Posted on December 23 2016
Another year, another Steam list or game-shelf full of games. In times like this we can only look back and wonder how good the year was for gamers, whether the New Gods of Entertainment deigned to give us a golden harvest or fallow field in 2016. With that in mind we’ve put together a list of our top picks for the year, along with the honourable mentions and movers and shakers on the scene. Now don’t say you never got anything nice this year.
You wake up tomorrow to find yourself in the familiar days of 2015. The news is talking about far off presidential elections and referenda, your twitter feed filled with excited beta testers for Overwatch and jubilant Bloodborne players. Excitement is electric at the coming year of big releases. You announce that a Harvest Moon remake will sit in the “Best Selling” category of Steam for around 3 months. They laugh you out the room, your prophetic visions met only with open ridicule. Those poor fools!
But here we are months after release and Stardew Valley is still great. The indie hit asks us to water crops on a far off planet, say hello to neighbours, go fishing, feed animals and tuck ourselves in at night and we are absolutely addicted. What looked like yet another failed Nintendo IP imitator, a property only recently put out to pasture (sorry), it has already surpassed 1 million downloads. That’s one million people paying to farm blocks of pixels and fail to get a dance partner at the yearly hoe-down. In that way, Stardew Valley is everything you needed to know about 2016.
Yes, it has only been seven months since Overwatch took over our lives. Firing out of beta in May, tweaked in that impossible way only way Blizzard knows, 2016 was the year of Overwatch. A Frankenstein monster built from Blizzard’s cancelled “Titan” project, the fledgling eSport is already reporting an obscene twenty million copies sold.
Why do we love it? Lots of reasons. The brilliantly designed and varied characters, the subtly brilliant play of the game system, the new twist on character drafts (mostly now abandoned), everything came together to make a perfect storm of fandom excitement that has barely cooled. Arguments on whether Mei is in fact “bae” rage on every forum to this very day. We are more Reinhardt fans – one hundred percent german engineering!
Dark Souls 3
Yes, its more difficult than any game has any right to be in 2016. Yes, it had a big job to follow the brilliant Bloodborne. Yes, the fans continue to leave terrible advice on every square inch of the map. But with the trilogy concluded and Demon Souls a distant memory, we all know those things are essential parts of the charm. What is life if not suffering and triumph?
Not to say DS3 was a lazy sequel. Bloodborne set that bar high and was met in kind. Every weapon revisited, animation and balancing both, every boss encounter sharpened to the pinnacle of gamepad breaking difficulty, new resources like Focus weaved into the previously perfected mechanics of the series. The task was impossible and by most accounts achieved, worthy of praise simply for the dedication and ambition clearly lathered on the game. A strong contender for game of the year and a fitting crowner for the series. We’ll miss you, Dark Souls, but we know you won’t miss us.
It’s difficult to find something that hasn’t already been said about Battlefield 1 other than a hearty thank you to DICE for taking the chance. In an era of near-modern and distant-future wargames, brimming with gadgets and sophomoric political statements, they dragged the series back to its deep roots in historic warfare and sprinkled in a campaign of deeply personal World War era stories from across the world (as well as blimps).
And the achievement is as much in the fusion of ideas as in creativity of ideas. A playerbase plagued by irritating snipers suddenly finds an era with the same problem, along with all the systems developed to counter them. The spectacle of big war returns to the series with the immense battlefields we can finally realise on home consoles, driving and horsemanship skills as essential to navigation as the time honoured airplane kamikaze (this time finding best use against the gratifyingly flammable zeppelins that have become the game’s trademark). It’s not perfect, but between the mechanical innovations, the stellar campaign, the unrivalled graphical achievements and the audacity of reinvention, the game is hard to beat right now for praise.
Why does it work, where Doom 3 failed? Why has it benefitted from gutting any pretence of real story, any feeling of suspense, any real player character development, any real sense of danger? Because its DOOM at last, original flavour Doom jettisoned of decades of FPS baggage so it can reconstruct that perfect idea of Doom that probably never did exist. It’s fully-capitalised DOOM, a lighthouse on the shore of imitators sinking into mediocrity.
If we had to describe the new DOOM in one word (besides “DOOM!”) we would have to go with “lean”. The above mechanics were sacrificed to dark gods in service of doing one single thing well – killing demons. To that end we have a classic loadout, complete with simple modular upgrade system (shoots more bullets / harder bullets, shoots more rockets / shoots a rocket that can explode twice etc.) that veers dangerously into the “killing should not feel this good territory”. Plastered between gunplay is the excellently visceral execution system, ingeniously satisfying yet forgettable (and thus endlessly repeatable), used constantly and without hesitation on any weakened enemy. And the level design! And the soundtrack! Books could be written, books SHOULD be written on the lessons to learn from the raw exhilaration of a DOOM levels. Buy it immediately. But skip the multiplayer.
What DOOM threw away, Titanfall 2 seems to have consumed whole. Gone is the mildly interesting online shooter, here stands the emotional campaign peppered with experimental levels and epic world building. Did you know the bond between a Pilot and his mecha (our boy BT-7274) could make grown men cry? How about the sublimation of the Marauder Corps resistance group into the larger Milita movement? Or the grim pragmatism of ARES Division in its goal of pacifying said Militia? All facts we’ve been happy to learn with our time so far, all seasoning on a much more well-rounded sequel.
Of course, it isn’t just the single player that has come into maturity. Titanfall 2 landed with a full mech class-system, a welcome development on the barebones original, sporting a roster of fun warmachines like Scorch (boo) and Legion (bae). Finishing off with some excellent refinements of the already pretty polished movement system, Titanfall 2 has earned it’s place at the AAA shooter table at last.
Speaking of epic companionships…
The Last Guardian
After a comically torturous 9 years in development, through numerous private and public delays, 2016 was also the year of The Last Guardian. Team Ico’s masterpiece has finally landed, every bit the continuation of vision set out with Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. At last we return to a world of magic, natural beauty, child heroes and epic mysteries. It’s a stunning return to form with a bonus bag of tricks to play with.
Is it great though? The answer remains a tepid “maybe”, in part due to those new additions. Finicky camera direction too often disrupts the sense of wonder it has no trouble generating, while the trademark giant beastie bromance is often soured by the deliberately unreliable control system. In a game built from a simple diet of puzzles and animal husbandry, having the gorgeously rendered Trico stubbornly and bizarrely ignore commands necessary to solving puzzles is just a little too frustrating. That the game seems to do this on purpose, emulating the growing bond between child and giant bird/dog/thing is to its credit, but like many things the execution disproves the wisdom. But when it works? There’s nothing quite like it.
Expectations were high. The trailers were amazing, the setting pitch perfect, gameplay demos nailing the ambience of civil rights-era USA in the city of New Bordeuax. In those areas, it is an accomplishment worthy of praise, Hangar 13 delivering in elegantly directed cut scenes a series of character portraits that could very well be found in a HBO show or Hollywood movie. These moments, when they come, show a young and angry Lincoln Clay, fresh from service in Vietnam with the 223rd Infantry where he served with distinction and expected a better world on his return. He soon loses his foster father, Sammy, the final straw that sets him on a rampage across the criminal underworld. And the soundtrack is fantastic!
But outside those moments? A more difficult sell. Likely released a few months underdone the title suffered from teething issues on release, since combated with several patches, but continues to be a work in progress. Combat and driving mechanics both feel a reduction in quality compared to Mafia 2, at least at this stage, while the non-story missions quickly become a slog. Not a complete package, not yet, but something deserving of praise and reward for what it did accomplish – an era none-dared touched, pulled off better than we hoped and with more care to characters than videogames often allow.
Skyrim, why can’t we quit you? Why will we buy anything with your name on, Legendary through to Special Edition, shirts through to novelty helmets? It’s not the Dragons, as wonky as they can still feel. It’s not the mods, as great as they can be (although limited, as with sister-francshire Fallout). It’s not the high level of polish, as magnificently wonky as Bethesda games can get.
It is, as we find out on our return, the freedom. As we run through Whiterun for the trillionth time, we remember that there are a few hundred conversations to be had between here and the next city. We realize that if we forget the Jarl for a bit, go say hello to the Companions, there’s a full storyline and alternate gameplay mechanic to unlock for the asking. We could do the same with the Mages Guild, or the Thieves, or the Dark Brotherhood, or the Legion/Stormloaks. The game is, even before the new layer of polish and added content, just so damn full of stuff to do. When you put all that Special Edition stuff on top? It just becomes magic.
Watch Dogs 2
Unexpectedly excellent sequels could be the theme of 2016, if we’d planned this list better. Gone is the forgettabley broody Aiden Pearce, obsessed with revenge in a story committed to its serious tone in spite of absurdly magic computers. 2016 brings us Marcus Holloway, alias Retr0, a burgler hacktivist more obsessed with not looking like a hipster than crying over split family members. Gone also is the Big Brother style fascism overtaking Chicago, replaced with the infinitely more believable “city of the future” pioneered by tech giants around Bay Area, California.
It isn’t just a change of protagonist that freshens the game up. Genuinely likeable teammates in Deadsec, the hacktivism and digital vigilante group our character quickly signs up with, give every mission a flavour and character missing in a lot of open world games. Much improved hacking mechanics notwithstanding, the game often feels much more in the vein of a Saints Row game than a Watch_Dogs sequel, a transition that works exceptionally well considering the cartoonishly magic hacking feats used throughout the game. Long live fun! Long live Watch Dogs!
You are an action hero who needs to clear a scene full of bad guys, gun in hand with a few bullets (not nearly enough) but ready to pick up and throw whatever is at hand. The room is full of vile criminals, all armed and ready to shoot you dead – and this is real life, one bullet means game over. Impossible? Absolutely. Now imagine time slows to a crawl whenever you aren’t moving or interacting with anything. Now you’ve got a chance – now you’re SUPERHOT.
There’s more to it of course - great soundtrack, top notch storyline, gorgeous and deliberate aesthetic, satisfying physics system, instant restarts, hypnotic repetition of the title in a way that might have driven us collectively insane – but its hard to overstate how game-changing the time mechanic is. The effortless choreography of action movies is suddenly achievable in bitesize chunks, a refreshing first person shooter and action-puzzle game fusion that compares only with the brilliant Hotline Miami. The game has rightly earned a community of ravers spreading the gospel of SUPERHOT to every corner with an almost cult like devotion and we can expect a million brilliant replicas of the mechanic in 2017. I for one welcome our new time-warping overlords.
SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT.