Game of the Year 2016

2016 was a good year for games, which is nice considering how shite it was for everything else. As a slight tweak to the formula I’ve picked five and only five games for my GOTY list this year and the order is important for once, but as per usual the list will only consist of games I’ve reviewed. With that in mind, I do also have two quick honourable mentions, one of which I didn’t review. Alright, now we understand each other, let’s do this thing.

Honourable mention #1: DOOM

DOOM was one I didn’t get around to reviewing, but can’t let escape the year un-praised. Immensely satisfying combat with just the right pace, weight and level of gore, an excellent soundtrack and a surprisingly good story and characters; DOOM is a first person shooting masterpiece. Everything about it works, the simple gameplay of moving, shooting and glory killing never gets tiresome and the new, deeper story elements Bethesda has layered on top of the original Doom’s base is genuinely engaging. As for the Doom marine himself; he’s The Doom Slayer now, and all of Hell quiver at the thought of him. I loved it to bits and I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Honourable mention #2: Dark Souls 3

I did review this one, where I made the controversial statement that this is the only good Dark Souls game. I’m still playing it now actually (third playthrough), but its various niggles kept it from the list, one of the worst being the Irithyll Jailers- enemies that cause your health bar to shrink by looking at you, run over and stun you then grind you into the dirt, to death. Ahem. Anyway to move back to positives it takes its cues from Bloodborne in that it’s faster, fairer and generally more engaging. Characters are more interesting and generally easier to find, fast travelling from the start and a central hub to return to frequently allows the player a sense of comforting familiarity rather than just being constantly beaten over the head and abandoned in the wilderness. Plus parts of it are legitimately amazing in terms of level design, lore and boss. The stand outs for me are Irithyll and Sulyvahn, The Cathedral of the Deep, the Twin Princes, The Untended Graves and Champion Gundyr and the Kiln of The First Flame and the Soul of Cinder.

Right then, on to the list proper, in reverse order.

5. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure Eyes of Heaven

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I had expected this to place higher, until I played it. As a JoJo adaptation it’s impeccable, as was previous title All Star Battle, but as an actual game it has real problems. The new 3-D 2v2 brawler style of play makes things a tad messy, and fights can go on for a long time depending on who’s involved. Stand users without combat focused stands have more room to manoeuvre and are generally more viable but combat focused characters still have the advantage. Also the game’s original story is like bad Jotaro fan fiction with a new stand that’s ridiculously OP and is beaten by an almighty arse pull, and it feels artificially lengthened at times. So why is it on the list then? Well it’s fun, the unlock system for costumes and such is vastly improved, and if you’re a JoJo fan, which I most assuredly am, it’s so faithful that a lot of its issues melt away when playing it.

4. Deus Ex Mankind Divided

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Mankind Divided was an improvement on the already solid Human Revolution in every way. It managed to make cardboard cut-out professional dickhead Adam Jensen into a more nuanced, likeable character, its version of the future was more well-realised than HR, even if its impact was slightly reduced by putting you in the shoes of a literal killing machine. The story had real stand-outs that were all linked to characters: the train station attack and how it affects Adam, infiltrating the apartment building occupied by a machine cult, obtaining a pass for one civilian in dire need of it, literally everything that happens during your infiltration of the massive Augs-only slum city. The gameplay was uniformly good- stealth, combat and social interactions all intermingling which, when combined with the upgrades on offer made it feel like you worked out a plan for each mission yourself, and did it your way, but every other way was just as viable. Also, you’re basically a Cyborg detective.

3. HITMAN

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It might seem surprising that this isn’t higher on the list, or indeed my game of the year. Back when Sapienza came out I full expected this to be my number one; its core gameplay is the best the series has ever been, the challenges are wonderfully done and tied directly into rewards that are all useful and actually pertinent to the game at large, and the story, while not brilliant, was fine, and wisely relegated to between mission cutscenes instead of taking centre stage like in Absolution. My main problems with it were a lack of meaningful consequences and a score attack, number-based rating system, and the levels are of frustratingly inconsistent quality. France and Thailand are good, Italy is great, Morocco and Japan are alright and America is bloody awful. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an excellent game overall and I enjoyed my time with it, but we’re still not back to the former glory of  Blood Money. Still, it’s a massive, triumphant step in the right direction and absolutely deserving of a place on this list.

2. Mother Russia Bleeds

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A recently released (on Ps4 anyway) and reviewed, but anticipated game on my part, Mother Russia Bleeds is the grimiest, probably most violent game I’ve ever played and I loved every second of it. A side scrolling beat ’em up about four Roma pumping themselves full of Krokodil cut with the super soldier serum from Captain America and battering their way through an alternate history version of 80s USSR where the Mafiya control everything and literally everything is awful. The gameplay is simple but immensely satisfying, the soundtrack is fantastic, the graphics are lovingly re-created retro and it stays a crazy, over-the-top, nightmarish slog of punching, hallucinations, vomiting, and acting like a cocky arsehole from start to brutal finish. At one point you’re trapped in an arena and fight a bear that’s wearing a metal mask with what looks like a mohawk on it. That’s not even the most outlandish thing that happens. I love this game so much.

1. Mafia 3

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Mafia 3 is my game of the year. I was looking forward to it since it was first announced, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. I love Lincoln Clay. I love playing as Lincoln Clay; I love tearing around 60s New Orleans listening to the frankly vast amount of great licensed music, murdering racists and criminals by the truck load like a politically motivated, Black version of The Punisher. Its core gameplay of clearing out dudes with stealth and/or combat and destroying their criminal operations to move your way up the ladder to get at the Kingpins who run New Bordeuax, Louisiana never really  changes but never ceased to be entertaining and engaging. Its story of family, loyalty and one man slowly walking down a path he may never come back from but is walking for the right reasons is a good one, and peppered with interesting characters. It’s all wrapped up in a smart framing device, and with its USP of dividing territory between three underbosses offering different incentives, a well-realised setting and the aforementioned terrific soundtrack of both licensed and original music its clear to me that Mafia 3 is the best game I’ve played in 2016.

So then, that’s 2016 over and done with, and for the first time in three years I’ve actually got this list done on time. 2016 was a good year with a lot of contenders for this list, so consider the five that made it very good indeed. Anyway, first proper review of 2017 will be Resident Evil 7, but before that is a “thoughts on…” piece coming tomorrow. See you then.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

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Batman The Telltale Series Review

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(Note that the video I mentioned back in my review of episode 1 may well still happen, but for now I’m doing a written review)

Telltale have been on a steady decline since The Wolf Among Us. None of the games they’ve released since that have been bad, per se, but Walking Dead Season 2 couldn’t hope to rival its amazing predecessor, Game of Thrones was a story that, while interesting couldn’t really affect much at all in the wider canon and Tales from the Borderlands would have worked just as well as a miniseries on Netflix. Batman could have potentially fallen into those same traps; low interactivity so there’s less chance of the player messing up his whole flawless, inhuman mystique and not being able to rock the boat too much in an existing, well-documented canon. To top it off playing as Batman is likely to mean a whole lot of QTE fistfights. Fortunately, the game manages to avoid those pitfalls and is the best thing Telltale has done since TWAU.

The story Telltale has written is, for the most part, strong, and goes to some genuinely interesting places. It starts with the classic “Young Batman vs The Mob” arc involving old hand Carmine Falcone and Harvey Dent running for mayor and moves on to a scandal involving Thomas Wayne potentially being shady and generally awful and a new villain closely tied to Arkham Asylum, but with an actual deep connection rather than that flimsy shit they came up with for the Arkham Knight. It introduces other villains sparingly, focuses on developing Bruce Wayne and his relationships with other characters, and isn’t afraid to get really rather dark and brutal at times. It does unfortunately peter out towards the end, but it has enough strong character moments to keep it at least worth seeing through. The aforementioned focus on Bruce Wayne is the game’s strongest aspect: while Batman gets to do very basic crime scene investigations and lots and lots of beating the shit out of people Bruce Wayne has to navigate increasingly dire, tricky social situations; his friendship with Harvey and position as his campaign’s financier, the scandal involving his Father and his name being dragged through the mud, and repeated encounters with Selina Kyle are all situations where Telltale’s bread and butter of conversations and choices come into play, and are by far the most interesting parts of the game. Potential consequences pop up suddenly but in ways that make sense in the context of the story; for example things you’ve said to Harvey are all put in a different context when he stops taking his pills midway through the series and his dissociative identity disorder hits him hard. There is one weak link that stands out like a sore thumb however, and that’s The Penguin. Oswald Cobblepot is now a skinny, conventionally handsome young man in a greatcoat with military training and, crucially, Bruce Wayne’s childhood friend. He’s linked to the new villain and was affected by Thomas Wayne’s aforementioned shadiness, but it’s just an excuse for Bruce Wayne to have an antagonist and The Penguin himself is just irritating and has more of a Joker thing going on than anything. Also he’s cockney for some reason, and his accent is awful.

Gameplay wise the only USPs here are crime scene investigations and deciding whether to approach situations as Batman or Bruce, when you’re in a position to choose. The latter is a good addition that feeds into the whole idea of actually being Bruce Wayne. The former is a nice idea that has no real depth to it, but its inclusion adds a bit of variety to Batman’s scenes. Basically you find clues and connect them in pairs, and Batman recreates what happened with super duper hologram vision. The bulk of Batman’s sections involve beating the shit out of people with quick time events, and planning out the fastest and most efficient way to beat the shit out of people with quick time events, then doing so. The game does try to replicate the tactician and detective sides of Batman but they don’t add anything in a practical sense. The choices here are a tad less dramatic than other Telltale games because Batman doesn’t kill people (unless you’re defending Batman V Superman on the Internet) and by the very nature of the story he’ll come out on top in the end, but they’re still good, and again Bruce Wayne does have some genuinely tricky situations to navigate.

Overall Batman is good. The actual Batman scenes are mediocre but pick up when he isn’t just punching people, and the stuff with Bruce Wayne is fantastic. Certain characters are weak and the latter parts of the story are definitely weaker than its beginning, but it’s a good Batman story that understands the characters and does some new, interesting things whilst deftly handling classic elements. Best thing Telltale’s done since TWAU, definitely check it out.

by James Lambert

@jameslambert18

Mother Russia Bleeds Review

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Mother Russia Bleeds is the grimiest game I’ve ever played. Even in a world where both Kane and Lynches, both Condemneds and Manhunt exist, this is grimier. Released on PC back in September and finally snuck out yesterday on PS4 (I literally stumbled on it by accident while wondering what to play, having been wanting to play it since it was released) it’s a game about four Roma pit fighters who are kidnapped by the Bratva, pumped full of a drug that makes you super strong but destroys your body and decide the best thing to do is beat people to death until they get revenge. It’s a side-scrolling beat ’em up in the Final Fight/Streets of Rage tradition; one to four of the Roma protagonists (depending on whether you use bots and/or local co-op) move through a series of varied shitholes and otherwise grim locations kicking people’s heads in to a fantastic soundtrack. The combat system is simple but effective- light and heavy attacks, grabs and throws and a dodge, and weapons, some of which are guns. What makes it the grimiest game I’ve ever played is the house they build on that foundation: the only health item is Nekro-tainted blood (Nekro being the drug the characters are addicted to. It’s based on real-life Nightmare drug Krokodil which I don’t recommend looking up unless you’ve a strong disposition) sucked from the convulsing bodies of enemies and injected directly into your veins. Reviving downed bots/other players without a stock of Nekro will result in your character drawing their own blood, injecting it into their comrade then throwing up. The whole thing’s surprisingly violent; punches and kicks have a real impact, enemies show wounds as they take damage and because they’re all full of Nekro you can crouch over them and punch them in the face ten times and they can still get up with their face hanging off and come over for more. This is before the aforementioned twitching and convulsing as you draw their blood with a syringe you found lying next to you when you woke up in a dingy laboratory. There’s a lot of visceral, brutal instances of people being beaten to death. Interestingly this is juxtaposed with huge, over-the-top action set-pieces; a prison break, fighting on top of a train, a gay nightclub with a facade of people having a good time that hides back rooms full of murderers in pig masks. Hell, at one point you’re trapped in an arena and have to fight a Bear that’s been pumped full of Nekro and forced into a steel mask. The story itself is largely just there to keep the main characters moving from face to un-punched face, but there’s a character determined to get the Roma involved in a revolution to overthrow this universe’s government that’s in the pocket of the Bratva that ends up steering the plot. The focus on the characters’ struggle with Nekro and the way the drug is depicted with foreboding hallucinations of a giant beating heart, walls of flesh and an ominous skeleton creature is excellent, and it’s this aspect of the story that stands out.

The game maintains a consistent level of difficulty for the most part, though it spikes at certain moments. Bosses are all huge, unique enemies that take either a thorough beating or some sort of specific action, with the latter causing the most trouble. One early boss in particular that needs to be repeatedly knocked into an advancing carbine harvester that instantly downs you if you touch it gave me a fair bit of grief, and the final boss has four separate stages with no checkpoints, but at no point did it feel insurmountable or particularly unfair. I played through it with one A.I companion, which felt like just the right amount of support; I tried playing with the thee bots and it was a mess, where fights were visually confusing and although it was harder to be downed there was often not enough Nekro to go around. Bots are competent enough in general combat, but they waste Nekro and don’t know how to handle anything more complex than simple beatings, making them useless for certain bosses, though they can easily handle lackies. There are also certain short sections involving firearms that if not carefully approached will chew through your health in no time. One bit involving shotguns took me several tries. Thankfully though guns do just as much damage when you use them, and they don’t turn up that often.

Mother Russia Bleeds is horrible. It’s grimy, grim, dark and relentlessly violent, and I love it. I beat it in two sittings and loved every moment of it; the art style, the satisfying, visceral combat, the imagery, the soundtrack, it all comes together to make something truly excellent. Definitely give it a look, if you’ve got a taste for this sort of thing.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure Eyes of Heaven Review

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JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is the best. If you’ve watched/read any of it then you know that already. If not then I assure you, reader, that it is indeed the best. If you’re in the latter camp I’m sorry to say this game isn’t for you; much like previous game “All Star Battle” it’s a decent if not particularly deep fighting game that’s carried by its sheer dedication to its source material and pleasing fans. The gameplay isn’t good enough to make it worth playing if you’re not a fan of the series, at least I wouldn’t say so. Feel free to stay for the review, though massive spoilers for its story follow. If you’re a JoJo fan and want a spoiler free review: yeah it’s good. Unlocking stuff is much less stupid this time, the combat’s solid and it retains ASB’s psychotic attention to detail in its references.

So unlike ASB’s terribly lop-sided, text-based re-telling of the manga’s plot EOH tells an original story featuring all eight JoJos teaming up to take out an alternate universe version of DIO who has a new version of The World that’s the most broken, OP, everything-proof shield Stand in the entire series. Think Gold Experience Requiem, King Crimson or Made in Heaven are OP? Well they don’t have anything on ZA WARUDO OVER HEAVEN, which can literally do whatever the hell it wants, as the plot requires. Officially its power is “Overwriting Reality”, but in practice it basically means DIO can change literally anything about any aspect of the world, with the most prominent usage being turning characters from throughout the manga’s run into his slaves. But that’s not too big a problem, right? The manga’s had characters with seemingly unbeatable powers, the anime’s showcasing one at the time of writing, surely this isn’t that different? Well yes and no. Yes the actual stand isn’t too bad, what’s bad is the way the story deals with it. See unlike in (SPOILERS FOR THE MANGA) Part 6, where a character with the ability to speed up time does so to the point where the universe resets and all the main characters bar one die, because logically there is no escape or counter attack (SPOILERS END), here DIO’s powers are overcome by Jotaro Kujo (the part 3 version), who has “The same type of Stand” as The World Over Heaven. Now at first I took this to mean “short range power type” like Crazy Diamond and arguably Stone Free, but what it actually means is “Star Platinum can also overwrite reality, a power Jotaro will pull out of his arse during the final battle, like he did with Time Stop in Part 3” This is the culmination of a story so obsessed with making Jotaro look cool and useful it’s basically bad fan fiction; people throughout the story comment on how good Jotaro is, at one point Jonathan Joestar insists that Jotaro is the only one who can stop DIO at the point where as far as everyone knows Jotaro’s offensive capabilities extend to punching things quickly. This is despite the fact that Giorno Giovanna is also there, and has been shown to still have use of Gold Experience Requiem. You can choose what character you use for the most part but the game will often default you to Jotaro, and he does the bulk of the work in cutscenes, even when dealing with characters unknown and unrelated to him. It’s not even the wiser, older Jotaro from Part 4, it’s angry young man Jotaro. The actual bulk of the story mode is just as irritating; go to a location from each part of the manga, beat DIO slaves, collect parts of the Holy Corpse from Part 7. OH NO! DIO took them all! Go get them back. Okay, ready to fight him? OH NO HE MADE YOUR FRIENDS INTO SLAVES AGAIN! It’s mostly repetition and beatings, with hardly any time given to the absurd character moments that can and do arise from this situation. It does have its moments though, like when both versions of Yoshikage Kira turn up and complain that they just want to lead a quiet life together but they keep being bothered, or when Old Joseph gets a chance to prevent Caesar from running off alone to fight Wham. The story is a wasted opportunity really- the one time every JoJo gets together and most of them barely get to do anything except get into a few fights and stand around cheering on Jotaro while he does all the work and forms a new timeline where every non-villain survives.

Whereas ASB was a one-on-one 3-D fighter, EOH takes a more open, arena fighter approach. Every match besides a few in story mode are two-on-two, which has its own problems as well as benefits. On the plus side different character pairings offer unique dialogue and super moves, on the other hand re-creating fights with fewer than four people is impossible (the game has the rooftops in Cairo and the Colosseum as arenas but DIO and Diavolo have to have partners) and if one character is defeated the other one gets a storable health boost instead of their super move, which is suddenly locked off. Said moves often miss because of their weird hit boxes and the fact that they’re all activated by sprinting full pelt at your enemy. The A.I is woeful; both partners and enemies will often just stand around doing nothing for long stretches, and I’d often notice that my partner had full health while I was nearly dead, because I had run in and engaged both opponents by myself while my partner stayed behind to pose (probably). Also the lip synching is terrible- an audio clip starts playing, the characters flap their gums in a way that doesn’t even try to match the rhythm of the speech then they stop when the clip ends. It does have definite plus points though. While some attacks don’t translate to the less focused combat, the more open style of play means that characters with stands other than rapid-punching big dudes are actually viable options now, and the way they adapt, for example, the respective powers of Gold Experience Requiem, King Crimson and Heaven’s Door are excellent. Also costumes, colours, win poses and the like are now unlocked with money earned in-game and can be clearly viewed before buying them and before selecting them. No more having to wait around until maybe a boss turns up, then fighting them over and over again hoping to unlock the outfit you want (but obviously you don’t) then you can’t even see them before you select them, as it inexplicably was in ASB.

Eyes of Heaven is a mixed bag. If Jotaro is your favourite JoJo to the point where you’re happy to see every other character besides the villains hype him up and rely on him to solve their problems like Alice in the Resident Evil films, then you’ll get a lot more out of the story than I did. The more open, less focused (not in a bad way) fights mean more of the large roster of characters are viable options and if you’re a JoJo fan then there’s more than enough here to enjoy, to the point where I can and do recommend it. If you’re not a fan, this won’t convert you, and personally I wouldn’t bother with it, but if you are, give it a look.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18