Drew Scanlon is a Video Producer at Giant Bomb. He enjoys "talking" "about" "race cars" from time to time, strange peripherals, and movies. Once, he read a book. Please follow his very handsome Twitter account.
Writing my top 10 list each year is exciting for me because I never really know what's going to be on it, much less at the top. It's almost as if I don't choose what's going to be on here. It's only after writing it that I have a clear picture of how the year went, and how well it measured up to my standards. I like games that try stuff. If they try stuff, that means they haven't run out of ideas. Last year didn't feel like that, but this year does. This is the year we got some risky franchise additions, some cool mobile experiments, some Weird Indie Stuff, and some solid sequels that, while perhaps iterative to some degree, were enticing enough to hook a newbie like me. But that's all just a way of saying that a lot of cool stuff came out this year. Keep trying stuff, video games!
I’ve never had any real attachment to the Tomb Raider franchise, and after I heard the reboot was pretty heavy on shooting, I didn’t see any real reason to jump in. I do like Uncharted, though, and after playing a lot of Lara Croft Go, I had a real hankering for some tomb-centric puzzles. I haven’t gotten as far as I’d like in Rise of the Tomb Raider yet, but I’m pleased to say the ratio of action sequences like shooting and climbing to contemplative puzzle-solving is just about perfect. Lara’s animations are fluid and varied, the collectables are fun to get and add to the story, and the crafting system makes it worth your while to poke around while at the same time not making you feel like you have to search every square inch of the environment. Lara’s having a good year.
After hearing about Puzzle & Dragons, the free-to-play mobile game sweeping the nation of Japan, I decided to try it myself. Grasping the “match three” aspect of the game isn’t hard, but I found the surrounding systems overly complex and inextricable from the “free-to-playness” of the game, making it difficult to discern the “right” way to play it. Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition does three things with the Puzzle & Dragons formula: throws out all the free-to-play systems, simplifies and explains the rest, and throws a nice Mario filter over everything.
In short, the gameplay involves creating a string of three or more gems, but unlike a game like Bejeweled, you’re not just swapping two gems in place. Instead, you are free to drag any one gem around the screen, and each other gem it touches swaps places, making it possible to plan ahead and set up combos. It’s a pretty simple interaction to grasp, but where the depth comes in is team composition. I spent a long time grinding through the same dungeons to get enough purple guys to combine together into one super purple guy. That may not be everyone’s idea of fun, but the missions do get tough, so be prepared to pay a little extra attention to your team beyond “eh, these guys should be fine.”
I should mention I played this as part of the Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons: Super Mario Bros. Edition combo pack. I haven't played Puzzle & Dragons Z at all.
8. DiRT Rally
Look, I like the DiRT series. I liked when it went all “X-Games” in DiRT 2, and when it introduced gymkhana in DiRT 3. (DiRT Showdown not so much.) But all the while, I couldn’t help lamenting that the games weren’t like the original. The original DiRT was hardcore, man. White-knuckle. Lose a tire and live with it. None of this “rewind” garbage. DiRT Rally is a return to form. Your driving matters again. It’s just you, your car, and your mechanics feverishly working to repair that bent suspension before the next stage. Jumping in and treating it like an arcade game will see your car wrapped around a tree in no time. But if you start slow, trying not to hit anything, then gradually ramp up by taking turns faster and faster until your hubris gets the better of you, then you’re playing a rally game. And when you do hit that turn just right, you feel like pumping your fist in the air. Maybe even slamming a Dew.
7. Her Story
In Her Story, you watch full motion video clips of a woman being interviewed about a crime. You then make text searches to bring up more video clips, using anything she says as keywords. The practice of watching someone speak, taking notes, and then following up on interesting threads felt exactly like being a detective. I had a notepad with phrases circled, underlined, and question-marked. It is well established that I like games that require you to take notes, but until Her Story, I didn’t know how badly I wanted to be a detective. This game is also responsible for the moment this year that most made me go “WHAAAAT?”
In most games, gameplay characteristics like player movement, using a weapon, and enemy animations are like film editing: if they’re done well, we don’t notice them. In Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, even the most fundamental systems have quirks other games don't have. For example, jumping off a ledge requires a different button depending on if you have your weapon sheathed or not. These are worthwhile complications that add to the depth of the game, but learning them all in a verbose, easy-to-understand tutorial would take days.
Instead, the game smartly and subtly presents you with situations where you have to figure a system out yourself. Instead of sending you on a quest that then rewards you with better armor, a monster stomps you, prompting you to figure out how to get better armor yourself. Getting your own armor means a whole lot more to you than if an NPC just gave it to you for killing a few rats. After a few hours (and maybe some online research), you’ll feel like you’ve got a grasp on the basics.
At this point, the game changes. The battle stops being a contest between you and the systems and starts being a puzzle. The pieces of the puzzle are the monster and its behavior; the environment, which you must figure out how to use to your advantage; your character, which you must maneuver deftly; and your weapon, which you must utilize skillfully and intelligently. Of course, the more intricacies you’ve learned about each of these systems, the more successful you’ll be, and the more rewarding it is once you finally bring down a monster that has been troubling you for hours.
There are times that Lara Croft Go feels like a warm bath. It’s a great game to just load up and soak in. The calm turn-based pace, pleasant visuals, and subtle music and sound create just the type of mood you want to be in when staring at a challenging puzzle. Finally solving some of the harder puzzles makes you feel like a genius, but it’s also real fast on the restarts, so things never get too stressful. Finding the collectables is fun, and there are constantly new enemies and elements being introduced. And boss battles! In a turn-based puzzle game!
My struggles with controlling Metal Gear Solid games are well documented. Metal Gear Solid V, however, handles like a dream. Not only does this make it more fun to play, it also goes a long way to making good on the longstanding promise of the Metal Gear Solid series: to solve encounters however you want. The streamlined controls and interface make it possible to envision a solution to a situation and then execute it almost without thinking about moving your fingers. The translation from “I’m gonna try this” to actually doing it is unconscious and almost instantaneous. Many games strive for this, but none pull it off like this one.
So many games have tried level editors. The one in Super Mario Maker is not only functional, but fun, thanks in large part to how quickly you can jump between playing your level and editing it. Added to the satisfaction of building a sweet level is the fact that you can send it out into the world and watch as other people die a whole lot or give your level a star (or both). It should be mentioned that a side benefit of this feature is that we as a society now have INFINITE MARIO, which can only be a positive for the human race. My only regret is, without a Wii U of my own, I haven’t gotten to play this one nearly enough.
I can’t stop playing Downwell. It’s one of those games that’s perfect if you have a few minutes but rewards you for devoting lots of time to it in the form of sweet new color palettes and gameplay modifiers to tweak the game to your style of play. I’m playing it on iOS, which means, because I’m using a touchscreen in place of buttons, I’m always on the edge of control. Some may find this annoying, but I like it because I keep getting better at it bit by bit. This means that, along with unlocking those helpful modifiers, I get a little further each time I play. This drip-feed of rewards may explain why I keep coming back, routinely for stretches of over thirty minutes before I go to bed.
My family tends to play a lot of board games when we’re together for the holidays. Not all of us can competently operate a video game, but Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is so easy to pick up, it slid into the rotation easily. For the uninitiated, one person sees a screen with a movie-style bomb on it (we had this person on a laptop). Everyone else has access to the bomb manual, printed out on physical paper. Communication is key, since cutting the wrong wire can lead to a big boom. We were hooked immediately, dividing the manual among multiple people so that one person became an expert on a few of the bomb’s modules. Then, as things got stale, we switched up who was in charge of what module. As we got more familiar with what the game could throw at us, we ratcheted up the difficulty. We eventually were able to defuse 11 modules in seven minutes (with needy modules and hardcore mode on), something I initially thought would have been impossible with my video game-illiterate parents and grandmother. We even know a little Morse code now.