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What ‘Splatoon 2’ Needs to Succeed

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The Nintendo Switch has a pretty strong year-one lineup going for it. Aside from bookending the console’s first year with two of the most anticipated games of 2017, the Switch will also be home to other exclusives like Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Fire Emblem Warriors, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle and Pokken Tournament DX all before January. While Super Mario Odyssey is at the top of the list for most Switch owners, this writer only has a couple more weeks to wait for his most anticipated game: Splatoon 2.

Splatoon has quickly become one of Nintendo’s most precious IPs. The game’s colorful, unique take on the third-person shooter genre resonated with gamers and critics alike when it released a little over two years ago. The first game on Wii U sold nearly 5 million units and spawned a massive worldwide following in the process. The game managed to spur a decent tournament scene for awhile (especially in Japan), and there were even large, sold-out concerts featuring the game’s OST.

So with the first Splatoon being such a hit, it was only a matter of time before we got a sequel. This time around, however, there’s a bit of pessimism around whether or not Splatoon 2 is actually a sequel or more so a “Splatoon Deluxe.” In light of these doubts and the upcoming Direct, let’s look at what this new entry needs to bring to the table in order to both satisfy fans of the original and improve the experience for series newcomers.

Rethinking Game Modes

The original Splatoon shipped with 2 modes: the standard Turf War, and the more competitive ranked Splat Zones. Within the first six months, the Tower Control and Rainmaker modes were also rolled out for a total of three ranked modes, four altogether. It’s already been confirmed that all of these are returning (albeit with the odd tweak here and there). Nintendo also announced Salmon Run, the horde mode so many fans had clamored for. And then there’s the new, somewhat ambiguous League Battle mode where players team up in two-hour increments to accrue the most points and rival the scores of other groups.

The thing is, while Salmon Run is indeed a new mode, it’s not a ranked mode. Instead, it’s a separate entity akin to the story mode. So, if we look at Salmon Run as essentially taking the place of the horrible local multiplayer-focused Battle Dojo mode from the first game, we’re left with the same number of game types. If Nintendo really wants to push the sequel angle with Splatoon 2, it’d be best to add at least one new ranked mode to the fray.

Speaking of ranked modes, what if the Splatoon team rethought the whole ranked/unranked formula? Imagine if Splat Zones, Tower Control, and Rainmaker all had unranked versions. That would allow unfamiliar players to practice and enjoy all of the game modes instead of never playing a couple because of the worry of losing their rank playing one that they’re less adept at. Similarly, a ranked Turf War would do wonders in bringing some much-needed spice to the most-played mode of the game.

Providing a “Fresh” Single Player Experience

Splatoon’s single player mode was one of the game’s greatest strengths. It had wildly creative levels that did an excellent job of introducing new players to the game’s mechanics before throwing them into online matches. The stages all felt unique, and each contained a Sunken Scroll that was surprisingly challenging to find. The 6-8 hour campaign ended with one of the most fantastic final boss battles for a game in recent memory. And yet, there’s so much more that Splatoon 2’s story mode–now dubbed Hero Mode–can deliver.

Hero Mode needs to be a substantial, stand-alone experience. It can be argued that it’s only a small part of a much larger multiplayer experience, but the same could be said of ARMS, and look at how the single player content in that game was received. Splatoon 2 needs something substantial for the offline gamer, and that means Hero Mode having more levels as well as optional challenges for each. Special achievements for finishing a stage without being hit once or even time trials would go a long way in extending the life of the experience. Sunken Scrolls are already confirmed to be making their return, but those alone aren’t enough.

This is the first step in remedying the old version’s greatest weakness: replayability. Sure, you might’ve gone back and played some of your favorite levels a couple times (shout out to Invisible Avenues), but there was no real reason to touch the campaign after the initial run through. Splatoon 2 could fix this in a couple ways. For one, multiple save files in Hero Mode would be a godsend. Players gain orbs to level up their weapons and armor as they make their way through the campaign, so having an option to select a new save file would be ideal for those wanting to replay the whole thing from scratch. Alternatively, unlocking a hard version of each level after beating the final boss would also be a solid replay incentive.

The Expansion of Splatoon Lore

Lore in the Splatoon universe is purposefully subtle. The only details players learn about the origin of Splatoon’s civilization and the fight against the Octarians is through the aforementioned Sunken Scrolls, giving the world an air of elusive mystery. These documents did everything from flesh out characters’ backstories to explaining how Turf Wars began in the first place. Tracking them all down was one of the most rewarding parts of Splatoon’s single player, and luckily they’re making a return in the sequel. However, it’d be great if we had more glimpses into the lives of Splatoon’s colorful cast and Inklings as a whole. The Squid Sister Stories series was a great start, and Nintendo could take it even further with a series of animated shorts supporting the game’s release. The Pikmin animated shorts were wonderfully done, and seeing Splatoon 2 given the same love would be awesome. The ultimate way to expound upon Splatoon’s lore, however, would be to release story-focused DLC. I’m talking DLC that allows players to go back and play as one of the soldiers in The Great Turf War. This would come complete with exclusive vintage clothing and weapon options, a Hero Mode-esq selection of stages to complete, and loads of dialogue/exclusive Scrolls to find. Though Splatoon has yet to have any paid DLC, that’s definitely content that much of the Splatoon community would buy in an instant.

The Grand Return of Splatfests

Splatfests were the absolute best part of Splatoon, period. The themes were sometimes awesome (Pokemon Red vs. Pokemon Blue) and sometimes a bit dull (Cars vs. Planes), but players repped their team like crazy either way. The excitement around each timed event was contagious, and the special Splatfest music and nighttime versions of every map were a brilliant way of making the showdowns feel like a real holiday. Teams also stayed together for as long as they stayed in the lobby instead of being team-swapped like usual. This made for some truly great bouts of groups starting out as strangers and growing into hardened teams vying for that elusive King/Queen rank and those coveted Super Sea Snails. Needless to say, the final Splatfest was a sad day indeed for Splatoon players everywhere. So, with the spectacular Splatfests making their return in Splatoon 2, what can be improved this time around? Well, one common complaint was that the team shirts players won during the event always had to be returned by the end. The reasoning behind this was never really explained, and it would be nice to hold onto the shirts as special mementos of each event. Another tweak would be the ability to go into a Splatfest as a squad. Squads were never allowed in Splatfests, and playing with friends online during all the excitement would be great fun.

Level Cap Increase

Leveling systems have been a way to keep players coming back to games for years. The sense of progression that comes with leveling up is both addictive and enticing. In terms of Splatoon levels signify how long a player has played online, while their rank represents their skill. The first game launched with a level cap of 20 and was quickly raised to 50 a couple months later. While the Legendary Cap was a nice reward for maxing that out, avid Splatoon players were left wanting more. For Splatoon 2, a level cap raise to 100 would be amazing for a couple reasons. For one, it would continuously give players a goal to strive towards. It took well over a hundred hours to max out at Level 50, so one can only imagine how long it’d take to hit Level 100. Having that goal would keep players coming back for months if not years. Raising the max to 100 would also provide a more accurate representation of how experienced a player is as opposed to cutting that indicator off at 50. Splatoon 2 could also follow the prestige system seen in Call of Duty and have several prestiges players can hit instead of a hard level cap. This could actually be amazing if the prestige was incorporated into a special piece of clothing or special colorway.

Smaller Additions

Then there’s all the small stuff that would enhance the Splatoon 2 experience. For instance, it’d be nice to be placed on a friend’s team automatically when you join them in a match instead of the game shuffling you around like everyone else. Another wishlist feature? An alternate color scheme for every piece of clothing. Splatoon already had a staggering amount of customization options, and this would only push the boundaries further. Even if alternates were tied to certain levels or prestige, that would be a wonderful incentive to reach those goals. Also, I don’t know about you, but I’d love arcade games to make a return in Splatoon 2. They were always fun little diversions to mess with in-between matches, and in this game, they could simply be played on a machine or arcade in the plaza. But why would anyone spend time outside of a match to play a simplistic arcade game? Two words: online leaderboards. It would give players a fun distraction while waiting to squad up with their friends, especially if they could see the scores of those friends online. And lastly, the option to customize controls is always a plus.

Splatoon 2 has a lot to live up to. The first game is, in this writer’s humble opinion, one of the finest, most original shooters ever crafted. To top it, Splatoon 2 will have to deliver a host of improvements while also expanding on what made the original so beloved. It’s a tall order, and we only have a couple weeks to see if it can deliver. Here’s hoping it exceeds every one of our expectations.

Brent became infatuated with manga and anime after randomly stumbling upon Vol. 3 of Yu Yu Hakusho on a childhood roadtrip. Today he has a soft spot for colorful JRPGs, cozy anime, and both games and shows that indulge his innate love of adventure. Find him (im)patiently waiting for Animal Crossing: New Horizons and incredibly fulfilled by Fire Emblem: Three Houses @CreamBasics.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Marty Allen

    July 6, 2017 at 12:05 pm

    Solid list, Brent. What did you think of the Direct? I’m pretty excited.

    • Brent Middleton

      July 6, 2017 at 3:13 pm

      Thanks Marty! I thought it was pretty awesome. I love the new idols (Team Marina of course haha), and I love that they committed to 2 years of Splatfests (a whole year more than the original!). The new abilities are really cool, especially the thermal vision and the roll after Squid jumping–amazing! I’m especially interested in the future DLC: that ship map looked too cool, as did the umbrella and bubble wand weapons! A lot to get excited about. And now they’re having separate rankings for each ranked mode, which is a GODSEND and kind of addresses the issue I had above about certain modes bringing down your rank. The pre-launch Splatfest is also genius.

      On the other hand, it seems like there aren’t going to be any new ranked modes. They didn’t announce any, and their tweets said “Look forward to new weapons, gear and maps!” but no mention of more modes. So that’s kinda a bummer. And though we’re getting Salmon Run, it’s only at certain times like Splatfests, which in my opinion is a misstep. It’ll make them feel more special, but that’s what Splatfests are for. I really want to enjoy that mode online at any time. The last negative note is that there’s only one arcade game this time around, though it admittedly looks pretty fun.

      All in all I’m super excited! We’ll have to get together and splat sometime man!

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Interview with John Staats, First-Level Designer for ‘World of Warcraft’

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with John Staats, first-level designer for the launch version of World of Warcraft.

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The first iteration of World of Warcraft, often called “Vanilla WoW,” has a strong pull of nostalgia for many fans. From inspiring countless other MMOs, to imbuing an entire generation of players with memories that they will never forget, to inspiring Blizzard to re-release it earlier this year, Vanilla’s footprint is undeniable.

Recently, I had the chance to talk to John Staats, a first-level designer on World of Warcraft‘s initial launch, to discuss his recent book, The Wow Diary: A Journal of Computer Game Development, which chronicles his own personal experience with developing WoW‘s initial release.

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In a lot of ways, The WoW Diary reminds me of Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Kotaku’s Jason Schreier. Both books address the challenges of game development, including the incredible amount of hours that game developers work and the dreaded “crunch” when a project has to be delivered on time. Your section on how your colleagues described their work on StarCraft was particularly interesting. What do you think is the public’s biggest misconception about how developers work?

The biggest misconception is how expensive developers are! Most publishers and studio heads are always portrayed as the bad guys, but the truth is there’s so much risk in game development, it’s just insane. If a company is upfront about long hours, then I see no problem with longer hours to some point. Unfortunately, the law isn’t so flexible. After WoW shipped, we dropped to capped 40-hour weeks (mandatory) and it sucked. Everything was so schedule-conscious that we stopped experimenting.

Studios are all different. Some people asked if unions were the answer, and they might help in some cases, but they would make other situations worse. There would certainly be fewer games out there without crunches. I dunno. I’m from Akron, Ohio. I’m just happy to have worked in the entertainment industry!

As a developer, even at somewhere like Blizzard, fan feedback seems like it’s able to affect team morale. In the book, you mention a few cases of this. What was it like to work under the pressure of fan expectations?

World of Warcraft feedback wasn’t nearly as bad as Warcraft III, because the company was too quick to promote their first 3D title. Making a 3D game has such a sharp, painful learning curve that engine re-writes caused long delays. The fans were unfamiliar with the long waits associated in making 3D games, so they were especially angry.

The class designers definitely had it bad on World of Warcraft. People never post when they’re happy, the forums are usually very negative. And there’s strange “voodoo” where people report glitches or errors that aren’t really there. There’s a LOT of voodoo reports that designers need to verify, and that eats up their schedule.

Kevin Jordan once joked that he was going to claim to be a character artist at the launch party signing table, just to avoid being drawn into discussions about rogues versus shaman duels. For the most part, WoW was so much better looking, better playing, better running than the competition, we had it easy. Still, we put pressure on ourselves: for the most part, the fans were pretty cool.

World of Warcraft

You state in the book that you got your start in modding computer games on the PC. Did you have any prior experience with other game systems, or was your only experience with the PC?

PC only. I was actually a Macintosh user exclusively because I was in advertising in NYC. I bought my first PC in the mid-1990s. As a Mac person, there weren’t many games available (thank you, Steve Jobs), so I only played a few titles on my roommate’s machines. They always had to kick me off whenever they came home.  When I got my own, I relentlessly played FPS and strategy games.

One of the more interesting comments that you make in the book, and one that I was curious about while reading, was the following: “Writing stories is so easy it seems nearly half the people in the industry want to do it[…] it’s unreasonable to expect players to follow a storyline, detailed or subtle.” Do you think games are ever capable of delivering complex and subtle stories, or is it beyond the medium’s scope?

I honestly doubt stories will become more subtle for most genres. Most games pull the player’s attention to non-story elements like socialization, user interface, goals, and combat tactics. Looking for things is rarely fun. It’s just too hard to expect the average player to follow nuanced stories… and you never want to risk players becoming confused with your plot.

You use the phrase “computer games” throughout the book instead of the more commonly used “games.” Was there a semantic reason for this?

Ranchers and farmers are in the agricultural industry, they have a completely different set of concerns.

There’s a huge difference in developing computer games versus console games. It’s so much easier to make games for a console. They’re far more predictable, and optimized for specific types of games. Developers are influenced by all kinds of games; pen-and-paper RPGs, tabletop board games, card games, handheld devices… and all of them are very different to produce. I didn’t want to lump everything into the “games industry.”

You mention early on that you’ve suffered “a neurological problem in [your] hands that hinders [you] from using a computer for significant lengths of time.” Given the increasingly interconnected nature of modern society and how much time you spent on computers during your career in the games industry, how hard was it to adjust?

I played FPS games before I became a level designer. I played up to 14-16 hours a day when I had the time. That’s without stopping, BTW. I would eat leftovers between matches. I was nuts.

John Staats World of Warcraft

Blizzard and Nintendo have always seemed like analogous companies to the outside public. Both spend large amounts of time and money crafting games that have long-standing appeal and excellent quality. Both don’t worry about winning the public relations war and, instead, depend on the endemic quality of their games to do the talking for them. Did anyone ever make that comparison inside of Blizzard?

It was a very conscious effort to avoid distractions. There’s so much temptation for some people to jump into every conversation, there was a company-wide mandate to keep your mouth shut. We had Bill Roper for our spokesperson, and if the public thought he personally made all our games, that was fine with the developers (he wasn’t even a dev!). This lets every member of the company, as a whole, take credit for the collective products. Other industry developers will weigh in on every conversation, and journalists will seek out the same developers for opinions. On top of the risk of crossing wires with the company’s official opinion, so much exposure could create jealousy.

At one point in the book, you mention that an acquaintance of yours, Scott Hartin, had worked making console games in Japan and hated it. Was this a common complaint among those who had worked in Japan?

He’s the only person I know who’s worked there, and it was something he said in passing. I thought it such an interested idea, that different cultures tend to work in different ways. Who knows? Perhaps it might have just been the studio he was in, that made them work that way.  

Ragnaros and the Molten Core raid have emerged as a large part of the lore surrounding the vanilla release of World of Warcraft. It’s also something that you mention receiving compliments from fans about. What part of Molten Core are you the most proud of?

I’m proud that we ninja’d it into the shipping game without the producers having it on our to-do list! It was a passion project Jeff Kaplan rallied people around. I’m glad he did. We were working on so many bugs after we shipped, there’s no telling how long it would have taken to update the live servers with a content update like MC.

As a historian, having an oral history of one of gaming’s largest and most influential games is an incredible resource. In the beginning of the book, you say that you struggled with compiling your development diary because, to a large degree, you were afraid of underrepresenting some of your hardest co-workers. In the end, why do you think more oral histories, such as your book, aren’t published?

I can absolutely tell you it’s because the author needs to take notes. I can’t do a sequel to The WoW Diary because I stopped taking notes after we shipped. There’s just no way, I’d get everything wrong, or release a bland, broad-strokes version of how things went down. That’s where my book stands out, the details make the story vivid.

 

World of Warcraft

Blizzard released WoW Classic back in August. What are your thoughts on it?

I’m surprised they did. No one has ever done something like this before. Redoing someone else’s work doesn’t sound like a fun project for developers, who are in nature, creative people. It just isn’t fun to walk in someone else’s footsteps. I’m also keenly interested to see how it plays out. Do they relaunch expansions? Does it affect the retail version? I honestly don’t know, but my popcorn is ready!

Blizzard has been criticized recently for their communication with players. How different does it feel when you are on the corporate side of that relationship?

No one is criticized when your games stink. LOL! Seriously though, complaints never stop, so it’s never a big deal. Whether it’s about lawsuits or controversy, Blizzard usually takes the high road, and disengages from distractions; it lets them focus on what they want to be known for… making good games. I’m glad to see they’re still doing this.

Final question. As something of a hardware nerd, I’ve got to ask, how did developers handle the rapidly progressing technology of the late 90s and early 2000s, when Moore’s Law was in full effect? 

Blizzard games sell well because they target low-end systems. Most studios weren’t, and aren’t, smart enough to realize this. Most studios want to be the first kid on the block to have a shiny new feature. While the industry chased after expensive features that narrowed their audience to customers who had top-end computers, the savvy companies focused on the low-end machines. To answer your question, Blizzard avoided the Moore’s Law trap.

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A big thank you to John Laats for agreeing to be interviewed and providing us with a review copy of his book. If you’re interesting in learning more about John Laats, his work, you can find him at his website.

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Indie Games Spotlight – Looking Ahead to 2020

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Indie Game Spotlight

The year is coming to an end. The holidays are just around the corner. We’ve already published our list of the best indie games of 2019 and now it is time to start looking forward to 2020. In what is sure to be our last Indie Games Spotlight of 2019, we take a look at some of the indies set for release next year. This issue includes a student project that led to the creation of an indie studio; a story-rich and fully narrated puzzle game; and a comedic occult adventure game that takes place during World War II. All this and more!

Lightmatter

Imagine, “if Limbo and Portal had a weird baby.”

Aspyr and Tunnel Vision Games announced that their long-awaited, award-winning puzzle game, Lightmatter, arrives on Steam on January 15, 2020.

Lightmatter is an atmospheric, first-person puzzle game set inside a mysterious experimental facility where the shadows will kill you. The game tells a sci-fi story about a maniac inventor who has created the ultimate power source called Lightmatter. Players must explore the facility in an attempt to discover the hidden plot while facing challenging puzzles that require mastering different light sources to survive.

Not only does the game look great but what’s even more impressive is that Lightmatter originally started out as a university project where a group of Medialogy students wanted to explore lights and shadows as the primary gameplay mechanic in a puzzle game. After creating a 15-minute prototype, the team offered it as a free download on Reddit. To their surprise, the game became an overnight success with thousands of downloads and multiple accolades from game conferences around the world. It didn’t take long before they created Tunnel Vision Games with the mission to take the light/shadow concept further and turn it into a fully-fledged game. The rest, as they say, is history.


Nine Witches: Family Disruption

Nine Witches: Family Disruption

Investigate the Occult

Nine Witches: Family Disruption is the comedic occult adventure game you’ve been waiting for. From Blowfish Studios and Indiesruption, the game takes place in a rustic Norwegian village on the fringe of World War II, where a supernatural scholar investigates the Nazi’s plan to conjure a dark ancient power and strike a devastating blow to the Allied powers. Players must investigate their plots by communing with a variety of eccentric characters from the realms of both the living and the dead. It’s your job to unravel a mystical mystery and put a stop to the Okkulte-SS’s evil schemes before it’s too late.

Nine Witches: Family Disruption was born from my desire to blend world history with magic and my personal sense of humor,” said Diego Cánepa, designer, Indiesruption. “I’m grateful Blowfish Studios are using their powers to help me bring the game to consoles and PC so this story can be enjoyed by players across the world.” If you like indie games with beautiful, retro-inspired pixel art and a comical story dripping with gleefully absurd, dark humor, you’ll want to check this out. Nine Witches: Family Disruption summons supernatural hi-jinks to Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam for Windows PC in Q2 2020.


Filament

Explore a mysterious ship.

Ahead of next year’s anticipated release of Filament, Kasedo Games & Beard Envy have revealed an exclusive look into the making of the upcoming puzzle game with the first in a series of short dev featurettes. Developed by three friends in the front room of their shared house, Filament is a story-rich and fully narrated puzzle game centered around solving sets of cable-based puzzles whilst exploring a seemingly abandoned spaceship. According to the press release, Filament lets you freely explore the mysterious ship, solving over 300 challenging and varied puzzles in (almost) any order you like.

If you’d like to learn more, we recommend checking out the short episode series which explains the complexity and variety of puzzles and offers an insight into how the game was made. Filament will release for PC and consoles next year.


West of the Dead

The Wild West has never been this dark.

Announced at X019 in London, West of Dead is a fast-paced twin-stick shooter developed by UK-based studio Upstream Arcade. The game stars Ron Perlman (Hellboy, Sons of Anarchy) as the voice of the main protagonist William Mason, a dead man awakened with only the memory of a figure in black. His existence sets into motion a chain of events that have truly mythic consequences.

Thrown into the unknown procedurally generated hunting grounds of Purgatory, your skills will be put to the test as you shoot and dodge your way through the grime and grit of the underworld. No one said dying would be easy and West of the Dead will surely test your skills. The battle for your soul will take place on Xbox One, Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC in 2020.


The Red Lantern

Survive the Alaskan wilderness in this dog sledding, story-driven, rogue-lite game

We first took notice of The Red Lantern during a Nintendo Direct earlier this year and ever since we’ve been impatiently awaiting its release. The Red Lantern is a resource management game where you and your team of five sled dogs must survive the wilderness and find your way home. Set in Nome, Alaska, you play as The Musher, voiced by Ashly Burch (Horizon: Zero Dawn, Life is Strange), as she sets out to train for the grueling Iditarod race.

The game combines rogue-lite elements into this story-driven adventure game, where hundreds of different events can occur—like fending off bears, resisting frostbite, attending your dogs, or receiving a signature moose-licking. This might be the first and last dog-sledding survival game we will ever play but that’s fine by us because judging by the screenshots and trailer, the game looks terrific. The Red Lantern is Timberline Studio’s debut game and is funded by Kowloon Nights. The game will be releasing on Xbox One and Nintendo Switch in 2020.

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The Best Games of the 2010s

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Best Games of the 2010s Best Games of the Decade

The 2010s have spoiled us with an abundance of amazing games released year after year, and with the decade quickly drawing to a close, some would argue it is the best decade for video games yet. The choice of AAA titles, MMOs, indies and even mobile games is simply overwhelming. In no other decade have we had so much variety and so much to choose from making it extremely hard to pinpoint what our favourites are. Truth be told, many of us still have some catching up to do. Not everyone has played every game nominated below, and how could we considering some of these games require hundreds of hours of our time to complete? Thankfully we have enough writers on staff to be able to cover it all, and as expected, none of us seem to agree on every winner. It wasn’t easy to choose from our many favourites but we narrowed it down to one winner and five special mentions for each year. At last, here are the best games released in the 2010s.

Best Games of the Decade

Mass-Effect-2-Best-Games-of-the-Decade

2010) Mass Effect 2

Bioware’s Mass Effect announced itself as a different kind of game. The natural evolution of games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old RepublicMass Effect offered gamers a whole universe of possibilities. Depending on their choices, their protagonist could be a cocksure rogue or an unrepentant optimist, a cold pragmatist or a warm confidante. Regardless of your choices though, what Mass Effect really offered was the chance to enter a world and experience it in your own individual manner.

Mass Effect 2 doubled down on this prospect in a way that was almost inconceivable. Giving players a bigger galaxy to explore, more characters to journey through it with, and more refined gameplay with which to devour it, Mass Effect 2 arrived as the sequel that fans never even dreamed was possible. A game with so many different possibilities for outcomes that there was an ending designed as if the player had died in his quest, there was literally no wrong way to play Mass Effect 2.

While the sequel ended up having to pull back on these ambitions, Mass Effect 2 still remains a game that made players believe that literally anything was possible, and for that reason alone, it remains a one of a kind, unforgettable experience. (Mike Worby)

Runners-Up: Call of Duty: Black Ops, God of War III, Red Dead Redemption, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, Super Meat Boy

Dark-Souls-Remastered-Darkroot-Garden

2011) Dark Souls

Like Mass Effect 2Dark Souls is less an original prospect in and of itself, and more the perfectly refined version of a very good idea. Hidetaka Miyazaki may have hit upon a gold rush with his experimental action-RPG Demon’s Souls, but it was Dark Souls that really hit paydirt. Transporting the hybrid single-player/multiplayer experience into an ever-growing open world that devoured itself like an ouroborosDark Souls didn’t just perfect the experience that its predecessor had plotted out, it laid the groundwork for an entire genre.

Players still relentlessly speed run, troll, experiment with and redefine what Dark Souls is, and what it means to them, nearly a decade after its initial release. Check Twitch or YouTube on any given day, and you’re likely to find dozens of gamers re-exploring the world of Lordran, and seeing what it might offer them in this reincarnation of its virtues and faults, concepts and confines. Such is the result of a game so endlessly replayable that it doesn’t even ask before plonking you back at the beginning after those end credits. After all, why not spend a little more time in this world? (Mike Worby)

Runners-Up: Batman: Arkham City, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Minecraft, Portal 2, Rayman Origins

Xeonblade-1024x576

2012) Xenoblade Chronicles

It’s hard to find a game as niche as Xenoblade Chronicles. A JRPG, published in North America two years after its initial 2010 release on the already-sunsetting Wii, it seemed an unlikely prospect for success. After all, the Wii was perhaps Nintendo’s most family-friendly console, a system designed around casual audiences and motion controls; its successor, the Wii U, was just around the corner. It made little sense to release a JRPG, of all things, when the system was on its last legs.

Despite launching at the tail end of one generation and the beginning of the other,  Xenoblade Chronicles delivered one of the best JRPG experiences in decades. Xenoblade creator Tetsuya Takahashi, with a checkered history of ambitious games that failed to fully deliver on their promises, finally perfected his craft.  A gripping narrative, a spectacular score, and an innovative focus on blending the best of both Western and Japanese RPGs made Xenoblade Chronicles a stunning achievement and the best JRPG to ever come from Nintendo.

Seven years, and two critically praised sequels, later, and Takahashi has yet to recapture the magic in the original Xenoblade and rekindle the pure, unadulterated sense of exploration and adventure that made it such an enjoyable experience, a testament to how unique and incredible this JRPG truly is. (Iszak Barnette)

Runners-Up: Diablo III, Far Cry 3, Hotline Miami, Journey, The Walking Dead

The Best Games of the 2010s

2013) The Last of Us

With The Last of Us, the cinematic-loving geniuses at Naughty Dog proved themselves once again as one of the most accomplished development teams in the world. The confident and handsome survival thriller was instantly hailed as the new bar for what gaming could and should be moving forward. The Last of Us is Hollywood stuff, of course, and it borrows from dozens of carefully chosen inspirations, among them George A. Romero’s original Dead trilogy, The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. While the game’s cynical portrayal of survivors turning on each other is a very familiar premise – The Last of Us is also the rare video game that follows a traditional storyline and then improves upon it. Set twenty years after a pandemic radically transformed civilization – The Last of Us follows Joel, a salty survivor, who is hired to smuggle a fourteen-year-old girl, Ellie, out of a rough military quarantine. What begins as a straightforward, albeit risky job, quickly turns into a highly emotional, palm-sweating journey that you won’t ever forget.

The Last of Us mixes traditional adventure, survival, action, stealth, and constant exploration. Amidst the action, the horror and the many layers of modern mythology at work here (all quintessentially American), the game succeeds simply as a parable of what it means to live versus surviving. By the time you get to the last act, you understand why The Last of Us is the stuff of legends. The ending is simply amazing and not because it ends with a bang, but instead, because it ends with a simple line of dialogue. It’s intense and, yes, depressing – and it earns every minute of it.

Exhausting to play but oddly exhilarating to experience, The Last of Us works its way under our skin to unnerve, reside and haunt us. From the rich, complex combat system to the sublime sound design, this game immerses the player from start to finish. The Last of Us proves how far the craftsmanship of making video games has come from the outstanding engineering and art and sound design to the fine direction and performances, and the touching relationship of the two leads. It shouldn’t be a surprise that The Last of Us is our favourite game of 2013 because it works on every level: as a violent chase thriller, a fantastic cautionary tale, a coming of age story, and a sophisticated drama about the best and worst qualities of humanity. There’s something for everyone here to appreciate! (Ricky D)

Runners-Up: Bioshock Infinite, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, DOTA 2, Gone Home, Grand Theft Auto V

2014) Mario Kart 8

Nintendo was so confident about Mario Kart 8 that they implied it could turn the tides of both sales and public consciousness on the Wii U. Of course, Mario Kart 8 didn’t end up doing that, but it did handily exceed the expectations of its legion of naysayers, such as the infamous Polygon pie charts. Five years later and it has not only gone down in the record books as the highest-selling game on that fateful console, but is also the highest-selling game on Nintendo’s renaissance console, the Switch.

While the appeal of Mario Kart remains perennial, Mario Kart 8 is an especially special Mario Kart. Its controls are the most fluid and refined, its visuals the most lush and detailed, and its courses the most vibrant and fully-realized. Moreover, its breakneck 200cc mode, wealth of fantastic DLC courses, and Deluxe-specific battle mode have given Mario Kart 8 incredible replay value, depth, and variety despite lacking an adventure mode. At launch, Mario Kart 8 was the peak of the series, the best modern kart racer, and a game of the year contender. Now, with tons of extra content, over thirty million copies sold, and the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Mario Kart 8 may become known as the greatest and most popular racing game of all time, kart or otherwise. (Kyle Rentschler)

Runners-Up: Bayonetta 2, Divinity: Original Sin, Hearthstone, Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare, Valiant Hearts: The Great War

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2015) Bloodborne

FromSoftware pioneered a new genre and difficulty standard with their Souls series, but Bloodborne’s their magnum opus. The sordid streets of Yharnam teem with monsters, and hacking through the bloody lot of them is a visceral (and challenging) delight.

I made it through Bloodborne with minimal trouble, felling most bosses in two or three tries. But the last boss, the dude whose name starts with G (no spoilers), kicked my ass to the moon and back. I fought him for a whole weekend, dying upwards of fifty times. I thought I couldn’t do it, that I’d have to throw in the towel, for this was a mountain I couldn’t scale. But then something unexpected happened: I won! I flawlessly dodged his attacks, steadily chipping away at his lofty life bar until he kicked the bucket. The sensation of elation I experienced upon victory was a high that lasted for hours, and that’s when it clicked for me “This is why there’s no easy mode”. (Harry Morris)

Runners-Up: Life is Strange, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Rocket League, Undertale, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

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2016) Persona 5

When it comes to JRPGs, there’s no shortage of turn-based level grind-y time sinkers on offer, but Persona 5 is something different. It’s both unabashedly inspired by its genre brethren, yet wholly unique. Where countless JRPG stories crumble under the weight of “That’s flippin’ nonsense”, Persona 5 serves up a rewarding narrative driven by a wildly loveable band of misfits. Its relationship-building mechanics (that inspired Fire Emblem: Three Houses) are addictive, and its user interface is award-worthy. Every facet of this genre masterpiece is meticulously honed to perfection, and its bigger and better iteration (Persona 5 Royal) can’t come soon enough. (Harry Morris)

Runners-Up: Final Fantasy XV, Inside, Overwatch, Pokemon Sun and Moon, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

2017) The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

What’s perhaps most remarkable about Breath of the Wild is just how familiar yet simultaneously refreshing it feels. Breath of the Wild may be the biggest Zelda game to date, but it still feels like a Zelda adventure — in spirit, story, tone and in gameplay. You play as the young courageous Link, the hero of Hyrule, who awakens from a cryogenic sleep chamber inside of a small cave and teams up with the eponymous princess (so to speak) and sets out on an adventure to destroy the horrible fanged, boar-faced Calamity Ganon, a megalomaniac holding Princess Zelda hostage and bent on destroying Hyrule. The narrative setup is more or less standard for a Zelda game, but Breath of the Wild has something that was missing from the series for far too long — perhaps since the original title was released back in 1986.

Much like that original, Breath of the Wild is a game that begs you to keep exploring and it does this right from the start, immediately instilling a real sense of mystery, no matter how familiar you are with the series. As soon as you emerge from that opening cave, you’ll find yourself on a vista, looking out at the beautiful mountains and ruins of a post-apocalyptic, techno-plagued world. And from that moment on, the world is your oyster.

Since its arrival in 1986, the Zelda series has always pushed the technical boundaries of whatever console it has graced and Breath of the Wild continues this tradition (times two). Epic, mythic, simply terrific, Breath of the Wild brought a new kind of experience to fans across the globe. In return, it demands your attention. It’s such a landmark in video games that labeling it a masterpiece almost seems inevitable. Though in the end, most of what makes Breath of the Wild so beloved is Nintendo’s determination to constantly challenge themselves while crafting an unforgettable experience that also doubles as a commentary on the freedom of playing on the Switch. That a game of this magnitude can be playable anywhere you go, is a remarkable feat. (Ricky D)

Runners-Up: Cuphead, Hollow Knight, Horizon Zero Dawn, Resident Evil VII, Super Mario Odyssey

2018) God of War

To take their beloved franchise, turn it on its head, and deliver an experience that surpasses its acclaimed predecessors was no easy task for Sony’s Santa Monica Studio, yet they smashed it! God of War pays homage to its roots, whilst simultaneously bounding headlong into uncharted waters. It embraces modern conventions but utilizes them in a way that feels fantastically fresh.

Kratos’s journey with Atreus through the universe of Norse mythology is a masterclass in both character study and organic world-building, and a far cry from the one dimensional “Kratos angry, Kratos kill things” fare of old. Combat strikes a balance between strategic nuance and gory glee, and the Leviathan Axe feels badass to swing around. Discussing this game is more often than not an exercise in rattling off cool qualities, because there’s just that many things to dig about it. (Harry Morris)

Runners-Up: Celeste, Monster Hunter World, Red Dead Redemption 2, Spider-Man, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Best Games of the Decade

2019 ) Fire Emblem: Three Houses

With three stories that can change depending on the choices taken, Fire Emblem: Three Houses really does allow the player to choose the path they wish. Much like previous Fire Emblem games, what the player does and chooses is at the heart of the game, with benefits and consequences for each action taken. With three different houses to discover, Fire Emblem: Three Houses can be replayed countless times while never feeling like the same game.

It’s easy to get enchanted by all the personality, charisma, and cheesiness the game has outside of battles, that it’s even easier to miss the tactical ingenuity within battles. Fire Emblem: Three Houses has shaken up much of the battle formula from previous Fire Emblem games, creating a much more fragile web, requiring a balancing of personalities and classes that can develop constructively for the rest of the game. This means every brick you place from the start of the game will affect how well your house stands by the end of the game. It’s a clever design that can catch even the most ardent Fire Emblem veterans out there.

But most importantly of all, each story doesn’t feel rushed or out of place. That isn’t just the three main stories but every characters’ own personal story. Some of the characters are a little overly cloy for my personal tastes, but that isn’t to say they didn’t fit the narrative. Their story was woven into the main story without a slip or a bump. It is that Fire Emblem: Three Houses is more than just how the player develops, but how each character develops around them. (James Baker)

Runner-Up: The Outer Wilds, Disco Elysium, Control, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Resident Evil 2

Best Games of the 1990s | Best Games of the 2000s | Best Games of the 2010s

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