9. Forza Horizon 3
This was a top 8 list until the last week or so, when I actually gave Forza Horizon 3 another chance. I’d played it at release, but it got sidelined by other games and it never really had the chance to click until I returned to it in preparation for this list.
I was a big fan of Burnout Paradise and, to this day, I think it’s the best arcade racer ever created. The thrill of racing around the open world of Paradise City, smashing billboards, pulling off stunts and tricks, and discovering all the little secrets the world had to offer has been unparalleled since.
I had never played a Forza game before, but knowing that the Horizon series was more arcade-like and accessible, I picked up Forza Horizon 3 hoping for another Burnout Paradise experience. And in a lot of ways, I got that.
The world is huge – much bigger than Paradise City – and spans across a wide range of absolutely drop-dead gorgeous environments. There’s a ton of stuff to do and a lot of variety to the events, and sometimes it’s fun to just drive and explore the world rather than actually doing events. The online adventure modes are a lot of fun and an interesting take on racing games – I can’t say that I’d ever played Capture the Flag or a Halo-like Infection mode with sports cars before playing Horizon. And though there’s a ton of tuning and tweaking for car enthusiasts, clueless peasants like myself can just hit the auto-tune button and do just fine.
Forza isn’t going to become a yearly franchise for me, and I doubt I ever jump into the realistic simulation of the Motorsport series. But I may just return to the Horizon games in the future when I feel like capturing some of that Burnout Paradise magic.
8. Fire Emblem Fates
Fire Emblem Awakening was my Game of the Year in 2013, and I’ve been a fan of the series since the days of the GBA and GameCube – Path of Radiance being the game that really cemented the series as one of my favorites. So it’s no surprise to see Fates on this list.
Technically, this placement is for Birthright, since that’s the only branch of the story that I’ve completed. I had wanted to at least get a taste of Conquest before writing this list, but, alas, the recurring theme of “not enough time” strikes again. Not only that, but there’s a bit of burnout involved after completing one of these games, and the thought of jumping into another stressful 25+ hour strategy RPG so soon makes my head hurt.
Fates doesn’t really rock the boat other than its multi-path release, but rather expands upon and tweaks elements that were already a part of the series. It’s a solid strategy RPG with a memorable cast of characters, and it adds another layer to the series’ strong conventions with myriad options for character building, weapon forging, combat strategy, and relationships. Perhaps the most significant change is that weapons no longer break after a certain number of uses (Hallelujah!), but, to offset this, each class of weapon has its own properties that can affect your stats and abilities. Weighing the pros and cons of each weapon just adds another strategic element to battles.
It doesn’t do anything revolutionary, but it’s a solid entry for the series, and I’m looking forward to jumping into Conquest at some point this year to get the other side of the story…and maybe even Revelations after that.
7. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
I finally jumped into the Uncharted series this year in preparation for this game, as you may remember from my thoughts I posted earlier in the year. They’re basically the equivalent of popcorn action flicks – pure adrenaline and over-the-top set pieces without ever getting too deep in either plot or gameplay systems. Which is why I was surprised to see Uncharted 4 tone down the over-the-top-ness and put more of a focus on plot and characters.
Don’t get me wrong, the set pieces are still there – though maybe not quite as spectacular as the ones from Uncharted 2 or 3 – but they’re on a smaller scale rather than spanning entire chapters like 2‘s train level or 3’s airplane (the incredible motorcycle chase chapter shown in the E3 demo being the exception). Even the frequency of gun fights has been toned down a bit…which is not a bad thing considering mowing down wave after wave of bullet-sponge enemies was torturous. Instead, Uncharted 4 focuses more on character interaction and personal moments like playing Crash Bandicoot with Elena, or driving through the Madagascan desert with Sully and Sam.
Speaking of Sam, his existence is dealt with a lot better than I expected. When I first heard Nate would suddenly have a long-lost brother that up to this point had never been mentioned in the series, I groaned, but his introduction and role in the series is actually believable. The contrast between Sam and family-man Nate is a key component of the story, with Nate’s desire to be a good husband conflicting with his adventurous, treasure-seeking instincts. And the childhood sequences, while slow and probably torturous on a replay of the game, provide some much-needed backstory for the Drakes.
In some ways Uncharted 4 is my favorite game in the series, but in some other ways I really missed the pure adrenaline rush that 2 provided – so they’re both sitting at the top. While the long stretches of exposition in A Thief’s End would probably make it less replayable than Among Thieves, the gunplay and climbing have never felt better – not to mention it’s one of the best-looking games ever created. And it all wraps up with the most fitting conclusion I ever could have imagined for the series.