I might have included on this list of top games some really great 2017 releases if they felt more like 2017 releases. Total War: Warhammer 2, Dominions 5, and Spintires: Mud Runners are all great, but they’re great because they’re iterations on great games. They don’t feel like separate releases. The fantastic Pinball FX3 adds new reasons to play tables in lots of different ways, but they’re the same tables I’ve already been playing. Superlative DLC for Guild Wars 2, XCOM 2, and Diablo III made all of those games more relevant than ever in 2017, but none of them are 2017 releases.
This is the first year that none of my ten favorite games were popular AAA titles from larger publishers (with the possible exception of my #9 pick). I liked plenty of popular AAA titles from larger publishers! Destiny 2, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Warhammer II, Middle Earth: Shadow of War, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and Wolfenstein II, for instance. But there were at least ten games I liked better.
Finally, the usual disclaimer for the games I didn’t get to play: Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Splatoon 2, Hob, Hellblade, Persona 5, Heat Signature, What Happened to Edith Finch, Gravity Rush 2, and Logistical were all games I wanted to play. I also didn’t get to play any game that had the misfortune to be an Xbox/Windows Store exclusive. For instance, did you guys know there was a new Halo Wars this year?
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, which has a much stronger hook than Rez Infinite, 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. 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. Whatever weird non Jason Momoa Aquaman this is supposed to be? 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.
8. Hand of Fate 2
Everything that Hand of Fate did — which was pretty awesome back when it did it — is done better here. There are more ways to determine encounters, more kinds of combat, more scenario objectives to change up the gameplay, easier rules for not starving to death, more ways to play with equipment, and more cards to unlock as you swing around in the branches of this narrative playground.
7. Sniper Elite 4
A latest-gen shooter with stealth, open-worlding, gadgets, and environmental gimmicks galore. This is the second place you go to exercise your virtual Second Amendment right to shoot Nazis in a videogame. 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 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.
6. 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 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.
5. 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.
4. Endless Space 2
Where Paradox fell flat 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 it’s own game. 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 cats, what incredible space porn, alongside big swathes of evocative art, a lively and thorough interface, and numbers laid boardgame bare so you can appreciate the design under the hood.
3. Pathfinder 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.
2. A Hat in Time
Review here, but keep reading…
1. Agents of Mayhem
When you pick a favorite something at the end of the year — or any time really — the pick is about you. It’s easy to look at 100 things and decide which ones are the better ones. As you narrow down that number and consider fewer and fewer things, the decisions have more weight. They are more difficult to make. They are more personal. Why are these ten very good things better than those ten very good things? Why these five over those five? When you get to the end of the list, when you look at two fantastic things and decide one is better than the other, and indeed the best of the whole lot, sometimes it’s just about you.
2014 was a pretty bad year for me. I spent most of it knowing something was very wrong with my health. I spent the rest of it undergoing drawn-out and debilitating treatment. My body was a terrible place to be. I just wanted to not be trapped in it. Is it any coincidence that my favorite game was The Crew, a game about the freedom afforded in an open-world caRPG about America? I inhabited immaculate and powerful machines to roam the country I loved. The Crew might not even be a very good game. Who am I to say? I can only say it was the best of 2014.
2015 was a better year because I hadn’t died. But it was still pretty bleak. I was hanging fire to see if I was really in remission. The best game of that year was Massive Chalice, an elegant strategy game about generations of families transcending death. A mortality fable, if you will. Is it a good game? I don’t care. It was the best game of 2015 because I was moved by what it had to say. Plus, I’m really into strategy games.
In 2016, I was out of the darkest part of the woods. I’m still at risk in the long run, but I’m confident saying I’ve survived a cancer diagnosis. I have more years to live, to add to the ones that got put on hold back in 2014. Quadrilateral Cowboy was a charmingly quirky videogame that revealed itself to be a poignant story about looking back on a life well lived. Is it any good? That doesn’t matter. But I can tell you it was the best game of 2016 for how it was about appreciating your life.
Here comes 2017 and now I’m ready to be something besides a guy who has cancer, to evaluate a best game based on something more universal, to go back to the days of picking indisputible works of genius like Grand Theft Auto V, Guild Wars 2, and Bioshock 2! Let’s single out games based on quality and not some subjective need I have to offset some trauma and…oh, dear. Really, 2017? Really? This is what you’re going to be? What a fucking horror show.
The two best games of 2017 were ones that made me happy. Pure escapism. Charm. Color. Humor. Childish delight. Playful writing. Cartoon whimsy and mischievous grins. Anything to take my mind off that slovenly orange buffoon, his immoral and unethical cronies in the Republican party, and the dim racist deplorables who continue to support him.
No games took me out of the horror show of 2017 more than A Hat in Time and Agents of Mayhem. The only reason they’re ordered as #2 and #1, respectively, is that Agents of Mayhem has more content and gameplay meat. A Hat in Time makes no bones about being a simple platformer. Agents of Mayhem, on the other hand, is an open-ended action RPG that I’m still playing to get the Steam achievements because I’m in no hurry to go look at the Washington Post to see what that dipshit has done today.
Maybe in 2018 I’ll be able to pick a best game based purely on the proven principles of game design, technological prowess, artistic merit, and creative innovation. Maybe in 2018 I can pretend again to be a bona fide videogame critic recognizing excellence above all else. But for at least another year, I was still stuck in the world around me, so the best games were the ones that made me happiest.
Agents of Mayhem review here.
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