Welcome to Waypoint's Pantheon of Games, a celebration of our favorite games, a re-imagining of the year's best characters, and an exploration of the 2017's most significant trends.
The Avatar of Victory: You, Commander (XCOM 2: War of the Chosen)
The greatest victories are won through struggle and perseverance. It's not hard to triumph over an inferior, overmatched opponent, but these are not the victories that give rise to heroes and songs of glory. They are too cheaply won, too light and insubstantial, to endure long in the imagination. But the victor standing in the arena, bloody and exhausted, is the truest Avatar of Victory. And that is why XCOM 2: War of the Chosen belongs in our video game pantheon.
When I wrote about the game earlier this year, I was impressed with how well it improved upon vanilla XCOM 2. War of the Chosen took a badly flawed, under-developed campaign and jammed an entire game's worth of new ideas into it without capsizing the entire design. That act of rehabilitation and reinvention alone would have made War of the Chosen one of the year's most impressive offerings.
But War of the Chosen is far more than just a feat of game engineering. It's not just some mythic breastplate forged for an already-legendary hero. It is in itself the very essence of triumph, because it amplifies every element that was already great about XCOM, but finds success in completely new and unexpected areas as well. It reinvents almost as much as it revises, and in ways that change how we relate to the game by imbuing it with its own heart and personality.
Rather than just being another duel between the XCOM organization and alien invaders, War of the Chosen situates the battle against the Advent as part of a growing and global resistance. We meet other resistance cells and leaders, each of which have their own goals, tactics, and personalities. It's not just a matter of flavor text and incidental dialogue, but it comes through in the way each of the new faction's soldiers fight during battle.
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We learn that not every alien serving The Advent is happy to be doing so, and there's an entire resistance faction—the Skirmishers—that's sprung from within their own ranks, turning their guns on their enslavers. They are brutal and blunt, approaching combat as a stage for personal retribution: they want to pull their enemies close and look into their eyes as their claws rip them apart. The Reapers, on the other hand, are cold-blooded assassins who measure their successes via body counts, and prefer to get their revenge from the shadows, with a long-range rifle shot.And as those factions generate special new missions, they help break XCOM out of its "squad deathmatch" mission structure. In additional to scripted encounters, we also have missions where we have to help ambushed XCOM operatives escape to safety or, failing that, where we have to help break them out of jail in order to get them back into the fight.The world itself feels new and strange. The "Evil Apple Store" aesthetic of the Advent-held cities is now juxtaposed with ruined tomb-cities where rugged bands of "stalker-like" hunters survive amidst the ashen remains of humanity and hordes of twisted zombies. There are memorable scenes and locations that pop-up across the campaign: The ashen husks of a pair or EMTs stand frozen next to a patient on a stretcher, whose arms are raised up in a failed bid to ward-off some horrific end. A group of human resistance fighters take shelter in a snowbound church during an Advent assault, while civilians huddle between the pews awaiting rescue from XCOM.
There is an emotional texture to this game that the series has never had before, a palpable desperation and terror earlier games could only imply or brute-force into existence via mission scripting.
But the stars of this show are The Chosen themselves, the semi-immortal, semi-procedurally generated boss-enemies of this expansion. Vividly voice-acted and with a strikingly robust and diverse set of powers, they inject an element of Predator into XCOM 2. Wisely, the game employs the threat of the Chosen more often that it employs their physical presence, so that they don't ever become nuisance enemies. But every time they show up, it's a gut-check moment that completely changes the normal tactical dynamics of an XCOM 2 battle.
The Assassin appears and disappears like a shadow, leaving bodies littered in her wake. The Warlock will bend your entire squad to his will, forcing friends to turn against each other and leaving lasting scars on each of your soldiers. Each enemy has a personality that is expressed in both word and combat action, and that makes their ultimate reckoning that much sweeter when you, at long last, receive Victory's favor.
Goddess of Lost Homes: Mae Borowski (Night in the Woods)
Mae Borowski is a college dropout and a semi-successful young adult, and Night In The Woods knows this. Her return to her hometown leads to a journey of self-discovery and community discovery, as the places once so familiar to her are now tinted by her absence and new perspective. Possum Springs is the town she grew up in, but it’s not the same town as it once was in her youth, or in the youth of generations before her.
The God of Arbitrary Gravity: Motorcycle (PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds)
This one is kind of cheating since PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds spent most of 2017 in Early Access and littered with bugs, but some of the most fun I had while playing involved vehicles. Specifically, if I got ran to a motorcycle, pumped the gas to the limit, and rolled over the countryside, would I die in the process? The physics involving the motorcycle are nonsense, but every time I hit a hill and launched myself into the air, I wondered if this was the end. But I learned that if you pray to the PUBG Gods hard enough, you’ll survive crashing into a building at 75 km/hr and across a half mile of Soviet Union dystopia.
The Spiraled Labyrinth: Unexplored
The dungeon beneath the earth is circular and I will tell you what that means. Draw a line and make its ends touch. So, we have begun. We will take the fire mage, and lock him in the small library. Dry paper. Where shall we place the key? Follow the line with your finger. There. In the small chest surrounded by the pressure plates. Perhaps I should hook them up to a teleporter. Too cruel? Fine. Arrows. Now, this is important. Fill out the spaces we’ve missed. They must feel like they could get lost, truly tangled in the spiral. And they could, but… watch. A path they’ll miss the first time. They can always find a way. Let us build this great spiral downward into the earth. It will take us six seconds.
The Book of Bonds: The Sanada Clan (Samurai Warriors: Spirit of Sanada)
I don’t typically look to Musou (or Warriors) games for their storytelling. They’re primarily concerned with letting players toss nameless infantry around like dolls while some electric guitars wail in the background, and I’m fine with that. More than fine, really; it’s what I’m there for. But this year, a Musou game was the first game to make me cry after Nier: Automata. And if I’m being honest, Samurai Warriors: Spirit of Sanada made me cry a little harder, too. The story of the Sanada clan is not one of the happier ones in Samurai Warriors lore, and Spirit of Sanada spends enough time on their ups and downs that, for once, all of these tragedies that I already knew about actually sank in. They felt so much more personal than I had expected because their story had been given such startling care and focus. It wasn’t new, but it was devastatingly effective.