by Matthew Thompson
Hey everyone! I ran a little behind on this, but I finally put together my post looking back at gaming in 2017. My original intent was to do a top five and then some other awards in a separate post, but I couldn’t decide what to pick for my fifth game and I found a way to squeeze the big four games I wanted to touch on in this post (my GotY, my two runners-up and my late to the party GotY of sorts). Well, here it goes!
Never before had a licensed video game soundtrack been so in tune with my own taste in music than that of the original Life is Strange. Songs from bands I loved like Bright Eyes and Syd Matters along with an original score by Matters’ frontman Jonathan Morali made for an incredible musical experience. It complimented the game’s high school setting and emotional subject matter perfectly adding to the game world’s unique atmosphere. Two years on, the series has done all this again for the Chloe-focused prequel Before the Storm, this time with tracks from the likes of Speedy Ortiz, The Broods and Daughter with the latter handling the original music as well. Whether backing one of Chloe’s rebellious acts or a quiet moment shared with the game’s other leading lady Rachel Amber, Before the Storm’s soundtrack always delivers.
(Spoiler warning: This obviously talks about the final portion of the latest Uncharted game. If you haven’t played it skip this section!)
Assuming this is the last time we see Uncharted for a while, The Lost Legacy’s final chapter seems like an apt way to go out before it is put on the shelf for the time being. While the ending of Uncharted 4 acted as a perfect sendoff for Nathan Drake’s character, it’s hard to imagine a better way to say goodbye to the playable action movie-style spectacle that the series became so renowned for than The Lost Legacy’s final sequence. At a base level, it combines the car-hopping madness that Naughty Dog has honed over the course of the series through its convoy setpieces with the more precise encounter and level design afforded by 2’s thrilling train ride. If that wasn’t enough, the level is filled with moments all its own like a stop at a switch station where you must battle off enemies in order to change the train’s course or when you must jump and crash your jeep into the train in a last-ditch effort to thwart the villain. Plus any and all opportunities you get to use your handy-dandy grappling hook, whether that be swinging from the train to commandeer passing vehicles or tackling the final boss amidst a frantic 2-on-1 brawl, are just so much fun. It feels like a culmination of a decade’s worth of work from the kings of the modern video game setpiece.
Most Disappointing Game
Why is there basically no damage feedback for the player in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus? Why are the level aesthetics and encounter layouts so bland? Why does the game seem so insistent on you run-and-gunning while dual-wielding when part of the appeal of its predecessor was the varied playstyles it offered? These are just a few of the many troubling questions I asked myself while playing the latest installment in the Wolfenstein series. On top of this, The New Colossus too often feels like it is trying to mimic what made The New Order great, but with none of it coming across as natural or as well-designed as it did in TNO. Wolfenstein II is peppered with great moments whether that be blowing away Nazis and navigating levels from the confines of Billy’s wheelchair, touching moments with Anya or several holy-shit-I-can’t-believe-that-just-happened sequences found throughout. But these can have the unfortunate side effect of making the lesser bits and head scratching design decisions in-between stand out that much more. The New Order weaved old and new-school shooting and level design philosophies alongside a narrative with a lot of heart to create one of my favorite first-person shooter campaigns ever. The New Colossus is a surprisingly disappointing follow-up. (Note: Disappointing doesn’t mean bad just that it didn’t live up to my expectations.)
Favorite Older Game I Played for the First Time in 2017
Despite my love of Mario from a very young age – the original Super Mario Bros. was the first game I ever played – my aversion to RPGs kept me from ever dabbling in the plumber’s various role-playing exploits. Given my desire to put my new Switch to use this past year, I gave Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle a go and found myself hooked on the game’s strategic battles. That along with having dipped my toes more into the RPG pool these past couple years meant I was ready to try some of Mario’s more traditional RPGs and the 3DS remake of Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga was dropping at just the right time. As much as I enjoyed Mario + Rabbids, it was nothing compared to this. The active elements during fights kept me engaged in a way I didn’t think turn-based combat like this could. Seeing familiar Mario stuff mixed into a new locale – the unique Beanbean Kingdom – was just plain neat. It had a great sense of humor that made me wonder if I should have been expecting for from the narrative in Mario’s platforming outings all of these years. And finally, the whole thing felt like a 2D Zelda game with a Mario flavor to it which of course is a very, very good thing. In short, I loved Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga and I’m glad I finally dove into this series after all this time. (I realize this being a remake means it isn’t exactly old, but this was essentially my fourth favorite game this year and I usually do an award like this, so I’m squeezing it into this spot since it is my first time playing Superstar Saga.)
My 2017 Game of the Year
I really struggled with choosing my GotY for 2017. It wasn’t for a lack of strong contenders, but because I was so torn between my top three. If I didn’t think it would be such a copout, I might have just given my first ever three-way co-Game of the Year… but yeah, that’d be lame. So I settled on Horizon. It was the less flawed – if also less ambitious – open-world title compared to Zelda. And as much as I loved Uncharted, my initial playthrough was about 6-7 hours compared to the 50+ hours of enjoyment I got from Horizon before I saw the credits roll.
Ultimately, Horizon excelled on the basis of two major aspects. One is the brand-new universe Guerrilla has created here. I was taken with it from the moment I first saw it demoed. A post-apocalyptic world where primitive human tribes hunt giant robots typically modeled after animals and dinosaurs. It’s just awesome. And Aloy’s design was so striking too. What impressed me about playing the game is how well all this came together. Aloy doesn’t just have a standout design, she’s extremely likeable and compelling as the main protagonist of the game. And while I imagine the whole concept of the game was initially just thought up as something that would be cool… which it is, I love that the sci-fi story that explains how this wild future came to be and Aloy’s place in it actually made sense. Unraveling those mysteries throughout the main quest was rewarding as a result. The other aspect is the brilliant combat. Depth, strategy and challenge. Slick controls and a varied weapon set. Some of the coolest bows in gaming and robot T-Rexes. Horizon’s battles had me on the edge of my seat often, searching for – and finding – new little secrets and strategies with seemingly every encounter. It is some of the best third-person shooting combat in all of gaming. Any shortcomings I found with the title (the less-than-stellar human encounters, a lack of memorable NPCs in the main game, etc.) don’t take away from the immense amount of enjoyment I found from the game elsewhere. Oh and the game is stunning visually. Perhaps the best looking console game ever and certainly the best in the open-world genre. For these reasons, Horizon is my choice for Game of the Year in 2017.
First Runner-up: Uncharted: The Lost Legacy
I’m such a sucker for Uncharted. I love these sorts of treasure-hunting stories and no one is telling better ones these days than what Naughty Dog is doing with this series. Chloe and Nadine made for a compelling leading pair and their romp through India is filled with the kind of high adventure and witty banter I have come to expect from the series showing that there could be life after Nathan Drake for Uncharted. Getting more of the franchise’s mobile combat was a joy even if I could have went for a bit more of it and it wasn’t quite on the same level as 4’s. Throw in the level I talked about above, a moment I reference in the bullets below and the game’s lovely take on an open-world chapter complete with a side quest and you have another great Uncharted game. While it didn’t have the same impact or play value as my favorite Uncharted games (2 and 4), it may be the least flawed of the series, delivering a brisk, fun adventure that I had an absolute blast playing.
Second Runner-up: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
For fifteen or so hours of Breath of the Wild, I felt like I was playing one of the greatest games of all-time. It is such a bold re-invention of the series that I can’t help but respect it. Unfortunately, the more I played, the more the cracks began to show through. With such sweeping changes, it was sure to stumble and it does with little issues cropping up in many of its new systems and some unfortunate repetition setting in which no open-world game seems able to avoid. And the dungeons are the most disappointing aspect of any game this year – to go from the superlative designs of Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword to what is on offer here is such a letdown. These issues kept it from getting my nod for Game of the Year, but it still does some things better than anything out there. I’ve never enjoyed exploring an open-world more than BotW’s Hyrule and the game’s sense of discovery – whether achieved through the aforementioned exploration or by experimenting with the game’s systemic gameplay and varied tool set – is completely unrivaled. All that made this daring take on a decades-old franchise one of the year’s best games.
Some more quick hit awards:
- Most Nostalgic Experience: Playing Sonic Mania was like being transported back in time. Never have I been hit with such a huge wave of nostalgia as I had playing this game. The graphics, music, levels, and so on. It brought me back to a time when I lived to play Sonic games on my Sega Genesis.
- Best Moment: Without saying too much, there is an animal moment in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy about halfway through the campaign. It isn’t drastically different from some of the animal sequences in other Naughty Dog games, but given the animal in question, it felt designed specifically for me. It made my heart sing. It was just so wonderful.
- Best Boss Fight: The whole way the Ko-Shi/Ro-Shi sequence plays out towards the end of Nier: Automata was just incredible. The way it flits between playstyles and characters is just so cool. It’s insane and I found my mouth agape as I went through it. A close-second is the Phantom in Mario + Rabbids. A great battle of strategy and hilarious to boot.
- Best Setting: I have quite a few issues with Assassin’s Creed: Origins, but what mainly attracted me to returning to this series in the first place – the ancient Egyptian setting – totally delivers. This series has always done an incredible job with recreating historical settings and I just dig Egypt so much. It’s fantastic.
- Best Sound Design: Hellblade is probably worth playing just for the sound design. Put some headphones on and prepare to be blown away at how the developers use sound – particularly the voices in Senua’s head – to inform the gameplay and put you in the shoes of the protagonist. It’s just super smart design. An at-times astonishing feat worthy of heaps of praise.
- Some other games I enjoyed in 2017 not mentioned yet: Super Mario Odyssey, Nex Machina, Resident Evil VII, Destiny 2, Rime, Gravity Rush 2, Cat Quest, Splatoon 2, Super Lucky’s Tale.
- Some games I wish I could have played before the year was over: Cuphead, Night in the Woods, Yono and the Celestial Elephants, and Little Nightmares.
That will do it for this look back at gaming in 2017! This coming week I will be posting my top TV shows of 2017 and then I will move on to which games I’m looking forward to in 2018. As always, thanks for reading!