Phill Cameron (@phillcameron), UK editor, Gamasutra
2016, to me, felt like a year where what caught my attention were the games that had one great idea and did it really really well. It was also a year where I feel like AAA development came to terms with the way the ground has been shifting underneath it, taking the lessons of Early Access and constant updates that have defined the PC space for the past few years.
This was most exemplified by Ubisoft, who have overtly said that they’re shifting away from focusing on big story experiences and instead aiming for less scripted, more modular games. Steep, The Crew, Rainbow Six: Siege and The Division (even to a lesser extent Watch Dogs 2), all demonstrate this change in approach, and I think they’re all better for it.
It was also a year that was relentless when it came to brilliant smaller games. It’s crazy to think that games like The Witness, Firewatch, and Oxenfree all came out at the beginning of this year. When you then take into account that the past three months have had PSVR and the sudden mainstream availability of VR, 2016 has been a packed year.
Anyway, here’s my ten favorite games in alphabetical order.
This could be the year that the luster of Dota 2 started to fade for me, although the lure of 7.00 might restore some of that. More than anything else, the time commitment of upwards of 40 minutes on the off chance that I’d have a good and balanced game finally became unfeasible. Especially when Battlerite came along, distilling the best of Dota’s teamfights in easily managed, rewarding ten minute chunks.
That’s not to undersell the beauty of Battlerite itself, seamlessly blending fighting games and MOBAs into something wholly refreshing. By stripping away so much of the trappings of its lane-based progenitors, but retaining all of the important complexity, it provides similar highs without most of the crushing lows.
In this period where we’re still figuring out exactly how to approach VR, Rocksteady seemed to figure out a good chunk of it right off the bat. More than anything else, the fidelity with which they render their familiar Arkham series, so that you’re finally aware of just how imposing Batman really is, or how brutal their bone-crunching combat really is, is a treat unto itself. That they wrapped it up in a story that takes advantage of everything that makes VR compelling, from the sense of presence, to the ability to turn around on a whim, is equally impressive. More than anything else, it’s the game I show to people first when they try VR out, and it’s the game that makes me most encouraged about the future of the medium.
Often games are front-loaded. All the good ideas get shoved at the beginning, where the most players will see them. Once you’re five, or ten, hours in, a game will have little more than difficulty to introduce, which is appropriate for a finale, but a little rote. Dishonored 2 has too many new ideas to even attempt to front load them. Each level has its own wonderful concept, and they’re each executed with a level of confidence and style that I’m almost disappointed when I complete them.
The Clockwork Mansion, Aramis Stilton’s Mansion, even The Dust District with its war between the Howlers and the Overseers. Each of them offer something new and compelling, and knowing that everything I’m doing, I can approach from a completely different perspective with either Corvo or Emily, makes the whole game feel impressively accomplished and sure of what it is.
I didn’t love Limbo. I appreciated it, enjoyed it, but didn’t dwell on it after completion. The same is not true of Inside, Playdead’s beautiful follow up. In trying to establish why that is, I think it’s the hilarious, tragic, dramatic finale, which is as much a feat of storytelling and pacing as it is technical prowess and animation skill. Throughout, Inside uses its perspective and setting to ground itself and sell itself to you, which makes that sudden switch all the more overwhelming and brilliant. Even now I’m soaking in the ambivalence of that ending, that wonderful mixture of humor and sadness.
I’ve been trying to figure out when it was that I knew The Last Guardian was special. It might have been when you first tell Trico to jump over a gap, and watch the boy barely cling on as he surges through the air, feathers ruffling and the weight of him being apparent more than anything. Or it might have been the trepidation with which Trico looked at that first pool, hesitating before finally taking an impressive plunge, sending the boy flying on the wave of water displaced by the animal’s bulk. But really, I think it was right at the beginning, when despite the aggression Trico treats the boy with, you persevere and take out those spears, and slowly nurse the wild beast back to health. It’s more janky than any game I’ve played this year, with camera issues up the wazoo, but I found it impossible not to love and be thrilled by nearly every moment.
A lot of ‘experience first’ games profess to provide you with a virtual vacation. Perhaps not overtly, but that’s the implicit inference in a game like GTA, or The Witcher. What made Mafia 3 stand out to me, despite its repetitive nature and general jankiness, is that it provided me with a glimpse of what it was like to experience racial discrimination. Doubly important was that it did this systemically as well as through the writing, making its offering uniquely interactive.
Some of this stuff was overt and obvious, but others, like police taking longer to respond in poorer, black neighborhoods than affluent, white ones, were more insidious, and that was a revelation in itself. It was hugely encouraging to see, and something that I hope is paid attention to widely throughout the industry.
Every year there’s one game that sits on my phone as a distraction for the tube and the many infuriating delays that plague the Northern Line. Perhaps it’s masochistic to then spend that time stuck to indulge in hundreds of futile attempts to design a successful metro system, knowing that congestion will eventually bring it all grinding to a halt, but when you’re sitting in the darkness a few hundred feet from Kentish Town, planning out Hong Kong’s tube system is just the kind of distraction I need. Even if it is more about buses than it is trains, And after coming to mobile this year, Mini Metro is that distraction, and it's just wonderful.
At launch last year (I know, but bear with me), Siege had promise but not much else. Its operator unlock model had echoes of F2P and it was widely declared DOA. However the core concept, and the execution of it, was flawless, and it was this that fuelled it through the comeback tour that has been Siege’s 2016. Now wrapping up a successful first season and moving into a second, it boasts an extremely healthy and constantly growing player base.
In the year Hitman has been making headlines with its constant updates, Siege has been quietly doing the same thing with just as much success, if not more. It’s become a poster child for ‘games as service’, taking the move valuable lessons from League and Dota and incorporating them into a tight, tense, exquisite multiplayer shooter.
The tragedy of Stephen’s Sausage Roll, and what makes it perhaps the best puzzle game I’ve ever played, is that it believes that I am smarter than I am. That doesn’t mean it just throws horribly hard puzzles at me and expects me to solve them, but instead, like the beast teachers, it creates an environment where I am subconsciously massaged towards the solution. No hand holding, no slow ramp of practice puzzles before introducing a new concept.
Each level is its own new thing, forcing me to cultivate new neural pathways to accommodate the ever growing possibilities for rolling sausages. In many ways, excepting the eventual deceleration of progress that ground me to a halt (but didn’t make me uninstall. I will go back and finish it, I tell myself), it is perfect.
A relentless, uncompromising adherence to the beat. The description of ‘rhythm violence game’ is perhaps the most accurate genre tag in video games. A mixture of conditioning and rewiring, communicating with your subconscious only. The moment you try to concentrate is the moment you become just another back splattered on the windscreen of the void. And in VR, it becomes truly hypnotic, and utterly inescapable. I’m not sure I’d ever have thought that such a simple concept would be so completely terrifying and wholly compelling.
Hungry for more 2016 best-of? Gamasutra published its picks for Top 10 Games of 2016, Top 10 Game Developers of 2016, Top 5 Trends of 2016 and Top 5 Events that shaped the year. Gamasutra contributors also each wrote up a personal top-five list -- and you can read them here: Kris Graft, Alex Wawro, Bryant Francis, Katherine Cross, Chris Baker, Alissa McAloon, Chris Kerr, and Brandon Sheffield.