I don’t have a Switch, so I can’t get on the Breath of the Wild bandwagon. I’m not sure there’s room for anyone else on that thing anyway. And I haven’t cleared the six hours from my schedule to boot up Persona 5 and get to the actual game part. I’ve played enough of Torment: Tides of Numenera to know that I probably shouldn’t be writing this list yet.
But let’s do this anyway!
Are a couple of the Aaero tracks rattling around in my head because they’re good or because I’ve played them so much? This smooth and seductive Rez-like is based on twirling the analog stick to the melody and sometimes moving a cursor around the screen to shoot stuff. You might think the shooting stuff is just busywork. But then you realize (or, in my case, read online) that shooting to the beat does more damage! So that’s how you kill those crazy boss monsters. And unlike the rhythm-centric Thumper where you only ever find a big face waiting at the end of each level, there are distinct and spectacular boss fights in Aaero.
9. Dirt 4
Dirt Rally with VR support is the definitive racing experience. So it’s a testament to Dirt 4, which doesn’t have VR support, that I’m playing it anyway. It’s that good, with more detail, caRPGing, and variety than Rally.
8. Injustice 2
I found a Reinforced Party Time Hyena Tamer Style Head for my level 6 Harley Quinn. Which is the sort of nonsense it takes to keep me interested in a fighting game. Along with manageable combos for those of us who have never gotten past the “why won’t hadoken work?” stage of Street Fighter, crazy over-the-top animations instead of guys wearing gis punching each other 10 frames at a time, infinite randomly generated challenges for long term playability instead of the assumption that I’m going to go online, and familiar characters like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and uh. Let’s see. Hmm. Uh. Aquaman? Basically, lots of folks I’ve never heard of. There’s a guy in here named Doctor Fate. When he put on a helmet and cape — he wears a helmet and cape — and decided to fight crime, they asked him, “What should we call you?” He said, “Doctor Fate. Be sure to spell out doctor. Don’t abbreviate it.” I guess the roster is no worse than a Soulcalibur or Tekken. But Netherrealms knows how to make fighting games for those of us who don’t play fighting games.
7. Monster Slayers
A nimble deck-builder inside a muscular rogue-like. For a game with such snappy pacing, it’s particularly good at using cards to make different classes play differently. Your cleric is nothing like your thief, who is nothing like your barbarian, and don’t even get me started on the new merchant, necromancer, and dragon. A dragon, I tell you! Monster Slayers just added dragons — different colors for different elements — as a playable class. This is one of those games the developer just can’t leave alone. After six years as a Flash game, as a Steam release last March, and with numerous updates and scads of new content since then, the developer’s support borders on obsessive!
6. Sniper Elite 4
A latest-gen shooter with stealth, open-worlding, gadgets, and environmental gimmicks galore. This is where you go after you realize Ghost Recon: Wildlands is just a vast pretty map in search of a game. This is where you go if you’re looking for this year’s Metal Gear Solid V. This is where you go to exercise your Virtual Second Amendment right to shoot Nazis in a videogame. This is where you go to admire slo-mo x-ray views of anatomically correct gunshot wounds. And this is where you go if you want some damn fine two-player co-op.
5. Afghanistan ’11
Hey you got your good game design in my thoughtful politics! Just as Johan Nagel’s Vietnam ’65 was an exploration of the US policy of pacification, his Afghanistan ’11 is an exploration of the US policy of nationbuilding. Don’t write this off as a nerdyman wargame downplaying its hexes to try to trick casual players into playing. It’s more accurately a transport tycoon game in which the Taliban sometimes jump out at your vehicles. Must love logistics, MOAB optional.
4. Nier: Automata
Nier does right pretty much everything that Final Fantasy XV did wrong. A non-committal open-world, a fusion of Japanese weird with Western borrowed, lackadaisical character progression because why force it?, and slickly frantic combat that doesn’t really care if you’re good at frantic combat. Those might sound like questionable bullet points, but they apply to both games. I’d argue they’re only successful in Nier because they seem like an intentional way to make room for what Nier values most: its setting. And by setting, I don’t mean terrain. Geographically, Nier is just a post-apocalypse. But as you play deeper into whatever is going on — I haven’t finished it yet — the more it becomes apparent that the setting is, well, I don’t want to say yet because I have a fancy-pants interpretation that shouldn’t float until I get all the way through. Stand by. But in the meantime, I’m appreciating the focus, voice, and perspective that were missing in all the half-assed open-worlding you had/got to do in Final Fantasy XV.
3. Has-Been Heroes
It’s a buyer’s market for rogue-likes. Don’t just jump into the first decent one you find. There are plenty out there, and many of them are plenty good. So if you’re not careful, it’s ten hours later and you’ve been plugging away at a plenty good rogue-like instead of a great rogue-like like Has-Been Heroes. The screenshots make it look like tower defense meets JRPG combat. The name makes it sound like a fantasy Suicide Squad. The tutorial makes it seem like a half-baked punishingly difficult action game. None of these things is true! It’s a set of cerebral tactical challenges with dramatic thresholds in progression, scads of meaningful choices, and an easy picaresque charm. I just unlocked a ninja tiger mage.
2. Endless Space 2
Where Paradox drifted off into a vacuum with Stellaris’ spreadsheet aliens (even after this year’s admirable but not-quite-there attempt to make the spreadsheet more colorful), Amplitude breathes life into outer space, doing what they do best: asymmetry. Sweet, sweet, asymmetry, where every race feels like its own game. I know, I know, this is what all developers say when they make a strategy game with different factions. But Amplitude does it better than anyone else. And holy Kzinti, what incredible space porn during the battle! Also big swathes of evocative art, a thorough and lively interface, and numbers laid boardgame bare so you can appreciate the design under the hood.
1. Pathfinders: Adventures
A fantastic tabletop game — imagine a deck-builder meets a rogue-like meets card-based exploration — flawlessly adapted to a videogame presentation. It came out last year for the iOS, so I might be cheating by putting it on a list of 2017 games. But with its recent release on the PC, featuring seamless cross-platform support and a host of improvements, it really comes into its own as a full-featured party-based RPG from Obsidian, a developer known for party-based RPGs. Pathfinder: Adventures belongs on the PC where you can enjoy the discreetly animated artwork on a bigger screen, make use of helpful tool-tips for smoother gameplay, and never have to deal with any iOS micropayment nonsense, because it’s all been stripped out and replaced with gameplay progression.
So there’s my list. What’s on yours?