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John "Cowboy" Bellomy's Top 10 Games of 2016

Naughty Dog's programmer extraordinaire returns to herd another batch of games into a top 10 list.

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John Bellomy is a programmer at Naughty Dog, known for his work on such popular franchises as Uncharted, The Last of Us, and USB Drivers for PlayStation 3 Fight Sticks/Instrument Controllers. Please yell "YEE-HAW" at him via Twitter.

While I was pretty sure going into this I knew what my top games were, narrowing this down to just 10 seemed especially difficult this year. Catch me on any other day of the week and you might find one or more of the following on this list instead: Deus Ex (and Deus Ex Go), Titanfall 2, Quadrilateral Cowboy, Inside, Obduction, Stellaris, and Civilization VI. Also I’d like to preemptively apologize for not having yet played the following: Stardew Valley, Dishonored 2, Blood and Wine, Mafia III, and Watch Dogs 2. That being said, here are my top ten coping mechanisms of 2016 for dealing with 2016:

10. No Man’s Sky

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More than anything, what I wanted from No Man’s Sky was to get lost in a galaxy too big to comprehend, and find myself in places that looked incredible, beautiful, or just plain alien. In those respects, Hello Games knocked it out of the park. Indeed the more I engaged with the gameplay mechanics the further I felt from the real gem at the core of this game: feeling lost and alone, picking my way through hostile systems, where sometimes the stars would align and I’d catch a glimpse of something beautiful.

9. The Witness

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When this game landed we were deep in the home stretch of shipping, a process that leaves you mentally and physically exhausted. Kind of the worst time to try and tackle a brain-wracking puzzle game. Only what I discovered was it is actually a nice respite. The thing about shipping is that it is often just dealing with a mountain of work, most of it you know how to do, you just have to do it. It’s not an especially creative part of the process. Vacationing to puzzle island, with its quiet and zen-like atmosphere and puzzles spread everywhere for you to do or not do at your leisure, it let me engage a part of my brain that I didn’t even notice was atrophying. After hours of sketched dot diagrams, comparing notes with friends, I finished with my most satisfying challenge completion of 2016.

8. Forza Horizon 3

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One of my favorite book series is the Culture series by Ian Banks. In it, humans live in a kind of anarcho-utopia, generally faffing about, doing extreme sports, and everything in between. Forza Horizon 3 is what I imagine would happen if someone in Culture found cars in a database and decided to throw a renaissance faire. The lunacy and spectacle and yeah, all the “it probably wouldn’t have been exactly like that but it's still cool” comes from a love of cars that I share deeply. Spend some time lovingly admiring the curves and lines of some exotic beauty before seeing how fast you can hurl it off a cliff. For points. This game loves cars the same way I love cars and it’s reflected in everything from the presentation to the design and down to the basic premise: “let’s all get together and throw a big car party!”

7. Dark Souls III

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Having skipped DS2 and never got around to finishing Bloodborne I set out to see another Souls game to the end. Clawing my way for every inch of progress feels as good and earned as it ever did and this one has my favorite locations in the series. Not ashamed to admit I summoned help for the final boss, and sharing that victory through our wordless cheers felt all the sweeter. Good to be home (and that Artorias armor…).

6. SUPER. HOT.

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An interesting twist on the standard FPS design, packaged in a stylish presentation that does it justice. Just enough story, hitting some of my favorite cyberpunk themes, to keep me wanting to see what’s next through to the ending. Puzzle your way through combat encounters and come out looking like John Wick. Punching a guy so you can shoot him with the gun he just dropped only to smash another guys face with it never gets old. I’m very excited to come back to this once I get my VR setup.

5. Hyper Light Drifter

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This game hits a lot of the same notes I like about Dark Souls. To directly compare the two doesn’t do either justice. And yet I do love finding yourself alone in a harsh and uncaring world. Where your ability to survive is dependent on a tight and fun melee combat and where progression comes primarily from its mastery. It has a beautiful dystopian world to explore and piece together the nature of. The sublime soundtrack is melodic and haunting (and easily my most listened to outside the game). Still it was that melee that really cements my love of this one. The lonely warrior slicing and dodging (and occasionally shooting) my way through the wasteland.

4. Doom

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A rip-tearin' good time, this game revels its old school roots without feeling dated or hacky. I especially enjoyed the melee kill mechanic of rewarding you with health (and in the case of the chainsaw, ammo). It kept me from staying at a distance and picking off enemies and in a number of cases made for some dramatic swings from near death to death machine. All backed by a soundtrack straight out of Immortan Joe’s road show. This was also an enjoyable game to 100% the collectibles and challenges. The map (again with that deft classic touch) gave just enough information to keep the hunts from being annoying and the challenges encouraged a varied play style.

3. Hitman

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Another case of a developer honing in on what makes a series great and refining it to a glittering core. This absurdist clockwork murder simulator made for some of the funniest moments all year (both played and watched). I think this game is underrated for its musical cues. From the glorious victory march to an exit to the more subtle stealth stingers, they set a fun spy thriller vibe. I loved picking apart the dense maps for some new avenue of access, disguise, or the missing piece in my death ex machina opus. Or sometimes you find yourself cornered and the only out is a fire extinguisher to the head.

2. Overwatch

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Like a lot of other games that made my list, Overwatch overcame some low enthusiasm out of the gate for me. Competitive multiplayer games just aren’t something that fits in my life these days. Still I couldn’t deny being curious about what exactly project Titan had become and true to Blizzard fashion that small taste was enough to hook me. A smart presentation heavily emphasized positivity and not how much you’re getting outclassed by people who play more than I work and sleep combined. What was especially impressive to me was how every class felt so distinct in their play style. Switching from Winston to Mercy to Pharah, they almost felt like individual games in their own right. Every time I thought I had landed on my one true main I would try another class I had discounted and be surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Many times this year I came in to work to talk with my friends about some euphoric victory or nail biting defeat. Toe to tip, Overwatch has been polished to that Blizzard sheen and is the number one reason why I’m avoiding Heroes of the Storm.

1. Darkest Dungeon

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I didn’t start it until late in the year, but when I did, Darkest Dungeon got its hooks in me something fierce. I’m not normally one for Lovecraftian aesthetic but the writing, narration, and art style are all so good, and gel together so well I couldn’t help but smile and lose myself in its depths. The “1-D” combat design was well realized from how I would build out my team to the effects and abilities inflicted both by, and upon, my brave heroes. The stress mechanic was another interesting pressure and characterized my guys beyond just whatever skill loadout I had given them (and sometimes much to my chagrin during a critical encounter).

Perhaps what I find most impressive with this game is just how wide a range of viability exists in your team comp. After evangelizing this game to all my friends we would come back and discuss how each of our successful strategies was clearly inferior to our own (seriously, Man-at-Arms is so clutch). Tone is something this game nails, right down to somehow making turn-based combat feel (for lack of a better word) “visceral.” You really feel every hit, every whiff. The endorphin rush of a Hail Mary heal crit’ing in the last room on your long dungeon. This game is fantastic, brutalizing, and I loved it. Just need to do one more run, maybe try out that new trinket...