Although 2016 was a pretty shitty year in the grand scale of things, things are looking pretty positive on the gaming front. It was a fantastic year for games, there’s no doubt about that – in fact, it’s been one of the best in recent memory. 2016 was all about revitalisations of old franchises, the comeback of the first-person shooter and – of course – virtual reality, which finally made its way into consumers’ hands. From action-packed adventures to niche puzzle games, 2016 had a game for everyone. Here are a few of my top picks.
Let’s face it, on paper Pokémon GO is a location-based augmented-reality game that’s pretty one dimensional. On paper. It turned out to be a cultural phenomenon in every sense of the term. During its initial two weeks, the streets of every major city were packed with Pokémon Trainers – young and old – frantically running from PokéStop to PokéStop trying to catch ’em all. Sure, nostalgia was a big part of it; yep, the game is pretty shite at its core, but that didn’t stop me and half the bloody world enjoying this free-to-play mobile game (at least until we got bored of it, anyways.)
Rise of the Tomb Raider
The only reason this didn’t make it onto my ‘proper’ list is that it was first released on Xbox One in 2015 as a timed exclusive. I don’t have one, so I had to wait until 2016 to play the PS4 version. I’m glad I decided to play it, because I really, really, REALLY enjoyed it. 2012’s Tomb Raider reboot was fine, but I just couldn’t get past its ludonarrative dissonance: on the one hand, Lara Croft was a terrified novice adventurer. At the same time, she was a remorseless killing machine who wiped out any mercenary who was unlucky enough to look her way. The sequel, featuring a more experienced Lara, is far more believable. The finished product is a collect-a-thon that borrows the best elements from Uncharted and Metroidvania games.
Playdead’s spiritual successor to puzzle-platformer Limbo doubled down on everything that made the first game so memorable. Every single screen on Inside is packed with polish, detail and character; you won’t see the same puzzle twice. They took their time with development, and it shows. Each one of the game’s dark and debauched areas had me itching to uncover the game’s veil of mystery. And that last part – wow. The twisted, hard-hitting game narrative went places I never could have seen coming. Although I adored the game’s atmosphere, narrative and art style, I found a few of the puzzles a little stale. Nevertheless, Inside, consider yourself honourably mentioned.
5. Ratchet and Clank
I’m a massive fan of the Ratchet and Clank series, so it should come as no surprise that 2016’s reimagining of the original game made it onto this list. Insomniac pulled out all the stops for this one; everything was remade from the ground up. The top-notch level design of the original is retained, but the game was injected with an impressive dose of TLC. The presentation is amazing and is a true showcase of the PlayStation 4‘s power. It looks, sounds and – most importantly – feels like you’re playing a Pixar movie. The cutesy anthropomorphic characters are brought to life with a whimsical charm that’ll win over even the grumpiest of grumps (like me), and the writing and voice acting genuinely cracked me up.
What really solidified Ratchet and Clank‘s spot on this list, though, is how damn fun it is. The platforming sections are tight, challenging and rewarding, and the weapons are some of gaming’s most innovative and imaginative – ever. There’s the Groovitron, a gun that fires disco balls that cause enemies to burst into dad-approved dance; there’s Mr Zurkon, a small, droid-like robot who shoots at enemies while making nihilistic and pure-evil quips; there’s even a gun that transforms enemies into sheep. (Okay, maybe I that one ‘cos I’m Welsh.) The entire game is hinged on a rewarding upgrade system and well-paced environmental exploration, making it an easy addition to my top five games of 2016.
4. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Uncharted is one of the most beloved first-party franchises of last generation, and Naughty Dog are one of the most esteemed developers of all time, so it’s safe to say they had their work cut out for them with Uncharted 4. Oh, they delivered – then some. They clearly learned a lot of lessons from their last game, which is a good thing really, as The Last of Us is widely considered to be one of the greatest games of all time. The neverending high-octane set pieces of previous Uncharted games take a back seat in Uncharted 4, making way for vehicle-based open-environment exploring and non-scripted action sequences. Obviously, there are a few Michael Bay-esque moments thrown in – this is bloody Uncharted – but my favourite moments came from the game’s minute-to-minute combat, which is a testament to its streamlined gameplay mechanics. Naughty Dog is learning that they don’t need quick-time events and scripted moments to craft a true cinematic experience. Roll on, The Last of Us Part II.
As the game’s subtitle suggests, Uncharted 4 is the end of an era; the end of Nathan Drake‘s story, so Naughty Dog simply had to get the narrative right. They absolutely did: the game is a love letter to fans of the series, littered with meaningful, Hollywood-quality writing and whimsy that never ceased to make me smile. The stellar voice acting, including moving performances from Nolan North and Troy Baker – is enhanced by Naughty Dog‘s pioneering facial-animation tech: every frown line, wrinkle and dimple is bursting with emotion, giving me an attachment to these characters that simply wasn’t possible last gen. The story was handled expertly as well; the pacing, structure and writing are flawless throughout. Not only that, the game’s tear-jerking epilogue gave me complete closure on Nathan Drake’s story, but it also gave hints as to where the series may be headed in the future. Oh, and that Crash Bandicoot cameo was bloody brilliant.
Multiplayer first-person shooters were a huge part of my adolescence; hell, I spent half of my mid-teens on Xbox Live with a goofy headset wrapped around my face. Over the years, I’d fallen out of love with the genre, settling more on story-driven, narrative games. Until Overwatch, that is. Made by Blizzard, who are the kings of every genre they’ve set foot in (the bastards), Overwatch is pure, unadulterated multiplayer fun. It’s a class-based shooter, more akin to a MOBA than Call of Duty, giving players the freedom to play in a way that suits them. Want to play as a sniper? You can. A revolver-touting cowboy? You can. A parka-wearing chubby girl who shoots ice shards? Yup. Overwatch’s array of colourful, personality-packed characters is the main draw of the game, and there’s someone for everyone. It makes for one hell of a hectic objective-based shooter, where support and defence are just as important as attacking.
On its surface, Overwatch looks like a Team Fortress 2 clone with a disturbing lack of content and modes, but its maps and characters are so fleshed-out and polished that this simply isn’t the case. There are currently a whopping 23 playable characters in the game, with Blizzard adding new ones intermittently. Whether you get kills or not, you feel like you’re actively contributing to the team – unlike other FPS games, which is what turned me off them in the first place. Its refreshing take on the genre had my housemate and I repeating those synonymous gaming words over and over: “just one more go.” The game really was 2016’s Rocket League. Thank you, Blizzard, for restoring my faith in a genre that I thought was long-dead. I have a feeling we’re going to see quite a few Overwatch clones in the coming years.
2. The Witness
Ah, The Witness. I took a vow – as I always do with puzzle games – to have a complete media blackout with this one. I’m glad I did. For two weeks, every day after work I’d get lost in Jonathon Blow’s masterfully created 3D world. The basic premise of The Witness is that you’re trapped on a remote island, and the only way to escape is by solving its logic-based puzzles. These puzzles, coupled with the world’s minimalist-yet-beautiful art style, completely and utterly immersed me. I even jotted down notes to help me solve some of the true head-scratchers. That’s right, I used a pen and paper in the 21st century; if that doesn’t speak to The Witness’ quality, I don’t know what does. The way some of the puzzles play on the environment gave me one of my biggest in-game revelations of all time; no joke, it even tops KOTOR‘s twist, but I’ve already said too much. The less I say about this The Witness, the better; if you have any affinity for puzzles, you really need to experience this for yourself.
Two first-person shooters on the list. 2016! What the fuck?
This time last year, if you told me my number one game of 2016 would be Doom, I’d tell you to piss off. But here we are. Doom had a mismanaged, turbulent development cycle, which makes the final game all the more impressive. From the moment the nameless, faceless, voiceless protagonist cocks the shotgun, cueing the game’s metal-infused soundtrack, I knew Doom was something special. Everything that made the first two games so iconic is present: it’s a rollickin’ hellspawn-slaying romp through demon-infested Mars (and, naturally, Hell itself.) The main goal of the game is to brutally end every demon you see by any means necessary, whether that be by chainsaw, shotgun, BFG (of course, it’s back) or your bare hands. There’s no reloading, no slowly shimmying across ledges, no pause for breath – Doom’s satisfying action blasts through the gate and doesn’t relent until the credits roll.
Sure, there’s a story in Doom if you want it, quite a deep one in fact. However, the crowning moment in the narrative for me is the Doomguy himself. He doesn’t really give two shits about the story; just like the player, he’s there for an undiluted demon slaughter. Despite having no lines whatsoever, the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings are depicted perfectly via first-person hand gestures: he’s apathetic, uninterested and unmoved by the urgency of the plot, and it’s absolutely hilarious. It says a lot that Doom‘s devil-may-care protagonist has more personality than most other games’ try-hard heroes, all without uttering a word. It seems as though id Software is having a dig at the hyper-seriousness of most game’s narratives – to great effect.
Just like the original, the soundtrack is fucking fantastic. Given my music taste, it’s really no surprise that I took to Doom‘s original metal soundtrack so much. There’s more to it than that, though: the game’s blistering thrash metal riffs and hardcore breakdowns complement the action perfectly. It’s set up in such a way that the last blood-squelching shot of each skirmish ends the track with a super-satisfying open guitar chord. It’s the perfect finishing touch on one of the best first-person shooter campaigns of all time. That’s right, I said it. It really is that good. If you’ve ever enjoyed a shooting game of any sort, do yourself a favour and pick up Doom. You won’t regret it.