Jeff Gerstmann is the owner and operator of jeff.zone.
It's been a strange and occasionally exhausting year. A handful of humongous ups and some lingering, disturbing downs. But I'm not really here to recap the year that was, these articles can only get so long before they start breaking the page layout. Video games. 2016 was a great year for software--developers seem comfortable with the variety of platforms at their disposal and we're seeing a lot of really great games in all shapes and sizes. What used to feel like a divide between "big games" and "small games" now feels a lot closer to a game for every moment, every feeling, and every attitude. The old "mid-tier" game is creeping back onto the scene, but it's coming from the smaller games getting bigger, which has been pretty cool.
The hardware end was exciting, too, but also weirdly murky. Virtual reality became a very real option for consumers, but the price and uneven quality of the available games make that less of a sure thing than it initially seemed. The PlayStation 4 Pro took the world's most powerful video game console and made it... slightly more powerful? Maybe? Depending on which game you're running and if it was patched or not and what sort of television you own? Nintendo stood waist-deep in a river comprised of increasingly specific leaks about the device we now know as the Nintendo Switch, and mostly said "oh, yeah, we're doing that. We'll tell you more next year." Microsoft more or less did the same thing with Scorpio. Something about the mid-cycle console upgrades seems weirdly unsettling and dangerous to me, but I guess we won't truly be able to tell how people feel about it until Microsoft's unit is out the door next year. Maybe 4K screens will really take off after CES and help justify all this? Meanwhile the Switch will happily kick it off to the side, letting the "big" consoles have their big, dumb resolution fights. Maybe this is all just business as usual all over again.
I did the whole "new PC" thing this year just in time to watch the quality of PC ports slip away in some select but noticeable spots, which I can't say I saw coming. That said, this PC runs Trackmania 2: Stadium and Quake Live exceedingly well, so I'm not especially concerned by this development at the moment. Let's talk about my 10 favorite games of 2016 and some honorable mentions and such.
Some Honorable Mentions and Such
For a minute I thought that my Top 10 list was going to have both Superhot games on it. They're different games, it's not just "hey, play the first game in VR now yay" or anything. There are plenty of VR games involving you shooting at things, and most of them are bad. Of the ones that aren't bad, very few of them make you feel like anything you're doing is "cool" or "bad ass" or whatever. Superhot VR does not have this problem. Instead it has interesting mechanics that slow a typical gunfight down so far that it starts to feel like a puzzle game where you are the rawest, rudest gun-shooting motherfucker who ever lived. Now it just needs to be like three times as long with a couple more weird story bits. Oh, and how about a VR version of TREEDUDE.EXE while we're at it?
See above, but instead of slowing things down and making it a gun puzzle, Space Pirate Trainer gives you an array of fun-to-fire weapons and wicked melee options that combine the great things about VR with the great things about physics in games.
There are plenty of "social spaces" built for VR, and every one of them I've tried feels creepy and pointless. Social for social's sake usually hits me that way, I suppose. Rec Room manages to have a more entertaining community vibe by creating a shared social space that ostensibly serves a real purpose by also being the lobby for an array of well-made multiplayer games, like disc golf and paintball. Also, I blew some inebriated disc golf player's mind by matching him chop for chop in a VR D-Generation X crotch chop battle, and that was pretty fun. Rec Room is weird in the way VR probably needs to be in these early days. There isn't much out there like it, it's getting regular updates, and for some reason it's free, which helps with that whole "the tiny VR install base just moves from game to game so no multiplayer-only game seems to stay very active for very long" situation.
EVE Valkyrie launched with what felt like a bare minimum of features in that brief window where "yo, you're dogfighting in space" was enough of a sell for VR games. That's not to say that that VR games are fully mature, but EVE Valkyrie launched like a glorified tech demo with a bunch of bad microtransactions on top of a $60 price point. On top of that, back at the Rift launch, no one even had a headset, so most of the time you just fought bots and thought "hey, this is kinda cool" for about 12 minutes. Since then, most of the game's worst microtransaction ideas have been paved over with something a bit more reasonable, more people have headsets so you're finally getting in there against other actual humans, and CCP has added a handful of modes that at least give you a bit more variety to work with. It's still not something I'd tag with the word "longevity," but Valkyrie still has a lot of cool ideas that make it one of the neatest VR cockpit experiences around.
This is a remake of a Genesis game that came to the US as Target Earth. Target Earth was not some huge game upon its initial release, but I somehow ended up with a copy of it and really fell in love with it. It was hard as heck on its own, but had an easy invincibility cheat for those times when you just wanted to take it easy. I think it's great that a remake of it exists at all, and this PS4/PC take on the original ended up being pretty fun.
I wish I was smart enough to be the world's best Hackmud player. I'm not and I never will be.
Job Simulator is a great, fun way to introduce people to the idea of "with hands" virtual reality. It's not especially challenging and it's over too soon, but what's there is goofy in the way that early VR should be. It's full of fun little interactions and items that combine in ways that just make sense. Considering how many VR games are still putting grabbable objects within the player's reach without actually making them grabbable, it's nice to look back upon a game that just gets that stuff right.
How do you follow up a game like Frog Fractions? It seems like a hard problem to solve, considering the first game benefited from being a complete surprise, passed from player to player with little more than a "no, you need to play this" sort of recommendation. The follow-up went big, if you're the sort of person who likes paying attention to ARGs. If you were, then you at least knew when the game was going to launch... but finding it was going to be a different story. Of course, if you weren't following the ARG, then you probably just saw someone say "oh shit, this is Frog Fractions 2" earlier this week. Or maybe you're reading this now and thinking "oh shit, this is Frog Fractions 2!"
The game itself is significantly larger than Twinbeard's previous release. It's a non-linear game set in an open world of sorts. Much like the previous game, Glittermitten Grove draws specific inspiration and references a wide swath of gaming's history. While I suspect that this game will end up being more divisive than its predecessor, most of the things it pulled from were right up my alley. It's a game that goes places, and even if you're anticipating the general tone of this thing, there are still a lot of surprising things to see along the way.
The Actual List Because Everyone Loves Lists
10. Forza Horizon 3
It's been tilting this way for awhile, but I think I'm ready to come out and confirm it: the Horizon games are better and more entertaining than the Forza Motorsport series. Getting off the race tracks and road courses and into a proper open-world lets Forza's pervading devotion to the automobile exist in a way that actually feels fun. Motorsport's reverent approach certainly has a place, but while you're looking for that place, I'll be spinning brodies in the middle of Australia. Horizon 3 is the best game in the line so far, with a healthy mix of places to drive, cars to purchase, and events to behold. I can't help but wish they'd ditch the gimmicky showcase events, which wore out their welcome by the end of the previous game, but Forza Horizon 3 is still an incredibly pleasant experience that's still worth returning to, if only to take a relaxing high-speed drive now and then.
I feel like some people tried to write this one off as a "greatest hits" package that leaned a little too heavily on mini-games from previous games in the series, but that's only partially true. There's plenty of new stuff here, and honestly, I'd take a greatest hits package of Rhythm Heaven mini-games over... well, every game released in 2016 with the exception of the eight games left on this list, now that I think about it.
8. Let it Die
Let it Die is almost definitely not one of the 10 best games of 2016, but it's definitely one of my 10 favorite games of 2016. It's a weird mix that onlookers seem to keep mistaking for a Dark Souls clone, but there really aren't that many similarities beyond some basic stick-n-move combat and some long windups on heavier attacks. It takes that chunk of combat and drops it into a Roguelikelikelite format, then adds in an asynchronous multiplayer component that has a few things in common with Metal Gear Solid V's FOB raids. But it also has a crazy style, with fun characters, cutscenes that wouldn't have been out of place in something like Amped 3, and a free-to-play hook that manages to tie into the whole "arcade-game-within-a-game" aesthetic, rather than simply feeling intrusive and limiting. I think it all comes together in a really singular way, pulling its influences together without ever quite feeling like it's biting too much from any one thing.
I'm really not much for portable games, but there's something about being able to relax and unwind before bed with the right portable game. Picross 3D is that portable game. Round 2, as you might suspect, adds more puzzles, but it also makes meaningful changes to the rules that make it a much better puzzle game than its predecessor. Now I just need a great KenKen app and I'll just stay in bed forever.
6. Rez Infinite
Do you have any of those songs that you like so much that you kinda don't listen to it anymore, because it's already such a part of you that you don't need to hear it to "hear" it? Weirdly enough, that's how I feel about Rez. The look and sound of Rez are things that have grown very near and dear to me over the years, even though I didn't actually return to it to play it again every time I thought about it. Rez Infinite takes the game to virtual reality and adds a new, more modern level called Area X. This is how Rez was always meant to be. Rez Infinite in VR is the Rez that, until recently, existed only in my head. Area X is one of the craziest things I've ever seen. It's new Rez. They made new Rez. They got a new track together that both manages to feel like a modern thing while also fitting right in alongside the soundscape of the existing game. They add control depth and visual sharpness and all these things that probably only add up to 10 minutes of "new" Rez content. But as someone who sort of figured we'd be seeing zero minutes of new Rez content for the rest of time, this is still astoundingly impressive.
I'm almost scared to play Area X many more times than I already have, like I don't want to use it up. I can only hope that Area X ends up being the launching point for more Rez in the future.
5. The Witness
There are magical moments contained within The Witness and there's a logical framework that ties all of those moments together. Without that framework, the moments would feel like random chance--or, more likely, you'd never be able to puzzle out what those moments were actually asking of you. And without those moments, The Witness would be a set of logic puzzles that you might as well be solving against a drab, gray background on a phone or tablet. The Witness is one of those great games where you find yourself completely stuck with no idea of how you're even supposed to attempt to proceed. So you step away, maybe grab a full night of sleep or a snack or something, then come back to the game and immediately solve the problem right in front of you. It leaves you thinking about it even when you aren't playing it, and shuffling my brain around until it was "Witness-friendly" enough to finish the main game was one of those most rewarding things I did in a game this year... even if I did have to cheat once or twice to get past the puzzles my colorblindness wouldn't let me complete on my own.
Look, id's last two brand-new PC games were what... Doom 3 and Rage? As far as I was concerned, that studio was done. When Bethesda picked it up, I figured id would just become some kind of tech house and id's properties would get shipped off to other studios, the same way Quake 4 and all those Wolfenstein games had been. There are worse fates, I suppose. I mean, Quake 4 was a bummer, but some of those Wolfenstein games were very well-received. I certainly couldn't have predicted that Doom would have one of the freshest single-player campaigns of the last 10 years. That campaign plays exceedingly well from start to finish. It gives you meaningful weapon upgrades along the way to keep things fresh. And you can lightly customize things with the rune system. It also propels you forward with its writing, which gives you plenty of ridiculous little tongue-in-cheek text entries and story sequences that strike a precise, perfect tone. As a big fan of old Doom's multiplayer aspects, it's a damned shame that the other parts of the game are so lackluster, but that campaign is one that is absolutely worth seeing for yourself.
Hitman came up in that era when stealth games were sort of unforgiving. So many of them matched trial-and-error gameplay with overly harsh fail states--which then became even more harsh when you took load times into account--that it was easy to write off the entire sub-genre. I always respected that the Hitman games had their weird thing going on, but could never actually enjoy playing them. 2016's Hitman actually retains a lot of the things you think of as "Hitman things," but wraps it all in a friendlier shell that does a fantastic job of walking you through the hit while also showing you other potential ways to achieve your goals. Once you're up to speed on some different ways you can take out targets in a given area, you can (and probably should) turn those assists down and play it untethered from the tips and opportunities the game serves up by default. It's also a great example of episodic content done right. Feeding out the maps over time helps inspire multiple play-throughs of the same area, making this the rare case where going episodic actually made for a better game. It's really impressive!
Superhot is a concise piece of video game with an amazing mechanic at its core and some tremendous bits of fake computer interface and occasional storytelling that help build a world around that mechanic. Every time I think about Superhot, my thoughts immediately become "man, I should delete my save and play that entire game again." The action, which centers on the idea that time only moves as you do, turns first-person shooting into a series of brief, intense puzzles. The restart when you fail is quick, giving you plenty of opportunities to try different things and, as you improve, it gives you time to show off. Then the game turns that chopped-up, slow-motion version of the action into a full speed clip that makes your actions look cool as hell. I also really enjoyed all the trappings around the game, with its fake chat rooms and slightly unsettling progression. It's simply fantastic. Wow. Seriously, what a game.
1. Titanfall 2
I've been increasingly concerned with one of two things: either I'm done with console-style competitive shooters or console-style competitive shooters are done with me.
I didn't expect to like Titanfall 2 as much as I did. It seemed cool at E3 and that multiplayer tech test reinforced that feeling, but I've really been feeling like the era of the console-style competitive shooter is starting to wind down around these parts. The last couple of Call of Duty games have been moving in the wrong direction and my Battlefield 4 crew--which wasn't that serious in the first place--split up years ago. Doom came along with its lackluster multiplayer options and I started wondering if we were just going to see shooter campaigns get back in style. Titanfall 2 is pretty clear proof that there's still something left in this genre for everyone, not just the shooter-heads that effectively refuse to play anything else.
Though you might think that the giant robots that fall from the sky are the big thing here, it's the movement abilities that really set the multiplayer apart from other, similar games. That speed and the ways you can chain those wallruns, hops, and knee slides together, make getting from one point to another exciting and fun. But I also really enjoy doing the opposite of that, planting myself firmly on the ground below, and serving as a roadblock, gunning down enemies who try to get too fancy on the walls up there. The in-mech combat feels a lot more fleshed out this time, too. The titans feel well-developed to the point where one type of titan can serve as an effective counter to another type, so titan choice becomes a balance between your personal play style and what the team actually needs. Mind you, I don't think anyone out there is really thinking about swapping to another titan just to help their team, but it's a nice idea just the same. It's got great map design and unlike a lot of other shooters, it's got alternate modes that are still plenty enjoyable.
Then there's the campaign. Considering the previous game didn't have one at all, it was hard to predict how this would go. But I'd put the Titanfall 2 campaign in the same conversation as Doom, for sure. It just achieves its goals in different ways. The levels in the campaign feel almost like individual little challenges that don't repeat themselves and don't overstay their welcome. So in one level you're making your way through some kind of prefab home factory, giving you opportunities to wallrun on objects that are moving and twisting as you go. In the next, you might be phase shifting to make the walls you need to run on appear and disappear at just the right times. Some late-game moments give you the opportunity to run on walls and gun down multiple enemies, making good on some of the power fantasy elements you might be looking for in a shooter like this at a time when it makes sense of the story to turn that way. Big battlefields, quieter moments focused on platforming... the campaign really covers a lot of ground.
Titanfall 2's got heart. It got its hooks in me reeeeeal deep this year. I played the campaign twice, regenerated on the multiplayer side and I kept going. I still think that the whole genre is starting to slip away--at least in a mainstream sense--but that doesn't stop me from wanting to see a lot more Titanfall in the years to come.