What a year.
It's that time of the year again. As 2016 draws to a close, we can look back and try to sort out which game was the best of 2016. It's also time, for better or for worse, to look back on the Games section for High-Def Digest. In that light, I've asked several of the Games section writers and reviewers to contribute their GOTY picks, which in turn can be seen below. (For anyone wanting to go straight to the GOTY, see the bottom of this page.)
Blizzard is not known for its shooters, and yet their freshman effort in the genre is the best team-based shooter in years. 'Overwatch' takes the sensibilities of 'Team Fortress' and combines them with Blizzard's own work in MOBAs to bring an impressive roster of heroes to the table, some with initial balancing issues but all fun to play. Add in their policy of free future DLC and it's difficult not to recommend it, even for gamers who don't typically enjoy this kind of thing.
A spiritual successor to the acclaimed 'Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons/Rune Factory' franchises, 'Stardew Valley' was released on Steam in February to critical acclaim and significant sales, and later ported to consoles. Its performance is made all the more impressive because developer ConcernedApe is made up of only one person: Eric Barone. With a relaxing farm life atmosphere and a huge list of things to do, 'Stardew Valley' is an experience worth far more than the meager asking price.
Of the many roguelikes and roguelites I reviewed for HDD this year, 'Darkest Dungeon' is one of the few I still play regularly. It is mesmerizing in its immersion and nearly perfect in its design. When the dungeon breaks the resolve of my favorite leper, when it starves my cleric to death, when the tentacled horrors rise up from the depths and claim my entire party, still I ask for more. Red Hook recently announced the addition of more DLC arriving early next year, and I will gladly feed more hours into the dungeon.
The first 'XCOM' from Firaxis came out of left field - a resurrected strategy franchise from a venerated TBS studio, true to its ancestors but with lots of modern accoutrements. Rising to the challenge of the playerbase who wanted a higher difficulty, 'XCOM 2' is even more punishing, but with a hugely expanded amount of content to go along with it. It improves on 'Enemy Unknown' in nearly every way, which was a daunting task.
'Dishonored 2' is the rare sequel that manages to overshadow its predecessor, which is something I was highly skeptical of before release. I also thought that the dual protagonist system would be a gimmick, but Arkane gave Emily such an awesome array of powers, not to mention a likeable personality, that it's difficult for me to choose a favorite between her and her aging dad. Even the villains are interesting, from the arrogant Jindosh to the sympathetic Delilah to the megalomaniacal Duke. Even after two playthroughs in quick succession I'm still slinking around the alleys of Karnaca, finding new routes and new applications of the Outsider's gifts.
'Hitman' is the rare reboot that works to satisfy both fans of its franchise and first-time players by identifying exactly what makes the series work while still turning an eye to making it approachable. Hitman's unique approach to stealth is at its best here, with the episodic release format paying off dramatically for IO, leading to some of the most complex levels in franchise history that are at turns exciting, tense, and darkly hilarious. With frequent content updates and patches, there's enough to keep players busy here for a very long time, making this one of the most worthwhile packages of the year.
Shin Megami Tensei IV: Apocalypse
While I loved the original 'Shin Megami Tensei IV', the fairly straightforward tone disappointed many series fans. 'Apocalypse' is in many ways the best kind of sequel, improving everything good about its predecessor while cutting out everything that held it back from greatness. The dark, anarchic story is never anything less than enthralling, with a far more interesting group of characters than 'SMTIV' contained, and the turn-based combat system is some of the best in its genre. Structurally, this is a traditional JRPG through and through, but it's executed near-perfectly on almost every level.
Final Fantasy XV
I certainly played games that were better designed and less messy than 'Final Fantasy XV' this year, but few games released in the past few years match the level of ambition found here. While the story is basic, the characters are all delightful, and the ending is one of the strongest in the series to date. The shift to open-world action-RPG design scared off some fans, but even within the genre, 'FFXV' remains startlingly unique by focusing on the sorts of places most of the genre ignores, with a combat system that is totally accessible while still holding a great deal of depth. The world is packed full of exciting, fun things to do, and 90 hours in, I'm still unravelling many of the game's secrets. Oh, and the music is phenomenal.
Uncharted 4: A Thief's End
Naughty Dog came back from 'The Last of Us' with a whole new bag of tricks in their pursuit of gameplay-driven storytelling. Though the previous entries in the 'Uncharted' series certainly weren't slouches when it came to narrative development, 'Uncharted 4: A Thief's End' carried the franchise onto the current console generation with a renewed focus on integrating gameplay with story. This focus shines from the get-go, with a scene of Nathan Drake reliving old glories by shooting a pop gun in his attic at drawings of past enemies, and carries throughout the game. The shooter gameplay itself was also improved for the new generation, with sliding and grappling hook mechanics adding new verticality to both the campaign and multiplayer experiences. Throw in the gorgeous set pieces from yet another lost city (seriously, how many more of these are there to find?) and you almost forget how silly it was to actually play a level of 'Crash Bandicoot' within the game. By the game's end, Naughty Dog's love letter to the franchise that rocketed them out of the realm of talking animals was the perfect close to the story of Nathan Drake.
The team shooter genre was surprisingly crowded this year, with a handful of notable titles vying for attention. Unfortunately for its competitors, 'Overwatch' seemingly stole the focus of the whole industry before it even launched and held onto it for the rest of the year. Though the bare bones of its gameplay should feel familiar to anyone who has played 'Team Fortress 2' in the past decade, 'Overwatch' truly shines in its roster of characters, each of whom not only is interesting in terms of design but also offers fun and unique gameplay. Whether players prefer to fly through the skies, leap in and out of frays, or blink around chipping away at enemy health bars, 'Overwatch' has a character for them who is fun to play and adds something new to the battlefield. Perhaps the game's biggest and most unique asset, though, is its expanded universe of comics and animated shorts. Though legitimate narrative weight isn't exactly common in the genre, providing deeper character personalities and backgrounds helps to keep the community engaged outside of game matches and makes 'Overwatch' much more than a team shooter title.
Far Cry Primal
In an age of gaming when the shooter is ubiquitous, it's refreshing to see a new take on first-person gameplay while retaining the polish of a recognized shooter franchise. In 'Far Cry Primal,' Ubisoft Montreal took the proven formula of the 'Far Cry' series and rewound the setting to a time before gunpowder and steel permanently changed combat, a time when your best protection was a stone at the end of a stick. And though it's tempting to assume that the loss in weapon variety would result in less exciting gameplay, the novelty of the setting and the more melee-focused nature of your prehistoric arsenal make the experience surprisingly engaging. Nailing an enemy with a spear from 100 feet out will always be more rewarding than sniping enemies from a distance with a point-and-shoot rifle. With the inclusion of small touches like the nonverbal characterization of the supporting cast and the three distinct proto-languages created by linguists for the game, 'Far Cry Primal' is a great one-off for enjoying a setting rarely, if ever, touched by game developers.
Few games have absolutely floored me from a design perspective like 'INSIDE' did. There's a reason for every small moment in Playdead's puzzle platformer, and it constantly is teaching the player new mechanics without any handholding. The gameplay and the game's thought-provoking narrative mesh into one cohesive experience that provides one memorable moment after another. There's nothing resembling filler here, just brilliant design from start to finish.
Matt Nava and the team at Giant Squid Studios delivered the most gorgeous game of 2016. Their deep sea adventure 'ABZÛ,' allowed me to swim with whales, discover an ancient world, and offered up some of the most beautiful moments I've seen in a game. It was a highly emotional journey for me, and one I'll never forget. I definitely recommend giving this a go in a single sitting.
It's a bit strange that virtual reality's must have title is an updated port of a Dreamcast game, but 2016 was a weird year. Using the headset to aim in 'Rez Infinite' felt totally natural, and it helped the game become a more captivating experience. From the energetic music to the trippy visuals, 'Rez' is a game that engulfs the player for a few hours.
As someone who has been excited for 'Thumper' for several years, I was thrilled to see that the team of Brian Gibson and Marc Flury fully delivered on their promise of "rhythm violence." The duo created a fantastic, highly difficult rhythm game that plays great on a television screen, and is even more captivating in virtual reality. Taking down Crakhed was one of my favorite moments in gaming this year, even if it took a countless number of tries.
In a year where Sony released zero PlayStation Vita titles and essentially gave up on their handheld, it was support from indie developers that gave the Vita life throughout 2016. There's no better example of it than 'Severed' from 'Guacamelee' developer DrinkBox Studios. The dungeon crawler features a beautiful and mysterious world to explore while also offering up top-notch touchscreen combat. Similarly to last year's 'Undertale,' every battle encounter felt like a unique puzzle to solve instead of a monotonous grind, and that's exactly why 'Severed' was able to shine so bright. It was later ported to basically every system that features a touchscreen, so thankfully more people than ever can experience the stellar title.
Brian Hoss – Senior Editor, Games section of High-Def Digest
I asked the team for their picks in the hope of getting a nice variety, and they did not disappoint. Obviously, 'Overwatch' has been one of consensus best games by the staff throughout the year, but less obvious, is 'DOOM,' which with its classic but not at all quaint campaign has been another crowd pleaser. Other game pieces that I would like to call out as worth checking out well beyond 2016, include 'Batman: The Telltale Series' story, 'Playroom VR,' the 'Infinite Warfare' campaign, the 'Skylanders Imaginators' character creator, 'Deus Ex: Mankind Divided' setting, the online of 'Dark Souls III,' and the little, joyful challenges of 'Forza Horizon 3.'
The Game of the Year 2016
Ultimately, there is one game that managed to fulfill both its long-burning promise, and really, to deliver something wonderfully different. As both an animal lover, and as a longtime fan of 'ICO' and 'Shadow of the Colossus,' the experience of meeting and being with Trico in 'The Last Guardian' makes this late year release a clear standout.
The game has its platforming puzzles and escorting dynamic, but when playing it, the mythical Trico seems to transcend every would-be game companion in memory. That big, dumb (but not too dumb) animal presence, when combined with the game's delectable aesthetic, and yes, a PS4 Pro and a 4K HDR display, make 'The Last Guardian' the Game of the Year for 2016.
I wish everyone a happy new year and a 2017 full of what's best, whether that's in gaming and entertainment or in the remainder.