I honestly think 2017 might be one of my favorite years for games! It was one of those years without a WoW expansion, but even had there been one, I still think I would've preferred to spend my time on the bevy of fantastic games that have graced my computer. I'll let someone else do a state of the union, though: let's get down to business. I don't claim to have any special criteria for this list; instead I'll just say that it's down to which games gave me the most sheer enjoyment in the act of playing them this year.
10 (TIE). Divinity: Original Sin 2 / Destiny 2
I’m going to go ahead and call this what it is: a total goddamn cop-out. These games are not at all similar (except enough in name that I constantly say one when I mean the other), and I’ve flip-flopped back and forth as to which one I wanted in the ten-slot so often that I figured I’d just split the difference.
Divinity 2 is clearly the better game here. It’s huge (I’ve spent almost 50 hours in it and have yet to get past the beginning of Act II), and offers more choices to a player than probably any isometric RPG that I’ve ever played. You have complete control over your party composition and most encounters can be approached in so many different ways that people will probably still be stumbling across unique solutions to problems years from now. It’s well-written and I have no problems recommending it to serious players of the genre.
Destiny 2, on the other hand, is a great PC port from a technical perspective, full of vibrant colors and some really satisfying shooting action. Everything else about it is one huge mess. I barely remember the story, and the optional stuff at the end of the game is lamely repetitive. It’s also 100% inexcusable for a social shooter game to not have in-game clan chat or a LFG channel or to use the Battle.net launcher but take practically zero of the social tools that are built into it. Open chat in games like this can be a cesspool (go spend some time in Path of Exile’s global channel for a taste!) but turning whispers off by default is BAFFLING. These features were standard in games from 20 years ago and Bungie deserves to get all the flack in the world for treating its players like they’re all the boorish guests at a party who can’t be trusted to open their mouths, especially on the PC version of the game.
All that said, let’s get down to pitchfork time: I still enjoyed the actual experience of playing Destiny 2 more than I did the experience of playing through Divinity 2. Shooting stuff in the head was super fun in the part of Destiny I did play (I didn’t do much max-level content and only two PVP matches, so the lack of end-game stuff was not personally a big deal). If anything, the game is too easy with a mouse and keyboard, but that didn’t mean that the moment-to-moment act of putting lead in the air isn’t still super fun. It’s about as much fun as I’ve had with shooting stuff since Titanfall 2, and that makes it all the more a shame that the rest of the game is as big of a letdown as it is.
Divinity, on the other hand, just sets off every otherwise unused anxiety circuit in my brain. There’s a paralysis of choice involved in playing it that I just can’t seem to get past. Most people look at the toolbox of options and no doubt find the kind of freedom that the game is supposed to show off to players, but I mostly just see the half-glass-full scenarios of battles I seem to always make the wrong moves in, locked doors I can’t find a way past, quests I don’t know how to complete, and party compositions that never seem to gel smoothly. No matter how I approach this game I just can’t shake the feeling that I am somehow playing it wrong. It’s this year’s Witcher 3 in that I can completely tell that it’s an amazing showpiece of an RPG that I absolutely cannot find a way to like despite it being very obvious that I should like it quite a bit. I've restarted it maybe half a dozen times and just can't seem to get over whatever hump I need to crest to make it something I actually enjoy playing. This is 100% my fault and I duly recognize that. It's not you, Divinity: it's me.
Anyway, Divinity is obviously a better game than Destiny 2 and deserves all the acclaim that it is justly receiving, and I would feel weird leaving it off this list; I've heard good things about the parts of the game that I haven't gotten to. But when I sit down to play something I’d rather play Destiny 2. Sorry!
It’s odd to say that I’m around 20 hours into Prey and still not entirely sure if I’ve hit the meat of it yet. It’s far closer in spirit to System Shock 2 in terms of mechanics than other homages to that game (e.g. Bioshock) have come, and the experience of wandering around a derelict space station scratches all sorts of itches that I wasn’t even aware I had, but it doesn’t quite cast that pall of foreboding that Bioshock or SS2 managed to throw over me the first time I played through them. Part of that is the enemy design: the mimic jump scares are effective the first few times you come across them, but by the time you hit the mid-game, most of the enemies you come across are just various shapes of goopy blackness, distinct in attack methods but less so in form. This often rendered a sneaking approach difficult, if only because it felt really hard to tell which way your enemies were facing. Still, it’s an effective haunted house recreation that’s easy to get some scares out of and I look forward to finishing it.
8. Mr. Shifty
This is one of those games that has simple mechanics (there are maybe three buttons to press) but which throws you up against a smoothly proceeding set of increasingly difficult challenges. It’s not tough to intuit the way past any given room, but actually executing on your plans is a lot trickier to pull off. My main gripe here is the lack of Steam cloud save support; I wound up losing over an hour’s worth of progress (which included a level transition!) when the game crashed near the end of it. Aside from that, this is easily my sleeper hit of the year and I think more people should give it a whirl.
I played the bulk of this in single-player mode and somehow the act of shepherding a team of murderbots through the Bolivian countryside never quite lost its charm during the 30 hours or so it took me to get through the campaign. Having a team full of soldiers that could headshot anything they got close to and were completely invisible to your enemies until you ordered them to reveal themselves made things fairly easy, sure, but it’s still fun to plan an approach on a base, order your droids to attack, then hang back and snipe while your enemies get mowed down. And even though I’m not the hugest fan of co-op, I did a few streams with it and had a good time attempting to not crash helicopters while dropping off my team for insertion. (The few stealth missions you come across are real bummers in co-op, though.) Just writing this up makes me want to hop back into it with some community members and try that Predator DLC.
When Brad was getting deep into the review process here and started saying that the late-game stuff was a bit of a slog, I thought he must surely be exaggerating: Shadow of Mordor was my obvious GOTY a couple of years ago, and I couldn’t imagine that “Shadow of Mordor, but more of it” could be anything less than a joyous experience. But, as with all matters of the heart, Brad was right: this game’s late shift towards endless castle defenses is super lame and dumb. So, I just stopped playing it! I got well over 40 hours of pretty good gameplay out of my purchase and just kinda didn’t bother with the parts that everyone said were stupid.
You say “Dark Souls meets Metroidvania” and I say “sign me up.” The world is really the star of the game here; initially I thought it was just drab, but I gradually became much more impressed with how Team Cherry managed to create a place that really felt like the ruins of some long-faded underground empire. In true Dark Souls fashion, very little is explained clearly, including the story of your character; most of the people you meet speak in riddles, and everything is very, very gloomy. The boss fights are often brutal with some aggravating walks from the checkpoint to re-try them, but there are few comparable experiences in gaming this year than when you finally manage to take one of them down.
I’m not 100% sure I’ll finish Hollow Knight (there are issues with its mapping system that drive me real bonkers), but it definitely seems an easy choice as the best indie game of the year.
It feels like this is the most talked-about game of the year, for a variety of reasons, and I don’t feel like I have much to add to the discourse on it, except to say that I enjoyed shooting people in the face until they fell down. The writing was excellent and there were plenty of fun character moments, and even if the level design wasn’t memorable, that shouldn’t distract from the fact that I got a lot more enjoyable time out of this than I expected to. The main drawbacks for me were the abrupt ending and the unfortunate technical issues on the PC: it took me a full five days to even be able to start it up (it turns out it really doesn’t like it when you have a second monitor running) after I bought it. Bumpy start but ultimately worthwhile!
I know a lot of people have soured on the AC series over the years, for whatever reason, but despite some weak entries here and there I’ve always had a fond spot for it. It was clear that this was going to be a bit of a departure, but the changes Ubisoft cooked up made Origins probably the best game in the series. The storyline has its weaknesses: none of the villains are established with any thoroughness, and Bayek himself vacillates between “bemused friend to all Egyptians” and “murderous justice-seeker” at the drop of a hat. The world itself is a joy to run around in, though, and the changes to the combat are fun if you do like I did and just try to make sure you’re five levels above everyone you fight (and use predator bows all the time to turn your arrows into homing missiles). For all the tension of effectively rebooting a huge franchise, the end result feels relaxed and smoothly enjoyable, and it’s also easily the best-looking game of the year. Ubisoft deserves a lot of credit for a great PC port that takes advantage of high-end systems (although the performance problems on older CPUs sound like a bummer), and their excellent post-launch support keeps throwing in new challenges and quests (including a truly bizarre tie-in with Final Fantasy XV).
I played this at the same time as Horizon, and while it was excellent it was just a hair's breadth less enjoyable than Guerrilla's game. The storyline was so muted as to be almost inaudible, and it seemed to take a lot longer to get to the point of the game where I managed to get all of the systems together and felt like I had control over my own destiny. When that happened, though, it felt like everything melded into one of the best world-exploration games I’ve ever played; the fact that I did most of it in bed on a handheld device was just the cherry on top.
Obviously there are a few sticking points here: the world felt pretty barren of friendly life; the cooking UI was terrible for being such a large part of the game; and I wasn’t a huge fan of the shrine puzzles after getting through 50 of them or so. But the emergent gameplay was strong enough to keep me coming back to it for over 100 hours.
I was fairly ready to love this game from the moment the elevator pitch of “you fight dinosaur robots in a post-apocalyptic setting” came out, but the sheer amount of refinement across the board was really startling, especially considering that I never cared much for the Killzone games that Guerrilla made in the past. We knew it was going to be a great-looking game, and it definitely was, but I’d also have a hard time thinking of a game with better systems design (Zelda was close) or writing this year.
I super dug Aloy as a character, I loved the writing in the sidequests, I thought the enemies were super fun and challenging to fight against (the mind-control mechanic was especially cool), and I thought the world-building was rad. I don’t know if I have any more superlatives to dole out without hitting up the thesaurus, so I’ll just say that it’s one of the few games of the year (or any year) to have no real weaknesses in my eye (with the possible exception of that bullet-sponge last boss). I’m really looking forward to making time for the DLC and I’ll be eager to see where things go in Horizon One Dawn or whatever they call the sequel.