2016 was a rough one. Whether it was methodically tearing our cultural icons away from us or trying to plant the seeds for a Twitter Age civil war, 2016 felt like a twelve month beatdown that had us collectively gasping against the ropes. But the realm of escapism thrived, especially in video games! This year saw amazing worlds to get lost in (and given the climate, we needed it). As always, I’ll remind readers that this list is entirely subjective and based on my tastes. Is your favorite game omitted? Maybe I didn’t play it; maybe I hated it. For every game I got my hands on, there were probably two others I didn’t get to hunker down with.
There was a glut of new games this year making it hard to keep up with every single one But that’s a great thing! This hobby I hold oh-so dear to my heart is growing, and new experiences are being forged every day. In a defeating year like this one, it’s comforting to know art, commercial or otherwise, can and will persist. I’ll also I’m not looking to “rank” or pit any of these titles against each other. These are ten standout titles in a year filled with, arguably, many more than ten standout titles. Cool? Awesome. Here’s the ten video games that tickled my fancy in 2016:
- BATMAN: THE TELLTALE SERIES
Though Telltale’s gameplay formula is starting to congeal, their deft approach to storytelling is as a good as ever in this reconfiguring of the Dark Knight’s lore. I loved its play on the superhero’s split persona, giving you the choice to tackle situations using Bruce Wayne’s wealth and status, or skirting outside the law to deliver masked vengeance as The Batman.
It beats that old horse once more – Bruce’s parents’ tragic death in a Gotham alley – but fearlessly alters decades of mythos in order to take us on a surprising, twisting journey. Similarly, old faces are made new again with the liberties Telltale takes: Harvey Dent is a close friend leaning on Bruce’s pull to further his own political career; the Penguin is a former childhood chum that’s returned to make Gotham pay for the fortune he’s lost; and Catwoman is, well, essentially the same Catwoman we know but she picks up on Batsy’s less super-suited ego early on causing some tension that eventually leads to a forum fanfic come to life.
Telltale’s engine is still a technical disaster – low framerates, disappearing characters, and even complete crashes. If you can get past that (without losing your progress), you’re in for not just one of Telltale’s better outings, but one of the better renditions of Batman to grapple his way outside of comics.
In a year where AAA games blotted out the sky, it was a treat to find small rays of light like Headlander. A smaller project developed by Double Fine, Headlander is a total love letter to that kitschy ‘70s sci-fi aesthetic that made the movies like Star Wars and Logan’s Run so great. A side-scroller established firmly in the Metroidvania genre, you play as a disembodied head that can boost around levels and, well, land on robotic bodies to engage in combat or solve a myriad of puzzles.
Stuffed with sharp humor and funky design, the whole game is as entertaining as it’s weird. The game toys with the concept that humanity has moved on from flesh and now transfers their consciousness into chrome domes, but this apparently happened in the distant future as envisioned by the disco era. You run through environments littered with robo-people spouting, “Alllll riiiight” and everyone you inhabit (by sucking their heads off) can dance sexy. I don’t even know what the hell I’m describing at this point. But forget all that Song of the Deep rabble – Headlander is one of the best Metroidvania games I’ve ever played.
- FAR CRY PRIMAL
Primal could have been one of those shrug worthy “side-quels” that studios like to squeeze out while fans waited for a proper Far Cry 5. Yet much more care and commitment to concept went into this joyous prehistoric romp than anyone would have thought.
The hallmarks of the series are all there: base capturing, open-world exploration, and light-sneaking/heavy FPS action. But the game trades in your guns and vehicles for spears and ridable beasties. It presents a new challenge for the series just when things were getting a tad too formulaic with Far Cry 4. Far Cry’s weirdnesses are all in play, however. You meet an eclectic bunch of quest-givers, like a piss drinking shaman that sends you on an obligatory Ubisoft Drug Induced Bender, or a displaced neanderthal suffering from a genetic malady.
There’s a greater emphasis on the wildlife this go around, too. Far Cry has always featured animals, but Primal lets you tame them, using a rolodex of different creatures that can aide you in the middle of a battle at a moment’s notice, either as a partner or distraction. You gain an appreciation for their varying attributes, like the mountain bear’s tank-ish fortitude or the wolf’s ability to take out enemies quickly and quietly. They’re practically characters in their own right; I’d hate to see Far Cry 5 (or whatever the hell they call it) do away with the Beast Master system.
I remember being there for the gameplay reveal at Quakecon and having my face instantly melted the first time I saw the Doom Guy rip and tear a demon apart with his bare hands. That excitement didn’t diminish when the rest of the world finally got their own hands on the game.
Doom expertly hacks into its fast-paced, action-first roots while weaving in modern philosophy. It checks every box a fan could possibly want in blood red ink: brutal, fluid, incredibly kinetic combat; ludicrous amounts of attention paid to the grisliest details; and a roving armory of guns capable of massive amounts of destruction. Whereas games like Call of Duty attempt to impart players with a sense of vulnerability – making you a small cog in a machine of many – Doom fearlessly embraces the action hero power fantasy. You are the Doom Slayer. You are a force to be reckoned with; a living tornado carving a bloody path through the annals of hell.
There’s a semblance of a story to be had (if you’re the kind of goober that picks up a Doom game looking for that sort of thing), but id Software spends precious little time trying to explain it to you. Instead, it tucks visual narrative in the environment and its more explanatory passages in codexes you have to seek out. The thing is, there’s a very conscious effort on the dev’s part to not bog down what Doom is at its core. Doom is rip-roaring ultra violence of the highest order, a rollercoaster made entirely of loops. Don’t get too hung up on “Why?”– there’s a room full of demons around the corner and they don’t need a “Why” to tear you apart.
- WATCH DOGS 2
If I could name this game anything but Watch Dogs, I would. It’s unfortunate ties to 2014?s over-hyped and underwhelming predecessor caused many to overlook one of 2016’s best open-world games. Set in a lovingly accurate homage to San Francisco, you control Marcus Halloway, an entirely too likable hacktivist bent on sticking it to The Man and breaking it off.
In this pursuit, you’ll perform a number of pranks, heists, and assorted antics to damage, impede, or just outright embarrass the money-worshipping, information-selling shrews running the system. Like Assassin’s Creed II before it, Watch Dogs 2 improves on almost every problem the original had. Stepping away from revenge and placing a focus on youth rebellion, and providing us with an engaging cast to invest in, was smart. The story is lighthearted and humorous, sprinkled with biting satire – a much needed breath of fresh air from the first game’s dour tone. Hacking is vastly expanded as well, giving you freedom of choice in how you tackle encounters. I found myself infiltrating enemy hideouts using just Marcus’ RC car and drone. It sounds ridiculous, and I agree completely, but it meshes so well with Dedsec’s newfound tongue-in-cheek outlook.
Watch Dogs 2 caught me by surprise. It plays with tried and true conventions of the genre, but does it with such style and fun, I couldn’t help but devour the game.
- TITANFALL 2
It’s a damned shame how EA mishandled this game’s launch – marching it out to die between Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’s release dates – because Respawn’s sequel deserves a fair shake. Taking to heart reaction to the original game’s omission of single-player, Titanfall 2 came equipped with a campaign – one of the year’s very best.
Centered on the bond between a grunt-turned-pilot and a personable mech named BT, Titanfall 2 dives in and never, ever lets up. Respawn could’ve rested on their laurels, too. The game’s snappy gunplay – an obvious carryover from their years under the Infinity Ward banner – and explosive titan-on-titan fights would’ve made for a solid campaign. The opening hours really give no hint that Titanfall 2 is anything other than a competent shooter haplessly shoved into a year full of above standard shooters. Then, out of nowhere, the campaign goes for the extra mile, pounds a Red Bull, and bolts for the horizon.
We learn how woefully underused the parkour mechanic from the first game is once you’re tasked with navigating constantly shifting, puzzle-like environments, all while trying to mow down hordes of enemies. In one standout mission, you gain access to a time-warping wristwatch (stick with me) that lets you instantly phase between the past and present. The game plays with this concept brilliantly, forcing you to solve problems on the fly – one section demanding you hop between timelines while you’re wallrunning to get past obstacles. Some of the design instantly recalls Portal – it’s that clever.
Top the whole proceeding off with the same solid multiplayer suite found in the original Titanfall, and this sequel is the complete package. One good thing came from EA’s goof, however – hardly any place sells the game for full price anymore.
- UNCHARTED 4: A THIEF’S END
Though it’s an amazing game in its own right, to really say the least, I should caution anyone from plunging into Nathan Drake’s final adventure without having played the first three games. It’s not that A Thief’s End hinges on your knowledge of the PS3 trilogy – actually, much like the Indiana Jones films it apes, Uncharted’s main plot lines never thread together between releases. It’s just that Naughty Dog has written an emotional send-off that only fully resonates if you put in your time with Drake and his supporting cast of greats like Elena and Sully.
Beyond that, ND proves once again why they sit atop the industry when it comes to design, gameplay, and narrative. Uncharted has historically skewed closer to campy, easily digestible fun, which is why it was such a surprise to revisit an older Drake struggling to find the spark in his settled down, married life, free of the danger he was once addicted to. When his estranged brother enters the scene (another knockout performance from the voice of video games himself, Troy Baker), we’re thrust into a familiar adventure full of ancient ruins, tense gunfights, and platforming galore. But Nathan approaches this proceeding with more reflection. His swagger is slowed by his age, and he examines the weight of this lifestyle on himself and the ones he loves.
It’s a thoughtful, exciting, and emotionally charged journey bolstered by the most refined gameplay this series has seen. It’s an adventure underlined by a sense of finality, which wisely takes a breath to slow down its action and focus on what has always made this franchise work: its characters. Plus, holy shit, have you seen the rope physics in this game?
- FINAL FANTASY XV
I could level a Summon sized amount of criticisms at this game. I could go on about its arbitrary design quirks, whether they’re dated choices or simply dumb ones. I could groan on and on about its threadbare story, with its rushed conclusion and jarring “offscreen” events that no amount of CG movies or anime vignettes can save. I could write a thesis on how Chapter 13 doesn’t mechanically or tonally work. I could tell you that it doesn’t live up to ten years of hype.
But I had to search my soul on this one, because I had dumped well over seventy hours into exploring the open-world, hunting packs of razor-dogs, finding new recipes for Ignis to cook up at camp, riding Chocobos, fishing for Chrissake, storming labyrinthine dungeons, searching for better gear… It made me realize, for every complaint I could possibly have, few of those damning bullet points could shoot down the enjoyment I got out of this title. The combat is excellent: it’s crunchy, responsive, and expands as your crew levels. The world is gorgeous and giant; sometimes lonely, sometimes stupidly dangerous. And the boys. Your comrades grow on you every step of the way. You learn about their different personalities and how they relate to each other, not least of which how they relate to you (as Noctis). What it lacks in plot it certainly tries to make up for in character. So much so that I blank-stared my way through huge plot shakeups while, during more intimate character-driven parts, I had to fight back mansome tears.
What’s broken in Final Fantasy XV is hopelessly shattered. But what works bangs on all the Regalia’s cylinders. It’s an incredibly strange, profoundly Japanese take on Western open-worlders. One mission could have you on an epic quest to find the best ingredient to throw into Cup Noodle (seriously) while the next will be a bounty hunt pitting you against a beast the size of a mountain. Despite being a complete gameplay departure, there’s something quintessentially Final Fantasy about it all. It’s charming, its music is fantastic – it has heart. In the face of all of its flaws, I had an immense amount of fun in this world and wanted to keep coming back. I hate that I love it, but I do nonetheless.
What the hell can I even say about this game? If the current active user base is any indication, you certainly don’t need me to evangelize the game. Overwatch became a sensation this year, with some detractors calling the multiplayer-only hero shooter “a fluke,” given that, on console anyway, hardly any shooters without a dedicated single-player mode survive.
But Overwatch isn’t a fluke: it’s a master class in design. It’s the game dev’s game, and shouldn’t just be studied by its peers in the class-based shooter space – it should be regarded by every game maker from here on out. The attention to detail goes beyond painstaking. The commitment to balance is inhuman. On paper, this is not my typical purview. I may have played one round of TF2 in my whole life and that’s all it took for me to call quitsies.
Yet Overwatch reexamines class-based video games and obliterates its weaknesses. Support roles, like playing healer, aren’t the groan inducing last picks here. They’re dynamic and interesting– as fun as they are integral. Often a huge team revive from Mercy can turn a match faster than an offense-heavy character, and without defenders like Reinhardt and his damage-soaking shield, you’ll find victory next to impossible. This isn’t a game for killstreak hungry lone wolves. Cooperation is not just encouraged – the whole experience hinges on it. It’s a viciously intelligent title that executes on the one tenant that all great games share: it’s easy to pick up but difficult to master.
And there was always something to drag me back in. Whether it was the constant refinements and additions Blizzard made – which, be it a new character or new mode, are all free – or the gold mine of bragging rights offered in each competitive season, more than any other game this year, I found myself entrenched in Overwatch. I’ve had my downs with the game, to be sure. I would find myself on Youtube Fail worthy losing streaks – where every tea-bagging Mei seemed to have a near infinite supply of Ult’s up her ass, and every team I joined acted as if they were being paid to actively avoid the goddamn payload. But when you hit your stride in this game – when your Ult’s lay the land to waste and your team comp feels like science – there were few highs that topped Overwatch in 2016, and more than any other game on this list, I’m guaranteed to keep playing it well into 2017.
- DARK SOULS III
I want to preface this entry for a moment: I hated Souls-Like games before I played Dark Souls III. I dipped my toe into the original Demon’s Souls and had that toe bit off. That disc was spit out of my console within ten minutes. I gave a heartier effort to Bloodborne, caught up in the whirlwind praise encircling the PS4 exclusive. I didn’t get past the first boss.
Something just clicked when I played Dark Souls III. It was gradual, but I began to understand the kind of animal the game was. I stopped tossing my controller against the wall after every death and started to think of them as… charting the level. Every death taught me something new: be it enemy patterns, places to avoid, whatever. And, fostering a level of resilience that years of hand-holding in big budget games have conditioned out of me, I pressed on. I took my licks. I learned when to dodge, and dodge precisely, and when to attack, and strike true. I took note, and advantage of, the numerous shortcuts winding through the environment. To progress in Dark Souls is to master it – to know more about its monsters and its world than other games would ever care to tell you. My clicking point came when I realized death wasn’t a punishment in Dark Souls; it was a mechanic. A mechanic to be used like healing, or saving, or dodging. And you’ll use it often.
I’m glad I stuck in there because I would’ve missed out on a lavishly macabre fantasy world, filled with gloriously grotesque monsters, with a narrative presented as a painting – open to interpretation. It’s a meticulously detailed piece of art that only this medium could craft. A genuine challenge that reminded me games used to be hard, and we used to welcome that difficulty. Dark Souls III doles out a fair many beatings, but once I learned how to roll with the punches (quite literally), it was the best gaming experience I had all year.