Open Worlds and Closed Space Stations: My Favorite Games of 2017

I’ve been lax about maintaining this blog in 2017. I’ve written a couple of perfunctory posts, just so that people will remember (or finally notice) that I’m here. I won’t go into the reasons for my absence, but one was that I was playing so many games.

My rationale for that, beyond simply my love of gaming, is that it made sense to learn as much as I could about what’s happening currently in the gaming industry. This, I reasoned, would give me a better, more informed perspective on what kind of games, indie and AAA, are currently on the market so that I could write more cogently about them.

Precisely the opposite has happened. The more games I played, the more I despaired at the prospect of summarizing the current state of the art a few thousand words at a time. In fact, the gaming industry is all over the place right now, from the emergence of wilderness survival games as an insanely popular category (largely, I think, due to the brilliantly designed sandbox mode in The Long Dark with some lingering influence from Minecraft) to the increased pandering to the retro market, with games that supposedly resemble, in their pixelated glory, the games of everybody’s youth. (They don’t, really, but that’s a subject for an entire post.)

Instead, I simply want to talk about the games I’ve most enjoyed playing this year, even the ones that I’m embarrassed to admit I love. (True confession: I’ve become obsessed with Ubisoft games. Go ahead and laugh. You’ll have more opportunity later.)

If last year was my year of gaming emotionally, this was my year of gaming bigly, embracing huge AAA titles with large open worlds, intense, often linear narratives and gorgeous graphics. While I’ll admit that I had an unexpected emotional response to one of those games, which I’ll name below, I was mostly gaming for the sheer widescreen fun of it. And here, in no particular order, are the games that have offered me the most fun. (Unlike last year, I’m going to stick with games published in the same year that I’m writing this post, i.e., 2017.)

Prey

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GLOO-gunning your way through the rafters of Talos-1.

As far as I know, the trapped-in-a-space-station (hereafter referred to as TiaSS) genre began in 1994, with Looking Glass Studio’s innovative adventure cum shooter cum zombie survival game System Shock, which I still think is one of the ten or so best computer games ever to grace my video display. Its setting and basic mechanics have been copied quite a few  times over the years, most notably by its sequel, System Shock 2, which I’ve never learned to love. (I usually end up cowering in a corner waiting to be killed by the lumbering zombies I’ve let myself become orbitally entombed with.)

Dead Space brilliantly crossbred the TiaSS genre with full-on survival horror in 2008, but it’s only in the last year or so that this type of game has genuinely flourished, maybe because it’s relatively easy to construct a space station interior out of Unity assets. TiaSS games from 2017 include the soporific but visually appealing early-access game P.A.M.E.L.A. and the awkward but promising early access game STARDROP. (Early access games also deserve a post of their own, but not until next year.) The Gone-Home-in-space game Tacoma, which also deserves an entire post, has a lot in common with TiaSS games, but doesn’t really fit into the genre.

None of those games, even Dead Space, can hold a half-melted Christmas candle to Prey, the “spiritual sequel” to System Shock from Bethesda and Arkane Studios. (Spiritual sequels, a category that’s only just beginning to take off as a way of capitalizing on nostalgia for specific games, may also deserve a post of their own, as soon as I figure out how many there are besides this and Torment: Tides of Numerera.)

Prey is a stunner of a space station game, opening with a trope freely lifted from Philip K. Dick. (I’ll stay mum about the twist for players who are waiting to pick the game up cheap during the holiday sales season.) The part of the premise I can talk about: The game takes place in an alternate future where John F. Kennedy wasn’t assassinated and a joint effort between America and Russia created a space effort very different from the one that peaked and went nowhere after Project Apollo. The player character is trapped on a space station, Talos-1,  in orbit around the moon and has to work out both the reason that he’s there (his memory’s been wiped) and what he has do to get out.

Like System Shock, Prey forces you to piece together its premise and its backstory from emails, audio logs and videos. (This much-used mechanic probably originated with System Shock, though now it’s found its way into a wide variety of games, even in medieval RPGs where defunct characters leave a remarkable number of handwritten notes in their wake.) The space station itself is lovingly and meticulously constructed around an art deco aesthetic reminiscent of the city of Rapture in the first two Bioshock games but without the heaps of economic and ethical philosophy piled on top of it. It’s magnificently explorable, with objects and passageways secreted away on top of the infrastructure and in hard-to-spot crannies. Talos-1 is a joy to visit, though no sane game character would want to live there.

The weaponry available to the player is a peculiar mix, starting out with a crowbar apparently borrowed from Gordon Freeman. The already-notorious GLOO gun isn’t especially powerful and the crossbow isn’t so much a nerfed weapon as it’s literally a nerf weapon, designed for recreation by bored office workers. Yet the seeming uselessness of these weapons forces the player to find creative ways to use them, which is one of the things that makes the game so fascinating. There’s a lot of emergent gameplay in Prey and I suspect no two people will play the game in exactly the same way unless they’re following a walkthrough. (Ah, there’s another idea for a post: the boom in visual game walkthroughs on YouTube and Twitch.)

I’ve discovered that playing on the easiest mode makes the exploration more fun, because those annoying creatures that wander through the hallways keep spoiling the view. But the easiest mode isn’t all that easy. I love Prey not so much because it challenges me in the traditional, rapid-twitch way that shooters have traditionally challenged players, but for its complex  environment (including the exterior of Talos-1 as well as its interior), which challenged me to find ways of exploring it that were completely different from anything I’d seen in a game before. Let’s just say that the GLOO gun is useful for more than just attacking your enemies.

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus

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Wheelchair fighting at its finest in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Seriously, this is the best, most satisfying first-person shooter since Half Life 2 back in the mid aughts. (I’m not counting Prey as an FPS because the weaponry is so pathetic.) What’s so astonishing about MachineGame’s latest entry in the Wolfenstein series is that B.J. Blazkowicz finally makes the full transition from that pixelated image at the bottom of the Wolf3D screen into a completely realized character, one who begins this game broken and with vital organs collapsing. In the opening sequences he goes from fighting in a wheelchair (in a marvelously executed series of navigational puzzles) to fighting in a powered exoskeleton, somehow managing to remain a strong FPS protagonist while struggling against a depression over the state of the world, his life and his loved ones that’s so deep it poses more of a threat than the Nazis. (Brian Bloom deserves plaudits for a masterful voice-acting job as B.J.) At one pivotal juncture he’s saved from both death and depression by what seems at first blush like an absurd deus ex machina, but on careful examination turns out to have been skillfully set up in the early portion of the story in a bit of sleight of hand so deft you never notice MachineGames sliding the card up their virtual sleeve.

The revelation, which I’m pretty sure hasn’t come up in previous Wolfenstein games, that Blazkowicz is half Jewish on his mother’s side lends much-needed weight to his never-ending fight against the Nazis. And the depiction of his father in flashbacks as physically and emotionally abusive not only deepens Blazkowicz as a character but has a powerful payoff in one of the most startling moments I’ve seen in a computer game. The New Colossus was my emotional high point for the year, one that I didn’t see coming when I sat down to play it. Some Steam users have complained that this isn’t a worthy follow-up to Wolfenstein: The New Order, but I think it’s a better, richer game than its predecessor and much deeper emotionally than I ever expected a first-person shooter to be.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands

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The lovely mountains (and towering cathedrals) of the Bolivian Wildlands.

This is where you get to laugh. Go ahead. I can see you  trying not to snicker too loudly (or at least not so loudly that I can hear you all the way in Long Beach, California, from wherever it is you live). Wildlands is the game where Ubisoft unites the long-running Ghost Recon series with the company’s signature formula of a lone character (here actually four “lone” characters) taking down a pyramid of underbosses on the way to the big boss at the top. I’d never had any interest in playing a game with Tom Clancy’s name on it (except for the original Splinter Cell, which a friend recommended and which I found surprisingly engaging a decade ago) and wasn’t really expecting a lot from this one.

All I remembered about Ubisoft before I played this, other than the Tom Clancy connection, was that they produced the Assassin’s Creed series, which I’ve never cared for. Over the years I’ve picked up the first AC game every several months and tried to make sense of its unending series of tedious rooftop-jumping assignments. And every time I’ve failed. (It’s finally started to sink in on me that I may be taking the games in the wrong order; there are some well-regarded entries later in the series.) I bought Wildlands primarily so that I could have something graphically impressive I could use to show off my (relatively) new gaming computer. Instead, I found myself obsessed with it.

Steam says I’ve spent 214 hours playing Wildlands and while the game was probably sitting in the background during a large chunk of that time, waiting for me to stop surfing the Web or watching television with Amy, the majority of those hours represent actual play. I came to each of its story missions as a mini-world of its own, a tactical landscape that I had to puzzle out in order to accomplish whatever goal my CIA handler had stuck me with. As silly as the game’s depiction of a druglord-ruled Bolivia may be, those missions became an important part of my life for several weeks. And while I can’t say that I was blown away by every one of them, I found enough of them compelling that I had to force myself to stop playing when it was time to go to sleep. (Given that the game lets you go on playing after you’ve overthrown the uber-boss, I’m technically still playing it, though I haven’t touched it in several months. It loses a lot of momentum once you reach the top of the cocaine-cooking pyramid.) Shoot up a casino to embarrass a Sicario? Sure. Capture a lieutenant and choke him until he coughs up information on his buddies? Why not? Run a video revealing a priest’s sordid mob past in the middle of his sermon, then drag him out of a giant cathedral without the Sicarios killing him? I’m there!

The open world of the game is voluptuous, gorgeous to look at, with single-lane roads winding treacherously through tall, jagged mountains and a range of biomes from tropical to desert to sub-arctic. I don’t know if the real Bolivia is anything like this — honestly, it felt more like Skyrim at times than South America — but as a landscape for a game it’s perfect. The world frequently becomes repetitive, with conspicuous reuse of landscape and architectural assets, and the side missions that you discover on the map pretty much fall into a small set of scenarios — Sicarios parked by the road and ready to start shooting, Sicarios flaunting their presence in rural villas and ready to start shooting, Unidad (secret police) in the pay of the cartels ensconced in large, well-guarded compounds and ready to start shooting — but I felt a feverish need to complete the main missions. I systematically ticked them off the quest list and don’t regret a single minute I spent doing it.

Wildlands led to several months of Ubisoft obsession that included Watch Dogs (which had been sitting in my collection for a couple of years unplayed) and Far Cry 4. Now I’m playing Assassins Creed: Origins, the first AC game I’ve actually liked enough to play for more than 45 minutes at a sitting. I’m dubious about the historical accuracy of its Egyptian setting, but Origins has a more compelling story than any other AC game I’ve seen, with a main character who actually feels like he belongs in this milieu (Ubisoft ignores their Animus device in the early stages of the game) and a revenge motive not unlike the one in Watch Dogs. (Diving into the Nile to avoid arrows from guards is a lot like diving into the Chicago river to escape a police manhunt in WD. Maybe they should have called the game Watch Dogs Primal.) And it’s the first game in the series structured as an actual RPG, complete with a branching skill tree, so you feel as if you’re accomplishing something as you work through the main quests and side quests. If Assassin’s Creed games had been this good from the beginning, I would have been lined up to play each year’s new entry the moment Ubisoft rushed it to market.

It’s too early to say whether AC: Origins belongs on my 2017 list, but there’s no question in my mind that Wildlands does. Say what you will about Ubisoft — and a lot of people have said a lot of nasty things — but I’ve never seen games that work their butts off as hard as Ubisoft’s do to show the player a good time.

Sniper Elite 4

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A railroad bridge enjoying its final moments in Sniper Elite 4

When Ubisoft’s oeuvre began to wear thin, I picked up this stealth fighting game set in World War II Italy as a change of pace. I’m not sure what I expected from it but it slid neatly into the obsession slot that Wildlands and Watch Dogs had recently vacated. Having subsequently tried the earlier games in the series (plus the Zombie Army Trilogy that uses the same interface and engine, not to mention the same weapons and main character), I can confidently announce that this is the first Sniper Elite game that Rebellion has gotten right. The designers don’t push you from goal to goal, a device that’s antithetical to the idea of an open world and that Rebellion uses liberally in their other games. You can take the missions within each map in almost any order, though there’s usually a key goal that will finish off the level and is best left for last. That’s really the only major change from Sniper Elite 3 and the Zombie Army games, but it makes an (open) world of difference in the way that the game feels.

While the sniping aspect probably isn’t realistic, the shooting feels much more grounded in SE4 than the shooting in Wildlands did, and SE4‘s worlds are almost as open as Wildlands’. Each one is a portion of Italy large enough to hold multiple missions, some of them discoverable, marked with large circles on the game map. The game play captures a pleasant balance between relaxing stealth strategizing — slinking past or silently slitting the throats of the Nazis who seem to have systematically driven out or murdered the Italian populace — and high-speed FPS play when your stealth play doesn’t prove subtle enough.

The musical score, which sounds like something from the soundtrack of The Godfather, sets a low-energy mood, signalling that the player should take each scenario at an unhurried pace. That was fine with me. Scoping out the landscape is half the fun in an open-world stealth game on this mid-sized scale and I pored over the maps in each scenario with the glee of a long-time historical wargamer, something that I’m definitely not. I studied the differences between weapons, selecting them carefully for the situations I was in (sniper rifle for distance, machine gun or pistol for close range), and hid in deserted houses, trying to find the best windows for picking off passing enemies. Each landscape is smoothly  designed for stealth play, with a plethora of hiding places and strategically located scenic overlooks for long-distance sniping. Until the enemy discovers you, the game gives you lots of time to pick your shots. Who knew that a shooter could be this laid back?

My favorite scenario was about blowing up a railroad bridge, a process that involved finding the perfect spot to place a satchel charge and then the perfect spot, very far away, from which I could fire a bullet into it with my sniper rifle. Watching the massive bridge crumble into the river far below, carrying an entire train with it, was as satisfying a gaming moment as I’ve had all year.

Is it coincidence that two of my favorite games this year involved shooting Nazis? Probably. But Nazis never get old as the targets in computer gaming’s eternal shooting gallery. They’re easy to hate and satisfying to shoot, a lot more satisfying than the spectral monstrosities of Prey, which just kind of get in the way.

The Rest of the Crowd

I’ve lost count of how many games I’ve played this year and have no intention of opening Steam to total them up. There are quite a few games that I’ve bought and installed but have yet to play. However…

Here are some of the most interesting ones that I did play but never became obsessed with:

What Remains of Edith Finch

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The crooked house of Edith Finch and her defunct family

Edith Finch, which bears a superficial resemblance to Gone Home but was clearly produced on a higher budget, is about a young woman returning to her family homestead to learn how each member of her family died. As she explores the rooms in an old house that’s so convoluted it must be shaped like a tesseract, she finds an animated recreation of each death — every one in a different style of animation, with differing degrees of interactivity. The only reason I’m not putting this in the main list is that, while I admired it hugely, I never found myself deeply engaged in it or emotionally involved. Not that this was necessarily the designer’s intent.

My favorite death sequence is rendered in the style of an early 1950s EC comic book a la Tales from the Crypt. As a long-time EC fan, that one sequence alone made the game work for me, but the inventiveness of the other sequences is equally impressive, especially a first-person sequence where the young female protagonist turns into various animals, both realistic and fantastic, gnawing on larger and larger victims to satisfy a seemingly bottomless appetite. Essentially a children’s book for adults, Edith Finch is well worth playing on artistic merit alone. I do, however, plan to write a piece on why neither this nor Tacoma packs the same emotional punch that the simple, unassuming Gone Home does.

Echo

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Rose Leslie trying to sneak past spectral opponents. Good luck on that.

A visually appealing stealth shooter with an interesting gimmick: Your opponents “echo” your own behavior. I’m not far enough into the game to give it a fair assessment, but what I’ve played so far is intriguing. Rose Leslie (Game of Thrones, The Good Fight) gives a pleasantly raspy voice performance as your character, a space traveler on a mysterious mission to find her grandfather in a buried palace, and there’s enough exploration (through a fairly repetitive environment), sneaking and fighting to keep it reasonably engrossing. I wish I’d been able to set aside more time for it and plan to do so in 2018.

Elex

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Looking for allies and discovering enemies in Elex

A science-fiction RPG that asks the eternal question: Does Piranha Bytes have more than one game in them? Every RPG I’ve played by them, in the Gothic, Risen and now this series, feels identical, a story about an outsider wandering into a closed environment — a penal colony, a village of pirates, the survivors of a planet-wide apocalypse — that’s splintered into philosophically distinct factions, trying to find a way to fit in while enacting his or her own personal agenda. It’s an interesting formula that would be compelling if PB were capable of creating characters who did  more than gesticulate wildly and spout banal dialogue.

ELEX is their most interesting variation on this theme to date. The planet Magalan is reeling in the wake of a collision with a comet, which left behind a powerful energy source called ELEX (the reason for the all-caps name isn’t clear) that can be used pretty much any way the plot demands, including for magic. The most effective ELEX users, the Alb, have decided to conquer the disparate factions that have arisen in the disaster’s wake and you play as a disgraced Alb pilot struggling to escape the wrath of your former allies while not giving away your identity to the Alb’s enemies. Succeeding means that you have to decide how you want to use ELEX (which you pretty much have to, given that the game’s Pip-Boy-like mapping, crafting and skill-tree interface depends on it) and pick a side in the war. This is such a strong premise, and the world is so well imagined, that even Piranha Bytes can’t entirely screw it up and, despite its occasionally clumsy presentation (and poor-to-competent voice acting), the game more or less works. The choice of factions would seem, though I haven’t finished my first playthrough yet, to offer considerable replay value and perhaps multiple narrative threads.

Your character starts the game in almost a pathetically weak state, low on skills, armor and weapons. You’ll die a lot in minor fights with forest creatures before you can do any proper exploring or faction choosing. The most fun I had in the early stages was using my jetpack. It’s only good for short flights, but it can get you into spaces an RPG character normally couldn’t reach. Like most Piranha Bytes games this is a diverting enough way to pass time if you’re in the mood for open-world exploration, stealth fighting, crafting, etc., and are bored with any better alternatives at hand. Watch for this on Steam’s and GOG’s holiday sales. At this writing both have it at a 33% markdown.

Endless Space 2

“Let’s blow some stuff up! I mean, let’s do science!”

The cleverest and best-looking of the recent spate of space-based 4X games, with some of the best-conceived (and occasionally humorous) spacefaring societies any game developer has let loose on an unsuspecting galaxy. Between this and Endless Legend, Amplitude is shaping up as the most innovative developer of 4X games since Sid Meier’s original Civilization appeared from Firaxis predecessor Microprose more than a quarter of a century ago. They’ve been good about responding to player feedback on this and the game has improved substantially since its initial release. Admittedly I find myself getting bored with it after an hour or two — I’ve found this happening more and more with 4X games in general — but I always come back to it and don’t expect that to stop any time soon. Like Edith Finch, it’s a game that I admire more than love. Endless Space 2 is well worth picking up when Steam marks it down.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

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Melina Juergens having afternoon tea with the voices in her head in an Oscar-worthy mocap performance.

A visually stunning schizophrenia sim in the guise of an adventure game. I’m still stuck at one of the pattern-rotating puzzles early in the game– at least I assume it’s still early in the game — so I can’t really say much about it except that it features a superb motion-capture/voice performance by the game’s video editor Melina Juergens, who would almost certainly be nominated for an Oscar if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave awards for video game performances. Also: The sound design is as powerful and multi-layered as anything you’re likely to hear through your Bluetooth headphones in 2017 and probably 2018. I really have to get back to playing it, though I hate pattern-rotating puzzles.

Game of the Year

So, after all this, what was the best game I played? I’m marking it as a tie between Prey and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. The first is the most imaginative strategic shooter I’ve played in years, not to mention one of the best looking. The latter is the first FPS I’ve encountered with genuine emotional depth. (Sorry, Gordon Freeman, but I never really felt I knew ye.) Either one would have made this a great year for gaming. As it stands, I think this year has been a high water mark in the era of AAA games, the best since, oh, probably 2016.

I feel bad about omitting The Long Dark, but the sandbox mode has been available in early access for a couple of years now and the story mode, added a few months ago, is the weakest part of the finished game. Maybe next year I’ll settle back into playing emotionally/strategically satisfying indies. But Far Cry 5 is waiting just over the horizon and I suspect my Ubisoft obsession will reemerge to embarrass me all over again. I may just keep playing bigly until Campo Santo’s follow-up to Firewatch, In the Valley of the Gods, appears on Steam in 2019. But Campo Santo looks like it’s on its way to becoming yet another AAA developer. We’ll see.

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Author: Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and two cats, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

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