Well, that was a load of old bollocks wasn’t it? We should have perhaps realised that the writing was on the wall when 2016 was confirmed as the year that The Last Guardian would finally be released; a sure a sign of the impeding apocalypse as any. But who would have guessed that by the time this complete urinal cake of a year finally gave way and disintegrated down the piss hole we’d be wistfully reminiscing about the day David Bowie died. Good times man, good times.
In a year so depressing I considered changing my moniker to MoroseBitterGruel, video games provided a welcome escape and below I present to you my top ten of the year. Hope you all enjoy it given that this time next year I will probably be etching my countdown into the salted earth of a radioactive wasteland. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a feeling that next year’s President Evil is going to be the most terrifying yet.
Stay strong everyone.
10. SUPERHYPERCUBE (PSVR)
If you would have told me back in the nineties when I was a teenager that come 2016 I would be experiencing real virtual reality in my living room I would have said “well, given the current rate of improvements in technology that sounds about right”.
Fortunately I’m a slightly less of a huffy, know-it-all prick these days, so the arrival of an headset that actually places you within a game would have made my eyes pop out of my head were it not for the fact they were wedged against my skull by several hundred pounds worth of plastic. SUPERHYPERCUBE provided exactly the kind of experience I was after; transporting me to a world of brilliant neon, sharp lines and neat organisation that I would happily live in were it not for the fact that some people would inexplicably miss me. Everything makes beautiful, simplistic sense here. A shape hangs inches from your head whilst a hole in a barrier behind slowly makes it’s way towards you. Your task is to twist the shape so that it fits through the gap before the wall crashes into your face. Succeed and the shape increases in size until you’re dealing with the kind of Lego monster you’d expect to see built by a kid called Connor who hasn’t learned how to share. The relentless pressure, the endless horizon, the distinct building blocks; It’s all a bit like being in the middle of a Daft Punk song.
Aside from the mind-bending awesomeness of being inside this electroscape, the VR actually provides you tangible benefit. Looking over the top or round the object to get a better perspective may sound gimmicky as all fuck, but it’s something feels like the future. This world has weight, depth and physicality. It almost feels like a funky, three dimensional Tetris. And all this despite the fact it’s basically a techno version of the early evening BBC programme Hole in the Wall. SUPERHYPERCUBE was sadly released at a ridiculous price and so struggled to find an audience, but it’s the kind of exciting, thoughtful experiment that deserves to be experienced. As the distressingly orange host of the aforementioned light entertainment show might say, “bring on the wall!”
9. Pocket Card Jockey (3DS)
Ugh, horsey people. They’re the worst aren’t they? With their hay, and their wind chimes and their oddly sexual boots. Trying to persuade you that horses are majestic beautiful animals when in reality they look like giant, mutant shrews. I went horse racing for the first time this year and left just as confused as I arrived. It’s a world that exists on the peripheral of my reality. Which is perhaps why the introduction of a card game to its structure actually resulted in something I could understand and enjoy.
Pocket Card Jockey places you in the jodhpurs of an up-and-coming rider and builds upon the idea of pushing your horse at the right moments and playing to its strengths, by mixing it with a game of good ol’ fashioned solitaire. Wait, come back! What might appear to be two pastimes only tenuously linked by gambling, actually fit remarkably well and result in a game of deep strategy. The RPG element that’s been thrown into the mix; where you can help your horse develop and grow by collecting cards on the track; means that in some cases it’s not a good idea to push your trusty steed to victory in every race. Add in the pasture where you can retire and breed your previous race winners in order to meld all their lovely, delicious genes and you start to realise that there’s an awful lot more going on here than first appears. There’s a captivating ebb and flow to each race; careful, quiet consideration as you try and move your horse into it’s best position sandwiched between quick-thinking rounds of cards. And, as is the case with a lot of Nintendo’s output, the localisation is absolutely brilliant with genuinely funny conversations between the player, stable owner and the procession of bizarre horse owners in between each cup. If all this doesn’t sound enough, then you also get name your horses. Yes, just like in real horse racing, you too can give an animal a name that sounds like it’s been lifted from the graffiti in a Victorian asylum.
Pocket Card Jockey is an idea so mental, that it would have probably been left on the whiteboard in an episode of The Apprentice, but it bloody works. I’m a changed man. I love horses. Best of all the animals.
8. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (PS4)
Let’s get the huge, exquisitely rendered, beautifully detailed elephant in the room out of the way first; Uncharted 4 is an astonishingly good-looking video game. It’s completely fucking ludicrous. Every nook has been lavished with care and attention, and the crannies; Jesus Christ, the crannies; you’ve ain’t ever seen crannies like these. There’s a bit early on where Nathan Drake has a bite to eat and it’s the greatest scene of animated chewing ever created. It’s only a minute long and must have taken someone weeks to get right. “How’s work going, honey?” “Stressful. Nearly finished that big rumination project. I’ve got the roll on the right hand side of the jaw right but I just can’t crack that fork-to-tounge moment.” “You’re too much of a perfectionist. It’s not the Sistine Chapel. You haven’t showered in days. I’m worried.” “You don’t understand! This is a pivotal moment! If I get this right, it could open some really big doors for us! Sure, it’s chewing now; but next it could be the sweat glistening on Sully’s moustache. They might even give me a crumbling platform. Imagine!” “I’m going to be staying at my Mother’s for a bit. Look after yourself.”
So yes, it is very pretty. As for the actual game bit; the shooting is perfectly good fun (if a bit of a step back from what the series has done before) and the platforming improved so it’s now less like following the one predefined route to the top and more like picking from three (yes, three!) slightly different routes to the top. Oh, the possibilities. But if this all sounds like a bit of a downer for one of my favourite games of the year, then at around the halfway point, A Thief’s End has one of the most extraordinarily lavish and spectacular single levels I can recall. Starting with a quiet walk through a market and culminating in the kind of ridiculously over-the-top car chase that previously only existed in the mind of a six-year old playing with Hot Wheels, I’m amazed that the amount of money that must have been pumped into this single half hour didn’t spark another global financial crisis. This level is Uncharted 4 in a nutshell; gaming’s Faberge egg; utterly pointless, fairly undignified and will probably break if you handle it too roughly, but you can’t help but be impressed by the artistry.
7. Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE (Wii U)
Perhaps concerned that the title wasn’t quite incomprehensible enough, the ‘#’ is actually pronounced ‘sharp’ rather the word that you’ve already internally used twice. But this is just the tip of the iceberg in a game that so intensely Japanese it would have needed a whole, Michael Palin travelogue to cover everything.
Our heroes are members of Fortuna Entertainment; a talent agency whose books boast a detective show where the protagonist changes her personality whenever she sneezes and “Microwavin’ with Mamori”, a cooking show which consists of a teenage girl nuking a ready meal. Still with me? Good, because these celebrities (or “Idols” to use the vernacular) spend their free time banishing demons that feed upon talent using weapons based on characters from the strategy game series Fire Emblem. These weapons are forged by a computer program of a pop star, under the watchful eye of ex-fashion model who spends her time shit-faced, sending inappropriately sexual text messages to her staff.
So far, so lol Japan. But what makes this the first JRPG I’ve actually seen through to the end in about ten years is an immensely satisfying combat system which builds gradually rather than throwing a thousand things at you all at once. Success in battles is achieved through “sessions”; a kind of combo system where one attack can result in over fifteen hits if you’ve got all the moves lined up correctly. Not only are these pleasing to put together, but also great fun to witness. You could start by back-flipping and firing an arrow over your shoulder, before a teammate roars in waving a spear and shouting “nice combination!” and then follow it up with a blast of magic punctuated by the caster smugly pointing directly down the camera. If this isn’t enough, why not have two of your characters perform a little health restoring J-Pop duet in the middle? Tokyo Mirage Sessions may not make the slightest bit of sense but it has a cheerful attitude and sunny disposition that’s just plain good to be around. Nice combination indeed.
6. DOOM (PS4)
I’m not entirely sure that someone would be able to make a less “me” game if they tried. I’ve got no particular affinity for the original games, it sounds like listening to the ambient noise of Download festival from a couple of miles away, it’s so violent I actually let out a few Mary Whitehouse style “well, I never”‘s and it does that annoying thing reboots do of giving it the same name as the original (see also number 5). I mean, the title gives you all the information you need to know; it’s not just Doom, it’s DOOM; all capitals because it never tidies its room and it hates its parents.
But despite doing just about everything it can except for surreptitiously feeding me mushrooms in order to put me off, DOOM completely won me over with its pace, ferocity and the sheer size of its balls until I was unironically doing the devil/rock hand gesture and sticking my tongue out for photos. It’s just so fucking fast. The key to success is to continuously move forwards; leaping from one grotesquely extravagant dismemberment to the next. The “Glory Kill” mechanic, which awards you for finishing off the beasts with a melee style finishing move, means that you have no choice but to get stuck in. It’s a bit like when you see a vet get shoulder deep inside the back end of a cow; there’s no messing, no hesitation you just put on your gloves and get right up there. One of the finishing move animations literally consists of ripping out a demon’s back passage. How can you not fall for a game where anal prolapse is a legitimate tactic? Whisper it, but the constant bombardment and relentless speed reminds me a little of Geometry Wars. There’s nowhere to hide. In the entire playtime of the campaign I didn’t peak out of cover once. Fancy that. In this day and age, a FPS where you don’t spend half your time hiding like a total fucking pussy.
And if all of this makes it sound like just dumb fun, then think again. Like Oliver Read stumbling around a chat show, there’s a fierce flash of intelligence behind its crazed, wide-open eyes. Enemies flank you, take the high ground and retreat. Encounters feel as much as a battle of wits as a battle of wills. And somewhere, a couple of hours in, it began to dawn on me that DOOM is in on the joke. Despite being presented in a po-faced fashion, it’s beautifully self-aware. It knows it’s over-the-top and completely fucking ridiculous. It finds itself funny and that feeling is infectious. Both resolutely old-school yet forward thinking, utterly revolting yet totally hilarious, thick as shit yet wickedly clever, this is easily my best surprise of the year. Pass me a bottle of Hobgoblin and stick on some metal, I’m totally on board now.
5. Amplitude (PS4)
I like to keep this on the down low, but I’m really quite the fan of rhythm action games. So when the opportunity arose to crowdfund Harmonix (creators of the Greatest Game of All Time, Rock Band 3) to make a sequel to Frequency (which happens to be the 2nd Greatest Game of All Time), I played it cool and immediately wrenched my monitor from my desk before launching it the general direction of my bank in the vague hope that the money would somehow transfer quicker. When the game finally arrived, I was a kidney down and had plunged my family into the kind of hopeless debt usually reserved for Batchelor of Arts graduates, but at least I had a nice poster.
Fortunately the game was pretty good in’all. Taking the tried and tested method for rhythm action genius perfected first time in Frequency and then wisely doing absolutely fuck all to it, this is a fine return to the hypnotic undulating lanes and phat improvised beats that I’ve probably spent more time playing with than I have my own penis. The completely in-house soundtrack has a handful of total stonkers (and a couple of absolute stinkers. I’m not sure anyone asked for the excruciating Dad-rap detailing the history of Insomniac Games; featuring the line “new intellectual properties, that’s one of our core philosophies” from the studio that brought us a million, billion near-identical Ratchet and Clank games) and will have you dancing across the pad like Fred Astaire when he’s showing off. The dark, apocalyptic finish of Decode Me, the reach-for-the-lasers break in Dalatecht, the funky finger fucking of Do Not Retreat; the quality tracks shine through and make a strong case for composing songs specifically for this type of thing.
Amplitude 2016 is another fine entry to this truly monumental series and will surely never fail to attract blank looks whenever I mention it to normal people. But then if we’ve learned anything this past twelve months it’s that normal people are total pricks.
4. Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes (PSVR)
A moment of hushed silence please for what must be one of the finest game names in recent memory. It’s funny, it makes you think “woah, who’s that guy?!”, and is actual sound advice for playing the game. Keep Talking is a brilliant recreation of that bit in films where a sweaty man nervously waves a pair of wire cutters over a ticking bomb whilst a room of suits yell at him through an earpiece. One player dons the VR headset and can see the bomb, but the other players have the actual instructions on how to defuse it (printed off the internet and bound in a polythene pocket manual if you’ve got any sense. You can just read the instructions off the telly but if you’re doing that who the fuck are you, get away from me).
I admit it was with some trepidation that I first fired this up alongside my wife; memories of that fateful evening we attempted to play the PS2 co-op game Kuri Kuri Mix and very nearly ended up in a Kathlene Turner/Michael Douglas style War of the Roses situation still painfully fresh in my mind. But with a bag packed and my solicitor on speed dial we gave it a go, and do you know what, it was actually a bloody lovely way of discovering just how great we are at communicating with each other. The masterstroke is that the game revels in being a total bastard. Red wires and blue wires sit next to red AND blue wires, you have to clearly differentiate between buttons that read “your”, “you’re”, “you are” and “u r” whilst others say read nothing and others literally read “nothing” and you have to contend with complete bollocks symbols that force you to develop your own language. Both my wife and I now have a shared understanding of what a “fancy six” or a “half-hearted three” look like.
It’s a fantastic idea delivered with a mischeavious chuckle and our time with it didn’t result in a single argument. The secret to a successful marriage? Keep Talking.
3. Rhythm Paradise Megamix (3DS)
A rhythm action game made by Nintendo; a sentence that makes me feel all peculiar. Like “do you want to order a curry” or “I’m popping out with the kids for a couple of hours”. This WarioWare-esque, beat-matching series has been hitting my buttons in time since the original on the the GBA, but had never quite reached the dizzying heights of that outstanding debut…*dramatic pause*…until now!
Cherry picking from the finest selection of rhythmic mini-games of the past ten years and then adding a bunch of it’s own for good measure, Megamix is an embarrassingly vast and relentlessly joyful exploration of what you can do with the simple mechanic of “press the button when I tell you to”. The smart thing here is that it never actually gets all that complicated and the difficulty comes from the myriad ways in which the game attempts to put you off. You might be a lumberjack bear quite happily chopping wood in the forest, only for a bunch of cats to do a bizarre Cossack-style, bendy hip dance in the background. Or you might be a golfer happily smashing hole-in-ones from balls rolled to you by a chimp (you heard), only for the music to shift gear, whales to start spouting water from their head holes and a baboon to begin furiously raising the roof with a grim look of determination on its face. When I think of all the grief I used to give my sisters for so much as breathing at the wrong time whilst I was trying to concentrate on a game, here I’m actively looking forward to the ways in which I’m distracted. And although the surrealism is frequently hilarious (a level where the world’s smugest chameleon plucks bugs from the air perched on an Elvis impersonators foot very nearly killed me), it’s also genuinely witty in the small cutscenes telling the story of Tibby and his fabulous blue afro on their quest to get back to heaven. I’m generally not one for catchphrases but I’ll admit to using his regular cry “Let’s we go, amigo” more than once in real life.
Frequently surprising, often touching and capable of causing smiles so broad they’ll make your face ache, this is one of the best games available on the 3DS and I will solemnly apply my family seal to that proclamation.
An authority figure in my life once held me in a steely, troubled gaze and told me in no uncertain terms “don’t try acid”. I possess the kind of brain that makes the wine tasting bit in a restaurant seem like a trip through Dante’s nine circles of hell, so it’s probably just as well I took the advice to heart. But Virginia; a barely interactive, Twin Peaks inspired murder investigation; gives me a pretty good idea of what would have happened had I lost my mind and gone full Fear and Loathing.
An at times moving, terrifying and exhilarating journey through small town America, with an atmosphere quite unlike any other game I’ve played before, Virgina also boasts an incredible music score that melds beautifully with the narrative beat for beat. Without a single line of dialogue and gameplay that amounts to little more than pressing up, Virginia had me visibly shaken and frantically Googling synonyms for ‘brilliant’ so I could try and describe to my mates just how ‘corscurcant’ it was.
In retrospect, Virgina is an important and well-timed game too. Placing you in the shoes of a black woman in the white male dominated world of American law enforcement, it does a beautifully subtle job of conveying everyday discrimination. The sneering sideways glances, the suspicious body language, the dismissive eye rolls of the local sheriff, the guy that only leaves you alone in the bar when you flash a wedding ring; from my privileged position it all started to bring me to the Earth-shatteringly obvious conclusion that maybe, just maybe, life still isn’t fair and perhaps we should give people a bit of a break..?
That is, when I wasn’t trying to figure out why a buffalo kept popping up. Or the significance of the little red bird. Or what was in the ornate box. Or who to trust, or what day it was or why I felt like my brain was slowly dribbling out of my ear. Virginia is a unique, beautiful, unmissable trip that I would recommend to anyone with an interest in storytelling, video games or otherwise. It’s utterly essential. Just don’t ask me to try and explain what the fuck was going on
1. Overwatch (PS4)
For me, there’s only ever really been one contender for the top spot this year. Overwatch grabbed me by the chops in the spring and resolutely refused to let me go all year. Keeping in mind that I have the attention span of a toddler that’s been hitting it hard on the Fruit Shoots, that’s quite the achievement.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this team based, online shooter captured my imagination so successfully, but what is certain is that I love it. I mean, I think I actually love it. Genuinely. When I think about it my tummy goes all funny and I sigh and look off into the middle distance. Perhaps it’s because I admire the almost unfathomable complexity. With 6-a-side and over twenty heroes to choose from, the skill to be able to balance the millions of possible combinations so no lineup ever feels unfair makes my brain ache. It’s like the world’s most intricate game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Everytime you find yourself butting against a brick wall, all it takes is a deep breath and a good stern look at the character select screen to find the right tool for the job.
Or maybe it’s because that screen is bursting at the seams with brilliantly designed characters. Symettra; the OCD architect who creates structures from thin air by bending the fabric of reality. Zenyatta; the peaceful robotic monk from an order deep in the Himalayas who believe that those with artificial intelligence possess a soul. Tracer; the lovable, time-travelling urchin from ol’ Laaaaaandaaaan town cheerfully zipping around the maps like Martine McCutcheon fitted with a flux capacitor. Bastion; a machine built for death who has left his purpose behind and now travels the world quietly discovering the beauty of nature and I’m terribly sorry, you’ll have to excuse me I appear to have something in my eye. Even the shitter ones have something about them; a spark of personality, a funny line, a victory pose; and it’s lovely that such a wide range of humanity is represented here. How many games have a fuller body shape character like Mei and don’t follow it up by making her bits visible from every direction? How many games let you play as a 60 year old Arabic woman? How many games feature a homosexual front and centre on the box?
Perhaps I love it because these characters are part of a compelling, epic story that never gets in the way. In game, it’s told though snippets of conversation or incidental, blink-you’ll-miss-’em details in the environment. Outside the game, it’s told through webcomics, Pixar quality short films and huge labyrinthine puzzles that take the combined brainpower of the entire community to pick apart. The story is there if you want it and completely avoidable if you don’t.
Perhaps it’s in the sparks of genius and the “why-hasn’t-anyone-done-this-before”‘s. The mobile turret. The healing sniper. The self-destructing tank. The characters are all essentially predefined load outs and there’s no upgrade path so a beginner has the same kit as someone that’s played for hundreds of hours. They’re all so easily identifiable that you instantly know what you can do and what you’re up against. The Play of the Game at the end of every match which shows all the participants a short video of the fanciest action and makes you feel like a total badass when it’s about you.
Perhaps it’s all these things. But it’s probably the fact that in actual play Overwatch never falls below a spectacular high bar of non-stop, balls-to-the-wall, face-melting, heart-in-mouth entertainment. It’s just plain outrageously fun to play. And in the year of fucking Brexit there’s something beautifully poetic about one of it’s biggest games being about a group of representatives from different nations working together to achieve common goals. It’s beautiful, funny, intense and I’ll be playing it for years. I simply must insist that you do the same. I love it. I love it.