If you’re reading this, congratulations. It means you survived another year. Or, just as likely, it means we’re both already dead and this is hell. Either way, we’re stuck here, so we might as well make the most of it. Let’s try to focus on the positive stuff, like all the nuclear wars that haven’t happened, and all the celebrities whose horrible, disgusting secrets we don’t know yet. Plus, games were pretty good this year, right? At least the ones that weren’t trying to use underhanded psychological tricks to manipulate already paying customers into shelling out more money. Or the ones that weren’t cancelled outright because they didn’t have enough opportunities to shove in microtransactions in the first place.
You know what, this is hopeless. We’re probably going to find out next week that all five games on my list were financed by ardent Roy Moore supporters and developed using child slave labor. Might as well hurry up and read on while we can still celebrate them with a clean conscience.
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
|Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus|
|When I reviewed Wolfenstein: The New Order, I complained about the game’s tonal whiplash, its tendency to veer between slapstick, philosophizing, and violence. If anything, Wolfenstein II is even guiltier of this than its predecessor, but I’ve come around. Doubling down on the series’ bizarre identity gives The New Colossus a persuasive confidence. This is a game that provides an affecting portrayal of racism that acknowledges America’s long participation, both active and passive, in the structures of white supremacy. It’s also a game where your friend drops a ton of acid and hallucinates a cartoon lizard. It’s not that there aren’t stitches where those two sides meet. It’s just that The New Colossus doesn’t seem to care.
Maybe it’s fitting that a story about an America that’s surrendered to Nazi occupation refuses easy categorization. Maybe it’s an important reminder that we all carry in us the capacity for savagery, for introspection, for frivolity, for love. That the barriers between them aren’t as solid as we think. Anyway, this game is only on my list because you can ram your shoulder into a Klansman so hard that he explodes into chunks.
Platforms: Xbox One, PC
|If you’ve heard of Cuphead, you already know that it has amazing hand-drawn visuals and tough-as-nails gameplay. The first is obvious the moment you see any screenshot or trailer. (To my knowledge, it’s the only game not starring Mickey Mouse to mine the rubber-hose animation of the ’30s and ’40s for inspiration.) The second is pretty much all anyone who’s played it talks about.
What really makes Cuphead special, though, is the way it uses both those attributes as fuel for imaginative design. You know how so many games struggle to come up with compelling bosses? Well, something like 80 percent of Cuphead is just boss fights—with more than I’ve ever seen in a 2D platformer—and they’re all excellent and distinct. You’d be hard pressed to even find any individual attacks that are recycled between them. It’s absurd. Cuphead is essentially a game made entirely out of things that would be the best ideas or most abused gimmicks in lesser platformers, and it doesn’t dwell on any of them. The Moldenhauer brothers must be stopped.
Developer: Guerrilla Games
|Horizon Zero Dawn|
|Horizon Zero Dawn does a lot of things pretty well, but it does two things perfectly. The first is delivering a strong sense of place. Exploring the post-post-apocalyptic open world offers breathtaking vistas and tons of variety, along with an unfolding sense of mystery as you encounter more and more remnants of what came before. I’m a big fan of virtual tourism in games, and seeing fresh takes on places I’ve been in real life pretty much guaranteed this game would make the list.
The second thing Horizon nails is matching its most fundamental gameplay loop to its narrative. At least in the early hours, you’re all but forced to play Aloy as a hunter-gatherer, scavenging for useful plants and stalking animals from the bushes and waiting for the opportune moment to strike. Everything about the design of Horizon‘s map, enemies, health system, and economy channels your actions towards a reasonable facsimile of what the story tells us about how Aloy lives, and how she would reasonably have to live in order to survive in her world. That level of harmony between story and gameplay is a pretty rare treat in games of this complexity.
Developer: Nintendo EPD
Platforms: Switch, Wii U
|The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild|
|God, it’s exhausting to have to sit here and pretend I’m offering you some kind of novel explanation of why Breath of the Wild is good. At this point, I’m assuming you’ve either played Breath of the Wild or grown so sick of hearing people praise Breath of the Wild that you never want to see the words Breath of the Wild again. But it would appear that I don’t have a choice. I’m trapped with you, dear reader, in an endless cycle, like Link and Ganon, forced to go through the motions because fate demands it.
So here goes: Breath of the Wild manages to renew the sense of freedom and wonder into a series that had become stale and formulaic, if still routinely superb. Playing through the early hours is a journey of constant discovery as you poke and prod at the edges of what the game will let you do. That thrill diminishes somewhat once you understand the shape of the game and start to master its systems, but even those later hours offer a different sort of enjoyment. This is the most ambitious work Nintendo has done in years, and the risk pays off.
Developer: Nintendo EPD
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
|Super Mario Odyssey|
|Nintendo doesn’t really set out to make games with a message, so maybe it’s just a happy coincidence that Super Mario Odyssey has one. But there’s no denying that, in addition to being one of the most polished 3D platformers ever created, Odyssey manages to build out an experience around that core success that ends up saying something meaningful. On the surface, it’s a game about traveling to new places, immersing yourself in unfamiliar cultures, and then returning to them later as less of a stranger. Mechanically, it’s a game that forces you to see enemies as more than just obstacles to be avoided or defeated. Instead, they become alternate versions of yourself, new perspectives you can adopt, each with its own abilities and weaknesses.
Play, in video games as in elsewhere, is a kind of practice for the real world. It lets us try on new ways of seeing, thinking, and acting, in exaggerated form and free of consequence. Play teaches. Super Mario Odyssey doesn’t ditch the old forms of play, but it does add a new one: empathy. In 2017, a year when the world so often felt increasingly bleak, narrow, and cruel, you could do a lot worse than that.
| Most Replay Value
Resident Evil 7
|Resident Evil 7 offered a smart, successful reinvention of a flagging series, and in any other year it almost certainly would have made my top five. While it didn’t make the cut, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give it at least some accolades, given how much time I spent mastering every corner of the Baker estate. Of all the games I earned platinum trophies in this year, I don’t think I ever enjoyed the grind more than I did in Resident Evil 7. The different ways the game challenges you—and the smart way they mesh with its unlockable items—made for some truly memorable runs. Beating the game in under four hours? Or without using more than a handful of medkits? Or while barely opening the item box? It all sounds intimidating, but it’s very doable if you learn the game inside and out. Given how systemic many of the encounters are, there’s a surprising amount of variance between playthroughs. If you’ve only played Resident Evil 7 once, you haven’t really played it yet.|
|Dewritos Prize for Making Geoff Keighley Dead Inside
|I have no special hatred for Geoff Keighley. He’s fine. He’s like if milk were a person. But he’s high status, and he takes himself and his work a bit more seriously than maybe he should, and there’s no purer comedy than watching someone like that get forcefully dragged down into messy reality. It’s why if the Queen of England tripped and fell into a pigsty and a sow waddled over and sat on her, it would immediately become the most viewed YouTube video of all time. It’s also why the one perfect segment of this year’s Game Awards was when A Way Out director Josef Fares held Keighley hostage for, by my recollection, 45 minutes so he could deliver a profane, barely coherent rant. The façade of affable, patient host wavered. Underneath, we saw flickers of the real man. In glorious 4K, we saw regret, loathing, and the quiet acceptance that his precious show would once more be subjected to the gentle mockery of the internet masses. We saw the Queen wrestle a pig.|
|Medal of Dishonor
Call of Duty: WWII
|I listened, for the better part of a year, to developer Sledgehammer Games drone on and on about how a main priority in making Call of Duty: WWII was to honor the sacrifice real men and women made during World War II. The team, I heard, had spent three years meticulously researching every aspect of the game to ensure the experience would be as true to life and respectful as possible. Then I booted up the game and played through the first mission, saw a dude wrestling a Nazi, shot said Nazi, and got a notification onscreen that I had performed one of two “heroic actions” in the level. Truly, there is no better way to commemorate the Greatest Generation than to reduce their heroism to collectibles in a video game. I hear if you finish them all, the U.S. government will mail you a medal. Maybe next time Activision should skip the bullshit PR narrative and focus on its Call of Duty Endowment, which does actual good for veterans, instead.|
We’re taking a look at the best games of 2017 all week, from Christmas day through December 30th. Check back every day for our Top 25 Games of 2017, as well as our personal lists for the games we loved most this year. Check here for everything that’s been posted so far.