The promise has been made.
We can all agree on one thing: fuck 2016. Every ounce of everything around this year has been a pile of shit, except for video games. Despite some mis-steps and strange stories, 2016 has been a banner year for video games in incredible ways. Virtual reality took its first uncertain steps into the limelight. The release schedule was packed month after month with wonderful AAA and lovely indie titles. So many in fact that any top ten list, anywhere, will leave out dozens of great games.
Devil Daggers, Darkest Dungeon, SUPERHOT, Va-11 Hall-A, and Starbound are all amazing, and deserve recognition and praise. However we must shave our lists down to the very best, and here are mine.
What started as a vague interest based mostly in nostalgia for ‘choose your own adventure’ books blossomed into an obsession with a fantastic experience. Sorcery was able to recreate the feeling of becoming enveloped by a great book while applying layers of video game design on top. My tentative steps into the Sorcery world resulted in my wallowing in it by the time the final part game out. I wish I could turn back time and replay it all again for the first time.
9. Gears of War 4
The most famous grey, brown, and black splotched video game series has evolved into its own. Gears has become the perfect mix of humor and self seriousness. The fighting still carries the weight of the Gears’ world while the levity and relationships between the characters feels real and authentic. Toss in the splashes of color they’ve been adding since Gears 3 and some interesting set pieces, and Gears of War 4 was a fun ride I’m glad I got to take.
8. Digimon: Cyber Sleuth
If there was one true missing link for my youth obsessing over video games, it was the absence of a good Digimon game. Digimon World tried but failed to capture what was truly interesting about Digimon. Cyber Sleuth didn’t get the formula perfect, but it laid out a structure I hope more games follow. The characters were fun, the ability to evolve and re-evolve Digimon made collecting and customization enjoyable, and the battling was interesting. If this is the starting block for a better Digimon video game, I’ll be waiting at the finish line.
Take a snapshot of my brain and print it out on paper and you’ll get Factorio. Though it may still be in early access, most of what’s inside Factorio is what I love about management style games, laid bare. You establish systems in order to increase production, only to then redesign and/or dismantle your factory in order to increase automation even further. Your vast industrial colony grows and evolves until it all breaks down, just to be rebuilt again. Factorio is a game made just for me.
6. Dragon Quest Builders
When my friends and I got into Minecraft, we dove in deep. On and off for years we’d touch base with the old standard, see what had been added, and spend some time building our own world. Despite years of watching Minecraft update and change, the game never felt fundamentally different from the first few months we began playing. Dragon Quest Builders filled in every gap, and granted every wish I had with Minecraft. Rooms have functions, NPCs have their own tasks, and the act of building felt like it finally had purpose. The light and fanciful music and art lends to a more relaxed feeling that made some of the more tedious aspects much more bearable and enjoyable.
5. Stardew Valley
Despite my deep love for management and simulation genres, some games just never grab me. A slow, plodding farming sim sounds about as fun as watching a barn raising. The tedium of Stardew Valley is there, but there’s so much to choose from it’s improbable you would find something you didn’t enjoy. You can farm, date, marry, dungeoneer, collect, explore, and trade. Just as you begin to grasp the total sum of what you can do, the game opens up a new area with new items and tasks. Everything feels specifically paced, so you never feel overwhelmed by the immense number of options. It results in a game with so much to do, peeling away and letting you choose and enjoy which parts you wish to enjoy.
I had no confidence in Doom. Doom 3 was never considered the franchise’s crowning jewel, and while the design of Doom may be influential, it’s not exactly modern. Thankfully, Id was able to blend the old school design of Doom into the age of Call of Duty-likes. They updated a classic without removing its soul. Doom was reborn the same metal loving, demon slaying, ass kicking, son of a bitch it always was. Doom is still fast paced and deliberate; still layered and straight forward. Going backwards in time to experience a modern day game was something completely unique to Doom and Doom alone. Only one problem: once Doom’s stellar campaign ended, you were done. Maybe you’d like to collect the remaining hidden items, or play on a harder difficulty, but the multiplayer just isn’t interesting. It’s a shame to see something so plain and by the numbers attached to an incredible single player that’s anything but.
3. Titanfall 2
Sometimes games should be fun. Sometimes they should grab you by the shoulders and run you through an avalanche of excitement. Titanfall 2 didn’t care to do anything but make a fun campaign, memorable characters, and make the maneuverability and shooting practically perfect. And once you were done with the campaign you could dive into the multiplayer. Just like the previous entry, Titanfall nails alternating large, open spaces for the mechs to fight with indoor, tight-quartered places for soldiers to battle it out. Everything about Titanfall 2 is just fun, and there’s always room for that in my life.
Generally, I don’t enjoy competitive multiplayer games. Make a game eSports and multiplayer focused and you can practically guarantee I won’t spend much time with it. Even after two betas and a free weekend, I thought I understood what Overwatch was about. I was wrong. I finally gave in and purchased the game and discovered the personality and depth lying within. The characters aren’t just the sum of their abilities, they personas and memorable catchphrases. Their combined abilities mesh and collide with one another in interesting ways that continues to morph the game’s active meta. As with the characters, the levels are intricate and colorful with their own feel and no level or character feels unbalanced or unfair. Where Overwatch really excels is the feeling it gives me even after losing a frustrating game. The little extras it rewards you with, the constant leveling and loot boxes, all add small doses of happiness. Even when you’re not having fun, you’re encouraged to keep playing in this bright and wonderful playground.
Maybe it was when I killed a man using robot surgery tools, or became a ninja, or a world famous supermodel, or a therapist, or an accomplished professional drummer. Maybe it was when I shoved a wife onto her husband, killing them both, after distracting them with fireworks. Maybe it was when I killed a golf instructor, tricked his lover into meeting me, then killed her too. Or maybe it was when I saw you could unlock an explosive rubber ducky. At some point I finally came to terms that Hitman was absolutely incredible. Its systems are complex, and initially stifling. But the game slowly opens up, teaches you what you can bend and mold to your will. I started by hitting targets over the head with soda cans and can now set up elaborate assassinations on the fly. I can create chaos and harness it to meet my goals.
I’m still playing Hitman. I’m still waiting on new elusive targets and leveling up each map. I love how serious the game takes itself while openly letting you dress up as a vampire magician or a fortune teller. Somehow Hitman planted itself inside my brain and hasn’t let go. Even when I leave it to spend time with something else, I always end up back in Paris, or Colorado, or Japan. I never expected the new entry in the franchise to impress me so much, and to do so with so much style. I’ll be playing Hitman for a long time and if that’s 2016’s video game legacy then I’ll gladly take it.