Thursday, December 29, 2016

Top 5 Games of 2016: Finales & Friends

A look at FROM Software's Dark Souls III.

Once again, the biggest video game titles of the year have slipped me by. Among many others, I missed out on Final Fantasy XV, Battlefield 1, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Hitman, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Dishonored 2, Titanfall 2, and Gears of War 4. These games dominated industry commentary and global markets alike, much like Hollywood blockbuster sequels elbowing their way into the spotlight every summer – and like those blockbusters, they have grown more and more tedious in my eyes. In a market overstuffed with as much repetition as variety, I have to be ever more careful about where I spend my gaming dollar, and none of the titles I listed intrigued me enough to justify spending almost a hundred dollars (and who knows how many hours of my life) on any one of them. But that’s not to say that I didn’t play anything in 2016. Far from it. In fact – if only in terms of sheer quality – this might have been one of the best years for gaming in recent memory. Without further ado, here are my Top 5 Games I played in 2016 (along with some honourable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut).

Any conversation about gaming this year had to include virtual reality. This was the year in which VR exploded onto the consumer market, breaking free of its early-adopter stigma and becoming widely available for all to try. With the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive, and the Playstation VR, this cutting-edge tech has started to turn the corner from novel curiosity into true trendsetting phenomenon. Ready or not, expect 2017 and beyond to be all-VR, all the time.

This game was a savage shot of glee injected into a stale early summer, revitalizing a long-dead franchise and reminding the entire industry that you can still sell tons of copies with nothing more than the focused application of simple, thoughtful, functional design. And shotguns – lots of shotguns.

It took four games, but the Uncharted series finally hooked me – right as it was ending – with an incredible story realized in a visually-breathtaking way. Too bad the gameplay got in the way more often than not, because even for someone unfamiliar with the previous titles, this was an unmissable cinematic experience in games this year.

Sometimes a refreshing snack can be more satisfying than a sumptuous meal. Campo Santo’s Firewatch was only bite-sized, and boasted barely any true gameplay, but cemented itself in my mind with a deeply personal story and a beautifully distinct visual style. At only 6 hours, many complained it wasn’t worth the price – but all I wanted was a snack, and I got a particularly delicious one.

Trico (centre, top), the lovable heart of Fumito Ueda's The Last Guardian.

TOP 5 of 2016
There was no game more divisive for me in 2016 (and for many critics and fans, too) than The Last Guardian. Coming off a decade-long development and following the highly-acclaimed PS2 title Shadow of the Colossus, this new effort from director Fumito Ueda had a lot of work to do in order to both live up to its legacy and satisfy gamers who were concerned it couldn’t possibly be “worth the wait.” Ueda, with help from Sony’s JapanSTUDIO, ended up delivering a remarkable game that felt knock-kneed and dated, but nonetheless offered a touching story with an emotional heft that rivals the best that games or film or literature can provide. The lovable beast at the centre of the experience, Trico – powerfully reminiscent for me of the family dog I lost late this year – has become one of my favourite heroes in all of gaming. I was often frustrated with The Last Guardian, but I will never, ever forget it, and that’s what earns it a spot on this list.

In terms of my own taste, it would be difficult for any game to wrest the title of “Favourite RPG” away from The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt – but if any company is giving CD Projekt Red a run for their money, it’s Japanese developer FROM Software and their Souls series. With the latest (and last, according to series director Hidetaka Miyazaki) incarnation in the venerable Dark Souls franchise, FROM has refined and polished their utterly unique brand of difficult fantasy RPG gameplay to its purest form. After fighting to get three of these bastards under my belt, I feel confident that I can handle anything the Souls games throw at me; it is to DS III’s credit that I was nonetheless often knocked right on my ass by its immense difficulty and epic challenge. Yet the pacing of the game – the graduated nature of its difficulty curve, and the vivid thrill of climbing it – was smooth and satisfying, making it accessible to series veterans and newcomers alike. It’s proof that the developers have mastered their unique form, and a fine feather in their cap, if this is truly to be the end of this long and arduous road. Full disclosure: I didn’t review Dark Souls III for Critics at Large simply because I was too busy playing it and having a fantastic time. There’s a barrier to entry in FROM’s games, which sometimes make them feel like secret treasures, known only to a chosen few who possess the skill and dedication necessary to break through that barrier and claim the riches within. I don’t trumpet my love of Dark Souls or Bloodborne from the rooftops – but when I hear that someone else has played them, a quiet bond is instantly formed, like old soldiers meeting outside the battlefield. That’s a feeling you can’t get anywhere else in gaming – but you can get it with Dark Souls III.

D.Va and Soldier: 76, ready for battle in Blizzard's Overwatch.

Developers and publishers know that male gamers aged 18-35 are their primary moneymakers, and so the market is flooded with “mature” content that strives for narrative legitimacy, graphical verisimilitude, and the same gritty tone that make HBO’s television shows so popular. Some succeed in this grasp for attention; many fail, existing only as brief flashes in the pan. Thankfully, there will always be companies like Nintendo to stand out from the crowd: outlier developers and publishers who cater to all ages with the application of simple, pure, efficient design that results in games that are nothing like most triple-A titles, but are twice as fun. I loved Pokémon Moon not only for the inherent satisfaction that the franchise always delivers, but also just for the simple joy of playing a game that didn’t ask anything of me except that I enjoy myself. That’s a rare and rarer thing in gaming these days, and with such a polished version of their classic franchise, Nintendo once again reminded the industry why we need them so badly.

My review of INSIDE dived deep into the game’s semiotics, tackling the philosophical ramifications of its wordless dystopian narrative. But its true success is in its ability to deliver a story of such power and intensity using such a simple framework – making it a game even less complicated than the original Super Mario Bros, but far, far more emotionally impactful. It’s my belief – my hope – that INSIDE will be studied at high schools and universities worldwide in years to come, as an exemplar of the power of gaming to tell remarkable, viscerally relevant stories using the simplest of tools.

Without a doubt, Blizzard’s Overwatch is my most-played game of 2016 – but it’s probably also the best. That’s quite a tough assessment to make in the face of all the other games I’ve mentioned, which offer more vitally unique and varied experiences than Overwatch’s comparatively simple team-based shooter combat. I barely even hesitated, though, to slot this into the number one spot – and it’s because, more than perhaps any other game, Overwatch has reinforced the importance and fun of multiplayer gaming for me. It may not be obvious to someone who hasn’t played all the games on my list, but almost all of them are solitary single-player experiences. That’s how I primarily enjoy and become engrossed in games, and I’m comfortable with that – but it means I often miss out on the social engagement that makes multiplayer games like Overwatch the most popular titles worldwide each year. Overwatch – in addition to its subtly brilliant design, its balanced and deeply-rewarding gameplay, its beautiful visuals, its addictive rewards structure, and its fascinating competitive scene – offered me the chance to reunite on a weekly basis with a group of my university friends. Our teamwork and communication often bring cheering and celebration when we win, and commiseration and complaining when we lose – but none of it would be anywhere near as fun without each other. Truthfully, the game is just an excuse for all of us, scattered across North America, to hang out. And that’s a gift more special than any other game can give.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

No comments:

Post a Comment