i shipped 1 game and finished 79 video games in 2021 and here is a list of all of them
What a year. Instead of reflecting on it like a lot of people will and saying things like “wow, what a year,” I’m going to tell you this: I shipped a video game despite it all, alongside the fine folks at Mischief, particularly one of my best buds in the world, Cameron Ceschini, who never tweets ever.
It was a trial, not just because of covid, or people dying, or shitty people making it hard, or because I had ten dental surgeries this year, but because I was living alone, while disabled, and making barely enough cash to live.
But, hey, look at that. Overwhelmingly positive reviews of a game I wrote in its entirety (with a brief bit of rambling on the phone written by the incredible Kris Taquka’angcuk Knigge, our voice director on the game).
Overwhelmingly positive reviews! Interest in us making another game — which we’re now working on — things are going pretty good.
But… at the same time, it has been six hundred and ninety-eight days (698!) since I’ve had meaningful human contact. With just three exceptions, I haven’t had any contact from anyone for more than an hour, unless you count “being strapped in a chair, gagging, as people drill into your skull” as meaningful human contact, in which case, that number goes up from three to thirteen. Still, that’s out of six hundred and ninety-eight days.
I’ve had friends who were going stir crazy after thirty to ninety days, and I’m going on six hundred and seventy. Suffice it to say, if I didn’t have routine discord calls and people being kind enough to hit up my tip jar, I don’t know how I’d make it. I tried to do things beyond just making a video game that 95% of people recommend (several people who recommended against it said they’d rather give it a neutral vote, which like… that just hurts my bottom line and ability to survive for no reason, dude, why not just say nothing?), gave away 100 games at Christmas, being there for people who needed it as best I could (while remaining in isolation due to the whole ‘being immunocompromised’ thing), but the truth is, I’m fuckin fraying, here. I need something; a dog, a partner, something. But I don’t have it; what I have is solitude. I’m so lucky that I’ve had as much support as I’ve had, because even the victory of writing yet another critically acclaimed game isn’t enough to keep me sane while so alone.
But hey, I’m gonna tell you something, and I hope he’s okay with it, because I’m gonna tell you about one of the times someone came over to talk to me.
You might know him; his name’s Tim Rogers, and he’s responsible for some of the best criticism I’ve ever read. Sometimes, when he comes up, people seem surprised when I’m like “oh yeah, Tim is a friend of mine,” but you have to remember — we both wrote for Kotaku for years. Of course we know each other. Tim has what I don’t, which is the ability to make compelling YouTube videos.
Anyways, if you saw his Cyberpunk 2077 series, you know about the clip he posts of him standing in a sunflower field. What you might not know is that he borrowed my tripod for some of those scenes, which is why he dropped by.
The last time I had hung out with Tim, he was telling me about his new gig at Kotaku, and he was sitting there, in his beat up old Crown Vic, I think it was. We’re in Oakland, it’s late at night, he’s just given me a sweater of his game, Videoball, which is about to release, and he looks up at me (because I was out of the car now and standing on the curb, all my possessions in hand, about to walk to the subway and ride over to the airport to fly home), and he asks if I wanted Action Button, his website.
I’d just registered my own website a couple months prior, so I declined. But… something about that also felt wrong to me. Action Button is Tim, it’s not me. It ought to be in his hands. So, after he left Kotaku and started it back up, I was relieved that it stayed with him; he’s one of my favorite critics, with a style that’s distinct from my own in the way any sibling’s is. I am so proud of him for how successful he’s been, because he keeps doing the thing I always loved — making good-ass content that’s a delight to consume.
So as we’re talking, I confided in him that I was really struggling; truth is, I really do need to just straight up say to someone “I need help, I am drowning and I need help,” but with Tim, I got as close as I could to saying that to someone.
Tim looks at me and he says something along the lines of “I know your work, and it’s good. Ten years ago, I didn’t know if I’d make it, and now I’m doing successful Youtube videos, and with you, I see the work you’re doing, and I can tell… you’ll make it. You’re too good not to.” I might have got some of the words wrong, but “you’ll make it” was exactly what I needed to hear, because I feel like I’m not gonna, most days.
I was so happy to see that brief clip of my game Adios in his Cyberpunk 2077 video, where he talks about great games writing (though, hey, Tim, if you’re seeing this, next time, when you show games, can you get a ticker that tells people the name of the game on screen? lol).
I don’t know how yet, but I know I’ll make it.
Thank you so much, Tim. My tripod is available to you any time you need it.
Yesterday, I saw the image of one of the most important characters in my next game, which I’ve been calling “waifu death squad” because it’ll be an easy term to namesearch after the real name is revealed and the game comes out, so I’ll be able to point to tweets I’ve made about the game and go “see? i fuckin did it,” just like I did with Adios. I’m so excited to show her, and everybody else to you, in… about two years, lol.
But, hey, games kept me sane too.
There’s no real theme here; this year, more than any other, I focused on getting games off my backlog, which meant I played a lot of games that… honestly, maybe I shouldn’t have? I just felt incapable of starting new things without starting old things.
Like my 2020 piece and the 73 games I beat there, my previous record, I used a white board. I would write down ten games, using one color of marker (like blue). Then I would replace each game as I finished it with a second color (like pink) so I could see what games had been on the longest (the blue ones), and when I finished all the blue games, I started a third color (like green, so my brain could relax from seeing blue), and so on.
But my ADHD has been really bad, and that made it incredibly hard for me. I ended up with something like 25 games on the list, I was still jumping between games, extremely restless, trying to find the right game to vibe with, so near the middle of the year, I really lost track of things, and only got back on track and completing regularly closer to the end of the year.
So here’s what I finished in 2021.
But first: hey, if you want to support me in my writing (my attempts to post helpful, educational things for free with no paywall, hoping that you will find my work valuable enough to offer your support), here’s the places you can support my work. This all goes toward medical bills, equipment for streaming, games to research and cover, all that jazz. Basically, if you give me money, I turn it into staying alive and more educational essays.
If you don’t want to or aren’t able to support, that’s totally understandable, especially for those of you who are low income. My belief here is that you shouldn’t miss out on access to helpful, educational stuff just because you can’t afford it. I know I’m distributing it for free and people may choose not to hit up the tip jar. I get it. I feel this is still the right thing to do, so I will.
As usual, unless stated otherwise, I took all the screenshots in the post.
- Xenoblade Chronicles (Nintendo Switch)
Well, this was certainly a way to start the year. I was continuing last year’s arc of “playing lots of JRPGs,” but couldn’t quite beat it in time for the new year, and it sure is a thing.
I’m not sure I really like the story itself or the ideas behind it, like the origin of the Homs/machine war, but honestly, that doesn’t really matter as much as it just being this immensely satisfying world to run around in and explore. It’s… well, very MMO-lite. For a game I started playing before I lost my home, probably around early 2017, it was nice to finally come back to it with the Switch rerelease and actually go hard until I had finished the game. It’s not as interesting a combat system as, say, Tokyo Mirage Sessions, and the story won’t hit you the way Persona 5 Royal, Yakuza 7’s, and Final Fantasy 7 Remake’s will, but… well…
It sure is grand, and that was enough for me to love it. Now I’m playing Xenoblade Chronicles X, so expect that to be in my list of completions a year from now.
2. Erica (Playstation 5)
This game wasn’t good. I don’t remember much of it, but I streamed it to some friends, and it was difficult not to shout “oh come on” at it all the time. Mechanically, I didn’t hate it, but narratively, it’s… got the airs of a project that thinks it’s smarter than it is. I’m not asking the game to mug at the camera, but I would have appreciated a wink.
3. Murdered: Soul Suspect (Xbox Series X)
This is a game that could have been good but very aggressively did not want to be. The ideas were there — the cat possession, piecing together puzzle pieces in a way that reminds me of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and some of the Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes games, but the protagonist had big “2005 hard rock guy” energy, and the introduction of the kinda shitty predator ghosts really held a very interesting game back from being a good game.
I’m glad I played it, but Frogwares’ The Sinking City is a better game. Speaking of The Sinking City, you can buy it at the links provided here (please read the article, it’s tragic what was done to them).
4. What Remains of Edith Finch (Xbox Series X)
I’m sure I’ve described What Remains of Edith Finch before, because it’s such a great game and this isn’t the first time I’ve played it, but hey, for whatever reason, in January 2021, I felt like playing again. It’s not quite as magical the second time, just because I knew what was coming and found myself anticipating it, but it was still a wonderful experience. I don’t like Walking Sims much — you can probably tell by the fact that I’ve made two in direct defiance of the norms of the genre — but the thing I love about Edith Finch is that it seems to understand the most important truth, the thing that gives the genre its power: variety in the verbs. It’s a beautiful game, not just visually, not just narratively, but in terms of design, and I cannot help but recommend it to everyone.
5. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Xbox Series X)
It’s one of the most influential video games of all time, for better or worse. Personally, I think it’s an immaculately-placed, varied-as-all-hell game with a kind of combat that everyone who ripped it off failed to understand; Call of Duty wants you to play a movie — it wants you to move, shoot, see all sorts of crazy shit, and it delivers on all of this; as a game where the systems are designed to deliver on a specific, tight, aggressive mode of play; in terms of game design, Call of Duty 4 might just be perfect.
I know some people — more traditional game designers like Jon Blow — have argued that game design is all this technical gamey shit, but that belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what games are; the name, “video game,” was used to describe a thing that existed — things like pong.
The fundamental error of these formalists is their insistence that games be limited to a very specific, rule-driven conception of game design. Blow’s description, as I understand it, was this idea that a game was a set of rules that could then be examined and exhausted over time, much like Blow’s game The Witness, which is a simple line puzzle game where every potentiality is explored.
Why Blow is wrong is because he’s only describing is a very specific set of games — puzzle games — and nothing outside of that. The best definition I’ve ever heard of a game is much simpler: structured play. I could go on from here and talk about how games like Call of Duty 4 are following a different, intentionally emotional structure, creating varied and distinct levels instead of just exhausting one idea, so definitionally, it is a game… but I’d be falling for a trap, even though I am right, because… because…
…because we shouldn’t limit what we make because a dictionary told us “game” means something. The term “video game” was created to describe what we thought we were seeing! As we discovered we were seeing more than what we initially thought, we didn’t update the term because we all knew what it described. Getting caught up with this means you’ve fallen prey to prescriptivism — you’re constraining your ability to be a good designer that way. A prescriptivist — they also call themselves formalists — is not capable of being a great game designer, because they haven’t given themselves permission to use the full extent of their powers to attempt structured play.
So yeah, Call of Duty 4 fuckin rules. All you have to do is play along.
6. Binary Domain (Xbox 360)
Before Toshihiro Nagoshi was known for the Yakuza series, he made Super Monkey Ball. In between some of the Yakuza games but before Yakuza 0 on the PS4 boosted the series’ popularity in the West, he directed Binary Domain, one of the best third person shooters ever made.
It’s got problems — the PC port isn’t great and the microphone mechanics aren’t the best — but it’s so fun, and that’s largely thanks to the way it handles enemies, which are robots.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “but, Doc, don’t robots always suck no matter what in third person shooters, or any shooters, really?” to which I’d say yes, obviously, look at Vanquish. But Binary Domain is a third person shooter about shooting robots — to my knowledge, the only other third person shooter dedicated purely to shooting robots (Gears 4 and 5 have them but they suck, just like Vanquish’s enemies suck), which is why they’re most often compared (I’ve heard people say “it’s because they’re the only Japanese-made third person shooters” but that’s not true because Resident Evil 4 exists).
Robots suck in shooters because people are clearly inspired by the Terminator, from the series of the same name — they take tons of damage and they… don’t really react, but where James Cameron’s Terminators do react for specific emotional effect, game robots just… don’t have pleasing hit reactions. You shoot them, they keep walking, they’re boring, they suck. Game feedback is a crucial component of making a shooter feel good,
that’s all Binary Domain is (after the first 30 minutes or so, which are kinda slow).
Binary Domain rules because it’s about stripping down your enemies to their component parts. Sure, games like Doom Eternal have enemies with flesh that is ripped and torn, and if you’re lucky, they’ll adjust their combat patterns accordingly (but due to the game’s pace and the way the game’s a kitchen sink kind of experience) but Binary Domain is a game focused on being about managing enemies in a space, and it solves a different game’s problem in the process. But I’ll get to that game in a minute. First, a quick detour.
In a lot of ways, it’s like Doom Eternal, which is also a game about managing threats, but where Doom is focused on being so fast that nothing ever gets a chance to breathe because all it wants to do is overwhelm you, Binary Domain manages to have a wider variety of intensity (and, at times, feeling even more intense than Eternal) that it can accomplish even when its robots aren’t moving at top speed.
Alan Wake, on the other hand, is a shooter about managing threats without feeling too fast, but it fails where Binary Domain succeeds — while I do love it dearly as a narrative, aesthetic, and even as a combat experience, I know that many people found its combat dissatisfying, in part because, being set in a semi-realistic environment, there was only so much that Remedy could do to vary the combat compared to something like the sci-fi Binary Domain.
Both games are essentially about slowing down your opponent before they can get to you, but Binary Domain’s enemy variety — the big thing it has over Alan Wake — gives the game design more room to breathe. This is made joyful because of the way robot disassembly is satisfyingly crunchy. Shoot a robot, his armor sparks and buckles, he loses a limb, he crawls towards you, hellbent on your destruction. Alan Wake couldn’t quite pull this off; it’s trying to be a horror game, so it leans on enemies who can take a lot and push you into a corner, which means that enemies both A) take a long time to lose their overshield, and B) don’t have any visually interesting responses to the player.
In a way, they’re like robots in bad third person shooters like Vanquish, but the narrative genre lays this weakness bare, at least Vanquish lets you animate with all the flash of a mighty hero, and wants you to push forward as much as possible. In a horror game, you’re supposed to be weak; enemies just advance on you slowly, and there’s not much you can do about it.
Vanquish and Alan Wake are both equally dissatisfying as shooters about enemies that slowly approach and overwhelm you, but it’s more obvious in Alan Wake because it’s got no panache to distract you.
Binary Domain, however, transcends this, because demolishing enemies feels absolutely incredible. You take down a guy’s leg, stopping him for a moment, snipe one of his friends in the head, swap back and take the first guy out as he’s crawling towards you.
Mmf. Chef’s kiss.
I’ve played Binary Domain before, but I was on a kick of games I’d already played for some reason, hence COD4 and Edith Finch above, as well as Kane & Lynch 2 below.
7. Condemned 2 (Xbox 360)
There’s a kind of person who likes a kind of game that sucks and feels bad to play but has ‘systems,’ and no, they don’t mean well-designed systems that blend together in interesting ways, no, they mean ‘every once in a while, I hear a story about systems doing surprising things the developer has not intended, so I thought that meant that a good game is one that has no sense of design at all, just a bunch of systems,’ even though it’s abundantly obvious that all the good immersive sims were always immaculately designed, it’s just that the systems were left open-ended, and that’s where the joy and power of immersive sims come from.
These sorts of people really liked Condemned, a game that controls like a drunkard trying to mudwrestle a case of beer out of a swamp. It has some cool ideas, like “pulling a pipe off an electrical outlet will cause the lights nearby to go out,” or the different police scanning tech, but it ends up being a deeply dissatisfying and unhinged game about some ancient cult and using sound waves to make people go crazy. It’s bad. Interesting, but bad, and those sorts of people love it.
Even they don’t like Condemned 2.
But the bear scene is very cool.
8. Kane & Lynch 2 (PC)
Kane & Lynch 2 is a game I probably would not have liked around the time that immaculately-constructed masterpieces like Gears of War 3 were coming out, because it’s short and occasionally too hard to be fun (but I play this on the highest difficulty in co-op so maybe it’s just my fault), so at $60, maybe it would not have been the best purchase.
But, here’s the thing. One day, I got it for $2.50 or so on Steam, and a few years later, a friend of mine, my co-creator on Adios, Cameron, said he’d like to play it with me, so we did, on the highest difficulty, and what we found was one of the best-written, best-acted, and best-’shot’ (in terms of cinematography, or the video game equivalent) games I have ever played.
It’s rough, it’s beautiful, in the way ugly observational art is beautiful, and I keep playing it every year I can.
9. Watch_Dogs (Xbox Series X)
10. Orcs Must Die 3 (Google Stadia) (I am not giving you a Stadia link; it’s on Steam now)
Because I don’t know how to take or export screenshots on Google Stadia, you’re going to have to accept a trailer. Sorry about that.
Orcs Must Die 3 is more Orcs Must Die, which is great, because Orcs Must Die is great. It does the tower defense thing I’m not a fan of, which is making the players have to watch multiple paths, but when you can funnel all your enemies through a single kill-box? Oh boy, oh man, that’s fun. Figuring out how to get enemies where you need them to go is just, mmf. Chef’s kiss.
I would play this game again later with Cameron on Steam, because I played it in January as part of the free Stadia pass I’d received, but then it released in August or so on Steam and I played it there too.
I could probably talk a lot about Orcs Must Die as a series, but instead I’m going to tell you what you probably already knew: Stadia sucks, dude. I have pretty fast wired internet and a computer with a GTX 2080Ti and AMD 5800X CPU, so I know my end wasn’t the problem; I was still having issues with dropped frames, macroblocking, lag, and overall poor resolution.
Besides that, who’d want to pay for a service like Stadia? Steam is free, my dudes. If I buy a game on Steam, I have that game. With Stadia, I need an internet connection that’s somehow faster than “gigabit” (my ISP reports I’m getting much faster speeds than google’s speed test, but stadia comes from google, so I figured I’d use google’s speed test for this) and apparently even great performing hardware can’t handle it.
Why would I buy a game on Google’s service, then pay like $15 a month to keep accessing it? Just buy the game, dude. It’s not like Gamepass, where Microsoft lets you download the games to your computer and keep the saves (a good friend bought me a game on Steam, but I’d beaten it on Gamepass and forgotten to remove it from my wishlist — but they also got me the DLC, which I didn’t have on Gamepass, and transferring the saves to Steam was a breeze). Stadia won’t even let you back up your saves.
There is literally zero advantage to subbing to Stadia. Looks worse, plays worse, is worse.
11. Alienation (PlayStation 5)
The best game on the PlayStation 4 — some might correctly say, the only reason to own a PlayStation 4 — is even better on the PlayStation 5.
I don’t normally like to call out devs like this, especially when they’re working hard to make some of the best games of all time, but I’m going to call out the fine leadership at Housemarque, and here’s why: they wrote a letter about the death of arcade games.
In it, they claimed the reason that Nex Machina hadn’t sold well was because Nobody Liked Twin Stick Shooters Anymore (Diablo 2 remastered is in the background screaming “what?” loudly at all of us) so they were going to stop making Twin Stick Shooters and they were going to Start Making Other Shit.
They acted like the reason they had fans was because of antiquated, outdated bullshit like “1 credit clears” and all sorts of other stuff, and while that was true of Nex Machina, it wasn’t true of their most popular games, like Alienation and Dead Nation, which were wildly popular and also not among their hardest games.
So they tried to make a battle royale game for a while, and then they made a roguelike for the PS5, and while that game, Returnal, has done well, it’s partly because it’s like, the first time Sony has actually marketed a housemarque game, and partly because the games that sell best tend to be big third and first-person shooters.
Twin-sticks were niche, sure, but only releasing them on a platform that barely gives you the time of day and, according to everyone I have spoken with who’s done a bunch of multiplatform releases, isn’t exactly the best place for non-AAA games to be ported and sold, it was kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Returnal’s biggest weakness is that it’s stupidly hard for no real reason — it just wants you to die and repeat and honestly that’s just… not fun. It’s boring. I want to Go To New Places and See New Things and becoming an expert at a couple different biomes isn’t my idea of a good time. It’s not most people’s idea of a good time, judging by the game’s trophy completions.
You don’t get to say “woe is me” and then proceed to double down on the worst part of your games that hardly anyone likes while throwing some of your absolute best games under the bus. You should’ve developed Alienation 2 for PC with a publisher who actually marketed you and made a trillion dollars, because a twin-stick Diablo 2 with the greatest feedback in video game history would have actually made money.
Blaming twin-sticks for the problem when you keep doubling down on the thing that killed your games — the thing that keeps being cited as a problem and the thing that didn’t even define your games until Nex Machina, ugh.
I’m mad at people I respect, and that sucks. Don’t throw twin-sticks under the bus. Make games for more people to play instead.
12. Resident Evil 5 (PC)
It’s not as good as Resident Evil 4 but it feels better to play. The game got a bit of a bad rap on release — in part thanks to the egregious color grading and awful co-op experience (that, on PC, required you to react to a button prompt to mash F and V on your keyboard in under a second) with a terrible AI partner — but man, when the co-op actually works, and it was working great when me and my pal Bones played it last year, the end result is one of the most satisfying games I’ve ever played, even if it could be tweaked a lot more to be a better PC port.
I think Resident Evil 4’s tighter pacing really helps; it feels like a contiguous space, where every room is a meticulously-planned encounter, while RE5 cranks up the intensity to put you in a wider variety of locales but in a way that feels disappointingly disjointed.
13. Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep (Xbox Series X)
Aqua is the only adult in this series and that’s what makes it worth playing. Everyone else is a cardboard cutout stick figure and Aqua’s like “man what if i reacted to things like a normal person does?” and that is why she’s the most fun character to play. Also her actual moveset is great because she moves around quick and hits hard, unlike Terra, who’s slow as shit, and Turd Nerdly or whatever his name is.
The game itself kinda sucked because you have to play through 3 padded-out plots to get the whole story, and Terra’s turn to the darkness doesn’t really work. This entire thing seems to be here to explain why Roxas doesn’t look like Sora.
I would rather have just played Aqua’s story only.
14. Defense Grid (PC)
For many people, myself included, Defense Grid is the tower defense game. I played a lot this year, and finished a handful (this is Orcs Must Die 3’s fault! thank you, Orcs Must Die 3), and I was like “yeah absolutely im gonna play my favorite tower defense game, that seems fun.”
15. L. A. Noire (Xbox 360)
I liked driving through Los Angeles in the late 1940s, but ultimately it’s a blur of bland script, boring detective gameplay, and weird performances that create a game that just kinda sucks. I literally forgot protagonist Cole Phelps even had a wife and kids because of how bland the game is.
16. Serious Sam 4 (PC)
I like Serious Sam.
The game felt delightful to play, with that same frenetic intensity that I love from Croteam, but I’m surprised it took so long to make, considering the first Humble Bundle I ever purchased was to help fund it, back before anyone knew of Devolver as anything other than “the guys who published Serious Sam and only that.”
I’m not sure it made good on solving some of the problems Serious Sam 3 faced, because its focus on making levels as big as possible means that some of them feel as boring as possible, but it also has some of the series’ funniest gags, some genuinely impressive, breathtakingly-large levels, and that unique form of enemy management shooting (separate from games like Binary Domain) that we only get in Serious Sam.
17. Adios (PC, Xbox)
i made this!
You probably want more, so here goes: I made this game because I was in a great deal of pain, and because I’d read a news article about a woman collapsing in her pig pen and being eaten alive by her pigs, and I remember thinking how sad it was that someone might love and care for their animals and still be eaten by them. This melancholic thought struck a chord with me and how I was feeling, and at the encouragement of some friends, I went ahead and started working out a pitch.
Adios is the smallest game I can conceive of — a single location, a short script — but it exists to serve two purposes: to prove (to myself, primarily) that I am a great writer and I really can do this, and to prove (to everybody else) that I can ship on time and under budget.
I was so lucky to be able to make it with so many wonderful people, especially Cameron Ceschini, who I’ve mentioned here several times, as he’s one of my most routine co-op gaming buddies — it was actually during the art heist mission for the Elephant in Payday 2 back in, like, 2013, that he first told me he made games and wanted to make one.
We shipped under time and on budget, and it would have cost us less but Covid really dragged things out a lot longer than we hoped — I lost two months to my own covid infection, which really put back the game’s development a bit. Some of us grieved the loss of loved ones, others had to deal with never having lived in isolation before, it was a lot.
In the end, the game’s rated Overwhelmingly Positive on Steam, and I’ve made a ton of new friends and gotten a few opportunities from the game that I hope will pan out.
For me, it did what it needed to.
If you want to know what the game is, though… please consider picking it up for the price of a meal for two at McDonald’s at https://mischief.games
18. Outriders (PC) (I believe I played this on Game Pass, but I have it on Steam as well because I’d preordered and forgot about it)
This one was fun! Some of the writing made me laugh, some of it made me sad, some of it was generic triple-a video game writing. The loot system was whatever, the visuals were beautiful but never quite inspiring, if that makes sense. It’s basically like “what if an amazingly talented but less experienced and less well-funded team made a Destiny game, but it was a third person shooter with a lot more interesting builds?”
I liked it a great deal, I had a lot of fun playing it in co-op (but I hate that it uses Destiny’s power system and three-player co-op to get there), and I was kinda glad that when it was over, it was over, with no real metagame elements to be had. Play the game, level up, have fun, repeat.
19. Nioh 2 (PC)
Nioh 2 combines the absolute perfection of Ninja Gaiden Black’s beautifully painful difficulty with co-op. I don’t think I could have gotten through this game without Cameron and Bulk, and I’m so glad I did.
Does the story make sense? Uh… only kinda. It’s assuming you know a lot of history/mythology and not bothering to make the story work without this assumed knowledge, but who cares when you’re shooting a cyclops in the eye or pointing the cute little kodama to their homes or slicing a man in half with an odachi — a sword meant for beheading horses?
Nioh 2 rules. Get a co-op group together and play the fuck out of it. Do I have a game of the year? Is this it? Here I am, asking the question, so if it is, then it just might be.
20. Evil Genius 2 (PC)
Not enough games have buff ladies in them, but Evil Genius 2 has several. It’s a refinement on the formula from the first game, and a welcome surprise after all these years. I hoped it would be good; they made it great.
…and then it kept going.
I don’t know I’d say it ever got less great, because I don’t think it did, but I think I hit a point where I’d kind of seen it all and it all kept happening. My base hit equilibrium, knocking out objectives was mostly just a matter of making the right moves hours in advance of the results (which are randomized thanks to enemy agents and actions, so it’s not like you could really plan for everything).
I’m saying I liked the game, but my villain’s story could have been a bit shorter, maybe cutting out some of the more repetitive objectives, and maybe not spawning and respawning enemy agents so frequently?
21. Resident Evil Village (PC)
Finally, some good fucking food.
Resident Evil is at its best when it’s a tightly-curated series of interesting encounters that loop back in on each other in interesting ways. Do this to get this to unlock that — as opposed to the more modern grindfest that is XP challenges and repeated objectives, it’s beautiful to play a game that’s immaculately structured.
Thing is, that probably describes a lot of Metroidvanias, and to me, a Resident Evil is… related, but different, in the same way that tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes are related but different. I think the difference for me is that a Metroidvania is a game, in the sense that it’s got clear and obvious rules that establish an awareness of the artifice of the experience. Like, when you and I play Monopoly or Chess, we’re aware of a certain level of abstraction, a simplification of more complicated real-world thoughts (a bishop in chess may be representative of a bishop’s power within a medieval court, but the game piece is a toy that can only move diagonally).
Resident Evil Village lives on the other end of the spectrum — if a ‘gamey game’ abstracts reality, whether through mechanics like being turn-based or through units that are as abstracted as the aforementioned bishop, then a ‘simulationy game’ lives on the other end of the spectrum, trying to be closer to reality as possible.
Every game is on the spectrum of simulation to abstraction, and what I love about Resident Evil is that it tends to move closer to abstraction where decision-making is concerned, without ever turning into a simulation-heavy game like SCUM, which, as I recall, will literally calculate how much excrement you produce based on factors like what you eat.
I’m not saying that simulation is better than abstraction — if all games were simulationy they probably wouldn’t be any fun — but Resident Evil Village picks and chooses where to use simulation as a means of verisimilitude — trying to really ground you in the moment in time, which is what you want out of a horror game.
Metroid Dread probably doesn’t scare you the way that Resident Evil Village, a first person game does, because one game puts you in the moment and the other is very clearly a ‘video game.’
But for me, the thing that makes the game cool is the way that things always feel… I can’t say logical, necessarily, because the puzzles aren’t logical, but it does feel as though you can tease things out. “This door is locked by a specific key and you need to go somewhere to get it” feels almost arbitrary in a Metroidvania game, a thing put in place so the designers can make you go into another place. In Resident Evil Village, you’re like, oh, of course they don’t want me getting into this castle, so they’ve locked the gate. However, if I walk down into the village there, I may be able to find a key to help me get into it.
They’re conceptually the same, but the attempts at verisimilitude make it feel more like an experience you’re actually having, as opposed to a game you’re playing, and this is the right choice for a horror game, in my opinion.
Nioh 2 might be my game of the year, but so might Resident Evil Village.
22. Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot (PC) (Wirelessly via Oculus Quest 2)
I don’t think I like VR. This isn’t a bad game, but like all VR games, it feels like someone’s dipping their toes into something that they aren’t really entirely invested in. As someone who loves games because of motion, I can’t say I love Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot, which leaves you trapped in a chair all game.
23. Peter Jackson’s King Kong (Xbox 360)
I was told that Peter Jackson’s King Kong was a true hidden gem, a brilliant game that deserved more attention and a critical reevaluation.
I was not told the truth.
It’s a game that makes it easy to understand why we have user interface in games — removing as much of it as possible doesn’t make a game more immersive; you’re just changing a user interface that tells you you’re low on ammo to your character repeating the same “I’m low on ammo” line all the time. It’s repetitive, it’s dry, it’s the kind of game that appeals to the people who think Far Cry 2 is “realistic” because it has diegetic maps even though Far Cry 2 constantly beats you over the head with its artifice because somehow a paper map can update your position in real time.
An easy way to tell someone is an amateur is when they uncritically praise diegesis.
24. Monster Hunter Rise (Switch)
A very silly person once insisted to me that Monster Hunter would be dumbed down if it came to other platforms, and the reason that Monster Hunter World — Capcom’s best-selling game of all time, it’s worth noting, more than any Resident Evil or Street Fighter — was not given a number at the end of its title was because the “true” Monster Hunter 5 would be coming.
With Rise, it’s clear Capcom just isn’t going to do numbered entries anymore. As we know, World was a massive success because it turns out that doing things like “forgetting to bring sharpening tools and having to go home and restart the mission,” or “having a bunch of little map sections instead of one contiguous map” aren’t as fun as what World was doing.
Monster Hunter World didn’t do everything perfectly, as much as I love it. For one thing, it doesn’t have Lagiacrus or Gigginox. For another, mechanics like the cloaks and the light bugs that help you track monsters made the game feel… okay, but not always super satisfying.
Rise starts to layer on a bit more complexity, bring back a bit more of the weirdness the series was known for, while retaining a lot of the playability that made World the best game in the series.
But now we have Rise, and it’s a marked improvement on World in just about every way that isn’t graphics, for a whole host of reasons. However, it does commit one unforgiveable crime. Just the absolute worst thing: it has Khezu, which is basically Gigginox but not, and it has Mizutsune, which is like a Lagiacrus with badass lightning element replaced with fuckin bubble bath. Seriously, its element is basically just soap.
I’ve been having a lot of fun playing through Generations Ultimate for Switch with my buddy Buff, but oh man, oh man, I think Monster Hunter Rise is the best game in the entire series (though the prettiest hub is still Yukumo Village from Portable 3rd).
Monster Hunter Rise was some of the most fun I had playing in 2021 for sure. It’s a great game, despite the slow start.
25. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified (Xbox Series X)
I do not like enemies that are made of black goo. I just don’t. They’re visually uninspiring.
The Bureau is… not the best-looking game of its respective generation. It’s not the best-playing. In the end, I don’t think I could say I loved it, but it did have a few ideas I thought were kind of interesting, like the way it handles squad commands actually being one of the only times I can recall controlling a squad being somewhat fun.
It just kinda felt bad to play, with a story that was like… I dunno, whatever.
26. Defense Grid 2 (PC)
Defense Grid 1 is better than Defense Grid 2, which tries to have a story it isn’t any good at, and has too many split-map missions (though not as many as I recalled). It’s not a bad game, it’s just not as good as the first game, even if it looks way better and has some cool additions to the systems.
27. Splinter Cell: Blacklist (Xbox Series X)
This game is actually pretty fun to play, but Ubisoft replacing Michael Ironside with some guy who could apparently “actually do motion capture” was silly and kind of insulting. It’s not as if any of the game’s cutscenes ever really have the kind of intimate blocking and staging that required the then-62-year-old Michael Ironside to bring a more youthful man’s physicality to the cutscene. They lost the power of one of the great character actors for a guy who did a fine job but is just… kinda pretty adequate.
Thing is, as a stealth game, it’s pretty great? It’s very much from that specific time period of Ubisoft game, with a story and politics that are very cringeworthy and of-that-specific-post-9–11-era, but on an actual gameplay level, in terms of things you can do? Man, what a cool game.
It’s not as focused as something like Resident Evil Village — it was trivial to get the best upgrades early and find myself piling on cash I didn’t really need to unlock upgrades I’d already skipped. The “you cannot be caught at all” levels were some of the most frustrating.
But man, some of the levels were great, in terms of both aesthetic and the way they really toyed with the systems available to the player, and when the game is willing to let you make mistakes and let you try to recover instead of instant failure, it can be an absolute joy.
28. Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance (Xbox Series X)
As I continued streaming the Kingdom Hearts series, I find myself coming to two conclusions:
First, Tetsuya Nomura seems to believe that if a character states “we’re friends,” the audience will just believe that.
Second, Tetsuya Nomura seems to think he needs to explain everything while also having some sort of major twist, which leads to a lot of overcomplication about the metaphysics of his universe — the way it works — than why humans do shit.
The end result is a series that could be way, way better than it is but gets burdened down by its worst aspects. Every game in the Kingdom Hearts series serves some kind of purpose, but damned if I remember what the fuck Dream Drop Distance was about.
29. Kingdom Hearts 0.2 (Xbox Series X)
This was really more of a tech demo than anything, but it did answer the question (because every game in the series has some plot elements that have to be relevant so you can never miss anything for some reason) of what Aqua (the best character) did during her time in hell.
30. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart (PlayStation 5)
At the time, I gave it a pretty good score, because I like Ratchet & Clank games, especially when they run at 60 frames per second, but as I look back on it now, I’m kind of surprised by how little of an impression it left on me. It’s pretty, the “omg we can swap between worlds in real time with no loading thing” had already been done way more interestingly in A Crack in the Slab in Dishonored 2 and Titanfall 2’s Effect and Cause.
If you like Ratchet & Clank, you’ll like this, because it’s fun and satisfying to go around unlocking everything and grinding up weapons and stuff. Very much a pleasing lizard-brain experience.
31. Mafia III (PC)
There are two kinds of open world games. You’ve got the “take over zones of a city by doing repeatable objective” games (Saints Row), and you’ve got the “here’s a big-ass map and you have to do various repeatable objectives all around them” games (Days Gone). Sometimes, you get hybrids, like the Assassin’s Creed games, where you aren’t really taking over districts so much as breaking the world into bite-sized chunks to make it more digestible.
Mafia is the first kind of game: here’s a world, here’s a bunch of people, go hunt ’em down in a loose-enough order that you feel you have control over your own destiny, do a ton of repeatable objectives that pad out the game’s length and blend together… honestly, this could have been a bad game, and at times, it felt like one.
Mafia III is great, because the writing is so damn good that it makes you want to keep going. The systems are uninspired; the desire to do unto others as they’ve done unto you is inspired. Lincoln Clay is not necessarily a good man — he does run the mob — but he’s of that particular heroic criminal archetype I can’t help but love.
To me, Mafia III is proof that the way to make a game work is to make the player want things on an emotional level, rather than purely a systems one. Why would a player engage in an immaculately-designed system if they didn’t want to? Resident Evil Village understood this — that’s why the game is all about questions and fears, a heavily emotion-driven experience — and Mafia III gets it too.
Just too bad that all the districts follow the exact same ‘rules’ for completion. Find the two contacts, do their quest chains, which often involve the same kind of missions as the other types, repeat. I like open world games where you can shut your brain off and just go around ticking off boxes, but the nakedness of the Mafia III’s progression held it back from perfection.
32. Crackdown 3 (Xbox Series X)
I saw someone suggest that this game was ‘outdated’ because it did not possess proper aim down sights mechanics. It reminded me of how someone had shit on Resident Evil Village earlier that year, complaining to their website’s six-figure follower count that the game’s design was better off left in the past, even though there was no examination of the game’s mechanics in the article itself. It was just like “welp, since it’s been done before you should stop doing it.”
I think this is a bad way to write; imagine someone saying that Sin City was a bad movie because it was black and white and “we have color in our movies now.” It’d be ridiculous. There is no ingredient into the delicious meal of a video game that is bad simply because it’s been used for a long time; there is only the way in which the mechanics work together to make the game fun.
Like Mafia III, Crackdown is the sort of “ah, these systems are very obvious” style of “do various objectives to liberate the zone until you’ve liberated all the zones” video game, but unlike Mafia III, it’s about “every time you do shit you get better at doing shit until your character is like 8 feet tall and can chuck a bus into a mech’s face,” and that’s pretty fun.
Why doesn’t it have aim down sights or cover? Because it’s a game about running and jumping around, so the left trigger is used for lock-on, which means that when you dodge right or left, you end up dodging in a circle rather than laterally, which is what you want in a game that’s all about the kind of mobility that Crackdown 3 is going for.
Is it a great game? Not really.
Is it incredibly fun? Oh yeah, for sure.
33. The Darkness 2 (Xbox Series X)
The first game is better, but the art style of this game is something you’ve got to see to believe. It’s nowhere near as memorable, intimate, or personal as the first game — Jenny won’t fall asleep on your lap as you watch a movie here, and you won’t find characters nearly as weird or interesting as some of the ones in the first game — but hey, the makers of Warframe, Digital Extremes, did an interesting enough game I suppose. The sound design is great and the shooting is way better than the first game, even if it’s not up to something like Halo or Destiny.
34. Dragon Quest Builders (Switch)
Dragon Quest Builders 2 just about saved my life, and I’m not exaggerating. I tried Dragon Quest Builders out, played the entire thing because honestly, I wanted more DQB2, but it’s a less refined game, as one would expect from the first entry into the series.
You can skip this one and go right to the narratively unrelated sequel.
First person block placement is a game changer and it’s too bad DQB didn’t have it.
35. Oxenfree (Switch)
I didn’t love it. Visually cool, some great ideas, and dialog that reminded me a bit of Gone Home — someone writing teenagers rather than teenagers who seem like teenagers. The game just occasionally gets too close to characters expressing things in ways that exist to advance the game’s thematic ideas, rather than just letting the characters be people. You get the sense that these characters are devices.
Presentation’s off the charts, but I definitely don’t think the love for it is warranted.
36. Puyo Puyo Tetris (Switch)
It’s Puyo Puyo! It’s Tetris! It’s way too fuckin hard!
37. World War Z (PC)
Supposedly this game was bad when it launched, but what I played, both before the first-person DLC and after, was fantastic, in part because it has a legitimately juicy progression system, some awesome maps, and the best zombies I’ve ever fought in a video game.
It’s always weird to me that Left 4 Dead never really got meaningfully iterated on over the years, because it was such a barebones game, and the additions brought on by Left 4 Dead 2 largely made it worse (lookin at you, melee).
World War Z has more content, better levels, some of the hypest moments in this genre of “characters travel through a linear map fighting hordes of monsters while doing objectives and scavenging resources” games.
I want to play it again. I want to play it more. Other people have tried (we’ll get to Back 4 Blood in a bit), but I’d argue World War Z was the only claimant to the throne until Rainbow Six: Extraction, which I’m playing now, in January 2022, and find myself incredibly surprised and delighted by.
38. Siege of Centauri (PC)
I think this was supposed to be a tech demo for Stardock’s graphics engine, but it’s kinda a bland sci-fi story merged with an okay-but-uninspired tower defense game. My cravings for a great tower defense game that isn’t just defense grid have yet to be satisfied.
39. Metal Gear Rising (Xbox Series X)
You can make your game better by bringing in lyrics as the player’s performance improves.
I liked the parry-oriented combat, but I didn’t really like the way the sword-slicing system worked all that much. It’s one of the best character action or spectacle fighter games there is, though.
40. Kentucky Route Zero (PC)
I started to mist up at the ending. It hit me just so. A modern masterpiece? Hmm. I’m not sure — there are times when I felt like the gameplay wasn’t quite there, but I’m not really an adventure game guy, so I’m willing to say I’m probably the problem here, not Kentucky Route Zero.
This was the game that finally let me feel like I saw myself in video games — most American media is designed for export, characters and spaces are watered down and packaged to be bland enough that anyone can imprint themselves on the characters in the fiction, or at least, that’s the theory. Kentucky Route Zero is 100-proof A Very Specific Person And Place, and it was eye-opening to actually feel like someone got me and where I lived — even though I’m from Kansas, not Kentucky — for the first time in my life.
I don’t see myself in, say, Salem and Rios from Army of Two. They’re just dudes. They’re whatever. I see myself a whole lot in every character in Kentucky Route Zero, and this is such an alien and strange thing to experience. I can’t help but love that, and it influenced my work on, well, every single game I’ve written so far.
I don’t know what to think about a certain character’s arc, but I can say with certainty that you should play it.
41. Necromunda: Hired Gun (PC)
A curiosity I’ve encountered is gaming’s sort of alt-canon. If gaming’s ‘canon’ is largely Nintendo- and, to a lesser extent, Sony-console dominated, overrepresenting mascot platformers and big games that witlessly ape Michael Bay movies, underrepresenting just about everything else, then its alt-canon is a more PC-oriented space. If gaming’s canon is largely defined by the Mac-owning game journos of the mid-aughts who told me, when I was a games journalist, that nobody wanted to read about computer games, and who I had to prove wrong time and time again, then its alt-canon is defined by people who really like some of the less-polished, less-marketed, but… how do I put this… very 4chan /v/-defined canon.
It’s the kind of person people have assumed me to be over the years — they know I like systems, I like simulation-driven games, so they assume I must love a very specific assortment of games like Far Cry 2, New Vegas, and a bunch of other games that all have Lots of Systems that Don’t Always Work Together Well.
Well, I’d say that’s really what they are, anyways. Basically, these games all have A Lot of Systems, and they’re a lot like I described when I talked about Far Cry 2 elsewhere in this piece. I find these kind of fans prioritize the wrong things — they’ll praise a game for having no visible UI, even if it hampers the experience. They’ll demand a game keep its worst bits, insistent that the game needs to have problems to be good.
I recall an argument with someone a while back who insisted that any change to Resident Evil 4’s controls would somehow ruin the game (despite changes already having happened — the game was built for the Gamecube controller, and those controls simply exist to map to it — like the ports to Wii, PC, and modern consoles, which all have different controllers and control schemes). I remember the guy spending months telling me I was wrong, I didn’t know what I was talking about when I’d suggested some things could be altered to make Resident Evil 4 flow better. He ignored what I was saying so he could put me in the box with all the people who didn’t like that you couldn’t move and aim at the same time (a claim I don’t believe I ever made, and while I don’t think it would do anything negative to the game’s design, isn’t necessary to improve it) so he could dismiss me and keep going on about how perfect it was.
When he finally got around to Resident Evil 2 remake, he went “oh… I get it now. Is this the kind of movement you were talking about?” and I pretty much just slammed my head into my desk after reading that and groaned yes, no fucking shit. All I’d said, more or less, was that the QTEs, the way the knife is handled, and the fact that your character can’t step to the side when moving, could have been modified while preserving the game’s intensity and careful encounter design while making the game a bit less frustrating to play.
Took him long enough.
I know that this kind of rudimentary psychoanalysis can seem condescending, but I’m tired of being condescended to by these people, so here goes: there’s a lack of understanding here, a kind of person who loves the game for trying things outside of the box of expectation, but who hasn’t quite developed an understanding of good game design — how the pieces actually fit together — so they’re like “wow, this game is awesome and perfect and cannot be changed or altered in any way because it’s different.” The goals themselves are usually directed at immersion, but it’s a kind of haphazard immersion.
People who push against UI/UX stuff are the worst at this — they want everything to be diegetic, even when that’s more complicated than something in real life, because what they want is to strip away the apparent artifice so the game is ‘more like real life.’ But then they also love more traditional gamey game systems, like Resident Evil 4’s quick-time events or making sure every single quest has options that support every playstyle.
I’d say the games they love do neither well — New Vegas is an okay CRPG and a terrible first-person video game, with a lot of level design that’s just big, open, and flat.
This is the kind of person who said Fallout 3 sucked because it didn’t have a realistic number of farms or because it had ‘random’ quests with a vampire coven in them, but then turns around and is like “yes Fallout New Vegas is so much better because it has a correct number of farms per amount of people living in the Mojave Wasteland” even though the level design suffers tremendously as a result of this pointless realism. Plus, getting mad about vampires in a game about super mutants is weird.
I know I’m coming across as being kind of disdainful for these games, and that’s… only somewhat true. I actually like some of the games this sort of person tends to like, but my like and dislike comes from a very specific place:
I like games where all the systems gel together to create a cohesive experience. I think STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl and STALKER: Clear Sky are magnificent games, and I particularly love how you can fail a ton of missions in Clear Sky through no fault of your own. Someone puts out a radio call for help, you book it on over there, they die before you get there, the game goes “mission failed.” But you didn’t actually fail — games just trained you to think you could win everything.
This kind of fan loves STALKER: Call of Pripyat, which I’d call the worst game in the series, because it’s bifurcated between traditional questy video game design and the aesthetic of STALKER. What they want is a traditional, beatable, winnable game, wearing the skin of something more sophisticated and interesting. They praise the game for tangible qualities of the game’s design, like (for a game I don’t love and wouldn’t consider part of the canon, but seems to come from that perspective) “wow, The Last of Us doesn’t have any visual indicators for stealth!” or “oh, Dishonored is great because it has so many different ways to support every playstyle.”
This sort of player is concerned with the aesthetics of the systems in play, rather than how they work. It’s like someone deciding every meal needs an apple in it, and if it doesn’t have an apple in it, it’s a bad meal. Whether the apple actually works or how it works is irrelevant to them. It just needs an apple to be good. This is such a simplistic way to see things, in my opinion, that it’s a complete waste of time.
This sort of person really likes E.Y.E: Divine Cybermancy, and Necromunda is those same developers — Streum-On Studio, taking on Doom 2016 in the Warhammer 40k universe. It’s got a lot of fun ideas — it’s aggressive, fast, punchy — but you can see how the jank really doesn’t help the game. There’s weird issues with the user interface, for instance, including buttons that work well on a French keyboard but not most English ones — the jank doesn’t improve or enhance the game, it’s just a lack of budget (or perhaps care, but I try not to assume developer motivation if it isn’t stated somewhere).
Necromunda is their most playable game, but it’s refined to the point that some of the alt-canon-types might find it too refined, while some of the more canon types might find it not refined enough. It’s a weird middle ground. I had fun, though.
The reason I don’t align with the alt-canon types should be obvious: it’s not what systems you have, it’s how you blend them together to create immersive cohesion.
These games mean nothing by having A Large Amount Of Systems That Work Ostensibly More Like The Real World Even When “Holding A Map In Your Hand But The Paper Map Somehow Updates In Real Time Isn’t Actually More Immersive Than Pressing M And Getting A 3D Map, It’s Just Artificial In A Different Way.” They only mean something when those systems juxtapose to create a believable reality. Making your game a bit more awkward because you want a character to say “running low on ammo” instead of just like, having an ammo counter doesn’t make your game more or less realistic — if anything, I’d say it pushes it closer to a kind of conceptual uncanny valley.
An immersive sim (a lot of these fans think they like immersive sims but routinely fail to make good immersive sims, even when they make good games in the process) isn’t “a game that engrosses you,” because that’s not really what immersion is. An immersive sim is a game that creates a simulation of a reality for you to submerge yourself in — the world runs without you in it, you’re just the billiard ball that makes things interesting. It’s not just a game that has The Route To Talk Your Way Into A Base vs The Computer To Let You Hack Your Way In vs The Door You Can Lift If You Specced Into Strength. That’s not what an immersive sim is.
An immersive sim is a game that‘s shooting for verisimilitude — it’s about setting you inside a world that feels as real as possible, and systems without cohesion? That’s like putting a bunch of ingredients in a pot and never trying to actually cook. It’s not “if I see a UI, I’m taken out of the game,” or “if the game doesn’t explain why I’m repeating this mission, I can’t buy it,” or “if I can’t see my feet the game feesls unrealistic to me,” it’s “when you walk into a room with a gun drawn, do other people in the room react like real people would?”
42. Aliens: Fireteam Elite (PC)
Aliens: Colonial Marines is a bad game, not just because someone put a typo into a config file that broke the AI for years after its release until someone discovered it at random, but because it’s one of the worst-written games of all time, something that’s slavishly devoted to making sure it uses the right sound effects or gets the geography of a location correct, but something so absolutely unconcerned with understanding what makes Alien and Aliens so cool that it never quite gets there.
I do have a small fondness for the game because the Alien itself is an interesting creature to fight (one of my first articles at Kotaku back in the day was me explaining in depth why Alien is always an interesting enemy to fight, even in bad games — basically, it’s more dynamic and varied than most game enemies), and because it’s co-op, and because it has a cool progression system, but man, it’s bad. Like, insultingly bad.
Aliens: Fireteam Elite is a game that does almost everything right — it’s not super great at telling a personal story, but it has the right kind of narrative progression, aliens that actually feel like Alien, some really cool spaces, inspiring variety that pulls from all over the series’ long history.
It has, in my opinion, two major flaws.
The first is that it’s class-based. I don’t necessarily have a problem with class-based games, but the idea that a soldier can’t just pick up a gun that’s useful for the scenario at hand and use it because the designer wants the player roles to be orthogonal to each other and focus on team composition means that the encounter space is going to feel flattened.
If you design an encounter for long range weaponry, but I picked a guy who carries a shotgun and an inaccurate SMG, you’ve created an encounter that is likely unfun for me to experience. A great linear third person shooter will create a series of varied encounters that keep the game mentally stimulating, feeling fresh. A class-based linear third-person shooter has to flatten the experience a lot or create encounters that work well for some classes but not others, creating way deeper valleys and way shallower peaks. There’s no advantage here.
The second major flaw is that it’s third person, not first person, so dealing with Aliens does not feel as claustrophobically powerful as, say, Aliens vs Predator 2 does. Heck, even some of the better moments in Colonial Marines are enhanced by being in first person; keeping the player at a distance limits the game’s potency.
If you like Alien, you’ll like this. As Left 4 Dead style games go, the class limitations hold it back largely due to weapon restrictions.
43. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (Xbox Series X)
This is a weird fuckin game.
You’d think that Assassin’s Creed 12 might be rote by now, but thanks to the series’ reinvention to be more like The Witcher 3 (I don’t know if it was intentionally like The Witcher 3, it’s just very similar in pretty much all aspects, but with Dark Souls-inspired button mapping for the combat), it at least feels a little different.
Like Mafia III before it, Assassin’s Creed is doing that in-vogue game designery thing of “we want you to tackle this however you want. You can go in quietly, or you can go in guns blazing” (shout out to my friend Sean for bringing this hilarious stereotype to my attention), but applied on a map-wide scale.
It’s better than Mafia III in terms of structure — every single location is a discrete story arc and the quests inside that can be much more varied because why you’re doing things is always going to be more compelling to a player than what you’re doing.
Mafia III says “ok u can smash some signs, you can complete this car theft objective,” whatever. Assassin’s Creed is like “every single region has a story,” and it’s like, an actual quest chain with an actual story, but Valhalla’s writing never manages to match what Mafia III is doing.
I don’t know why this is, but if I had to hazard a guess, it’s because Mafia III was focused on delivering a very specific narrative and the team leadership put it front and center, while Ubisoft games have a more by-committee approach to game design. The advantage to this is that you can actually have a lot of people writing plot in parallel rather than serially, but that means that different voices and focuses become a lot more pronounced than when a story is written more serially. This is great for volume but less great for character consistency.
You end up with a game that just feels like it’s trying to rip off the television show Vikings (the character dreadlocks, for instance, are not historically accurate, but they are accurate to the show Vikings), with weird plot bits like “my brother is the leader of our tribe and wants us to go conquer England because he’s mad he won’t have a throne in Norway,” which is kind of an uninspiring goal to begin with, but then he just kind of fucks off into nowhere for a long time, and you’re left to do everything yourself. You quite literally run the entire Viking Kingdom, risk your neck, do all the shit required to make this colony work… and then the game comes back and a bunch of people are like “yeah this dude should be our boss now.”
It’s like the plot never really bothers with “why should you give a fuck?” It just kinda does shit at random based on specific scenes the game was supposed to have. Where Mafia III was all about “here’s why you should be pissed and want to shoot this motherfucker in the head,” Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is like “uh, we need alliances, so go get me 3 of those, and then progress various regions of England, meeting up with characters from those 3 alliances, and do this 3 times (basically 9 questlines) to get allies.” They’re of varying quality. The quests can be genuinely funny and weird, but they’re never as vulnerable or emotionally powerful as anything The Witcher 3 is doing. Yeah, it’s kinda funny to find a kid who says his dad is making his house stink, and you have to clear out some garbage, then go find the dad and shoot a platform he’s standing on to make him fall into water so he doesn’t stink anymore, but it’s not like the sad werewolf questline in The Witcher 3 or anything.
Ubisoft has sacrificed intimacy for scale.
Still fun to run around and check stuff off in, but man… after this one and Odyssey, I think I want smaller Assassin’s Creed games, not bigger ones. The size isn’t the selling point.
44. Umurangi Generation (PC)
I’m not going to say anything other than I want you to buy this game, play it, and review it if you like it.
45. Observation (PC)
I don’t really like zero gravity in games. Some trippy visuals that rely too heavily on glitching (which can be bad for people with epilepsy), a couple cool twists, it’s, I dunno. Didn’t love it. Wouldn’t play it again. Reminded me of a better Cloverfield Paradox with a much lower budget, or a much worse Sunshine.
46. Kingdom Hearts 3 (Xbox Series X)
Kingdom Hearts 3’s key (hehahahahehehahehehe) failing is that it knows it wants a climax, and it mistakenly thinks it has to explain that Sora’s power has atrophied during his time asleep after Kingdom Hearts 2 (I think?), so it wastes way too much time being a game about Sora going to Disney worlds and building up his power level than a game about like, actually interesting events happening and complications to what we thought we knew as we uncover more things.
It is the best-playing and best-looking game in the series, of course, despite having one of the worst worlds (Frozen) and a really, really boring story until it finally remembers that it should be exciting.
Every Kingdom Hearts game is kind of weak when it’s paying its Disney tax (I want to say Tambalayah on twitter coined this term?), frontloading the game with all its Disney movie stories that are slightly retold (though I appreciated that Toy Story world felt entirely original), but this one felt even less good.
Then it tries to pay off a ton of stuff from all over and, I think, kind of loses its way. Basically, you get a game that’s a delight to play and feels kinda empty. It’s a game that knew it needed a payoff but decided not to set anything up, instead just kind of haphazardly addressing various twists set up in previous games in the series. The result is just… not as satisfying as it could’ve been. What does anyone even want anymore? Why is anything happening?
It’s not confusing, it’s more that I stopped caring.
47. Watch Dogs 2 (Xbox Series X)
Ubisoft’s always had a kind of “how do you do, fellow kids?” vibe, like stories told by a rich silicon valley exec that occasionally hires writers to help him flesh out dialogue and things but gets his daily dose of reality through listening to the most boring upper class podcast bros you know. It’s a worldview that says we need people like Matt Yglesias and Bari Weiss and all their uninformed opinions just as much as people who actually know what they’re talking about, when that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Watch Dogs 2 is a game that seems to understand that at one point, prior to social media, hacker culture and early memes like “I can haz cheezeburger” were popular, and then social media happened, and now, with a certain cohort (but mostly bots), social media ‘influencers’ are popular, and it haphazardly blends both hacker culture (which is often concerned with things like anonymity, creating your own identity online based on what you like, and privacy) with influencer culture (which is about people using artifice and sex to sell products) and going “what if these two things were put into a blender ’cause it’s what the kids like” even though these cultures are pretty distinct and separate, and its idea of influencer culture seems more inspired by Jordan’s influence on 80s punk culture than what either influencers or hackers look like today (with the exception of Marcus, who’s a legitimately fun character and one of Ubisoft’s best protagonists — you can dress him how you want, and his default is more like “someone you would actually see in the Bay Area” than anyone else on the team).
Was this paragraph a single sentence? Should it have been? idk. I don’t have an editor for this shit because I can’t afford one.
Watch Dogs 2 then tops all of that with this idea that your character is an activist, but you’re an activist in the way that say, going to a march is — it’s about the aesthetic of activism more than actually being an activist. You’re ostensibly making the world a better place, which is an improvement on the needlessly grimdark Watch Dogs 1, which seems to think Aiden Pearce is some kind of actual cool guy despite his fuckups — sure, it says “oh it’s kinda Aiden’s fault that people were gunning for him and killed him, but that turned him into a cool hardened killer.”
A story has a perspective on its characters — there’s no storytelling that’s neutral. A character might make a mistake that gets people killed, and that might seem, on its face, like a condemnation of the character, but a story can still assume a character is cool despite their mistakes. Hell, I did that in Adios; I think Farmer is a good person, and I do my best to illustrate that, even though he’s been helping the mob bury bodies for years.
A lot of this comes down to things like camera language, whether a character gets what they’re looking for, and all that, but it’s ultimately down to what the work wants the audience to feel about its characters. Watch Dogs 2 pivots to likable characters because Watch Dogs 1 genuinely thought you would like them and was kind of surprised to find out you didn’t.
(I recall reading a report about Ubisoft that mentioned a lead at Ubisoft tried to choke a woman because he thought it was hot. Aiden chokes a woman who’s supposed to be his ally in Watch Dogs, and the game never acts like this is a bad thing)
Aiden Pearce, a brand new character when Watch Dogs was first released, was marketed as having an “iconic cap.” You don’t generally try to sell merch for a character you want people to dislike, much less call their gear iconic. Watch Dogs felt like someone who thought he was edgy and cool telling a story about an edgy and cool guy who goes beyond the limits of society to do what he thinks is right. Hell, the entire cinematic language of that final mission really hammers it home: Aiden’s supposed to be some kind of cool badass. He’s a cop’s idea of what The Punisher is.
It’s kind of hard to really articulate this as well as I’d like, but when you’ve made enough art, you get a sense for how the creative on the other end feels about the character they’re writing. Aiden Pearce seems to be someone that leadership at Ubisoft actually liked, despite his fuckups. I get the sense they thought it made him seem more real, like a bad RP writer saying their character is flawed because “she’s clumsy,” which was the most common ‘character flaw’ I recall seeing back on RP forums back in the day. Either that or “he’s so edgy and insane, he has multiple personality disorder, he’s so cool.”
Anyways, Watch Dogs 2 feels like a game where a few people writing it loved the characters, but the creative direction for them was by someone who didn’t really know what to think about them. The characters exist because “kids like that, right?”
The game doesn’t know what it wants to say.
48. Little Nightmares 2 (PC)
I don’t like sidescrollers.
I fucking loved Little Nightmares 2.
It has the same problems as the first — the controls need a bit more polishing to feel good so you find yourself fighting them more than you’d like, and the puzzles are occasionally more obtuse than they need to be — but it has some of the most nerve-wrackingly beautiful boss designs I’ve ever seen in a game. Haunted, chilling, wonderful. It’s a shame Tarsier didn’t get to keep the IP when they got bought; I can’t wait to see what they make next.
49. Tooth & Tail (PC)
Ehnhnh… I wanted to like this game (I was bummed by its lack of cloud saves; I don’t want to forget to mention this), and I think as a quick, player-versus-player RTS, it’s pretty good, but at some point I just kinda wanted to be done. I think the focus on shorter match length is great in a competitive context, but as someone in the much larger pool of people who want to take a bit more time playing versus the environment, it’s not quite varied enough to really work.
It’s definitely not my thing, despite the wonderful aesthetic, but whether it’s good or bad, that one I can’t really answer.
50. Army of Two: The 40th Day (Xbox 360)
I am so glad that you can still co-op this one, though disappointed it’s not available on Xbox backwards compatibility, unlike the first. It’s as edgy as you’d expect from the director of Assassin’s Creed III and Far Cry 4, but more focused; in some ways, it’s the absolute peak of “gamer morality.” Like, a guy helps you through a level, but shockingly, he has a woman hostage, oh no! You shoot him and leave the apparent victim with his gun, but after you leave, you get a comic book-styled cutscene where it turns out she’s an assassin and she’s going to murder his hospitalized wife!! I have no idea what the alternative to that cutscene is, but I get the sense that no matter what, you aren’t meant to have a happy ending.
It’s that kind of “confusing giving everything a bad ending for being emotionally mature” type of bullshit that’s way too common in AAA games, especially near the end of the 360 era. No matter what choice you make, the outcome is bad because that’s the real world reeks of teenage immaturity crammed into the bodies of gen xers who shouldn’t be allowed to create anything.
I wish I’d managed to take more screenshots, because some of those levels are gorgeous for that era of shooter. Some of the encounters aren’t great — it’s definitely not up there with something like Gears of War 3, but hey, not much is. It’s a better-playing shooter than Mass Effect 2, at least.
You might think “oh, so Doc doesn’t love this game?” Nah, brah, I fuckin loved co-opping it with Cameron. It’s just stupid on a narrative level.
51. Lost Odyssey (Xbox Series X)
People who want to return to old-school JRPG design are just plain wrong.
Normally, I like to be more diplomatic. Things aren’t for me and that’s okay, that sort of thing. But this? Nah, nah man. This is all the parts of the JRPG that were best left behind, all the institutions that didn’t need to stick around, crammed into one of the best written video games of all time.
Oh yeah. Play this game. Get an Xbox so you can play this game. Buy the flashback stories that got bundled into a real-life book. You want great writing? You are gonna get that here. It’s a sprawling, grand adventure held back by all the worst design elements of classic JRPGs.
Fuck random encounters lmao
52. Maid of Sker (Xbox Series X)
“made of scare” lol
It’s a mostly combat-less horror game (you get a taser), which is really just a walking sim that’s scary, honestly. I don’t like walking sims — I’ve written about it before and I’ll do it again — even though, yes, I made Adios, but Adios was designed to address all the problems I see in the genre. Pretty predictable, but with some cool visuals and nice audio. Would I recommend it? I dunno. I wouldn’t replay it.
53. Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China (Xbox Series X)
It’s like if a big AAA company copied Mark of the Ninja poorly.
54. Yakuza 0 (PC)
Yakuza was always popular, but Yakuza 0 mainstreamified the series in a way it hadn’t before. It went from “dedicated but loyal fanbase” to “a reason to buy a PlayStation” to “now a very good reason to sub to game pass.” It’s got more fans than ever, and that’s very much thanks to the chronologically first game in the series, Yakuza 0.
Sega’s localization team upped their game, the systems gel in really satisfying ways (I played too much of the hostess minigame though, but in my defense, it’s important to run the best club in all of Japan). I didn’t love the brawler combat as much as the turn-based gameplay of Yakuza 7 (this surprised me), but the quests were delightful and seeing Kamurocho in the 80s as opposed to 30 years later was something else, let me tell you.
I don’t have a lot to say, which seems weird, but like… I dunno, if you know what you’re getting, you know. If you don’t, well, you’re basically getting a bunch of Japanese crime movies you probably haven’t seen told back at you through the lens of ultra-heroic criminal dudes. Expect twists, turns, and cutscenes that are never too long despite being incredibly long.
It might start slow, but trust me, it’s worth it.
55. Mass Effect (PC)
Mass Effect is one of the most influential games on me as a creator, not because I pulled from anything it did, but because when I first played it in 2006, I thought “you know, I don’t like playing a person to whom the rules do not apply. I don’t feel like an underdog, despite this game’s attempts to do it. I’d love to play a game about a person buying a rinky-dink piece of shit in space and trying to get by.”
Nobody’s ever really made that game — there’s a few games that attempt it on a systemic level, but never with the narrative panache that makes Bioware games go down smooth. They’re kinda like Blue Moon mango beer — tasty enough, gets the job done, not as great as the all-time alcohol for a sophisticated palate.
I tend to forgive Mass Effect for its mechanical shortcomings — yeah, it’s not a cover shooter like Gears of War. It’s not trying to be. Mass Effect 2 ought to know better, and it fuckin sucks in comparison to any Gears game, not just Gears 3, which is literally perfect. Mass Effect 1? I’ll forgive that.
I do this weird thing where I compare most games from the 360 generation to Gears of War 3, but a few games that are clearly pulling from the PS2 generation of games are forgiven for doing so; Uncharted 2 ought to know better, but Uncharted 1 was so early that its fuckups are more understandable. On the balance, I’d say Uncharted 2 is a worse game, despite having more varied encounter design.
The thing is, Mass Effect… man, I don’t know if it’s just a result of my ongoing journey towards moving left (I grew up in a deeply conservative environment that intentionally tried to keep me ignorant of the world around me in an attempt to keep me conservative and I have been fortunate to break out of that) or what, but like…
Garrus Vakarian: “I quit being a cop because the cops wouldn’t let me do extrajudicial murder. I should be allowed to kill people. No, I’m justified, because the writers of this game created a space so vile that obviously extrajudicial murder is justified.”
Liara T’Soni: “So, now that you’ve rescued me from an archaeological dig site, I just need to tell you that my species does not believe in child support. If we have kids, we will take them and you never have to worry about a thing. Also we’re all hot blue women except for the one who’s a hot green woman. We’re bisexual, but not in the way bisexual people are, we’re bisexual in the way that straight dudes think is hot.”
Tali’Zorah nar Rayya: You know what’s great?
Me: Wait wha —
Tali: We found out that our slaves wanted rights, so we tried to kill them after creating an apartheid state didn’t work. They won, but not because they’re better than us, and now we’re in exile.
Tali: Yeah there’s obvious parallels to Palestine here.
Then there’s Ashley, a character who actually has an interesting arc — pushed into military service by a military family, she feels she has something to prove because her grandfather surrendered to alien forces and humans have branded her a traitor as a result. As such, she’s motivated for the wrong reasons, but her questions make sense, like “if we’re on the human force’s top secret vessel, should we really be allowing other species unrestricted access?” It’s the kind of question you might hear from someone with a German last name during the cold war — should we really be letting Russians on our top secret ship? Overprotective for the wrong reasons.
People call Ashley a racist, but one of the biggest ‘examples’ of this is a conversation where she says “aliens treat humans like dogs. If you were running away from a bear, and the bear got your dog instead of you, you’d probably feel relieved the bear didn’t get you, whereas if it was a person who died, you might feel a lot more grief; you’d care more about a person” or something to that effect. This is actually from a famous sci-fi story I forget the name of — it appears to be a deliberate reference — but a lot of people took this to mean Ashley thought aliens were animals. This conversation makes it clear she’s saying “the aliens don’t care about us,” and the game (and its sequel) hammers home that she is correct — the council denied Anderson a Specter (a role you get — it’s basically “laws don’t apply to me and I have carte blanche to do murder,” which is very conservative idea of a power fantasy) role because of alien interference, multiple alien species whine about humans having a Specter when you become one, the council dismisses your eyewitness reports of a Specter doing crimes because a human reported it, etc etc etc. The game wants you to know that humanity is young and has not found its place in the international politics scene, and Ashley reflects the resentment that comes with it; as you play through the game, she opens up, realizes she’s being a reactionary because of what other humans have done to her family, and stops being shitty to the aliens as a result.
The problem is that it requires you to actually talk to her and figure out what her deal is over time; she’s the closest thing the game has to an actually sophisticated and in-depth character. Mass Effect 2 solved this problem by simply having a series of extremely simplistic characters with memeable dialogue.
And she ruins it by having exactly one line of dialogue that you can hear at random where she says “I can’t tell the aliens from the animals.” Everything else is like, actual good character writing. And then she just pulls out literal racism for no goddamn reason.
The politics of this game, right down to your literal role as a Specter, kinda suck lmao.
56. Back 4 Blood (PC)
My twitter header is for a project called Game One, which I created after talking to my buddy, Kevin Speer (I know several Kevins, some good, some bad), and hearing his frustration with the way games like Borderlands and Destiny only had one ult to use, rather than more interesting builds with multiple functions. That got me thinking.
A lot of ideas I’d been contemplating for years finally coalesced, and Hearthstone, which I was playing at the time, was a major influence on that; I loved opening card packs and building decks. That project became Game One.
Over the years, that design morphed and eventually, we pulled the deckbuilding aspect of it entirely. It is still remarkably fun to play, just… has zero polish, which is why it’s never been released publicly. One day, we’ll make it. It’s very much my magnum opus, I think.
Back 4 Blood is a Left 4 Dead game with a class system, which I explained my disdain for in the Aliens: Fireteam Elite section, so I won’t repeat here. It also has a card system, which is actually pretty fun — at various fixed points in the game, you play a card from your deck, but the cards aren’t randomized, as I recall — they pull in the order you built the deck in.
The game is… cool, I guess? It’s missing some spark, and I think the class system works against it, just as it works against every one of these kinds of games except World War Z, which separates class, as I recall, from weapon selection and player character choice. If you like the way one character sounds but don’t like their class, you’re out of luck in Back 4 Blood; not so in World War Z, which is why I like it a lot more.
57. 007: Blood Stone (Xbox Series X)
I was feelin’ something last-gen; playing 360 games all throughout the year, I kept feeling like I was missing something. What I got in Blood Stone was a surprisingly fun James Bond game with lots of racing; as a tie-in game with an off-brand Daniel Craig, I liked it more than I expected, even if it’s not as good as a good James Bond and not as polished as a good third person shooter. If you can pick this up for like $10, I’d say you’ll have a great time, but being a licensed game by Activision, well, good luck finding it anywhere.
58. Industria (PC)
Industria is a very cool game that has Half-Life 2 vibes plus its own unique spin. I liked it a great deal, and when I was offered the chance to consult on it, I leaped at it.
And then my air conditioner died.
In the middle of the summer.
In an concrete box of an apartment built to withstand extremely hot summers (with central air conditioning) and extremely cold winters, this is disastrous — the last time it happened, internal temperatures got to nearly 110F inside; with Kansas humidity, that’s the kind of temperature that gives you a literal medical emergency. I could not turn my electronics on without them shutting off due to overheating minutes later; I got almost no work done, and sadly, had to tell the fine team making Industria that I would not be able to help. I am still really bummed about this.
It’s a neat game, very low budget, visually spectacular despite this, and more interesting than Half-Life 2. I’m not sure I loved it narratively — I’m not really a fan of stories that do the thing it does (without spoiling it, I’m also not a fan of stories about time loops).
59. Phoenix Wright: Justice for All (PC)
People told me one of the cases was the worst in the series. It was.
People told me one of the cases was one of the best in the series. I forgot which one, but I remember thinking “they say this one is the best? But the first game had better cases.”
It’s more Phoenix Wright; I don’t really like the soul stone gimmick thing they added to the game, but I do enjoy the melodramatic murder mystery elements of the series, and I love finding flaws in witness statements and pressing them until they break and reveal they were the killer the whole time.
Phoenix Wright is good, but I liked the first game more than the second, Justice For All.
60. Earth Defense Force: World Brothers (PC)
An occasionally funny, cute game that is an Earth Defense Force game. If you like EDF, you will probably like this. I think it got a bit repetitive by the end, but I had a good time overall.
61. Fatum Betula (Switch)
Visually stunning, a bit too obtuse for my liking.
62. Bodycount (Xbox 360)
With better controls and framerate, this could have been really, really fun. It has some of the best art direction for a game from its generation, and some cool systems ideas, and it plays better than Stuart Black’s previous shooter, Black, but I don’t really get the “it’s a Lady Gaga shooter” comments that were made at the time, and sometimes the movement and shooting could be frustrating because the level design, enemy damage output, and enemy AI don’t always work together in good ways.
Still, it had a bunch of nicely bite-sized levels and absolutely satisfying explosions. More games should have explosions this satisfying.
63. Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery (PC)
I swear I’ve heard a bunch of this soundtrack in some other context, but I don’t know what.
Mechanically it’s ok, experientially it’s transcendent.
64. Far Cry 6 (PC)
Adding RPG progression mechanics robs Far Cry 6’s already predictable formula of any fun it had, and adding goofy animals that sometimes help you kill dudes doesn’t really do much to make it enticing. Congratulations, it’s the first Far Cry game I actually dislike since the satisfying-but-not-enriching Doritos formula began with Far Cry 3.
65. Forza Horizon 5 (PC) (Xbox Series X) (it’s cross-buy/cross-play, also called Play Anywhere)
This might be my Game of the Year.
I do not really engage with games-as-toys. That’s how Shigeru Miyamoto does it, it’s how some random indie people do it, but that’s not how I engage with games.
Forza Horizon is the exception, a series that is always a gigantic fuckin playground to go around and have fun in. This will never not be something I love playing. What a joyous experience, especially in co-op. There is nothing like you and your friend constantly trying to blast off a ramp faster and harder than everybody else.
66. Demon’s Souls (PlayStation 5)
The one that started it all. I played the remake, which was very fun, and, I think, controls better than Dark Souls. It doesn’t have the famously intricate level design the series would become known for, but there are still seeds of that present throughout the game.
Demon’s Souls works like this: go into a world, fuck around, find out, eventually kill a boss, which opens up the rest of the (fairly linear) world. Get to the second boss, kill it, and then, often immediately after, go kill the third boss. There are some great fuckin bosses here — my favorite was this huge Manta Ray in world 4. Overall, I think World 4 is the absolute coolest one out of all of ’em. A really neat game, and utterly gorgeous. There’s something about the simplicity of its world progression that felt really satisfying.
I could not play this without co-op because of my severe chronic pain and fatigue issues; without pause, the only way to really give my muscles room to relax is for another person to take some of the heat off. Huge props to my man Bulk Slabhead for helping carry me through.
67. Guardians of the Galaxy (PC)
Man, what a well-written game. It’s better than every Marvel movie out there, and a huge step up from Eidos Montreal’s previous games (Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Thi4f, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided/Human Revolution) on a narrative level.
As an action adventure game it’s pretty serviceable — more exciting, varied, and awe-inspiring than, say, any Naughty Dog game, but the combat can be a bit frustrating at times, the level design isn’t always quite there, and you’re not going to get the polish that a first-party flagship does.
Wholeheartedly recommended, if only for a certain absolutely hilarious scene at a bar, but really, for a whole lot more reasons than that. What a wonderfully joyful game.
68. Operation Tango (PlayStation 5)
I did not expect to love this asymmetrical co-op game (where one of you is on the computer and one of you is on the ground) as much as I did. Co-opping it with Bulk was absolutely delightful.
69. Dishonored: Death of the Outsider (PC)
Someone I used to know told me the problem they had with Dishonored was this: Harvey Smith, the series director, once said that something cool about the series was that you might break into a person’s home, see a pearl necklace on their dresser, realize that, due to the set dressing, they’re poor and this pearl necklace meant something to them. But, as this person pointed out, the game grades you on how much money you found in the level, and that grading can be at odds with your goals.
This is a problem I have with Arkane games in general, especially the worst one, Prey, which is literally based on the idea that you’re an alien tricked into thinking you’re human so humans can see if you comprehend morality or not.
As someone who grew up being routinely policed for morality, you cannot possibly begin to understand how violently disgusted this makes me. I fucking hate being judged on my morality — it’s not how morality works. It’s not a score you get, it’s the impact you have. If you want to influence my morality in a game, then let me make a decision that doesn’t necessarily mean a lot to me but can have ripple effects on other people — which, ironically, is one thing that Dishonored did really well in the first game. You weren’t really judged for what you did as much as “if you murder lots of people, there will be more corpses, which means the rats will feast, and that means way more rats.” It’s cause and effect, rather than “were you honorable/not honorable enough? here is your score.”
Death of the Outsider, thankfully, dispenses with a lot of that morality stuff, and I liked it a lot.
However, as someone who loves the Dishonored series, I’d avoided playing those last three levels for a long, long time because I just… once it’s done, it’s over. There is no more Dishonored. There may be one day, but there isn’t for now. I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, which meant that by the time Deathloop rolled around, I found myself feeling super guilty every time I booted it up, because I felt like I had to finish Death of the Outsider.
I felt the game, in some ways, left us with more questions than answers about the series’ metaphysics, but I’m glad I picked the ending I did. Now I finally feel like I can really dig into Deathloop guilt-free.
70. Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War (Xbox Series X)
I don’t know why I buy the Black Ops games, they’re all terribly-written, and the stupid twist of this game is just as bad as the twist in Black Ops 3. They’re fun enough I guess, but Treyarch is only marginally better than DICE at making single-player games, which isn’t saying much. I understand Raven made this campaign, and it is decidedly better than anything Treyarch has done as a video game, but as a narrative, it’s like, blah, whatever. I don’t love it because of how goddamn stupid that plot twist is. Fuck.
But hey, running around shooting shit in a Call of Duty game is generally pretty fun, and this is no exception. It’s the best Black Ops game.
71. Halo Infinite (PC)
On one hand, it’s nice to have a Halo combat sandbox that’s actually fun, for the first time since Halo Reach launched eleven years prior. On another equally valid hand, it’s great that they basically just tossed what seems like the entirety of Halo 6 in a dumpster (it feels like you skip an entire game between Halo 5 and Halo 6).
I don’t love the hexagonal pillar thing — it’s one of those in-vogue art trends that I feel like I see in professional but less-sophisticated, less-experienced art designers. Like, you’ll see it in a game with serviceable-but-bad art direction like Mass Effect Andromeda, but you won’t see it in a game with inspired-and-experienced art direction like Destiny (say what you will about the systems, but Destiny’s art direction is quite possibly the best in games, even better than Destiny 2).
The game feels nice to play, difficulty tuning’s kind of all over the place, the open world design really begs for a larger arsenal than just two weapons (because ammo is less evenly distributed — 343i doesn’t know where you’ll run out of ammo the way that Bungie did in a linear Halo game). It’s…
I’d say it’s fun, at its best moments. Perhaps it’s amazing in competitive multiplayer, which I don’t do anymore thanks to my health issues. They needed to put a cap on the Halo 4 and 5 saga (if I was in charge, I wouldn’t. I would do a soft reboot). To me, this is like 343i’s Gears of War 4; it’s 343i finally showing that maybe, just maybe, after a lot of stumbling and mismanagement, they could finally make a Halo that’s fun to play. But… I’d also say that as a campaign, it’s forgettable, even if the combat sandbox has been, in many ways, meaningfully improved.
Shotgun fuckin SUCKS though.
72. Bloodborne (PlayStation 5)
Sometimes you play a game and it’s got an it factor.
Bloodborne did not have this factor when I first played it the year it came out. It ran like shit, took forever to load, and disconnected me all the goddamn time, which meant I was constantly losing insight and unable to progress. The game just is not fun early on.
Tried it again with Bulk and Cameron; this addressed my physical health limitations.
For people who don’t understand the disability and dark souls thing, assuming that we all possess the same level of ability — bro imagine if someone hit you with a baseball bat at random when you were playing. Imagine if you could not ever defend yourself. Now imagine that you are playing the game and 20 other people are in the same room playing the game, and you’re the only one getting hit by a fucking baseball bat. And each one of those fucking assholes tells you that you’re merely bad at the game, rather than being hit by a baseball bat at random, making it difficult to play.
Multiple times throughout the playthrough, Bulk expressed surprise that I was able to do some of the things I did. He commented, surprised, “you’re really good at this game, aren’t you.” I let out an exasperated yes, because of course I’m good at video games. I’m highly skilled, I just have a fucking illness that occasionally hits me with a baseball bat. I’m so glad Bulk validated me by observing and recognizing that yeah, I’m actually really good at this, I just have a fucked-up health situation.
Once I had the room to breathe, I could see why people loved Bloodborne; wonderful aesthetic (despite not putting distance fog on the air), some really cool levels, things I didn’t even know existed in the game despite it being out for years, just… man, there is a lot to love about this game. Too bad about it not having more flexible difficulty options. Also the framepacing sucks ass lmao. This game needs to come to PC.
“Ah… my guiding moonlight…” is legitimately one of the best boss fights ever.
That one fire dog in the hell chalices can eat my ass though.
In the end, yeah, Bloodborne did have the “it” factor. It’s a masterpiece, for a lot of reasons its defenders have never, in my experience, been able to articulate. The design is immaculate in a lot of ways that I… can’t say I’ve heard anyone discuss. Maybe I will, one day.
73. Cyberpunk 2077 (PC)
Cyberpunk is actually a masterpiece.
Something rubs me the wrong way about how it was received. Sure, I get that it was broken for some, but I’ve seen the same people who praise New Vegas, one of the buggiest AAA games of all time, who will post videos of people with rotating heads or whatever, suddenly turn around and decry the much more ambitious and expressive Cyberpunk as somehow being worse, and I don’t think that’s true. There is nothing New Vegas does that Cyberpunk doesn’t do better, and not just because it’s a technologically newer game, but because it’s actually well-written, which isn’t something you could say for New Vegas in the least.
You think Cyberpunk was the only game that was unplayable on consoles? Remember when memory issues meant New Vegas never should have launched at all on the PlayStation 3? No? Yeah, it ran like a wet fart.
This hypocrisy really rubs me the wrong way; it feels like people wanted Cyberpunk to fail. I know for a while, there were PlayStation fans actively campaigning against CD Projekt RED because of the marketing deal for The Witcher 3 (which is why on forums like NeoGAF, you’d constantly see thread raids by members of certain PS discords and communities doing drivebys going “Bloodborne has better combat” even though the two games were not comparable).
With Cyberpunk… things were messier than that, and I’m writing two entire-ass articles on this right now, so we’ll get into it later. But I think the thing that bothered me the most was… a certain games journalist who seems to be all about Being The Guy Who Advocates For Worker’s Rights initially reported on CDPR’s “no crunch” policy, which was later flouted. The way he turned on that particular game, despite more obvious and aggressive crunch policies throughout the industry, made it seem like this was personal, like he was playing the part of the objective journalist when actually he was just mad he looked dumb for saying CDPR wouldn’t crunch.
I didn’t like that.
This game is one of the best depictions of lower-class life I’ve ever seen in a game. I felt recognized in a way I haven’t before; they get poverty, the desire to get out of it, ambition and dreams and no way to realize it. It feels good to play, and every single one of my friends who put any amount of time into it built radically different characters. “Oh, I handled this mission totally different” is a thing New Vegas fans pretend is common in the game by posting that flowchart of the only complex mission in New Vegas and acting like every quest is that complicated. Meanwhile, Cyberpunk handles this with more flexbility and nuance.
That comment was a routine occurrence between me and my friends as we played Cyberpunk.
In the end, I picked the ending that felt right for me, on a narrative level. I wasn’t gaming it, I wasn’t just picking The Faction I’d Decided to Go With, I wasn’t arbitrarily limited by stats — that ending, which, for me, was real emotional, came from the fuckin heart. As an RPG, it’s wonderfully open and choice-based in ways that are more natural and human than anything the New Vegas fans ever insisted on.
It’s not that I dislike New Vegas; I think it does a good job of feeling like a tabletop game, a bit less serious, a bit more interested in goofing around. New Vegas is a thing to mess around with, Cyberpunk 2077 is actual fuckin art that gets at and explores actually being a person in a world that’s making it increasingly difficult to be one.
I’m just so fucking pissed with how much disingenuity is out there in the detractors — other than my buddy Joe’s complaints about combat (which I roundly disagree with but respect him for making), it feels like people are either talking out their ass (“it’s not very ‘punk’” which indicates a total lack of understanding of cyberpunk as a genre) or seem to be using the game as a proxy for other things (like building a brand as an activist who really just says “people should unionize!” and doesn’t actually work towards unionization). It annoys me.
Cyberpunk 2077 might be less polished than people would like (it was more or less perfect on my PC, much better than plenty of other AAA releases, like Horizon: Zero Dawn or anything DICE has done lately), but hot damn is it one of the best-written, best-acted, best-told, most beautiful games I’ve ever fuckin played. It’s wonderfully subtle at times, stupidly over the top in others, and never anything less than a good time.
I think it’s my game of the year.
74. That Dragon, Cancer (PC)
I think the thing I loved the most about it was the way Joel laughed. A difficult experience to go through, That Dragon, Cancer is one of the only examples of documentary I can think of in games. It’s important that I finally played this.
75. It Takes Two (PC)
It’s got this very 70s-80s idea of human relationships, that putting two people breaking up back together by forcing them into a challenging situation can rekindle their love for each other, and it’s got a very annoying talking book who I hate and want to die…
Kudos for having more variety than pretty much any linear game I’ve ever heard of.
76. Kena: Bridge of Spirits (PC)
It felt like someone came up with a very well thought out design for Kena, and then someone else took over and slammed a bunch of the ideas into a blender without understanding why any of them were there.
Take the combat, for instance; the game wants to show you the animation of Kena blocking, but the game’s iffy performance and the narrowness of the animation windows and enemy wind-ups mean that a lot of the countering you should be doing just… doesn’t work. It’s like Sekiro if they cut out all of the extremely lengthy anticipation animation.
The game is gorgeous, the cutscenes feel like they’re pulled from movie-quality CGI, like you’d see this in a Dreamworks movie, and the design is all there… it’s just not implemented right, like they knew what to do but not why, so everything that needed to be implemented was implemented poorly.
I wanted to love it, but I ended up hating the experience. Also the whole “we have to be one with nature” story didn’t quite work for me; they’re like “oh yeah everyone’s sick and dying but it was bad that a human attacked a manifestation of nature that was apparently causing this in an attempt to stop it” like bro, humans disrupt extremely harmful things nature does all the time. There’s nothing wrong with it. That’s not what living harmoniously with nature is all about. It’s like acting as if putting on sunscreen will fuck up nature.
77. Milk Inside of a Bag of Milk Inside of a Bag of Milk (PC)
If you’ve ever talked to someone who’s struggling from serious mental illness, you will recognize this very specific language and reasoning at play here. It’s uncomfortable because it feels like you are actually reading the inner thoughts of someone who’s really struggling with a mental health crisis, a private moment you should not trespass on.
78. Splatoon (WiiU)
The people who told me that the campaign wasn’t worth it lied to me. It’s basically Nintendo doing Nintendo to shooting as a genre. Do yourself a favor and turn the gyro off. I had a blast until the bad checkpointing in the final level. Gonna give Splatoon 2 a try in 2022.
79. Milk Outside of a Bag of Milk Outside of a Bag of Milk (PC)
Better art, kind of the same thing as its predecessor, two entries up — it doesn’t feel like a trite expression of mental health problems, it feels like a person who has experienced or has known someone who’s struggled with severe mental health difficulties doing their best to express the pain of that experience. It’s tough to deal with. The art is stellar, the sound design is impeccable. What a fuckin game. Wow.
Here are the best-rated games of the year — no I won’t tell you how I rate them other than X/D/C/B/A/S, and that X is “incomplete” and S is “super” and almost never given out.
The A-rated games are, in order I played them:
What Remains of Edith Finch
Kane & Lynch 2
Adios (but I made it so this may be suspect)
Resident Evil Village
Monster Hunter Rise
World War Z
Little Nightmares 2
Forza Horizon 5
There were no S-rated games this year (I cannot rate Adios objectively, since I made it, so I don’t know if I would’ve rated it as S-rank or not).
I’m not sure there was a particular theme to this year’s games; I finished so many in part because a lot of them were games I’d started in years prior and never gotten around to finishing, so several of the games were things I finished in an hour or two in a night. Like, hey, Xenoblade Chronicles? Yeah, I was nearly at the end in 2020, so of course I finished it off almost immediately in 2022.
That said, I feel like… I finished games I didn’t need to. I feel bad about leaving games unfinished; it’s the same feeling that I have when struggling with unmanaged ADHD symptoms and I leave something undone. It’s like… I feel like I have to finish. I’m dealing with that with Tropico 6 and XCOM: Chimera Squad right now. I need to just let them go — I am not having fun, and I should stop so I can spend time on games I’ll actually like.
In the first few weeks of 2022, I’ve barely finished anything; I just can’t really focus, and it kinda sucks, but that’s okay, because I’m finally starting to make some progress on some other games I’m genuinely enjoying, but that guilt at leaving some games unfinished is still a big problem.
What am I looking forward to in 2022? Well…
Xenoblade Chronicles X
Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines
Final Fantasy 9
Final Fantasy 12
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
Digital Devil Saga
God of War 2 (not Ragnarok, literally the original God of War 2 for PS2)
Persona 4 Golden
Dark Souls 1, 2, and 3
Shit’s rough. Being disabled, living on my own, it’s a real fuckin struggle, and that’s before you factor in Covid. I’m really hopeful that we can get our next game funded soon, the Adios Switch port is almost done, and there’s some other stuff I’m trying to work on that might really blow people’s minds.
This is also the year I intend to play all of Final Fantasy XIV, so uh, look forward to thoughts on that, maybe? I’m going to try to force myself to finish one of these several dozen articles I got lying around… and record them, for people who would rather listen than read.
I hope 2022 is a better year than 2021, not just for me, but for each and every one of you.