Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
I’m a big fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which really was the first open world, only in book form rather than virtual. The story takes place in the 60 years between the events of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Monolith followed up its excellent Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor from 2014 with a sequel that continues the brilliant story of a Ranger of Gondor, Talion, who is brought back from the dead by the wraith (ghost) of Celebrimbor, a great elven smith whom Sauron deceived into entrapping the world of Middle-earth through the Rings of Power.
Celebrimbor wants his revenge, and Talion is his vessel. In the first game, Talion uses his powers to start a civil war among the Orcs in an attempt to take the throne from the Dark Lord. In the sequel, the war is under way, and Talion has to take the fortresses of Mordor away from the Sauron and his Ringwraiths. This story is perhaps the first new piece of fiction in the Tolkien universe that I think should be part of the Tolkien canon.
Against that backdrop is the campaign, which consists of 63 millions, and its Nemesis system, which enables enemies that you kill or maim to remember you and come back with a desire for revenge. I enjoyed fighting and refighting the orc captains, and I thought the siege battles for the control of cities were particularly well done. The open world left me occasionally confused about where to go next, but that could have been fixed with just a better user interface and cinematic strategy.
War is controversial because the true ending of the game takes place after about 20 hours of grinding that happens after you finish the main campaign. Some players thought that meant you had to buy loot crates to get through the grind, but I found that wasn’t the case. But I have to say the true ending is a vast disappointment, as I was hoping for another outcome. Still, I applaud Monolith’s effort and its sticking to theme of what it means to bring someone back from the dead.
Developer: Studio MDHR
Platforms: PC, Xbox One
I’ve had a hard time getting hassled by haters who thought I was too inept to play games of skill like Cuphead. I’ve given it a try, and it humbled me. It is a unique game, with 1930s cartoon art, imaginative characters, and crazy music that make you feel like you’re in the middle of a spectacle.
To play it requires a mastery of moment-to-moment interactions with a controller. You have to jump at the right time and hit another button to perform timed actions that will keep you alive. Like you have to jump and dash at the right moment to escape a falling nut as you leap across a chasm. To me, this kind of gameplay takes more skill than the moment-to-moment battles in Call of Duty: WWII multiplayer combat, where I am clearly a lot more comfortable.
Studio MDHR addressed the difficulty with a Simple mode, but it doesn’t permit you to get to the final boss. Still, the journey is what I enjoyed. It makes you feel nostalgic for the good ol’ days of platformer games. It is far easier to play if you go into the battles in co-op mode, where you can rescue a friend who is stricken and then keep playing.
Cuphead is not a complete success, which is why it isn’t on the top of my list. It is, in fact, too hard, as demonstrated by the fact that the vast majority of people who bought it have not finished it. But that’s OK, as it was designed that way by Chad and Jared Moldenhauer, who mortgaged their homes to bring their vision to market. If you go into it knowing that, despite its kid-friendly cartoon style, it is a really difficult game, then you have a moment of elation when you beat a particular level. While I may never finish this game due to my lack of skill and patience, I appreciate what it has accomplished.
Developer: Nintendo EPD
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
The open world of Hyrule is vast. Sometimes, that makes me groan because I don’t have the time to finish multiple open world games that all come out at the same time. This year, I bounced between Mass Effect: Andromeda and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I chose to finish Andromeda, which is much shorter, but I regret that decision. And now I find that Zelda is the game that I really should have spent my time in.
Zelda has this beautiful anime style for its art, and it looks so much better in the world with vast draw distances where you can see forever. It is immersive and believable, as you can wander in the world and run into surprise enemies and characters who will tell you stories along the way or make your quests easier. Whatever you do in the world is fun. That can be simple, like going fishing by dropping a bomb in the water, or climbing up a mountain before you become too weary. Taming a horse is fun. Cooking food with different ingredients is fun.
I managed to get stuck in one of the shrines where I was supposed to open a big set of doors that just wouldn’t budge. That held me back from finishing, even though I could have easily skipped it. I also had issues with the map, which seems ridiculously half-baked for such a vast game space. I think I’ll be forever wandering as I figure out how to get back on the main path in Zelda. I would love to finish this game one day, but that would take a focus that I don’t have, as well as time dedicated to getting through my pile of shame. I’m so easily distracted by things in the world. And I guess I am OK with that.
Developer: Arkane Studios
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
This shooter came out in the spring and it was a very different kind of game. I really wanted to hate it, because I thought the enemy creatures looked ridiculous, almost like black smudges. But I stuck with it in part because of the way this game was designed. The enemies, an amorphous alien species dubbed the Typhon, could appear anywhere in the giant space station, and they could take the shape of ordinary objects. While you have specific missions that you have to finish in order to stay on the main track, you have to take a lot of side missions in order to become powerful enough to survive later on.
Prey held my attention in part because I was able to set up the drama myself. I appreciated the customizable Asian American main character. When I came into contact with the nightmare bosses, I could set up a small fortress with a lot of ammo and explosives that could weaken the bosses enough for me to kill them as I tried to retreat. That was emergent gameplay at its best.
It was like an addiction, where I loved it and hated it at the same time. I hated it because I was always short on ammo, but that shortage forced me to check out vast portions of the open world. In fact, I cared more about finding ammo or crafting it from parts than I did about finishing quests. And really. Could they have just given me a shotgun at the beginning? Still, I appreciated the feeling of paranoia that Prey created, from the very beginning when I found out my character wasn’t who I thought it was, to the notion that every piece of furniture could be hiding an enemy that was out to kill me.
Developer: Creative Assembly
In 15 years of playing Total War games from The Creative Assembly, I never hungered for them to leave history behind and make a game based on the fictional Warhammer universe. But that’s what they did, and it turned out good. With Total War: Warhammer II, they got the balance right. The game has a beautiful strategic map where you can maneuver multiple armies against the forces of Chaos, and you can drill down into tactical battles in the places where two armies come together.
The developers came up with a campaign game that pits four Warhammer factions against each other in a race for a single-minded task: Conducting five rituals to gain control of the Great Vortex, a magical maelstrom at the center of the strategic map. This was something I could understand, and I learned that gathering dragons in my army was going to be a big help. That made the burden of learning the Warhammer lore fairly light.
It has colorful terrain on its strategic maps, which you can view in 3D from any angle. And you can also dive into a given battle scene and fight a battle in full 3D. You can zoom in on a single soldier, or zoom out to see the panoramic battlefield. You can get both the rat’s eye view and the dragon’s eye view. Thousands of soldiers can fight in each battle, and the sound design is awesome as well with creaking catapults and ambient battle cries.
The fun thing about Total War is that you can never really predict which way a battle is going to go, particularly when you have thousands of soldiers whose courage can turn the tide or fail at any given moment. The design of this game underscored that particular fact. The game gets a bit repetitious. It didn’t hold my attention for as long as Total War: Attila, and other historical games. But it was very well executed.
Honorable mentions: Star Wars: Battlefront II, Destiny 2, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, Super Mario Odyssey, Gorogoa, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and Food Truck Chef. And my likely favorite game that was delayed until 2018: Red Dead Redemption 2.