Hitman could be seen as a soft reboot for the long-running stealth franchise. After all, it’s titled simply “Hitman” and not “Hitman: Ominous Subtitle”. This would elicit an exaggerated eyeroll from me if the game weren’t so laser-focused on delivering a lean and mean assassination experience. The fundamentals are there as they have been since the beginning: disguises, distractions, and dumb-as-hell guards. The mechanics are exposed to you in a clean interface that is flexible enough to hold your hand if you want it to, or leave you to your own devices if you’re more interested in… creative improvisation.
There were initially some big concerns about the amount of content in Hitman’s first season, spanning just 6 maps, but those maps are enormous and densely packed with entertaining dialogue and interesting opportunities. The mastery system and associated challenges intelligently encourage repeat attempts at each mission. Contracts, one of the most highly praised innovations of 2012’s Absolution, make a return here as well. Time-limited Elusive Targets, special events, and cleverly remixed maps… there’s a lot more in this package than first meets the eye.
The core interactions are satisfying enough to be rewarding on their own, but IO has been careful to give you good reasons to return to the game, again and again. Over the course of this year, Hitman has grown from what seemed like an episodic experiment into a fully-realized and effective platform, delivering on its promise of a “World of Assassination.” Can’t wait for season two.
9. Quadrilateral Cowboy
Quadrilateral Cowboy made me feel like a hacker. A lot of people might say that about a lot of different games, but let me clarify: Quadrilateral Cowboy didn’t make me feel like I was in the 1995 film “Hackers”, or like I was stealing credit card numbers with phishing emails, or like I had “hacked the mainframe” by pounding on three different keyboards. This game made me feel like I had an understanding of a secret language that I could use to manipulate the world to my will.
I created strings of code that opened doors, activated cameras, and exploited security measures. I executed scripts that allowed me to do things that i had seen done in many movies and TV shows, and none of it felt fake. I typed the code, revised it, and ultimately optimized each heist. While this short game relies entirely on the charming Blendo Games aesthetic and a single gimmick/mechanic, it’s one hell of a gimmick. Quadrilateral Cowboy is definitely worth a look.
8. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Naughty Dog have, time and time again, set the benchmark for the kinds of interactive, cutscene-driven storytelling that games have employed for the last 20 years. Uncharted 2 is an important touchpoint in the modern history of games, as is The Last of Us. Both do things I had never seen accomplished in a game before, from stunning action sequences to quiet, contemplative downtime. Both made me excited for the future of my favorite medium, and cemented the developer as indispensable.
I thought a fourth Uncharted story might be just one too many for me to remain invested, but once again, Naughty Dog has shown me things that I never thought possible in a game: Captivating, intimate dialogue sequences, where i’m seeing characterization without considering performance capture technology. Stunning vistas and insane set pieces in the grand tradition, sure, but also subtle animation tics and genuine emotion coming from characters’ eyes and mouths. While it’s true that the game is mostly “Bigger, Better Uncharted”, I am extremely happy with the way that the story of Nathan Drake has come to a close. Good show, Nate. Go take a nap.
7. Forza Horizon 3
Horizon 3 delivers pretty much exactly what I was hoping for: A nearly-perfected version of the formula introduced in its first entry. The Australian festival is big and varied, the cars are as gorgeous as ever, and the game has a chipper, friendly personality. The build-your-own-event blueprint system gives you a lot of freedom to determine your own progression, and the light narrative that frames the game even contextualizes it as you “building out the festival.” I was skeptical of this “you’re the boss” approach at first, but it really grew on me.
For what it’s worth, the only reason Forza Horizon 3 is so low on this list is because so many other games this year had more innovative and novel hooks going for them. Forza Horizon 3 has really taken the franchise formula to its thoroughly-modern conclusion, with the inclusion of Forzathon weekly challenges, a polished multiplayer experience, integrated clubs, and the always brilliant liveries created by the talented Forza community. My only hope is that the next time we see a Horizon game, it does something fresh with the format… Because as of now, this is the best Forza title ever released. It would be pretty damned hard to top.
I generally have a disinterest in competitive multiplayer. It’s not that I don’t like it; I have a long history of multiplayer shooting stretching from Unreal Tournament to Black Ops 2 and Destiny. But I don’t engage with competitive modes with any serious dedication. Overwatch is a game that might end up changing that. Blizzard has created a deeply accessible game that rewards players of every skill level, regardless of their commitment to improving their skills. By design, it makes it incredibly easy to feel like your contribution is meaningful… which can in turn inspire you to make an effort to improve.
Blizzard’s expected level of polish is in full effect here. The characters are balanced, not just in terms of one another, but in terms of their own abilities. They’re all easy to learn and difficult to master, with powers that provide clear benefits. Each one has a strong, recognizable personality, and the world they inhabit itself sings with a heroic, hopeful adventure vibe. Overwatch is a fantastic refinement of ideas found elsewhere in the industry, but it also serves as a refreshing counterpoint to the sometimes overtly grim and violent shooter market.
5. Planet Coaster
For the longest time, a certain slice of the internet cried out for a RollerCoaster Tycoon 4. When Frontier announced Planet Coaster in 2015, that entire specific demographic was brought to its knees (myself included). Frontier, the developers of RCT3, making a spiritual successor? They would surely change the game forever!
Well… Not quite. Planet Coaster is a remarkable theme park designer and sandbox but merely an above-average simulation game. Oddly enough for a game marketed as “Simulation Evolved”, the park management aspects of Planet Coaster see the smallest number of improvements over the games it takes after… but that’s chief(beef)ly due to the amazing depth added to literally every other facet of the game.
For example: Scenery is modular, and parts can be used to build almost anything you can imagine. A quick look at the steam workshop or featured creators shows the depth of creativity on display. Using a combination of individual items and pre-built blueprints, you can make the park of your dreams with relative ease. Best of all, the presence of scenery is core to the simulation, and it actually improves the effectiveness of your park.
The titular coasters can be built in almost any configuration you can imagine, with an angle snap toggle bridging the gap between pre-made pieces and free manipulation. Coaster testing uses live heatmaps to highlight trouble spots causing excess fear or nausea, allowing you to optimize your designs (or terrorize guests with them). Block sections, optional catwalks… You can build a fastpass, ya’ll. You can create a fastpass lane.
Also, the game is gorgeous. The art style is a beautiful modernization of Roller Coaster Tycoon 3’s, with the power of Elite Dangerous’ version of the Cobra engine behind it. The details are stunning; bolts on track pieces, a water bottle on the ride op’s terminal. Together with the unintuitive but flexible camera, they make just sitting and watching your park run an absolute joy.
Frontier’s return to the genre they helped establish is a satisfyingly modern set of tools for the bold park entrepreneur. Planet Coaster’s management aspects may have been lacking at launch, but recent updates have taken the first steps to addressing the community’s complaints, and nearly everything else is pitch-perfect. The freedom Planet Coaster affords players to create and be rewarded for participating in its systems is a revelation for this kind of game. It’s easily one of my favorite releases of 2016.
“SUPERHOT is the most innovative shooter i’ve played in years.” I say, blood streaming down my face from one nostril. “Super. Hot. Super. Hot.” And indeed, it would have retained that title if it weren’t for a certain game higher on this list. The puzzle game FPS where “time moves only when you move” was an absolute revelation from the first moment its prototypes were introduced. Like a slow-motion action movie ballet, you drift around the levels dreamily, punching non-descript red dudes, stealing their guns, and generally making a mess of things with your superhuman reflexes.
It would have been enough to navigate these murder puzzles without any more than that, but the introduction of a possession mechanic that allows you to leap from body to body really amps things up. By the end of the game, you’re pulling off maneuvers that make John Wick look sloppy by comparison. Mechanically, SUPERHOT is one of the most satisfying games I can think of.
Just as you become more and more addicted to the high of manipulating your enemies, a sinister narrative emerges of a corrupted system slowly consuming your identity. It’s compelling stuff made all the more darkly humorous by how fun the game is to play. You almost have to chuckle at how the game taunts you, at one point even asking you to not play it, knowing that you eventually will. The way it all unfolds is worth experiencing for yourself, so I won’t spoil it here, but SUPERHOT’s self awareness is absolutely top-tier. I wish there were more stories in games like it.
I could say the same for the entirety of the game, actually. SUPERHOT is short, sharp, and immediate. Everyone I’ve shown it to, regardless of their interest in games, has come away impressed and excited. The game reads as inventive immediately upon watching any amount of it, and the more you get involved, the more it sucks you in. One of 2016’s best: SUPERHOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER...
3. XCOM 2
The premise of this year’s XCOM 2 is inspired by the punishing nature of the first game: It establishes that you, the Commander, failed to defend earth from hostile invaders, who have since subjugated the world’s governments and established your standard-issue Dystopian Police State. Unfortunate prescience aside, the setup is delightful. What could be more XCOM than a sequel that blames you for your presumed failures?
XCOM 2 is most certainly still XCOM, polishing the winning formula of the first title and doubling down its best qualities: character customization, incidental storytelling, and cinematic presentation. But it also flips the script in some ways, forcing you to engage with the enemy in ways you would have gone great lengths to avoid in the previous game.
In XCOM 2, most missions have turn timers, with mission failure or soldier capture on the line. This is balanced by an opening phase of “concealment” on most missions, allowing you to use the fine-tuned overwatch mechanics to set up an ambush. This phase replaces the slow crawl of the first game’s missions with a cinematic and satisfying-as-hell-even-the-600th-time action sequence. It’s just one of many twists that serve to amplify the entire experience.
Soldiers can now be knocked out, left to die or be imprisoned. A specialist with remote healing and hacking abilities rounds out a re-balanced set of classes, which serve the vanilla game well and help to create some great moments of risk/reward. XCOM 2 was built on PC with modding in mind, so a huge number of gameplay and cosmetic modifications are available, both on steam workshop and elsewhere. Just like the now legendary Long War mod for XCOM: EU, this has already deeply enhanced the game from launch and will continue to extend its life. Anything you don't love, you can surely change.
XCOM 2 might be my favorite strategy game of all time, but it’s also a cruel and terrible piece of software. Missing 95% aim shots at point blank will never be fun, no matter how necessary it is for balance. Losing HURTS… and that’s exactly what makes XCOM special. It’s not for everyone, and I’ve quit in a huff more often than I’d care to admit, because Shit Can and Will Go Wrong. But just breathe. It’s going to be fine.
XCOM 2 launched as a bit of a technical mess on PC, and my machine (despite a graphics card upgrade) has continued to have trouble with shuddering, blinking, and inconsistent framerate. This dulled the experience of my initial playthrough slightly, but that’s not the real story. The real story is the other 190 hours I’ve spent playing this game since then.
UPDATE: Long War Studios, now known as Pavonis Interactive, are developing a Long War 2 mod for XCOM 2. God help us all.
The first time I think I had a good idea of what “indie game” meant was Limbo from Playdead Games. The now-classic puzzle platformer was, in my opinion, a great example of what a modestly-scaled game can do with the right care and attention paid to every aspect of its execution. That kind of care and attention isn’t absent from larger titles, but when a game comes from a single designer or a smaller team, there is a noticeable consistency of vision that can be harder to get at in a larger project.
Inside is Playdead’s long-anticipated follow up to Limbo, and it shares many of the first game’s qualities: it has a stark, wordless narrative starring a young boy in a harsh and unforgiving setting, an emphasis on platforming, and environmental puzzles that employ gravity. The thing is, it’s much bigger. The scope of the world has been expanded by moving to a 3D perspective, which complicates character interactions and animation. The lighting is intricate and beautiful. Every screen of the game is a carefully-considered composition, both aesthetically and mechanically.
As an example: early in the game, you are introduced to dogs. The quirks of their behavior are slowly introduced in various encounters with them; an early interaction demonstrates that the dogs’ run animation has a spin-up time, but once they get going they can outrun your character. Another is designed to teach the player how the dog tracks them and responds.
This culminates in a puzzle which requires you to manipulate what you know about how the dogs work in order to proceed. Then, the entire core set of rules and mechanics is brought forward into the next section, where you will invariably find a new mechanic or a reinterpretation of an old one.
For me, that’s effortless-seeming, breathtaking game design. Playdead set out to tell a particular story with Inside, and though it’s abstract and primarily interested in mood, I think they’ve told it. The “twist ending” that made waves on the internet upon release is indeed an interesting turn, but the story is ultimately less interesting than the experience of play that Inside provides. It is inspiring to see the sensibilities of Limbo at such an impressive scale, and I look forward to what Playdead does next.
Game of the Year: DOOM
Let me tell you about a game called Doom. Released in 1993, it pioneered the first-person shooter genre with blisteringly fast movement, shocking gore, and mazelike levels that punctuated its breathless gunfights with quiet, tense exploration. It received almost universal critical acclaim, ushering in a new era of games inspired by its emphasis on player mobility and brutal challenge.
Of course, other kinds of first person games came to the forefront eventually, replacing the admittedly single-minded focus of shooters like Doom and its successors. The narrative innovation of Half-Life and its sequel, the freedom of immersive simulations like Deus Ex and Thief, and the revelatory multiplayer of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare all transformed the triple-a shooter in radical ways, resulting in some incredible titles and franchises… but leaving the purity of the core genre behind.
Even setting aside its long, troubled development, what DOOM accomplishes is impressive: it takes what appears to be a tired format and makes it compelling again. It does so without injecting false novelty into the experience, carefully balancing modernizations like weapon upgrades and takedown moves with self-aware nods like its hidden classic levels. DOOM is nostalgic for the right parts of its source material: the parts that make the original still fun today. I can see myself returning to this iteration in a similar way.
Let me tell you about a game called DOOM. Released in 2016, it reinvigorated the first-person shooter genre with its blisteringly fast movement, shocking gore, and mazelike levels that encourage player exploration and creative movement. It received almost universal critical acclaim at launch, and many hope that it will serve as an example for arcade shooters for years to come: fast, fun, and brutally challenging. It wasn’t flawless; its take-it-or-leave-it multiplayer suite and somewhat abrupt ending deflated the overall package slightly. Even so, it was the best game I played this year.
The Witness: I haven’t experienced enough of this yet to cement it on my list, but Thekla’s obsessively-designed Island of Puzzles is one of the most fascinating games I’ve ever played. I also might be too dumb to fully appreciate it. The walk speed is pretty slow. The audio logs are dry and mostly humorless. Sounds like a Jonathan Blow game to me.
Civilization VI: I know. It’s great. I’ll get to it. Promise.
Total War: Warhammer: It’s a Total War game with the satisfyingly grimdark fantasy flavorings of the Warhammer license. That works just about as well as you would hope. Almost snuck in at #10.
Jeff Soulliere is a writer, video game enthusiast, and nervous wreck, not always in that order. His opinions are his own, and do not represent those of any larger organization or publication. Complain about his poor taste on Twitter: @Jeff_Soulliere.