Merry Christmas, happy Chanukah, and holy hell, what a year!
It was an absolute nightmare in almost every respect, but it's actually been an incredible year for video games. Like, one of the best. We're talking something that's up there with 2004, maybe even better!
Needless to say, I didn't have time to play nearly everything that came out this year, and there are many games that I played, but not enough to include on this list. If you see a glaring omission that is personally insulting to you, it's probably just one of the many games I hadn't had time to play yet.
With that said, let's dig into the best games of 2016 (that I had time to play):
12. Shadow Warrior 2
One of the dumbest, best games of the year. There is really no reason why this revival of an idiotic, most likely racist first-person shooter from the '90s should work. Just ask Duke Nukem Forever how that kind of thing usually works out. But it does totally work. Mostly, it seems, because the answer to every design decision was "why not?"
Should the player be able to to zip around the level at light speed? Why not?
Robot ninjas? Why not?
More than a dozen guns including a demon-possessed chainsaw? Why not?
It will probably make you dumber by the minute, but if you got the brain cells to spare, Shadow Warrior 2 is a great way to kill them.
In all honesty, the arty, indie, 2D platformer has overstayed its welcome. In 2008, Jonathan Blow showed the world with Braid that you can make a game that on its surface looks as simple as Super Mario, but use that format to tackle big ideas. Many indie developers followed, including developer Playdead's Limbo from 2010. It was fine, it had a few clever puzzles, but it was just another one of those.
With Inside, Playdead didn't only find its unique voice as a studio, but proved that there's always more juice in the 2D platformer if approached with new ideas. It's a bizarre and haunting adventure I don't want spoil in the least here, but imagine something between Akira, The Twilight Zone, and E.T.
It's about three hours-worth of game that Playdead spent six years developing, and the effort it took into perfecting it really shows: in some of the best animation you'll see in a video game, in its brilliantly paced puzzled progression, and the visual composition of scenes that make it so memorable.
Play it in VR. Play it on a normal screen. Play it under the influence. Play it not under the influence and you'll probably still feel like you took something. I have no room in my life for rhythm games of the Guitar Hero variety, but I'm willing to make room for Thumper's "rhythm violence."
9. Battlefield 1
I actually cooled on Battlefield 1 quite a bit since I wrote about. Out of the many, many multiplayer first-person shooters that came out this year, it didn't turn out to be the one I was itching to go back to. When it came out I worried that a Battlefield game without helicopters isn't the kind of Battlefield game I love, and that turned out to be true. On the other hand, it's still easily one of the best looking games of the year, and one of the best single player campaigns of the year. That's especially impressive because that has never been developer DICE's strong suit. Somehow, by deciding to make a more somber, serious war game, it found something interesting to say. It doesn't always work. It's still morally messy for a variety of reasons, but it actually tries to say something, which is way more than most shooters try to do.
8. Hyper Light Drifter
Much like Inside, Hyper Light Drifter is a small game by a small team, years in the making, and a labor of love.
It has fantastic pixel art (another thing about indie games I thought I was done with), super challenging combat, and a mysterious world that's established without lengthy exposition. In fact, it barely uses any writing or dialogue at all, instead using its environment to tell a story that doesn't get in the way.
It's the best Zelda–type game I've played in years, and I don't evoke that classic lightly.
For more, check out this excellent documentary about the game and its maker from our friends at Waypoint:
7. Gears of War 4
I spent way too much time this year thinking about Gears of War 4 as part of my feature about the state of big budget games and why they're so hard to make in 2016.
It's hard for me to divorce what I know about what it took to make and the final product, but I did enjoy it a lot.
The single player campaign, which you can also play with a friend, is very much like the old Gears games, meaning it's a cover-based shooter. It's a sub-genre that Gears made popular, and Gears 4 shows that it's still the best in this class, with huge set-pieces, clever AI that's fun to out maneuver, and the best gore that technology is capable of.
The real attraction, however, is the Horde 3.0 mode, in which five players fight up to 50 waves of increasingly tougher enemies. It shows just how strong the game's fundamentals are. It's just about using cover, an array of inventive weapons, and outsmarting the AI. I could play it forever and probably will during the Christmas break.
SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT.SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT.
(Time only moves when you move. No game will make you feel more like Neo from The Matrix. It's fantastic)
Does Blizzard make bad games? I can't recall the last one. Does it make first-person shooters? Not really, but when it does, it makes one of the best team-based first-person shooters we've seen in years. It's colorful, incredibly deep, and at the same time immensely accessible.
There are so many specific characters and special abilities I could call out here, but ultimately it's a lot of more subtle UI and user experience decisions Overwatch makes to hide the things that make shooters overtly macho and toxic. Even if you're not a great player, the game doesn't humiliate you for it, instead choosing to highlight what you are able to accomplish. It's got posi vibes!
Team Fortress 2 was the king of this genre for years. You'd basically have to make something perfect to take its place, and that's what Blizzard did.
4. The Last Guardian
2016 was the year I got my first dog, Gordo. He's the best thing that has ever happened to me. 2016 was also the year that we finally got to play The Last Guardian, a game we've been waiting for since 2007. It turns out that The Last Guardian is a game about the deep relationship between a boy and his sometimes loyal pet. As you can imagine, it's hard for me to even think about The Last Guardian without it getting a little dusty in the room.
It has a lot of technical issues, but it's an incredible feat of animation and characterization. Trico, the beast, feels like a living thing, and The Last Guardian managed to make me care about a game character, which is something so few games accomplish. I still find myself thinking about it, which is the biggest compliment I can give it.
3. Titanfall 2
Titanfall 2 wins by virtue of the number of hours I put into it. Currently, that's over 40, which is the most I put into a single game in 2016. This was a year that was packed with AAA, multiplayer shooters, and Titanfall 2 is head and shoulders above them all. It's not the best looking game. It doesn't have the biggest player count, and it doesn't come from the largest team. But it's the most fun to play.
Developer Respawn took what was good about the first game—its high mobility, wall running pilots and giant mech suits—and made it even better.
Add to that the fact that it also has the single player campaign that Call of Duty has been trying and failing to make Modern Warfare 2, and you have one of the best games of the year.
2. The Witness
The Witness, Jonathan Blow's puzzle epic and the first game he published since his landmark Braid, is another game we've been anticipating for years that finally came out in 2016. It, too, didn't disappoint.
It is ostensibly a game about drawing line mazes on a remote island, but with each puzzle it digs deeper into that simple concept, until you feel like you are direct conversation with Blow, speaking in a language he's invented for this game alone. It activates parts of your brain that only a game can, and it has—much like Braid—broadened the definition of what a puzzle game can be.
Hell, even Rachel loved it, and she doesn't even play video games! Not many games can say that.
We love Doom around here. We love the original game. We love its still thriving modding scene. We love Brutal Doom. We love Masters of Doom by David by David Kushner, one of the best books written about game development.
It's the game that made first-person shooters take the world by storm by being faster, more violent, and more outrageous. Does something as simple as that still work in 2016, when first-person shooters have evolved to be so much more sophisticated, with open worlds, role-playing game elements, and realistic bullet physics?
Hell yes. If anything, Doom showed us how far we've strayed from god's light with all these unnecessary embellishments. It's called a first-person shooter. It's about shooting. That's what you do in Doom, beginning to end, and it is glorious.
Every weapon sounds too powerful to hold. Every enemy looks too disgusting to fight...until you blow its head off with a double-barreled shotgun. The whole thing feels like a modded V8 engine made of blood and bone that's running so fast it's about to explode.
Doom should be illegal.
Games can do a lot of things. The can make us care. They can make us think. They can take us to places we've never been and others that will never exist…but sometimes they're just about killing demons like a maniac without blinking for hours, and that is the best thing that games did in 2016.