GOTY 2016

If I were to try and come up with a concise theme for my 2016 in video games, it would likely be one of refined sequels. I played a ton (a ton!) of really cool games this year, of all kinds, but what stands out to me most when looking back over the large spread of varied games I played from these past 12 months, is just how many of my favorites ended up being direct sequels. Many of these sequels didn’t even change much in their fundamental design, but they often tweaked, expanded, and/or polished enough to stand out in 2016. I tend to favor original ideas in general, but I can certainly enjoy a good sequel as much as anyone when done well. 2016 had plenty of them.

Don’t get me wrong: 2016 also had its share of wonderful original games, and a surprising number of long-in-development titles (both indie and “big budget”) finally worked their way out of development hell and into our hands. Put it all together, and I found myself with more exciting stuff to play during the year than I could reasonably find time for. I had a much, much harder time paring this list down to 10 games than I have in years, which only begins to speak to the quantity and quality of games on offer. All of that to say, good job 2016. There really has never been a better time to play video games.

And with that, on to the actual list. Thanks for reading!

List items

  • “They are rage. Brutal. Without mercy. But you… you will be worse. Rip and tear, until it is done!”

    The opening lines of Doom tell you everything you need to know right up front: the enemy is brutal, so you will have to be even more so. From there the game tosses you right into the action, and doesn’t let up until you’ve spent a dozen-plus hours ripping and tearing everything in sight. And what glorious action it is; this is hands down the smoothest and most responsive first-person shooter I’ve played to date. It simply nails that fundamental feel of playing a video game to a degree that most can only dream of. And for as dumb as Doom can be in concept, there’s a lot of incredibly smart touches here that add layers of polish and nuance around that core play experience. The variety and design of the weapons, enemies, encounters, and levels create a mesmerizing flow that never lets up. The clever upgrades and challenges lend the game a satisfying sense of progression that’s never too distracting. It thoughtfully mixes old and new shooter conventions to great effect. The game looks and sounds absolutely incredible in ways I didn’t know were possible. Even the story, tone, and writing are playful in subtle, entertaining ways. Doom is the rare game where every single facet feels both well-considered and well-executed. It’s unbelievably impressive, and a case study in game design 101.

    What’s even more striking is that I say all of this as someone who never had any affinity for the Doom name before 2016, nor am I the biggest fan of first-person shooters in general. I paid this game no mind before it came out, and had you told me back in January that it would be on this list at all, much less sitting at the top, I would have looked at you like a crazy person. But to my great surprise, new Doom got ahold of me what good. I couldn’t stop thinking about this game for weeks after playing it, and I even played through it a second time, an extreme rarity for me nowadays. That speaks volumes to the achievement on display here. Sure, it’s big, it’s loud, and it’s tremendously silly, but it’s also highly polished and smartly designed at every turn. It’s easily the most fun I had playing a video game in 2016, and maybe even the most fun I’ve ever had with a first-person shooter campaign. Those are claims I don’t make lightly, but Doom earns every bit of praise it gets. Rip and tear, my friends. Rip and motherfucking tear.

  • The Witness clearly thinks differently about how video games work. Here is a mentally taxing collection of logic puzzles that’s able to teach without the use of a single tutorial. Here is a lengthy, challenging quest that never gives you direct goals or measures of progress. Here is a game that places substantial trust in its players’ curiosity, determination, and intelligence. Put another way, The Witness is a smart and intricate puzzle game with a lot of nuanced rules and mechanics, but it’s all in service of more organic player exploration and learning. It places you on a large, beautiful, and mysterious island that’s full of ideas and secrets, and lets you poke and prod and discover at your own pace, without erecting any artificial barriers to distract you. I found the process of freely bouncing between the different areas, each showcasing wildly varied, yet equally clever puzzles (seriously, how did someone think of that many ways to draw lines?), to be a highly satisfying affair. And while the individual puzzles are well-crafted and fun to solve on their own, the vast majority of them also implicitly teach you small lessons about how the world around you works, which further aid you in more puzzles elsewhere. You’re not collecting weapons or power-ups here; you’re collecting knowledge, and you learn by doing. The result is an open-ended, player-driven learning expedition that’s full of brilliant “light bulb” moments at every turn.

    So while The Witness is all about solving puzzles, it’s ultimately about so much more than simply solving puzzles. As you slowly piece together more and more about this magical island and all it holds, the bigger picture only becomes more profound. The Witness is about questioning, it’s about learning, it’s about the journey, and it’s about the wonder of your discoveries; the only goal here is satisfying your own curiosity to whatever extent you desire. As such, what could have been little more than a series of (admittedly excellent) puzzles transforms into an exciting and personal adventure that’s as introspective as it is about drawing lines. You get what you give in The Witness, and I got way more from it than most games are capable of offering.

  • Dark Souls III feels like From Software tying a bow on a body of work that has not only been highly engaging over the past seven years, but also immensely influential. This series threw a giant monkey wrench into modern “big budget” game design, and had a much bigger impact than I think anybody expected. Dark Souls III’s biggest strength then, as (presumably) the final Souls game, is its ability to remind us of that legacy, and bring all its positive traits to bear one more time. There are no new tricks here, but Dark Souls III may be the most well-executed version of one of gaming’s grandest adventures to date. Its world blends scope and detail in mesmerizing ways, it’s full of exciting secrets, and it places immeasurable confidence in the player’s ability to find their own way. Combat is tight and responsive, character customization is as deep as ever, and there are tons of awesome enemies and bosses to fight. Perhaps most importantly, the game’s pacing and variety hold firm throughout its lengthy playtime, making it a constant joy to play from start to finish. Oh, and it looks and sounds great too.

    None of that is new to the series, but what Dark Souls III loses in surprise and novelty, it gains in polish and poignancy. In fact, it can feel almost reflective at times, looking back and taking in all of the great ideas the series has had over the years, and then refining and remixing them in cool ways. This turns what could have been little more than a by-the-numbers sequel into a fitting send-off for one of modern gaming’s most important and impressive franchises. It’s one that’s been a personal favorite of mine too, and while I don’t think all of Dark Souls III’s callbacks work perfectly, enough of them hit such that I found myself almost wistful by its end. It’s been a hell of a ride, and what better way to wrap it up than with another banger of a quest, one that’s still more captivating than almost every other game out there. I guess what I’m trying to say is, thanks, Dark Souls. It’s been fun.

  • Every time a new Civilization game is announced, I wonder how it could possibly top the last one. For 25 years this series has defined and redefined turn-based strategy, and just when I think they’ve perfected their formula, they go and prove that there really was something else worth trying. This rings true once again with Civilization VI, whose biggest changes occur in city management. Buildings are now relegated to districts, which (along with wonders) occupy hexes on the map. Not only does this make more use of the world map than ever before, it also introduces new limitations and trade-offs: which districts do you choose for each city, and which hexes’ yield are you willing to give up in favor of said districts? You can’t build everything in every city anymore, which is emblematic of a number of smaller tweaks that permeate almost every aspect of the game, from social policies to combat to diplomacy. Yet all of its tweaks are simultaneously intuitive and nuanced, continuing Civilization’s long-running trend of streamlining your big picture decision-making, while still allowing you to dig into as many nuts and bolts as you want. That combination of accessibility and depth has been an ever-improving hallmark of the series, and Civilization VI pushes it forward yet again.

    Make no mistake: the bulk of what makes Civilization VI fun is exactly what’s made every Civilization game fun. You found cities, build armies, make cultural and political decisions, and ultimately guide and mold your own civilization through the ages. What this latest installment does then, is continue to refine and update the series for modern times. Very few video game franchises have remained this relevant for this long, and it’s a testament to the series’ willingness to constantly re-examine the wheel without outright reinventing it. If that was an easy thing to do, then more would do it, and it should be praised rather than taken for granted when a game continues to forge into the future without losing its touch. Civilization VI shows that this legendary franchise continues to stand the test of time, and that no matter how many turns we’ve already taken, it’s still worth one more.

  • Fire Emblem Fates feels like a game of two very different sides. And no… I’m not talking about the fact that Birthright and Conquest follow opposing sides in Fates’ central conflict. Rather, it has a wider gap between its gameplay systems and its storytelling, the two most important sides of the Fire Emblem formula, than perhaps any game in the series. In its expanded customization options, from classes to skills to equipment, it offers more intricate and meaningful choices than ever. In its battlefield tactics, the new support stances add smart and worthwhile considerations to every turn. And in its mission design (I can only speak to Conquest here), it consistently presents varied and challenging scenarios that keep things fresh. All of this comes together to create a nuanced and rewarding gameplay core that may be a new high for the franchise. And yet, that high is countered by the low of Fates’ storytelling. It simply contains too much generic melodrama and goofy writing to stand out as anything more than mediocre, which is a shame for a series known for having cool stories and lovable characters.

    Fortunately for me, as a more mechanics-focused person, it’s easy enough to downplay the bad here in favor of the good. And I do, because in its moment-to-moment design and action, the Fates campaign I played (Conquest on Hard) stands tall as a highly intense, engrossing, and memorable experience. I’m admittedly a sucker for deep, tactical gameplay, but this one gripped me and wouldn’t let go for dozens of hours. What class do I promote each unit to? Do I pair up for a defensive guard stance, or opt to dish out more damage with an attack stance? How do I position my troops to best take advantage of this map’s unique properties? Can Effie be stopped!? These are the kinds of questions that punctuate every moment of a good Fire Emblem game, and Conquest elevates these considerations to a new level. With better storytelling it may have even been my favorite entry in one of my favorite franchises. But as it stands, I’ll have to settle for a merely fantastic Fire Emblem campaign. I think I can live with that.

  • I spent years wondering if a driving game would ever live up to the lofty bar set by the now departed Burnout franchise (RIP). For me, a fan of high-speed thrills who doesn’t give a crap about “real” cars or “real” racing, Burnout simply made the act of driving cars fun, and nothing in its wake had come anywhere close for me. Enter Forza Horizon 3, my first foray into the Forza series, which I had previously written off as a driving sim for gearheads only. But as it turns out, Horizon lets you take your driving only as seriously as you want, and is one of the best examples I’ve encountered to date of a game (from any genre) effectively catering to all comers. With its generous selection of optional helpers and assists, you can adjust your style to land almost anywhere on the arcade/simulation spectrum, and it controls brilliantly at every point. Sublime car handling and a blazing sense of speed are critical to my affinity for a driving game, and Forza Horizon 3 nails both. It then gives you a cool world jam-packed with tons of varied events to partake in at your own pace, which forms a robust package that’s easy to enjoy regardless of your driving preferences.

    Let’s be clear here: Forza Horizon 3 is not Burnout. It has real cars that it’s overly precious about banging up too much. It has a lot of fiddly upgrades and tuning sliders that I never want to touch. I can’t slam through sharp turns at top speed and come out totally fine. But that’s okay, because Forza Horizon 3 ultimately shares Burnout’s single most important trait: it makes driving cars fun. It’s about the joy of the open road, it’s about passing the lead car on the inside at the final turn, it’s about hitting that big-ass ramp and letting go of everything else. It’s about exploring a stunningly gorgeous open world full of lakes and mountains and cities and deserts. And it’s about spinning #phatbrodies every chance you get. So, sure, Forza Horizon 3 may not be Burnout. But it’s still a heckuva fun driving game.

  • On paper, Hyper Light Drifter appears to be a game made just for me; if Shovel Knight was for the NES kids who grew up on Mega Man, then Hyper Light Drifter is for us SNES kids who grew up on A Link to the Past. That’s not to say that either game is a simple nostalgia trip, however. Instead, they take the spirit and ambitions of a bygone era, and transplant them into fresh packages with modern sensibilities. In the case of Hyper Light Drifter, that means bottling up the idea of a bold, unyielding, and mysterious quest, and molding it into a highly polished game for 2016. That polish can be seen in every aspect of its design, too. The controls are super snappy, and make moving and dodging your way around the battlefield crisp and satisfying. The enemy designs are consistently varied and engaging, demanding that you carefully consider your actions; this is particularly true for the game’s tough, memorable bosses. The beautiful sound and art direction ooze style, crafting a moody atmosphere I can easily get lost in. The level design is highly inventive, and makes exploring this nuanced world a real treat. You rarely know what’s around the next corner, and I loved basking in every surprising detail I came across.

    In fact, it’s those very details embedded in every aspect of Hyper Light Drifter that make it stand out. While it may seem like any number of 16-bit era adventures on the surface, there’s a high level of care and attention to detail paid to the entirety of its construction. Such sublime execution not only lends the game its polished, modern feel -- which makes it a joy to play at every turn -- but it also allows its sizable heart to shine through. It may not be the biggest, the deepest, or the longest game around, but Hyper Light Drifter makes up for it with ample amounts of both tightness and passion. It was clearly made by a group of people who genuinely care, and who wanted to deliver an adventure as fun and inspiring as the classics from all those years ago. As far as I’m concerned, they did.

  • XCOM: Enemy Unknown was always going to be a tough act to follow. It took a beloved and classic strategy game, yanked it through roughly two decades of gaming advancements, and came out the other side with all the revered qualities from the original intact. Modernizing a game without losing its original appeal is no small feat; perhaps just as tricky, how do you then make a sequel that builds it out even further? XCOM 2’s approach is largely one of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” You still lead a squad of soldiers on tense, daring, and exciting tactical missions against the alien threat. And between those missions, you still strategically build out your base to allow for cool new research and upgrades. Those are the two defining, interlocking halves of the XCOM formula, and they work in tandem just as well as ever in XCOM 2. Some new tweaks keep things fresh enough; there are new classes to learn, new enemies to fight, and new items to assimilate into your arsenal. But by the most important measures, it’s the franchise’s iconic dynamic that still works best in XCOM 2, making for an awesome strategy game that remains more consistently gripping than most.

    To be clear, there are plenty of gripes to levy against XCOM 2. I personally don’t like the idea of randomized research rewards. I think the back half of the campaign has some pacing issues, as I maxed out my research well before the game was over (not to mention the obnoxious final mission). My experience with it was riddled with bugs and glitches, sometimes progress-halting. And, really, it’s just more XCOM. But at the same time, more XCOM still plays in a big way; my campaign was full of the kind of personal, memorable moments that most games could only dream of. Landing the perfect grenade to get out of a sticky jam. Watching in horror as a chryssalid murders your favorite soldier. Taking on a risky mission, and coming out with just enough cash for that upgrade you wanted. Seeing Oliver ‘ALL DAY’ Wilson grow into his own. So while XCOM 2 may be “just” more XCOM, it turns out that more XCOM is still pretty cool.

  • I have a special place in my heart for the original Titanfall; what it lacked in scope, it made up for with novelty and polish, and was a blast every single time I played it. There’s not much higher praise for a video game than that, and thankfully Titanfall 2 retains that same exciting core, one that continues to set itself apart from other first-person shooters in a myriad of ways. Its robust character movement options give you a lot more freedom in navigating the game’s elaborate environments. The AI controlled grunts provide additional ways to score and contribute to your team past shooting other players. The titular titans completely change the dynamic of an otherwise standard deathmatch in awesome fashion. And all of that comes together with a fluidity and balance that simply make it a constant joy to play. It’s easy to overlook the importance of feel, but Titanfall 2 controls like a dream, nailing all the little nuances of movement that can make all the difference. And the flow of a multiplayer match is well-considered to account for its many shifting pieces, in a way that’s not only more functional than it should be, but highly satisfying throughout.

    That’s all stuff the original did already, but Titanfall 2 is a shining example of how a sequel can take a game that was already loads of fun, and make it better. The main complaint against the original Titanfall was that it was too thin: not enough modes, not enough customization options, and no single player campaign. Titanfall 2 addresses every one of these issues to create a package whose features do justice to its already solid fundamentals. The campaign, while not that long, is a delightful treat that makes surprisingly good use of Titanfall’s stellar first-person platforming to stand all on its own. And the multiplayer has been fleshed out in exactly the ways you’d want, with more modes and loadout options giving it a ton of legs. I’m not someone inherently drawn to first-person shooters, but Titanfall 2 raises the bar in a way I can get behind. My only lament? I miss my Smart Pistol.

  • Time moves only when you move. That short, concise sentence not only sounds cool, but it also serves as the bulk of Superhot’s tutorial. For a game to effectively convey its core mechanic so succinctly is no small feat, and it goes a long way towards highlighting the focused appeal of Superhot. It’s all about bending time to your will here, and that single idea remains highly satisfying from start to finish. The controls are buttery smooth, there are clever audiovisual touches to clearly indicate how fast things are moving, and the campaign provides enough varied scenarios that push you to experiment in all sorts of ways. (Then again, throwing an object at an enemy, only to grab his gun out of the air and shoot another enemy with it never gets old.) It’s also got style for days, leveraging its awesome time-stopping mechanic to create some of the most amazingly scrappy fight scenes this side of The Matrix. And yet, these scenes aren’t choreographed at all, but rather made up on the fly as you survey and react to your surroundings in your own stop-and-start way. It’s a mesmerizing marriage of mechanical and stylistic intent, and makes for one of the best badass simulators out there.

    I’ll be honest with you: picking a game for this final position proved to be incredibly difficult this year. I strongly considered a half-dozen other fantastic games for this spot, but it’s Superhot that emerged from that grizzly battle royale to claim it. The primary reason? Every minute I spent playing Superhot was a great time. It’s not the longest or the most elaborate game out there, but it trades raw size and complexity for that purity of focus that serves it incredibly well. I will always appreciate games that successfully build around simple, intuitive ideas without adding unnecessary bloat, and Superhot does this with aplomb; it knows what it’s good at, and strives to do exactly that as well as it can at all times. The result is a fresh, inventive game that’s simply fun to play in every single moment. In other words, Superhot is super cool.