2016 was an odd year for gaming. We finally saw the release of several troubled productions such as Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian. The PlayStation 4 Pro launched alongside the most economical option ever for Virtual Reality headsets. But we also got sad and bitter pills to swallow like the death of Disney Infinity and Nintendo’s Wii U console. And yet a lot of truly high quality video games came out appealing to multiple people. So as is tradition, here are my top five games of 2016 with three honorable mentions. Feel free to disagree.
Tyler’s Top 5 Games of 2016
5. Telltale’s Batman
To really understand this decision it has to be understood that I hate how Batman has mutated in the broader pop culture. What was once a symbol of resourcefulness, determination and hope in the face of overwhelming despair and adversity has been grimderp’d to hell and back. He kills people. He uses guns. He’s a mentally unstable psychopath in a bat costume that immediately tries to kill anything tougher than him because genuine goodness in the world is too good to be true. Why? Cuz MAH PAHHRREEENTS AHHHRR DEEEAARRRRDD!!! And that’s just in his most recent live-action film adaptation. Don’t even get me started on what happened in that animated Killing Joke thing or the fact his last big budget video game bent over backwards to justify giving him a trillion dollar tank!
So leave it to Telltale Games to bring their own spin on the character in a five episode season that remembered what made The Dark Knight such an enduring superhero. And they did so by retaining the core of what made him so iconic and then radically changing everything else. Bruce Wayne’s origin was given one of the most cutting re-imaginings in recent memory. The new Children of Arkham criminal organization was frighteningly effective at what they set out to do. Even the most one-dimensional of the Caped Crusader’s cabal of cretinous criminals were given much needed humanity and nuance. But most importantly, it de-glamorized what Batman was capable of with his gadgets while making Bruce Wayne arguably his most vulnerable and flawed. No convenient Bat-Insert Deus Ex Machina Here, no romanticized notions of him planning for everything, just a guy working with what he has to bring justice to his city. It lead to a game where I snoozed through the tightly choreographed fight scenes on auto-pilot, completing Quick-Time Events in a daze, but was absolutely enraptured when I had to play the billionaire playboy trying to keep his secret life hidden, thinking and acting by the seat of his pants.
It can be argued that a lot of Telltale’s tricks and quirks are on display here– their engine is really starting to show its age, there are some noticeable choices that are mostly illusion, etc.– but they helped make the story of Batman more than just another variation of a rich guy in a suit beating up mentally ill people with gadgets. In a world where it’s cliché to bring up that either Bruce Wayne or Batman is the true mask, Telltale allows that answer to be a complex combination of both.
4. Pokemon Sun and Moon
Call it nostalgia. Call it a fondness for the material. Call it stating the obvious. Game Freak made another installment of Pokemon and once again improved upon their formula. The introduction of regional variants of Pokemon was an inspired addition to the franchise, helping to bring certain undersold Pokemon from older games back into the spotlight. The story mode was a bold diversion from prior installments that added a lot of heart and warmth to a series that could have easily become by the numbers. Finally, the post-game content is balanced perfectly for newcomers and old trainers that were catching and training long before breeding and realistic day and night cycles were a thing.
Firewatch was the interactive drama this year that made me hopeful for what video game narrative can be in the future. A truly mature and sobering journey of one man wanting an escape from the complex and emotionally taxing troubles of life– particularly the deteriorating mental state of his wife. But even while I played out a depressed blue collar husband soul-searching in the Shoshone National Forest, adopting pet turtles and climbing mountains, the themes of Firewatch are some of the most nuanced I have ever experienced. Good people can be selfish, bad people try desperately for redemption, and even when your values are reaffirmed, your problems don’t just magically go away. That last part is particularly stinging when it comes to the game’s sharp and contentious finale. Personally, I found it to be a moving and powerful, yet solemn and subtle experience with a lot to say about game narratives from the perspectives of conflict and resolution. Also Turt Reynolds is the best name ever for a turtle and no one can tell me otherwise!
2. Titanfall 2
I am addicted to Titanfall 2. Most online shooters bore me to tears and can only hold my attention for about a month before some combination of the online support, the staleness, or the toxic user base turns me off. Yet, I have put more time into this game’s online than I care to admit. As of writing I’m working on my third Regeneration (think Prestiging in CoD), and it’s all thanks to the pitch perfect polish by Respawn Entertainment. Mixing together giant robot action with chaotic acrobatic arena shooter gameplay keeps each match exciting and different. Its RPG progression is refined to an insane degree with just about every weapon having clear advantages when mixed with the right loadout.
Plus, despite being given one of the biggest raw deals in terms of marketing, Respawn Entertainment has kept their mech shooter notably pro-consumer. No abusive pay-to-win freemium elements. Its recently implemented in-game store is refreshingly upfront and feels closer to cosmetic DLC from the 2000’s. And the absolute abandonment of a Season Pass in favor of free updates over the game’s lifespan.
It also had a really kick-ass single-player campaign! In a landscape where too many high-profile shooters continuously shove spectacle down your throat to keep you amused like a large novelty pair of toy keys, Titanfall 2’s campaign was well-paced and sharp. Using a generic “rookie goes through hell” set-up by way of an intergalactic colony war with giant robots, the campaign hits all of the necessary beats with aplomb. Generic army guy and his robot buddy slowly respecting each other as they take down the competition? Check. Over-the-top boss characters that are one hamtastic outburst away from being Saturday Morning Cartoon villains while being a legitimate threat? Check. Gameplay design that teaches and encourages both the speedy and satisfying pilot movement alongside the heft and satisfying crunch of piloting a twenty-foot tall death machine? Check. Set pieces that are few and far between so they don’t lose their flair and impact? Yeah that’s another check. While I played Titanfall 2 for its online, its campaign has become the new gold standard for modern shooter campaigns.
Before we get to number one, here are a few honorable mentions:
On the one hand, Overwatch is an expertly made online experience that is endlessly replayable. On the purest terms of gameplay and visuals, it is damn near perfect. I could stare at the character animations all day and a quick match can easily snowball into an entire afternoon wasted. However, the reason why it is not on the list is more to do with how it treats its progression curve; specifically how it’s a slot machine. Earning alternate outfits and emotes is cute and harmless, but dedicating it completely to RNG, with the “option” to get more rolls of the dice with real-world money soured my love of this game pretty quick. Even if I got lucky with the loot drops, it is still appalling that a game with this much polish and thought put into it decided the best way to reward the majority of their audience is to indoctrinate and normalize a gambling problem
Consider this a last minute addition. Pony Island released at the very beginning of 2016 and it looked like another silly trend chasing indie game so I gave it a pass. But it’s five dollars on Steam and it took me a few hours to finish and now I wish I took the dive sooner. What starts as an endless runner with a retro pixel art style quickly turns into a demented puzzle game that shatters the fourth wall to pieces. It’s not bad at all, in fact its closest comparison in terms of meta commentary is last year’s Undertale when it comes to self-awareness and loving satire of gaming and game theory, but there are a few elements that don’t completely come together with its framing device and the story it wants to tell.
Dark Souls 3
I am a huge fan of From Software’s Soulsborne series. The first installment was a revelation, the second one…existed, and Bloodborne was one of the few games I struggled to Platinum. I wear it like a badge of honor now. But while Dark Souls 3 was a fitting end to the series, the actual legacy it leaves feels more impactful than the actual game itself. Yes, the game is absolutely amazing and from a lore perspective, things are still cryptic and up to interpretation, but it just can’t recapture that inherent awe the first game inspired despite it’s meticulous polish and presentation.
1. Doom (2016)
Doom was an absolute surprise this year. Every sign pointed to it being a flailing and troubled production with some Multiplayer that nobody asked for bolted on. Instead, it became one of the most satisfying throwbacks to the seminal action series by keeping things simple and focused. Chaotic and exciting gunplay, face-melting visuals optimized to near-perfection, a single-player story that had more going on than necessary, and an absolutely metal re-imagining of the infernal hordes and the iconic Doom Marine made this game a screaming bloody good time.
And yet id Software didn’t stop there. They continued to update and improve the game, including at launch its own surprisingly intuitive level editor called SnapMap. The Multiplayer that feels like an odd mix of Modern Warfare and Quake 3 got a Season’s Pass worth of content. But best of all they included an Arcade Mode for high score junkies like myself. Ripping and tearing never felt so good.