Games

My Gaming Year in Review, 2017

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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.[footnote]I spent a frantic hour with a free demo of Overwatch, marveling at the color and design while being killed every few seconds. That was the end of that.[/footnote] 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):

[expand title="Watch Dogs 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. [/expand]


[expand title="Titanfall 2 (2016) (PS4, completed)"] 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. [/expand]


[expand title="Sniper Elite III (2014) (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. [/expand]


[expand title="Let It Die (2016) (PS4)"] 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. [/expand]


[expand title="Mass Effect: Andromeda (2017) (PS4, quit)"]
I put about 40 hours into Mass Effect: Andromeda before I quit, selling the game when I was only about halfway[footnote]Best guess.[/footnote] 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 trilogy[footnote]The original Mass Effect games all involved fighting, of course, but the franchise evolved from a more tactical combat/role-playing hybrid to a more bombastic military-themed run-and-gunner.[/footnote] 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 situation[footnote]In the first game, if you’ve played your cards right, you don’t even have to fight the main villain at the end, but can instead reason with him until he changes his plans and commits suicide when he reflects on what he’s done; this is, obviously, shocking and dark and weird, but also a really refreshing sign that the game wanted to reward you for putting so much stock in your ability to talk instead of shoot your way out of conflicts.[/footnote] 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. [/expand]


[expand title="Wolfenstein: The New Order (2016) (PS4, essentially completed)"] 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. [/expand]


[expand title="Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2016) (PS4)"] 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.[footnote]When I took my PS1 to college, my freshman-year roommate and I would sometimes play MGS on a loop, which you can blast through in about 10 hours if you know what you’re doing.[/footnote] 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. [/expand]


[expand title="Horizon Zero Dawn (2016) (PS4, completed)"] 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 Dawn[footnote]I feel like Horizon: Zero Dawn would be better, typographically, but there’s a certain military-operation vibe to the format that works OK with the story’s themes.[/footnote] 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.[footnote]Offhand, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was really good at this. Then again, it was really good at everything.[/footnote] 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. [/expand]


[expand title="Final Fantasy XV (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. [/expand]


[expand title="XCOM 2 (2016) (PS4)"] 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. [/expand]


[expand title="Prey (2017) (PS4, quit)"] Prey 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. [/expand]


[expand title="Dark Souls III (2016) (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 II[footnote]My introduction to the series, and a lot better than some of its detractors make it out to be.[/footnote] and dabbled in Dark Souls and Bloodborne[footnote]I actually made it all the way past Rom the Vacuous Spider before realizing I was not having any fun.[/footnote] 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. [/expand]


[expand title="Nioh (2017) (PS4)"] Nioh 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. [/expand]


[expand title="Sniper Elite 4 (2017) (PS4, completed)"] 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.[footnote]It also fixes the “move X meters away from where you’re standing and the bad guys will forget all about you” problem that made Sniper Elite III feel a little rote.[/footnote]

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. [/expand]


[expand title="Crimson Shroud (2012) (2DS XL)"] 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. [/expand]


[expand title="Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon (2013) (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. [/expand]


[expand title="Ever Oasis (2017) (2DS XL)"] 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. [/expand]


[expand title="Tom Clancy’s The Division (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. [/expand]


[expand title="Far Cry Primal (2016) (PS4)"] 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. [/expand]


[expand title="Harvest Moon 3D: A New Beginning (2012) (2DS XL)"] 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. [/expand]


[expand title="Destiny 2 (2017) (PS4, campaign completed)"] 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. [/expand]


[expand title="Stardew Valley (2016) (PS4)"] 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. [/expand]


[expand title="Middle-earth: Shadow of War (2017) (PS4, completed)"] 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. [/expand]


[expand title="Cities: Skylines (2015/2017) (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. [/expand]


[expand title="Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (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. [/expand]


[expand title="Sniper Ghost Warrior 3 (2017) (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. [/expand]


[expand title="Elite Dangerous (2014) (PS4)"] 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. [/expand]


Favorites

In no real order after the first one:

Horizon Zero Dawn Sniper Elite 4 Destiny 2 Watch Dogs 2 Far Cry Primal Middle-earth: Shadow of War Elite Dangerous

My Gaming Year in Review, 2016

Uncharted_4_yir.jpg

One of the things I love about entertainment is the way it allows you to temporarily quiet those parts of your brain that deal with daily concerns and ignite those that gather strength from fiction and narrative. Stories let us experience new perspectives and develop empathy, while also creating real-seeming universes inside our own experience. Novels, books, films, television, and games can all do this. Additionally, one of the pleasures of playing a good game is the feeling of solving a problem. Every game, at its roots, is the same: get from point A to B, given constraints X, Y, and Z. Even situations presented as "combat" within a game are problems to solve. If the player character is surrounded by a given number of enemies, with a set amount of resources, in a confined arena, how would you navigate the playing field to win? Games are things you do, whether it's a crossword puzzle, an app, or a high-definition console-focused blockbuster. The great games are the ones that combine engaging puzzles like these with compelling, well-written, well-acted narratives. When they get it right, it feels like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book that's coming to life a page at a time. It's play.

Finished

Fallout 4 (2015) I spent three months, off and on, playing through Fallout 4 and several of its downloadable content add-ons (DLC). That's because it's a massive game, and some of its most engrossing diversions are those that have nothing to do with the central quest, e.g., building and fortifying camps throughout the game's post-apocalyptic wasteland. The story is a decent mix of sci-fi and Western revenge—you play as the survivor of a nuclear holocaust who rode out the destruction in cryogenic stasis, only to awaken and find your spouse dead and child missing—but it's enhanced through compelling gameplay loops. So-called "open world" games like this are all about the thrill of exploring and the feeling of discovery, and Fallout 4 wasn't short on either.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016) Probably one of the best games I've ever played, and the more I think about it, one of the best games of this or any generation. The first three games in the series[footnote]Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (2007), Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009), and Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (2011)[/footnote] are wonderful action-adventure titles that echo the Indiana Jones films in their blend of suspense and romance, but they're still rooted in the kind of superhuman, supernatural fantasy that's common in game stories. This isn't bad, of course, just one way to do things. But two years after Uncharted 3, the studio released The Last of Us, a grim thriller that revolutionized narrative in gaming and brought new nuance to the human side of the story. As a result, Uncharted 4 benefits not just from the technical prowess they brought to the earlier games, but from the emotional experience that players were given in The Last of Us.[footnote]It is not an accident that the directors of The Last of Us, Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, also directed Uncharted 4.[/footnote] While Uncharted 4 is visually stunning and mechanically pleasing, it features a remarkably mature story that revolves around the main character's marriage, and the biggest stakes in the game deal with communication skills and the nature of relationships. The script and acting are wonderful, and the creators do a stunning job and investing their characters with life. I think about this game all the time.

Just Cause 3 (2015) Sometimes you want to blow stuff up like you're in a cartoon. Just Cause 3 is so hilariously over the top that you don't even blink when you add a jetpack to your wingsuit and become a mercenary version of Iron Man. Gorgeous, goofy, incredibly fun gameplay.

The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine (2016) I'm counting this because, though it's an expansion to a game I played and adored in 2015, it's bigger than some stand-alone game. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is one of the best games of its generation and easily in the running with the all-time greats, and this wistful, elegiac sendoff is almost better than you could imagine. The subtext of the main game was the central character's weariness with his role as a hero for hire, and this conclusion is a meditation on finding meaning in life. I don't know if I'll ever have the time or ability to replay the entire game (it's scope is staggering), but I'll always love it.

Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition (2014; originally 2012) What a fantastic, fun game. It starts with a great idea—you're an undercover cop in Hong Kong working to take down organized crime—and builds on it with strong writing, interesting story missions, and a pleasantly complicated combat system. It keeps you right on the cusp between challenge and mastery. The studio that made it closed down in 2016, making a sequel nothing but a dream, but at least we have this.

No Man’s Sky (2016) I say "finished" because there's no way to actually finish this game, so why not list it here. The concept is great: you're an interstellar explorer, and you wake up on a barren planet and immediately have to find a way to survive, repair your ship, and solve the mysteries of the universe. However, there's no narrative to drive you. It's essentially Side Quests: The Game. I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing, but after stopping for a week or two, I realized I had no need to go back.

Mafia III (2016) I was obsessed with this game when I played it. It's that fun and rewarding. The gameplay loop is simple but irresistible—set your target, plan your attack, rinse and repeat—and the story is strong, too. You play as a biracial Vietnam vet working your way through a corrupt New Orleans-style town to overthrow the mob that betrayed your family, and the story is rife with the open bigotry of the Civil Rights-era South. It boasts an amazing soundtrack, too, that really makes the fictional world feel textured.

Gone Home (2016) Wonderfully done. No other characters, one setting, and a story you put together by interacting with the environment. I love playing things that experiment with the form like this and do it so successfully.

Dishonored 2 (2016) I loved the first Dishonored, and while the sequel has the same style and beauty, the gameplay's a little lacking. I had fun sneaking around and solving puzzles, but the story was never convincing.

Rise of the Tomb Raider (2016) Absolutely wonderful. The sequel to 2013's Tomb Raider, which rebooted the 1990s and turned it into a less cartoonish adventure story, this game was a joy to play. It nimbly shifts between sections that are "on rails," that is, that pull you forward from point to point on a predetermined path, and those that allow you to explore the open world. The story is good (all about dealing with family tragedy and coming of age), and the mechanics are finely tuned. I ate it up in a week of holiday-enabled playing time, and loved every bit of it.

Unfinished

Lords of the Fallen (2014) I keep thinking I like Dark Souls, but I don't.

Grow Home (2015) A fun, sweet little game with a neat mechanic (you make a plant grow into the sky, opening up new places to explore), but a little forgettable.

Doom (2016) Super slick, super fast, not for me. I get it, though.

Metro 2033 and Metro Redux (2014) Decent-ish monster shooters with goofy stories. I'd probably be more tolerant if it was a bad movie.

Divinity: Original Sin (2015) A nice injection of humor into the role-playing genre, but too much of the game winds up being about managing your items (collecting, selling, etc.). I had fun, but couldn't lock in.

The Order: 1886 (2015) Hyped as an early title for the PlayStation 4, and better than I'd heard, but ultimately not that good. The game regularly introduces new mechanics, ideas, or weapons, only to remove them the next moment. As a result, you feel more like the game is playing you.

Homefront: The Revolution (2016) A mess of an open world. I didn't mind the Red Dawn ripoff of a story, either (North Korea exploits a backdoor in all U.S. tech and promptly invades), which is saying something. It just wasn't interesting.

(Note: All games played on PlayStation 4.)

Favorites

In alphabetical order:

Mafia III Rise of the Tomb Raider Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition Uncharted 4: A Thief's End The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine

Digital Morality

masseffect_wallpaper I recently started playing through Mass Effect again, and I plan to run through the entire trilogy. I've played the series once before, but I found myself missing the experience of being in that world, so I created a new character and dove back in. I opted for a female protagonist this time, but I'm still playing the game much like I did last time, which is to say I'm trying to be as good as possible without ruling out the possibility of force or intimidation. The game lets you make choices that fall along a basic continuum, with kind or "good" choices turning you into a Paragon and harsh or "bad" ones making you a Renegade. You can also usually choose a neutral response in most encounters, resulting in no real moral change to your character.

I find myself playing as a "good guy" for a number of reasons. Part of it's the control: the more charming and persuasive you are, the more you can decide the outcome of a situation simply by talking your way out of it. That's a compelling part of the moral logic that doesn't get a lot of press. Part of it is also achievement-based: I want to unlock certain narrative paths for my character that are only possible by pursuing certain moral extremes. Mostly, though, I just like the feeling of being good. The writing in the game is effective enough that negative moral choices carry an appropriate sting, and I'm not as comfortable as I would've been a few years ago with bullying my way through the story.

Some friends of mine remarked that the morality system in the game felt limited and restrictive, though, and that choosing to be good even for the sake of a few Paragon-related achievements was nevertheless constricting. I don't think they're wrong, but I also don't think that's a bad thing. The game's restrictiveness in this area isn't a bug, but a feature. It's one of the things that makes it feel real.

What else, after all, are moral choices but opportunities for us to wage an internal battle between love and anger, restraint and release, honesty and selfishness? When you butt heads with a partner or colleague or family member, your first instinct might be to snap back in retaliation. You know it's not a good idea, though, and the benefit of just a few seconds' thought can help you chart a better path. The game gives you an opportunity to practice that: every conversation and encounter hinge upon you, and dialogue halts while you weigh your responses. It's the chance to pause and examine your motives we rarely take in real life. The game's pace forces you not merely to pick an action but to consider the consequences it will have on the other characters. Is it really so hard to see the parallel between these scripted interactions and the much more unpredictable ones we confront every day? Do we really need reminding that love and good are often about shouting down the voices of greed and oppression that echo in our heads? The game's version of a moral compass might be rudimentary, sure, but it's anything but ineffective. Doing the right thing often means not doing the wrong thing. It's as much about inaction as action. The pursuit of goodness is nothing if not defined by control.

When Games Don't End

captainscarlett1 As I write this in the final week of December 2012, I've been playing Borderlands 2 for about two months. I haven't played every day — I even took a week's vacation to New Mexico during that time — but I have spent a considerable amount of time with the game. I've played through the entire "main" game twice: the first time in the game's standard mode and the second in what it calls "True Vault Hunter Mode," in which the narrative is the same but the enemies are tougher and the rewards are more lucrative. I've also completed the first section of downloadable content (DLC, one of which is pictured above), which adds more missions, and I'm more than halfway through the second DLC. The third will be available for download in January, with a fourth coming sometime around summer. And if that weren't enough, it looks likely that the game will eventually receive another round of DLC areas with even more missions and stories.

Where does it stop?

I should clarify that I've had — that I continue to have — a great time with Borderlands 2. It's a sprawling, challenging game, and it's got a sense of humor that's a welcome break from the legions of overly serious military shooters and strategy titles that flood the market. It also allows for a huge variance in experience from one player to another: every time you play through an area, you'll find new gear (weapons, helpful items, etc.) in new places. It's never the same game twice, which means you have to keep your eyes open and use your environment to survive. That reliance on player initiative, combined with an ability to craft character traits based on your style of playing, makes the game feel truly rewarding.

Yet I find myself wondering about the latest shift in gaming and game communities, and what it might mean. When I was a boy, games were mostly dull tests of reflexes as evidenced in your ability to get a character to jump from one platform to another. (Early ones didn't even let you save your progress.) The advanced platforms of the past few years, though, have allowed for graphical and narrative shifts that produced some amazing games. We went from classical "game" to more proper forms of "story."

Borderlands 2, though, with all its peripherals, is a little like a theme park: the goal isn't story so much as endless experience. For instance, when you go to Disney World, you can see the heroes and villains from animated movies walking around, acting in stage shows, and doing other things to vaguely re-create the narrative you remember from the film. Even though the movie is over — the hero's learned a lesson, the bad guy's been defeated — the artifacts from the movie are held in a kind of suspended state that lets you interact with them forever. In Borderlands 2, you can fight certain bosses over and over again to try and earn better rewards, you can play through the entire single-player storyline twice, and you can keep adding to your experience with add-ons and downloads that give you more to do and explore. As a result, it's possible to watch the game's supporting characters come unstuck from the narrative and fulfill seemingly conflicting roles based on how much you're willing to play. For example: you can switch between the game's main story and the DLC areas at any time, meaning you can find some of the same characters in two different places, telling you two different things about two different missions. Or there's the fact that, after you complete the second playthrough, you're deposited right back in the game, with all remaining side quests (missions not essential to the completion of the game) and DLC areas scaled up to the maximum skill level. So you can defeat the final villain, then go back to your home base and listen to the other characters talk about how much they're looking forward to you defeating the final villain. It becomes a deconstruction of what we think of as a gaming narrative and becomes a new kind of hybrid, one that emphasizes story and scope even as it recalls the early days of games as pure reflex-building escapism.

On one level, I appreciate and enjoy the size of titles like Borderlands 2. On another, though, there's something to be said for game as finished narrative. The Mass Effect series is one of the best franchises and most engaging experiences in modern gaming, and I believe a big part of that is because the three games work as a trilogy to tell one long, complex story about interstellar war and peace. The final game's downloadable content offered more arenas for those who wanted to team up for battle simulations online, but they didn't affect the story. (The only one related to the main narrative simply expanded some dialogue and scenes at the end of the final game.) When I finished Mass Effect 3, I felt the same bittersweet blend of satisfaction and regret that always comes at the close of a good story. It's not that I don't want to return to that world, but that, after what I've played through, it wouldn't make sense.

Borderlands 2, though, has no end, at least not that I can see. I'm still playing the game to collect some new weapons and experiences, though my character is currently at the maximum allowable skill level. It looks likely that upcoming DLC releases will increase the cap on character levels, but with another batch of DLC releases apparently in the works, who's to say the cap won't increase again? Borderlands 2 isn't the only game to function like this, either. Off the top of my head, the Assassin's Creed series (at least the titles I've played in it) drops you right back into the game's open world after you wrap the main storyline. You can finish side quests or just run around for the hell of it.

I'm not sure this is bad, but it is weird, when you think about it. Even old games that were light on real story still had a termination point. When you take away that finish line — when the phrase "I beat the game" doesn't even apply anymore — you do something to the fundamental nature of gameplay. It's a little like the way modern Marvel movies are strung together to create a seemingly endless story. If you can never finish it, what do you call it? At a certain point, doesn't it stop being a game and become something else?

My Gaming Year in Review, 2012

mass-effect-normandy I played all or part of 18 games in 2011, but by July of this year I was already at 16 games, so I figured I was in for a high total. Yet I only finished the year at 19. Part of it was because my consumption slowed down in the fall, but it's also because I spent most of the last quarter playing Borderlands 2. It's a huge, fantastic game, and the variety of gameplay and downloadable content proved addictive.

If 2011 was about me rediscovering what I wanted to get out of games (chiefly, a good story augmented by nice mechanics), then 2012 was about me learning about new ways to play those games. I used to favor as much order and structure as possible in the way I consume media: the CDs I've hung onto are dutifully alphabetized; I prefer watching series from the first episode instead of beginning in medias res; I like to finish a book before starting another; etc. But I've loosened in the past year or so, and accepted the fact that it can be just as entertaining and edifying to shift between two books based on mood as it is to work through one at a time. (I have an easier time multitasking with nonfiction, though; I still prefer to read novels without cluttering them with other narratives.) Accordingly, I jumped around in my gaming a lot more in 2012 than ever before, and I let myself off the hook for dropping games quickly if they didn't engage me. As such, there's a difference in this list between games I left unfinished, meaning I plan on returning to them later, and those I simply quit with no intention of finishing or replaying.

I also took chances on some cheap buys and below-the-radar titles, and I experimented more with games purchased via Xbox Live Arcade. I came across some pretty mediocre games, but nothing truly terrible. I also spent time with one of the best games I've ever played, as well as some fantastic titles I wouldn't have known about were it not for the suggestions and supplies of friends. The year had more hits than misses.

Mass Effect 2 (finished) I spent a blissful few weeks at the beginning of the year working through Mass Effect 2. The first title in the series was wonderful, but it was also a reminder of how little experience I really had with RPGs. When I announced on Facebook that I'd finished the first game, friends asked which love interest I'd pursued; I hadn't even known that was an option. I learned the hard way that RPGs like this one aren't just about giving you control over your environment, but in letting you be the engine of your own story. When I played Mass Effect 2, I made sure to spend time with all my companions, drawing out their backstories and learning how to help them. I got sucked into the romantic subplot, and I became obsessed with winning the loyalty of everyone else on my ship by helping them succeed in their own side quests. (I earned favor from all of them.)

Most of all, though, I was blown away by the depth and texture of the story. Mass Effect let you pursue a number of story options and character traits (good vs. bad), but you were still working for one form of the government or another, whether you chiefly identified yourself as an Alliance ambassador or a Spectre agent. But Mass Effect 2 detonated all that, putting you on the outside of the system and forcing you to wonder who you were working for and how much they were telling you. It's the Empire Strikes Back of the series, full of bittersweet reunions and tough learning experiences. I absolutely adored this game.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (finished, sold) Admittedly, any big adventure title was going to pale after Mass Effect 2, but still, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood was a decent title that didn't quite hit all the right notes for me. I enjoyed AC2, but Brotherhood suffered from trying to keep things going by picking up the story in the same moment the previous game ended. That's well and good, but it felt weird to have to work through the game's introductory here's-how-you-do-things missions just a couple months after finishing a game with the exact same controls. I liked the revenue system that let you build up money by renovating the city, but I wasn't wild about the fickleness of some of the Borgia tower missions. A fun title, but not great or inventive.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (unfinished) I spent a few days with this one, getting to around level 10 or so, before realizing two things: 1) this was a big, beautiful game, and 2) this was going to take a lot of time. I liked the gameplay and story, but I wanted to take a break and come back when I had more space in my schedule to devote to playing. That didn't really happen, though, so I think I'll give it another go in 2013.

Borderlands (finished) This was a damn fun game. Just enough customization and strategy to keep it from being a simple run-and-gun, but not enough to weigh you down. Tons of world-exploring and mayhem, topped off with a nice sense of humor. The ending was a little too dated for me, by which I mean it felt too much like a game from 20 years ago that would require you to kill a major boss by repeating a few moves ad nauseam (shoot, hide, jump) instead of employing some strategy. Overall, though, it was a great experience, and it inspired me to check out the sequel.

Mass Effect 3 (Collector's Edition) (finished) I was so excited about this game that I preordered the collector's edition. I've bought maybe a handful of brand-new games in my life, but the price was worth it. If Mass Effect 2 was The Empire Strikes Back, then Mass Effect 3 was solidly Return of the Jedi. It's a return to a more rigid interpretation of good vs. evil, though there's still a nice amount of nuance and choice available to you as a player. The gameplay felt a little easier than it did in the series' second entry, though (and they both felt more forgiving than the original Mass Effect). It was great to revisit old characters and get some closure on certain stories, though I'd have liked a bit more resolution on the romantic path I'd taken. (Possible spoiler: I imported the same character I used in the first two games, a male Shepherd who had a relationship with Miranda, and I kept waiting for either a tearful goodbye or long-earned homecoming. Ah well.) I also wasn't nuts about the fact that I had to play online multiplayer rounds to boost by "Galaxy at War" status in the main game. To me, that felt too much like an obvious grab by the studio to encourage in-game purchases, and it marred the main narrative. It's a very good game, though, and a strong end to a story that I spent ~100 hours playing.

Batman: Arkham City (finished) Arkham City was a stunning improvement on Arkham Asylum, thanks to the open world and the amount of control afforded the player in terms of what mission to pursue. I became obsessed with this game for a few weeks, riding the adrenaline high of beating up multiple gangs while exploring every crack of the city for more trophies and surprises. The combat mechanics are better here than in the original, too. Awesome game.

Bulletstorm (finished) Bulletstorm reminded me of an elaborate theme park ride, the kind that sits you in a fake Jeep and has you follow images of Indiana Jones through a plastic cavern while lights flash around you. So much of what makes a game good is its feeling of inevitability: the story becomes an organic and independent thing that draws you in. It feels like it's actually happening, as much as a game can. Bulletstorm, though, progresses in rough chunks that blur together after the first hour or so, and the gameplay feels artificial and uninvolving. You don't feel like you're in the world, just running through a track and triggering checkpoints along the way. Still, for all its weaknesses, it's a slick little game, and though I was underwhelmed by the story (and abysmal dialogue), I still played through to the end.

BioShock (replay, quit, sold) I hadn't played this game in years, not since my roommate days. But I remembered liking it, so I picked up a cheap copy. The atmosphere and story are still top-notch, but I just couldn't get into it. I think it's a gorgeous, accomplished game, and I'm looking forward to checking out BioShock Infinite. But playing this felt a bit too much like homework. I like adventure games, but I'm not as wild about survival horror.

FarCry 2 (quit, sold) I like open worlds, but Far Cry 2 felt a bit too loose for me. I was impressed at the size of the African arena you get to explore, and I liked the mix of scavenging with bigger quests. But the game was never fun, and I could never manage to get lost in it the way I can with other titles. I played it for a couple of weeks, but I didn't regret giving it up.

Fez (unfinished) A great purchase from the Arcade, regardless of whether I ever finish it. It's simple enough to understand — although structured like a 2-D platformer, you can actually rotate the world to find new paths and opportunities — but wonderfully complicated to master. Games like this remind me of just how much you can do with basic ideas.

Singularity (unfinished) I didn't know anything about the plot before I started the game, which made it fun to see how the plot unfolded. I loved the mix of first-person adventure with puzzle-solving, and I enjoyed the way the game played with physics and time. Fantastic setting, and a really smart and fun title. I regret letting this one drift away.

Saints Row the Third (quit, sold) I'd heard a few unconnected buzzwords about this one — chaotic, creative, irreverent — and figured it was worth a look, so I snagged it for a relative bargain with a coupon. After a couple of days, though, I gave it up. I'm not a fan of the Grand Theft Auto series, and this one was too close to that, from the cartoonish violence to the crappy handling and awkward mechanics. Not my kind of title. I sold it back to GameStop a few days after I bought it.

Wet (quit, sold) Another bargain-bin purchase. It's a fun idea — you're a female assassin dual-wielding pistols and equipped with a sword to boot — though the grindhouse aesthetic felt a little tired. It's another title undone by some ungainly physics, though. Cute, but not engaging.

Crysis 2 (unfinished) This is a really solid FPS, and I enjoyed the use of strategy to progress through battle zones. Unfortunately, my copy seems to have a glitch that won't allow me to progress past the first attempt to collect tech from an alien, so I had to quit. I'd like to get back into it, though.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (quit, sold) Playing this game reminded me of why I've mostly given up on the FPS genre. It's pure madness, the kind of theme-park mayhem that's clearly not meant to do anything but pad out an online experience. I'm also a big believer in story, and the MW2 plot left a lot to be desired. It felt like Tom Clancy filtered through Michael Bay. I'm also not a fan of games that require you to work your way through endless killing fields with little or no understandable reward. Halfway through some level in the middle, I just stopped and didn't look back.

Rage (finished) I like going into games blind, or at least not knowing every beat that's going to play out. I didn't know what the story or mechanics of Rage would have in store, but I really enjoyed it once I started. I appreciated the amount of control and creativity the game gives you, encouraging you to combine elements to make tools or weapons, or competing in side missions to gain perks you can use in your main objective. I appreciated the size of the world, too. My only regret is that the end felt rushed. When I beat the game, I actually said aloud, "What?! That was anticlimactic." The game does a great job at giving you tools to fight new enemies and then pushing your limits when it's time to use them, but the final assault on the enemy stronghold felt a little repetitive and empty. There were no tough choices to be made or major enemies to fight, and there wasn't even that much strategy to the run-and-gun. I'd noticed a slight leveling already — the rocket launcher made short work of mini-bosses, letting me push through enemy territory fairly quickly — but I was let down at how quickly the game ended. Still, an enjoyable play.

At this point in the year (late summer or so), I ditched the last of my first-person shooters. Actually, I should clarify: I ditched the last of my military shooters. I grew up playing WWII FPS titles like Medal of Honor, and even a few years ago I enjoyed Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. But the tactical shooter genre isn't fun for me anymore. I really need a decent story and a variety of gameplay to keep me interested in a game, which is why I can enjoy cartoonish shooters with a sense of humor and allowance for customization (Borderlands) but have less patience for games that are nothing but slogs through terrorists cut from a Michael Bay movie. I stopped playing Modern Warfare 2 not because it was too challenging, but because it wasn't fun. It was just a series of meaningless explosions. What's more, the campaigns on those games are becoming afterthoughts now that they're being pushed as multiplayer experiences. But I don't want to log on and play with a bunch of angry kids who just do this all day. I want a memorable experience. I haven't really enjoyed a military/tactical shooter in years, but I kept Modern Warfare on the shelf out of habit. Not anymore.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (quit, sold) I liked a lot about this game. Its focus on espionage made it feel like a reworked Metal Gear Solid, but it also offered some interesting combat. I thought the level-up system was nicely designed, too, letting you choose upgrades based on playing style and priority. But I found myself a little too disconnected from the story as it wore on, and the first major boss battle highlighted just how flawed the combat and mechanics could be. (I'd opted for a stealth-based play, which left me woefully underarmed.) I didn't so much quit as just forget about it.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (Enhanced Edition) (quit, sold) I described this game to a friend as "a boob-delivery system for guys who don't have access to porn." The thing is, there's a really good game in here: the combat system was solid, allowing for mixed use of melee or ranged attacks with magic and traps, depending on your playing style. It also allowed for nice customization and crafting for you to build your own weapons. (I spent a few hours tracking down material for a particularly powerful sword that I came to love.) But the plot is far too bland and broad for the game, with interchangeable nation-states fighting over territory for reasons that seem to keep shifting. The core of the narrative involves the player being accused of regicide and trying to clear their name, and that hunt has plenty of potential. But the story gets bogged down in bad politics and hilariously unnecessary sex scenes. It's one thing for, e.g., Mass Effect to allow you to pursue a relationship over the course of a game. But a lot of The Witcher 2 seemed design to let the player go wild with multiple partners, including prostitutes or random companions. There's no story there, just uncomfortable, surprisingly lengthy digital grinding. I made it pretty far in the game before I started coasting, and I quit before I finished.

Borderlands 2 (finished campaign, currently on DLCs) This is a great game, and the only one besides Mass Effect 3 that I preordered this year. The mechanics are slicker than the original, the humor's just as strong, and the gameplay's maddeningly addictive. It's got a strong story, but I love the way the game doesn't take itself too seriously, either. Several missions are meta-jokes about the absurdity of video game missions (one has you stand still for two minutes, another has you shoot a bad guy in the face). The DLCs are a great extension of the universe, too. The game is one of the best I've ever seen at balancing genuine challenges with real humor, and the open world and flexibility of mission order let you control the flow of the story. I recommend the title to anyone.

The best: Mass Effect 2 and 3, Borderlands 2 The worst: Saints Row the Third Total played (all or in part): 19 Games finished (solo campaign): 8 Games released in 2012: 6

My Gaming Year in Review, 2011

I bought an Xbox 360 in December 2010, though I already owned a few games for the system. My former roommate had one, and we lived together for four years, so it made sense to pick up a few used titles to play when he wasn't using it. However, he and I parted ways in the fall of 2009, so I went quite a while without playing video games. It had been even longer since I'd owned a gaming system: I sold my PlayStation 2 in summer 2004 to help defray the cost of moving to California after college, meaning I hadn't been anything remotely like a real gamer in years. I knew I wanted to get back into gaming, but I also wasn't sure what kind of gamer I'd become. I spent the year finding out what I like and don't about games, as well as discovering just how much my gaming preferences have changed.

What follows is a mostly chronological list of the games I played in 2011:

Medal of Honor: Airborne (unfinished, sold) One of the carryover titles I sold soon after I got my own Xbox was Medal of Honor: Airborne. I was a huge fan of first-person shooters growing up, especially the Medal of Honor series, so I'd picked this up years earlier while living with a roommate. I knew when I fired it up this time, though, that my days with simplistic games stuffed with infinitely spawning enemies were at a close. I still like a good combat game, and I'm not even averse to playing through something as narratively derivative as a World War II shooter laden with hilariously somber quotes about the cost of battle. But I want a shooter to be a real game, by which I mean a challenge I am asked to solve. Just running around and triggering waves of enemies (or, equally troublesome, their elimination) by hitting hidden checkpoints is pointless. There's no strategy, no thrill. It's just mindless explosions. I've got a feeling I won't be returning to the MoH series for quite a while.

Burnout Paradise (unfinished) Leaving a racing game unfinished isn't the same as quitting on a narrative. Burnout Paradise is meant to be played in discrete chunks. It's a great game, too, and one of the very few racing titles I like. (I got hooked on the series with Burnout Revenge.) I like the open-world set-up that lets you start challenges whenever you want or just drive the roads to explore and set speed records. The challenges are more interesting than typical races, too, involving stunts and crashes. It's a solid title.

The Orange Box (unfinished) I bought this just to get my hands on a copy of Portal again, and the game remains as pleasing and frustrating as ever. Pleasing because it demands concentration and smarts as you build out the moves in your head you will need to execute; frustrating because too many of the solutions rely not on intellect but on twitchy reflexes. This problem was solved in the sequel, which I loved.

Fallout 3 (finished) An amazing game, and the first title to really show me the possibility of open-world storytelling. I fell in love with the postapocalyptic wasteland of Fallout 3, and I was enamored of the karma system that let you influence the world around you through your actions. I also really liked the mix of RPG and FPS in the combat system, which let me stack moves with the game's special targeting system or just fight it out in real time. Great powers, great choices, great story. The enemies scaled up as you went along, too, though there seemed to be a plateau at the end. Once you level up past a certain point, you can take down most enemies with some basic strategy (though I will never forget the genuine worry I felt when I had to fight mirelurks). My only real complaint is that the main narrative seemed to reach a point of no return toward the end, and while I thought I'd have time to explore the world some more between missions, I found myself rocketed toward the end. (Though that also meant recruiting an ally in Fawkes, which meant mowing through enemies like so much grass.) In a lot of ways, 2011 was the year I relearned how to play games.

The Beatles: Rock Band (unfinished) I had to. Great songs and interface, though the Beatles-style guitar controller isn't quite as good as the previous Rock Band models. The buttons don't have quite enough give, but that could just be a fluke with my hardware.

Fallout: New Vegas (finished, sold) I was so excited to play this after loving Fallout 3, which made my disappointment that much greater when I discovered an unwieldy, messy game. The maps were poorly layered (the map on the HUD was never clear about whether certain areas adjoined each other or if one was inside the other), the story was far too broad and complicated, and the overstuffed narrative led to burnout long before the game ended. I powered through out of sheer determination. Once I saw how things would end, I loaded an old save and maxed my persuasion skills (I usually load up on charm when I play an RPG to take advantage of more character loyalties and dialogue options) so that I could pass every speech check from there to the end. Then I just talked both final bosses out of fighting me. I'd have tried to fight them, but my companion dog vanished and couldn't be found, thanks to a glitch in the game. Not a title I'd be willing to replay.

Alan Wake (unfinished) This came as a free download with my Xbox, but I wasn't too intrigued. I played through the first level or two, but it was a bit heavy on the cut-scenes for my taste. I don't mind cinematics that forward a narrative; these just seemed like padding.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed (unfinished, sold) I will always remain somewhat of a sucker when it comes to the opportunity to wield a lightsaber and fling objects with my mind. Plus, this was maybe $5 used at GameStop. Still, it got old quickly. Some fun Star Wars flair aside, it's a pretty repetitive button-masher with fiendishly hard bosses (typical for a Star Wars game) that become harder to beat when the game takes over the camera and limits your movements and sightline. I'm curious about the sequel, but only mildly.

Gears of War (unfinished, sold) This was another bargain-bin pickup that I remembered from playing at a friend's house years before. I found it at turns too maddening and too simple, and the erratic AI of my teammates grew tiresome. Not a big loss.

Call of Duty 2 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (revisits) I revisited these on a few occasions throughout the year just to have a palette cleanser. I stand by what I said about needing more from a game than just bodies and bullets, but these remain reliable guilty pleasures when I need to really unplug in times of high stress.

Halo 3 (finished, sold) This was the first Halo game I'd played all the way through, and though I liked a lot of the combat situations (I was especially taken by the aerial stuff, which totally took me by surprise), I found the actual play-through to be sluggish and uninvolving. Now, obviously, the caveat is that I was fresh to the series, so maybe with the previous two installments under my belt I'd have been more forgiving of the experience. I think not, though. It's a pretty game, but a pretty standard run-and-gun.

Portal 2 (finished) As challenging and as wonderful to play as you've heard. The game ditches the nail-biting mechanics of the original in favor of big rooms that give you all the time in the world to solve the puzzles inside. The new additions — cubes that redirect lasers, bridges made of light, and a number of gels that alter the physical properties of surfaces — are physically pleasing like few other game objects, but the real triumph is the way the producers have made a very linear story feel like a giant world that's under your control. Rooms are designed to push you along a specific path, and there's only one way to win the game, but there are many ways to play it, and that's what makes it so rewarding. My favorite section is the middle third, in which you navigate through staggering caverns while playing tests that introduce a 1960s-era story and a host of new tools to use. A fantastic experience.

Red Dead Redemption (finished) This has to be one of the best games I've ever played. Period. The gorgeous open world is a joy to behold, and you can ride what feels like forever through the open West without suffering load screens or frame lags as you move between regions. On top of that, the generous amount of side quests and mini-games make the world of New Austin and its environs feel completely at the player's disposal. This was a game I could craft as I saw fit. I loved the honor and fame systems that let you choose how to morally navigate the world; I chose to play as a good guy, largely because it's a lot easier to move through the game's world when the merchants respect you and outlaws fear you. (Not to mention that it's a pain in the ass to fend off bounty hunters and law enforcement.) The combat's great, too, and the escalating levels of Dead Eye made for nice challenges. Above all, the story was strong, and I found myself hooked on learning what would happen to John Marston on his long journey home. Just about perfect.

Batman: Arkham Asylum (finished) Good game. Not great, but good. The combat's solid, and I loved being able to play as Batman while swinging between gargoyles and taking out henchmen. Yet I found the boss levels to be, well, overly traditional "boss levels" in a classic platformer sense. I never quite got over the whiplash between giant maps that welcomed exploration and limiting battles that required a monotonous pattern of running, jumping, and throwing Batarangs. Still, well worth playing, and I'm looking forward to the sequel.

Assassin's Creed II (finished) I briefly played Assassin's Creed a few years ago, and I found it fun but stressful. Looking back, though, I realize it's because back then I was more interested in shooters and open combat and less willing to try a game that asked me to be OK with running and hiding from major threats. (After you assassinate big targets, you pretty much have no choice but to high-tail it through the village and go to ground.) I don't remember what inspired me to pick this one up aside from its high critical and consumer reviews and a desire to check out a franchise rumored to be good, but whatever it was, I'm glad I followed the urge. This turned out to be a wonderful game with dazzling physics, great puzzles, and a strong narrative to augment the gameplay. The combat was always a little wonky — it's usually easier to just run up and assassinate someone rather than engage them in a straight-up fight — but fighting is downplayed here, anyway. The real fun is running around and exploring the maps, climbing everything in sight (seriously, everything), and using a variety of learned techniques to distract your enemies and turn the city's crowds against them. Tons of fun. I just purchased the third entry, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, and I'll likely check out Revelations after that.

Mass Effect (finished) A great friend of mine urged me to play this for months, finally loaning me his copy to make sure I did it. I've already thanked him profusely for making me see the light. This is a killer RPG with great first-person combat and exploration, and it's the kind of game that I really wouldn't have enjoyed before now. The scope's enormous, but what really won me was the variety of gameplay options and narrative choices at key moments. There's also not a lot of hand-holding, which shows a respect for the gamer; after a few tutorials, you're expected to just jump in and get it, which was awesome. Some repetitiveness did creep in during the side quests, which all seemed to take place in identically designed bunkers and mines. Still, that's a minor reservation The game's an epic space opera with memorable characters and legitimately tough choices: I found I felt good when I could please my teammates and sad when I had to leave some behind. That's the sign of a good game.

L.A. Noire (unfinished, sold) This was a disappointing way to end the year, though I'm currently on to other, better games. L.A. Noire's biggest failing is that it pretends to be an open-world game that puts you in charge of the narrative (not unlike a lot of the other RPG/FPS combos I played in 2011), but in reality it's a narrowly focused game that's essentially idiot-proof. The story revolves around Cole Phelps, a dickish LAPD cop who shuffles between desks as you guide him through cases and try to unravel ever larger mysteries. The trouble is that the story is too much of a mess. As I worked through cases, I would want to interview certain suspects only to be told they were unavailable; other times, I'd know that the likely suspect was probably innocent, but the case would resolve and end without my consent before I had time to question my other suspects. I knew I was being shuttled toward a "twist" that would reveal a killer on the loose and the wrong man behind bars, but that twist would've been a lot more believable if the guys I'd arrested actually had enough motive and evidence against them to be guilty. In addition, the game seemed to think I was an idiot. When tasked with deciphering location-based clues, my on-screen persona would eventually feed me the right answer; when pursuing subjects on foot, I was reminded what buttons to press to capture them (though, in another annoying twist, I was only allowed to tackle them when the game wanted me to, which it announced via the prompts); and so on. It's a great idea for a game, but the execution's awful. I quit halfway through and didn't look back.

The Best: Red Dead Redemption, Fallout 3, Assassin's Creed II, Portal 2, Mass Effect The Worst: L.A. Noire, Gears of War, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Fallout: New Vegas