If 2017 had been a person, it would have been a coughing, retching, plague victim who found himself slathered in chum as he bobs helplessly off the coast of Australia. It wasn’t good. Not good at all some would say, in fact. However, there was ONE shining beacon of hope throughout this past year, a year that felt like all the Mordor scenes in Lord of the Rings combined into a 365 day marathon.
And that one thing? Video games.
Who would have thought that a bunch of lines of code that are strung together to make a glorified toy could bring so much happiness in what was an otherwise dreadful year. The first few months alone brought such a plentiful bounty of instant classics that it felt like some sort of morphine induced hallucination. And while the rest of the year wasn’t quite as fantastic, it still all combined to make one of the finest gaming years in recent history.
So surely only a madman would attempt to pick just FIVE games from 2017 and rank them and write about them. Luckily, I am that madman. Plus, this is a yearly tradition! I can’t disappoint my faithful reader. Hi mom!
Anyway, enough talk. Let’s get to the games, shall we?
Oh, oh! Before I start, I only own a PS4. I don’t own a PC, because I’m not a nerd, I don’t own a Nintendo Switch, because I’m not an 8 year old and I don’t own an Xbox One because bahahahaha who the fuck would bother with that? So this probably won’t be the most comprehensive list on the internet. But it will be the most correct.
Onto the games!
I only got around to trying Prey later in the year, which is a real shame because it’s pretty fucking rad. Obviously so, it’s on my list. And while it’s at number five, it’s mere pubic hairs away from being higher.
Prey is hard a reboot of the previous Prey series. And by ‘hard’ reboot, I mean it has absolutely nothing to do with the previous games. Well, they’re both in space, and they’re both video games, so I guess I may be exaggerating. But otherwise, Prey is definitely it’s own thing and it is delicious.
The premise feels pretty familiar. Shit goes to hell in a space station and now you’re left picking up the pieces, trying to traverse the dangers of the environment while listening to audio logs that give you smaller slices of this massive alien filled pie. And while we’ve seen this sort of thing before (System Shock, Dead Space, Super Mario Galaxy), Prey still manages to feel fresh and carve out its own identity in the surprisingly crowded genre of ‘sci fi horror games that take place in a space station’.
For one thing, its art style helps give it its own feel. The game is made by Arkane Studios, who are famous for the Dishonored franchise (another Kyle Hanley favorite). The Dishonored art style bleeds through in Prey as well, though it feels a little less stylized in this game. Which is good, as it better fits the more bleak, survival horror tone.
In terms of actual gameplay, Prey feels like BioShock’s little brother. Specifically, Prey is a younger sibling who is so desperate to mimic his older brother that his mom occasionally walks in on him wearing BioShock’s Letterman jacket, talking to a picture of BioShock’s girlfriend. I mean, if you’re going to take absurd amounts of influence from a game, you could do a lot worse than BioShock. I already mentioned the audio logs, but there’s also the environmental storytelling, the special superhuman abilities you unlock to creatively dispatch your foes, and the superbly immersive and detailed non linear world that you explore bit by bit. It’s like Arkane Studios went through a checklist of things to ape from the game, stopping only at “set the game in a 1950s underwater dystopia”.
Again, though, despite these obvious similarities, Prey still manages to craft its own brand, and does so exceedingly well. I can’t remember the last time I was as invested in exploring every nook and cranny of a game’s world, trying to discover every secret and devour every morsel of storytelling that it had to offer.
With the way I’m raving about it, you’re probably wondering why it’s only at number five. You see, Prey is at its absolute best when you are slinking through the hallways of its dilapidated space station, cobbling together the puzzle of what exactly happened and discovering little tidbits of story and world building. However, when the aliens actually show up and interfere with your strolls, the game starts to stumble a bit.
Combat, at its best, feels stiffer than Kevin Spacey watching The Sandlot. In the beginning, you’re given nothing but a wrench and a gun that encases your enemies in a shell of hardened goo (its not as erotic as it sounds). It’s fun at first to douse your enemies in goo and frantically charge them to bash them into pieces with the wrench.
But then the bigger enemies start coming out and they simply laugh and twirl their dicks at the sight of your tiny little wrench (that IS as erotic as it sounds). These guys require actual firepower and alien superpowers to kill, and the game just doesn’t feel as fun or responsive as other games in the genre when it comes to this. It pales in comparison to the surgical limb cutting of the Dead Space franchise and its nowhere near as fun or free form as the ‘plasmid + gun = weeeee’ combos you could dream up in the aforementioned BioShock. Hell, even Arkane’s own Dishonored games outshine Prey in this respect, and Dishonored is primarily a fucking stealth game.
Oh, and this game is actually pretty darn tough, waaay tougher than I expected, so this combines with the clunky feeling combat to make a sometimes miserable experience.
Now, you can explain this away by saying Prey is more survival horror than FPS and that combat can and should be avoided, but that’s a lazy excuse for sub par mechanics. Plus, there’s more than a handful of times where combat is really the only solution and when that time comes, you better be ready for a slog.
Despite my reservations with the combat in this game, I still loved my time with Prey. It really is my type of game. I love a game with dense world building and a palpable atmosphere that takes place in one big environment over the course of the game. Prey certainly scratches that itch, and that’s good enough to make the list at number five.
4. Assassin’s Creed Origins
Ugh. I feel icky putting a Ubisoft game on my list. Like I’m sort of Manchurian Candidate whose been brainwashed by them to applaud a game of theirs for actually being good.
But you know what? Let’s give credit where credit is fucking due. Assassin’s Creed Origins isn’t just good. It’s great.
The Assassin’s Creed franchise has been on life support for the past couple games. While I found bright spots in both Unity and Syndicate, they were still flawed and underwhelming, especially when you can clearly see the wasted potential in them. There hasn’t been a truly great Assassin’s Creed game since 2013, when the pirate themed Black Flag came out. Black Flag still remains my favorite in the series, but Origins comes damn close to knocking it off its throne.
Assassin’s Creed Origins worried me at first. Not just because it has the blandest, most overused subtitle possible, but also because it’s first hour failed to grip me. It started like most Assassin’s Creed: sloooowly. I grew concerned with how samey it felt, too. I had been under the impression that this game was ready to revamp the series, and I was experiencing the same generic combat with a generic protagonist in a generic desert environment.
Uh oh, I thought, I have been bamboozled by Ubisoft yet again! Cuuuuursse youuuu, Ubisoft! Because I apparently speak like a Saturday morning cartoon villain.
After the first hour, when the game unleashes you into the open world proper, I came to realize just how different and improved this Assassin’s Creed truly was, especially when compared to the decidedly less inspired efforts that came before it. When you get to travel beyond the starting desert village, you suddenly get to experience the lush, vibrant version of Ancient Egypt that Ubisoft has created, and its easily the most eye pleasing and fun setting to explore since Black Flag’s Caribbean. It’s absolutely MASSIVE. Almost a little too big, actually, but the game does a masterful job of prodding you through it one area at a time, making sure you have plenty of time to do the side quests and random odds and ends it offers before politely ushering you to the next one. This is a brilliant way of drip feeding you the content of what would have otherwise been a mind numbingly overwhelming game world. It’s a far cry from Unity and Syndicate, which dropped you into their huge worlds of countless icons and said, “GOOD LUCK, ASSHOLE” before peeling off into a chasm full of glitches and dark hopelessness. It also prevents the game’s many side quests and activities from getting too boring or repetitive, because you are generally taking them on one area at a time.
As for the gameplay itself, it’s easily the best in the series, even better than my much adored Black Flag. There is no sprint button anymore, which sounds like a sacrilege to the franchise’s parkour inspired tenets of game design, but it’s actually refreshing to have your character move at a brisk pace without having to hold in an accelerate button like they’re a car in Gran Turismo. The parkour itself feels as responsive as ever, and almost every surface is climbable. Simply direct main character Bayek up with your left stick and he maneuvers around like an Egyptian Spider Man. Climbing has never felt better in an Assassin’s Creed game, and considering how important that is to the series, it’s about fucking time.
Combat too has reached a a series high. I mentioned earlier that at first blush, the combat felt as plain as ever. But after actually getting to experience more fights, and getting to toy around with the myriad of weapons that the game has to offer, I realized just how improved this combat system was from Syndicate. And Unity. And Black Flag. And every other god damned game in the series because, let’s be honest, kicking the shit out of people was not nearly as fun as it should have been in these games. Whether you’re fighting with a standard sword, big battleaxe or a spear, each weapon has its own distinct feel that will fit different situations. When you are facing one on one with a bigger, tougher enemy, you may want to pull out the heavier weapons that are a bit more lumbering but deal more damage. If you’re going up against a dickton of enemies, you may want to jump in with dual swords, which gives you incredible speed. It’s all pretty basic stuff, but it’s a far cry from the ‘press square press square press square press square press square press square OH GOOD he’s dead, okay, press square press square’ combat system all the previous ones held.
Another reason why Origins is one of the best in the series? It’s by far the least glitchy. In my hours and hours with the game, I only came across a few glitches, none of which crashed the game. The worst offender is when I was talking to a woman whose entire bottom half had vanished inside a big, fresh hippo carcass that I had left on the ground, making her look like Egypt’s first carnival sideshow attraction. Bethesda Games would kill if that was their worst glitch in a Fallout game.
And there’s no faceless, floating eye-teeth monsters, so that’s another plus.
Okay, so what is there to complain about then? It’s a Ubisoft game, it’s an Assassin’s Creed game, there has to be something to complain about. And there definitely is. The main storyline is utterly forgettable. I like Bayek as a character, but the revenge story he finds himself in is so by the numbers you can practically smell the watercolor paint coming from your TV screen. I do enjoy that side quests actually have stories this time, and I give the game credit for that, but the main quest line just left a lot to be desired in the regard.
Another problem? It’s an open world game and for fuck’s sake am I getting tired of open world games. At least open world games that don’t bring much new to the genre. My favorite game of all time is Witcher 3, so obviously I can’t be that tired of them. And there is a game coming later in the list that is an huge open world game, so yanno, maybe I’m just an idiot hypocrite. But Assassin’s Creed Origins simply doesn’t bring much new to the open world table and while it does what it does very well, it still isn’t enough to avoid the fatigue that I am experiencing with open world games these days. I had to play this game in spurts, taking a week off from it here and there to make sure I didn’t burn out on it. Because this is a huge game, one that can easily take 100 hours to discover everything it has to offer.
Despite this, I still love Assassin’s Creed Origins, something I didn’t really expect to happen. Who would have thought that taking a small break and actually taking your time to develop a massive AAA open world game would pay off?
3. Thimbleweed Park
At this point you’re either intrigued by the inclusion of Thimbleweed Park or scoffing at the idea of a point and click adventure being on a Game of the Year list.
“Point and click adventure!” you cough and sputter, struggling to speak with the weight of your jowls, “how about a real game? Not some bullshit with stupid bullshit puzzles!” and then you struggle to scroll past this because you’re a moron. Because as we all know, only morons don’t like point and click adventure games.
Okay, okay, I get it. Point and click adventures are not everybody’s cup of tea. But they’re MY cup of tea. Oh god, I’ll take that tea all day. Just soak me in it and pour it over my hair and call me daddy and…ahem. Sorry. I get carried away when I’m talking about point and click adventure games.
For those not in the loop, Thimbleweed Park is an old style point and click adventure (have I mentioned that yet?) designed by Ron Gilbert, who is considered one of the pioneers of the genre. With games like Maniac Mansion, the Monkey Island games, and Fatty’s Bear Birthday Surprise on his resume, it’s easy to see why.
The game is unapologetic in its dedication to being as authentic a point and click adventure experience as possible. The game is even done in the pixelated art style of an early 90s adventure game, making it look like something that would be more at home on the Amiga than on the PS4. The game’s interface is incredibly old fashioned too, with the game being powered by a list of verbs that you must click on in conjunction with items in the world in order to interact with them.
Being someone who grew up on old adventure games for the Amiga and PC, this sort of thing gives me such an enormous nostalgia boner I have to file it as a dependent on my taxes. The game oozes with that point and click adventure charm, from the multitude of unique characters to dive down deep dialogue trees with to the need to click on every little thing to hear the character’s personal thoughts on them to, yes, the bonkers ass puzzles you’re forced to solve to progress through the game.
And ultimately, that’s what a point and click adventure comes down to: the puzzles. If the puzzles are too easy and simple, the game becomes a tedious and uninspired marathon of going through the motions. If they’re too hard and obtuse, the game becomes about as fun as slamming your head with an iron, as you shout threats and fuck words at your TV, as if its culpable in the stonewalling of your progress. It’s all about hitting that sweet spot, where the puzzles don’t solve themselves for you but where you also don’t need to take follow a labyrinthine chain of logic to discover, “Ohhh, so I needed to combine the chopsticks with the mounted deer head, AFTER the clock strikes twelve! Brilliant!” And thankfully, Thimbleweed Park resides directly in that sweet spot.
At first, Thimbleweed Park seems unforgiving and like it’s going to take a turn towards the “Oh God, I need the mind of a deranged lunatic to even dream of what I need to do” side of the difficulty road. You start the game with two characters and two inventories to manage, but before you know it that balloons to three then four then FIVE characters you have to traverse the huge game world. A game world so huge, by the way, it has its own fast travel system. Yes, even an old fashioned point and click adventure game is even succumbing to the temptations of a a huge open world. On top of this, the game is not shy about littering the world with items that have literally no value whatsoever. I carried around a copy of Blazing Saddles on Betamax in my one character’s inventory for half the game before I decided it just would never be used for a puzzle.
Despite the learning curve, even for someone like me who is not new to this occasionally unforgiving genre, you’ll learn the idiosyncrasies of this game and the type of logic it uses with its puzzles. There was only one point in the game where I had gotten legitimately stuck, and it was because I failed to talk to an NPC with a specific character, something that I thought I had already done. So, it wasn’t even the puzzle’s fault that I was a dumbass. None of the other puzzles ever felt like gargantuan leaps in logic and I always came up with the solution on my own, rather than having it be the result of just mixing random items with random things in the world. Granted, I’m probably smarter than you, but still.
Besides, if you’re REALLY that frightened of the idea of using your brain and actually thinking when playing a video game, the game offers an in game hint system that you can activate through phones littered throughout the world AND there is an easy difficulty that omits like half of the game’s puzzles. You soft, weak willed coward.
If I had a complaint to file about Thimbleweed Park, outside of its unforgiving learning curve, it would be its story. That seems like a really weird thing for me to complain about, considering the pedigree of its designers and writers, BUT I don’t mean the entire story. For the most part, the game’s writing is great. Sure, some of the jokes fall flat, but when you try as hard as Thimbleweed Park does, you’re bound to have a few wet fats among a symphony of otherwise dry, crackling, triumphant flatulence. And one of the game’s character’s, the foul mouthed circus clown Ransome, is easily one of my top ten favorite video game characters of all time. When I complain about the story, I am more or less talking about the ending. You see, the game starts out as very Twins Peak-esque mystery story, where two feds come into an odd, small town trying to solve a murder. But by the end of the game, it becomes less about that initial mystery and more about…other things. Saying anymore would spoil it, but I ultimately found it’s ending a little lazy and too on the nose considering how sharp the rest of the game is.
Outside of these criticisms, Thimbleweed Park is an absolute gem, especially if you’re a fan of the genre like I am.
2. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
And here we are, arriving at the silver medal for 2017. This year that honor goes to Resident Evil 7, a game I have already written a blog post about. I loved it then, and I still love it now.
Resident Evil 7 was a rebirth for the franchise. The franchise had, over the past iterations, lost itself a little. Okay, that’s a fucking understatement. We’re talking about a franchise that started out as a meticulously paced, slow burning game about avoiding monsters in an atmospheric mansion to a game whose climax involved punching a boulder in the middle of a volcano. That’s as absurd an evolution as Madden being turned into a first person shooter.
After Resident Evil 5, the levees broke and a flood of entries spewed out that ranged from simply bad to ‘throw up all over the Gamestop clerk when they ask if you want to preorder it’ kind of bad.
To put it simply, the franchise didn’t just need a reboot. It needed a nuclear strike, removing all traces of it from the planet, leaving nothing but a pile of glowing ash behind. Resident Evil 7 is just that. I would continue the whole nuclear analogy and make a Hiroshima reference, but being that this was made by a Japanese company, that seems a little distasteful. So instead, let me say Resident Evil 7 is like the aftermath of Nagasaki, the franchise being reduced to rubble and this game being the expertly rebuilt city to reclaim its former glory.
Resident Evil 7 reboots a lot of things, even going as far as changing the point of view the game is played from. The game takes its third person POV roots, wags its mangled, survival horror dick in its face and changes it to a first person perspective. This allows you to really immerse in the immensely detailed and atmospheric game world that Capcom has so lovingly crafted. You can see every stain, every blemish on the world’s surface and, when you’re venturing out into the game’s Bayou exterior, you can practically feel the humidity as you trudge around the swampy backwoods. I remember being skeptical when hearing that the game was changing POV, and even a little worried, but it was 100% the right choice. Being in the first person allows you to feel like you’re actually there and makes the danger feel much more immediate. When you’re getting stalked around the house by a decrepit old lady who shits cockroaches and slowly morphs into a millipede monster, there’s something about seeing it a few feet from your face that makes it slightly more bladder voiding.
The change in perspective isn’t the only big change. For the first time in well over a decade, Resident Evil is scary again. It’s odd to praise a survival horror franchise for being scary, like praising your dad for not jerking off into your bowl of chili, but I guess that’s the topsy turvy world we live in. The game is less about fighting endless hordes of monsters, like the past couple entires, and more about exploration, puzzle solving and avoiding confrontation. Ammo is scarce, monsters are fewer and more powerful and there is no stupid fucking A.I. Partner you need to babysit as they pick up mines you placed down to beat a boss battle, WHY ARE YOU PICKING UP MY MINES, SHEVA, THEY ARE FOR THE OPPOSITE OF BEING PICKED UP . Sorry, had some major ‘Nam flashbacks to Resident Evil 5 for a second. My therapist is optimistic that I’ll make peace with them within the next few years.
Back to Resident Evil 7 and how it returns to the survival horror formula that made the series great in the first place. This is Resident Evil the way it’s supposed to be. I enjoyed every minute of my time stalking around its dilapidated corridors. Though it’s not perfect. Resident Evil 7 takes several cues from the earlier entries of the series, including the dogshit writing. Resident Evil 7’s plot sounds like an 8 year old adapted a SyFy Original movie, had it Google translated into Japanese and then had it translated into Russian and then back to English from there. The series was never in danger of winning a Pulitzer Prize, and this game proudly carries that tradition. Plus, much like Prey the game is at its best when it is all about exploring and avoiding conflict, and it tends to fall apart when the game forces you into fighting off against monsters. Granted, combat feels loads better here than in Prey, but it’s still a noticeable step down in quality from the game’s other aspects.
Aside from these, Resident Evil 7 is a treasure of a game and is a huuuge step in the right direction for the franchise. In fact, it was almost my Game of the Year. Why isn’t it? Well, because of a little game called….
1. Horizon Zero Dawn
How’s that for a segue? I could do this professionally! Pay me money, somebody, please.
Sorry. Sometimes the thought of crippling student loan debt, mountains of other bills and no way to earn money doing something I truly enjoy distracts me. Back to the article!
Horizon Zero Dawn is an open world action RPG, which is great because open world games is a genre rarely mined nowadays. Okay, smartass comments aside, the fact that this game is open world and still managed to be my Game of the Year shows how good it is because (as I mentioned earlier) open world games are starting to get reaaally fucking tiring.
But Horizon Zero Dawn takes open world tropes and adds a fresh burst of vigor into them, like a syringe full of Red Bull to the eyeball. Let’s take a look at my patented Open World Checklist(TM) to see the exact run down of how Horizon takes tired old open world offerings and turns them into something refreshing and exciting.
-An open world!: First thing on the checklist of Open World Tropes is whether or not the game has an open world. Does Horizon have an open world? (runs to check) Yes, it does! But how does Horizon make it exciting? By making one of the more unique open worlds to date. Horizon takes place in the future after a post apocalypse, which is not original, but there are ROBOT DINOSAURS (which IS original!). In all seriousness, the mix of cyberpunk machines and technology with the primitive, prehistoric style settlements that dot the landscape and make up the human population is one of the coolest and freshest ideas for a game world I’ve seen, and it helps grab your attention like a scantily dressed cheeseburger does to a fat dude.
-Climbable structures that reveal parts of the world map when you reach the top!: Started by the Assassin’s Creed franchise (thanks for nothing, Ubisoft), most open world games involve towers or buildings that you must climb to the top of to help remove the ‘fog of war’ that covers the game’s open world, allowing you to more clearly see what the section of the map has to offer. Horizon does indeed contain these, BUT does so in a way that doesn’t make it feel nearly as much of a chore as it does in other games. In Horizon, these come in the form of Tallnecks, gigantic Brontosaurus style robots that roam around the game world. The trick is, getting to the top of these Tallnecks and hijacking their brains to access map data (I’m sure it’s painless for them) involves trying to figure out how to get on the damn thing in the first place. It often involves some sort of environmental based platforming puzzle that you need to solve first. This small change makes what’s usually one of the most tedious parts of an open world game and transforms it into something that I actually looked forward to.
-Side Quests!: An open world game without side quests is like a sleepover without your friend’s weird uncle asking if you want to wrestle without a shirt on. It just is something you come to expect and fear. Most open world games feel like their side quests are made in the last week of development, when the designers leap out of bed in unison like the parents from Home Alone, shouting “WE FORGOT THE SIDE QUESTS” to the imaginary camera. Then they go make fifty boring, nondescript fetch quests just to pad the game’s length. Main offenders for this are every Bethesda game since Fallout 3, most Assassin’s Creed games, Dragon Age: Inquisition and the Far Cry games. I don’t know how insomnia exists when anyone can just play the side quests in these games. Horizon has plenty of side quests, as you expect, but like a butcher’s refrigerator, they have surprising amounts of meat. Every side quest has a detailed story, with twists and turns that keep you engrossed and distracted from the fact that they’re still just essentially fetch quests. You can tell there is a ton of influence from The Witcher 3 (which also seemed to influence Assassin’s Creed Origins, might I add) which is great because EVERYTHING should try to take influence from The Witcher 3. Even things that aren’t video games. Like Lifetime original movies, cook books, your sex life, just fucking everything.
-Crafting!: I’ve never had fun making anything with my hands. Not once. But for some reason, open world games think we want to spend half our time crafting shit for our characters instead of just having us by it. Oh great, I need bigger pant pockets to hold more shit? Sounds like I’m going to spend forty minutes hunting porcupines so I can harvest their skin since that’s the main ingredient apparently.. Crafting mechanics rarely feel like anything other than work and it’s boggled my mind that so many open world games feature it in such an obnoxious manner. The bad news is Horizon falls in step with the rest of the open world game market and features a lot of crafting. The good news? It’s actually fun and interesting! You see, in order to craft things you need components, which is par for the course for any crafting system. But the components you need to make things are found on the machines that live in the game world. And when I mean found on the machines, I don’t mean you kill them, and then they randomly appear as dropped loot that you pick up. No, these components are actually physically on these machines, and you can even get a bow and arrow that specializes in targeting these types of components and popping them off. Going around the game world and methodically sniping tanks off the side of a machine’s belly is a lot more interesting, involved, and fun than killing four crocodiles and pressing a loot button on their corpse to get what you need. Yawn.
-Crazy faceless demon hellspawn!: Huh? Actually, there is none of this, the game actually OH MY GOD IT’S BACK.
Moral of the story here? Horizon is very much a AAA open world game but what makes it so impressive is how it manages to delineate from the rest of the genre by taking the time to do things well and do them right. It isn’t just a hollow, empty game world with endless amounts of menial, forgettable tasks to do. It is a rich, immersive adventure that is as beautiful as it is addictive, as fresh as it is fun.
Don’t believe me? Well fuck you!
Sorry, my therapist is trying to work with me on that. What I meant to say is, if you don’t believe me, go out and give this game a try because I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. It is my 2017 Game of the Year, and honestly, who could want more than that?