10. Destiny 2
2017 is a year that will be remembered for its shockingly impressive list of quality video game releases. It’s also a year that will be remembered for near endless controversy. For every Breath of the Wild there was a Mass Effect: Andromeda, for every Wolfenstein there was a Battlefront… Not a week seemed to pass that didn’t include some weird juxtaposition of video games at their very best vs video games at their very worst. Destiny 2 is a game which straddles the centreground of this trend perfectly.
Initially, I didn’t even consider Destiny 2 for this list. In a year with such lofty highs and groundbreaking releases, why would I spare any thought for a game which has left such a sour taste in the mouths of so many, including my own? Then I remembered the first 40-50 hours that I spent in Bungie’s odd solar system, the vast majority of which were fantastic.
The gunplay is still unparalleled, the character design, art direction, and overall presentation is still the definition of triple-A development, the campaign now has a tangible storyline that gives the Destiny-verse some much-needed personality, and the lack of content concerns which plagued the original release haven’t gained the same traction with D2. Oh, and the score is fucking gorgeous; a welcome return to form.
So why the saltiness? For me, it’s because I think Destiny as is, is great, but I know it could be so much more. When I saw the first gameplay previews for D1 I knew immediately what the game could and should be – a Halo game where the single-player, co-op, and PVP modes are merged into a unified experience. An FPSMMO where multiple social areas let players meet up, plan their next mission, buy gear, and then head out towards the next adventure. On paper, we got that, but the social areas in Destiny are not only few and far between, but also just glorified marketplaces and matchmaking screens. Players can head out into the world (after enduring a loading sequence) and are then left with the option of either completing the same missions on repeat or participating in a clockwork overworld to grind resources and loot drops.
I gave D1 the benefit of the doubt as the project was clearly extremely ambitious and also anchored by the need to support legacy systems. My hope with D2 was that Bungie would at least take a half step towards the beautiful FPSMMO holy land that I had envisioned. Instead – we got more Destiny. Really fucking good Destiny. But just more Destiny.
To be clear – the first few dozen hours I spent with the game were some of the best that I’ve spent with any game this year, but when you reach a high level and the sense of progression slows to a trickle, it becomes obvious that Bungie / Activision want to have their space cake and eat it too. They want players to spend hundreds if not thousands of hours in their game, negating the risk of preowned purchases and fuelling an in-game microtransaction economy. But, unlike fully fledged MMO titles which deliver content and updates to match this ambition, Destiny relies on the weight of its incredible core gameplay, a stupidly challenging end game raid, and some barebones PVP offerings.
I’ve decided to jump off the Destiny train, and I doubt that any expansion (and certainly not the widely criticised first D2 offering) on the current formula will bring me back. Hopefully, a third Destiny game will do something to spark my interest again, but at the very least Bungie / Activision need work out their messaging with this series. If they want it to be a 50/60 hour experience where players drop off until the next expansion – fine. But by framing Destiny as a platform and then refusing deliver on what it means to be a legitimate platform in video games in 2017, they risk irritating millions of, admittedly entitled, gamers; damaging the Destiny brand and more importantly – Bungie’s.
9. Sonic Mania
Is the Sonic Cycle broken? I’m doubtful. Mania was a wonderful and cathartic experience for a fan of 90s Sonic games who longs for a true sequel. That said – Mania isn’t really attempting to be a true sequel as the whole premise is set up to be a greatest hits compilation with some unreleased B-sides to sweeten the deal, rather than the actual next hit. Could the critical and, assumedly, the commercial success of Mania prompt SEGA to invest in creating a true sequel? Maybe, but bad Sonic games always sold well too, that’s why they kept making them. Interestingly – word on the street is that Mania actually directly links into Sonic Forces. And I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not, really.
Regardless, just like Sonic and his anthropomorphised pals in Sonic Mania, we too can travel time and space to revisit long forgotten places and distant memories. Once you’re done with Mania – go play S3&K. Sonic was always this good.
You can read my full review of Sonic Mania here.
8. Wolfenstein 2
I found the first Wolfenstein underwhelming. To be honest, in 2017 I find most linear FPS games underwhelming (last year’s DOOM being a notable exception).
I was prepared for Wolfenstein 2 to leave me cold. And then (SPOILER ALERT!) this happened…
7. Middle-earth: Shadow of War
When it comes to the Middle-earth games, I seem to the have the inverse opinion to that held generally. I enjoyed the first game but didn’t think it deserved the ridiculous amount of praise that got heaped on it, including prestigious GOTY nods. I saw the game as a mish-mash of the Arkham series and Assassin’s Creed but without Rocksteady’s masterful storying telling nor Ubisoft’s open-world sandbox craftsmanship. The main character was painfully boring, with design elements seemingly pulled from a C-tier PS2 title. As a Tolkien fan, I winced every time the game trod on the beloved lore of The Lord of the Rings and would have been much happier if the game was set in some generic D&D fantasy world.
That said – the Nemesis mechanic was a triumph; it took what would have been a quick license cash-in (see the PS360 version san Nemesis) to be quickly and rightfully forgotten, and made a game that was noteworthy not only for its year of release but for the current generation of games.
So when it comes to the second game, I again seem to be at odds with the majority opinion. A tonne of hype leading up to release has, at this point, dissipated into apathy at best and anger at worst. On the apathy end of the scale, criticism seems to include overindulgence of the Nemesis system, making encounters with menacing orcs less meaningful. Those who are angry charge the game with being devised from the bottom up as a vessel for insidious microtransactions – a common complaint within the triple-A sphere in 2017 and one that I would argue Shadow of War is only marginally guilty of, if at all.
So where do I come down on the game? I thought it was fun as hell. Silly, bloated, broken, but FUN. By the time the player character (I have no idea what his name his) is nearing fully powered-up, the world becomes a toy box of sadism and hilarity. Summoning a dragon to attack an orc stronghold whilst darting around rooftops firing off arrows and popping heads with the Force (oops, wrong franchise) is the epitome of video game nonsensical fun.
I will admit that the much-heralded siege mechanics were disappointing; failing to capture the sense of strategy nor awe that I hoped they would based on the promotional material. But everything in between is exactly what I wanted. And I can’t wait to jump back in next year in the hope of inspiring more mind-blowing thought-pieces like this.
Once the credits had rolled, and I had gotten over my disappointment that the game has no New Game+ option (really?!), I was left to ponder if Prey had lived up to the high expectations that it had placed upon itself in the hearts and minds of many hardcore gamers. The game never really captures the wonder and sense of place that Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite did. And it certainly doesn’t capture the sense of fear and dread at the heart of System Shock 2 (although I’m not even sure that it really wanted to…).
But what Prey has done is rekindle the type of game experience that many assumed dead when Irrational Games closed their doors. And not only that – it does this in such a way that will no doubt create new fans of the genre. By taking classic game design and merging it with modern, accessible sensibilities – Arkane has created a rare bridge between two eras of gaming. Something that Bethesda published titles have had a gratefully received habit of doing recently (see DOOM)…
Prey is challenging, fun, thought-provoking, and stylish. It’s also yet another noteworthy release in what is shaping up to be an astonishingly good year for games.
You can read my full review of Prey here.
5. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
So I’m a huge Resident Evil fan. Resi 2 was one of the first games I owned for the original PlayStation, and just hearing a few seconds of the soundtrack can still fill me with a nostalgic sense of dread. I consider Resi 4 to be as close to perfect as it gets in this medium, and I’ve spent hours in pubs yelling at the unclean masses as to why this is the case.
In spite of this fandom, I was very much aware pre-2017 that Resident Evil seemed to be in somewhat of a death spiral. Ever since the sixth iteration jumped every possible shark and left the series as shambling and directionless as the zombies that inhabit Racoon City’s streets, it seemed like this once mighty franchise faced two options – reboot or die.
I was very much in the reboot camp. I’ve already concocted the high-level details of what such a reboot should consist of, and find myself worryingly often silently praying to Capcom that they slide into my DMs and offer me the creative lead on the much-needed REboot. (Capcom – if you’re reading this, I’m still 100% DTF)
For reasons unknown, Capcom opted to ignore my psychic advances and instead pressed on with the seventh mainline Resi game. Early previews and an eventual demo posed more questions than they answered. Is the game really going to be completely first-person? Will this game tie into the convoluted heap of lights and noise that RE’s plot has become? Why does the game have Biohazard as a subtitle, which has always been the name for the series in Japan? Is Capcom just trolling us ala Kojima’s PT and the demo was just a smoke screen for an upcoming REboot REveal? All of which have now been answered…
Yes the game is entirely first-person (and in playable in VR!). Yes it ties into the wider lore, but in a very subtle way which won’t exclude newcomers. Its subtitle is Biohazard because that’s a cool thing. No, the demo was not a piece of abstract marketing for another title, and we’re still none the wiser as to whether Capcom is planning to hit the big red REset button on Claire, Leon, & Co.
That said – RE7 is as close to a REboot that could be made without actually starting from scratch. The game is set is a spooky mansion akin to the very first game and is littered with nods and references to other previous entries. It’s damn scary and there’s a heavy focus on traditional survival horror elements such as ammo rationing and purposefully sluggish controls to create a sense of vulnerability. RE7 feels like a definite return the series’ roots which, ironically, was a breath of fresh air compared to the much-maligned RE6 and the workable at best side offerings (Revelations, Operation Raccoon City etc).
That’s not to say that RE7 doesn’t bring anything new to the table. The first third of the game feels more like an on the rails FPS run & hide horror experience like Outlast or Layers of Fear than a true survival horror effort. The main antagonists feel like they shouldn’t be part of the game outside of cutscenes and boss battles, but instead they stalk the tattered halls and creaking walkways of the mansion and its surroundings, going absolutely ape-shit mental if they find you to the point where I resorted to resetting the game instead of facing their wrath on more than one occasion.
In typical modern Resident Evil style, the game becomes more action focused and therefore less tense as it enters the third act, which is regrettable. That said – RE7 is still the most original, well crafted, and intimidating horror game that I’ve played in years.
I’m still hoping for that full REboot, and I’m not sure how much of 7’s DNA should survive that process, but what I can say is that RE7 is a great and brave entry to a storied franchise that desperately needed a shake-up. Bravo, Capcom…. (please hire me)
Precise melee combat, separated into light and heavy attacks? Check. Formidable enemies who punish any and all displays of impatience and/or overconfidence? Check. Intricate level design that encourages forensic, if often desperate, exploration that ever so gradually burns a permanent schematic into your cerebral cortex? Check. A core gameplay loop centered around the slaughter of man and beast alike, who then share the grim fate of seeing their very beings converted into a precious, if somewhat macabre, upgrade currency? Check. Seemingly insurmountable boss encounters designed to break your will and heart to such a degree that when you do finally overcome them – the euphoria you feel puts most Class A drugs to shame? Check ad infinitum. So far, so Souls
So, is Nioh better than Dark Souls? Not by a long shot. Does that fact make the game any less great? Absolutely not. Nioh is a finely tuned riff off the now classic Souls formula that favours a consistent gameplay experience, along with considerable bang for your buck, over pretension. The game may not share the sheer scale of ambition, or the absurd attention to level and art design that we’ve seen in titles past, but – it’s a technical tour de force that makes its target hardware sing (especially the PS4 Pro), and the pragmatic refinements to online play and character levelling mean that there are literally hundreds of hours here to enjoy for those with the appetite for it.
Cliche dictates that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Nioh is a game that deserves flattering for years to come.
You can read my full review of Nioh here.
3. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
What can I say about the latest Zelda game that hasn’t already been said? The game is Nintendo’s crown jewel in a year where they not only bounced back into relevance but put the entire console market on notice.
Experiencing a game of this scope from a technical, artistic, and creative perspective was nothing short of revelatory, and I think that along with PUBG, Breath of the Wild is a 2017 release which will move beyond undeniable commercial and critical success to shape how we make and play mainstream games for the next decade.
I do have some grumbles…
Where was the story? Yes, Zelda lore has always been subtle, open to interpretation, and purposefully vague/incoherent, but the world building here seemed almost non-existent and didn’t lend itself well to the brilliantly fun fan conspiracy theories around when and where in the overall narrative arc an entry takes place. It doesn’t hurt the game one bit, but I really think that Nintendo missed a trick with not kicking the series forward in terms of storytelling.
My far more pressing gripe concerns weapon degradation. This was a killer for me and almost resulted in me giving up on the game multiple times. I would pay another £50 just to have a decent sword in the game which doesn’t break during every other encounter. Even the Master Sword requires a recharge after extended use… THE MASTER SWORD!
But neither of the points above do anything to really detract from what Nintendo has achieved here. I genuinely love my Switch and Breath of the Wild is the reason why. Proper big boy games with proper big boy controls on the go, and a vital tool in my crusade to ignore my partner and miscellaneous loved ones at every available opportunity. <3
2. Divinity: Original Sin 2
Fallout 4 disappointed me. I wanted a modern RPG which presented tonnes of scenarios and conflicts that I could then deal with in the manner of my choosing. Instead, Bethesda got an almighty hard-on for their posh new gunplay engine and decided to make the game a non-linear FPS instead of an open-world first-person RPG.
Divinity: Original Sin 2 became my unlikely saviour this year. Yes, it’s a top-down, more traditionally put together, D&D-esque RPG experience, but the level of freedom given to the player is near orgasmic. You can kill everyone. And I mean EVERYONE. Where Fallout and Elder Scrolls will prevent you from killing anyone that the developer deemed essential to the experience, Divinity lets you kill major characters at any point, not to mention – members of your team, therefore amputating hours and hours of carefully crafted narrative. Fantastic.
The intense level of freedom also makes its way into the combat mechanics, with items within the world having physical properties; reacting accordingly to the elements. As an example – whilst struggling to take down a pyromancer I resorted to filling the environment with multiple barrels of water, resulting in a much easier fight as the barrels were cracked open during the scuffle, soaking my party and rendering the pyromancer’s attacks near useless as I repeatedly bludgeoned them with a hammer.
Conversations with NPCs branch off in various directions depending on the player character’s race, past deeds, clothing etc. Encounters clearly set up as boss battles can be overcome without so much as raising your voice, assuming that you have the right personality traits and select the relevant conversational options. Members of your team will question your decisions and potentially betray you if pushed over the edge. Environments are littered with books, art, potions, and a thousand other trinkets, all of which can be physically manipulated.
If you value player freedom in games and can roll with Baldur’s Gate-esque top-down gameplay, then Divinity will be a revelation to you. And I truly hope that it’s a revelation to Bethesda, too.
1. Horizon Zero Dawn
Sony has a long history of pushing the envelope when it comes to the technical prowess of its first-party software. Horizon is not only another clear example of this but very possibly the most technically impressive game that I’ve ever played. And we’re not just talking pure pixel-pushing here…
Horizon combines first-party development knowhow (and budget) with jaw-dropping art direction and unparalleled level design. Each moment spent in this world feels cohesive and deliberate. The same area can be unrecognisably changed when framed by an alternate time of day and/or weather condition. Layers of rock, grass, ice, and twisted metal quickly form gorgeous sets that facilitate Aloy’s quest – until she eventually moves on and the elements paint something new. The night sky is photo-realistic and not only makes for some awe-inspiring vistas but also adds a subtle sense of cosmic depth to the world.
I’d argue that Horizon is an unreserved triumph and a watershed moment for this generation of consoles in terms of maturing the medium. As Nathan Drake settles into a potentially permanent retirement, Sony has done well to pass the baton. Whether or not we see Aloy again (and I have a strong suspicion that we will…) – Horizon is, thankfully, here to stay.
You can read my full review of Horizon Zero Dawn here.