Hey internet, it’s Sam. 2017 sure was wild, huh?
Before I get into that, a brief personal note: this year, my work at Ground Punch took on a more behind-the-scenes role, editing other people’s content more often than writing my own, and doing other dull managerial-type-things. However, there was a silver lining: the weekly streams myself, Kelson, and John have been running on Ground Punch’s Twitch channel every Friday night. It was here that we came together and bonded over PUBG and other games, and it’s been a constant silver lining in my week ever since we started. Thanks to both of those guys, and everyone who’s tuned in. That said, I definitely wish I’d written more and want to get back into the groove, so here’s to 2018 being a good one.
But enough about all that. You’re here for the video games, right? Let’s talk video games. (Spoilers: they were pretty good this year).
10. Sniper Elite 4
For me, the thing that defined 2017 was the nonstop onslaught of surprises. That theme absolutely dominates this list, and what better way to start it off than by talking about a game that I absolutely never would’ve imagined myself liking as much as I did. I’ve played and found things to enjoy in every entry in the Sniper Elite series since V2, but I’ve always seen them as decent B-tier bargain-bin fodder, not “good” games in an accurate sense of the word.
Sniper Elite 4 bucks the trend completely; it isn’t just good; it’s great. It took Rebellion Developments four attempts (seven if you include the spinoff Nazi Army trilogy) to find the sweet spot in their stealthy sniping franchise, but they’ve finally hit it, and in nearly every respect SE4 delivers and manages to hold its own against much bigger, more recognized games. From the ability to play the entire story with a friend, to the attractive and varied environments, to the major improvements to non-sniping gunplay and movement, this is a game I can almost unequivocally recommend to anyone interested in shooting nazis and/or skulking around in the dark and murdering fools. It won’t tug at your heartstrings or blow your mind with innovation like some other games on this list, but it’s well-made, and a damn fun time.
Pyre is actually one of the only non-surprises on this list. I knew Supergiant’s latest was going to grab me the second I saw its debut trailer— their games tend to have that effect on me. Still, despite my lofty expectations it consistently impressed me, outdoing the studio’s previous efforts in nearly every way. With some of the best 2D artwork I’ve ever seen in a game, a shockingly enjoyable fantasy sport to play, and a cast of lovable personalities that filled the ensemble-sized hole Persona 5’s lackluster crew left in my heart, this is a game that’s going to stick with me for a long time.
In particular, I have to commend the character writing. Supergiant don’t get enough props for putting so much faith into writer Greg Kasavin’s abilities— Pyre’s gameplay and narrative revolve entirely around the assumption that players are invested in their fellow exiles, and that investment is very well-earned. I have a bad habit of remaining emotionally disinterested in my party members in narrative-heavy games, making my choices based on perceived gameplay effects rather than genuine concern for their fates. Pyre completely broke me out of this with its quirky band of lovable (and hateable) outcasts, for whom I regularly made decisions I knew would be detrimental to my long-term goals for the sake of helping them achieve some personal aim. Games that manage to pull off this incredibly difficult task really aren’t celebrated enough, and Pyre runs with the best of them.
Even in late December, it turned out 2017 still had one more surprise in store. Gorogoa released on the 14th to little initial coverage or fanfare, but it still managed to impact me in a big way. It’s sort of difficult to effectively describe to someone who hasn’t seen it in action, and it’s also one of those games where watching five minutes of gameplay will either immediately sell you on it or turn you off, so I highly recommend checking it out here before continuing.
In short, it’s a puzzle game unlike any you’ve ever played. It isn’t long, and doesn’t really change substantially after you’ve wrapped your mind around its central hook, but it’s relaxing, mystifying, and delightful to poke around and explore. It’s a product of the Nintendo school of game design: Gorogoa introduces a unique mechanic, explores different ways it can be used while ramping up the challenge and complexity, then wraps everything up before it gets old. It’s also absolutely gorgeous, narratively intriguing, and a great demonstration of what auteurship can do for games— entirely programmed, designed, and hand-painted by creator Jason Roberts. It’s almost certainly not for everyone, but it’s an incredible experience and easily has the most satisfying puzzle-solving of the year.
7. Horizon: Zero Dawn
There are people who will be annoyed with me for putting Horizon on my list but not Zelda. Both games came out very close to one another, and drew a lot of comparisons early on, many of which were more favourable to the latter than the former. Here’s the thing: Breath of the Wild, while quite good, didn’t really show me anything I hadn’t seen before, and it didn’t shock me in any real way. It was Zelda but in a proper open world, and quite a good one at that, but there was no one moment in that game where I was blown away or beside myself with all the fun I was having.
Horizon was much more varied in terms of experience, with highs that (in my opinion) were much more memorable, and lows that definitely made me miss Breath of the Wild’s superior locomotion and variety at certain points. Still, I’ve always been the type who treasures narrative over sheer mechanical accomplishment, and this is the space where Horizon dominates. Aloy’s story, and the story of the fallen world she inhabits are truly rewarding to discover; excellent character development and genuinely interesting worldbuilding are both rarities in games, and for Guerilla Games of all people to deliver them is something I never even dreamt of. The robot-dino-fighting gameplay is pleasantly unique too (if occasionally clunky), and the visuals are downright stunning, rivaled only by Naughty Dog’s latest. Horizon definitely has its share of problems too, but nearly a year later it’s stuck with me in a way that a whole lot of other games haven’t, and I very much look forward to seeing what Guerilla cook up for the inevitable sequel.
For all its bold pre-release claims about procedurally-generated universes and celestial bodies, even No Man’s Sky set out with a less ambitious goal than Everything. which purports to let you to be and explore, well…everything. Even more impressive, though? It actually does it.
Everything is an exploration of what it means to be; an examination of our significance (or insignificance) in the universe, and the unseen complexity of all that we take for granted. If it sounds up it’s own ass, that’s because it is, but it’s also genuinely effective at exploring this subject in a way that always left me thinking when I walked away from a play session. Of the growing number of indie games that purport to be philosophical, this is the only one that has ever actually worked for me. It’s an experience that invokes a true sense of awe— both at the impressive amount of work that has gone into the making the thousands of playable models that give Everything’s low-poly universe its incredible sense of scale, but also by drawing attention to the intricate complexity of our own reality.
Of course, it does so with some caveats. This isn’t some complex simulation, and the “gameplay” plays fast and loose with the definition of that term, but even if you don’t care for the “big ideas” behind the game, it’s also really entertaining to simply mess around with for a few hours. This is another game you should see in action if you want to really understand what it’s all about, but I’ll try to give you the gist: Everything is a sandbox where you can possess thousands of things, from giraffes, to microbacteria, to galaxies, and move around as them. At any moment, you can pause time and enter possession mode, which allows you to turn into any nearby thing that is slightly smaller or slightly larger than yourself. A typical progression might have you as a single carbon atom, then a fleck of skin, then a dust mite, then later on a rubber ball, then a garbage can, then a pickup truck, then even later the planet itself, the sun, then the galaxy in which it sits. The result is a remarkable and genuine sense of the vast scale of our own universe— and a remarkably relaxing, surreal experience. Is it a game? Hard to say. Will it appeal to everyone? Most certainly not. But it is one of the most interesting things I’ve ever interacted with, and if any of this has sparked your interest, I very highly recommend sitting back, lighting up a joint, and taking a look at what Everything has to show you.
I understand why Arkane Software’s Prey reboot is so divisive. It’s generally well-designed and its world is very well-realized, but its finicky combat and problematic performance (depending on which system you play it on) undermine its better elements for many. But as a huge fan of Dishonored, Deus Ex, and the various other games in the so-called “immersive sim” genre that Arkane helped pioneer, Prey still hit almost all the right notes for me, and actually surpassed my expectations in a few key ways.
The biggest is that unlike Arkane’s other titles, Prey leaves behind the idea of linear progression through different hubs and levels, and instead takes a page out of the metroidvania book with a single, cohesive playspace in the form of the Talos I space station. Talos is haunting and fascinating, and has allowed Arkane’s designers, artists and writers to really flex their muscles in creating a complex, fantastical space that feels completely possible and compelling, and follows a consistent set of rules. In other words, it’s, well…immersive.
In order to progress into different areas of the station, players need to find key items and info to get past locked doors and different obstacles, not unlike Nintendo’s Metroid games. Where Prey differs, however, is by allowing its best players to sequence break and out-think these artificial barriers in the way Arkane games have always encouraged. Because Talos I feels and behaves like a real place, the possibilities also begin to feel endless— there’s a real sense that if you can think of something and execute on it, it’ll work. At its best, it’s a game that makes you feel clever, and makes you think you’re subverting its designers’ intentions even when you’re not. At its worst, it devolves into reloading your save over and over as you slog through clunky combat against difficult enemies. Still, I count myself among those for whom the former overpowered the latter, and if you’ve got some patience and a penchant for games about exploring well-realized and genuinely interesting worlds (Bioshock and Dishonored fans take note!), Prey hangs with the best of them.
4. What Remains of Edith Finch
I’ll get the reductive categorization out of the way early: What Remains of Edith Finch is a walking simulator. If you’re such a stick in the mud that this turns you off entirely, then feel free to carry on down the list. For the rest of you, though: holy shit. This is the best walking simulator I’ve ever played.
What Remains is the beautiful, poignant, and ultimately heart wrenching story of a family dealing with overwhelming loss. It’s an emotional rollercoaster of ups and downs that plays out over a little more than two hours, but they’re two of the most finely-crafted hours you’ll find in any game. Aside from its powerful narrative and excellent visual direction though, what makes Edith Finch such a standout are the ways it defies the conventions of the genre. The game is divided into scenes, each with their own incredibly inventive gameplay sequence that, while still technically following the walking sim rule of “move around while listening to audio”, make doing so way more engaging than any game before it. Giant Sparrow deserve props for pushing the genre forward in this way, and I very much look forward to whatever their talented team cooks up next.
3. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
Wolfenstein II gets my number three spot, with the caveat that it’s the most deeply flawed game on this list. It’s a profoundly uneven experience, full of incredible moments that provide higher highs than nearly any game this year, undercut by shaky gameplay and design choices that threaten to topple the otherwise great experience that Machine Games has crafted. The actual shooting is better than the studio’s previous effort, The New Order, but curious issues such as a broken damage indicator that makes it very difficult to tell when you’re being shot (and even harder to determine the location of your attacker), and extremely clunky stealth sections make the combat portion of the game frustrating as often as it’s fun.
But when The New Colossus is at its best, it’s downright astonishing. What last year’s Doom did for single player shooters in terms of gameplay, Wolfenstein II does for narrative, delivering an extraordinarily strong story arc full of memorable characters and genuinely great plot twists (some grumblings about its political implications aside). There are multiple moments in Wolfenstein II that make you immediately want to put down the controller and talk to someone else about what you just saw, and these amazing sequences are what make struggling through the frequently lackluster gameplay worth it. I definitely don’t recommend this game for all kinds of players, but if you don’t mind suffering through some occasionally frustrating (though not all bad, I should point out) firefights for the sake of the best narrative of the year, I strongly encourage you to do so. Those Nazis aren’t going to shoot themselves, after all.
2. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds
Something that has always separated me from the vast majority of the game-playing audience (judging from Call of Duty and League of Legends numbers, anyway), is my attitude toward multiplayer games. I mean, I play plenty of them and enjoy them just fine— hell, I’d even fancy myself good at a few— but I’ve always favoured games with a narrative bent over competitive action. For even one to crack my top ten list in a year is a rare occurrence, which is why it’s no small feat that PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was very nearly my game of the year, beating out almost every release in what has probably been the best year for gaming in a decade.
PUBG is a hot mess, full of bugs, quirks, and absolutely toxic players, but it’s also the most fun I’ve had with a shooter in many, many years. It took an idea I’d always wanted to enjoy, and slapped it into a framework I could actually get behind (unlike the also-popular H1Z1, which I avoided on reputation alone). In Battlegrounds I’ve made friends, experienced harrowing victories, been thoroughly salty with teammates, caused horrible accidental deaths, and laughed my ass off at bugs and dumb luck, all while enjoying a constant sense of improvement over hundreds of hours. Yes, in some ways it’s deeply imperfect, but I’ve had so much fun for so much time that none of it matters. What I remember about Battlegrounds is beaching a boat and having my friends yell at me before breaking down in laughter. What stuck with me were the times I managed to actually clutch a fight and took out the last enemy while my whole squad was downed. The moments of dullness and frustration certainly happened, but when I look back they aren’t what stands out.
I have a nasty feeling that ten years from now I’ll feel about Battle Royale games what I currently feel about Call of Duty, but that speaks to PUBG’s runaway success as much as anything. This game is this generation’s Modern Warfare. It’s full of absolutely brilliant ideas that are going to be cloned, refined, and eventually run into the ground, but for now we’re still in the honeymoon phase, and I am absolutely in love.
1. Divinity: Original Sin II
My thoughts on why this game is so incredible have already been put into words in our main game of the year article, so instead I’ll share what I did in my game this afternoon.
In the save I loaded, my buddies Lohse, Fane, Beast and I had just finished skulking around a graveyard looking for tombs to rob and sketchy necromancers to fight, so I figured we’d get back on the road. As we approached the exit gate, we passed a suspicious-looking mound of dirt, and I decided to dig it up. Lo and behold, I unearthed a snarky, self-described philosopher skeleton who challenged me to a duel of wits where the winner got to consume the loser’s soul. Naturally, I accepted and schooled his bony ass, sending it back to the oblivion from whence it came. Then I took all his gold and wandered off into the woods.
A few minutes of exploration later and I stumbled upon a sawmill full of morally dubious mercenaries who recognized my character (I chose to play the ex-mercenary with a shady past, go figure) and welcomed him in. Unfortunately, the whole thing turned out to be a trap and the leader of the mercs revealed to me that a noble I thought I had successfully assassinated twenty hours ago was in fact still alive and kicking, and that in response to my failure, he was going to kill me and take my contract to kill the noble for himself. Then his pet wolves mauled me and I reloaded my save.
Later on, I came upon a group of anti-sourcerer magisters fighting a group of vicious voidwoken (evil bug creatures that are drawn to magic users) in the burnt and blood-soaked remains of a forest village. I saved them from a grisly death at the hands (claws, really) of the voidwoken, only for the magisters to reveal that they were the ones who had slaughtered the villagers for allowing a fleeing sourcerer to take refuge there. Naturally, as a sourcerer myself I had a bit of an ethical problem with them doing this, and when I told them as such they drew their weapons and I had to kill them too. Just another day in the life of Ifan-Ben-Mezd.
Play this game, god damn you.
Thanks to everyone who’s suffered through this list to the bitter end. Hopefully I’ve shown you something you missed out on! Oh yeah, and if you feel so inclined, you can follow me on Twitter for my latest terrible thoughts and jokes, links to streams and other content I produce, and more.
See you next year!