My Year in Gaming: 2016

I am on winter break for the next few weeks, so I’m determined to squeeze a few blogs out before the madness that is spring semester consumes me once again. I’m starting with the obvious: a look back at my experiences with video games in 2016. This outgoing year has been pretty terrible for me, in several ways, but there have been some pretty great games that have provided little shining pockets of joy in the otherwise dismal abyss.

Fallout 4

Yeah, I started playing it in 2015, but I played it into 2016, when I finished it. I can understand why some people were underwhelmed by Fallout 4. Given that Fallout 3 was my first experience with the series, and its vast, dingy, irradiated world snared and enthralled me in a way no other had, its follow-up couldn’t possibly provide the same sense of excitement and wonder that comes with a newly discovered universe.

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Having said that, it was a really great game and I had a lot of fun with it. The narrative itself was interesting enough, and I did enjoy building relationships and outposts, but wandering the Wasteland provided the most enjoyable memories for me (as it did in Fallout 3). I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens while I was playing, so I couldn’t help but feel a bit Rey-like as I roamed around with Curie, my spherical robot companion, scavenging from old machines and kicking ass. Curie’s love of science, thirst for knowledge, and cute accent made her an obvious choice for a romantic partner, so I was happy that they included the side quest where you can transfer her mind into a human body. I don’t think Rey would do that with BB-8, but I won’t speak for her.

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I also spent a lot of time building my mansion on that isolated, enemy-free island. The building system isn’t perfect, but it was fun to mess around with, and near the end of the game I was more than happy to spend another handful of hours collecting materials for my ultimate base of operations. I had a game room, a dining room, a home theater, and a deck with a bar, a jukebox, and lawn chairs surrounded by palms and facing the sea. It was a nice way to finish off my quest.

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 Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was a short, quaint experience, and most of my enjoyment came from imagining these people’s lives prior to their disappearances. The movement speed was infuriating, yeah, but the graphics were impressive and I loved the little details in many of the houses or yards. I do wish more of the doors were unlocked, but whatareyagonnado? The rural English countryside called to mind the sci-fi novel The Day of the Triffids, which added an odd sense of eeriness. I liked it.

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Rise of the Tomb Raider

The Tomb Raider reboot was not my first experience with the franchise, but it was done so well that I felt the same kind of magic that I do when I’m discovering a game or series for the first time. So, as with Fallout 4, I didn’t have the same kind of awe-inducing experience with its sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, but I did feel like it was a better game, even if only marginally. The controls are fluid and intuitive, the graphics are gorgeous, and exploration is fun and rewarding. I was occasionally distracted by Lara’s hair, because the way they rendered the surface layer of hairs individually meant that it sometimes looked like she was wearing a wig, but that was only one of a few minor complaints. I did not have much of a crush on old-school Lara, but I definitely find myself attracted to the new version. Her strength and determination, with a healthy dose of vulnerability, make her a wonderful character, worthy of obsession.

Tomb Raider

Day of the Tentacle (Remastered)

I have fond memories of Maniac Mansion for the NES, but as a ‘console kid’ I never got around to playing the PC-exclusive sequel, Day of the Tentacle. The newly remastered version gave me to the perfect excuse to finally check it out, and I wasn’t disappointed. While it does feel a bit dated, being an old-school point-and-click adventure, much of the humor and charm seems to have held up surprisingly well. It might be too quirky and tongue-in-cheek for modern audiences, but it was a fun flashback to a simpler time for me. My hope with games like this is that it will be successful enough to merit similar releases, so I have my fingers crossed for a remastered Maniac Mansion, as unlikely as that seems. I really loved that game.

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Miitomo/Pokemon Go

I lump these two together because, like many mobile games, they feel less like full games and more like mini-games to me. That may be unfair, but that discussion is for another blog. I liked Miitomo quite a bit, but its charm is almost wholly dependent on having others to play it with, and everyone I knew abandoned it within two or three weeks of release, leaving me to answer questions for an audience that didn’t exist. Before I eventually joined my friends in jumping ship, I tweeted “I like Miitomo enough, but I can’t help but wish it were a mobile Animal Crossing game.” The app seemed almost like a teaser or demo for a proper Animal Crossing game, so it just made me want the full experience. Nintendo announced that very thing not long after that tweet, but I maintain caution in my optimism. Can Nintendo (or their development partners) squeeze the entire AC experience into a single mobile app? If not, what will be sacrificed? How easy will it be to find new villages to visit? How many people can live in the same village? Will the villages be larger than what we’ve come to expect? I have a lot of questions, and I am still hoping for a new and radically improved iteration for the upcoming Switch, but I will almost certainly pick up the mobile version when it finally hits.

Miitomo

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As for Pokemon Go, I still jump on daily, if even just to get the daily catch bonus. I can’t possibly say anything that hasn’t already been said about it, but I was as blown away by its success as anyone else. I knew it would be big, as many people did, because it’s Pokemon, but the amount of money it’s brought in is unreal, and I wonder how its success will shape Nintendo’s use of the brand in the future, or their focus on mobile gaming in general.

Firewatch

Firewatch is one of those short and rewarding games that make you grateful for the indie movement and the power that digital distribution has afforded it. While I do wish the early narrative sections could have been more interactive, and that the choices you made throughout the game would have really made a difference, I was beyond pleased with the game’s story and how it handled tone and pacing. There were some scenes that were quite powerful, in part due to solid voice acting and writing. It’s games like this that help build a stronger and stronger case for games as art.

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 Dying Light

Not a 2016 game, for others, but it was for me. The Dead Island games had some definite faults, but I enjoyed the experiences they offered, so I was excited for Dying Light, which feels like a sequel. Dead Inland, maybe (I’m sure someone’s made that joke already, right?). The new climbing mechanics were a bit clunky, but added some welcome depth to exploration. One of the things I liked a lot about the Dead Island games was the attention to detail that the developers put into almost every room, hallway, and outdoor area. They did a nice job of creating believably abandoned environments, with objects scattered with care and consideration. I was, however, disappointed to discover that one of the small details had been taken out. There was, when the game released, a set of magnets on a refrigerator in an apartment in your starting base that were taken from an animation group called the Clock Crew, of which I have been a member since 2001. Virtually no one has heard of the group, though, so it was a shock when someone posted a screenshot of the magnets, and I was excited to see them in person. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the developers removed the magnets in a patch, and now they are just colored shapes. Bummer.

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 NBA 2k16

NBA 2k16 does something very interesting and uncommon with race, especially in video games: it forces your created character to have black features (because he is a member of a black family). It’s a bold and important choice, especially given the industry’s general focus on white characters. I can’t think of another game that does it. Unfortunately for me, I was unaware of this design choice, so I tried my best to make my character look like me (as I usually do with character creation), wondering why the physical traits were so limited in the creation mode. Because the physical options didn’t quite match up with my real features, the resulting ‘me’ was ugly, or as I tweeted at the time, “Jesus, my NBA 2K16 character looks like he crawled out of some swampy hole to ride hogs and smoke meth.” I quickly realized, in the first cutscene, that my character was supposed to be black, but I didn’t feel like redesigning him, so I just left it. My in-story nickname, “Freak,” was apt, anyway.

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As for the game itself, it was sort of a rude awakening. I hadn’t played a basketball game in like ten years, maybe more, and I was always a fan of the more arcade-y types (as I remember older versions of the 2k series being). It took me a while to get the hang of shooting, and I still think three pointers are more difficult than they need to be. I felt like an inept old-timer because I thought the game was too hard to master, but I’ve since had three students who play the game frequently agree that it is a difficult game to learn and almost impossible to master. So that made me feel better. A little.

Rock Band 4

Another game that I was late to the party to; I’ve spent a lot of time playing Rock Band 4 this year. My experience with transferring old Rock Band legacy DLC over makes writing about it almost painful, but I did end up getting into the game pretty heavily once everything was settled. I do wish the character creation was more robust (like, a lot more robust), but I was so happy to finally be able to create band members to join me on the road. I created, to the best of my ability, Rey from The Force Awakens (on bass), Jyn from Rogue One (on drums), and Schala from Chrono Trigger (lead vocals). I’ve played the hell out of it on guitar, and I plan on doing the same with the microphone and drums, when I get more time, but with so many songs (I’ve bought an obscene amount of DLC) I can’t imagine I’ll get tired of it anytime soon.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

Yep, another 2015 game that I was late in getting around to playing. And I’ve already blogged about this game, but I will briefly rehash my love for it. I know that Ubisoft pumps Assassin’s Creed games out at an annoying rate that waters the brand down like a glass of soda with too much ice, and I agree with the sentiment that longer development time usually equals better games… but I can’t deny that games like Syndicate or Black Flag are some of the best games I’ve ever played. Each game in the series seems to refine rather than revolutionize, and that can be frustration for fans expecting something new and exciting, but man are these some pretty games. Even writing this, I am fondly flashing back to the architecture of Victorian London in Syndicate and the beauty of the Caribbean seas in Black Flag. Also, I developed a bit of a crush on Evie, so I’m sad that we probably won’t see her again. But I liked this game a ton and am very much looking forward to what the next game looks like, given the extended development time.

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EarthBound Beginnings

This game was originally released on the NES in Japan as Mother, a prequel to the US’s EarthBound (Mother 2), one of my all-time favorite games. I was beyond shocked and excited when Nintendo decided to release it here as EarthBound Beginnings, and it gives me hope that they haven’t given up on the prospect of releasing Mother 3 here. Anyway, Beginnings is a lot like its sequel. So much so, in fact, that EarthBound feels like a retry rather than a true sequel. I recently read an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto from 1998, where he suggests that some of Nintendo’s early SNES games were just that: realizations of games that they’d wanted to make on the NES but didn’t have the processing power. So it makes sense that Super Metroid is essentially a beefier, prettier version of Metroid, and EarthBound is a beefier, prettier version of EarthBound Beginnings. Which means, of course, that I highly enjoyed it, though there was one innovation from EarthBound that I very much missed: the exclusion of random battles. It’s far more annoying to explore a new area freely when you’re plagued by random battles with sometimes difficult foes. Still, this was a fun playthrough that made me appreciate EarthBound even more.

Abzu

I hadn’t heard of Abzu until just before its release, when I saw a trailer for it and was immediately drawn in by how pretty and soothing it looked. I bought it and was not disappointed, as it is a low-stress game that rewards exploration but doesn’t force it. It is pleasing enough just to swim around and observe the ecology, and I’m excited at the prospect of having future students play it and create their own narrative, as the game only gives you only fleeting hints about it.

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No Man’s Sky

To say I’ve written ‘at length’ about No Man’s Sky is an understatement, so if you want more of my thoughts than you can handle, look no further than the Captain’s Log section of this site. I will say briefly that I understand, to some extent, why some people were disappointed at the launch version of NMS, but ultimately I still ended up loving it in spite of its flaws. I love exploring new worlds and systems, naming things based on themes, wondering if/when someone will run across my discoveries or if/when I will stumble on theirs. I have yet to play the latest update, with base building and mobile freighters, but I am looking forward to getting around to it… eventually.

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PlayStation VR

I’m just going to lump all of the PS VR games in this one section, because this blog is already too long and many of them are short, small experiences (and I blogged at length about my excitement for the system itself). My experiences have been mixed, I’d say. While some games, like Job Simulator and Arkham VR don’t seem to suffer from an obviously lower resolution, other games, like the Resident Evil 7 “Kitchen” demo and Perfect, do suffer, to the point that there is some tearing and jagged edges that become distracting. Arkham VR really shows what the system can do, though, and it’s the game I insist people try at social gatherings. No one has been disappointed in it, either. I never thought I was afraid of heights, but standing at the edge of the Iceberg Lounge makes me sweat, quite literally. And Rocksteady’s loving attention to detail and respect for lore shines through, as usual.

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PlayStation Worlds suffers from the ‘left drift’ for me, so I haven’t played more than a bit of it. Stationary games don’t give me much of a problem with queasiness, but some of the games that involve movement do. Here They Lie is a good example. You start out in a moving train, and you can both walk around and look freely around the world. I don’t know if it was a combination of all of the different movements, but it definitely made me feel sick. I’ve read that these feelings go away after a while, with more experience in VR, so I hope to come back to those games later.

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Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is not a PS VR exclusive, but it’s one of my favorite games on the system. It’s tense — duh — and can cause some uncomfortable snipping at people you otherwise like and respect, but it’s all in good fun, and the feeling of disarming a tricky set of switches with just a couple of seconds left is incredible. Until Dawn: Rush of Blood is fun and the sense of movement is something you have to experience to fully understand how crazy VR is. I watched two people play it before I started it, and I still wasn’t prepared for how weird it felt to be moving in the game and not in real life. When the roller coaster car stops in the game, your brain tells your body you’re stopping in real life. It’s bizarre but great.

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There are other games and demos to talk about, but I’ve probably gone on long enough. I do want to mention the non-gaming experiences, though, since it’s one of the aspects of VR that I am very interested in going forward (and not just for porn, but we’re all curious about that, right?). The videos I watched in a few different apps were mostly disappointing. I understand that the resolution is halved due to splitting the image, but the videos still seemed to be a lower quality than I expected. I don’t know if it’s the headset or the hardware the video was recorded with, or compression, or what, but I hope it’s not the ultimate fate of VR video on the PS VR. The videos (be it of a shark swimming near me or a supermodel lounging on a speedboat) just didn’t fully trick my brain into thinking they were real, as some of the games did.

DOOM

I won’t claim that DOOM is complex and deep. It fully embraces its old school, run-and-gun roots, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s fast, smooth, and beautiful, and it provided some much-needed stress relief after the election results came in. Is it repetitive? Sure. But it’s fun and rewarding, and I look forward to the new Quake as well.

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The Division

I only just started playing The Division last week, but I’ll throw out a few thoughts about it since it’s still 2016. I was surprised by how shallow the character creation was, given that it bills itself as an RPG. The gameplay is overwhelming at first, because there is a lot going on on-screen, but I’ve gotten the hang of it pretty quickly. I like the idea of building an HQ and the assortment of side quests look fun, so I can’t wait to start doing those and building my base up. I’m not sure I’ll end up playing online with anyone except my friend Tabitha, but I can see myself getting hooked on leveling up and customizing my character’s load-out and clothing.

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I’ve been traveling and visiting family this month, so I haven’t been able to do as much ‘catching up’ as I’d have liked, but I’m getting there. I was going to throw in some thoughts on games I am looking forward to playing soon, but I’ve already written far more than I’d planned, so I’ll just do a different blog on that. Stay tuned, non-existent readers!

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