Arcadian Invaders

The Games of 2016

In 2016 we bade farewell to Arcadian Rhythms. This was the biggest event in my 2016 gaming calendar and had significant knock-on effects. My gaming mentality and patterns of consumption transitioned from “I will play interesting things and write about them” to “I’ll play whatever I feel like”. Over the ensuing nine months I’ve played fewer games overall and have ‘finished’ (in the sense of having seen the end credits, or whatever) perhaps a third as many as in the preceding five years.

I suspect I’m also spending less time playing games than I once did. Part of this is a side-effect of growing older and finding more of my time consumed with other shit. Part of it is my own inherent flightiness; I have a lot of interests and they compete for my time. But there are innumerable factors, really. Working in the games industry again might be one, ironically enough. So too might be Britain’s continuing descent into authoritarianism and barbarism.

Still, we all could use a moment’s respite from the unremitting horror of global capitalism and the collapse of the neoliberal consensus, and Arcadian Rhythm’s AJ has already inspired me with his top games of 2016. Once you’re done with his, maybe come back and check out mine?

(5) Cook, Serve, Delicious!

I’m a little embarrassed to have just the one indie title on my main list of games (I’ve tried to beef up my flagging man-writing-about-games cred via the honourable mentions list) but I’m not at all ashamed for that title to be 2013’s fantastic Cook, Serve, Delicious!

I’ll admit that I wasn’t too enticed when I first heard of this GameMaker-based catering simulator, despite reading positive reviews. It wasn’t until I learned of its asymmetric co-operative multiplayer that I was interested. I’m always after games to play with my significant other, particularly local co-op games, and here Cook, Serve, Delicious has established a new bar.

One player acts as the chef and the other controls the pass, two distinct areas which ordinarily one player would handle themselves. It may seem odd to take the components of a single player game and slice them neatly in half but it works very well, and despite the game’s cartoony premise is probably closer to how a team works in a small kitchen than any other video game has managed to portray.

The game’s challenging career mode allows you to set your own level of challenge on a day-by-day basis, so it’s quite possible to swap roles regularly and pick out menus that suit your playstyles and levels of skill. As a cooperative experience it’s premised on communication, focus and efficiency, and I’ve never played anything which harnesses these skills so effectively and entertainingly.

(4) XCOM 2 / Total War: Warhammer

We’re barely minutes in and I’m already cheating to get more than five games into my top list. In fairness, it’s hard to choose between XCOM 2 and Total Warhammer.

XCOM 2 is a highly successful refinement of a formula that Firaxis had almost nailed with the first game. If I were to criticise the first game I’d do so on the basis of three problems: its repetitive maps, that activating ‘pods’ of enemies on sight reduces the viability of a lot of tactics, and the relative simplicity of the strategic layer once you wrap your head around how satellites work.

Its sequel addresses all of these problems. The procedural generation nut has been cracked, producing a lot of environment variation for XCOM 2. The new concealment mechanic allows you to scout and position your troops before engaging the enemy, meaning missions aren’t constantly reduced to a rhythm of advance and overwatch. And the strategic layer constantly forces you to make risk-reward choices, as well as periodically providing surprises or forcing you onto the back foot.

Total Warhammer is a very different beast. Before I get stuck into it I should remark that it’s the first Total War game of recent years that appears to have launched in a very good state, i.e. it’s not riddled with bugs or borderline unplayable on a lot of machines. It’s an extremely well polished game and I’m very happy to see Creative Assembly back on top form (to be fair, I’ve not played the preceding Attila iteration).

As a child and teen fan of all things Games Workshop I’d been eagerly awaiting this for years, and I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint. In most Total War games I’ve tried I’ve found the battles largely quite dull, the once exception being the slick and simple Shogun 2, which was essentially rock-paper-scissors with its main unit types. The huge variety of unit types, and the enormous differences between how different factions play, makes for a nicely varied experience.

Happily, alongside this is a tactical engine that allows for the inventive breadth of Warhammer. I’ve spent most of my time as the Dwarves, building turtling armies upon which assaults are broken. Dwarven artillery is great fun to use, as are their Gyrocopters and other aircraft. I actually completed a full campaign (which took a very long time, and wasn’t really worth it, but I was enthusiastic enough to put the extra five hours in), which is a Total War first for me.

Which game is better? I really couldn’t say. They’re very different creatures, and both are triumphs of design and execution.

(3) The Division / Titanfall

I picked up an Xbox One around the middle of the year and am extremely glad I did, as it meant I was able to rejoin the weekly Xbox Live sessions some Xbox-owning friends play. I was involved with these back when we all still owned 360s, but eventually the generational shift couldn’t be resisted and I was left behind.

I’m glad I was able to rejoin as I’ve had some fantastic experiences since, particularly in two games I never imagined myself singing the praises of. The first is Titanfall, the early 2014 multiplayer FPS with giant killbots. I’ve dabbled in Call of Duty and Battlefield games over the years, and played a bunch of Doom, Quake and Unreal as a younger man, but hand on heart I’ve never gotten as into a game of this type as I have Titanfall. I think much of the credit can be lain at the door of my friends and how different it is to play as a vaguely cohesive team whilst chatting and coordinating, but we should also acknowledge what Titanfall does well: it’s an FPS with well-integrated verticality and a tremendous sense of momentum, with a variety of wonderful toys-slash-power fantasies in the forms of its titular titans, and the well-balanced asymmetric maps and sharp gunplay that you’d expect from the veterans who made it. It’s a fantastic game.

We may move on to Titanfall 2 at some point, as player numbers dwindle, but our early experiences with the beta were not promising. Whose idea was that horrific player highlight? And why did the beta maps have so many open areas that were suicide for roaming pilots?

The Division is quite a different beast, namely a massively multiplayer third person cover shooter. When I first played it on PS4 I thought it was an entertaining but unexceptional game set in “the most beautiful right-wing wank fantasy I’ve ever seen”. I’m only slightly joking: the environments and visual design are absolutely stunning and I have an enormous amount of respect for the team which put it together. However, it’s a Tom Clancy property and so that inevitably means that the narrative dressing ticks off quite a few authoritarian bingo boxes. The more you look at this aspect of the game the more it crumbles like pieces of wet cake.

Fortunately, the Division isn’t really about the detail of its forgettable plot concerning modified smallpox and an elite team of undercover agents who previously maintained their skillsets by, uh, never exercising them. It’s about moving around a beautiful decaying interpretation of New York, gunning down men in their thousands for the crime of not having a green health bar. It’s about hoovering up loot drops and constantly tweaking your character build. It’s about working alongside a team of other players, supporting one another with a variety of fancy abilities. It’s about outmanoeuvring the enemy with flanking and firezones whilst managing their own movements. It’s about the entertaining risk-reward of the game’s original PvP area, the Dark Zone. It’s all rather good fun, even if the setting does make me feel a bit dirty.

(2) The Witcher 3

I had decided I wasn’t going to bother with the Witcher 3. It had stepped away from its predecessors to produce a genuine open world game at a time when I was getting increasingly fed up with the make-work tyranny of open world games. I hadn’t found myself gripped by any aspect of the Witcher 2, and while I enjoyed the low fantasy stylings of the first game some years ago, its handling of sex and female characters was juvenile to say the least.

Besides, it seemed like everyone was going on about how good the Witcher 3 was. That’s a perfect excuse to be a grumpy contrarian and refuse to play it on general principle.

I’m glad it came along with my second hand Xbox One, because the Witcher 3 is arguably the best RPG I’ve played in years. Let’s ignore the elephant in the list at #1 and instead establish that my presumptions about this game were ill-founded. The Witcher 3’s open world largely, if sadly not entirely, eschews the pointless busywork of so many open world games with their worthless collectibles, and is full of interesting places to explore. Its characters are the most engaging in any AAA game of recent years and there’s an astonishing amount of nuance to protagonist Geralt, despite on face value his appearing to be a generic gruff-voiced handsome murderman.

Mechanically it took me a while to get a feel for this game – certainly it was after the tutorial section had propelled me onwards. I died several times to weak enemies as soon as I left the first village, and almost gave up, thinking the combat was clumsy and awkward. I’m glad I persevered, because once you understand the rhythm of Geralt’s movements the combat is hugely engaging. It’s not Dark Souls good, but I think fans of that series could appreciate something comparable yet proud of its own identity.

(1) Dark Souls 3

The first Dark Souls was my first encounter with this epochal series of games, and it will always have a special place in my heart. But I have to buck the trend of your first Souls being your BFF and pick 2016’s third instalment instead.

Why? Because this time I played on release, and on a console. I got the full Souls experience from day one thanks to well-populated multiplayer servers. In my 70 or 80 hours playing through Dark Souls and its DLC, I was invaded by human players around three times. In Dark Souls 3 it was a regular event, which quickly proved to add hugely exciting spice to proceedings. Yes, I might lose a fight and some progress, but damn it’s unexpected, highly dangerous and fun. it’s Dark Souls!

I was also able to play through some of Dark Souls 3 with the friend who introduced me to the games (yep: AR’s Dylan), and it was a lot of fun inching forwards through new areas, and discussing the cryptic NPC dialogue and item descriptions. I hope to do more of this in future, although it’s tricky to maintain progress parity with other players.

Dark Souls 3 itself feels at times like a greatest hits compilation, and whilst mechanically it’s very smooth, very polished and very challenging, it inevitably lacks the freshness and boldness that come with the rough edges of game designers trying out big new ideas – such as Demon Souls’ world alignment system, or Dark Souls’ intricately knotted world, sparsely placed bonfires and hail mary shortcuts. I don’t care about any of this. If it really is the last Souls game, as Miyazaki has stated and as it should be, then it’s a fine note to end on.

Some honourable mentions

Firewatch. Campo Santo’s debut game is a gorgeous short story about loneliness, second chances and the wilderness. Being a video game it can’t help but stray into territory that’s more X-Files than Thoreau, but I can’t say I care given how gripping and at times moving I found it. The loose genre pejoratively known as ‘walking simulators’ gets a lot of stick, but I’d say Firewatch has shown how to make more of that basic concept.

Stardew Valley. I only began playing this towards the end of the year but I fell in love with it quickly. It’s a hokey pastoral fantasy just like the 16-bit games which inspired it, but playing it is so relaxing, so varied and so fundamentally good-natured that I love spending time nurturing my farm, foraging in and exploring the local environments, and even talking to the walking collection of archetypes that are the townsfolk. If I sound harsh on this game, it’s only because I’m surprised to find myself liking it so much.

Darkest Dungeon. Savagely difficult, brooding in tone and complex in character building, Darkest Dungeon is a triumph… on PC, at any rate. A friend played it on PS4 and it sounded a little rough-edged. Still, if you get to play a version of it not riddled with game-killing bugs, you’ll hopefully agree that this is clearly a game which is a totally successful realisation of a very specific and very clever vision. Pro tip: never fight a Shambler.

Horus Heresy: Drop AssaultĀ is a free to play game that somehow manages to have interesting combat! Partly this is down to how it allows you a reasonable degree of control over your troops and formations during battles. I guess it wearing a Warhammer suit helps too, because I cannot escape my childhood.

The Witness. It would appear to be whip-smart, both in puzzles and in concept. And that’s all I’ll say for now, except to note that it was Joel Goodwin’s short film The Unbearable Now which encouraged me to bite the bullet and start playing this game.

Some dishonourable mentions

This isn’t a list of bad games by any stretch of the imagination. Rather these are games which managed to fall short of my expectations somehow. I don’t list them out to shame them but to articulate why the game and my desires did not quite connect.

Stellaris. This 4X strategy game promised to fix the flabby mid- and late-game problems that plague so many games of the genre. It didn’t. There’s a lot to like about Stellaris, but the tedium that follows when it runs out of stories and your empire runs out of momentum is not among it. It’s been a long time since release, so perhaps this has been addressed?

Clash Royale seemed to promise fresh new ideas emerging in the F2P mobile gaming sector and was exciting for that reason – it’s also a genuinely good game! But it hasn’t proven the industry game-changer I hoped it might, with the F2P space largely still producing carbon copies of carbon copies, and I churned out of Clash Royale about a month after release. Shame.

D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die demonstrated the risks of episodic distribution. We played it just a few months before Swery departed Access Games, announcing that this meant there would be no second season of D4. Since the first season was one very long episode and one very short episode and thus Access didn’t appear to grasp the concept of seasons, this may be for the best – but I’m still bummed we won’t get to see more of this bizarre collection of amusing characters.

Gears of War 4 probably has lots to recommend about it, but here’s what it doesn’t have: four player campaign co-op, gear unlocks unrelated to micro transactions, or the ability to drop out of a game of Horde as host without ruining it for everyone. That first point is a particularly sore one because playing through Judgement with three friends, including its clever challenges, was enormous fun. Boo.

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