My favorite games of 2016

Just a few weeks ago, I posted my favorite movies of 2016. I’m not a particularly big movie buff, as I said. The same isn’t true for games, as video games are still my go-to hobby. As a big fancy adult, I have a gaming PC and all three current-gen consoles: Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Wii U (until March’s Switch release, that is). I think I like video games so much because they offer truly unique experiences, and interactivity and skill components allow for a much wider range of experiences than passive films, books, or television.

The thing with games is that they take a lot longer to finish than movies do–I played 2015’s Witcher 3 in 2016, and it took 70 hours to get to the end of the game, which is like sitting through a standard-length movie 35 times. And some games are open-ended experiences with no natural close; I’ve played 413 hours of Rocket League to date, another 90 of Overwatch, and I’ll play more of each.

I’ve played a baker’s dozen games from 2016, some big, some small. Here are my top games of 2016.

HONORABLE MENTION – Uncharted 4

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I’m of two minds about Uncharted 4, which is why it appears on list list but only as honorable mention.

On one hand, Uncharted 4 is an amazing, fabulous game. The combat is by far the best in the series, the puzzles are rewarding, the characterization deep and intriguing. In 2016, when all big games look great, Uncharted 4’s attention to detail and excellent art direction are unmatched, as is the music. Naughty Dog, the developers, took a hard look at what made Uncharted great and brought the best of what the competition had been doing over the last few years to Uncharted. Uncharted 4 is the best action/adventure game you will play in a long, long time.

It is also completely unnecessary. This is the fourth one. We know what happens. Nathan Drake shoots, punches, and climbs in a valiant attempt to get to a legendary treasure. There are better-equipped bad guys who show up right when Drake finishes the next part of the puzzle to take his information. Functionally, this is like the other Uncharted games, except for the part that Uncharted 3 had a really nice, nonchalant, ‘ride into the sunset’ ending already, and it also did all the things that Uncharted 4 does (albeit less gracefully). Uncharted 4’s biggest difference is that it is ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic,’ both of which are ironic calling cards for a franchise whose main character is equal parts world-class climber, deadly commando, and invincible smartass. That Naughty Dog didn’t let it go is a disservice.

Thankfully, it’s a minor disservice, because the game is baller.

BRONZE MEDAL – Fire Emblem: Fates

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Fire Emblem: Fates is like Fire Emblem: Awakening, only not as good. Its characters are less consistently interesting, the marriage/child mechanics make way less sense, and though it changes things up somewhat, it doesn’t really introduce anything particularly new into the gameplay.

But you know what? Awakening is the best Fire Emblem ever and one of my favorite games of all time, so a lite version of that is plenty fine. Awakening is Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and Fates is his first–it’s not the best, sure, but it’s better than most other things. Besides, Fates does do something legitimately interesting, which is splitting the narrative into two sides of the same coin. You were raised by Kingdom B, but were born into Kingdom A. You can either decide to stick with Kingdom B, your adopted family you’ve known your whole life, or Kingdom A, the strangers who are your biological family. Either choice allows you to pursue justice, that being taking down Kingdom B’s evil sociopathic ruler, but from different paths.

The game is immense, and both versions of the story are technically their own game, with a third story available once you’ve beaten the other two. Still, they feel a part of a connected story–the varying versions of the game feel like expansion packs more than new experiences (remember when expansion packs were a thing and not DLC? oh, days of yore).

When I get into a Fire Emblem game, I get INTO IT. It consumes me for days, weeks at a time. Fates did that, too, for a long time.

SILVER MEDAL – Quantum Break

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There’s an awful lot of science fiction that deals with time, either time loops, time travel, relativity, or pausing of time. Quantum Break does all of that, and then it adds its own wrinkle: the End of Time, where time ceases to flow throughout the universe.

As a sci-fi geek, Quantum Break’s narrative premise hooked me immediately (not unlike Roadhog, HAHAHAHAHA #intergamejoke). It’s hard to present a new take on an old sci-fi standard, but Quantum Break somehow pulls it off.

From a gameplay perspective, you are Jack Joyce, who gets super time powers from a sticky situation involving a time machine accident. These powers add great flavor to an otherwise standard cover-based first person shooter. You can cause time explosions (yeah, I don’t know either), stop time to run over and punch someone, dash, put up a time shield (otherwise called an alarm clock), or place time bubbles around enemies.

I love Quantum Break for two reasons: these powers make the game fun, and that’s why you play games. But the narrative, a intriguing, layered, dense romp through and around time itself, adds more fun to the fun. Interspersed with the gameplay sections are honest-to-goodness live action TV episodes that flesh out the story, and the decisions you make in game will effect the show itself. Too bad the episodes are…bad. They’re bad. But the idea is interesting.

Look, Uncharted 4 is a better game. But I won’t apologizing for liking Quantum Break more. It presses all of the right buttons for me.

GOLD MEDAL – Titanfall 2

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Many moons ago, some of my friends and I were sick of playing the same things over and over again. That thing was, mostly, Halo 4, with some Minecraft thrown in. Then, this beautiful game called Titanfall came out, and it looked fantastic. So, we bought it day one, and we played it, and it was fantastic.

Then, two years later, Titanfall 2 came out, we played it, and it was even more fantastic. See, the first Titanfall was multiplayer only. Since it was multiplayer only, it was extremely polished, balanced, and fun. It did have this super bizarre ‘multiplayer campaign’ to simulate a single player campaign…but is was just a series of multiplayer games with longer intros before the game itself. The original Titanfall also split its player base by including paid DLC that nobody bought.

Titanfall 2 is a wholesale improvement on a great premise. Its multiplayer is just as good, and developer Respawn and publisher Electronic Arts wisely decided to follow the Halo 5, ‘all DLC is free’ model, so everyone will get the new things rather than a select few.

And: single player. Titanfall 2 has a proper single player mode. It plays as if Nintendo designed an FPS campaign. That is, more or less, perfection. It’s the best FPS campaign I’ve ever played, Halo and the original Modern Warfare included.

Of all the games I’ve played this year, none like Titanfall 2 made me say aloud, “Wow, this is amazing” as many times. That’s why it wins the Michael Phelps Medal (aka: Gold).

 

 

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My favorite movies of 2016

Look: I’m not a film buff. My knowledge of film-making is superficial, I’ve never made a creative film, and my bar for enjoying movies is very low.

That being said, I like lists, I like good entertainment, and while I don’t have any film training, I have an analytical mind that can’t stop thinking about the ‘how’ or ‘why’ of something. So…I’ve a list!

I self-select for movies a lot, meaning I don’t go and see something I might like; I value my time and I am risk averse when trying new things. That being said, I still saw a dozen movies released this year, all in the theaters. Doing a top ten would be silly with that number, so I’ll stick with the tried-and-true method of assigning differently-colored metallic alloys to my top three films, with an honorable mention because this is my blog and I have that power.

Lacking ados of the further variety, etc.:

HONORABLE MENTION – Rogue One

Rogue One is most definitely a Star Wars movie, but you get the distinct feeling that it doesn’t really believe that. There are an awful lot of sly references to the other movies, some of which are pretty neat, and others of which are the equivalent of a kid in school boasting about how his uncle knows Kevin Bacon (said uncle actually just ran into K-Bac one time at Denny’s).

The film also can’t really decide if it wants to be spy thriller, buddy comedy, or action movie, and it juggles some great characters (Jyn, K-2SO) with some that just sort of feel like they are just there because why not (everyone else).

If it feels like I’m harping on this a lot, since this is a Star Wars movie, I have to explain why it’s not one of my favorite movies and not the other way around.

I still like it a ton, of course. The music is fantastic and surpassed all my expectations (it’s the first and hitherto only Star Wars film without the legendary John Williams at the helm). It ends brilliantly. It’s fun and exciting. Darth Vader is in it and does things. It is consistently beautiful, not in the “nice CG” way but the “wow, this is fantastic art direction” way.

It’s a Star Wars movie. But it’s not a STAR WARS MOVIE.

BRONZE MEDAL – Arrival

Arrival is the rare science fiction movie that’s also a critical darling – it’s got a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and has a pair of Golden Globe nominations (one for Amy Adams for Best Actress, the other for Johan Johannsson for Best Original Score).

You know why? It’s amazing, that’s why.

To elaborate: it’s thrilling despite a lack of use of violence, thought-provoking without being haughty, personal at the same time as grandiose. It’s got an excellent score and, most importantly, feels unique, an extraordinary achievement in the land of big-budget science fiction glut.

Science fiction, at its best, offers a glimpse into humanity in a way that literally nothing else can do. Arrival is science fiction at its best. It’s a beautiful movie, too, on a micro and a macro level. It’s never cheesy, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and presents bizarre circumstances in believable ways. Go see it.

SILVER MEDAL – Zootopia

There was a moment in Zootopia where I sort of looked around the theater and thought to myself, “Gee, Disney, this is awfully on the nose.” The film tackles themes like prejudice, racism, redemption, and adjusting to a place where you are completely on your own and nobody believes in you.

At this point I would like to reiterate that, yes, Zootopia is an animated movie and, yes, it’s still a hilarious blast.

Zootopia has a great world filled with interesting characters and a story it needs, and wants, to tell. It’s funny when it needs to be, serious when it has to be, and is always charming.

It’s so confident of itself that its main trailer (embedded above) was just a clip of the movie. That was, in and of itself, a brilliant move.

Zootopia is so good, I hope it never gets a sequel. It will. But one can dream.

GOLD MEDAL – La La Land

Why do we watch movies? To get away from it all? To see spectacle? To emotionally engage with relatable characters and get swept off our feet?

La La Land does it all, a modern musical movie where that just doesn’t happen in live action film anymore. La La Land, or L3 if you want to be really annoying and hipster, wins the Gold for many reasons. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are fantastic. The music is superb. I’m a sucker for unconventional and/or bittersweet endings, which the movie provides.

The biggest, though, is that it captivates and it never lets go. It reaches for the stars, knowing full well that reaching for the stars is impractical and impossible, but it does so anyway. It succeeds.