It happens every generation, but it never stops taking me by surprise. 2016 was the year that I finally settled into the new generation. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One no longer felt like new hardware — these consoles have been sitting beneath my TV for three years now, even as so much else around them has changed.
They say familiarity breeds contempt, and they’re not altogether wrong. I’m no longer taken aback by the incredible visuals of every new triple-A title. I’ve seen what these machines are capable of. I can’t forgive minor flaws as easily as I could in 2014. I expect more from a $60 game now than I ever have in the past.
Thankfully, for the most part, game developers in 2016 were up to the challenge.
After publishing my top ten list for 2015, I assumed that I’d look back months later and question my choices. Now, I’m just jealous of how much easier the list was to put together last year. Though I’m satisfied with the games I landed on, this year’s list was the toughest yet.
10. Pokémon GO
In spite of its inevitable fall from smartphone dominance, Pokémon GO defined 2016 like no other game. For a few weeks this summer, I couldn’t walk to the train without seeing a dozen other commuters — young, old, male, female — swiping at their phones, trying to catch Pokémon on their way to work.
Admittedly, I didn’t spend much time with Pokémon GO once it began to fade from view. Like millions of other trainers, I had filled out most of my Pokédex and didn’t feel the urge to capture every gym in my neighborhood. But over the past month or so, I’ve been drawn back in by the improvements and additions Niantic has made to the game, from daily rewards to bulk transfers.
Plus, to cap off what has been an unimaginably successful, record-breaking launch year, the developers are adding new Generation II Pokémon to the game this month to give everyone a reason to log in as they head home for the holidays. 2016 simply wouldn’t have been the same without Pokémon GO.
9. Forza Horizon 3
As far as I’m concerned, no one other than Playground Games ever needs to make another open world racing game again. Over the course of two years, the studio behind Forza Horizon has already launched not one, but two of the best open world racers ever conceived without missing a beat.
Forza Horizon 3 is Forza Horizon 2, but bigger, better and set in an even more stunning locale. It was also one of the first Xbox One games to take advantage of HDR lighting, which makes it one of the best looking games of the generation. I’d never felt spoiled by a game until I played Forza Horizon 3.
If you want some more detailed thoughts, you can go check out my review from September.
8. Hyper Light Drifter
I was late to the party with Hyper Light Drifter, but I’m relieved I had a chance to play it before I started fleshing out my top ten list for 2016. All of the hype I’d heard leading up to the release of this game; all of the positivity surrounding its launch; everyone was right about this 2D hack-n-slash indie game.
From a gameplay perspective, Hyper Light Drifter overs familiar ground, but its polish makes it stand out above other, lesser action games. You dash around and slice through enemies with your sword, occasionally gunning them down from afar with a selection of guns you collect during your quest.
Atmospherically, Hyper Light Drifter is on a plane all its own. Heart Machine put so much love and care into this universe, from the haunting soundtrack to the tragic tales of the digital denizens, that you’ll be desperate to learn more. But Hyper Light Drifter is far more interesting in showing than telling.
7. The Witness
My roommate and I nearly went mad trying to complete The Witness.
I’m not sure if this is necessarily a compliment, but I do know that I’ve never played a game quite like The Witness. A puzzle game in the most literal sense of the word, nearly everything on this mysterious island is either a puzzle or a clue to a solution to a puzzle. In fact, by the time I reached the end, I’d grown somewhat paranoid. Was that just a rock, or was it a hint? A waterfall, or a sign?
But even as you spiral into madness or consider throwing your controller through the TV screen, you can’t stop playing because the gratification that comes along with solving a puzzle is irresistible. It was a common trope when the game launched earlier this year, but you really do feel like a genius at times.
I know I didn’t solve every puzzle on the island, and I know I likely never will, but whenever I finally decide to return, I know there will be countless secrets waiting to be uncovered.
I sat and stared at the screen for a long time after the credits rolled on Inside. Playdead’s latest macabre creation is even more upsetting than its last, dropping a young boy in a factory where ethically dubious experiments are being conducted. It’s a game you might play while peeking over the back of the couch.
You progress through Inside by solving environmental puzzles, making use of the world around you and the odd humanoids that inhabit it. I’ve never had a puzzle make me question my morality before Inside.
Of course, it’s all in service of an ending so shocking and inexplicable that I refuse to say anything else in case someone reading this hasn’t played the game yet. I don’t say this often, but for the ending alone, Inside is worth your time. Just steel yourself beforehand, or else it might knock you out.
When Io-Interactive revealed that Hitman would be split into chapters, each of which could be bought separately, I didn’t know what to think. The only games that had successfully leveraged the model that I could think of were Telltale’s adventure games, but Hitman was going to be a full-fledged action title.
Each chapter feels like it could have been pulled from its own game. The spaces that the developers have created for Agent 47 to play around in are massive, with dozens of interactive objects around every corner. No matter how many times you complete a mission or assassinate a target, it’ll never happen quite the same way. In fact, that’s half the fun: finding new and creative ways to take out a mark in the most elaborate and ridiculous ways possible. Personally, I prefer dropping a chandelier on their head.
Needless to say, the studio succeeded, and Hitman serves as a valuable reminder that even the method by which a publisher delivers its games can be fresh and innovative. More than just a game, Hitman is platform on top of which Io-Interactive can build indefinitely, as long as fans are willing to keep paying.
4. Pokémon Sun and Moon
I never expected a Pokémon title to make its way on to one of my top ten lists. In 2016, two managed to sneak their way into my top ten (or three if you count Sun and Moon as two distinct games).
Game Freak didn’t have to rebuild Pokemon from the ground up. Pokémon X and Pokémon Y were both best-sellers, and with the success of Pokémon GO, anything the development team lined store shelves with was going to sell gangbusters. And yet, they still took the time to improve the combat, visuals and controls while building a new region that’s as fun to explore as any in series history.
I haven’t been compelled to complete a Pokémon game since Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire launched in 2002, but Sun and Moon broke that streak. Now that I’ve conquered Alola and captured all of the Ultra Beasts, I’m just anxious to see how the game evolves when it hits the Switch.
If you haven’t yet, be sure to check out my review of Pokémon Sun and Moon.
3. Titanfall 2
A couple of years ago, I was writing the 2014 edition of this post and lamenting the fact that Titanfall didn’t have “the same hooks” as other modern first-person shooters. I wanted to place it higher up on my list, but I couldn’t, because I’d stopped playing it just a few short weeks after it launched. That’s not the mark of a successful FPS in the 2010s. I should be dying to jump into another match, but I just wasn’t.
Immediately after the game launched, the developers at Respawn Entertainment went back to the drawing board. They weren’t going to make the same mistakes twice, and the result of their labor is the most complete shooter of 2016. An action-packed campaign? Check. A multiplayer progression system that keeps players coming back? Check. All the things that made Titanfall great the first time around? Check.
Titanfall 2 is about as big a leap forward for Respawn Entertainment as Modern Warfare was for Infinity Ward in 2007. Sadly, it’s never going to receive the same recognition, but it’s easily my favorite shooter of 2016.
Want to know more? Read my review of Titanfall 2 from November.
2. Final Fantasy XV
While The Last Guardian ended up being an underwhelming follow-up to one of my favorite games of all time, Final Fantasy XV didn’t disappoint. Yes, it’s rough around the edges and I couldn’t make heads or tails of the story, but the world and the characters and the combat system are utterly gripping.
Much like Pokemon, I hadn’t dug my teeth into a Final Fantasy game since Final Fantasy X. I got bored of XII and I couldn’t be bothered to slog through XIII, so XV was Square Enix’s chance to rope me back in.
FFXV might not stand up to the likes of The Witcher 3 when it comes to delivering an open world sandbox, but there’s no world I would rather be taking a road trip in than Eos. Challenging dungeons, jaw-dropping boss battles and enough content to keep you coming back for weeks are just the cherry on top.
1. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
What’s so confounding about Uncharted 4 being my game of the year is that I’m not sure any of the other three Uncharted games would have made my top ten in their respective years. Uncharted was, in my humble and flawed opinion, a disappointing follow-up to Jak 3. Uncharted 2 improved on the formula significantly, but never drew me in the way many of the best story-driven games have in the past. And with Uncharted 3, it felt like Naughty Dog was finally getting as tired of Nathan Drake as I was.
Working on any franchise for nearly a decade would have to be taxing, which makes it all the more impressive that the developers managed to save the best for last. Uncharted 4 is not only a compelling action-adventure game with the best combat and controls of the series, but it’s also a story you never want to put down. Thankfully, Uncharted 4 features one of the most substantial and extensive single-player campaigns of any game that came out this year.
I wasn’t all that excited to meet Nathan Drake in 2007, but now I’m sad to see him go. Just when Naughty Dog seems to have perfected the formula — crafting a meaningful story and choosing not to overcrowd it with impossible set pieces — it’s time to move on. As fitting a sendoff as any game in recent memory.
If you want to see what a five-star review looks like, check out my review of Uncharted 4.
As always, there were plenty of games that just missed my top ten. Battlefield 1 was vying for a spot, as were Firewatch and Doom. Had PlayStation VR been a more consistent presence in my gaming diet, Rez Infinite and Thumper would have been hard to keep off of the list as well. And as always, there were plenty of games I simply didn’t have time to play during the year.
Feel free to bash my list in the comments below or, alternatively, share your own.