2016 pretty much sucked across the board. It sucked for the world, it sucked for humanity and towards the end, it really sucked for my family and I. When it came to video games though, it was actually one of the best years in a while. Despite many of those who would call themselves the “enthusiast press” continuing to dump on their audience and base their opinions of games on identity politics more than quality, gamers got one of the biggest varieties of stuff to play ever in 2016. No matter what kind of gaming experience you like, there’s almost definitely something out there for you.
Every year, I like to compile my own top 10 list of the best games I played. Even though I give myself a bit of a cop out with Honourable Mentions, I force myself to do a numbered list for the big ones because it really makes me think hard about what I played and try to quantify my opinions. This year wasn’t easy by any means but that’s definitely a good thing. I also did a YouTube video where I talked about my five biggest indie surprises from my PXA Peeks first impressions series. Only one of those games is on my top 10 but everything in that video is great and worth checking out as well.
My taste is principally in mechanics and game play. I’m all for a good story but if your title isn’t a good game first, you’ve already failed at your main job as a designer in my opinion. It’s one of the reasons I have very high standards for so called “walking simulators.” This list is going to reflect that. You’ll also see an overall lack of indie titles on here. The very existence of PXA Peeks should be proof enough that I probably like indie games more than most people but I also love stuff that pushes the limits of technology and which can give me experiences I can immerse myself in for hours at a time. Indie games are a different kind of experience for me and even the good ones often just aren’t as memorable to me. Maybe in the future, I’ll do a separate top 10 just for smaller games, we’ll see.
As usual, I’ll start out by discussing my disappointments for the year, listing the games I didn’t get a chance to play but that could have been contenders, the unordered list of Honourable Mentions and the big 10 from last to first. If I did a video or blog review on a particular game, you can click its title to check that out if you want.
I’d love to hear what your own favourite games of the year were and if you disagree with my list, why that is. Drop your ideas in the comments and let’s chat!
Mighty No. 9 – Not the biggest Kickstarter flop in gaming but certainly up there. This was to be a spiritual successor to Mega Man, led by the original creator, Kenji Inafune. Like Double Fine before them, they milked nostalgia to raise way more than they asked for, only to mismanage things to an astonishing degree. It went over its inflated budget, was repeatedly delayed, had a major graphical downgrade and in the end, was at best a frustrating and mediocre platformer that had none of the soul of Mega Man. To boot, they also hired a community manager who frequently banned paying backers from the forums for disagreeing with her politics. A mess through and through and one of the reasons I’m largely done with Kickstarter. Go play 20XX instead.
Inside – LIMBO was an incredible debut from Playdead. People were stoked for their follow-up and while the press are gushing over Inside, I thought it was awful. A return to the once hated grey and brown aesthetic, less interesting puzzles and platforming than LIMBO, coupled to a world and story that clearly thought highly of itself but was full of holes, dead ends and is ultimately pointless and unfulfilling. The key set piece moment near the end was amazing but not enough to redeem the rest. I expected better from Playdead.
Tom Clancy’s The Division – It’s basically Destiny in a city and sucks for all the same reasons Destiny did. It has all the tropes that I don’t like about MMOs: Bullet spongey enemies, endless grind quests, boring, one-dimensional characters and it insists I play everything multiple times to get the best stuff, even though none of it’s compelling enough. It’s also heavily focused around co-op and doesn’t properly balance to a lack of players, even though the community was all but dried up when I got around to it. It relies on an open-world competitive aspect to keep people in once the story’s been exhausted but it’s just team based looting that was full of cheaters in no time, at least on the PC. I hear the new Survival DLC has made things a lot better but I can’t be bothered to find out. At least for as weak as the story was, it didn’t have its head up its ass like Destiny.
Mafia III – The hyper progressive press is loving this because of it’s admittedly admirable take on race relations in the 60s, something we don’t see often from AAA games. While the story, writing and characters are great, it’s a wrapper for the most boring kind of open-world game. Just like Mafia II, you’re given a big city with nothing interesting to do in it, horrible driving mechanics you have to rely on to get around and mushy, frustrating combat. It feels like an open-world game from the early 2000s, despite how many better recent examples they could draw from. A good game story only succeeds if the game itself is good and this one isn’t at all. I love the stories this series tells but it would be better done as just a linear series of missions.
Mother Russia Bleeds – All I needed to hear was gory 16-bit graphic style brawler with Devolver Digital involved and I was sold. Unfortunately, the game play is stuck in the same era as the graphics. Mother Russia Bleeds is a deliciously graphic but also short, shallow button masher and tells a simple story with way too many words. I so want the brawler genre to make a return but it needs to evolve and this didn’t.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst – The original Mirror’s Edge was flawed but also fresh, innovative and full of promise. Despite not selling well, we somehow got an open-world sequel. It’s gorgeous and the parkour is as slick as ever but the story is rote and predictable, none of the characters are likable–especially the protagonist Faith–and just like Mafia III, there’s nothing to do but boring challenges that don’t reward you with anything you need. That you start with a third of the character upgrades already unlocked told me all I needed to know about this rushed sequel that did nothing to reward the patience of fans.
King’s Quest – This technically started in 2015 but finished this year so I’m including it. I’m an old school fan of Sierra adventure games and the lead up to the rebooted King’s Quest looked like it would be a cool fusion of modern adventure games and Telltale choice-based narrative. The first episode was very promising, then all the ones after it were delayed and almost all bad. The tone flailed wildly between whimsical and intensely dark and the last two episodes are full of frustrating puzzles they are clearly there to pad out a lacking amount of actual story content. On top of that, the epilogue is locked away to anyone who didn’t buy the entire series up front. Even if you bought the season pass after playing the first episode, you can’t get the complete story experience. This series has Activision all over it and it’s the last time I trust them with this formula. A mismanaged insult to modern and old school gamers alike.
Didn’t Get To
Total War: Warhammer
Shadow Warrior 2
Master of Orion
Salt & Sanctuary
Hyper Light Drifter
Firewatch – I’m planning to stream this soon but just couldn’t make it happen before the new year.
Let It Die
Anything VR – I don’t own VR and won’t for the foreseeable future.
Battlefield 1 – Anyone claiming this is just a World War I skin on Battlefield 4 is just plain wrong. While it’s certainly no simulation, the game play differences by reverting to a much older period of war are substantial and make this feel like a very different game. At the same time, it’s still just more Battlefield. The War Stories campaign is mostly interesting and quite well done but the meat of the series is still multiplayer. I enjoy it very much but the differences don’t cover up that we’ve definitely seen this before.
Overwatch – As they’ve done with other genres, Blizzard redefined the first-person shooter with Overwatch. There’s really nothing else like it right now and it’s full of personality and unique characters that all play vastly different and somehow, all still gel together in almost any combination. The reason it’s not on the top 10 is because there are still major pacing and balance issues that persist to this day which Blizzard gets a pass on because they’re the Apple of gaming. When I have a choice of online shooters to play, this is rarely the first one I go to. Also, this game arguably popularised the trend of single use random loot boxes and screw Blizzard for making this mobile inspired exploitative trend the norm.
SUPERHOT – Also known as Super Badass Simulator 2016, at least to me. This is another Kickstarter success story that gives you incredible first-person combat puzzles that you can approach in a ton of different ways and makes you feel like you’re directing your own Hong Kong action film. It’s a game that will keep a grin on your face from beginning to end. Unfortunately, it’s also $30 and the awesomely bonkers story mode is fairly easy and can be beaten in 2 hours. This pretty weak value proposition is why it’s not in the top 10. If you can find this on sale though, absolutely play it.
Gears of War 4 – I’ve liked the entire Gears of War series (yes, even Judgment) and new developer The Coalition took the reigns from Epic and did it proud. The campaign maintains the iconic action while also having great new, funny characters, a solid challenge and what is probably the best DirectX 12 title on PC right now. Unfortunately, the competitive multiplayer is the same rolling Gnasher bore it’s always been and the new micro-transaction unlock system took the otherwise gold standard Horde mode and balanced it in favour of spending money. Heavy black marks on what could arguably be the best Gears yet.
My Top 10 Games of 2016
As usual, these are great games I think everyone should play if you have the means but if not, this is the order I’d suggest. It was a tough internal fight but I’m feeling good about these choices.
10. Batman: The Telltale Series – I’ve largely been done with the tired and stale Telltale formula for a while. I was going to skip this series, then the first episode was made free so I tried it out. Boy, what a surprise! Sure, they have some core Batman story beats they have to hit but Telltale put their own spin on that to create a compelling, tense and dark tale that’s not like any other Batman arc we’ve seen. There isn’t really much game play here but this is the best Telltale story I’ve seen since The Wolf Among Us. They should still be embarrassed by their engine though.
9. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – I almost liked this game more just because it got the perpetually outraged in the games press riled up with Mechanical Apartheid and Augs Lives Matter. That aside, it’s an evolution of the exceptional Human Revolution that game before it. It looks gorgeous and is still a great world to experience but it’s also very similar to what came before and has weaker story, writing and diversity of environments. It marketed itself as having a bold and brave tale of oppression and bigotry and only delivered on that in the safest way possible. It’s Breach Mode is also a cool addition but it spends way too much time shoving microtransactions in your face. This is most certainly for Deus Ex fans only but as one of those people, I was very pleased.
8. Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander – Also one of my biggest indie surprises from this year, this is a Canadian Kickstarter success story that combines elements of my favourite game of all-time, Star Control II with Master of Orion, XCOM and spreads a thick layer of JRPG combat with spaceships on top. It requires careful thought, planning and management of resources as you engage in several different kinds of game play and juggle multiple conflicts simultaneously as you try to re-take the galaxy. The systems all gel together great and while you can pause at any time, things are always tense. There’s a ton of value here for its modest price tag and while there is a new Star Control game in the works, this is something very worthy of your time if you’re a fan of that series.
7. Titanfall 2 – Along the the rest of the community, I flamed out on Titanfall 1 so fast, I never thought I’d be interested in a sequel. Boy, was I wrong! Beyond greatly refining the already innovative multiplayer of the first game, Respawn addressed the lack of a campaign by adding one that was apparently thrown together from game play prototypes with a story draped over it but ended up being one of the most fun FPS campaigns I’ve played in the better part of a decade. The movement, verticality and pace of combat is unlike anything else you’ll play and everything just feels so good when it comes together. The reason this isn’t higher up on my list is because the multiplayer matchmaking is completely broken and doesn’t take skill into account, making almost every match a one-sided curbstomping. If they can address that, they’ll have something I’ll keep playing for a long time. It’s a crime that EA shoved this in between Battlefield and Call of Duty. It’s almost like they wanted it to undersell so they could buy Respawn for cheap. Not that I’m into that kind of conspiracy or anything.
6. Dishonored 2 – The first Dishonored was the closest thing we got to a proper successor to the Thief series (no, the latest Thief most certainly doesn’t count.) Dishonored 2 is basically more of that with more toys and a newer engine. In many ways, that’s pretty much all I wanted. You now can play as one of two different characters, each of which have their own sets of powers and abilities. It’s a masterclass in modern level design, with every objective having a huge variety of quiet and loud ways to approach them. You can even choose to play the game without supernatural powers and it still works somehow! Unfortunately, while the world is still as detailed and depressing as ever, the writing and voice acting are a huge step back from the first game and both feel like something more akin to a late 90s or early 2000s game. It’s almost like bringing on someone mostly known for pretentious think-pieces from the games press to help write your game isn’t the way to a great script. Who knew?
5. Watch Dogs 2 – I’m one of the few people who really enjoyed the first Watch Dogs (the game, screw Aiden Pierce.) However, Ubisoft took a lot of the criticisms of that game to heart and addressed them all in Watch Dogs 2. You have a whole new cast of characters, all of whom are ripped straight out of a 90s hacker movie, yet are all still likeable and the setting has moved from a dark and dank Chicago to a bright and vibrant San Francisco, where you go to battle with “Big Data.” While is tackles some very real issues, it doesn’t take itself seriously and that makes things much more lighthearted and fun. Like Dishonored, you also have a wide variety of tools at your disposal, giving you many ways to tackle your objectives and the many side missions you have available, both on and offline. It’s definitely another Ubisoft open world game but their beaten to death formula has definitely made some strides ahead here and it’s one of the most fun open-world games I’ve played in a while.
4. Forza Horizon 3 – This launched rough on the PC where I played it but it’s polished up now and is one of the best open-world racing games I’ve ever played. There isn’t much of a story, just a huge and gorgeous world full of all kinds of cool cars to bomb around in and a total absence of traffic laws. The map is covered with different challenges you can do and this is further complemented by a robust and near seamless online mode. You can spend hours zoned out in the game’s world, just having fun in whatever way you see fit and not having to be concerned with wrecking your car or adhering to rigid rules. Aside from being a lot of fun, it’s just a great way to relax.
3. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End – The Uncharted formula was getting pretty stale but man, what an ending! Arguably one of the most technically impressive console games ever made, it’s filled to the brim with the series’ top shelf set piece moments and combination of combat and climbing. There are a few levels that even go partially open-world, giving you more of a sense of exploration than you normally get from Uncharted. A lot of time is spent breaking from the action and humanising the characters, giving a fitting send off to their stories. It’s still very much an action series but you actually feel some real emotion for them later on. Naughty Dog clearly learned a lot from The Last of Us and this was a great way to end the Nathan Drake story.
2. HITMAN – After the critical and commercial flop of Hitman: Absolution (a criminally underrated title in my opinion), IO Interactive announced they were rebooting the concept of the series and adopting an episodic business model. No one was expecting this to be good and we were all wrong. It turns out that releasing new missions over time was the perfect way to keep the audience engaged. Not only that, each new episode has tons of extra objectives and ways to complete them, encouraging tons of replayability and getting a lot of attention from the streaming community. They’ve also continued to dole out new timed community assassinations like clockwork and even thrown in some extra missions, mixing up the existing environments. The levels are massive and incredibly detailed and despite the business model, this is a 100% AAA game. The Hitman series has never taken itself particularly seriously but this one in particular, knows exactly what it is and revels in it, which is exactly what it should do. It’s apparently done so well that a second season of content is coming and I can’t wait!
1. DOOM – Speaking of things no one thought would be any good, this game started off after the tepid reception to RAGE, getting completely scrapped and rebooted partway in development. Then they released a multiplayer beta that impressed no one and embargoed reviews until the day of release. Many wondered if the post-ZeniMax id Software had lost the magic that made it the household name is was. The new DOOM’s campaign showed everyone how they got their mojo back. An unapologetically fast, brutal, stupid, technological masterpiece, this game takes everything old-school gamers loved about early 90s first-person shooters, marries it with modern design mechanics and progression, layers on the most hilariously dumb pulp sci-fi story on top and tells you to strap the Hell in. It never takes its foot off the gas, throwing you into battle within the first 15 seconds. From beginning to end, you are a walking machine of apathetic death and destruction, gibbing everything in your path as you try to stop a demonic invasion caused because a corporation was trying to frack Hell. I’m not even kidding. In a world where far too many shooters either take themselves too seriously or worse yet, are stupid without realising it, DOOM knows its story is dumb. It not only doesn’t care, it’s going to ride this insane roller coaster with you and it’s going to make sure you never forget it. It’s both a throwback to shooters of old and yet incredibly refreshing at the same time. Only a few teams could have pulled this off so well and id Software’s still got what it takes to make some of the best shooters in the business. Even if you completely ignore the multiplayer and the innovative SnapMap mode, this is worth full price for the campaign alone. I almost never play games a second time and I have every intention of going through this campaign at least once more on Nightmare mode. It’s that good. I’ve told several people on the fence about it that if you like shooters at all, just buy it, you’ll thank me later.
There we have it, a list of what I think is a pretty great bunch of games from a pretty great year for gaming as a whole. Despite how I still, rightfully, take shots at what’s becomes of the games press, it is nice to see that many of these appeared in their lists as well. I still think the disconnect between them and the audience is miles wide but maybe it’s finally starting to improve, maybe.
Like many, I’m nervous about what 2017 holds. I’d like to think it’s only uphill from 2016 but the world sure has a way of screwing with us. I hope my fears don’t come to pass and that everyone has a great, prosperous and fun year, filled with even more great games and the great times they bring. Nothing would make me happier! Let me know what your favourite games of the year were and what you’re looking forward to seeing in 2017. Game on!