tweaked follow up to one of 2016’s best games.

That’s about where the similarities stop. Outsider is a much more fundamentally bizarre and creepy game than Legacy, one that finally leans all the way into the Dishonored series’s Lovecraftian undertones. What were once oblique references in an in-game book of poetry is now the face of an Elder God jutting out from a dilapidated cave wall. What once was subtext is now text.

More than that, however, it’s an end for this game as we know it. Arkane hasn’t said for sure that they’re done with Dishonored alltogether, but after the lackluster sales of the sequel and Bethesda’s eye focusing more on games like DOOM and Wolfenstein, it seems very likely that we at least won’t be seeing a game set in this universe for awhile. And that’s okay. Three games full of concept art and meticulous level design is enough. The last thing I want is for these games to turn into Assassin’s Creed: just a thing for people to do and not something for them to pour their hearts into.

Rosario Dawson is an inspired choice for a lead in this sort of game, a dark avenger caught between blood and loyalty, and she’s much better here than she was in a side role in Dishonored 2. Michael Madsen, who was always great as Daud originally, also returns to wrap up his character arc, and is still great.

Anyway, Outsider does a fine job wrapping up the dangling plot threads from the second game while building to a climax both weirder and darker than anything in either of the games before it. It’s a niche game from a niche series in a niche genre, so why not go wild one last time?

#8) Sonic Mania (PagodaWest Games/Headcannon. PS4, XBO, PC, Nintendo Switch)

Remember those two and half months where Sonic was good again? That brief interlude when Sonic Mania was the most recent game in that most venerable of platfoming series, and the execrable Sonic Forces had yet to darken our collective doorways?

Developed by what is essentially two prominent fan modders combining forces, Mania is a wonderfully well-realized tribute to those original, good Sonic games, while still being fresh and new enough to be interesting in 2017. It’s honestly refreshing how good this game looks in motion, and it’s downright inspiring how good it sounds. I’m historically really bad at Sonic, so while I still haven’t actually beaten Mania Mode, I’ve gotten more than my fair share of value out of the $20 my roommate spent on it.

#7) Night in the Woods (Infinite Fall. PS4, XBO, PC, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android)

I’ve been hearing things about Night in the Woods for most of 2017. Earlier this month, I finally bought it. Warily, I started it up, wondering what about it would be the “hook” that all the recent Teen Angst Adventure Games have had. Life is Strange had time travel hook, and Oxenfree had, well, time travel. But a different hook that time. These games both explored subjects games generally shy away from, and they did so with surprising dexterity and care (while being sometimes almost insufferably twee).

The amazing thing about Night in the Woods is that, at least for the first few hours, there is no hook. You play as Mae, a 20-year-old college dropout returning to her home town of Possum Springs, with no plan and no future. Refusing to talk about why she flamed out of college, she and her group of friends Gregg, Angus and Bea, just sort of…hang out. It’s the sort of hanging out adults do, just marking time until something happens or you lose touch. Eventually, some plot happens, but not until the game very cleverly forces you to get to know these characters, and how bored they all are. It’s several hours in before anything happens, and you feel just as frayed and burnt-out as Mae does. They’re all far enough out of high school where they have to get jobs and just old enough to be disappointed that this is all that there is.

Without spoiling, that’s the unique thing about Night in the Woods; I’ve never seen a game that so perfectly captures that post-high school ennui before, the feeling that whatever vestiges of your childhood you kept alive through your teenage years are well and truly gone. The town you’re in has changed. The businesses are all dying. You and your friends will never really have the thing you had when you were younger. Suddenly, you’re an adult, and now working shitty retail jobs to survive is the only thing you really have to look forward to.

It’s a very naturalistic, beautiful looking game, and while the way it deals with actual mental illness (and not just ill-defined “sadness”) is commendable, it’s that feeling of coming in at the end of something, of the slow death of a failing economy and the sort of vague, ineffable melancholy, that truly defines it for me. That’s the hook. That despite how it might feel, everyone else is just as insecure and confused and tired as you are, all the time. If Life is Strange and Oxenfree are games about not rushing to grow up too fast, Night in the Woods is a game about how in the real world, everyone has to grow up a little quicker than they thought they would.

#6) Tacoma (Fullbright Games. PS4, XBO, PC)

On its head, the story of Tacoma (and this is one of those games that is basically *all* story), is boilerplate speculative sci-fi. Like every other sci-fi game set on a remote science outpost, something has gone wrong, and your character has been sent to find out what.

What makes this game different from those dozen-odd other games is its gameplay. This, unlike System Shock 2 or BioShock or even SOMA, is a Walking Sim. There are no enemies to fight, no weapons to collect, and no stats to improve. All that’s left is the exploration, and the questions it raises about the future world of 2088.

Created by Gone Home developer Fullbright, Tacoma puts players in the shoes of Amy Ferrier, a corporate data retrieval specialist sent to the eponymous space station, staffed by six people and an AI, ODIN. The people are gone, and the AI is shut down, leaving Amy to put together the pieces on her own. Equipped with an AR headset of sorts, Amy is able to view AR recordings of the crew’s activities, where each individual crewmate is represented by a wireframe silhouette. What this boils down to, from a gameplay perspective, is exploring the living quarters of a group of strangers and sorting through their belongings in an attempt to figure out what kind of people they are and what happened to them.

Tacoma is an interactive storytelling experience in the best possible way. In his excellent video on the game, Hamish Black describes how this game, like Gone Home before it, calls for actual role playing beyond crunching numbers and improving stats. It asks you, the player, to decide what kind of person Amy is. How respectful is she of people’s belongings? How does she react to the underswelling of corporate greed and rampant capitalism this game’s future world suggests?*

*Like all good speculative fiction, the Corporate Loyalty Currency that rules these people’s lives is a logical end point for something that already exists to exert more control over the average worker. In the end, it’s up to the player to decide how seriously they take the idea of a Orbital Space Worker’s Union, or the idea of an Elon Musk presidency, or even just the concept of a completely privatized outer space, where no one can hear you scream.

While it’s true that Tacoma‘s ending seems to take away some player agency, it’s absolutely the right choice to push forward the Socialist underpinnings this game represents, of a group of multicultural individuals with their own arsenal of neuroses and character defects rising up to escape a uniquely plausible space dystopia. And at least in that way, this is a very 2017 game indeed.

#5) What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow. PS4, XBO, PC)

When I first reviewed this game back in April, I called it a game that “exists in that wonderful little pocket dimension,” and as time has gone on, that’s the phrase I keep thinking of. People have been throwing around “Magical Realism” as it relates to this game, and it’s a good example of that, but I’d go as far as to say that is something that video games in general are good at as opposed to this specific video game.

So what I mean when I say that Edith Finch exists in a pocket dimension is that the way that it tells its little stories (making it more like a collection of short stories or even a storybook) transports you to a specific place, with specific rules and magic. Tonally, it achieves an absolutely remarkable alchemy of deep sorrow and powerful, wistful nostalgia. For a game preoccupied with death, Finch is in love with being alive. It’s poignant and mournful and elegiac. It’s a wonderful little game, easily worth the $20 it would cost you.

#4) Prey (Arkane Studios. PS4, XBO, PC)

Here’s another game I reviewed this year, one that belongs to a specific and under-appreciated sub-genre undergoing another kind of renaissance in recent years.

So Prey is an Immersive Sim. After we got revivals of Thief (Dishonored 1 and 2) and Deus Ex (uhh…Deus Ex), it only makes sense to get a spiritual successor to System Shock. It makes even more sense that said spiritual successor would be just as frustratingly complex as System Shock, a game not well-renowned for its difficulty curves (plural).

I think, in the end, that’s what I love about Immersive Sim games. They’re not for everybody. Sometimes you won’t understand what you’re supposed to be doing, and the game will slow. Sometimes you’ll know what you’re supposed to do, but you didn’t put ten points into “crate moving” or whatever and it’s almost impossible to do it, and the game slows down. Sometimes you know what you’re doing and you have the resources to do it, but some crazed transhuman monster busts through the ceiling and clubs you to death with an electrified mace that has +8 to You Killing.

What makes these games special is that every once in a while, you’ll turn a corner to somewhere you’ve never been and you’ll find that you could have skipped all of that if you’d just found an air duct or hacked a computer or grabbed that special Fuck You Gun that you’re not supposed to get for another ten hours. Immersive Sim games can often be tedious, incoherent and dull, but those moments when the interlocking systems come together and genuinely surprise are worth it. They often have some of the only video game areas that actually feel lived in and real, which is sort of a shame since Arkane, a studio I love, is pretty bad at the whole “character” thing. Morgan Yu, Prey’s protagonist, is interesting enough on the margins, and your brother Alex genuinely so, but this is another major Arkane release where every major side character is as dull as dishwater, despite some great voice actors.

I suppose that doesn’t matter when you can throw out things like “The World is the True Character,” and rarely has that platitude been less incorrect than here. As I said in my original review, Talos I is a wondrous creation, interwoven and interconnected and just…real as much at Rapture or City 17 or Tamriel ever were, on a smaller and more artistically exaggerated scale. The plot here is boilerplate, until it isn’t, and it begins and ends with some legitimately interesting questions about consciousness, intelligence (both artificial and not) and the nature of knowledge that games are particularly suited to talk about, but rarely do.

Prey is a very, very good game, if you’re willing to engage with it on its own terms. And that’s all I want it to be.

#3) Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (MachineGames. PS4, XBO, PC, Nintendo Switch)

How do you judge a shooter? If you go by last year’s DOOM reboot, it’s by the shooting. Few modern FPS games have ever recaptured the sense of chaotic violence of 90s FPS games like that one. The new Wolfenstein games, starting with The New Order in 2014 and continuing with The New Colossus this year, opted for a more unexpected style: sheer pathos.

I’m not saying these games are unprecedented feats of storytelling, nor am I saying they’re To the Moon-style tearjerkers. But they made me actually give a shit about B.J. Blazcowicz, the oldest and most worn-out video game protagonist this side of Duke Nukem. Where The New Order opted for a more refined drama (backstory, sympathetic writing, the allure of a world long since destroyed by Nazi occupiers), Colossus opts for a pulpier sheen. This game knows you already care about BJ and the Resistance. Now it wants you to marvel at them.

It’s like every dumb setpiece from the first game comes back, stronger and meaner and more incomprehensibly stupid than before, and I loved it. I still don’t think these games are as tight mechanically as they should be, and they suffer from that old shooter trope of not having orthogonal enemies, instead just a series of guys in brown armor, but it still works (and I’m actually a big fan of having to pick up armor and health upgrades on the map, like the first Halo, instead of having a regenerating health bar, like the other Halos).

At the end of the day, this is still a game where you get your head chopped off, execution style, in front of the Washington Monument, and then your friends collect your severed head and implant it onto the body of a Nazi Super Soldier. So it’s good, basically.

#2) Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo EPD. Nintendo Switch)

It’s a weird thing, trying to contextualize a mainline Mario game in 2017. It’s been seven years since one came out, and an entire decade since one people actually played came out. No one will ever accuse Nintendo of paying too much attention to the rest of the gaming world, but ten years is basically an eternity in that context. How would that amount of time affect a game as important as Super Mario Odyssey?

Turns out, the answer is not at all. Everything about Odyssey feels like it came from either two decades in the past or two decades in the future. It’s a wondrously strange and weird game, couched in cities that look like Minecraft recreations of Liberty City made out of  Dreamcast assets.

This is a game where you can possess big Easter Island statue-looking motherfuckers who can see invisible pathways through the sky, but only if you equip their rad sunglasses first. I knew Odyssey was going to be a trip (heh) when possessing a T-Rex, the BIG THING in the reveal trailer from E3, happened like 12 minutes into the game.

Unlike the game after this one, Mario Odyssey can’t really be described as a “drastic re-imagining” of the series, because every Mario game is a re-imagining. These games are constantly changing and warping and evolving around themselves. I think the reason for this is straightfoward. As Mark Brown puts it, Nintendo has always followed a simpler conceptual path than most developers. If form follows function, and Mario’s function as a character is to jump, you can pretty much throw anything you want after that and it’ll work. That’s more or less what Odyssey does, throwing a seemingly endless well of new ideas at the player. These levels aren’t even that big, but they’re so jam-packed with strange one-off challenges or unique enemies to capture that they almost feel like dozens of smaller Mario games packed into one.

And yet, this game feels more coherent and self-aware than anything in the series before it. New Donk City is obviously the high point of the game, and the high point of New Donk City itself, the Festival, is an absolutely joyous celebration of the entire concept of Super Mario. It’s the exact right tone of fanservice, something that comes in at the end and is celebratory without being self-congratulatory. The very ending of the core game, which I won’t spoil here, is one of the most insane and ridiculous things I’ve ever seen in a video game, and takes the capture mechanic to its logical endpoint in a way both weird and kind of hilarious.

In the end, that’s what Mario Odyssey feels like: a perfectly calibrated yet wildly anarchic celebration of everything the mainline Super Mario games have come to represent. It’s got one eye on the past, and one eye so far into the future of this series that it feels almost ridiculous. The boss fights are at a series high. The level design is at a series high. The soundtrack might be at a series high. It’s funny, challenging, irreverent and sublimely ridiculous all at the same time, while also being one of the most intricate platformers ever made. Perhaps most miraculously, it’s the best Super Mario game ever made.

#1) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo EPD. Nintendo WiiU, Switch)

I tried to make it something else. I really did. In my initial review for Breath of the Wild, I ended by saying that this game had a real chance to be one of my absolute favorite games of all time. When I said that, I wasn’t entirely sure if that would end up being the case. I took it slow. After writing that review, I put Breath down for the better part of three months. I picked up a little in June, doing some shrines at random and just generally hanging out in Hyrule, and that was fun enough.

Then, in August, something clicked, and I started devouring shrines. Within two weeks, I’d gone from having maybe 45 shrines done to having all 120 (proof here). It was some time between getting the Hero of the Wilds gear and helping to build my own town that I realized that I wasn’t being ridiculous before: Breath of the Wild is the best game of 2017. To explain why honestly feels redundant at this point. It’s self-evidently great, beyond just the scope of it being a Zelda game or it being Nintendo. It’s one of those games that other studios are going to be stealing from for years to come, maybe longer if this video is anything to go by. By mid-December, I’d bought the DLC and beaten everything in that too, and I’d buy ten more just to get more to do in this version of Hyrule. If there’s one thing this game and Mario Odyssey share, it’s the idea that completing something happens only to satisfy the player’s curiosity instead of fulfilling a checklist or a quest log.

In the end, what I’ll say about Breath‘s design is that it feels like Nintendo took something from every major open world game and refined it to the point where it almost seems effortless. It’s a true “open world” game. You can go anywhere. You can climb anything. It’s a true immersive sim. Dozens upon dozens of invisible physics systems can collide with the combat system and produce a seemingly infinite amount of emergent possibilities.

That’s the inside baseball term that will stick with me most when I think about Breath: possibility space. I can’t immediately think of a game with more to do in it than this one. I can’t think of a game that feels this joyous and inventive, or this pensive and melancholy. It’s the best open-world game ever made, the best Immersive Sim, the best post-apocalyptic game, the best adventure game, and the best Zelda.

Most importantly, it’s the best game of 2017.

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