I’m not a big believer in assigning superlatives to the times currently being lived in. I tend to buy more into the idea that people are very biased towards feeling their own times are more significant simply because they are living through them and as crazy or scary or “the most [anything]” that it seems, it’s never without some historical precedent. That being said, it has been quite a year. I suspect 2016 will get at least a full paragraph in a 2030s-era textbook. (assuming anyone is still around to write them) Fortunately, as Vinny is fond of saying, there’s never been a better time to be playing video games and instead of dwelling on anything else, how about we spend a few words reflecting on another year’s worth of interactive entertainment?
Other games from 2016
Boy, The Witness seems like a game I really should have come out of this year loving. It’s fantastic looking. It’s an interesting place to wander around in. You use logic to solve puzzles; real puzzles, not the stuff that tends to pass as puzzles in most modern AAA games. I even had a few really good evenings with it, including one particular great one where I sat with a friend on my couch for hours as we talked through some really tricky puzzles. However, at some point I got stuck. There’s almost certainly somewhere I haven’t been yet that will teach me whatever I need to know in order to make more progress, but I can’t find it. I didn’t want to just give up and look up the answer, but I ended up not playing the game again for a week, and by that point, I had already forgotten everything I’d ever learned about the game. There’s probably no way forward for me at this point other than deleting my save and starting over, which means that it’ll probably never happen. An unfortunate end for a cool game.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
On the other hand, Uncharted 4 is a game that just never clicked with me for some reason. There are moments I really enjoyed spread throughout the whole thing, and boy is it another fantastic-looking game, but I could never shake the feeling that everything was just being drawn out too long. If this was a movie, I’d say that every scene in it is about twice as long as it needs to be. I’m still not exactly sure why that is. As can be evidenced by how much I like slow stealth games and turn-based strategy, I enjoy slow-paced games. I haven’t seen anyone else make this complaint however, so it must be just me somehow. I don’t know. However it happened, I spent most of the game wishing the current sequence was over so I could move on to the next one. Very strange.
Picross 3D: Round 2
Rhythm Heaven Megamix
These two games round out the list of shame together not so much as a reflection of their quality but of how much I don’t like playing games on the 3DS. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the nice high-DPI screens on modern devices, but I can’t look at the 3DS for more than about 30 minutes without a ton of eye fatigue. I really enjoyed the little I played of both of these games. Picross 3D: Round 2, in particular, was a great companion on my DC trip earlier this year. I really hope it’s not another six years before I can play these games on a nice new Switch.
Old Games of the Year
What else can there possibly be to say about Diablo III? It’s been a consistent GOTY list citizen since its release in 2012. It’s still good. I still play it.
Rock Band 4
Rock Band 4 is probably also going to show up on these lists for many years to come. Since the release of the Rivals expansion especially, I’ve been putting in a couple hours every week. I really like Rock Band.
Halo: The Master Chief Collection
This year, I went back through the Master Chief Collection with a friend and played all the old Halo campaigns. As it turns out, those were really good games! The Master Chief Collection still has its share of online co-op related bugs that have to be dealt with, but when it’s working, it’s a really convenient way to play those games again. I wish 343 could make Halo the way Bungie used to.
Game of the Year
I never played Amplitude or Frequency on the PS2. My first introduction to the Amplitude style of gameplay was Rock Band Blitz back in 2012. (It seems to have missed my GOTY list entirely. Not sure what 2012 me was thinking there.) In both cases, the thing that impressed me the most about the way these games play is the way it immerses you in the track you’re playing. The gameplay is difficult enough that you need to be very focused on both the part you’re currently playing and the one you’re about to switch to. Making it to the end of a song is a relief, a chance to decompress and relax before diving right back in to do it again.
9. Watch_Dogs 2
There are two main surprising things about this game. The first is that there seems to be some hope for Ubisoft advancing beyond their usual open world game formula. I did not climb a tower in order to reveal minimap icons even once! I liked the silly little minigame where you take selfies in front of various landmarks! I appreciated the number of options the game gives you for accomplishing your objectives! Go in shooting? Call in a hit from a local gang? Make a distraction and run in while their backs are turned? Stealth kill everyone Sam Fisher style? Drive your little RC car in to do the job for you? All of these are viable ways to approach most missions and you can mix and match on the fly as the situation around you changes. I hope next year’s Assassins Creed keeps these lessons in mind. Secondly, and even more astounding, they somehow made this game likable! The first game was notorious for being so unlikable, and the marketing for this game didn’t give me a lot of hope that they had learned any lessons at all. Somehow, they pulled it off. The game manages to pull off the right balance of heartfelt and silly that manages to make you root for this group of knuckleheads and their dumb antics.
8. Batman: The Telltale Series
Another year, another Telltale game on this list. Wait, come back! The Telltale engine is starting to show its age a little bit, and it’s a little perplexing how a company who has sort of been making the same game year after year with new assets plugged in can still be having so many difficulties with release days, (and why have they still not fixed XB1 controllers on PC?!) but the content Telltale keeps putting into these games remains top-notch. (or I continue to remain a big sucker for their formula) In particular, I really like the slightly different take Telltale has on several core characters in the Batman mythos, and I really liked seeing a Batman game where Bruce Wayne is just as important a character as his alter ego.
Stealth games sort of went away at some point. The old-school stalwarts like Splinter Cell have given way to games that use stealth as more of a power fantasy; stealth as a choice, not a requirement. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy that style of game as well, but I’ve missed the stealth game that demands a little bit more from the player. Hitman is a game that manages to address both schools of thought. While it thrives on chaos and plans going awry and provides many options for the player to improvise their way out of rapidly deteriorating situations, most scenarios that devolve to open combat are going to quickly end in reloading from a previous save. It’s a game that rewards careful planning, observation, and execution, but also audacity. I’m really looking forward to season 2.
6. Civilization: VI
Firaxis must have some sort of arcane video game alchemy machine, because they have somehow once again taken the previous golden time-vortex numbered Civ game, changed a bunch of stuff about it, and ended up with a distinct but no less golden or time-vortex-y result. The new way that cities expand outward make for a whole bunch of new interesting decisions to make, that map is really nice looking, and it still makes time disappear way faster than it should.
The thing that stuck with me most about Firewatch was the sense of isolation. It’s really the thing that drives the whole game. Sometimes the isolation is pleasant, sometimes it really escalates the tension, the sense that anything might happen and there’s no one around to help if it goes bad. I feel a little conflicted about the ending, but that all feels secondary to me. To me, the real heart of Firewatch is in wandering alone through the trees.
4. Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma
I’ve sat here a long time, and I’m still not sure what to say about this game. Like its predecessors, it’s a completely insane tale of time travel, consciousness transfer, and murder set against a bizarre psychological experiment, and it all hangs together way better than it should. The puzzles are really good and the characters are all compelling. I guess the main thing I want to say is that for a long time, it looked like this game wouldn’t ever have a chance to get made, and I’m really glad it did.
3. Forza Horizon 3
Make Bass Arena great again. Seriously, Bass Arena was one of the most wonderful parts of the first Forza Horizon and the lame radio stations in 2 and 3 that dare to call themselves Bass Arena insult its great name. Somehow, in spite of this mockery of decency and goodness, Forza Horizon 3 is still a blast to play. The thing that really appeals to me about the Horizon games as opposed to the Motorsport games is how much more creative that Horizon is allowed to be with its racecourse designs. There is an appeal to faithful recreations of actual racetracks, no doubt, but Horizon races let you race through cities, on highways, and off-road, sometimes all in a single race. And then, if you don’t feel like doing an official race, there are all sorts of stunts and challenges you could do instead. And then, if none of that seems appealing at the moment, you can still drive roughshod across the open world. The sheer variety of things to do means that you can always find something appealing at any given moment, and virtual Australia is a real pretty place to do it in.
2. Stardew Valley
If pure delight could be condensed into video game form, this is what it would look like. Every day is a chance to accomplish some little personal goal. Maybe today I want to clear off another portion of my farm. Maybe today will be a fishing day. I should go into town and talk to Abigail. Oh right, the minerals up at the mines have probably respawned. The combination of the wonderful soundtrack and the never-ending list of little jobs that need to be done gives Stardew Valley a very Civ-like way of suddenly making it 2:00 in the morning. The in-game clock might stress the player out in another game, demanding that you establish a strict routine, ensuring that every day is used as optimally as possible, but Stardew Valley never seems very concerned about that. As long as you did something you wanted to do, there’s no such thing as a wasted day. It’s the video game equivalent of hugging a big, happy cat.
No game this year made me more angry. No game this year made me swear to never play it again so many times. No game this year made me say so many mean things to other people. Overwatch is magnificent. In the usual Blizzard fashion, it is polished to a mirror sheen, the heroes radiate style, the use of sound to communicate information about what’s happening is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before, and the “the game is about to end” music cue never fails to provoke a profoundly visceral stress. Best of all, the dev team has been very open and honest about what they’re seeing and thinking. They seem to have a really good handle on where the game is and the direction they’d like to take it in the future. I would have played so many other video games this year, but I can’t help it, Overwatch has its hooks in me good. I’m going to be pushing carts for a good long time to come. Overwatch is the worst. Overwatch is the best.