Best Games of 2016
My favorite games from 2016.
My favorite games from 2016.
I've never played a Doom game before, and I really wasn't that interested in the new one. And when I first tried it, I had a good time, but I wasn't blown away. Once I sat down and really played it through myself, I totally understood why people were raving, and started considering whether I should try playing the original. It's just incredibly fun from start to finish. The graphics are nice and functional, the music is terrific (I can hardly fathom that they originally intended to have no guitars), and the story keeps you moving and laughing at the protagonist's disdain for everything happening around him. But it's the simple act of playing it that makes it the game of the year. You move through scientific facilities on the surface of Mars and dark corners of Hell, exploring to find hidden upgrades and blasting demons. Your arsenal of weapons and abilities and the variety of monsters that you deal with slowly expand as you come to understand how they all work. By the end, you're leaping around arenas, managing your ammo, brutally ripping enemies in half to refill your health, carefully timing the use of a chainsaw or a powerup to turn the tide of a battle, and making mincemeat of any freak that would dare to try to stop you. Not every game should be like Doom, but Doom is everything a game should be.
It seems like Naughty Dog is held to a different standard than other developers. They need more of a reason to revisit a concept, more justification to make a sequel. A fourth Uncharted game? After they switched things up with The Last of Us, it better be worth it. Luckily, they took a lot of what they learned from my favorite game of 2013 and used it to revive Uncharted in really interesting ways. This is probably the last game starring Nathan Drake, but it's a hell of a send off. It begins by introducing Nate's brother Sam, an idea which seems kind of schlocky. But they take the time to justify his previously unmentioned existence, and use it to create a story about Nate being torn between the obligation he feels towards his brother, who he had left for dead, and his responsibility to his wife, who he promised to give up his dangerous lifestyle for. This seems really heavy for an action game about climbing on cliffs and shooting bad guys, and it is, but they really take the time to pace it out and make it work. You feel invested in the characters in a way you probably weren't before, and everything feels weightier and more meaningful. It's probably pretty easily the least violent game in the series, and it doesn't feel like anything is missing. Plus, the action is still great and the graphics are incredible. People have doubts about a sequel to The Last of Us as well, but I'm totally on board for whatever they do.
It definitely feels like there's some Souls fatigue going around for many. These are long, stressful games, and this is the third of its type in three years, and fifth in eight. For my own part, I had a great time with it. The Weapon Arts bring a new dimension to combat, the game looks wonderful (as wonderful as demon-infested medieval ruins can look, anyway), and they've ironed out most of the kinks that make the series less inviting for new players. It's still tough - if you've never played one of these before, there's a boss ten minutes in who will probably kick your ass. I'd still rate it as a pretty good jumping on point. The level design is excellent, and consistent in a way From Software hasn't pulled off before - there isn't a single area or boss I'd dread revisiting on a second time through. Fans of the first Dark Souls will continue to lament that they haven't recaptured the idea of a fully interconnected world since, and it felt like there were a couple of easy opportunities for those kinds of connections that they missed or just ignored. But the individual levels are still masterfully put together, with plenty of links and secrets to find, and they're populated by enemies that are always fun to square off against. As someone who never deviates far from a typical melee weapon build, I had very little to complain about.
I'm a big fan of designer Fumito Ueda's two PS2 games, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. So when they announced a new game by the same team for the PS3, I waited happily for its release. And waited. And waited. Over the years, the game stopped showing up at events, and seemed like it might die without ever coming out. It finally reemerged on the PS4, and last year, it actually came out. When you play it, you can see why it took so long - the technology behind an AI-driven, very large and detailed animal that climbs around environments while you can climb over it at the same time seems extraordinarily complex, and the frame rate is pretty bad in intense moments despite the hardware upgrade and long development cycle. The achievement itself was worth it, though. Trico, the strange bird/cat/dog creature you spend the whole game interacting with, is an incredible success on both a technical and artistic level. Many players experienced a lot of frustration getting it to do what they want, which is too bad. But if the relationship works, like it did for me, it's enough to overcome a whole lot of niggles about the way it controls and other details that could have been handled better. It's possibly the most flawed game on the list, but also the most magical.
Everything Dishonored did well, Dishonored 2 matches. It has a unique, interesting setting that is built effectively through art design and background information you can find. It has solid core stealth and action mechanics that are augmented through a clever magical power system where you pick and choose the abilities that complement the play style you're going after. It has wonderful level design, where you find yourself navigating intricate city blocks and private estates, with different sections patrolled by different factions who will react to you in specific ways, and a great sense of freedom despite the generally linear progression, thanks to multiple paths and beneficial optional objectives. Unfortunately, the original's biggest weakness - a fairly dull plot that's not helped by pointless celebrity voice acting that generally comes off as bored - was not corrected. Still, there's a lot to be said for games that do anything as well as what Dishonored 2 gets right, and its levels are more consistently brilliant that the first time.
Camp Santo is made up of sort of an indie game dream team - designers and writers from great games like The Walking Dead and Mark of the Ninja, the composer of Gone Home, wonderful artists from Double Fine and some great pieces you've probably seen online, whether they were properly attributed or ripped off. Their first game, Firewatch, is about a man who decides to become a fire lookout at a national park for a summer, who spends his time attending to his normal duties and chatting on the radio with his supervisor at the next lookout tower over. Those conversations are really the meat of the game, as you figure out what sort of relationship you have with her, and try to find a connection to help make sense of what you're feeling. There are some simple interactions involving navigating and maintaining your section of the park, and a story that dips its toes into some unexpected territory. If you can get into the right mindset for the game, it's a very pretty and relaxing experience, with the emotional depth you might expect from the pedigree.
The Witness has a pretty classic adventure game setup. You wake up on a strange island, and the only way to get closer to understanding the situation is to solve a bunch of abstract puzzles. It's a bit different than other games in some very obvious ways though. The truths you uncover tend to be more of an all-encompassing philosophical kind, rather than simple explanations of who you are and why you're here, and more importantly, every single puzzle comes down to tracing a line from one end of a shape to another. You wouldn't expect this to stay interesting for a full game, but it's remarkable how many permutations on logic and intuition Jonathan Blow and his team were able to wring out of the simple concept. And with multiple layers of completion, you can reach a satisfactory conclusion to the game even if there's a certain type or two of puzzle that you just can't figure out. It's a deep game that can be explored for thirty minutes if you don't have much time, or hours and hours if you really get invested.
The original Titanfall was a fun multiplayer shooter, sort of a better-feeling Call of Duty with mechs. For the sequel, people were expecting a bit more, and Respawn delivered. based on their experience with the aforementioned Call of Duty series, I expected a short but forgettable campaign centered around a bunch of big firefights. What we got was indeed pretty short, but actually one of the more memorable shooter single-player modes in a while. The game is built around soldier Jack Cooper and his relationship with BT, the Titan he gets rushed into piloting in dire circumstances. They go on a journey together to reunite with the military force their part of, and along the way they develop a bond with some actual humor and emotional weight that was a delightful surprise. And a couple of those levels are real standouts, including one where you have to navigate an assembly line that's building these prefabricated structures around you and another that has you traveling between two different points in time. Other games on this list do some of this stuff better, but Titanfall 2 is still worth your time.
Mankind Divided is the first Deus Ex game to star a returning protagonist. I kind of wonder why the developers are so attached to Adam Jensen, who has one of gaming's most ridiculous gravelly voices and not much of a personality. However, Eidos Montreal still knows how to craft a smart stealth-focused cyberpunk action RPG, and the continuing near-future conspiracy storyline is still fairly intriguing, even if Adam isn't. The game has a cool structure where you're primarily based in Prague, and you visit a few other locations but spent most of your time in the same few city blocks, juggling multiple responsibilities and helping unfortunate victims of the class divide that human augmentation causes. It's an open world in miniature, where the area is small but feels alive in believable because of the narrow focus. A few things hold it back, but for the most part it's a really solid game.
I enjoyed Hitman: Absolution as a more traditional stealth game, but there's no denying that it failed to uphold the Hitman legacy. IO Interactive went back to the drawing board and gave fans what they wanted: another Hitman game that's all about exploring interesting foreign locations, figuring out how the targets, civilians, guards, security systems, and environment work together, and using that knowledge to pull off clever assassinations. The game was released episodically, which gave players an opportunity to really scour the different areas and get more out of them than you would if it was all put out at the same time. Personally, I played this first "season" after it was all out, and I don't enjoy screwing around and trying around as much as many others seem to, but every mission was satisfying to figure out and accomplish, and I'd like to go back and try some of the opportunities I ignored the first time. Also, some stealth games are known for their funny incidental NPC dialogue, but few have ever done it as well as it is here.
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