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2018 Year-in-Review: Dom’s Top 10 Games of the Year

Hi all. It has certainly been a slow writing year for me here at the blog, though I try to maintain activity on Twitter as much as I can! With this last post of the year, I wanted to celebrate all the great times I had with notable games that so many dedicated development teams worked on during the past 12 months.

Let’s get right to it. Here are my Top 10 Games of 2018, in descending order. Plus, some bonus mentions at the bottom. Each is listed alongside developer, publisher, platforms and sales.

Which of these did you check out? Did any of these make your list? I certainly hope so!

10. Florence (Mountains, Annapurna Interactive)

Platforms: Mobile. Android & iOS.

Sales: Was tracking well early according to lead designer Ken Wong. Over 10K downloads on Android, 5K ratings on iOS.

Mountains’ Florence is nowhere near a typical mobile game. More of an interactive visual novel. Though it’s the type of game that wouldn’t work nearly as well on a platform *other than* mobile. It uses its platform masterfully to tell the tale of a couple in their 20s, from random encounter to honeymoon period to an inevitable rough patch. Its main mechanic is using the touch screen to literally piece things together (or attempt to do so) as an emotional narrative plays out. One that comes to an unconventional conclusion, and leaves a lasting impression as a result.

9. Celeste (Matt Makes Games)

Platforms: Everything, except mobile.

Sales: At least 500K units, according to the game’s creator Matt Thorson. Hugely successful for a smaller-sized indie team!

Celeste is a 2D platformer about struggle, mental health and attempting to overcome your internal criticisms to achieve an aspiration. As main character Madeline climbs Celeste mountain, the challenging gameplay combines with a suite of characters and a killer soundtrack to reveal it’s ultimately an allegory for setting a goal then dealing with obstacles on the way to fulfilling it. It’s a fine video game, frustrations and all.

8. Marvel’s Spider-Man (Insomniac Games, Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 4.

Sales: 3.3 million units its first 3 days, an all-time record for a PS4 exclusive. Currently stands as the 6th best-selling game of 2018 in the States.

For a medium that seems a perfect fit for superheros, not many recent games capture the essence of being one quite like Marvel’s Spider-Man. Insomniac stuck what I think is most important for the fantasy of being Spidey: effortless, stylish swinging through Manhattan then kicking the crap out of bad guys. While the game has snoozer side activities, annoying stealth sequences and uneven pacing, its gameplay, stellar 3rd act and surprisingly intimate character moments sling it above many 2018 games.

7. Return of the Obra Dinn (Lucas Pope, 3909)

Platforms: Windows. MacOS.

Sales: At least 100K units in around 2 months, per SteamSpy.

If you said a game made predominantly by one person that’s only available on PC/Mac where you play as an insurance adjuster would make my list, I would’ve looked at you like you were a kraken. But just last week, I finally played the game every critic I respect couldn’t stop talking about since its October ship date. It’s a sort of murder-mystery that tells the story of a doomed East India Company sea vessel called the Obra Dinn, via minimalist art and moment-in-time vignettes. Gameplay consists of navigating these snapshot memories using a magical watch, deducing what happened to crew members and passengers during the ill-fated journey. The sheer triumph of figuring out each fate becomes infectious, all the way through its conclusion and final reveal.

6. Monster Hunter: World (Capcom)

Platforms: Xbox One. PlayStation 4. Windows.

Sales: A whopping 10.7 million units. The best-selling single retail release in Capcom’s storied history, not counting re-releases.

This was the earliest major release of 2018, and the first time Capcom’s popular Monster Hunter franchise hit major consoles after being very popular on handhelds in Japan. A global audience latched onto the quirky, humorous fun of an action role-playing game where you hunt gargantuan wild creatures in a variety of detailed locales. Not only is the combat super satisfying, all of its systems blend to keep players engaged: studying animals, gathering supplies, crafting weapons, purchasing items, upgrading gear and taking on quests. Plus, it has cooperative multiplayer. And you hunt alongside a cat friend. It’s a “Palico.” That calls you Meow-ster. Purr-fect!

5. Yoku’s Island Express (Villa Gorilla, Team17)

Platforms: Xbox One. PlayStation 4. Nintendo Switch. Windows.

Sales: Not available.

I couldn’t write this list without including at least something pinball related. And Yoku’s Island Express isn’t just related, it’s pinball in video game form with a genius twist. Villa Gorilla ingeniously built a 2D world that integrates traditional pinball features like flippers and bumpers that allow for traversal across its environments. The player works toward unlocking areas, discovering secrets, finding collectibles and even fighting bosses using pinball as a means to achieve these goals. The controllable character is Yoku, a cute beetle-turned-postman, who delivers items across a cheerful world that’s unfortunately plagued by a dark curse. It’s the smartest synthesis of pinball and video game that I can remember, plus it features a joyful soundtrack and amusing dialogue. I had a ball!

4. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (Ubisoft)

Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch (Streaming in Japan Only), Windows.

Sales: Unit sales aren’t explicitly available, as often happens with major publishers. Ubisoft shared that 1st week sales set a record for the franchise on current generation. Currently the 10th best-selling game of 2018 in the States.

It may feel like the Assassin’s Creed franchise has been around for ages, before Assassins and Templars started beefing. Odyssey is nearly its dozenth mainline title, seeing the player take the role of Alexios or Kassandra, a pair of Spartan twins embroiled in political, societal and even mythical battles as mercenaries in ancient Greece. I don’t say it lightly that it’s one of the best entries in the series. (Yes, even after I said the same about Origins last year.) Some argue it’s shifting further from the series’ tradition, with its enhanced role-playing elements, loot system, dialogue trees, romance options and skill trees. I argue that this is progression. Ubisoft is continually expanding on the stealth-action base of its past. Other than a lackluster conclusion for one of the major plot lines, I have very little to complain about for this sharpest of entries.

3. Tetris Effect (Monstars/Resonair, Enhance Inc)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation VR. (I’d love a Switch version, please!)

Sales: Not available.

You aren’t suffering from seeing things, like you would if you were experiencing The Tetris Effect. There is a new Tetris game in my top three. We all know Tetris is one of the best games ever. I believe that Tetris Effect, produced by Mark MacDonald alongside visionary Japanese designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, is the singular best Tetris game ever since the original.

Its presentation is flawless. Expertly-crafted backgrounds alone would be an experience in sensory bliss. Then, its sound design is legendary. Blips of auditory delights trigger with every tetromino spin, placement and drop, accentuating its uplifting, modern new age soundtrack. It’s not without innovations, either. Players can trigger Zone, a slow motion mechanic that provides for crazy combos. There’s Journey, a curated experience through many of its levels. Its Effect mode allows players to level up and compete on leader boards. Not to mention, it’s fully playable in virtual reality. Moments of synesthesia aplenty, Tetris Effect is borderline transcendental.

2. God of War (Sony Santa Monica Studio, Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 4.

Sales: 3.1 million units at launch, a record for a PS4 exclusive game until Marvel’s Spider-Man released. Currently at least 5 million copies.

It’s very telling that Sony’s God of War is this high on my list, as I have little nostalgia for the over-the-top action franchise. Its main character, the rage-filled god Kratos, carries over from the earlier trilogy. Though it’s effectively a brand new game set within a gorgeous world crafted this time around Norse mythology rather than Greek. It’s a technical marvel, with game director Cory Barlog and team achieving a single camera cut for the entire duration. Positively stunning visuals, though uneven performance at times. Combat with the new Leviathan Axe is wholly satisfying, especially throwing it at a group of enemies and recalling it. Admittedly, the base combat can be repetitive but each skill unlock reveals the true depth of its systems.

With this said, the game truly shines in its story, character moments and monumental boss sequences. It’s hard to think I’m actually describing a God of War game in this way, but it’s all true and that’s why it’s this high on my list. The plot revolves around an older Kratos attempting to fulfill his wife’s dying wish of spreading her ashes, now accompanied by his half divine son and combat partner Atreus (whom the player can direct during combat and puzzle sequences). Certain Norse figures show up, including Baldur, Freya and the prolific, hilarious storyteller Mimir. The father-son dynamic drives this epic quest along, which ends in an unexpected place and surprisingly captivated me with its narrative elements above all else.

1. Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Games, Take-Two Interactive)

Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4.

Sales: $725 million in dollar sales during its first weekend. 17 million units in its initial two weeks. The second best-selling game of 2018 in the States. Not too shabby, partner.

This year, Grand Theft Auto developer Rockstar Games returned to the Western setting with the spectacular Red Dead Redemption 2. As a prequel to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, one of my favorite games of last generation, I was both extremely excited and cautiously optimistic when it was announced. I’m happy to report it vastly exceeded any expectations I had, however lofty. This open world action game’s primary storyline delves into the gang formed by eloquent criminal Dutch Van der Linde, with the player controlling the crew’s second-in-command named Arthur Morgan. He’s a flawed man, loyal to a fault yet still shows the capacity for good deeds and compassion. The game allows you to interact with every character in the world, and ultimately decide what “your Arthur” becomes via a morality scale. The voice acting and motion capture across the board here, for all characters though especially gang members, is extraordinary. Additionally, we see appearances from a variety of familiar faces from the original game: namely John Marston, Javier Escuella and Bill Williamson. Each of them alongside a myriad of new characters makes it feel more like a bustling settlement than many others I’ve seen within the genre.

I can’t understate how visually beautiful and detail complete RDR2 is. Every biome across its world, from snowy mountains to desolate plains to swampy bogs, is populated with fauna, animals, random characters and places to explore. Many games boast what’s called “emergent storytelling,” as in moments that a player will experience individually, separate of the curated quests or story beats. Few deliver on this promise as much as Rockstar does here. It rewards you for going out on your own, talking to people, finding strangers and helping them with their requests. Hunting, fishing, playing cards and more activities open up and each is masterfully executed. Some of them could be games on their own. In fact, these emergent moments are just as memorable if not more so than the game’s missions for me.

Speaking of missions, its overarching narrative is a standout especially in terms of the manner in which it’s conveyed. It’s obvious Rockstar is telling a certain story here, with cutscenes and cinematics interwoven to rival modern films. Sure, its mission design isn’t necessarily innovative. And it doesn’t allow for much player choice during said missions. But that’s by design! There’s freedom in every other aspect that more than makes up for this curation. Missions are usually tense and engaging, especially “major” events like heists or gang endeavors. Arthur and his fellow crew members are constantly on the run from the law or engaging with rivals, not to mention their Western dream of freedom is slowly dying to the progression ushered in by industrialism. There’s plenty of weight to the campaign, especially in later chapters as relationships clash or unravel, and Rockstar weaves moments of fan service with surprising twists to tie the game and its predecessor together.

I’m not saying it’s a perfect game, or even a game for everyone. Some of its menu and UI design is dated. It’s deliberate. Its “feel” can be sluggish until you get the hang of it. You don’t speed through its open world, you mosey. You savor it, as exhibited by Arthur’s movement as he skins each animal, loots each drawer and chats with each gang member or passerby. You hear their stories. And then, you make your own stories that exist alongside Rockstar’s.

I loved this pacing. I loved exploring, finding oddities and secrets that felt like only I had ever seen them before even though I know that’s not true. I virtually *became* a character in America during the late 1800s. I lived in Rockstar’s hyper-realistic, beautiful yet dangerous world for hours and hours, and savored every moment as much as Arthur did.

Before I wrap up, I would like to mention that Rockstar has been criticized for its demanding work practices. Many team members work long hours, especially right before release. This dedication absolutely shows in the final product. And there are those that expressed how much they love working for the studio. Either way, I am hopeful that every single person is compensated fairly for their efforts. Labor practices and company culture is way too big of an issue to discuss here, so I’ll end with saying that no one should have to suffer mentally or with their family just to produce a video game.

Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical Order)

Dead Cells (Motion Twin)

Platforms: Everything, except mobile.

Sales: Upwards of 2 million owners on PC alone per SteamSpy. Not available for console versions.

Dead Cells is the type of game that I shouldn’t have enjoyed, with its roguelike elements including permadeath and losing gear after every “run,” however it ended up being one of my favorite 2D action games of the year almost on feel alone. It’s at its best when you have a run during which you build a sweet load-out and slice through opponents like butter. Though I never actually beat the final boss because of the difficulty spike, which I mark as a knock against it even if you might disagree.

Destiny 2: Forsaken (Bungie, Activision Blizzard)

Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Windows.

Sales: The only official numbers we heard were for the original Destiny 2 launch in 2017, which was above 6.3 million units. Well beyond that by now, especially after sales and promotions, however exact figures are not available.

We all know I couldn’t end this post without at least mentioning Destiny. Bungie put out its major Forsaken expansion this September, marking the one year anniversary of Destiny 2’s initial release. And it’s excellent, featuring a campaign where lovable, witty robot Cayde-6 is murdered and the player must hunt down his killers. Plus, there’s a brand new raid, tons of new gear, secrets galore and a variety of quality-of-life updates. Bungie has kept up with maintaining Destiny 2 since launch, however this is the best it’s been. It’s as fun as ever to team up with friends and fight the galaxy’s most threatening enemies, while naturally looking pretty cool all the while.

Donut County (Ben Esposito, Annapurna Interactive)

Platforms: Everything.

Sales: At least 50K on PC, per SteamSpy. Otherwise, not available.

Have you ever dreamed of controlling a hole in the ground that swallows up entire towns? No? Creator Ben Esposito fulfills a desire that no one knew they had, crafting a fun-loving game with a simple mechanic. You move a hole around a map, growing with every item it swallows up until literally nothing remains. Its plot is actually solid, as friends Mina (a human) and BK (a racoon) work at a doughnut shop. BK plays a mobile game where he “delivers doughnuts” to people by sending them holes in the ground. It’s simple and funny, with slight undertones of a commentary on gentrification. The humor shines especially in its glossary, where each item is documented as it’s gobbled up. It’s also an accessible, easy to control game.

Hollow Knight (Team Cherry)

Platforms: Everything, except mobile.

Sales: Approximately 1.25 million units, when aggregating available PC and Nintendo Switch figures.

This entry is technically cheating, as Hollow Knight originally released in 2017. Its Switch launch happened this year, so that’s when I played it, and it’s sincerely excellent. The dark, dreary 2D action platformer stands out not just because of its challenging combat but because of its unique lore and creative world-building. It’s all about a lost kingdom of bugs, and those creatures that inhabit it. The player learns about secrets and mini-stories via exploration. Each time you proceed to a new area, you feel equal parts wonder and dread. It also has some of the most memorable boss sequences I’ve played the past couple of years.

Pokemon Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Pokemon Let’s Go, Eevee! (Game Freak, The Pokemon Company, Nintendo)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch.

Sales: In the two months since release, over 3 million units worldwide. The highest first week sales for a Switch title, until Super Smash Bros Ultimate hit 5 million at launch in December.

My final honorable mention is the latest set of adorable entries in the Pokemon franchise, which I’ll just call Let’s Go! because it’s a lot to type every time. These are re-made versions of 1998’s classic Pokemon Yellow featuring updating trappings inspired by 2016’s mobile phenomenon Pokemon Go. I grabbed the Pikachu version of Let’s Go!, of course, and loved building up my team of pocket monsters within the colorful world of Kanto, then using them to battle trainers and gym leaders. Favorite of my current squad? Arcanine. You can ride on its back, with Pikachu on your shoulder. That’s worth the price of entry alone!

There you have it. All the 2018 games worth playing! Well, there are other good games out there, but these are my selections for the best of the best. Thank you as always for reading, here’s wishing you all the best in the new year.

Sources: Photos are screenshots from my time with these games. Sales info as linked. Other information from company media and investor relations websites, Wikipedia, Venture Beat and NPD Group.

-Dom

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2017 Year-in-Review: Dom’s Top 10 Video Games of the Year

Here we go!

 

Since it’s been one of the best years for video games this generation, it was almost impossible to (1) rank my favorite games and (2) make sure that I include as many as possible that deserve recognition during such a competitive time. It was difficult, but I’ve managed to narrow it down to a ranked list of my top ten favorite titles then a five honorable mentions for your reading pleasure (or disdain, if you happen to disagree.)

 

One disclaimer of course is that I will be sharing screenshots and exposition that may contain spoilers. If you haven’t finished your most-anticipated games of 2017 then.. wait, why haven’t you finished them if they were your most-anticipated? Seriously though, fair warning that there may be spoilers starting.. Now.

 

1. Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch.

Estimated Sales: At least 5 million units, based on around half of Switch owners purchasing it (there are 10 million consoles sold to date).

 

During a year in which Nintendo rebounded to achieve an array of accomplishments, its most relevant to me is fully rejuvenating the Mario franchise with this magical, exploratory open world 3D platformer. Super Mario Odyssey is a sprawling adventure of our favorite Italian plumber along with his new sidekick Cappy, and is a pure joy to play while “Cap-turing” enemies to take over their abilities and grabbing each one of its hundreds of collectibles. I’m left with the closest feeling possible to how I felt playing Super Mario Bros on the Nintendo Entertainment System during Christmas Day when I was little more than a toddler. Especially during a sequence in the city-themed Metro Kingdom that hearkens back to a timeless arcade title from the Japanese company.

 

It’s a game successfully split in two parts: The first tailored to a more casual audience wanting to experience the story of Mario attempting to save Peach from Bowser’s slimy grasp, this time under the guise of the villain kidnapping the Princess and planning their wedding on the Moon. Though by the end, I’d argue this is a distinctly clever take on the “traditional” Mario story. Princess Peach ends up dismissing the advances of both Mario and Bowser, in a wink-and-nod moment from the designers. Instead, she takes a trip of her own alongside Cappy’s sister Tiara, smartly bucking the tired trope of the damsel-in-distress we’ve seen her play since the 80s.

 

Then, the 2nd part is a surprising post-credits sequence targeting the most die-hard of completionists with brand new kingdoms plus a ton of puzzles and collectibles in existing areas. I’m treated to playing as Yoshi in the iconic Mushroom Kingdom, finding a theater in the Metro Kingdom with a playable version of the aforementioned Super Mario Bros and ended up conquering one of the most difficult levels in the franchise’s history. This final endeavor is a true delight, as it incorporates both platforming elements and the “Cap-turing” mechanic in fun, impressive ways.

 

If a video game that both tickles my nostalgia bone and stands as the pinnacle of its genre with new gameplay hooks, an unrivaled attention to detail and extreme polish doesn’t top my list, then I don’t know what does. It’s hard for me to find a glaring flaw with, except maybe that I wish Nintendo would hurry up and announce new future content (maybe a kingdom or two..) so I never have to leave the world of Super Mario Odyssey.

 

 

2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch, Wii U.

Estimated Sales: Similar to above, more than 5 million units. Likely even more than Odyssey because of Breath of the Wild releasing earlier.

 

Nintendo’s rebound began in March with the release of its Switch console and *probably* my 2nd favorite mainline Zelda game ever behind Ocarina of Time. Breath of the Wild is an action-adventure starring familiar characters like the timeless hero Link and Princess Zelda is the epitome of the “emergent storytelling” buzzword, a label often bestowed but rarely achieved. It’s set in the fantastical world of Hyrule, again haunted by the dark force Ganon, and the wonderful part is the world is wide open after a brief tutorial area for the player to run, explore and (most importantly) climb everywhere they can see. It features beloved areas like Goron City, Rito Village, The Lost Woods and countless others complete with their respective cultures and characters.

 

Now it doesn’t have the most engaging story, and lacks traditional “dungeons” that certain fans will miss. But I believe it MORE than makes up for this with intricate gameplay systems and an array of puzzles (i.e. shrines, mazes and collectibles) that allow for personal, powerful moments. If I thought I could do something, I could. Like of course a metal object conducted electricity. Absolutely it’s hard to climb when it’s raining. See that snowy mountain? Better bundle up before scaling it! Plus I’d often be rewarded with a useful in-game item, and ultimately a feeling of child-like awe inspired by so few games these days.

 

Admittedly, I was skeptical of Breath of the Wild prior to release. I was hesitant on weapon degradation, limited stamina and the necessity to prepare for the weather or elements. But I ended up actually really enjoying these systems within the broader world because each forced me to try new things, improvise under duress and consider a variety of factors when fighting, exploring or facing puzzles. The game is downright magical, and I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

 

3. Assassin’s Creed Origins (Ubisoft Entertainment, Ubisoft Montreal)

Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One.

Estimated Sales: Hard to say. Launch sales were twice as much as 2015’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, but that title had soft figures compared to others in history. It has almost 500K owners on Steam, but without specific console numbers I won’t speculate.

 

Ubisoft is another company that had a stellar year, and its best 2017 game is also its most important since it signaled a new direction for the decade-old Assassin’s Creed series. Set in Egypt around 50 BC during the occupation of Greek and Roman forces, Origins is hands-down the most beautiful game I played this year in terms of technical accomplishment and general art direction. (Note I played the Xbox One X Enhanced version. 4K, High Dynamic Range, all that). Not only that but it also implements a loot system where I’m constantly earning new gear with which to experiment, and its upgrade options allow me to spec my character in a way that aligned with my intended play style and equipment load-out.

 

Speaking of character, I appreciate that it leans into original ones more than historical figures this time. Though Cleopatra is a key part of the overarching narrative. The protagonist Bayek is a kind of super-cop of his era, while his wife Aya is more of a freedom fighter. Its characters are enriched by the story and especially its vastly improved side quests that build out Bayek’s legend. Mini-stories remind me of games like The Witcher 3 and Fallout in both their world-building and character development. In one such quest, an older man begs Bayek find a very important book that will allow his wife to pass safely into the afterlife. But when Bayek returns, the man has since passed away. Bayek is left to find the gentleman receiving last rites and in a bittersweet moment, he leaves the book alongside his body in hopes that it allows both him and his wife to rejoin each other in the world beyond.

 

My only knocks against the game is that the modern day sequences are not very engaging, and its huge map is daunting when you first enter the world. Even so, Origins has vaulted ahead of great entries such as the aforementioned Syndicate and even 2013’s Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag to settle as one of my top picks in the entire franchise, because it takes risks and distinguishes itself as being able to stand on its own merits while also connecting with the underlying lore.

 

 

 

4. Horizon Zero Dawn (Sony Interactive Entertainment, Guerilla Games)

Platforms: PlayStation 4.

Estimated Sales: At least 3.4 million units, near launch. I’d wager close to 4.5 – 5 million by now based on the PS4’s user base rocketing above 70 million consoles.

 

Horizon Zero Dawn is the first “brand new” game on my list, as Guerilla Games creates a post post-apocalyptic world in which a small group of people has reestablished tribal communities after barely surviving a major calamity. Cool twist is in the 31st century, the main relics of the past are actually massive, mysterious robot creatures that resemble real-life animals or dinosaurs and are super hostile to humans.

 

But alas, Aloy is the playable character here and she’s a bad-ass, bow-wielding hunter-gatherer with an ability to combat these crazy mechs and even interface with them using technology from millennia past. After her mentor is tragically killed, she sets out on a quest to see why she’s so special and what actually happened to humankind. It’s a gorgeous, majestic open world action game with a gripping narrative and varied combat encounters as enemies require different tactics to outsmart and overcome.

 

The reason Horizon is so good is it borrows elements from a variety of games within the 3rd person action and open world genres then integrates them into a setting that is pure eye candy. For instance, take “Cauldrons.” These are cool-looking underground areas featuring light puzzles and tough combat engagements. Picture lots of neon lighting and man-made structures combined with natural formations. Emerging victorious from each Cauldron allows Aloy the ability to control a new set of machines, tying back into the lore of the world while also advancing the player’s set of powers.

 

In the end, Horizon features two parallel story lines: A brewing tribal war, and Aloy’s search for her past and discovery of the ultimate fate of ancient humans. These both pay-off in a big way, marking one of the most memorable blends of gameplay and narrative of 2017.

 

 

5. Destiny 2 (Activision Blizzard, Bungie)

Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One.

Estimated Sales: Well over 6.3 million units, based on Activision announcing it has outsold its predecessor. Activision also noted it’s the 2nd highest-selling console game in North America this year based on dollar sales, behind only Call of Duty: WWII.

 

Rounding out my Top 5 is what began as my most-anticipated game of 2017, the sequel to Bungie’s 2014 shared world, multiplayer shooter Destiny. Let’s be frank: Anyone that knows me or reads my Twitter timeline already knows how much I love this sci-fi franchise, so it shouldn’t be a shock that this ranks as high as it does despite mixed reactions from critics and community alike.

 

Destiny 2 is not a perfect game. But it is among the best in the business at what it does well. It has a most amazing art design, especially its wonderful sky-boxes and stunning color pallet, which players can now enjoy in 4K on premium platforms and an uncapped frame rate on PC. It has an intense, entertaining campaign that vastly improved on the original game. Its character customization and equipment options are varied so that no two players look the same, and the feeling of snagging that one piece of loot you’ve been hoping for is always triumphant.  Its co-op activities, especially the high-level “strike” missions and its difficult six-person raid, are unlike anything you’ll see in a modern first-person shooter.

 

Though what really stands out and keeps me coming back is its stellar gameplay. Its moment-to-moment mechanics of moving through environments to encounter and take out enemies is the best of any shooter maybe of all time. I argue this is its most important feature, outweighing any trouble it has with stagnant progression, end-game incentives and weak player-vs-player competitive play in the “Crucible” game mode. Like I said, Destiny 2 has its fair share of issues, but it’s still my favorite game to play alongside friends and I keep returning to it months after initial release.

 

 

6. NieR: Automata (Square Enix, Platinum Games)

Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4.

Estimated Sales: 2 million units.

 

I didn’t expect to even play Platinum Games’ follow-up to its cult hit NieR until I tried its short demo, available shortly before release. But this odd, way out-there action game with elements of JRPGs, arcade shooters and bullet hell genres stands out in a competitive year mostly because of its magnificent soundtrack, unique structure and absolutely outrageous story that forced me to contemplate the very nature of existence and what it means to be “alive.”

 

Deep stuff, I know. But when a game takes place in a distant future where androids, created by humans, are locked in a perpetual battle with machines, created by ancient aliens, you know it’s going to go places. And go places it does. I don’t want spoil too much, but what NieR: Automata does so well is it tells its overarching story from the perspective of multiple protagonists: Androids with “designations” like 2B, 9S and A2 instead of actual names. The androids and machines of this future world are mostly fighting each other, true, but are also learning about themselves and the world as this fight wages on. It shows how the created begin to take on characteristics of their creators, and what happens when these artificial intelligences begin to discover what, and eventually “who,” they actually are.

 

Some of the knocks against the game are it isn’t the prettiest-looking (and it ain’t), its map is a jumbled mess, its systems are opaque and the second “act” drags on because the player is revisiting a major story line from the first but in a slightly different way. This is why it’s not higher on my list. And it’s so difficult to talk about the genius of NieR: Automata without doing a full analysis of its story and themes, but suffice to say that if you are into games with killer soundtracks or narratives that weave themes of philosophy, science, AI and existentialism, then you will dig the heck out of this one.

 

 

7. Cuphead (Studio MDHR)

Platforms: PC, Xbox One.

Estimated Sales: 2 million units.

 

Since Cuphead’s reveal during E3 of 2014, I had been using the same (bad) running joke: Whenever someone brought up the game, I’d say “Believe it when I see it. And I don’t think I’ll ever see it.” Think about it: A super ambitious, hand-drawn title using the animation style of a 1930’s cartoon being developed by a tiny studio run by a family that had never commercially released a game. A niche Microsoft exclusive showed at every trade show for years, rumored as nothing but an onslaught of very challenging boss fights in a two-dimensional play area. Then, it was updated to include platforming levels that felt “tacked on” by those that saw them behind closed doors. Plus, for a long while, there was no release date in sight.

 

Boy am I glad that I was wrong, as were those that previewed those early builds, now that it’s hit the market. Sibling tag-team of Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, along with help from Chad’s wife Maja and others at Studio MDHR, have made one of the most extraordinary video games I’ve ever played. A run-and-gun platformer that literally looks and feels like a cartoon made during the time between the Great Depression and World War II. Yes, it’s still mostly an onslaught of bosses with a handful of collectible platforming levels scattered between. But it *works*. Each foes is expertly-crafted and animated with such nuance and skill that I’m still in awe it exists. Plus it has a snappy overworld, a multitude of weapon types and purchasable power-ups allowing different styles depending if a player wants more health or the ability to teleport. And it’s music.. Spectacular. Imagine an epic boss battle amidst a backdrop of an iconic jazz or bouncy swing tunes playing live as you methodically dismantle your opponent.

 

Its main downside is the barrier to entry is high, as many players will be turned off by its difficulty including an especially frustrating sequence right before the final encounter. However for those that are fine failing over and over again just to experience that one moment of monumental triumph, Cuphead is best-in-class.

 

 

 

8. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (Bluehole/PUBG Corporation, Microsoft Studios, Tencent)

Platforms: Mobile, PC, Xbox One.

Estimated Sales: 30 million units. (And it will probably be, like, at least a million more by the time you read this.)

 

Here it is. Better or worse, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (or PUBG for short) is the biggest story in gaming this year. And it wasn’t even a full commercial release until just a week ago, spending the bulk of 2017 in a preview mode on PC. It’s even still an “early access” title on Xbox One. The battle royale, Hunger Games-style multiplayer game that started as a mod for survival games is a phenomenon because of its simple yet elegant premise: One hundred players parachute out of an airplane onto an island full of weapons and armor, and the last person standing wins.

 

You might say: “That’s not original! I’ve seen this before!” And you’d be right. It’s one of many in the battle royale, last man standing genre. But I’d argue why PUBG is so beloved (and hated, by its detractors) and ultimately successful is a much more nuanced discussion. It’s a game going for realism, but its charm actually lies in its rough edges and “jank.” Its natural pacing is impeccable, as players experience the endorphin rush of a good loot game every single match between moments of high intensity and much-needed recovery. Its combat is very difficult to master, which means every successful kill feels like a victory in and of itself and an actual victory feels like bliss.

 

Similarly, every mode echoes a different genre: Solo play is a stealth-action horror game, where death can be behind any corner.. or bathroom door. Duos becomes an intricate, technical tango between two players calling out drops and enemy locations. And squads mode is a frantic, fast-paced feud of four-person teams. PUBG offers something for every type of competitive player, and its “circle” mechanic where the map slowly shrinks forces the action no matter the mode, resulting in memories and YouTube videos galore.

 

From a technical standpoint, PUBG has a long way to go. It only has two maps on PC, and just one on Xbox. It crashes and drops connections regularly on console, to a maddening effect. Though it has a solid foundation in place, and an addictive gameplay loop can hold players over until its tech is cleaned up and more variety is offered in terms of map locations. Here’s to your next Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner!

 

 

 

9. What Remains of Edith Finch (Annapurna Interactive, Giant Sparrow)

Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One.

Estimate Sales: Yet another one where it’s hard to tell. Almost 120K owners on PC, but indie publishers often don’t disclose exact overall sales figures.

 

Indie studio Giant Sparrow’s spiritual successor to The Unfinished Swan is a masterwork in storytelling and world-building, and an emotional journey into one family’s tragic history. It follows Edith Finch, the last remaining survivor of her family, returning to her childhood home in the Pacific Northwest to delve deep into the memories of her deceased relatives. As the player, I walked and explored this makeshift house that seemed to reach into the heavens, climbing until I reached its pinnacle which both physically and figuratively acted as the climax of the overall narrative.

 

Its story is told via a sprinkling of vignettes showing each relative’s last moments, from a food-poisoned young woman who believes she is transforming into animals to an infant playing gleefully in a bathtub to a grieving uncle who opted to live in secrecy in a bunker underneath the property. In its most poignant mini-story from both a gameplay and story perspective, Edith’s brother Lewis is a drug user and cannery worker who daydreams of being a prince in a fantasy world. The game sees you controlling Lewis cutting fish with one hand while simultaneously moving about through his fantasy world with the other. The scene plays out as him traversing mythical lands to find his true love, the princess, all the while conducting the mundane task of his day job. It’s bittersweet in its message, and flawless in its execution.

 

Some of What Remains of Edith Finch is predictable because of its linear nature, and it’s a dreary game in terms of its overall look, but its unconventional story and final payoff outweigh these flaws to become one of my major indie recommendations for 2017. Its vignettes perfectly encapsulate snapshots in time, right before tragedy strikes. Moments that the main character, and I, end up cherishing.

 

 

 

10. Nioh (Sony Interactive Entertainment, Koei Tecmo, Team Ninja)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC.

Estimated Sales: Over 1 million units. Likely more, since that was a figure based on the weeks after release way back in February.

 

Rounding out my personal “Top 10” is Team Ninja’s challenging, hack-and-slash RPG Nioh. Set in feudal Japan, the protagonist is an Irish sailor turned samurai (yes, you read that right) named William who embarks on a quest to take down a devious villain with supernatural powers. One twist is this dark version of Japan is infested with not just human warriors but otherworldly foes called “yokai,” some of which tower over William in foreboding fashion or evolve into different forms. Upside is William can also call one of a number of spirit animals to his aid, and he builds an arsenal of melee and ranged weapons to support his effort.

 

Nioh is far from an easy game, especially early on when you have limited options in terms of armor, skills and upgrades. Many enemies can take out William in one or two swings of their weapon or a well-timed elemental attack, so cunning and timing are essential in combat. I needed to carefully consider my path through each level, unearthing shortcuts along the way that help when I respawn after my inevitable demise. But its epic boss fights are the real treat: Beating adversaries like a former mentor turned massive, pipe-smoking toad, or a hybrid lion-dragon chimaera monster or even a gigantic multi-headed sea snake is akin to the ecstasy felt if succeeding in games like Dark Souls or Battletoads.

 

Another draw of Nioh is it’s extremely rewarding in terms of loot and currency, seeing each battle result in a literal explosion of items to pick up from the ground. It also integrates a number of smart systems. When you die, a version of your character can then be summoned in other players’ games as a ghostly “Revenant.” You can also summon co-op partners to support in your current mission, or even have the ability to run most missions with a friend. Lastly, it offers higher-level versions of its missions that reward the most coveted gear. It’s this cross section of rewarding gameplay, intricate systems and the jubilant feeling after each encounter that makes Nioh so special.

 

Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical Order):

 

Call of Duty: WWII (Activision Blizzard, Sledgehammer Games)

Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One.

Estimated Sales: Best-selling console game of the year globally, and has generated over a billion dollars in revenue. Quick calculation leads to around 16-17 million units assuming it sells most of its copies at full-price. But if we assume discounts & exchange rate conversions etc, I’d wager 14-15 million already.

 

 

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (Ninja Theory)

Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4.

Estimated Sales: Over 500K units. Ninja Theory disclosed that the game has exceeded expectations and is now profitable.

 

 

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (Capcom)

Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One.

Estimated Sales: 4.1 million units.

 

 

 

Splatoon 2 (Nintendo)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch.

Estimated Sales: 3.61 million units.

 

 

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (Bethesda Softworks, MachineGames)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One.

Estimated Sales: Unfortunately not a huge commercial success. Just above 370K owners on Steam. No word on exact overall or console sales.

 

 

There you have it! What a year. I hope you gamers out there were able to play some of these titles, and got as much enjoyment out of them as I did. Thanks so much for making it this far, and let me know how you feel about these in the comments or on Twitter! Here’s hoping 2018 can live up to its incredible predecessor.

 

 

Sources: All screen caps taken by yours truly on one of the listed platforms, usually Xbox One for multi-platform titles. Estimated sales from an amalgamation of sources, including company announcements, financial statements, NPD Group, GfK/UKIE, equity analysts, social media posts etc. If you are interested in details behind sales stats, please drop me a line.

 

-Dom

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Working Casual 2017 Year-In-Review: Over-Review

 

Hello all!

 

It’s been.. let’s call it.. an “interesting” year. Despite my writing output obviously declining, and the current state of the geopolitical climate (which is something I don’t critique or comment on here), it’s actually been one of the best in recent memory in terms of video games and the technology surrounding the medium. 2017 has seen both Nintendo and Microsoft release a new console, innovation in the augmented/virtual reality and mobile spaces, a stellar year for video game stocks plus some of the best darn games of this entire generation if not ever. Gamers and techies have been treated to an awesome 12 months, admittedly if only within our immediate “bubble.”

 

In celebration of the past year, I’ll now round up my thoughts on some of its most important topics and products, similar to last year’s pieces. I’ll update this post throughout the next week, as I cover the following:

 

Dom’s Top 10 Video Games of the Year

 

Top 5 Influential Gaming, Tech & Media Companies of the Year

 

Top 3 Impactful Deals or Mergers of the Year

 

Best & Worst-Performing Gaming, Media & Tech Stocks

 

 

If you participate (or participated) any of the year-end celebrations, I’ll take this opportunity to wish you a happy, healthy holiday season and a very Happy New Year into 2018. But it’s not over just yet, so stay tuned!

 

-Dom

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Working Casual 2016 Year-In-Review: Summary

 

Happy New Year, all!

 

It’s been a while, but I’m finally back this time with a number of topics as part of my Working Casual 2016 Year-In-Review. I’ll be posting thoughts and stats on the following topics, each in separate posts, and aggregating them here once all are published. I hope you enjoy them, feel free to comment and check Twitter for even more insights into last year and 2017 going forward.

 

Best & Worst-Performing Gaming, Media & Tech Stocks

Top 10 Video Games of the Year

Top 5 Influential Gaming Companies of the Year

Top 3 Impactful Deals of the Year

Top 5 Gaming, Media or Tech Stories & Trends of the Year

 

Also, to everyone that has visited, I want to thank you for reading and following my site after its launch this year. I wasn’t as active as I originally thought I’d be, but I do have some article ideas and cool plans for 2017 that I think you’ll enjoy. I can’t express my gratitude for you taking the time out of your busy day to check in and read some ramblings of a financial nerd and gaming, media and technology enthusiast. Hope to chat with you soon!

 

Photo Source: Colourbox

 

-Dom