I've seen a few of these articles knocking around on the internet and thought I would use the format to catch-up on some of the videogames that I've played this year, but have failed to blog about either due to time constraints or often because (ironically) I'm too obsessed playing a game to stop and write. We're over half way through the year at this point and generally speaking I don't think it's been as strong as 2015; by this time last year I had already played through about three 10/10 games. With some big hitters still to come though (No Man's Sky, The Last Guardian, Dishonored 2, Deus-Ex Mankind Divided, etc.) there's still plenty of time to turn that around. Nevertheless, here is a fairly exhaustive list of the best games I (personally) have played through this year, with some hastily thrown together ten-point ratings, of which some are re-evaluations of previous reviews.
Mirror's Edge Catalyst (8/10)
This game has actually been one of the year's biggest surprises for me, as I considered cancelling my pre-order based on the lukewarm reviews it was receiving, and hadn't played the original Mirror's Edge (despite owning it on PS3 due to a PS+ giveaway), it was with a bit of reluctance that I picked it up from my local store and gave it a spin. Mirror's Edge Catalyst is a great game in my opinion, and really captures the feeling of free-running and jumping through a dystopian-utopian city, regardless of how flat the story can feel at times the pure thrill of environmental traversal keeps the momentum up. I absolutely fell in love with the flat-white 'Apple product' aesthetic for the City of Glass, and the gorgeous electronic soundtrack that accompanies the game. The gameplay itself, while taking a bit of getting used to, is also excellent with intuitive use of the shoulder buttons and triggers for the majority of your parkour moveset, which is slowly unlocked as you progress through the game and undertake side missions as well as other optional activities.
When I first started playing, the plot seemed a bit thin and the game seemed to think I already knew the characters and their backstory, something I initially chalked up to not playing the original Mirror's Edge Game. But this isn't the case and, unfortunately, the plot is partly wrapped up within a graphic novel called Mirror's Edge Exordium, which I picked up and would also recommend reading if you want to have a better experience with the Catalyst story. The most entertaining parts of the game for me though were the 'gridnode' side activities, which reminded me a lot of a first-person puzzler like Portal, and required some abstract thinking to complete. These also open up fast travel points across the city, but I rarely used them because just getting from A-to-B is too damn satisfying, and this is always a compliment in an open world game. It's a shame that this game is largely perceived as a failure because I hope we'll get a sequel.
The often lambasted "walking simulator" is a genre of videogame that I actually very much enjoy, and so I was looking forward to playing Firewatch based on the footage I had seen and the positive reception it garnered from the gaming press. The game opens beautifully with a series text-based interludes that have you making hard decisions, filling in the backstory of protagonist Henry and his relationship with his wife, and which sets the tone for the rest of the game. You'll then be introduced to the national park wilderness, sense of isolation, and your only (disembodied) companion Dahlia, whom you can only converse with via walkie-talkie. It's a great set-up and the initial hours of the game have you performing the busywork of maintaining a national park, keeping foolish teenage tourists away during the hot summer months from unsafe areas, and looking out for signs of forest fires - the titular fire watch. After a while though, either due to the isolation or Henry's unsound state of mind, paranoia starts to creep in and you begin to get the impression that you're not alone, and that the other presence in the forest is somewhat sinister.
A lot of walking simulators limit your interaction in the environment to just setting off snippets of audio or text, and filling in the often obtuse backstory for the game. Firewatch is different though, in that the story unfolds in a familiar linear narrative, and the game has you as an active participant collecting items, figuring out how best to traverse the open environment, and frequently interacting with Dahlia through timed conversations. You get the very real sense that your actions and dialogue choices matter, and that the game is changing according to your decisions. This adds a sense of player agency to the game, and for this reason I feel like Firewatch may be my favourite walking simulator to date.
Before I picked up DOOM, I hadn't played a first-person shooter in quite a while; it was a genre that I'd grown tired of, and which seemed to have moved firmly into 'multiplayer only' territory, which doesn't interest me in the slightest. This combined with Bethesda's review embargo lasting until the last possible minute meant that DOOM wasn't even a blip on my radar, until a friend played it and recommended it wholeheartedly as something I would enjoy. I'm glad I listened! As a huge fan of the original game back on my 486, it is incredible to see the new take on a classic formula, to me this modern iteration 'feels' like DOOM, but with all new twists that reinvigorate an old-school game design and make it feel like the freshest single-player shooter in years. Firstly, gone are modern staples like iron sights or regenerating health, instead you have to keep mobile - running and jumping over and across terrain whilst pummelling shot after shot into the demonic enemy until it is weakened. At this point the expedient thing to do it close in fast and perform a "glory kill", causing the Doom Slayer marine to literally rip and tear the enemy to pieces and drop a load of health and ammo collectibles in the process; the same trick can also be executed with the chainsaw which causes tons of precious ammo to spill forth from severed entrails. Visceral is an understatement.
The game is also pretty challenging, with the designers not being afraid to overwhelm you quickly and cause you to really have to twitch-shoot and "fight like hell" to survive some encounters. In this regard it is only some of the boss fight set-pieces that are a bit of a disappointment, because often the level preceding them has offered more of a balls-to-the-wall challenge. DOOM is an absolute blast to play and this is reinforced by the frankly ridiculously awesome game engine - the graphics looks *superb*, easily being some of the best looking currently on console, but also render at a full 1080p 60fps (at least on PS4), which is just mind-blowing!! The soundtrack is also excellent, with thumping industrial-metal riffs that react to the action happening on screen, and you can always tell when demons are about to spoil your day by the volume increasing and the guitars amping up. DOOM is the first game that I have gone out and bought a pro-headset specifically for, so that I could enjoy the pounding music and concussive explosions at maximum ear-bleeding skull-crushing volume without disturbing my wife.
Dark Souls III (9.5/10)
I've already reviewed Dark Souls III in full earlier in the year when I had more time for my blog, so I don't want to repeat a lot of what I said here. Go read my review. If you can't be arsed then here' a synopsis of what I thought about the second sequel to what is one of the best videogames ever created. The tone of Dark Souls III is even more sombre and apocalyptic than usual, if you can believe that, and this time the first flame is *really* about to snuff out... for good. So, as the "ashen one" it's your task to kill the previous Lords of Cinder and use their powerful souls to link the fire once more, and keep everything ticking along as usual. As the third (kinda) iteration of a successful formula the game is incredibly solid, and with a faster pace to combat along with an expanded moveset, Dark Souls III is in many ways the zenith of this series. Or at least it would be if Bloodborne hadn't come out last year and stole it's thunder, which is why this game doesn't get a perfect 10/10 from me; despite playing it twice through back-to-back and still yearning for more - bring on the DLC! Despite being a perfection of the 'Souls series, this third game doesn't have the same 'wow' factor at the beginning and takes a while before it really hooks you in and keeps you playing, however by the end it has got some of the best designed and most memorable boss fights in the series history.
The Witcher III: Blood and Wine (9.5/10)
Not technically a full game (this is an expansion pack for last year's The Witcher III: Wild Hunt) I've included The Witcher III: Blood and Wine on this list because of its 30ish hour length and wealth of content. The main story sees protagonist Geralt of Rivia heading to the land of Toussaint, a kind of romanticised medieval France, to investigate grizzly murders of nobles popping up all over the place, but when he gets there the place is heaving with excitement over a tourney. Thus begins a series of adventures and quests that feel *very* different from the kind of content found back in war-torn Velen, as you explore chivalric virtues, knightly quests, hunt monsters, and deal with the rather more mundane requests of the residents in Toussaint. As with the main game, all the stories in Blood and Wine are expertly written and well acted (especially in Polish), with even side content feeling full and fleshed out. Rounding off the traditional quests are treasure hunts, this time for Grandmaster quality armour, and a new system involving special mutagens, which add even more customisation into Geralt's abilities. You even get to have you own home this time, with a full vineyard gifted to you early on in the game by the Dutchess of Toussaint, which you can then pour money into upgrading and restoring to its former glory; eventually adding additional staff from quests in the storyline.
The new landscape is utterly breathtaking, and with a new improved graphics engine that increases stable framerate as well as improve the draw distance, this is the best that the Witcher III (or any open world game for that matter) has ever looked. Blood and Wine also compliments this glossy veneer with an absolutely stellar soundtrack, with beautiful and haunting new melodies and themes to accompany the host of new characters, some whom are welcome faces from the Witcher novels, such as the noble vampire Regis. The choices that you make in the game also carry weight with how the story develops and the fate of some characters is ultimately decided with how you choose to play your Geralt of Rivia. Personally, I got a pretty harrowing ending to the game, and welcome the chance to return and try again in a year or so (when the english trasnlation of the final novel is released). The Witcher III: Blood and Wine is not only a fitting conclusion to one of the best open-world videogames of all time, but also the perfect ending to the epic saga started with the novels and continued by CDProjektRed. Despite this "only being DLC", this is also one of the best games released so far this year.
Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (10/10)
This is another 2016 game that I actually managed to write a blog post about and review in full, and again I would urge you to read that for my thoughts, as here I'll just offer up a short summary of what Uncharted 4 is a contender for Game of the Year. Firstly, let's get the eye-candy out of the way; this game looks phenomenal. I really didn't realise just *how* good it looked until I moved onto other games straight afterwards and they looked basic in comparison! Everything from the level design, effects work and motion capture on the characters is utterly sublime, and I can't think of a single videogame that looks as eye-watering amazing as Uncharted 4, even the high watermarks of The Order 1886 have been broken by this, as Uncharted 4 retains full interactivity with its environment throughout. The voice acting is also top-notch and drives along the strong storyline involving Nathan Drake and his brother trying to find the lost pirate colony of Libertalia, whilst also outrunning Panama drug cartels and corrupt private military companies; it's this amazing narrative that elevates Uncharted 4 above most other games. It's all very cinematic without being hands-off, and the gameplay has seen a substantial overhaul and improvement over previous entries, with a page taken out of Metal Gear Solid V's book and including large open areas benefitting a stealthy approach, as well as offering different (often very vertical) tactics for all-out combat. Overall, Uncharted 4 remains one of the high watermarks this year, and the best game in an already outstanding series.
The Witness (10/10)
A complete surprise for me this year has been the impact of Jonathan Blow's The Witness. I really liked Braid (Blow's first game) but didn't think it was the masterpiece it was made out to be, and from the trailers I just couldn't see how a whole game could be made out of a series of line puzzles, especially one that supposedly lasted around 20-30 hours! Yet, upon the games' launch early in 2016, it was met with 10/10 scores and tons of praise was heaped upon it; so I stuck it on a "to play later" list and waited for a gap in my schedule. Well now I've played The Witness, and can honestly say I think it's one of the greatest videogames I've ever played, so profound was its influence upon me that I was kept awake at night thinking about solutions to puzzles, or what the messages behind the game could be. It begins simple enough, with you solving a series of very basic line puzzles to escape from the bunker you're trapped in, and from there you're unleashed out into the open-world wilderness of the island, free to go where you will and solve the riddles of the game in an order of your choosing. It takes a while to get fully into the mindset of The Witness, and the fact that if you get stuck it's perfectly acceptable (and often the best solution) to walk away and try somewhere else before returning later. But eventually it all 'clicks' and from then on you're hooked.
The island is expertly designed. It's a true open environment, loaded with incidental detail, hidden easter eggs and mind-blowing secrets (some audaciously hidden in plain sight). The way that the game teaches you all that you need to know without any tutorials, so to speak, and trusts you to be able to figure it all out yourself it extremely refreshing in a modern climate of hand-holding and signposting. The puzzles themselves are often fiendishly difficult, and the level of challenge is right up there with 'Souls if you're looking to solve everything by the end of the game, which by the way is not the 'true' end so don't do what I did and immediately quit out once the trophy pings. The whole game is a puzzle, and piecing together the nature of the island and how it relates to clips of scietific lectures, or half-hour long clips of Russian arthouse movies is part of the attraction. The Witness is probably my favourite videogame so far this year, and in my opinion one of the very best puzzle games ever made; it's certainly a game that has got me to think about it long after I stopped playing, and even now I feel a little hole in myself where that game used to be.