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Brad Shoemaker's Top 10 Games of 2016

2016 was a year in which video games were released and Brad will now discuss 10 or so of his favorites.

Brad Shoemaker downloaded Dota 2 again today and might actually play it sometime soon, maybe on his upcoming Extra Life stream this Friday. He hears good things about 7.00.

Right back at you, buddy.
Right back at you, buddy.

Clash Royale is not on my top 10 list, which might be my greatest personal triumph of 2016. I make my own decisions. You don't own me, laughing king guy!

For a few weeks early this year, I really thought this could be the year a mobile game might not just crack my GOTY list, but actually rocket way up it, maybe even to the number one spot. The game has such intricately designed, (mostly) well balanced core strategy, and it plays so incredibly well on a touch screen and a cellular data connection that my bus commute just evaporated every day. I'd happily declare it the best mobile game ever made... if nearly every second I spent with it hadn't also been so miserable, due to the competitive advantage anyone can gain simply by dumping more money into it, and the insufferable taunting the game's emote system allows. (These two downsides are often mutually reinforcing in their ability to ruin any good time you might have with Clash Royale.) I hear it's gotten a bit friendlier in both regards lately, so I'll probably give it another shot at some point, but... man, what a frustrating contradiction that game is. A $10 version of this with no microtransactions probably would be my game of the year. Clearly I'm still not over it.

Anyway, I never found another mobile fix that even came close to replicating my obsession with Clash Royale. Maybe next year's the year. Instead, my GOTY list is heavy on the games you play on more traditional platforms. So heavy, in fact, that I'm gonna make it a top 11. Or maybe kind of a top 12.5. Stop me!

12. Firewatch

To say nothing else about it, Firewatch is one of the most singularly, elegantly art-directed games I've ever seen. The way it uses its color palette to influence the mood of each scene, the way the weather and time of day subtly shift as you move through the story, even the weird exaggerated blockiness of Henry's hands and a lot of the game's objects... this game has a look. The multiple-choice intro is a concise, effective way to let the player take part in shaping the story they're about to play through, and quite a few of the interactive conversations between the game's two lonely characters made for genuinely touching, human moments as you made your way through the game's building mystery. If the big reveal of that mystery had felt more earned in the final act, I'd be a little more enthusiastic about Firewatch overall, but it's still an impressive debut from Campo Santo that does some unique things to move this style of first-person storytelling forward.

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11. Salt and Sanctuary / Dark Souls III

Had a hard time deciding which of these games I enjoyed more, and couldn't in good conscience devote two slots out of 10 to Souls-style games, but then... what the hell, why not both? They're both cut from the same bloody cloth, they both scratch the same festering itch.

Dark Souls III was mostly a really satisfying, great-looking return to form after the relative letdown that was Dark Souls II. While I miss the sprawlingly interconnected clockwork world of the original game and think it's still the most memorable game in the trilogy overall, this (supposed) finale was a great mix of unique riffs on elements of that first game, an absurdly large array of weapons, and a few absolute fuckers in its boss lineup. As it should be. From Software's art design is still top-notch, and so it was a pleasure to see Dark Souls finally make the leap onto current hardware after Bloodborne made a strong impression last year.

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Salt and Sanctuary hit just a scant couple of weeks before Dark Souls III and immediately took a bunch of flack for... well, being a Dark Souls game, just in 2D. But to me, that's exactly what's so impressive about it, that Ska Studios was able to take From's extremely specific formula and translate it so faithfully into another format. The game's shamelessness about its inspiration is crucial; every element you'd want, from stats to stances, covenants to shortcuts are all here, and they're all successfully grafted onto the form of a 2D platformer. Right now I couldn't guess what the future of Souls-like games is--it feels a little like we've hit a saturation point the last couple of years--but there sure were a couple of solid ones in 2016.

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10. Abzû

Abzû doesn't out-Journey Journey, but it hits all the same sorts of notes and hits them well, and I'm perfectly fine with that. Actually, the one thing I think Abzû does better than Journey is control: where Journey made it mildly entertaining to ski your way down some sand dunes and occasionally float through the air, Abzû's fluid (ha) swimming controls are a revelation that let you soar over the game's exquisite underwater landscapes and feel really graceful doing it. Surging upward to breach the surface, hanging briefly motionless against the sun, only to arc back down into the water is a simple, but really satisfying thing to do in this game. So is swimming through massive schools of thousands of fish. This game has amazing fish tech. It also has this studied sort of reverence for marine life, the way it lets you follow individual species of underwater animals around, and there's a great contrast there when the scientific gives way to the mystical late in the game. I'm not sure if anyone has come up with a pithy genre name for games like this and Journey yet, but if many more games of this quality come out, someone will have to.

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9. Obduction

Obduction might be higher up this list if I'd had a chance to finish it, but you can consider it pretty high praise that it made the list at all given that as of this writing, I've only spent enough time with it to get past the opening areas and start exploring some of the more unusual environments that hide behind its rich, intriguingly told story. I wasn't much of a Myst fan at all back in the day, but given how much I like both this and The Witness, I've come to realize that's more because of the slightly tedious technical limitations Myst was operating under back then, rather than a fault of the game itself. The whole "wander around a surreal deserted landscape, activating a bunch of weird bespoke machinery through puzzles" thing is really doing it for me now that technology has caught up with the artistic ambitions of these types of games, and there's something extra satisfying about the idea that the Miller brothers themselves resurfaced seemingly from out of nowhere to prove that they've still got it in the adventure-game department. And I can't talk about Obduction without recognizing its creative use of FMV for its characters, which is both hilariously unexpected and also a shockingly smart way to modernize Myst's style of storytelling over 20 years later. I can't wait to see more of this game in VR.

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8. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

The world really didn't need a fourth Uncharted game, but Naughty Dog couldn't help but go and make the best one in the series anyway. That said, the climbing and shootouts, while more over-the-top and visually impressive than they've ever been, just aren't doing it for me the way they were a few years ago. I much prefer the way last year's Tomb Raider sequel evolved this style of adventure, with its more varied pacing and bigger focus on exploration and crafting and so on. But the storytelling in Uncharted 4 is just brilliant. With its intermittent playable flashbacks, quiet character moments, and an improbable ability to believably shoehorn a major new character into a series several games old, Uncharted 4 builds a really touching story around the idea of an old cowboy finally realizing why he might want to hang up his spurs and look for something a little more peaceful out of life. The dual mysteries that build up around the lost pirate colony and Nathan Drake's own slightly mysterious background make for the video game equivalent of a page-turner, one that kept propelling me through every superfluous firefight and cliff face because I just had to know how it would all turn out. I'm similarly skeptical about the need for another Last of Us, but if the creatives at Naughty Dog can pull off something this good with a fourth Uncharted game, they can probably do anything.

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7. Dragon Quest Builders

Where the heck did this come from? Shoving a Dragon Quest skin onto Minecraft seems like such a simple, obvious cash grab, but Builders quickly rises above what looked like crass opportunism and gives the building-stuff-out-of-blocks genre an aspect it usually lacks: structure. I get why the majority of these types of games are completely open-ended, as they should be, but a building game that integrates a proper quest log and some more formal RPG mechanics is a welcome change of pace. Builders has a charming localization with a fun, quirky sense of humor, and boy do they lay the Dragon Quest nostalgia on thick. Even as someone who only really looks back on that first NES game with any real fondness, the tie-ins to that game's story and copious throwback music and references to Erdrick and so on really make it a delight to spend time with if you were into primordial 8-bit console RPGs. There are half a dozen little flaws here and there with building mechanics and quest design that I could nitpick, but it should tell you how enjoyable this game actually is that all of them together weren't enough to make me stop playing it obsessively.

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6. Devil Daggers

I love everything about Devil Daggers. I love its faux-'90s throwback look, situated somewhere between the PlayStation and software-rendered Quake. I love its high-score-focused, easy-to-grasp-hard-to-master arcade simplicity that echoes some of my favorite games of all time, like Geometry Wars. I love how damn overwhelming it is, the way it's constantly overfilling its tiny arena with hellspawn, so that you can never ever stop moving for the feeling that a horned skull nightmare is constantly nipping at your heels. I love how the game's apparent simplicity belies a hell of a lot of depth. That whip-smart control scheme--hold the fire button for a machine-gun stream, or tap it for a shotgun blast--lets you toggle between different strategies as fast as you can hit the button. And you have to, because the way different enemies spawn in forces you to control crowds of fodder and focus down bigger, more durable threats at the same time. It's hectic and satisfying as hell when you get a really good run going.

I even love that Devil Daggers came out of nowhere on a Friday morning, and that I went on to basically do nothing that weekend but take run after run at eking out just a few more grueling seconds on my best times. This game is remarkably successful at what it does.

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5. Rez Infinite

Despite having played pretty much every version of Rez ever released, I wouldn't say I ever really got Rez until this year. It might sound overly obvious or a bit cliche, but playing Rez in VR puts you inside that crisp, earnest-cheesy turn-of-the-century computer world in a way that playing it on a television just never could. Playing Rez from inside Rez finally made Mizuguchi's ideas about synaesthesia finally click for me; soaring over those digital landscapes, having it all surround and encompass you is transportive and transcendent in a way I haven't otherwise experienced in VR yet. Also, admitting this just makes me feel old, but there's something fun and nostalgic about the game's upbeat, optimistic early-2000s electronic music that made playing Rez Infinite a feel-good experience for me. This package would be a fun novelty if it weren't for Area X, which takes all those elements I mentioned about playing regular Rez in VR and modernizes and amplifies them to such a huge, huge degree that I felt a little tingly the first time I came out of the headset after playing it. If Area X isn't a proof of concept for an all-new VR Rez to come, I'll be very sad.

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4. Hitman

At some point this year point during my slow-burn affair with the new Hitman, I came to remember that I've actually put some amount of time into nearly every game in the series. But I've never considered myself a Hitman fan, and the series' expansive, clockwork brand of stealth has never clicked for me before. But I sure got deep into this one, and not just because Dan and I had so much fun goofing around with it every month as new episodes were released. On top of the game's charming potential for absurdity (because holy SHIT does this thing not take itself seriously), the range of options you have for pulling off a given hit seems limitless. The number of tools at your disposal--between different outfits, weapons, map features, and a ridiculous set of stealth mechanics that could only possibly make sense in a video game--gives you a huge deal of creative freedom to come up with murderous solutions that are deadly efficient or really dumb, or often both. And the game's episodic structure turned out to be a strength rather than a weakness, giving us a reason to come back to this brilliant sandbox month after month for another dose. Despite what seemed like some early missteps in unnecessarily making this an online-only game, IO has done a really respectable job continuing to support the game with new Elusive Targets and other bonus activities, and I couldn't be happier that there will be another year's worth of new Hitman maps to look forward to in 2017.

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3. Inside

Inside is the art-game puzzle platformer taken to its logical extreme, a three-hour experience that took years to make because every aspect of it was clearly refitted, sanded down, and polished until you couldn't find any seams no matter how hard you looked. What a stifling, oppressive dystopia this game presents, with such an alarming and meticulous amount of detail in every unique scene. That's a big part of what I liked so much about Inside: every bit of it is unique. Rather than coming up with three or five types of puzzle mechanics and then iterating on them ad nauseam, you feel like you're seeing something surprising and intriguing every time you move to a new screen. And then there's that final sequence, which... well, if there was ever an ending to a game that turned everything you knew about the game on its head and got people talking about it, this was it. It's going to be hard for future games about running to the right and pushing and pulling on things to live up to the sheer excellence of Inside.

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2. The Witness

I played roughly the first five minutes of The Witness at an event on Sony's campus around the time of the PlayStation 4 launch, and was so intrigued by it that I immediately decided to put the controller down and try to ignore the game's existence until I could play the finished thing in full. And I pretty much managed to do that. After the mind-bending triumph of Braid, I had high hopes for this game, but I never would've guessed how deeply and utterly I'd be drawn into its mysteriously layered and gorgeously rendered island. The design of even the abstract logic puzzles is kind of hilariously uncompromising in its difficulty, so you really feel the sense of accomplishment every time you manage to think your way through some of the tougher puzzle sets. But it's the endlessly surprising, creative ways the game ties the puzzles into the environments surrounding them (and vice versa) that really cast a spell on me and made me obsessively want to keep digging ever deeper into the islands secrets. And there's a LOT to dig into. Just when you think The Witness is over... there's a lot more. And then even more. That just keeps happening, over and over, right up till you make it to the infamous Challenge, which I still need to get back around to. Someday...

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1. Doom

Doom is like one of the top-five, maybe top-three shooter campaigns in history, full stop. There's only so much I can add to my gushing review of the game from earlier this year, but every minute of Doom was so exhilarating, satisfying, hilarious, and gorgeous that while I was playing it, I couldn't stop thinking about how bad I never wanted it to end. How could a modern Doom in 2016 so perfectly capture and modernize all the best things about the ways old Doom played, let alone add a bunch of new mechanics that somehow make it all work that much better? Things like canned melee kills, double jumps, mantling over ledges, and freaking skill trees sounded poisonous to the furious, brutal simplicity of the original Doom. They sound like the types of things a clumsier developer would put in a Doom reboot to ruin it. But somehow those things so perfectly integrate with and elevate the buttery smooth, breakneck dance of death that is every combat encounter in this new reimagining that this thing kind of ends up being better than the original game, if that's even possible.

It's still shocking to me that this game has a story at all, let alone such a wildly creative, incisive, irreverent sendup of original Doom's super-serious tone that's modern and weirdly funny every step of the way. The reframing of the Doom guy as some kind of biblical divine avenger and the darkly comic exploration of the UAC's cult-like corporate culture are works of genius. I can't possibly care that the multiplayer was unremarkable and SnapMap was a neat feature I didn't actually spend any time with. Even if this entire package consisted of nothing but the long, meaty, incredibly satisfying campaign, you'd be a crazy person for skipping it. Don't skip it.

I've played a fucking lot of first-person shooters since I bought the original Doom shareware on a floppy disk in a Babbage's in 1995, and plenty of them have done interesting things with mechanics or storytelling over the years, but I haven't had this much riotous goddamn fun with one since the genre's heyday in the '90s. For a long list of reasons, the fact that I'm sitting here telling you Doom is the best game released in 2016 is quite frankly insane. But it totally is.

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