2016 has been a weird and frequently surprising year for games. Whereas in 2015 you could have planned a road map of which games we’d still be talking about come the year’s end, this year has been one of the most unpredictable in recent memory, which is very fitting considering the level of turbulence suffered by the real world over the course of the past 365 days.
Although in future years 2016 will likely be remembered more for its massive disappointments (which we’ve detailed here) than its triumphs, there were a notable amount of success stories this year, too, even if they were somewhat overshadowed by a deluge of underwhelming releases. With that being said, here are top 20 best games of 2016:
Most video games are reliant upon instilling a strong sense of movement in the player, making the connection between the controller and the onscreen player-character as seamless as possible. Whereas the developer usually makes this facet of their game as subtle as possible, Plastic makes it the focal point of Bound, with it playing out like a virtual ballet adopting the guise of a platformer.
There are few games that even come close to the smoothness of the animation exhibited in Bound, with the heroine gracefully tip-toeing through its Escher-esque environments, performing giant, split-legged leaps and pirouetting away from danger. Bound isn’t a challenging game, with it instead retaining players’ interest by way of making the simple act of traversing through its levels as satisfying as possible, providing one of the most unique and memorable experiences of the year as a result.
With Bethesda withholding review copies at the time of its launch and pre-release footage failing to cause a stir, we weren’t very optimistic about DOOM’s chances of successfully rebooting the series. However, we were pleasantly surprised after discovering that not only is DOOM a return to form for id Software after 2011’s underwhelming Rage, but it’s a showcase of how to pull off an FPS single-player campaign.
Not since the underrated Bulletstorm has the act of performing gratuitous violence in a first-person perspective felt so rewarding, with the game encouraging wanton chaos rather than the cover-based, objective-to-objective gameplay that has stunted the genre for so long. While other more high-profile FPS games released later in the year exhibited similar approaches to their own campaigns (we’ll get to those later), DOOM was the first to make us hopeful for the future of an over-saturated and frequently dreary genre.
18. Ratchet & Clank
Ratchet and Clank have never really found themselves listed among gaming’s most popular mascots, and this is something that Insomniac Games looked to change with this year’s reboot/remake, the uniquely titled Ratchet & Clank. A retelling of the first game in the series from back in 2002, R&C was released as a tie-in to the film of the same name, though performed much better both critically and commercially. It isn’t difficult to see why.
With so few platformers to speak of on modern consoles outside of the Wii U (and even then, that particular well has dried up significantly), Ratchet & Clank is a wonderful throwback to the PS2 era of 3D platformers that is frequently overlooked in favor of earlier, less refined examples on the original PlayStation and Nintendo 64. Boasting superb, detailed animation that bring each of its memorable characters to life in joyous fashion, R&C whisks players on a whirlwind adventure filled with interesting environments and varied, frequently hilarious weaponry. In 2016 Ratchet and Clank finally got the attention they deserved, and this is hopefully the beginnings of a brand new era for the duo.
17. Plants vs. Zombies 2: Garden Warfare
The first Plants vs. Zombies took us by surprise by introducing a family-friendly online shooter that a) wasn’t terrible, and b) was actually kinda fun. Plants vs. Zombies 2: Garden Warfare saw EA make considerable improvements and fill it to the brim with content, creating one of the most excellent multiplayer games of the year in the process.
There are few console multiplayer games that target a wider crowd than the established Call of Duty audience, which stands to reason. Appealing to the broad demographic of people who want to pretend to be a soldier and fight in a virtual war is the most fiscally reasonable decision you can make as a developer of shooting games, but as such there’s not a lot of variety for those who want to play something with a little bit more color, personality and less violence. PvZ 2 fills this void perfectly, with it being accessible enough for all age ranges to enjoy, fun enough that even the more proficient player will get a kick out of it, and with a variety of things to do, see and unlock outside of its core modes. A well-rounded package that’s a shining example of how a sequel should be done, and how to target demographics beyond Mountain Dew-chugging teens.
Superhot occupies the unlikely intersection between puzzler and FPS, with it tasking players with “solving” its stages by killing enemies in the most advantageous order. The precision required in order to do this is achieved by way of its time-stopping gameplay, with its world and the enemies only moving when you move, meaning that you need to carefully decide who to shoot/punch/throw a bottle at next in order to traverse through its stages without being killed.
Superhot is a speedrunner’s dream, providing a variety of ways in which players can complete its many stages as stylishly and swiftly as possible. Throwing a beer bottle at the head of an enemy, shooting down another and then picking up a katana and dealing some close-quarters punishment feels immensely satisfying, with these segments wrapped up nicely by a post-level replay that allows you to watch and share your brutal kills without the slow-motion. Although Superhot could have done with a bit more variety in terms of its stages (an incredible level that clearly aped the iconic Oldboy corridor scene was sadly not accompanied by more film-inspired scenarios), the ingenuity of its core concept made it one of the most downright fun games of 2016.
15. Battlefield 1
There were high expectations for Battlefield 1. With it having the most liked trailer on YouTube in the site’s history, many were incredibly excited to see how EA DICE would tackle World War I, an event that has mostly been overlooked by video games. Fortunately, it manages to mostly live up to the hype, introducing the best campaign in the series’ history along with a chaotic multiplayer component that makes great use of its new setting.
Battlefield 1 adopting an anthology format for its campaign was a great move, with it allowing DICE to deliver a series of short stories with varied gameplay that each have their own unique flavor, concluding before they have the chance to outstay their welcome. But it’s the game’s multiplayer that is the real star of the show, with the old-school weaponry injecting a ton of personality into a franchise that was in threat of stagnation, while the various vehicles are also a blast to handle. It also introduces one of the best Battlefield game modes to date, Operations, which tasks players with battling it out across a series of maps in the same location, with a strong focus upon front-line combat that results in some of the most tense, epic gunfights in the series’ history.
14. Dishonored 2
Dishonored 2 essentially gives players an imaginative sandbox of murderous opportunity, providing the tools and means in which to off its enemies with brutal precision. The original Dishonored had its longevity increased exponentially by way of the ingenuity of its players, with them frequently discovering new ways to stealthily traverse its levels long after the game had released. This therefore caused Bethesda to up the ante considerably with its predecessor, providing two separate characters with contrasting abilities and new ways to dispatch bad guys.
Though lacking in the originality department, for those who fell in love with the first game Dishonored 2 provided more of the same and then some, ensuring that players will be conjuring up unique ways to make their way through its impressively detailed gothic environments for years to come. Though we were perhaps not as inveigled by Emily Korvo’s story as others, there was still a lot to love about Dishonored 2 and the inventiveness of its ultra-violence.
13. Civilization VI
Civilization VI is the series’ most definitive departure from its war-mongering roots thus far, offering an unprecedented amount of freedom in allowing players to reign victorious in their own way. Whereas previous games in the strategy franchise would often veers towards an over-reliance upon militarization and conquering the board by force, Civilization VI instead continues its predecessor’s efforts to make its victory conditions outside combat more easily attainable, forcing players to juggle various strategies that don’t involve bloodshed in favor of focusing upon areas such as religion, culture and science.
Although this has always been the case, Civ VI excels by being filled with so many moving parts that players must rely on all the systems in place in their society in order to be successful. This means that each move is important, with each and every single one of your settlements standing to be crucial to your eventual success. As always Civ VI handles the transition to deeper strategy with ease, introducing its various new mechanics in a manner that’s never overwhelming, gently holding your hand all the way until it becomes an iron fist. The best Civilization game to date.
12. Final Fantasy XV
Final Fantasy XV is a game for both newcomers to the series and veterans, providing a real step forward for the JRPG franchise that confidently establishes its new direction, even if the final product may not appease everyone.
Considering it endured an arduous decade-long development cycle, many were expecting an incoherent mess to be spluttered onto consoles by the Japanese developer this year, but in reality FFXV provides an excellent foundation for future entries. Rather than forcing players through mountains of exposition and lengthy cutscenes, FFXV instead artfully establishes the central quartet of characters’ personalities in-game, utilizing its “road trip” setting in order to spend almost every moment of downtime having the heroes communicate with one another. Despite this effectively forcing the story into the background in favor of its more action-oriented gameplay, which apes hack and slashers such as Devil May Cry in yet another bold and divisive move on behalf of Square, it helps to create a sense of camaraderie and makes Noctis, Prompto, Ignis and Gladiolus some of Final Fantasy‘s most inherently likable characters in the process.
Limbo is a tough act to follow, with it having been one of a few games that helped popularize indie games with console owners alongside the likes of Braid and Super Meat Boy. Developer Playdead’s next game certainly shared visual similarities with its predecessor, though it improved upon pretty much every other facet of the 2010 game.
Presenting an intriguing story masterfully told without any dialogue, Inside grabs you right from its opening and refuses to let go until its absurd conclusion, providing plenty of twists and turns along the way that will leave you scratching your head long after its final credits have finished rolling. One of the most memorable games of the year, Inside may not have generated the same level of attention as Limbo, but it is certainly the better game.
10. Planet Coaster
Planet Coaster offers a blank canvas and an array of tools with which to create your perfect theme park, featuring some of the most robust customization options we’ve seen in a video game that greatly rewards those with a keen imagination.
One needs only take a cursory glance at the Steam Workshop to witness the kind of magic that can be created in Planet Coaster, offering an insight into the enviably creative minds who have made great use of the tools Frontier Developments placed at their disposal. While the managerial aspect of Planet Coaster may be a little lacking, in terms of sheer creativity it offered an unparalleled experience in 2016, allowing you to recreate both real-world coasters and brand new, utterly ludicrous rides with ease. You’ll spend hours with it without even noticing.
Having been placed on the shelf for a few years, the announcement that the inevitable Hitman reboot would be released in episodes rubbed the majority up the wrong way. Fortunately developer IO Interactive managed to successfully confound these criticisms by way of one of the most accomplished entries in the series’ history, offering unprecedented scale in the locations Agent 47 visited and great variety in terms of the targets he must assassinate.
Hitman‘s episodic format worked in its favor, with each new entry mostly feeling more vast and engrossing than its last, as IO Interactive used its downtime to release new missions to keep players interested while sinking more time and effort into future episodes. The end result was a shot in the arm for a previously stagnant series, and was one of the finest stealth games to date.
8. Titanfall 2
While the first Titanfall garnered a positive reception, Titanfall 2 achieved an unexpected level of critical acclaim that, unfortunately, did not lead to the sales it deserved. Released in an inopportune window that also included Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Titanfall 2 has nonetheless been increasing its player base as a result of word of mouth, and it’s no wonder why.
Titanfall 2‘s multiplayer is just as slick as the original game, offering a host of new abilities and making its wall-run and gun gameplay even smoother. But while its multiplayer is a triumph, its campaign was where the game really surprised players, presenting terrific level design that offered an unprecedented level of verticality for the genre, allowing you to take down enemies without so much as placing a foot on the ground. While CoD now fiddles around with zero gravity, Titanfall 2 was Respawn exhibiting all the confidence of its Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare campaign, only with much more exhilarating gameplay attached to it. Hopefully more people will jump on board with the game as the months pass, as it deserves to be acknowledged as one of the best FPS games we’ve seen in years.
7. Stardew Valley
Nowadays if you want to harvest virtual wheat and tend to your virtual crops you’re more likely to play Farming Simulator than Harvest Moon, but Stardew Valley happily followed in the latter’s footsteps while complementing its core hook of building and growing a farm with a complex cast of characters and a surprisingly deep selection of gameplay systems.
The act of farming in Stardew Valley is satisfying in and of itself, with you having to keep on eye on the various intricacies of managing your crops and ensuring you’re maximizing the farm’s profitability, plodding around its quaint little world with your shovel and rake in tow. However, while this may ostensibly seem pretty twee, Stardew Valley has a more mature edge to it evidenced in the interactions you’ll have with its NPCs. Forming relationships with the denizens of Stardew Valley will see you unearth information about their lives, with them each having interconnected stories to tell and the option for you to pursue romantic relationships with them should you wish, concluding in marriage and a pleasant existence eked out in your farmhouse. Top this with the valley’s myriad secrets to uncover, alternate objectives to pursue and the unexpected supernatural elements of its plot and you have one of the most strangely compelling, rewarding games of the year.
6. Dark Souls 3
Accessibility isn’t a word you’ll often see leveled in the direction of From Software games, but Dark Souls 3 was perhaps the most forgiving Souls game we have played thus far. What was most surprising, though, was how much this worked in its favor, giving it a very distinctive feel over previous entries and providing an excellent bridge for new players to clamber across.
While DS3 was still very much created in the same mold of previous Souls games, its faster-paced combat and less discouraging attitude to player exploration ensured that it was a more approachable entry in the series. With Souls games having been notable for spawning the “git gud” mantra, a phrase designed to raise the hackles of players who criticize a game’s high level of difficulty, it was curious to see From Software deftly turning the dials to make DS3 less of a struggle to journey through. While it’s still not easy by any stretch of the imagination, the changes employed by its creators ensured that the game felt less claustrophobic as a result, and more welcoming to those who wanted to discover more of its dark, beautiful world.
5. Forza Horizon 3
The Forza Horizon series has flirted with becoming the top-seeded racing franchise in its previous two entries, but with Forza Horizon 3 it achieved this goal. Moving the action to Australia is a shift that brought with it a selection of unique cars (go ute!) along with brighter weather, and its idyllic setting fit in perfectly with the aspirational theme laid down by its predecessors. However, whereas Forza Horizon‘s 1 and 2 were plagued by identity issues stemming from a cast of characters who behaved like a 45-year-old’s idea of how millennials act, Forza Horizon 3 did away with its insufferable Ibiza influence in favor of a more hands-off approach to how players experienced its open world.
While the predictably slick handling of previous Forza games remained in tact, the number of things to do within its world were increased, with it feeling like a playground for racing fans as a result. While street races were still in their abundance, extra tasks such as being able to create your own events for your friends online, daring stunt jumps through the Outback and breakneck time trials that sent you crashing through the local foliage each contributed to one of the most feature-packed games of the year. An essential title for racing fans.
4. The Witness
Criticisms leveled at The Witness largely revolve around the way it tells its story and its habit of veering into condescension, a complaint that has also frequently been directed towards its creator, the divisive but supremely talented Jonathan Blow. But despite its pretentious nature — and admittedly, sitting through transcripts of philosophers’ quotes in the game can inspire a rolling of the eyes — The Witness is one of the finest and most pure puzzle games we’ve seen for quite some time.
Puzzle games succeed by way of the sense of accomplishment you get after making a breakthrough on a particularly tricky challenge, but can veer into frustration if you find yourself routinely coming up against conundrums that are just out of your mental reach. The Witness completely bypasses this frustration by making its entire open world a living, breathing puzzle, with you able to choose at will which challenges you’ll take on and in which order, with hidden areas opening up to you as you progress. While its puzzles each revolve around the same objective of moving a line from one side of a square to another, there is a surprising amount of variety in how The Witness approaches this concept, making it one of the most addictive games of the year and the best puzzle game in quite some time.
3. The Last Guardian
It’s impossible to separate The Last Guardian from its lengthy development cycle, with its road to release being fraught with disappointment and frustration from those who were repeatedly promised it was on its way, only for it to routinely appear likely that it was never actually going to see the light of day. 2016 was a historic year for many mostly unfortunate reasons, but it did end on something of a high note for fans of game director Fumito Ueda’s previous work, when December finally saw the launch of his Shadow of the Colossus successor.
Though The Last Guardian is undoubtedly imperfect, with there being evidence of its multi-generational development woes present in its technical issues and control problems, it’s carried to greatness by the central relationship between the boy and his unlikely protector. Any fears of TLG devolving into a lengthy and infuriating escort mission are put to rest when you see giant dog/bird Trico in action, with its movement being uncannily similar to the amalgamation of animals its body is composed of, and its behavior veering from joyful to heart-wrenching. The wonderful interactions between boy and beast are unlike anything we’ve seen before in a game, inspiring what very much feels like real companionship between player and virtual pet (if you can call the gigantic Trico that) by its conclusion. While TLG wasn’t our favorite game of the year, we’d wager that it’ll be the one that stays with us the longest after the year is said and done.
Despite having been under development for a whopping 10 years, Owlboy still felt like it swooped in from out of nowhere to become one of the very best games of 2016. We’ve grown accustomed to the term “Metroidvania” being attached to a game basically meaning that it’s going to be largely derivative of both Metroid and Castlevania, but Owlboy surpasses these expectations in order to deliver the best platformer of the year, along with one of the most heartfelt games we’ve played in quite some time.
Though there are an abundance of PC games that share the same 16-bit, retro aesthetic, Owlboy transcends beyond this tired visual style with more fluid animation and a wider color palette, creating one of the most gorgeous 2D games we’ve ever seen in the process. Then there’s its story, which spins the trope of a mute video game protagonist on its head by having the ancillary characters acknowledge his speech impediment, transforming Owlboy into an engrossing underdog story about overcoming prejudice and the value of friendship. It’s a truly wonderful adventure that deserves to be played by everyone, and as such it’s our second favorite game of 2016.
For most developers, creating a new multiplayer-oriented first-person shooter can be a futile exercise. With series such as Battlefield and Call of Duty already continuing to dominate the market, it can often be difficult for newcomers to make a dent in an overcrowded genre. However, when Blizzard announced that it would be releasing its own FPS, it was inevitable that the World of Warcraft creators would have a much higher chance of success than their peers given their pedigree and established fan base. What wasn’t expected was that Blizzard would nail the genre immediately with Overwatch, introducing its next bank-rolling franchise in the process.
The most popular shooter of 2016, it’s not difficult to see why Overwatch has resonated with so many people, introducing a wide selection of almost immediately iconic characters and class-based gameplay that boasts a ton of depth while still accommodating the less skilled player. Not since Team Fortress 2 has a multiplayer FPS boasted so much personality. Despite the game itself doing little to flesh out the back stories of each of its heroes, it’s a testament to Blizzard’s character design that they’re each instantly memorable, with the heaps of fan art, animations and cosplaying Tracers indicative of the scale of the game’s impact.
Overwatch will stand to be the most enduring game of 2016, with the trickling of new, free content offered up by Blizzard continuing to pique interest and it regularly featuring on Twitch’s top 5 most viewed games. Though this year has been host to some excellent new releases, Overwatch was the beginning of a brand new and exciting era for an overly saturated genre, and as such it’s our game of the year for 2016.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order):
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
Hyper Light Drifter
Kentucky Route Zero – Act IV
Pokemon Sun and Moon
RIGS Mechanized Combat League
Total War: Warhammer