Still playing: The Witness, Uncharted 4, Dark Souls 3, Thumper
Still playing: The Witness, Uncharted 4, Dark Souls 3, Thumper
I can't overstate how much joy Hitman 2016 has brought me over the years. I've been a huge fan since 2002's Silent Assassin, but the series has always been one in which the sky high ambition of a completely open-ended hitman sim had to reckon with the realities of what's possible in a contemporary video game. This meant that, no matter how much I might love past Hitman titles, there's always the caveat that, yes, these are *compromised* experiences. Sometimes the mechanics just don't work like they're supposed to, or they reinforce habits in the player that detract from the design's intent.
This is no longer the case. Hitman 2016 is the first holistic Hitman title. Every element of its design, from the conspiratorial narrative, the inherent absurdity of 47's character design, the fragile nature of the player and the often chaotic spaces the player has to explore all work in concert towards a single goal: the perfect assassination sim.
Unlike rigidly systemic stealth titles like Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid, which rely on mathematical concepts like vision cones and enemy cooldown timers, Hitman captures the *human element* of stealth titles, and in doing so, captures the thrill and risk of the spy game. You aren't planning to sneak through a space so that you remain undiscovered for the exact amount of time you exist in said space - you're planning to eliminate a person with the explicit goal that your presence in a space remains undiscovered *forever*. That means swapping disguises to leave, say, a vial of poison in a trash can so that you can pick it up later, or rigging a piece of equipment to fail at just the right moment, far after you've gone.
It also means that, during said planning, some rando might wander into the bathroom you just knocked out a guard in ruining the whole thing, or a civilian might take a smoke break *just as* you're about to make your move. It can make for frustrating moments, but IO has gamified guards and civilians to such an elegant extent that everyone's behavior is *roughly* able to be predicted, but never so much that the world feels robotic.
On a smaller scale, it's also exciting to play a Hitman game that not only recognizes but really *encourages* repeat play. Hitman fans play the same maps again and again looking for new solutions or challenges, and the level design in Hitman 2016 is perfect for perpetual re-examination.
The very existence of Firewatch - nevermind its quality or creative ambition - is a sobering reminder of where, exactly, video games are at. There are a lot of games on this list, and yet there is exactly one that is about a realistic person, with familiar problems, who grows, falters, and changes throughout the course of a story.
So much of the discourse around Firewatch either marvels at its desire to tell an empathetic, human story, or begrudges it for indulging in genre tropes, especially towards the end. Because of this, every critical response to Firewatch ends up also being a critical response to the quality of storytelling in contemporary video games in total. I sometimes get the sense that certain sects of game critics are unsatisfied by the creative output of the industry, or at least left in anticipation of something, and for a moment in time Firewatch felt like a vessel for these feelings.
It's a big weight to carry, and this baggage does nothing but remove focus from what Firewatch actually achieves. It's not as brave as it could be, it *does* overstep on the resolution to its big mystery, and, yes, anyone could have predicted how the core relationship at the heart of the game would pan out. But none of that matters as much as the space Firewatch gives the player to explore the inner life of Henry - who is lonely, traumatized, paranoid and, sometimes, not a particularly good person. Almost all of us know what it means for life to pan out differently than we'd hoped, yet almost none of us see these feelings reflected in the characters we get to play as.
Henry is imperfect, but he's imperfect in the way that people are imperfect. That alone is a tremendous quality for a protagonist to have in a medium that is often content to spend more time explore much less.
Besides the fact that Superhot is fuckin' SICK as HELL, it's also such a uniquely discordant experience. As the plot of the game continues, the theme of mind vs. self is basically exploded. A game about a young man severing his ties to the real world via his psychological addiction to the internet - that was released in 2016 - was maybe more accidentally prescient than anything, but it sure was unsettling to play by the end.
Mafia 3 features some of the best performances I've ever seen in a video game. It's got style, a somewhat comprehensive 'greatest hits of '60s counter culture' soundtrack, a phenomenal protagonist and a gorgeously realized period setting. Yet, it gives you so little to do with all of that! Mafia 3's open world allows you to do two things: break locks to steal porn, and infiltrate locations to shoot dudes. There are no other actions available to the player.
Making Mafia 3 an out and out Far Cry-style map takeover game would've been good enough, but even in that regard you start to notice that every single gun fight/stealth sequences plays out identically fast. Which is a bummer, because everything else on the periphery fucking rules! When Mafia 3 hits, it hits hard. It's a bold game. I just wish it had more going on.
I feel like Oxenfree has attained its own status as a cult classic at this point, and I think that's great. It's a fun, creepy game with excellent writing. Of all the games on this list, I find myself thinking about Oxenfree more than most.
What an enormous turn after that first game. Literally everything about Watch Dogs 2 on paper sounds like a nightmare, but even it's cast of precocious San Franciscan hacktivists are actually just the fucking best. I loved every minute of this game and would gladly sign on for another. Even the Aiden Pierce cameo wasn't that bad!
I love how this game provides you with so many unique tools to solve a problem. You can 3D print like a hundred guns and play this like a GTA game if you want, but I decided early on that was against the spirit of things. Instead, I used my souped up RC car, drone, and HACKED ROBOTS to get shit did. What a good time. And that soundtrack was great too. Man.
Devil Daggers owns your soul.
I played the entirety of Soda Drinker Pro. All 100 levels.
And then there was the other thing. I'm still fucked up thinking about the other thing.
Not to spoil the big twist, but in Inside......you wanna go somewhere else....they call it.......Outside
I genuinely thought making a Doom game of this quality in 2016 would've been impossible, at least without severely altering what the franchise is about. I love all the mythmaking around Doom Guy, the hidden levels from the first and second games that just straight up have the original 2D assets, I love the, like, *actually* super well done metal soundtrack...but most of all, I love the newfound relevance of the word cacodemon.
A structurally perfect, hard-as-hell, roguelike shoot 'em up which shimmers with personality. It's in the upper echelon of the dominant indie roguelike genre for its design and its flair, but an element of Enter the Gungeon that people don't examine enough is how *funny* it is.
There are precious few games that I think you could classify as 'comedy games,' and Enter the Gungeon is one of them. Nearly every weapon is a bit of some kind, but unlike joke-y weapons in other games, which are generally normal weapons but with goofy sound effects, Enter the Gungeon's arsenal of absurd firearms intertwine the comedy in both presentation and game mechanic. Finding, say, a chicken which fires eggs like bullets locked in a treasure chest is only the *beginning* of the joke. The punchline is in the *using* of the chicken, and how the eggs operate separately from normal rifles. A personal favorite of mine is the gun which is a bullet which fires guns that fire bullets.
I'm not a HUGE fan of the way Virginia intentionally obscures its plot, but there are so many visually arresting sequences that I was left mesmerized for most of its ninety minute runtime. I think it's time we as a culture finally let go of the whole 'but what if it was like...TWIN PEAKS??' thing, but Virginia is, at least, a classy example of the Lynchian send-up. I'm a big fan of games that recreate or provide a perspective on familiar spaces, and if that means I have to digest yet another take on a similar premise, so be it.
I'm not one of the people still playing Overwatch years later, but I'll say the first year of its release felt like a revelation. It's got one of the best casts of characters in a multiplayer shooter *ever*, most matches have a ton of push-and-pull-tension, and it features a variety of ways to play *well*. In the years since, it's become a hyper gatekept space by diehards that makes the COD crowd seem fun-loving by comparison, and I haven't ever been able to jump back in without getting a bunch of bullshit in my DMs. But that first year was exciting.
I like BUD. I will PROTECT BUD.
Titanfall 2 is better than all other military multiplayer shooter by every measure: it's got a plot, a meaningful character arc, meaningful roles for players of all skill levels to play in multiplayer, interesting peripheral mechanics that don't obfuscate or weaken the core COD-style FPS gameplay, and a phenomenal verticality and maneuverability that defines the entire experience.
Still, after all the hype for the campaign, I admit I left this one a little cold. It's a tight 6 hours of memorable set pieces, the game does feel great to play, but it never escalates itself above 'set piece-driven COD shooter' so much so that I start to recall how it felt to run through, say, Half Life 2, or BioShock, or, hell, even Modern Warfare 2 for the first time.
Titanfall 2 just never establishes an iconic sense of space, and its writing floats by in 'Big Budget Action Movie but with Heart' mode, and that's just not enough to take this one into all-time classic for me. It feels to easy and slight - and, probably more damning, most of it is a mono-colored trapeze act through more war-torn, broken spaces. It doesn't have that 'walking through city 17' moment, and your robot mech buddy is no Alyx.
It's hard to imagine a world in which Mankind Divided stumbled through it's 'Aug Lives Matter' stuff any more stupidly than it did, but the promise of an expanded-upon Human Revolution was very much fulfilled. Despite its politically charged central themes, Mankind Divided still somehow feels like it has less to say than it's predecessor, and I felt a great deal less attached to its characters - but Prague made for a richer setting than Detroit, and the expanded-upon sidequests felt like they had a lot more going on than before.
This is a wonderful indie title about waking up after a one night stand with a woman you can't remember meeting who seems to vividly recall meeting you. Played this with my partner, taking turns and making honest decisions about how we'd react in this situation which was fun and...enlightening? Anyway, this game's on every platform imaginable somehow, and I highly recommend giving it a shot if you've got a few bucks to spare.
I will say I'm not a fan of how - how to put this - video game-y it feels. The stakes of getting this person to believe you remember them feel arbitrarily heightened, even considering how awkward a conversation this situation would typically force. If you've taken someone home who's blistering drunk and you're mostly sober - I don't actually think it's on the drunk person to feel weird and shameful after the fact, I guess is what I'm saying. There are some cultural assumptions being made here that the game internalizes which I don't necessarily agree with.
Part of the reason I don't engage with survival sims is that I don't have it in me to engage with like 20+ disparate systems, stamina bars and resources. Too many plates to spin at once. I prefer smaller games like this, where the panic of running out of meds or bullets is still very much a factor, just without those other plates to spin. I'm a 1 to 3 plate kinda guy.
This game has a neat story, too! I feel that pixel-horror games are a bit played at this point, particularly zombie games. The Final Station, however, takes place in a world where people have already figured out how to live in the apocalypse. It's deep enough in the post-post-apocalypse that, like, urban malaise has set in again. It's neat!
Easily one of the best 'this is the run' style phone games I've played in years. It's got a fun, zippy energy and =a sleek, menacing pixel art style. It doesn't have quite enough in the way of hooks to keep you coming back, but the core loop is very much there.
Gears of War 4 is a fresh coat of paint on a car with some high mileage. I enjoyed the trip back through those tight snap to cover corridors, but I can't say I felt the need to return to it too often. It's fun, but to ensure Gears' future as a franchise worth caring about, The Coalition need to blow up series conventions with the next one.
Abzu often gets categorized as 'underwater Journey,' and that's because...they straight up just made Journey but in the ocean. Like, straight down to the 'monomythyian hero of old as told by ancient relics' thing.
Trackmania just never caught on in the console space. Turbo had a great, fresh coat of paint on it and style to spare, but without a real player base it becomes a single player obstacle course navigator - which I would have very much enjoyed, if it had bothered to incorporate the 'you have five minutes to make your best run on this one course' rule set of the multiplayer mode. If you screw up in single player, you have to restart the race, music and all.
(Blood Ties DLC)
Some people have described the Blood Ties DLC for Rise of the Tomb Raider as Lara Croft Gone Home, and they're not wrong! I've been a fan of the franchise since I was like 10, so seeing such a gorgeously realized rendition of the Croft manor did not leave me unmoved. That said, aside from the goofy reference to Lara locking Winston in a freezer, I don't remember a thing about what actually happens in this game. I think it involved Lara having memories...about...her Dad?
As someone who's kinda grown to love this clunky, dorky, confusing, yet ultimately likable series, I find myself shocked and appalled that The Devil's Daughter tries to sex-ify Sherlock Holmes. This was the only contemporary Sherlock series that totally lacked the post-BBC Sherlock miasma every other adaptation is drowning in. Give me back my nerdy, socially awkward aristocrat.
The gameplay is ultimately still there, save for some unintentionally comedic attempts at action film QTEs, but same goes for the plot. I would so much rather spend my time with Sherlock trying to uncover some grand mystery myself than, like, diving deep into Dan Brown-ass Sherlock lore.
Everything about Human: Fall Flat is likable. It's funny, charming, and not without its sharp edges. But, at the end of the day, its still a physics puzzle game. Ahhhh physics games. When will we move past you...
There's something about the pacing of The Turing Test I find funny. The game has a pretty standard 'can I trust this AI' plot, and once human lives are at stake the tension gets pretty high. But it's also a puzzle game - sort of a low energy Portal without the platforming or the enemy turrets. So even when things seem the most dire, you're still pacing around a room carrying boxes and trying to open lever activated doors.
The Westport Independent is VERY much in the style of Papers, Please, but it doesn't quite have that game's subtlety or ingenuity in design.
I hate to say it, but I didn't see the hype for this one. I liked the first Dishonored pretty well, but Dishonored 2 is so driven to empower you regardless of play style that it feels like a stealth game without any stakes. No matter what you do or how you play, the game world will operate exactly as you'd like it to.
I also don't love the caricature-y art. Everyone looks like a political cartoon.
I've played every Remedy game, and Quantum Break is easily the most boring. This is a game with very little going on, and will likely be more interesting as a history curio with its aborted TV show/extremely long form live action cutscenes than a nostalgia piece for anyone who likes third person shooters. Quantum Break's best qualities are that its environments are gorgeously detailed and that the shooting mechanics, while ultimately insubstantial, are solid enough to warrant its playtime.
It's fine, in other words, but many of its underlying components are eyebrow-raising. Why create such dense, finely crafted levels only to set over a third of your game in a series of warehouses? Why create an entire extended universe - an entire mini-season of a fully produced television show - and then only have the player intersect with that extended universe via run-ins with hordes of Max Payne goons? Why eliminate the most interesting character from the story for *most* of the story? Why allow every character to dramatically travel through time to different decades - *except* the player character?
Still have no idea what Nintendo was going for with this one. I think it was intended to be a Tamodotchi Life social network? But there wasn't really much to do...
I like the look of Mirror's Edge, but boy howdy, if this isn't the most YA novel video game ever made. It's extremely by the numbers.
DICE did so little with the open world concept. Why are all these NPCs just chilling on these rooftops for days and weeks? Why do all of them want me to race? Why can't I deliver this important medicine for you in a minute and forty ONE seconds instead of one minute and FORTY seconds? What is this world
I liked Telltale Games, but this season was the most laughable example of inconsequential player choice I've seen from them. They allow you to subvert classic moments from Batman lore in a significant way; you can, for example, create a situation in which two-face remains one-face instead. Yet, none of that even slightly changes the trajectory of the character; One Face still develops a binary complex!!! It is, at best, a wet fart of a plot point, and the entire game hinges on this character's transition to villainy. So why create the illusion of choice at all?
There seem to be more and more of these old-school, faux-prestige live action choose-your-own-adventures coming out lately. I decided to give one a shot with Late Shift, entirely by virtue of its premise - a chauffeur whittling away the hours during a late shift in a garage gets yanked into a high profile jewelry heist. The conceit is closer to 'Melissa McCarthy parody' than Michael Mann-echelon heist cinema yet it's all played totally straight, which only makes the whole thing better. It's sort of fun. Probably more fun with a partner than alone, like I played it, but it's a middling budget TV drama in which you get to screw the whole thing up if you feel like it.
Still, it really is just that - a budget TV drama, lacking any unique cinematic or thematic value to separate it from just about any other budget film. That's fine, but failing to make waves in any direction is probably also the worst thing you could say about one of these live action revivals.
The Shantae games (apparently) toe the line between kid-friendly Saturday morning cartoon visuals and adult sexuality. This in itself is fine within a certain context. However. I live on the first floor of an apartment whose window faces a busy street. My television is easily visible from the window to a *lot* of people. Played this for like an hour and then shamefully had to close my blinds.
This was not a feel good experience! This was very much a feel bad experience. I do not recommend this experience.
It's yet another rogue-like yes, blah blah blah roguelikes, but the loop in this one is pretty fun. It's a sound top-down shooter, too. I think what's missing is a good framing device - it's got a standard issue cyberpunk look, but I can't recall anything about its characters or the megalomaniacal corporate entities you're tasked with battling in this one compared to any other anti-corporate sci-fi title.
The title kind of says it all, really - standard issue sci-fi dystopia, pretty good rogue like mechanics, but nothing that you'll remember years from having played it.
Without question, Final Fantasy 15 is one of the most baffling games I've ever played. Not in terms of its supposed low or high quality, but just...every single element of its design and intent makes it feel like it was directed by a poorly programmed yet competent Twitter bot.
How did this game come out and be 90 hours of a goth-lite boy band making EXTREMELY subpar, EXTREMELY unremarked upon puns in the world's least practical car and NO ONE made one sideways glance at it?
10 Second Ninja is a fun, if slight, game. It has a very loose flash-animation quality to it, but the platforming is remarkably tight.
I love a weird idea like this, but didn't find the difficulty ramp up to be super fun. Ended up dropping out pretty quickly.
North is a surrealist, sci-fi dystopic depiction of immigrating to a new country. The game casts the player as an immigrant from a war-torn yet warm-blooded "South," who is now a stranger in a harsh, unforgiving urban sprawl up "North." Heady themes for a game with a $2 price tag.
There is some elegance to this 'stranger in a strange land' set-up, but mechanical vagaries combined with a slap-you-in-the-face system of narrative delivery threaten to sink the entire project. North's ambition is to simulate the cultural anxiety of being pushed to the fringes of a disconnected society by essentially asking the player to stumble their way into understanding its structure, but it can't do so without anxiously urging the player to 'get it,' both narratively and mechanically.
This is a video game with puzzles, and the puzzles...they're pretty damn video game-y. One brazen collect-athon sees the player hunt down security cameras so they might be 'observed' by the [insert governmental or corporate organization here] enough to become a member of a popular church. Another has the player take a legalization quiz in which the player must happen to speak with the correct, arbitrarily placed NPC (and then leave the area) in order to learn the correct answers.
Which brings me to my big criticism. North (rightfully) doesn't trust the player to solve it's puzzles, so it has a mechanic where, once the player encounters something new, they can walk up to a mailbox and mail a letter to another character. This letter contains both an explicit statement of the problem and the solution to each puzzle.
Besides flatly removing the puzzle element of the game, it also clobbers the game's narrative ambitions to a pulp. For a surrealist game to literally explain it's otherwise imagistic suggestions of reality defeats the purpose. It's the equivalent of Twin Peaks: The Return pausing mid-episode and then having David Lynch on-screen to provide a rap-genius explainer of what you just saw. It just doesn't work.
Xbox exclusives have this tendancy to feel like upgraded PS2 titles. Recore is fairly similar to Jak and Daxter in it's movement and combat mechanics, except it has a wide open world in a flat boring desert with respawning enemies, and doesn't have any cool hover cars or a weird 'if Pixar made a Grand Theft Auto game' aesthetic. I didn't hate it, but it didn't really keep me around for long.
Unravel is the definition of innocuous. It's a sentimental game, but doesn't quite swing for the fences enough to be memorable. The platforming is quite loose. There's not a lot going on, here.
My stance is that The Technomancer is a dork, and all his Technomancer friends are dorks.
There's such an enormous gulf in quality between this game and Bloober team's following title, _Observer, that I almost can't believe _Observer exists. Both games work within the same framework, but Layers of Fear has none of _Observer's intrigue or nuance. I am powerless in the face of this game's nits, and I MUST pick them.
First? For a character who's meant to be an art collector, the main character of this game sure loves about a dozen hyper-popular paintings. Do you like Henry Fusili's The Nightmare? So does this guy! He's copy/pasted it to every room in his mansion! There's the 'itchy. scratchy.' dialogue. The incessant jump scares - over and over this game's violins are shrieking with rage at your progress. The dopey sequences where you're, say, trapped in a kitchen and then the fuckin pots start banging around and apples fall out of a painting. It's all a real slog.
The Division is a testament to the hilarious impossibility of making an apolitical political game. It's a game dense with politics that simply pretends it isn't a game dense with politics. The Division will deliver a campaign speech to you, look you dead in the eye, and then say 'i'm just a game' in front of an American flag-adorned podium.
Use your keyboard!
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