Friday, December 30, 2016

THE BEST OF 2016 - The Best GAMES Of The Year


- Oh, if only my younger self could see me now. Too many games and not enough time to play them? What a problem to have. And yet, this year I really felt the weight of an ever-increasing videogame back-log. I mean, keeping up with games can be hard - many of my friends and peers likely can't even fathom how I keep up with them at all. But I can't not at least *try* to stay current - I'm too passionate about the medium and the industry to not have gaming as a part of my life. I wish more people felt the same way. Although the older I get, the harder it is to gauge gaming's current place in pop culture. I know fewer and fewer people who would call themselves gamers, but *tons* of people who seemed to salivate over the idea of buying an NES classic console, and shelling out money to get a less-functional version of a thirty-year-old Nintendo system. So here is my plea to readers and friends: don't give up on gaming. Even as you get married and have kids and grow up (ugh), don't give up on it. You don't drop movies or TV, so don't drop games. The old stuff you played was good, but a lot of the new stuff is better. You don't want to miss out on on the new classics - the games like Bioshock, Mass Effect, Skyrim, Uncharted, The Last of Us, or Telltale's The Walking Dead series. 

It's true - in 2016 I was usually playing catch-up when it came to games. I played through games from last year and older - games like the Mass Effect series, A Wolf Among Us, Limbo, Skyrim, Tomb Raider, and Batman: Arkham Knight. And of course, I engaged my brother in many a Rocket League match-up (unfortunately, I tended to lose).

I once again was lucky enough to attend E3 this year. I sampled the Playstation VR. I saw a demo of Injustice 2. I pinched myself realizing that I was at freaking E3. My sense from E3 2016 was that the big, blockbuster games are now so costly and time-consuming to produce that they will come less frequently, and some will not be to everyone's tastes. And so to fill in the gaps, indie games are really where it's at. Look at any Best of 2016 list, and indie games dominate. For people who like simpler, more cerebral, or more old-school games - it's a golden age right now. Look at stuff like Limbo and this year's Inside - simple yet impactful games that pair old-school 2-D play mechanics with new-school thematic sophistication and indie design sensibilities. Or look at what Telltale continues to do with franchises like The Walking Dead and Batman - creating episodic graphic adventures that are simple, story-based, but really really good. 

The timetables on blockbuster games are such that there are going to be ebbs and flows. I was okay that 2016 was a lean year for big new games (remember, the back-log), but even with that said, there was a new Uncharted game - and to me, that's the gold standard. Not to mention the arrival of long-delayed (like, seriously long) games like Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian. Meanwhile, 2017 seems poised to be huge if you happen to be a Playstation owner. The stars have aligned to bring us Horizon: Zero Dawn, a new God of War, a new Mass Effect, and many others. 2017 is going to be ridiculous. Not to mention, Nintendo's Switch is poised to launch. The Big N has been a non-factor for me for several years now, but I am curious to see what becomes of the Switch - likely their last, best shot to once again play with the big boys in the console space. I'm still a bit skeptical of it, personally. I mean, how long is Nintendo going to come out with a less-powerful console and try to get by with only a few token third-party games? 

But back to my original point: one of my pop-culture resolutions for 2017 is to actively make at least a bit more time for games. After all, there is going to be *a lot* to play in the new year.


1.) Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

- As I say above, to me Uncharted is the gold standard in games. I get that some people are weary of the series at this point, and I get that The Last of Us (which I love) has sort of usurped it as the preferred Naughty Dog franchise. But Uncharted is still the series I point to when I tell people how, in many ways, games are outdoing Hollywood in terms of providing a memorable blockbuster cinematic experience. I mean, they are making an Uncharted movie - but how is that ever going to top this? This series melds grade-A storytelling with engaging gameplay like few others, and has mastered the art of creating gigantic, movie-like set-pieces that have the effect of placing the player squarely in the middle of jaw-dropping action. Uncharted 4, for its part, is a return to the form for the series after, arguably, a solid but not-quite-bar-raising third entry. For one, Uncharted 4 stuns with its visuals - as the first game in the series for the PS4, it may take the cake for best graphics yet of this gaming generation. For another, the game makes some very tangible gameplay improvements - more responsive melee combat, a fun-as-hell grappling hook mechanic that took me back to Bionic Commando, and a much-improved sneaking/cover mechanic. And finally, the story is one of the best yet in the series - a sprawling adventure that nonetheless makes time for some quiet, character-driven moments - putting the focus back on the Nathan Drake / Elena relationship in a way that's sure to please fans of the series. So to sum up, I'll simply say that to me - Uncharted 4 is currently *the* reason to buy a PS4. Get it.

2.) The Last Guardian

- The latest from the creators of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus was years in the making - to the point where it was on the verge of becoming a legendary piece of vaporware. But the game finally came out this year, and to me it was worth the wait. Yes, the controls and camera feel a bit messy. The game as a whole lacks some of the polish that we now expect from AAA games. And yet, The Last Guardian has a magic to it that you don't see that often anymore - playing it took me back to the early PS1 days when developers were still experimenting and finding their way around hardware. The games back then were sometimes glitchy, but man, were they interesting. Maybe it's also that we don't get as many Japanese games anymore, I don't know. But TLG casts a spell on players. It's got emotion. It's got awe and wonder. Magic. You play a young boy in a magical land, navigating through obstacles and puzzles with a giant dragon-like creature at your side. The game is all about the relationship between boy and beast, and it's funny and sad and inspiring. The Last Guardian is a rare beast indeed.

3.) Inside

- Following the success of their trippy puzzler Limbo, the team at Playdead this year brought us a more-than-worthy follow-up with Inside. These guys do atmospheric like no one else, and Inside is nothing if not *haunting.* Like Limbo, Inside simply throws you head-first into the game - no explanations, no tutorials, not cut-scenes explaining the story. The game is the story, and the narrative slowly reveals itself as you make your way through the game's increasingly weird and disturbing nightmare-scape. This is the kind of game that we are lucky to now have (and that I hope we continue to get more of) as part of the ongoing indie revolution. 

4.) Final Fantasy XV

- In my youth, I was an uber Final Fantasy fanboy. I religiously played every entry in the series, and have many fond memories of getting lost in various FF games over the years. XII was the one that sort of broke me - I get that it did the job for a certain contingency, but to me it was a turning point in which the series became too complex and difficult for its own good. In any case, based on my early time spent with XV - the long-time-coming first entry for the series of this generation, it does feel like a bit of that old magic is back. The story feels more engrossing, the gameplay and combat more intuitive. The game feels both retro and suitably modernized. And the visuals are stunning. A welcome return to form. 

5.) Ratchet & Clank

- No joke, Ratchet & Clank may be my favorite game series of the last fifteen years - so I always look forward to new entries in the series, and thank the gaming gods that this still-underrated franchise continues to exist. 2016 was a noteworthy year for R&C, as there was an animated movie based on the original game, and in turn a new game based on the movie. The new game was sort of a strange hybrid - a game based on a movie based on a game - but what really mattered was that it was more of the classic gameplay that makes the series so awesome. Let me put it this way: so many action/adventure games nowadays hand-hold you through their action sequences. You are more "guiding" your character rather than directly controlling them. Not in R&C - the game's got spot-on sticky controls that are totally 1-to-1. These games rely on fast reflexes and run n' gun proficiency - scratching an itch that not many other third-person games do these days. R&C games always control like a dream, always look amazing, are always imaginative-as-hell (think Pixar), and are most importantly downright fun. Keep 'em coming, Insomniac.

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