Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate – Storytelling Done Right

I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed games since the beginning and always in order. I’ve never skipped a console release title, including those Assassin’s Creed: Chronicles games, which actually weren’t that bad. I’m currently behind so I only just finished Syndicate this week, but I can’t wait to play Origins and Odyssey. I, like most long time AC players, have a weird relationship with the franchise. It constantly teeters between love and hate. There are things that are truly great about the franchise and to have seen how far it has come since the original release more than 10 years ago is both impressive and inspiring. But there are also issues that have plagued the games for years, many of which have only gotten worse over time. In my opinion, the storytelling is the weakest part of the Assassin’s Creed franchise and has been since at least Assassin’s Creed III. But the storytelling issues have existed since even before that game which was already several games into the franchise. This is extra depressing because the story is ultimately why I continue playing the games. I want to see a clear ending to this franchise. That’s not because I don’t like the franchise and want to see it end, but rather that I play games for the stories and I hate stories that don’t have clear endings.

AC has a host of storytelling problems. This is due mostly to the disjointed nature of the games and how they function as parts of an overarching narrative that has itself drastically shifted in direction in non-sensible ways over the course of the franchise. The big problem with the storytelling is that the modern day content has little to do with the Animus content while also acting as the bridge between multiple games that you’re only really playing for the Animus content. But it’s very apparent that the modern day content has always been an afterthought in the creation of these games. Rather than try to clean it up, Ubisoft decided the best way to deal with the modern day storyline was to significantly reduce its presence within the games. You see this a lot in the games that take place after ACIII. The amount of modern day content has been reduced more and more until you finally get to Syndicate where you don’t even play in the modern day. It’s reduced to four or five short cinematics all with the intention of justifying a single end game cut scene that doesn’t feature anyone of significance other than the weird first civilization MCP (yes that’s a Tron reference) that keeps showing up in games since ACIII but never really does anything. Supposedly it saved the world from a solar flare though.

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I see the direction that AC has taken by almost completely diluting away the out of Animus content to non-playable cut scenes and a bare minimum of time on screen as a good thing, but that’s not actually the part about the storytelling in Syndicate that I like the most. The key factor that I think makes the storytelling superior in Syndicate to just about every other AC game to date is the fact that you have multiple never before seen playable characters experiencing directly related stories and spaces. In past games you never had this, save for a short sequence in ACIII as Haythem Kenway. You had two loosely related characters acting independently of each other in the form of an ancestor and an Animus user/viewer. This never worked well for me because the games always slacked on the setting, gameplay, and writing for the Animus user. I genuinely didn’t care about Desmond and his whiny, depressing parent issues. I cared even less when you were some anonymous drone sneaking around the Abstergo offices. Those aspects of the story (and gameplay) have always been trash by comparison to the ancestor. That’s also why you never saw Desmond on the cover of the games. What I cared about has always been the story inside the Animus. Syndicate fleshes this story out more.

In Syndicate, you have two main playable characters and a third one if you play the Jack the Ripper expansion, during Industrial Revolution London. Plus there’s a fourth playable character in the base game that takes place during WWI for a short disconnected sequence. I thought this entire presentation of interconnected stories was brilliant. It added context, emotion, and background to all the characters involved. It strengthened the overall storytelling in a number of ways. It also led to variations in my gameplay style from character to character because I felt compelled to play each character the way I thought they would play rather than how I preferred to play. In many ways it was like playing multiple games in one while still maintaining a focused narrative. And even though the WWI sequence wasn’t directly connected to the main story, it was still excellent because it followed the progeny of one of the main characters. It was like taking a break from the game without taking a break from the game while providing additional information for the overarching narrative. I thought it was brilliantly executed.

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Syndicate doesn’t have the best plot of any AC game. It’s set in a time where capitalism is already ruining people’s lives in a country that’s not that interesting in the grand scheme of the AC universe. But it tells its story better than most of the other AC games I’ve played so far. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it considering the large number of negative comments I heard about it. I genuinely don’t understand where the negativity came from because it’s way better than Unity and is a nice change from Rogue, which is just a smaller scale copy of Black Flag. Many people even told me to skip Syndicate altogether, but I’m glad I didn’t.

Syndicate even handles the age old main character gender problem in games well. The game doesn’t center on either a male or female character. It stars both. And adds one of each additional character in the special sequences. It’s a perfectly balanced form of gender neutral storytelling that lets the player decide what/who to play as while making them both plot relevant without being plot neutral. There are also sequences that are character specific because the two play off of each other in a very effective way. And they have a few differing abilities to offer you a reason to swap between them depending on the mission you’re in.

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It’s a perfectly democratic way to make and play a game that in no way lowered the quality of the storytelling. Really it enhanced it. And, in this case they made me want to play as the female character in the right way. They made her interesting. Evie Frye is a better character than Jacob Frye. Or at least a better assassin. She thinks things through. She acknowledges the consequences or her and her brother’s actions. She has better stealth abilities. I wanted to play as her more. I still made myself rotate between the two often, even when I didn’t have to, but she’s the better character, in my opinion. That’s how you get male gamers to play games with female protagonists. You make the characters interesting and the games good. It’s really that simple. Tomb Raider does well because Lara Croft is a good character and the games are well made. There’s no magic formula. It’s not a political issue. Real gamers play good games. You could do The Witcher with a female protagonist. But it has to be at the quality level of The Witcher. Otherwise it’s just a “shitty feminism game that wishes it was The Witcher.” But by giving the player the choice in Syndicate, Ubisoft managed to make a game with a female protagonist without having to market it as such.  This made it way more appealing and accessible for everyone. Which begs the question: Why have we been playing these shitty out of Animus sequences for all these years to begin with?

The only reason the Animus is part of the franchise is that Ubisoft needed a link between all the games. For some reason they felt that it wasn’t good enough just to have the same name and general Assassin Templar war. They wanted to directly link each game via an overarching story, which in my opinion they’ve done, but failed to do well. Even as they’ve changed it over time and tried to salvage it, the modern day stuff is still trash. And with the death of Desmond, a character I absolutely hated, I all but stopped caring about who’s involved or what’s happening. I just want it to end so I can have a real conclusion. But why didn’t they just connect the games the way they connect the WWI and Jack the Ripper stories in Syndicate from the start? They could have just used the ancestry concept but directly linked the games via historical meetings. You have Altair get married and have kids. Then you have one of those kids become an assassin and travel to another country. Then that person meets another assassin named Ezio Auditore. Then the game follows Ezio.

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You get the same effect you have now of following a story through time and changing between multiple characters. You can even keep the piece of Eden thing they have going. But you don’t need all that superfluous modern day crap that no one even cares about anymore. You link the characters directly to each other through history as the war continues. That would also allow you to return to older characters later in different points in their lives. Like Ezio in Revelations. It takes place years after Brotherhood. Rather than doing the whole memory sequence mumbo jump they could have just done a game about another assassin he met along the way and then at the end of that game, years later in the timeline, that assassin reconnects with Ezio. Then in the next game a now older Ezio goes to Constantinople. No weird annoying bullshit needed. And it’s not like people can’t deal with time hops. The current games do them and it’s not an issue. You just do a sequence like Connor went to England and then wipe forward years later and show him returning from England, or whatever. The audience isn’t stupid. We can follow a shifting narrative. How else have we been playing AC games for all these years? You could go back in time as well. Just do an Edward found this old journal of a past assassin and started reading it opening sequence as a transition backwards. It’s not that hard.

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My point is that Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate does a great job with the storytelling because for 99% of the game it doesn’t pull you out of the Animus. And that 1% isn’t gameplay. It’s only cut scenes. This created a much stronger and more coherent narrative experience. As I said at the beginning of this post, I haven’t played Origins or Odyssey yet so maybe they’ve finally cleaned it all up. But I doubt it. There’s no real reason we needed this modern day storyline to make this franchise work. And I think it could still be done away with now. By implementing multiple playable characters in the same directly connected time periods, they can tell a much stronger story and solve their diversity problems at the same time. Adewale didn’t really need his own expansion in Black Flag. He should have just been playable in Black Flag with his own special sequences as well as in the open world. Haytham could have been playable for a much larger part of ACIII. These games are already connected in many ways. They simply needed to go the extra mile and not make up some weird trapped in the machine AI story filled with solar flares and faceless walking simulator sequences.

Syndicate was the best AC since played Black Flag. It has revitalized my interest in the franchise and I’m very much looking forward to both Origins and Odyssey, both of which I’ve heard great things about. Hopefully that includes great storytelling.

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Gaming Photography – Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag – Freedom Cry

Time for another Gaming Photography post. I recently played Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag – Freedom Cry for the first time.

This was a very well made expansion/spinoff of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. I say spinoff because when it was first released it could only be run through a copy of Black Flag, but now you can run it as a standalone game like I did on my PS4. What I liked about this short expansion is that while it provides only a short vignette from the life of Adéwalé it includes the full Assassin’s Creed IV open world experience. The game provides you with all the mechanics that made Black Flag probably the best Assassin’s Creed game to date. You have an upgradeable ship and a decent sized map to sail on. Enemy ships that can be attacked, boarded, and plundered. You can go harpooning for multiple types of large sea animals such as whales and sharks. You can search for treasure on various random islands and in deep sea dives. If you don’t play the games for the story, they basically gave you the entire Black Flag experience for a lower price with just a few tidbits missing such as tavern games/gambling and seas shanties. Yes I absolutely did miss seas shanties and don’t know how they were left out of this expansion.

So now I’d like to present my top 10 photos from Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag – Freedom Cry. As always, I make it a point of only taking natural in game shots. I don’t use photo modes or alter the brightness/color settings except in special situations. I take my photos through my PC with an Elgato Game Capture HD60 Pro in the case of console games. This was the PS4 version of the game. I also post them on my Twitter and Instagram often.

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*If you’d like to see the full resolution image please right click and press “view image”.

Please let me know what you think of my shots. Any feedback is appreciated because I would like to improve my gaming photography skills.

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Assassin’s Seed on Gaming Rebellion

This week I published an article about my experience watching the Assassin’s Creed movie and the various continuity issues it has when compared with the world of the games. This is not really a review, but there are some review aspects to the piece.  I published this article on Gaming Rebellion but here’s the introduction:

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Recently I saw Assassin’s Creed the movie. It should come as no surprise to anyone, but it was a bad movie. To be clear, I’m not just saying it was a bad experience in comparison to playing the games. I’m saying that it was a badly made film whether connected to a video game or not. But what I thought was interesting was that it was bad for many of the same reasons I complain about the games. Because of how Ubisoft has talked about the movie, I feel that it’s completely acceptable to compare the movie directly to the games. To be fair though, there are a number of possible key differences that make it plausible to place the movie in its own separate universe from the games. I am choosing not to do that here, because for the most part it’s not necessary to do.

You can read the rest right here. Please check out my Author’s Archive for other articles by me on Gaming Rebellion.

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2016 Year in Review

I know this post is rather late because it’s already almost February and so much has already happened this year. I will get to topics like the Nintendo Switch and Scalebound as soon as I can, but it’s tradition for me to do a review in gaming of the year before so I decided I’d have to squeeze it in.

Let me be honest and say that while I always have my ear to the ground and I’m constantly checking gaming news, I wasn’t nearly as focused on current gaming last year as I usually am. This is mostly because I was busy trying to complete the 52 challenge. Ultimately I did complete it and you can read all about my experience doing that here. But if you look at the list of games I completed last year you can see that most of them, especially the big ticket titles, weren’t released last year. Of the 52 games I completed in 2016, the only ones released in 2016 were Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: India, Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: Russia, The Division, Hyper Light Drifter, Attack on Titan, One Way Trip, and Strike Vector EX. Of those seven games, only two of them are AAA titles and only five of them are titles that had any possible significance to the general gaming public. I also put in a decent amount of time and effort into 12 other 2016 releases and purchased an additional 16 2016 releases that I have yet to try. My point is that as far as more than just lip service experience through reading and watching videos, I was not personally involved heavily in 2016 AAA release gaming. So while I feel that I am equipped to judge gaming in 2016 as a whole, I am happy to admit that for this particular year I wasn’t nearly as focused on current gaming as I usually am.

When I look back on 2016, I’m a lot more neutral in my feelings than I was for 2015. And even in my 2015 review I wasn’t leaning too far to either side. 2014 though, I was super unhappy with. I would say that this year we saw a number of bad practices and trends start or continue, but for the most part things ran pretty smoothly. So let’s look at the highlights.

Erasing Memories

Crowdfunding has become even more rampant with companies like Square Enix having the nerve to email people in their newsletter to go fun indie games that they’ll take a cut from without having to fund them. This year we didn’t see any crazy Kickstarter projects like Shenmue 3 in 2015, but the practice of larger studios pan handling for money instead of taking the risks on like they’re supposed to has become even more normalized. I just hope people start to see that this model doesn’t breed great games a majority of the time in the coming year. As far as indie crowdfunding goes, I’m still opposed to it but in cases like Hyper Light Drifter the model works. That was an excellent game that had a true justification for crowdfunding the project because the developer was literally unsure about how much longer he would be alive and wanted to have the funds to complete the game before his passing with no designs on profit.

The games to movies thing tried to happen again in 2016 and no surprise it was all talk and no delivery. Warcraft the movie fizzled out long before it ever began. I personally didn’t even go see it because it looked boring as hell and everyone I talked to said it was a waste of time and money. Just for reference, it got a 28% on Rotten Tomatoes. I actually did take the time to see Assassin’s Creed the movie and that was terrible. It was so bad I took the time to write a rather detailed piece about it which you’ll see published in the next few weeks. Basically again no studio has understood how to properly adapt a game to a film because the people on one side don’t play enough games and those on the other side don’t watch enough movies. We also had Ratchet & Clank the movie, which I didn’t take the time to watch because I wanted to play the game which is a remake of the original game anyway so it seemed redundant to pay money to watch a movie based on a game that I was already going to play that was already based on a game I had already played. But Rotten Tomatoes gave that a 17% which is even worse than Warcraft so I’ll just assume my choice not to watch it was the right one. I’m currently playing the game however and I’m having lots of fun. And everyone seems to have forgotten the importance of narrative quality in visual based entertainment mediums in general. But now let’s get to the actual gaming.

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They don’t even really show the leap of faith properly.

I’d say the best way to do this is to just touch on the highlight games of 2016 one by one. So in my opinion the top 10 games of 2016 in no particular order were The Division, Uncharted 4, Battlefield 1, Final Fantasy XV, No Man’s Sky, The Last Guardian, Street Fighter V, Quantum Break, Pokemon GO, and Overwatch. Please note that when I say “top games of 2016” I am in no way, shape, or form saying that these were the best games of 2016. In fact some of the titles I just listed can and should be considered on the list of the worst games of 2016. By “top” in this case I mean popular and /or noteworthy. These are the games that garnered the most attention from the press and public in 2016. There were some other honorable mentions such as Dishonored 2, Titanfall 2, Mafia III, and Doom but these 10 are the ones that caused the most buzz for the longest amount of time and I think sum up gaming in 2016 as a whole best. So let’s tackle them one by one.

The Division was another Destiny scenario. A great concept ruined by a lacking plot, terrible end game, and a screwed up economy. Again, I fell for the beta and preordered it and again I, like so many others, was left disappointed. The Division however, was a lot faster about their updates and added multiple new modes of play in the first year of the game. But Ubisoft, like so many other developers, failed to realize that once a player base is lost it’s nearly impossible to bring it back. The loyal players are still playing and some returned, but most of us never took the time to try it again after finally getting fed up. I preordered the gold edition yet I have not logged back in to even try Survival even though I have multiple friends still playing it that have told me the new expansion is great. This always online, PVP focused, crappy end game scenario just keeps coming more and more and it’s really a problem. Probably one of the lowest points for gaming in 2016, but by no means the lowest.

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Buyer’s Remorse courtesy of Ubisoft

Uncharted 4 was a high point for both the franchise and 2016. It won countless awards including PlayStation game of the year by the users, which in my opinion might be the most important award a game can win. As in player’s choice game of the year, not specifically PlayStation. I haven’t played this one yet, but I already bought it and can’t wait to complete Nathan Drake’s adventure. That was also a high point in my book. The fact that Naughty Dog chose to conclude the franchise instead of milking it for as long as they can. The plot drives development other than being added in last minute like with so many other games and franchises today. I hope 2017 has more moments like Uncharted 4.

Battlefield 1 was heavily hyped from the beginning and set against Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. I don’t play either of these franchises and I didn’t buy either game, but I have to say that both games impressed me this year because they did things differently for once. Battlefield 1 decided to go the opposite direction of every other mainstream FPS game for like the last two to three generations of consoles. You’re always either in WWII fighting Nazis, in the Middle East fighting “terrorists”, or in the future fighting aliens and it’s gotten so old. Battlefield 1 goes back to WWI which is pretty much unheard of in modern shooters. The trailer looked great and the gameplay looked like it would at least be kind of different from the same boring crap these studios dish out every year. But I also think Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare deserves to be commended for actually trying last year. COD is a series that always gets panned for having a crappy campaign. It’s a game that people buy for the PVP and until recently they never took serious issue with that. But in recent years Infinity Ward has legitimately been trying to be taken seriously in the narrative gaming genre. Advanced Warfare was praised by many people for actually having a story worth playing. I didn’t play it, because I never buy COD, but I was actually curious about the story starring Kevin Spacey. The trailer for Infinite Warfare looked even more legit for plot with epic speeches by Kit Harington (Jon Snow from Game of Thrones). I was so impressed by the trailer that I actually considered buying this one. Kudos to both franchises for finally thinking outside the box. I don’t like the fact that new CODs are made every year, but if these pew pew franchises will actually put some effort in then more power to them.

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You almost got me this year Infinity Ward

Final Fantasy XV finally dropped. It had a very long and very disheartening development cycle. Originally it was supposed to be a completely different game. At times people didn’t believe it was ever gonna get released, but it finally did. I first tried it at a mall in Taiwan back in 2015. Right away I was impressed. This was not another shitty FF13 scenario. This was the Final Fantasy game we’d all been waiting for. A real time FF game that runs smoothly, looks beautiful, and has characters that people really relate to. Square Enix has disappointed us a lot in recent years, but FFXV is a step in the right direction. I haven’t really started it yet but I already bought my copy. My one beef with the game going in is that it takes less than 40 hours to beat. It seems the days of long RPGs that give you over a hundred hours of high quality gaming are a thing of the past for Square Enix which is sad because they basically invented the genre. Overall though FFXV is definitely a win for 2016.

What can I say about No Man’s Sky that hasn’t already been said about the Assassin’s Creed movie? It came out exactly as disappointing as I predicted it would be months before release. You can read about that here if you’re interested. Everybody hyped it. Everybody, well except for me, preordered it. And everybody was disappointed. Ok that’s not entirely true. Some people liked it. But an overwhelming number of people were unhappy with the finished product. It set a new record for refund requests on Steam. Hello Games failed to deliver so many of the things it promised and then went dark after release in the wake of all the negative press. The game was overpriced, under done, and a huge blunder for everyone involved. I’m just glad I saw it coming and was able to help the few people who took my advice seriously from making a big mistake. Probably the lowest point for gaming in 2016.

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This may be the best No Man’s Sky troll I’ve seen.

The Last Guardian was finally released. After more than 10 years of waiting for that game, Japan Studio finally got it out. People had lost hope. Even my resolve had begun to crumble. But I kept hope alive and I was rewarded. Preordered the collector’s edition and for the first time in years I have no regrets about a preorder. The game is excellent. Now I’ll be honest and say it doesn’t live up to 10 years of waiting. The graphics are good, but it would have looked fine on PS3. And, like all games in the series, it’s not that long. My only real complaint is that I can’t pick up a magic sword and start slaying enemies like in ICO. But it is a great game and I’m glad we finally got to see it released in 2016. We’ll definitely consider this a high point.

Street Fighter V was just a big disappointment for all the wrong reasons. It’s a franchise that has set the standards for most fighters for the last 30 years. The formula isn’t hard. Yet for some reason this time Capcom decided to get all modern DLC and release the game prematurely with a fraction of the normal content. Eventually they put out the single player campaign but honestly the game shouldn’t have been released until that was ready. And you have to pay $30 for a character pass on top of an already $60 fighter. What the hell is that? This is just another example of developers/publishers rushing things out and not delivering the quality necessary to stay competitive in what has become a very expensive and extremely competitive industry. The game also had a lot of controversy surrounding censorship because once again the SJWs decided to get involved in gaming even though they don’t play the games they’re complaining about. Capcom gave in and censored the American version of the game taking NA one step closer to a Nazi police state where no one can have their own ideas about anything unless it agrees with the vocal minority or demagogues. Street Fighter V was not only a low point for 2016, but also possibly a bad omen for the future of game development and release.

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Quantum Break was yet another example of how Microsoft doesn’t know shit about keeping their customers happy or just flat out doesn’t care about it. The game was announced as an XB1 exclusive only to last minute get ported to PC, angering most of the XB1 user base in the process. PC owners felt cheated for being misled into purchasing the console version and console exclusive gamers felt angry that an exclusive title could so off handedly be ported thus negating the value of their console. And Microsoft went as far as saying that they wouldn’t be doing many more XB1 exclusives in general because they want everything to be both XB1 and PC because obviously that’s more profitable for them. While I am all for cross platform games and think exclusives are one of the worst practices in the industry today, even I was disgusted by Microsoft’s comfort with blatantly lying to loyal XB1 users and the gaming public in general. That kind of behavior is everything that’s wrong with the industry today. Also the game ended up being kind of underwhelming as well so just an all-around low point for 2016.

Usually I don’t talk about mobile games, but how could we talk about gaming in 2016 without mentioning Pokemon GO? Niantic Labs delivered a great concept with record breaking downloads and profits only to somehow screw it all up with greed, bad management, slow development practices, and general negligence. I still play Pokemon GO and I genuinely enjoyed the times when it was a thing everyone was doing. But I’m in no way surprised that the game died off for most people because it has so many problems. And the worst part is that most of them could easily be fixed if they would just stop being so blatantly greedy. Pokemon GO is just like Destiny and The Division. Proof that great marketing and a great concept go a long way but don’t hold a user base if the developer doesn’t make player enjoyment the main priority.

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And finally, let’s talk about Overwatch. Now for me you can’t talk about OW without mentioning Battleborn. You can choose to say they weren’t competing with each other, but the public directly compared the two and the public chose Overwatch. Now personally I played the beta for both games and I didn’t buy either. But what saddens me is that the public chose Overwatch. I’ll be completely honest and say that OW has the better basic gameplay, but it’s by no means the better game. Probably the most played game of the year was a game that has no single player campaign or mode, no story, and requires you to be always online to play. People basically told Blizzard and all developers that from now on they can produce half a video game and still charge $60 for it. In return that game will win game of the year, get used in esports, and be the leading search on PornHUB. What the hell is wrong with everybody? If Overwatch had a campaign I would have purchased it. The gameplay is solid and the graphics are good. But I’m not going to pay $60 to have to always be online and rely on other people to define my gaming experience. That’s not acceptable. If the game had of been $30, which would have been an appropriate price for a match based PVP only game, then I wouldn’t be complaining, but you can’t just throw out COD multiplayer with lesbian porn stars and charge the price of games like The Witcher 3. I think the number of controversies surrounding Tracer are hilarious and telling about how people feel about the game. They love the gameplay but they want a story and that’s why they care so much about things like comic books that in no way affect the game. It’s Star Wars: Battlefront all over again with a more diverse roster. Battleborn may not have been the better game mechanically, but it had a story with a cooperative campaign and people chose Overwatch because of the “sexy” female characters. And the most ironic part is the fact that the game is being championed for its diversity while being one of the biggest drivers of sexism and the objectification of females in the gaming community in 2016. It’s not fair to call such a successful game a low point in 2016, but calling it a high point means accepting a future where developers don’t even try when they steal your money.

2017

Ultimately 2016 wasn’t a terrible year. I guess based on my opinion of these 10 specific 10 games it leans a little more towards the negative side, but not by much. It had some very low points both in and outside of gaming. But there were also some great moments in gaming that made 2016 a year worth remembering. The game I was probably most impressed with in 2016 was Attack on Titan by KOEI TECMO. It was a perfect recreation of the show that played well, looked good, and had a lot of play value in it. I’d like to see more adaptations so expertly done. Here’s hoping that 2017 will be a great year of gaming but based on the announcements we’ve seen so far I’m already losing confidence. Fingers crossed for Horizon I guess.

What were your high and low points of 2016? Was it a good year for gaming overall?

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