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December 28, 2017 13 min read
Jeff Gerstmann is a professional car streamer and pillow enthusiast from Sonoma County, CA. His hobbies include sitting down and staring forward, macaroni and cheese, and thinking about (but not listening to) narcocorridos.
If you're reading this, congratulations. It's more than likely that you've made it through 2017, a year that has been troubling to say the least. With all the things happening in the Actual World this year, I kept getting pulled back and forth between thinking that there's too much else to be done to be thinking about video games and thinking "wait, actually, disappearing into a video game or four is exactly what I need right now."
Let's focus on the video games part for now.
A lot happened in video games this year. Nintendo releasing the Switch and taking an increased interest in smaller, independent games along the way is probably the most major change. While some say that the Switch is the ultimate realization of the Wii U concept, I'd probably also say that it makes good on the core ideas of the Vita. It's a solid home for smaller games, just like the Vita was... but it also has strong first-party support. Perhaps it's an unfair comparison, since Nintendo is going to keep on shifting more and more of its eggs into the Switch basket as the 3DS continues it's long, slow (slower than I would've guessed, for sure) ride into the sunset.
I liked a lot of video games this year, and that made this a harder list to whittle down than it has been in years past. Sometimes it's hard to find 10 games I feel strongly enough about to make the list in the first place. This year, I started with close to 30. The thing I'll probably remember about 2017's video games is that many of my favorite games also came along with significant flaws. In a lot of cases, this year's best games overcame issues along the way, resulting in games that shine in some areas but not others. In the end, the games with a little bit of dirt on them endnd up being the most memorable. Let's count 'em down. I've decided to include the platform(s) I played them on, in case you care about that sort of thing.
The uneven nature of the Assassin's Creed franchise has been really unfortunate, considering high points like Brotherhood and Black Flag. The ups and downs have really taken a toll, as it's become way easier to remember the missteps and broken games than the ones that stood out as solid-to-exceptional games. Origins might actually be the game to break that cycle by finally making more dramatic changes to how the game actually plays. I'm not sure that I'd play a four sequels that play exactly like this one, but Bayek's a great character and the freshened-up gameplay makes this an exciting open world to explore.
I can't quite put my finger on why I ended up being a lot better at Splatoon 2 than I was at the first game. I'm still not using tilt controls and a lot of the mechanics and concepts come over pretty directly, but everything about this game feels more inviting than the first game did. I wish it didn't do the whole map rotation thing, and locking up the wave-based survival mode for part of the day is a weird way to go, but I had a great time with it overall.
My favorite part about Heat Signature is that it's just sparse enough for your imagination to fill in the gaps. The characters have great names, and there's just enough world building to hint at what society must be like out on these backwater space stations. The rest of the game is dynamic enough to where you want to fill in the gaps yourself. You want to roleplay your characters as they try to solve their personal quests. Mechanically, too, Heat Signature lets you suss out your own ways to proceed by giving you a fairly clear set of objectives but a set of tools that usually feels slightly less than ideal. This forces you to improvise as you sneak onto ship after ship, stalking guard after guard with a lead pipe, sword, or fancy teleporter contraption in-hand. Any game that lets you get sucked out into space as a way to actually solve your current problem is all right by me.
There's something almost heartwarming about seeing a Tekken sequel come in so, so strong this year. It doesn't do it by simply being another Tekken game, either. Tekken 7's super moves give players another solid option for coming back in a fight that might be getting away from them, and the flashy slow-motion finishes simply make things more exciting for players of any skill level. It even has a good, weird story that works its first guest character, Akuma, into the deep origins of the entire franchise. Then they went and added Geese Howard to it and he's a great addition, too. Tekken 7 not only reignited my interest in Tekken, it also managed to make me want Tekken x Street Fighter to actually happen someday. I never thought that would happen.
I like Destiny 2. I'm disappointed by Destiny 2. I want more from Destiny 2. I had something like 60 or 70 great hours with Destiny 2. The first DLC is underwhelming in Destiny 2. They give out too much loot in Destiny 2. I found a lot of interesting exotic weapons in Destiny 2. I will probably continue to level up a character in Destiny 2. Because I still want more Destiny 2.
If Destiny 1's major issue was that every single end-game power increase fell out of an RNG that actively hated humanity, Destiny 2 is like the perfect bank robbery. At first, the increase in loot quality seemed insane and great. Like every few hours I was finding something else and thinking "man, I must be really lucky." Then you realize that they've just tuned it for player satisfaction by making sure a shit-ton of good stuff drops or spits out of quest rewards along the way. This makes the endgame hollow for a different reason than it was in the first game.
I have issues with Destiny 2. But I still really had a fantastic time playing and chatting and even raiding in Destiny 2.
I very nearly launched Destiny 2 immediately after writing the preceding paragraphs.
You shouldn't need a video game to remind you that Nazis are Actually Bad. Seems like the sort of thing that would be second nature by now. But sorta like I said up top, 2017 was a motherfucker of a year, so the themes of Wolfenstein II ended up hitting a bit harder than they would have otherwise. Harder than they should have, honestly. But here we are: the game about Nazis taking over 1960s America while the country's white population largely rolls over and allows it to happen ends up feeling positively incendiary set against the backdrop of our current predicament.
I appreciated the world building that Wolfenstein II does. Sure, the main plot picks up right where the last game left off, but the newspaper clippings and pieces of dialogue you pick up along the way help fill in the gaps about how, exactly, the world came to be this way. Then the main plot comes in rumbling over the top with a rollercoaster ride of extremely serious moments touching on B.J.'s past, and enough insane, outsized moments to make the game play as a dark comedy. It walks the line between seriousness and bombast and succeeds at both--a feat that most pure fiction can't always pull off, let alone a video game story.
The gameplay ends up being the uneven part here, especially if you're playing with a controller, but the weapons and options at your disposal end up being quite satisfying. Upgrading and dual-wielding the shotguns, in particular, led to some pretty amazing little moments in combat.
SteamWorld Dig 2 simply feels nice. It's an intensely pleasant experience that expands very well on both the digging and the exploring found in the previous game. "If Mr. Driller was a Metroid game" wasn't something I knew I needed, but after that first game I definitely felt like I needed more. Dig 2 delivers a deeper and better experience with terrific upgrades, outstanding music, and a solid sense of exploration that really just propels you through the game.
There's a bit of a pendulum swing to the way Super Mario Odyssey does business. It knows when to just kind of sit back and directly evoke the Mario of old, just blasting you in your dumb face with as much nostalgia as it can muster. That works incredibly well. The game knows when to pull the "hey, remember this old Mario thing" ripcord. It also knows to not pull it every five seconds. It plays around with your expectations of Mario as a character and as a concept in ways that, well, made me spend more time thinking about the nature of Mario than I ever figured I would. That's pretty cool and all, but also it has that giant effing corn in it. And those sick-ass goomba stacks. It controls well. It feels great. And it made me remember all those hours I've spent with the Mario games of yesteryear. Even the bad ones.
Going in, the only thing Nier had going for it was Platinum's name on the front of the announcement trailer. It was a follow-up to Nier, a game set in the Drakengard universe, both of which were thoroughly not my thing. Eight hours in, it started to seem like my initial impressions weren't completely wrong. The gameplay was fine, but repetitive. The window on your evades is a bit too long and, in some cases, something you can sort of mash to get out of tight situations. But there was a quirk to the proceedings that made me come back. That, and word of mouth had already started to pick up.
I let Nier sit for a month or so, knowing that I was actually fairly close to finishing what you'd call "Route A" of the game. Word of mouth continued to build, but the idea of going back to this thing was becoming a bit more distant. At this point, I was interested in the story and really liked the setting, but with so many other games out, why would I keep playing this overly easy character action game?
I finally went back and finished Route A. By this point, I had heard a few sentences about the state of the world, and hearing that some of the game's setup with a bit of misdirection made me more interested in seeing it through. I immediately started on Route B, which is a replay of Route A but from your sidekick's perspective. Aside from the moments where the two characters separated, this was largely the same thing again. This was both maddening and weirdly enthralling. The audacity! That was when I knew I'd see the whole thing through, if only to see what the rest of this thing has to offer.
I don't know that I'd ever say that the gameplay picks up. The changes introduced in the second playthrough are welcome, but shallow. Instead, I focused in deep on the narrative. The characters. Their little side stories. The very nature of this world, and what this all was trying to say about our own world. The nature of humanity and all that. I'm not going to fully dissect Nier: Automata for you here. Other people have done a far better job of that many times over. But I will say that, when all is said and done, Nier: Automata is a very touching game. It feels personal in a way that games published by large publishers usually don't. It feels like a nearly complete thought on the subject of humanity. The final moments of the game not only made all the tedium I felt in the early hours feel minor by comparison, it also managed to make that very feeling of tedium necessary.
That's a big ask, and I certainly understand why a lot of people wouldn't want anything to do with all of this. But I'm extremely happy that I made it through Nier: Automata. It's a wonderful game.
From the first time I saw the film Battle Royale, I wanted someone to make it into a video game. Of course, back in 2000 those dreams came in the form of some kind of single-player, story-driven thing. That's just where games were at back then. Player counts and world sizes simply weren't high enough in low-latency action games to really make that work. As the Rusts and DayZs of the world came to pass, I never really put two-and-two together. I guess I had more or less moved on from the idea, and those games seemed so demanding and crafting-focused that I could never get into them in the first place.
Meanwhile I grew to respect games like Arma for allowing people to role-play out their hardcore military drill fantasy life, but the controls never felt inviting enough and the stakes always seemed too high. I didn't ever want to be the guy that fucked up the entire platoon's Arma thing.
I'm amazed that the Battle Royale thing more or less came to pass, and it's astounding that a game like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds came out of all those weird roots. On some level, I'm even more astounded that I like it so much. Battlegrounds is a game about distilling the cool, emergent things that might happen to you in one of those other games down into its purest, uncut form. The end result is an adrenaline factory that makes the multiplayer shooter status quo look like the trashed-up laser tag place that someone opened up in a closed-down furniture store. Battlegrounds pulls the right things from the games that came before it and throws the rest aside. I don't think it's this genre's final form, but it's a hell of a starting point.
Personally, I like to play the game alone. There's more of a tension to it that way. You have no one to rely on, no one to talk to, and it's practically a horror movie every time you play. Every move you make might be your last, and you can get it around every single corner. At first, this is actually a little frustrating. But give it a little more time, become a little more proficient with the weaponry, and you start to learn how to effectively fight back. You go from the simple prey, gunned down while staring at a pile of ammo and energy drinks, to the lunatic lunging through a window to shotgun down an escaping foe. I will never be "esports good" at Battlegrounds, but given the game's immense popularity, there are millions of players out there who, like me, will never break through to the top tier of play. That's exactly where I'm having the most fun. It's an endless series of chaotic situations and eventually you get good enough to find a way out of at least some of those situations intact. No other competitive shooter has struck me the way this one has.
With other players on your team, it becomes a very different thing. When you're out with you crew, driving around the hillsides, finding yourself on either the great side or the terrible side of an ambush, rolling cars and laughing it up, it's a weirdly social experience. But as soon as the shit jumps off, everyone snaps into a more serious mode. The voice chat starts to sound like those stupid Ubisoft press conferences. You're moving as a unit. You're getting shit done. You're sending other players back to the damned title screen, one bullet at a time. And, again, if you're me, you're eventually sent back there yourself. And it's easy to jump right back in. But on top of all that, you're having a great time with your friends at a pace that allows you to hang loose at times and just catch up.
In some ways, this reminds me of the year Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare came out and absorbed hundreds of hours of my life. At the time, I considered Team Deathmatch to be kind of lame. It quickly became the standard and default way to play. Now, here we are, a decade later, and a game with no respawns and no meaningful persistence--things that always kept me away from games like Counter-Strike--has cracked the code in a way that hooked me huge. I never even saw it coming.
It's tempting to want to predict how multiplayer shooters evolve from here, and certainly there are already a ton of games bending and contorting themselves into a PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds-like shape. But I have no idea.
I'd still like to see a proper, faithful Battle Royale game, to be honest. I guess that's an actually attainable thing now, right?
Though I did end up with enough games to have a list twice this size, I didn't want to go through and number them out. I do want to quickly call out a few of the games that didn't quite make this list, though.
Windjammers - They ported Windjammers to PS4 and the online isn't bad. That's great! It'd be greater if more people were playing it online, but I suppose that's a lot to ask.
Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Wildlands - I hated Wildlands right up to the point where I started really enjoying it. This game is extremely dumb in its setting and dialogue and tone, but something about exploiting the AI's behavior--both alone and in groups--became weirdly compelling for me once I got close to the end.
Lode Runner Legacy - I spent a couple of summers playing nothing but Lode Runner when I was nine or 10 but very few of the later releases really grabbed me. This one has Steam Workshop support to make distributing user levels a lot easier and has a lot of good customization options.
Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy - This is an extremely particular game that feels like takes "tough but fair" to extremes. There's nothing stopping you from climbing up the mess of mountain and trash but your own damned dexterity. I will never finish this game, but I respect the hell out of it.
Polybius - I hope Jeff Minter never stops making games. His riffs on arcade games of the 1980s are only getting wilder as the technology around him improves. Polybius manages a sense of speed that most VR games seem afraid to attempt. Sounds like this'll still come to PC at some point.
Everything - Everything feels good to play. It's extremely relaxing while also being thoughtful. I initially thought that Everything would work better as a screensaver--and sure enough, if you set the controller down it'll start doing things on its own--but engaging with it and making choices about where to go and what to be felt far more meaningful. I enjoyed it quite a bit.
I could go on and on, but so much of what I'd say also comes out in our podcast deliberations that I'd probably just be repeating myself. Look out for each other and let's have a better 2018.
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