Let’s face it: 2016 was a bad year in so many uncountable ways. But when it comes to video games, it was a great year to have some relief with the escapism that games offer when you need a break from the real world.
We’re blessed to have another year of great games, and that makes the process of putting them in order on my favorites list difficult again. These games gave me moments of wonder, joy, sadness, and fun. They’re both as complex as they can possibly be and simple at the same time.
And I’m pretty sure that there’s not a gamer out there who will agree with my full list. I based it on what held my attention for the longest time and what gave me the best moments in gaming this year. It’s not a list of the critically acclaimed games that I should like or a list of the most innovative titles.
The core console and PC game makers were once again at the top of my list. I didn’t play any single game for hundreds of hours, as I did last year with Total War: Attila. But I finished every one of the games (at least those that had a single-player campaign). Of the titles that I spent the most time with this year — Pokémon Go and Clash Royale — only one is on my list.
I was disappointed in games like Mafia III, which was a contender for the best story in a game. But it was flawed in its execution, gameplay, and quality. I was also disappointed in Tom Clancy’s The Division, which I felt looked so good in previews but played clunky in the end.
I carved out as much time as I could, given a busy writing and travel schedule. I can’t pretend to say I played a large sample of games, but I judge quickly which games I want to play, and I preview a great many as well. I zeroed in on the ones that I liked.If I had to pick a trend here, I’d probably say it’s the year of the blockbuster shooter, since so many of my picks are in the first-person or third-person shooter genres.
I’m sure that many readers will find this list to be uninspired. It’s full of commercial blockbusters, but I am glad to have a mix of PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and mobile games this year. Virtual reality made it onto my radar this year, if you check out the honorable mentions. I would love to get excited about more indies titles and games on new platforms, such as virtual reality. But there’s always next year.
For the sake of comparison, here are my favorites from 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011. And be sure to check out the GamesBeat staff’s own votes for Game of the Year and the best individual favorites of the staff soon. The links go to our reviews or major stories about the games.
1) Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Developer: Naughty Dog
Platform: PlayStation 4
Once every few years, Naughty Dog shows up with an outstanding game. Uncharted 4 is one of the best video games ever made, with a narrative that winds up the adventures of Nathan Drake, a light-hearted adventurer who started out as a Lara Croft clone and became something bigger. As the inscription on Drake’s ring reads, “Sic Parvis Magna: greatness, from small beginnings.” The game was full of spectacular set-pieces, like scenes from a Hollywood action movie, such as when Drake is saved by his wife Elena as his jeep goes over a waterfall. Elena is the opposite of the sexy vixen characters from video game history, and, as a fairly regular person, she’s one of the most memorable female game characters ever created.
It’s a beautiful game, with scenes where you can see for miles above dense jungles or cities. The story is also enthralling, as Nathan’s lost brother Sam shows up, and he keeps getting them into situations where one brother could be killed. The contrast between the more mature Nathan, who has already gone on enough adventures, and Sam, who thirsts for more, sets up some difficult choices for Nathan. Much of this story is told through the gameplay, as the characters converse with each other in the middle of gameplay scenes.
The game also has a much improved combat system, with plenty of new elements, such as swinging around with a grappling hook. So many things come together in Uncharted 4. It has better gameplay, graphics that push the power of the platform, a signature story that is worthy of Naughty Dog, diverting puzzles that aren’t annoyingly over-complicated, adventures in faraway jungles and cities, and a certain finality in knowing that the series is coming to its end. That ending is fitting and crafted well, no matter what you expect to see happen, and it wraps up the story of characters that I feel I’ve come to know so well. And add points to this for the funny Crash Bandicoot mini game that gets worked into the story.
2) Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare
Developer: Infinity Ward
Platforms: Windows, PS4, Xbox One
Infinity Ward did some soul searching after the weak performance of Call of Duty: Ghosts in 2013. That game was rushed, but with a new studio helping out, Infinity Ward had three years to work on Infinite Warfare. The studio took the risk of setting the game in outer space, with a leap from modern warfare to science fiction. But the gameplay and performance of the guns was clearly evocative of other Call of Duty games.
One of the best decisions Infinity Ward made was to double down on the story. It hired two leaders from Naughty Dog, maker of the Uncharted series, and it used them to instill a much more interesting narrative. This is also why, after many years of repetition, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare feels like a brand new experience. You can fly Jackal fighters in space, use a grappling hook, run on walls, and mow down dozens of combat robots.
The story follows a surprise attack launched by the Settlement Defense Front — a rebellious military group that has colonized the solar system — against its home planet Earth, held by the United Nations Space Alliance. It is an interplanetary war for resources. But Infinity Ward it tells the tale of that war in a personal way, following the path of Lieutenant Nick Reyes, a brave special forces soldier and pilot who gets promoted on the battlefield. The great insight of the developers in improving the story and characters — including a military robot that is funny as the one in Star Wars: Rogue One film — is that it makes you care that much more about the action sequences.
Multiplayer is quite intense, and it comes with a wide variety of customization. This game was also the bargain of the century, as it included both the Zombies in Spaceland co-op experience and the full game of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered in the deluxe version. Since this game is so high on my list, I would argue that Call of Duty isn’t out of gas yet.
3) Battlefield 1
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: Windows, PS4, Xbox One
Speaking of taking risks, Electronic Arts and DICE were brave to take Battlefield 1 in a completly different direction, setting the game in World War I. This risk paid off far better than the crime-oriented Battlefield Hardline, and DICE created a game that is respectful of the memory of The Great War, which claimed 17 million lives.
There are all new weapons and vehicles, and I didn’t miss the modern weaponry at all. EA took some liberties with history, but I appreciate that the goal was less about being historically accurate and more about re-creating the visceral feeling of being in the war. In that way, EA created one of the best history lessons ever for a new generation of people. Even as a history buff myself, I appreciated learning new things about the war that I didn’t know.
You follow the stories of a half-dozen different people, from a tank crew in the battle of Cambrai in France, to the disastrous beach landings in the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey, to the guerrilla fighting in the desert with Lawrence of Arabia. Perhaps my favorite part was the mountain warfare in the Italian Alps, where you could look down on the beautiful landscape and see the action far below. There were some crazy things in multiplayer, like piloting a big Zeppelin over the battle, but they added to the fun.
The stories of the soldiers should have been longer, making this game feel like it was either rushed or too short. But this game clearly left me hankering for more.
4) Titanfall 2
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: Windows, PS4, Xbox One
In a big mistake, EA launched Titanfall 2 in October, wedged in between Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. That probably hurt demand for what is really an excellent sequel to the 2014 Xbox One exclusive. The original game generated more than $500 million in sales and cemented Respawn as a big player in shooters. Titanfall had the original concept of high-mobility infantry, who can run on walls and jump to the top of buildings, pitted against giant mechs. If you score well enough in the infantry fighting, your pilot can summon a mech, or Titan, that drops from the sky. Then you can engage in devastating combat against the infantry or other mechs.
The sequel took that further, with six different mechs, and a host of interesting game play additions, such as grappling hooks and batteries that you can steal from atop a Titan. If there’s a difference between this and other shooters, it’s a hyper-kinetic experience, both in the excellent single-player campaign and the multiplayer fighting. The game has a big twist in the middle, where it introduces a new mode of fighting that I won’t spoil here. But it added to the fun. The smart thing they did was to make the hero’s robot into a character, and to create a touching relationship between them. The story still felt like it was second fiddle to gameplay, but it was an interesting attempt in a game that also introduced good gameplay. The title might get overlooked during the holiday season, but if you’ve still got bandwidth after the holidays, this is a great game to play.
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Windows, PS4, Xbox One, Linux, OS X
This series has crept up on me, as I wasn’t much of a fan prior to Eidos Montreal’s latest take on the near future of human augmentation. The game is set in 2027, two years after an “aug incident” where a nefarious man caused augmented humans — those with artificial abilities such as prosthetic arms — to attack “natural” humans. The world has divided into factions, with natural humans discriminating against augs and putting them into ghettos, as if all of them were terrorists. It’s a sci-fi story, but a good mirror for the real world. Adam Jensen, the augmented hero, tries to uncover the plot to further drive a wedge between humans and augs.
Interestingly, the game had a science advisor who believes the augmented future is quite possible, and he instilled real-world connections in the game. You can, in fact, order Jensen’s prosthetic arm from Open Bionics and use it as your own in the real world. This story is yet another cautionary tale about the risks of technology and what happens when fear drives society. The atmosphere of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is disturbing and oppressive, and it foretells what our own world can become while living under the threats of terrorism, cultural and racial segregation, corruption, and Machiavellian politics. It is a serious examination of the consequences of cynically pitting one group of humans against another, and it’s a lesson for us all on how to avoid a future of oppression and shadow. The game is long, easily stretching for more than 25 hours.
This provides a great backdrop for the new game, which has more of an open world feel. But the gameplay is a very interesting blend of stealth, action, and role-playing. Not only do you get to use Jensen’s augmentations to creep around in stealth mode, you can also go on the attack using increasingly devastating augmented powers. The final boss battle is tough, but if you’ve leveled up and learned how to play it correctly, you can use your augmentations to outwit your foe. The game could have used more polishing and the ending seemed like it was just setting up the next game in the series. But I’m glad that the developers chose to deal with such a serious subject, and it inspired the theme for our upcoming GamesBeat Summit in May 2017.
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Platforms: Windows, PS4, Xbox One
Overwatch doesn’t look spectacular, with its cartoon-style characters that resemble things we’ve seen before, like Team Fortress 2. But it’s a wonderfully balanced, no-frills team shooter that really delivers outstanding gameplay. It has funny moments and characters. You can choose from close to two dozen characters, including some that fit into characters such as stealth, defense, tanks, and sniping. Six human players square off against another six, with one team on offense and the other on defense. The time-based battles have lots of different paths and cover, and each character can build up abilities that can be unleashed with brutal but temporary effect.
You have to team up to overwhelm the enemy, with one in the role of protector while another carries out an assault. But you also don’t have to have a headset and constantly communicate in order to get things done, since the battle maps are designed in a way so that it’s obvious what you have to do. When the clock starts counting down the final moments of the game, your team is often battling for control of a victory location. It helps that when you start a battle, the game points out if your team has too many offensive players and not enough defensive ones. When the battle is done, you see the stats, as well as “the play of the game” where one particular player performs a great feat. It’s touches like that which make Overwatch so accessible and fun to play.
7) Quantum Break
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Platforms: Windows, Xbox One
At nearly five years in the making, Quantum Break took far too long to get done, with zig zags in the development schedule that were as complicated as its time travel plot. And when it came out in the spring, many gamers complained that it wasn’t the same game that Microsoft showed off at an E3 press conference. But if you look past that, the title was one of the most innovative to come out in the Triple-A space. You could play the episodes of the game as the hero Jack Joyce, and then watch the villain’s point of view in an episodic video. At the end of each episode of gameplay, you make a choice. That changes the video that comes next, and it ultimately leads you to some very different endings.
Joyce gains the ability to stop time and manipulate it, stopping people and bullets in mid-stride, and that gives him the ability to fight large numbers of enemies at the same time. But he has to square off against his former friend, Paul Serene, who has seen the end of time and wants to save only a handful of people in the world. Joyce opposes him, believing that the outcome Serene has seen can be changed. Solving time puzzles is cool. You may find a security gate locked. If you rewind time and find a time when it was open, you can switch to that time, go through, and then return to the present. The performances and the writing are good, but the game was a bit buggy, the final boss was way too tough, and the fighting could get repetitive. Overall, though, the ambitious game was original and memorable.
8) Watch Dogs 2
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Platforms: Windows, PS4, Xbox One
Ubisoft made a good choice is shifting the setting for its Watch Dogs sequel from gloomy Chicago to the sunny streets of the smart city of San Francisco. It also took a light-hearted approach, choosing as its main character Marcus Holloway, an African American hacker who joins the hacktivist group DedSec, modeled on Anonymous. The game captures the free-wheeling spirit of the San Francisco hacker community, whose rallying cry is openness and putting secrets out into the open.
With Holloway, you go on a romp through San Francisco’s neighborhoods, hacking anybody’s cell phone with the press of a button, listening to their phone calls and making things go haywire. That’s entertaining by itself, but DedSec stumbles upon a nefarious plot by a big tech company, Blume, to separate us all from our data, invade our privacy, and even pin crimes on us that we didn’t commit. Holloway goes on a crusade against Blume, which is a parody of Oracle, and many other tech companies that share the same disrespect for users and openness. The missions are fun, as are the mechanics for solving puzzles and creating ingenious hacks to get past security measures.
As a shooter, it has its flaws, particularly in close combat with multiple enemies, but the point is to use Holloway’s electronic skills to hack the Internet of Things and the smart city so that you don’t have to get into combat. You can have a guard falsely arrested by the police, or call in a gang to target another guard to create a distraction. Many of the missions are satires on real-life encounters, such as the hack against Sony Pictures or All the while, you make progress in unearthing a dastardly scheme. And the game closes with a message. You have to be wary of attempts by tech companies to betray the public trust in pursuit of their own profits.
9) Clash Royale
Platforms: iOS, Android
Nobody crafts games like Supercell in the mobile game industry. That is why China’s Tencent acquired Supercell at a $10 billion valuation earlier this year. Supercell has generated more than $1.1 billion from the free-to-play mobile game so far this year, according to market researcher SuperData Research. But this game is a rarity among the top-grossing games because it is fun. It’s a little like a multiplayer-online battle arena (MOBA) title, with two lanes for fighting. You select your warrior and set it loose in one of the lanes, while another human player does the same on the other side. You have to be masterful in choosing the exact timing to release your warrior, and you have to counter the enemy’s with just the right foil. The battle unfolds in real-time, with a three-minute battle that can result in overtime. Your object is to destroy the enemy’s three fortresses and to protect your own. It sounds simple, and that’s the point.
You can fight with just one hand on your smartphone, and each battle is different because you’re playing against a real person. The title is appealing for hardcore gamers who want a real game on mobile, but it’s also very accessible. I’ve played the game for the entire year, putting more time into it than Pokémon Go. Sadly, only my thumb has gotten exercise from this game. You can play this game for a few minutes a day, but it’s so easy to play that I wound up putting many more hours into this game than just about anything else I played this year.
10) That Dragon, Cancer
Developer: Numinous Games
Publisher: Numinous Games
Platforms: Windows, OS X, Ouya, iOS
Playing a game about a family losing a child to cancer isn’t fun. But bearing witness to such an experience is a very moving thing. This game showed how a husband and wife — Ryan and Emily Green — turned their real-life tragedy into something positive and creative. The game takes you on a journey about the parents’ efforts to save their son Joel, who died of cancer when he was just five years old. This game will make you cry and make you sad, but the Greens do an excellent job of conveying how you can go through the worst experience imaginable and still come out of it with your family and your humanity intact.
As I noted in my review, I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to lose a child to cancer. I have known grief. But this kind of loss is not something to be measured. We cannot dismiss it because we all have our own sorrows to worry about. It’s not a competition. There is plenty of loss and grief to go around in this world. The Greens have had theirs. When something like the loss of an innocent child happens, we all share in the suffering. That is what this video game conveys. I find it amazing that the Greens were able to step back from their own story and tell something that spoke in a more universal way. You could see their attempt to do that in Joel’s animated face: He doesn’t have one. He represents the little one that anybody could be the parent of. It’s like that old saying: Do not ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee. This is one of those experiences that elevates video games to an art form.
Here are my honorable mentions.
1) Mafia III
2) Pokémon Go
3) Dead & Buried
3) Civilization VI
4) Gears of War 4
7) The Witness
8) Dawn of Titans
10) The Last Guardian
11) Skylanders: Imaginators
12) Super Mario Run
And here’s a poll where you can vote for your favorite.