My 2016 Games Of The Year

The titles that shaped video games for me in 2016.

2016 has been a fantastic year for video games. With equally brilliant indie and blockbuster titles released, the questionable lows of games like No Man's Sky and Mighty No 9 were certainly cancelled out. With such a fantastic year for games, narrowing it down to one, definitive "Game Of The Year" was a daunting prospect. So, I'm doing it a little differently this year. Rather than one title, this year I have five. Five games that I believe show the best of games from 2016 - the ones I had the most fun with or showed me beautiful, brand new things unlike anything else. In no particular order...
Oxenfree is a game I played a long time ago, yet cannot stop thinking about. The characters, the story, the island: every so often a piece of information about the game pops into my mind and it'll swirl around in my brain for a few minutes, and I'll drift off, just thinking about the experience I had with the game. To me, that's the hallmark of something good: not being able to get it out of your mind.

Oxenfree is a supernatural horror game about a girl called Alex, her friends and their adventures on Edwards Island. I don't want to give too much away - it really is the kind of experience marred by knowing anything before jumping in, and you really should play it if you haven't already - but it tells a really interesting story in a really interesting, fun way that is genuinely creepy at certain points.

The game is beautiful, the characters are fascinating, flawed and feel real and, crucially, so does the island. It would be so easy to create a really boring setting for this really interesting story to play out in, but Edwards Island is a character in itselft by the end of the game, and you'll want to find out more and more about it through your playthrough via the exceptional environmental storytelling. Oxenfree originally came out early in the year so could easily be something that passed you by, but, rest assured, it really is one of the best video game experiences of 2016.
The end of Nathan Drake's adventure was an emotional affair. Although certainly not perfect - you can read my full spoiler free review here - the amalgamation of awe-inspiring, beautiful visuals, fantastic characters to return to and an amazing story to boot made for a truly amazing game.

I think the biggest compliment I can pay Uncharted 4 is that, even today, having played through the game three times, I still find myself wanting to go back and play just that little bit more. Sure, the combat still needs refining, it should really be about two and a half hours shorter, and the open world feels really unnecessary but you can't deny that the overall experience is fun, and tells a truly fantastic story. In fact, having had over six months to reflect on the tale told in Uncharted 4, I think I feel more in awe of it now than I did having first completed the game.
The Witness is genuinely one of the best games of the year. I think it's a masterclass in game design taken to the most basic level, then ramped up to eleven: you get the basic tutorial of how to complete a puzzle then, slowly but surely, the mechanics are layered on top of each other, as one after the other are expertly intertwined until the most difficult combination possible is achieved, and the player's true puzzling skills are tested.

This is done across an island designed to test, puzzle and intrigue, with different areas for different puzzle-types, and the fantastic payoff as they all begin to come together. The Witness' genius lies so much in what it demands from the player: like Dark Souls - of which, as I mention later, there are many shades (oddly) in this game - you can't play a few hourse then come back to it four weeks later. Great game design rewards the player actually having to learn the mechanics and be able to commit them to memory, and The Witness, like a From Software game, does this perfectly.

But The Witness is so much more than a puzzle game. With Dark Souls-like opaqueness, a story can be teased out piece by piece, voice recording by voice recording. Honestly, I don't know the payoff of these clips, I don't know where they lead - if anywhere - as I simply don't have the time to dedicate the game in order to achieve the puzzling acumen needed to finish it, but I saw enough to be able tell that this stunningly beautiful, intriguing, enchanting game is truly something special. As with Oxenfree, this is something I played way back in early February, yet still think about to this day, as I vow to come back to The Witness one day. One day when I can find the time to play through from beginning to end.

This truly is the Dark Souls of puzzle games. It requires learning, it requires time from the player, and a story can be extracted if you work for it, but - most of all - The Witness is staggeringly difficult, or at least it can be. And maybe, like Dark Souls, that'll be what it becomes known for, rightly or wrongly: but don't let that put you off, or you really will be missing out on one of the very best games in recent memory.
This one's a bit of a cheat. Rise Of The Tomb Raider, infamously, originally came exclusively to Xbox One in 2015, with the franchise coming home to PlayStation only this year - but I'm counting it in the GOTY conversation simply because I enjoyed it so much and I genuinely think it deserves to be here. 

This year on PlayStation 4 we had entries from both Uncharted and Tomb Raider: two series that have shaped and refined each other in a strange pendulum effect. It's interesting actually - I think having both in the same year has really illuminated, for me at least, the faults, imperfections and high-points of both games. For Tomb Raider this is, surely, that the character development (save for Lara herself) and story are somewhat lacking, yet that the actual gameplay, traversal and gunplay are so far advanced of Uncharted

In this case, we get an extra avenue to compare the two games, as they both adventure for the first time in the realm of the somewhat open-world. I think, despite all Uncharted 4's amazing qualities - it wouldn't be on this list without them - Rise Of The Tomb Raider does the open-world better. The hubs dotted throughout the game really are a joy to explore, but are also - and this is crucial - totally optional, unlike Uncharted, where the open-world sections are somewhat hamfistedly forced on the player. 

But Rise Of The Tomb Raider shouldn't just be praised as a comparison to Uncharted. This instalment in the franchise manages to refine so much of what Tomb Raider (2013) absolutely nailed, a large part of which is Lara as a character. In 2013, we saw a new Lara Croft - a woman who was yet to grow into the badass we all know and love, a character with flaws, who was scared and crying over her first kill. Here, we see that badass begin to rise, as the aptly chosen title suggests, but thankfully not lose all aspects of her humanity. Lara is no longer affected by killing the enemy, but she is still human in her being affected by loss of those around her - through her decisions and motivations and development. 

But, as mentioned above, the real joy in Rise Of The Tomb Raider simply comes from playing the game. I eagerly watched the story unfold - enjoying it, but knowing it was something I'd forget a few weeks later - just to get to the next gameplay section: to jump to the next ledge, cling on to the next cliff or annihilate the next enemy. And the best thing is, as Lara begins to become a badass, so too do you - the joy felt in upgrading a weapon, or bettering yourself via ability upgrades is really heightened in the absolutely fantastic gameplay sections. You may well have missed Rise Of The Tomb Raider due to its Xbox exclusivity, but - if you did - rest assured, there's a title to rival Uncharted waiting for you on your PS4. 
This year I've written a lot about the purest aspect of gaming, fun - mostly in arcade titles like Sky Force Anniversary, which I reviewed for The Vita Lounge - and how that on its own is often removed from large scale AAA games, a category Watch Dogs 2 very much falls into. I'm ecstatic, however, to say that Watch Dogs 2 manages to capture the essence of modern gaming, and fuse it together brilliantly with that (now, sadly) somewhat old-school arcadeyness. It does this in its brilliantly crafted hacking sequences, in simple driving around the world - which is some of the best I've ever had the pleasure of partaking in - and manages to capture that same sense of fun in the playful banter between the main characters.

I never played the original Watch Dogs. I heard very mixed things, but I seem to remember the hacking elements being praised massively, and here, I can see why. Going in, I was nervous that these parts would make me feel stupid, as though I didn't really know what I was doing, but they really don't. Instead, you feel like the truly awesome hacker the game presents you as, and, after just a few missions you get to grips with how these sections work, and they soon become a joy to play. Equally fantastic are the stealth sections surrounding these missions. Simply using the drone, security cameras or buggy-thing to get past the guards and infiltrate an area becomes fun from the off, and means the somewhat dodgy hand-to-hand combat and gunplay can largely be ignored.

Genuinely some of the most fun I've had in games this year has been just driving around Watch Dogs 2's San Francisco and just messing with people. Whether that be stealing their cars, creating a massive roadblock and proceeding to blow all the vehicles up, or calling a terrorist alert on a random member of the public - each and every moment of the game is lighthearted and fun, and just what the World needs after a really rough year.

My 2016 wrap-up began yesterday with The Biggest News Of The Year, and will continue tomorrow with a list of games that didn't quite make my GOTY list.

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