Top ten first half of 2018
The year is only half over and it speaks volumes that when I sit down to make a list of my favorite ten games so far, there’s no room for Into the Breach, Subnautica, or Vermintide 2, all of which are brilliant in ways I haven’t fully explored yet. I mean, seriously, what kind of list doesn’t include any of those games?
After the jump, that kind of list
This isn’t terribly different from an SRPGs like Tactics Ogre or Fire Emblem: a series of tactical battles with characters who upgrade. But because it’s drawing from Battletech, the original gangsta of giant robot games from a time when you needed a pencil and some paper to play, it brings a unique appreciation for the pace, aesthetics, heft, and intentionally ignored absurdity of giant bipedal robots. Which are, of course, nonsense. The best way to combine defense, mobility, and firepower is a tank. That’s just physics. But what this fantasy world supposes is…what if the AT-ATs in Empire Strikes Back were a sound tactical concept? That’s where this all comes from, right? The Empire Strikes Back? Or does it predate that with some sort of Japanese anime stuff? By the way, the Empire is lucky the battle was on Hoth, because that must have worked wonders for heat management. Whatever the case, Battletech is an SRPG that glories in the awesome nonsense of giant robots fighting detailed battles.
If you want to see what a difference good writing makes, look no further. Think of Cultist Simulator not so much as the usual game, but as a delivery system for short sharp memorable bursts of ingenious prose that reveal a mythology. From the review:
The more you play — and necessarily fail, as befits this kind of mystery/horror — the more you start to discover something else in there. An economy, a mythology, a set of gameplay systems live underneath the day-to-day reality of going to work, reading books, and sleeping. Your protagonists discover these at their peril and your edification. Your next protagonist will learn more. And the next after him even more. Eventually, one of them will start working in the context of this hidden world’s economy, mythology, gameplay. The revelation is the point and the captivating writing is the payoff.
Far Cry 5
Me and some really cool friends save America from fanatical fascists preaching a warped perspective on reality. It’s not just a metaphor for the upcoming midterms! It’s Ubisoft’s state-of-the-art open-worlding at its best! Complete with villains you hate for gameplay reasons, not because they’re poorly written to be hated. From the review:
If Far Cry 5 had used its tedious psychopaths to drive the story rather than interrupt it, it would have felt like a typical Ubisoft game. Instead, the writing that actually builds this world is full of affection, enthusiasm, and humor. While the corporate auteurs were working on the tiresome cultists, some talented and funny writers, animators, and actors populated this corner of Montana with warmth and energetic vulgarity.
For the King
Fantasy RPGs love their dungeons. They love the tactical intimacy of moving around inside locations like ruins and tunnels and caves and castles. Traveling overland is the boring stuff you have to do in between. Okay, roll on the random encounter table real quick, let’s get this over with, we have a dungeon to plumb. But For the King lives solidly on a hex map dotted with important features, perils, treasures, and mysteries. This turn-based RPG, which has a smart rogue-like progression that means sometimes you won’t save the world, bursts out of dark oppressive lightless dungeons and makes overworlds relevant again.
A truly direction agnostic shooter that brings back to life the dizzying thrill of floating robots in labyrinthine zero-G dungeons. Plenty of developers have tried this sort of gameplay since it was introduced in Descent in 1995. None of them have succeeded so well as Overload. This is also easily my favorite VR game for how it’s not just a VR boondoggle, but a full game that seamlessly ports itself into VR whenever I feel like playing it that way. Unfortunately, I can only manage about ten minutes before I start feeling like I’m going to hurl. But like juice that tastes so good you can’t stop drinking it even though you know it’s going to give you a stomach ache, it’s worth it. It’s just that good.
One of the latest game design inventions is the rogue-like. This template can be fitted to many different kinds of games, investing them with the thrill of exploration, the high stakes of meaningful risk, and the “keep ’em coming back” gratification of long-term progression. For instance, on this very list, you’ll find a turn-based fantasy RPG, a top-down shooter, and a sci-fi 4X notable for their rogue-like elements. With the Mooncrash DLC, the folks at Arkane Studios apply this to Prey. The result is more than mere DLC. It offers unique new gameplay, compelling new stories, and an astonishing amount of new content. When I think of the best examples of narrative DLC, I think of Undead Legends for Red Dead Redemption, Minerva’s Den for Bioshock 2, and Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon’s Keep for Borderlands 2. This belongs on that list. But with the possible exception of Undead Nightmares, none of those is as dramatic as Mooncrash in terms of breathing new life into a game.
What would a sci-fi 4x look like if it were trimmed of all the fat? Blue Wizard takes a merciless cleaver to the usual formula and offers up a delectable lean cut, all steak and just enough sizzle.
This is a game with the same stuff as its far more detailed and complicated cousins, but it knows how to move. It knows how to make things happen at different interrelated levels, without sprawl, with a laser beam focus on doing the stuff you came to do when you decided to play a grand strategy game.
State of Decay 2
Not just more of the same. The base-building offers more choice, the logistics are heartier, the map progression is based on zombie ecology, the graphics engine is smoother, the cars are cooler, and the nights are darker.
The genius of developer Undead Labs is how well they get not just the essentials of zombie mythology, but the moment-to-moment incidentals. The tension as you’re filling your gas tank while a horde shambles down the road toward you. The unexpected horrific face in your flashlight beam as you’re exploring a dark house that you thought was empty. The panic of holding one zombie back while two more lunge at you from either direction. The rot and shuffle. The disparate survivors working together, one a firefighter, the other a car salesman, another a low level politician. That last important bullet. That fortuitous rucksack of food to feed your survivors for another day. The hero killed, which wasn’t supposed to happen. Most of the time you’re prepared. That’s the gratifying part of State of Decay. Sometimes you’re not. That’s the dramatic part.
So many rogue-likes focus on the overall structure of the rogue-like, sometimes at the expense of the moment-to-moment experience. Move a little dude around an arena and press an attack button. Whack, whack, whack. Whack, whack, whack. Whack, whack, whack. It’s just filler where the real game is the upgrade system and the treasure and the procedurally generated terrain. But Synthetik builds from hard-hitting intricate gunplay, with kick, detail, and the serious whomp of hearty sound design.
At last, a serious racing game that doesn’t need to preen!
…its core value is rough and tumble instead of shaving a few seconds off a lap. It’s for those of us who long to drive like we did when we were teenage boys: rude and reckless, like we’re the star of an action movie instead of sharing a road with other cars.
You might have noticed that I wussed out and put the list in alphabetical order. Believe me, I tried to rank them. I really did. But I eventually decided that kind of agonizing will have to wait until December.