Best of 2016: Game of the year

2016 saw lots of fantastic game releases—Doom, Inside, Far Cry Primal, X-Com 2, Civilization VI, and tons more. Of course, I'm not a professional game reviewer (although, incidentally, I did write for the webzine for nearly ten years); I just like to game when I have the time. Accordingly, I'm sure some great games have come out that I missed. I did play quite a few great games this year, however, but when it comes to my pick for best of the year, as the great warriors of Highlander declared, "There can be only one."

But first, of course, the biggest disappointment, and the honorable mention.

Biggest disappointment: X-Com 2

I absolutely loved the first X-Com. It was challenging, deep, well-balanced, and incredibly addicting. It could be maddeningly frustrating at times, but only because it was so relentlessly engaging. X-Com 2 made a number of significant changes to the game, and I thoroughly enjoyed all of them. On paper, it was a brilliant evolution of the first game.

Unfortunately, I just couldn't get around the difficulty curve, which changed so suddenly and drastically as to consistently ruin my entire experience. I would spend a good four or five hours relatively care-free, challenged but not overwhelmed. Then, like clockwork, I'd be thrust into missions with vastly more powerful enemies—often with with strict time limits. Strategy seemed to take a back seat to blind luck. This wasn't a one-off, either; I restarted the game several times and adjusted my strategy to prepare for the harder midgame, but I could never get it right. Worse, the game never clued me in as to what I ought to be doing differently. After the third restart ending with me stuck on another impossibly hard level, I just got sick of it and gave up. 

It may be the case that I just suck at the game. But I definitely didn't suck at the first X-Com, and a buddy of mine who shares my love for the first game also shared my exasperation with the sequel. It's unfortunate, because we both agreed the fundamental changes were very solid. I love a good challenge, and in fact I almost always start games on harder difficulties. But I still like to have fun, and X-Com 2 just stopped being fun. With any luck, I'll revisit it in the future and patches will have smoothed things out.

Honorable mention: Doom

Holy hell... Doom was actually good! Not just good, but, like... really, really good. Id finally recaptured what made the original games so much fun, and it's a great thing that they didn't go with the original vision, which would have made it something more like Call of Duty. Doom is frantic, intense, and rewards quick thinking and quicker reflexes. There's just enough back story to make it interesting, but the game is unapologetic in its absurdity. Id knows that the plot is just an excuse to shoot stuff, and it colors the game without ever getting in the way. Everything about the action just works—the arsenal, the finishing moves, the speed, the variety of enemies, the verticality of the levels—and every hard-won battle makes you want to stop and pump your fist in the air.  Just remember to play this game on the harder difficulties.

Game of the year: Dishonored 2

Around the time the Dishonored 2 came out, I realized I had bought the first game on a Steam sale for like $10 or something, and maybe I should give it a try. I liked it, but it fell short of greatness for me. I thought it had a lot of great ideas, but the execution seemed just a little underwhelming. The world just wasn't big enough and vibrant enough to draw me in, and I never really felt the urge to explore all the different nooks and crannies and discover the varieties of pathways and possibilities open to me. But I liked the game enough that I thought I should try the sequel, and I'm very glad I did.

I spent nearly twice as long in my first playthrough of Dishonored 2 as I did in the first game; I'm currently on my second playthrough, and I imagine there will be many more. The sense of scale is both daunting and empowering; the game rewards exploration in many ways—hidden items, loot, mission clues, and even side quests. Despite generous and patient exploration, I left every level thinking about different routes I'd seen but declined to take, different strategies I could have employed, and different paths through the game's narrative. All these elements were here in the first game, but in the sequel they're fully realized. It's genuinely fun to either wreak chaos on the world, or to slip by unnoticed and discover the creative ways to non-lethally remove each level's target from play.

The game also surprised me with some marvelously creative levels. The Clockwork Mansion is a labyrinth of shifting walls and hidden passageways populated by guards, servants, and deadly machines. The level "A Crack in the Slab" introduces a timepiece that allows the protagonist to peer into the past, shift between the two timelines, and alter the present through their actions in the past. Not all the levels reach such creative heights (I was underwhelmed by the Duke's mansion, for example), but even the more mundane levels are consistently sprawling and filled with things to do and discover.

It also manages to tell a good story and present a well-developed cast of characters. The option to play as either Corvo (from the first game) or Emily (whom Corvo rescued in the first game), as well as the option to play either in "no powers" mode lends a huge variety of possibilities to how the game can be approached. Their stories are not the same, and both can lead to a number of different endings. As in the first game, a non-lethal approach will result in a more optimistic ending—but Inverse reports that the endings offer a broader spectrum of good and bad, and sometimes the non-lethal decisions do not lead to the most desirable outcomes. 

It's a phenomenal game that finds nearly flawless balance between its mechanics, its worlds, and its narrative. It's easily the best game I've played this year, and one of the best I've played... well, ever. 


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