Like pretty much everyone who lived through it, we’re glad that 2016 is now in the rear-view, but amid all the divisive politics, celebrity deaths, and loudmouth, Cheetos-skinned presidents were a ton of great video games. No matter your taste, you didn’t have to look far to find a game worth spending time with in 2016, a year that not only saw several long-in-development games finally see the light of day, but also delivered on the promise of VR, even if all three of the leading virtual reality headsets are still too prohibitively expensive for most consumers to truly enjoy.
Really, the best thing that can be said for 2016 in terms of the games it gave us is that there was no clear “game of the year” candidate; in fact, it’s hard to find many lists of the year’s best games that look much alike. We played a lot of games in 2016, but we also missed out on a fair number too, so it’s likely that one or a few of your personal favorites didn’t make our list of the year’s best. Still, we think we found 10 games that represent some of the best experiences a gamer could have in 2016, so without further ado, here are our picks for the year’s best titles.
10. Battlefield 1
Both Battlefield and its main competitor Call of Duty ditched the modern warfare theme with their 2016 releases, but whereas CoD flung players into the far reaches of the solar system in the distant future, Battlefield looked to the past for inspiration and was arguably better for it. As one of history’s most destructive and violent conflicts, World War I has been a conflict very few games have wanted to tackle, but Battlefield 1 does justice to the Great War with a surprisingly excellent campaign that doesn’t hold back from showing the horrors that took place more than a century ago.
Taking the form of a series of vignettes, BF1’s campaign attempts to show the true scale of the First World War by throwing players into different theaters that go well beyond just Western Europe. Admittedly, the game’s multiplayer and its focus on killing for fun clashes with the anti-war message of the campaign, but if you can overlook this thematic dissonance, you’ll find one of the finest competitive online modes of the year. It will be interesting to see if DICE returns to modern day with its next iteration, but as things stand right now, we would be perfectly content if the series stays (figuratively) stuck in the past for awhile.
Hitman had a lot working against it before it even released, thanks to a controversial switch to “episodic” releases and the fact that truly great Hitman games have been few and far between. But somehow this version of the game works, largely due to the truly massive number of different ways you can deal with targets. You can follow the mostly interesting paths laid out by the game, or try and plot your own way through bustling locations in search of your target, and both offer equally viable options, and plenty of opportunities for mischief. The much-maligned episodic releases actually helped the game’s reception, as it allowed you to exhaust most of the options on one map before moving on to the next. The decision to release near-weekly “Elusive Targets”, special challenges that you could only attempt once and had a time limit before disappearing, as well as special holiday DLC packs that dressed up old maps in intriguing ways, definitely helped keep Hitman in the forefront of gamers’ minds throughout 2016.
Perhaps most importantly, the game expertly walks the line between “serious assassination game” and “wacky scenarios” that allow you to brutally murder some targets in hilarious fashion without ever crossing the line into lame comedy. The game isn’t perfect, as some open world bugs, issues with “always online” requirements (which have since been toned down), and the fact that some maps just aren’t as good as others (looking at you, Marrakesh) could be irritating, but overall, it might be some of the most fun you’ll have murdering virtual people this year (and thanks to its success, next year in an announced Season 2 that we just can’t wait for).
The dreaded “first-person walking simulator” adds another stellar entry to the genre, as adventure game Firewatch, from the small but talented team at Campo Santo, puts you in the boots of Henry, a married man who tries to escape problems at home by manning a watchtower inside a National Forest for the summer. For the entire game, your only contact is via radio, with a woman in another tower who you know as Delilah, and who you never actually see in person. Over the course of the summer, strange things start happening around your tower, and in the course of the investigation, tensions rise at an incredible pace as you try to uncover the truth behind what’s going on. There’s no combat to be found, but there is a surprising amount of interactivity, which helps build a detailed world around you, even as the game maintains an atmosphere of near-total isolation. The voice acting is superb, the narrative is brilliant, and you owe it to yourself to experience it. If you need to know more, here’s our review.
7. The Witness
It was easy to forget that The Witness even came out in 2016 given how early in the year it was released, but ignoring Jonathan Blow’s ambitious puzzle game would be a mistake, as it remains one of the year’s finest. Revolving entirely around line puzzles, The Witness is a game that puts enormous faith in the player’s intelligence (some might say, too much faith), as there are no verbal or text commands in sight. Instead, you learn about the game’s various rules by solving increasingly complex puzzles, with each one building upon the foundation of the last.
It’s a unique difficulty curve that admittedly gets a bit too harsh at times, with the temptation to throw in the towel and look up a solution online persistent throughout, but The Witness is best enjoyed if you stick with it and persevere. Sure, you have to really like puzzles to get the most out of The Witness since the only reward for solving one is more (and more difficult) puzzles, but considering how absolutely gorgeous the game’s island setting is, it’s hard to think of another game this year that found such a perfect balance between relaxation and immense frustration, or one that elicits such a satisfying feeling of accomplishment when you finally figure out its complex systems.
Id Software’s Doom reboot didn’t make the greatest first impression, as the debut trailer shown off at E3 2015 made the game look like a dumb, run of the mill, hyper-violent shooter. While the finished product certainly retains the over-the-top violence, Doom is definitely not just another shooter; rather, it’s one of the most entertaining games of the year. Doom’s campaign is truly special, as it successfully modernizes the core concepts established over two decades ago with the very first entry in the series: kill lots of demons and have a blast (pun intended) doing so. The game is constantly throwing new ideas at you, mostly in the form of increasingly formidable enemies that routinely keep you on your toes.
Thanks to an ingenious design decision that has the player regaining health by pulling off brutal melee kills, Doom ditches the whole “stand behind cover until your health regenerates” design shared by so many other first-person shooters and forces you to jump into the fray to survive, creating a constant risk-reward tension that only gets more pulse-pounding as the enemies get tougher and more plentiful. Sure, Doom’s multiplayer mode is nothing to write home about, but it’s hard to care when the campaign is as good as it is and based on its single player offering alone, Doom easily stands out as one of the year’s best.
5. Titanfall 2
Titanfall 2 is easily one of the year’s biggest surprises, but the fact that it’s also one of year’s best games may be the biggest surprise of all. The original Titanfall was praised for its fast-paced multiplayer and fluid controls, but was unable to maintain its initial popularity for very long, and the fact that it didn’t have a single player campaign of any sort didn’t exactly help matters. With the sequel, developer Respawn Entertainment set out to address the criticisms leveled at the first Titanfall, but few could have predicted that they would pull off a follow-up that is superior in every way. Although it could have used a beefier plot, Titanfall 2’s campaign is by no means a throwaway, and features some of the best level design we’ve seen since Half-Life 2.
Formed around a series of set pieces, the 8-10 hour story mode doesn’t waste a second as it flings you through breathtaking landscapes, an assembly line from hell, and even back in time, all in the company of a lovable mech buddy with a bit too literal sense of humor. The best part is that, once you’re finished with the campaign, there’s still an incredibly expansive and addicting multiplayer mode to discover … at least, there is if you can manage to find people online, as EA released Titanfall 2 at the worst possible time and sales have not been great so far. Still, those who gave Titanfall 2 a chance got one of the best all-around gaming packages of 2016 and if it turns out to be the final game in the series, it will have gone out on one hell of a high note.
4. Stardew Valley
Sometimes there are games that come along and will just make entire portions of your life disappear without warning. Stardew Valley is one of those games. This cheerful little throwback to classic 16-bit games reminds us of old favorites like Harvest Moon, but it’s so much more than that. It’s an incredible “life simulator”, bringing together farming, fishing, dating, questing, and even dungeon crawling in a neat little package that will have you suddenly looking away from the screen and realizing just how many hours have melted away. Created by a single, dedicated independent programmer, Stardew Valley isn’t just an homage to similar games from years past, it’s a refined product that improves on every aspect of those games we remember. Whether clearing land on your homestead farm, traversing the myriad levels of a dangerous series of caves, or trying to determine the best gift to get your significant other, there is never a shortage of unique and fun things to do within this fantastic game. We played it so much, we didn’t have time to write an actual review!
Playdead made a name for themselves with their fantastic side-scrolling platformer Limbo back in 2010, and while it would be easy to write off their latest game, Inside, as spiritual successor that doesn’t really do all that much different, that would be a massive disservice to what the studio has crafted. Simply put, Inside is not only a worthy follow-up to Limbo , but is arguably even better than its predecessor. Although it retains the same try-and-die learning curve, Inside’s world feels more fleshed out than Limbo’s and is darkly disturbing in all the right ways.
Themes of slavery and conformity run throughout and while some players likely took issue with the game’s vague narrative, we adored how open to interpretation everything is, especially the game’s third act, which features one of the best twists of the year. It’s hard to really talk about Inside without giving much of it away and considering it’s a relatively short experience, it would be a real shame to have this game spoiled. All you really need to know is it’s a must-play and arguably the best indie title of the year.
2. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Even before release, we kind of expected that Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End would be one of the best games of the year, as Naughty Dog have routinely proven themselves to be one of the most talented developers in the business. Still, while we knew the studio would deliver a fitting conclusion to Nathan Drake’s story, we didn’t expect they would save the best for last, as Uncharted 4 could very well be the best entry in the series to date (it’s a toss up between it and Uncharted 2). While it’s easy to praise the game’s incredible performances (has there been a better depiction of marriage in gaming?), level design, and visuals, what truly elevates Uncharted 4 to “game of the year” status is its narrative.
At this point, you would think that there wouldn’t be much else to say about plucky adventurer Nathan Drake, yet Naughty Dog found a way to close out his story in an emotional way that doesn’t feel contrived and actually digs deeper into the psychology of a man who hunts treasure (and murders a ton of mercenaries) for fun better than any previous game in the series. While it doesn’t top The Last of Us, which remains Naughty Dog’s masterpiece, Uncharted 4 is still a crowning achievement that in any other year, would probably rank as our number one pick. But then, it’s not every year that Blizzard decides to release a new game …
While Uncharted 4 is arguably the better overall package (we didn’t even talk about its solid multiplayer offering), no other game dominated our time or thoughts in 2016 as much as Overwatch. Blizzard’s colorful first-person shooter really shouldn’t have worked as well as it did, as it was a full-priced game lacking any sort of offline story component, which as the rotting corpses of games like Evolve has shown, is typically a recipe for disaster. However, Blizzard proved to be the exception, crafting a finely tuned shooter that, despite not featuring a campaign of any sort, is dripping with character thanks to its cast of diverse heroes.
Although Overwatch can get extremely competitive, it really is a shooter for everyone, as its focus on objectives over kills means that raw skill is less important than the ability to work together as a team. Most importantly, and the main reason why we’ve chosen to give the number one spot to Overwatch, is that it’s a game that is constantly evolving, with Blizzard adding new heroes, maps, and balance tweaks on a consistent basis since the game’s release in the spring. If its rabid fan following is any indication, Overwatch is a game that will continue to be one of the industry’s most talked about (and most played) games for years to come.