Top Ten Games of 2016

Here we are once again, counting down the top ten games of the year as we always do. This year’s list, like any other, was a difficult list to compile and pare down to only ten, but I’ve managed to do it just in time for the end of the year. Here’s to 2017, and here’s the list.

Honorable Mention: The Witness

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This list will once again have an honorable mention in The Witness, a charming puzzle-solver from veteran indie developer Jonathan Blow with a beautiful game world full of intriguing secrets. Unfortunately, I haven’t devoted nearly as much time to this game as I would need to to feel right about accurately placing it anywhere within this list, so I’ll have to settle for at least giving it a mention in passing. Now onto the list proper.

10. Ratchet and Clank

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Ratchet and Clank has always been a solid contender in the 3D platforming genre, and its steady stream of releases over the past decade or so has sort of cemented it as Sony’s Mario, or at least the closest thing they have. This year’s installment manages to recapture some of the best moments of the better games in the series, and still introduces more new elements to breathe new life into the familiar landscapes and settings of the first game. Ratchet and Clank is technically based on a movie, the underwhelming Ratchet and Clank movie released in April, but is in effect a reboot of the franchise that simultaneously manages to innovate and indulge, with some of the absolute best visuals of the year and clever voice work that wouldn’t be out of place in a high-budget cartoon movie.

9. Doom

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Continuing with the reboots, Doom is a refreshingly simple and to-the-point FPS murderfest, with your only real goal being to, well, kill everything. Fortunately, Doom supplies us with enough crazy weapons, gory finishing moves, and trinkets to find secreted away in its hellish landscape to be more than entertaining enough without forcing us to use too much brain power. Doom excels at making the player feel stupidly powerful without ensuring that every encounter will result in victory. There’s a pervading sense of tension as you scavenge through hell looking for more health or armor to survive the next demonic onslaught, and that tension clinches the feel of the original games in the series without looking anything like them. Sure, the reds and oranges of hell are still there in all their glory, but no longer are our enemies pixelated and goofy-looking. Now they’re beautifully rendered and goofy-looking, and I love it.

8. Uncharted 4

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Those of us who’ve been following Nathan Drake and Co’s adventures over the past seven years have something of a guilty pleasure in A Thief’s End, the fourth and ostensibly final installment in the groundbreaking cinematic platforming series. Almost all of our favorite players are here, with primary love interest Elena and best friend Victor “Goddamn” Sullivan thankfully still in play, and new characters like Nathan’s brother Sam and the slew of enemies, each more compelling than the last, keep the banter fresh and amusing as we trek through Uncharted 4’s downright gorgeous landscapes and environments. More important than the tight platforming/shooting/puzzle-solving gameplay, expert voice work, or beautiful visuals is the story, which manages to cap off our journey with Nathan Drake in a satisfying and meaningful way, indulging us by giving all our favorites their own happy endings regardless of whether they actually deserved it. Of course I’m excited at the prospect of a new Uncharted game (which PSX has confirmed for us in a spin-off), but I’m satisfied to never see Nathan Drake again, knowing that his story has been effectively ended.

7. Pokemon Sun/Moon

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I didn’t expect to be putting a Pokemon game on this list, well, ever, but somehow Gamefreak and company have managed to also breathe new life into this 20-year-old franchise, a common thread among this year’s entries. (In fact, now that I think of it, there’s at least one other game on this list that’s also here for that reason.) Pokemon Sun and Moon bring us to Alola, the blatantly Hawaii-inspired new region where things are different, but the same. The central mechanics are still there in general — find Pokemon, catch Pokemon, train Pokemon, beat other Trainers, fill your Pokedex, etc. — but other things have changed, not the least of which is the Pokemon themselves, many of whom have different forms and types here. Gone are Gym Leaders and the city-route-city-route routine that inevitably became tedious. Instead we have the “Island Challenge,” a more RPG-esque style of gameplay progression that puts the player through various puzzles and legitimately entertaining gauntlets to test various aspects of their ability as a Trainer that extend beyond just the strength of their Pokemon. Gone are HMs, the tedious, difficult-to-unlearn moves we’d usually have to heap on a poor, unsuspecting Bibarel to carry around as our designated “HM slave”. Instead, we have the Ride Pager, an admittedly stupid but still fun way to call on various Pokemon to use outside battle. Also, the Pokedex talks. Luckily, all of these changes are smartly implemented, and apart from the hand holding that pervades the game (for which I can forgive them — not everyone’s been playing these games for over a decade), almost everything works here.

6. XCOM 2

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2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown brought back this veteran tactical strategy series with force, and XCOM 2 manages to top it in terms of scale, difficulty, and depth. XCOM 2 takes place in a timeline where you failed in the first game (which is an accurate representation of my many times through that game), and now you’re not fighting off an invasion, you’re resisting the aliens already there. This changes the tension and feeling of each mission, and also affects the choices you make between missions in subtle ways. You have to fly your aerial base between outposts to defend what you can, but you obviously can’t do everything at once. XCOM 2 demands a lot of the player, and while you’re rewarded for making smart decisions, chances are that’s not going to happen a lot, and you’ve just got to deal with it. Which is pretty realistic, honestly.

5. Civilization VI

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When the Brave New World DLC was released for Civilization V, I and many others said that this was effectively the full realization of all the potential the base game had. BNW and the previous DLC, Gods and Kings, managed to add complexity without complication, make the victory conditions more logical and attainable, and make the late game enjoyable. Civilization has accomplished all this and more right out of the gate. The first proper sequel to Civ V in 6 years, it was most assuredly worth the wait, as nearly every aspect of Civ VI lands perfectly and makes the players feel in charge of how their civilization will develop throughout the ages. While 2014’s Beyond Earth never managed to get that “just one more turn” feeling out of me, Civ VI grabs on mercilessly and won’t let go for hours at a time. Like it should.

4. Fire Emblem Fates

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I absolutely adore the Fire Emblem series. It could be the most ruthless series Nintendo has ever produced in terms of difficulty, and no other game series makes you care as much about its characters as Fire Emblem manages to. Fates took the Pokemon route this year, releasing not one, not two, but three completely different versions of the same game, each taking a vastly different story route resulting in completely different decisions to be made, characters to be met, and battles to be fought. And it is glorious. While Fates may falter a bit in areas where previous installments like the nearly-perfect Fire Emblem Awakening (2013 GOTY) shone, it makes up for these by showcasing the sheer complexity, quality, and quantity of content Nintendo is able to pump into its three versions, Birthright, Conquest, and Revelations. While Pokemon’s different versions have always felt a little like a cheap cash-grab, Fire Emblem Fates assuredly deserves three versions, and I recommend all three to anyone who wants a compelling story attached to some absolutely brutal tactical strategy.

3. Titanfall 2

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From my review: “2014’s Titanfall got a lot of things right, as far as I’m concerned. The gameplay was fast, nuanced, and well-balanced, the level design was decent, and the action itself was varied and enticing enough to bring me back time and again … Titanfall 2 improves on essentially every aspect of the original by speeding up the gameplay even more, making traversal more instinctive, improving the campaign tenfold, deepening the customization, and, most importantly, adding a grappling hook.” Months later, Titanfall 2’s community still seems to be going strong, and it’s still just as enjoyable and tense as ever.

2. Dishonored 2

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Like every year, figuring out which of my final two games would take the number one spot was agonizing (last year’s decision between The Phantom Pain and The Witcher 3 nearly killed me), but I always force myself to pick a clear winner. Taking the respectable number 2 position this year is Dishonored 2, a smart first-person stealth game that makes the player feel more powerful than I think any other game has before. The player has the option at the start to choose to play as either Corvo Attano, the grizzled protagonist of the first game, or his daughter, the empress Emily Kaldwin. While this choice has a small but still important impact on the story, it impacts the gameplay greatly, with each character having a unique ability set conducive to playing the game in slightly different ways. The thing is, those slight differences have massive impacts, as Dishonored 2’s missions have a dizzying amount of different paths to take and ways to complete them. Do you want to ghost your way through and be as nonlethal as possible? Go ahead. Do you want to straight-up murder everyone? That’s fine, too. Every option in between is also plausible, and has its own consequences on the story. Finally, a shout-out to the fantastic Clockwork Mansion mission is necessary. Buy this game.

And now it’s time for my number one game of the year …

1. No Man’s Sky

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No.

 

 

1. Overwatch

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As soon as I settled on what was to be my number one pick this year, it seemed so obvious. My in-game stats tell me I’ve played 153 hours since this game came out in late May, which is already a lot even when you don’t consider the fact that I’m a full-time student who ALSO works part-time for NASA and ALSO played enough other games to have a difficult time narrowing this list down to just 10. So yeah, I really, really dig Overwatch. Blizzard has proven once again that they are genius game developers, taking some of the most enjoyable aspects of MOBAs and other multiplayer shooters to create the most colorful and unique shooter I’ve ever seen, giving its 20+ playable characters even more distinct personality and style than TF2’s, which any TF2 player will know is saying something. Simply put, Overwatch is an absolute triumph for multiplayer gaming, and will most assuredly stand the test of time and be as much of a blast in 10 years as it is today. Cheers, love.

Through that Timeless Space — Rogue One

[The following review may contain spoilers. You’ve been warned.]

If The Force Awakens had a heavy burden to bear being the culmination of over 30 years of fan theories and speculation, Rogue One has an equally heavy burden, purporting to bridge the gap between prequel and original while simultaneously managing to tell a compelling story on its own without overstepping its bounds. Luckily, it succeeds on all fronts in this endeavor.

Rogue One is labeled “A Star Wars Story,” not an “Episode” proper, and it establishes itself apart from the regular Star Wars canon in a few ways — some cinematic, some dramatic, some thematic — and it is in these differences that Rogue One excels. There’s no opening crawl explaining the situation, no sweeping John Williams soundtrack (which isn’t to say that Michael Giacchino doesn’t handle the task ably — he does), no Jedi bringing a mystical air to the proceedings, hell, there’s not even a proper “I have a bad feeling about this” (but only just). However, Rogue One does give us things we haven’t seen before in a Star Wars Episode — a flashback, a time jump, helpful notes on the screen telling us where we are and why it’s important, and, most importantly, actors we’ve actually heard of before, and not just because of Star Wars movies.

The most important difference noted above is assuredly the absence of Jedi and, by and large, Sith (though the appearance of Darth Vader, once again voiced by the eminent James Earl Jones, is much appreciated and powerful in its brevity). While we still have staunch believers in the Force here (most notable is Chirrut Imwe, played fantastically by Donnie Yen), we don’t have any prominent Jedi characters in the film. Realistically, it makes sense, as we’re smackdab in the middle of Anakin Skywalker annihilating nearly all of them and his son realizing his power. At the time of this film’s story, there’s only two Jedi out there — Yoda and Obi-Wan — and both of them are in hiding. The lack of Jedi really brings out the “science” in science fiction, and thus really brings out the “wars” in Star Wars. Without these mystical, powerful players on the table, what we’re left with is gritty, character-driven all-out battles between soldiers, and the fact that it takes place in the Star Wars universe can become easy to forget even amidst X-Wings and TIE Fighters zipping about and the newly-constructed Death Star looming overhead.

The main hero of our story is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of engineer Galen Erso (a fantastic Mads Mikkelsen), who worked on the construction of the Death Star somewhat against his will, and who may hold the key to its demise. Jyn is a sort of Han Solo-type character, or at least what Han Solo was supposed to be — an antihero who’s really only dragged into the proceedings against her will or for her own gain. In her case, she’s brought on by Rebel Alliance leaders Mon Mothma and Bail Organa, both of whom are back from the prequels and give excellent ties back to that trilogy without dredging up too many painful memories of Gungans or pod racing. Jyn is tasked with finding her father, and to that end teams up with the morally gray Rebel pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and the repurposed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) in order to locate the Rebel extremist Saw Gerrara (Forest Whitaker). All three of these characters are stand-outs to me, with Andor and Gerrara highlighting the moral ambiguity of the resistance, previously untouched in the Star Wars franchise which decidedly favored their cause, and K-2SO being the main source of humor with his terse commentary reminiscent of a clash between Threepio and Marvin the Paranoid Android. Tudyk goes a long way to give this character depth and the CGI used to depict him is able to stand right up there with the practical effects used elsewhere.

On that note, however, there are other CGI characters who don’t fare as well as K-2SO does. Both Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing have been recreated with CGI for this film, with Cushing having passed away years ago and Fisher’s face being largely comprised of silicon these days. Fisher’s cameo is mercifully short, but Cushing’s Governor (not yet Grand Moff) Tarkin gets way too much screentime to be comfortable, and for a film with such great CGI elsewhere he just looks clunky, disjointed, and quite frankly terrifying. It’s not quite as bad as Tron’s CGI Jeff Bridges, but it’s not nearly as good as Ant-Man’s CGI Michael Douglas.

Jyn’s mission is fairly simple — retrieve the plans to the Death Star to aid the rebellion in its destruction — and the conflicts she finds herself in serve very well to highlight just how bad the Empire’s reign was. There are several brutal fight scenes (including a spectacular one featuring Donnie Yen’s martial arts skills) and one particularly well-done moment showed a young child caught in the crossfire. This is just one example of how well Rogue One sets itself apart from the Episodes, all of which focus on important figures and powerful players in the conflict. Rogue One’s characterizations are nothing short of outstanding, and relationships like Cassian and K-2SO, Jyn and Saw, and Chirrut and best friend Baze (Jiang Wen) are at the heart of this like they should be in any good war movie.

Rogue One is perfectly suited as a standalone film, but that doesn’t stop it from tying itself into the franchise in very satisfying ways. There are plenty of fun cameos, most of which make sense (except for one which was fun but unequivocally stupid), and the aforementioned Darth Vader is able to punctuate the film with his foreboding presence, lent even more gravitas by James Earl Jones’s still powerful voice acting. It was a marvel even in 1977 that such a (let’s face it) silly-looking character could be a dark and even frightening presence, but he manages it yet again here. Additionally, the film ties itself into the first film (A New Hope these days) spectacularly, ending mere minutes before the 1977 original begins.

Don’t come into Rogue One expecting too much of a happy ending. After all, we all saw Episode IV and we know what state the galaxy is in. What Rogue One does, and does extremely well, is answer a simple question that we never bothered to look at from the rest of the franchise — how did they know where to hit the Death Star in the first place? Where did they get those plans? They got them from Jyn et al, apparently, but unfortunately (and undeniably realistically), nearly every single character in this film paid the price for them to get it. It’s nice to know that their labors paid off and the Death Star was eventually destroyed (twice!), but it is of course a shame they never got to see it. But you can, and you should.