If 2016 were a person, it would have been a mangled, shambling, walking corpse hastily risen from the dead by some discount store Necronomicon, vomiting bile and its own entrails all over the place. Everybody’s friend group has at least one of those people. Hell, you may be that person yourself! Don’t lie.
What I’m trying to say is that 2016 was not a very good year, like, at all. I’m sure it was good on a personal level for some people (like, people named Donald Trump) but it was not good on a personal level for most other people (like, everybody not named Donald Trump). On the bright side, 2016 was good for at least ONE thing and that was video games.
It’s funny, throughout 2016 I was actually not too impressed with the games being released. Nothing was grabbing me and the truly great releases were few and far between. It’s also not fair that 2016 followed 2015 which is arguably one of, if not the, best years video games has ever seen. Trying to follow up 2015 in terms of video games is like going out to play a set at a music festival after The Beatles, guest starring Jesus Christ on piano, just got done on stage.
Buuuut, towards the end of the year, as the Fall rush of games started to issue forth, I started to appreciate 2016. And when I actually sat down and thought about my annual top 5 blog post, I realized it was a much tougher task than originally thought. I actually had to think long and hard about some of these games, and I agonized over the fact that a couple couldn’t make the list.
Unfortunately, only five games can make it through the gauntlet of my keen, critical eye. These are those five games.
(Although, a quick shout out to the game Overcooked, which narrowly missed the list. One of the best couch co-op experiences I’ve ever had, and a game that has me regularly shouting things like “KEEP YOUR FUCKING MUSHROOMS OUT OF MY WORK SPACE” at my friends is an instant classic.)
(Also, just wanted to say I had a no remaster, DLC and port rule for this list, which automatically disqualifies games like Day of the Tentacle Remastered, the PS4 version of Rise of the Tomb Raider, and the Blood and Wine DLC for The Witcher 3.)
(Oh and, hi, me again, yeah, I’ll get to the list eventually, but Overwatch isn’t on the list because I don’t play nerdy, multiplayer only games, nerds.)
(Me again! Just wanted to have another interruption to the list to test your patience. Heh heh. Seriously, time for the list.)
5. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
I was a big fan of Deus Ex: Human Revolution when it came out last generation, so I was pretty excited for Mankind Divided. Luckily, the game didn’t disappoint, as evidenced by the fact that it garnered a coveted spot on my list.
For those not in the know, Deus Ex is a FPS/RPG hybrid, set in a cyberpunk themed world where people get robotic enhancements called augments. These people, colloquially called “augs” face tons of discrimination and needless hate. Not at all like our real world, where everybody gets along and everybody treats others with respect and dignity, no matter how different they are.
The story has you playing as an augmented special forces agent named Adam Jensen, who is returning from Human Revolution. He still hasn’t found much of a personality in between the two games, unfortunately, but as Jensen YOU get to make some crucial decisions that shapes the game’s world in good and bad ways, especially towards the end. He basically gets wrapped up in a conspiracy involving lots of shadowy agencies and corporations and…uhh…gonna be honest, the plot itself gets pretty convoluted, to the point where it makes the endless backstabbing and double crossing of the 3rd Pirates of the Caribbean movie look like the plot for the children book, Franklin Rides A Bike.
While the plot itself is a little overwrought and not particularly gripping, there is still some great world building and writing outside of the main storyline. You can explore its semi open world at your leisure, reading e-mails, newspapers, and books to get a better sense of what kind of world the game takes place in. It’s one of my favorite things about the game. I am a huge sucker for games with rich, well built worlds and Deus Ex has this in spades. It more than makes up for the fact that the game’s plot is an endless dance of “This shadowy corporation actually works for this one, who is trying to frame this group, who is actually working for this one and HERE’S A RUSSIAN GUY WITH A LASER ARM.”
The gameplay itself is also a treat. One of the things the Deus Ex series has always been famous for is the freedom it gives players in deciding how to approach certain situations. You’re able to build your character by carefully selecting augments that best fit your playstyle. Want to shoot first, shoot second, and then ask questions (after a little more shooting, of course)? Focus on gunplay related augs, and augs that help boost your defense so that you can tank your way through a firefight. Would you rather sneak through areas, slinking around like a cybernetically enhanced ghost? Put your points into cloaking and agility based skills. Want to hack your way through the way the game, breaking into computers and taking over turrets and sentry bots for your own personal army? Then develop your hacking augs and watch computers submit to your will.
So as you can see, the game offers tons of choice in what you can do with creating your character and, by extension, crafting your own unique playstyle. This would all be pointless if the game didn’t have good quests or level design that didn’t allow multiple playstyles, but Deus Ex impresses in that department as well. The game offers plenty of avenues in its quests and environments for you to use your wide array of powers. You won’t be going into quests with your maxed out hacking skills, wandering around, slack shouldered and impotent, wondering where all the fun things you can hack are. Likewise, the stealthier players will see countless ventilation ducts to crawl through and places to hid to support their playstyle. And those who like killing will find plenty of squishy bodies to shoot, burn and blow up, you fucking psychopaths.
And speaking of quests, this game has got some good ones, especially in the side quest department. I love an RPG with good side quests, side quests that actually have fleshed out stories and objectives, rather than just the hollow “I lost this item, bring it back to me, thanks” quests that so many uninspired RPGs throw at you. It’s one of the reasons why The Witcher 3 is my favorite game of all time, considering that game had side quests that were more detailed, thoughtful, and fun than some entire games. While isn’t quite The Witcher 3, it sure as hell has some fun side quests that provide entertaining stories with plenty of choices and consequences. One side quest has you tracking down a brutal serial killer who is ripping augs out of its victims, while another has you breaking into a CEO’s office to provide dirt for a local underground journalist group. I was never bored or disinterested in the side missions the game had to offer, and it helped provide a change of pace from the main storyline.
If I had to point out some flaws with Deus Ex, aside from the aforementioned quibbles I had with its story, it would be that the game can be a little humorless and drab at times. While the game’s semi open world hub of Prague is prettier and more fun to explore than the previous game’s depressing rendition of Detroit (though it’s hard to make a version of Detroit that’s anything but depressing), the gritty cyberpunk aesthetics wash a lot of it a way in shades of black, grey, and dark yellow, creating a boring looking world that doesn’t exactly grab you to explore every nook and cranny. And as for the humorless critique I have, I’m not asking for a game to be laugh out loud funny, but a few jokes to break the tension every now and then would be nice. Even The Last of Us had jokes, and that game was literally about the end of the human race. It leaves feeling like it lacks a sense of heart and fun, and giving it a more rigid, bleak feel that gets old by the end of its 15-20 hour run time.
Despite this, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is still a stellar game with a lot of depth, choices, and angry cyborg Russian terrorists.
Stray observation: The game’s character development screen is a clever little map of your characters augs on the various parts of the human body. In order to upgrade the aug, you need to click on the body part, such as the legs, arms or head. One is distinctly missing, however: the dick. Are you telling me technology has gotten to the point where I can hack a security camera with my mind, but I can’t shoot rockets out of my dick? To the next Deus Ex game: rocket dicks. Get on it.
4. Dishonored 2
About two months ago or so, I wrote a pretty fantastic blog post about why Dishonored was one of last generation’s great forgotten classics. I know, I know. Preaching to the choir. You’ve already read it several times. Just wanted to remind you.
So as a loyal reader, you know perfectly well how much I enjoyed the first Dishonored and how much I was looking forward to its sequel. Does Dishonored 2 live up to the lofty standards of its predecessors? Yes. No time for suspense, just yes, it does.
Dishonored 2 takes place some time after the first one. Emily is now an adult, and is the Empress of the Isles, while her father, Corvo (the playable protagonist from the first game) is her bodyguard and closest advisor. Unfortunately for her, things are not going so hot. A mass murderer known as The Crown Killer is methodically eliminating all her political opponents and nay sayers, and while that seems like something an Empress would be totally cool with, it’s creating a bit of a massive PR problem, and is leading to the general population to harbor distrust and fear towards her.
As if someone framing you for hiring a serial killer to purge the Isles clean of your opponents wasn’t bad enough, a witch shows up claiming to be her long lost aunt and that she is the rightful heir to the throne, not Emily. She also has mechanical soldiers. Ugh, I hate when that sort of shit happens.
Thus begins the adventure of Dishonored 2. At the beginning of the game, you get to choose whether you want to play through as Emily or Corvo. While many games would have been content with having the difference between the two characters be simple changes in dialogue, Dishonored 2 goes the extra mile by creating two different characters with very different and unique play styles. Emily allows for a craftier, more stealthy approach, giving her powers that allow her to distract and slink by enemies with ease. Corvo allows a more aggressive, combat heavy approach, with powers that deal damage. The game’s impeccably designed levels are crafted with these two different playstyles in mind, allowing Emily and Corvo to make full use of the range of their powers. It’s nice to know that as Emily you have lots of ways to hide and sneak past enemies, but as Corvo you’re not going to be walking around with your dick in your hand, with nothing at your disposal, wondering why the game is only tailored for half of the playable characters. I applaud Arkane, the developers of the game, for the taking the time to create such different characters, encouraging the player to go through the story more than once.
All of this would mean dick if the game wasn’t fun to play, though, which it luckily is. I already mentioned the game allows choice between two different characters, but it goes even deeper than that. You also have tons of choice as the actual player you choose. Like the first Dishonored, the crux of Dishonored 2‘s design philosophy is giving the player a ton of tools and a playground to use those tools as you see fit. The game’s powers allow for creative, satisfying uses, especially when you combine some of them to devastating effects. Take for example Emily’s Domino and Doppleganger powers. Domino allows you to link characters together so they share the same damage and effects, meaning killing one person with Domino will kill the rest of them. Doppleganger allows you to summon a decoy of yourself, which usually draws guards over, because seeing a woman will make them come over and use pick up lines and try to get your number (or attack you on sight, can’t remember which). BUT summon a Doppleganger, link it to a couple of enemies with Domino, and then attack your stoic Doppleganger, hurting the enemies in the process? That’s some devilish shit.
These creative powers and their possible combos were one of the best things about the first Dishonored, so it’s great to see that they kept that playful sense of experimentation that made the first one such a joy. And when you string together a bunch of powers to clear a room of people looking for you? I don’t get to feel cool that often, especially when I’m in my underwear playing a video game, but that is one case in which I do.
But perhaps my favorite thing about Dishonored 2, like its predecessor, is its world building. Like I just shamelessly admitted in the last entry for Deus Ex, I love games with world building. I loved the first Dishonored for it, and Dishonored 2 proudly takes the baton. The game doesn’t spend too much time in the previous game’s city of Dunwall, instead trading the grey, plagued filled Victorian streets for the sunny, bright, city of Karnaca.
If Dunwall took inspiration from London and Victorian England, then Karnaca takes its inspiration from a Mediterranean coastal city. Gone are the perpetually cloudy skies and streets crawling with rats and things-that-resemble-zombies-but-are-definitely-not-zombies, these-are-way more-original-and-called-Weepers-and-okay-fuck-it,-they’re-definitely-just-zombies. These are replaced by an endless blue sky, sun soaked beaches, and buildings infested with pesky things called bloodflies, that are only slightly more annoying than the fucking endless rat swarms of the the original Dishonored. Karnaca is full of culture and history, waiting for you to discover it, if you’re a nerd like me and enjoy reading books about a fictional city’s past and present. Books and notes help flesh out the world, and you truly feel like you are in a living, breathing place. If it weren’t for the swarms of insects that lay eggs in your brain, it would totally be a place you’d love to visit.
So when you mix the in depth world building with the gameplay that gives you endless freedom to complete any given scenario, Dishonored 2 proudly continues the Dishonored name.
Stray observation: You have a supernatural force providing you with dark, magical powers, but none of them affect your dick? Where’s the dick lightning? I know Emily doesn’t have a dick, but you’re telling me the guy who can give you the power to fucking teleport can’t give her a dick, and then lightning for said dick? I’m noticing a disturbing trend in games this year.
3. Batman: The Telltale Series
Telltale has so many different series under so many licenses, it’s getting to the point of parody. From The Walking Dead to Game of Thrones to fucking Minecraft, Telltale has cast a Texas size net over the pop cultural world, taking everything and anything and putting their unique brand of adventure game spin on it. I wouldn’t be surprised if this Fall they release The Berenstain Bears: The Telltale Series.
So it makes it all the more impressive that one of their latest series, Batman, is also their best. As a big Telltale fan, I expected a memorable experience, but Batman is Telltale at the top of their game.
For those unfamiliar with the Telltale formula, they are episodic, story driven adventure games with lots of dialogue, exploration and QTE based actions scenes (the quick time events are better than they sound). One of the things that makes them so great is the choice based gameplay. Throughout the story, you’ll hit lots of tough choices which will result in big changes to the story. At the end of every episode, they even have a little recap of your big choices, along with stats of what other players chose so you know how much of a dick you are compared to the rest of the world.
Batman is no different. It doesn’t really do anything to revolutionize Telltale’s modus operandi, and that’s fine. Because while it doesn’t revolutionize what Telltale does, it damn near perfects it. In Batman, you play as both Bruce Wayne and his Dark Knight alter ego. As Bruce Wayne, you get to choose whether to be the brash, arrogant playboy, or a more mild mannered, selfless philanthropist. As the Batman, you can choose to be the just, honorable version who wouldn’t kill a fly even if it was laying eggs in his bum, or a darker, more brutal one who breaks bones and maims his victims. As with Telltale, the choice is up to you, but your choices will have ramifications, good and bad. In the game, you balance taking care of Wayne Enterprises and dealing with politics as Bruce Wayne, and investigating crime scenes and beating up assholes (figurative assholes, not literal) as Batman. The game’s got great pacing and balance and I wasn’t ever bored despite the fact that this is pretty much just an interactive story.
What shines in Batman is its story, and how it plays with the canon that we know and love in fresh, imaginative ways. To go any deeper into that would mean I’d be treading dangerously close to spoiler territory, and that is not the El Hanlo way, so just know that this is not the same old, same old Batman story. Familiar? Sure. But it’s got great ideas that we haven’t really seen before in the universe, and I can’t wait to see what they do going forward.
Another noteworthy thing about the story is its choices. Like I mentioned, choices are kinda of Telltale’s schtick, and Batman provides some gut wrenching and difficult decisions over its five episode run. But the REAL aspect I like about Batman’s choices, is that they feel like they actually matter. A knock I have against Telltale is that the choices in their games rarely have long standing ramifications. Make a choice that saves one character, and kills another? No biggie, the surviving character will likely die shortly after. Piss off a character in a pivotal moment? Ain’t no thang, it won’t matter in any significant manner by next episode. The reasons for this are pretty easy to see. If Telltale had to write drastically different stories for every little branching choice, their games would take fucking years to make. The fact that the choices are not going to impact the main story in any long standing way is kind of a necessary evil. And while Batman still very much veers you towards the ending it has in mind, I feel like your choices have waaaay bigger consequences in this game than any other Telltale series. Again, don’t want to go into specifics because spoilers, but literal characters may not exist in your playthrough even though they did in mine. It’s heartening to see Telltale is working that much harder to make every person’s playthrough unique to their own decisions.
Like with the other Telltale games, my biggest criticism with the game is a technical one. As my Irish great grandfather Henry Hanley would say, “The game runs like shite.” (or I assume he would say that, I never met the man, honestly). The game chugs like a Powerpoint presentation running on MS DOS and it crashes harder and more frequently than a North Korean test missile. I had at least 3-4 crashes in my time with Batman, and there were a few times where I got helplessly stuck in the main menus, unable to proceed or exit out. This kind of performance from a game that I don’t think exactly pushes the technical limits of any console it plays on is sort of unforgivable, and it’s sad to see it’s a chronic problem with Telltale’s releases.
Besides the unfortunate poor performance issues, Batman still manages to be the best series Telltale has crafted yet, thanks to a sterling story and meaningful choices (and a great license, of course).
Stray observation: Okay, now this is getting ridiculous. You’re telling me with all of Bruce Wayne’s money and the extensive R&D department Wayne Enterprises has, not once was a rocket dick mentioned as a possible new gadget for Batman? Do game developers just not care about what we, the gamers, want?
I have a soft spot for great indie games, and a 3-4 hour indie experience can be just as satisfying and memorable to me as a 10-12 hour AAA game. Some of my favorite gaming memories are related to indie games, whether it’s the heroin level addictive nature of Rocket League, the emotional, beautifully crafted Valiant Hearts, or the brain bending, time manipulation puzzles of Braid. Those are just a few indie games that can all proudly stand next to the massive blockbusters that companies like Naughty Dog and Bethesda churn out.
And now you can add Inside to that list.
Despite being less than four hours (maybe even be less than 3 hours, depending on how quick you are), Inside had me gripped like few other games this year, its relatively short run time full of imaginative ideas and creative puzzles. The game is designed by the team that did Limbo, and even Beethoven could tell the similarities between them (Beethoven was the blind dog, right? I don’t know my composers that well). Both are side scrolling platformers where you control a young boy, both are heavier on puzzles than actual platforming, and both involve ambiguous ‘storylines’ heavy on symbolism and dark themes.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I found Limbo overrated. Good? Yes. But great? Nah, not quite. So when I heard about Inside and saw it was getting rave reviews and even perfect scores from gaming media outlets, I was honestly a bit skeptical. But when even reviewers I dearly trust started to sing the praises of this game, hailing it a masterpiece, I knew it was time to go out of my way to buy it and play it. So I did. And I loved it.
As I said earlier, Inside is a side scrolling platformer, putting you in the role of a young boy who is working his way through a dystopian future, avoiding guards and dogs, murderous mermaid things and deadly security devices. Along the way, you’re going to be solving tons of puzzles, and this is where the game shines. Games some time have a tough time nailing a sweet spot for puzzles that are tough enough to make you feel clever, but easy enough that you’re not staring at your screen for an hour, blood pouring out your nose, bottom lip quivering.
Only once or twice did I have a feeling of frustrated helplessness, but I’ve gotten that when trying to open a jar of mayo, so maybe I’m just a moron. Either way, the puzzles in Inside are super smart and effortlessly drive the game forward.
Another star of this game is its atmosphere. Like world building, another thing I easily fall in love with is a game’s atmosphere. Inside drips with atmosphere. It’s super dark and there is a constant sense of dread and foreboding as you get farther and farther in the journey. There is some creepy ass shit you come across in this game, like the aforementioned murderous mermaid things (pretty sure that’s the technical name for them), and it adds to this oppressive atmosphere, truly immersing you into the game and its clearly fucked up world. This was one thing I DID love about Limbo, and they’ve absolutely nailed it with this game as well.
But there is one big gripe I have with this game, and its the story. Or rather, the ending. No, I’m not going to spoil anything about it because I’m not an asshole, but the ending is dogshit. The moments leading up to it? Awesome. The actual final scene, right before the credits begin? I’ll repeat: dogshit. And this is one problem I do have with some indie games, and that’s when they get too pretentious for their own good. There are times when an indie game is artsy just to be artsy, or at least it comes off that way. Inside unfortunately comes down with that affliction as we get to the end. Throughout the game, its story is often ambiguous, but it gives you pieces and scraps to try and paint your own picture about what’s going on. But with its ending, it just gives you a big middle finger and says, “Try and figure this shit out, asshole.” It’s a shame that the ending is my least favorite part of the game, because that’s the obviously the last memory you have of any game, and it put a sour taste in my mouth.
Despite my qualms with the ending, I still would not call Inside anything less than a masterpiece. It’s got too many incredible moments and it’s still waaay too well made to let its ending, which is obviously subjective, ruin the rest of its unforgettable journey. In fact, it’d be an easy pick for my Game of the Year, if it wasn’t for the next game…
Stray observation: The story doesn’t have an ending, and you know what else it doesn’t have? Rocket dicks. Sigh.
1. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Honestly, with my top 5 this year, it was just a race to see which game would get 2nd best, because there’s obviously nothing that was going to top this masterpiece. You can call me biased, considering how big a fan I am of this series. But even with my affection for all things Uncharted, I don’t think any one can deny that this is simply one of the best games of this generation, if not THE best.
Uncharted 4 puts us in the shoes of Nathan Drake, perhaps for the last time, as he reunites with his long lost brother. Nate discovers his brother is in serious debt, and the only way to clear it is to find the long lost pirate city of Libertalia. I probably would have just gotten a loan, but whatever, sure, let’s look for something that’s been lost for centuries and is probably cursed. In pure Uncharted fashion, Nate isn’t the only one looking for this treasure. Hot on the trail is an old ‘business partner’ named Rafe, who has with him a literal private army. Meaning Nate is going to have to kill even more people to get what he wants. Thank goodness he is apparently immune to PTSD.
As always, the writing and performances in the story are amazing, better than pretty much everything else in the industry. Naughty Dog is almost supernatural with their consistency in this department (along with everything else, really), so it’s really no shock that they would once again hit it out of the park. All the actors deliver grade A performances, and if this is the last time we get to hear them as these characters, then it’s a hell of a send off. And of course, the banter the characters share in and out of cutscenes add to the depth and chemistry these characters have to their relationships. The plot itself isn’t anything groundbreaking for the series or the genre, but damn if the dialogue and these characters don’t make up for it.
One thing about Uncharted 4 that does set it apart from the others is its pacing. To the chagrin of some, A Thief’s End slows things down a bit. There are more moments of quiet exploration, more chapters that are devoted to building the story and the characters. The influence from The Last of Us shows, and it’s by far the most grounded Uncharted yet. The game DOES ramp up, (impeccably so, might I add) and it does have big set pieces, but the action is certainly more subdued and less common than Among Thieves and Drake’s Deception. I could make the argument that those games were a little too combat heavy, with too many rooms of endless goons, so I’m actually happy to see a little less mindless action in this one.
Honestly, I could go on and on about the great things about this game, so I’ll just keep it succinct. If this is indeed the last Uncharted, than this is as near a flawless final chapter as we could have asked for. The game is full of great little moments and references for the fans, but it never gets too fan servicey. It feels and plays great, it looks gorgeous, it’s long but it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Even the multiplayer is worth playing, a surprisingly addictive and well made mode that keeps you genuinely hooked rather than just being a check mark on the back of the box.
I’ll end the gushing with this. If you have a PS4, play Uncharted 4. If you don’t have a PS4, buy one, then play Uncharted 4. As always, you can thank me later.
Stray observation: Finally, a game that knows what gamers play games for. I love that you kill the final boss by whipping out your dick and shooting a flurry of rockets out of it. Thank you, Naughty Dog, you guys are true heroes.