Franchise Resurrection: Wolfenstein: The New Order
There's a special place in my heart for games that set out to be rise above their schlock material, and this year The New Order staked out a camp there and started setting up razor wire. I picked up the game expecting to savage its treatment of history, and while I have issues with the exploitative manner it presented concentration camps, I found a lot more going on under the hood. There's surprising historical nuance in how it presents a world of propaganda and counter-Nazi terrorism, and an ongoing theme of resistance via witnessing atrocity gives the violence a deeper layer.
The New Order provides a textbook example of how to reboot a franchise: retain what made the original game memorable (Nazi-killing action) and rethink the elements that no longer work (the jingoistic and cavalier attitude toward violence). Were it not for some reservations I have about the camp level, I might have named it the Critical Game of the Year. Even so, it's an excellent game and makes me excited for Wolfenstein's future.
Top Political Game / Best Espionage: Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes
I'll keep this brief since I wrote an entire article about it. Games about spying and black ops come out ten a year. "The Infiltration Mission" has become the new "Vehicle Section." Ground Zeroes stands apart from that by actually having the player engage in intelligence gathering and analysis. It's the first game in the series to actually deliver on the premise of Tactical Espionage Action.
But more than that, it's the only game this year that showed real interest in real-world abuses. The off-the-record torture and inhumane conditions at Camp Omega mirror the Camp X-Ray temporary detention facility at Guantanamo Bay (closed in 2002) and the infamous black site Camp No. If anything, the recent CIA Torture Report makes the game more vital now then at its release date, and it's the only big release this year that mustered outrage over the politics it addresses. It might have been Critical GOTY, but I refuse to give that distinction to a paid demo.
There were many games this year that had individual aspects that stood out, even if the game wasn't exceptionally innovative or interesting overall. They were:
- Sunset Overdrive, for its diversity-positive character system. In a gaming landscape where we're so often tied to same-looking avatars, I enjoyed being able to change my appearance, race, gender and clothing at any time. A game where you can play one mission as a Hawaiian beach girl, the next as Freddie Mercury and a third as a knight? Incredible.
- Goat Simulator for iOS. Definitely the best goat-related simulation game I've ever played, and possibly the most fun I had this year. At times while slogging through 40+ hour open world games I'd take a break to cause some mayhem.
- Middle-earth: The Shadow of Mordor for its Nemesis System, which - though it still needs refinement - shows exciting possibilities for the open-world genre.
- Halo: The Master Chief Collection for its visual redesign of Commander Keyes. The original Miranda Keyes looked like a knock-off of Denise Richards in Starship Troopers - a pouty lingerie model in a uniform. The new Keyes, by contrast, actually resembles a naval officer. She's a little gaunt and grey, with thin lips and eye bags from working too hard. Her face has character, and I love it. Bravo.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.