Youssef Maguid’s Top Eight Games of 2017
If you are reading this, then I’m sure you understand what a monumental year 2017 has been for videogames. The year was so packed with lengthy, engaging games that I wasn’t able to play nearly everything I would have liked and in the interest of fairness I think it is worth stating a few notable title that are likely to appear on many other lists that I simply did not have the time to play.
- Nier: Automata
- Persona 5
- Mario Odyssey
- Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
- Night In The Woods
This is not a condemnation of these games, rather it is a testament to the strength of the other games on this list. I fully intend to play some of these games in the coming weeks and months and hopefully I enjoy them as much as the games listed below.
One final caveat, by my estimation, I played 14 games this year. While I was asked to compile a list of my top ten of 2017, that arbitrary number would force me to include most of the games I played this year, some of which I don’t feel were particularly exceptional, at least not when put into the context of the other stellar experiences I had this year. As a result, here is a list of my top eight games of 2017.
In A League Of Their Own
The two games in this category are not only my top games of 2017, they are two of my favorite games of all time. Each provided me with that “I can’t believe I’m playing this,” feeling in one way or another and in my opinion stand as two examples of the greatest games of this generation.
Horizon: Zero Dawn
I was on board with Guerrilla’s post post-apocalypse title from the moment they announced. The world looked beautiful and mysterious, the combat looked thrilling, and the enemies were some of the most creative I’ve seen in recent memory. I loved the dichotomy between the tribal primitive humans and the hyper advanced robotic animals roaming the countryside.
My biggest concern pre-launch? The story. While I enjoyed the Killzone series, I did not find them to have particularly engrossing narratives. I half expected Horizon reviews to say something along the lines of “it’s great, but doesn’t have much of a story” and thank god I was wrong. Without spoiling it, Horizon beautifully interweaves two distinct yet fascinating stories. It is truly a testament to the writing, acting, and voiceover that I found myself as, if not more, invested in the past storyline as I was in the present one, despite the fact that the former is told entirely through holograms, audio logs, and text diaries. The story not only had me hooked, but my girlfriend as well, who near the end, made my promise not to play it without her just so she could find out what was going to happen next.
While the story may have been the most pleasant surprise for me, there was another, Aloy. Horizon’s protagonist—a red haired outcast of the Nora tribe—may very well be my favorite videogame protagonist of all time. Ashly Burch did a fantastic job of portraying Aloy, her lines and dialogue always felt believable, even when put in such an unbelievable setting. Aloy is brave beyond all measure, charmingly headstrong, and wonderfully curious. The game’s introduction does an excellent job of introducing you to her from childhood and driving home the feeling of being ostracized from a community through no fault of your own. Ultimately, I think this is why I connected so much with Aloy. She is shunned and hated for simply being who she is, an experience that, as a Muslim American, I have known all too well at times. Yet, Aloy’s societal constraints never stop her from achieving her dreams and becoming who she wants to be. There’s a point, late in the game, where Aloy returns to her tribe after learning a great deal about the world around her. While the player and Aloy have been along for the ride the entire time the return to the tribe spurs a “loss of innocence” moment by reintroducing you to authority figures and respected elders who now feel like children by comparison. The tribe that once belittled and shunned Aloy remained as ignorant and naive as when she left. It is a wonderful moment that helps illustrate just how far the player, and Aloy, has come since first setting out on their journey.
A good story and thoughtful protagonist mean nothing if the game is not fun. Thankfully, Horizon has some of the best gameplay of the year in my opinion. This is to say nothing of the jaw droppingly gorgeous setting Guerrilla has built, the fast-paced enjoyable combat, and the unique and varied enemies that require constantly evolving strategies to take down. I could go on and on about this game but there are still plenty more to discuss.
Assassin’s Creed Origins
Full disclosure, I worked at Ubisoft from the pre-announce period up through the launch of Assassin’s Creed Origins. I never worked on the title specifically, but I wanted to make that fact clear. My feelings on the game are in no way colored by my employment by Ubisoft.
Assassin’s Creed has been one of my favorite franchises of all time since the launch of the original over ten years ago. I am a history nerd with a Masters degree in Architecture, if ever there was a franchise tailor made for me, it was Assassin’s Creed. Pile onto that the fact that I am Egyptian and Assassin’s Creed Origins starts to look like the perfect game for me. I’ll admit that I pre-launch, I felt so much pressure to love this game that I was a little worried it wouldn’t live up to expectation but I can gladly say that it surpassed them entirely.
While I have expressed my passion for this game in multiple twitter threads, it is worth reiterating how and why this game is so special to me. Growing up as an Egyptian in America is a strange experience. We get used to being the only Egyptian in the room, we become fetishized and tokenized. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been asked my ethnicity only to be told of the one other Egyptian the person who asked knows. I’m used to being alone and underrepresented. That is why I cried when I first booted up Origins. One of the earliest cutscenes sees the protagonist Bayek speaking with a friend. What was likely a forgettable scene for most gamers left me in tears. I was playing a major AAA game with, not one, but two Egyptian men on screen at the same time, and one of them was even the hero! They weren’t the enemies that some generic white guys had to kill, they were good, genuine Egyptian men and seeing that for the first time in a videogame meant the world to me.
Bayek himself stands at the top of my game protagonist hierarchy along with Aloy. He is incredibly lovable. He is a passionate husband (his wife Aya is a fantastic character and perhaps the only person more badass than Bayek in the entire game), a loving father, a defender of the innocent, and an icon of all that is good in Egypt. I am often the only Egyptian many people know and as a result I sometimes (unfairly) feel that my behavior will represent all Egyptians in their eyes. While I do my best to represent my people in a kind fashion, I can say with complete confidence that I am proud that Bayek can help define the representation of Egyptians to the millions of gamers out there how have never met one.
Over at Waypoint, Amr Al-Aaser breaks down the way Egyptian culture has been orientalized in videogames like Overwatch, Mario Odyssey, Crash Bandicoot, and Cuphead. Assassin’s Creed Origins isn’t concerned with representing Ancient Egyptian stereotypes or conforming to a pre-defined notion of what Ancient Egypt was, rather it colors the world with a remarkably authentic brush. Credit Historian, Maxime Durand for instilling a great deal of authenticity into this world. While other games depict Egypt as a land with endless deserts and pyramids, Origins dares to show the truth: the lush wetlands of the Nile delta, the varied wildlife, the Hellenistic influence in cities like Alexandria and Cyrene, and the constant and imposing presence of Rome. Egypt—particularly at the end of the Ptolemaic Kingdom—was an incredibly multicultural region and Origins does an excellent job portraying that. It gets the details right, the things that 99.9% of gamers won’t notice, Origins takes the time and effort to get right and I love it endlessly for that.
Representation aside, the world of Origins is enormous and remarkably dense. There is always something of interest just close enough to entice you to keep exploring. The sheer number and variety of activities is truly astounding. As someone who has Platinumed the game (which requires clearing the entire map) I can confidently say that I never tired of wandering through Egypt. This of course was aided by the fact that the game is drop dead gorgeous. In my 70 hours of playtime I took over 250 photographs in Photo Mode as the environments—from the bustling city of Alexandria in the North to the barren Great Sand Sea to the South—are breathtaking.
Similar to Horizon, all this is for naught if Origins isn’t fun but the team at Ubisoft Montreal delivered on that front. The new combat system, complete with a varied of weapon types, creates must more tense, dynamic, and challenging fights while the introduction of archery proves so crucial that it made me wonder how I played an Assassin’s Creed game without it. Climbing is has also been reworked as Bayek is now capable of scaling just about any surface making traversal much more streamlined than in previous entries in the series.
While I put Assassin’s Creed Origins right up there with Horizon as my favorite game of the year and one of my favorite games of all time, I would have to place it in my 1B slot to Horizon’s 1A. The story in my opinion was lacking due mostly to an underdeveloped and underwhelming villain. There are some neat explanations for some of the franchises more iconic staples but the payoff at the end felt a little weak. But that doesn’t matter, because as with some many things, Origins is about the journey, after all, we already know the destination.
Best Of The Rest (In No Particular Order)
Mass Effect Andromeda
After putting 70+ hours in an beating the game, I found Mass Effect Andromeda to be by and large, more Mass Effect. I traveled from planet to planet, shot some aliens, banged some others, bonded with my crew, and saved a new galaxy from a new alien threat. Did it reach the heights of Mass Effect 2 or 3? No, but few games do. My female Ryder was an ass kicking, straight talking, badass who could take a joke, and tell a few herself. Playing as Ryder felt a bit more personal than playing as Shepard, I enjoyed molding her into what I wanted.
If there is one thing I can confidently say improved in Andromeda compared to previous games it is the combat. The introduction of a jetpack and the ability to switch powers at any time created the most fast-paced, exciting combat the series has ever seen. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Andromeda. It serves as a staunch reminder that the videogame community echo chamber can make or break a game solely on perception but that shouldn’t stop you from playing and enjoying a game for yourself. BioWare was a victim of its own success. In the context of what BioWare has produced with the Mass Effect franchise, Andromeda may have been a bit of a disappointment, but taken on its own merits its a fun and enjoyable romp through a new galaxy. I just hope it’s not the last time we get to visit this universe.
Dishonored: Death of The Outsider
There was a moment in Death of the Outsider where I wandered into a shop and was greeted but the seemingly nice shopkeeper. I wandered around her store only to find a locked door leading to her basement. Naturally, I pick her pocket, steal the key and head down stairs. I was immediately greeted by with an arrow to the chest from a boobietrap I hadn’t seen. Clearly this shopkeeper didn’t want unexpected visitors in her basement. As I enter the basement I find a man trapped in a cell yelling for help. The cell next to him is swarming with bloodflies, flesh eating parasites that plague the city of Karnaca. He tells me he’s been trapped down there for days and that the woman upstairs is planning on killing him. There’s a hatch connecting his cell to the bloodflies’ cell, all it takes is a turn of a nearby wheel to open the hatch and have the bloodflies devour him alive. I investigate further and find the diseased rotting corpses of other victims in the basement. The man promises to tell me where she hides her treasure if I let him out. So I do. And I steal the loot. But that’s not enough for me. I need vigilante justice. I head back upstairs, choke out the shopkeeper and bring her unconcious corpse downstairs and throw her in the previously occupied cell. I shut the door and crank the wheel and watch as her own bloodflies devour her alive. I then take her body and toss it in the nearby incinerator destroying all evidence. This was not a mission, or even a side mission that I was tasked with, this was just a random occurrence that I happened to stumble upon while en route to an objective but it perfectly embodies why I love the Dishonored franchise so much. Arkane Studios packs their games with so much substance that it is only matched by their distinct style.
Dishonored 1 and 2 were about betrayal, corruption, and vengeance. You played as either Royal Protector, Corvo Attano or Empress, Emily Kaldwin and sought to right the wrongs of political and hierarchical upheaval. By placing the player in the shoes of murderer and criminal Billie Lurk, and tasking you with killing a mystical being capable of granting superpowers, Death of the Outsider removes the last bit of morality and consciousness left in the franchise (before reinserting it right at the end) and encourages you to get your hands dirty. For the first time, I played a Dishonored game killing anyone and everyone that got in my way, and it felt good.
Middle Earth: Shadow of War
The original game, Shadow of Mordor, was the reason I finally bought a PS4. There’s nothing I can say about the nemesis system at this point that hasn’t already been said. It is a revelation that I’m shocked hasn’t been copied by other games. Tearing down a hierarchy of Urks was addicting in the first game, add in your own Urk army, massive fortress assaults, and turn everything else up to 11 and Shadow of War is one helluva game.
Ludonarrative dissonance aside, the story was a bit lacking for me and the end (at least the first end, I’ve yet to defend my fortress enough times to see the “true” ending) was rather disappointing. Yet, Shadow of War really isn’t about a formal story. It’s about the stories you craft along the way through the nemesis system. It’s about watching one of your captains infiltrate and betray their warchief, it’s about being betrayed by your own warchief, it’s about having your nemesis stalk you over and over again no matter how many times you’ve killed them. Shadow of War does such an excellent job of taking random Urks and making them more memorable than the final boss (I think it was the Witch King?) that I can easily forgive it for faltering when it comes to pre-scripted storytelling.
The last thing worth mentioning, is that out of all the games I played this year, Shadow of War may very well be the most fun. Just getting from place to place can be thrilling, while the hectic combat requires fast reflexes and varied tactics that punish button mashers. I find the addicting combat to be even better than the oft compared Arkham games’ combat and can’t wait to jump back in for more.
Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus
Let me just say right off that bat, Wolfenstein 2’s gameplay is exceedingly average. Its spot on this list is due to: 1. Letting you live out the fantasy of brutally murdering thousands of Nazis and Klansmen (which actually felt more satisfying) and 2. A very realistic imagining of White America’s complete and utter willingness to go along with the systematic disenfranchisement, oppression, and straight up murder of anyone that doesn’t look like it does. Wolfenstein 2’s alternate history feels more realistic each and everyday. As someone who has worked in videogame PR for a major publisher I cannot commend Bethesda enough for taking a stand against hatred and bigotry at a time when most are afraid to stand for what is right out of fear of alienating the ignorant and hateful masses that still contribute to our consumerist economy. I was sorry to see that game sell so poorly and can only hope that it does not cause Bethesda to waiver in their morals or shy away from brave and opinionated storytelling.
What Remains of Edith Finch
Giant Sparrow’s game about the Finch family makes it on my list because of the way it goes about telling its story. While Edith’s story didn’t really resonate with me the way something like Gone Home did, I have to applaud What Remains of Edith Finch for its storytelling techniques. As you wander around the Finch estate you find various notes and pieces of ephemera that pull you into the experience of one of your relatives. These mini character vignettes give you a first person perspective on the life and events of various members of the Finch family as Edith fills in her family tree. What makes them so interesting is the way in which they change the gameplay and presentation. One vignette sees you taking the role of various predator creatures on the hunt for food, another asks you to splash around in the bathtub, while another sees you reenacting the pages of a comic book. These first person mini episode are so successful because they are able to create empathy and understanding in a way that simply being told a story doesn’t always allow. I love that you’re able to witness first hand what happened to each relative and yet, when it comes to the fate of young Edith herself, Giant Sparrow answers the what, but not the why in a clever ironic twist that left me thinking about it long after I turned it off. I can’t wait to see what Giant Sparrow does next.
Monument Valley 2
I was in architecture school when the first Monument Valley launched. I saw as fellow classmates directly copied its minimalist design and pastel color palette. It was—and to a lesser extend still is—the style of the time. While Monument Valley didn’t invent it, it certainly helped popularize it. Minimalist design is a type of abstraction, it does not impose on you the way detail and ornament does. Abstraction asks the viewer to read the work and take the meaning for themselves. Similarly, Monument Valley 2 does not impose on the gamer, it presents its beautiful world, and weaves in a story that can be ignored completely or contemplated deeply. The story of a mother and daughter separated and united tackles companionship, loss, loneliness, growth, and joy in a remarkably subtle manner.
My favorite mobile games are those which are built for the platform and would only be experienced for the worse on any other platform. Monument Valley 2 retains the wonderful balance between simplistic controls and thoughtful, engaging puzzles. The touch controls provide a sense of intimacy with manipulatable environments in a way that wouldn’t be achievable through any other control scheme. Similarly, tapping the screen to make my avatar move from one location to the next made me feel like an omnipresent being carefully watching over and guiding these characters on their quest to reunite.
I previously spoke about the stunning visuals in Horizon: Zero Dawn and Assassin’s Creed Origins. I hold Monument Valley 2’s art direction in just as high, if not higher, regard than both of those AAA blockbuster titles. I’ve seen the franchise influence schools of design for years now and each new level and stage welcomes me with a sense of awe. It is perhaps the most screenshotable game in existence. Every frame could be blown up and exhibited in an architecture review gallery.
What Monument Valley 2 succeeds at that architecture drawings and MC Escher prints fail to do is allow for a level of manipulation and interactivity over the twisted and inspiring environments. It is ultimately a game about perspective and changing one’s perspective to suit one’s needs. While it would be easy to call it a mobile Journey, that claim does MV2 a disservice because it does so many unique things with level design, navigation, presentation, and aesthetics that it stands as a truly one of a kind franchise. Perhaps the most complimentary thing I can say about Monument Valley 2 is that it is the only mobile game that I can remember sitting alone at home and playing. Not while the TV was on, not while I was waiting for something else. I simply sat on my couch, turned up the volume and let Monument Valley 2 absorb me into its serene environments.