Like many gamers, 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown was my first exposure to the vaunted PC franchise. I was always interested in the original games, but could never get over the more dated aspects of their presentation and was intimidated by their presumed difficulty. With the reboot, Firaxis demonstrated a great passion for the source material without being unnecessarily slavish to it, and it paid off. Streamlined and satisfying, with a great tactical layer, Enemy Unknown was a great surprise for me. The Enemy Within expansion helped to fix most of my issues with the vanilla version, namely its boring mid-game and plodding tactical pace, and after 100 or so hours of tough losses and hard-fought victories, I installed the Long War mod and spent ANOTHER 50 hours getting my ass kicked by alien invaders.
The sequel looks to be made for players like me, who loved the original product and have an endless thirst for tough calls and tactical variables. It’s more XCOM, sure, but it’s also different XCOM, placing the once well-funded group in the role of resistance fighters, and in the process inverting nearly everything about the strategic layer of the game; you’re not just trying to complete a mission, you’re trying to stop the aliens from completing theirs. You’re not cautiously leapfrogging through a quiet forest… You’re setting up an ambush on patrolling guards at a research facility.
Procedurally-generated maps. A loot system. A mind-boggling degree of soldier customization options. Oh, and full modding support AT LAUNCH. XCOM 2 is shaping up to be a worthy successor to one of my favorite games of all time, and it’s my most anticipated game of 2016.
Roller Coaster Tycoon is a special franchise for me. I spent hours with the first two games as a kid, dropping peeps into lakes and charging 50 cents to use the toilet. More recently, I’ve found myself returning the Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 the most. My time with it has suggested that the genre has a lot of potential in today’s gaming landscape, and this past year I’ve had both the reveal of Roller Coaster Tycoon World and Frontier’s announcement of Planet Coaster to be excited about.
Frontier has been very busy making Elite: Dangerous and, more recently, its ambitious expansion “Horizons”. But now that they’re ready to revisit the theme park simulation genre, I can’t wait to see what all their heady space-sim experience can bring to a more modern interpretation of the game. Planet Coaster looks as dense and systems-driven as it does charming and fun, which gives it the nod over the iterative (though impressive) Roller Coaster Tycoon World. Finally, guests have collision, theming can be designed at a granular level, and coaster creation seems intuitive and more flexible than ever. Sign me up!
Firewatch looks like the evolution of the narrative-driven adventure game. The idea of dynamically triggering dialogue and narration really excites me, because it opens up all kinds of new storytelling opportunities that were previously reliant on a more closed design or linear storytelling. Games like Gone Home opened the door for very controlled stories about more intimate subjects, as evidenced by the influx of indie exploration games that followed in its wake. It showed the broader gaming audience that a game about personal relationships didn’t have to be couched in action-oriented mechanics. Firewatch seems like a necessary next step for dramatic games, opening their scope back up to wider, more interesting settings while still retaining the intimacy and characterization that make other narrative games so compelling.
No Man's Sky
No Man’s Sky will not be an especially deep game, I suspect, but it is one with a fascinating concept and fantastic art direction. Many people have been vocal about their desire to understand what the progression system/core loop of No Man’s Sky looks like, but I’ll be overjoyed just to fly around in this colorful version of the galaxy, no endgame required. I perceive it as a toy to play with, an endless sandbox to be poked at for an hour or two at a time, indefinitely. I can’t wait to name my first planet or encounter my first truly alien life, regardless of what i’m on my way to accomplish.
Despite the delays and extreme hype surrounding this release, Hello Games has been very careful to avoid revealing what they see as spoilers for the specific mechanics/systems at play in their clockwork universe. My number one hope is to see bits of more authored storytelling scattered throughout the generated cosmos.
The Long Dark
The Long Dark is a survival game that splits the difference between abstract resource meters and specific calorie counts. It’s realistic enough to make its many hard decisions gut-wrenching; with one flare left and no food, freezing in a blizzard, do you head out blindly in search of better shelter or sleep it off and hope you wake up? Your stomach is growling, on 700 calories and burning them fast. You’re exhausted, and run the risk of passing out at any moment. Will you see another sunrise? Is that a wolf?
60 hours into playing in its sandbox, The Long Dark still has me hooked… the profound sense of loneliness that pervades its survival gameplay leads to quiet contemplation in its peaceful moments and inescapable dread in others (particularly as you slowly die from one of a million tiny mistakes)… It’s insane to think that it’s going to have an episodic story mode on top of the already robust simulation experience. I only hope it can retain its quiet beauty through to final release.
Jonathan Blow is back with his long-awaited open world puzzle adventure. Like its lead designer, the game is hard to get a read on from interviews and press coverage. From what we know, it’s a nonlinear game that is inspired by Myst, and like that game, is set on an island. It features a simple maze-solving mechanic as its starting point, slowly layering more and more complex rules onto it over time as you uncover the secrets of the island. Puzzles are interconnected and there is no apparent critical path, so you can easily lose yourself down a deep rabbit hole here. Blow himself has referred to the fact that players can and will get stuck, and that it’s accounted for in the game’s design. I haven’t felt this intimidated by a game in a while, but if previews are to be believed, I have a very long journey ahead of me (coming very soon!) at the end of January.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
After an impressive resurrection of the Deus Ex IP, Square Enix Montreal appears to have doubled-down on a lot of what I loved about Human Revolution. The jump to 8th Gen consoles should bring an even more satisfying density to its cyberpunk levels, and hopefully with that visual density comes a bit more world-building as well. In the aftermath of Human Revolution, it seems the world has become a much more hostile place for augmented and non-augs alike. Jensen’s got some nifty new combat skills to make open firefights a bit more interesting, like an armor buff and the ability to fire his arm-blades as projectiles, but I’m hoping to see an evolution of the tense, first-person conversations of the last game, too.
Uncharted 4: A Thief's End
The long-awaited PS4 showpiece is nearly here. Naughty Dog promises more freedom in Uncharted 4, and what we’ve seen has shown larger combat arenas with more stealth combat options, along with the admittedly puzzling inclusion of dialogue choices. There was some talk around last year’s E3 demo that the team is playing with more dynamic and systems-based set pieces, which could have a big effect on the way people perceive the traditionally tightly-controlled choreography of the previous games… But for the most part, I’m here for story. Will they effectively send Drake off into the sunset? Will they kill Sully (but for real this time)? Who will star in the next 10 Uncharted games? The answers to these questions and more await us in April.
Final Fantasy XV
I don’t like many modern JRPGs. I haven’t been pulled in by any of their storytelling in a long while. Final Fantasy, having long been a standard-bearer of sorts for the subgenre, lost me in its move to the 7th generation. The XIII games didn’t grab me, their narratives a jumble of indecipherable pronouns and weirdly impersonal art design.
XV is on this list because it looks different in a way that very intentionally hearkens back to the very foundations of the series (and the RPG genre). With a new director at the helm of the franchise and the promising Episode Duscae and its updates, it seems like people are ready to believe in FF again. I’m ready to believe, too - that this game will make it out in 2016.
Doom. It’s a simple game: you are a space marine. You are stationed on Mars. Things Go Wrong. Kill hellspawn with guns and a chainsaw. After MachineGames brought Wolfenstein back into the picture last year with The New Order, I’ve had cautious hopes that Doom could achieve the same kind of balance for its reboot. The pieces seem to be in place, and my time with the multiplayer was brief but enjoyable.There are still questions about the campaign, but most of what i’m looking for out of Doom is weapon variety and demon viscera, so I think I’ll enjoy what’s being offered up regardless.