As always, there’s a lot I didn’t play this year, mostly because of games from previous years. One in particular from a very previous year. Like, 2001. But that’s okay! Here on Tap we don’t let that kind of thing spoil a good list. A good wordy list.
Games of 2016
If you combined the campy superheroes of Freedom Force (one character even looks like Walter White dressed as a chicken), the manoeuvres of a great platformer (wall jumping, sliding, dashing, double jumping and grapple-hooking) and the slew of screw-you pickups and screen constrained multiplayer chaos of Micro Machines, then you should have a good idea of what SpeedRunners is all about.
It’s been showcased at gaming events for years now, usually attracting a large (and committed!) crowd so it was great to finally get to play the finished thing with friends. It’s been a long time since a game has had me giddily giggling and screaming this much as the multiplayer tension ratcheted up and up, but SpeedRunners manages it consistently and I love it.
This is largely down to players being eliminated if they fall behind and off the screen, and once one does, the screen starts getting progressively smaller for the remaining players. Even if you’re eliminated it’s still hugely entertaining watching the others hang on for bitter life. It’s a really clever dynamic because the leader, with their nose up against the screen edge, has to anticipate the geometry of the level and any hazards or obstacles in their path to keep their speed, and their lead. Conversely, the player at the back is, yeah, at the back and nearly out, but they also have some wiggle room in case the leader falls afoul.
What’s more is that as much as your success benefits from memorising the levels like any racing game, if you really want to mix things up you can dip into the curated and popular Steam Workshop levels. Here you’ll almost always be going in blind which makes for a chaotic scramble through some surprisingly creative and brilliant user-created content.
The catchy, groovy, jazzy and big brassy soundtrack by SonicPicnic is just the ticket too and guaranteed to put some zing in your swing. SpeedRunners is competitive multiplayer gold, local, online or both.
I expected Doom to be my first-person shooter of the year but then a titan fell on it at the last minute.
Quite frankly the whole thing snarls like a chainsaw. Mick Gordon’s industrial glitch techno metal works so perfectly that it’s grafted itself to my playing memory. Metal meet flesh. I can’t listen to BFG Division now without feeling the rush of rhythmically ripping and tearing my way through hordes of demons spilling into my discotheque death arena.
I also love that the ‘Doom Slayer’ is such an irreverent arsehole. At least at first. And while plenty is said about the gunfighting and glory killing, Doom scratched that Metroid Prime itch of poring over 3D maps and exploring vast levels to find secrets. The rune trials scattered throughout the game and the level and weapon mastery challenges were welcome diversions too.
Finally, I really need to express just how remarkable the engine is that powers Doom. Even on my GTX 970 I’ve come to expect minor performance and qualitative issues on most games, just because that’s what happens with games. Doom was different though. I maxed it out expecting some hiccup somewhere and there just… wasn’t. Not a dropped frame, screen tear or jaggy in sight, and let me tell you: Doom looks fantastic and gets really busy. I wish I’d discovered Nvidia Shadowplay earlier to record some of it.
If you haven’t read it already, then swing by Steerpike’s Hate Expectations for some more (hilarious) thoughts on Doom.
3) Titanfall 2
I miss the ill-fated HAWKEN and its high TTK team brawling and Siege mode; I miss Brink’s movement; and I miss Battlefield 2142 and all its sci-fi gadgets and gizmos. Titanfall 2 folds in a lot of these elements and I’m pleased to say that — unlike Battlefield 1, whose multiplayer was a miserable rinse-repeat cycle of dying and respawning thanks to stacked teams of vets stomping noob scrubs like me — it has not disappointed. Ho boy, has it not.
What’s great about that trailer is that it’s representative of the actual game. Yes, badass stuff like that happens all the time.
The real surprise in Titanfall 2 though is just how good the campaign is. It’s short, yes, but it’s pacy and varied, firing very cool levels, smart mechanics and spectacular set pieces at you on full auto until the credits roll. It reminded of Platinum’s games and of Bulletstorm (minus the dick jokes) with its irresistible confidence, flair and fizzy enthusiasm. I ultimately came for the multiplayer, and stayed for the multiplayer, but the campaign was a real treat that I’d like to zip through again.
Speaking of which, the multiplayer surprised me in a number of ways too. Firstly, the matchmaking works. Nearly every game I play is close. Like, actual ‘gg’ close. There are no visible player levels so nobody starts a game thinking ‘We’re doomed’, there’s no team-switching to fuck the matchmaking up, and spawn killing is practically non-existent. Take that Battlefield 1!
Secondly, there are no intermediate lobby or ready-up screens so you go from the main menu straight into the game proper, with each round usually lasting 10 minutes or so. Loading times are short too so sessions are super snappy — perfect for quick pick up and play bouts. Again, take that Battlefield 1! I mean, seriously.
Thirdly, there’s a half-time so teams switch sides. That’s how you balance asymmetrical maps and keep things fair!
Fourthly and finally, Titanfall 2 has a great mix of game modes, from your standard team deathmatch ‘Pilots vs. Pilots’ and an unexpected (but totally perfect for this given the game’s beautifully fluid movement) Capture the Flag, to a tense ‘Bounty Hunt’ mode and the Titanfall classic ‘Attrition’ which basically floods the map with dropships, drop pods, AI grunts, droids and mechs to create a less clusterfucky battlefield than Battlefield. One of my favourite modes is Last Titan Standing where everyone starts in their titan and gets one life. Cue lots of bunching up, careful feeling out of weaknesses and actual attempts at things like flanking, diversion and, yeah, teamwork.
Titanfall 2 is this year’s Splatoon for me and just a really slick, immediately enjoyable and solid all-round package.
2) Offworld Trading Company
Offworld Trading Company is now one of my favourite real-time strategy games, and it picks up right where M.U.L.E. left off way back in 1983, even making a few very sweet references along the way.
I’m an economics dunce and a total sloth at real-time strategy but Offworld Trading Company grabbed me by the cahonies right from the moment Christopher ‘Baba Yetu‘ Tin’s Red Planet Nocturne pattered out of my speakers to the words “Earth may be dying”. It’s a wonderfully evocative set-up and one perfectly scored by Tin.
Here’s a war game that’s fought on a different front: the Martian stock market. It’s Corporate Combat. There’s no diplomacy, and there are no weapons in the literal sense either; your weapon is cold hard capitalism and your trusty steed supply and demand. Ride it well.
It seems some people go into Offworld Trading Company expecting some sort of longform, perhaps story-driven campaign, that plays like a laid back empire builder. It isn’t like that. At all. This is a trading game and it’s cutthroat. Quick and sharp. Dog eat dog. “Screw with us, and we’ll screw with you.”
Single rounds can be over in as little as 15 minutes or drawn out towards an hour depending on how well (or badly) you play, but the game goes to great lengths to ease you in with a fine set of tutorials, a full fat tutorial skirmish, toggle-able auto-pausing when you’re doing certain tasks, speed settings, and it also comes bundled with a comprehensive and in-depth almanac. Oh, and the tooltips are superb.
There is a campaign mode but it’s not a linear single playthrough affair. It’s dynamic, replayable and meaty and as such something you can really sink your teeth into. Think Invisible Inc. or Infested Planet’s Planetary Campaign DLC (see below!) where each skirmish is linked together by a strategic layer, rich with tough but exciting decisions that may have far reaching ramifications as you progress.
The Daily Challenges too are worth a pop just to hone your real-time skills with no pausing and see how you fare against other players on the leaderboards. The competitive multiplayer is demanding but there’s also co-op against the AI which knows how to play and can be a formidable challenge in itself. My friend and I have yet to beat it on the recommended Manager difficulty!
If you like your strategy to be focused and deep then Offworld Trading Company might just be for you. It’s such a smart game and one I foresee myself coming back.
It had to be really. After dabbling with it at Rezzed in London, I was practically counting down the days till it launched, followed shortly by a rallying cry to my girlfriend and friend whom I played the entirety of the base game with. We’ve the DLC to play through next.
There are a few things that make Overcooked such a special local multiplayer game. Firstly, it’s a cooking game so there’s no abstract concepts for players to wrap their heads around. Mushroom soup needs mushrooms; beef burgers need beef, buns and salad; pizzas need dough, tomatoes and mozzarella; plates need cleaning; meals need taking out; fires need extinguishing (that’s when something overcooks). This makes the whole experience very accessible and readable which is great for a range of demographics and even better for spectating. Secondly, it’s adorable. I mean look at it:
And thirdly, it’s an honest-to-god co-op game and just a ton of fun with friends or family. Don’t be deceived by its cutesy shell though; this thing is hard boiled.
The basic gameplay loop goes like this: get ticket orders, collect the necessary ingredients, prepare them, cook them, put them together, then take the meals out. The quicker you get meals out, the more tips you get. If tickets time out or you serve the wrong meals you’ll lose money. The more money you get the more stars you’ll be awarded. Yes, it has that insipid star system that plagues mobile games that I’ve never been especially fond of, but here it works because the entire premise of the game is about getting more efficient as a team to ultimately thwart ‘The Beast’ or the ‘Ever Peckish’ one, introduced at the beginning.
The driving force behind Overcooked is the level design which constantly throws something new and disruptive at you, whether it’s a new recipe, an environmental hazard or some kitchen layout quirk. The thing is, when you’re playing with others you’ll share the excitement and terror of seeing the next level. You’ll share the stress and frustration as you fail. Often repeatedly. There will be shouting and cursing. But you’ll also share the joy of working like a machine together and utterly conquering it. That’s where the real magic is in Overcooked. It understands that, much like a real kitchen, real co-operation is tough and emotions will run high, but when three or four of you are in sync with each other it’s a thing of beauty.
I recommend Overcooked with at least three players and if you have four you can even take part in the riotous competitive mode where two teams of two can try to outcook or outscrew each other.
Oh, and this jaunty little number will haunt me and my fellow chefs till our frying day:
Infested Planet – Planetary Campaign DLC
How do you make one of the smartest real-time strategy games in recent years even smarter? In much the same vein as Offworld Trading Company and Invisible Inc. — hell, X-COM — you add a dynamic planetary campaign where top-level strategic decisions bleed down to the ground-level stuff. Instead of skirmishes playing out in isolation, here they become pages in an evolving story. Well played Rocket Bear.
For the first ten hours or so I was absolutely convinced that Darkest Dungeon would be my game of the year, such is the strength of its first impression. For the next ten I started to have my doubts as I continued to do the same things over and over again, thinking any minute there’d be something new around the corner. For the final ten I realised that, aside from the odd boss battle to break up the monotony, all I was doing was grinding to make numbers go up until I could arbitrarily access new areas just to do the same until I eventually reach the Darkest Dungeon. If I faltered and lost a character (or four) then I’d have to hire replacements and build them all up again. 34 hours in and I hadn’t really scratched the surface. Funnily enough, according to the developers, ‘the average owner has played 27 hours of Darkest Dungeon.’
Since then updates have brought town events to mix things up a little and an ‘antiquarian’ character class, designed to maximise your spoils and ultimately reduce the grind. Further, a ‘Radiant’ mode is planned to reduced the game’s length down from 80+ hours to around 40, which is great, but just… too late.
The unholy alliance of Quake and Robotron with an impeccable sonic vocabulary to help you read, no — hear — the hurricane of hell writhing around you. It’s a twitchy score-chaser of the highest calibre and leaderboard replays are an inspired addition and a fantastic way to learn from your peers. I played against some of the folks over at Quarter to Three and was able to beat everyone apart from ‘Elvis’ who was way ahead of me. Ain’t no beating the king. I’m happy with my best score but… I’ve no real desire to try and beat it now to be honest.
What a year for first-person shooters though, eh?
The Flame in The Flood
I suck at Don’t Starve. Like, I don’t even know how I’m supposed to stave off insanity, let alone not starve. The Flame in The Flood is a less brutal survival game, generous with tips and guidance early on, arguably a prettier game and a lot more linear or directed. I mean, you’re travelling down a river caused by the flood so there’s only ever one way you can go. All this added up to make The Flame in The Flood a much more palatable and ultimately enjoyable experience, helped immensely by the atmosphere of the setting, Chuck Ragan’s melancholic but hopeful soundtrack, and the sublime art direction. Towards the end I was surviving comfortably and the surprises were starting to dry up unfortunately, but it just made it to the finish line in time to leave a good impression on me. Here’s looking forward to The Long Dark.
Non-games of 2016
If SOMA had been released in 2016 it would be my game of the year. As some folks around here know, back when I first started writing for Tap I reviewed Penumbra: Overture and Penumbra: Black Plague, Frictional’s first two games, and I really enjoyed them despite their relatively lukewarm reception. Overture and Black Plague have since taken on a somewhat cult following but it was Amnesia: The Dark Descent that was a critical and commercial success. You may have heard of it. Or was that the cries of scared YouTubers?
Now, I still haven’t played Amnesia, despite pre-ordering it, but what struck me with SOMA is just how far Frictional have come since Penumbra. There’s a confidence and sophistication about them now. From Overture to Black Plague they boldly ditched combat, and from Amnesia to SOMA they’ve dialled back the puzzling and got rid of inventory and resource management altogether. Even death, or getting ‘got’, a prickly issue in most horror games, is handled sensitively here. There’s no saving either which I’d usually object to but, again, Frictional know what they’re doing with the checkpointing, and quitting out won’t lose you progress.
All this is in service to the experience, one that doesn’t get bogged down with familiar busybody work, unnecessary combing of the environments for items or collectibles, worrying about remembering to save, or restarting and replaying the same sections over and over again. Alien: Isolation this is not. There’s a focus here that puts SOMA somewhere between Gone Home and System Shock in that it’s absolutely committed to the forward momentum of the (fantastic) story and specifically how you piece it together, but it’s fraught with terror and the unknown.
There were several moments in SOMA early on where I caught myself ‘exploring’ a toilet/bathroom or looting a locker and was like ‘Gregg, what the hell are you doing? There’s nothing here’. We talk about immersion in games but SOMA actually gets it more than most because it removes almost all the typical game-y nonsense that creates bad habits like this. You’ll poke around, sure, but only to get insight into your situation and find out what to do next. And even when you do, you’ll not want to hang around. There’s no min-maxing or gaming SOMA; you just get on with it, just as the main character would.
SOMA also retains the excellent physics I remember from the Penumbra games which make typically mundane interactions that bit more involving and tactile. I’ve missed it! Of particular note too is the exemplary sound design.
If you do decide to play SOMA, just play it. Don’t watch any trailers, don’t read anything else about it. The less you know, the better.
2) Fran Bow
Oh Fran Bow, how I love thee so. I’ve missed Fran Bow ever since my girlfriend and I completed it, and it’s yet another shining example of an adventure game done right, where solutions aren’t ridiculous and there’s plenty of signposting to keep you on the right track. There are a few niggles, mostly relating to the UI and the way the game delivers dialogue to you piecemeal so you have to do that thing where you keep interacting with something until the words start repeating. Bleurgh. But other than that though, this is a macabre, beautiful and twisted tale that’s part Alice in Wonderland and part Return to Oz.
3) Affordable Space Adventures
So… this was on my Games of 2015 list as an honourable mention, mostly because I’d only just started it and was incredibly excited by its potential. Similar to Life Is Strange, really. It’s included here in earnest now because, having completed it with my friends, it exceeded those early expectations and ended perfectly, unlike Life Is Strange. You can find out more about Affordable Space Adventures by checking out the Side by Side video I did with Joel Goodwin (there are more thoughts in the comments too!), but suffice to say it’s a real co-op gem on the Wii U and an experience that can’t really work on any other system, including the upcoming Nintendo Switch, so don’t expect any ports unfortunately.
4) Invisible Inc.
I’m not sure why Invisible Inc. didn’t click with me when I first started playing it in early 2016. It has everything that the turn-based nut in me loves and expects in a game like this — a dynamic campaign with procedurally generated levels, lots of really tough and interesting risk/reward decisions to make, an elegant and informative UI, slick visuals and a pulsing reactive soundtrack — but… I just wasn’t feeling it. Fast forward a good 10 months and I’ve finally fallen in love, I’m just struggling to find the time between everything else to really break the back on it.
Is Anachronox worth playing today? That’s the 100+ hour question.
This is the ‘very previous’ 2001 game I spent most of my time on this year. It was a hog and a half, let me tell you. Oh, and I forget that I ditched the incredibly boring Pillows of Eternity to play this.
There’s a movie of the game cut together by the game’s cinematic director, Jake Hughes, that I watched after finishing this, but it’s old now and very poor quality, which is a shame because thanks to his quite frankly amazing camera work and editing, the fantastic voice acting, Richard Gaubert’s effortlessly cool dialogue and the surprisingly good facial expressions (remember, this is a heavily modified Quake 2 engine), the whole thing holds together remarkably well without the interaction. My girlfriend seemed to buy into it anyway.
The movie is just over two hours long which is incredible value compared to the full fat game but… Tom Hall and co. put so much into the rest of the experience. Throughout Anachronox I felt like I was playing something like Firefly by way of Rick & Morty and Final Fantasy VII. I mean, shit, that’s a pretty incredible mix. You’ve got a ragtag group of wildly diverse and unique characters; an evocative world to explore that’s bursting at the seams with inventive ideas, bizarre personalities and lovely little details; an interesting plot that’s orbited by far more interesting subplots– you can feel the energy and passion coursing through it all.
Anachronox can also count itself alongside Planescape: Torment in that it’s one of the few RPGs where I wanted to talk to almost everyone, and enjoyed doing so. And y’know, as downright funny as Anachronox is, there’s tragedy and pathos here, not unlike Bojack Horseman which I was watching around the time I completed this.
Anachronox is not without its faults however, and I think given its age some of these are to be expected.
Firstly, there’s a lot of traipsing back and forth everywhere. I mitigated this by assigning the game’s debug ‘fast forward’ function to a mouse button which allowed me to clear greater distances and cycle transition animations much quicker.
Secondly, a lot of the game’s statuses, terms and systems aren’t very well explained. Nuts? Bouge? Winky? Beefiness? In fact, the last boss was a nightmare, purely because there was a fundamental aspect of the combat that I hadn’t understood for the entirety of the game, and not that it really mattered much leading up to that point either.
Thirdly, the combat is mostly just busybody work. The battles aren’t random, which is a saving grace, but there’s just not that much you need to understand or think about in order to progress until you hit two major difficulty spikes late in the game (the aforementioned last boss and a Final Fantasy VII Weapon-esque side-boss). The thing is, the combat itself has some depth and is occasionally gratifying despite the clunky UI and repetitive animations (hello fast forward button!), but it’s not explored enough to make it really worthwhile.
Anachronox is at its best when you’re exploring these alien spaces, chasing up leads, mixing with the locals, finding items or bits of information that may be of interest to characters you met hours ago on another planet. Wandering around on the planet of Anachronox and through the Sender Station Routubes and red light district often reminded me of Bernband because I just didn’t know what the game was going to throw at me next. And that’s awesome.
So is Anachronox worth playing today? It was for me. It’s a special game with so much heart, but it requires a lot of time and a degree of patience to get past its flaws.
Patience and a fast forward button.
Thanks for reading and I’d like to wish everyone a gentler year than last.
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