Charles Webb is a Senior Writer at Hangar 13 on Mafia III. He’s spent the last ten years writing games and writing about them, and he’s doing what he can to make the industry he loves more inclusive and diverse. You can follow him on Twitter @TheCharlesWebb.
Not to get too autobiographical at the start, but 2016 was a challenging year to stick with any video games. Damn hard, point of fact. Between getting both a game and a tiny, healthy new human into the world, actually sitting down to play video games in year of our lord Grodd 2016 has taken a backseat as life got in the way. It wasn’t often that I finished games and many of those were from the back catalog. Hell, some of the entries in my best of list only got a handful of hours of my time because oh god there are not enough hours.
Having said all that, this was a year of excellence across the medium--developers were willing to get weird with it, even across numbered entries of long-running franchises. Meanwhile, smaller releases continue to let their freak flags fly with narrative and mechanical excellence. I didn’t get to play some of the more ambitious games I wanted to dig into like Virginia, Firewatch, or Shenzhen I/O but you bet your butt I’m going to make time for them.
Stay weird with it, video games. I still love you.
Square Enix found a way to get me interested in JRPGs again: make it a fancy gentleman driving adventure with a cast of pretty goofballs just trying to get their bro to the altar.
I’m not actually that deep into Noctis’ little roadtrip--maybe four or five hours, in fact--and the whole thing could fall apart in the latter acts (which seems to be the case, from what I’m hearing). Frankly, I don’t care: there’s an audacity to starting your game off with a Florence and the Machine cover of “Stand By Me” in a bros will be bros game that’s resolutely for everyone (explicitly its mission statement on startup). It’s a kitchen sink approach to game making that doesn’t seem afraid to poke at every little system the development team was interested in over the last decade or so of its development, and I can’t help but respect that.
The first Titanfall had my curiosity, but Titanfall 2 has my attention. The addition of a campaign was one of the big requests after the first game dropped, but for me, it was the deepening of the multiplayer systems and refined progression which are keeping me around for more hot robot-on-robot action.
It feels like a small evolution over what made the previous game very good, but the delightful chaos of the battlefield, but the stickiness of the combat, the array of equipment and weapons being thrown your way, and the sort of ruthless rhythm multiplayer matches can take on have built something which should last. It just feels good pulling the trigger in Titanfall 2, and I mean that in the broadest sense: this is a game which controls as tightly as one could hope, which offers the experience of constantly feeling like a badass a few minutes at a time (before someone else delivers the coup de grace while camouflaged). A lot of you folks are sleeping on it because it fell in “The Great Shooter Cut of 2016,” but I’d highly recommend that you get on it and play the third second-best multiplayer shooter of 2016.
I played the console port of Darkest Dungeon, which seems to have been the wrong move. Yet somehow, between the eye-murdering interface and seemingly haphazard button mapping, the just-one-more-room compulsion at the heart of Red Hook Studios’ dungeon crawler shines through.
This is a game which makes you feel powerful until you aren’t--you’ll be romping and stomping through the remains of a dank manor, your party killing Lovecraftian horrors like it’s their job (it is), when suddenly, one of them is stricken by a compulsion to self-harm. He won’t heal himself and now you’re one man down. And just like that, the dominos fall.
Darkest Dungeon’s pitch should be “masochism as management sim,” as you attempt to maintain the sanity of your band of treasure-hunting mercenaries while also trying to curb your own need to delve into just one more room. It goes bad for you more often than not, but Red Hook have created such an addictive set of systems that losing your entire party and returning to town empty-handed isn’t an obstacle--it’s a challenge to do it all over again.
Speaking of failing--a lot--I’m convinced I’ll never finish a Souls game. I typically brute force my way through many of its combat puzzles and I don’t think my brain is geared toward the kind of combat problem-solving at its heart. I am, frankly, no good at the damned series and should be ashamed.
So why have I dumped dozens of hours into banging my head against the brick wall that is Dark Souls III (and Bloodborne and DSII before it)? I’m increasingly convinced that the kinds of clockwork systems which make these games go appeal to me in the way that puzzle games do. And Dark Souls III refines so much of what was rough or needed work in Dark Souls II to make it accessible to a wider audience only just discovering the series. It’s still... inscrutable in a lot of ways, but inscrutable in a way that feels more deliberate than in entries past. I can’t articulate how all of the systems interplay or what most of the stats mean when building out and upgrading my character, but when I’m swinging my sword and dodging an enemy attack, the try and try again foundation of the latest entry slowly help me develop a muscle memory for its combat.
That’s the true virtue of the game: it works its way into your learning processes in such a fundamental way, that you don’t see it, making us all Daniel-san catching flies with chopsticks, but secretly letting us be badasses.
This is only on here because Tekken 7 isn’t out until next year.
I kid. Look, we all know the story of Street Fighter in 2016 is going to center on its rocky launch and awkward rollout of its features. What that obscures is another step in the (incremental) evolution of the most important fighting game series out there*. Street Fighter is keeping the scene alive in a way that other games can’t. And while I think Killer Instinct delivered on the season model in a way that has yet to be matched and Guilty Gear Xrd has created one of the deepest (possibly impenetrably so) systems among fighting games, Street Fighter remains the foundation.
It still feels good to pick up a controller and jump into a match as it ever did 20-odd years ago. Street Fighter V feels incredibly familiar while also layered with new and significant systems, making it feel ever-so-slightly different from even Super Street Fighter IV. What the season model will hopefully offer not only Capcom but the player base is a consistent platform to build and iterate upon where the audience can grow and evolve with each update (rather than gating players based on which copy of the game they picked up).
I’m not certain it’s the best fighting game of the year, but Street Fighter V is the one I’ve spent the most time thinking about and playing, for what it’s worth.
*That’s not Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection. Fight me.
Superhot is one of the biggest surprises of 2016, the “time moves when you move” shooter a wonderful distillation of the concept of a “combat puzzle.” Each encounter in this paranoid little experience feels fraught with opportunity and peril. Do you risk snatching a stray pistol out of the air as a bullet is a hair’s breadth away from your face, or beat a strategic retreat toward one of the faceless, red dudes throwing a wild punch at your noggin?
I can think of few more satisfying moments this year in games than flinging a gun at a bullet only to watch both explode, so there’s that.
Speaking of clockwork, Hitman revels in being a game where you can see the gears turning, and messing with them is like 75% of the fun. Hitman Absolution was the first stealth game I truly loved, and while the latest, unnumbered entry in the series loses some of the whackadoo charm of Absolution (no small town greasers or death in a cemetery), but it retains the series’ penchant for rewarding the player for trying new things as the silent but violent killer, Agent 47.
I adore this: more games should incentivize varied play styles and poking at the mechanics and the world in interesting ways. I respect the level of care developer IO Interactive has put into layering each of their locations with enough little prompts to engage the player who just wants to get the kill done as well as those who want to dig deeper to create a set of consequences which will draw out their targets and put them in their crosshairs.
Blizzard’s shooter might be the best game of the year and one of the more important shooters made in the last five. Nearly every piece I’ve seen about the game talking about it in any depth uses some variation of “bright” or “colorful” to describe Blizzard’s new erotic fanfiction platform, but the word that comes to mind when I play it is “joy.”
Each map and character is designed with such a deep level of personality that never feels focused grouped to death. On the flipside nearly every character feels designed to within an inch of their existence in order to exist as a viable combatant. There’s something to be said for a game which not only sparks the imaginations of its audience in such a profound way (I love--LOVE--the queer reading of some of the characters from some quarters) while also delivering a world-class shooter which will hopefully continue to build and iterate in the coming years.
(For the record, I main Hanzo.)
So, if Overwatch is the best shooter of the year, Doom is the one I think about the most.
Somehow distilling the brutal run and gun essence of the original into something which feels vital, new, and wonderfully misanthropic, Doom’s single-player campaign is an Iced Earth album cover brought to digital life. Doom feels perfect in a way that few games do, pushing you into a rhythm of move-kill-move, where ammo scarcity encourages you to try new weapons and enemy variety demands agility in tactics and approach.
It’s hard to overestimate the value of that: id made me care about Doom in a fundamental way this year that most shooters don’t elicit any year. Instead simply relying on nostalgia--or worse--attempting to deliver a game that feels like every other title on shelves, DOOM was able to tap into the frenetic experience of those original games while still feeling incredibly modern.
Thumper is... what the hell, man? Much like it feels weird to be waxing poetic about a new Doom this year, to be as ecstatic as I am over a new rhythm game feels jarring. Which makes sense, given that Thumper is an appropriately jarring game. Seemingly taking its aesthetic from a screensaver of the damned, this arrhythmic “rhythm violence” game is so much more visceral than anything else in the genre.
Its music could more accurately be described as angry, twitchy soundscapes to grind your teeth to, its navigation and inputs a series of hard turns into corners and explosions, Thumper feels like it’s taken more from Wipeout than Rock Band. And it’s tough! Like Amplitude’s angry sibling, it relies on the usual timed button presses while throwing wild movement at the player, every curve feeling like a wicked betrayal and a near loss as you start building up momentum.
I’m quite smitten.