Thursday, January 18, 2018

Best Shows of 2017

A few shows I've been watching for a while had down or least unexciting seasons in 2017, but for the most part it was a great year for TV, with several new series that really impressed me.

Best of 2017

10. Review (Comedy Central)


Review's third and final season was very brief, but it was a perfect send-off for a series that was much more fascinating than I really expected when I gave it a shot. Right up to the end they kept coming up with new ways for Andy Daly's Forrest MacNeill to torture himself, putting his obsession with doing his job over every other concern he should have. You really just have to see it for yourself.

9. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC)


This was maybe the biggest surprise of the year. From the beginning, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been the dutiful television branch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that cleans up the scraps of story left by the movies and does competent but bland espionage action every week. Things were different in season four, when they finally abandoned the pretense that they were really "connected" to the movies and focused on three tighter story arcs instead of a single meandering thread. It resulted in what was quite easily the show's best season, recalling what works about the Whedon TV formula with smart plots, strong character drama, and twists that really stick the knife in. I don't know if I would tell anyone they really need to watch this show, but that season alone made the years of investment worth it.

8. Samurai Jack (Adult Swim)


Samurai Jack returned after many years to finally conclude the tale of his defeat of Aku and return to his own time. The show matured along with most of its audience, becoming more violent and bittersweet as it introduced a couple of new concepts but focused mostly on creating a proper ending for the series and its characters. I thought the climax could have used a bit more time to breathe, but it was a really good show with some of the best animated sequences you'll ever see on TV.

7. Rick and Morty (Adult Swim)


Rick and Morty's fandom really seemed to boil over into full on insufferable, ashamed-to-be-associated-with-some-of-these-people mode in the last couple years, but the show itself is about as good as ever, mixing razor sharp humor with wild sci-fi ideas and bitterly human moments at a crazy pace. It continues to be formally experimental in eye-opening ways, and a few of these episodes are easily among the most memorable half hours of entertainment to come along in a while.

6. Legion (FX)


FOX has been having a nice of run of success with its X-Men related output lately, and Legion might be my favorite thing they've done. It's a superhero story as a psychological drama. In the comics, David Haller is the son of Professor X. In the show, there are no real references to any well-known mutants to be found, but the character is intact as a mentally unstable, powerful mutant who isn't sure where his abilities end and his hallucinations begin. The show is really more of a horror series than anything else, with some truly unsettling moments as the characters fight to survive some truly bizarre situations. It stands apart from other X-Men adaptations as something truly unique.

5. The Good Place (NBC)


The new comedy from the Parks and Recreation brain trust takes place in "The Good Place", the place good people go when they die, based on a complicated point system. The problem in the first episode is the new arrival and protagonist, played by Kristen Bell, knows there's no way she shouldn't have been sent to "The Bad Place", and from there begins a whole series of complications and screw-ups that drive one of my favorite new comedies in a long time. The Good Place is ambitious, smart, and hilarious, and is story focused in a way that makes compulsive watching easy if not unavoidable. And the cast is diverse and brilliant, particularly Ted Danson as Michael, the architect of the neighborhood the show takes place in. He might be the lifetime sitcom MVP.

4. The Deuce (HBO)


David Simon's new show is a return to what he does best - rich, complicated examinations of systems of crime and neglect that inevitably end up hurting the vulnerable the most. It's about the intertwined industries of prostitution and pornography in 1970s New York, as the former is pushed behind closed doors and the latter starts gaining mainstream acceptance. The ensemble cast is reliably excellent, as is the writing, which takes time to explain how things work and why they're terrible and won't be fixed without being preachy or unnatural. There's a lot of sex in this show, but it feels illustrative rather than titillating. When you know how the sausage is made, you don't want to eat it as much.

3. Better Call Saul (AMC)


In some ways, I think Better Call Saul might be better than Breaking Bad. I don't want that to be taken the wrong way, because there are things that Breaking Bad did that no other show can do as well, and that Saul doesn't really try. But it can do subtler, smaller storytelling in ways that show this team doesn't need Breaking Bad's excesses to make one of the most consistently riveting dramas on TV. The rivalry between Jimmy and Chuck is one of the most heartbreaking family conflicts I can remember, and Mike getting himself intertwined with Gus and the cartel, knowing where that eventually goes, is always great stuff. And what the heck is going to happen to Kim? God this show is fun.

2. The Leftovers (HBO)


The Leftovers' third and final season (déjà vu) brings the story to a close in a way that satisfied, bringing more comparisons to Lost, Damon Lindelof's other show about mysterious, unexplained events. It's all a matter of perspective. While people expected certain things from Lost that the creators never intended to give them, it seemed clear from the outset that the focus of The Leftovers was how the strange disappearance of 2% of the population affected the people who remained, and not the disappearance itself. That was driven home here, as the characters struggle to find some catharsis or really anything to latch onto, as they reel from further events that spun out from the results of the "rapture". The final season was raw, emotional, devastating, and hopeful from beginning to end.

1. Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime)


There was some trepidation about what to expect from David Lynch's return to the world of Twin Peaks for the first time in 26 years, and his first major work behind a camera in 11. Does he still have it? Will it be too familiar? Too different? The answers to those questions are yes, no, and no. Twin Peaks still resembles the old Twin Peaks, but it feels appropriately twisted. Evil has been running free for decades, and the advanced aging of the many returning cast members illustrate the toll it has taken on this world. It's like Lynch got to make an eighteen hour long movie and could do whatever the hell he wanted with it as long as it tied into a story that didn't get a proper ending the first time. There are a few moments of comfort and familiarity, but the show is frequently challenging, even frustrating, and often very experimental. It won't work for everyone, but as a fan of most of Lynch's filmography, I loved the hell out of it. I'm not sure I've ever seen anything as ballsy as that ending. Also, Kyle MacLachlan kills it. I'd love to see another season, or really anything else David Lynch wants to make.

Delayed Entry

This is the best show that didn't air in 2016 but I didn't watch until then.

The Last Man on Earth (FOX)

I'm now caught up on this show, and while it didn't quite land on the top 10, it's also another one of my favorite new-ish comedy series. Will Forte stars as Phil Miller, an oddball of a man and one of only a few who seem to be immune to a virus that wiped out almost all life on the planet (spoiler, the title of the show is quickly shown to be inaccurate). The whole cast is good, but it's really Forte who drives the thing. The show actually takes its premise quite seriously, and it has its share of effective dramatic developments and careful consideration of what would follow the near-extinction of humanity. But taking that story, and putting this character at the center, is so weird and brilliant and funny. Will Forte should have gotten his own show a long time ago.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Best Albums of 2017

I mentioned last year that I had signed up for a streaming music service. I kept that going and it led to me listening to by far the most new music I've ever heard in a year. Both new as in I hadn't heard it before, and new as in actually newly released. I listened to over 40 new albums, and culling that list down to 10 was actually pretty difficult. This is the music that hit me the hardest in 2017.

Best of 2017

10. SZA - CTRL


I listened to a couple different R&B artists, and SZA is the one who stood out the most. She has a great voice and great control over it, and her album is experimental in its choice of sounds and instrumentation where others stick to the same basic stuff.

9. Vince Staples - Big Fish Theory


I've been hearing good stuff about Vince for a little while, but his album was definitely different than I expected. He's a talented rapper, but what really stood out here was the production. It's pretty unusual, often sounding more like UK bass than hip-hop. It stays catchy though, with a few tracks that jump into your brain and stay lodged there.

8. Mount Eerie - A Crow Looked at Me


There have been sad albums before, but A Crow Looked at Me is maybe the most starkly heartbreaking I've ever heard. Phil Elverum wrote and recorded this after he lost his wife to cancer, and at times it feels more like a therapy session than an album. I thought the music itself was mostly just pretty good, but his honest emotion really elevates it to a very memorable space.

7. St. Vincent - Masseduction


At this point I'm convinced that St. Vincent is incapable of releasing anything other than very good albums that synthesize a variety of styles and influences into a sound that is distinctly and exclusively hers. I expected it to be good, and it was!

6. Fleet Foxes - Crack-Up


Fleet Foxes is kind of standing in here for the many indie rock bands I like that put out new albums in 2017. Crack-Up was my favorite of the bunch, weaving their familiar folk-tinged sound into a bunch of new songs which always take me to a pleasant plane of existence.

5. Lorde - Melodrama


I've generally avoided listening to mainstream pop for some reason, but I decided to throw that out after being repeatedly intrigued by Lorde's songs when I've heard them. There's not much I can honestly point to that distinctly separates her from indie pop I like, after all. Melodrama is a damn good album, with great production and Lorde's unique voice working in tandem.

4. Kendrick Lamar - DAMN.


After the transcendence of his last two proper albums, Kendrick releasing one that is merely very good almost feels like a letdown. Most of the tracks are solid, but while I'm used to him making full start to finish experiences, DAMN. feels like a collection of songs, some of which are better than others. It speaks to how great he is that despite these feelings I still have it this high on the list.

3. King Krule - The Ooz


As I was listening to King Krule's strange and exciting new album, I stumbled upon a comparison that made a lot of sense. He's basically a millennial Tom Waits. The deep voice, the constant experimentation, the weird influences, it fits surprisingly well. Nothing I've heard really sounds like King Krule, and I like it quite a bit.

2. The War on Drugs - A Deeper Understanding


I have previously compared Arcade Fire to an indie rock Bruce Springsteen. I stand by that for some of their work, but it seems to fit even better for The War on Drugs. They mix heartland and modern influences to create dense, textured songs that combine the best bits of both genres. This is the kind of band that I hear for the first time and wonder why it's taken so long for them to get on my radar.

1. LCD Soundsystem - American Dream


I've heard a few LCD Soundsystem singles before, but I was totally unprepared for this album. It combines a lot of what I like about electronic music with what I like about post-punk, and the synthesis works like gangbusters. A handful of my favorite songs of the year are on this album. It's damn good. I'm glad the guy un-retired.

Delayed Entry

This is the best album that wasn't released in 2017 but I didn't hear until then.

Bob Dylan - Highway 61 Revisited

This was a tough choice, as I heard a bunch of classic albums and found several new favorites for every decade of popular music. I have to go with Highway 61, though. It is what got me to understand why people are crazy about Bob Dylan, possibly the most revered individual of the last 60 years of music. It's not just influential and famous, it's really freaking great to listen to today.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Best Movies of 2017

Once again, I did a bad job last year of watching new movies that weren't about super heroes punching each other. I don't go to the theater very often because it's so easy to watch movies at home, and most of the movies I watch at home tend to be a little older. I stand behind everything on this list, though. They're all really good movies I'd like to watch again.

Best of 2017

10. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2


Super hero movie as bonkers space opera. Volume 2 is not as fresh and exciting as the original was a few years ago, but James Gunn recognized that he had a good thing going and didn't mess with it too much. He just made another solid, hilarious, original space adventure movie with decent dramatic chops. Family is a pretty common theme in modern action movies that try to have a heart, and this one tackles the idea head-on. It has what you would want from a sequel. More of what was cool about the original, without feeling like a retread and adding new characters and twists. Add another good soundtrack and you're all set.

9. Blade Runner 2049

There's lots of doom and gloom going around about the state of the movie industry, but I love that things like this can still get made. 2049 is a very long, slowly paced, big budget, R-rated science fiction movie. Worldwide, it probably lost the studio money. But it exists, and nobody can stop it from existing. The original Blade Runner is still revered, and its best assets were its sense of style and mood. I think 2049 captures those aspects well, with gorgeous cinematography, a soundtrack that feels both familiar and new, and an extension of the concepts of life and identity that are pretty familiar at this point. I think the movie works best as an exploration of tone and texture more than story. It tells a decent sci-fi noir mystery, but the best moments are just taking in the lavish sights and sounds. Plus it's the most tolerable Jared Leto has been in years.

8. Spider-Man: Homecoming


Super hero movie as teen comedy. Spider-Man is my favorite comic character, and it's great to see him in a movie that actually explores the original idea of a high school student juggling his powers and hunger for action with his everyday worries. Tom Holland is already my favorite actor to take the role, and he and his supporting cast create a great, fun atmosphere that backdrops the action. It really is a comedy more than anything else, though Michael Keaton's Vulture is a surprisingly good villain, with a few scary moments and exciting action beats. The movie doesn't totally follow through on the idea of responsibility that are the character's core, which is why it's not higher on this list. Still, I had a great time watching it.

7. Logan


Super hero movie as violent neo-western. I liked The Wolverine more than I think a lot of people did, and Logan goes even further in exploring the character of James Howlett and giving a different perspective on the cinematic X-Men universe. The movie takes place in a dour future where most of the famous mutants are gone, and the ones we recognize are really getting old. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart both give standout final performances as their iconic characters. It's very R-rated, with lots of curse words and graphic violence in the action scenes, which are infrequent but always land with an impact. It's sort of the end of an era, but it also opens the door for other possibilities with the franchise. The question is whether any of that gets explored or if it all gets absorbed into Disney after recent corporate dealings.

6. Thor: Ragnarok


Super hero movie as broad cosmic farce. I enjoyed the first two Thor movies, but this is the first time the character has felt truly vital and relevant. Chris Hemsworth drips charisma and has great comic ability, and the whole cast and crew lean into that as they produce a movie that is not only grander than previous entries in the series, but also far sillier and more entertaining. It's a wonderful ensemble, with Bruce Banner, Valkyrie, Korg, and Jeff Goldblum's very Goldblum-y Grandmaster all making strong attempts to steal the movie. And while once again the villain doesn't get as much time to develop into a full character as we might like, Cate Blanchett is clearly enjoying the hell out of the role. It's a solid movie from start to finish, the best in a very strong year for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

5. Get Out


Not all racism is overt. It's not all slurs and hostility. Sometimes it's just a clear change in attitude in response to a person of another race being around, or saying what you think is a compliment but comes off as another stereotype. Or sometimes it's being victim to a system of violence because people simply care less when racial minorities are targeted. Get Out takes the familiar scenario of a black man meeting his white girlfriend's family and turns it into a horror story. They're all friendly enough, but what are they really thinking and hiding? Being a true horror movie, Get Out obviously goes a bit beyond reality with the events that follow, but the scariest part of the movie is how close to reality it stays in certain aspects. This is Jordan Peele's first time directing a film, but it sure doesn't feel like it. The movie is funny and scary when it wants to be, and his style is assured at all times. I already liked him as an actor, but I'm definitely interested in anything else he tries behind the camera.

4. John Wick: Chapter 2


I enjoyed John Wick, but I did not love it to the extent that a lot of action movie fans did. It felt like another Taken with only a couple of new ideas to differentiate it. John Wick 2 though? John Wick 2 is extremely my shit. It's a combination of things, I think. The action choreography felt further developed from where it was the last time. Close up head shots are cool, but close up head shots while performing complicated martial arts takedowns are cooler. We also see a bigger variety of weapons and situations, including a fantastic succession of scenes between Wick and someone who's actually close to his equal in skill. The story had more depth to it than the functional but simple revenge tale of the first. This ties into another thing I liked, the expansion on the strange alternate universe the series takes place in, where things seem normal on the surface but there's an underground society of high rolling hitmen and codes of honor and gold coins and hobo spy networks. The situation isn't as black and white for John, as he has to decide what he's willing to do to protect himself, and considers the cost of the actions he takes. I really liked the movie more than I expected and I would love to see a third.

3. Baby Driver


Edgar Wright's fifth film is his first that wasn't based on another work or co-written with Simon Pegg, so it's an interesting look at what his personal talents and interests are. If he has a weakness, it's probably creating women characters that stand on their own, but I enjoyed the hell out of most of this movie. It's an odd hybrid of action heist film and musical, where most of the chases and shootouts are timed to match the background music, which was chosen from an eclectic variety of periods and genres. The cast is pretty outstanding, and there are unexpected twists on the pretty familiar story of a criminal with a heart of gold who just wants to get away and live a simpler life. Almost every moment just works, and it has a sort of fairy tale tone that I liked. There's talk about a sequel, and I have no idea what that would be, but I'd definitely see it.

2. Dunkirk


Dunkirk is further proof that Christopher Nolan can take any type of story or setting and turn it into a taut, tense, non-chronological, clockwork puzzle box. The Dunkirk evacuation is one of the most famous events of World War II from the British side, and this movie examines it from the perspectives of soldiers waiting on the beach for rescue, civilians recruited to retrieve them across the English channel with their own boats, and fighter pilots protecting both groups from slaughter by the Germans. Each perspective is on a different time scale, and it can get complicated trying to keep track of events you see from multiple perspectives that can occur out of order based on that timeline. You kind of can't help but smile as Nolan pulls this off in what could have been a straightforward war movie. The film is greatly buoyed by Hans Zimmer's score, which uses a ticking clock as a constant motif and keeps the tension ratcheted at all times as Nolan cuts between scenes of various intensity but a nearly constantly sense of impending doom. It's a good thing the movie's under two hours, because if it was closer to standard war movie length it might become unbearable. As it is, it's one of my favorites of the genre, without relying on the intense violence and gore that's been so common since Saving Private Ryan.

1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi


After buying the franchise rights from George Lucas, Disney released Star Wars: The Force Awakens to get people to trust that they knew what they were doing. It's a pretty good movie that hits on familiar story beats, introduces a very likable new cast of characters in addition to some familiar faces, and really doesn't do anything to rock the boat. The Last Jedi is different. It's a movie that defies expectations, tears down false beliefs, and pushes in new directions. Very much unlike The Force Awakens, it provoked strong reactions on both sides. Personally, I loved it. Following in the footsteps of The Empire Strikes Back, the best Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi allows its characters to fail. But in failure, they learn things and find out more about who they really are. How does Poe handle discovering that his piloting skills aren't enough to truly lead the resistance to a meaningful victory? Can Finn find something bigger to believe in than just the safety of himself and the people he's close to? How does Rey handle realizing that there's more to the force than magic tricks and fighting skills, and that just because a bad person is conflicted, it doesn't mean that they're capable or worthy of being saved? I think there's honest quibbles you can make about many of the moments in the film, but the questions it was asking and how they were answered felt far more important to me. It rejects things I really didn't like about the prequels or The Force Awakens, and finds a new path forward for the series that I'm looking forward to seeing explored in future sequels. Mark Hamill gave probably his best ever performance as Luke Skywalker, and I thought the handling of that character fit perfectly with the themes and scope of the story. It also has some of the best action scenes and most astonishing imagery the series has ever had. I wasn't sure there would be another great Star Wars movie again, but I believe this one was.

Delayed Entry

This is the best movie that wasn't released in 2017 but I didn't see until then.

Arrival

Denis Villeneuve directed Blade Runner 2049, but his best science fiction movie is Arrival. It starts with first contact with aliens and explores the nature of language in interesting ways, and expands from there into broader examinations of the very basics of perspective, communication, and life itself. It plays with the nature of storytelling brilliantly, showing you how basic assumptions can be wrong, all of which ties into the basic plot itself. You add in Villeneuve's skilled direction and a terrific cast and you have a pretty amazing movie.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Best Games of 2017

2017 was an interesting year for games. There weren't a lot of all time greats, and seemingly every game that got an audience to fall in love had a large group of detractors who could point to legitimate problems holding it back. Still, there were lots of good games. Some I didn't get a chance to play, some that I enjoyed quite a bit, and some that found their way onto this list.

Best of 2017

10. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (Multi)


Resident Evil has existed for over twenty years now, and the series has had a long and inconsistent history. They really seem to nail it with every third numbered game, though. The original Resident Evil brought horror games to the mainstream, Resident Evil 4 is one of the best action games ever made, and Resident Evil 7 is the freshest the series has felt in years. After a few action-heavy games, they returned to a slower pace and scarier tone, and while the gameplay basics are a throwback to the series' roots, its horror influences and immersive setting bring those forward to the modern day. The game gets weaker as it goes on and focuses more on combat and the sillier aspects of the series' familiar storytelling concepts, but it's mostly a really strong game, right when they needed it.

9. Dishonored: Death of the Outsider (Multi)


The third and possibly final Dishonored game, at least as far as this setting goes, is a satisfying conclusion to the series' broad story beats, and it brings some interesting tweaks to the gameplay formula. While the first two games star characters trying to return a status quo to a chaotic political landscape, Death of the Outsider is a more personal story about someone with less privilege, and her struggle and drive for revenge ties into the game's abandonment of direct action being an undesirable goal. The series has always allowed for violence, but it punishes it by making the world a nastier place to walk around in if you drop too many bodies. That's gone this time, and along with "contract" side missions that encourage different play styles, I found myself interacting with the world in ways I hadn't tried before in the series. Billy's set of powers is smaller than Corvo's or Emily's, but it's good enough for the game's shorter length, and the final mission aside, the level and quest design is as strong as the series has ever been. A great final note.

8. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (PS4)


For my money, Naughty Dog is possibly the most reliable studio when it comes to releasing smart, beautiful, well-written, hand-crafted action adventures. The Lost Legacy started as an expansion for Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, but it became big enough to release as a stand-alone title, and it's yet another satisfying entry in the series. It stars two previous supporting characters, Chloe and Nadine, as they explore the cities, jungles, and ancient temples of India searching for a priceless artifact. You get the expected mix of climbing, wandering, puzzle solving, and shooting, and a nice story with some really good character work. Two standout sections are a large open area you navigate with an off-road vehicle and an ending that combines a lot of elements from previous set pieces in the series into one breath-taking climactic sequence.

7. Horizon: Zero Dawn (PS4)


Horizon is an open-world game with stunning graphics, a unique combat system, a cool sci-fi setting, and a new main character that I ended up liking a lot. There were some things that bugged me about the game, but it was a strong beginning for a world that I hope I get to revisit in a sequel. It takes place in the far future, after our society has been destroyed and is being slowly rebuilt from scratch, while the humans have to deal with the problems of both large bands of bandits and huge, violent robots, often resembling extinct animals. Figuring out what the whole story is really about is a strong draw, and there are some interesting side stories as well. Experimenting with the different choices for weapons, ammunition and traps, learning what works against what sorts of enemies, is also a lot of fun. There are some small annoyances, but it's definitely worth a try.

6. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (Multi)


When Battlegrounds is working, it's one of the most thrilling multiplayer games I've ever played. You are dropped, alone or in a small group, onto a large island with 99 other people and nothing but a parachute and the clothes on your back. You have to look for resources - weapons, gear, armor, medical supplies. There is a force field slowly closing in on a single random point on the map, and if you're outside the circle, your health is constantly being drained. Certain places are getting hit by airstrikes. You might find yourself dropping right next to an enemy and frantically scrambling for something to defend yourself. Or you might get into a pitched urban firefight. Or a tense sniper battle across rolling hills. Or madly charging towards a safe point in a truck while the force field closes in on you. Unfortunately, you might also spend twenty minutes grabbing equipment before you get nailed by someone you didn't see, all that effort for nothing. That stinks. Luckily, it's only a minute or two before you're in your next match.

5. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus (Multi)


Wolfenstein II is an enjoyable, old school first person shooter where you generally sneak around, capping Nazi officers with a silenced pistol to avoid reinforcements, until you're spotted, when you pull out a machine gun in one hand and automatic shotgun in the other and blow away everything that moves with abandon, scooping up ammo, health kits, and bits of armor like a vacuum cleaner. It's fun enough, but the real draw, as with the last game, is the story. B.J. Blazkowicz is one of my favorite modern game protagonists, and his supporting cast is among the most diverse and compelling in the medium. Every story scene in the game is a treat. It might be touchingly considered or completely outrageously insane, but either way I'm completely drawn in. It's unfortunate that a video game taking place in an alternate reality where Nazis won WWII and are walking the streets of America is "relevant", but I love that it pulls no punches and walks a delicate tightrope with aplomb.

4. Nier: Automata (Multi)


When you first play Nier, you'll get a decent action RPG with a slick but shallow combat system, some cool customization options, some uneven anime voice acting and character designs, passable graphics, a great soundtrack, an an intriguing but vaguely unsatisfying narrative. Then the game asks you to play it again, and it starts to open up. You're repeating a lot of the same stuff, but with a new perspective and new revelations pushing you forward. Then you keep playing it, and if you're still along for the ride at this point, you're getting a truly unique game, where the flaws don't seem to matter as much and what they're doing with the combination of story and medium is one of the most memorable experiences you'll ever have. If that sounds interesting, you should play Nier.

3. Night in the Woods (Multi)


Despite starring anthropomorphic animals, Night in the Woods is one of the most relatable games I've ever played. You control Mae, a 20 year old college dropout returning to her hometown for the first time since leaving. She doesn't want to talk about why she dropped out. She doesn't know what she's going to do for money. Her relationships with her friends are different. Old businesses she liked have closed and been replaced with new ones. The feeling of not knowing what the hell you're doing with your life is one that I think lots of people understand, and Night in the Woods nails it. It's also very sharply written, funny and touching when it wants to be. It also has a cool look with a fun art style and really great work with colors. It also has another side to its story, a dark, scary side that works surprisingly well with the other stuff, which adds an edge to the narrative without taking it over. It was one of my favorite experiences with a game in 2017.

2. Prey (Multi)


I can only imagine how much I would love Prey if I liked the combat. Because everything else about the game, besides the long load times moving between areas and kind of a chunky pace near the end, is great. Talos I is a space station that has been taken over by strange, otherworldly aliens, and it's one of the best realized locations ever in a game. You have a lot of freedom to just explore its different levels and learn about its history. You always have a lot of options in how you approach your objectives. You might crawl through a vent, or hack a locked door, or find a keycard for that door in a room you didn't have to explore. You might use your "GLOO Cannon" to create a platform for you to jump through a window, or inject yourself with alien technology to take the shape of a small object and squeeze through a tight opening. You can be stealthy and sneak by enemies, or confidently wreck them with powered up weapons. The story is really fun too. You're never sure who's on your side or really telling the truth, you're not even sure you're being truthful to yourself, and the constant second guessing has a solid, logical payoff. Prey has everything I like about this kind of game, and for the most part, it succeeds at its goals. If only I liked the combat.

1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Wii U/Switch)


I've been a fan of the Zelda series for a long time. I've enjoyed every game that I've played to at least some extent, but it's fair to say that the formula of long tutorial > enter dungeon > find item > kill boss > find next dungeon was wearing a little thin. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds was a step in the right direction by giving you more freedom in how you acquired gear and choose where to go next, and Breath of the Wild takes that even further. It almost feels like they went back in time to the original game, and decided to focus on different elements to modernize it instead of the direction they've been taking for decades. Extended explanations, complex dungeons, and a set narrative path are all gone. Instead, after a short opening section where you acquire four magic powers of varying usefulness, you are thrust into a completely open Hyrule with a single objective (defeat Ganon, of course) and left to your own devices. There are hooks as far as major events you can pursue, but those feel more like suggestions than instructions. Link can climb almost anything and drift from place to place on a paraglider, two abilities that make getting anywhere you can see both possible and enjoyable. Instead of looking at a map screen to find points of interest, you actually spot them and mark them down yourself. It's different and exciting. You never know when you'll find a hidden shrine containing a clever puzzle or combat challenge, or a village full of people you can trade with or help out, or a camp of monsters you can terrorize or mess with, or the ruins of something that an old war left behind many years earlier. I wish the game had more traditional Zelda content. I really miss the big dungeons, and almost all of the side quests are not up to the standards of modern games. But the core experience of being in this world is too good for me to say it's not my game of the year.

Delayed Entry

This is the best game that wasn't released in 2017 but I didn't play until then.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)

If there's one game from 2017 I regret not playing yet, it's Super Mario Odyssey. I absolutely would have, I just don't own a Switch yet. My year wasn't Mario free though, as I finally played the sequel to the Wii classic Super Mario Galaxy. Galaxy 2 is naturally less innovative than the first, being a direct sequel that introduces a few welcome elements but often relies on what was already cool about the game. Despite feeling very familiar, Galaxy 2 is a very fun game with dozens of entertaining levels and a few clever surprises.