The best games of 2016 ran the gamut from taut, well-told tales to wide-open possibility spaces. If there's any justice, the year will be remembered as one in which triple-A exceeded itself with games that weren't so much sequels as reinventions, and in which indie had no trouble at all keeping up.
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To grapple with and get the most out of everything here you'll need to bring tactical nous, a big heart, and your little grey cells. And don't forget to wear your fun-garees. You know. For all the fun.
Forza Horizon 3
Forza Horizon 3 is the third in a series of attempts to humanise Turn 10’s excellent if cold driving simulators, and the first to successfully complete the windy and treacherous route from Xbox to personal computers.
Set in an alternate-world Australia in which everyone and their mums is obsessed with motorsports, Forza Horizon 3’s open world exists to satisfy you. As in Pokemon’s Kanto, every citizen in the country pours their energies into one shared passion, becoming either opponent or cheerleader of your efforts to become the leading racecar driver and part-time festival organiser down under.
It can be patronising, showering you with currency and swooning before your coolness and ability, but none of that matters. The party atmosphere is infectious, and the engine beneath is quite simply the finest available in the genre. Drift sideways through the outback. Drive to the beach and perform stunt jumps through an elephant’s graveyard of cargo ships. Build a festival site that takes up 25% of Byron Bay. Just pick a road and goooo.
What a lovely twist in the tail end of a delightful year for games. Titanfall 2 is not only a good sequel to a multiplayer game deserted too soon by its community - it’s also a fantastic single-player shooter. The kind you used to tell people about in 2004 and 2007 - a Half-Life 2 or a BioShock.
As the campaign progresses, with hulking metal companion BT at your side, Respawn fire and forget: tossing away brilliant ideas as if they were empty clips, before reaching for another. All the while, Titanfall 2 offers a first-class showcase in visual and audio feedback - nothing underwhelms.
How could we have forgotten, in the year of Modern Warfare Remastered, that this team of former Infinity Ward staffers were capable of such great feats in single-player FPS design? Forgive us, Zampella and co., for our forgetfulness.
In the year 2217, when your ‘mouse hand’ is a bionic replacement designed specifically for PC gaming, there will still be a new Civ - overseen by Sid Meier from his life-support throne, designed by a plucky new designer straight from MIT. It’ll be reassuringly familiar, but shrewdly different.
So it is with Civ VI. Although it can’t currently compete with the bundled editions of its predecessors for sheer wealth of content, it’s the perfect celebration of the defining 4X on its 25th anniversary. Music, palette, pacing: all conspire to make you fall for the series all over again, providing a warmth where Civ V was sometimes too stern.
This entry takes a new branch in the Civ series tech tree, too, planting bold new mechanics and laying strong foundations for diplomacy, religion, war and espionage which will surely be built up into proud cities in the inevitable expansions.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
It was in between stacking the fourth and fifth dumpster in an impossible staircase up to a Prague apartment window that we realised - at no point have Eidos Montreal forgotten Deus Ex’s roots. For all its modern shooter trappings, the series has lost none of its essential magic in silly simulation and player problem-solving.
It perhaps hasn’t gained quite enough in Mankind Divided, Montreal’s second Deus Ex sequel to date - certainly not in overall length. But the studio maintained their focus on improvisational combat and avoidance while venerating player ownership above all else, allowing parts of their knotty plot of prejudice and class struggle to slip into the background if we so desired.
Speaking of which: although it might call itself a shooter, Mankind Divided does quests better than practically any mainstream RPG outside of The Witcher. And nowhere else in the games industry will you see the form of fake email writing carried so far. To top it off, Mankind Divided's PC port isn't too shabby either.
Want more? Read our Deus Ex: Mankind Divided review.
Playdead’s long-awaited Limbo follow-up begins with a boy in the woods, minus a backstory and with no other option but to stumble towards the right-hand side of the screen. This overfamiliar fake-out soon gives way to a game with its own mysteries, however - a game so accomplished that these Danish indies couldn’t possibly have made it on their first time out.
Like its predecessor, Inside offers body horror, and the prospect of pulling and pushing boxes about so that you can clamber to out-of-reach areas. But it’s also about control, and brings uneasy new mechanics to match those new themes. There’s a more nuanced aesthetic, too - while Limbo is unmistakeable in its gloom, Inside’s gently stylised approach manages a remarkable and terrifying verisimilitude. When a masked man chases down your young charge and drowns him in a puddle, the fear hits you somewhere central. In the space between its impeccably choreographed animation and sound design, Inside starts to feel horribly, horribly real.
With Quake Champions on the horizon and this exceptional shooter in the rear-view mirror, id are tearing down the highway at the front of the pack again after a decade in neutral. Where Doom 3 spun the horror of monster closets off into a realm of dark rooms and sudden scares, new Doom takes a different tack: embracing the forward aggression of the original and coating everything in gibs rather than shadows.
Brilliantly, the gore feeds into the game - ultraviolent glory kills are not only a visual and aural reward in Doom for getting up close and impersonal but serve a tactical purpose, offering health pickups and a valuable few seconds to decide on your next attack or weapon switch. That rhythmic flow soon becomes second nature thanks to level design that funnels you between murderous, vertiginous arenas. A masterclass in FPS design that never feels anything less than contemporary.
Want more? Read our Doom review.
Blending elements from Team Fortress 2, MOBAs, and Blizzard’s own extended universe, Overwatch cemented itself as the multiplayer PC game of 2016 - not even the likes of Battlefield and COD could topple it.
It’s the sort of game that would once have been called ‘class-based’ but now goes under the ‘character shooter’ moniker, offering a focused selection of modes that riff on TF2’s payload maps and capture point objectives. Really though, it’s the interplay between Overwatch’s heroes that make it special. It really is a feat of balance on Blizzard’s part – you think Bastion’s OPed until you realise he takes 200% damage from behind when he’s in his turret configuration. You suspect Genji is too good until you watch someone’s Play of the Game and realise, nope, that player is just incredibly skilled. You think Zenyatta’s useless, then he spends an entire round killing you.
Best of all: in typical Blizzard fashion, support and development continues in earnest.
Want more? Read our Overwatch review.
Dark Souls III
Never really a series about difficulty but rather camaraderie - banding struggling solo players together via scrawled messages and occasional co-op - Dark Souls is incredibly self-assured in its third iteration. An entire industry might have failed to follow them, but FromSoftware now know exactly how to go about their strange, knotted level design - littering the sequel’s hard road with diversions, shortcuts, secrets and optional bosses. They’ve named the result Lothric: a mostly-dead world that recalls the 19th century German fantasy of The Nutcracker and exists in perpetual twilight.
After a break to hone his skills on Bloodborne, director Hidetaka Miyazaki returns with a masterclass. There are odd moments where encounters feel unfair, and you’ll fall to the occasional cheap, untelegraphed boss attack. But at its hollowed heart, Dark Souls III on PC is a near-perfect ramble over peaks and troughs of frustration, building to a godlike crescendo that feels like nothing else in games because you’ve earned every step.
Want more? Read our Dark Souls III review.
The Banner Saga 2
The Banner Saga games are uniquely gruelling in an RPG genre where the numbers tend only to go up. Here your warriors get weaker, not stronger, as they’re chipped away at in turn-based combat, swinging weakly at the encroaching Dredge. And as your exhausted caravan trundles on, tying events together, you’ll inevitably fail to save every desperate soldier and their family.
Even victories in The Banner Saga 2 can feel pyrrhic, coming at great cost. The cruelty is leavened only by a gorgeously-animated art style which evokes Disney’s Beauty and the Beast but also has a stark nobility of its own.
Fittingly-named studio Stoic have addressed complaints about samey-ness this time around, introducing obstacles, special objectives and centaur-ish enemies with horrifying, cheek-crushing hooves to the battle. The emotional engagement the series started with might have been lessened by an overlarge cast of characters, but The Banner Saga 2 can’t be bettered for bleak tactics and management.
Want more? Read our The Banner Saga 2 review.
It’s impossible to know how much The Division has changed since the E3 trailer that first lit up our imaginations like a New York Christmas. But it’s become a stark, breathtaking co-op shooter that diverges from the Ubi open world formula by embracing Diablo-style progression systems.
Identically black kevlar vests don’t make for the most compelling loot, but tying DPS to Clancy-style tactics works better than you’d think - rewarding suppression, flanking and good use of cover with more favourable numbers.
You play as a federal sleeper agent shooting looters. You'll hear your colleagues dismiss your targets as mindless or “animals”, and the tone can err towards dehumanising rather than empathising. But the worldbuilding is better than in any other Ubi game. There's an early mission that has you navigating the makeshift morgue the city's metro has become. The centrepiece of another is a burning department store Christmas tree. The Division on PC is by turns bleak and beautiful.
Want more? Read our The Division review.
Maybe it’s too much to ask that Io Interactive get everything right at once. They managed to confuse us all about just what the latest Hitman is with talk of episodes and staggered development. But, at the same time, the studio hit on the same inspired design principles that carried Blood Money, oft-remembered as Agent 47’s finest outing.
Every Hitman location released has been a great big puzzlebox filled with creative murder solutions. The Parisian mansion, for instance, is occupied by AI characters who react to the ripples you create in their lives, as well as the lives of their fellow NPCs.
Your options for assassination aren’t so emergent, but they are colourfully scripted: poisoned sushi taken to your mark by an clueless waiter; a press camera packed with plastic explosives. Hitman is a celebration of experimentation.
Want to hear more before you scan the barcode? Read our Hitman review.
Rise of the Tomb Raider
We may no longer see the vast graphical leaps of old - the great strides forward of Doom and Quake - but Rise of the Tomb Raider was far and away the most beautiful game you could play on your PC in 2016. Crystal Dynamics built an explorative showcase around some astounding set-pieces: strange Soviet installations and longboats encased vertically in ice.
Beneath the veneer there’s an adventure that builds on the successes of the 2013 reboot, returning Lara not only to unflinching third-person murder but also the tombs of the title - multistage crypt conundrums that put Uncharted’s tired pillar-shifting to shame. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a sequel driven by the same curiosity that never quite seems to kill Lara but does for everyone else around her.
Want to delve deeper? Here's our Rise of the Tomb Raider review.
Less a straight-up sequel than a guerilla resistance story told with familiar mechanics, XCOM 2 is far more ambitious a game than the iteration Firaxis could have been forgiven for turning in. On the ground, it’s all about the squeeze: the struggle to scout a procedurally-generated map and nab your objective in the face of an inflexible turn timer, the threat of overwhelming enemy reinforcements, and the necessity of reaching a distant evac point - even if that means sprinting through urban corridors thick with overwatchers.
On the global level, it’s all about turning back the hands of time: or rather than progress of the alien Avatar project that can jeopardise your entire campaign. This time the aliens are playing the game along with you, and it’s a wonderfully frightening, consistently surprising prospect. It'll keep on surprising, too, thanks to XCOM 2's mods.
Want to know your enemy? Read our XCOM 2 review.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
What on Earth, or some less habitable orb, does a Homeworld game look like when it’s not in space? Surely the classic RTS series is all about the vast gulf between planets, the vulnerability and beauty of combat in the void, rather than the planets themselves?
As it turns out, Homeworld can be about both. The graceful dance of its units, ducking back and swooping forward in elegant strategic symbiosis, is transposed successfully to the desert here. Relic refugees Blackbird Interactive have even preserved that vulnerability, too, in the ramshackle movement of physics-enabled dune convoys. After a little time on Kharak, you’ll wonder if the sandy surface actually makes a better battlefield than space: almost as endless and overwhelming, but scattered with obstacles and terrain that can alter your tactics.
Enjoy a dust-up? Here's a Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak review.
Without wishing to sound like your dad on a family walking holiday, there’s a certain irony in whisking the player away to a breathtaking whimsipunk island before sticking their head in screens the whole time. On paper, The Witness doesn’t necessarily sound like a great time at all - boasting more mazes than a motorway service station puzzle book, but asking you to sit upright in front of your PC for tens of hours to tackle them.
In the event, however, Jon Blow’s seven-year project turns out to be the purest evocation yet of the feeling that made Braid essential. The Witness provides you with a framework to build your understanding, stretching your brain sideways and making you feel brilliant in the cerebral sense of the word. And thanks to that island, you’re freer than ever before to wander off and stimulate your synapses somewhere else rather than bang your head against a particularly troublesome panel. We've already solved one puzzle for you: whether or not Jon Blow is drinking enough water.
Still puzzled? Read a Witness review.
If Far Cry 3 didn’t teach you that teen beach parties off the beaten path can end spectacularly badly, hormonal horror story Oxenfree certainly will. Taking its cues from the supernatural cinema of the ‘80s, it combines post-Telltale conversation with synth pop and stunning backdrops drawn by Disney alumni.
You’re Alex, the wayward kidult responsible for pulling new stepbrother Jonas into a big, scary mess. Well done. But you’re also the one with the radio that allows you to commune with the dead and manipulate the world around you - uncovering island events across decades and lifetimes. Voice talent from The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead awaits, as well as decisions that can affect the outcome and - more importantly, for a teen - Alex’s relationships.
A cruel, cartoon roguelike which asks a question of your adventuring party: who are you becoming? Usually they’re becoming corpses, but along the way they can pick up a catalogue of characterful traits and ailments - halting disease, crippling fear, gnawing paranoia and, lest we forget, the after-effects of actual gnawing.
It’s less about the grasp you belatedly gain over the turn-based RPG systems in Darkest Dungeon, and more about the well of anecdotes you’ll acquire in the meantime. The masochists you’ll lose to packs of wild dogs; the jesters who’ll succumb to the wrong sort of mushrooms; the bounty hunters you’ll see starve in dank passageways because they forgot their shovel. If you’re into permadeath, procedural dungeons and emergent stories, this might just be your bag.
Want to know more? Read our Darkest Dungeon review.
That Dragon, Cancer
One of PC gaming’s rare attempts at autobiography, That Dragon, Cancer comprises a series of disarming vignettes in which you play witness to the diagnosis, struggle and eventual loss of its lead developers’ toddler son. Playing as family members, bystanders and - on one occasion - a duck bobbing gently in a nearby pond, you participate to varying degrees in Ryan and Amy Green’s memories.
Interaction is dosed out only in small amounts, often to convey a particular feeling. What you can control is the pacing, indulging in moments of uplift and racing through some of the pain if you so choose. Despite the terrible proximity of its creators to its source material, the game is never anything less than a light touch - an honest account that becomes an exercise in empathy for its players. It's just a shame That Dragon, Cancer sales haven't reflected its quality and nuance.
Still undecided? Consult a That Dragon, Cancer review.
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