GOTY 2016

2016 had a mix of huge surprises, games long overdue, refined sequels, and a fair number of great new ideas. I think that makes it a strong year for games by just about any measure, and I can't imagine a person who just couldn't find anything to enjoy this year.

There were, in fact, so many things to enjoy that this was one of the harder years I've had getting down to a top 10. With that said, here is my sincerest attempt, with a big shout out to the games that just barely didn't make it: Titanfall 2, Hyper Light Drifter, and Furi.

List items

  • What a year for shooters, and in 2016 Doom is the king. There are simply too many smart design decisions within Doom to recount here, which is why this is easily one of the best first person shooter campaigns in years. Incredible movement speed, great weapons, and meaningful progression systems mingle beautifully within expertly crafted levels as you face off against brutal and varied enemies. Everything about Doom is lovingly crafted and way better than I think just about anyone could have expected. I still almost can’t believe I’m saying it, but Doom is the best game I played in 2016.

  • SUPER. HOT. The chant still rings in my head any time I think about this bizarrely wonderful game, and it just makes me want to go back and play it again. This time bending first person shooter also feels like the most stylish puzzle game in a long time, and even the short narrative is a weird, unique thing. Surveying the environment, assessing your options, and acting carefully are the name of the game here, but you also get to see your careful planning play out in real time at the end of each level. Punch face, take gun. Shoot face, dodge bullet. Mind is software. Body is disposable. SUPER. HOT.

  • Eventually any fire, no matter how fierce, will turn to ash. Dark Souls III has a great sense of finality, combined with sincere reverence for the Souls series that led to this point. All the veiled lore and mysterious themes of past entries are laid out more clearly than ever, and after having seen all those games through multiple times I found the callbacks and end-of-the-world atmosphere to be pretty effective. There is also some further refinement to the gameplay systems at work, and plenty of well thought out areas and enemies to deal with, but that almost seems like a given from a Souls game. Dark Souls is a series that I am always happy for more of, and yet I am thankful for the grand finale all the same.

  • There are few games in existence that are as intricately detailed, constantly surprising, and simply beautiful as The Witness. Every piece of this colorful island, the paths and structures that fill it, and even the sky itself is deliberately placed to mystify and delight you at whatever pace you happen to find the next piece of the puzzle. And make no mistake, the island is a deep, challenging, and multi layered puzzle with a whole lot of pieces. Every new area brings a new set of challenges, and often more impressively, a new way to look at the world around you. The Witness is truly an achievement in puzzle design.

  • Inside just might be visual short story perfection. No game in 2016 feels like every single pixel was carefully crafted and scrutinized over the way Inside does. The harrowing journey you make through this beautifully ruined world is so well paced that it propelled me through the experience in one sitting, and while the short length might seem like a negative it was exactly what I wanted. It is truly an amazing feat that a game with no writing builds such a complete world in just a few hours, but that is exactly what Inside does. If any of that sounds in the least bit interesting to you, you owe it to yourself to play through Inside just to experience the journey and reach the truly amazing end sequence that had me practically jumping out of my seat screaming at the TV.

  • Firewatch is a masterful example of building and releasing tension, as well as developing characters and the relationship between them through high quality writing and voice acting. The beautiful setting and music are also consistently effective at making this deeply personal and contemplative story hit as hard as possible, playing on the player’s emotions as the game twists and turns through quiet mysteries and “what-ifs”. I loved walking through Firewatch’s wilderness, and Henry and Delilah are quite likely my favorite characters of the year.

  • The sixth main entry of the Civilization series stands on the shoulders of its giant predecessors, but still manages to shine all on its own. Like the move to a hex grid for Civ 5, the idea of unstacking cities for this new entry makes so much sense that it seems crazy that they hadn’t done it before. Being able to see how your cities (and opponents) sprawl out across the map is both tactically useful and looks great in the renovated art style. I know this will be a game that I will play for years to come, and I can’t wait for what the expansions bring to this already feature rich game.

  • Sandbox episodic stealth sounds like something I would never expect to enjoy, but Hitman is truly special in its execution. Mastering each map is incredibly fun, bringing unique and often goofy challenges to showcase different ideas or parts of the map. I love using the provided opportunities to learn the map, finding the paths and items I find helpful and then coming back time after time to achieve something very specific. The complex web of interactions on each level is staggering and the generally silly air infuses so much personality as you weave through crowds or uncover some exploitable secret. I came to this game right at the end of the year and haven’t seen everything yet, but I am confident that it is one of the best executed, and I very much look forward to seeing more of it in the future.

  • Nathan Drake’s final (?) outing is a surprisingly strong return to Uncharted’s world of thieves, long lost secrets, and complicated interpersonal relationships. After Uncharted 3 I think myself and many others were ready to close the book on Drake and his antics, but I couldn’t be happier that he and the rest of the cast got one more chance to show why this series matters, and wrap things up in a better way than 3 did. I literally can’t say enough good things about the character performances here: Nolan North as Nathan, Troy Baker as Sam, Emily Rose as Elena, and plenty of truly great supporting characters. The voice work, writing, and animation prowess of this team combined with Naughty Dog is truly best in class, and makes this journey as impactful and enjoyable as any game could hope for.

  • The back and forth between base/resource management and tactical combat is the backbone of XCOM, and still remains strong in XCOM 2. Both are expanded in this sequel, and the risky battles are still super satisfying without feeling unfair. I also enjoyed the more flavorful classes and had great moments with my U.S. President themed squad. Let’s just say that Ranger Barack Obama sure did cut down a lot of aliens with his sword skills. Even if it isn’t as revolutionary as Enemy Unknown, XCOM 2 is still a blast, and I played it every free second I had until I liberated humanity from its alien oppressors.