Thoughts on Games of 2016

1. Bound – I realize that this is a fairly unconventional pick for game of the year, but I found it to be unmatched in its marriage of surreal visual ideas and an unconventional topic for video games. I wrote a fairly lengthy thing on it earlier this year shortly after beating it, and have a lot more to say about the game there: I would just add that the game also offers a VR mode, and everything that was visually impressive about the game on a screen is doubly as mesmerizing in VR. This is not an experience to be missed.

2. Doom (2016) – Though this year saw a fair amount of innovation in the generally stagnant FPS genre, Doom’s return to former glory was probably the best experience I had shooting things this year. There’s a quickness to the game that matches much of the pace of the original classics (DOOM and DOOM 2), a retro-influenced philosophy of level design that returns a sense of agency to the player that is largely missing from most modern military-based shooters, and enough additional content (arcade mode, interesting enough multiplayer, etc.) to keep you coming back. That it managed to meet and exceed some weighty expectations is no small thing, and I’d like to think that the best ideas here will spark further experimentation in the genre.

3. Thumper – In a year where I first picked up VR, this was easily one of the best experiences to be had on the device. Thumper is a trippy and intense sensory experience that throws you full throttle down a psychedelic track of deadly obstacles, forcing you to overcome them with some easy to learn/difficult to master rhythmic machinations of the controller. The soundtrack offers a range of spacey, metal-tinged, and pulsating tracks to accompany you as you try to stare down ever-more challenging levels, and the game offers several hooks (score attack, New Game+ mode, etc.) to keep you coming back.

4. Uncharted 4 – Uncharted 4 is really a masterpiece of visual storytelling, and it borrows the best ideas from the series and blends them together into what may serve as its fitting finale. It was gorgeously presented and realized, well directed, well written, well-paced, and had a satisfying variety of sometimes challenging gameplay. Uncharted 2 is still the high-water mark for Naughty Dog’s marquee franchise, but this one is a close second.

5. Abzu – I’ve seen this game described as “Journey, but underwater.” While there’s some validity to that thinly-veiled slight, I think that the game has enough original ideas to certainly be worth considering as a novel experience. Much like the more-ballyhooed game Inside, Abzu really plays with your sense of space – disorienting you, moving you in new directions, giving you new options for interaction along the way, etc. It keeps you intrigued at the level of gameplay while keeping you entranced with well-placed audio and some of the more gorgeous underwater visuals ever realized in a game (I kept hitting my screenshot button through the whole thing).

6. Far Cry Primal – This was probably the most fun I had playing any game this year. Far Cry Primal puts you in the shoes of a prehistoric human and asks you to forge spears, bows and arrows, knives, and all other kinds of weapons from the environment, forces you to forage for supplies to survive, and gives you animal companions that you can use to attack the enemy. It does all this in the typical Ubisoft/Far Cry open-world wrapper, features some witty writing and stunning visuals, and gives you a sense of freedom that most open-world games fail to deliver. The end result was my favorite Far Cry game that isn’t Far Cry 2.

7. Titanfall 2 - I poured many hours into the original Titanfall, and like many who enjoyed that game I also bemoaned its lack of a single player campaign. Titanfall 2 offers just about everything a veteran of the first game could want from a single player campaign in a sequel, and this game is arguably the best FPS put out by the industry this year (even if it isn’t my personal favorite). There are excellent parkour sections, puzzle and physics-based sections that reminded me of a game like Portal, and a few decent firefights. Importantly, everything flows smoothly and the game demands quick reflexes in order to persevere. Like Doom, it offers lots of new ideas, builds on some old ones, and signals some potential changes in the genre. This was an excellent year for the FPS genre.

8. Forza Horizon 3 – I typically think of this series as “Skyrim with cars” and FH3 offers more of the same. This time it is set in Australia, somehow crams even more ideas into the open-world racing concept, and looks better than any racing game I’ve played on any system ever. There’s many hours to be sunk into many cars here, and I expect this to be my go-to racing game for the next year or so.

9. That Dragon, Cancer – In terms of the future of the medium, this game was arguably the most important one put out this year. It is easily the most personal game I have ever played. I don't mean that in a "it touched me personally" kind of way (other games have done that better), I mean that in the sense of I have never played a game where I really felt that the game's creator(s) were laying their life bare before the player...certainly not like this. The game is basically a series of vignettes in which you follow a family through several years of dealing with a child who has cancer. The game brings together lots of surreal visuals and unusual mechanics, some traditional game ideas (kart racing and platforming, for example), and a copious amount of spoken and written text to convey a variety of emotions and experiences in a way that seems very raw and very sincere. Detractors may argue that the game is pretentious, preachy, arty, or that it doesn't really qualify as a "game," but I found it to be a vital example of how the medium can be pushed in new directions. I would like to think that this game will help people who are going through similar ordeals, that it would be recommended by various counselors and therapists to families grappling with the subject matter, and that it will encourage more personal, intimate games of its ilk.

10. Until Dawn: Rush of Blood – I know that this was a great year in gaming when a game like this - a VR game where I felt like I was on a roller coaster in a haunted house, holding a gun in each hand, blasting zombies, monsters, clowns, demons, and other horrific beasts in an intense thrill ride – ends up so far down on my list. This game was anything that I ever loved about stuff like Sega’s House of the Dead series, amped up to 11, and with a great sense of motion and speed. It is odd sitting on your couch and feeling like you are moving fast on a roller coaster while trying to shoot things that are coming at you from all sides...but this game delivered that sensation in a pretty compelling way.

Honorable Mentions: Inside, Bullet Hell Monday, Assault Suit Leynos, and Superhot.