10. “Battlefield 1”
My strategy in “Battlefield” multiplayer is embarrassingly incompetent: I hop in a plane, parachute over enemy bases and get killed by machine gunners within seconds. But even the worst players can still have fun with DICE’s extraordinary iteration of their classic multiplayer game — and even more so with their brand-new campaign. After a shocking introduction that uses the interactive medium to explore the cost of war in extraordinarily innovative fashion, four swashbuckling vignettes capture the scope, the thrill, and the terror of the first World War. “Battlefield 1” is a complete package — the kind I would recommend to the “Fifa” crowd and other folks who only buy one or two games a year. It’s superb entertainment.
9. “Far Cry Primal”
2016’s most underrated game by far, “Far Cry Primal,” recaptured the addicting magic of “Far Cry 3” far more effectively than anything Ubisoft has done since. The gorgeous, exceptionally lit primitive world was a joy to explore and the loop of countless upgrades and hunting sidequests kept me from more than a few exam review sessions I probably should have attended. Hurling a spear through an enemy caveman’s skull and watching my roommate guffaw at the ensuing rag-doll physics was one of my favorite gaming moments of the year.
8. “Stardew Valley”
Somewhat ironically, my primary escape from thinking about Donald Trump this year was pretending to be a member of the rural working class in “Stardew Valley.” It’s a near-perfect farming simulator from the mind (and code, and art, and music, holy shit) of my latest indie hero Eric Barone. It’s impossible not to get sucked into the home-cooked majesty of the game, which pointedly celebrates a simple lifestyle in the face of the growing complexity of our technology-driven society. This game has sort of made me realize that when folks play “simulations,” they’re not really looking for simulated reality. They’re looking for wonderful fantasies like “Stardew Valley,” spaces in which things can slow down, chaos becomes order, and you can just worry about potatoes and fishing for a while.
7. “Pokémon Go”
Never in my life have I experienced real-world interaction so directly because of a video game. While it didn’t exactly have legs as a fully-fledged role-playing game like the other “Pokémon” games, Niantic’s absolutely genius technological marriage of GPS and AR created one of the most fascinating social phenomena that gaming has ever seen.
The “Pokémon Go” hype only lasted about three weeks or so in Ann Arbor, but spending that time over the summer catching Pokémon around town still gave me the chance to explore central campus, the arb, and even the botanical gardens with my friends and meet — quite literally — a few dozen other Pokémon trainers along the way. Only a franchise as storied as Pokémon could have facilitated a social experience so dependent on nostalgia and fandom. Bonding with random strangers over Nintendo nostalgia was one of the strangest and most interesting gaming experiences I’ve had.
Many games allow their players to explore the environment using a first-person view, but few take advantage of that perspective’s ability to facilitate role-play. How better can one learn about a character than by literally spending time in their head? Enter “Firewatch,” an adventure game from ex-Telltale developers in which you play as a national park ranger who’s running away from something. You investigate a series of petty crimes, find hidden secrets and fall in love over a radio, all from the perspective of Henry, a man who’s lost too much and can’t bear to face his real-life problems.
Too often are game characters blank slates or surrogates for power fantasies. Playing through a long summer as Henry felt more like acting than creating — reading someone else’s lines rather than making up my own, empathizing rather than expressing — so I understand if some people prefer games where the player is given more agency. Instead, “Firewatch” allowed me to see from a new perspective.
As a general rule, I’m not a multiplayer guy but, having the time of my life with “Overwatch,” this is an exception I’m more than willing to make.
“Overwatch” is the intersection between ideal multiplayer gameplay and extraordinary cosmetic polish. It’s an outrageously fun hero shooter that would still be engaging if its battles were waged between gray blobs on a Unity playground. But, it is the fact that its characters are so expertly cartooned and are given so much personality that caused “Overwatch” to become the cultural phenomenon that it was this year. The characters’ look, feel and sound are tertiary to gameplay on paper, but it’s arguable that the game’s value is inextricable from its cast of lovable, hyperactive heroes.
If you need any indication of how much people care about the characters in “Overwatch,” look no further than the hysteria caused by Blizzard confirming the game’s cover girl Tracer as gay in an online comic book. If the last few weeks’ permeating drone of fanboy whining isn’t telling of “Overwatch” ’s astounding ubiquity, I don’t know what is.
4. “Titanfall 2”
Some pundits claimed that this year’s “Doom” reboot had the best first-person shooter campaign since 2004’s “Half-Life 2.” My response to that is: “Um, did they play “’Titanfall 2?’” Respawn’s promising multiplayer game was begging for a good single-player narrative (its mech-based combat was way too cool to not envision some kind of PVE component), and this sequel delivered such a campaign tenfold. We should be talking about the game’s flawless movement mechanics as some of the greatest technical accomplishments in the genre. We should be talking about the relationship between the protagonist and his robot as one of the most endearing that sci-fi trope has ever seen, regardless of medium. And we should definitely be talking about that one level’s time-shifting mechanic — oh my god, it’s one of the best video game levels of all time. It’s only around 4 or 5 hours long, but it might innovate more than the last five years of first-person shooter campaigns combined.
3. “Final Fantasy XV”
“FFXV” hits you over the head with the Stephen King-like allusions up front. There’s a reason this avant-garde, role-playing game makes sure that you’re thinking about “Stand By Me” from its opening screen. It’s a heartwarming exploration of non-toxic dude-bro masculinity. If its excellent “Kingdom Hearts”-style combat doesn’t sway you into playing an anime RPG, maybe its fascinating setting (Route 66 Americana sandwiched between techno-fantasy kingdoms) will.
Last year, I said in this write-up that “Bloodborne” was made by a studio full of manic-depressives that share my worldview. I must say that I was wrong about that — the “most depressed game studio of the year award” has now rightly found its true home in Playdead, the masterful Copenhagen-based studio that is assuredly staffed by people who take even more Prozac than I do everyday. “INSIDE” is a shockingly excellent follow-up to the already classic, indie hit “LIMBO,” one of the staple hits on Xbox Live Arcade. It paints a nightmarishly Orwellian world for the protagonist to die in repeatedly, chock full of pointed Holocaust imagery and devilishly violent traps. Its brilliant environmental puzzles are a joy to trudge through, even when the iconography and thematics of the hellscape are upsetting. Everything is animated and scripted so flawlessly in this game — it really feels like one of the most fluid and responsive puzzle-platformers ever made. And don’t even get me started about the way it all ends. Someone get the Coen brothers on the phone … their brand of torturous non-ending has new competition.
1. “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End”
In 2009, Naughty Dog’s “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” mastered the art of the huge video game moment. At that point in time, no one else could do a collapsing high-rise or a desperate gunfight aboard a train quite like they could now. They had created one of the greatest video games of all time, and other AAA developers were struggling to keep up. I remember how the following year’s “Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood” tried to cram Uncharted-like mechanics into its introduction before sheepishly abandoning them, and then how 2013’s woefully mediocre “Tomb Raider” reboot proved that Naughty Dog’s Padawan franchise had become the Jedi master.
So where does an action franchise go when it’s lounging in the “Game of the Year” gilded throne? Instead of merely attempting to go bigger and raise the stakes higher — the standard Hollywood move — “Uncharted 4” shifts focus from the macro to the micro. “Uncharted 4” builds on the work its predecessors accomplished with character development and environmental storytelling in that it has just as many memorable, emotional, quiet moments as it does gigantic action set-pieces. Don’t worry, it still has those (the truck chase sequence they showed off at E3 is probably the best one in the franchise), but the emphasis is now on other kinds of sequences: some in which the intrepid Nathan Drake takes a hiatus from adventuring and you peer into his domestic life, others in which you are taken on a majestic safari across a Madagascar jungle or a Robinson Crusoe-esque series of desert islands. Incredible improvements in motion capture technology allow the tiniest emotional giveaway on a character’s face to be noticed.
As sacrilegious as this feels to say about my favorite movies, Spielberg and Lucas never let me get to know Indiana Jones as much as I would have liked. He was always more of a pastiche of ideas from old adventure serials than a living, breathing human with real hopes and fears. This is where I feel that “Uncharted 4” in particular transcends its genre influences. I feel like I really know who Nathan Drake is, why he does what he does, why he cares about the people he loves.
Somehow, this mega-blockbuster action game made by a team of hundreds has more humanity poured into every little animation, every line of dialogue, every little design choice than anything else in 2016. “Uncharted 4” has soul.