Most Influential Game
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo Switch, Wii U)
Though Breath of the Wild lacks much of what I’ve come to love about the Zelda franchise, it’s still an amazing game that introduced a breath of fresh air into the open-world adventure game. think we’ll see games in late 2018 and beyond that start to incorporate the exploration and traversal mechanics from this game. Although the shrines in the game felt dull and repetitive after a while, the process of finding them was pure joy. Tucking away secrets and unexpected encounters instead of littering the map with rote sidequests is something more developers need to do in the future. And when it comes traversal, the ability to climb literally anything, anywhere added a layer of verticality and experimentation to Breath of the Wild that most open-world games don’t have. Many games make descending a tall point into a tedious walk or climb back down past things you’ve already seen and done — but Breath of the Wild’s hand-gliding mechanic made this type of traversal fast and fun. Kudos to Nintendo for rolling the dice on this one and creating a game that will stand the test of time as a masterpiece. I just hope there’s a wee bit more of the classic Zelda formula (e.g., dungeons) injected into the next entry.
Hob (PC, PS4)
Speaking of Zelda, Hob is the best Zelda game released in 2017. Seriously. If you’re a fan of puzzles, dungeons, light RPG elements, and sword combat in a vibrant and magical open world, then Hob is for you. In any other year, Hob definitely would’ve made my Top 5, but it just barely got squeezed out. Still, it’s quite the accomplishment, and I recommend everyone pick this game up. Unfortunately, Runic Games was dissolved by its parent company shortly after Hob’s release. In a year with dozens of big titles, a shorter $20 experience like Hob didn’t get the recognition it deserved.
Best Downloadable Content
The Frozen Wilds (PS4)
The Frozen Wilds is a meaty, challenging experience for only the highest level of Horizon: Zero Dawn players. The great writing, voice acting and beautiful art of the original game are all back in this pack of extra side quests and errands. Fans of Horizon won’t be able to put this one down, as it further explores the Banuk tribes and takes Aloy on an adventure to slay beasts that make those in the original game look like puppies. There’s also a new machine threat that ties into the core game’s main story, as well as sheds more light on the origins of Aloy’s mysterious benefactor, Sylens.
Best Handheld Game
Metroid: Samus Returns (Nintendo 3DS/2DS)
Don’t shrug this game off as just another Metroid II remake. There are new mechanics and areas to explore here, making this perhaps the most completely satisfying 2-D Metroid game to date. The controls are tight, the exploration is fun and thought-provoking, and the battles with aliens are challenging and beautifully animated (if you’re into stereoscopic 3-D on the 3DS, this game’s 3-D is done extremely well also). Fans of the genre will be blown away by this one, unable to put it down for hours on end until you’ve completed every nook and cranny of the map. It makes no sense why Nintendo didn’t release this on the Switch instead, but given it’s on the last bastion of handheld gaming in the market, it wins this category by far (no, I don’t consider the Switch a handheld system despite playing it in that mode the majority of the time).
Best Indie Game
Cuphead (PC, Xbox One)
Cuphead is a delight from the moment you fire it up and hear the barbershop quarter-styled title screen music. Like a brilliantly colorized 1930s cartoon, Cuphead brings plenty of whimsy and a pinch of darkness. You play as Cuphead and Mugman, two silly boys who need to settle a gambling debt with the devil by capturing the souls of other characters in the game world. By doing so, the protagonists’ own souls will be spared and their debt forgiven. The game plays like an old-school platformer with bullet-hell elements. The difficulty level (although it can be turned down) is extreme, so retro game fans who love a challenge will be right at home here. I sometimes can’t believe my eyes while I’m playing this game — I’m playing a cartoon! It’s amazing!
Best Mobile Game
Star Wars Force Arena (iOS, Android)
There are a ton of MOBAs on mobile devices, with many coming out each year. Star Wars Force Arena — for me, someone who is both a fan of touch MOBAs like Clash Royale and also of Star Wars — pushes all the right buttons (despite not having any). The heroes are well-balanced, and the broad range of cards for minions and support items from throughout the Star Wars universe are a lot of fun to collect, play with and upgrade. I had many hours of fun with this game, and I think it’s accessible enough that even newcomers to the MOBA genre will be able to quickly pick it up and play with ease.
Best Puzzle Game
Monument Valley 2 (iOS, Android)
While I enjoyed the first Monument Valley more, there still isn’t a more zen puzzle experience out there than this series. Plus, the fact that it’s on mobile devices means that you can play it just about anywhere and spend a few moments twisting and turning M.C. Escher-style art backwards, forwards, sideways and upside-down. The right mix of colorful visuals and challenging brain benders, Monument Valley 2 deserves your download.
Most Underrated Game
Mass Effect: Andromeda (PC, Xbox One, PS4)
Yes, this game reviewed terribly in the games press. Yes, it takes several hours before you get out of tutorial mode and actually get to do something fun. And yes, it’s bogged down by quest overload, UI mess and the lack of a compelling story. And yeah, it released with some pretty terrible facial animations and bugs, much of which has been patched at this point. However, Mass Effect: Andromeda is still a quality third-person, cover-based shooter, and it’s still a fun romp through space with likable (albeit, not lovable like in the first three games in the franchise) characters. I enjoyed my time with this game more than the mainstream games press would have you believe is possible. Less than a year after its release, you can find this game for $20 or less, and you’ll get a heck of a lot of content and enjoyment out of it, especially for a game at that price point.
Best Early Access Game
Dead Cells (PC)
Part rouge-lite, part Metroidvania, Dead Cells is all the hotness on Steam right now. Still in Early Access (meaning it’s not officially released and eligible for my Top 5 consideration), this game is so much fun. It uses a Souls-lite approach to combat that’s challenging as heck, but it always feels like it’s your fault when you die, not the game mechanics’ (because the controls are so, so well done). I love the retro art and level design with newer ideas from games such as Dark Souls and Rogue Legacy. Each playthrough is different, and each time you’ll immediately want to pick it back up for another run. I can’t wait to see where Dead Cells ends up at release because, even at this stage, it’s a quality gaming experience that gets me excited to play it.
Best New Edition
Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove (Nintendo Switch, PC, Wii U, 3DS/2DS, PS3, PS4, Vita, Xbox One, Amazon Fire TV)
Released first on the Nintendo Switch, then on additional platforms, the Treasure Trove edition of Shovel Knight includes not only the first original Shovel Knight game from 2014 (now renamed Shovel of Hope) and its first DLC (Plague of Shadows), but also it includes the new release Specter of Torment. This new campaign was, in my opinion, better than Plague Knight’s campaign. Overall, the full package of all three campaigns provides many hours of retro gaming goodness, and owners of the Treasure Trove will receive the upcoming battle mode and King Knight’s yet-to-be-named campaign for free.
Best New Platform Adaptation
Rocket League (Nintendo Switch)
One of my favorite games of 2015 relaunched with a bang this fall on the Nintendo Switch. The high-octane sequel to Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars came to the Switch complete with Nintendo-themed cars and decorative items. The fast-paced esports action that has taken the world by storm is even better when you can play it on the beautiful Switch screen and in handheld mode anywhere you have a Wi-Fi connection. This is now my go-to version of Rocket League, and it’s sure to see many hours of gameplay moving forward. If the idea of sports games and racing games doesn’t resonate with you, you’re not alone. But the easy-to-master controls and soccer-themed car combat is a perfect formula for immeasurable fun.
Best Episodic Game
Life is Strange: Before the Storm (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Continuing the tradition started by the original Life is Strange, Before the Storm — a prequel consisting of only three episodes (the latter is yet to be released as of the time of publication) — explores teenage life in a rural Washington town with a bit of a subtle supernatural twist. As with the original, the writing here is superb, and the voiceover cast is also still great. I don’t usually enjoy the point-and-click style adventure games or walking simulators, and this game is kind of a combination of both. However, the characters are so interesting, and the decisions you make in-game always turn out to matter so much, that Life is Strange pulls me in every time a new episode releases. I genuinely want to spend time with these characters. And I want to learn more about the outcomes of Before the Storm and how these events color the lens through which I view my experience with the original game (which, as I’ve written about before, is a masterpiece worthy of extolling). Presumably, what happens by the end of the third episode will also have some impact on the true sequel to Life is Strange that’s in development. Don’t play Before the Storm if you haven’t played the original Life is Strange — but go, now, and play both!
Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PC)
Earning the most-played game status on Steam with a concurrent online player count peaking at more than 2 million (and 20+ million copies sold in total) is an achievement of its own. But for a game that’s still in Early Access? Unheard of. The game is so popular that it even got a nomination for Game of the Year from The Game Awards. For the record, PUBG wasn’t eligible for my Top 5 list because it hasn’t been officially released yet. And, although I had fun trying out some matches, I found that PUBG’s hurry-up-and-wait Battle Royale-inspired gameplay isn’t something I can see myself playing a lot of. Yet, PUBG’s impact on the industry this year is undeniable, and many other games are starting to focus on the battle royale format entirely or release inspired modes. For that reason, I think PUBG is the most unexpected story in gaming this year and its Breakout Star.
Most Wasted Potential
Star Wars Battlefront II (PC, Xbox One, PS4)
Oh boy. Where to begin? Battlefront II started the year as one of my most-anticipated games. And I stand by the fact that its campaign, while short even for a typical multiplayer shooter campaign, was very good and something every hardcore Star Wars fan will enjoy. But few games have such egregiously poorly designed progression systems and blatantly anti-consumer microtransaction models that they invite government investigations from the U.S. all the way to Australia. It’s clear that EA had absolutely no real plan for monetizing this game, so much so that Disney had to step in at the last minute and shut down key systems in the multiplayer progression design for fear the Star Wars brand was being tarnished. Now, less than a month after release, the game is essentially dead. Queues for multiplayer matches go on forever, games that do start often don’t have full teams, and the loot crate situation still isn’t fixed and remains totally disabled. As much as I enjoy X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter combat, I don’t enjoy waiting forever to find enough people who haven’t become disenchanted with the game in order to begin a match. I want to love this game so much. It’s Star Wars through and through, from the music, to the beautiful visuals, to the lovable characters. The developers did an amazing job making something that went far beyond the game’s predecessor, and yet publisher EA stepped in and ruined it like they’re apt to do.
Best Creative (Writing, Art & Sound Design)
Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (PS4)
As I said in my 2016 Top 5 show, Uncharted 4 is the best-looking video game I have ever seen. It’s a graphical masterpiece with a compelling adventure story and wonderful voice acting and music to boot. The Lost Legacy is from the same team, using the same engine. It was originally planned as DLC but instead morphed into a standalone full game experience, and it’s absolutely deserving of that honor. It continues the tradition started by Uncharted 4 in every way, standing apart in the gaming world for its wonderful use of color, motion capture, quality voice acting, moving music and exciting story. The Lost Legacy is a creative wonder.
Best Overall Story
Horizon: Zero Dawn (PS4)
For me, Horizon: Zero Dawn just barely comes out ahead of The Lost Legacy when standing on writing alone. I think the dialogue is just a little more interesting, and I do have a preference for good science fiction stories. The marriage of machines and something representing prehistoric life on Earth is a splendid idea, and the overarching narrative borrows some from works of art I’ve enjoyed outside of video games, such as the Xenozoic Tales comics of the 1980s and ’90s. There’s much more here to the story than is evident at the start of the game, and the journey Aloy goes on is memorable and emotional as she discovers not only what happened to Earth’s former inhabitants but also more about who she really is. Furthermore, even the sidequests in Horizon are written so that you have a real desire to complete them. They aren’t boring fetch quests or run-of-the-mill rinse-and-repeat sidequests that litter Ubisoft open world games. They are meaningful moments that either expand Aloy’s abilities and/or lend insight into the world’s narrative. I also enjoy that the story is told in acts that have a clear beginning, middle and end, and the game feels conclusive in its ending while leaving a modicum of room for a sequel.
Best Game Mechanics
Horizon: Zero Dawn (PS4)
Trap, shoot, stab, bomb, tie down, shock, freeze, set on fire, poison, trip, sneak, ride… any way you want to approach a given situation in Horizon: Zero Dawn is possible. Never has an open-world game ever felt so open in its mechanics as well. The combat and traversal controls are precise and fun. The crafting and inventory management UI is sublime. And skill trees are meaningful and usable. The game also does a great job of guiding the player through objectives without hand-holding. And the abilities to create your own quests to find crafting materials or to fast travel at any time, just as a couple of examples, are subtle gameplay mechanics that not every game gets so right. I never want to play another game of this style that doesn’t offer the options and game design lessons learned from Horizon.
Best New Character
2B (Nier: Automata, PC, PS4)
If you take on the challenge of completing all of Nier: Automata’s endings, you come to realize 2B is more than just your typical android combatant. Her past contains secrets that impact how you come to view the story of this world, some of which are only evident when seeing 2B through the eyes of the other playable characters in the game. Not only does 2B’s personality and story have ridiculously strong pull, but also her character model is a memorable, iconic one. The blindfolded eyes, stark white hair and revealing black dress, mixed with the ever-present katana and broadsword equipment on her back, give the player an interesting and appealing character to spend dozens of hours with. Although I doubt we ever get more of 2B in a game, I would love to play as her again. She’s a badass hero whose self-sacrifice is overshadowed only by her lack of control over her own destiny.
Pyre (PC, Xbox One, PS4)
Sigh. Sigghhhhh. Deep breath. This one is sad. I am a super, super fan of SuperGiant Games, the creators behind Bastion and Transistor. Bastion is one of my favorite games of all time. But Pyre was kind of a flop. It was one of my most-anticipated games of 2017, and I even thought it would have an underdog chance of making my GOTY. But it turned out to be hours upon hours of text-only dialogue screens with a few gameplay moments sprinkled throughout. Don’t get me wrong — the core gameplay, the Pyre ‘sport,’ is very fun. The characters are well-designed and balanced. I could play lots of that game. But the main game doesn’t give you much opportunity to do that, it’s not especially challenging (I got the platinum trophy with relative ease), and they didn’t include an online multiplayer mode. Pyre has been quickly relegated to the back of my mind, and I won’t be so fast to jump on the bandwagon for SuperGiant’s fourth release, whatever it is.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of War (PC, Xbox One, PS4)
How we could go from the amazingness that was Shadow of Mordor to the utter garbage of Shadow of War is beyond me. The only saving grace here is that the visuals are stellar and the tried-and-true fun of the melee combat returns. But the quest structure and story are throw-away annoyances, the online components are meaningless, the loot-box-i-fication of everything is laughable, the fortress system is a distraction from the core gameplay, and on top of all of it — bugs, game-breaking bugs everywhere! I returned my copy after getting stuck in walls for the third time.
And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for….
2017 Top 5 Games of the Year
Here they are, folks. All elements considered together, I think if you don’t play anything else from 2017, you need to make sure you play these five games:
5. Nier: Automata (PC, PS4)
This game starts when it ends. It lets you customize upgrades to fit your own style. It has a crazy sci-fi story like nothing else. The characters are interesting and lovable, and you get to play as more than one of them. In fact, although you’ll spend most of your time in third-person, action/adventure combat in an open world, you’ll also do other things, including levels that are reminiscent of old-school shoot ’em ups in a space ship (or, mech, in this case). There are so many little hidden things to discover in Nier: Automata that will make you smile when you figure them out. It’s a real achievement. The only thing keeping it from being higher up the list is the fact that the navigation/traversal system needs some work, but don’t let that stop you because it gets better after a few hours into the game and is a minor quibble. Play. This. Game.
4. Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo Switch)
I had very low expectations for this game. I tend to prefer more traditional 2-D or World-style Mario games to the 3-D and more open Mario games. And even then, not since the SNES would I ever probably put a Mario game in my top five for the year. But Mario Odyssey is something special. It takes that Hmm, maybe there’s something hidden around that corner feeling you have when playing a Nintendo platformer and cranks it to 11. This game constantly rewards you and goes from a zen, leaned-back experience very gradually to an edge-of-your-seat hardcore gamer platformer during the post-endgame. It’s the perfect game for just about anyone, and you’ll be humming along to the music with a smile on your face at every turn. One downside? Nintendo just had to throw some motion controls in there, but they fortunately don’t detract from many areas of the game.
3. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (PS4)
For all the reasons I mentioned above in regards to the creative, plus some wonderful gameplay mechanics moments, The Lost Legacy gets my number three spot. This game is just as good as, if not better than, Uncharted 4. It’s difficult to talk about why without spoiling it because the discovery and peeling back layers of the adventure are part of what makes it so fun. Chloe and Nadine are the perfect buddy cop-style couple, and I also love the game’s pacing because it combines slower exploratory levels with fast-paced action and gunplay. I do wish Naughty Dog had left out the over-the-shoulder QTE fist fights in a couple parts of the game, but they’re over with quickly enough.
2. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle (Nintendo Switch)
If you had told me in January that this game would A) be real and B) make my number-two spot, I would’ve laughed you out of the building. But it’s true. All of it. I love, love, love strategy games, and this is the perfect blend of Final Fantasy Tactics, Super Mario RPG and XCOM. Yeah, I could do without Ubisoft’s hokey Rabbids, but they make for a fine set of villains. Customizing my party before each battle and then unleashing my strategy (sometimes to complete, utter failure) was such a blast! I also enjoyed how some traditional Mario map traversal and level exploration was built in as slower pacing in between the more difficult turn-based battles. If you slept on this one because it looks so different from anything else on consoles right now, wake up! Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is a meaty, but accessible, strategy game for all ages. And it’s a contender for the best game not only this year, but also on the Nintendo Switch or any of the last few Nintendo consoles.
1. (Game of the Year) Horizon: Zero Dawn (PS4)
And we have arrived. (You didn’t scroll all the way down here first, did you?) Look, I’ve already sung Horizon’s praises above for its mechanics, storytelling and unbelievably good DLC. Guerrilla Games delivered not just a great open-world action/adventure RPG, but also they made one of the best games of all time. That’s not hyperbole. Horizon belongs in every gamer’s library. From start to finish, it’s interesting, challenging, fun and offers multiple options for how players can enjoy it. Technically, it’s a true work of art. In a year of dozens of amazing games that could’ve taken the cake alone in any other year, only Horizon stands heads above them all, looking down from its triumphant spot at number one.