Welcome back! Here’s what you’ve missed:
20. Wolfenstein 2
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell: The New Colossus is by turns a bloodthirsty shooter, a stylish satire of American fascism and a round of drunken chess-boxing at a Nazis-and-beatniks-themed fancy dress party. In one corner Ronald Reagan lies bleeding, his turtleneck sweater torn at by a robot dog who sings as sweetly as George Harrison. Across the room, an unending procession of stormtroopers emerges from a Portaloo, each pausing to waft the air theatrically before sauntering straight into a grinder. Out the window, Texan school children dance around a tree that is, on closer inspection, a mushroom cloud. Suddenly, series protagonist BJ Blazkowicz appears riding a pig to wild applause, shotguns coughing and spluttering in either hand. His mouth falls open and the voice of a senile Hitler issues forth: “do the Fall of the Berlin Wall next, MachineGames.”
Wesley Yin-Poole: Wolfenstein 2 is an odd game. It’s a game with fantastic cutscenes, dialogue, voice acting and story, but when you get down to playing the thing, down to moving through levels and shooting the shit out of endless Nazi monstrosities, it’s all a bit boring. I’ve wondered for a while why this is. I think it comes down to the level design. It’s just not that interesting, and you end up getting lost more than you’d like.
Wolfenstein 2’s shooting has impact, but there’s something a little off about the gunplay. Again, this is hard to pin down, but I think it comes down to the enemies, who are too bullet-sponge for their own good. The weapons fire with satisfying aplomb, but when the bullets or whatever it is coming out of the nozzles merely tickle the bad guys, the whole effect is dampened.
But then you’ll finish a level and be treated to a wonderful cutscene that makes you think, gosh, Wolfenstein 2 has the best story in shooters. I really do hope MachineGames gets to make a third in the series, because it really does have the potential to be one of the best around.
Christian Donlan: Rime sort of passed me by throughout its protracted development, which means that I had absolutely no expectations when I first washed up on its shores. That it’s so generous, well-designed and creative in its puzzles was a pleasant surprise, but the emotional heft of the final act completely flattened me. What a wonderful, playful, beautiful, brutal thing this game is.
Robert Purchese: Both Raul Rubio and Fumito Ueda were at a conference with me in Spain earlier this year. One had made Rime and one had made The Last Guardian – and so much more – and Rubio, it’s fair to say, was starstruck. The game he had come up with, and struggled to bring to fruition, seemed to have so much in common with the games Ueda makes. A gentleness, a mystery, a beauty and a sorrow, and no clunky exposition but an elegant unravelling through play. Would Ueda be flattered by the similarities or angered by them? Or, worse, would the renowned Ueda not have heard of Rime at all?
“Last night I met Fumito Ueda,” Rubio told me, and he means for the first time, “and first I was super shy so I didn’t want to say anything, but they [the conference people] insisted, like, ‘Come on – don’t you want to know what he thinks of Rime?’
“My reaction was, ‘Probably he doesn’t know about Rime.'”
But Ueda did know about Rime. “He had bought it, he played it and he loves it,” Rubio said, “to the point where he was asking me things about animation and music, which is amazing. I still cannot process that! He asked me for a photo!”
Martin Robinson: I’d kind of unfairly written this off as an Ico-alike – one of the countless games cast in the shadow of Team Ico’s masterpieces. Having been bullied into playing it, I now realise it’s so much more – a game that’s beautifully tender and genuinely touching.
18. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy
Wesley Yin-Poole: I wasn’t sure about The Lost Legacy, going in. So much of the brilliance of the Uncharted series is, for me, wrapped up in the Nathan Drake character. The charming, determined mass murderer is always just one quip away from putting a big fat smile on my face. So when I heard Naughty Dog was making a spin-off that wouldn’t star my favourite Indiana Jones clone, I was a little worried. I needn’t have been.
The Lost Legacy is a wonderful game in part because it’s free from the shackles that come with a mainline Uncharted game. Sans Nathan Drake, Naughty Dog presented a shorter, and to my mind tighter, adventure, and successfully fleshed out a couple of side characters who fully deserved their time to shine. And by fusing the traditional Uncharted gameplay with a modestly-sized open world, The Lost Legacy felt different enough to justify its standalone status.
The upshot of all this is Naughty Dog has proved Uncharted can live – can thrive – in a post Nathan Drake world. The studio has said it’s keen to do more spin-offs. I can’t wait.
Oli Welsh: I know it’s because it started life as an expansion pack and didn’t have the crushing weight of expectation attendant on a marquee release heaped onto it as a result, but what I liked most about this game was that it felt almost throwaway. It didn’t have to run 20 hours plus, or be about the end of the world as we know it, or dig into the tortured inner lives of its characters; it could just be a brisk, insouciant, light-hearted treasure-hunting escapade. That’s what Uncharted is supposed to be about, isn’t it?
17. Splatoon 2
Christian Donlan: Definitely my most-played game of the year, this is a glorious reworking of the online shooter, turning a fast-paced multiplayer game into an actual place, reworking lore and equipment as clothing labels and downtown shops, and tasking me with fighting for something I believe in: a cooked breakfast.
Martin Robinson: An absolute smile of a game. Just being in the same room as it is enough to make me happy.
Oli Welsh: In itself, a pretty modest and iterative sequel, but it continues what I can only hope is a quiet revolution in online competitive gaming. It’s so collaborative and friendly and upbeat! Just imagine, there’s at least a couple of million kids out there growing up to believe that this, rather than Counter-Strike, is how virtual paintball finds its expression. That could actually make the world a better place.
16. Life is Strange: Before the Storm
Christian Donlan: Talk about a game that subverts expectations. A stand-in development team and a divisive lead character have somehow combined to create a follow-up that pretty much surpasses the initial series. Did I miss Max? Sure, but more to the point I started to see her differently. Chloe, meanwhile, is an absolute revelation. Video games deliver the pain and wonder of first love: what a beautiful, tender, brutal thing this is.
Tom Phillips: I’m delighted I was wrong about Before the Storm. A new developer, new lead star, new plans for a bonus episode not in the season pass, and why do we even need a prequel? And yet, within minutes, Deck Nine’s creation had more than proved itself. Better, here is a prequel which enhances the original, that sheds a different light on everything from before: Chloe’s brashness, the true impact of Rachel’s disappearance, the origin story of those beans. It’s an astonishing achievement.
15. Torment: Tides of Numenera
Robert Purchese: I remember thinking so often in Torment: Tides of Numenera there was no way beyond the current ceiling of imagination, that this was as good as it would get – but every single time developer inXile found a way. Wars in people’s minds; enclaves of immortals; adventures in the belly of a living, dimension-straddling city. Everywhere sights and sounds and encounters so bizarre and colourful other adventures became dreary and drab by comparison. And such little waste, so little padding. Everything right down to trash loot had a story. If an open-world role-playing game filled by a factory of automatic systems is one end of the scale, Torment: Tides of Numenera is the other, every diversion inked in the game’s best handwriting.
Mechanically it might not be brilliant, and visually it might function rather than excel, but look past it and let Torment: Tides of Numenera take you, and you will plunge into depths few games other than Planescape: Torment have seen.
14. Resident Evil 7
Martin Robinson:This is how you handle a revival. Not content with returning Resident Evil to its survival horror roots, Capcom reinvented its ageing, frequently eccentric series as a taut first-person thriller. What’s amazing is how, despite the sudden shift in perspective, it retained all that fans hold dear about the series; the Gothic horror, the schlocky storylines and, thankfully, that same eccentricity that’s always held Resident Evil in good stead. An entertaining treat, and proof that the series’ future is as bright as it’s ever been.
Matt Reynolds: Despite the new first-person perspective, this is classic Resident Evil through and through; there are shades of every other game in the series here, from a sprawling house hiding its secrets and horrors behind a series of strange locked doors (as seen in the original) to foes that stalk its corridors and won’t give up chasing (a call back to Resident Evil’s best antagonist, Nemesis). It stumbles a little in its final act, but it’s a reassuring return to form and an encouraging sign for where the series could be headed.
13. Night in the Woods
Alex Holowka, Infinite Fall
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell: A bleak fairytale about a post-recession mining town that is gradually losing itself to bitterness and nihilism, and the group of wounded, hopeful youngsters who club together to save it. The ending is a slight disappointment, but Night in the Woods contains some of this year’s sharpest and most affecting video game writing – its cat protagonist Mae is a caustic screwball and frequently a drain on those around her, but you’ll root for her throughout. The autumnal cartoon visuals and faded electronic soundtrack are a treat, too.
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell: Games and, in particular, immersive sims have become over-fond of telling stories about people through discarded belongings, curios and documents. At times, the majestic sci-fi adventure Prey feels like a critique of all that – and an exploration of the tension in Arkane’s peerless sims between empathy for characters and the temptation to treat them like toys in a sandbox. There are the usual journals, memos and so forth to pick over, but many objects are spidery aliens in disguise, which punishes you for scooping them up without thought (as you might in, say, BioShock). The ability to reduce enemies to blocks of raw material using a Recycler is an expression of callous delight in the reconfigurability of matter, but the fact that human characters similarly transformed by alien Phantoms are still named on the HUD feels like a reproach – it suggests that personhood can’t be shucked off so easily. These quandaries aside, I remember the game for its wonderful zero-gravity tunnel environments and for the typically Arkane playfulness of its Gloo Gun, which lets you break out of the level geometry. Dishonored 2 is the better game, but there’s a lot to revisit in Prey.
Martin Robinson: Another unfairly overlooked Bethesda single-player game, sadly. There’s an awful lot to like here, and it deserves a much bigger audience. Salty about the abundance of multiplayer games? Put your money where your mouth is and buy this!
11. Divinity: Original Sin 2
Robert Purchese: This is genuinely one of the best role-playing games in years – and it’s been a strong few years. Everything Divinity: Original Sin 1 won hearts with returns here with gusto. The superb turn-based combat is an even bigger toybox of a million different possibilities, of fire, of cursed fire, of tentacle arms, of skeletal party members, of blood and poison, and there’s a whole world of counter-strategies – and chaos – with it. Each battle is a strategic feast.
But this time there’s a fuller, richer and more delicious world spun around the core. A fantasy like a great block of edam you can scuttle through any way you like. Work alone or with a group of actually interesting companions; work with friends in multiplayer or against them. There’s support for almost everything – any approach – and it is so deliriously freeing as a result.
Yet, what struck me most about Divinity: Original Sin 2 was simply the craft behind it. When a watchmaker creates a masterpiece there’s a base joy in seeing it work, and so it is here. This is a beautiful game ticking with the contented heart of cogs running like clockwork. It is a delight.