Review of the Year in Gaming 2016
It's been a turbulent year elsewhere, but there's no denying that 2016 was an Aladdin's Cave of gaming treasures. From a burgeoning indie scene to decades-in-development AAA titles finally seeing the light of day, 2016 has truly spoilt us. We asked the team for their top game of the year as well as a few honorary awards to boot. Let's get stuck in!
My top 5:
5 - Inside
4 - Superhot
3 - Enter the Gungeon
2 - Picross 3D Round 2
1 - Stardew Valley
Game of the Year - Stardew Valley
Games are always good for a bit of the ol’ escapism, a warm blanket of of comforting control to hide under as the chaos of the outside world rages outside, and man was 2016 a year we needed to escape from. This remarkable labour of love from a single developer, bereft of harsh win conditions or needling challenges, gave us a calm, friendly, pastoral Eden to settle and call home for a few hours a week. Hard day at work? Getting the crops in and watered will take your mind off it. World politics sapping your will to go on? Chat with the villagers, practise your fishing, or explore the old caverns up north. It’s an unencumbered existence with so much available to do, but you don’t have to do any of it. It might not have been real, but it was what I needed this year.
Obscure Japanese Puzzler of the Year - Picross 3D Round 2
A lesser man would shrug his shoulders and admit that not everything with a strong Japanese following in the gaming world makes the transition to the Western market, but I am determined to champion Picross in the face of such adversity. Why should Sudoku get all the attention? The pixel-based puzzler is more commonly found in its regular two dimensions, but Picross 3D made the leap to three back in 2010 on the DS, and this 3DS sequel improves the concept in almost every way. There’s a certain glorious zen to be found in starting with an unassuming block and chipping away with logic as your chisel until the answer is revealed. With stacks of puzzles to complete it’s an ideal title to dip into every now and then, listen to the smooth jazz soundtrack and even learn a little about Japanese culture.
Mobile Game of the Year - Mini Metro
It took almost a year of planning and refining to bring this minimalist beauty to its true home on mobile but it’s been worth the wait, not least because you can now play a game about public transport while on public transport. Effortlessly sidestepping the interface issues that plague many a mobile title, looping stations and trains together with a sweeping finger was how this game was meant to be played. Replete with all the features and modes of the original and now with two additional cities to try (Seoul and Shanghai), Mini Metro provides endless replayability, even if you’re the one who’s waiting at the station.
I’ll be honest, I’ve not been overly enamoured with what 2016 has offered up, and I’m not just talking about the world outside of gaming. There have been a few gems, mostly from the indie community, but on the whole it’s been filled with a plethora of sequels and threequels, countless iterations of long-running series which offer up more of the same, and what has felt - at least to me - like a year of ennui. The PS4 Pro with PSVR and the forthcoming Scorpio and Switch will mean that 2017 is likely to be the year the next-gen of consoles finally hits its stride, and developers can start to make the most of the significant power under the hood of our favourite consoles. For now though, here are a few of my thoughts for this year’s offerings.
Game of the Year: Owlboy
If you’d told me last January that my highlight of the year would be a retro platformer, I’d have laughed you out of the room. A game so unashamedly old-school that it wouldn’t have looked out of place on an Amiga, facing off against the power of Microsoft and Sony’s living room behemoths? There was no contest, surely. Yet, it offered up more variety and excitement than the majority of the last twelve months’ releases. Despite the titular character being mute, D-Pad Studio managed to craft a moving story which proved to be an allegory for the triumph over adversity of the disabled and outcast, and layered it on top of a series of intuitive platforming mechanics and dazzling set pieces which drove you inexorably to its touching ending. It took a decade to make, looked a decade even older than that, and still felt light years ahead of anything else on the market.
The Déjà Vu Award: Batman: A Telltale Series
Telltale have undoubtedly forged their own path in the point-and-click market over the last few years, with an innovative combination of storytelling and quick time events making up the basis of each franchise they tackle. Some, such as The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, succeeded admirably. Others, like Game of Thrones, fell flat thanks to a reliance on old tropes and a failure to tell a satisfying story. Unfortunately, with their take on the Dark Knight’s escapades, it was very much a case of “been there, done Bat”. Eschewing the canon which Rocksteady’s superior series made such good use of, we were instead presented with an origin story that presented many of the villains in a completely different light, but then failed to do anything of interest with them. Coupled with the now creaking Telltale engine, the disappointing tale failed to light up our screens despite an attempt to offer a genuinely different path for Harvey Dent over several episodes. The latest series of The Walking Dead may prove to be the litmus test for Telltale, as churning out the same game mechanics with retooled skins is unlikely to keep gamers satisfied for another year.
Charles Cecil’s “The Point-and-Click Adventure Is Alive” Award: Silence
The Revolution frontman may have declared that the genre was dead during the release of Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon, but rumours of their demise have been greatly exaggerated as the following years proved. Daedalic’s follow-up to The Whispered World continued this trend, offering up a handsome adventure with endearing characters, a painterly aesthetic, and puzzles which - whilst not being particularly challenging - required at least a modicum of thought. It was combined with a poignant story, following a brother and sister through a fantasy realm straddling the border between life and death. The metaphors were beautifully subtle and in Spot we found one of the most adorable creatures we’ve seen for some time, who handily doubled as a multitool for getting through some of the more obscure puzzles. It wasn’t the biggest game, but it made up for its length in oodles of charm.
Game of the Year - Dark Souls 3
For me the game of 2016 has to be Dark Souls 3. Every moment in Miyazaki's universe has been wonderful ever since those few tentative steps into Lordran in 2011. With this we say goodbye to the series and a fabulous ending it is. In Dark Souls 3 we have the interconnected worlds, many and varied bosses, magnificent art and design as well as the ever-engrossing lore. We also have a fine payoff to fans of the series. One moment in particular made me wow and clap - it was that special. I played this game from start to finish three times over to platinum it. It is my game of the year 2016.
The 'I've got something in my eye' Moment of the Year
The prologue to Firewatch - a marvellous and unexpected gem in 2016 - lasted no longer than ten or fifteen minutes but in that time delivered more emotion than many more mature media can manage over hours. It was wonderfully written, terribly sad and more. The latest evidence that gaming is now mature and can take on film, TV and literature at any game, and win.
The Lifesaver of 2016
Life has changed for me this year, massively so. Whilst it's a fantastic change it has meant gaming time has been very hard to come by. I haven't had a decent chunk of time for months and any time I do have is swift, liable to end any minute and generally unpredictable. So thank-you EA for the FIFA Ultimate Team web and companion apps. It's meant I've been trading, completing squad building challenges and generally making coins, and building my dream team in order to quell the gaming bug. EA get a lot of stick for various things but here they've made my gaming life sustainable despite all the odds.
The Jolly Good Fun Award 2016
Assassin's Creed: Syndicate. I play them all. I love them all. This? The best since Ezio's time. I don't care what anyone else thinks it was brilliant.
5 - The Witcher 3: Blood & Wine
4 - DOOM
3 - Hitman
2 - Inside
1 - Uncharted 4: A Thief's End
Game of the Year - Uncharted 4: A Thief's End
OK, so replaying this you do realise that some cutscenes are nearly Kojima-esque in their length, but what nuanced, beautiful cutscenes they are! Yes it's linear, yes some may baulk at the change in tone, but there's no denying that Naughty Dog hit it out of the park in their (hopefully) final chapter in the Nathan Drake story. Perfectly pitched characters, a storyline that Clive Cussler would kill for and yet there was a pathos and grounding in reality that made this possibly the best in the series to date. Much of what worked in The Last of Us was carried across and it just hit all the right emotional beats. An experience that is as much fun to watch as to play, Naughty Dog are masters of their craft and it shows.
Soundtrack of the Year
It was so nearly Austin Wintory's lush, beautiful score for Abzu but screaming in amidst a barrage of chugging guitars, screaming synths and hellish percussion comes Mick Gordon's score to DOOM. What it isn't is easy-listening but if a score works best when it matches perfectly with the source material, well... you can't do better than this. It's oppressive, unrelenting and gets the adrenaline pumping. Married with the hyper-violence and speed of the game, Gordon's score is insane. In the best possible way.
The Most Pleasant Surprise of the Year Award - Hitman
If you'd asked whether the proposed release plan for Hitman was a good idea back when it was announced it would've been a resounding no from me. Convoluted, with multiple parts available and no real idea what you actually got, it confused from the off. Looking back now, how wrong we were. Generous in the extreme, with bonus episodes and the brilliant elusive targets, this is the first Hitman game that has held my attention. Releasing it piecemeal encouraged you to truly explore each level and achieve mastery. Adding in reasons to return only opened new avenues of stealthy (or not so stealthy) assassination. Just amazing and with a tremendous score as well, we can all be jealous of those waiting for the physical release in January 2017. Not because a load of extras (although the soundtrack is a nice bonus) but because they suddenly get to experience one of the best games all at once.
The 'Future is Here' Award 2016
VR. It's here and, while it has a way to go, it feels like a paradigm shift. Rez Infinite and the infamous Area X will blow your mind and have you scooping your eyes off the floor. Fear is the mind killer, indeed. Try it out ASAP.
5. Dishonored 2
4. Dark Souls 3
3. XCOM 2
2. Civilization 6
1. Planet Coaster
Game of the year: Planet Coaster
While probably blinded by the fact that this was only just released, I cannot deny how much joy this game has given me at the end of a rather shitty year. The ability to summon a theme park that can be so minutely detailed is incredible, it’s a beautiful distraction and some of the most serene fun you will find on a screen.
Best not-a-sequel game: The Witness
All those numbers up there makes me feel a little ill. Fortunately not everything is a remake, clone or a bankable follow on. The fact that The Witness still clings to my thoughts nearly a year later shows just how engaging and provoking this gorgeous puzzler was. Yes it is just an advanced line puzzle game, but then it is also a masterpiece in game and level design as well as a subtle nod to a whole realm of philosophical and theological concepts. A testament to what an incredible talent Jonathan Blow is.
Best use of GameMaker: Studio to make a real actual game: Hyper Light Drifter
While I love GMS for its simplicity, most results made with the engine are crumbling ruins that topple over from an infestation of cracks and bugs. Picking its most popular releases such as Hotline Miami, Gunpoint or the original Spelunky, showcase success despite their buggy origins. Then along comes Hyper Light Drifter and you find one of the most stunning and impressive pixel-based artistic visions ever produced and a swift and responsive control scheme that puts most AAA studios to shame - all somehow crammed into a GMS engine. Perhaps it shows just what over half a million dollars of Kickstarter funds can achieve.
Best attempt at making a card game not a card game: Duelyst
Speaking of pixel art, anyone interesting in card-based game design needs to download this beautiful free-to-play online battler. Like Magic: The Gathering bonded with a chess board and with far more depth than similar online games such as Hearthstone, Duelyst may well be the most impressive attempt at making a card game something far more than just cards.
And so there we have it - a busy year, but plenty to celebrate amongst the bad news! Agree with our choices or have a game you'd put forward for praise? Leave us a comment!