Game of the Year 2018

Ghosthouse's 2018 Top 10 11 Games of the Year!

This was a pretty good year for games! There was a good variety of small stuff and big stuff and both brought some heavy hitters to the table. There are a bunch of likely deserving games I haven't gotten around to or spent enough time with yet (Celeste, Into the Breach, Tetris Effect, Return of the Obra Dinn). But from what I did play this year, I laughed, I cried, and I became a cowboy. And my #1 game(s) might surprise you...

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11. Destiny 2: Forsaken

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I feel very conflicted placing Destiny 2 on a list like this. A lot of the changes that Forsaken made are hard to even pick out, because so much of it was stuff that should have been there all along. It was a lot about them living up to their promises and bizarrely, catching up to fixes that were already in place in Destiny 1 after we went through the exact same mistakes already. So obviously I’m apprehensive to say that Bungie “figured it out” this time. But Forsaken puts the franchise into a good place, whether its temporary or not. The story lives finally up to the game’s fantastic lore. The lore is finally in the game. Randomization on armor and weapons is back, though just lacking enough depth for my taste -- same goes for the subclass abilities. I have a lot of issues with the way it doles out its loot and the reward system in general but it is undoubtedly the best it has been amongst their first dozen attempts across the past few years. And some of my favorite moments in gaming this year took place within Forsaken. Conquering the secret mini-raid, seeing how the Dreaming City unfolded each week, figuring out Gambit, the list goes on. I hope that Forsaken is the beginning of Destiny finally living up to its potential. It could be something really special and this felt like a strong step forward. Hopefully in the future, Bungie can avoid taking two steps back.

10. Dead Cells

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Dead Cells finally came out of early-access this year! I’m pretty sure it was actually the first early-access game I bought into. I also think I put more hours into it while it was in early access, but it would be a crime not to include it this year. What’s funny though, is that I think I actually prefer an earlier version of it when it had different progression systems. Not that it turned out bad, its just in some ways a different product than the one I initially purchased. Even though I don’t love every change that was made over the course of its early-access period, it was a relatively short turn around into a final product and the amount of content they consistently added is commendable. Also, I want to present it with the award for best game feel of the year. Several years maybe. The controls are so, so tight. More than anything else, it was that feel that kept me coming back over and over for one more run. It can be extremely challenging too, but rarely frustrating, because those controls are just so good. And when you do die and start over from the beginning, you always feel like you made a little bit of progress because of the way you can permanently progress your items and character. It's not necessarily new to the rogue-like genre, but the way its done is really smart. Dead Cells probably the most old school fun I had in a video game this year.

9. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

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I didn’t expect to spend more than a couple hours with this game, as is usually the case for me when it comes to fighting games. But the single player content in Ultimate is so good! The World of Light campaign is a silly trip down a Nintendo-themed memory lane, squaring you up against “close-enough” analogues to obscure characters throughout their history. It's addicting, fast-paced and the small strategy element that comes from the hundreds of different equip-able spirits is a great addition. I likely will only ever play this game with friends a few times in my life, but I can see myself coming back for the story and classic modes for years to come. On top of all that, the game feels great and the amount of content that comes from the huge list of characters, stages and music is staggering. It really is the ultimate version of the Super Smash Brothers franchise and I’m looking forward to playing a lot more in 2019.

8. Kingdom Come: Deliverance

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I had been following this game fairly closely during its development, ever since the initial kickstarter announcement a few years ago. The relatively small team behind it did an incredible job crafting such a believable medieval world. It helps too, that it was based on real places and events that existed during that time period. Seeing some comparisons of the in-game cities and landscapes to their real-world counterparts was jaw dropping. I think this is also the closest any other studio has come to making an Elder Scrolls-like game. The world feels so alive. After the first hour of the game, (which has one of the best story openings in recent memory) I knew it was something special. It takes its time getting started, but is done so with purpose, focusing on gently dipping you into its world and mechanics through excellent writing and believable, immersive moments. Its a game just as much about picking flowers and taking a date for a walk through the countryside, as it is about the harsh brutality of warfare. Neither the story nor the mechanics pull their punches and it shows that this was a game made with a huge amount of passion for the subject matter. As for the gameplay, unlike the Elder Scrolls games, the melee aspect of the combat is refreshingly unique and deep, even if I never quite figured it out or got good at it. The survival mechanics are not overbearing and I felt more concerned about keeping my armor presentably shiny than I ever did about my hunger. The writing is also great, along with the voice acting and motion capture. Coming from such a small team with a crowdfunded budget, I was blown away with the production values. It can still be rough around the edges, but with a few minor mods and tweaks all of those were rounded off for me. Its another one I'm looking forward to going back to next year.

7. Forza Horizon 4

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The Forza Horizon series continues to be a beacon of joy in these dark times of 2018. When the right song comes on the radio while you’re barreling across the English countryside in your favorite car (unless its Toyota) it all ties together into an almost meditative experience. Every part of it is gorgeous, from the cars to the world, even the UI. The rotating seasons in Horizon 4 add an extra depth to the world too, where each week you can come back to a different season to take on different challenges and events. Some of the most fun I had was the multiplayer events. Almost like a public event or a world boss, these events would spawn every hour or so and everyone driving around in the world would gather together to take on a series of challenges. With everyone showing off their custom paint jobs and car horns and then driving off into the sunset together to complete a challenge, I felt more of a sense of community in this game than any other this year. In a year full of long games, Horizon 4 lasts as long as you want it to, but I felt compelled to keep playing just because it feels great to drive around in.

6. Hitman 2

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What a game. Without a doubt, Hitman 2 contains one of the best packages of individual levels in a game, ever. And then you combine them with all of Hitman 1’s excellent levels, it's just an amazing collection. 2016’s Hitman took a while to grow on me. I am a huge fan of Hitman: Blood Money and I stood my ground thinking that no future Hitman could ever top it. Eventually I relented, once all of the seasonal mission releases were released and I could stand back and see just how great of a job they did capturing the spirit of the old Hitman games. IOI did an amazing job filling out those levels and refined their ideas into what made the Hitman series fun in the first place; which was replaying levels over and over with different strategies. Hitman 2 doubles down on that ideology with its “Mission Stories”, which are renamed and expanded upon from the “Opportunities” of the previous entry. Every. Single. One. Of Hitman 2’s mission stories that I have played are fantastic. All of them are so creative and hilarious and satisfying. Enough so, that I feel compelled to see all of them through eventually.

5. Monster Hunter World

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I want every game to be like Monster Hunter World. Okay, maybe without the terrible multiplayer system. Or the terrible story. Or the labored preparation you have to do before every mission. But man, if more RPG’s had the crafting and progression and scale of this game I would be so happy. The sense of power and growth you feel when going back to quickly dice up a monster for materials that used to take you an hour and all your healing items is so, so good. It sounds so edgy but the game is somehow extremely goofy and lighthearted. The way the character animates, and the chef cats and the over the top armor; it doesn’t take itself seriously at all, in a really fun way. I’m so happy that Capcom finally figured out how to bring this franchise over here in a palatable way, and I can't wait to see how this take on the monster hunting evolves into the future.

4. Red Dead Redemption 2

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The most impressive video game ever made. In a lot of ways, this is the game I always wanted. But maybe that meant it wasn’t always going to be a great game? As in, it doesn't always find the fun. But that might be okay, because ultimately it went for something much closer to a simulation of the wild west, rather than a video game version of it. And I doubt the wild west was ever much fun for those who lived it. If only they went all the way with those ideas though, because unfortunately the mission design feels so antithesis to the rest of its design philosophies. Squeezing the story out of those though, presents a narrative that is for the most part, a remarkable achievement for storytelling in games -- save for pointless detour that was chapter 5. Thankfully the game’s two fantastic epilogues made up for that sudden downturn, though. And Arthur Morgan as a character, wasn’t just impressively complex for a Rockstar character, but for a character in fiction in general. I spent a month of my life coming home from work and stepping into the wild west for a few hours as a different person. Nothing else in the medium has come close to immersing me so convincingly to the point where I became that character, I became a part of that world.

3. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

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It is so bizarre to me that Ubisoft made this years best RPG. I was lukewarm on Origins so I didn’t expect much from its follow up, but put simply, Odyssey improves on it in every single way. I was blown away. The dialogue choices add so much to the formula. It also helps that Kassandra is the best videogame character I’ve seen in years, and her voice actress just happened to carry the best writing the series has ever had. They were clearly aiming for a Witcher 3-like experience and in my opinion they nailed it and surpassed it. Every side-quest is bespoke and well written and many of those effect the main story in seriously meaningful ways. Some of the impacts your choices make on the story and world are the most dramatic I have ever seen in a game. I am sixty hours in at this point and will probably end up putting in double that before I’m done. What's amazing though, is that it continues to surprise and impress. Forty-ish hours in it threw a story curveball at me that added an entirely new layer to the story and I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.

2. God of War

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God of War is the one of the most perfectly paced games I have ever played. After reaching a certain point in the story where things start to open up, it just goes. Nothing could stop the Kratos train. The set pieces and story moments are woven together so tightly with its “wide-linear” world design that the whole package just seemed so effortless and seamless, despite its length. It amazes me that a game with its scale remained so focused and cohesive. The gameplay and combat flow are sublime and throwing that axe will never get old. And the story is my favorite from this year too, and that's coming from somebody with no real nostalgia for the series. God of War is an experience. I can’t remember finishing a game and being so immediately excited for the inevitable sequel.

1. The Myst Series

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It wouldn’t make much sense for me to make a game of the year list in 2018 and not have the Myst series take the top spot. These games completely took over my life this past summer, driving me to fill up notebooks of mad scribblings and puzzle sketchings. As a teacher with nearly three months of summer vacation, I always find myself searching for a game to fill that empty void. I honestly expected to lose myself inside something enormous like an MMO, or something endlessly replayable like the incredible Rainbow Six: Siege. But sometime in early June when I was scrolling through my steam library looking for that something, I landed upon my untouched copy of RealMyst. I did so only out of a sudden sense of responsibility, as 2016’s The Witness had very quickly become my favorite video game of all time. I felt that I should probably go back and take a look at the place where it all started.

I’m not sure I could ever put a finger on just what hooked me so deeply; whether it was the atmosphere, the sense of mystery, the timeless puzzle design, the great soundtrack, or the charmingly complex story and lore of that world. But whatever it is, clearly these type of games just do something for me. Seriously, somebody please build a puzzle island that I can live on!

After blowing through the original Myst in just a few hours, I quickly grabbed up all the other games in the series, including the MMO (I know right? There was a Myst MMO published Ubisoft!) and I spent the next three months obsessively exploring Cyan’s wonderfully crafted Ages. Now, I will say that the quality does wain somewhat as the main series goes on, and full disclosure, I have not gotten around to Myst V yet. But what. a. summer.

Riven: The Sequel to Myst
Riven: The Sequel to Myst

Riven: The Sequel to Myst is the best of the bunch. Myst’s sequel (incase you were confused), perfected the formula early on. It deepens the story and lore, trusts the player with even larger hair-pullingly intricate puzzles and presents it all inside of a far stranger and more alien world than the original. Its art direction is some of the best I have ever seen. The pre-rendered backgrounds still look great today, if you can squint through their admittedly low resolution. It is courageously odd, sticking firmly to its world’s own bizarre rules, reminding me most of games like Morrowind or the Amanita games. That commitment pushes Riven beyond its dated click-to-move, slideshow presentation, and turns it into something truly immersive and timeless.

Myst 3 and 4 are great, but the puzzles and worlds don’t ever become quite as cohesive as the second entry. They also aim for a more cinematic style, with lots of FMV sequences with charmingly terrible acting. I’m actually surprised it never amounted to a television series or a movie, with the massive popularity of Myst at the time. Despite never playing the series back then, I couldn't help but feel hugged by delightfully warm nostalgia for their earnest cheesiness.

Uru: Ages Beyond Myst
Uru: Ages Beyond Myst

Uru: Ages Beyond Myst was Cyan’s tumultuous attempt at creating an MMO set within the Myst universe. From what I know, the series had previously gone through a number of rough patches, with game cancellations, publisher troubles and poor sequel sales. Uru’s development was burdened heavily by all of those factors. And honestly, the idea of a puzzle island MMO just sounded impossible to me.

Despite all of that...it's amazing. It brings all of the worlds together into a connected hub, full of loving detail, which strengthens everything's sense of place. I found myself reading one of the in-world books for hours one day, which is something I don’t even do in the Elder Scrolls games that I love. Each “Age” is more open than before, the puzzles are brilliant, and the the art style returns to the trademark weirdness of Riven. In the years since Uru’s release, its been made playable solo (which is how I experienced it) but I imagine playing with others would work similarly to today’s ARG’s, with a community all working collaboratively to find puzzle solutions. Cyan actually still supports a very small community of dedicated players that continue to live in that world. I’m looking forward to checking that version out someday, maybe after I finish Myst V and Obduction.

I love these games. I love the worlds, and the puzzles, and the stories, and the lore, and the music, and the terrible acting. The Myst series remains a cozy blanket for people that like these types of games. They are completely timeless (if you can get them to run on modern systems, but GOG recently did a great job of repackaging them for that) And if you never played the Myst games back then, like me, and love games like The Witness, Talos Principle, The Room, Antichamber or Fez I can’t recommend them enough.

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And thats it! Looking forward to next year which already has some great stuff coming in the first few months that I am looking forward to, like Anthem and The Division 2. Shaping up to be the year of the looter-shooter?

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Persona 5 Pulls its Punches

I’m going to preface this by saying that I played about halfway through Persona 4, with about 50 hours, and at the time of writing this I am currently about 25 hours into Persona 5. And I'm honestly enjoying it a lot. Its endlessly charming and stylish and I really like the cast of characters so far. The artstyle is flashy and bombastic but manages never to be intrusive or confusing. It’s dungeon-crawling and strategic turn-based battles are better than they’ve ever been. The small improvements made over Persona 4's combat system definitely go along way here. Single button presses now easily fulfill an action that previously had you scratching your head, six layers deep in a menu. It’s a really rewarding, fast paced battle system that keeps the long dungeons moving along nicely. The dungeons or “palaces” themselves have newfound verticality, puzzles and cover mechanics, that add a lot to the experience and avoids falling into the mundanity of Persona 4's endless hallways and doors.

Gotta find that shitty adult!
Gotta find that shitty adult!

I admire a lot about the Persona series: the complicated themes that it always tries to navigate and having you balance a student’s social life with a job, school and mystery solving. It’s a unique thing. There aren't a lot of other games that I can think of, that give you the opportunity to form the kind of social connections that Persona lets you create with its characters, either. These games average over 100 hours of playtime, so you're given more than enough time with the characters that surround you to get to know them. Some more than others though, as Persona 5 also moves those hundred hours along at a brisk pace, forcing you to constantly choose how you want to spend your precious free time. By choosing to spend time with one character, you may be losing out on forming a connection with another. Deciding to go to the movies instead of studying for upcoming exams can leave you under-equipped for future quests or character moments. This barrage of constant choice making can be actually be stressful as hell. It's also oddly kind of antithesis to the spinning loading icon always telling you to "Take Your Time". But in my 20 hours with Persona 5, I’ve actually found that a lot of it's design choices actively fight against its narrative intentions.

Persona 5’s relentless pace doesn't give you time to reflect on the complicated social issues it places on you. I’m pretty sure they're meant to provoke prolonged self-reflection in the player. But instead, seconds later it will tell you exactly how to feel, by making you choose between two or three dialogue options that mean the exact same thing. So I choose either “yes” or “yeah” or “I guess” and brace to be punched in the face with why the “shitty adults” are being so selfish. There is zero interpretation here, as it has very little respect for the intelligence of it’s audience. These games are about 75% X-ing through dialogue and making minor choices on how to reply. But its on-the-nose writing can often times come off as unnatural in conversations and feels immature in its context a lot of the time - which can be kind of abrasive considering this is an M-rated game already dealing with difficult subjects like bullying, shame, harassment and suicide. The weirdest part, is that all of these social and cultural and political issues it brings up are all solved away through essentially magic, giving no real insight on how to actually deal with them, making it all seem kind of trivial. And because of that, it feels like Persona 5 really doesn’t have much to say, beyond 'bad should be good'.

I can ignore some of this, to an extent, because I think a large amount of it can be attributed to an ocean of difference in Japanese culture - it being the game’s primary target audience. As well as the sheer cliffside of translation work that was conquered by the localization team. The style of writing found in anime is very similar to the kind of stuff found in Persona 5. It’s usually pretty idiot proof in its story delivery. Western writing tends toward 'show don't tell', while Japanese prefer melodrama and stylized theatrics - it’s not exactly subtle. And Persona is no doubt a Japanese creation. Japan simply has a different sense of drama than we do which is something I try to keep in mind when I play Japanese games or watch the occasional anime, but I do admit it can be pretty grating.

What a shitty adult.
What a shitty adult.

There also aren’t many games that are attempting the huge amount of character dialogue that Persona has, but in the almost 10 years that have passed since Persona 4’s release in 2008, games like The Witcher 3, Mass Effect 2, Spec Ops: The Line, The Last of Us and even this year’s Nier: Automata, have set new and higher expectations for players with the way they deal with human relationships, emotional drama and socio-political issues. Not every game needs to elevate the medium but for a series of games that's main focus is on it’s characters and written dialogue, there are higher standards to work by.

And I honestly don’t think it's all terrible. In fact, like I said before, I really like a lot of the characters and appreciate the kinds of themes they are taking head on, but sometimes the levity that certain characters bring to scenes feels misplaced. Especially when they tick off the anime checklist for having a talking cat. While Persona 5 initially feels like it has the potential and drive to dive deep into its concepts, it ultimately chooses to wear its water-wings in the deep end.

You must be one of those
You must be one of those "shitty adults" weve been looking for!

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Ghosthouse's Game of the Year 2016 Awards

Game of the Year 2016

2016 was a hell of a year. In all meanings. Fortunately, 2016 was a hell of a good year for games. Possibly one of the best years ever in that department. I probably played more games this year than ever before and enjoyed almost all of them, making this list extremely difficult to narrow down. There were so many great, standout games this year and that's why I needed honorable mentions. They each deserve recognition but among a year of greats, painfully fall just short of my top 10 games of the year.

But first...

Best Old Game of 2016
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Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition

Technically a 2016 rerelease, I know. Ori and the Blind Forest may have taken the top spot in the "metroidvania" genre for me. I sadly missed out on this game last year and almost skipped on it this year if it wasn't for my cousin gifting it to me over the holidays.

What struck me first was the soundtrack. Its incredible. It matches perfectly with the beautiful hand-painted art of the environments, which are busy and dense with movement and enemies but manage to remain clear enough to be able navigate your surroundings with confidence. And navigating them feels so good. The controls are responsive and smartly designed, slowing building your loadout of abilities as the game goes on, allowing you to master the challenging platforming at an enjoyable pace.

Its just an amazing package with polish you don't see very often out of a company's first title. I can't wait to see what Moon Studios does next.

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Runner up: Dragons Dogma: Dark Arisen

A great and unexpected PC port of the 2012 last generation action-rpg. The game's impeccable combat feels better than ever thanks to the vastly improved framerate. Criminally underrated.

Honorable Mentions
5. Recore
4. Dark Souls 3
3. Firewatch
2. Gears of War 4
1. Watch Dogs 2
The Top 10

10. DOOM

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They modernized DOOM. Doom was always fast but the big difference is that DOOM 2016 takes it vertical. Mantling, double jumping and running at 90 MPH all while turning demons into bloody chunks with an arsenal fit for a small military is just awesome. This game is the most metal game ever made, even without the killer soundtrack. The level design is top notch as well, looping back on itself in clever ways to eliminate back-tracking and always introducing new twists on the demon slaying arenas.

The story is simple enough, "Demonic Invasion in Progress". It's well told and so over the top and self-aware that you end up feeling contagious glee, knowing the doom slayer is having so much fun doing what he truly loves: killing demons.

Admittedly it took me a long time to finish this game because I felt it dragged on too long in contrast with the fast pace of the gameplay. The two just didn't match up that well. That said, it makes it into the top 10 because every second of it is intense and fun and brutal and gory. It's DOOM.

9. Uncharted 4

"How can a game look this good?"

I played through all four main Uncharted games in a row for the first time this December. It was fascinating to watch Naughty Dog's ability grow and mature throughout the series. It's easy to see how their approach to story telling changed and evolved over the years. Uncharted 4 is undoubtedly the culmination of all their prior working knowledge and a high mark for the franchise.

Uncharted 4 takes character building notes from The Last of Us and applies them to a genre that really hasn't seen this kind of mature storytelling. Don't get me wrong, its still a silly and fun Indiana Jones-like adventure around the globe, but the writing and characters are an a whole other level compared to almost anything else in games. The facial animations and animations in general are what take it all the way home. Only L.A. Noire comes close in my opinion.

The climbing is improved (having direct control of your hands) and the puzzles are more involved and challenging, but I found the gunplay to actually be a step back from the previous titles, especially coming right off of the remastered Uncharted collection. According to the statistics menu my accuracy was almost 40 percentage points lower in 4 than the rest. The hand-to-hand combat is in that same boat. The rope swinging drop attacks and fluid animations are flashy but unpredictable. Uncharted 3 perfected it with a simple hit and counter combo, with a real feeling of weight behind the punches. The lack of a real counter button and having to awkwardly somersault away from people punching at you is just plain goofy.

It's still Uncharted though. For better or worse. The set pieces and environments are absolutely jaw-dropping at times. The graphics in general are some of the best I've ever seen. The lighting quality and object density they manage to acheive in some scenes on the PS4 hardware is simply amazing. Naughty Dog used its hardware witchcraft once again. We've followed Nathan Drake for almost a decade and he now approaches the point in his life where he's 'getting out of the game'. It feels about time that we should put it to rest too. A masterful ending to a masterful franchise.

8. Quantum Break

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I played Quantum Break differently than most people. I kind of roleplayed throughout the game, only using a pistol and never taking cover - relying on my time-bending powers and 9mm bullets to help me survive. It just felt weird to me seeing this mostly normal guy try to wield an assault rifle and murder these people in cold blood. He was more of a cop than a solider. A time-cop.

While the show was poorly done and sort of cheap-looking, the story in the actual game was engrossing. The characters were all memorable and believable and the time-traveling, timey-wimey, butterfly-effect stuff was done to great effect.

Like every other Remedy title, the controls are tight. Their trademark twist on typical third-person gunplay is fun to use and made me feel suitably heroic in chaotic situations. Visually, it looks incredible, turning an otherwise boring modern day setting into something weird and interesting when time literally starts to break down around you. It's visual style is fittingly cinematic and manages to look like nothing else out there. Quantum Break stuck in my brain throughout the year and I retain the hope to get to see more from the franchise in the future, however unlikely.

7. The Last Guardian

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Trico is the most believable and realistic video game character ever made. That's honestly what makes the game work. The relationship you naturally develop over the course of the game mostly makes up for the somewhat cumbersome controls, especially the abhorrent camera, but those do issues sadly keep it from achieving true greatness.

I adore the environments and the puzzle designs. Everything seems grounded and natural and solutions to the puzzles make real world sense which is something I always appreciate. And for a game studio that built their prowess on a game that involves literal hand-holding, this game has almost none. Great game design shouldn't way-points to tell the player what to do or where to go and The Last Guardian is a shining example.

6. Ratchet and Clank

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I felt nostalgic joy playing Ratchet and Clank this year. Not for the franchise, of which I've never played before, but for the time period of games that it came out of. Games were simpler then. You jump and swing from platform to platform and you shoot the enemies. The multitude of weapons you get are varied and fun in their own way, providing lots of choice in how you approach a given situation.

Its gorgeous as well. It comes close to Pixar level fidelity at times which can be breath taking to marvel at and manages to keep a very solid framerate even through excessively chaotic, particle filled action. There are more levels than I expected but it doesn't overstay its welcome. They're also each lengthy and well designed, with areas locked behind weapon-availability not unlike Metroid. It works well, encouraging return visits to explore and enough variety to return to planets multiple times in the story without it becoming rote.

I almost never replay games. Ratchet and Clank somehow held my attention for two back to back full playthroughs and I still have an appetite for more. I had never played a R&C game before this one, but I now consider myself a big fan and hope to see more Ratchet and Clank from Insomniac in the future.

5. Titanfall 2

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Titanfall 2 feels so damn good to play. Within the first five minutes of the tutorial I caught myself grinning like an idiot. The movement and gunplay just flow together beautifully and comes the closest to reaching the game design end goal of a control system feeling like a natural extension of the physical player.

The single player campaign feels like a "best of" gallery of awesome things you can do in video games. Each level has it's own unique gameplay twist that makes it feel fresh and bombastically exciting the entire time. These varied missions do feel like they were created in service of fun gameplay rather then meshing with their pretty decent sci-fi story, which is honestly fine, because it doesn't necessarily get in the way, its just clearly not the priority. The nicest thing I can say about it is what a lot of other people are saying about it: it reminded me of Half Life 2. Hey Valve! Maybe let Respawn take a shot at Half-Life 3 if you're too busy swimming in money. I'd let them.

The multiplayer is just as good. It feels great and the weapons are for the most part balanced to be equally effective in any situation. I would say that the multiplayer maps leave something to be desired, however. They're not bad, but Titanfall 1's maps were much more interesting and memorable. There are a few new takes on the loadout and level up systems that work well and I could even see Call of Duty taking some notes for the future. The merit system replaces typical class and weapon XP and works by rewarding you a merit for things like overall match performance, ranking up with certain weapons and ranking up a titan, etc. Once you reach 10 merits you level up and unlock new abilities and skins for your pilot. Its simple and it helps retain the player-base who, like me, get put off by seeing the experience bar get further and further out of reach the higher you get.

4. Inside

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Inside makes Limbo seem like a tech demo. And I LOVE Limbo. Everything about the design was respectively refined, expanded upon and polished to a shine. Even the look is reminiscent of Limbo, with its strong contrast and lighting. Color is important here though, its sporadic use creates the context for it to be used powerfully.

Inside holds many mysteries, most of which are never fully resolved, perhaps even raising more questions than answers. It stuck with me for months because of this. The ending in particular, which I won't spoil here, is so bizarre and wonderful and only promotes more whispered questioning among players who experienced it. The puzzles and platforming are simple and work well to move the game along, though, interestingly, you're never quite sure whether you're running away from something or towards an end goal. The boy's apparent will to survive is all I needed. I wanted to help in any way I could, to help him escape, or get home, or break into a twisted scientific laboratory.

Inside is an experience and I can't recommend it enough.

3. Stardew Valley

Too real.
Too real.

Stardew Valley became my second home for a few weeks this year. I was obsessed. The "five more minutes" addiction I felt was unshakable, even playing into the early morning. Its a wonderful place, Stardew Valley, it exudes happiness and humor and is overflowing with heart. The passion put into this game by its lone designer, ConcernedApe, is felt in every aspect. The music, the art style and daily gameplay loop are all exceptional.

I love waking up every morning in Stardew Valley and deciding what to do with the day. Is it raining? Cool, don't have to water my plants. Better go to the mines. Sunny? Gotta fill the bucket and water the crops before I head down to the beach for a day full of fishing. Time moves when you do in Stardew Valley and you are pushed to do as much as you can before the sun sets on the town. Though that time limit is always there, it never feels oppressive because of the relaxed nature of the game.

Its baffling to me that this game was all made by a single person, because its all made so well. I couldn't single out a single aspect that sinks below another. It's cohesive singular vision helped it feel like one of the most complete packages of the year.

Stardew Valley was the best vacation I took this year and I can't wait to go back soon.

2. Overwatch

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Blizzard did it again. They took a well trodden genre and figured how to make it feel fresh, approachable and polished. The 20+ heroes all manage to feel balanced while retaining their own competitive strengths which is so hard to do. And most importantly they're all fun to play. I went into the game after playing the beta, thinking I would to play and practice until I felt comfortable playing one hero from each class. I wanted to feel useful in any given situation. But what I discovered was that I wanted to play every hero.

The best thing that Overwatch does is reward the player. I'm not a competitive person - but Overwatch makes you feel so good after every match that you can't help but try your best in every game. By only showing you the cool things you did, you feel compelled to put in your all at the chance of getting featured in the play of the game or in the end of match accolades. But its all based in pure positivity. The play of the game feature alone is a technical marvel and genius game design. Its all so brilliant and simple in its ideas, its amazing how no other competitive game has done the same.

I'm super excited for the future of Overwatch, because as incredible as it is in its current state, there is still so much room to grow. The monthly events have shown that the devs are capable of expanding it into almost any genre and I can't wait to see what they do next.

1. The Witness

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Playing through The Witness was an almost spiritual experience for me. All of the stuff that many people just glanced over or totally ignored in the game like the audio logs and unlockable videos in the theater, really, really clicked with me. That, and the unmatched attention to detail to the puzzle and architectural design create something truly profound. From my experience, The Witness is a game about truth-seeking, the desire to learn and how that feeds into the joy of discovery and epiphany. Early on, people had described the game as a “walking-simulator” about exploring an island and bashing your head against simplistic line puzzles until you did them all. After playing Jonathan Blow’s last game, Braid, and absorbing the following 8 years of deconstruction on its plot, I knew there had to be more to The Witness.

There is, for sure, but it doesn’t necessarily place that stuff in front of you. Though I guess you could argue that it does, masterfully hiding things in plain sight. The rest you have to work for. You have to learn the language of the island. I played through the game just as much with a small notebook and pencil as I did with a controller, wracking my brain attempting to decipher each puzzle panel, using all previous knowledge and notes to help solve the next one.

The game is almost completely open ended, you are free to explore in any direction, right from the get go. The beautiful thing about it, is that it is the individual player that creates a personal linear experience from the knowledge they’ve attained so far. Discovering new areas of the island and coming up against a figurative brick wall, lets you know that you have more to learn. This can be frustrating at first, but stick with it and you slowly collect the all the knowledge you need. The process accelerates as you go and it all builds to unlocking the monumental challenge of the mountain descent and it’s final challenge, testing everything that you have learned and flipping much of it on its head.

There are about 4 puzzles visible in this image alone.
There are about 4 puzzles visible in this image alone.

I was in constant amazement of the meticulously crafted island that it takes place on for the entire 40 or so hours I spent there. Everything was placed with purpose and perfection and that’s totally not hyperbole. Seriously, absolutely everything; every rock, every blade of grass, every brick in the wall, needed to be placed perfectly and purposefully for the game to work as a whole. The island is filled with hundreds and hundreds of puzzles to solve, all of which manage to feel unique despite being founded in a very simple mechanic.

The first time I realized the mystery behind the black obelisks strewn throughout the landscape, I was floored and overjoyed. I had found what the game was hiding the whole time. I knew Jonathan Blow had something up his sleeve. The gameplay window that it suddenly opens wide for the player is the moment that I look back on, even a year later and get goosebumps about. Its brilliant and raises questions about cognitive theory and the infamous “Tetris effect” that I find absolutely fascinating. It simultaneously amazes me and crushes me that it is entirely possible for someone to never even notice them or their meaning.

For whatever reason, I link a lot of memories and emotions to the aesthetics and architecture of a setting. It’s kind of an indescribable sixth-sense sort of feeling. The “feng-shui” if you will. There’s a simplicity in The Witness’s art design and mid-century postmodern and brutalist architecture that just speaks to me on a personal level more than any other game. Blow even hired two architectural firms to establish the unique yet cohesive look of each section of the island.

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Much like last year’s Life is Strange, The Witness feels like a game made for me. It’s got challenging puzzles, deep mysteries and open world exploration. Sprinkle in some postmodernism, buddhist philosophy and existential pondering and you’ve got my full attention. There’s so much I can say about The Witness and what it means to me. It is also worth noting, though, that there is also a lot to be said about pretentiousness in Jonathan Blow’s games. The Witness can certainly walk a fine line, even including an audio log found in the game of two artists discussing whether or not their work will be construed as being pretentious. Just including that in the game acknowledges the idea that maybe we should be less afraid to recognize genius, even if it’s our own.

This game can make you feel like a genius at times when you solve the puzzles. Its an indescribable experience, to realize your own puzzling prowess finally pay off after sometimes hours of squinting at a puzzle board. I even somehow actually solved a puzzle in my sleep. That's not a metaphor for its difficulty, I literally realized the solution to a puzzle that had been kept just out of reach that day, while I was sleeping. Its all by design. You are meant to be consumed by the island's mysteries and deceptively simplistic puzzles. Intellectual enlightenment has the potential to steer our lives and lift us as a species and we should never discourage it. Following this movement of growing of anti-intellectualism in the world and organized religion's bottomless pocket of scientific ignorance, it becomes even more poignant today.

The Witness is absolutely not for everybody, but it’s for me. It says so much without actually having to say much of anything at all. I want everyone to have those incredible experiences I got when unlocking the game’s many secrets. It’s a masterpiece. And in a year filled with great games, I can comfortably say that The Witness is not only my favorite game of 2016 but my favorite game of all time.

Also, please watch this video - but only if you have played the game! It is an incredible analysis of the various ideologies and themes featured in The Witness and helped me love the game even more.

Most Disappointing

Final Fantasy XV you win!

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This game was so disappointing because while I like so much about the huge and interesting world and the fact that it plays so well, the story and missions are a complete and utter disaster.

Minor Spoilers.

I really don't understand how anyone can defend this game's story. I'm talking about the story that is IN the game. Right now. Not Kingsglaive and not Brotherhood. The only consistent thing about it, is that its constantly trying way too hard to make you feel for the characters or emotional moments that are not even close to paying off. It doesn't earn any of its "payoffs" really. The game itself tells us just enough to understand who these characters are but no where near enough to care about them the things that are happening. A great example is that awkward cut at the end of chapter 2(?) to the Kingsglaive cutscene that was done so haphazardly. And its not the last time they try to do it. I suspect, but hope otherwise, that they will attempt to fix the story by just sprinkling in more scenes from that movie where they seem to fit best.

The three core party members I actually did like, mostly just in their ambient dialogue. But Noctis is mostly silent and stoic throughout the entire game and despite the entire plot revolving around him, he probably has the least amount of actual dialogue. That's including Luna, who is also of apparently huge importance but is in the game for a total of about 5 minutes or less. The game is just riddled with so many literal plot holes where they didn't even bother explaining the random disappearance or sudden changes of several characters who were built up to have future plot relevance (Cor, Iris, Aranea, Ravus etc.). And Gladio leaving in Chapter 8 with absolutely no explanation when he had ONE. JOB. Protect the King. Worst of all, some of the most important plot points are entirely missable, told over the in game radio that you have to manually find and listen to.

*Snaps fingers*
*Snaps fingers* "I've come up with a new recipe!"

Show. Don't tell.

Hell, put Kingsglaive in and make us watch the two hours if the story is so important to understanding anything about the game.

People talk about Chapter 13 being the worst, but for me the 3 minute power plant sequence was so insane, out-of-place and bafflingly stupid that that's where I lost all genuine interest in the story they were trying to force down our throats for the second half of the game. And when it came down to the end after more lengthy quick time events, it was so obviously reaching for peoples emotions, that it all just felt so forced and undeserved.

Maybe I held the genre to too high a standard and maybe Square Enix will fix the story through patches. I do think its possible. And to be clear, I like the gameplay and world of the game a whole lot and I am looking forward to digging more into the endgame content, but the story on the disc is just indefensible and not just to modern RPG standards.

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Runner up: Nintendo.

Come on guys you had almost nothing notable this year. The Switch lineup better knock it out of the park next year.

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Game of the Year 2015

10. Undertale

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This is a game that should be played so I will keep it brief. In this game I dated a Skeleton. I lied on the floor for 10 minutes with a ghost. I bested a robot on a trivia game show. It is a game that sticks with you long after its over. Wait. Is it over?

9. Guitar Hero Live

This is the best Guitar Hero game ever made. I feel pretty confident about saying that. Guitar Hero Live is refined to purity. No frills, no nonsense, plastic guitar playing goodness. The FMV stuff is impressive and adds a fun twist on playing in front of a crowd by well, putting you in front of a real crowd. The dynamic reactions from said crowd and your band mates to your playing is really cool and a nice touch.

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It just seems like there was some real effort put into this project when it could have easily just been another run of the mill guitar hero sequel, built scrappily to rake in cash of nostalgic fans on a new generation of consoles. Its fresh, challenging and feature-filled compared to the monotony of Rock Band 4.

The LIVE mode is the best addition of them all however. A 24/7 stream of songs on two parallel channels that bring you endless Guitar Hero. It is slick and addicting, the way each music video flows into the next, like the days of old MTV. Did I mention the background of this mode is entirely official music videos? Brilliant. No longer are music rhythm games a bore for everyone else in the room to watch from the couch.

8. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

A truly impressive and ambitious game. Some of the best and most engaging writing I have ever seen in a game. Featuring a staggeringly beautiful and dense fantasy world that begs to be explored with an almost overwhelming amount of things to see and do. But the relentlessly dour atmosphere weighed on me after a while. I found myself only able to play in small bursts despite the game's mammoth amount of content. There was rarely any emotional variation in my time the Northern Lands to keep me engaged.

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It has glimpses of true greatness but is unfortunately held back by nasty bugs, repetitive NPC's, occasionally clumsy combat and some poor animation. Its unfortunate too, because these issues stand only stand out because of the huge potential this game holds to be one of the all time greats. However, if I had a story of the year category, this would be it.

7. Batman: Arkham Knight

Batman: Arkham Knight has gotten a pretty bad rap this past year, due to a disastrous PC release. It's unfortunate too, because buried underneath the drama is a great game. I played this on Xbox One and loved it. The gameplay is better than ever, but still feels like Batman. The open world feels large and varied, and the side objectives and collectibles are far better than Arkham City's filler. The story is engaging and loyal to the franchise but tapers off slightly by the end.

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6. Fallout 4

It is more Fallout. Both its biggest strength and fault. The shooting is in a whole other league compared to its Bethesda predecessor, which adds a lot to the experience. The world is beautiful and dense in a year where so many other games have worlds that are beautiful and dense. Fallout 4 is a victim of its time, where this would have been a bombshell release in last year's desolate game library. The engine is aging poorly and too many familiar issues from Skyrim and Fallout 3 are still present here.

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Despite its faults it is a Bethesda RPG through and through. And that is great. I hope I always love those as much as I do. The world is still as tangible and living as the others. But a fresh coat of paint every few years can't fix a sinking boat.

5. Super Mario Maker

The game I've wanted since I was 6 is real. This is the best level editor ever made. Sure the actual game part wrapping the product is a bit thin and it is difficult to filter levels, but this game still stands out as something special. I think that would hold. The tools you want are there save for a few wishlist items that will likely be added in the future. You can play it for 5 minutes or 12 hours which is a large part of why Super Mario Maker will be the game that will keep everyone's Wii U plugged in for years to come. Its a game of endless enjoyment and timeless, classic gameplay and creation. Nintendo seems to be devoted to improving the game as well, which is nice to see from them and I am excited to see where it goes.

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4. Xenoblade Chronicles X

Best surprise game of the year for me. A fantastic, strategic combat system makes up for a horrendous story that falls far below its potential(mostly thanks to one of the worst video game characters in history). Despite what the box art depicts, you don't get a mech or "Skell" as they refer to them until after about 30 hours, which is a controversial point, but it was an endlessly enjoyable grind thanks to the fun combat and general ease of movement and is extremely rewarding when you finally get handed the keys.

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The game takes a dramatic turn in gameplay once you receive it. The same world you've been exploring for the past 30 hours, suddenly opens up to you in a whole new way. You are able to jump much higher, skate across water, slay lower enemies with ease and eventually even fly. What makes this great is the dense and interesting world that the developers have created can suddenly be seen from an entirely new perspective. The power fantasy you indulge in when climbing aboard your 30 foot Skell for the first time, after running on foot for so long is just simply incredible.

3. Splatoon

The best new franchise from Nintendo in probably decades. This is personally the best "shooter" to come out in years. It has been a very long time since an online shooter has held my attention after a few hours. The motion controls actually feel better than traditional control styles which is baffling but welcome. It feels precise and natural after a brief period of getting used to them. Swimming around in your own paint is fast and fluid (no pun intended) and just feels great. Splattering enemy squids is almost as satisfying as splattering the arena itself.

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There is something almost therapeutic about splashing paint about, to try and cover every inch of the map in neon goo. The "weapons" you unlock to get that done are all fun to use, very unique and there are TONS of them. Every level you unlock several new ones to try out against your squid enemies each with their own combination of perks. Each class of weapon and each perk is a smart balance between stopping power and painting ability which lets you decide exact the way you want to play. It makes the multiplayer rewarding and addicting.

The single player mode consists of short levels where the goal is to either paint your way to the end or defeat a Mario Galaxy-esque end boss. Its great. Levels are well designed, and the progression is enjoyable but its not the mode to write home about. The multiplayer is really where its at. Splatoon is a very liquid solid package, and I can't wait for more from this new franchise.

2. Life Is Strange

When I first saw this game I thought it seemed like something that was just made for me. I'm a sucker for anything time-travel. I love indie dramas and mumblecore. And in many ways this is how I always wanted the Telltale adventure games to be. It feels polished and whole as apposed to the inherent loose seams of Telltale's work. The art style is refined and purposeful, where Telltale games feel old, lifeless and reused. But it is unfair to compare Life is Strange to anything else. Because it is brilliantly unique, powerful and important to the game industry all on its own.

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1. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Quite literally a masterpiece. Kojima's best work to date.

Let me be clear though, I have never liked the Metal Gear Solid franchise. I have appreciated them from a distance for their weirdness but that's about it. I think the overall story is garbage. It's convoluted, messy and infuriating to follow. Anyone who defends the series' storytelling is insane and shouldn't be trusted(Dan). MGSV has a story, sure, but what sets it apart is the way it lets the player tell their own stories within its open ended structure. With a mostly silent protagonist its easy to just roleplay Big Boss and tell your own story to make up for its decidedly forgettable one.

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"Emergent gameplay" is something that is thrown around a lot in the industry but MGSV I think is the first to fully capture its meaning. Flawless controls lend the player the keys to do anything they want with the tools provided. I found myself constantly testing the limits of what I could do. Drop a truck on a sniper to clear the way? Sure. Attach a balloon to a truck full of soldiers to bring them back to base? You bet. It never ends. After 80 hours the game still introduces new and exciting gameplay changes that make your brain drool with possibility.

Something as ambitious and polished as this rarely ever finds its way out of someone's brain and into the world. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the best game of the year without a doubt.

Honorable Mentions
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Mad Max

Avalanche managed to create a beautiful and dense open world out of a barren apocalyptic wasteland. I didn't care much for the story but the fun combat, driving and collecting kept me interested for hours on end. Ended up enjoying it far more than the studio's other big release this year, Just Cause 3.

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Halo 5: Guardians

The shooting part of Halo has never been better. And that is what usually matters most in FPS's, but the Halo series separates itself from the rest by interweaving deep lore and interesting storytelling, despite a decidedly stoic main character. Unfortunately 343 still has not found the secret formula of gameplay and storytelling that Bungie once held. I will say, it is slightly more coherent than Halo 4, however. There are audio logs, strewn throughout the campaign, but they are brief and add nothing of narrative value. Its unfortunate too, because Halo 5 has great gameplay pacing, level design and shooting mechanics. It takes some interesting risks too, in walk-and-talk missions that attempt to flesh out the story, but they don't make up for an ending that comes close to mirroring Halo 2 in its feeling of emptiness and incompletion. It all feels a little pointless by the time the campaign raps up and you start to realize that the past 5 hours (yes, 5 hours) have basically been a prologue to the inevitable Halo 6.

But hey the multiplayer works this time! And its pretty great! The begged-for changes from Halo 4, like weapons on map and less armor abilities make for a balanced and very enjoyable competitive multiplayer experience. In its current state, it is lacking some classic Halo modes(which will be added over time), but Warzone, Halo 5's flagship new game-type, borrows elements from popular MOBA's and feels right at home in the long Halo's long list of fantastic, unique multiplayer modes. All together, Halo still feels like Halo and with some smart additions and changes, the now 15 year old series feels as fresh and fun as ever.

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Grand Theft Auto V (PC)

It took an Eon, but Rockstar released a fantastic PC port of Grand Theft Auto V. I dumped another 90 hours into this, enjoying every minute causing chaos in Los Santos. GTA Online is still garbage though.

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Cities Skylines

The best city creator and simulator ever made. Deep and yet simple. Steam Workshop support tips Cities Skylines over the edge into greatness.

Old Game of the Year
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Valiant Hearts

I missed out on this one in 2014, but I'm glad Xbox Live's Games with Gold program gave me the opportunity to go back and play it. Ubisoft is very hit or miss with me, even their UbiArt games, which most people love. Valiant Hearts captured me with its attempt to weave in a narrative inspired by true events, while including real letters and historical facts. I felt like I learned a lot about the first great war by the end of it.

The gameplay is simple but enjoyable, mostly involving hunting for specific items throughout the level to let you activate something to move forward. But those items and the many collectibles are hidden well behind clever puzzles that are never frustrating and never too easy. With a great cast of characters, an interesting story and beautiful art from Ubisoft Montpellier, Valiant Hearts was a real treat to finally play.

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