Why seven? No reason, really, beyond me not wanting to be here all day, telling you about very good video games I have played in the first half of 2016. Obviously, no one person can play all of the games, but I have made a genuine attempt to put as many of them in front of my eyes as is physically possible over the past six months. Crunching all those hours down, all those 3 AM finishes and weekend-wasted it's-work-honest binges, into some sort of manageable hindsight, I've landed on this selection as "the best" I've played. You probably disagree. That's okay. Don't bother with the "but where's such-and-such-a-game" in the comments, though. Because if it's not here, either I don't like it quite as much as you do, or I just haven't played it yet. No biggie, angry internet man.
UNCHARTED 4: A THIEF'S END
PlayStation's big, shiny exclusive of the first half of 2016 delivered a lot of what the already-familiar expected—clambering up quite-probably-listed buildings before watching them fall down, shooting nameless goons in their dumb mugs, Nate getting snarky with NPCs—while standing alone enough from its predecessors to represent a perfect jumping-on point for anyone who only moved over to Sony this console generation. The best Uncharted, ever? Possibly, though I'll happily hear your argument for Among Thieves. Certainly A Thief's End features some of the series' most breathless set pieces—that crane-grappling-hook-bridge-race-drag part, right? But it also delivers affectingly intimate, quiet scenes of no-guns-necessary character interaction that showcase makers Naughty Dog's talent for great casting. For two-thirds of its slightly-too-long run time, this is as good as triple-A action games get these days, and it's absolutely the best-looking video game yet on the PS4.
It suffered from a few performance hiccups on release, but Firewatch, the debut from San Fran studio Campo Santo, possesses the most absorbing novella-length gaming narrative of the year so far. You are Henry, and Henry's been on a rough ride lately. He escapes for a summer watching out for fires in Wyoming, where he "meets"—over a radio, never once in person—Delilah. The two excellently voiced characters share stories, sure up their long-distance relationship, and tease each other flirtatiously. It's a relatable connection between two very three-dimensional-feeling humans that grows in confidence across four hours of game-play, before becoming incredibly fraught in the game's later stages, where real horrors begin to impose themselves on the pair's comfy solitude. It's not a horror game, per se, but there's great tension in Firewatch, a build-up of nervousness over what comes next that few recent games can come close to. Visually it's a treat, too, made for the PS4's share button.
I wasn't expecting much from this heavily advertised but, come on now, rather under-hyped in the press reboot of id's seminal shooter of 1993. A cacophony of gory deaths and a buffet of impressive weaponry, naturally, but not a lot more than stylish violence in place of memorable substance. And it's not like publishers Bethesda were really making the greatest deal over its solo campaign. Multiplayer, and player-made maps, was their primary focus. But fucking hell, what a glorious go-it-alone mode DOOM has. The story's utter bobbins, but everything moves so smoothly, every skull shatters with a just-right crispness, and every up-close-and-deadly "glory kill" just sings itself hoarse with feverous glee for carnage and chaos. DOOM is the least serious of all this generation's very-serious-actually Guys With Guns shooty bangs, just a ball of ultra-violent abandonment that rollicks along like a mega-budget Hollywood blockbuster with the script of a cat food commercial. Does it go too far? I don't personally think so: these are demons you're laying waste to, after all, so splash the crimson around as abundantly as you like. (Also: this is how they did it back in the day, and new DOOM pays homage to that.) But there's no doubt that this game can, and will, turn more sensitive stomachs than mine. Probably not one to play when your grandma's over.
This short, but perfect, follow-up to Limbo is one of those games where I'm tempted to use the term "masterpiece," but I can't quite bring myself to. It's too soon for that, I think. Danish studio Playdead hasn't shaken up the formula too much—what worked for Limbo works here, and the two games play very alike one another. But the story, told without a word being spoken, is gloriously dark, devilishly grotesque, and the deaths that the player-controlled boy at the center of it all experiences make Limbo's look tame. There's little in the way of truly perplexing puzzles on show—instead, Playdead line up beatable obstacles in such a way where each small victory feels like a real achievement, but the game's momentum is never overly interrupted by brick walls of befuddlement. Inside is a beautiful, nightmarish creation, which anyone who found a place in his or her heart for Limbo simply needs to experience.
Another debut from a new stateside studio, in this case LA's Night School, Oxenfree is a point-and-click ghost story set on an island that was previously a military installation. A lot of bad shit has gone down here, and the game's gang of teenage visitors soon enough tap into a residual malevolence through the medium of radio waves. This is a wickedly unsettling game, in which creepy sound design digs under the skin to a far greater degree than the somewhat cutesy visuals could ever imply. The slang that the teens exchange can grate, much as comparable language did in Life Is Strange; but just like Dontnod's excellent time-travel tale of 2015, Oxenfree's characters are each drawn with such believe-ability that their stylized looks can't stand in the way of establishing a meaningful connection with them. All of the teens can survive, or not, leading to multiple endings, more of which were added through a new game plus mode in a May-released "director's cut" version. Much like Firewatch and Inside, Oxenfree is a short game that will take just a couple of evenings to finish for the first time; but unlike those games, you will feel an immediate urge to do it over again, differently, in the hope of a better fate for any unfortunate friends.
FIRE EMBLEM FATES
Your experience will vary from mine, what with Fates featuring three different narrative paths to choose from, but I'm still playing through Intelligent Systems' tactical role-player for the 3DS on its "Birthright" route (the easiest one, by all accounts), and having a splendid time. My Lord Gary—I keep on naming my RPG avatars that, for reasons I don't think I've ever established—elected to represent the Hoshidan Empire, given that the Nohrian King Garon was an incredible prick from the very beginning of the story, long before it branched. Since then, beside a growing army, I've saved villages from sackings, killed countless "faceless," lost and found allies, recruited unlikely ones to my cause, got a little romantic with a special someone, and crept ever so slightly closer to understanding my true origins. I'm a long way off finishing, but Fates has established itself as my commuting game of choice since its European release in May, and I expect to be picking away at it for many months to come. Mid-battle saves are a lifesaver when you're navigating the British rail network, and more portable RPGs would be wise to learn from Fates' option of preserving your progress at just about any point. Looking at you here, Bravely Default.
THE WITCHER 3: BLOOD AND WINE
Yes, it's DLC. But Blood and Wine is so beautiful, so inviting, and so bloody brilliant that it totally deserves a place in this seven. I loved The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, it was my game of 2015, and this final (30-hours-and-more long) piece of story expansion content is the most spectacular of send-offs for the beast-slaying, sorceress-shagging Geralt and his boisterous band of bawdy allies. Where Wild Hunt wore its most serious of faces for the longest time, breaking the glowering only for some awful am-dram and stuffed-animal sexy-times, Blood and Wine is easier on the gloom and doom, ostensibly one long monster hunt set against a gloriously green-and-gold backdrop of verdant southern lands, all sunflowers and blue skies. The tone might be lighter, but there are quests here to rank beside Wild Hunt's most memorable one with a spoon-obsessed wight is a treat that proffers later rewards if you go about it the merciful way, and it's not every day that you find yourself using your witcher senses to find the whereabouts of a statue's family jewels. If this truly is Geralt hanging up his silver sword, crossbow, and bottomless fanny-pack of potions and pâté sandwiches, fans of the series couldn't have asked for a better ending.
Seven more "honorable mentions," because why not (click each title for more):
Follow VICE Gaming on Twitter.
Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.