It’s Game of the Year season! Probably because the year’s almost over.
2016 was a terrible year for real life. Donald Trump, Brexit, Syria, and countless other tragedies and deaths served to make this the worst year in recent memory. However, there is one upside: it was a banner year for games.
Accordingly, here is a list of all my favorite games from 2016. Ranking them is stupid, so instead everyone will be getting a fake award I made up on the spot. It’s more descriptive, more fun, and will hopefully prevent angry pedantic nerds from screaming that no, Uncharted 4 (a game I have no intention of ever playing) was the best game this year, how dare you say otherwise.
I may end up writing another GOTY list because, honestly, I’ve written over three thousand words in this article alone and haven’t even touched half of the games I loved this year. That’s how great 2016 was for games.
Best Gore-Drenched Hands-On Murder Circus
Doom 4 was refreshing after years of linear trudges through meticulously rendered yet entirely soulless environments. It’s a linear trudge through a meticulously rendered soulless environment, but at least the lack of souls is literal instead of figurative. Kidding aside, Doom 4 is a masterpiece of arcade-style first-person shooter design. It is brutal, quick, and encourages players to constantly switch up tactics and weaponry to best fit the situation. Very few games do this properly – most of them by id Software, funnily enough – but Doom 4 set a new bar for it. If I’m not switching my arsenal around as frequently as I do in Doom 4, you fucked up your weapon design.
Snapmap, Doom 4’s level creation tool intended to provide console players with a full-featured map editor, is an intuitive and fun toy to build out levels and share them with your friends. Calling it the Mario Maker of first-person shooters is a little disingenuous, not because it’s not as good as Mario Maker, but because it’s better. Thanks to a wide selection of logic tools, you can create almost anything you would want, from a visual novel where you fuck the Cyberdemon to a long and exhausting exploration of Doom 4’s combat mechanics. The Snapmap browser is also regularly updated with new featured maps, almost all of which are of extremely high quality. If you want a game with endless single-player replayability, only Doom and Quake are better than Doom 4.
As for Doom 4’s multiplayer, it has an unfair reputation. It’s not Doom 2, but it also never tried to be. While you have loadouts, much like a modern FPS such as Call of Duty, everything else is distinctly id-style. Health and armor must be found around the map, power-ups that completely change the momentum of a match spawn at predictable intervals, and players are durable enough to make fights tense, knuckle-biting affairs. There is a distinct sense of positioning and area control which is important to maintaining momentum, and maps are designed in consciously intelligent ways. It’s a shame multiplayer is so dead on PC, because it’s seriously one of the best multiplayer modes in the genre.
Best Game I Only Started Playing For Real In 2016
Rainbow 6 Siege
Rainbow 6 Siege (AKA just Siege) felt threadbare when it released during the waning of 2015. Since then, however, Ubisoft has updated Siege with new operators, items, and maps. Now, a year later, it’s probably the most seriously competitive shooter on the market.
The basics: Siege is a 5v5 competitive game. Each team takes turns attacking and defending an objective such as a hostage. You only get one life, and if all players on a team are killed, the round ends. Best of 5. If you’ve played Counter-Strike at all in the past, oh, 17 years, you’ll have a general understanding of the pace of a Siege match.
What keeps Siege fresh after hundreds of hours, unlike Counter-Strike, is that the environment is destructible. Many walls, floors, and windows can be shot through or destroyed, and defenders must tactically reinforce their position to funnel attackers into choke points. Naturally, attackers get their own tools to help bust down these barricades, such as breach charges and smoke grenades.
On top of this, there are the operators. Each operator in Siege is much like a character in Overwatch. You get a special ability (like deployable cameras or a sledgehammer), as well as guns and equipment suited to your operator’s role and team of origin. Since only one person on a team can play a particular operator each match, mixing and matching abilities is vital to success. For example, Thermite does much better when Thatcher is on his team, as Thatcher’s EMP destroys jammers which can prevent Thermite from blowing apart reinforced walls.
This combination of factors – destructible environment, one life, unique operators, tense close-quarters combat – means every single round of Siege is different.Players take different routes to the objective, attack or defend the objective in different ways, and choose different operators to do it. Changing just one operator, but keeping your overall strategy the same, can cause a complete change in the pace of a round.
It’s a thoughtful, tense, reflective, difficult shooter for people more interested in the minutiae of sight lines and area control than twitch shots. Anybody can play it and do well, and the high skill ceiling means there’s a lot to learn and practice. I’m hard pressed to think of a better multiplayer shooter right now, so despite being released in 2015, Siege absolutely deserves to be on this list.
Best Game I Put Down Because It Makes Me Too Angry
Overwatch is a lovely game. It has a clear and evocative aesthetic, understandable design which requires practice to master, and a plethora of cool skins and other cosmetics to keep you interested.
I had to put it down after the start of the second competitive season because it was making me too mad.
Despite being beautiful and well-designed, Overwatch has a number of serious flaws which, while minor, turn the endless grind of competition into something that really wears away at your patience.
Take competitive ranking. If you aren’t playing Overwatch in, at minimum, a group of three other players you can communicate with and are likely friends with, you will probably lose every competitive match. On top of the standard humiliation of losing, you also get almost nothing; just some minor XP toward your next loot box, which will probably give you duplicates instead of the skin you want. No competitive currency, no unlockable currency, nothing. It’s an insult, a way to rub your face in the fact that you lost.
For making me saltier than any other shooter I’ve ever played, Overwatch deserves a spot on this list. I hope Blizzard fixes the structural problems with competition in their game, because as is Overwatch may not last through 2017 without some serious overhauls.
Best Use Of An Episodic Game Format
I like the Hitman games – mostly Blood Money and Absolution – but they never really clicked with me. They were too slow, too abtruse. It was like seeing a work of art and appreciating it but not understanding it.
That changed this year with the confusingly-named HITMAN.
Arranged in an episodic format, HITMAN follows Agent 47 as he does his business in six different locations: Paris, Sapienza, Marrakesh, Bangkok, Colorado, and Japan. There’s a story, but Hitman as a series has always trended toward “bland Jason Bourne starring the world’s least interesting man,” and this installment is no different. You don’t play Hitman for the plot.
What you do play a Hitman game for, though, is the levels. And the levels in HITMAN are the best they’ve ever been. They are sprawling and labyrinthine, with multiple ways to take out your targets, countless secrets, and a wealth of NPCs engaged in funny everyday conversations. Paths are also more clear and telegraphed than in previous Hitman games, which helps make HITMAN feels more like an adventure game than a stealth game. All you have to do is find the right combination of items and circumstances to reach your target.
On top of the excellent level design, the episodic format and continual updates encourage you to go back and play through levels you have already finished in order to really understand where items are and what exactly you can get away with. Escalation contracts, for example, ask you to kill a target five times, layering more and more mechanics each time you get a kill. Another example is the HITMAN holiday update, where you must track down the two criminals from Home Alone and kill them in an accident before they steal all of Santa’s presents.
By encouraging you to learn levels like the back of your hand, HITMAN sets up its best form of content: Elusive Targets. Elusive Targets are contracts you can only complete once, and which can’t be restarted unless you haven’t actually done anything important (read: killed anyone) yet. After you’ve killed your target, that’s it; no takebacks. The targets are also not marked on your map like normal targets are, so you have to search for them by appearance. Thus, you must learn every single inch of the level, memorize your target’s appearance, and learn the situation before you can kill your target.
Functionally, the difficulty of targets is all over the place. The two hardest targets I’ve killed this year include a diamond smuggler (you have to follow a courier around to steal the diamonds, on top of killing the smuggler) and a South African dictator (who was surrounded by an enormous retinue of guards at all times). The two easiest include an identity forger (he had no escort so I strangled him to death underneath a balcony) and an elderly hitwoman (I dropped a sign on her while she walked under it). But each of these targets forced me to be observant and think on the fly while only giving me a single chance to do it right.
It may be a little presumptuous to say so, but HITMAN might be the best stealth game ever made.
Best Multiplayer Game That Will Be Dead In A Year And That Sucks
I liked, but did not love, Titanfall. The freshman effort from veteran Call of Duty developers, it felt too much like a tech demo and not enough like a full game. No campaign, awkward progression systems in multiplayer, and a general lack of distinguishing features kept it from being more than “Call of Duty with double jump and robots.”
But Titanfall 2 is a different story. Fast, fluid, distinctive, well-balanced, and beautiful, it’s a shining accomplishment in multiplayer FPS design.
Titanfall 2’s story follows a rifleman whose name I don’t remember because it doesn’t actually matter – Jack Cooper, I think? – as he is forced to become a Pilot (an elite soldier with jetpacks and a neural link to a Titan) by the circumstances of war. You move through set pieces, fight bosses, and become a time traveler for one level. Yes, a time traveler. No, I’m not making this up.
Coming into Titanfall 2’s campaign after the gritty war dramas of Call of Duty and Battlefield and even Titanfall 1, I expected some truly reprehensible schlock. But instead I was treated to a well-paced, forgettable-yet-charming story about a man becoming pals with a huge war robot. It’s not smart, but it’s not stupid. It’s not profound, but it’s not kitschy. It hits all the right emotional moments without pandering or slamming your face in the mud and screaming “WAR IS BAD AND SOLDIERS ARE SOCIOPATHS!” in your ear. It tries to strike the same balance of tone as A New Hope: man goes on adventure and winds up in a much larger conflict than himself, fighting clearly labeled bad guys who are depicted as awful but not “gunning down civilians in an airport” awful. You feel good at the end. There’s a parade.
It’s tempting to say that this is bad. We know that war is complex and evil and turns us all into killers, either directly or through our complacency. But after a long streak of shooters that aggressively told me that I’m a monster, games with twists that belong in a straight-to-DVD slasher flick, I’m okay with a simple “hero finds his calling” story. Positivity is sorely lacking in a lot of games these days.
Where Titanfall 2 really shines, though, is its multiplayer.
Jumping around a multiplayer level in Titanfall 2 is a pleasure and offers good players distinct speed and positioning advantages. Planning out when and where to drop your titan is important as they are very powerful but extremely fragile if not played right. Class abilities such as Stim (regenerate health and move fast) or Phase (slip into an alternate dimension for a short period) change the game if used at the right time with the right kind of weapon. Primary ammo is infinite, as are grenades.
It removes all of the meaningless accountant work from multiplayer shooters, which allows you to focus on big picture goals, like getting your Titan quickly or surviving until your skill recharges. And these big picture goals are important and shape how the match plays out. The timing of your first titan drop matters a lot to the flow of the game, and the regularity of drops means that games are usually broken into “infantry” and “titan” phases, much like how round in Counter-Strike are broken into “pistol” versus “normal” rounds. You must always be aware of your environment, pick the class that fits you best, and learn the intricacies of timing out certain important in-game tasks.
On top of this, the overhauled progression system means you have concrete feedback as to how you are doing. Where XP once was, there is now “merits”, which are tied to discrete, understandable tasks in the game world. For example, you earn gun and titan merits by getting kills with each, and you earn level up merits by completing goals in a match or by leveling up your gun. You never sit in a nebulous “well, I’m not sure how much XP I need to level up,” because you know exactly how many kills it takes. After all, one kill equals one merit.
I really hope Titanfall 2 succeeds. It’s a much smarter game than it appears on the surface, and its emphasis on zone control, timing, and advanced movement separate it from both its kin and FPS multiplayer games in general. You’d be depriving yourself if you skipped out on it.
Best Indie Competitive Game That Won’t Sell Well Despite Its Clear Genius
Full disclosure: I was generally “around” for the development of BOTOLO and consider Ian Snyder a colleague and friend. When BOTOLO launched, I did a launch livestream with him and two others were we played BOTOLO for several hours. So I might be a little biased.
That said, BOTOLO is quite possibly perfect, and it’s a damn shame it’s almost definitely going to sell poorly.
BOTOLO is a 1v1 competitive game which emulates fighting game feints and plays without directly aping them. You fight over control of a ball, which when held allows you to gather points at specific territories. Once you have captured 50% of a territory, it becomes yours; capture a majority of territories to win.
What makes BOTOLO so good is that it’s easy to understand, but incredibly difficult to master. The basic actions of capture (hold a ball over a territory), steal (press the action button while next to an opponent), and block (press the action button while someone is trying to steal to block their steal and get a chunk of points towards whatever territory you are over) create a simple but effective and interesting mindgame which requires you read opponent patterns and predict future behavior.
On top of this, there is a selection of game-altering special moves that can drastically change the pace of a game but which have drawbacks. For example, my favorite power is Corp, which makes my blocks more difficult to read but which severely punishes me if I make the wrong choice. Each power fits a particular archetype of player – yes, I’m the kind of guy who likes fucking with the opponent while I’m on the defense – and none are “stronger” or “weaker” than others, just different (although there are some tough match-ups for sure).
It’s also a stunningly beautiful game. The simple, lace-like aesthetic and contrasting colors makes players and screen elements easy to read even during the thick of things, and the beat poet-esque clicks and pops of both the sound effects and the soundtrack are soothing even when you want to throw your controller because you just lost five games in a row.
BOTOLO is as good as other indie local multiplayer classics such as Samurai Gunn or Nidhogg. It’s simple yet thoughtful, has a very high skill ceiling, and is easy to play for long periods of time without getting too mad. It’s a shame that local multiplayer games sell so poorly, because BOTOLO absolutely deserves to be a success. It hits all the right points for a multiplayer game and does so with a unique flair.
Out of all the games on this list, BOTOLO is the one you absolutely should buy.
Best Distillation Of First-Person Shooter Mechanics Into A Five Minute Game
Devil Daggers is a game that you can teach anybody. Its mechanics are simple and easy to master, and there’s no environments to worry about or plots of follow. It’s one room, one weapon, and a whole lot of demons.
But this mechanical simplicity belies Devil Dagger’s complex, layered difficulty. The foundation may be simple, but the house is anything but.
Devil Daggers tasks you with picking up a dagger and fighting off a horde of brown eldritch enemies that would look at home in a first-person shooter from 1996 (specifically Quake). Your only goal is to survive as long as possible. You can upgrade your dagger by two tiers upon picking up enough gems, which are dropped by certain enemies, but that’s it. If an enemy touches you even once, you die. The end goal is to reach 500 seconds survived, which only a handful of people have done in the year since its first release. My personal best is around the 200 second mark.
What makes Devil Daggers genius is that it manages to fit speedrun mechanics into a game which can’t be speedrun. You have to master routes, devise optimal strategies for defeating enemies, and be flexible enough to recover from a small mistakes. Otherwise, you will end up overwhelmed by the inexorable march of monster spawners.
For example, for my route, I start off killing all spawners that enter the field as quickly as possible. I then herd the chasing skulls around until they are clustered up, then kill them all. As spawners give way to spiders and eventually worms, I prioritize anything that will create more enemies to help keep my field clear of skulls and miniature spiders and the like. My goal during a run is to have no more than two “large” enemies (spawners, spiders, worms, etc) on the field at a time. The more there are, the more difficult it is to dodge.
This works well until about the first worm, which is where I usually flub and fail to kill an enemy in a reasonable amount of time.
Devil Daggers is one of the only first-person shooters that forces you to reckon with what it is enemies do, how you can react to them, and how you can devise strategies to tip the odds in your favor. It may be only one screen, but it has more value – both as a game and as a formal examination of the FPS archetype – than most games in the genre. It’s truly special.