Joe Parlock's Games of the Year 2017Maybe this year wasn't so bad?
It’s funny what games stick with you when you don’t have the time to play all of them. Between finishing up a degree and then getting sepsis and almost dying, I’ve wound up spending more time this year either parsing wanky academic language or in bed than playing the games I spent so long looking forward to.
That also means, though, that the games I did get to play feel all the more special to me. Not being up to leaving the house for months at a time (no, really, sepsis sucks) means the distractions become all the more comforting. I’m sure in a year with Horizon: Zero Dawn, Persona 5, Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey, the list you’re about to see might look strange, but they all hold a special place for me.
I hope there are at least a few you haven’t heard of before now and like the look of. I like to give these awards and air of officiality and importance, but, at the end of the day, the whole point of them is to frantically wave the games I’ve loved in your face with the hope you’ll enjoy them as just as much as I did.
As usual, for a game to be included in this list it had to have had its initial, full release in 2017. Games still in early access, and straight rereleases of older games are therefore excluded. As much as I’d have loved to include Kingdom Hearts 1.5 + 2.5 HD remix, or City of Brass, or All Walls Must Fall, their times in the limelight have either come and gone, or they’re just around the corner.
And so, without further ado, let’s get this show on the road.
#10 - CUPHEAD
Cuphead and I didn’t get off to a great start. For some bizarre reason, I was one of the unlucky few who was plagued by technical problems, freezes and wiped save files, meaning I didn’t see past the first few bosses for roughly the first month of the game’s life. I persevered, tried every fix I could find, and eventually managed to get things working. Oh boy, am I glad I did.
Being the total animation nerd I am, the Fleischer-inspired style immediately appealed, and Cuphead’s commitment to it really bring the game to life. It’s not just the animation that sells it; the fantastic character designs and audio direction, and Cuphead is easily one of the most visually pleasing and cohesive games of this year. That isn’t exactly a unique viewpoint to have, though, seeing as the art style was the entire selling point of the game, but god damn is this game pretty.
How it looks aside, Cuphead feels great to play. Every shot feels weighty, parries are snappy, and the multitude of upgrades and modifiers help add a sense of experimentation to the proceedings. There’s a moreish quality to the boss fights, combining easily-identifiable attack patterns and pick-up-and-play sensibilities with utterly rock hard, unforgiving encounters that makes dying for the fiftieth time in a row still a delight.
Oh, and I still have the theme tune stuck in my head months later.
#9 - ODE
Developed by Ubisoft Reflections, the team behind the wonderful Grow Home and Grow Up, Ode is a delightful musical journey through alien landscapes. It’s a simple game: collecting orbs, working out your various abilities to bring back music and colour to what initially looks like a dead world, but it is a beautiful experience none-the-less.
The world is an instrument you’ve never encountered before, and your job is to play it. Experimenting with your character’s limitations and throwing caution to the wind to interact with the environment rewards you with a jam session featuring the entire level in what is easily the best audio design of this year.
Ode also breaks my heart, because it is a small, experimental game published exclusively on Ubisoft’s Uplay platform, which means it’s not being given the best possible chance of being appreciated in a space dominated by Steam, Origin and GOG. Whether you have problems with Uplay or not, you absolutely owe it to yourself to pick up Ode.
#8 - SONIC MANIA
I’ve never been on board with the whole “only 2D Sonic is good” thing. Sonic 2 is my all-time favourite game, but the backlash against the 3D games feels a lot like the ‘genwunner’ phenomenon in Pokemon, where people’s nostalgia turns from something nice into vilification of anything new or different. But there is one thing me and the 2D-or-die crowd can agree on, and that is Sonic Mania is the best Sonic game in at least half a decade, if not more.
Sonic Mania follows the ill-fated Sonic 4 in attempting to bring back the side scrolling focus of the early Sonic games. Mania succeeds where 4 failed, though, because it is reverent of the series’ past without being chained down by it. Sure it’s 16-bit, and sure it brings back many stages from previous games, but it isn’t afraid to remix, experiment and play with our long-standing understanding of how a Sonic game should play.
The remixed levels introduce enough new areas and mechanics to feel refreshed (as opposed to Sonic 4’s way of just aping the visual style and hoping for the best), while the wholly original zones are some of the most creative and gorgeous ones we’ve seen in Sonic for a long time. Press Garden, Studiopolis and Mirage Saloon are all utterly fantastic, and are the highlights of a game that could’ve so easily ridden a wave of blind nostalgia.
You can really tell Sonic Mania was made by Sonic fans. It’s full of love for the blue blur, and that love is backed up by an intimate understanding of what makes Sonic so enduring.
#7 - DISHONORED: DEATH OF THE OUTSIDER
I didn’t get on with Dishonored: Death of the Outsider at first. Coming from Dishonored 2, which I was slightly disappointed by, Outsider felt too small in its level design and systems to hit the highs of the first game. After persevering with it, though, it became apparent that Death of the Outsider may be smaller than either game that came before it, but with that scale comes a laser focus on systems and willingness to take the series in some surprising directions for its final act.
The story ends major threads that have run through the entire series, most importantly of which being the Outsider himself. Concluding a story set in such a detailed, historied world would seem like an impossible task, but Arkane managed to do it astonishingly well. It doesn’t answer everything, but it answers enough and gives you enough time to say goodbye to the world we’ve been exploring for five years now.
Story aside, Death of the Outsider proves, yet again, that Arkane is the master of interwoven systems. The AI is more effective, and the powers simply beg for experimentation. In particular the ability to steal and wear an NPC’s face, turning the game into Hitman more than Thief, is a highpoint for all three of the games.
It isn’t a perfect Dishonored game – it reuses levels like there’s no tomorrow, and the interactions between powers could’ve been better -, but Death of the Outsider leaves me with fond memories of the Dishonored world, and that’s all anyone could ever ask of it.
#6 - OPUS MAGNUM
Puzzle games are not my thing at all. Spending hours staring at a single puzzle doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest, I’d much rather have a snappy, speedy game that doesn’t give me enough time to ponder on my own fragile existence. For Opus Magnum, the latest puzzler from Spacechem dev Zachatronics, to appear so high up in this list, then, should go a way to explaining just how good it is.
Opus Magnum places you in the shoes of an Alchemist caught up in a battle between rival houses. By programming a variety of levers, pulleys and tracks, your job is to automate the alchemical processes required to make all manners of materials, from hair gel to rocket fuel.
There isn’t only one solution to any of Opus Magnum’s puzzles – instead you can choose to make it as efficient, visually pleasing, cheap, or fast as you like in a totally freeform environment. Creating, testing and refining your processes to make the optimal solution is a job that’s never done, but is always satisfying. It’s much more approachable than Zachatronics’ previous titles, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t spent literally days mulling over how to best calcify an element.
#5 - SPINTIRES: MUDRUNNER
Now technically this should fall under the “no remasters” rule, as Spintires: Mudrunner is, for all intents and purposes, a remaster of 2014’s excellent off-roading sim Spintires. However, I reckon when you give a game a 90% and call it one of the best in its genre in your review, you kind of have to include it on the GOTY list somewhere.
Mudrunner’s biggest success is in its accessibility. The first Spintires was a somewhat tricky game to crack, and that’s considering the inherent difficulty of the simulator genre. Mudrunner streamlined the controls, mostly improved the camera, and, most importantly of all, added in a kickass tutorial and challenge system to help newcomer learn the ropes.
Mudrunner is a beautifully messy game. It’s brutal in how much mud and water and overall mess it throws between your truck and its goal, and it never, ever lets up in that. A 300 metre journey can feel like a thousand miles with every inch a struggle, but overcoming the environment and hauling your multi-tonne truck across a bog without sinking makes the tears worth it.
#4 - PREY
Damn, Arkane really killed it this year. Before Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, it released a reimagining of 2006’s cult favourite Prey. It has no returning characters, backstory or setting, making it a Prey game in name only, but that just makes it one of the most interesting and original new properties of this year.
Prey puts you in the skin-tight red spacesuit of Morgan Yu as they make their way through the Talos One space station following an outbreak of shapeshifting aliens called the Typhon. In true Arkane fashion, the Typhon can be dealt with however the player needs to, be it through stealth or a louder approach, and Morgan can augment themselves with a whole host of powers… at a cost.
Where Dishonored feature supernatural assassins who can bend the very fabric of reality to their whim, Prey is a much more fraught journey. Morgan can do some amazing things to be sure, but it always feels desperate and improvised – doing anything and everything against an impossible enemy. Every decision made has significant consequences that can change the entire course of the game, and you’re very rarely given the information you’d like to make an educated choice.
Moreover, there are some fantastic tools available to Yu. The GLOO cannon is easily the best weapon in any game this year thanks to the creative versatility it affords to any encounter, and Talos One is littered with fantastical tech that sells the setting (I want a Looking Glass in my room so badly).
Prey isn’t all that scary, even if it sometimes tries to be. That doesn’t matter, though, because its tense atmosphere and starkly clinical setting put a memorable slant on the systems-sandbox that Arkane has become known. Even months later, I can’t stop thinking about Prey.
#3 - MIDDLE-EARTH: SHADOWS OF WAR
I know next-to-nothing about Lord of the Rings. I haven’t seen the movies or read the books, and the Shadow games are the only ones I’ve played in that world. Lord of the Rings is one of those bizarre cultural cornerstones that passed me by, even though I love fantasy.
That hasn’t detracted from my love for Shadow of War though. It’s the smartest, yet stupidest power fantasy we’ve had this year by a country mile, and it’s one that somehow managed to improve on its almost-perfect predecessor in every single way.
The Nemesis system, which turns the enemies from unmemorable procedurally generated Uruks into vibrant emergent stories of rivalry and revenge, has been pushed into hyperdrive for this sequel. Capturing forts, building your armies with dominated foes, and the infrequent betrayals in the middle of a frantic fight all build Shadow of Mordor’s main selling point into something truly special.
Talion and Celebrimbor, the double-act at the heart of the series, are astonishingly fun to control, too. Dancing through a horde of Uruks, vaulting up cliff-faces in a supernatural blur, warping around the battlefield and leaving a trail of guts and gore wherever you go is so much fun that I often found myself distracted from the main mission at hand.
Shadow of War is simultaneously the smartest and stupidest, over-the-top power fantasy we’ve had this year by, and it’s one that somehow managed to improve on its almost-perfect predecessor in every single way. If 2017 hadn’t been such a stellar year, this could’ve easily been in the top spot.
#2 - DESTINY 2
As much as I tried to, the original Destiny and I just didn’t click. Whether it was because I was knee-deep in The Division at the time, or if it was because I’m awful at using controllers for FPS games, I don’t know. I’m sure the inaccessible story didn’t help matters, but I always wound up bouncing off it after a couple of days of trying.
Destiny 2, on the other hand, has consumed my life since it launched for PC at the end of October. Its campaign is much stronger and its systems much more clearly explained. It isn’t the second life you expect from an MMO, but I do find myself constantly returning to it to grind out flashpoints and patrols, or a quick blast in Crucible mode every now and then.
Best of all, Destiny 2’s a game I can follow for the foreseeable future. We’re only a few months into Year One, and only one expansion has been released. With The Division winding down, I’ve missed having a game I can be excited about, pour through patch notes, and get stuck in to the incremental updates. That is all part of the fun for me, and so far it has delivered on that.
#1 - ASSASSIN'S CREED ORIGINS
Come on, did you really expect it to be anything else?
I wasn’t all that happy when it was announced Assassin’s Creed would be skipping 2016. I thought Assassin’s Creed Syndicate was a phenomenal game full of clever improvements to the series and dripping with atmosphere and charm. I was worried a year away meant Ubisoft would ditch what Syndicate did so well, and instead try and reinvent the wheel. It kind of did – feeling more like a successor to Black Flag than any other entry – but Origins convinced me maybe it was a wheel that really did need a bit of sprucing up.
Egypt the first century BC is recreating in stunning scale and detail. It’s by far the best-looking game out at the moment, with its vistas and landmarks making it a joy to explore and just take in. From Letopolis to Siwa, there’s never a moment in Origins that doesn’t look like it was made with care and thought. Considering just how ludicrously big the open world is, the environments alone solidify Origins’ place at the top of my list.
But then you get to the rest of the game. The writing is surprisingly good, with Bayek being a nuanced, emotional, likable character full of personality and conflict. His loving relationship with Aya and devotion to his religion is incredibly refreshing in a series full of gruff dudes in hoods being not much more. The story is full of twists and turns, and its backdrop of mounting tensions between Greeks, Romans and Egyptians gives the events a tint of uncertainty. The series has always been about secret struggles for the fate of society itself, but none of them has ever shown how tenuous those fights can be until Origins.
Origins also saw the series complete its shift into RPG territory, replete with side-quests to solve, challenging enemies to fight, and loot to seek out. The reworked combat adds a level of difficulty not seen in Assassin’s Creed before, while still giving you the sense of being a highly trained killing machine when things go to plan.
Assassin’s Creed is my favourite series of games, and Origins successfully pushes it in a new and exciting direction. It’s a cleverly written game, and its world challenges the likes of Grand Theft Auto V and The Witcher 3 in terms scale and detail. Bayek came along, saw my concerns about the future of the series, and gave them a well-deserved blade to the jugular.
2017’s been rough for everyone, but I want to take this opportunity to thank you for sticking around and helping make Let’s Play Video Games the wonderful site it is. Thank you to the Discord group for being lovely, kind people, thank you to everyone whose shared jokes in the Facebook group, and thank you to everyone who’s ever tweeted at us or dropped by our (terribly infrequent, we’re fixing that next year) streams.
Here’s to 2018 being a much better year than 2017!