The most surprising games of 2016

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So if the most disappointing category is a list of games that should have been better, the most surprising category is the opposite. These are games that were better than they should have been. Just as disappointing is about falling short of expectations, these surprising games exceeded expectations and, in some cases, were among the best games of the year.

After the jump, the ten most surprising games of 2016.

10. Grim Dawn

Diablo is still the leader in the basics of hack n’ slash and character development. Soldak Games is still the leader in terms of giving action RPGs a larger context than the hack n’ slash and character development. But only Grim Dawn offers a meaningful sense of place. It does what procedurally generated worlds will never be able to do.

From the review:

But where Grim Dawn has a unique draw, where it even holds out against the gravitational pull of whatever improvements Blizzard has added in their latest Diablo III patch, is…something I haven’t seen an in action RPG. This is something the average RPG wouldn’t dare do. Geography as a part of the character build.


9. Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst

You might not realize it as you start playing, but this is a racing game. It’s all about driving fast and driving precisely. Except that instead of driving, you’re doing first-person parkour. Instead of a track, it’s an open-world city with its own language to tell you where you can go. Instead of a car, you’re driving an Asian woman who’s part of the underground resistance trying to undermine a dystopian blah blah blah. Okay, I couldn’t care less about that last part — it’s EA, so the storytelling is about as relevant as it is in the Need for Speed games — but otherwise, this is the way to the take the previous Mirror’s Edge’s interesting traversal and build it up into an interesting game.

Gameplay stream here.


8. Gremlins, Inc.

At first, the board looks like a mess. It’s enough to go make a fellow boot up Armello. Just give me something simple instead of this convoluted tangle of movement space spaghetti. But like any boardgame, you have do two things to appreciate Gremlins, Inc: learn the rules and actually play it. Once you do those two things, you’ll discover a very good boardgame in a videogame format.

From the review:

A boardgame needs to talk to you. It needs to anticipate what you might want to know and it needs to tell you that clearly. And in most boardgames, you’ll want to know lots of stuff. That’s why Gremlins Inc looks like a mess. It has a lot to say.

Gameplay stream here. A full multiplayer game with my coleague Kelly Wand here.


7. House of the Dying Sun

Just the space combat, ma’am. House of the Dying Sun, formerly saddled with the hopelessly generic name Enemy Starfighter, is another one of those fly/fight/trade space games, but without the fly and trade part. It gets straight to the space battles, and it runs them on a cool timer that emphasizes these are hit-and-run missions. As you play, you unlock more tools to do better in the challenges. A cruiser here, a deadly space torpedo there, perhaps you’d like to don heavier armor at the cost of speed. The result: short sharp burst of space combat simming like you haven’t seen since TIE Fighter.

Oh, and it’s tailor-made to be played with a gamepad.


6. Homefront: The Revolution

Although it’s got vaguely Assassin’s Creed style interludes, most of this Homefront can be characterized as “emergent Call of Duty”. Unscripted firefights just happen because you’re in a ruined city populated with good guys and bad guys. Your job is to help the good guys take back the city. This is what The Division tries to do, but can’t because it’s an MMO; you can’t very well take back the city because then what would the other players have to do?

From the review:

This is a war game about converting territory and one of the least relevant factors when you’re fighting a war is why you’re fighting it. So you call up the map, consider your options, and ponder whether to attack that fortified gas station yet. Or maybe you should do a scavenging run because you can almost afford to boost your sniper rifle to it’s maximum level. Then you can get a position looking down into the gas station and clear it out without breaking a sweat. Just as the latest Far Cries lets you clear out its jungle bases however you like, Homefront: The Revolution lets you take back these urban ruins however you like.

Gameplay streams here and here.


5. Forced Showdown

Hearthstone as a model for an action RPG roguelike? Shorts fights, big colorful cards, a drip feed of rewards and progression? That sounds like a terrible idea. But it’s not. 2016 introduced a couple of surprising variations on this theme, including Neon Chrome and Leap of Fate. But it was Forced Showdown’s deck building, arcade combat, character progression, and tactical variety that really grabbed my attention.

Full demo here and gameplay stream here.


4. Redout

Wipeout lives! That same white-knuckle shiny hyperspeed maglev racing is now alive and well and fully fleshed out on the PC.

Gameplay stream here.


3. Steep

Remember that level in SSX Tricky where you could just go wherever you want (as long as it was downhill, of course)? Steep is a whole game about that, scattered with Ubistuff to pull you around the map. Explore, collect, ramp off stuff, and do tricks. Why does that sound so familiar? Where have I played this before? Ah, right, those skateboarding games that have fallen out of favor! Think of this as Tony Hawk or EA Skate minus the Bam Margera edge. In fact, there’s no edge. It’s just lovely winter wonderlands that are almost impossible to stop exploring. Since it’s so easy to do, why not slide down yet another new hill? Nothing does momentum quite like gravity.

Gameplay stream here.


2. Seraph

I’m so over 2D platformers. When it comes to capturing my attention, “2D platformer” is right up there with “free-to-play”, “massively multiplayer”, and “pixel graphics”. But I’m also not into match-3s, and I still enjoyed a steampunk rogue-like match-3 called Ironcast. So when Ironcast developer Dreadbit released a game on Steam with the tag “2D platformer”, I heavy sighed and decided to briefly give them the benefit of the doubt. I discovered a stand-out action RPG with limber character progression, a svelte bestiary, and open-ended gameplay that includes a permadeath mode, regularly updated challenges, and non-terrible crafting/collecting.

The unique angle is that you don’t have to aim. You’re controlling someone way better at gunplay than you, so she’ll handle weaponry while you focus on jumping and climbing and fancy spell powers. You don’t have to be good to make really cool looking stuff happen! Of all the games in 2016 that I thought I’d “just try real quick”, this is the one that has provided my fingers the most gratifying exercise.

Gameplay stream here.


1. Doom

The second biggest surprise of 2016 was this game not being terrible.

From the review:

Doom has what is probably the smartest game design I’ve seen from id, a company known for their passion for tech and their absolute uninterest in game design. I mean, seriously, did you play Rage? For all it’s hyperactive mayhem, Doom plays in a rhythmic looping structure. Spend ammo shooting monsters to stagger them so you can glory kill them for health. When you run out of ammo, use your chainsaw to cut open monsters for ammo. Which you’ll use to get health. Which will sustain you until you get more ammo. Along the way, find more gas for your chainsaw.

This clearly defined gameplay pattern sustains Doom’s breakneck pace. If I was just zipping through monsters holding down the fire button, it would get pretty tedious pretty quickly. But because I’m constantly positioning myself in that ammo-health-ammo-health sequence, I’m staying engaged. I’m surfing some pretty smart moment-to-moment gunplay. Doom grooves.

Gameplay stream here.


The most disappointing games of 2016
The most surprising games of 2016
Top ten games of 2016