The Very Best Games of 2016: My Top 3

the-last-guardian

Last year was really quite amazing for games, and while I have neither the cash nor the time to play them all (for that you’d probably need a good job and Bernard’s watch), I played my fair share of killer titles. Most of the cool kids do a top ten or a top five, but I’ve decided to spend some quality time here with my top three, as well as mentioning a few runners-up. See? I’m cool in my own way.

RUNNERS UP

// Dark Souls III: It’s my least favourite of all the Souls entries, but its bosses, level design and sense of progression once again put other games to shame. Read a little thing I wrote about it here// Inside: the developers of the celebrated 2010 platformer Limbo return with something every bit as twisted. Many have debated its themes of mind control and manipulation, but it’s the gameplay that truly shines. In spending six years working on an experience that lasts three hours, Playdead created a nigh perfect video game with innovative mechanics that are a pleasure to control. It’s deliciously, darkly atmospheric, and the finale is magnificent. // The Last Guardian: This puzzle-adventure followup to the 2005 masterpiece Shadow of the Colossus was certainly worth the wait. Though bogged down by an unwieldy camera, the relationship between the young protagonist and huge bird-dog-cat-thing Trico is beautiful and believable. It’s quite possibly the best use of an AI companion in games. // Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End: Nathan Drake’s concluding adventure is big-budget cinematic gaming at its absolute finest. The story and voice acting are spectacular, it looks phenomenal, and its set pieces are so jaw-dropping I almost couldn’t believe I was playing them. The series’ previous forays into the supernatural are abandoned in favour of a compelling historical mystery surrounding the Caribbean pirates, and it’s all the better for it. Did I mention it’s about pirates? // 

And now, on with the show…

NUMBER THREE

PLANET COASTER
Frontier Developments
Platform: PC

planet_coaster

Back when I was a primary-school whippersnapper, I experienced what can only be described as a miracle. Remember those book catalogues they would send around, where you’d tick which ones you wanted and they’d come into school in a big box? Well, I was having a flick through one day and – no way, Christ be damned if that’s not a computer game right there on the page. Everyone knows games iz well dope and books iz 4 squares, so I got on that right away and bagged myself a school-book-catalogue branded copy of 2002’s RollerCoaster Tycoon 2.

Being a life- and soul-eating management sim, and the first one of those I had played, I fell into the game in a big way. In fact, one of my most vivid gaming memories is when I was so excited for Christmas that I spent the entirety of Christmas Eve playing RCT2 just to make the time go quicker, and I built a sick-ass rubber dinghy ride called ‘Cobra’ or some shit. Anyway, imagine my delight when, a couple of years later, I was browsing through a new catalogue – this of the Argos variety – and heck, I’ll be blowed if that’s not a God dang sequel to that fine piece o’ gameage!

Enter Frontier Development’s 2004 relic RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, a sequel that moved the series into three dimensions, added a whole load of juicy new features and let you ride the rides in a POV perspective. It was a bit like Moses finding the tablets on top of the mountain, and basking in the glory of an almighty deity, except it was real.

RCT3 has always been, and indeed still is, one of my favourite games of all time. I’ve bought it three times in various forms, and despite its dated visuals, it’s one I would keep going back to, if only to keep alive my tradition of naming my cleaner ‘Sweep’, my mechanic ‘Mecha Nick’, and my inspector ‘Inspecto Patronum’. Recently though, I’ve been slavering for something new to continue the legacy that began in that catalogue all those years ago, and when RollerCoaster 4 came and went like a brisk and smelly fart, there was only one name on the horizon: Planet Coaster.

Developed by the troopers at Frontier as a sort of spiritual sequel to RCT3Planet Coaster promised to be the very best roller coaster simulator out there, and boy did it keep to that. It’s been sporadically criticised for essentially being a modern reskin of the previous game (which I might add, I’d be perfectly fine with), but the refinements PC made, especially in terms of scenery and coaster building, more than warrant the release.

For example, whereas previous games gave you set shop designs, such as a hot dog stand shaped like a big-ass hot dog, this game encourages you to construct your own, using a plethora of walls, roofs, props and other bits and bobs. It takes some getting used to – in fact, it took me nearly an hour to make my first simple shop – but when you get the hang of it your eyes are opened to the tremendous number of possibilities, and the game steps up a whole extra notch.

Add to this the integration with Steam Workshop, where players can share and download custom designs for shops, rides and other objects, and you really do have more tools than you could ever possibly need to create the theme park of your dreams (I would say nightmares, but sadly it doesn’t seem possible to kill guests in Planet Coaster). Visually, the game retains the cartoony syle that gave RCT3 its charm whilst giving everything a 2016 level of shine and polish, and uses a lovely lighting engine that makes parks look boss at all times of day.

pc-screenshot

Like all games of its ilk, this is time-destruction at its most brutal. Often I’ll hop on just to add a bit of scenery or a new shop to my park, and suddenly two or three or four hours will have passed and I’m left wishing there was more time in a day. Spend a couple of hours here and there though, and you have a nice little project on your hands. Whereas others might have an allotment, Warhammer models, or a hostage, you have your very own world of entertainment and joy. Looking out at a bustling park that you’ve built from scratch is an unrivaled feeling – well, rivaled I would assume by creating offspring.

Nah, Planet Coaster is probably better.

Planet Coaster’s infectious theme song, which is so good that it has absolutely no right being on a game about roller coasters.

NUMBER TWO

THE WITNESS
Thekla, Inc.
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

the-witness-listing-thumb-01-ps4-us-26jan16

I’m more inclined towards seppuku than sudoku, but I imagine the feeling one might attain from completing a book of master-level number puzzles could be equated to how I felt upon finishing Thekla’s indie hit The Witness. After I completed its final mandatory puzzle, the camera went on a little ride across the game’s picturesque island setting, and I was treated to fleeting glimpses of the countless challenges I had taken on and conquered over the past 30 or so hours. With no story as such to be resolved at its conclusion, the ending of The Witness is more like a hearty pat on the back or a juicy dog treat, to be savoured in the knowledge that you – yes, YOU – have faced one of the most intricate and intellectually demanding puzzle games perhaps ever, and won.

The latest title from the talented mind of Braid creator Jonathan Blow, The Witness is a vast, open-world puzzle game set on a gorgeously colourful, Myst-esque island, populated by hundreds upon hundreds of square panels. On each panel is some form of grid or pattern, and the ground rules are always the same: draw a line from start to finish. Ever since it was announced, Internet dwellers were quick to denounce the game as being ‘just line puzzles’ and ‘something I’d pay 79p for on my phone’, but whilst the former statement is true in terms of general gameplay, The Witness is far more than just line puzzles.

Say you were trying to solve a 2-dimensional puzzle on a page. Your brain interprets solely what is there on the paper, and processes that information into a possible solution. The Witness goes further, taking these 2D conundrums and placing them into a 3D space, introducing an environmental aspect that could only be possible in a video game. The stunning, wildly varying locales of the island are very much crafted around the puzzles themselves, and an awareness of your surroundings is key to besting many of the panels. To give examples would be to spoil the magic of the game’s ingenious mechanics, but I will say that perspective, line of sight, light and shadow, and the presence or absence of sound all come into play.

Smart and radically different ideas are so abundant that, while you’re still essentially drawing a line from A to B, the puzzles remain wondrously fresh and devilishly taxing throughout. The solutions are masterfully handled in such a way that you’ll have a bright spark, think it’s surely too obscure or contrived to be the solution, then delightedly find that it works after all. The game is expressly designed to subtly and naturally guide you to the light, and when you get there you feel like a mastermind.

the-witness-puzzle

The Witness tackles the learning curve brilliantly. Without explicitly teaching you anything, the game introduces you gradually to a number of symbols that appear on the panels. Each symbol has its own rules and properties, and has its own dedicated area on the island in which you will learn its secrets. Very early on in the game you will likely reach an impasse; a symbol you don’t recognise will stop you from progressing and you’ll probably get frustrated. It’s here that the cleverness of the game’s open-ended design becomes apparent, as if you are stuck, you can simply move on to another place and another set of puzzles. Keep exploring and at some point you will learn that symbol, triggering a triumphant, air-punching joy as you remember that previously impossible panel and get hyped about what lies beyond it. It’s like a MetroidVania for the mind, and it’s fan-bloody-tastic.

It’s also a game that will haunt your life, not in a scary way like the Babadook, but a sort of annoyingly friendly way more akin to that blighter Casper. The Witness really encourages you to get a notebook and a pencil and go to town with your workings, and I found myself carrying notes around with me, even looking at them on my break at work as I tried different routes through some of the toughest mazes. At one worrying point, I even started seeing an abstract carpet as a line puzzle, and subconsciously attempted to solve it, a rather depressing affair that I’m quite glad is now in the past.

The most memorable puzzle for me came right at the end. It was a complex little bastard, and after hitting my head against the wall for a fair stretch I decided to have a break and come back fresh. Later on I had some friends over, and put the game on to see if I could get some different perspectives on the infernal enigma. I reckon we spent at least a couple of hours trying to work it out that night, filling pages with what must have looked like the doodlings of a geometry-crazed madman, but still we got nowhere.

Disgruntled, we decided to call it a night, and after they had left, I just sat staring at the screen. Then, an idea popped into my head, like Archimedes’ famous ‘eureka’ moment when he discovered masturbation in the bath. If I do this, then then this, then this… then maybe, maybe…

The prospect of success was so exhilarating that I phoned up my friends as they were on their journey home. I wanted them to hear the glorious moment I was crowned king of Puzzle Land.

“I think I’ve got it!” I cried, holding the phone with one hand as I clumsily tested my solution with the other. The anticipation was unprecedented.

“Oh, no, that’s not it” I sighed, as Jonathan Blow laughed in my face once again. I had been defeated. “See ya soon fellas…”

I was about to hang up, then – wait. WAIT. OF COURSE. The bath struck me again like a soapy fist to the balls. Just as I was signing off, I drew a flawless line from start to finish and it was done. I felt like crying. I felt like cheering. I probably did a bit of both. Congratulations were shared from the other end of the line, along with a suggestion that our phone conversation about a line puzzle had probably run its course. My in-game reward was a door opening, inevitably leading to more puzzles (albeit less difficult ones), but the real reward was the sense of pure elation granted by that momentous victory, and the sheet of paper on which is scrawled the solution that I have kept to this day.

That, dear readers, is the genius of The Witness.

Oh, and don’t use a walkthrough. If you do, you don’t deserve happiness.

NUMBER ONE

of course it bloody is

OVERWATCH
Blizzard Entertainment
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

overwatch_heroes

If you had told me at the start of 2016 that my most-played game of the year would be a competitive shooter, I would have told you to go away, though probably in a much swearier and more satisfying fashion.

“Don’t make me laugh”, I would have said, before laughing anyway at the utter ridiculousness of the proposition and slapping you hard across the face for even suggesting such an idiotic thing. “A competitive shooter?” I’d splutter through the cackles, half expecting wings to sprout from my back, or my toes to detach from my feet and soar around me in little tiny aeroplanes, because both of those would seem far more likely. “Why, I’d rather ingest the Ebola virus than get shot in the back of the head by snipers every two seconds, and be called a ‘little babby retard’ over voice chat every time it happened”. Because that’s what online shooters are like, right?

No.

When Overwatch came out in May 2016, simply everyone was yammering on about it. “What is a Reinhardt?” I would think, as games podcasts sang its praises. “What is a Hanzo?” My first thought was that it was another great shooter that just wasn’t for me, so I passed on it until a friend jumped on board and I decided to YOLO it, taking the proverbial plunge. Little did I know the wonderment I had in store for me, as well as the immense pain that would come from learning exactly what a Hanzo is.

What intrigued me about Overwatch was the number of people who said they didn’t usually enjoy online shooting games, yet weirdly loved this one. The reason quickly became apparent: the characters. Each playable hero has their own distinct play style, and the considerable roster – currently 24 with more incoming – means that everyone will find a couple of favourites. My personal Three Musketeers are Zenyatta, a robotic Tibetan monk who uses orbs to heal friends and damage enemies; Torbjörn, a bearded, dwarf-like Scandinavian who builds turrets and supplies teammates with armour; and Mei, a Chinese scientist who uses an ice gun to freeze foes solid and create defensive walls. Every character is amazingly designed and has tons of personality, and though items unlocked through leveling up are purely cosmetic, I am excited every time I open a Loot Box at the prospect of unwrapping a new skin or character feature.

I was more than a little happy when I got this Santa skin for Torbjörn…

The fact that there are no gameplay-affecting unlocks appeals to me a lot, as every match is a level playing field. In this sense, the players’ adeptness with their chosen character matters more than what level of prestige they are on, and progression comes in the form of knowledge as you constantly improve your play. Learning what to do in which situation, how best to utilise your abilities and so on is very rewarding, more so I think than being bestowed a gun with bigger numbers. Team play is also emphasised a lot more than kill count, and you’ll feel just as good defending the objective with Reinhardt’s shield or healing the team with Lucio’s medicinal soundwaves (yep) as you will going on the assault with Soldier:76.

mei-screenshot-002

I’ve always favoured games that progress towards some kind of goal, but I’m enjoying Overwatch just for the sheer fun of it. Its characters and game modes give it a good variety, and its moment-to-moment gameplay is so inventive and thrilling that I feel compelled to keep playing. I’m quite shocked at how addictive I find it, especially if I’m playing with a team of friends and we’re on a win streak. Often I’ll find myself playing until 4 or 5 in the morning, and even then I cease more in servitude to my bodily needs than a desire to stop playing. It’s all worth it when you finish a match and get the coveted Play of the Game, during which you get to watch yourself wandering aimlessly as Torbjörn, while your distant turret kills 4 rubbish players in a row. I’ve never been hooked on drugs or similar (though there was a dark period involving World of Warcraft and cabbage farming), but I’d imagine this is like that, just without the cold sweats and diving into toilets.

I don’t think I’ll be going near the Call of Duty or Battlefield multiplayer scenes any time soon, but Overwatch has done the impossible by getting me into a genre I never thought I would touch. It’s a cracker of a game, and was really the only choice for my game of 2016. Plus, no one calls me a ‘little babby retard’. Other things yes, but not that.

And so we come to the question of what a Hanzo is. Imagine the most horrible, dirty, evil thing in the universe and multiply it thousandfold. Give it a bow and arrow, and imagine seeing it everywhere, in every game, even if it’s to the detriment of the team. Imagine being killed by said entity over and over, feeling the anger and the hate bubble inside you as you cry out to the gods of Kaplan and Metzen, protesting that there is absolutely no way in a million years that arrow could have hit you.

Welcome, Hanzo. Ryuu ga wagateki wo fuck off.

overwatch-hanzo

And thus endeth the Word of Tom.

Liked this? Why not check out my review of the films of 2016? If you can give me a legitimate reason why not, I humbly accept.

EXCEPT I DON’T. HAHA. Jebaited.

But seriously. I hope you enjoyed the nonsense I’ve been spouting here, and if you did, please consider following my blog and sharing it with your comrades. If we band together, we can face anything. Maybe not nuclear annihilation.

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