HeadStuff Picks | Game of the Year

This year has been one of the best for games in recent memory. Everything else in the real world sucked which made getting lost in pixelated ones all the more appealing. Games this year plumbed the depths of our nightmares and the highs of our hopes. They examined death, sex, drugs and violence with greater awareness and care than ever before. From DLC the size of regular games to games from previous years that kept on evolving to epic space fantasy; games let us escape, let us dream and let us learn. Here are the HeadStuff gaming contributors picks for game of the year.

XCOM 2: War of the Chosen.

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Some might consider this choice a bit of a cheat, given that XCOM 2 came out in 2016 and War of the Chosen is an expansion pack. However, War of the Chosen is far more than the bog-standard DLC we’re used to in modern gaming. A true expansion pack, War of the Chosen takes XCOM 2, an already excellent strategy game, and adds mountains of more excellent content to the game, enough to have an outright transformative effect on the original.

Originally, War of the Chosen was intended to be XCOM 3, and it shows in the variety of new features that completely transform the original game. Beyond the addition of new enemies, maps and graphical updates, War of the Chosen also introduces new hero classes that managed to be effective without overshadowing the original classes, as well as the Chosen, recurring and evolving boss enemies which, in conjunction with random special environmental conditions bring an element of unpredictability to otherwise standard missions. Further, the game introduces an entirely new enemy faction in the Lost, mutated zombies that attack both XCOM and the aliens alike.

If all these changes to the main game weren’t enough, War of the Chosen also adds a new challenge mode, along with Advanced Options that can increase the health of both XCOM agents and aliens, or making the Dark Events of the previous iteration more threatening, both of which add even more replayability to the game.

A breath of fresh air in an industry where downloadable content is a term oft associated with corporate money-grubbing and disappointment, XCOM 2: War of the Chosen not only adds novel and entertaining content to an existing game, but in fact completely transforms said game, having more in common with certain ‘full-conversion’ fan-mods than a typical expansion pack. Anyone who enjoyed the original XCOM 2 would easily find that War of the Chosen brings new life to a year old game while also introducing enough new content to justify it as an standalone game of the year. Conor Rennick. 

Destiny 2.

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Destiny 2 was definitely a much needed opportunity for Bungie to work on the mistakes of its less than lauded predecessor, which it did with tremendous success.  While it sticks to its very stable structure of being a technically watertight shooter and deliciously satisfying loot grind, the slight tweaks and turns to the system and countless activities make it not only a marked improvement on the original, but a knockout game of the year.

Launching into our known solar system can be a bit of an overload for any of Earth’s last defenders, but the lack of direction in Destiny gave no support in this great vastness but now players are offered a tether in the form of Destiny 2’s main story. Although relatively short (roughly 10 hours), it effortlessly acclimatises you to everything this game has to offer; gradually introducing you to strikes, patrols and lore-expanding side quests while never having to subject you to excruciating tutorials. Many would argue that the storyline gives you nothing special (big evil steals source of power and you’re that special one to stop him), it plays off atmosphere, detail and grandiose set pieces as opposed to plot. Its very much aware of the fact that it is a precursor to the main game, it shouldn’t have to rely on plot to drive it forward, only to contextualise the shooting and scenery. And lets not forget that too, it is a truly beautiful game of the year. Bungie have taken so many lessons from their flagship Halo series: the guns sound beefy and the interstellar scenery is truly breathtaking. All guided along with a mournfully inspiring soundtrack that sweeps and swells with every heroic endeavour.

At its core, Destiny 2 is a game to be played with others. Whether it is in the chaos of the raids, clashing against one another in the glorious Crucible, or simply combing planets for sweet sweet loot, there is no greater thrill in this game than what is found in teamwork. Be it friend or stranger, the collective experience of Destiny 2 has restored my faith in the multiplayer gaming experience and I hope to sink many more hours into it in the hopes of enriching my newfound sense of… OK I lied. It’s all a lie, I’m only after loot. Delicious, bountiful loot. There is nothing I won’t do for loot. Eoin Carty.

Horizon: Zero Dawn.

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Managing the unthinkable, Horizon: Zero Dawn made the open-world “default Ubisoft” game – dare one utter the word – fun again. An interesting setup, unique visual design and an emphasis on well-paced and clever world-building made for an engaging narrative experience on its own but the real feat was gameplay that never got any less enjoyable even after forty hours. A large part of what made this a game of the year was a neat marriage of design and diegetic logic.

Fighting, often large, robots with a bow and arrow should by rights take several dozen attacks to fell even a small creature (to say nothing of the legitimately massive ones who could swat a house aside like a toy), and if you were to just sit there and chip away at them that’s exactly what would happen. However the game provides unique weak points to each machine type, an easy way to identify them and deeply satisfying audio-visual design for when you do land critical hits on such areas.

Add in a steep but not unreasonable difficulty curve and you have an experience that maintains a level of manageable yet rewarding challenge for far longer than most games with a levelling system do. We’ll not veer into spoiler territory but this game of the year was a refreshing take on the apocalypse and the eventual explanation for what was happening was as interesting and cleverly written as it was satisfying. Richard Drumm.

Hearthstone.

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Definitely an odd choice, considering Hearthstone was originally released in 2014. However, throughout its three major expansions this year, no other game has dominated my free time as much as Blizzard’s addictive and endlessly re-playable card game.

Whether scratching the itch for a long play session with an hour in the arena, spending 20 minutes watching gameplay videos or grabbing five minutes to catch up on community news, Hearthstone has been a consistent and constant source of fun in a year marked, for me personally, by adaptation and change.

However, I’m conflicted about the game’s inherent quality; it is inarguably and significantly flawed.  An aggressive and punishing money-and-time barrier makes Hearthstone alienating to new players, favouring older vanguards such as yours truly. The game’s simplicity, stemming from its co-existence on both mobile and PC platforms, lead to a design rooted in randomness, limiting strategic and competitive play.

However, the randomness is precisely what makes the game so damn engaging. From five minute blowouts to twenty minute showstoppers, no two matches are ever alike. Over time, an observant player can learn to master the game’s myriad mechanics through personal and shared community experiences. The feeling of trial-and-error, of slowly acquiring knowledge, invigorates you as you gradually learn how to stack the probabilities in your favour.

At its best, Hearthstone is an ever-shifting game of wizard poker, brought to life by vibrant art and sound design. At its worst, it’s a grueling time sink that is reigned over by pure randomness. Whilst not fitting into my criteria of a truly excellent game, Hearthstone’s utter dominance over my gaming time in 2017 would make it unrepresentative to name any other title as my game of the year. Niall O’Donoghue.

PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS.

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When it comes to multiplayer shooters panic is something I rarely associate with them. In the likes of Halo, Call of Duty and Battlefield control is always there. You, the player, are master of your own life and death. Being able to save your own skin is easy and the near-instant and infinite respawns these games offer allow for a relaxed feeling as you mercilessly point-and-click at your enemy hoping it’s them not you that dies in a spray of red. PUBG offers no such control and that’s what makes it my game of the year.

The game sticks to one core conceit: you are alone and everyone else is trying to kill you. You need to make sure that doesn’t happen. On an ever-shrinking map often dominated by people with lightning reflexes and the best gear the odds are stacked against you. Whether you’re dropped onto an empty Russian island or a vast desert the goal is always the same: run and hide and shoot anything that moves within five feet of you. Playing with friends is fun but it does lessen the tension of that echoing loneliness one feels when stuck in a house constantly aware of the wind, the pop of distant rifle fire and the empty space you will inevitably have to sprint across.

I’ve never won a game of PUBG. I’ve never even come close. The number of opposing players I’ve killed numbers less than ten but that sense of tension and grueling loot-and-hide style of gameplay is something I’ll remember this game for. PUBG is my game of the year because it reflected exactly what frantic games should be like. Wading through swamps, crawling across plains and kicking in doors in an effort to escape a hail of gunfire is something games have done for years but never has it been done this well. Andrew Carroll.

Sonic Mania.

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Retro revivals have been all the rage lately. This year has seen the return to the golden age of platformers with Yooka Laylee, A Hat in Time, The Crash Bandicoot N-Sane Trilogy and the recent announcement of Mega Man 11 proves they’re not going away anytime soon. One of the biggest standouts of these revivals was that of the classic Sonic the Hedgehog formula in Sonic Mania. One of the blue blurs most solid outings, not just since his heyday.

The return of the classic formula emulated almost one-to-one has been clamoured for by fans and blasting through these sensationally luscious levels feels as good as it did in the early 90s, with a varied soundtrack that really brings the house down.

The only low point is the lack of originality that’s been plaguing the series all too much this decade. Out of the twelve zones, only four are entirely new with others being recreations of old levels. While they do feel different enough for the most part and don’t take away from the experience, the game would’ve benefited greatly with a completely original selection of stages. The new ones are way too good to ignore and make you want more.

Sonic Mania was exactly what the series needed and boy did it deliver. It’s one of Sonic’s most ideal and top notch games in a long time. Daniel Troy.


 

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