It was the best of load times, it was the worst of load times. It was the age of save scrubbing in the wastelands of post-apocalyptic Boston, it was the epic wait to finally play The Last Guardian. Most of all, it was 2016, which we can all agree was a pretty lousy revolution around the sun, reality-wise. However, it was a great year for video games, offering one of the most compelling and overloaded fall release calendars since the Great Free Time Massacre of November 2011. After spending countless hours playing every video game imaginable this year, the crack team at Nerdist has whittled down this list to the best games we played in 2016.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Naughty Dog must be in the pocket of Big Mop, because the graphics in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End were so droolworthy, I’m fairly certain I damaged the hardwood floor in my apartment. Nathan Drake’s latest (and potentially last) hurrah offered a deeply satisfying conclusion to the globetrotting, treasure-hunting saga that began in 2007. Uncharted 4 is an incredibly polished, addictive game that delivered the explosive set pieces for which the series is known and a surprising amount of pathos as family–those who are bonded by blood and by love alike–came to the forefront. The result is one of the most memorable and profoundly satisfying games of 2016.
Batman: The Telltale Series
If you’ve been reading this site over the last several years, you’ll know that I am a massive fan of Telltale Games. The San Rafael-based studio has breathed new life into both the point-and-click adventure genre and branded video games (which have otherwise been relegated to utterly passable movie tie-in fare). With Batman: The Telltale Series, the studio faced their toughest challenge yet in adapting the most popular superhero in the world to their signature format. Yet over the course of their five-episode series, Telltale managed to create a profoundly compelling version of the Caped Crusader, one which focused on the duality between Bruce Wayne and Batman, and forced players to perform the same difficult balancing act that Bruce Wayne faces daily. Some conclusions are inevitable, both in life and in Gotham City, but the brutal decisions this game forced me to make will stay with me for a long time… at least until I inevitably play the game all over again.
When the crushing weight of modern life became too much to bear, one game allowed me to escape the horrors of the real world and find my place of Zen unlike any other in recent memory: Stardew Valley. Developed by Eric Barone, a.k.a. ConcernedApe, Stardew Valley seems like the work of a massive team of designers rather than the work of one man–that’s just how good it is. The indie farming simulator recalls the halcyon days of my youth spent playing Harvest Moon, but handily stands on its own thanks to compelling gameplay mechanics, an unreasonably catchy soundtrack, RPG-style character development, and a wicked sense of humor. If you haven’t yet met the Hat Mouse, then you haven’t lived.
Final Fantasy XV
Perhaps the most succinct and perfect review of Final Fantasy XV came from YouTube’s videogamedunkey: “All they do is kill shit and eat spaghetti.” It’s a reductive, but shockingly apt description of Square Enix’s boy band road trip/RPG epic. If that sounds boring to you, first of all: you’re wrong; and second of all: it is far more addictive than you could imagine. From the opening strains of Florence Welch’s haunting cover of “Stand by Me” to the moment you conquer the screen-defying Adamantoise and beyond, you’ll find yourself utterly charmed by Final Fantasy XV and completely addicted. But those load times are a violation of the Geneva Conventions, I mean goddamn.
Our love affair with the 1990s came to a head this year with the release of a brand new Doom game. Unlike iterations in years past, this felt like a brutal and bloody return to form as players battled hordes of Revenants, Mancubi, Cyberdemons, and all manner of abominations. After a debut trailer that portended a grim slog through an army of repugnant baddies, Doom emerged as one of the most surprising and addictive titles of the year. With a sprawling arsenal and increasingly bloody ways with which to dispatch your enemies, Doom delivered a white-knuckle, adrenaline-pumping shooter like only iD Software could.
“Just one more turn.” It’s a phrase known well to any who have played Sid Meier’s venerable 4X strategy gaming series, in which the players take a world civilization from a band of intrepid settlers to a sprawling, globe-spanning empire. For its 25th anniversary, the team at Firaxis didn’t reinvent the wheel, but they made improvements–like the districts system and revamping the way tech trees work–that now feel so indispensable that it’s shocking they weren’t introduced sooner. Chances are that if you install this game, it will be December 2017 before you know it and you will be very, very late for work.
We all expected more frantic jet-pack-and-giant-robot-fueled shooter mayhem from Respawn Entertainment’s follow-up to Titanfall, and indeed, the multiplayer in Titanfall 2 is a far more polished and streamlined version of what we received in the 2014 original. What we didn’t expect was a shockingly good single-player campaign that plays with genre convention and player expectation. In a year dominated by sequels and AAA games, Titanfall 2 had more than a few tricks up its sleeve, and the results speak for themselves.
I downloaded Reigns on a whim after my friend, the very talented Albro Lundy IV, mentioned it to me in passing. What followed was a profoundly addictive experience that saw me sneaking out of meetings and taking fake trips to the bathroom to play Devolver Digital’s monarchy simulator. The game plays out like a choose your own adventure book in which you are the reigning king of the realm, forced to make difficult choices that will please or displease one of four factions–the church, the people, the military, or the bank. Deliciously weird, delightfully funny, and far more complex than it is given credit for, Reigns manages to turn a simple mechanic into a spellbindingly fun game that you need on your iPhone, Android, or PC.
The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine
Tell me…do you play The Witcher?
While Fallout 4 felt like an addiction for the Nerdist office, The Witcher 3 was an obsession for science editor Kyle Hill and me. As Geralt of Rivia, we spent a medically inadvisable amount of time exploring the swamps of Velen, the hinterlands of Skellige, and grimy streets of Novigrad.
Or, as Kyle so eloquently put it:
After 155 hours and 39 minutes, I've finally finished @CDPROJEKTRED's Witcher 3. Simply one of the best games ever made. It ended perfectly.
— Kyle Hill (@Sci_Phile) December 20, 2016
While the main story came to a conclusion, CD Projekt Red was far from finished with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Its second piece of DLC, Blood and Wine, wasn’t just a piece of DLC; it was the equivalent of a full-blown expansion pack, with an entire new region to explore and 30-plus hours of new gameplay content. The French-inspired region of Toussaint manages to deliver a quest line that oscillates between fun, freewheeling fare and brutal acts of political intrigue in a heartbeat. Most of all, it created a host of new “holy shit” moments on par with the ones that made Kyle and me fall in love with the series in the first place.
Unequivocally the best game of 2016, Overwatch has morphed from what some saw as a brightly colored clone of Team Fortress 2 into a certified phenomenon. Blizzard’s first major foray into competitive team-based multiplayer shooters has proven to be an unqualified success, thanks to rich world-building, an incredibly charismatic cast of characters, and the company’s signature level of polish. Yet unlike other multiplayer shooters, Overwatch delivers a highly competitive environment that requires teamwork to win. With its endless team-building permutations and a constantly evolving meta-game, it’s no surprise that Overwatch has emerged as one of the most-played and best games of the year, as well as a rising force on the eSports circuit.
What elevates this game from “simply great” to “the best of the year,” though, is its fandom, which is as obsessed with the relationships between the game’s characters as playing the game itself. While Blizzard may be hesitant to leap back into the world of narrative video game adaptations after Warcraft‘s polarizing reception, I cannot urge them enough to make Overwatch into an animated series. The world needs heroes, and the world needs this.
Now, if you need me, I’ll be raining justice from above.
Honorable mentions: Battlefield 1, Pokemon X and Y, The Witness, Dark Souls III, XCOM 2, Dishonored 2, Superhot, Tyranny, Inside, World of Warcraft: Legion, Super Mario Run
What were your favorite games of 2016? Let me know in the comments below!
Additional reporting by Kyle Hill, Edwin Garcia, and Samantha Sofka
Image: Naughty Dog