Best of 2016

Work in progress.

This year, I just can't help but not extend the list to 15. The idea of shelving games 10 through 15 without even acknowledging them feels criminal. I just got around to playing too many fantastic games this year, and I want to at least shine some light on all of them!

Games that may eventually make the list (after I've played them more):

1. Superhot

2. Salt & Sanctuary

3. Stardew Valley

List items

  • Dishonored 2 pulled me out of a video game blas√©--submerging me into some of the most intricate level design and captivating stealth systems I've ever toyed with. Methodically internalizing level layouts down to filler objects and guard movement patterns just rubs me in all the rightest ways, and Dishonored 2 prides itself in appealing to that joy. It's a game designed to mesmerize compulsive, and I am so terribly mesmerized.

    Just like the first game, I played through Dishonored 2 with the self-imposed limitation of zero detections, zero kills. And just like the first game, this makes the experience flourish into a totally unparalleled stealth experience. And there's now a mid-mission stat screen so you can keep track of pesky accidental murders. Stat screen: GOTY!

  • Every Souls game will be on every one of my lists. What makes Dark Souls 3 stand out?

    First thing's first, there's a lot of mechanical and level design polish here. The blemishes that the series is known for (Blighttown, Demon Ruins, Shrine of Amana, Unseen Village, etc.) aren't really present in Dark Souls 3. It sets a high bar and maintains that until the end. Is there a caveat to this? Sure, the game is ridiculously linear in it's structure (especially compared to Dark Souls 1 and 2), and I wish it wasn't. There's a certain appeal to directing a playthrough to specific items down certain tracks of the game that was particularly appealing about previous entries.

    The second thing Dark Souls 3 does so well is marinade itself in homage. And these homages work way too well for me. The homages to previous entries really work for me; be it the literal narrative homages to the original Dark Souls, the structural homages to Demon's Souls, or the mechanical homages to Bloodborne--Dark Souls 3 feels like a love-letter with a lot of finality from very passionate design leads to their fanbase. Consider me heartbroken.

  • Oh my god the narrative bits of Mankind Divided are so bad. This isn't the usual B-tier science fiction that you often see in games; nay, this is some real D or E-tier garbage--just the most underdeveloped plot points, themes and conflicts I've ever seen in a major release. Never mind the ending (what ending?).

    Why's this game so high up on my list? It's fucking Deus Ex--the sci-fi almost-Dishonored, that's why. Mankind Divided does first-person stealth RPG almost as well as Dishonored, so most of those praises just carry over here. The one thing it does BETTER is how it handles non-lethal and lethal approaches. Almost every action is crystal clear, and perfectly predictable on it's lethality, and you don't need to worry much about odd physics interactions leading to accidental murder.

    It's just great, but make sure you're not paying too intently at those cutscenes.

  • While playing Uncharted 4, all I could think about was how post-Druckmann, post-Last of Us this game feels. The shell is mostly the same as previous entries: incredible setpieces, some middling shooter gameplay, and production values out the wazoo; if these series-consistent elements were all Uncharted 4 had going for it, I don't think Uncharted 4 would be on my list.

    What Druckmann evidently brought to the mid-development game is a focus on fleshing out character moments, developments, and conflicts. The game feels so much more human than previous entries, unafraid to soak in mundane moments made-powerful through performance and nuance. It's chock full of bitter-sweet smiles that hide a rainbow of emotions, and small quibbles that carry decades of history behind their tone. It's brilliant stuff, and marks this game as the pinnacle of the series, even if it is one of the least ambitious mechanically.

    As a side-note: I'd love to throw some appreciation for Uncharted 4's heavier focus on stealth. Ever since the second entry, stealth mechanics have creeped into the series more and more. Almost every encounter in the game can be approached without detection (though, the game will almost always end in some fuck-up leading to all sorts of explosions). This is the year stealth games came out full-force to satisfy that part of my brain, and I couldn't not acknowledge my brain smiles.

  • The best parts of MOBAs just got lucky with the best parts of fighting games. They had a baby. PLAY WITH THAT BABY. IT'S SO GOOD.

  • A series of books could probably be written on the highs and lows of World of Warcraft's life. I'm not going to do that, but I would like to touch on what makes Legion stand out for me.

    First off, getting the boring stuff out of the way, this is probably the best-executed expansion launch window in the game's history. The content is top-notch, the revamped systems are better informed and better fleshed out, and the supposed-commitment to more consistent content updates has the community hopeful (they haven't faltered thus far, but we're still early days). A+'s all around Blizzard.

    Secondly, and less importantly, the thing that makes this expansion really special for me is a lot of the narrative bits. The Warcraft universe is not known for subtlety, complexity or freshness, but Legion really tries to take a swing at 'better' writing. Sure, there's a big demon invasion filled with mustache-twirling villains, heroes with redemption stories, and magical maguffins. That's typical Warcraft non-sense. But below all the broad strokes you have a number of super interesting peripheral storylines that shed light on the characters existing in and around the central conflicts. The extended storyline in Suramar--an elf city politically compromised by demonic bargains--is exemplary of this new narrative ambition. It's a slow, building narrative taking place over months that has you really get to know characters, and has pay-offs that bubble and boil. It isn't the traditional cheap power fantasy with predictable stakes. And I can't wait to see how it continues to unfold in the coming year.

  • I need to preface this by saying that Overwatch is some of the best multiplayer this industry has seen in years. Even with it's inspirations so clear (Team Fortress 2, the MOBA genre), Overwatch still feels so fucking fresh. If this list were based on my opinion in the mid-year, Overwatch would be towering over the competition.

    But it isn't. This is how I feel right now, at the end of 2016 / start of 2017. First things first: Overwatch has not gotten worse, and there's been no multiplayer shooter since that trumps this experience. What has changed? The freshness is staling, and that's mostly due to a disappointing cadence of content releases.

    There's something about Overwatch's core design that stales quickly, and I can't hone-in on what that is. It needs a brevity of maps, it needs a wealth of heroes. And it needs constant iteration. It feels really shitty to poo-poo a game for not releasing enough FREE content quickly enough to satiate a once-hardcore fan, but here I am. Maybe Blizzard's other hero game (Heroes of the Storm) has spoiled me, but I like popping in every 3 weeks and digesting a wealth of changes. Overwatch is still an incredible game, but here's to hoping Blizzard hits a stride in 2017 with this hero shooter.

  • Stupid Giantbomb. Not including The Witcher 3's phenomenal new expansion in your database. Well, I'm going to go ahead then and include Witcher 3 on TWO GOTY lists. Ha. Shows you! I should also preface this by saying that I have not finished Blood & Wine to it's completion, I have put a good number of hours into the experience. Enough to feel confident in it's position on this list.

    So why's it on here? More Witcher is always great. While I think Heart of Stone is maybe an even better Witchering experience, Blood & Wine has it's own unique flavour and sense of scale. This is the meatiest $20 I've ever spent... to the point that I almost feel like I've taken advantage of CD Projekt Red. Where Heart of Stone tells an incredible story in the existing world of Wild Hunt, Blood & Wine pulls the Witcher out of his wet, sad, war-torn mainquest into a manic, idyllic, French countryside. You could certainly levy the complaint that, like Mass Effect 3's Citadel, it seems outright bizarre that Geralt would take a pseudo vacation to a far-flung land when everything else is in turmoil (said vacation includes your own vineyard estate, I might add--totes sweet). But I think it works with some suspension of disbelief. Detective Geralt is back in full force as well, and that's always a welcome tone shift. But this time he gets to track down all sorts of nasty folklore-y vampire subspecies, and boy is their design inspired.

    I also wanted to give the base game and it's first expansion, Heart of Stone, some additional love here. 2016 is the year I finally totally finished Witcher 3. Having worked through probably 80% of the content here, I feel pretty confident in saying that this game is one of the best RPGs ever created. There's also probably WAY too much of it, but almost every sidequest is fucking incredible. So I don't know how to feel. Impressed? Impressed.

  • The Witness is likely the most difficult game on my list (stand aside Souls, you ain't got nothing on this). I honestly can't think of a single game that has challenged and contested me more than Jonathan Blow's newest release. Every step across this gorgeous island challenges your preconceptions, your ability to be completely aware of your surroundings, and your cognitive power to internalize rulesets.

    It's fucking exhausting.

    And that's why The Witness is toward the tail end of my list. It's honestly one of the best "designed" games of the year, but the game comes with some really low lows; these aren't design lows, production quality lows, or the like--they're internal, self-imposed lows. I found myself stuck for what felt like hours, poking and prodding away at a stupid puzzle, missing the key brain-connection needed to see it through. Sure, the pay-off of the dawned solution is incredible, but I don't think it outweighs the hour of agony to get there. I understand that JBLOW vehemently dislikes the Pavlovian reward systems in games; he prefers to reward those to succeed at difficult tasks, but this is honestly several steps too far for me.

  • Hyper Light Drifter is the adult, hardcore 2D Zelda I never knew I wanted. Utterly beautiful, and entirely savage in it's difficulty. I didn't think a game with so much colour could feel so oppressively hopeless in tone, but they fucking nail it.

    And that soundtrack is something special--certainly my favourite soundtrack of the year.

  • The Division is one of the more controversial games on my GOTY 2016 list. The game was slammed at launch for having a piss-poor end-game grind and requiring a suspension of disbelief to even function (why do "boss" gang leaders in hoodies take 10 full clips to the face to take down?). Both issues have since been addressed, more-so the former than the latter.

    The Division we have today is a phenomenal experience. It plays like a great Mass Effect game, but with a Last of Us tone, and a Destiny structure. Every encounter is loaded with tactical decision-making, cooldown management, careful cover navigation, and satisfying third-person shooting. The world is a beautifully realized disaster that feels as familiar as it feels uncomfortably unfamiliar: too close to the real thing, an uncanny valley of a setting, toppled over with a gamey context. With it's holiday decorations and snow dustings on every curb--it's a place you want to stroll down, arm locked with a loved partner. But you have AK's rather than cellphones. Then there's the always-online, always-progressing, frequently-together structure that makes your progress feel meaningful and social.

    Here's to hoping The Division 2 hits the ground running because I can't wait for the second go-around.

  • Best shooter campaign of 2016, outstanding and original multiplayer gameplay, and the best 'feel' a shooter's ever had. Top 3 material right there. So why's it near the bottom of my list? My platform of choice (PC) has had a nosediving playercount since launch, and it's predecessor fared just as poorly. Coupled with a lack of multiplayer content, I'm concerned about the legs of Titanfall 2. Respawn is going to need to work around the clock to keep this PC community here--just like Ubisoft is doing with Siege. But they may pull through. As it stands though, I'm simply too concerned to give this game more of a recommendation on this particular platform.

  • People have gone on for ages about what makes the new Doom so fantastic, and I agree with the majority of what's being said. It feels really good, it's self-aware in all the right ways, and it has combat arenas that are so satisfying to metaphorically dance around. I have a couple gripes that knocked it down my own personal list though.

    First, the collectible and progression systems in the game absolutely ruin the pacing. There are so many secrets and challenges that are directly linked to power progression, and are constantly reinforced with UI cues that the game practically begs you to find and complete them all. That's fine in, say, a Bioshock game where methodically moving through each level is what the game is striving for. Doom isn't. This is a raw-as-fuck, balls-to-the-wall blitz through every demon butthole you can find. But then it'll ask you to do specific kill animations on specific enemies. This turns into a painstakingly slow process of taking your time killing hordes, picking off the undesirables, then methodically killing the challenge victims. It feels bad, and ruins the momentum completely. Same goes for collectibles, but they're the nostalgic throwback from which this game breathes. So I'll give id Software that.

    Second, Doom has a really strong opening half (documented, again, several times by numerous games personalities), but drops off considerably in quality as the game progresses. The majority of the self-aware humour is frontloaded. The majority of the enemy introductions are frontloaded. The majority of the weapon introductions are frontloaded. You get the idea. By the end of the game, you aren't seeing anything new, the game has mostly lost it's charming Doomguy-gives-no-fucks attitude, and the promising narrative disappoints. I also found the boss rush at the end of the game totally perplexing; for the most part, they're alright bosses, but why are they all in the later half? It feels like the first half of the game was developed in isolation from the second half of the game.

    Doom still plays great though, and that's why it's on this list; however, the first impression is much stronger than where the credits leave you.

    Also, Wolfenstein: The New Order is totally the better id Software classic reinterpretation. *raises fists defensively*

  • My immediate impression of Oxenfree was "boy, this is a cute dialogue system; interrupting people has never felt so satisfying. But man these teens are fucking unbearable. What am I even playing?" That dialogue system was about the only thing pulling me through the opening minutes of Oxenfree before trialing off into another Steam game. I tried to get into Oxenfree on three separate occassions as 2016 progressed. THREE. I don't know why, but that third attempt had me pushing through the campy teen drama long enough to reach "The Moment," and I instantly fell in love.

    Oxenfree could have really used a paranormal carrot at the start of the game to pull you into the game you don't know you're getting into. Because it starts off feeling like the dullest adventure game known to man. What it ends up being is shockingly uncomfortable, utterly mysterious, and completely original. I really do not want to get more into what makes Oxenfree so special, but I can't wait to see what this new Telltale spin-off developer has in store for us next.