In 25 years covering video games, I don't remember ever seeing a year like 2017. Fantastic games seemed to come out nearly weekly, giving fans little time to breathe between blockbusters.
Every year, I adjust my annual game awards to recognize as many of the quality games as possible. That's why I don't include categories if there are no remarkable games in it (thus, no sports or racing this year), and why games are only eligible to win one category.
This year, I also made the decision that a game must be formally released to receive an award. That is why you won't find any mention of "Playerunknown's Battleground," despite being on some other folks' lists. It will be eligible in 2018, however, so expect it to make a splash then.
So, without further ado, here are my choices for the best games of 2017.
Horizon Zero Dawn
How competitive was this category in 2017? The sequel to my 2014 game of the year, "Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor," released this year and a better game than the original in every way, is relegated to an honorable mention. "Horizon Zero Dawn" seemingly came out of nowhere. It's a single-player adventure from a company that previously only released multi-player focused shooters. With its unique vision of a post-apocalyptic landscape, lead character Aloy provides the latest strong, female protagonist the industry desperately needed. The gameplay is smooth and satisfying, and the game is large enough to occupy you for weeks. Anyone with a PS4 needs to give this game a play.
Honorable mentions: Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Assassin's Creed Origins, Resident Evil 7
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
Though it's a single-player only shooter, "Wolfenstein II" knows its strengths and executes them flawlessly. Set in an alternate post-WWII America where the Nazis rule, the game returns to protagonist B.J. Blazkowitz, rescued from the brink of death at the end of the last game. He must lead a resistance to win our country back. The highly polished gameplay perfectly accompanies the amazing stories, one of the best ever in a shooter campaign. Explore familiar yet twisted locations in your bid to return America to its rightful place as land of the free.
Honorable mentions: Call of Duty: WWII, Star Wars Battlefront II, Destiny 2
Super Mario Odyssey
It's been a while since Nintendo gave us a 3D Mario game, but the wait was worth it. "Super Mario Odyssey" is far and away the largest, most varied Mario adventure ever. Brimming with wonderfully detailed kingdoms, both new and old enemies and a new buddy named Cappy that gives the game a feel like no Mario to come before. Mario wears Cappy in place of his trusty hat, and is able to throw Cappy to activate switches, create temporary platforms, and possess enemies and objects. Plan on a long adventure, because once you save the princess, the game opens up tons of additional content, making this an amazing game you'll be playing for a long time.
Honorable mentions: Sonic Mania, A Hat in Time
The pinnacle of the "Persona" series, players take on the role of a Tokyo high school student who must live a normal life on one hand while trying to save the world in his spare time. Juggle classes, a job and a social life while exploring expansive dungeons in the minds of twisted adults. The game's incredible design is most evident in these "palaces," giving players the ability to explore the liminal space between reality and psychological creation. With a familiar yet freshened-up turn-based combat system, a stunning variety of Personae to recruit to fight for you and a story that engages every step of the way, "Persona 5" is a must play for any JRPG fan. In a year stuffed to the gills with great RPGs, this one still manages to stand out from the pack.
Honorable mentions: Xenoblade Chronicles 2, NieR Automata, South Park: The Fractured But Whole, Divinity Original Sin 2
Divinity Original Sin 2
If "Persona 5" was the best Japanese RPG of the year, "Divinity Original Sin 2" stands head and shoulders above any other Western-style RPG. Revisiting the style made famous by the "Baldur's Gate" series, "Original Sin 2" takes that formula and modernizes it, still offering a deep, tactical combat system without sacrificing narrative or characterization. More significant, the decisions you make have real consequences, changing the course of the story permanently. There is no way to see everything in a single play-through. It's not a cheap gimmick to extend the game's life, but instead to make a meaningful impact on the story. This is for fans of deep, complicated RPGs, to be sure, but if you count yourself in that group, you cannot do better than "Divinity Original Sin 2."
Honorable mentions: Total War: Warhammer 2, Torment: Tides of Numenera
There were actually a number of good fighting games in 2017, but the mash-up of "Mortal Kombat" and DC Comics won the day again. The sequel to "Injustice: Gods Among Us" features an expanded roster, more varied move sets and a new gear system that rewards you for every game you play. Story-wise, problems still reverberate through the multiverse, where one Earth's Superman has been jailed for trying to take over the world, and the heroes who have taken his side are still fighting those who resist with Batman. Add in a whole other Earth, where the heroes and villains are those you're already familiar with, and you wind up with a wild fighting game that doesn't always make sense but is consistently fun to play. With a great solo campaign and equally enjoyable multiplayer, it is your best choice for fighting into the New Year.
Honorable mentions: Tekken 7, Marvel vs Capcom Infinite
Friday the 13th: The Game
This could have gotten the award for worst game of the year. When it first shipped, the game overflowed with bugs and server problems. It was a real horror show. The developers never gave up on it, though, and eventually the game's true potential showed through. An asymmetrical online action game set at the iconic Camp Crystal Lake, one player takes control of the murderous maniac Jason, while the others become counsellors trying desperately to stay alive or even escape. The experience is tense, funny and consistently fun, with nearly limitless replayability. It took a little time to reach a reasonable level of polish, but "Friday the 13th: The Game" provides a great escape for horror fans and action gamers alike.
Honorable mentions: Call of Duty: WWII, Star Wars Battlefront II
Madden NFL 18
I considered skipping the sports category this year. That's not to say there weren't good sports games, just that they seemed mostly like derivative roster updates, not offering a lot of new features. Then I thought about the new story mode in "Madden NFL 18." Though short, the story of Devin Wade, a college dropout trying to make his way back into football, in particular the NFL draft, is compelling and really a lot of fun. Beyond that, the game does provide the whole package, with top-notch gameplay, great graphics and some refreshing commentary. Football fans will enjoy every minute of the gridiron action, and that's just how it should be.
There isn't a more beautiful, or challenging, game released in 2017. "Cuphead" plays on the aesthetics of 1930s animation, especially those coming out of the Fleischer Studios. Most easily described as a bunch of boss fights broken up by a few run-and-gun levels, "Cuphead" will try your patience while testing your reflexes and gaming skills. You will die — repeatedly. You will want to throw your controller through the wall. You may want to swear off video games for the rest of your life. Then, somehow, you will beat a level and know you earned it. With silky smooth and precise controls, you never doubt that any time you die it's honestly your fault. While there were a number of quality indie experiences, everything about "Cuphead" — the graphics, music, gameplay and more — raise it to its own level.
Honorable mentions: Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, Cosmic Star Heroine, What Remains of Edith Finch, Golf Story
Metroid: Samus Returns
"Metroid: Samus Returns" is actually a remake of 1991's "Metroid II: Return of Samus" for the original Game Boy. It's much more than the sum of its parts though. "Samus Returns" uses 3D graphics to augment the familiar 2D gamplay, with a map that opens up as you adventure, find power-ups and become strong enough to liberate planet Zebes. Those who played the original "Metroid II" on Game Boy will barely recognize this version. While the map is similar, the game incorporates powers and themes introduced later in the series, even offering the opportunity to unlock Samus' Fusion suit. It wasn't the strongest year for handheld games, but "Metroid: Samus Returns" was a grand slam. No professed adventure fan should leave this one unplayed.
Honorable mentions: Pokémon Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon, Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, Every Oasis
Console of the Year
The minds at Nintendo thought they had a hit with the new Switch console. They had no idea. The hybrid handheld/portable/traditional console with the funny controllers (Joy-Cons) that doesn't support 4K or HDR or any of those fancy new technologies seemed like a long shot to many. Those people underestimated the allure of being able to play in your living room, decide to go out, pick up the console and continue where you left off, seamlessly, without delay or diminished quality. And then there are the games: "Zelda," "Mario," Mario Kart," "Splatoon," "Mario vs. Rabbids," "Xenoblade Chronicles 2." It goes on and on. Plenty of strong third-party games like "FIFA 18," "Doom" and "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" and a slew of awesome indies all add up to a great first-year (any year, actually) software library. And next year, Nintendo promises a more robust online system, more great games and a few surprises. There's a reason the Switch has been so difficult to find in the last nine months. Try it and find out why.
Surprise of the Year
Assassin's Creed Origins
How can an installment of a long-term franchise be the Surprise of the Year? By somehow reinventing the wheel while keeping the game true to its ... well ... origins. "Assassin's Creed Origins" shows players where the Assassins vs. Templars ware started, in ancient Egypt, putting them in the cloak of Bayek, destined to be the first Assassin. More than an adventure, "Origins" embraces many RPG mechanics to keep players invested in the action. With familiar yet polished combat, excellent parkour, a sprawling map, strong female characters and an amazing protagonist of color, the game hits every note for quality, social consciousness, relevance and, most importantly, fun. "Assassin's Creed Origins" is the result of an extra year of development. Ubisoft needs to keep that in mind when considering the next franchise installment.
Game of the Year
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Giving the Game of the Year award to "The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild" was a no-brainer. I have spent a lot of time this year trying to figure out if it's my favorite game of all time. That's coming from someone who has played for nearly 45 years, since "Pong" was new and exciting.
"Breath of the Wild" is unlike any Zelda game before it, featuring very different dungeons that can be tackled in any order, a ginormous open world to explore, weapons that wear and break, and an irrational number of collectibles for those who feel the need to reach 100 percent. The game can be beaten fairly quickly, but doing so would be crushing its spirit. Players who really explore everything Hyrule has to offer — uncovering shrines, seeds and other secrets, and fighting the game's hundreds of creatures — will be the happiest with their experience. And if the gargantuan game isn't enough, there are even a couple of DLC packs that add more content. Once in a while, a game comes along that challenges and redefines how we think about games. "Breath of the Wild" is that kind of game. It's reason enough to own a Switch.