Ian Williams is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, NC. He’s currently Vice Sports’ featured weekly pro wrestling columnist, but he still finds plenty of time to write about and investigate labor issues in the video game industry, as well as a smattering of more general games related coverage. He’s contributed work to Giant Bomb, Jacobin, The Guardian, Paste, and a whole bunch of others.
You might think that a year with as many good games as 2016 would make it easy to make a Top 10 List. Pick a little from there, one from over yonder, until you’ve got a big, bountiful basket of beautiful digital entertainment.
This is wrong! The practical effect of so many compelling, fun, deep, moving games, of all genres, is that I’ve mostly stared at my computer, frozen to inaction, unsure of what to play for fear of missing out on something in another game I’m not playing.
Despite the creeping fear that this glut of good games is going to continue right on into next year, meaning I end up staring at the slow drip of narcotizing affirmation which is my Twitter feed, I did manage to pick ten games as the best of the year.
A couple caveats. I am exclusively a PC gamer. My daughter has a Wii U, and we play it some together, but functionally, it’s PC or nothing for me. My list is also extremely arbitrary and personal; it crosses genres and might even reveal seemingly contradictory tastes.
But I loved each of these games in its own way and for its own reasons.
A confession: Football Manager is my most-played game every year, without fail. I never put it on my year-end lists because it feels like cheating and, really, what is there to say about what is broadly the same game, year after year?
But I’m putting it this year, at Spot 10 (even though, in time invested terms, it should be 1), for one big reason: we’ve finally got a 64-bit client and the game now flies. Not that it was slow before, but in a game which reaches its fullest potential after years and years of simulation, every bit counts.
I’ve been a huge fan of all things Paradox since Europa Universalis’ release day. I was into them before it was cool (it is cool now, right?). Of their two big 2016 strategy releases, the latest Hearts of Iron is the better (Stellaris still needs some shaping up).
It’s a big game, not without flaws, but so thoroughly ambitious it’s tough to fully comprehend: the entirety of World War II, but at multiple levels which you can customize in real time, a sort of dynamic micromanagement level which adjusts to your tastes. It’s deceptively gorgeous, and maybe best of all, it’s the first WWII grand strategy game where I feel like tertiary or counter-factual fronts (like my game as communist Argentina) are fun.
This is an odd duck for me. I adore it, but I’ve not played it in ages because there’s a big patch coming which is going to make the scale much, much, much bigger, as befits the American West Coast. So I’ve been waiting to go back to it, for fear of burning out before the update.
[Editor's Note: Ian submitted this list prior to the release of the ATS engine update, which is now available. It's pretty great, Ian.]
It’s a no frills game: get a truck, drive around a kind of real map of some Western states, make money. But it’s such a relaxing experience. Throw in a couple choice internet radio stations--the old school country channel matches the subject perfectly--and it just waits for me on my hard drive as an invitation to a smooth life of CB radios and long distance hauls.
There’s not much to add to a discussion of Overwatch which hasn’t been said. It’s a charming, evocative game set in a typically colorful Blizzard-created world. I burned out on Team Fortress 2 way before most of my friends, turned off by hats, class revamps, and unlockables. Overwatch tickled a portion of my brain which craves cartoony shooters I thought died in 2009. The balance is right, even characters way down my personal preference list feel fun, and the pace of the unranked matches means I can do my jump in and jump out style of FPS play with maximum leisure.
And yet… the community feels like a disaster since the addition of ranked play, which prevents a top five status for me. There are a whole lot of dickholes in Overwatch and I’m just too damned old and cranky to put up with it for long.
“Ian,” I hear you say. “LOTRO hasn’t had a new expansion in forever and certainly not in 2016. This is an old game. Get this off of here!”
No! It’s my list and I can do what I want! And LOTRO quietly released its Pelennor Fields content patch this year, which takes players through the iconic penultimate battle of The Return of the King. In the process, they told one of the best, subtlest stories of the effects of violence on the psyche and relationships I’ve seen in game form. I can’t go into the detail here, but I wrote about it over on my blog, so if you want a longer explanation, head there.
It was, of course, wedged into the usual tedium which LOTRO unfortunately trucks in: fetch quests, still killing X number of Y threat, and a stubborn refusal to come up with timesaving, rational zone paths. But the Pelennor Fields stuff gave me chills, and I can ignore a lot when a game gives me chills.
I will flatly state something which I never thought I would: a game has supplanted Planescape: Torment as the best RPG of all time. It’s Witcher 3. The full realization of its characters--visually and dramatically--blows me away every single time I fire it up.
Blood and Wine is the best of the lot, a story which serves as the probably final chapter of the entire series and takes Geralt and company out of the usual muck and violence of the series’ past and into a world of court intrigue and color. You’d think this might be playing too much against type, but instead it has a wonderful effect of showing the versatility of the characters, letting them grow in a new setting. A masterpiece.
The hook of this game for me is that it’s kind of about my dad. He was with the Forest Service and he went on big burns just like the Yellowstone Fire of 1988, which serves as the immediate prelude to Firewatach’s narrative. He may have gone to that one, I can’t remember. I know he went to others, like California and Florida.
My point is that Henry from Firewatch was instantly relatable to me, as was the story of a familial breakup driving a need to get out and away from things. The realization that the story’s central mystery wasn’t the usual video game supernatural gotcha, but the social exchanges and fraught emotions which make us human, enchanted me, rather than let me down. I adored this, even though I may never play it again.
The Battlefield series has honestly left me pretty cold since 1942 and Vietnam, and I don’t know precisely why. Some of it is that my FPS skills have deteriorated with age, slowly but perceptibly. But a lot of it is that I always liked it when they felt like historical pieces rather than speculative fiction about future conflicts.
So I get that once more with Battlefield 1 and with a surprising respect for the subject matter. The solo campaign makes your death forceful, either as a nameless soldier or one of the many subjects of individual war stories. But the multiplayer is where the touch feels particularly deft. It’s in the rapidity of an assault’s breakdown, the realization that assaults come in waves of dead men and came in those waves in real life, and the anonymity of an artillery barrage that you find something more than the standard, too easily derided genre.
The best expansion in years, probably since The Burning Crusade way back in 2007. Describing what makes a MMO cohere into a pleasing whole is hard to do in a limited word count, given that they’re so big, so prone to changing moment to moment.
Suffice it to say that I feel heroic in a way I haven’t in ages. A large part of that is the way having a powerful artifact level weapon makes a player feel, but more of it is that you just feel less anonymous in small groups. The change in emphasis from raids (still there, by the way) to super-difficult five-person dungeons feels intimate and more in tune with the fiction than the larger scale stuff. And dynamic world quests let you play when and as you want while always feeling like you’re moving toward a goal.
Somewhere around Empire: Total War, Creative Assembly lost its way. The Total War games got buggier at release, the emphasis on faction specific units faded into a bland sameness, and they just generally got less fun.
Warhammer reconfigures expectations for the series. It is wildly, joyously fun. It’s stupid. It indulges in wizards and huge units of tree people and minotaurs and crazy goblins. The map is huge and you can play a game forever. It meshes so perfectly with the Warhammer world--and comes at a time which sees Games Workshop finally pulling themselves out of their own creative doldrums--that it’s the game Warhammer nuts have been clamoring for for decades.
I’m biased. I adore Warhammer, even when Games Workshop frustrates me and despite a mountain of bad games churned out due to lax oversight of who gets the licenses. But this game is everything I’ve wanted, and there are more armies and races coming. It’s chocolate and peanut butter, Archie and Veronica (he should go out with Veronica). Pure joy for a strategy fan or Games Workshop nerd. I happen to be both.