Other people have pointed out in the comments that this has been an amazing year for games, but as luck would have it the really stand-out titles came from platforms and genres that I’m just not into. Nintendo had a good year. (Mario, Zelda.) JRPGs had a good year. (Persona, Nier.) Online PvP was doing some interesting things. (PUBG, For Honor.) It wasn’t a bad year for collect-a-thons. (Assassins Creed Origins, Shadow of War.) And we got some genuine oddities that tried new things and succeeded. (Sexy Brutale and Cuphead.) But for various reasons, none of that stuff landed in my wheelhouse.
So while I’m not brimming with enthusiasm for the offerings of 2017, I acknowledge it was still a pretty good year overall. It just wasn’t my year. (Aside from my top pick.) Anyway, let’s finish this chalk outline I’m drawing around 2017 so we can send it off to the morgue…
3. Death Road to Canada
Now THIS is how you do a game with permadeath. STRAFE didn’t work for me, but DRtC was a blast. Sure dying sucks, but here you have lots of options to keep things fresh. You can design your own characters with different strengths and weaknesses, and you get some choices right up front regarding how you want to begin your (probably doomed) journey.
In case you missed it: It’s a zombie apocalypse game. Your characters have decided to make a road trip from Florida to the safety of Canada. The core of the game is built around fighting crowds of zombies with melee weapons in a humorous pixel art world. There’s a risk / reward thing where the longer you linger in an area, the worse the zombies will getParticularly when the sun goes down.. You need to decide how long you want to spend scavenging for food, fuel, weapons, and medicine before you flee to the next town.
Between these combat sections you get random events that call for you to make decisions. It’s a bit like Oregon Trail. (Or more accurately, Organ Trail.) You can pick up survivors along the way. You’ll have more people to bash up the restless dead, but you’ll also have more mouths to feed.
Why does this permadeath game feel so fun while STRAFE turns into a chore? The most obvious factor is that this is a game built around the idea of permadeath while STRAFE uses 90s shooter conventions and then just takes out all the healthpacks and adds permadeath. But making a good survival game involves more than just making it so you have to start over when you die. Strafe’s only real choice at the start of the game is that you can pick from one of three guns, but DRtC allows you to design your starting crew, choose their individual strengths, and then make choices along the way regarding strategy and locations to visit.
In STRAFE, the first twenty minutes of the game are spent in the same rust-colored industrial hallways. When you die, you go back to rust world for another 20 minutes. Meanwhile, DRtC changes things up every few minutes. When you arrive in a town you can decide if you want to raid the store, the police station, the cabin, or the apartment building. You don’t spend 20 minutes in the store and then 20 minutes in the police station.
The one gripe I have with the game is that it REALLY needs a stats screen at the end. You get one at the end of a raid, but not at the end of a game. How many people died? How long did we spend on the road? How much food did we eat? How many zombies did we kill? How many times did we change cars? How many shots fired? How many points of damage taken?
Stats like this give each run a sense of closure and allows you to compare your runs and see yourself improve. It’s a trivial feature, it makes death a little less frustrating, and Death Road to Canada doesn’t have it. It’s a strange omission from what otherwise feels like a perfect little game.
2. Dishonored 2
Like I said in my review of Dishonored 2 earlier this year, I didn’t really connect with the original Dishonored. It was fine game in a technical sense, but I wasn’t into the world and the mechanics didn’t really thrill me.
I’m still not really invested in the world, but this time I really clicked with the mechanics. Stealth feels good. Combat feels good. The puzzles are interesting. The powers are wonderfully varied and inventive. The levels are actually open, and not fake-open like the “do you want to hack a door or crawl through a vent?” of the recent Deus Ex titles.
So this is what it feels like to be a Dark Souls fan, then? I have to admit this is pretty awful. For years you yearn for something different. Something that just isn’t done anymore. Something very specific to your tastes. Then by some staggering miracle the lumbering machine that is the videogames industry manages to – seemingly by accident – deliver this missing element. Going against current trends, fads, and conventional wisdom, someone manages to design, pitch, finance, develop, and ship this exotic gem with your sought-after flavor still intact.
The game doesn’t run out of money during development. It doesn’t get caught in development hell. It doesn’t compromise or betray the core vision due to publisher meddling. It isn’t a confused mess of conflicting purposes due to a creative team that can’t agree. Instead this albino unicorn hits the digital shelves on the promised release date. You buy it, and it turns out to be everything you’ve always wanted.
And then the public at large immediately sets on it, bitching and whining at how it should be changed to be more like every other videogame the industry pukes out every year.
Gamespot said Prey feels “trapped in the past”. Eurogamer was fawning with praise, but lamented all the ways the combat wasn’t enough like Dishonored’s system of gleeful player empowerment. PC Gamer was supportive all the way through, but then at the end held up Dishonored as a good (better) stealth game and BioShock as an example of better combat. And they they gave this once-in-a-generation title a score of 79 because the shooting wasn’t “fun” enough.
I don’t normally get defensive about review scores, but when the critics began turning up their noses at Prey I wanted to grab them by the shoulders and shake them screaming, “That is not a flaw! That’s the entire point of the game, you uncultured whelp!”
So this is the kind of monster I’ve become. I’m quarreling over review scores, bitter at the haters, and holding a grudge because the people who do like the game don’t like it enough or they don’t like it for the right reasons. I’m not just a Dark Souls fanboy, I’m the worst example of that stereotype. I’m the guy that gives everyone else a bad reputation.
In my defense, this is a very frustrating experience. This game is exactly on my wavelength, and the last time we got something that scratched this particular itch for me was in System Shock 2, 18 years ago. Given how hard it is to get the industry to take chances and serve niche markets it could very well be another 18 years before we see the next one. At that point the year will be 2035, which incidentally is the year in which Prey is actually set. I’ll be 63 by then, and I imagine I’ll still be trying in vain to explain to the next generation of rugrats why Dishonored 8: Even Less Honored isn’t the kind of stealth I’m looking for.
You know me as a writer now, but my writing career began 15 years ago when I made a novelization of the first System Shock game. In a lot of ways this blog begins at System Shock, and the arrival of Prey is a return to that origin story.
I know the game isn’t perfect. The difficulty is a little uneven. The late-game twist when
the military shows up and makes you fight robots manages to kill the momentum of the story while also making the game a lot less fun. The game had some really unfortunate glitches. The ending has some problems. Either you hate the after-credits twist because you feel it invalidates the rest of the game, or you’re okay with the idea but see it as something too big and important to stick after the credits. Either way, it doesn’t quite work.
But I love the game despite the flaws. In a year with so few games in my wheelhouse, it’s amazing that we got this, a game exactly suited to my tastes in a way no AAA title has managed in a decade.
This is my jam. Please game industry, make a few more of these. I know they’re expensive, they have niche appeal, and their mechanics run against AAA sensibilities, but… uh. I guess I can’t think of a good reason to make more, but I’d consider it a real personal favor if you did it anyway. Thanks.
 Particularly when the sun goes down.
Even allegedly smart people can make life-changing blunders that seem very, very obvious in retrospect.
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