Another year has come and gone and it’s time for me to sit down and recap my 2016 year in video games. As with my previous years I won’t be doing a ‘Top Ten’ list per se but I want to start of by mentioning four that stood out to me over all the others.
Hitman is a franchise that until March of this year I had no experience with. When it was announced that the game would be taking on a month-to-month episodic release I remember hearing murmurs among press outlets that the implications but I’m glad to say that the monthly content release for Hitman ended up being one of the biggest selling points for me. After watching an amazing playthrough of Hitman by Giant Bomb’s Brad Shoemaker and Dan Ryckert I was sold and rushed out to purchase the complete Season 1 pack.
Paris and Sapienza were the only available maps when I started but I still felt somewhat overwhelmed. Jump to December and I’ve invested around 85 hours across all the maps, even digging down so far as to earn the coveted Silent Assassin and Suit Only achievements on a third of the missions. From the first time I flung a fire extinguisher at an unwitting chef in the tutorial to my most recent play session where I murdered actual Santa and stole his suit and beard to complete some holiday challenges Hitman has never stopped begin a blast.
Perhaps the most surprising to me was the Hitman ended up being much more than a glorious murder sandbox. While the thrill of the kill and the challenge of navigating crowded city streets was great and the level design and world building was great, the world of Hitman felt alive and it’s all thanks to the insane amount of detail put into it. No matter where you go in any of the six maps you’ll run into a pair of NPCs having a conversation about the goings on the the world and their lives. You’re introduced to them almost immediately when you start off in Paris and from the entrance can see a news reporter and camera man getting set up for a shot. If you stand back you can listen to the entire bit the reporter does and then creep on them all the way back to their news van. Alternatively you can bust up in between the cameraman and the reporter and get a totally different few lines of dialogue. So much care and thought was put into giving even the smallest characters in Hitman a voice and, as it happened so often to me, you would forget about it until it caught you completely off guard. Some of the funniest moments of Hitman for me were trying to blend and hide in after committing some super illegal shit, only to start overhearing a man taking having a phone conversation with a telemarketer and be taken completely out of the moment, forgetting to try and hide and forgetting even that I may be armed and shifting my focus entirely to this poor guy sitting on a park bench failing spectacularly to fight the telemarketer back.
Even as I approach 90 hours spent in the world of Hitman I’m surprised how many thing I discover every time I boot up the game. Not taking new content into account it still feels like this game has so many tiny gems hidden away that I might not find them all in another 90 hours. And still the fun level along with the difficulty of the game have stayed firmly intact. I still feel accomplished after taking down a particularly nasty elusive target. I’ve only just scratched the surface of the Season 1 as far as challenges and escalations are concerned and I hope to find the time to make my way through all of it. Hitman was exactly what I never knew I wanted and I’m looking forward to seeing what IO can do with Season 2.
Pokemon Moon (and Sun, I guess)
I hadn’t planned on picking up the new Pokemon game until about a day or two before it came out and went in mostly blind. What I found was without a doubt the greatest Pokemon game that I’ve ever played, and I’ve just about played them all. I can’t speak much to the story of the games, having payed little attention to the cutscenes and dialogue, suffice to say that, apart from an intro sequence that ran on twice as long as was needed, the story was never a problem for me. I could care less about Lillie and Gladion and Lusamine at the end of the day but I’ll tell you who I do care about: Team Skull.
From the first sequence that Team Skull showed up the tone of the game changed entirely. If you’ve ever seen the Pokemon anime you probably remember that Jessie, James, and Meowth existed less as antagonists and more as comic relief. Team Skull is like that, except they commit to the bit so hard that their goofiness is magnified. They take themselves so seriously that, even though it’s obvious they’re just a bunch of goons, everything about them just makes the overall Team Skull character hilarious. The average Team Skull grunt’s idle animation is a baffling series of arm movements that’s supposed to convey how serious they are, while just making them look like fools. The skull bandana, the bling, and the big shorts combined with the copious use of slang complete the ensemble nicely.
Hands down one of my favorite video game moments in 2016 was an encounter with a pair of Team Skull grunts that had taken over a Pokemon Center in an abandoned town. They greeted me with a rap, telling me they could restore the health of my Pokemon, but for a cost. The two responses I had to choose from were “Sounds good, yo” and “No thanks, yo” and it absolutely killed me the first time I read it. From the very beginning the player can tell that Team Skull is a joke and it’s so great that the game not only acknowledges it, but embraces it and lays it on thick. Even to this day I get a little giggly thinking about Team Skull and I can’t express how happy I am that they are Pokemon’s newest team of “villains”.
All that aside, Sun and Moon make some pretty big changes to the basic layout of Pokemon games as they’ve been set up for the last 20 years. Gym battles as we all know them have been done away with, replaced with Island Challenges and a showdown versus the Kahuna of a given island. The challenges are more or less all the same but are presenting in interesting ways. One of the most memorable trials takes place in an old haunted and run down megamart and use your camera to reveal hidden ghost Pokemon in order to fight them. As a side note, this is easily the best use of the camera which I think is a poorly implemented mechanic and would be better off not in the game at all. HMs were also drastically changed, removing them entirely from the game and replacing them with Poke Rides. With the touch of a button on an Amazon Dash-looking remote, you can summon a Pokemon seemingly out of nowhere. The basic idea is that you can use the Poke Ride in lieu of forcing to teach one of your valuable Pokemon a sub par move or sticking an HM slave on your team that just takes up space.
Now with the push of a button, regardless of who you have on your team, you can Fly, Surf, push boulders with Strength, and a number of other things. While this is a great change from previous games, I feel that it ride a little too hard on the idea. Over the course of the game you’re given eight different Poke Ride remotes but I think the game would still be relatively the same if you only ever had four. The Stoutland is a Poke Ride replacement for the dowsing rod from previous games that let you find hidden items and the Mudsdale allows you to traverse rocky terrain and I think that both are wholly unnecessary. Switching between Poke Rides is slow and clunky and can be tedious at times when you’re having to make two or three ride changes to get across a zone. And please, for the love of God, let me skip the takeoff and landing cutscenes when I fly with Charizard.
Pokemon took a huge step in a new direction this generation and while most of the things it tried were great I’m looking forward to seeing the Sun and Moon formula be refined in the next generation. It’s been a very long time since a Pokemon game has pulled me in so hard and it’s truly great to be back.
Factorio is another game that caught me off guard and ended up robbing me of a few weekends. Normally I try to stay away from Early Access games but Factorio’s development history is similar to that of Dwarf Fortress. While it’s slated for a full 1.0 release sometime in 2017 I couldn’t help myself but to dive in. Essentially a puzzle in efficiency, Factorio throws you into an alien planet and tasks you with building a rocket to escape. You start with the survival game basics, mining ore and punching trees, but unlike in any other survival game you are soon able to start automating these processes (because physical labor is for chumps).
Things start off simple, building coal-powered drills but eventually you’re able to start researching new sciences. Before you know it you’re building conveyor belts to carry your machine-mined ore from the drill straight to the furnace. Passing the first major hurdle of automating the basic science research in Factorio is one of the most satisfying feelings I had playing a video game in 2016 and it continues to escalate from there.
Eventually I hit a wall where, due to the way my world was generated, I could no longer progress but instead of being bummed out I saw it as opportunity to start over again with all my knowledge from the previous 25 hour playthrough and put it to good use. The game still has a long way to go before it’s considered a finished product (it’s been in various stages of development since 2012) and I look forward to hopping back in every once in a while to see how things have developed.
Frog Fractions 2 (Eye Sigil ARG/Frog Fractions 2 ARG/Glittermitten Grove
I’ll be doing a separate post solely on my experience with Frog Fractions 2, starting with the Eye Sigil ARG and transitioning into the FF2 ARG, finding the game, and finally some remarks about the game itself. I’ll update this bit with a link once that’s written but it may be another few days.
Other Awesome Games
Pony Island was a strong start to 2016. I find it hard to speak to any of the particulars in this game without prefacing that this game is best played firsthand and not read about. As I’m sure countless people have pointed out, the parallels between Pony Island and Frog Fractions are undeniable. What is introduced as a cutesy kids game is quickly revealed to be a bait-and-switch wherein you exercise demons from a haunted old arcade cabinet.
All told the game is only about three hours long but it keeps you guessing all the way through and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is looking to have an interesting afternoon.
Firewatch is an incredible experience that I can’t talk much about without spoiling. I can (and will) say that Firewatch is also one of the most beautiful games I played in 2016 and pulled me in unlike any other story-driven game has since maybe Her Story. The characters feel well fleshed out and their interactions are maybe the best part of the whole thing. The exploration of the park was a roller coaster of different emotions throughout the length of the game and while I ultimately felt like the ending fell flat, the journey ended up being so memorable that I have no regrets giving up 5 hours of my live to play through it.
Overwatch is nowhere near a perfect game but for me to expound upon my issues with it would take up time than I’m sure either of us have to spare on such a trifle. Getting angry about video games on the internet just isn’t worth it. All that aside Overwatch has been the source of some genuinely joyful moments over the last few months. I don’t have a large group of friends who play but it’s always nice to hop on over a weekend and jam out a few dozen matches with a group of able-minded individuals.
Stephen’s Sausage Roll
Stephen’s Sausage Roll is perhaps my favorite puzzle game of all time and a game that I came to after almost 30 hours of The Witness left me feeling empty. I think that The Witness deserves another attempt from me at some point but for whatever reason (I’m being intentionally vague here to avoid falling into a rant hole over it) it left me hungry (pun absolutely intended) for a good old-fashioned puzzle game and Stephen’s Sausage Roll delivered.
I think what I love most about Stephen’s Sausage Roll (apart from the deceptive simplicity) is how compartmentalized. Each of the islands that serve as the game’s levels have puzzle strew about. Stepping on a silhouette of the player teleports you to a stripped down version of the place you just were. The rest of the island turns to sea and the only ground around you is part of the puzzle. SSR does an incredible job of defining the probability space for a puzzle where games like The Witness and The Talos Principle left me scratching my head a points as I tried to understand the confines of a puzzle. SSR boils the puzzle solving down to the most pure form and presents it in spectacular bite-sized chunks that can be taken on at your leisure.
My only minor complaint, and the thing I think will ultimately prevent me from completing the game, is that each level requires 100% completion in order to proceed to the next area. SSR is wickedly difficult and I love it for being unapologetically nasty at times. I think I’m at around 90 sausages collected of the game’s 201 and while I’m eager to push on (I’m told that more mechanics are added later down the line) I don’t expect this to be something I’ll have finished by the end of next year, and that’s fine.
SUPERHOT is the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve been brainwashed by a program disguised as a kick-ass video game. Not only did the gameplay end up being as amazing as all the Kickstarter and in-development footage that was released, but it ended up pairing the intense action with an equally intense and mind-bending story. If you’ve seen a trailer for SUPERHOT you probably understand what the game is about, but without playing it all the way through you’re missing out on something special. The gameplay by itself makes SUPERHOT an awesome video game, but when paired with the story that it tells it becomes something more than the sum of it’s parts and will blow your mind.
Quadrilateral Cowboy is another game in the usual Blendo Games aesthetic and presented as a hacking/heisting break-and-enter simulator. The main draw of the game is the computer deck you use to control nearly everything as you hack the planet. From simple things like opening doors to and temporarily disabling cameras to navigating a tiny spy car, everything is handled from the computer deck and player is provided with a robust syntax that creates a space for incredible things to happen. Repetition is part of the fun in QuadCow, trying to optimize a route through the level and brew up the perfect one-line script to allow you to walk through the entire level without a hitch.
The freedom of possibility that the scripting in QuadCow makes the game not only fun the first time, but fun every single other time that you play through a level. On top of some amazing gameplay, the game from start to finish oozes with a retro-tech style that brought a huge grin to my face that would flare up again every once in a while as I made my way from hub to hub. It’s the perfect mix of general humor that stands by itself and specific computer humor that I always love finding in games.
Author’s note: This entire section will be me recounting my experiences trying and failing to play DOOM. If you don’t care, feel free to skip it. DOOM is fucking great and I think we all know that by now. I don’t feel inclined to gush over it nearly as much as some of the other smaller games I’ve played this year.
I’ve had a troubled relationship with DOOM this year that has ultimately ended with me failing to play through the game twice now (through no fault of the game itself). In trying to transfer the game install from an HDD to an SSD to improve some troublesome loading time my save of about 8 hours was lost to the aether. I was frustrated and ended up putting the game down for a few months, hoping to come back to it fresh.
A few months passed and I found myself with the itch again, having just heard that a center configuration for the gun models was patched in. I reinstalled Doom and in an afternoon made it roughly back to where I was before. Happy with my progress but a bit burned out I set the game down again for a few weeks, only to come back to a cruel ultimatum. The SSD I installed DOOM on was small (only 126GB, my old primary) and also had HITMAN installed on it (for similar loading time related reasons). Due to the constant addition of new content to HITMAN, the games together were now too large to fit on the same SSD and would not launch through Steam as they both required patching.
This town wasn’t big enough for two incredible AAA games and sadly DOOM lost the showdown at high noon. It was with a heavy heart that I uninstalled DOOM, but I hope one day to make my glorious return to Hell.
Another wonderful game from Zachtronics, Shenzhen I/O puts you in the shoes of a circuit programmer whose just taken up a new job at the Shenzhen Longteng Electronics Co., Ltd. If you’re familiar with another Zachtronics game TIS-1000 then you may recognize some of the moving parts here. For anyone who doesn’t code in assembly languages in their free time, TIS and Shenzhen I/O are both programming games that use their own custom ruleset and syntax.
Your boss gives you parameters for a circuit and you’re left to your own devices to read the manual and produce the desire circuit. This game is serious when it comes to the code and includes a 30+ page PDF with syntax documentation, examples, and technical diagrams for some of the later levels. You start out simple with a circuit that takes an input and increase it by a factor of 2 before moving it to the output. Subsequent levels quickly ramp up the difficulty requiring you to use multiple chips in harmony in order to produce the needed results.
Shenzhen I/O scratches and old programming itch that rears up in me every once in a while and I loved the time I spent with it. I didn’t make a ton of progress during my 7 hours in the game but the satisfaction of breaking through a puzzle I had been stuck on for a day was an amazing feeling and I feel like the further I made it through the game the more I was starting to learn and understand this bizarre language and I kind of loved it.
Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor
Diaries is perhaps my biggest regret of 2016. It’s a game I was incredible excited about when I first saw it and eagerly awaited it’s release. I was able to participate in a closed beta which I spent about four hours in delving through the mysteries of the spaceport. Ultimately I encountered a bug in the beta build, lost my save, and decided to leave the game be until release. Once release rolled around I put another hour or two into the game but I never was able to sit myself down and do the deep dive that I always wanted to.
Overall the game is great but I feel like it’s missing a key element that would make it perfect. During the beta there was no map whatsoever and the in-game map you’re given now, while thematically fitting, is lacking in meaningful content. Putting myself in the shoes of the adorable janitor protagonist, I find myself wondering why I would only have a basic map. My dream is to sit down with this game and sketch out my own map alongside a ‘Spaceport Survival Guide’ notebook. Being able to find your way around in this game is so integral that I find myself shying away in fear that I’ll ruin any progress I’ve made thus far by meandering around.
Having a detailed map that lists lotto shrines and food stalls and vendors would be an immensely useful thing to have and it boggles my mind that the protagonist has not thought to do so in all the time she’s been stranded in this dead-end job. Maybe one day I’ll get to fulfill my wish and create something amazing but until that time I’m probably going to keep talking myself out of spending time playing Diaries instead of jumping in and just taking life as it comes.
I love Minor Key Games and I wanted so badly to love Slayer Shock but I just never clicked with me. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mindset when I was playing but, unlike in Eldritch or Neon Struct, I never found myself motivated to try a stealthy approach on a given mission. I’ve heard from several people that this game is very evocative of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and maybe having never seen it is cause for my not loving the game.
The problem is there’s very little content in the game and you end up cycling through the same five maps doing the same types of missions over and over again. The first hour of this game is easily the best and after that you start to see the same maps and missions repeat. I played 5 hours of Slayer Shock and made it through to the end of season 4, sticking it out in hopes that later seasons would shake things up a bit but there was never any significant variation. The game plays great and the combat is fun but not long into the game I found a powerful weapon and combat quickly became more of a job than anything strategic. The final fights with the main villains of each season are the nearest thing to an exciting encounter but after discovering that they could mostly be tanked through use of potions the fun wore off.
It’s hard to recommend this game at a $20 but maybe whishlist this on Steam and pick it up during the next big sale just to see what it’s all about. I wish the brothers Pittman the best of luck in whatever project they move on to from here and look forward to seeing what comes next. P.S. the music in this game is incredible and I’m sad there isn’t more of it.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
I’ve not played a Metal Gear Solid game since MGS2 Substance on the original Xbox. I remember really liking the game and being drawn into the weirdness so much so that I’m surprised I haven’t touched the series since. I was hesitant to play another MGS game, especially knowing how story-heavy 5 was because I was never into the game for the story. I soldiered through the intro and finally made it out into the open world and I’m happy to say that I’ve really been enjoying myself in the 12 or so hours I’ve put in. I’m still having trouble following the story bits as they come up but I don’t feel like it’s detracting from the overall experience (yet, at least). It took a few hours to get to grips with the controls and how steal works and all the things that come with being an insane one man army but at some point it all finally clicked and I found myself storming compounds and sending all matter of things back to Mother Base. Also running around fields and trying to punch sheep. I think I’ve probably spent at least and hour doing that all told.
World of Warcraft: Legion
World of Warcraft is probably the best it’s ever been right now but I’ve still found myself with very little reason to log in every day and as of a few weeks ago I’ve returned to being unsubbed. Without question the base leveling experience has never been better, not only because of how scaling has been implemented in the Broken Isles (zones can be done in any order you feel like and enemies will match your level) but because the content itself has been top notch this expansion.
I think the thing that I really want is a version of World of Warcraft that either doesn’t have raids, or has raid-style content that can be played solo. I love the idea of truly challenging content in WoW but I hate having to relying on other people to be able to progress through content. Kingdom of Loathing is a great example of a game where I feel like I’m entirely reliant on myself to do better. I can talk with other players for hints or strategies but the execution is down to me and if I screw something up then it’s entirely on me. MMOs are inherently social games and I know that multiplayer content in WoW isn’t going anywhere, but I’d love to see more added in the way of solo content that is on-level with the current raiding tiers.
Some of the most fun I’ve had this expansion was in the first few weeks. Before raids and before mythic dungeons came out there was a very ‘every man for himself’ feeling. World quest could basically get you to the item level cap and it felt good to go out into the world and track down the quests that rewarded gear.
Legion hasn’t been without it’s faults and it’s unfortunate that some of the most egregious of them are still around. I worry that WoW is slowly turning into Diablo in the sense that random loot seems to be adopted by Blizzard as the ‘ideal method’ of players acquiring new gear. As with Diablo, the loot is statted completely at random so the likelyhood you finding a piece that is exactly right for your class and spec is unlikely to a point that the joy of getting loot in WoW has been almost entirely lost for me. The distribution of power across different legendary items within a spec is another mess that I’m amazed ever came into the game in the state that it did.
Blizzard has made promises of faster content but with Legion come issues that are far more worrying that a lack of content. I hope dearly that Blizzard will figure all of this out in a sensible way (and not doing something stupid like rebalance legendaries) and focus on making awesome content going forward.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to remember exactly why I started playing Warframe in the first place, but I’m glad I did. Gameplay-wise Warframe struck me as cyberpunk ninja version of Dynasty Warrior which, while awesome in theory, ends up just being the same kind of grind that Dynasty Warrior devolves into. But I think that’s not necessarily a bad thing. At the end of the day I played Warframe as a way to kill time and turn my brain off, and it’s great for that. Combat was fun, if repetitive, but being a cyber ninja with laser guided throwing stars and a bow and arrow never stopped being neat.
From looking on the game’s wiki I got the impression that progression was something of an arduous task and was put off from further playing when, after about 20 hours, I felt like I had not made any measurable progress. Still, I don’t regret my time with Warframe and maybe one day I’ll find myself yearning for the mind numbing violence again.
World of Tanks
My love affair with World of Tanks was brief but intense and took me completely by surprise. Maybe a month after getting my Oculus Rift I stumbled upon the VR version of World of Tanks and, starving for some new VR content, I dove in entirely unsure of what to expect. What I found was a fun and engaging tank simulator that sucked me in for a few hours before I realized what was happening. War games in general aren’t even close to my wheelhouse but nonetheless I was able to enjoy myself. ‘Immersive’ is a word that gets thrown around (and even more so now with VR being on the market) but I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel like I was puttering around in a tank, climbing over hills and moving around to strategic attack points.
I didn’t play War Thunder for more than a weekend but it still sticks out in my mind even at the end of the year as being a delightful VR experience.