Man, 2016 was garbage. Lots of great famous people died, the UK shat the bed politically, the US immensely shat the bed politically, and my home Australia certainly engaged in its fair share of governmental diarrhoea (looking at you, the 77 people who gave Malcolm Roberts a reason to be in the news).
But when it comes to video games, 2016 was actually pretty good, so good in fact that I was really spoilt for choice when it came to nominating my personal games of the year. Reaching a decision was a constant cycle of thinking I had things pegged and then remembering another title and how goddamn good it was, I was having to reconsider my options all over again. Man, being a person with opinions and having the means to publish them is tough, you guys.
Anyway, first up, the honourable mentions.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End – as stunningly beautiful as it was a joy to play, despite a slightly tiresome and drawn out final act. This is blockbuster gaming at some of its finest, and came very close to being in my top three.
DOOM – I was sceptical of DOOM at first, especially since the developers had stated they were taking a backseat with regards to story and focusing more on shooting gallery fun. But after getting my hands on it I realised my scepticism was very misplaced, and the singleplayer campaign and its incredible soundtrack have stuck in my mind ever since.
Day of the Tentacle Remastered – THIS is how you remaster a game: have it play just like the original, but with minor tweaks to improve the old faults and give it a visual upgrade that maintains the classic look but shines at modern resolutions.
Inside – Easily one of the best examples of “games as art” this year, with a harrowing and word-less narrative that explored the very nature of playing a video game. Also, those underwater girls were creepy as balls…
Battlefield 1 – I didn’t realise how much I missed the old school, World War shooters of the old days until I played Battlefield 1. It had a surprisingly engaging, if horrendously short, campaign, but the series’ staple online multiplayer was better than ever and would have been my online game of the year were it not for a certain, other game that I’ll mention later…
OK, time for what you’re all here for!
#3: The Witness
If you’re surprised to see The Witness on my top three list given the glowing-yet-not-hugely-praising review I gave it back when it came out in January, you’re not alone: so am I. But you see, The Witness has held a very special place in my cold, Christmas-cheer-less heart this past year because it’s the one game I’ve reviewed where I’ve regretted the score I gave it.
When reviewing games, we are often working to deadlines and, given we’re a smaller outlet compared to others, we often get our copies close to or right on launch. This means the longer I spend playing a game post launch before publishing the review, the less relevant it is to our audience. And with such a huge puzzle game like The Witness, which could potentially take many dozens of hours to finish, I had to make a call as to when I’d played enough of it to have an objective and informed opinion. I made that call after playing it almost right to completion in a week, and gave it an eight out of ten.
But after publishing my review, I went back to play The Witness with the added benefit of being under less time pressure, and experienced it more like regular players would. And I must admit, while my minor criticisms are still ones I stand by, their impact on my enjoyment of The Witness was lesser thanks to having more time to think and go at my own pace. Had I had that kind of time when reviewing it, I think I would have given The Witness a nine out of ten.
It’s a meditative, thought provoking, often frustrating yet incredibly satisfying experience unlike any other game I played this year, and in many other years. The entire game is an exploration of the human mind, expressed in all facets of its design, from the teaching methodologies of the puzzles, the impossible island setting and the highs and lows of undertaking the challenges. Oh, and it’s goddamn gorgeous.
What I’m trying to say here is The Witness is a piece of interactive art.
#2: XCOM 2
Very, very few games are as constantly pulse pounding as XCOM 2. Every mission is a tense exercise in strategical thinking, where every decision you make could mean someone’s death. I will never run out of amazing stories about the triumphs and failures of my XCOM squad members as they fought against their alien oppressors.
XCOM 2 took everything great about Enemy Unknown and improved on it. The brutal statistics based gameplay, the thrilling science fiction story-line and the ability to name and get attached to your characters all remained, but the addition of stealth mechanics, soldiers suffering psychological trauma following alien encounters, new skills and abilities along with randomly generated maps improved the experience ten-fold.
The experience of playing XCOM 2 always feels uniquely yours, which is why fantastic scenarios like when one of my own men lost his mind and shot another one made for such a hilarious tale. Even if turn based strategy games aren’t your thing, and they certainly aren’t mine, you still have to give it a try. You’ll thank me later.
But as fantastic as XCOM 2 is, it comes in at a very close second to another certain game that has continually held my attention for the past seven months. A game that prior to its launch I would have told you I had zero excitement for, that wasn’t even on my radar as an anticipated game of 2016, but turned out to be a huge personal surprise. I am, of course, talking about…
I never, in 365 days, imagined that I would pick a multiplayer only, campaign-less game as my game of 2016, given I’m such a “singleplayer, narrative driven games are the best, you guys!” kind of person. But then Blizzard came along and delivered the kind of online multiplayer experience I really enjoy: one with none of the levelling up and unlocking better gear guff, thereby preventing freaks who play the game 24/7 from having an unfair advantage over casual players; and just giving everyone access to the same things and letting it all come down to fun and skill.
What I particularly love about Overwatch is how its eSports elements have made me enjoy it like I imagine jocks enjoy football. I’ve spent many nights this year staying up far too late playing Overwatch with friends, discussing strategies of combining characters’ “Ultimates”, shouting like maniacs as victory draws near and the match kicks into overtime, praising each other whenever we achieve the coveted “Play of the Game”. Oh, and of course raging at all the characters who are pissing us off and kicking our butts, especially Mei. My god do I hate Mei.
The only downside to Overwatch is its microtransaction system that is essentially gambling, where it teases us with awesome character skins (which I never thought I’d care about, but here we are) and won’t let us buy them, instead we have to pay for the chance to get them, or earn chances slowly. But that’s a small, easily ignored blight on an otherwise perfect team based multiplayer shooter.
So there you have it, those are the games that impressed me this year. We’ll soon be back to discuss the disappointing games that suited the whole garbage vibe of the rest of the year, but for now I’m going right back to playing Overwatch. Got to get me that Reaper Xmas skin damn it…