Top ten games of 2016

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I can think of at least nine reasons this list might be lacking: Gears of War 4, Uncharted 4, Titanfall 2, Salt and Sanctuary, Kathy Rain, Virginia, Forza Down Under, Dead Rising 4, and The Last Guardian. All games I didn’t get to play this year. I’ll throw in Just Dance 2017 to make it an even ten.

But from among the games I did play this year, let me tell you about my ten favorites.

After the jump, okay, maybe I did play Just Dance 2017, but I’d like to keep that between us.

 

10. Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2

In a year with solid team-based shooters like Overwatch, Battlefield 1, and Titanfall 2, this was the one that stood out. None of them has as many ways to play as Garden Warfare 2. None of them had as much stuff to do and different ways to do it. And none of them respected my time this much.

From the review:

Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare 2…will let you participate in every facet of its progression in whatever way you want. It does not intend to drive you online. It will not be stingy if you only play with your friends. It will let you and a splitscreen buddy play however you want with every single reward, incentive, goal, unlockable, and leveling trick fully applied, with the full pull of persistence and progression intact. Alongside the usual online options, it will let you do whatever you want, however you want, with whomever you want, and it will fully recognize your progress the same way it recognizes everyone else’s progress. Anything you can do with other players you can do with bots, and no penalty will be applied. It is, among contemporary shooters published by big publishers, unprecedented. And it’s about damn time.

 

9. Ratchet & Clank

Am I cheating by choosing a remastered version of the original Rachet & Clank, which came out in 2002? Honestly, if I hadn’t read that some of the content was repurposed, I never would have guessed. It’s had a lot of work done. Calling it “remastered” doesn’t do it justice. Throw in “overhauled” and “considerably expanded”. This is the second best Ratchet & Clank, second only to Crack in Time because it doesn’t have Crack in Time’s story (what little story is here is used as a cheap tie-in to the even cheaper movie). What it does have is the joy of unleashing Insomniac’s crazy weapons so you can hoover up all those tinkling nuts and bolts, and then spend them making the crazy weapons even crazier. It’s pure Ratchet & Clank, distilled so potently that no subtitle is needed.

Gameplay streams here and here.

 

8. Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir

Okay, this time maybe I am cheating. Leifthrasir is a direct update of the original 2007 Odin Sphere. In other words, vintage Vanillaware, but with glossier modern amenties. There’s still plenty of pointless busywork, but it’s only pointless if you’re not enamoured with this world of talking rabbits, meticulously prepared food, bratty faerie princesses, and wraparound battles where you never have to worry about bumping into a wall. Mostly, this is an action RPG that puts you through the paces of leveling up a set of very different characters. But it’s presented with such charm and color, vividly expressed in adorable overlapping stories that make me wonder why Vanillaware game director George Kamitani’s name isn’t as well known as Miyamoto’s.

Gameplay stream here and here.

 

7. Total War: Warhammer

Sexy librarian and history nerd Creative Assembly takes off her glasses, lets down her hair, and DMs some of the most spectacular Warhammering you have ever played. If there was any doubt the Total War series wasn’t a perfect fit for powerful spell casters, flying creatures, and oversized monsters, it has been dispelled. And their campaigns just keep getting better and better.

Gameplay stream here.

 

6. Oxenfree

Interactive videogame conversations are terrible. Without exception. They are nothing like actual conversations. But then along comes Oxenfree, with its great writing, vivid characters, mysterious plot, and beautifully natural conversations.

From the review:

It’s all about capturing the pattern and pacing of conversation and not just the content of it. It’s all about flow, which I’ve never seen in a videogame. The interruptions, the trailing off, changing words mid-thought, finishing each other’s comments, the naturalistic delivery that comes from actors good enough to improvise without sounding like they’re improvising, a script that trusts them, and a director and editor who appreciate them. This is exactly what you expect from a good performance, and this is exactly what is destroyed by subtitles, by lists, by the artifice of picking from a menu when it’s your turn to talk. That’s simply not how people communicate. Oxenfree knows this.

 

5. Blacksea Odyssey

Listen. Under the hollow roar of the wind, under the crack and whip of sails, under the swell and rush of the sea like a Wagnerian overture, there comes a sound. It is the pitiable wail of an enormous wounded beast. A majestic keening wail. The old man grunts as he clings to a rope tethered to something impossibly huge and unimagineably angry. Now behold as the old man rears back and watches for a moment and spies his mark and then lets fly his ancient missile. Now witness the ripping flesh, the spilled pink lifeblood, and the debris of thrashed seaweed. Witness the chaos of slaughter. Witness a dumb enraged beast that cannot comprehend. It can only snap its powerful jaws, spit its poison, flail its massive limbs, and roar, roar, roar its howl of rage and pain. Behold mankind not just taming nature, but utterly subjugating it, casting it down into abject crushing defeat, literally ripping it limb from limb for sport. Behold majesty brought low. Wrack, ruin, plunder, the stuff of myth and history.

Alternatively, totally check out this cool top-down action game that’s like Asteroids had a baby with Shadow of the Colossus.

Gameplay stream here.

 

4. XCOM 2

It’s XCOM, but with everything better. And I mean everything. Seriously, name one thing about XCOM and I can explain how it’s better in XCOM 2. Go ahead, name anything. Yep, that’s better in XCOM 2. Yep, that, too. And that. In terms of games about your own little dudes fighting turn-based battles, Firaxis has cleared every bar that’s been set and they’ve furthermore sticked the landing.

Gameplay stream here.

 

3. Offworld Trading Company

It’s not often a game design is something this new. And this old. By bringing the concepts of the 1983 Dani Bunten classic, M.U.L.E., into the world of modern game design, Soren Johnson has rescued real-time strategy from the creatively bankrupt gulag of MOBAs. He’s also made the single best single-player campaign I’ve ever played in an RTS. And he’s given us this year’s best videogame music with Christopher Tin’s gossamer soundtrack.

From the review:

…what Offworld Trading Company takes from RTSs is everything but the stuff that scared off everyone who isn’t still playing Starcraft II. It’s about player conflict, consistent pacing, varied strategies, immediate and almost tactile interaction with the map, real time resource management, and ultimately one player (or team) winning completely, all within a short enough time span that you’ll want to go again as soon as you’re done. These were also things in M.U.L.E. These are all things you don’t get in other games about economies instead of armies.

 

2. Shadow Warrior 2

What if the gleeful excess of Painkiller was supported by the open-ended tinkering of Diablo and the juvenile humor of a 90s 3D Realms game? It would go something like this: Wheeeeee — dick joke — eeeeeeee! Numbersstatsinventoryupgrades. Wheeeeee — dick joke — eeeeeeee! Numbersstatsinventoryupgrades. Wheeeeee — dick joke — eeeeeeee! Numbersstatsinventoryupgrades. Wheeeeee — dick joke — eeeeeeee! Numbersstatsinventoryupgrades. And so on, ad infinitum. It would be called Shadow Warrior 2 and it would be ridiculous, joyous, intricate, and surprisingly mathy.

Review here and video review here. Gameplay stream here.

 

1. Quadrilateral Cowboy

In 2016, there was no game as unpredictable, memorable, or touching as Quadrilateral Cowboy. What might seem at first like a tragically underdeveloped version of Hitman turns out to be the intimate portrait of a life well-lived.

From the review:

“Here’s this,” Quadrilateral Cowboy says, literally rolling out something new. You usually get it from a cat named Chu Chu who runs a bicycle shop. You can test it in an empty room. It seems pretty cool. Then you get to use it in a mission. Yep, it’s pretty cool. Then the game moves on to show you something else. “Wait, but what about that last thing?” you wonder while it sits in your inventory mostly unused. You figure there are going to be missions at the end where everything comes together, where everything is mashed up into an epic dizzying escapade of gadgets and puzzles and even some precarious timing. But then it’s all over and no such thing happened. It just moved on from cool thing to cool thing to conclusion. Because unlike The Witness which was always and only about the puzzles, Quadrilateral Cowboy was never about the gadgets.

Gameplay stream here.

 

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