Game of the Year
This is it. The only list that matters (though I hope you were interested in my other categories too). These are the 10 best games I played in 2016, with more than a few honorable mentions because there were a lot of great games this year.
Rise of the Tomb Raider
10. Pokemon Uranium
Pokemon Uranium was a beautiful little surprise of a game. Sure, it wasn’t completely legal, but man was it fun and different. The game was essentially a fan-made Pokemon game that used a lot of the real series’ assets and Pokemon, but also created a bunch of its own. Some of those new Pokemon were kind of dumb looking or had bad names, but as a crazy experiment, it was successful. The whole thing had to be shut down, which is a shame, but I had a ton of fun with it.
The game could be buggy at times and I lost hours of progress due to crashes on more than one occasion, but that’s more forgivable considering its origins as a fan game. In addition to the new Pokemon, a nuclear type was added. This created a fun gameplay wrinkle where nuclear versions of Pokemon are more volatile than normal ones, but also more powerful. There’s a bit of a risk-reward there, since you aren’t sure if the nuclear Pokemon will listen to you. I chose a mixed grass and steel type as my starter, and it was absolutely a blast to work my through the rest of the game capturing new Pokemon. Pokemon Uranium doesn’t do a ton to be different than the games on which it’s inspired, but it echoes those fun memories quite well.
9. Titanfall 2
Titanfall 2 is just an absolute blast in every way. It’s the perfect type of over the top shooter that Call of Duty wants to be. There are the more scripted moments, but there’s also freedom in how you approach a combat scenario. Surprisingly, the relationship between the main character and his buddy robot is way better than you’d expect. In fact, BT-7274 is one of my favorite characters of the year.
You go back and forth between fighting on foot and fighting in your mech, which adds to the customization. The story is mostly nonsense, but in the best way possible. Titanfall 2 also contains some of my favorite moments of the year, especially the mission where you’re altering between modern day and back in time. It’s batshit crazy and great. I’m not a multiplayer gamer, but the competitive modes in Titanfall 2 are well balanced and Respawn has been supporting them well with updates and patches. Personally, though, I’d rather be fighting only robots instead of robots and real players.
8. Skyrim Special Edition
Skyrim was my game of the year in 2011 and is one of my favorite games of all time, so it should be no surprise to see it land on this list. But since I’ve put well over 1,000 hours into the game already across PS3 and PC, I couldn’t justify it ranking any higher. Basically, nothing about how you play the game has changed; it’s still the same amazing exploration and less than awesome combat. But hey, starting a fifth character was a great excuse to try something new. Just kidding, I played yet another stealth archer.
The biggest update to the game is in the visuals. A good PC can still knock the PS4 version out of the water, but the lighting and texture improvements on console are more significant than you might expect. And while it took way too long for it to be supported — and the options are far more lacking than on Xbox One — you can play with mods! It turns off trophies, which sucks, but that didn’t stop me from getting the platinum and then immediately playing around with some new weapons and magic. Skyrim continues to be an amazing game and I won’t be surprised if I end up buying it on another platform someday. Nintendo Switch, anyone?
Because of the creative team behind it, Abzu has been unfairly compared to Journey. Some elements are similar: you’re exploring an unknown space with a silent protagonist, the art direction is stunning, and it’s more of an ambient experience than it is a puzzler or platformer. But Abzu is far more focused on exploration and play than Journey.
The game is also longer and more varied than I would have anticipated, as you swim around many different underwater environments. I have a legitimate phobia of the open ocean, so there were a few moments of actual terror for me, but those times feel intentional and never last too long. The music also does a great job of pumping up the momentum and joy you experience while swimming along with various sea creatures. Really, the best parts of Abzu are when you take a break from progressing in the game and just enjoy the surroundings.
Speaking of enjoying your surroundings, Firewatch has such a unique setting and aesthetic. Seriously, there were some damn good looking games released in 2016. While the main draw here are the two characters, it sure doesn’t hurt when you have a game set in such a serene environment that can turn spooky in an instant. Exploring the vast wilderness at dusk or night was more than a little scary. But during the day, the reds and greens truly sing as you walk under trees, over cliffs, and into caves.
The story starts out pretty straight-forward, with you playing as a lonely man out in the wilderness by himself. But as time goes by and you learn more about your character — and the female voice over the radio — things start to get weird, almost sci-fi. The initial intrigue to me was the best part, because the story doesn’t exactly stick the landing. Firewatch would have landed even higher on my list if it wasn’t for that wet fart of an ending. While that’s a shame, it can’t mar the overall experience I had exploring the space and listening to these two well-realized characters get to know one another.
5. The Banner Saga 2
The first game in the series made my game of the year shortlist back in 2014, and though I preferred the story in the original, the combat is definitely improved in The Banner Saga 2. Having more enemy variety and customization options for your characters helps make up for the fact that characters can die, betray you, or leave your caravan at any moment. However, it’s occasionally frustrating to sink “renown” — the currency used for leveling up and buying items — into a character only to have them die or leave your party as part of the story, with no way to stop it. The game is meant to be difficult, and the story certainly sets up a hopeless situation, but at times my investment was undermined due to the fact that everything sort of feels meaningless.
While the story gets a little over-complicated with multiple player characters, the world is still super interesting and I love the caravan driving and conversations that break up the combat scenarios. I greatly “enjoyed” my time with The Banner Saga 2 and its beautiful hand-drawn art design, and I look forward to the story wrapping up in the third game. You can read more of my opinions on The Banner Saga 2 in my full review.
Let me get this out of the way: I have no nostalgia for Doom. I played the original game years after it came out, and I don’t believe that I’ve played any of the other games in the series. I bring this up to qualify my opinions on Doom, because while I really enjoyed my time with the single player, I certainly wasn’t as obsessed with it as some other people on the internet. First, let me talk about the music because it’s the thing that stood out the most to me. Frankly, it kicks serious ass. It’s this great, grungy metal music that I would never listen to by itself, yet it heightens everything that’s going on in the game.
The action and shooting also feel tight and smooth, despite there not being a traditional aim down sights. The movement speed is such that tight aiming is most definitely not the point. Still, though that insane movement speed feels great during combat, it kind of hurts the game when it comes to exploration and finding hidden items. It’s too easy to miss things when you’re blazing through every corridor. Single player is only a third of the package, and sadly, the multiplayer is not great and the map building feature, SnapMap, was just of no interest to me. Still, the single player is worth the price of admission alone.
Inside is kind of a difficult game to talk about, as my review indicates. It’s a very ambiguous game, with little to no story other than what you piece together yourself. The art style is subdued, yet evocative of a dark future — and I mean that both literally and figuratively. The gameplay is mostly simple platforming and puzzle solving, but one of the things I find most impressive about Inside is that no two puzzles are the same. Sure, some build upon what came before, but there are plenty of mechanics that were clearly created to only be utilized in a handful of areas. That kind of game design is very impressive to me. It shows the care that went into building this game, and the secret ending only highlights that even more.
Immediately upon completing the game, I found the ending to be sort of confusing and underwhelming — but after taking some time to think about it, I loved it. And even more, the final five minutes of the game are completely amazing and bizarre and horrifying and fun as hell.
2. Ratchet & Clank
There are few series that I love as much as Ratchet & Clank, so it’s understandable that I really enjoyed my time with the newest entry. A Crack in Time was my first platinum trophy, Into the Nexus was my fifth, and this game is my ninth. This new game feels like a return to the series roots. That makes sense — because it’s a literal re-imagining of the first game — but you know what I mean. It’s just complete fun on every level. The core shooting and platforming feel fantastic, and there’s a wide array of crazy weapons to keep things interesting. The game is also completely stunning — it looks like you’re playing a Pixar movie.
However, I do have two gripes with the game. The first is relatively minor, and has to do with Clank’s little side missions. In a game like A Crack in Time, Clank’s puzzle solving sections were some of my favorite moments, but in Ratchet & Clank, the on-rails “running toward the screen” sections don’t feel as special or challenging. Then there’s the story. Ratchet & Clank is based on the movie, and it shows. The game takes cutscenes and plot elements from the movie, and it sort of feels like it’s only telling half of a story. Still, I loved the game enough to play through twice and get the platinum trophy, and I had a smile on my face the entire time. You can learn more in my review and see how the game holds up amongst its peers in my ranking of every game in the series.
1. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
I know a lot of people were disappointed with Uncharted 4, saying that it didn’t really need to exist and that it felt like more of the same. While I can totally understand that perspective, I could not disagree more. As my review states, I’m not all that bothered by the core of the game feeling the same. I’ve always enjoyed the shooting and platforming in the previous games, and the addition of the grappling hook helped keep combat interesting when encounters would normally have begun to feel stale.
The biggest change from previous iterations, though, is the more open feel of the map. This is true in combat and exploration, to mixed results. The open feel during fights is nice and allows for more reliance on stealth and retreat. But in the open world, there just isn’t anything interesting to do off the main path, so there’s really no reason to explore. Not that Uncharted should necessarily have side missions, but something more than collectibles would be nice.
When it comes to the story and graphics, both are hands down the best in the series — and that is high praise indeed. The character animations are incredibly realistic, and while some of the environments aren’t as varied as in past games, they all still look fantastic.
I really enjoyed the journey with Nate and Sam, learning more about them as kids and seeing them try to reconnect, and the estrangement between Nate and Elena was surprisingly compelling. The epilogue definitely brought tears to my eyes. Basically, Uncharted 4 is a great ending to one of my favorite game series of all time, and is my game of the year for 2016.
So, what about you? What were your favorite games from 2016? I know I missed out on playing some heavy hitters like Overwatch, Hitman, and Dark Souls 3, but there’s only so much time in the day/week/month/year! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading! Hopefully next year I’ll get this out closer to January. But no promises…