8) Watch Dogs 2
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Platforms: Windows, PS4, Xbox One
Ubisoft made a good choice is shifting the setting for its Watch Dogs sequel from gloomy Chicago to the sunny streets of the smart city of San Francisco. It also took a light-hearted approach, choosing as its main character Marcus Holloway, an African American hacker who joins the hacktivist group DedSec, modeled on Anonymous. The game captures the free-wheeling spirit of the San Francisco hacker community, whose rallying cry is openness and putting secrets out into the open.
With Holloway, you go on a romp through San Francisco’s neighborhoods, hacking anybody’s cell phone with the press of a button, listening to their phone calls and making things go haywire. That’s entertaining by itself, but DedSec stumbles upon a nefarious plot by a big tech company, Blume, to separate us all from our data, invade our privacy, and even pin crimes on us that we didn’t commit. Holloway goes on a crusade against Blume, which is a parody of Oracle, and many other tech companies that share the same disrespect for users and openness. The missions are fun, as are the mechanics for solving puzzles and creating ingenious hacks to get past security measures.
As a shooter, it has its flaws, particularly in close combat with multiple enemies, but the point is to use Holloway’s electronic skills to hack the Internet of Things and the smart city so that you don’t have to get into combat. You can have a guard falsely arrested by the police, or call in a gang to target another guard to create a distraction. Many of the missions are satires on real-life encounters, such as the hack against Sony Pictures or All the while, you make progress in unearthing a dastardly scheme. And the game closes with a message. You have to be wary of attempts by tech companies to betray the public trust in pursuit of their own profits.
9) Clash Royale
Platforms: iOS, Android
Nobody crafts games like Supercell in the mobile game industry. That is why China’s Tencent acquired Supercell at a $10 billion valuation earlier this year. Supercell has generated more than $1.1 billion from the free-to-play mobile game so far this year, according to market researcher SuperData Research. But this game is a rarity among the top-grossing games because it is fun. It’s a little like a multiplayer-online battle arena (MOBA) title, with two lanes for fighting. You select your warrior and set it loose in one of the lanes, while another human player does the same on the other side. You have to be masterful in choosing the exact timing to release your warrior, and you have to counter the enemy’s with just the right foil. The battle unfolds in real-time, with a three-minute battle that can result in overtime. Your object is to destroy the enemy’s three fortresses and to protect your own. It sounds simple, and that’s the point.
You can fight with just one hand on your smartphone, and each battle is different because you’re playing against a real person. The title is appealing for hardcore gamers who want a real game on mobile, but it’s also very accessible. I’ve played the game for the entire year, putting more time into it than Pokémon Go. Sadly, only my thumb has gotten exercise from this game. You can play this game for a few minutes a day, but it’s so easy to play that I wound up putting many more hours into this game than just about anything else I played this year.
10) That Dragon, Cancer
Developer: Numinous Games
Publisher: Numinous Games
Platforms: Windows, OS X, Ouya, iOS
Playing a game about a family losing a child to cancer isn’t fun. But bearing witness to such an experience is a very moving thing. This game showed how a husband and wife — Ryan and Emily Green — turned their real-life tragedy into something positive and creative. The game takes you on a journey about the parents’ efforts to save their son Joel, who died of cancer when he was just five years old. This game will make you cry and make you sad, but the Greens do an excellent job of conveying how you can go through the worst experience imaginable and still come out of it with your family and your humanity intact.
As I noted in my review, I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to lose a child to cancer. I have known grief. But this kind of loss is not something to be measured. We cannot dismiss it because we all have our own sorrows to worry about. It’s not a competition. There is plenty of loss and grief to go around in this world. The Greens have had theirs. When something like the loss of an innocent child happens, we all share in the suffering. That is what this video game conveys. I find it amazing that the Greens were able to step back from their own story and tell something that spoke in a more universal way. You could see their attempt to do that in Joel’s animated face: He doesn’t have one. He represents the little one that anybody could be the parent of. It’s like that old saying: Do not ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee. This is one of those experiences that elevates video games to an art form.
Here are my honorable mentions.
1) Mafia III
2) Pokémon Go
3) Dead & Buried
3) Civilization VI
4) Gears of War 4
7) The Witness
8) Dawn of Titans
10) The Last Guardian
11) Skylanders: Imaginators
12) Super Mario Run
And here’s a poll where you can vote for your favorite.