Mark went first last week, and now it’s my turn. And while 2016 might have been a bit of a curious year for all and sundry in the real world, it wasn’t half bad as far as video games were concerned. Here’s my 13 favourite games of the year, because I’m weird and who wants to do 12.
13: Pokemon GO
It’s not even remotely close to being the best game of the year, but it’s also unparalleled in terms of cultural phenomenon.
I have never seen anything in my lifetime close to Pokemon GO. Within the day of it landing, people began swarming outside the Sydney Opera House for Pokestops. Our offices were buzzed by news crews for weeks trying to understand what it was, why it was popular, whether it was dangerous (because of course) and why The Fad Was Over.
It’s not over. It might not have 50 million active players or something stupid anymore. But Pokemon GO left its mark, and it still has plenty of fans.
I just wish it was better when it launched. I never did go on that Pokemon GO picnic, although now with all of the battery improvements the summer might be a good opportunity to do so.
12: Don Bradman Cricket 17
The UI might be unrefined, there might be the odd hard crash and the bug that teleports my batsman to the opposite end of the pitch and exposed to all sorts of bodyline shits me up the wall. But did you really think I’d let a new cricket game pass without trying to revive the career of Australia’s great hope, Twatto? Of course not.
11: Pathfinder Adventures
Did you know that the makers of the South Park: A Stick of Truth and Fallout: New Vegas made a mobile game this year? Launched in September, Pathfinder Adventures is a mobile version of the Pathfinder Adventures card game/RPG, which was a huge hit and supremely accessible.
Don’t be fooled by the idea of a card game, either. It’s still an RPG through and through, but the card element is cleverly woven into the model in a fashion that eliminates a lot of the busy work around managing your character. Your character’s HP, for instance, is a draw pile, and when you take damage from an enemy you have to discard cards and redraw.
Your character dies when there’s no cards left to draw from. Each of the cards are also used to influence die rolls and encounters in an authentic, clever way. It’s better shown than described, so here’s some gameplay below.
One of the things I’ve learnt in this job is that you often don’t have the time to do all the things you want. One of those regrets was that I didn’t get to do a longer feature on Pathfinder Adventures – partly because of how well put together it is, but also because of how reasonable the free-to-play model is.
The game gives you a couple of characters and a four-part campaign off the bat, with the remainder unlocked through gold that you can slowly earn in-game. You can pay to unlock individual characters or future campaigns, or you can spend $32.30 on a bundle that gives you every character, every currently available adventure and everything to be released in the future. It’s a season pass, in other words.
It’s also the only season pass I’ve looked at this year and genuinely had to stop myself from buying. The content is legitimately that good.
Pathfinder Adventures is free on iOS and Android right now. You’ll get at least one adventure and a couple of characters for nothing, and if you’re after a good RPG to play on your phone there’s no reason not to check it out. It’s a very neat package, an incredibly clever way to present Pathfinder on mobile and a very fair use of the free-to-play model. Genuinely, it’s one of the best games this year.
10: Pony Island
Pony Island, which started life as a Ludum Dare game in 2014 before being fleshed out into a full project, was one of the first games to come out in 2016. And, unsurprisingly for something featuring a jumping pony and the devil, it ended up leaving one of the strongest impressions.
I won’t pretend that Pony Island doesn’t almost wear out its welcome by the end, but there’s enough fun twists to keep you entertained. It also had one exceptionally clever moment that’s stuck with me all year, and something I’m surprised more games haven’t tried to copy in some way, shape or form.
An indie that did a far better job of not outstaying its welcome, and absolutely nailing a very cool concept, was the time-bending SUPERHOT. Released earlier this year, with a VR version having just published for the Oculus Rift, SUPERHOT is basically a puzzle dressed up as a first-person shooter.
But the game does a little bit more with the concept too. It starts with a terminal window on a CRT screen, and drops some glorious little twists along the way. Some people complained that it was a mite too short for the couple of hours you got at launch, but it’ll be much cheaper when the Steam sales kick off this week and you’re doing yourself a massive disservice by not giving it a go.
8: Planet Coaster
We’ve waited years for a decent RollerCoaster Tycoon revival, but just like buses they all arrived at once. RollerCoaster Tycoon World ended up crashing over the finish line by announcing days before release that they were launching in Early Access instead.
RCTW failed spectacularly, but Planet Coaster delivered in spades. The simulation aspect of the game was still a little underbaked, but that couldn’t dim what was a wonderful triumph from the same studio responsible for Elite: Dangerous. An absolute delight, and as a colleague remarked once, a game that was probably just a touch too good, too positive for the year that was.
7: Total War: WARHAMMER
Sometimes you really can’t spend enough time with a game, or maybe it’s just sometimes you never feel like you’ve spent enough time with a game. That’s Total Warhammer for me. It almost feels like an injustice not having spent 150 hours, or even 200 hours conquering the campaign map.
But much in the same vein as Final Fantasy 15 this year, Total Warhammer managed to walk that line between honouring the mechanics and legacy of the series while streamlining functions enough for new players (such as those who don’t play Total War games, but are real keen on Warhammer).
Perhaps most important, the game’s performance wasn’t completely buggered from the off. Total War fans have plenty of horror stories about the day Rome 2 launched, and while there was the odd quirk with Total Warhammer it was, by and large, perfectly functional.
That’s not supposed to happen. But Christ, I’m glad it did.
There’s so much about Total Warhammer that I never quite got to grips with. But there will be plenty of time to learn. Creative Assembly will be supporting this game for years, and while Total War games always get better with time, this one is starting from a far better position than most.
I couldn’t do this list without including the superb Scythe, one of the best board games of the year and an incredibly classy product. It’s also the most expensive game, video or otherwise, that I purchased in 2016. That said, it only takes around two hours per play session, doesn’t feel like it needed an Early Access launch and doesn’t crash when I take it to someone else’s house.
5: Final Fantasy 15
As I write this, I’m actually playing Tabata-san’s latest epic on a second monitor. I haven’t gotten all the way through yet, and I’m still in the third chapter despite having dropped more than 20 hours into the game.
And that’s why Final Fantasy 15 is on this list. I hate the series. Beyond FF7, and even to some extent with that, I’ve never been able to tolerate just how offensively self-indulgent and wasteful much of the gameplay is. The battle systems have always had their own benefits, but it’s always been too flawed, too drawn out, too much in need of an editor.
In a way, maybe I shouldn’t be playing JRPGs at all. JRPGs live and thrive on building that endless world with layer upon layer of mechanics that probably don’t need to exist.
But FF15’s general gameplay loop, combat and moment to moment action works for me. And the environment, at least what I’ve explored so far, has been something that I’ve been more than happy to continue exploring with no care for the story.
It’s my favourite open-world of 2016. It’s certainly not without its frustrations, especially that bloody jump button, but I’ve managed to buy into the bromance adventure without a care in the world. And Square deserves credit for that.
4: Stardew Valley
I do things a little bit differently with my GOTY lists. And Stardew Valley might be the weirdest of all, since its the one game on this list that I haven’t played a single hour.
So let me explain.
As someone who grew up with the early Nintendo era, and a notable green thumb, my partner has a penchant for taking care of things. Plants, animals, livestock, and life in general. Unsurprisingly, she was a big fan of Harvest Moon as a kid.
So when the buzz around Stardew Valley began to grow, she had to pick it up.
On a weekend, I tend to sleep in. A lot. I don’t sleep much during the week. But my partner gets up early without fail, and while the saplings of Stardew Valley were new she’d go to the living room. There were plants to water, grapes to grow and money to be made.
And there were animals.
We don’t have any animals in our apartment – most people in Sydney don’t, or can’t. But I grew up with plenty, partly because we had a yard sizeable enough to accommodate several. And the mix of animals, courtesy of my mother, meant that it was often an attraction for strays. Most of our beloved cats and dogs came into our lives this way, visiting our yard and subsequently deciding to move in.
And they’d wake me up of a weekend. Sometimes it was the cat at the door, or a chook who’d wandered in to steal some food. Other times, it’d be the ducks outside my window, breathing and mucking around, occasionally just banging their beaks against the window.
Several weekends in a row this year, that’s how I woke up: to the sound of ducks rustling around, quacking outside my door. But I lived in a two-bedroom apartment. I didn’t have room for ducks.
It was Stardew Valley.
I never, and still don’t, have any desire to play Eric Barone’s modern Harvest Moon. But over the course of those weekends, I’d wake up, see what was happening, and then join my partner on the couch. I ended up spending around 30 or 40 hours just watching her play, stopping to see the ducks, name the animals, cursing Sebastian and his mood swings. My partner racked up almost 150 hours, all of it on the couch under a blanket, mostly in the early hours of those weekends.
Having watched so much, I have no qualms in telling everyone just how special it is. It’ll never be my cup of tea. But it’s still a remarkably well made product, an absolute must-play for fans of Harvest Moon, and a game that’s responsible for reminding me of one of the more cherished parts of my childhood.
Thank you, Stardew Valley.
Oh, DOOM. I’ll never understand why iD and Bethesda didn’t just market the first fifteen minutes of the campaign closer to release, instead of pushing out the decidedly ordinary multiplayer first. It resulted in an extraordinary backlash, but fortunately the campaign was a spectacular, authentic return to form.
The same thing happened with Wolfenstein: The New Order, too. The initial previews showed off the first hour, with BJ storming the Nazi castle. And the sessions after that showed the first three hours, which didn’t really communicate what The New Order was or what it would become.
And once you discovered that, it was wonderful.
We’ve had a lot of good first-person shooter campaigns this year, such as Titanfall 2. But none of the blockbuster shooters were as cohesive or as good from start to finish as DOOM was, and they won’t be as much fun to replay through in the future either. It’s a shame the multiplayer still didn’t really work, but we’ll see Quake Champions in 2017 – and, if we’re being honest, that was always Quake’s thing.
And in a year that has been spectacular for shooters, nothing has left a mark quite like Overwatch.
It was actually a challenge not to flood my list with shooters, if only because so many of them have done so many things well in their own right. Battlefield 1 proved that, despite the never-ending appeal of The Futuretm, World War 1 is a perfectly reasonable, enjoyable setting for a video game. The campaign was a nice touch too, considering DICE’s previous attempts.
And Titanfall 2 – what a nice surprise that was. I couldn’t include it though for two very simple reasons. For one, as good as the campaign was, it had very distinct ups and downs that just pegged it back a fraction too far. Secondly, it doesn’t matter how praiseworthy the multiplayer is if you can’t get a game. The reality is most gamers, at least in Australia, simply haven’t taken to Titanfall 2. And as solid as the formula might be, it’s not good enough that I want to spend five or more minutes waiting for a match every time I fire up the game.
As for Call of Duty – didn’t that take a turn for the worst.
Overwatch, on the other hand, did just about everything right. There was, and still is, plenty of reasonable gripes levelled against the loot crates, the execution of their special events and the bogglingly painful ARG that was Sombra.
But the core loop is fantastic. You can not load up the game for months and it’s still brilliant, despite the individual gripes people have with McCree/Reaper/Sombra/Genji/Roadhog/insert your hated hero here. And the core idea of me playing as Mei and being a dick at the last moment – turning myself into an ice block, sending someone flying to their death, or jamming up a point with ice at the right time – will always resonate with me.
Only reason I don’t have Overwatch higher – and it’s still pretty high – is because I didn’t end up playing it as much as I thought I would. The way I played games changed a lot this year, and I moved more away from competitive games and scenes to more co-operative, or shared, experiences. That did eventually change with Destiny, but by the time of Overwatch the situation was “if I’m going to play this, I’m going to do it alone”.
Rather than play a game I couldn’t share with my partner, or at least something that we couldn’t equally enjoy, I played other games. But I’ll never forget my time with Mei. May her bastard, icy ways live on forever.
And the game I ended up having the best memories of, enjoying the most, spending the most time with, and consequently my favourite game of the year, was:
1: Destiny: Rise of Iron
This was the year I finally launched head-first into Destiny. I picked up the base game and The Taken King digitally the year prior, but the game was relegated to the curious position of being the thing I’d play when I couldn’t sleep, but didn’t want to wake my partner.
My partner, who played the base Destiny game and had run through much of the original end game content, suggested that I’d enjoy the strikes and raids and that we should play with a friend. And given that we’d enjoyed 50 hours of The Division, and begun to enjoy the intensity of the DZ, and eventually wore ourselves out on No Man’s Sky, it seemed a reasonable shot for co-op.
Shooters on console, first-person in particular, generally isn’t my thing. I grew up playing Counter-Strike, StarCraft, a host of turn-based games, lugging CRT monitors to LANs, and spending money on flashy gaming mice and nice keyboards.
I thought I was terrible at console shooters. And I certainly was. But then, I think out of just sheer patience and a lack of willingness to tell me to fuck off, my little fireteam ventured into the crucible. And then we did it the next night. And the night after that.
And then we started getting better; we started winning. Most nights we started winning more than half our games; we started to top our teams. For a group of people that hated PvP, competitive shooters with a passion, it became the only thing we did.
I also discovered the Destiny tracker, which allowed me to track my progress against other Australians. And for most of November, I spent an hour or two where I could tracking myself against other Australians. I became a leaderboard chaser, and became uncannily capable for someone of my background.
Doing well in Destiny, for a period, consumed my gaming life. I probably should have been playing a lot more titles in my spare time. But I played Destiny instead, regardless of how annoying crappy the Cryptarch drops were, how useless Xur was some weeks, and how confused I was about what my Guardian was actually supposed to be doing in the grander scheme of things.
I couldn’t not acknowledge Destiny as one my favourite this year, simply by virtue of the time spent and the fun I’ve had. And I’ve enjoyed a lot of games this year.
But I spent the most time with Destiny, and had the most fun. And that’s got to count for something.
While the list is already pretty big, there’s a few notable absences, honourable mentions and games that I just didn’t get to that deserved a shoutout:
- Pokemon Sun & Moon: We only got one copy of Pokemon Sun & Moon in the office – Sun, as it was – and since Tegan took that one up, there hasn’t been much of an opportunity for a second playthrough. I’ve been patiently waiting to give Pokemon Moon a crack though over the Christmas break, though. Nintendo really should allow multiple saves.
- Battlefield 1: One of the best launches for a numbered Battlefield title and a stunning vindication for DICE’s bet on going back in time, rather than forwards like everyone else. It’s still a superb game, and will get even better with time, but as good as the segmented campaign and the multiplayer was it just didn’t leave that strong of an impression on me.
- Titanfall 2: Yeah, the campaign is great. But it’s a campaign of great moments, more so than a great campaign, and even though I’m a lot better with shooters on console these days I still feel like the fluidity of the movement makes it a PC-first game – and it’s dead on PC.
- Hitman: The US team absolutely loves how the Hitman was broken up into an episodic. Which is fine, but I treated it the same as every other episodic – I’ll play it when they’re all out, and that means I probably won’t get to this until January or February.
- Uncharted 4: Uncharted 2 is my pick of the series. I think if you preferred UC3 over UC4, then UC4 would be the absolute pinnacle of the series. And it’s a great game, don’t get me wrong, but like Drake in his old age it was just a little too slow, a little too drawn out.
- Redout: Sometimes, it’s just really, really good to be wrong.
So that’s my giant list on my favourites of 2016. It’s been a big year, no doubt about that. But what about yourselves?