My 2016 Top 10 Games List

People seem to think 2016 was generally an awful year, but at least it was a good year for video games, probably even better than 2015. 2015 I feel is when AAA games emerged from a sort of rut that started after 2011 as developers were getting used to new hardware. 2016 is proof some kind of good trend is in full swing. I usually don’t force myself to pick 10 games I think are the best of a year, but the fact that I was actually able to pick that many games I immensely enjoyed this year is a great sign.

One thing I also noted is the games on my list tend to be exactly the kinds of games that performed somewhat below expectations commercially because of changing trends in the business. The big budget game business is starting to favor continuous services providing online interactions and rolling content updates. Most of my favorite games were singleplayer with little online interaction — the kind of game that generally stays the same after the initial purchase. I feel like we got a lot of great games of that type in 2016 — games where the developers somehow got a lot of resources to invest not into devices for player retention, but into simply crafting good level design and pretty game worlds for players to explore. Maybe that’s why their weakness in the marketplace against Games As A Service was more visible this year.

Before I start on the list though I should go over the games I couldn’t get to in 2016 and actually didn’t mention in my earlier post about this. Firstly, a lot of seemingly great RPGs came out in 2016, particularly on handheld systems, that I never even tried to find the time to buy or play. Fire Emblem Fates and Shin Megami Tensei IV Apocalypse look like perfectly fine games. Pokemon Sun & Moon also got quite a bit of hype and praise but I’m so hopelessly far behind in Pokemon I mostly just scrolled past it all on my social media. I want to get to it someday though. Also, I pretty much didn’t touch most of 2016’s indie games. I think I was able to finish Firewatch and Inside and that’s it. I bought a few others like Oxenfree and Hyper Light Drifter. I’m sure a lot of those games were great, it’s just that the more time-heavy AAA games got really good in 2016.

And onto the list, starting from the top:

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I think DOOM is what I spent most of the second half of 2016 thinking about playing while playing the other games on this list. It’s not only a first person shooter that’s fun in ways FPSs haven’t been in years, it’s also one of the most comprehensive packages of a game released this year. I say that as someone who doesn’t care for the multiplayer at all.

Among AAA shooters this past year there’s nowhere else you can find the kind of snappy close-quarters combat DOOM dug right out of the 90’s. The variety of its enemies and the outrageous bombast of its weapons creates scenarios with an intensity you won’t ever find in Call of Duty or Battlefield. But that’s not all. DOOM’s levels are actual levels, not roller coasters that push you through a bunch of pretty scenes and scripted encounters. They feel like real levels you have to explore and figure to unlock all the game’s secrets.

When DOOM came out people were comparing it to Metroid and initially I didn’t see the connection but I think I know where those remarks are coming from. It almost feels like a Nintendo game in how it combines fast gameplay with deep level design. I think it’s more accurate to say that makes DOOM feel like the more classical action games from before the age of cinematic experiences, player retention, and anti frustration (not just the older Doom games). DOOM does all this while also being one of the best-looking games of 2016 and possibly having the best official soundtrack release of the year. Oh, and SnapMap is already proving able to remix all of this in ways that bring out more of DOOM’s potential.

id, where is that singleplayer expansion?

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A lot of what I just said about DOOM you could also say of Dark Souls III. One of the main reasons people love Dark Souls is because it hearkens back to that era of action game design but with today’s resources and knowledge. Some may find it strange to put Dark Souls III this high because it really is just more of the Dark Souls we want. But in the context of 2016’s games, more Dark Souls still makes for one of the most valuable packages of a game.

That’s one of the main metrics for my GOTY list too — how valuable the overall package feels. How much enjoyment can I repeatedly get out of this game’s content and various features without running into bloat? I don’t like to count it in exact hours of gameplay though. It’s more of an overall feeling I guess.

Maybe this is just because I still haven’t played Bloodborne, but my big takeaway from Dark Souls III is how developer From Software still managed to make it harder than the previous games by making everything faster and more aggressive. After the initial shock I felt like I had to step my game up to a new level, and I enjoyed doing so. That aspect alone brought my experience with Dark Souls III closer to more visceral (I don’t use that word lightly) classic-style action games like a Metroid or… Doom? Though not quite a Devil May Cry.

Outside of that… yeah, it’s more good Dark SoulsDark Souls III manages to stay just fresh enough with its new level design and enemies to provide the same kinds of thrills as its predecessors.

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I actually haven’t finished Dishonored 2 as of this writing but this is my GOTY list, and I think I’ve played enough of it to put it this far up the list. What I have played so far has consistently blown me away with its graphics, level design, and the relationship it builds between the player and its world.

The original Dishonored didn’t leave a huge impression on me despite being basically the same kind of game. I thought it was a neat return to the kind of game design from the old Thief games and the original Deus Ex, a great game, but nothing exceptional in its own right. I put it among my favorite games of 2012 because I didn’t find 2012 a very impressive year of video games. The sequel however seems to have created something much more engrossing by simply refining the first game’s qualities.

I don’t know if Dishonored 2’s levels are actually bigger than those of the first game, but to me they certainly feel that way. They feel like they contain a lot more people, rooms to explore, things to find, and options for players. What I like about games that follow this tradition: ThiefDeus ExSystem Shock, and now Dishonored, is that their levels try to feel like real places. They tend to feel like real city streets connecting apartment complexes and enemy hideouts that all contain things relating to each other. And in these places these games give you many different routes and different systems to use to solve problems your own way. I this way, Dishonored 2 feels like an incredibly dense game.

You might find a black market shopkeeper who tells you one of his associates discovered the code to unlock a safe in a guard station to the west, but disappeared in an apartment across the street infested with deadly wasps. That kind of design brings together exploration, world-building, and skill-based gameplay. And that world-building in Dishonored 2 will really shine if you turn off the objective markers and just find your way through the world with the clues it gives you. It’s a rare game these days that’s actually designed so you don’t need a waypoint marker to find your way around, but it’s still an option. Some people might not enjoy sifting through audio recordings, notes, and maps to figure out where to go and what to do, but it makes each place in a game feel like more than just a level.

And Dishonored 2 looks amazing. Even though it uses the same stylized art direction the first game did, the new generation of hardware it runs on gives that art more of a boost than I was expecting. Maybe it’s that the idTech 5 engine (on which Dishonored 2’s “Void Engine” is based) is just great with textures and bringing out artists’ visions as we saw in Rage and The Evil Within, and it’s just a perfect match for the “painted world” look Dishonored 2 goes for.

The recently-added new game plus with the ability to combine characters’ powers along with the option to play with no powers at all might give me a lot more tine with Dishonored 2 in the future if I can find it.

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In its current form I don’t consider Titanfall 2 to be that hefty a game. If you care about multiplayer then that might be a big draw, but the new singleplayer campaign is rather brief. But man, look at what developer Respawn Entertainment did with what’s there. It gave us one of the freshest shooter campaigns in years.

Like DOOMTitanfall 2 is all about combat at a blazing pace and doesn’t restrain its gameplay by taking itself too seriously. Titanfall 2 however applies that arcade game mentality to the artifice some of Respawn created when it did Call of Duty 4 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 while at Infinity Ward. Those were the last singleplayer campaigns these guys worked on, and Titanfall 2 in some ways feels like a definitive evolution of them.

The last few futuristic Call of Duty games have played around with wall running and other mechanics to increase players’ range of movement, but I don’t think any of them gave players the environments to run loose in that Titanfall 2 does, to the point where movement begins to take precedence over cover. And the levels that combine this combat with straight-up platforming gauntlets or other obstacle courses provide a whole new blend of FPS design like nothing in the military shooters that have dominated the market.

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Since this is my GOTY list I decided to count an expansion pack. When the Blood and Wine expansion for The Witcher 3 first came out people were putting it into GOTY rankings. To be honest that’s just because it’s more of 2015’s GOTY — Witcher 3. More of Witcher 3 though still makes for a stand-out game this year, and at such a value. I think I spent 30 or maybe even 40 hours on Blood and Wine — an amount of time comparable to some full RPGs… except it’s $20.

Blood and Wine does hit players with a certain tone and color palette that’s a big contrast from the somewhat drab and grim settings on the main game, but really it just keeps doing what Witcher 3 does best. That’s providing an open world that feels great to explore, filled with some of the best-written stories and characters in recent memory for video games.

From the original novels The Witcher has always partly been about spinning European folklore and fairy tales, and I feel like Blood and Wine finally threw that into overdrive. Its little stories are more direct about the franchise’s tendency to show the darkness underneath idyllic tales or subvert people’s expectations about them. The main quest culminates in a visit to a literal personification of famous childrens’ fairy tales gone insane in ways both smart and funny. Maybe this expansion just felt more direct with its themes because the folklore it touches on is more familiar to Americans. Oh, and a lot of Blood and Wine, particularly the ending, is especially satisfying for people who read the books.

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Guess what, if a new expansion can get into my GOTY list, so can a new mod, especially if it’s a mod I spent easily as much time playing as any of these other full games. The ArmA 3 mod “Dynamic Recon Ops” is the 2016 creation I had to tear myself away from to make time for the other games on this list. Yes, DRO is built on top of the systems Bohemia Interactive has been working on in ArmA 3 since 2013 along with some other user-generated systems, but I think it creates and tries to balance enough systems of its own to often feel like its own game.

DRO turned ArmA 3 into the kind of tactical shooter I’d been looking for since the original Ghost Recon: a game where you get a team together, observe a situation over a wide and open piece of terrain, and work the problem however you see fit, deciding everything from your load-out to your team to your method of entry. The main ArmA 3 campaigns are okay at doing some of this stuff some of the time, but DRO really tries to make a whole game out of it.

The situation where you go in with an initial plan and a calm and slow approach based on incomplete information, have to call and audible when that information changes in the midst of an intense firefight, and make a desperate escape is exactly the kind of unpredictable strategy gameplay I wanted from ArmA 3. DRO does this remarkably well with what’s basically a random mission generator. That random generator has been fine-tuned specifically to create that kind of unpredictability while also letting players choose between the “realistic” action experience ArmA already is or a slightly more accessible experience by balancing enemy behavior. In multiplayer I imagine DRO could turn into something approaching a tactical Left 4 Dead.

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When Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End first came out I remember hearing people criticize it for spending too much of its time on “story sequences” or even accusations of it being too much like “walking simulators.” I for one was pleasantly surprised that this is where Naughty Dog finally turned Uncharted into more of an adventure game, which is what I was always looking for in the franchise in the first place.

The original Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune actually disappointed me with how it was mostly a third person shooter that paid some lip service to adventure puzzles. The 2nd and 3rd games make this a bit more balanced and brought the design of the action encounters to great heights. Uncharted 4 doesn’t just bring meaningful new tools to the action and puzzle sequences, but uses Naughty Dog’s established game design tools to try to tell stories. I appreciate how Naughty Dog used what it learned from The Last of Us for the world-building in Uncharted 4, and how a lot of the game’s set pieces are serve no purpose other than to develop the characters. I guess Uncharted 4 successfully pulled off those “emotional experiences” big budget action games always talk about bringing to the table.

A lot of people unfavorably compare Uncharted to other shooters because the player character Nathan Drake handles in a way that’s supposed to look cinematic rather than immediately respond to the player’s desires. Normally I’d be right with them, but I think that at least since the 2nd game Naughty Dog has been good at designing levels and firefights around this, giving players lots of clever options when dealing with enemies. Uncharted 4 as an action game is yet another great succession of neat level design tricks and ideas that never really got old throughout the game and even felt like it used the new power of the PS4 to bring another level of scale to them.

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For the most part The Last Guardian is another very good adventure game from Sony in 2016. It really is Ico 2,” and if you enjoy that brand of platforming and environmental puzzle solving, this is pretty much a whole game of that.

General reception of Last Guardian seems to be mixed, and it’s mostly because how well the game’s linchpin — getting the AI of the giant creature Trico to agree with the player, appears to be on luck of the draw. Fortunately I had almost no trouble getting Trico to do what I wanted him to do throughout the game. I think a lot of what he does is pretty tightly scripted, but I was surprised but how much of his behavior and relationship with the environment isn’t. The way Trico dynamically reacts to his surroundings is a technical feat to behold, and I think the enemies in Last Guardian contribute greatly to this. Combat is a bit odd since the player character isn’t the one mainly attacking enemies, but watching Trico and those enemies play against each other, each one playing their different roles, delivers the sense that a believable battle is happening. It’s a big contrast from most games where you fight with AI buddies who feel like set dressing more than anything else. The final piece that makes it all look so believable is the unusually fluid and natural animations of all the characters, which Team Ico is known for from its previous games.

Last Guardian uses Trico in concert lot of neat level design tools to ultimately create an enjoyable succession of adventure game puzzles with a unique character as their main hook. Above I mentioned how I appreciated how much of an adventure game Uncharted 4 chose to be, and I think Last Guardian must have learned some things from Naughty Dog. But more than that it’s just nice to see a full-blown adventure game with an atmosphere and art direction as warm as this one receive the resources of AAA game development.

A lot of indies made games like Journey or Limbo because they were waiting for another Ico and decided to make one themselves. Well, now we have another Ico. I don’t know when we’ll get another experience like Last Guardian that isn’t an indie game constrained by modest graphics and brevity.

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I guess I should put up the disclaimer that like Dishonored 2, as of this writing I haven’t actually completed Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, but I’ve played a big chunk of it and in my GOTY list I think I’ve played enough of it to put it here. It’s pretty much the same kind of game as Dishonored 2 but perhaps not executed in quite the same way.

I heard a lot of talk about this game’s flaws: how the plot has a lot of threads that lead nowhere, indicating that Mankind Divided is only part of what Eidos Montreal planned to be a bigger franchise. There’s also how flimsy the whole “cyborg race relations” theme feels. Compared to Dishonored 2 I also find much of the level design in Mankind Divided to be somewhat restrictive and closed-in. Despite all this it’s still a very good game with qualities we don’t see enough of today.

Like Dishonored 2Mankind Divided invests a lot into three-dimensional world-building. Its sole hub area is packed with lots of places to explore, things to uncover, and people to investigate. Before even starting the main story I got sucked into this hub area, spending around 20 hours just exploring every building and room I could, completing side quests. Mankind Divided is also the kind of game that gets better when you turn off the waypoint marker, as its world and objective screen provide all the information players need to navigate for a more immersive experience.

New developer The Coalition didn’t really miss a step when taking on the Gears franchise for Gears of War 4. It got down the fundamentals of why Gears is fun to play, managed to mix them up into fresh new encounters, and even added a bit to them with new weapons and challenges to deal with. Even the story proved to be a pretty good way to continue the franchise after the climactic ending of Gears 3.

In some ways Gears 4 might not stand up to Gears 3 under a microscope, its campaign might not have the breadth of DOOM, and it might not have the unrelenting creativity of Titanfall 2, but it’s still a basically fun shooter. It still brings the Gears that kept people on their Xbox 360s to the Xbox One and modern Windows PCs (with a great PC port by the way). That still makes for one of the better and more valuable shooter experiences available for modern hardware.

I guess in that way you can sort of look at Gears 4 as just the new update, the new iteration, the new model of a game everybody wanted to keep playing.

Honorable Mentions

I do have a couple games to mention that, while they weren’t earth-shattering experiences still managed to be quite enjoyable and deserve to be looked at. Most chiefly there’s Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. I was a big fan of the first Mirror’s Edge and the sequel maintained what I liked about that game. Catalyst suffers from a lot of the bloat that chokes up typical AAA games but that doesn’t ruin the unique core parkour mechanic. The game still makes some interesting additions to its cool movement system and provides a lot of activities through which to push that system to its fullest. The other one was one of the only big indie darlings of 2016 I managed to finish: Inside. I wasn’t expecting it to pretty much be “Limbo 2” but that’s what it is. It’s the same side scrolling puzzle adventure with a dark and mysterious atmosphere. It just brings in more clever problem solving and far more expressive graphics. The ending is completely out of left field.

Looking back, 2016 really was a lot more “gaming goodness” than I could digest. I’m already dealing with the games on my schedule overflowing into 2017 while also trying to get ready for some major 2017 games that will come out before January is even over.

BULLETS:

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