- Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
Full disclaimer – I totally missed Deus Ex: Mankind Divided when creating early drafts of this list. That unfortunate fact alone should absolutely tell you something about the lack of impact this title had on me and, anecdotally at least, the video game industry in 2016.
That’s not to say that the latest entry in the Deus Ex series is a bad game. It isn’t – and it absolutely deserves a place within any conversation concerning the best triple-A games of 2016. It’s just that the anticipation for Mankind Divided grew to fever pitch, and prior to release there was a definite sense of optimism that we were finally going to get a game that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the bona fide classic that is 2000’s Deus Ex. Instead, what we got was something far closer in scale and ambition to 2011’s Human Revolution. So it was good. Really good. Great even! But certainly not the second coming that I had convinced myself that Mankind Divided could be.
That said – it makes the list. Disappointment aside, Eidos Montréal has given us another FPS/RPG hybrid that drips with style and, when at its best, makes the player feel like a robotic hacker secret agent and/or terrorist double agent rock star future-soldier superhero alcoholic murder machine. Cracking open and getting to grips with the player character’s ability tree is a joyous thrill, as is choosing how to traverse each gorgeous environment – with vastly different gameplay styles catered for and experimentation/exploration encouraged.
The story fizzles out instead of ending with a bang, and four months on – I can barely recall a single major narrative beat. What I do remember is having a great time chewing through this black and yellow techno dystopia, enough so that I still have faith that the next entry could truly be something special.
- The Climb
The Climb is the first and only VR title on this list. I was a day one adopter of Oculus Rift and I’m bullish about what VR can and should mean to not only video games but all forms of digital media in the years and decades ahead.
However – VR has a software problem. Developers are still scrambling to define the fundamentals of good VR game design and, as of yet, nothing really stands out as a piece of software that really makes good on the promise of these magical headsets. Let me be clear – I’m not saying that The Climb is even close to being the killer app that we need. But what I am saying is that The Climb is the best purely VR experience that I’ve had to date.
Crytek’s stab at Oculus store dominance tasks players with directing two disembodied, chalk-stained hands up several deadly yet picturesque cliff faces. The player is eventually rewarded for their virtual daredevilry with a life affirming vista and congratulatory eagle flyover, which is far more epic than it sounds.
The basic gameplay mechanic revolves around grip managment – a two handed grip = good, and gives you as much time as you need to plot your next jump, leap, or cowardly shuffle. Whereas, a one handed grip = bad and will eventually result in a fatal fall, not to mention a sudden test of your VR sealegs. You can increase your gripping ability by applying some chalk, which then satisfyingly wears away leaving raw and bloodied digits in its wake.
So yeah, the gameplay is simple. But where The Climb really shines is how it taps into the inherent strengths of VR. Crytek employ an intense feeling of depth and presence which allows for a genuine sense of vertigo that conventional displays couldn’t hope to achieve. I’d find myself midway through a climb, facing a particularly tricky maneuver, when suddenly I’d be conscious of my real world sweaty palms and speedy heart rate. I’ve been playing video games for a quarter of a century and this is by far the most visceral reaction that I’ve ever experienced…
VR is fucking awesome and will, hopefully, eventually earn a seat on the big boy table of historic technological innovations next to the television and iPhone. Intelligent use of the medium such as that which Crytek employed with The Climb will be vital in making this lofty goal a reality.
- No Man’s Sky
Yes, the trailers were misleading.
Yes, Sony and Hello Games fed the hype machine to irresponsible levels.
Yes, the meat of the gameplay is wafer thin, even when compared to many early access titles.
But the thing is… getting in your X-Wing rip-off, flying through the stratosphere, punching a hole in an asteroid, warping to an unknown solar system, and landing on a jungle moon before starting the whole process again is FUCKING COOL. So it’s on my list. Tough tits.
For those who demand an actual game in their games (mad bastards) – I’m sure that the promised updates will make this the Minecraft/Elite Dangerous/Mass Effect killer that you were all so sure a team of fifteen could produce…. JenniferLawrenceOK.gif
- Dishonored 2
The original dishonored is an underappreciated gem, in my humble opinion. It came fairly late in the PS360 lifecycle and the heady mix of Victorian sensibilities, Lovecraftian undertow, and conspiratorial betrayal seems to have been a non-starter for many…
Dishonored feels like a first-person Assassin’s Creed. Except the controls are great. The setting and characters are interesting. The art style is unique and memorable. The story is worth your time. Plus there’s only one game released every four years instead of four games every… you get my point.
What of the sequel then? – I hear you cry.
It’s more of the same and bloody great for it… I mutter back.
Dishonored 2 scoops the player up from the shit and blood stained cobbles of Dunwall and drops them headfirst on the sunbaked back alleys and rooftops of Karnaca. Gone are the killer rat swarms, for the most part. In their place are the equally murderous bloodflies, but everything else is pretty much business as usual. You complete missions which involve a central target whom you may decide to either dismember, or dispose of in a non-lethal manner. Each level is littered with loot that allows you to gradually increase your sneaky/killy toolbox, not to mention an abundance of side quests and world-building collectables.
In a similar way to Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Dishonored 2 does little to really move the series forward. The key difference being that Dishonored was, thankfully, in less need of forward momentum. And in addition – the option to play as an entirely new character with a distinct skillset makes Dishonored 2 feel fresh enough to be a worthy successor.
If you’ve never played a Dishonored game – go and play the first one. It’s cheap, gorgeous when running on a moderate gaming PC, and most importantly – still tonnes of fun. If you’ve played the first and enjoyed it anywhere near as much as I did – you really can’t go wrong with this confident, if uninspired, follow-up.
DOOM is fucking great.
Tell us something we don’t know… you might be chortling to yourself right now.
Well what if I told you that DOOM, the modern FPS video game released in 2016, is fucking great? Got your attention?
Oh, so you read the endless positive reviews and postmortems for DOOM 2016 and you’re therefore already well aware of what a triumph in the face of Hellish (get it?) adversity the game is… Ok, well. Cool.
DOOM is fucking great. DOOM is fucking back. DOOM is one of the most surprising, well considered, downright fun games released this year. And for that, we should all be very, very thankful.
- Tom Clancy’s The Division
Ubisoft’s attempt at drinking Bungie/Activision’s milkshake by creating a persistent, co-op based, loot heavy shooter seemed like a longshot at best. Did they nail it? Should Destiny be considering going free-to-play? No, not really. Not at all, actually. But that’s not to say that The Division is an outright failure…
The core gunplay is terrific. The snowy concrete of near deserted New York streets look superb. The weird tension created by the PVE/PVP mash-up that is the Dark Zone still feels exciting. Outside of a few launch technical issues, it’s hard to see where Ubisoft went wrong…
But, what if they didn’t go wrong? What if they didn’t necessarily want to take Destiny’s crown as king of the loot shooters for the next decade? What if they were happy to put out a more than solid third person online shooter, build a decent community around it, earn some goodwill, and then move on to the next thing? The imminent release of Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands suggests that Ubisoft have taken an eggs in multiple baskets approach. I’d argue that this is a sensible strategy in the face of the Bungie behemoth.
That said, no doubt Ubisoft is beavering away on what The Division 2 can and should be. Good for them. I had a bloody great time making my way through this year’s offering. I played the entirety of the campaign solo, which is clearly not the intended experience but my enjoyment is a testament to how well crafted the game is.
Say what you like about Destiny’s colossal active player stats, but the fact is that The Division managed to put together a far more robust and full-featured out-of the-box experience. An experience that bodes well for Ubisoft’s future releases.
- Final Fantasy XV
It’s hard to discuss the latest mainline Final Fantasy game without talking context. Namely, the ten plus year development cycle, and the numerous false starts. I’m going to try…
I fell in love with Final Fantasy after buying Final Fantasy VII purely based on the fact that it was three disks instead of one. Hot damn… Despite being out of my depth when it came to the complex battle mechanics and highly customisable magic/ability system, I fell in love with the cast of characters and gorgeous, grungy, locales.
Fast forward to 2016. I’ve played dozens of Final Fantasy variants, ranging from top down tactical strategy games to expansive MMOs. Does the long awaited ‘fifteenth’ entry hang with the best that the franchise can offer? Nope. Do I think that Final Fantasy XV is a particularly strong addition to the main series? Nope…
Do I think that Final Fantasy XV is a weird yet charming, challenging yet relaxing, derivative yet unique experience that stands tall amongst the best of 2016 and deserves your attention? Absolutely.
Slick, accessible, rewarding combat. A gorgeous open world littered with towns, cities, and outposts. Constant chatter between the protagonists that builds a genuine sense of comradery. Somehow, against the odds, Final Fantasy XV managed to come together in a way that makes the assumed disaster that most thought it would be look like a gross dismissal.
But it’s not without its faults – an anemic story that requires an additional reading list of animes, feature length films, and the like to really know what’s going on. Formulaic side quests and uninspired NPC designs also standout as low points.
Regardless – one of my best gaming memories this year is being chauffeured across FFXV’s world in my customised car, listening to classic Final Fantasy soundtracks punctuated by occasional banter and requests to stop to take group selfies…
Final Fantasy XV is weird. But it’s relaxing. And fun. And pretty. I like it.
Now give me my Final Fantasy VII remake!
- The Last Guardian
Another major video game release of 2016 that arrived under the dark cloud of a decade long development cycle. We all knew that Final Fantasy XV would be released at some point, in some form. But The Last Guardian felt like a far less certain bet.
The game is a spiritual successor to the PlayStation 2 classic (and one of my all time favourite video games) Shadow of the Colossus, which, in turn, is a spiritual successor to another PS2 classic – Ico. The Last Guardian was intended to be the final third of a loose trilogy, and the three games share a consistent art style, core gameplay mechanics, and even interconnected narrative elements.
The PlayStation 3 came and went without The Last Guardian being released. The game itself became synonymous amongst the gaming community with the most elusive of vapourware (up there with Half-Life 3) and also countless disappointing E3 conference no-shows. But – the dream never died and in December 2016, The Last Guardian shuffled coyly onto the PlayStation 4.
So, is it any good?
That depends. Did you like Shadow of the Colossus? Can you deal with imperfect controls and a camera system that harks back to 2005? Can you overlook severe framerate dips that might cause you to jump to your death once in while? Do you enjoy sincere, heartwarming, minimalistic storytelling in games that aims to be the very antithesis of Space Marine Explodey Death 4?
If you answered yes to most or all of the above, then The Last Guardian is for you. You spend most of the game guiding a gigantic dog/bird/demon hybrid around gorgeously crumbling ruins whilst solving the odd puzzle. Trico (said dog/bird/demon) is an absolute triumph. By the end of the game, your connection with this lump of pixels is immense. You’ll wince as the creature is hurt, run like the wind to help it when danger is afoot, and punch the air as it saves you at the last millisecond (in cool-ass slow motion, no less) as you thunder off a ledge towards certain death.
Shadow of the Colossus is still the overall best of these three beautiful artworks. But when it comes to telling a story and providing an emotional gut-punch – third time’s the charm.
- Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
I’m not your typical Uncharted fan. Despite being a self-admitted Sony fanboy, who played thousands of hours on the PlayStation 3, I never played a single minute of the first three Uncharted games. The Indiana Jones for millennials shtick didn’t appeal to me, and the juxtaposition between the well fleshed out characters and scenarios against the pure cartoony game-ness of shooting 500 gun-toting pirates left me cold. I did, however, massively respect what Naughty Dog had achieved in terms storytelling, technical competency, and mass market appeal. Then The Last of Us came along and I fell in love…
As the fourth and final entry in Nathan Drake’s saga hurtled towards PlayStation 4, I felt I owed the game a fair shot and decided to pre-order. In preparation, I played the remastered collection of the first three games. My past gut reaction criticism was absolutely valid, but I still had a great time with these games and my respect for Naughty Dog as the premier console game developer was bolstered.
When A Thief’s End was released, I was delighted to see that my concerns were, at least in part, addressed. The body count was vastly reduced without hindering the fast paced action of the game. The story and tone took a darker, more mature turn – nowhere near as desolate and macabre as The Last of Us, but certainly not the cheery, banter filled romp of the earlier entries.
As Uncharted 4’s credits rolled, I was in awe. Naughty Dog had made me really care about characters who, for three previous games totally around 30 hours, I didn’t actually give a toss about. Uncharted 4 was an absolute delight, not to mention a technical marvel. Something that gamers across the globe could hold up to sceptical friends and relatives as an example of what this misunderstood art form can be.
And by far the most exciting thing about Naughty Dog’s triumph in 2016 is this – what the hell are they going to be capable of when it comes to The Last of Us Part II?…
- Dark Souls III
I get it. Dark Souls isn’t for everyone. There have been numerous occasions when struggling through From’s releases that I wonder if it’s even for me… But for each feeling of depression comes an even more impactful high.
You see, the biggest misconception with these games is that their primary identifier is difficulty. Sure, they are tough. I personally need to summon a co-op partner to deal with the more challenging boss fights. But so what? If you want to solo the game with no armour and without taking a hit then you can do that (and plenty do). Or, if like me, you prefer to slowly make your way through the game, absorbing the incredible art design and relishing the peerless third person melee combat, requesting help from the community when you’ve died one too many times to a boss, then the game caters for that too. Dark Souls (and Bloodborne) are what you make of it. Yes you’ll die. Lots. But each time you do you’ll come back a little stronger, and a little more prepared to make it to that next checkpoint.
I played my first Souls game back in 2009 when I imported a copy of Demon’s Souls from Japan. I bounced off the game pretty hard. Its mechanics were opaque and unexpected, and the online community wasn’t in place yet to offer guidance. Regardless, the game left a distinct impression on me due to the dark, gritty fantasy setting and somber tone.
I skipped over the next two games in the series – Dark Souls and Dark Souls II. Then, Bloodborne happened. I’ve talked at length on podcasts and social media about why Bloodborne is not only my favourite game of this generation, but also one of my favourite games of all time, so I’ll spare the preaching here. The point is that my love for Bloodborne refocused me on a series that I had flirted with in 2009, and motivated me to play through Dark Souls as a way to satiate my Bloodborne addiction. What I found whilst doing this was an online community so vast and dedicated to From’s games that it makes my headspin. From podcasts, to comedy sketches, to books (yes, proper adult books written by adults), the appetite for Dark Souls content online is seemingly infinite.
This isn’t a without good reason. The real beauty of the Souls series can be found not in its fantastic gameplay, but amongst the complex, delicate, and thoughtfully obscured stories that the games weave. No other games allow for such an intense degree of interpretation, debate, and analysis.
Dark Souls III is more of this, but in the slickest packaging for the series to date. And for that reason it’s my Game of the Year 2016.
Is Bloodborne II next? I hope so. Will I follow From to whatever world they choose to inflict on us next time? Absolutely.