The games that shaped 2016: blockbusters, indie hits, cult favourites and massive embarrassments
What a year it's been. The first half was stacked to the gills with indie treasures, but the second half release schedule was a towering pillar of boxes that collapsed on us and left us retching on the shores of exhaustion.
This is the second episode of a two part series, kicking off in late July and pushing right through to early December, when we got tired and threw all our consoles in the bin for a few weeks.
Release: July 25 (PC) October 1 (Linux, Mac)
This is hacking as we dreamed of it in our troubled youth; Quadrilateral Cowboy equips the player with a "top-of-the-line hacking deck outfitted with a 56.6k modem and a staggering 256k RAM".
Set in the same universe as indie cult favourites Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving, Quadrilateral Cowboy is about infiltration and heists, but with a twist - you play the hacker supporting the agent on the ground. With direct-feed footage from the agent's goggles to guide them, this keyboard warrior must create code on the fly to bypass obstacles encountered - without setting off security alerts.
Even if your blood doesn't run thick with nostalgia for 1980's computing, Quadrilateral Cowboy is a good time. If it does, and you've yet to shove this into your life, get on it.
Release: August 2 (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
It's perfectly fair to call Abzu "Journey, but underwater" but if we're going to play that game we can just write off the vast majority of video games that have ever existed for daring to derive from a predecessor. The fact is, Abzu is its own uniquely lovely experience, even if the shift in setting is not enough to disguise the heavy hand of Matt Nava, art director on both stories, and Austin Wintory's score doesn't help in that regard either.
Where Abzu really feels different is in the teeming life that fills the sea around our lonely hero, whose travels lack the feeling of sterile ruin that made Journey so haunting. Abzu is full of light and life and joy right from the start, rather than just at the end, while still managing to take us on an emotional voyage filled with struggle and even darkness.
Under the sea, under the sea! That's where it's hotter, under the water. Take a seat on a handy rock in meditation, attach your camera to a school of darting fish, hitch a ride on a deep-diving whale, and just take it all in.
Release: August 3 (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
With its cutesy graphics and culinary subject matter, Overcooked is one of those games you see pop up in the console store release lists and write off as shovelware. This is a terrible mistake, as you're doing yourself out of the multiplayer event of the year.
If you were lucky enough to experience Overcooked at an event in its ultimate, local co-op form, you already understand its brilliance. Multiple players must work together to put recipes together under extremely trying conditions as kitchens rearrange themselves, timers get shorter, queue orders scramble and ridiculous settings throw hazards at you willy-nilly. Working through the campaign with a friend is mostly hysterical, but may also lead to occasional screams of frustration.
Space Team on the big screen, Overcooked will make or break friendships - but mostly make them. It's hard to get mad when it's only food, after all.
No Man's Sky
Release: August 9 (PS4) August 12 (PC)
Love it or hate it, you can't pretend you haven't heard of No Man's Sky. It may go down in history as a warning tale for indies who shirk PR and media training, but the point is it will go down in history, which is more than can be said for the vast majority of this year's releases.
No Man's Sky is a very different experience from that conjured by the promotional materials and, yes, inside the brains of those of us viewing them. We don't have to like it but we can admit that the AAA hype machine has trained us to have certain expectations, and when those expectations are not met, we get mad, and we file for refunds (and false advertising suits).
No Man's Sky is actually a very cool thing, and an enjoyably chill if definitely not-for-everyone experience; it's main problem is that it's just not what it seemed to be, and apparently never was. The tiny Hello Games is beavering away at making it better and did an admirable job addressing launch concerns and getting started on significant new content. We've all learned lessons this year, haven't we?
Release: August 11 (Android, IoS, PC)
Playing Reigns is very similar to using Tinder, except you're less likely to be ghosted. The things that are likely to happen to you as you swipe left and right on decisions of state, desperately trying to balance the demands of the church, people, armed forces and treasury before old age claims you, are many and varied. It would be a great shame to spoil it for you.
Reigns is simple but beating it is very hard, and somehow its nonsense veneer hides an intriguing and dark plot of multi-generational curses and consequences. You will die and die and die and put it away in frustration, but the very next time you end up in a waiting room or on a bus out it will come again, because you'll be as addicted as the rest of us. Rule well, your majesty.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
Release: August 23 (PC, PS4, Xbox One) November 3 (Linux)
Maybe you consider this cheating, but Deus Ex: Mankind Divided stands out amongst 2016's crowded release schedule for, well - not standing out. A new entry in a much loved immersive sim series, rebooted to critical and commercial success just a few years back, just vanishing into the dark.
Better received than other surprising 2016 non-entities like Watch Dogs 2 and Mirror's Edge Catalyst, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a good game, building and improving on its first-person RPG cyberpunk foundation - but nobody seemed to care. Even the things it did wrong, like some dodgy in-game currency DLC nonsense, went under the radar. It didn't outsell Deus Ex: Human Revolution. What on earth happened?
The current office theory is that Square Enix dropped the ball, marketing-wise, because it was busy throwing everything it had at Final Fantasy 15. One of 2016's stranger stories, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided may be the unexpected swansong of the series.
World of Warcraft: Legion
Release: August 30 (Mac, PC)
12 years on you'd think we'd be over the game that put MMORPGs on the map, but as usual, World of Warcraft: Legion stopped the clocks and put everyone back on Blizzard time.
Legion is the sixth expansion to grace the king of MMORPGs, and seems to have learned something from the reception of the past two. Mists of Pandaria was all about pets, and Warlords of Draenor was all about garrisons. These gameplay systems are interesting, sure, but are they central to the WoW experience...?
Legion is central, expanding and evolving on the things we already love. New raids and dungeons and a raised level cap along with artifact weapons for all specialisations gave us a reason to continue with our mains as we explored the Broken Isles - and the Demon Hunter stood ready at level 98 for those keen for something new. Is any of that game changing? No. Did it suck everyone right back in for weeks on end? Very much yes.
Destiny: Rise of Iron
Release: September 20 (PS4, Xbox One)
Look, we all know Destiny 2 was supposed to come out in 2016, in some long ago plan hashed out between Bungie and Activision. But we also know Destiny itself was a couple of years late, and it seems pretty clear that Bungie has scrambled like a mad thing to try and meet demand for content for its experimental shared-worlds shooter.
So this year we got the Rise of Iron expansion instead, which has all the signs of being an interim release while most of the team is busy with something else. And yet it still managed to set all our weathervanes to point due Destiny for several weeks as we threw ourselves right back into the stupid science fiction loot cycle again.
That's a powerful testament to the success of Destiny. Destiny: The Collection is your best bet if you're yet to find out what all the fuss is about.
Forza Horizon 3
Release: September 27 (PC, Xbox One)
Forza Horizon 3 is something of an embarrassment to the rest of the franchise, because, well, it's just so good. Racing diehards swear by the more pure racing experience offered in the core series and rival titles, but if you want to drive around beautiful landscapes, competing or just cruising at your leisure, and give yourself over to the psychological drag of open world gameplay, this one has it all.
The Australia depicted in Forza Horizon 3 is laughably inaccurate (don't get Brenna started on December's winter sports expansion; it's 38°C in her office and we're trying not to upset her right now) but channels a certain ineffable something that's very charming indeed. It's rather nicer than the real Australia, which is mostly dying of exposure, despairing over politics and being bitten by highly venomous spiders, let's face it.
If you like driving games at all - even just a little bit, as something you do in Grand Theft Auto - you should give Forza Horizon 3 a spin; it's what games like The Crew wish to be. It's available on Windows 10, if you're not of the Xbox persuasion.
Release: October 7 (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
In these days of always-on shared-worlds extravaganzas it's refreshing to receive a single-player open-world game without any extraneous rubbish. Mafia 3 takes us back to late 1960's New Orleans, and New Bordeaux is a stunning world setting for a game that acknowledges the realities of historical social issues that have increasing relevance today, rather than brushing them deep under a rug like most video games.
Maybe it was the relative quiet of early October that made Mafia 3 the game for a few weeks, but it was all anybody wanted to talk about. Unfortunately for 2K and Hangar 13 this meant a great deal of sharing of the inevitable open world wonkiness like sinking or flying cars and exciting visual bug-outs.
Also unfortunate: open world fatigue. Critics derided the gameplay and lack of content, where in generations past they might have waxed lyrical on the storytelling and setting instead. Turns out without all that connected stuff it's easy to feel a bit tired of cruising around fake cities, magnificent as they may be - but then again, the average punter gets more mileage out of 200 hour games than jaded games press.
Release: October 10 (PC, PS4)
Thumper is the dark twin of Amplitude, dropping you into a darkly colourful world populated not with fancy lights and chill beats but by violence and demons. Pretty ones, admittedly.
It's difficult to describe the experience of Thumper and how different it feels from its more light-hearted genre-mates. It's a game people speak about in hushed tones, making a quelling gesture and shaking their heads, saying "Just - just try it. Man. Just try it." You want to pass it on, so someone else can meet your eyes and know what you have seen.
"Rhythm violence game" is the creator's preferred term, but you'll see Thumper marked "horror" in many a taxonomy. As of this week Thumper supports HTC Vive and Oculus Rift on PC as well as PlayStationVR on PS4, so if you can wrangle it, don't do yourself out of the virtual reality experience.
Gears of War 4
Release: October 11 (PC, Xbox One)
Microsoft has two orphaned franchises under its wing now, but where Halo took a bundle of remasters and two releases to get back on tracks, Gears of War 4 hit all the right notes on The Coalition's second go-round with the property.
The campaign walks a perfect tightrope between moving on to new pastures and staying grounded in the Gears of War lore to date, with familiar and fresh faces fighting side-by-side without any of the painful dissonance of unnecessary cameos, or the feeling that the "real" Gears of War is missing. Each encounter is a tightly-focused affair rather than a marathon, which makes exploring feel less like trotting between epic battle arenas - not that those are entirely absent, mind.
What's really impressive about Gears of War 4 is it works so well as a standalone action game, managing to feel both new and comfortable, as a new release should. That it massively-shoulders the weight of franchise expectations goes above and beyond.
Release: October 13 (PS4)
If there's one game that justifies the existence of the PlayStation VR it's probably this: a psychedelic, synesthetic trip that ought to play as beautifully now as it did in the early 2000's, but in fact is even better. Rez Infinite is the definitive version of Tetsuya Mizuguchi's masterpiece, and experiencing it in VR makes it seem as if it were always meant to be played that way.
This is a game so delicious it kept Matt stuck in his VR goggles even though he gets queasy as soon as he looks at them. To quote from his Rez Infinite review:
"Throw out your clothes, undress your skin. Form seems irrelevant after Rez Infinite. It is the simulated reality that I don’t ever want to leave. Take my limbs and my meat puppet body and let it dissolve to bones and dust. Leave me here to be Rez. Rez is in control. Rez is order. I love Rez. Do me, Rez. Do me on a rainbow. Do me forever."
Release: October 20 (PC)
Over the weeks of Orwell's original episodic run those who'd been caught up in the in the surveillance adventure seemed able to talk of nothing else. The season has come to an end now, so you'll miss the days of speculation and excited Internet gibbering that presaged each new drop, but the package as a whole is still worth revisiting.
A fascinating puzzle adventure game, orwell has players in the role of an investigator standing between private citizens and government security forces. Sifting through the detritus of a person's life, it's your job to determine what information should be passed back to the men in suits, and what should be kept private. With a terrorist threat rising, your decisions have serious consequences - whether you fail to catch the baddies or hand over an innocent.
Orwell comes with a couple of content warnings. one, it features strong language and adult themes. Two, it may generate extreme concern regarding your personal information.
Release: October 21 (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Battlefield 1 is a return to form for a series that got pretty shaky for a few entries there.
But Battlefield 1 is notable both for the fact that it wasn't massively broken and unplayable at launch and for the fact that it's really rather good. All the usual DICE magic is there, but the developer did a remarkably good job of stringing together poignant moments to spin a campaign that is slightly more emotional than it is disrespectfully bombastic.
It's also hugely brutal, like really face-twistingly so, and there's no pretending the multiplayer pays very little lip service to traditional notions of respect for the World Wars. But we do it to all sorts of real modern conflicts, don't we, and oh no stop thinking you're about to ruin video games forever.
Release: October 21 (PC) October 24 (Mac)
In a series this venerable, which has been rejigged so many times with expansions, it's sometimes hard to see how it can evolve, let alone be improved. Somehow Civilization 6 manages to change enough to feel fresh while still maintaining the terribly slick 4X gameplay that keeps you up all night - until Ghandi bombs you off the planet.
Firaxis held onto Civilization 5's hexes and built on its ban on huge stacked armies, but softened its approach to let you pile up similar or complementary units. On the other hand, you've now got to place your city improvements on tiles rather than letting them all stack up on the city centre, and terrain choice matters. Improvements and available resources feed into the tech tree, meaning you can't always count on a particular Civ to behave in predictable ways, and culture and religion play a much greater part in things.
In short, it's both more complicated and more readily grokked than ever before. The beautiful visual upgrade doesn't hurt, either; the presentation is top notch all round, in fact, with Sean Bean roped in to pipe key narration. We lost people to this devourer.
Release: October 28 (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
The shooter that maybe should have won 2017, Titanfall 2 suffered from releasing too close to Battlefield and possibly by being Xbox console-exclusive last time; it didn't generate anywhere near the hype a sequel to such an interesting, slick and daring shooter should have.
Titanfall 2 makes a number of daring changes to its own nascent series formula, which caused grumblings among the diehards who held onto the first one. But these sacrifices were not in vain, because the new beast that emerged from the carcass is crackling with energy, potent with lethality and overflowing with good times. The campaign is especially good, in an era when shooters are dropping that ball on the regs.
Is it any comfort to Respawn that its Metacritic is higher than the other big name shooters this year? Not unless gibbering, breathless praise can buy it Lamborghinis, we suspect.
Release: November 1 (PC)
You know how Fez was in the works for five years? Move over, Phil Fish: indie fans have been waiting for the beautiful Owlboy since 2007.
Inspired by old school platformers - you can see a direct reversal of the Tanooki suit from Super Mario Bros. 3, and at its heart it is a Metroidvania - Owlboy is a gloriously beautiful retro-styled adventure. If you can only bear one sidescroller this year, make it this one; the nostalgia is strong, but it has the chops to back up its charms.
This is not a game that needed any more time in the oven; like Inside, it was baked so close to perfection as to be indistinguishable from the real deal, and worth every second of the wait. What with this, Final Fantasy 15 and The Last Guardian, it's been a heck of a year for near-vapourous releases. Three of them, eh? Half-life 3 confirmed.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Modern Warfare Remastered
Release: November 4 (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
The story of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered cannot be separated from that of Infinite Warfare, since it's currently only available as part of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare Legacy Edition and similar packages. And that in itself is more than interesting enough to put it on this list, because boy, did it piss the punters off.
Modern Warfare remastered is a no-brainer and it's only surprising Activision waited this long, so you know what you're in for (although Raven has elected to introduce new features and content in post-launch support, which is interesting). Infinite Warfare, on the other hand, is a risky business. Going properly science-fiction when a large segment of the fanbase has been calling out for less future nonsense, and in a year when Battlefield goes back in time to great acclaim - well. It's no wonder this one's sold less than Black Ops 3, which itself couldn't match Modern Warfare 3.
Call of Duty still sold well enough to make everyone else look like tiny, foolish babies but not at Activision's usual lofty peaks. Never say Call of Duty is over, but definitely do say it's run out of its own ideas - and borrowing freely from more interesting shooters is only diluting its formula.
Release: November 11 (PC, PS4, Xbox One)
Dishonored 2 comes to us from a long line of immersive sims and stealth action games and delivers on that initial promise in spades.
Like its precursor, Dishonored 2 really shines in those areas where the level designers have let free their most bonkers ideas, with the Clockwork Mansion level standing out as especially noteworthy among a handful of sublime encounters. Each elimination mission has its own unique layout which the thorough explorer will come to know well, and sprinkled through both the core mission areas and the more straight forward traversal segments are lashings of the world's utterly singular flavour. Two playable protagonists and power sets are just the icing on the cake; there's really no end to the possibilities open to you in each run.
If you liked Dishonored, you'll love Dishonored 2. Early issues with the PC build have been patched repeatedly, and Arkane has gone so far as to begin adding new features to all builds, starting with a New Game + mode.
Pokemon Sun & Moon
Release: November 18 (3DS)
Every Pokemon game is a big deal but Pokemon Sun & Moon arrived at a particularly good time: right on the back of a huge wave of Pokemon love and nostalgia triggered by good old Pokemon Go.
But it's not just returning players and brand new gamers who love Pokemon Sun & Moon: it hits all the right notes for the longterm fandom, too. Building on the very fine foundation of Pokemon X & Y, the first 3D Pokemon, it doesn't fiddle with the established formula that much - but the addition of Z-moves, Pokefinder and Pokemon Refresh are all worthy additions, and the Battle Tree and changes to battling open PvP to a much broader potential audience.
Also, the Alola forms are just great - Exegguor is an especial highlight. Of the new Pokemon, Mimikyu is a standout - although in general the Pokedex has become darker and more absorbing. Oh, did we mention Pokemon Sun sets the day-night cycle based on your system clock, with Pokemon Moon plays 12 hours ahead, so you see different forms in each version...? Rad.
Killing Floor 2
Release: November 18 (PC, PS4)
Listen, you might not have heard of Killing Floor 2 during 2016, but that's because it's been in early access for years, so everyone's sort of exhausted from raving about how good it is. Also, it came out on the same day as Pokemon, which is never a good idea.
Killing Floor 2 is the secret best shooter of the year. Okay, no, it's doesn't really have any sort of plot, and you can see all it has to offer in a couple of hours. But you'll want to do it again anyway, because this is one of the best co-op FPS experiences ever.
There's very little in Killing Floor 2 to distract from the tightly-focused shooting action. A class system and in-level progression provide a nod to depth, but really, if you can put the target in the centre and pull the trigger, this is a game that rewards you for that. Over and over again.
Final Fantasy 15
Release: November 29 (PS4, Xbox One)
Final Fantasy 15 is a game about bro-ing it up with your bros, assuming you're an actual human man and not the roided-out jock stereotypes so many male video game characters play up to in a misguided attempt to cater to our power fantasies. The road trip open world approach and constant companionship give the RPG a warm heart that makes it all worthwhile.
It's not without flaws, notably the need to take in the Kingsglaive movie at the very least to understand what on earth is going on, and Square Enix has said it's going to address some of the plot problems in subsequent patches. But if you come to Final Fantasy expecting a straightforward narrative that doesn't go bonkers in the third act, you probably ought to do a bit of research into the franchise.
But forget about all that. Embrace the flash action and stunning open world; let the plot carry you along and leave the enormous stack of side content for your post-story enjoyment; get to know the lads and the Regalia and have a jolly good time. Almost worth waiting a decade for.
The Last Guardian
Release: December 6
Speaking of games you waited a decade (well, eight years) for, The Last Guardian actually came out this year. Was it worth it? I doubt you'll hear any negative answer from Team Ico fans, there: this is as pure a successor to Fumito Ueda's PS2 classics as we could have hoped for.
But The Last Guardian is more than just Ico 2 with a splash of Shadow of the Colossus DNA - it's a remarkably beautiful experience in its own right, and one which boasts some impressive technical achievements despite still clearly being built on the skeleton of a PS3 game.
Trico's animations are a particular highlight - the gravity-defying jumps and puzzled head-cocking bring the beast to life with remarkable fidelity. The journey you take by its side is a very special one for anyone who has ever had an animal friend.