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In An Age (of) Game Awards

Since this appears to be a Thing now, let me hand out a few awards.

Overrated Game of the Year: Witcher 3

Witcher 3 conclusively proves that all that particularly matters in gaming awards is that it looks pretty and has an interesting story; gameplay and rational design systems are 100% optional. Which, actually, is a fact that I should have already learned from Bioshock Infinite, which managed to bludgeon its way to several awards in 2014 based solely on its visuals and media narrative, not the garbage story or weak gunplay.

Seriously though, search your feelings on this – you know it to be true.

Actual Game of the Year: Metal Gear Solid 5

Yeah, I went there.

Look, the question you need to ask yourself is “what does Game of the Year even mean?” If that means “which game had the most engaging gameplay, the tightest game mechanics, and the elegance of harmonious, interlocking design,” then MGS 5 is Game of the Year no question. Go ahead and try to argue some other game got gameplay better.

Did MGS 5 go off the rails towards the end story-wise, when Konami presumably had Kojima’s balls in a vice? Yes. Would one final chapter mission DLC wrap everything up to a ridiculous degree and catapult the game into gaming legend? Absolutely. Does it immeasurably suck that none of this happened? Crushingly so.

But goddamn if the act of playing MGS 5 wasn’t the best game experience all year for me. Witcher 3 probably had better voice acting and a more coherent story, and I spent more time in Fallout 4 overall. Nevertheless, I feel MGS 5 deserves Game of the Year more than the others because it got the actual game bits so, so right.

Game of the Year after Mods and DLC: Fallout 4

Calling it now.

You Can’t Go Home Again Award: Pillars of Eternity

I remember having nothing but fond memories of the Baldur’s Gate series, playing them for many, many hours during a time period where I was otherwise beholden to JRPGs only. Pillars of Eternity was indeed a return to form, and I thought those same good feels would return.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, they did not.

As it turns out, the pseudo-real-time combat of PoE (and by extension Baldur’s Gate) isn’t actually all that fun to me. Back in the day, it was novel and interesting, but I just can’t stand the tactical sloppiness anymore. You can’t simultaneously make positioning super important and not allow me to fine-tune my character’s movement, especially when two pixels are the difference between your tank tanking and allowing the assassin to slip through the doorway.

Also? Sitting around and auto-attacking for days isn’t especially engaging.

I love tactical games, queuing attacks, and so on. Pillars isn’t tactical though, as you have no idea when an attack is going to fire, if a potion will be quaffed in time, or pretty much anything else. Not necessarily a deficiency in Pillars itself – it is true to the form it is imitating – but it represents a gameplay type that simply doesn’t work for me any more.

Best New Feature in a Game: Hearthstone’s Tavern Brawl

I may have talked about Tavern Brawl from time to time already, but let me just say that Blizzard came up with game mode here that nobody asked for, but nevertheless ended up being exactly what the game needed. It’s hard now to imagine what Hearthstone was actually like without it. Did we really just grind Ranked or play Arena all day? Gross.

The brilliance with Brawl is actually manifold. Half the time you have to create decks from your own collection, but the other half of the time your collection doesn’t matter; this means that a new player has a shot to win against someone who has been collecting cards since beta. The weekly format means A) variety of play styles, and B) drives the Hearthstone conversation in interesting ways. On Blizzard’s side, Brawl also affords them the opportunity to playtest new cards, game modes, and receive real-time feedback on the same.

Of course, Brawl isn’t perfect. Some weeks, the rules are just crap. Brawls frequently jack up the RNG to insane levels. There have been quite a few repeats. The 2-3 day “cooldown” in-between Brawls doesn’t really need to exist, IMO.

But overall? Tavern Brawl is exactly what Hearthstone needed, right when it needed it.

Most Anticipated Game of 2016 (Thus Far): Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

I asked for this.

Runners Up:

  • Mass Effect: Andromeda
  • No Man’s Sky
  • Final Fantasy 15
  • Star Citizen (?)

Game I Would Really Like to See Out of Early Access: The Forest

Oh, and Starbound. And The Long Dark. And Darkwood, which was a game I technically backed in goddamn 2013. Now that I think about it, there isn’t a game I want to ever see in Early Access anymore.

Gameplay of the Year

So, Polygon released the list of Game of Year 2015 contenders last month:

  • Bloodborne
  • Fallout 4
  • Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
  • Super Mario Maker
  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

While I might be alone in railing against inexorable fate and media narratives, I will be very disappointed if Witcher 3 wins Game of the Year (again). But in examining the feelings that give rise to this disappointment, a question surfaces: what deserves to be a Game of the Year anyway?

When it comes to mechanics, systems, and everything that makes games games, it seems clear to me that Metal Gear Solid 5 deserves to be Game of the Year. Everything in MGS 5 simply works. The controls are tight, the stealth gameplay compelling, and the Fulton system synergizes brilliantly with every other game mechanic. You can kill people from afar, but you want to steal them for your base more, which leads to close-quarters sneaking and higher tension gameplay. The way all the pieces of MGS 5 harmonize with one another is simply a thing of beauty and elegance.

…which is a real shame, considering how much of a disaster the story ends up being. “Disaster” is a bit uncharitable, but the abbreviated ending leaves one with a sour taste in one’s mouth, making it easier to forget how ~60 hours of incandescent joy preceded it.

Then you have Witcher 3. Mechanically, the game is just bad; none of the various systems fit together, and often actively clash. You are encouraged to collect hundreds of different crafting components, including junk you can break down for parts, but the vast majority are completely pointless. Random loot will give you high-level blueprints for items you will never be able to use, while recipes for staple items are conspicuously absent. Everything about the first two games that established Witchers – and Geralt in particular – as a fantasy noir detective that needs to plan encounters ahead of time to survive, flies out of the window mechanically, as Geralt gets to pop infinite potions and bombs like they were MMO abilities with per-encounter cooldowns.

…but Witcher 3 will still likely win Game of the Year. Because of things like the Bloody Baron quest. Or when Geralt (spoiler alert) finds Ciri. Nobody will remember mindlessly pressing Alt and Left-Clicking a million times to snore through the combat even on the harder difficulties. Hell, nobody will even remember that, for however good the Bloody Baron quest was, how ridiculous it was in a narrative ostensibly about a race against time. Or how Novigrad was one giant slog through completely unrelated nonsense. Or how little sense it made, pacing-wise, for there to be an open world at all.

It seems to me that what is really being voted on here is “Game Experience of the Year.”

Which is… okay, I guess? Hell, I’m usually the guy defending story over mechanics from the people who believe plot has no place in gaming. In this specific scenario though, I hate the idea that MGS 5 is going to lose because it lacked 1-2 missions to seal the deal, whereas Witcher 3 is going to win because it had a few bright spots in an ocean of bad design.

Ironically, Fallout 4 has thus far hit the sweet spot inbetween the two extremes for me, but I don’t believe it will win because it didn’t hit the sweet spot hard enough. Plus, ugh, that useless ass UI. How could they have they spent so much time coding in Settlements and approximately zero minutes giving us an interface worthy of that descriptor to interact with it?

Bah.

I will say though, I’m happy to see Ori and the Blind Forest show up under four different categories. While there were some difficulty spikes in there, Ori is one of the best-looking, best-sounding, and more entertaining indie-esque titles I have played this year.