Game of the Year 2016: Has There Ever Been a Better Time to Play Video Games? The Answer May Surprise You!

This blog post has also been posted on my blog and can be found here.

Hey, internet. You might remember me from such hit gaming crit pieces like the game of the year list I wrote last year, or the 0 other things I wrote about games because I’m a lazy idiot and I didn’t have the time or energy to write anything else in the time from then till now. Woops. I meant to write more, I swear.

Anyways, a lot of bad, scary shit happened this year and I’m sure if you possess both a heartbeat and the ability to understand communication about the outside world you know that already, so attempting to address any of that in a silly video game ranking list seems like a bad idea. But if we were to judge 2016 purely by how good its video games were (which, as we all know, is the only metric that matters), I’d say 2016 was a pretty good year.

So good, in fact, that I kind of feel bad that I either didn’t even get the chance to play certain games, or that I wasn’t as into certain other games that others seemed to love. Sorry, DOOM, I just don’t love you the way everyone else does. I appreciate your tongue-in-cheek tone, fast-paced action, and the mere fact that a critically acclaimed Doom game exists in 2016, but you just didn’t click for me. Sorry Civilization VI and Dark Souls III, you both surprised me that I actually liked you, given that I didn’t care for Civilization V or any of the other Souls games, but you’re both unfortunate victims to me just plain liking other games better than you. And finally, sorry to Planet Coaster, Thumper, Titanfall 2, Brigador, Watch Dogs 2, Darkest Dungeon and probably a few more I’m forgetting. I just didn’t have the time and/or money to get to play much of any of you. I probably would have liked at least a few of you if time and money weren’t obstacles.

But enough doom and gloom and apologia. It’s time to get to the games I enjoyed the hell out of in 2016.

11. Death Road to Canada

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Adding Death Road to Canada to this list feels a bit weird to me. Not because I don’t enjoy it – I do, quite a bit, actually. It’s just that despite how much I enjoy my time playing it, it’s a hard game for me to recommend.

For those of you that don’t know what the game is, the premise is as follows: After a zombie apocalypse destroyed most nations on Earth, only Canada exists as a last bastion of uninterrupted civilized life. You play as a group of up to four either custom made, randomly generated, or rare special event survivors as you make your increasingly difficult trip through generic American towns seeking shelter in Canada. Throughout your trip, you’ll fight off zombies, gather supplies, build your survival skills up, and try to have your group of survivors not kill or double cross each other. It’s essentially Oregon Trail but with zombies (and way better than the other game that tried to do the same thing).

Despite the premise, the game is pretty goofy, with jaunty 8-bit rockabilly tracks and humorous dialog and events littering the death road. Which is actually one of the first reasons I might not recommend it for everyone, actually. The comedic writing hits more than it misses, but when it misses, boy does it miss. Between its actually funny original writing there’s the occasional joke that’s referential for the sake of being referential, as well as enough jokes about Canadian stereotypes that it’s actually occasionally grating.

The combat in it could also be better. It’s essentially one button to attack, with your character’s effectiveness with their weapon of choice (as well as their stamina and ability to repeatedly use it, if it’s a melee weapon) being based on said character’s stats. It works, but it might be a bit too shallow for some.

But despite that, I still really, really enjoyed most of the time I spent playing this game this year. The game’s RPG mechanics are actually surprisingly well done, with much of your characters’ stats being initially hidden until it actually comes time for them to use them. The random events that happen between resource gathering missions are usually pretty funnily written and occasionally oddly humanizing in their pettiness, involving things like arguments over who let a nasty fart rip in the car, or what song to play on the radio. Sometimes, some of your characters will even be bummed out if you do something good like help other survivors with no reward if they’re assholes. It’s things like that that give the game its real charm and appeal to me, and what gets me invested in making sure my group of survivors makes their way to Canada.

I’ve already written way more than I expected to about this game, so I’ll close by saying that despite the relatively low amount of songs in the game’s soundtrack leading it to be a bit repetitive, what’s in there is pretty stellar. This one in particular is my favorite.

10. Superhot

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Superhot is probably one of the most stylish and cohesive games I’ve ever played. It’s very short, but only because it doesn’t need to be any longer. It busts down your door, delivers a gut punch of stylized hyperviolence, then puts a shotgun under your chin and blows your head off with its unexpectedly off-the-wall narrative, leaving you shattered in pieces by the time it’s done like the many red, featureless enemies featured throughout the game.

In other words, Superhot is the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years.

9. Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2

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For me, Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 is the video game equivalent of comfort food. I’ve already stated in my list last year for the previous installment in this game series how I have a kind of nostalgia for Dragon Ball Z, fueled by how often I watched it with my brother when we were kids. Playing Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 takes me back to the show’s overly dramatic storylines and over the top battles that are endearingly cheesy to watch as an adult.

But this sequel has quite a bit more going for it than pure nostalgia factor. The mission structure feels much more smartly designed than its predecessor. I’ve also felt like there’s just overall more to do in this sequel than I did with the last game. I’m not sure if there’s actually more side quests or if the game has just guided me through all it has to offer better than the last one did, but the end result is the same.

Sure, the combat is still pretty button mashy, but that almost feels appropriate to the source material. Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 isn’t the deepest fighting game ever (and probably not even a fighting game at all but I don’t give a shit about that argument at all), and I don’t know if someone who doesn’t have at least a bit of reverence for the Dragon Ball universe would enjoy playing it, but none of that matters to me. It makes me feel all warm and happy inside when I play it and I love it for that.

8. Pokémon Moon

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Despite considering myself a fan of the Pokémon franchise, I haven’t played most of the Pokémon games. My first was Pokémon Red/Blue when I was a kid. Being a certified 90’s Baby™, I was the perfect age to fall in love with both that game and the cartoon that spawned from it.

After I stopped watching the show or caring about the first game, I lapsed on playing any Pokémon games all the way until Pokémon X/Y came out a few years ago. While I enjoyed that game for what it was, in a lot of ways it felt like it was clinging onto to a few old design decisions, either out of complacency or some misguided notion of what a game in the series should be. I kind of checked out on playing it before I beat it, likely because of how clunky it could be at times.

With Pokémon Sun/Moon, it feels like Game Freak has learned this lesson and made the game feel a lot more like a modern video game, at least for the most part. There’s still a few weird clunky bits and questionable design decisions here and there (I’m looking straight at you, theoretically infinite calling-for-help mechanic), but overall, it’s much more pleasant to both navigate and play. For example, once you battle an individual Pokémon at least one time, the next time you battle the same type of Pokémon, the game will tell you which of your moves will be super effective, effective, or not effective. Quality of life improvements like that have gone a long way in improving my experience with the game.

The game’s fake Hawaii setting of Alola is also a really pleasant place to be. Everything about it from the music to the palm trees and tropical clothing make the game just feel chill, man. It’s an inviting world that was a joy to visit every time I launched the game this year.

Also Team Litten 4 lyfe

7. Stellaris

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I’ve been a huge fan of the Paradox style of grand strategy games ever since Crusader Kings II stole many hours of my life a few years ago. Since then, I’ve spent countless more hours in Paradox’s other offerings, such as Victoria II and Europa Universalis IV. But despite how much I enjoyed their more historically-oriented offerings, I always felt like they could apply this formula to more fantastical settings.

So needless to say, when Stellaris was announced, I was super excited for it. So much so that it almost feels like a bit of a disappointment that it’s not higher (lower? How do lists work) on my list. A relatively shaky launch marred with an almost nonexistent midgame and a few technical issues soured me a bit on the game initially.

That being said, after a few post-release patches addressing this and a few other balancing issues, the game feels like it’s most of the way to where it should be. The political ethos system you can set for your race at the start of the game is the perfect springboard for thinking about how you want to roleplay your empire, which has been the most enjoyable part of the game for me. It’s easy to get lost for hours playing the game and tackling any issues that come your way how you think your empire would handle them, not necessarily how you would personally handle them.

I still wish the game had the political and economic complexity of Victoria II and the depth of character of Crusader Kings II, but nonetheless Stellaris has been another Paradox grand strategy title worthy of the hours it’s sucked from my life.

6. My Summer Car

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So, I know what you’re probably thinking seeing this game on my list. This has gotta be a joke, right? Nobody would enjoy this clunky, bizarre mess of a game enough to have it on their game of the year list, right?

Believe me, I felt similarly when I first started playing My Summer Car. The premise and all the pre-release trailers almost made it feel like a joke game, like your Surgeon Simulators or your Goat Simulators. But at some point during my time with My Summer Car, it stopped being a joke for me.

At least not entirely. It’s still a game with a dry, distinctly Finnish sense of humor, but the crude humor almost belies the game’s mechanical depth. When you’re putting your car together, you literally have to put your car together, piece by piece, bolt by bolt. It’s strangely therapeutic to put your digital hoopty together. There’s a real sense of accomplishment once you finish your build and fire your car up for the first time.

What’s great is the fact that your car will always kind of be a piece of shit in My Summer Car. When I first started my car up after my initial build, the car kept making a horrifying grinding sound. Also it was eating through brake fluid like nobody’s business. It felt like I was really struggling to put a piece of shit old car into a semi-drivable state.

It’s an extremely janky game for sure, but its intricate car building mechanics punctuated with bizarre Finnish pop songs and copious amounts of drinking make My Summer Car legitimately one of the most unique video games I’ve ever played. I can’t wait to see it come out of early access.

5. Motorsport Manager

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In a lot of ways, Motorsport Manager is the game I’ve wanted to make for years. Ever since I got into F1 thanks to Giant Bomb’s Alt+F1 podcast, I dreamed of a modern F1 management game that had Crusader Kings II-like traits for all the characters in the game. To be fair, there have definitely been well-received F1 management games made in the past, but Motorsport Manager is a great, modern take on the idea.

A deep set of skills and traits make a lot of the drivers that populate your game’s race world feel unique. If your driver is a bit of a primadonna, they could refuse any orders you attempt to give to them, as they want all the glory for themselves. Drivers can fall in and out of love with each other, which affects their relationships with each other as well as their performance.

It’s not just a spreadsheet game, either. Outside of the more menu driven ways you micromanage the more minute details of your team, you also manage your race strategy on the fly during the actual race. You decide when your drivers pit, as well as when they push their cars to the limit and when they ease off to conserve fuel and car part wear.

There’s a few problems I have with the game, such as the fact that, despite the game’s use of fictional drivers, the pool of rookies and drivers signed to teams at the start of the game is set in stone and not randomly generated, meaning you can just remember which drivers and staff members are good to sign at the start of every game, rather than a more dynamic hiring process that randomly generated drivers and staff would allow. There’s also a few issues the race AI has in regards to respecting blue flags, making overtakes when they have the opportunity to, and making pit stops that make sense.

But a few minor quibbles didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the game that much. The loop of the game is engrossing enough that I often found myself playing the game for hours on end without intending to, telling myself that I’d play for just one more race. It’s got some room for improvement for sure, but Motorsport Manager is pretty much everything I want out of an F1 management game.

4. American Truck Simulator

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As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself appreciating games that embrace mundanity more and more. Games like American Truck Simulator appeal to me because I feel like it respects me enough to simply enjoy driving in the space between towns that are often ignored in games. There’s probably a million different ways that SCS Software could have made the game feel more “gamey”, like the boring racing and other types of minigames that other open world games have at such a rate that it almost feels like they are required to by law, but they didn’t. The game doesn’t cut down the long and winding roads between major cities out of a fear of a lack of excitement. Rather, it revels in those spaces.

The game currently simulates California, Nevada, and Arizona, with plans to eventually get to the rest of the country stated by the developers. Despite this relatively large area, the world of American Truck Simulator is surprisingly detailed. Little bits of personality like roadside sculptures made from propane tanks, burned out hotels with bare mattresses laid on the floor, and billboards around Las Vegas for divorce lawyers are littered all over, making the world feel more lived in than you might expect from a game like this.

It’s a game that many people describe as a “podcast game”, and while that’s not an inaccurate statement, I prefer to make a playlist of my favorite sad, slow, contemplative songs and hit the road. There’s in-game internet radio, much like Euro Truck Simulator 2, and while it’s fun to listen to hokey country music stations and the like, there’s a certain zen-like state that my mind goes to when driving down long highways and through small towns while listening to my playlist that kept me wanting to come back to this game throughout the year.

I can’t wait for them to expand the game’s map as time goes on (especially into Illinois, which is my neck of the woods), and I definitely see myself coming back to this game to explore more of this digital version of the States for a long time.

3. Stardew Valley

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Stardew Valley came completely out of left field to me. I didn’t follow the game’s development process, only first hearing about it once it had already came out and was generating a lot of positive buzz. I didn’t play any of the Harvest Moon games before, so I don’t have any particular nostalgia or affinity for this type of game, so I wasn’t really sure if I’d like it or not. Imagine my surprise when it ended up being one of my favorite games of the year.

The game’s premise is fairly simple. You inherit a farm after your grandfather’s death, available for you to move to whenever your corporate cubicle farm job gets to be too much. After taking up this offer and setting off for the titular town, you have to turn the overgrown remains of your grandfather’s farm into something he’d be proud of, all the while making friends and lovers with the town’s residents along the way.

It’s a bit of an overly romantic view of country life as simple living, but that’s easily forgivable. The game is charming as hell, with so many different things you can do and unlock that it’s mindblowing that the game was made by one person. Throughout my time in Stardew Valley, I’ve never felt like I didn’t have anything to do. Quite the opposite in fact, as I usually felt like there was a glut of different things I could do at any given time, even after sinking dozens of hours into the game.

I’m a sucker for games with a lot of heart and empathy in them, both of which are qualities that Stardew Valley possess. There’s really humanizing moments to be had with characters that are homeless, suffer war-induced PTSD, alcoholism, depression, and more. The game doesn’t really turn its nose up at many of the characters and make them 100% irredeemable assholes, even if they might appear that way at first glance.

Given that it appears that I haven’t even seen close to what the game offers combined with the fact that the game keeps getting additional content added in via updates, I can see myself getting lost in Stardew Valley well into the new year and beyond.

2. Overwatch

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I’ve kind of fell off competitive shooters as I’ve gotten older. I used to play games like Halo and Rainbow Six: Vegas all the time when I was younger, but their appeal to me waned after high school. I’ve definitely put some time into a few of them over the years, especially after getting my own gaming PC a few years back, but not like I used to.

Because of that, I wouldn’t exactly say that I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed Overwatch, but it’s the most I’ve enjoyed a competitive shooter in years. Nearly everything about the way the game is designed seems like it was made to minimize the feeling of letting your team down that turns many away from competitive shooters. The game rarely highlights your shortcomings to your team, instead opting to show everyone the best play of the game and several cards with the players that did the best at the end of every match.

The different heroes in the game (which are basically just classes) not only give you many different ways to play the game, but also inject lots of personality into the game as well. It doesn’t too long of searching through any social media site’s gaming tag to find the myriad of fan art and jokes that build off of the different personalities that inhabit the world of Overwatch.

There’s also been a good amount of post-release content as well, with new heroes and new maps joining the fray at a pretty frequent rate. It’s enough to get me back into competitive shooters and make Overwatch one of my favorite multiplayer shooters in recent memory.

1. Hitman

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After 2012’s Hitman: Absolution failed to recognize what made previous games in the franchise so good, I cynically thought there’d never be another good Hitman game. I was so sure that games like Hitman: Blood Money could never be made in the modern games industry, at least not with the budget and team size needed to make it truly great. So if anything, Hitman has taught me to not be so cynical about the state of the games industry, as it is an incredible game.

With it, IO Interactive has found a way to have their cake and eat it too in regards to being both highly accessible for players new to the franchise and deep enough to hold the interest of veterans to the series. The challenges system is the perfect introduction to both any given map as well as the game’s mechanics, guiding you step-by-step through a hit designed by the developers. The brilliance of it is that through tackling these different challenges, you naturally learn the intricacies of the map and how the systems in the game interact through doing, not through some more boring and traditional tutorial system.

The masterful design doesn’t stop at the challenges system, either. Each map is designed to be just one or two steps away from mayhem, just waiting for you to spring the trap like a murderous game of Mouse Trap. And even where the designers didn’t intend for chaos to unfold, there’s enough of a variety of tools at your disposal to create your own brand of murder wherever and whenever you’d like.

While the episodic nature of the game was much maligned prior to its release, it actually ended up being one of the game’s strongest suits. The steady trickle of escalation missions and elusive targets punctuated by new map releases gave me plenty of reason to keep coming back to the game throughout the year. It makes the case for the episodic release structure better than any other game I’ve ever seen.

Speaking of elusive targets, I can’t end this piece without mentioning how incredible of an idea they are. For the uninitiated, they are one-time assassinations that are available only for a limited window of (real-life) time that you only have one chance to complete. If you mess it up or miss the window, it’s gone forever. This elimination of the safety net of save scumming and infinite retries makes elusive targets some of the most intense and rewarding things I’ve done in a video game all year. There aren’t many words that can describe the feeling of coming up with a plan and executing on it perfectly, all the while knowing that any slight misstep will lock you out of any future attempts and permanently mark your failure on your record.

Top to bottom, Hitman is a masterstroke of game design that not only lives up to the name of previous entries in the series, but far surpasses them. And with the prospect of a season two nearing us, it seems like the fun times in this world of assassination are just beginning.

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