Wherever you are in the world and whatever your political persuasions, 2016 has been an incredibly divisive year. The only thing that’s lightened the mounting stress of world crisis, electoral argument and the loss of some much loved figures, is the whirlwind of quality TV, movies and video games.
We’ve been spoilt with some exceptional releases and unforgettable entertainment – which makes it that much more difficult to whittle this intense year down to just ten of my highlights across games, films and series.
Of course, my top ten is not necessarily yours, and there are plenty of critically acclaimed games released this year that haven’t made the list purely based on personal opinion. If you want to share your top ten list, feel free to comment or let me know on Twitter your picks for the year and why.
To kick off, here’s my pick of the top 10 games for 2016;
10. Mafia III
This is a controversial opener, as the game was met with decisively average reviews – but for me all the little details in Mafia III, from its soundtrack to the retro Playboy magazine collectables created an incredible, immersive 60s atmosphere that made for a truly entertaining game experience.
The most innovative aspect of the game is its framing mechanic – from the very beginning the story is told as if the entirety of the experience is a documentary. Some returning characters give their account of the events – and occasionally, if you mess up a level, you’ll get an amusing outro of a confused narrator claiming “that can’t be how it happened..”
Some of the gameplay itself feels a bit dated if you’re used to polished open world adventures, but it’s still enjoyable to play and absolutely worth picking up for the story alone.
9. Layers of Fear
The reason this game made the list is I still remember how unsettling I found the story. Rather than relying on jump scares alone, Layers of Fear delivers its terror layer by layer (appropriately!), creating an uneasy experience and a deep feeling of dread that really sticks with you.
I’m reluctant to say much about the story because I don’t want to spoil anything, but the general premise is fairly simple; you’re a painter desperately trying to finish your masterpiece, in a creepy Victorian mansion. You aren’t running from zombies or hiding from psychopaths, instead the fear comes from an emotional and unsettling atmosphere.
The attention to detail that goes into the setting and the way the protagonist’s past is slowly revealed to you over time really drove me to finish this game, and I’d recommend it to anyone with a fondness for psychological thrillers.
As a mobile game, PokemonGo was a bug-ridden mess and frustrating to play from release. Despite that, it quickly became an international phenomenon – making headlines across the world for its immediate cultural impact. It is for that reason that this augmented reality app is one of my favourite games of the year, despite its many issues and regardless of how quickly the obsession died.
It’s also worth saying that for a free to play game, Niantic were very generous with content and the game was fun and enjoyable, without intrusive advertising or near-compulsory micro-transactions.
7. Twilight Princess
As a WiiU owner and Zelda fanatic, I had to put the HD remaster of 2006’s Zelda Twilight Princess on this list. This is a game I previously attempted to replay only a few years ago, dusting off my Wii for a sharp reminder of how little I missed motion controls. In contrast the WiiU version reminded me of why I loved the game in the first place, and it looked surprisingly good on my 4K screen running at 1080p.
6. Last Guardian
Having waited a casual eight years or so for this game, it was almost surreal to finally have a copy in my hands. Despite some clunky controls, the game tells a beautiful story in a really intelligent and understated way. It can be frustrating at times, but that’s almost part of the charm of maintaining a relationship with a giant bird dog. I’ve played this game enough for it to make my top ten, but I haven’t finished it yet so it may have climbed higher by the end of the month. Watch my unboxing of the Last Guardian Collector’s Edition here.
- The Witness
I never thought a puzzle game would be one of my favourite titles of the year, but the Witness is not like anything I’ve ever played. The way the puzzles are entrenched within its beautifully designed environments and the clever way in which it teaches you how to complete the game one puzzle at a time is really impressive and absolutely the kind of game that gets into your head.
If you’ve ever dreamt about Tetris shapes you’ll understand this feeling, and the Witness left me spotting puzzles in places I walk past every day.
Has anyone pitched Thekla Inc. ‘The WitnessGo’?
- Final Fantasy XV
After ten years in development, Final Fantasy XV delivers a memorable open RPG adventure through a bizarre and beautiful world.Its a really beautiful looking game with a an entertaining RPG game play loop and exploration and battle mechanics that make the first half of the game really fun to grind through.
The game’s story draws heavily on the themes of the wider series, which puts it in constant conflict with its desire to appeal to newcomers. But whilst the story is a little weak and often confusing in its delivery, the strong supporting cast and the relationship of the four main characters make this endearingly strange video game really entertaining
For all its flaws, its one of the most entertaining games I’ve played this year.
- Rise of the Tomb Raider
As a Playstation 4 owner, the 20th Anniversary edition of Rise of the Tomb Raider released this year was my first real taste of this epic adventure, and easily one of my favourite games of the year.
Despite being released a year earlier on Xbox consoles, nothing about the game felt dated and I thoroughly enjoyed everything about Lara’s dark journey of survival in a freezing wilderness. The weapon crafting and skill tree mechanics added a surprising amount of customization to a traditionally story driven action game, and the huge open areas made the game feel bigger and more interwoven than ever.
Lara herself is brought to life with intricate physical design and rich emotional character development – her fierce survival instincts, strong moral compass and compassionate interactions with (comparatively weak) supporting characters made it easy to empathise with this infamous leading lady.
It was absolutely worth the wait, so much so that I’d even consider its sequel a potential system seller, if Xbox secure timed exclusivity again.
- Pokémon Sun and Moon
The second Pokémon game on this list, but by far my favourite of the two.
After twenty years of the pocket monster franchise, Sun and Moon has a unique style that breaks the conventions of its predecessors without straying too far from the game that took the world by storm all those years ago.
The long awaited seventh generation of the RPG franchise delivers a beautiful new region to explore, with a thoughtfully crafted style that really outshines previous areas for its distinct feel and engaging environments. The tiresome HM system has been cut and gyms are replaced with island trials and totem Pokémon, but the core collecting, training and battle mechanics remain largely unchanged.
Although I found the opening few hours a little slow, overall I think Sun and Moon really managed to shake up the series in a way that really built on all the strengths of previous games. It also managed to appeal to casual gamers after the success of Pokémon go, without alienating veterans of the franchise – which is an impressive feat!
- Dark Souls 3
My favourite game of the year is the third instalment of FromSoftware’s twisted action RPG series. Dark Souls 3 was exactly what I wanted and everything I’ve come to expect from a souls game, with a rich and rewarding story that can unfold without you even noticing, unless you’re paying attention, and many nods to the themes and theories that have built up around its predecessors.
My hype for the game was fairly high, but the unforgiving environments, unique bosses and clever level design really delivered and whilst it certainly wasn’t the biggest release of the year, I genuinely enjoyed Dark Souls 3 more than any other game I played. You can read my full review here.
I first noticed Firewatch because of the stunning artwork of Olly Moss, but it was the engaging, melancholy story and the excellent, well-delivered dialogue that made it such a memorable experience.
It’s almost therapeutic to wander in solitude around the vast national forest, all the while unravelling the game’s mystery. The voice acting is superb and the narrative addresses sad, emotional themes that we can all sympathise with in one way or another. There isn’t much in the way of actual gameplay, but Firewatch almost made this list because it’s one of the year’s best examples of interactive storytelling.
Skyrim Special Edition
Skyrim returned this year with remastered graphics and faster loading times, as well as all the DLC content bundled in and the inclusion of mod support for console users. Whilst you could easily take a fairly cynical view of this, it was the perfect upgrade for Elder Scrolls fans and a great option for anyone who inexplicably missed this huge release the first time. It ate a few more hours of my time but ultimately for me it didn’t add enough to the original game to make it onto this list.
Normally I wouldn’t consider an annual release game like FIFA as a highlight of the year, but this year the game’s career mode really stepped up to at least deserve a mention. I was surprised at the level of detail put into Alex Hunter’s story and the various supporting mechanics that complemented traditional gameplay. In addition to controlling his performance on the pitch, you are responsible for career-shaping decisions that supplement his rise to fame.
EA would sell copies of FIFA based on multiplayer alone, so it’s good to see them rewarding fans with additional features and strong cinematic storytelling.
Agent 47’s latest missions were released in a new episodic format that meant it may have flown under the radar for many gamers.
The game is a collection of varied levels that require you to adopt a mix of stealth, disguise and creative kills. You can run in guns blazing if you like, but for me it was much more fun to watch the various NPCs complete their routines and discover interesting ways to do away with your target and escape unnoticed. It is for this reason that the episodic release makes sense, because it encourages you to replay missions before moving onto the next, discovering new secrets every time. The only negative of this is so many major titles were released between the first and final episodes that hype for the next instalment would often fizzle out. Having said that I’m the sort of person who waits until the end of a Telltale series before binging on every episode, so this may just be me.
Games I’ve not got around to yet that might have made the list;