Game of the Year 2016

WH Auden once described the 30s as 'a low, dishonest decade' and to my mind 2016 surely merits the same degree of loathing and contempt. The festering stench of old evils in new skins alone would have been cause enough to curse the last 12 months, but as people find ever more inventive ways to be apathetic towards the suffering of others I can only sit and wonder whether this vague sense of despair within me has finally reached the level of species shame.

What better time then to reflect on some of the small mercies that made 2016 somewhat bearable. Whilst the industry at large continues to baffle and disappoint in equal measure there was no shortage in amazing experiences. So many in fact that it would be a shame to leave some of them out just because I'm too lazy to write accompanying text for them, so here's my rundown of games 20 to 11.

  • 11. Fire Emblem Fates
  • 12. Abzu
  • 13. Hyper Light Drifter
  • 14. Inside
  • 15. Civilization VI
  • 16. Forza Horizon 3
  • 17. Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
  • 18. Oxenfree
  • 19. Ladykiller in a Bind
  • 20. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

List items

  • After a number of aborted attempts to write elegantly about Darkest Dungeon I decided to settle on an unexciting but nevertheless more concise reflection. Darkest Dungeon's genius lies in how it challenges so many aspects of one’s mind; your ability to think ahead, to prepare, plan and equip yourself properly for the task ahead. Having done that it then challenges you to adapt, to learn and counter new threats or face the most brutal of consequences. There is no mercy here beyond what chance whimsically determines. The tension is nerve-shredding and the emotions brought forth run the full gamut between vein rupturing rage and vein rupturing joy. That it has a wonderful art style and some of the best audio design in recent years only makes its perverse seduction all the more compelling, and maddening.

  • The comparison to Dark Souls is obvious but somewhat superficial. Visually Salt & Sanctuary borrows/steals heavily from it’s inspiration but those looking for a straight 2D conversion of its systems will be disappointed. Salt & Sanctuary is far more creative than it first appears and is more akin to a classic Castlevania game, where aggression and twitch reflexes are much more of a focus. That it is the work of largely one man makes its accomplishments all the more impressive. The combat is fast and brutally visceral, the levels intricate, and the world unfurls like a beautiful spider web of castles and catacombs. The art style is something one can take or leave but the variety of weapons, armour, and enemies puts many a larger development team to shame.

  • The decision to withhold races to pre-orders and the infuriating approach to downloadable content aside, Total War: Warhammer is the most impressive use of the Warhammer licence to date. The variety of races, units and associated tactics that come with taking things outside of human history has given the creative assembly’s flagship series a much needed freshness. It also benefits from being a much more stable and technically impressive game than its predecessors. One can only hope that this will herald a more experimental direction for the Total War series overall as the core gameplay design both on and off the battlefield is peerless and unique.

  • When one’s overriding thought of a game is how you wish it could have been longer is surely a good sign. Dark Souls III doesn’t do anything dramatic to the formula, it polishes it up a bit and smooths out a few kinks but it does still do that ever so wonderful thing of making the core of any RPG extremely exciting. Exploration, combat and loot within a beautiful and mysterious world; it’s all so satisfying and immersive, how so few other games, let alone RPGs manage to nail this essential characteristic is baffling. With this landmark series now concluded, I like so many others can only sit with fingers crossed that its soul might linger on somewhere just a little while longer.

  • I must admit, I was somewhat surprised to have enjoyed Titanfall 2 as much as I did. It’s hard not to enjoy the freedom of movement and the pace it brings to each battle. The solo campaign offers a good primer to the variety of weapons and equipment and the simple precision of the controls makes it all feel so fluid and satisfying. It’s as if the old 90mph Doom running has been revamped for the 21st century with all the joy and fun one might expect. Also, squishing pesky meat bags under one’s mighty metal boots never gets old, especially when it’s (enter horrid username) underneath them.

  • There’s nothing about Owlboy that one could describe as being revelatory but what it does possess is a meticulous attention to detail. The many years taken to construct it have paid off as everything from the art style to the music to the mechanics is beautifully designed. It’s a unique labour of love where a number of powerful and sombre character moments punctuate an already immersive tale of scrappy misfits and weirdos trying to grapple with events and forces far beyond them. One of the most accomplished Metroidvania games for many a year and a real treat for all ages.

  • It would be unfair to describe The Turing Test as a Portal 2 clone. The comparison is somewhat obvious when one compares their overall structure and some of the puzzle design, but The Turing Test is however uniquely fascinating in its narrative. The dialogue is engaging throughout and treats its themes with serious thought and care leading to a fantastic ending that calls into question a lot of the narrative assumptions one would usually anticipate. I don't consider myself to be the biggest fan of puzzle games, but The Turing Test is both accessible and challenging in all the right ways. It's one of the those great little gems that manages to be smart without falling into the traps of obnoxious pretension or tiresome worthiness.

  • Overwatch the game is wonderful; looks and plays great, well designed characters and maps where the tension is kept high and the action is often full on from start to finish. That it is multiplayer ultimately is its biggest failing although it is hardly its fault for the attitude of those who use it as an outlet for all their baffling sociopathy. That said a great credit must go to those that made my time with it far more significant than it otherwise might have been, those brave souls are the true heroes of Overwatch. The thoughtful level of accessibility also means that even the most incompetent of aimers can contribute. My interest petered out, but after hundreds of hours I think it’s fair to conclude that I had a good time, most of the time.

  • I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of crafting in games. The process in of itself isn’t so much the issue if it’s intuitive and quick, but unless it is in aid of something worthwhile few things can kill my enthusiasm faster. Starbound gets around my misgivings by giving me direction. The inclusion of a story and quests, however vestigial, gave me focus and motivation to pursue new worlds, resources and technologies. There was value in better weapons and armour, value in creating things beyond its own sake. If I wanted to bum around crafting stuff I’d play with my Lego, but Starbound takes the Minecraft idea and tailors it to unimaginative cretins such as yours truly, for which I am ever grateful.

  • Aside from a brief moment at its beginning and end, Valley is entirely devoid of cut-scenes. Within these bookends there exists an agreeably accomplished demonstration of the joys of motion and further exemplifies the value of pacing. It escalates beautifully; from walking simulator to running and jumping simulator, then on to FPS and beyond, the gameplay evolves gracefully in concert with the drama and stops exactly when needed. Both it and Titanfall 2 have shown that first person movement can be exhilarating once unmoored from the restrictions of our biology. But whereas Titanfall 2 focuses on wall running and parkour skills as an addition to its action, Valley relies more on the basics of running fast and jumping high to anchor the experience.