Chris Topham's 2016 Game of the Year List

Wow, what a year huh? We saw the release of some huge games, some giant letdowns, and some sneak hits that honestly took everyone by surprise. It was an especially weird year for me, my wife and I had our first baby in February so most of my gaming was spent with her slung across my chest while she slept. Yep, lots of long nights. But that really let me sink my teeth into strategy games, and I'll say this was a tremendous year to play the grand conqueror. But it was also a good year for games in general, and I found myself jumping from genre to genre without any hesitation, everything I touched was just awesome. Without further ado, here's my 2016 list of games that I just couldn't put down.

(Note, all of the games on this list had some sort of substantive paid content released this year, which I feel is a requirement to be in consideration for my list.)

10. World of Warcraft: Legion

Honestly I can't say I'm super surprised with the quality of Legion, but after the quick burn that was WoW: Warlords of Draenor, I was ready to write-off WoW and finally stop logging in. And then legion launched, and wow did they really deliver on one of the best MMO gaming experiences I've ever had. From head to toe this expansion shines with systems, story, and compelling content that really makes me appreciate the hard work that team has put in. Blizzard stepped up to the plate delivered a gaming experience that revived a 12-year-old game, brought back players (like me) who thought they were done for good, and made the 'grind' of the MMO feel better than it's ever been.

Job well done Blizzard.

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9. Steep

Ok no joke, this game really caught me by surprise. I mean, a Friday launch with little-to-no advertising to drive people towards the game, it really felt like Ubisoft was just trying to sneak this one out without too many people looking. But as a fan of everything mountain and snow, I knew I had to at least give it a shot, and I'm really glad I did. It's relaxing, fun, and super engaging to try to accomplish all of the challenges scattered across this fairly large game. With that said, the game has some super rough edges that I am not confident will get ironed out any time soon (the controls just feel kinda off at times), and that paragliding mode is basically the least fun thing I can imagine myself doing. But even after the negatives I still continued to log in and try to 100% all of the challenges in the game, and I'm well on my way to doing just that.

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8. Stellaris

Without spoiling the rest of my list, I'll just say that this has been a huge year for Paradox Interactive. They delivered on three games which made my personal top 10, but Stellaris honestly shocked me with just how good it was from the get go. Yes there were the usual balance issues that happen with games of this scale, and yes the game was not perfect at launch, but man is Stellaris already in a good place. When looking at big 4x games like this, I tend to think of them more as engines and less as static experiences, and Stellaris promises to be a game that will keep delivering for many years to come. But don't think you need to wait to get in on the action, this game is good right now, and is definitely worthy of your time.

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7. Overwatch

It's good, I mean really good. Do you like guns? Do you like not guns? Do you like anime totally not anime? Go play Overwatch.

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6. Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Blood and Wine expansion to the Witcher 3 is not just good, it's incredible. Great story, great characters, and an epic adventure of epicness. Don't worry about not exploring every nook and cranny (though why wouldn't you?), just go download and play this game.

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5. Crusader Kings 2

Ok this game is like super old now, but the Paradox Interactive team just keeps working on it, and I can't help but buy every bit of DLC they release. This year saw the introduction of Council mechanics to manage within your realm, and also epic plagues. Yea I lost almost an entire generation of my family line due to the black death, and that honestly stressed me out for hours while I tried to salvage even one decent, non-insane ruler to keep my realm from going to crap. This game is still pretty hard to get into, but once you do it's just so satisfying I can't put it down.

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4. Stardew Valley

Here is one of those times when I have to admit than Dan Ryckert is correct about something, luckily that something is that Stardew Valley is amazing. Playable in bite-sized chunks of one day at a time, this game takes the best pars of Harvest Moon and adds in a cute little storyline, actual progression, and numerous game systems that fit together in a very great little package. Also, it was made by one dude, ConcernedApe. Seriously. I wish I was as good at anything as that guy is at making kick ass games.

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3. Pillars of Eternity

This year saw the final release of expansions for Pillars of Eternity, my third and final game from Paradox Interactive. Seriously guys, make something not good huh? This game takes me right back to being a late 90's PC gamer, staring at loading screens while I slugged my way through Icewind Dale and Baldur's Gate. Expect this game includes far less loading and more awesome adventure content than I honestly feel I deserve. Seriously some amazing RPG stuff right here.

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2. Civilization VI

When holding baby, it is best to use at least one hand. This makes it so you can use the other hand for something else, like clicking the 'End Turn' button again and again and again in Civ 6. Seriously, this game has only been out for two months and I'm already near 150 hours played. It's just that good. By no means perfect, this Civ entry is everything I expect out of 4x games. Also, thermonuclear weapons are basically the best thing ever.

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1. Hitman

I'm just as shocked as everyone else by how well Hitman turned up to party in 2016. When I first heard the news that the developer, IO Interactive, was switching it from a single release to an episodic format, I was pretty skeptical that the final product would even be worth playing. But when this thing dropped, it was absolutely magic. IO truly delivered on the sandbox nature of the assassination game I wanted to play, with the AI being just smart enough to make it difficult, but also being dumb enough to not pick out the bald dude with the bar-code tattoo if he just kills your friends and plays dress up. This game kept me playing long into the night while I rocked our newborn to sleep, and I can't wait to see what season 2 looks like.

Good job IO!

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Elder Scrolls Online Going Free to Play?

The expectation that something is going to go FTP because most others have done so is based upon the idea that NO MMO can succeed in the market. This is obviously false as WoW is still subscription and still claims around 8 mil subs (7.8 reported by Kotaku in February). What this means is that there is a market, but experience has shown that most MMO subscribers only play one game at a time. In other words, we know that there are at least 7.8 million people currently playing MMOs, and for ESO to be competitive it needs part of that market share.

However this is facially wrong because WoW's sub numbers at one point were around 13 mil, that's 5 million players that have gone missing! These are free agent MMO subscribers floating in the nether, just waiting for a good hook. You ask for a reason why this MMO should succeed? I gave you three yesterday, but I'll give you one major one. It's because these dev's actually care about the game they are creating. I love BioWare, but EA hasn't had the best track record in the last few years. Remember microtransactions in Mass Effect 3, SimCity, BF4? Its because they see themselves as a business first, and an entertainer second, rather than visa versa.

Bethesda/Zenimax has a track record that shows they give a damn about their product, and the changes from beta to release even over the past month shed light on this fact for me. It doesn't have the hype train behind it that SWTOR/Rift/GW2 had, and that's what will make it successful. Instead of people burning out in the first month, this game will give a slow burn to players who are dedicated to the content, and I predict this will drive new people to sub. It took WoW almost 6 months to hit 3 million subs, and at that point the firestorm was underway and they quickly shot up to 7, then 10 million subs. ESO doesn't need these numbers to be successful; an MMO needs roughly 1 million to start exponential growth, but no more than 100k to stay in the black. While it's future is far from certain, this game feels like it has real legs under it.

Now, I do actually believe they will incorporate some sort of storefront within the first year, ala WoW's new store feature, because its a great way to make gobs of cash on the side. Horse armor baby!!! (As an aside, the horse armor marketing guy came to George Mason last month and said it was an hilarious experiment, and that it was the single-most profitable DLC they've ever released!) But seriously, I bet they do not go too far beyond cosmetic items and pets.

I could be horribly wrong. Zenimax could be a bloodsucking vampire just waiting to sell out and make a cash grab. Only time will tell. What matters now is this; ESO is a great game with an epic story, and if you don't play it you are missing out on one of the finest MMO experiences yet created.


Elder Scrolls Online Day 1

I'm going to start this off by saying that I am absolutely in love with this game in its current state.

I want to make that clear upfront, as I played on and off in the beta and was ready to be letdown. The controls even a month ago were sluggish, the combat felt floaty, the game as a whole felt very linear, and nothing seemed to be intuitive.

I am happy to announce that Bethesda/Zenimax have taken late-Beta user critiques to heart and made some rather substantial changes that have really brightened the game up for me. The have added NPC collision, something that hasn't been done right in nearly enough MMO's, have made the 'starter' island less streamlined and entirely optional, and really made the game feel like a tight first-person adventure game that you just happen to be playing with hundreds, nay thousands of other duders.

Starter island complaints

The first major issue that they resolved was the MMO convention that you are stuck in a starting area and need to go through a fairly linear questline before you get to the 'actual' game. I remember starting my first character in WoW as a human, and being utterly lost in the world. However once I saw through the illusion and scope of the world, I quickly realized that it was a very linear progression I was expected to take or die painfully at the hands of lvl 3 boars and Defias bandits. Rift went the other direction, by creating a 30 minute linear quest area that was strictly designed to teach you the basics before dumping you into the overworld.

The 'starter' island of the Aldmeri Dominion, one of the three factions in Elder Scrolls Online.
The 'starter' island of the Aldmeri Dominion, one of the three factions in Elder Scrolls Online.

ESO cuts the middle, starting you in an linear instanced zone to teach you the basics, but only for about 10 minutes or so. Once you are done with that you are dumped into your first quest area and let loose to cause havoc upon Nirn. But lo! About 20 feet away there is an NPC that will take you to a 'special' zone built solely for your faction, that sets you up with quite a bit of backstory and tasty tasty lore. The catch is, this area is generally built around lvl 4 characters, meaning most enemies don't go above that level, keeping it nice and safe for the learning player. While you might stumble across a pack of 2-4 enemies who outlevel you by quite a bit in the main world, this area won't present anything of the sort. I encountered no groups of enemies larger than 2 through the entire zone.

And don't think it isn't a large zone. It took me about 10 minutes to run from one side to the other on foot, using my sprint ability as often as I could. That's quite a substantial amount of real estate to get your feet wet in. The other cool fact that underlays this area is that, while there is a 'main' questline in the area, as in most MMO's there are plenty of side quests for you to sink your teeth into. However there are no breadcrumb quests that will send you to the vast majority of these quests, you need to go looking for them. Once you are close, an icon will display on your map and on your compass and will guide you to the local questgiver. Sometimes there isn't an associated quest with a landmark, but some other type of XP/loot/reward that still incentivises deep exploration.

The far larger early level zone for the Aldmeri Dominion.
The far larger early level zone for the Aldmeri Dominion.

The thing is this whole experience used to be forced on the player, that's where you were dumped after you left the tutorial instance. This meant that the first 4-5 hours of gameplay was one extended n00b zone, with no real danger for experienced MMO players who wanted to see Nirn in all of its glory. I am a total completionist and immediately jumped back into this mandatory area, but I can see some players really taking offense to being forced to deal with this type of content.

Controls and Combat

The next point that gives me great hope is the feel of this game now as opposed to a few months ago. Before the introduction of NPC collision the combat didn't have a very good feel. I have fond memories of Skyrim, running up to enemies and shield bashing them into oblivion before cutting them down with my sword. But in MMO's the status quo allows for NPC clipping to make for more 'fluid' game interaction. The problem is that the general appeal to this game was the promise of the first person adventure alongside the camaraderie of traditional MMO's, which does not feel right when you clip through the big bad at the end of a dungeon. The decision to implement NPC collision suddenly made the adventure come alive! NPC's run into combat range and come to a halt, and we pleasantly bash one anothers brains into nonexistence.


A final hurdle that gives me a good feeling about this product is the implementation of new icons/warnings/features that highlight MMO mechanics without taking away from my quest to be the greatest warrior-mage in all of Tamriel! Something as simple as highlighting text on my character screen when I've stacked too much of one stat (and am now suffering diminishing returns) reminds me that I am playing an MMO instead of taking away from my immersion. They have rather seamlessly incorporated traditional MMO mechanics in such a way that it does not create a burden on my enjoyment, which is a lesson hard won in WoW, Rift, and SWTOR.

Basically that's my write up of my first day in-game, about 14 hours yesterday. I cannot help myself when a good MMO comes along and sweeps me off my feet, and I'm very happy I gave this one the chance it deserved.

You can find me in-game @EggshellSkull

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SimCity post-release thoughts

So, after a month or so of near-constant updates and efforts to live up to their product claims, EA has yet to satisfy its consumer base.

SimCity was supposed to be this glorious simulation, with enough variables, tools, and goodies under-the-hood that it would make your head spin. Instead the players were delivered a game that either un-delivered, under-performed, or flat out lied about its capabilities to its consumers. I don't need to go into specifics here, anyone still following this story knows the concepts and statements I am referring to.

The point of this post is to look at SimCity in the terms of a normal product on the market, under a standard legal analysis.

SimCity is a product, one created by a company that must obey the laws of the land (America in this case). Here we have a unique set of laws that govern products, known as the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), which SimCity falls under. Under the UCC, products delivered to consumers (gamers) must meet certain criteria to meet its warranty, think of this as a guarantee that the product will actually do what it is supposed to do. This criteria can either be explicitly defined by the seller, or implicitly by statements or actions taken by seller in pushing their product.

§2-314 of the UCC specifically explains that such goods (c) "(must be) fit for the ordinary purposes for which such goods are used".

My question today is this, at what point does a game fail to be fit for the ordinary purposes for which it is used? If I log-in and play for 5 minutes does that mean I have used it in an ordinary purpose, even if I am kicked back to the main menu due to server issues? How about buying a game that requires an internet connection on my end (requirements to run clearly printed on the box), only to be met with server failures on the other end (something that is assumed to be provided as part of the service?)

I don't want to create more hate over this whole launch, I am just curious as to what people actually think they are purchasing when they buy a game.



SimCity pre-release rant

Ok, just to alleviate some of the terrible rumors and opinions about this game. All of my information is from (a) the designers of the games themselves, taken from the interviews posted on Gamespot, and (b) the dev comments made about the background systems involved in the Glassbox engine.

City Size; The one fundamental reason that they decided on the city size cap is that this game, unlike all other past SimCity titles, simulates every citizen of your city continuously. This means that they go home, commute, work, and play in a simulated fashion. What that means is that instead of cars magically appearing at intersections to show congestion (as in past titles), you can track the cars as they drive throughout the city without them magically despawning (until they get to their destination).

Now, where past SimCity titles have made extensive use of size and scale, this version is significantly deeper. The whole concept of specializations and inter-region play is meant to simulate your average metro area. Where I live, D.C. metro area, there are over a dozen municipalities within a one hour drive, each with their specific industries, facilities, and management. Even the largest cities in America are rarely above 200 sq miles (NYC is 303) and that one is actually five separate municipalities incorporated into one consolidated city. The only major criticism left then would be the arbitrary square boundaries which are mostly due to limitations of the engine.

Simulation Depth; Expanding on the above concept, the team wanted to make your independent cities feel distinct, while maintaining regional cohesiveness and keep the whole thing entertaining. Because Jeff chose not to beautify his city, he put a ceiling on the overall quality of the residents who would move in. This point was elaborated in his second city, where he couldn't understand why placing beautification and entertainment suddenly made people like living there. You can make a crappy coal mining town with low tax rates that encourages poorer Sims to move in, while exporting that coal to more luxurious towns with massive technology and parks. Just go watch some of EA's videos and let them coach you through the diverse ways you can change your city. Most of these factors are not hidden, but rather simply kept under the hood, accesible from a few quick mouse clicks.

Future Expansion/Modding; EA has already announced that there will be extensive mod support for this game, just not at launch. I suppose this is something that one could be critical about, but hey, they have a vision of their product and deserve to let the consumers speak with their wallets about what they desire. If you are complaining about the size size, then build a mod for it. It's that simple. I imagine the average user will simply take what they are given and never change a thing, but there are always the idiosyncratic gamers, which I imagine are represented in higher than average numbers on GiantBomb.

Seriously duders, just give this thing a shot. At the very worst, you get a reminder that your childhood was way better than the kids these days (and you get to complain like your grandpa). On the flipside, at the very best you get one of the best simulations likely to grace the market for a long time to come.



SWTOR is more than meets the eye

I wanted to sit down and put my thoughts on paper about the condition of Star Wars the Old Republic (SWTOR) and simple comparison of this game to other MMO's on the market.

First, after playing through each of the 4 starter classes on the Republic side and 1 on the Sith side (just ran out of time) in last weekend's beta, I can testify that the game has way more to offer than has been given credit by the Giant Bombsquad (namely our lovely Jeff). I will list the attributes that stood out to me most over the weekend.

1. Difficulty and skill.

The difficulty curve is reminiscent of my favorite MMO's in their heyday, with variable difficulty for the games instances. The fights feel challenging if you are not prepared, and precise even if you know what you are getting yourself into. If you are a fan of games that are "easy to get into but hard to master" this could be a great game for you. The complexity of the MMO genre as a whole has increased since EQ1 and the Bioware team has taken advantage of that to create a game that involves complex systems that are used to drive the player towards a far harder endgame if they so choose... Then again there are always the easy modes that anyone can generally learn and play through... Like my wife.

2. Storyline.

The storyline is amazing, a huge applause to the Bioware Dev in creating a game that carries on the KOTOR legacy in terms of storytelling. team and a great deal of flexibility in the classes. Jeff was fairly critical of Bioware in saying that SWTOR was Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) 3, 4, and 5, but I believe he simple misinterpreted what they were trying to say. The PR department of Bioware was making a statement of volume and scale, meaning that if you were to compare the storyline length of SWTOR to KOTOR you would have FAR FAR more game than ever previously delivered. To give an example of this quantity (that is also highly polished) it took me a good 7 hours to play through a "starting zone" of 1-11 watching every "cut-scene" (this game has far more scripted quests that don't really qualify as cut-scenes) and completing every quest in the zone. This plays into my next point...

3. Gameworld.

The Bioware team has done a great job crafting a world that is both believable to the viewer and enjoyable to the player. The reason I separate those two things is that they are VERY independent of one another. Ask any WoW player their feelings when they first walked into Stormwind or Orgrimmar and I am sure you will get a very awestruck response, because those areas were so huge! But as a long-term player they quickly became frustrating and tedious due to the inconvenience of traveling to 5 different locations to do simple things like crafting, auctioning, and banking.

In SWTOR the dev team has taken user feedback into account, and dropped all vendors into marketplace-styled areas, as well as trainers, banks, and auction houses. These areas are ironically confusing at first because of their compact nature, but once you get the navigation down to where your own stuff is, the entire process literally becomes seconds instead of minutes.

As far as questing goes, they have also done a fairly good job at making the questing areas logical to get to, and easy to navigate. The important part of this design is that, with properly managing my teleport cool-down (like a Hearth Stone) and utilizing the fast-travel options at each major questing hub, I was rarely running around where I felt I was wasting my time. Of course you have to actually get to those fast-travel points, but generally there is some sort of quest or activity you can do along the way (like managing your companion(s) for the games crafting system, which can be done remotely.

4. Game systems.

There was a deliberate design decision by the Bioware team in making a game that was fair and balanced regardless of which side or faction the player decided to join. Any old-school WoW player can tell you about the days of segregation between Paladins and Shaman, the former being Alliance only and the latter being Horde only. This system (plus it's abolition) was the topic of many forums rants and debates about the state of WoW, but in the end it made sense from a general balance perspective, a game with unique classes and abilities on either side takes a lot of time to balance, and such time and effort could be better spent elsewhere. That does not mean that the player has a lack of choices, with 4 basic classes that expand into 8 advanced classes on both sides there is a class for everyone.

SWTOR has also embraced the idea that it should be feasible to level as a non-traditional spec, ie. a single-target tank or a healer, which has not generally been the case in past MMO's. Because the game likes to throw groups of enemies at you whenever it can, they have given each player a companion at roughly level 10 which is a huge boon to those who like to play solo and not feel compelled to play a certain way or else spend forever leveling. Because you have a selection of companions at your disposal and they have different strength's and weaknesses, you can choose the role your companion plays, which greatly changes in turn how you play.

There is a lot more that can be said about this game to bolster it, but there are also some more critical pieces that deserve mentioning.

Though the game is not in it's final state, and will obviously change substantially after it releases, it is missing some of the key systems that will be needed to keep the game thriving after the 90-day mark. I will call this my MUST-HAVE list.

1. LFG.

SWTOR is lacking the advanced LFG systems that WoW (and more recently Rift) have implemented, an innovation that players are demanding, and rightfully so. Though not crucial on release day because of the ease of getting a group if you simply stand next to the quest-giver and raise your hand, this system is on my list because it has changed the way MMO's have been received by players of all skill levels. It makes grouping for instances far quicker once the surge of players has generally surpassed the level of that instance or quest, and makes it feel desirable to actually play a tank or healer since you are always on demand.

2. Mods.

To be clear the dev's at Bioware have already acknowledged that they will include the capability to mod the game at some time in the future, they just want to ensure they are launching a stable product at first. I can't complain with that. But because it will not be in the game upon release day I can see some people having an issue with this one. Oh well, they have created a good UI that generally does a good job at doing what I want it to, so I imagine that once they release the ability to Mod the game they will ensure the quality is there as well.

3. Cross-server grouping.

This was a huge invention for past MMO's because it greatly expands the pool of potential group members. Once again I do not see this as an issue at launch for reasons stated above, but I include this because, at some point in the future, it will be very important. The question is, when?

Well that's about all I have in me right now, I was given Beta access for this upcoming weekend again and I will be testing the level 13-20 content extensively with a good friend of mine. Feel free to either send me direct questions or post on here with your questions and concerns and I will be happy to answer them. I am hoping to have a feed running on Twitch if my computer behaves tomorrow morning, so stay tuned for a BETA stream around 1PM Central time tomorrow.