The games that shaped 2016: blockbusters, indie hits, cult favourites and massive embarrassments
So many video games came out this year that there's little chance you've played or maybe even heard of a tiny fraction of them. To help you compile your lists of holiday goals and future pile of shame, we cut through the noise by highlighting the biggest, most interesting, most talked-about and even most disastrous games of 2016.
It's been a really busy and interesting year for video games. In this first episode of a two-part feature, we track from early January to early July, and highlight half of the games that made 2016.
That Dragon, Cancer
Release: January 12 (Ouya, Mac, PC) October 5 (iOS)
We get so caught up in explosions, pixels and bloody murder that we sometimes forget games are capable of a great deal else. That Dragon, Cancer is one example.
Ryan and Amy Green chose to make a game to express their life experiences and tell the story of their son Joel, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at just 12 months of age. Given a poor prognosis, Joel battled on for years, during which time his parents lived in the liminal, twilight world of hospitals.
To be a parent to a child in these circumstances is hard in ways most of us will never understand. But That Dragon, Cancer opens a small window into that world, and state of mind. It's not an easy experience, but not everything necessary is pleasant.
Release: January 15 (May, PC, Xbox One) May 31 (PS4) June 1 (Linux)
We can only hope that, in years to come, the words "seminal" and "influential" will be attached to Oxenfree, a game with one of the best dialogue systems ever.
Oxenfree is an adventure game about a pack of teens staying overnight on an island, and most of the gameplay consists of walking, talking and solving puzzles. Of these, talking - seriously - is the most absorbing. Rather than occurring in response to the protagonist's prompts or at set intervals, conversation flows constantly and naturally, interrupting and picking back up around the demands of the game and the player's actions, and even allowing dialogue choices to vanish forever if you're so intent on listening you fail to put your oar in on time - a situation the shy amongst us will ruefully recognise.
And you will be intent on listening. These characters, and this story, will stay with you.
Release: January 19 (Mac, PC) September 27 (PS4, Vita)
If you made it through 2016 without a pal excitedly attempting to shove Darkest Dungeon down your throat, get new friends. This indie smash hit has been ringing bells wherever RPG, rogue-like and dungeon crawler fans get together, and ringing them hard.
There's a lot to love about Darkest Dungeon but the really neat bit is the way your characters suffer under your command. Keep sending that crack crew of adventurers into monster-filled dungeons and there's a good chance they'll crack under the strain, manifesting one of a number of mostly unfortunate personality traits you may end up stuck with till they die or you sub them out for someone less likely to suffer a breakdown mid-turn.
With permadeath, a roster of up to 25 heroes at your disposal and plenty of opportunities to invest in your home base, the end result is kind of like XCOM meets The Sims in a distressingly bleak fantasy setting. There are two kinds of people in the world, and one of them hears that elevator pitch and goes into a swoon.
Release: January 26 (PC, PS4) September 13 (Xbox One)
What do you do next when you're the guy that made Braid, one of the darlings of the indie revolution? Why, you take all the money (and then a great deal more) and you make something extraordinary.
Beautiful, disarmingly silent, extremely restrained and brain-bendingly difficult (it's a game you should play without a guide, but we made one anyway), The Witness blew minds and stole hearts, and seems to have secured the future of Jonathan Blow's studio, Thekla Inc.
The Witness is a series of puzzle boards which start very simply - and escalate dramatically. In the early stages you wonder why it couldn't just be a mobile app, and then the 3D world itself starts to bleed into the puzzles, and you uncover a nest of connecting secrets and story hooks, and it all goes a bit meta. Now that it exists, the world is a slightly better place.
Rise of the Tomb Raider
Release: January 28 (PC) October 11 (PS4)
Is this cheating? Yes. Rise of the Tomb Raider debuted on Xbox One in 2015. Do we care? No. Although it's made great strides in the latter half of the year, Xbox One had been so far behind its rival that most of us missed this the first time around, and in any case the Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration re-issue is worth a nod all on its own.
Rise of the Tomb Raider continues where Crystal Dynamics's 2013 reboot left off, and it does it superbly. We didn't have much negative to say about Tomb Raider, but its sequel polishes that formula up while dumping extraneous add-ons like the multiplayer mode to double down on what worked. The combat sandbox in particular is rather jolly, we love the challenge tombs, and Lara Croft is more fun to adventure with now that her personal journey feels less like complicity in torture porn.
If you have the equipment, try the PS4 Pro build of Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 year Celebration, which sets a wonderful precedent by coming packed with customisable graphics presets, so you can push the hardware the way you want to. A wonderful extra touch.
Release: February 5 (Mac, PC) September 27 (PS4, Xbox One)
"RNG done right" may well be XCOM 2's motto - unlike its precursor, it rarely feels unfair. What it does feel is tough; as a tiny rebellion struggling to strike back at the aliens now ruling Earth, you're constantly on the hop. Outgunned and outmanned - but outmanoeuvred? That one's on you.
Don't be afraid of this one if you're not an old-school strategy buff; XCOM 2 is great on consoles and with some beginner's tips and upgrade and research suggestions you'll have no trouble getting started.
If you take the plunge, you're in for a treat. Building a squad and naming them after your buddies is fun, but XCOM 2 really shines when one of them dies. That's when you realise just how much you had invested in each soldier, and every conflict turns into a desperate battle to protect your suddenly precious resources, where every mistake has dire consequences and you have to think several moves in advance. Outstanding.
Release: February 9 (Linux, Mac, PC, PS4) September 30 (Xbox One)
From the genre derisively labelled "walking simulators", Firewatch is a game that's as much about talking. It avoids the common trope of player characters talking to themselves by giving the protagonist a radio and a friend at the other end, and although it's not always obvious on your first playthrough, the linear story is complemented by many, many branches of dialogue and even entirely missable actions.
Team VG247 gave Firewatch four thumbs up. We don't seem to have been alone in that assessment, either: Firewatch sold over 1 million copies and is in development as a film.
The ending is divisive but well before you get to the meat of Firewatch's narrative you'll be caught by its beauty and atmosphere. The woods are a lonely but lovely setting for this journey, and many of Firewatch's best moments are those you create for yourself as you hike its trails doing nothing but looking.
Release: February 9 (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Calling Unravel a side-scrolling platformer with physics puzzles is underselling it markedly. Memorably debuting at E3 2015 with an endearing appearance form creator Martin Sahlin, Unravel's protagonist, Yarny, has an ineffable charm which carries over into his beautifully-realised world.
The emotional journey you'll take during Unraveled isn't so mindblowing or original that it will be trotted out by academics in years to come, but it is touching. Since it comes combined with a solid little game, it's an experience to be savoured.
Unravel is also notable as the first of EA's "indie" publishing endeavours, now formalised as the Originals scheme, and responsible for the upcoming Fe and Sea of Solitude. When you check out Yarny's adventure for yourself you'll see why the mega-publisher has turned its attention back to smaller experiences - to everyone's benefit.
Street Fighter 5
Release: February 16 (PC, PS4)
No, don't scroll past in disgust - Street Fighter 5 may have launched in a rubbish state, but it's come a heck of a long way since then - and that itself is worth talking about.
Capcom totally muffed the launch: there was bugger all single-player content and online multiplayer didn't work. It was delay-studded months before we saw the necessary fixes and content to make Street Fighter 5 into the contended it is today, and those were months when the faithful who'd shelled out for it at launch had little to show for it.
Now? Now it's very good, or at least very good fun, and lining up a second season of DLC characters. At this stage, whether Capcom can paper over those terrible first few months by messaging its progress or if Street Fighter 5 goes down in history as a disaster, it's definitely one of the most interesting things to happen this year.
Release: February 18 (PC) July 6 (Mac) September 19 (Linux)
Oh aye you think you're well hard, you're so good at first person shooters. But are you Devil Daggers good? It's unlikely, pally.
A lot of shooters are advertised as being fast-paced and frantic but Devil Daggers actually is. Endless random waves of enemies come at you out of the darkness of the abyss and you, with your magical daggers and dancin' feet, are no match for them at all. If you survive for a whole minute that's pretty good. No kidding. A couple of minutes will make you the envy of your friends.
Being better at your friends at Devil Daggers (while still sitting a long, long way from the lofty peaks of the global rankings) is much of the attraction for many players, but there's a meditative, zen-like grace in playing it for its own sake. Assuming your idea of a good trance is screaming skulls swallowing you whole.
Release: February 25 (Linux, Mac, PC) May 3 (Xbox One) December 5 (Oculus Rift)
Hands down the most interesting shooter of the year, Superhot is a singularly pure vision. Stripped of all extraneous material (hence the minimal cyberpunk aesthetic), it turns upon time manipulation: move, and time advances. Stop, and it slows to a crawl.
Playing something like a puzzle game, Superhot is nevertheless one of the most relentless and fast-paced shooters of the year. No, seriously; the waves of enemies just keep on coming, throwing themselves at you from all directions, and you'll soon find that dodging bullets is no help to you if there's nowhere left to dodge.
Bombastic, choreographed-style action sequences and satisfyingly exacting tactical decisions chain together like dominos. Set them up, knock them down, and do it again and again until you're breathless. The VR version is even better, somehow.
Release: February 26 (PC) July 29 (Linux, Mac) December 14 (PS4, Xbox One)
There are probably unexamined cultural and psychological problems behind our growing fascination with gentle farming and crafting games, but at the end of this long, long, year, we don't want to think about them. Stardew Valley is the Harvest Moon game you've been waiting for ever since the main series wandered off track and fell into a ditch.
And you're not the only one, either - Stardew Valley had a fervent fanbase well before launch, helping to shape it into the life-eater it is today, and went on to dominate the Steam charts for weeks, selling well over 1 million units.
If you've tried a Harvest Moon game you know what you're in for, but Stardew Valley plays like a wishlist, drawing in features from overlapping genres and titles, like Terraria, Animal Crossing and even Minecraft - and chucking out the time limit. It never seems to run out of content to throw at you, and that it comes to us courtesy of just one man is as good an argument for continued existence of humanity as any posited by 2016.
Release: March 8 (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
The second of a wave of shared-worlds action titles revealed in the early days of new generation rumbles, The Division made a strong bid to unseat Destiny from the throne of console MMO-lites.
Releasing to player counts so high you had to queue to speak to vendors, The Division quickly found itself in need of follow-up content for those not attracted to the loot grinds of endgame PvP. Admirably, Ubisoft Massive didn't give in to the temptation to pump out new stuff, instead delaying to focus on ironing out the core game's kinks.
The result was a much stronger game, and one that has improved patch by patch. The content drought may have harmed The Division's player retention, but those who stayed are well-served for their faithfulness - and it's definitely worth popping back in if you checked out after launch.
Release: March 11 (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
And to think we ever doubted it. If ever a traditional game was ripe for conversion to episodic format, it's Hitman.
This release format may have lost a few diehard hold outs, but Hitman is a game that really rewards intense focus on one level at a time, and those hardcore series fans who understood that were well rewarded. Each perfectly crafted sandbox rolled out with plenty of time to master it. A perfect Hitman experience, right?
But then IO Interactive escalated: turns out Hitman can get even better than that. The limited-time Elusive Targets turned online events into white-knuckle, unmissable highlights, marrying the intensity of one-shot-only to the rewards of having put in the hard yards over the preceding months.
Salt and Sanctuary
Release: March 15 (PS4) May 17 (PC)
I think all of us who love the Souls games can agree that there aren't enough Souls games in the world. Enter Salt and Sanctuary, a small compensation for this universal issue.
Salt and Sanctuary is among the best of a number of 2D indies heavily inspired by From Software's hardcore RPGs. Its beautiful hand-drawn visuals capture that same unearthly atmosphere, but the combat also backs it up, with a level of depth you may find surprising if you're long estranged from the sidescrolling world, amplified by 600 items and a sprawling skill tree.
If the Souls brand doesn't do it for you, think Castlevania. But citing its obvious influences undersells how good the package is as a whole, and there's room enough in the world for this love letter to multiple families of established gameplay formulae.
Hyper Light Drifter
Release: March 31 (Linux, Mac, PC) July 26 (PS4, Xbox One)
More than 18 months after Double Fine Adventure dropped the flag on the Kickstarter revolution, we were all getting a bit tired of forking out for gloriously beautiful indie things years into the future. Nevertheless, Hyper Light Drifter's pitch - The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past meets Diablo - and its neon stylings pulled in a whopping $645,000 - so far above its $27,000 budget that the original scope grew and grew.
The result was worth the extra wait: Hyper Light Drifter is a very special game. It's not just the charm of its unique aesthetic and the sticky action RPG gameplay, but the compelling truth of the story it tells and the experience it shares through its minimalistic narrative.
Switching between bananas action and contemplative stills, rolling pitch-perfect retro sensibilities up in a thoroughly modern wrapper, Hyper Light Drifter is one of those success stories that make us eternally grateful for crowdfunding, indies and Game Maker.
Dark Souls 3
Release: April 12 (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Series lead Hidetaka Miyazaki returned to the director's chair for one last go at Dark Souls, and what a swansong it was. The most overtly self-referential entry in the extended Souls family, Dark Souls 3 brings the cyclical element of its gameplay and lore to the foreground. At first glance it feels almost like fan-service, which is satisfying in its own way, but the deeper you dive the more rewarding it gets - as with everything Souls.
Carefully walking the balance between downplaying frustration (boss shortcuts are positioned to minimise repetitive crawls) and keeping the difficulty high (Pontiff Sulyvahn, or insert boss of your choice here), Dark Souls 3 is the most technically-impressive and solid performing entry in the series to date. Mysterious, unsatisfying Poise debacle aside, online play is better than ever; and whether you're looking for buddies, starting a fight club, going on an invasion spree, luring in combatants or running a gank squad, there's risk and reward a plenty.
Dark Souls 3 retains the mystery, the challenge and the opaque presentation of its ancestors, and nods to its longterm fans while inviting in a fresh crowd to be seduced by its many twisted beauties. No complaints.
Uncharted 4: A Thief's End
Release: May 10 (PS4)
The third Uncharted game felt like the ending of the series, but Naughty Dog came back for another go and Uncharted 4: A Thief's End feels less like an unplanned epilogue and more like a second attempt at ending Nathan Drake's story.
Amy Hennig jumped ship for Star Wars and we lost some of the Uncharted mainstays in the process - goodbye whacky supernatural third act, hello family ties - but the new creative team, fresh from The Last of Us, put together a buddy story reminding us that there's hope for the old AI companion schtick yet.
If you must say goodbye to Nathan Drake, this is the way to do it. It may not revolutionise a genre like some of its prequels did, but it's arguably the strongest and best overall Uncharted game.
Release: May 13 (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Bethesda is smug enough about DOOM's critical and commercial performance that it's quit sending advance review code to press, although it's difficult to see the cause and effect connection here: DOOM is a bloody good game, and presumably would have been as good three days before launch as it is a couple of months on.
We learned recently what happened to DOOM 4, the project announced and cancelled before the reboot was announced. Turns out id made something that was a little too Call of Duty, so scrapped it and instead made a game that is very DOOM indeed. Every moment of the campaign hums with the intensity of the series at its peak, lovingly made over with modern tools, to provide something no other franchise ever has.
The multiplayer side of things is less exciting and we do wish id would stop trying to make it happen and do some campaign DLC instead. Nothing's ever perfect, is it.
Total War: Warhammer
Release: May 24 (PC) November 22 (Linux)
Disappointing decision not to go for the obvious concatenated title aside, Total War: Warhammer is a triumph.
There has never been a more faithful adaptation of the tabletop Warhammer game, and it's a beautiful monument to the game as it was, now that the universe has been rebooted. Classic units are lovingly recreated with an eye for the lore and player tradition as well as the little details. The necessary concessions required to fit Warhammer to Total War's infamous one-more-turn formula work a beautiful alchemy of late nights turned to early mornings, while the rich lore grant significant diversity to units and factions.
Games Workshop's sudden fondness for throwing its licenses around willy-nilly has borne some delicious fruit, but few projects can boast the pedigree of the Creative Assembly and Sega's pockets to back them up. Total War: Warhammer stands above the pack.
Release: May 24 (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Blizzard? Making a shooter?? You better believe it, buddy, and like everything the developer actually releases, Overwatch is a banger.
Rising from the ashes of the cancelled Titan MMO, Overwatch is the first "hero shooter", ramping up the complexity of class shooters like Team Fortress 2 but remaining more accessible than MOBAs like League of Legends. This formula was an instant success.
Blizzard is still tinkering with its ranked format, adjusting balance and, delightfully, throwing events and new content out in a regular stream. Overwatch boasts an incredibly lively scene, and fervent fandom, and what we suspect is an enviable revenue stream due to the psychological stickiness of those damnable loot boxes. Who do you main?
The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine
Release: May 31 (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Listen - the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was so good, and sold so well, that its impact will be felt for years to come. Like Skyrim, which demonstrated that RPGs can go blockbuster and paved the way for a crop of bid budget beauties, The Witcher 3 has demonstrated that open worlds and consequential narratives can go hand in hand. Don't expect RPGs to recover from this masterwork.
Blood and Wine, the second piece of DLC, is terrific. It's a rip-roaring tale of adventure in the glorious glowing landscape of Toussaint, which branches in a more predictable but replayable way than the main story. It also ends with a gentle retirement plan for Geralt, which is a wonderful farewell to the property for CD Projekt RED.
The Witcher 3: Game of the Year Edition (or Complete Edition) launched in August, so if you missed Wild Hunt, Hearts of Stone or Blood and Wine, a strong contender for DLC of the year, here's your chance to grab it all in one swoop.
Release: June 29 (Xbox One) July 7 (PC) August 23 (PS4)
It took Playdead six years to produce a sophomore release, but Inside was worth the wait.
Building on Limbo's puzzle platformer foundation, Inside is a game reflecting every second of its extended development in a level of polish rarely seen in a project of any size. Moment to moment, the craftsmanship of the Finnish team is palpable, from the tense dystopian atmosphere to the gradually escalating puzzle design.
At times frightening, its minimally presented story is all the more effective for its many mysteries. You won't spend many hours playing Inside, but you'll spend many more hours thinking about it, and wondering why everything can't be as perfect.
Release: July 6 (Android, iOS)
Nobody involved in the production of Pokemon Go had any idea what they were sitting on. Nintendo saw the potential of Ingress and Pokemon but vastly under-estimated the potential audience of smartphones. Niantic didn't realise just how pervasive the Pokemon brand is. Google and Apple had seen phenomena come and go and thought nothing could move them.
Holy heck: it seems so obvious in hindsight. Demand for Pokemon Go just blasted the launch servers to smithereens, and despite being about as reliable as a cream cheese crane for its first few weeks of broken, shuddering life, it dominated conversations in every territory where it released.
Families came together. Parks were flattened by crowds. Neighbours met as strangers and connected. Muggings and car accidents were rife. Children and adults alike began to exercise and explore their home towns. App store charts fell over themselves trying to keep up with the records being set. A few months on Pokemon Go is still pretty broken and shallow ... and it's still absolutely minting it.