I didn’t think I would enjoy gaming in 2016 more than I did in 2015. I’m an RPG guy, and 2015 gave me two doses of role-playing glory: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Fallout 4 . But 2016 made me happy, too. And I enjoyed it more because this year I made an effort to sample a wider swath of games that I wouldn’t have otherwise tried. Here is my list for GOTY 2016.
GOTY 2016: Overwatch
No ifs, ands or Tracer’s butts about it, Overwatch is the clear GOTY 2016. It is a transformative title for the genre and the “shooter for people who don’t play shooters” has found a lot of common ground for both. A thriving competitive scene offers all the depths the eSports fanatics could want, but it’s paired with casual modes that equally showcase the superior playstyle and design choices that distinguish Overwatch.
For me, personally, this is as close to getting the feeling of a religious born again as I’ll ever experience. I used to be a Halo freak, playing hours and hours and hours of multiplayer with friends. But the woeful Halo: Master Chief Collection and equally disappointing Halo 5 killed my longtime favorite franchise. Other shooters didn’t do it for me either, the genre felt too bogged down in complex loadout mechanics and ludicrous skill curves.
Overwatch instead drew from TF2 instead of CoD and polished team shooter mechanics into a shining beacon of hope for gamers like me. I enjoy shooters again and I thought I never, ever would. Even better, people around me are enjoying Overwatch too. I had a 20-minute conversation with my 12-year-old nephew about the Tjorborn nerf and my mother looked at us both like we were speaking Klingon. I’ve small-talked Uber drivers, co-workers and cashiers with “who’s your main?” It is a phenomenon in the hands of a studio known for handling phenomena. 2016 is the year of Overwatch .
Good god. Not since Prison Architect has a game so thoroughly hypnotized me into late-night sessions that end at sunrise with “oh shit I should sleep now.” Stardew Valley would be an impressive achievement if it came from a talented team at a major studio. That it’s the efforts of just one man, Eric Barone a.k.a. ConcernedApe, is nearly beyond comprehension. It’s easy to dismiss as a Harvest Moon -clone until you realize that it’s better than every Harvest Moon game ever made. And that it’s not just a farm sim but has wonderfully deep fishing, dungeon and relationship mechanics at play, too. It’s the Big Ivan of nostalgia bombs with its lovely retro style and soothing soundtrack. Stardew Valley is joy, pure and simple.
Playdead managed to turn the feeling of 2016 into a stylized dystopian runner/puzzler that is both bleak and uplifting. Inside has no cutscenes, no dialogue. But it tells a story and delivers an ending so unique that you’ll be going down the Google hole looking for meaning as soon as you finish. It is a captivating and complex game full of evocative imagery and symbolism. It is also a perfectly paced puzzle experience. New elements paired with a well designed difficulty curve keep every challenge precisely balanced and capable of forward momentum. There is a compulsion to keep going inspired by your own emotions and enabled by the level design. No game in 2016 had a more cohesive identity than Inside.
Lost among the ruins of America’s most contentious election in decades was the release of the one game that understood how so many felt. Arkane Studios Dishonored 2 was a cathartic, action-packed stealth masterpiece. The Clockwork Mansion level alone will cement Dishonored 2 in hallowed video game history. Not since The Water Temple in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time has a level inspired so much conversation and so much praise. But all of Dishonored 2 , from the subtly restrained open world design to the incredible story and voice acting spoke to themes of power and corruption and trust. That players were so often the arbiters of mercy fueled these themes even further. I almost never replay single-player story driven games but Dishonored 2 left so much on the table I had to go back for more.
Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander
Halcyon 6 earns the title of Best Game of 2016 No Is Talking About. This game is absolutely incredible. Anyone susceptible to long binges of turn-based games needs to be very careful when playing Halcyon 6 because it nails the “one more turn” addiction. The story is Battlestar Galactica -esque, with players in charge of a powerful space station after the rest of humanity is wiped out by a marauding alien plague-race. You manage fleets of ships, individually trained captains and territory-based resources inside a sci-fi wet dream of a galaxy populated with distinct and hilarious alien races. A faction system and well-written dialogue options add a ton of flavor, but the combat system is the real standout. The interplay between different ship classes and their complementary attacks will have you constantly making changes and feeling like you’re doing something productive. It’s a rewarding, entertaining space strategy game and, hopefully, we see a lot more from the creators at Massive Damage, Inc. in the future.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown holds a special place in my heart for introducing me to the joys of turn-based combat. I had never enjoyed the tactical experience before XCOM: Enemy Unknown entered my life in 2012 and, ever since, I’ve been a devotee of the genre. So it was with great anxiety and anticipation that I went into the XCOM 2 release. Could it live up to the game that literally changed my gaming life? Yes, it did. And it exceeded it in every measurable way. Better maps, better options and better enemies made for a (wait for it) better game than its predecessor. All of the familiar XCOM-y things were there, but Firaxis handled things carefully and it shows. Add some killer DLC on top of it and XCOM 2 managed to add a few inches onto what was already a ludicrously high bar.
Mount And Blade: Warband (Xbox One)
OK, technically, this wasn’t a 2016 release since Mount and Blade: Warband has been out since 2010. However, it came to Xbox One this year and that gave me enough reason to relapse into some serious Mount and Blade binges again. I’m 100+ hours on my PC version of the game, and 50+ on my Xbox One version. That’s the most straightforward endorsement I can give a game that’s hard to describe. It has factions and first person combat and an economic system and party management and emergent narrative elements. It’s a desert island caliber game, capable of sustaining you for years and years. The biggest setback is a high barrier for entry that doesn’t explain much of what you should be doing, and no clear way to win or lose. But with a little patience and some online forum research you can unlock what is potentially the biggest game on Xbox One for yourself.