It’s that time of year again. The following list compiles some of my favorite games that I played this year. They are not all 2016 releases. Like last year, here are the rules that I adhered to when organizing the games.
- In the case of a non-multiplayer-only game, I must have played its single player experience to completion. This does not require a 100% of all that the game has to offer. Instead, a completion of its main quest, story or campaign will suffice.
- In the case of a multiplayer game, I must describe how I played it. Whether cooperative or competitive multiplayer, I will detail whether I played with friends, matchmaking, or online or local multiplayer.
- I must have accomplished the above rules in 2016. The games on this list are not all 2016 releases. It is a list of what I played this year.
The 2016 list is missing older classics that made up a significant portion of last year’s list. That’s not because I didn’t play many older games. Far from it. Most of the games that make up this list are contemporary releases or those from recent memory. They were strong enough to distract me from the classics I meant to play and out-charm some of those that I did.
I also included a couple of the categories from The Steam Awards for fun and I didn’t notice any spoilers below.
Let’s get to it.
Number 10 – Titanfall 2 – PC
I liked Titanfall a lot. Not enough to buy it, but enough to thoroughly enjoy one of the beta weekends. A lack of a single-player experience, no friends to play it with and a distaste for Origin kept me from clicking that purchase button. There was also my constant trepidation for another shooter so obviously inspired by the Call of Duty franchise.
It’s unfortunate that Titanfall 2 released alongside Battlefield 1, a game whose name recognition will carry it to excellent sales and scores. EA put their marketing power behind Battlefield 1 and left Titanfall 2 to wallow in the dirt. Only a month or two after release, it was heavily discounted. I picked it up for $20 or $30 right before Black Friday.
I found a pleasant surprise. The campaign is one of the most enjoyable first-person shooter campaigns since Halo 3. It’s not anything deep, but it is well polished and, more importantly, fun. Ridiculous set pieces, such as jumping between spaceships while they chase an escaping cruiser with footsoldier firefights between them, are used as stepping stones to further explore the game’s awesome movement system.
While the game’s fifth mission, “Effects and Cause,” is one that quickly comes up in discussion, the true strength of the game’s campaign lies in its usage of quiet time. From the opening level, Titanfall 2 demonstrates that it won’t always be about shooting bad guys. It’s as much about exploration and figuring out how you’re supposed to grab that pilot helmet as it is about shootouts. The chance to breathe is both needed and appreciated.
I enjoyed multiplayer less. Only a few of my friends play shooters that aren’t Overwatch, so most of my matches are silent aside from a “gl hf” or “gg” and I’ve always struggled with the CoD-ification of shooters. Short time-to-kill combined with a progression system that locks out gun and Titan upgrades is more frustrating than it is fun, since starting fresh means uneven footing with veterans.
Most of the maps are lackluster as well. Angel City was so beloved that it was brought back from the first game, with good reason. Few of the Titanfall 2 maps seem to give much opportunity for its complex movement system. Too many of them seem based around open swaths of land or plains with no cover. Presumably for easy movement in Titans, but robotic movement isn’t as fun as space-Mirror’s Edge anyway.
What’s more curious is the lack of visual customization features. The step after “Build awesome robots” should definitely be “Paint awesome robot” and it’s unfortunate that Respawn Entertainment chose to barricade that joy behind more arbitrary, pre-selected unlocks.
Much like its predecessor, Titanfall 2 is a game riddled with “almost”s. Sadly, for each “almost” they fixed from the first game, they created another in the second. Still, multiplayer is a familiar experience for any Call of Duty fan and the complete package is enjoyable for walking death robot nerds everywhere.
Number 9 – Rocket League – PC
Rocket League is a concept that humans innately understand by this point: put the ball in the other team’s goal. Only this time, the ball blows up whenever it reaches the other team’s goal and there are cars on the field instead of solely human bodies. The result is a fantastic, addictive experience with a surprising amount of depth.
Cars are responsive with ample control, both on the ground and when flying through the air. Simple tasks like dribbling the ball across the field are enjoyable and challenging. This is a game where the skill difference between an amateur and a pro is both vast and apparent. New players will struggle to move the ball across the field in a controlled fashion. Pros will hurl themselves through the air, passing between each other and scoring before any wheel touches the ground.
Matches are capped at five minutes, so it’s easy to jump in and out without any commitment. Rocket League isn’t just a game you can get out of when you need to. It’s a game you can (and want) to sneak in throughout the day. A game here, a game there. The next thing you know, you’re rushing home after work to try out the play you saw on /r/rocketleague earlier that day.
I’m glad that Rocket League has an esports scene thanks to the help of Twitch. I play it casually, often with friends, and have a blast every time. Even if you’re getting stomped, it’s still fun to ram yourself into the enemy team until their cars blow up. Pick it up in a Steam Sale and get hours upon hours of enjoyment.
Number 8 – Grand Theft Auto V – PC
I did an article on Grand Theft Auto V earlier this year. Looking back, it really captures my feelings on the game. What makes GTA V special isn’t flashy set pieces and campaign levels. It isn’t jumping from helicopters and rappelling down the side of skyscrapers to kidnap someone and shoot up an office space.
What’s really special about a game like GTA V is how believable its world is and how easy it is to immerse yourself within it. GTA games occupy a space eerily similar to our own reality. It’s always a mirage, a mockery, a parody. The latest installment is more of the same. That is a core purpose of the franchise and GTA V is the best at it.
Los Santos is the kind of world I want to explore. That Los Angeles cut-out moves and flows. It breathes. There’s frenzied daytime traffic and slow, moody nights with rain pouring down on the Hollywood streets. GTA V makes existing in that world fun. It also makes something as simple as driving around, listening to the radio and taking in the sights perhaps more enjoyable than it is in real life. That’s something special.
Number 7 – Dark Souls – PC
Oh boy. Dark Souls. People requested and waited for me to play this game for a long time. I finally did earlier this year. I even streamed it. I’ve been working on and scrapping articles on Dark Souls for a while now and I think I know why.
Dark Souls is a complicated game. It is, at times, astoundingly brilliant. At other times, it is absurdly obtuse and intentionally frustrating, in ways that would get it crucified if it weren’t for the attached Souls title.
The most inexcusable and profoundly sad thing about Dark Souls is that there is no good way to play it. The original console releases are marred by inferior visuals and excruciating, nigh-unplayable framerate drops. The PC release satisfies only the minimum definition of a port. That is, it works. Barely. It’s saved by DSfix, a great mod, but not even close to a perfect one. It’s a patchwork bandage job on a trainwreck port. It does the best it can but that’s not enough. Using DSfix to achieve the standards that Dark Souls should have shipped with turns the game into a meta-exercise of external configurations and hotkeyed options.
It soiled my trip through somber Lordran. One that’s not memorable because it is “enjoyable” or “good,” but because it’s something that I can learn a lot from, particularly about games themselves. However, I can’t recommend it. Dark Souls gets in its own way. It’s not ahead of its time. It doesn’t break any boundaries. There’s no excuse. The machinery behind the game just isn’t good enough to create the experience that it should be.
It’s a shame. Dark Souls deserves better. Maybe one day it will get the ports and re-releases that it deserves.
Number 6 – Overwatch – PC
Winner of the “Just 5 more minutes…” Award
I often hear that Overwatch doesn’t do anything new. Much of its class-based shooter gameplay is ripped from Valve’s Team Fortress 2. The well characterized heroes, along with their short cooldown abilities and ultimates are from MOBA games like Dota 2 and League of Legends. Characters are inspired from other previous shooter titles. Pharah is a Quake echo. Soldier: 76 sprints right alongside every Call of Duty soldier. The list goes on.
What Overwatch does do is combine all of its inspirations into one shining package. In traditional Blizzard fashion, they focused on polishing the game’s core to an absolute sheen. Then a few Blizzard innovations come. The real star is the Play of the Game system. Highlighting someone’s (usually) sick play at the end of every match is a great way to cap it off.
Most of the game’s problems lie in pendulous balance decisions and a ramshackle competitive infrastructure. Still, it took its place as my go-to game to play with friends. It seems like almost everyone has Overwatch and most of them even like it. Any time a game does that, I think it’s worthy of celebration.
Number 5 – Shovel Knight – Wii U
Winner of “The Test of Time” Award
It’s familiar for all for of us. For me, it’s sitting at my grandma’s house on that old uncomfortable yellow couch straight out of a rustic furniture store with an afghan wrapped around me. I hold an un-ergonomic, arbitrary piece of plastic in my hands. One year it has only two buttons. The next four face and two shoulder buttons. At home, it’s black with six.
TV’s back then whined at an almost inaudible high pitch. Enough to mark its entrance and notice its passing when the TV turned off. The bright glow of a CRT displayed our adventures through what are now classics. The Super Mario Bros. games, Mega Man, Metroid and more. Plastic cartridges took us on journeys we could never experience in the real world. Each new game was a possibility, something fantastic waiting to be seen.
Shovel Knight isn’t a tribute to those games. It’s a tribute to how we remember those games. Somehow, it manages to capture and distill enchanted nostalgia. The kind that makes you take a deep sigh whenever you’re typing an email at work, remembering when the days were so much easier with a controller in hand and The Price Is Right on in the other room while your grandma made lunch in the kitchen.
Pop in Shovel Knight. Listen to the inspiring chiptune “Strike the Earth!” that kicks off the first level. You’ll find a game that captures the best of Mega Man, The Legend of Zelda, Castlevania and even less popular, still beloved games like Duck Tales. For best results, play it on a Wii U. It was meant to be played on a Nintendo console. It’s a love letter to all the good times Nintendo gave us back then and the same special magic that keeps them so damn special and important today.
Number 4 – The Witness – PC
Winner of the “Whooooaaaaaaa, dude!” Award
The Witness is an infection. It starts small. You solve simple puzzles, separate white and black squares, trace shadows. Maybe you figure out how to manipulate reflections and glares to solve some intermediate puzzles. The later puzzles taunt you. The singular locks on doors are stalwart, unmoved by your fumbling perception. Entire sections of the island are foreign to you.
But The Witness is fair. It doesn’t force you to solve a puzzle you’re not ready for. Take a walk across the island. Stroll through the woods. Visit the beach. Climb the mountain to get a new angle. Solve something else and return when you’re ready.
You might not be smart enough for The Witness. I wasn’t. I don’t know if anyone really is until they listen to what it has to say and, more importantly, learn. Spend enough time with the island and you’ll realize that there’s a lot more to it than simple line puzzles. It’s all about looking at things from the right perspective.
Number 3 – Ico – PS2
There are stories and experiences so simple that it’s hard not to relate to them. Fumito Ueda’s first game on the PlayStation 2, Ico, is a resonant experience that sticks with you, much like his more famous Shadow of the Colossus and recent The Last Guardian.
Listing off gameplay bullet points won’t sell Ico now. It sure didn’t back in 2001 and awful stateside box art didn’t help either. It is a minimal, foreign experience. Dialogue is conveyed through subtitles. There is almost no music aside from cinematics and a beautiful save theme. A shallow combat system paces out the puzzles that riddle that crumbling castle.
The reasons why you should play Ico are not always apparent. Technical achievements like its use of light, stellar animation and inverse kinematics go unnoticed by untrained eyes. At the time, few games matched its haunting, memorable atmosphere. Few games do today. The talent and technology that composes Ico created a game that was ahead of its time.
Bells and whistles were all stripped away under the “design by subtraction” philosophy until the core of the experience remained. Ico isn’t recommended because it’s enjoyable or fun to play in the traditional sense for games. It’s so highly regarded because it touches something deep inside its player in a way that most games don’t.
Ico inspired countless designers and games that came after it, from Eiji Aonuma to Fez. To this day, Ico has no direct imitators. Perhaps it is because greatness was already achieved in its simplicity of holding hands.
Number 2 – Undertale – PC
Winner of the “Villain Most In Need of a Hug” Award
Undertale let me date a skeleton. That was probably the highlight of my 2016.
The hype surrounding the darling indie gem is well founded. It is one of the most fulfilling packages I have ever played in two decades of gaming. It is charming, lovable, fun and unforgettable. Undertale is exactly what it needs to be. Nothing more, nothing less.
Toby Fox, the game’s creator, hasn’t announced his next game yet. To be honest, I’m not really anticipating one. I don’t check for updates. A headline that reveals another Toby Fox game would only be a pleasant surprise.
A game like Undertale inspires people. It inspires them to be kinder to each other and more ambitious. It inspires people to finish that project they’ve been working on, to start something new and make something better.
Undertale will inspire countless future games. Those are the ones I eagerly await.
GAME OF THE YEAR – The Last Guardian – PlayStation 4
Winner of the “I’m Not Crying, There’s Something In My Eye Award”
I waited nine years to play The Last Guardian. It was a game I once thought would never be released.
It now sits on my bookshelf in its own special corner.
It’s is the best game that I never want to play again. Not because of “bad” controls or frustrations from Trico. I never want to play it again because I don’t know if my heart can take it. It’s one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever felt from any piece of art, ever.
The Last Guardian is a reminder of what games currently aren’t and what they can be. It will be studied not only for its profound accomplishments, but also for the effects it will have on countless games that come after it.
Similar to Team Ico’s previous works, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, it’s ahead of its time. I hope gamers are quicker to realize that now. I also hope we’re quicker to start learning from it, because it has a lot to teach. Like that good things come to those that wait and that video games can be something more.
I don’t know exactly what that “more” is. I just want to play more games like The Last Guardian and find out.