Top 5 Biggest Surprises of 2016 (So Far)

We’re deep into summer territory here and with the news and actual game releases slowing to a crawl, I figured it would be a great time to return to my mid year lists I started last month.

Today, I’m taking a look at the top 5 games that have surprised me this year. There’s been a ton of releases so far and to be honest, some of them kind of came out of left field. Yes, there have been a few surprising stinkers, but I’m staying away from those in favor of these five which turned out to be much better than expected. Everyone enjoys a good surprise, right?

Perhaps it was simply a case of underestimating these titles, but for whatever reason these five really stood out to me.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst
I have to admit, this one surprised me. I’ve already shared my thoughts on the game in a previous post, but coming in to Catalyst, I wasn’t a fan of the series. I had heard good things about the first game, picked it up, and just couldn’t get into it at all for a variety of reasons. So when the recent trailers for Catalyst caught my eye, I was surprised considering my previously less-than-awesome experience.

Thankfully, I was able to go hands on with the game at PAX East and it confirmed what I had believed: DICE has made substantial improvements to this entry, making it more approachable for me and more fun.

One of the bigger changes this time around was that Catalyst ditched the linear maps, and instead opened up the world. For me, this may have been the biggest reason why it really helped breath new life into the franchise. Being able to explore this city the way I wanted and how I wanted really clicked for me and I’m happy to say, I absolutely enjoyed the entire experience as a whole.

Mirror's Edge Catalyst Combat Momentum

DOOM
If you’re a gambling sort of person, you probably were more than willing to bet that this one wouldn’t turn out as well as it did when it was revealed in full last year by Bethesda. I can’t say I blame you, it really did seem like a safe bet at the time.

Lets be honest here, I think expectations coming into this one were already pretty low as many wondered how you could make that arena style formula relevant in an age where shooters like Overwatch and Call of Duty are insanely popular. Couple that with the fact that id takes a while to develop games and their last effort with Rage was somewhat underwhelming, so everything was lining up against the game.

Throw all those questions out of the window because as we all know now, DOOM turned out way better than most people expected, successfully reviving the dormant franchise. What impressed me most is that id managed to toe the line between keeping those core tenants of the franchise will modernizing the experience for new players. While the multiplayer may not be as innovative as the campaign, it’s still pretty fun in its own right. Plus creative folks can create their own maps and modes thanks to the impressive SnapMap feature.

Overwatch
Speaking of Overwatch, I think we all figured Blizzard would have another hit on their hands, it’s pretty much what they do when they release a new game. With that said, this one blew up when it hit the scene late in May.

What’s interesting here is that the game doesn’t have a huge number of game modes, something which many of us, myself included, would regard as a negative. Maybe it’s due to the diverse character roster, or the addictive gameplay, but so far no one has really been saying anything negative whatsoever. The community has attached to it super quickly, making it a massively popular game in its own right. With competitive mode having launched a few weeks ago, and the first free character being added to the roster soon, things continue to look up for this online shooter.

overwatchCast

LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens
These LEGO games tend to be simple fun, but I think for many, the formulaic nature of these games was starting to wear a little thin. Thankfully, The Force Awakens seems to be the shot in the arm that the franchise needs. While it retains much of the gameplay and humor that you remember, mainly collecting LEGO studs and characters, new features were brought in to mix things up.

Shockingly, The Force Awakens features a lot of cover based blaster sections and even more surprisingly, they’re fun! Utilizing a simple cover based system for these scripted areas, players huddle behind cover and can pop out to shoot enemies and objects like.

In addition, vehicles have taken a bigger role as well, as there are dedicated flying sections which feature on-rails segments and actual open areas where the player can fly around as they want taking out enemies.

These are two elements which I never thought I’d see in a LEGO game, but I’m thankful that they are. I can definitely say that The Force Awakens feels like the freshest LEGO game to come along in quite a while.

Inside
I’ve added this game to the list simply because there was such minimal marketing behind it, and it seemingly took the industry by storm. The reviews for this thing have been off the charts good, and I can confirm that it has blown me away. Playdead, the same folks behind the also stellar Limbo, have crafted another visually stunning game that really make you think. Honestly, I don’t want to say too much out of fear of spoiling things. Just know that it’s absolutely worth your time.

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So those are my five surprises so far for 2016, but what are yours? Let me know what games took you by surprise so far this year.

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The Many Ups and Downs of Battleborn

Ah, Battleborn.

While I’m a big fan of the Borderlands games that Gearbox created, Battleborn never really struck a chord with me once it was announced. For the majority of it’s development lifecycle it had gone largely ignored. I really can’t say why, but there was just something that didn’t quite appeal to me about it. All that changed however as a few months before its planned release date I began to pay more attention, finding some interesting things going on with the game. Ultimately, attending the Gearbox panel at PAX East 2016 and participating in the beta period pretty much sealed the deal for me.

Battleborn Statue PAX East 16

At it’s core, Battleborn is a hero shooter wrapped inside of a MOBA. Gearbox mentioned that they enjoyed designing heroes for Borderlands, and wanted to really continue that for Battleborn, which is clearly seen in the currently 26 character roster. Not only is each character unique looking, they all play very differently from one another, allowing teams to mix and match for best results. There’s really something for everyone on this roster. Of course, each character has a distinct personality and most of them would feel at home in the Borderlands franchise using similar humor and behavior to characters from that world.

The game features three different progressions systems, one for the player, one for characters (with a max rank of 15), and then in-game experience bar for your character through a Helix System, which lets players customize their characters abilities during a match. While it sounds confusing on paper, it’s a pretty neat system, and the Helix tree ensures that each match plays differently since it resets after each match. Character ranks unlock new taunts and color variations, while player rank unlocks new titles, logos, characters, and loot.

Alani battleborn

Battleborn is an online experience, requiring an internet connection even for its campaign, which can be played solo. While the experience is bolstered when playing with others (especially friends), the campaign is arguably the weakest aspect. Players looking for a grand story ripped from the pages of Borderlands will want to look elsewhere, as the missions themselves feel pretty much standalone, only held together slightly by the premise that a bad dude is trying to destroy the last star in the galaxy and characters across a number of different factions have united to stop him.

While the combat feels good, the missions themselves are largely a hit or miss. For some reason, Gearbox decided to really hone in on the worst types of gaming missions and develop an entire campaign structure around them. I’m talking about escort missions, where players need to carefully guard a giant mech through enemy infested locations, defense missions where players hold out and try to defend a position against waves of enemies, and timed missions where players need to clear objectives and beat a boss within a set amount of time. The worst part here is that if you and/or your team fails, it’s game over. There are no checkpoints or additional attempts, you need to jump back in the matchmaking queue and try again. Or at least hope that mission is an available choice and that your teammates pick that option again.

I found this aspect to be fairly frustrating, especially at higher difficulties and especially on the last mission which felt like I wasn’t given enough time to do everything the game wanted me to do. When you’re with a well oiled team, it’s generally not bad, but screw up in one spot and it’s usually game over. While many characters are unlocked by beating certain missions, players can thankfully also unlock them by leveling up their player rank, so at least campaign missions can be skipped and nothing will be missed out.

deande battleborn

Multiplayer is where this game shines however, and eschews the traditional team deathmatch to offer something a little different by placing the focus more on objective style gameplay. As of now, there are three game modes: Capture, which sees two teams fighting over three objective points, Meltdown, which tasks both teams to help their minions reach an enemy incinerator to score points, and Incursion, where teams try to destroy mechs at their opponents base with the help of AI units.

Perhaps not have a deathmatch style mode is part of the problem. With games like Overwatch, Call of Duty, and other online shooters dominating the market, players seem to be more focused on simply killing other players rather than playing the objective. When played the way that the game wants you to, it’s a unique and fun experience. When matches devolve into players focusing more on killing each other, that’s when things fall apart. Unfortunately, it seems players are more interested in battling each other these days, as the multiplayer scene (at least on console) isn’t what it quite was when the game first launched. Don’t get me wrong, it still has its moments, but it is at a point where it’s not something I found myself wanting to play on a nightly basis.

Battleborn has a lot of potential, but odd design decisions look like it’ll ultimately derail the experience. Not only that, the game had the ultimate misfortune in releasing in close proximity to Overwatch, that it has almost become completely overshadowed. The good news is that future characters and multiplayer content are completely free, but this may be a case of too little, too late.

Hey, at least Gearbox is starting work on Borderlands 3, right?

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5 Movie Franchises That Could Be Fun VR Experiences

In the aftermath of E3, virtual reality proved to be a major point of emphasis for some companies like Sony, whose VR-related announcements revealed the emergence of some big franchises like Star Wars Battlefront: X-Wing Mission and Batman Arkham VR. The VR gaming market is still developing, and while a lot of the most popular early gaming options are smaller and less ambitious titles, higher end headsets like PlayStation VR and HTC Vive are aiming to produce big, vibrant experiences. With that in mind, the presence of these major franchises could be a game changer for Sony.

On a similar note, the introduction of VR games that bring popular movies to life could also generate a lot of excitement, particularly on the better VR headsets. Fans got some indication of this back in January when an experience based on The Martian was playable on major VR consoles (specifically the Samsung Gear VR, HTC Vive, and Oculus Rift). But what other films could leading headsets look to adapt for similarly impactful experiences? A few have been discussed online, but here are a few relatively recent movies that ought to be explored by VR developers.

PacificRim_1

Pacific Rim
Pacific Rim was a larger-than-life 2013 action movie in which mankind developed skyscraper-sized robots called Jaegers to combat monsters rising out of the deep sea known as Kaiju. It may sound a little bit grand and chaotic for a video game, but given that the Jaegers are controlled by human pilots who in a way are engaging in virtual reality, it’s actually pretty well suited. A mobile game exists already for Pacific Rim, but the idea of slipping on a VR headset and controlling a Jaeger would be pretty interesting to anyone who was a fan of this film. Another wrinkle is that in the movie the Jaegers are co-piloted, which introduces that possibility of collaborative multiplayer. But even a solo piloting option could be really interesting.

Oblivion
Though it didn’t make the same impact, Oblivion was somewhat similar to The Martian in terms of its visual tone. Large segments of the movie concerned a lone explorer wandering around a beautiful but forbidding planet. In this case, that planet is our own and the explorer is of course Tom Cruise, who is a future scavenger of sorts charged with gathering the last resources of a dying Earth. There’s more to it than that but the movie has a lot of potential for a VR developer from piloting advanced ships to simply exploring the planet.

Rush
Racing games have already become popular on VR for obvious reasons, and Rush was a hugely successful and highly talked about film when it came out back in 2013. Already there is a Rush game online, though it doesn’t have any official connection to the movie. This particular game is a themed bingo room in which a racing background is used to support the idea of “quick as lightning” bingo games. Aside from that, Rush was largely left alone by the video game industry though it could be an ideal VR game. Putting yourself in the role of one of the two main characters driving a Formula 1 car on thrilling tracks around the world would be a brilliant experience.

The Lego Movie
Minecraft VR is already available for the Oculus Rift, and given how LEGO has expanded its entertainment empire in recent years it’s probably a foregone conclusion that there will be some sort of LEGO-related follow-up. Capturing the entire scope of The Lego Movie in VR is a tall order but designing a game in which you can walk in and around your LEGO creations while basing it on concepts and characters from the film would result in a certain success. We’ve already seen that creativity and construction seem to be well received in VR, and a LEGO game could truly capitalize on that. Remember that Minecraft Surface demo Microsoft did back in 2015 at E3? Just imagine that with LEGOs now. Pretty great, right?

John Wick
John Wick might be a little more ambitious, because shooter games are tricky on VR, though a game like Superhot seems to have pulled it off well. However, this is one action movie that thrived not so much because of a complex plot or over-the-top action, but because of a unique visual style and atmosphere. John Wick had its own flavor, and if a developer were to successfully capture it in VR it could be a hit. Particularly given that we’re about to see a sequel and this could be a budding franchise, this seems like a good idea for developers to pursue.

We’ll see what happens, but as VR expands to include major gaming franchises and film experiences like the one we’ve seen related to The Martian, it stands to reason that there will be major games based on movies. And if they want to look to recent films for inspiration, these five movies would be excellent picks.

With virtual reality on the rise, what franchises (either gaming, movie, or otherwise) would you like to see VR developers take a stab at? There’s a ton of potential here, so feel free to sound off in the comments below.

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The Underground Breathes New Life Into The Division

Tom Clancy’s The Division was arguably my most anticipated game ever since it was first teased all those years ago during Ubisoft’s “one last thing” moment they like to do during their E3 press conferences. Thankfully, even after all the delays the game suffered, the end product turned out well, and I found myself fully invested in it after it launched in March.

After finishing the campaign and dumping a ton of time into it thanks to the glut of side missions and content, I found my interest starting to wane a bit. The Dark Zone was fun, but as a typical solo player, it wasn’t sustainable. Not only that, the months of March, April, and May proved to once again be a busy release period as big name games like Quantum Break, Overwatch, Uncharted 4 and a variety of others managed to steal away my attention.

The Division header

Still, each big update brought me back just to see what changes have been made. I have to admit, while the ride hasn’t always been smooth, Massive continues to evolve the experience, adding difficult but rewarding Incursion missions, High Value Targets to hunt and defeat in the open world, and new gear for players to find. However, the first expansion called Underground is by the far the most radical change the game has seen, and for me at least, it completely breathes new life into it.

The biggest thing for me as a predominantly solo player is feeling like I’m continuing to make progress, whether that is by getting loot I can use or finishing missions without having to die 20 times to overcome it. This is where Underground succeeds the most by introducing the new area called The Terminal, a hub world that exists under the Base of Operations. In this new social space, players can interact with a terminal after finishing two new story missions, setting up custom runs which are randomized each time you play, making them highly replayable.

The best way to describe them is to think of them like Nephalim/Greater Rifts from Diablo III. Essentially, these are randomized dungeons that players can constantly play through in order to score guaranteed high end loot. What’s better is that these runs are fairly short, so you can run them multiple times without spending too much of your time, especially if you keep things on normal difficulty. At the end of each run, players are rewarded with Underground caches which can be opened to award anything from high end loot to the new set item pieces.

the division splinter cell

Players looking for an added challenge can customize these runs by changing the difficulty and/or adding modifiers which change how you play the experience. These include disabling the minimap, giving players less ammo drops, or other negative effects. Adding modifiers and difficulty give players greater rewards and experience for leveling their underground score, opening the door to purchase new loot and blueprints from specific vendors, similar to how the Dark Zone works. As with the rest of the game, matchmaking is available, so take advantage of it because failing an operation is essentially game over.

Want to gear up quickly after being away from the game? Go to the Underground.

In my opinion, Underground has already proven to offer some of the more interesting content since the game launched. These operations are a nice change of pace and one that solo players like myself can really embrace and still feel like you’re making progress. If this is the route Massive is planning on going with the next two expansions, then I’m back on board. I’m glad the developer is trying to introduce new mechanics with these expansions, rather than just doubling down on what is already there. If the teaser trailer for Survival is anything to go by, it appears we may be getting some more new game changing elements soon.

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E3 2016: Microsoft Press Conference Recap and Review

The last of the big hitters this year at E3, well technically first if you want to be accurate, was Microsoft who continued to find themselves in the back seat to Sony. While The Xbox One has seen radical and consumer friendly changes since it’s launch back in 2013, Microsoft has been unable to make up much ground to the behemoth that is the PlayStation 4.

E3 Xbox

While Microsoft may not like the position they’re in after the massively successful Xbox 360, there’s no denying that it’s good for fans. Microsoft has made a ton of moves with their system, taking more risks and adding more and more features to try and close the gap. With another solid looking fall lineup on the way, many were wondering what else Microsoft had up their sleeves to attract more gamers to their console.

So how did they do? Will this help Microsoft close the gap? Lets recap!

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E3 2016: Sony Press Conference Recap and Review

2015 was an interesting year for Sony. While their sales lead over the competition continued to grow, they ended the year with somewhat of a whimper as their major holiday game, Uncharted 4, was delayed into 2016 and nothing really took its place in the release calendar. Thankfully, their massive install base and strong third party lineup helped the company weather the storm and into the promise of 2016.

sony e3 2016

As expected, this year has already started off with a bang propelled by the previously mentioned Uncharted 4, the wonderfully re-imagined Ratchet & Clank, the exclusive Street Fighter V, and the continued success of third party titles like Destiny. With even more interesting things on the horizon such as PlayStation VR and rumors running wild prior to the event, gamers expected big things from Sony.

So how did Sony do? Were they more interested in resting on their sizable lead or push the envelope to continue their sales dominance? Lets have a look!

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Now Arriving: Games of July 2016

Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the dead zone of 2016. If you’re looking for new, high profile games, July is not your month.

Still, the good news is that there are a few games to pick from this month. Personally, I’m pretty interested in seeing how Song of the Deep does as it is a very cool looking Metroidvania style game by Insomniac Games, who have been pumping out hit after hit lately.

If you’re one of the last remaining people to not have played Rocket League or simply want a physical edition of the game, a collector’s edition hits retail including all previously released DLC and a few new things to boot as well.

Lets be honest here, July is a perfect time to catch up on your backlog from the many great games that launched earlier this year, so why not do that?

The complete (and super short) release list for July can be found after the jump…

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