Rhys Elliott’s game of the year – best of 2017

2017: what a momentous year for gaming. From tired franchises given a new breath of life to Nintendo’s long-overdue renaissance, it’s been one hell of a wild ride. So, without further ado, here’s the 2017 releases that I enjoyed the most.

Honourable mentions

Stardew Valley (PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4)

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Ah, Stardew Valley. Where to begin. This one-man-developed farming sim took up well-over 100 hours of my gaming time this year, and I loved every damn second. The only reason it’s not on my main list is because it came out last year, but I just had to include it somewhere.

Stardew is the zenith of zen. On paper, it sounds like one hell of a snore-fest. The game opens to your character – sick of his/her nine-to-five office job – inheriting their grandfather’s farm. The premise is to build up the ailing farm into a thriving horticultural haven. It’s basically all the best parts of Animal Crossing fused with Harvest Moon’s play style – with some extra charisma, humour and wit thrown in for good measure.

Sure, the tasks are seemingly menial: tending to your crops, talking to fellow townsfolk and smashing rocks in the dungeon with your trusty pick axe. But the game’s music, serene setting and nostalgia-inducing 16-bit visuals ensure that even its dullest moments pop with vibrancy and charm. Even though I’ve already played for 130 hours, I still boot up the game from time to time to get lost in its calmness. Stardew Valley is my go-to stress reliever; no mater what’s going on in my life, I can always return to Stardew and just chill out. It’s the ultimate form of escapism. And I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s next for developer Eric Barone.

Destiny 2 (PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4)

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This one is more of a dishonourable mention than an honourable one, but still I enjoyed my time with the game, so here it is, represented on Dragon Gaming’s GOTY article. The first Destiny had massive potential, but due to its absent story, bizarre design choices and blatant lack of content, it just didn’t live up to its initial promise.

Enter Destiny 2. The game is bigger, better and denser than the first game – complete with more-interesting characters, an actual story and better navigation between worlds. On top of that, the top-notch gun play, graphics and feeling of togetherness from the first game are still intact – better, even.

But here’s the kicker: Bungie and Activision have become greedy, complacent and entitled. The recently released expansion, Curse of Osiris, removed pre-existing content for the game – unless you forked over 20 quid for the expansion that is. The company recently went back on this disgusting decision, but their intentions have been made abundantly clear. On top of this, descriptions in Bungie’s recent job postings put an emphasis on exploitative monetisation models (lootboxes and the like). This is a no-go for me. We are the community, we built this series up to what it is today – we do not deserve to be exploited. I hear you loud and clear, Activision and Bungie, and you can piss right off.

Assassin’s Creed Origins (PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4)

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I was something of a lapsed Assassin’s Creed fan before I played Origins. I was there since the very beginning and bought every instalment of the franchise – up until the buggy clusterfuck that was 2014’s Unity. It put me off so much that I didn’t even consider picking up the next game, 2015’s Syndicate. The unrelenting yearly releases were turning Assassin’s Creed – once one of gaming’s flagship franchises – into a tired, infamously buggy joke. The one-year development cycle clearly wasn’t working, and Ubisoft caught on to this and decided to opt for a longer two-year cycle.

The first resulting game is Assassin’s Creed Origins. It’s a breath of fresh air for the franchise, swapping out the weary combat system of old with a newer, Dark Souls-inspired system. That’s not all that’s changed, though – the done-to-death progression system has been swapped with a level- and gear-based one. It can get a little grindy at times, but the skill tree adds a whole new layer of pacing and accomplishment to the game.

The things that made Assassin’s Creed so great to begin with are all still here: the spectacular vistas, well-thought-out story and living, breathing locales are as impressive as ever. And the Ptolemaic Egyptian setting is one of the most interesting yet – especially the interplay between the Roman and Egyptian characters, which my inner historian couldn’t get enough of. In true Assassin’s Creed fashion, the game overstays its welcome and gets too repetitive at around the hallway mark. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Origins and eagerly await playing the next game in two years’ time.

The list

5. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4)

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Who said single-player shooters were dead? Well, EA for one, who recently axed beloved single-player developer Visceral Games – as well as the promising Star Wars single-player shooter the team were working on. But Bethesda are a different breed, as proven by the most recent Wolfenstein games and last year’s Doom, which was my biggest surprise of last year; in fact, it was my favourite of the entire year.

Wolfenstein II does away with tacked-on multiplayer modes and delivers a blistering wild ride of Nazi-killin’ chaos. If you attempt to play Wolfenstein like a typical modern shooter – cover, pop, shoot, cover, pop, shoot – you’ll die pretty damn quickly. The game consciously rewards players for always being on the move, mowing down hordes of Nazis in their wake and rushing to take down high-priority commanders (this stops enemies respawning, allowing the player to progress.) As with last year’s Doom, this speedy action – coupled with some truly satisfying weapons and non-rechargeable health – helped set Wolfenstein apart from the jaded AAA pack. It’s damn refreshing.

But it’s not just the top-notch gameplay that secured Wolfenstein II a place on this list. For me, the game’s story, gusto and pure thematic madness are its best qualities. I was caught off guard by some of the themes and issues tackled in the game. It really delivers on its setting in a Nazi-occupied future: racism, sexism, disability, domestic violence and even fat shaming are all touched upon in ways I’ve never seen in the medium. Sure, it’s a little on the nose and gratuitous from time to time, but that’s the beauty of it. Its sometimes in-your-face, sometimes nuanced, sometimes savage approach to these issues gave me Tarantino vibes throughout. Inglorious Bastards, anyone?

And some of the game’s moments are hands-down the most shocking I’ve ever seen in a video game – especially in the main character’s back-story flashbacks. The representation of Nazi-occupied America was also particularly hard hitting. Given what’s going on over there at the moment, this what-if scenario might have actually come to fruition – particularly in the South. What’s more, the game’s ‘heroes’ – a ragtag gang of Nazi haters – consist of nationalist jarheads, good-to-do communists and other groups that don’t typically gel well together. The interplay between these characters is simply amazing; Twitter political arguments sprung to mind on occasion. But despite their disagreements, Wolfenstein’s heroes put their differences aside for a common goal: to fuck up some Nazis.

4. Horizon Zero Dawn (PlayStation 4)

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Amsterdam-based Guerrilla Games have a long, strong relationship with PlayStation. The Killzone series, despite its flaws, was once one of the platform’s key exclusives. The developer’s first foray into the world of PS4 – launch title Killzone Shadow Fall – looked gorgeous and showed off what the console was capable of visually, but the game lacked heart. There was nothing to Shadow Fall; it was just another uninteresting FPS, which led many – myself included – to feel that the developer would never bounce back.

Then details about their brand-new IP, Horizon: Zero Dawn, began trickling through. Guerrilla abandoned their tried-and-true first-person-shooter formula for an expansive open-world action RPG. Thank fuckin’ God for that. When Horizon hit shelves, its fluid RPG action, memorable setting and massive open world had critics and gamers raving about the game for weeks, and the recently released DLC added a whole new location to the game’s stunning world. The DLC also put the game back into the minds of gamers – just in time for game-of-the-year lists. I see what you did there, Guerrilla.

One of Horizon’s stand-out features is its unique story. The game has players traversing a post-post-apocalyptic world – that’s not a typo, it takes place one-thousand years after a cataclysmic disaster, in a time where humans are living in tribes at the bottom of the food chain. Oh, and the world’s been taken over by vicious animal-like machines. It’s uncharted territory for video games, and it’s refreshing. I particularly enjoyed the game’s collectable Ancient Vessels. One of them is a 21st-century cup – a bloody cup. Its description reads “a cracked and battered vessel once dear to the Old Ones.” Hilarious stuff.

I treasured my time with Horizon. Although the game doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to the table in terms of gameplay, everything it borrows from other games – its combat, exploration and quest structure – is executed flawlessly in one neat action-RPG package. The level of TLC that the team put into Horizon still sticks with me. Its picturesque panoramas, killer voice acting, incredible weather effects all come together nicely. I honestly think Horizon has the best presentation of any game I’ve ever played. If you have a PlayStation 4 Pro and TV that supports HDR, Horizon is a must have. I still boot it up from time to time to marvel at its neon-infused post-apocalyptic beauty.

As I mentioned, the game was developed in Amsterdam. I noticed a few cool Dutch influences in the game, which was another nice touch for this Welshie living in Holland. I know, I know: subjective right? Well, this is my bloody list.

3. Persona 5 (PlayStation 4)

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I love JRPGs; hell, Chrono Trigger is my all-time favourite game, so it should come as no surprise that this game made it on this list. Persona 5 ticks all the right JRPG boxes: engaging characters, locations oozing with personality, a robust turn-based battle system and a well-paced, interesting story.

Persona 5 has players taking on the role of a teenager who’s just moved to a new school in Tokyo due to his troubled past. By day, your character dabbles in standard teen activities: going to class, hanging out with friends and making some extra cash in his part-time job. But there’s always something insidious going on in the background with one of the game’s predatory and exploitative adults. By night, you and your party raid the minds of these immoral grown-ups in the game’s dungeons, palaces. Each palace features its own unique enemies, puzzles and aesthetic style – all a representation of the given adult’s fucked-up crime.

Persona 5 in a word? Stylish. From the game’s jazz- and funk-influenced soundtrack to the way the menus fluidly snap onto the screen, every aspect of this game is refined, voguish and fully realised. Lively colours pop off the screen, its mammoth 100-hour story never gets stale and every area’s vibrant music suits it to a T. And I must have heard it a thousand times by now, but that post-battle theme music never gets old.

Persona 5 is easily the best JRPG of the last decade. And that includes the extraordinary Ni No Kuni. That says a lot, as Ni No Kuni is one of my favourite RPGs and even features a Swansea accent. But yeah, Persona 5 is even better. Nicely done, Atlus.

2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch, Wii U)

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2017 has been an extraordinary year for Nintendo. After the failure of the Wii U – caused by uncertain marketing, third-party defectors and a confusing name – Nintendo really needed to get back on course. And thanks to the Switch‘s stellar sales, the company has done just that – then some. Due to the console’s slow, steady stream of first-party heavy hitters throughout the year, and – of course – the fact that it makes console-level gaming on the go a possibility, it’s hit a home run with critics, fans and the popular media.

Breath of the Wild was originally slated for release on the Wii U back in 2015. However, it was delayed twice and wounded up getting released in March 2017. As many predicted, the game ‘did a Twilight Princess’ and was released for both the Wii U and the Switch on the Switch’s launch day (Twilight Princess was released for the Gamecube and the then-new Wii back in 2007). I’m happy this was the case with Breath of the Wild, as the game’s Shrines (which are essentially bite-sized temples) lend themselves nicely to a portable platform. It’s so easy to pick the game up for 10 minutes, complete a Shrine, then pick up where you left off later.

With Breath of the Wild, like the 3DS’ A Link Between Worlds before it, Nintendo chucked out the old Zelda formula. Now, a lot of developers would have gone the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it route, but Nintendo was in trouble and knew it needed to do something different. So – in a very unNintendo move – they looked to a place they rarely looked in the past: the West. Drawing inspiration from the success of games such as Skyrim, the game’s producer – Aonuma – paved the way for a sprawling open-world Zelda game where the sky was the limit.

The results speak from themselves. Breath of the Wild is the biggest rendition of Hyrule yet – packed full of interesting quests to complete, colourful characters to interact with and various massive provinces to explore. The exploration is the best in any open-world game I’ve played – bar none. You can pretty much climb everything and go anywhere from the get go; every path leads somewhere meaningful, you can go to every peak or tower on the horizon, and almost every mountain’s nook and cranny has something neat to collect or see. It makes a joke of Ubisoft’s and even Rockstar’s open worlds. There’s no filler in Breath of the Wild, and there’s certainly no copy-and-pasted side quests you’ve done a thousand times before. Sure, the game has map-filling towers, but its done in a such a way that subverts the tropes of other open-world games.

What really sets Zelda apart, though, is how its various systems collide to create a sandbox in which basically anything is possible. The game has so many what-if moments that would lead to disappointment in other open-world games, but not in Breath of the Wild. Want to give a static box enough momentum to blast an enemy 30 feet into a pit of lava? You can do it. Want to attach some balloon-like enemies to a raft and sail into the skies? You can do it. Want to do a Legolas-style shield slide down a mountain while picking off enemies with your bow? You guessed it: you can do that, too.
The game’s pure inventiveness and willingness to take risks is the embodiment of Nintendo’s renaissance of 2017. Speaking of which…

1. Super Mario Odyssey (Switch)

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If you’d have told me that Zelda wasn’t going to be my game of the year back in the summer, I’d have told you to piss off. Naively, I thought nothing could top the pure gaming goodness that was Breath of the Wild. I was wrong.

Don’t get me wrong: I was damn excited for Odyssey; after all, it was my most anticipated 3D platformer of 2017. Yet, given the tepid, disappointing Mario games that were released after the Wii‘s phenomenal pair of Galaxy games, 3D Land on the 3DS and the 3D World on the Wii U, I was a little worried.

Turns out that I had nothing to worry about: Odyssey – for me – is the best Mario 3D platformer and therefore the best platformer of all time. In a traditional sense, the game does away with classic Mario powerups such as the Fire Flower and Tanooki Suit, and replaces them with a new sidekick, Cappie. Cappie – a living, breathing cap that is worn by the plump plumber himself – can be thrown at enemies, allowing Mario to temporarily  ‘possess’ them, which gives him their unique set of powers. Many of these powers are so fleshed out that they could star in their very own game, but not in Odyssey. They just make up one aspect of this masterpiece.

Much like previous Mario platformers, Odyssey has players gathering collectables – Moons this time – to progress. Whereas previous games had around 100-200 of these collectables, Odyssey has over 800 Moons across its 17 levels (Kingdoms). It’s insane, and at the beginning nearly everything can net you a shiny new moon, from completing a skipping-rope challenge to groundpounding a shiny spot on a hill. Of course, these moons get much peskier and tougher to pick up towards the end of the game, which brings back memories of Mario 64 and Sunshine. And the levels are so varied, each one boasting a unique setting and a host of enemies to possess; of course, the quintessential snow, forest and water levels are all here, but there are more than a few surprises for weathered 3D-platforming aficionados, including New Donk City in the Metro Kingdom, which features a nostalgia explosion that almost brought me to tears of happiness (almost, I said!)

It’s difficult to pin down exactly what makes Odyssey so astounding. That’s because its greatness can’t be attributed to just one single mechanic or feature  – everything just comes together. Zelda’s brilliant design choices are echoed and are improved upon in Odyssey. Every single aspect of the game’s 17 Kingdoms is there for a reason. You might be following a kingdom’s obvious path, only to see a moon or platform in the distance that you simply need to check out. Sweet, you got a moon. But there’s something shiny lurking in the distance. Better check that out, too. Nice! Got another moon, but what’s that over there?  This loop can go on for hours and hours in Odyssey, as you get lost in its masterful design. There’s no bullshit, no filler, no dull moments – just a meaningful, joyous ride from start to finish.

The game is teeming with nostalgic callbacks that’ll put a smile on the face of any Nintendo kid from the ‘80s and ‘90s. The game’s unlockable costumes were a particular highlight for me. And guess what? They’re all bought with in-game currency. That’s right, no microtransactions and no fucking lootboxes. You pay the price of admission and enjoy hours of quality content out of the box – no strings attached. Nintendo truly cares about its fanbase. Unlike many other publishers and even developers in the industry, good ol’ Ninty are not willing to undercut its customers to make a quick buck. They’re clearly doing something right: the Switch has sold a whopping 10 million units already with no signs of slowing down, and its two best games topped my game-of-the-year list. Welcome back, Nintendo.

Do you agree with my choices? Did I miss anything? Am I an uninformed idiot who doesn’t know Pac-Man from Mega Man? Let me know on Twitter: @DragonGamingDG

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