5. Heat Signature
Quick synopsis: Take Hotline Miami’s mechanics and isometric perspective, put it in space, slap on FTL's visual style and vibe, remove any sense of discrete levels or missions and you get Heat Signature. I’m not one for frustratingly difficult games like Dark Souls. Nor am I inclined to procedurally generated roguelikes that don’t have a “story”. But somehow, someway, Heat Signature found a way into my soft heart. I love this game for its brutal learning curve (Note: I played this prior to a patch that makes things a little easier on the player) and wholesale rejection of quicksaving. I love it even more for allowing me to create my own playstyle for each Space Pirate/Resistance Fighter/Bounty Hunter/etc. I inhabit. But the real masterstroke by developer Suspicious Developments is how Heat Signature manages to make seemingly rote encounters take fascinating turns by slowly introducing mechanics. Like Prey's celebration of player creativity and subversion, Heat Signature almost always rewards a well-thought out plan. For instance, I found myself on a routine hostage rescue mission where I could receive a bonus bounty if I didn’t kill anyone. I made my way to the brig and found my hostage surrounded by shielded guards. Lazily, I had neglected to read the mission report stating these guards would be present and forgot to bring the right weapons to deal with them. Chalking this one up as a loss, I saw a window behind the guards and hostage. Quickly I used a teleportation device to swap places briefly with a guard, shoot out the window with a concussive shotgun, and jettisoned all of us out into the vacuum. The guards now dealt with, I remote controlled my shuttle to pick up the hostage before they ran out of oxygen, hopped on board and flew home. Mission complete. Sequences like that happen at nearly every turn. Do yourself a favour and pick this one up. (DREAM GAME: FTL + HEAT SIGNATURE - I’ll take my cheque now).
4. Playerunknown's Battlegrounds
PUBG Corporation, Bluehole
I’m not going to reiterate what many writers on this illustrious website and others have said about Public G. Everything you’ve read is true. Particularly the words of my brother-in-arms, Logan: “While I can’t recall the hundreds of wins I must have across all other competitive games I’ve played over the course of my gaming life, I can remember each and every detail of my 5 wins in PUBG last year. That's something special.” Indeed.
What I will add is this: To experience PUBG is to experience life: long, dull, boring, anticipatory stretches of time punctuated by moments of extreme excitement, fear, dread and a near-death experience or two thrown in for good measure. PUBG reminds us that life isn’t nearly as fair as we think it is, timing is everything, and while sometimes great risk produces great reward, it is more often the case that hiding the bushes and doing nothing can get you pretty far in life.
My time spent with PUBG is somewhere north of 50 hours and I’ve only managed three wins. Those are probably the top three moments of my life and I doubt marriage or having a child will top them.
3. Destiny 2
Day 92: I’ve escaped the salt caves beneath r/destinythegame and pierced the cloud of sodium-rich dust. Finally I am free from the clutches of the Salt Lords and their cacophonous echo chambers of negativity. What is this feeling? This lightness? This clarity? Whatever it is, I welcome it.
I should write flavour text.
In all seriousness, participating in the fervor surrounding Destiny 2 has been enlightening and ultimately liberating. Looking back, I can’t believe I let a subreddit even remotely dictate my enjoyment of a game. Fandom is a curious thing in that way. Its cult-like adherence to what a vocal minority determine to be truth has always turned me off engaging with them. And yet, I let r/dtg do just that. Thankfully, this was a brief moment of weakness. Destiny 2 has problems but those are vastly outweighed by what is a truly joyous game to play.
2. Horizon Zero Dawn
Guerrilla Games, Sony Interactive Entertainment
Old games criticism often tried to assess a game’s merit on how well it executed on a few categories: graphics (does it look good), gameplay (is it fun to play), sound (does it… sound good), etc. Archaic? Certainly. But sometimes I like to think about what a late 90s, early aughts game critic would say about current titles by applying that rubric to current games. If someone in that era played Horizon Zero Dawn, they would have lost their goddamn mind. This game fires on every cylinder.
Graphics: 11 out of 10. Typically isn’t a big deal for me but this is a game that demands repeatedly stopping and taking it all in. A feat which is all the more stunning when you consider this was developed by the team that made perhaps the dullest series of shooters possible in Killzone.
Gameplay: 10 out of 10. It plays exactly like I want Zelda to play: responsive, challenging where you want it to be (Combat), and forgiving where it needs to be (Climbing and platforming in general). Nailing a precise arrow shot never gets old.
Sound: 10 out of 10. Wow!
Horizon Zero Dawn made me so happy. How blessed are we that this game exists? It’s a shame (not really) 2017 was SO stacked with excellent titles because HZD easily sweeps most any of the past decade’s award seasons. It’s that good.
I think Supergiant Games has access to the multiverse or something because the rate at which they produce wholly unique and superb titles is impossible. Where does the idea for Pyre even come from? A three-on-three magical dodgeball/basketball tournament starring a diverse set of exiles who battle through ‘Rites’ to earn their freedom and rejoin society? Sounds like a recipe for disaster. And yet, it all works. It works beautifully.
Pyre elevates the medium. It’s the perfect marriage of artistic vision, musical accompaniment, character, and plot expressed exquisitely in gameplay. Pyre pulls the player in immediately, doing just enough explaining as to not be overbearing while offering a steady drip of plot development and characterization to keep us curious. It’s exceedingly comfortable with just letting certain questions like “Who exactly is Tariq?” and “Who are the Titans?” go unanswered because it’s creators know that the most powerful stories are about people and the relationships they forge. Pyre is about finding common purpose and putting the needs of the many above those of the individual. A theme compounded by the decisions forced on the player to choose who will be freed to join the resistance.
I didn’t see Pyre on a lot of top 10 lists this year. I can’t quite put a finger on why that is but I think when we look back at the class of 2017 (when everyone’s had a chance to play through this embarrassment of titles), Pyre will take its rightful place amongst the all-time greats.
Games I need to play in 2018:
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild - I don’t even like Zelda but this is a must play.
Super Mario Odyssey - I need to buy a Switch.
Uncharted: The Lost Legacy - I don’t really know how I didn’t find the time for this. Uncharted is like appointment viewing for me.
Gorogoa - Puzzles are neat. Artsy puzzles are even neater.
Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle - I REALLY need to buy a Switch.
Wolfenstein II - I love the inventiveness and the willingness to not play it safe with the subject material. But what happens between the cut scenes and exposition just really doesn’t do it for me.
They Are Billions - Very excited to see where this game ends up once completed. A campaign could really help it along but for now, I’m thoroughly obsessed with trying to beat the second scenario on the easiest setting. Like Heat Signature and PUBG, I think They Are Billions appeals to me because failure in it is deeply instructive and never feels cheap.
Prey - I was fairly certain this would be my Game of the Year but it hasn’t had staying power. You can find my thoughts here.
Brawl Stars - I’ve probably played this Freemium MOBA more than the rest of the games on this list combined.
Cuphead - For the art alone. There really isn’t another game like it.