This list isn’t a comprehensive account of every single thing I played throughout the year, since some games I sampled briefly before deciding they just weren’t for me.1 If I stuck with a game longer than that, though, it’s here.
If I completed a game, I’ve marked it as such. Similarly, if I quit a game—whether from frustration, displeasure, or boredom—I’ve noted that, too. Everything else falls into a nebulous category of something I just plain played, neither finishing nor abandoning. Games are weird like that: you can dip in and out, take a few days (or weeks, or months) off between play sessions, and go with what moves you. No other form of entertainment media really lends itself to that kind of segmented, almost experimental consumption. For years, I played games back to back, one at a time. In most cases, I wouldn’t start a new one until I’d either finished my current one or decided I wasn’t going to complete it. This year, though, it hit me how arbitrary this was, and how much of an obstacle it can be to pleasure. If I liked a game, of course I’d dig into it, but why should that stop me from switching between titles? These are for fun, after all. Why not, you know, have fun? So I did. I completed fewer games, but I played more overall, and I loved it.
One final note. The games are listed here roughly in the order I acquired/started them, not when I finished them (if I did). For instance, I took a few months off in the middle of Wolfenstein: The New Order, which I got in April but resumed and finished in July. I’ve also noted whether the game was played on PS4 or the New 2DS XL.
OK, on with the show (click each title to expand):
Watch Dogs 2 (2016) (PS4, completed)
Titanfall 2 (2016) (PS4, completed)
Open-world games have their own conventions—typically marked by a sprawling design with minigames and collectibles sprinkled throughout, paired with story missions you can often complete in a flexible order—and Watch Dogs 2
is no different. There’s something about the brightness of the game world, though, that makes it fun. It’s goofy and loose, with a real sense of play and exploration. Because you play as a hacker and use your smartphone throughout, the map is stylized in the bright colors of Google Maps, and the hackers’ visual look is similarly neon-tinted.
The combat mechanics are average, though it’s weird to be shooting people anyway. If you’re a hacker bent on restoring social justice, shouldn’t all your weapons be stun guns or tranq darts or something? Why do I have a 3-D printer that spits out sniper rifles? The game never quote reconciles the disconnect between “activist for the people” and “someone with surprising proficiency in assault weapons.”
The game has some technological standouts, though, including the most gorgeous water animation I’ve ever seen in a game. Staring out at the ocean off San Francisco, the pattern of the waves is too complex to parse, and the crests have little bits of foam that rise and disappear. The water’s shade even changes as it blends with sand closer to shore. Games used to get by with weak peripheral details because you didn’t need to focus on them (and because they just didn’t have the graphical rendering power), but now it’s common for games to put an enormous amount of work and power into something you will only briefly see, if at all. This is what we mean when we talk about “immersion”: the sense that the movie exists outside the frame.
Sniper Elite III (2014) (PS4)
Video games are about all about getting from one point to another. In game design and criticism, this is usually referred to as “traversal.” Games are almost always looking for ways to make traversal engaging in its own right, since, no matter how compelling the core content might be, you don’t want to find yourself bored having to walk your character from one place to the next. It creates a lull in the action, a dip in the momentum, and a chance to mentally check out. A lot of games offer “fast travel”—transporting your character instantly between two locations—as a way to get around this.
What makes Titanfall 2 such a joy to play is its understanding of what makes traversal interesting: dynamism of movement. Your character is able to briefly run along walls, which means that the game world itself opens up in new ways as you leap from floor to wall as you crest buildings. More dazzlingly, you leap back and forth between two vertical walls with nothing beneath you, caroming through space, flipping switches in mid-air. It’s like being an acrobat, just inside a science-fiction action game.
When you step inside the giant mechanical Titan robot, traversal switches from a vertical focus to a horizontal one, with the emphasis on dashing rapidly between combat encounters. The action is slick and solid, and the game’s mechanics are incredibly well tuned. Responses are sharp, images are smooth, and the on-rails experience is frenetic and engaging.
Let It Die (2016) (PS4)
The release of a new game is usually good time to pick up its predecessor at a major discount, which is why I bought this game a couple of weeks before the release of Sniper Elite 4
. It took me a few hours to realize why, even though I was playing on a PlayStation 4, everything looked a little cheap and cartoonish: the game was released on two generations of consoles at once, meaning it needed to fit the specifications of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, with the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One more afterthoughts than anything else. Games that straddle console divides like this are relatively new to the medium, and while some managed to successfully serve two masters (Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
, Dragon Age: Inquisition
), most games work best when they take advantage of a single console generation’s abilities (Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Despite its limitations, it’s a solid little game. I don’t mean “little” dismissively, either: each level is a modest size, with a handful of things to do. Your goal is to move through each one, picking off Nazis one at a time. The game’s challenging because it actually forces you to think in terms of space, logistics, and taking one shot at a time before moving on. Most combat simulation games that offer a sniper option are careful to still give you plenty of up-close firepower, so you’re never really at a disadvantage. This one, though, gives you almost no ammunition for anything other than your sniper rifle, and you’re too weak to last in any sustained firefight. The game’s scope is small, but it feels deep because of the way it forces you to think your way through each level. It suffers from some gameplay limitations—if enemies determine your location, you only have to move a certain distance away (displayed in a counter on screen) before they forget all about you, which leads to dull rinse-and-repeat feel to some of the levels—but still, enjoyable.
Mass Effect: Andromeda (2017) (PS4, quit)
A ridiculously goofy free-to-play game that turned out to be perfect for short, low-brainpower gaming jaunts. Run around, beat up some bad guys, marvel at the bizarre world, move on. Death wears X-ray specs and rides a skateboard. The tone is somewhere between ironic and ironically ironic—it’s hard to explain, but it makes a kind of perverse sense when you play it.
Wolfenstein: The New Order (2016) (PS4, essentially completed)
I put about 40 hours into Mass Effect: Andromeda
before I quit, selling the game when I was only about halfway2
done with the main story. I did so with the feeling of disappointment and fatigue that comes from the tension between wanting to like something more than you actually do and realizing that you don’t like it as much as you wanted to.
Some of the visuals here are wonderful, and in the first couple of hours, there’s a hard and calculated narrative push away from the aggression that ended the original trilogy3 and toward a sense of exploration and wonder. However, this almost immediately turns out to be hollow and misleading. When you walk up to an alien for the first time, you can choose to go in firing or with your hands up to signal peace, but you’re attacked on sight either way. What’s more, in one of the most telling evolutions in the series, you cannot affect any of your characters’ traits related to intelligence, personality, or the way they interact with others; rather, when you increase your stats and are allowed to upgrade your abilities, the only things you can alter are your combat skills. This is in marked contrast to the earlier entries in the series, which let you upgrade things like charisma and persuasion to effect how you negotiated a given situation4 and in general drove home that success is about choices, not victories. The first three games had a rigid but understandable morality system, in which your actions would evolve you into a Paragon or a Renegade, and these personality styles eventually opened up new actions or dialogue options while also locking out others altogether. You couldn’t hedge your bets, either: if you tried to split your good/evil choices down the middle, you shut yourself out of both options eventually. You couldn’t have it all. The games were saying: look, while real life is obviously not this black and white, this game narrative is going to hinge on several clearly defined moments where you can choose who you want to be, and the other characters in the game will remember that and treat you accordingly.
Mass Effect: Andromeda, though, seems to be incredibly afraid of any such declarations of morality or intent. There are no dialogue options even simplistically labeled “good” or “bad,” nor are there moments that prompt you to act/refrain in a way that would similarly take you one step farther down a particular path. There is just an endless series of circular quests, journeys that go from A to B to C to A again, and innumerable enemies to shoot and kill indiscriminately. There’s not much effort made, narratively, to make your journey sensible from an emotional perspective, and big attempts to do so early on (by robbing your character of a family member) fall flat because you haven’t invested enough time in the story to care yet.
Technically, the game is also incredibly flawed: animations are stiff and wooden, facial expressions somehow don’t seem to have improved at all since the series’ launch in 2010, and the interactions are plagued with visual and auditory bugs that leave the whole thing feeling slightly glitched. In an era when major games are pouring serious resources into character animation, it feels like a setback to play a game this splintered at the edges.
Who knows. I might wind up revisiting the game in the future and having a better time, or at least revising my opinion. Maybe a series of patches will continue to improve the game’s stability. But for now, I don’t regret moving on.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2016) (PS4)
Shooters aren’t dead; dumb shooters are. This revival of one of the foundational texts of first-person anarchy is incredibly good, thanks to its focus on level design, exploration, and tension. It is no accident that this and another formative game in the genre, Doom
, were revived to critical praise around the same time. They’re both slick, energetic, and know exactly how seriously to take themselves. This re-energized Wolfenstein
has a robust story, tactile mechanics, and real kineticism. It’s just a good game.
I say “essentially completed” because, in addition to its name and ethos, the game borrow something else from the 1990s: an inability to know when to stop. The later levels have you infiltrating a prison camp, piloting a mech, and even visiting a Nazi moon base before returning home to fight a giant spider-like machine. There’s a clear sense of escalation for a while, then a definite plateau as things start to get too repetitive. After clawing your way through one last compound, you’re tasked with fighting the game’s main villain, who is seated in a giant mech while you run frantically around a barren lot with a battery-dependent gun and try to figure out what to do. It’s the kind of “why not” final level from old shooters that just feels like the developers are throwing everything they can at you for no real reason. I wasn’t even sure what to do on that level until I looked it up, and when I realized it was the final battle, I felt fine stopping. I’d made it so far, and I didn’t want to dance around some arbitrary difficulty spikes. Still: a good game.
Horizon Zero Dawn (2016) (PS4, completed)
I hadn’t played any games in this series since Metal Gear Solid
, which I owned on the original PlayStation and first played in high school.5
But I’d absorbed enough details over the years to know that series writer/director Hideo Kojima was still making bonkers games, and this one got good reviews, so I picked it up. This was a good decision: its mix of stealth and base-building offers a nice risk-reward loop, and the main story itself is almost delightfully batshit. For instance, the opening hours of the game see the player character awaken from a coma, escape from a hospital, encounter a levitating person in a straitjacket and gas mask who can apparate and also summon a giant being made of fire, and outrun a number of otherworldly bad guys who give chase on horseback. Also, your left arm is a metal prosthesis, and you have additional chunks of metal sticking out of your forehead.
Final Fantasy XV (2016) (PS4)
Open-world games tend to succeed or fail to the degree that their world feels like it existed before you got there. One of the things Horizon Zero Dawn6
does so well with its sprawling map is populate it with animals and people who interact with each other wholly independent of you: it’s common to walk past a herd of beasts grazing or fighting, or to skirt a group of enemies who aren’t after you but are trying to take down a beast for themselves. These activities don’t involve the player at all, and the fact that you can see them and choose to get involved or not makes the game’s world feel like one you inhabit, not just one you visit.
It’s also a robust, slick game, the kind of epic production that acknowledges its creative influences—the stealth of Assassin’s Creed, the refined bow hunting of the new Tomb Raider series—without feeling like a knock-off. It also makes some smart decisions about its post-apocalyptic setting that make the trope feel fresh again: namely, you, the player, start to piece together what happened to the world before you, the character, does. Moss-covered street signs, decaying skyscrapers, “metal vessels” with “strange insignia” you recognize as drinking mugs, etc.: they all heighten the dramatic irony, so you feel like you’re constantly marching yourself into a deadly world you already, in some way, understand.
Some of the gameplay elements aren’t perfect: the inventory system is a little cluttered, and even when you upgrade your carrying capacity to its maximum, you’ll still be discarding items on a regular basis as you triage. Some of the side quests, while well-written, become mechanically repetitive, as you go through a rinse-and-repeat process of finding someone’s tracks, highlighting them, and tracing them to their origin. I also found the tripartite final battle—a confrontation with a human enemy, a section where you rain destruction down on waves of robots, and a battle against one last giant machine—to be a little underwhelming. The fight against the human enemy was the most challenging and interesting, requiring constant movement and navigation of a changing landscape. Blasting away at the oncoming robots was neat but too easy, and I leveled up twice just from the experience points gained there. Similarly, the final machine had the same scale and effect as ones from earlier in the game, and with allies to help knock down the supporting enemies, it was just a matter of shooting, ducking, and repeating.
Still, those are little things in the big picture, and rare is the sprawling, open-world game that manages to build to a final confrontation that feels both technically challenging and narratively appropriate.7 The game itself is fascinating and fun, and I completely enjoyed my time with it. I knew something was special when I found myself avoiding fast-travel options or even securing a mount and just wandered the waving plains, looking around, listening.
XCOM 2 (2016) (PS4)
This was my first Final Fantasy
game. I didn’t grow up with Nintendo systems, and I didn’t get into role-playing games until well after college, so I only knew the franchise by reputation. I’m so glad I decided to check this out, though. It’s wonderfully different from Western action/RPG titles, which just highlights the importance of playing different kinds of games. It’s the same as watching a movie from another country: you get to experience styles and emotions wholly different from what you’ve come to expect.
It’s a languid and floaty game, built on a world to get lost in and explore. Even the combat has a kind of dreaminess: instead of pressing multiple buttons to attack in different ways, you hold down a single button and press the directional pad to change weapons. As long you’re holding that button down, you attack. It winds up balancing intense combat with a sense of pleasant detachment.
The writing and voice acting for the four main characters is perfect. Their characters and relationships settle in so quickly that you don’t even need to glance down at the subtitles to know who’s talking, or how they’ll each respond to a certain situation. This humanizing aspect is so easy to lose in big games that place an emphasis on scale and spectacle, so it’s beautiful to see it done so well.
Prey (2017) (PS4, quit)
I didn’t grow up playing turn-based games, and it’s only in the past few years I’ve really come to enjoy and appreciate them. There’s a fantastic tension in knowing you can take all the time you want to decide your move, even when the enemy is right next to you. I also love the game’s insistence on permanently eliminating members of your party: if they die, they aren’t knocked out, only to return healthy when the skirmish is over. They’re gone, full stop. It’s not a new idea (cf. checkers, chess, etc.), but deploying it like this in a video game still feels fresh.
Dark Souls III (2016) (PS4)
is from Arkane Studios, who made the fantastic Dishonored
and the slightly less good but still worthwhile Dishonored 2
. It even shares some of the aesthetics, from similar character models to text and graphic interfaces. But, sadly, it doesn’t share those games’ sense of momentum, creativity, or fun. The conceit is decent—you’re trapped on a space station with an alien force that can replicate itself and mimic solid objects, and you work your way back and forth to solve the mystery of what happened—but the enemies are overpowered, the menus are clumsy to navigate, and it’s plagued with sluggish loading times. (When transitioning from one game area to another, I’d set my controller down and check email.)
It also features one of the worst kinds of item-management systems, one that’s built on items’ sizes, not total weight. E.g., your inventory isn’t a backpack (or whatever you want to imagine it as being), but a grid of squares on which items can be placed. You’re often prohibited from picking up an item not because you don’t have space for it, but because you don’t have enough consecutive grid squares for it, which means you have to stop and rearrange your gear almost every time. It’s a maddening puzzle that never goes away, and it’s reflective of the game’s basic user-unfriendliness. I quit after a few hours and didn’t miss it at all.
Nioh (2017) (PS4)
There is something perversely compelling about these games. They’re weird and dark and not remotely welcoming, even to people familiar with the series. They’re mechanically awkward—e.g., instead of just pressing a button to jump, you have to hold down a button, move your analog stick to run, then click the stick
to jump, which is always as clunky as it sounds—and sometimes a little laggy, and the camera often gets stuck in weird angles. Yet the game worlds are also gorgeous and eerie, hinting at tragedy and horror on an epic scale, and the sense of exploring these worlds is both nerve-fraying and exhilarating.
Having completed Dark Souls II8 and dabbled in Dark Souls and Bloodborne9 a couple years ago, I opted to check out Dark Souls III. It’s the smoothest and best-looking entry in the series—the art design is stunning throughout—and it’s also slightly more approachable than, say, the first game, since here you can quickly teleport to new locations as you discover them.
It is, like its brethren, a game that requires and rewards patience, but what’s interesting is that “patience” often means as little as “ten seconds.” Most games, regardless of genre, are built to emphasize quick encounters: shooters have you dropping enemies in a couple of heartbeats, and even action games like The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt don’t really drag out encounters unless you’re dealing with a particularly tricky boss. Dark Souls III, though, asks you to take just a little more time, dispatching an enemy in a five-count instead of just one-two. That’s nothing, really, but it feels weighty given the way so many others games train you to play them. Put another way: once you tune into the rhythm, the game becomes much more approachable. Not easy—never easy—but a challenge you can grasp. That’s the real difficulty of the game: overcoming your own habits and learning something new.
Sniper Elite 4 (2017) (PS4, completed)
is simultaneously one of the most difficult and most pleasing games I’ve ever played. The difficulty comes from its unforgiving play style: you play as a samurai fighting various human and supernatural enemies, every one of which can kill you if you aren’t careful. Every encounter requires focus, timing, awareness, and spontaneous thought. It’s actually mentally taxing.
Yet it’s pleasing because of how beautifully the mechanics come together. The sound design, from atmospheric effects to the clinks and pops of the menu screen, is engaging. Swinging a weapon carries with it a sense of momentum, and connecting a blow brings a satisfying crunch. When you lock onto a target, you can dodge and roll past them while still staying invisibly tethered to them, and you zip past them in a kind of spin move that almost escapes the camera’s gaze. It’s swift, fluid, and thoroughly enjoyable. And man, does it look good. I have rarely had this much fun losing this badly.
Crimson Shroud (2012) (2DS XL)
There’s a beauty to the simple rhythms of this game: scan the area, tag your enemies, eliminate them, move on. It’s a major technical upgrade from its predecessor, of course. Enemy characters are much “smarter” in that they’re programmed to have not only more aggressive A.I., but for that A.I. to become sharper as you progress through the game, so that alerting enemies to your presence in the final level has much more dire consequences than doing so in the opening mission.10
More than that, though, the game has perfected its sense of risk and reward, its nested loops of gameplay and exploration, and its ability to convey real thrills and accomplishment. You play as a sniper working your way through hordes of Nazis, and you aren’t penalized for breaking stealth or even being spotted, but for being spotted in the same place too many times in a row. The game, then, becomes a constant search for places to hide in and shoot from that you must then promptly vacate to find a new place, and so on. This structure is complemented by spectacular level design that emphasizes climbing, crawling, and all sorts of hidden ways to get around. There are only eight missions in the game, but each level is so dense that they take between two and three hours to complete.
Only the game’s final moments keep it from being truly perfect. After finishing your last mission, you have to chase the villain on foot and stop his plane from taking off by shooting its engines. While this isn’t an unusual situation for a game, it’s foreign to one like this, especially since the game has spent the previous 25 hours teaching/forcing you to move slow, plan your shots, and not risk exposure. To suddenly do something so different goes against muscle memory and the aesthetic of the entire game, so the final minutes feel tacked on, as if some developer or executive was afraid to opt for the more cinematic, calm, rounded ending you were heading into moments before. Still, that’s a minor setback. The game itself is still genuinely great.
The interesting hook for this RPG is that you’re actually playing a desktop role-playing game: characters are depicted on pedestals, moves are determined by rolling digital dice, etc. The text on screen has the lofty, slightly purple feel of a pulpy high-fantasy novel, which adds to the charm.
Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon (2013) (2DS XL)
Ever Oasis (2017) (2DS XL)
A really nice demonstration of how Nintendo can introduce mechanics to a player slowly, then put them in situations that call for them to remember and combine those mechanics. It’s a slight game, but it manages to feel genuinely rewarding.
Tom Clancy’s The Division (2016) (PS4)
There’s something incredibly peaceful about this game. I got really into simulation games for the first this year—the ones where you build farms and cities and just goof around. This is a sweet-natured fantasy game with light action, fun exploration, and a really pleasant aesthetic. It’s basically like reading a fable book.
Far Cry Primal (2016) (PS4)
This is a decent open-world shooter, though the enemies are what’s known as bullet sponges: they take an inordinate amount of hits to incapacitate, which can make some battles feel sluggish. Still, the aesthetics and handling are solid.
Harvest Moon 3D: A New Beginning (2012) (2DS XL)
I am like 95% done with this game. It’s surprisingly good: instead of adding more guns, this Far Cry
spinoff has you playing as a prehistoric hunter armed with not much more than a spear, a bow, and the good sense to run when something big is chasing you. It handles as smoothly and wonderfully as the other modern games in the series, and I really enjoyed my time with it. I should really jump back in and complete it sometime.
Destiny 2 (2017) (PS4, campaign completed)
I’m trying to get into farm sims. I don’t quite know why. I think they’d be relaxing, but I have yet to actually bring myself to do the work.
Stardew Valley (2016) (PS4)
A great time. I could never get into the original Destiny
, but this one is so finely tuned and perfectly pitched that I happily lost hours to its mayhem. The ability to roam the world and engage with missions, instead of choosing one from a menu and waiting around for it to load up, makes the experience much more immediate. It’s bright, shiny, fun, totally worth it. I have no idea how long I’ll continue to revisit it—as of this writing, I haven’t done any of the expansions—but I’m glad I played. I beat the campaign, took my character to level 298, and had a blast.
Middle-earth: Shadow of War (2017) (PS4, completed)
Maybe the most pleasant, gentle gaming experience I can remember. I have barely done anything in the game yet—a few in-game have days have passed—but I can already tell this is going to be a big, deep, welcoming experience.
Cities: Skylines (2015/2017) (PS4)
If the original game, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
was a proof of concept, then this is the real thing. It’s bigger, slicker, more creative, more engaging, and it offers a lot of great gameplay mechanics in its decision to let you recruit enemies into your army and send them against your targets. The Nemesis system returns, which means that major enemies grow stronger when they kill you and taunt you when you return. My only real complaint is the lack of narrative weight. The game just sort of starts, stumbling forward without much momentum, and as soon as it ends, it transitions immediately into what developers call “post-game content” and everyone else calls “random stuff to do for no reason.” I want a sense of victory, not just ending. Still, it’s a very strong game.
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (2017) (PS4)
I never played city simulations growing up, so this is my first foray into the genre. It’s incredibly rewarding, though. It’s like actual playtime. There are modes that require you to build a model city and keep everything balanced and happy so you can keep earning money to grow your developments, but it’s just as fun (if not more) to just switch on the option for infinite funds and make and remake your dream city. It’s like playing in a sandbox. There are no rules or limits.
Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 (2017) (PS4)
This is turning out to be just as slick (and challenging) a shooter as its predecessor. Gorgeous animation, great story, and the surprisingly timely thrill of punching Nazis.
Elite Dangerous (2014) (PS4)
This is not a perfect game—there are some occasional bugs, weird textures, etc.—but it’s exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to play as a special operative who drives around the jungle, sneaks up on bad guys, shoots them, and scampers away. That is exactly what I got, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
Admittedly, “Elite Dangerous” is a bogus and somewhat nonsense name, but if they’d called it “Space Trucking,” no one would have signed up. I was drawn to the game after seeing some preview videos, reading a bit about it, and watching some brief tutorials online. It’s a space-exploration simulation that aims for a version of verisimilitude by loading up on details and processes: e.g., if you want to dock at a space station, you can’t just fly up to it, but instead have to request docking permission, receive said permission, and navigate to the appropriate docking pad while maneuvering yourself along three axes of rotation. If that sounds terrible or incomprehensible, skip this; if it sounds like your cup of anal-retentive tea, you will have a good time. I’m in the second camp.
In no real order after the first one:
Horizon Zero Dawn
Sniper Elite 4
Watch Dogs 2
Far Cry Primal
Middle-earth: Shadow of War