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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Better Late Than Never - Game of the Year 2016

Welcome back, fellow nerds! Sorry for my prolonged absence from the site; life has been a whirlwind this past year. Which also unfortunately means, like in 2015, that I didn’t play all that many games to completion. Oddly enough, I paradoxically may have picked up more games this year than I did in the past few; rather than buying things at launch, I waited until the big summer and holiday sales and picked up multiple titles over a few weeks. For instance I picked up Bloodborne, Until Dawn, and The Order: 1886 during sales even though I don’t own a PS4 yet, just so I could have them (my roommate has a PS4, so I’ve at least tried them out). 2016 did continue the trend of having a core group of folks I play games with on a regular basis each week* and that meant slightly less time for single-player stuff, but I still dipped my toes into most of this year’s big releases.

To an extent, though, I also continue to realize that it may simply no longer be feasible to play every major new release each year, and by that I just mean try them out, let alone finish each one. Part of this realization stems from getting older, and though I love video games every bit as much as I always have, but there are other events and concerns which occupy both my time and money more frequently. Over the past year-and-a-half or so I’ve been getting into board and deck-building games; I’ve been reading more and focusing on the writing I want to do as a profession; I started getting into model-building again. That means being more discerning in which video games I invest in, because otherwise I’m going to end up with an empty wallet and a bunch of titles I don’t ever get the chance to fully appreciate. With that in mind, here are my picks for our 2016 Game of the Year accolades.

*Shout-out to J S Wolfwood, GarlicWalrus, Eeeeerocket, and Valturen!

Game of the Year

Quantum Break

“What’s that?” I can almost hear a good portion of our readership asking themselves that question as they gaze at the banner image for this article. Others may vaguely recall a game from the makers of Alan Wake which features highly-detailed digitized versions of Iceman, Meriadoc Brandybuck, and Petyr Baelish involving time travel. Quantum Break also featured live-action, thirty-minute-long “episodes” of content between game story chapters which changed based on decisions the player made. It received relatively high reviews, was largely panned by most people representing themselves as gamers on the web, and then limped off into the mists of early-in-the-year titles.
What most people missed out in as a result was a stylish, well-crafted action game in which you use time in incredibly cool ways during both combat and puzzles, in a story that genuinely managed to surprise me at more than one turn. The decision-making system, while not necessarily as intricate was you might find in Mass Effect or The Witcher – nor nearly as nuanced as something like Metro 2033 – made things interesting by having it be the primary antagonist making the choices. The much-maligned live-action sequences are one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen a developer have the guts to invest in, and the game would be significantly less interesting without them.
If you like Alan Wake or Max Payne in the slightest, you should give this game a shot; that goes ditto if you enjoy movies such as Looper and 12 Monkeys, or the stories of Philip K. Dick. I still want to go back and play back through making the opposite choices from what I did before, especially since they can significantly change the game from very early on.


Single-Player: Final Fantasy XV

Let’s just get this out of the way: FFXV deserves most of the flak it gets for being a J-Pop boy-band road-trip simulator with action bits. That being said, I’ve rarely enjoyed pouring 30+ hours into a game as much as this one, and I genuinely look forward to diving back in and wrapping it up. Noctis, Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto have already sky-rocketed to near the top of my list of favorite FF characters, and this adventure is worth taking just to watch their friendship play out and grow. FFXV recaptures what the series does best – and what some recent entries have forgotten – in that it focuses on giving you relatable characters first, followed at close second by putting them in a truly spectacular setting.
The open world is one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen, with only Witcher 3 and Skyrim really challenging it in terms of both scale and scope. Driving from one end of the map to the other while listening to the soundtracks from previous games is incredibly fun, especially given some of the jaw-dropping vistas you encounter. The world is also densely populated with new characters to meet and countless side-quests, hunts, dungeons, and secrets to discover; it manages to walk that fine line between immersive and overwhelming even better than the aforementioned Skyrim in my opinion. Everything is there for you to either dive into or just skim the surface of as you like, and anytime you want to get back to the story the game gives you the tools to do so with minimal delay.
If you’re a fan of FF or JRPGs, chances are you’ve already picked this up; if not I can recommend it wholeheartedly, especially if you also like Kingdom Hearts. Thanks to the active battle system, I would also say that if you’ve avoided games like this in the past due to combat, I’d give this one a shot. Otherwise you’ll never know the joy of buying a new rare ingredient and having Ignis announce he has a new recipe for you to try.

Multiplayer: The Division

Rarely have I had less excitement for a game leading up to playing it and realizing I’m wrong. Wolfenstein: The New Order comes to mind, but generally I can gauge my enjoyment based on what I’m seeing of trailers and gameplay clips. Thankfully, we decided to play the open beta of The Division way back in February of last year, and pretty much immediately decided we would get it if the first few weeks showed the servers to be in good order. Our patience paid off, allowing us to miss some of the early headaches - such as players blocking one another from leaving the starting area – and by the time we dove in it was all fancy guns, realistic blizzards, and cool lighting effects.
The Division is not a perfect game, and the post-launch support and content has been a mixed bag, but if you have the right people to play it with everything else stops mattering. Remember how the PvP “Dark Zone” was a major focus of the marketing? We’ve rarely ventured there in 100+ hours of playtime, and yet I don’t feel our experience has suffered any for it. There have been numerous bugs after patches which caused our characters to behave in strange ways, such as the “Safe House Dance” in which everyone was constantly doing the weapon-switch animation. Our reaction? We found it hilarious. We played an extra hour one night because we realized our characters didn’t have to wear jackets, which completely changed how we approached picking what apparel gear to use.
I honestly don’t know if we’ll ever go back to the post-apoc streets of New York – another game further down the list has taken over game nights – and it remains to be seen if Ghost Recon: Wildlands will catch our interest the way this did. I do know that calling out “Lit!” whenever we ignited a cleaner’s gas tank, watching our turrets chew enemies to little pieces, and the joyful exclamations of someone getting an awesome new piece of gear will always stick with me as some of my favorite gaming moments.

Honorable Mentions

Battlefield 1


Look, every year, there’s an indie darling or two which people simply will not shut up about, to the point where you almost don’t even want to play it. One of those games in 2016 was undeniably Inside, except I love Playdead’s previous game Limbo so much I’ve completed it on three different platforms. Inside both is and isn’t the same kind of game as its predecessor, and while Limbo still holds a slightly bigger portion of my heart, this most recent offering kept me captivated from start-to-finish as I completed it in one sitting. The fabled “secret ending” was definitely a mind-frag, but I personally found the last few chapters to be the most interesting sequence.

In the Queue


Bought the “Complete Season 1” on sale! I dig it so far; each episode is one of the open-ended, by-any-means-necessary style missions that were so heavily advertised for Absolution, but ended up only comprising about a third of that final game. Some of the challenges and unique kill methods are insane, and I imagine going for perfect on each stage would definitely be a fun endeavor.

Gears of War 4

Also got it on sale, via a random Pizza Hut promo! I’ve made it to the start of the third act, which is when the game we saw in all the trailers looks like it’s actually going to get rolling. Act I was absolutely terrible, in my opinion, and showcased the worst of Gears – mediocre cover-based shooting against repetitive enemies – while Act II heralded the return of unique mechanics and larger-than-life set-pieces. Also, JD and company are so much less interesting than Marcus and crew you can almost taste it, but I’m hoping the latter half of the game will at least give me some better character moments.

King’s Quest

I love sales! I’ve only gotten a portion of the way into the first episode, but what I’ve played so far is brimming with more style and obvious care than most AAA titles. While still an adventure game at heart, King’s Quest manages to eschew some of the more tedious aspects of the genre, and just in what I’ve played so far there have been several cool puzzles and action sequences. This game just further proves that the adventure genre and episodic content are a match made in heaven, and one which companies other than the vaunted Telltale should be exploring.

Best Reason to Buy a New 3DS: SNES Virtual Console

I bought a *NEW* 3DS (which is a stupid naming convention, but blame Nintendo, not me) specifically after it was announced at E3 that they would be rolling out the SNES Virtual Console only on the upgraded version of the handheld. It was definitely the right decision, as I’ve played more of Super Metroid, Link to the Past, Mega Man X, and a few others than I have of any modern-era 3DS game I own.

Best Game Titled “Saints Row IV: Re-Elected’ not Released in 2016

Saints Row IV: Re-Elected

…I mean, you saw this coming, right?


Bryant Burnette said...

(1) If you played ANY game to completion during the year, you outdid me. I've been out of the gaming game since, like, '02. Shameful! But there are only so many hours in the day, days in the week, weeks in the year, years in the life. Cuts had to be made. (I say this like you don't already know my thoughts on the subject. For the benefit of any onlookers, then, let's say.)

(2) The handle "GarlicWalrus" makes me nervous for some reason I cannot quite define.

(3) "Part of this realization stems from getting older, and though I love video games every bit as much as I always have, but there are other events and concerns which occupy both my time and money more frequently." -- Deja vu!

(4) "which features highly-detailed digitized versions of Iceman, Meriadoc Brandybuck, and Petyr Baelish involving time travel." -- Casting for games has stepped up since my day!

(5) "It received relatively high reviews, was largely panned by most people representing themselves as gamers on the web, and then limped off into the mists of early-in-the-year titles." -- What accounts for the disconnect between critics and gamers on this one?

(6) "a J-Pop boy-band road-trip simulator with action bits" -- I'm sure this probably caused some people to invest in it even more, though.

(7) Does a game these days need good story/character AND good gameplay to work for you, or is it an either/or thing?

Xann Black said...

(1) Moving back has definitely impacted my time spent gaming - not that I mind! - because I spend so much more time with people in person. Then when I do have time to myself, gaming has to share it with reading, writing, building models, and various other hobbies. For instance, tonight could have been spent playing video games, but instead I played board games with folks.

(2) Hahaha. That's perfectly understandable, but if you knew my buddy Nick - who had Xbox LIve randomly generate something for him and got that - you'd see how well it fits.

(3) ^See point #1. But yes, I figured you would recognize the sentiments in that bit.

(4) It really has! Recent Call of Duty games have featured digitized Kevin Spacey and Kit Harrington; Castlevania: Lords of Shadow has Robert Carlyle, Jason Isaacs, and Patrick-Freaking-Stewart.

(5) There was severe backlash over the half-hour live-action episodes between each chapter, but most of it started before the game was ever released. This is one of those "people reacting to the conversation more than the work itself" things we've discussed over the past year. Essentially, the right journalists / bloggers / gaming personalities got snarky about it, and the community just rolled with that. It's a real shame, because the game is great by just about any standards.

(6) It did! That's in no a slight against the game; I've loved every minute for the most part, and the four main characters really are well written and executed. It'll probably see some more playtime this summer.

(7) It depends. The new DOOM (capitalization intentional; that's the official title) I mostly enjoy purely based on it being a balls-to-the-walls-punch-a-demon-in-the-dick-to-get-health shooter. At the same time, I avoid the Call of Duty series almost entirely because they have generic, predictable storylines that even the admittedly tight gameplay can't salvage for me.

Even a great story can't save tedious gameplay, though. One of the most critically-and-player-acclaimed games of recent years was Spec Ops: The Line. It plays with player expectations of a military shooter in interesting ways, and supposedly packs a pretty solid wallop with certain revelations. I wouldn't know, though, because the lackluster gameplay turned me off by the end of the second mission.

So there's definitely a balance to be struck, though if you forced me to choose, I'm going to say story is critical. The games in my library / games I do actually play to completion support me in that; they tend to be titles where the story is a major selling point.

Bryant Burnette said...

(5) Ah, yes, the fabled Groupthink. I'm increasingly inclined to simply not engage with fandom in that way, and since some of the critics I've historically followed have begun writing as much about how fandom reacts as they do about the thing the fandom is reacting to in the first place, I'm increasingly inclined to ignore critics. Bottom line: if you aren't on a preapproved list, your voice isn't making it to my ears. This leads to insular thinking, which, of course, is its own problem. But it's preferable, at least to me.

(7) That's about what I expected. Good to know!

Xann Black said...

(5) While insular thinking - best practiced in the engineering marvel known as an echo chamber - can certainly lead to stagnation, subjecting oneself to the Groupthink of a fandom isn't any better. I can no longer count the number of times I've witnessed an alternative / dissenting opinion about a work be shouted down or drowned out. Admittedly, while I've been the victim of such lambasting, I unfortunately am also guilty of participating from time-to-time.

For instance, right now everyone seems to have a hard-on for saying The Force Awakens wasn't very good or original, while heaping praise on Rogue One. While I admittedly liked Rogue One better on second viewing, I still think it's only a mediocre movie, and would have almost no interest if the words "Star Wars" were not in the title. On the other hand, I feel there is evidence - both from an objective storytelling and film-making standpoint, and in the form of admittedly subjective canonical in-universe material - that Episode VII is exceptional.

There's plenty of crossover here with what we've been discussing on my recent Mass Effect post, which only shows that this is a genuine phenomenon that is having an increasing impact on how we view and interact with not just media, but the rest of the world. People seem more than happy to just form an opinion based on limited facts and let that ride, or to forego even that and have someone else provide an opinion for them.

Of course, the absolute pinnacle of Groupthink occurs when there are enough folks on the "other side" to form a collective "Them." Once that happens, tribalism kicks in and we all get to abandon all pretense of rational discourse, because if we don't all stick together, "they" might get a leg up on us, and fuck if we can sit back and let that happen.