I came up with 4 games over the course of 2016 that I'd call my favorites. Each one of these games consumed me at some point during the year - the kind where, when I wasn't playing, I was still thinking about the game. Maybe it was the story, the action, the setting; something enraptured me, sunk it's claws into me and wouldn't let go. They're the kinds of games that changed expectations, expanded horizons, altered the way I think about games, or ones that left me with experiences I will never forget.
Hyper Light Drifter
I’ve written about this game a few times before, but I can’t stress enough just how much I love this game. From it’s nostalgic throwbacks and homages to action RPGs of the 16 bit era, to it’s technical execution and art design, this game is perfection for me; truly, the nectar of the gods. Guns and laser-swords and high-speed dashing, fighting (and dying - a lot) hordes of enemies and tough-as-nails bosses while exploring a pixelated post-apocalyptic world with a mysterious story left up for interpretation - I couldn’t get enough. Many, many irresponsibly-late nights were spent during the first couple weeks after release playing; not in rush to complete the game, but to see what was next, soaking up the experience. This is truly my GOTY - it was the perfect love letter to the games I grew up with and loved, plucking the very best pieces for inspiration, but avoiding being shackled to the past - the game itself stands up to any modern title in terms of polish and execution.
I didn’t know what to think when I saw the previews for this game - it doesn’t translate well in text or even video. Until your mind experiences the time bending mechanics (time only moves when you move) during the puzzle-turned-firefights (it’s an FPS, but it’s actually a puzzle game), I don’t think you’ll ever quite fully understand. The story progresses through old-school terminal PC IM sessions and the game’s ultra-minimalistic color palette (everything is white and red) all add up to a very unique experience, but the gameplay sets this game apart from anything else on the planet. One level sticks out in my mind - for no particular reason, you start in a bathroom stall, open the door and see an enemy right in front of you using a urinal - you knock them out cold, and try to sneak out of the bathroom but enemies site you and converge on you with gunfire; you strafe while tracking the bullets so you can side step their path and pass near a billiards table and pick up a pool ball, throw it at the nearest enemy behind a bar, pluck their now-released firearm out of the air, turn it on them, dive behind the bar dodging bullets from 3 more enemies and dispatch them with the gun you’ve stolen. Ammo runs out, so you throw your empty gun at the enemy that comes in from the side, steal their gun out of the air and dispatch them. Those 20 seconds of in-real-time action probably took 5 minutes or so of actual game play through the level due to the slow moving, strategic nature of the game, but it probably took me an hour or two of trial and error with many, many deaths in between before figuring out the right sequence and proper execution. The best part is still the replay at the end of each level where you get to see - in real time - just how much of a action-movie badass you were.
It’s been a long, long time since I fell in love with an open world game - The last one I can think of is the first Forza Horizon on the Xbox 360 (2 and 3 were fine games, but they did not capture me the way the first one did). When Steep was announced earlier this year, it caught me by surprise not only because it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a snow sports game, but what surprised me was how excited I was by the idea. Having skied since the age of 6, there’s a long history and love for the mountains and the snow, but it’s a pricey hobby that I haven’t been able to partake in for the last decade or so. This game had the potential to give me that opportunity to return to the slopes (digitally at least), and for the most part, it has. It’s absolutely beautiful to look at with it’s stunning mountainous vistas, it has relatively fluid and intuitive controls that work well (but I understand there are quirks that some don’t enjoy), and it provides some sense of achievement by finding and unlocking new parts of the mountain to enjoy. The events are fun enough and give you a little bit of structure and progression if you’re looking for it. Beyond the skiing and snowboarding, you’re given the opportunity to paraglide (boring IMO) and fly down the mountain with a wingsuit (fun to do, but definitely a secondary activity), but the most important part - it gives you freedom to explore and just enjoy carving the snow. It’s as relaxing and an enjoyable experience as I’ve had playing games in years that I plan to spend much of 2017 in as well.
As storytelling goes, you’re not going to find one better than Masquerada. It’s a fully conceptualized world of magic accompanied by deep, deep lore and history that reveals itself throughout the course of the game. A struggle between historically powerful rival houses and families, and a potentially overbearing central government, each vying for their political influence, power, and control through different means - be it money, military, land, or magic. Your story follows a shamed exile, returning on the promise of restoring his name if he can complete a dangerous mission, and from there the story branches; from the personal struggles of others on your team, to the existential peril of the city itself - corruption, betrayal, revelations, retribution. The story unfolds over 15-20 hours, with lots of twists and turns that keep the narrative moving, but without feeling forced or rushed. Over 12 hours of dialogue were recorded by veteran cast lending their voices to the characters. Dialogue is sharp, with a Shakespearean quality, but those voices really raise the level of immersion, bringing life to each of the characters you quickly grow to know and care for over the course of the 15-20 hours. The Venetian inspired world is presented in a vivid comic book style, and the game itself plays out as a isometric RPG with live-action combat that can be paused for tactical planning. The game has it’s shortcomings - combat can be frustrating with silly AI teammates, the character leveling and customization is thin, the cutscenes are decidedly simple with the comic book theme being heavily embraced via floating drawings, some complain about the game being too linear - but I was more than willing to look past those to experience the world and it’s lore. This game shows what video games can do versus Hollywood in terms of immersion. It bridges the gap between the depth of world building and lore found in novels and movies that can only build worlds for 90 minutes at a time. Other games have done this in the past, but this was the one that made it’s mark for me in 2016.