Andrew’s Top Games of 2016
Another year, another moment where I realise I haven’t gotten around to playing through nearly any of the games released this year on my wish list. Particularly, 2016 was quite an impressive year for PC indie gaming, with Pony Island, OneShot, Kentucky Route Zero Act IV, Owlboy, and numerous others finding critical acclaim; yet I could not play them, for I have been computer-less all year up till just a month ago. But for console releases — which largely featured the resurgence of both the exciting and the intellectual first-person shooter — I blame my lack of playtime on a fairly sizable backlog of experiences from the past, collecting dust on my occupied shelf as I gradually mark them off one by one. This year, I’ve played Nintendo 64 and PS3 games, an SNES port on the original Playstation, a remastered adventure game, even a modern horror gem from 2015 I finally got around to experiencing.
So, sadly, it was improbable to post a ranked list of my considerations for “Game of the Year” titles. Instead, I present to you a collection of three 2016 games which I personally played and thoroughly enjoyed, including some thoughts I have on each of them. They all define the modern action game in their own unique ways; involve murderous input as a means of progression and player prosperity. They also each promote numerous playstyles, allowing the player control over their personal gameplay initiative, proposing that their preferences are the most effective means of development. If these three games represent the current state of the AAA industry, then arguably the most prominent modern developer philosophy revolves around refashioning familiar conventions in efforts to expand and improve upon them, as each build off of their predecessors and/or influences, tweaking any cracks or criticisms as they see fit.
As a result, these titles manage to breathe ambition back into the mainstream consciousness, without resorting to a more abstract functionality akin to lesser-known indie titles circling the internet in search of artistic appreciation. No, here I present three games which, despite the moral quandaries they often present or even the progressive gameplay gimmicks and stratagems introduced throughout, ultimately convey the immortal intent of providing entertainment to a mass audience. Yes, these three games are fun, and gave me hours upon hours — and continue to do so — of endless amusement throughout 2016.
Dark Souls III (Review):
I approach each room with an intense level of caution. A new environment means a new sort of danger to appropriately prepare for, and only until I actually come to face to face with whatever the game commands me to combat with next, only then may I have any indication of how to progress past them. To kill, and to die, is to develop in Dark Souls III, a concept few seem to explore when discussing the game’s more prominent themes regarding mortality and the inherent animal necessity to evolve. Being slaughtered at the hands of an opponent allows reflection upon specific mistakes the player has made; and the insistent desire to reclaim the progress they have made — beautifully represented by the loss of retrievable experience points — further instigates the impulse to try again. The sequel builds off of the faults of Dark Souls II, urging players back into the dreadful cycle of it all by providing a far more intricate and cohesive level structure. Whereas Drangleic often felt like a collection of setpieces designed with little thought as to how it all functioned together believably and resourcefully, FromSoftware have here designed a vast kingdom more in line with that of the original title’s Lordran: with dark caverns leading into the depths of what can only describe Hell on Earth, dilapidated villages populated by sickness and witchcraft, lamented fortresses struggling to maintain some sort of vitality through sorcery and dark faith, Lothric feels genuinely perverse and decaying, fittingly applying a tone of despair correlative to the perturbed arguments resonant throughout. And yet Dark Souls III manages to feel the most hopeful of the series, just as it often feels the most ambitious. The title seeks to contemplate the ceaseless struggle for human survival through its very functionality, proposing the idea that “when there’s a way, there’s a will,” and that there is always a way. Applying Embers does not temporarily recover the protagonist’s deathly curse as Humanity and Effigies do in the earlier titles; instead it enhances one’s vitality and allows them to become openly connected to the universe surrounding them, ushering in a an entirely new definition of “powering up.” Thus, the game promotes the responsibility to develop, to mature; to ultimately support an ever-changing world and its inhabitants. The key to success is to constantly strive for empowerment; the key to eternal satisfaction is to ceaselessly clash with one’s mortality head on.
Dishonored 2 (Review):
For as excited as I was for this sequel this year (I actually preordered it), I was equally apprehensive. I adored the original Dishonored for its intimate attention to level design and its intense focus on player ability; but a follow-up sounded like we were being promised a rehash. Not that there would have necessarily been anything too awful about that — the first few hours of the game do have the air of a direct clone of Dishonored, with some added gimmicks like choosable characters and new powerups to utilize, and I certainly enjoyed my time for what it was worth. But as the game progresses, new ideas emerge; each level offers some intriguing new ploy to nestle the player into a conscious state of necessary development. Which, looking back, might be one of the characteristics hindering the original title’s persistence. In Dishonored 2, a transformative mansion turns traditional puzzle design on its head, forging riddles to solve through the very environment which the player is tasked with exploring; menacing clockwork soldiers add a new level of caution to approaching levels, further enticing the player to choose a stealthy route of progression; a new gadget allows one to peek into the past as well as travel back and forth to it and the present — though its appearance is unfortunately brief; bloodflies add an extra layer of player choice, functioning as an ability to maneuver through crowds of human enemies, or more often serving as enemies to impasse themselves. The study of architectural limits and possibilities remains intact and is perhaps showcased stronger than before; multiple routes to a destination become littered with fascinating lore, excerpts and novels to read, sidestories to exhibit and engage in. Arkane understand that despite a generic main plotline, concentrated worldbuilding has a significant impact on player investment with the landscape, and to properly promote exploration, a world must define its limits while facilitating an ample bevy of secrets to uncover. Dishonored 2 remarkably demonstrates this all throughout its engorged scenario, displaying a keen attention to detail and dynamism which keeps every level fresh, intricate, and involved no matter the play style the player so chooses. Gameplay has been appropriately updated, allowing for fluid movement through the dangerous streets of Karnaka; more powerups equates to a more functional system of experimentation regarding character growth; a variety of location motifs provide plenty of settings to fittingly collaborate with the magical surrealism infusing the city with its dreadful viscosity. Perhaps the game’s greatest strength lies in the fact that despite its systematic foundation, and all the formally-tightened cranks and gears peering beyond the depths of each locale Corvo/Emily amble their way into (not to mention some stiff-legged patrols), the world of Dishonored 2 feels exceptionally authentic, a feat which many developers fail in accomplishing to provide.
“Ok, just one more match, and then I’ll get back to work.” But it’s never just one more match. I came to the Overwatch scene rather late, originally only being able to play it when my equally-obsessed friend would bring his copy over to my house (I’ve since gotten my own). Even now, as I write this passage describing my adoration of the remarkably-polished multiplayer title, I can’t help but keep myself from rushing to my PS4 to play for a few hours. You know, to pass the time. Then I’ll finish this paragraph. But no, I must keep focused, mustn’t think of the game’s ease-of-access. There’s something to say about any title’s fluidity when the very functionality is designed to reward both longtime diehards as equally as newcomers. Overwatch most significantly succeeds in its approach towards “balance.” There’s something so satisfying about getting Play of the Game (especially for two consecutive rounds, *ahem*); sharing a brief, impressive victory over multiple enemies simultaneously both causes team celebration as well as panders to the cynical showoff within us all. But what keeps the accessibility even further involved is the sheer variety of characters, or more specifically, the variety of approachability to the battlefield. Overwatch offers no binary discrepancy between Defense and Offense, instead the game revels in managing both simultaneously through each of its 23 diverse classes. Capturing the fundamental basis of Team Fortress 2, which promotes limitations in efforts to provide consistent balance across the members of its cast, and adding the fast-paced play qualities reminiscent of RTS staples from Blizzard’s past; Overwatch encourages intelligent reflexes without ever compromising integrity, even if a few classes do seem unavoidably overpowered — I’m looking at you, Pharah. Regardless, wiping out a Bastion as Tracer feels undeniably gratifying; securing an objective in a round’s final seconds, amidst the chaos of fellow team members finally pulling together to attain “VICTORY,” made for some of the most climactic moments I’ve experienced during 2016. The developer understands the importance of rewarding multiple players, further encompassing the importance of teamwork. Because just as any multiplayer game should function, Overwatch demands cooperation. Some will have to sacrifice their go-to character so the team can have a healer or a lumbering tank, if they want to succeed, that is. More importantly, Blizzard retain a keen attention to character design, ensuring every Hero has a unique, accessible, and enjoyable range of capabilities to exploit, so no player leaves a round unsatisfied. With its multiple awards dished out each match, updates fashioning the characters with seasonal outfits and designs, new members added to the roster as the developer deems them worthy of inclusion, unlockables and loot boxes galore; Overwatch has already proved to be a consistently operational multiplayer experience. One I can’t stop thinking about, and can’t wait to return to.
If the major releases of 2016 have taught me anything — whether I’ve yet to play them or not — it’s that the medium is constantly evolving, no matter the hiccups presented each year. These three specific cases exhibit a functioning status of maturity, re-envisioning influence into a profitable example of improvement. The key to success is striving for further empowerment, to acknowledge the faults of a product and expand upon its strengths in a subsequent release. With that in mind, perhaps a subconscious trend will finally emerge — Watch Dogs 2 realised its predecessor’s lifeless composition, restructuring the narrative to better suit its chaotic gameplay; DOOM understood the abrasive power of the 1993 original, once again pitting players into the role of the malicious hero protecting his Earth from Hellish, undeniably antagonistic monsters; Pokemon GO proved a successful reworking of the namesake formula into the contexts of real-life experience, thinning the line which separates fiction from reality. Expansion and renovation were the cornerstones of some of the most successful gaming ventures in 2016. Perhaps next year will further instigate this concept, one necessary for the persistence of any cultural medium, let alone human evolution itself.