It's been a pretty solid year for video games. PC players got their new gold standard in the form of the Nvidia GTX 1080 graphics card, Microsoft and Sony slimmed down the Xbox One and PS4, respectively, while Sony also released a beefed-up PlayStation 4 Pro and surpassed 50 million PS4's sold. It was the year high-end VR gaming finally arrived in homes, and the Wii U was quietly taken off life support, as Nintendo gears up for the launch of the Switch next March.
New Atlas rounds up some of the gaming highlights of 2016, to help you fill out your holiday to-play list.
The Witness is what happens when a book of mazes is torn up and scattered around the island from Lost. It definitely won't be everybody's cup of tea, but it is as relaxing and stimulating as one.
A series of screens is littered throughout one of the most beautiful virtual environments we've ever had the pleasure of strolling around, and on each screen is a maze. Players simply drag a bar of light from the beginning to the end, with success usually activating another nearby screen with a new maze. Repeat ad nauseam.
It sounds simple, but the difficulty ramps up quickly. Initially meaningless, you'll eventually work out what different symbols represent and how they impact the mazes, as well as what clues can be pulled from the environment. If a particular puzzle has you stumped, the open-world design lets you walk away and try your luck in another area – more often than not, you just haven't been taught how to solve that particular puzzle yet.
On top of that sits another layer of mystery that we don't want to spoil, but unravelling that thread some 40 hours in is responsible for the most profound "Aha!" moment we've had in a game all year.
For what it was, we enjoyed Doom 3 back in 2004, but its slower horror stylings weren't quite the 90s-era Doom we knew and loved. This year's plainly-titled Doom harks back to the fast-paced days of demon-slaying running and gunning.
Story takes a bit of a backseat, but what's there is par for the course: demons have invaded the United Aerospace Corporation's base on Mars, and you'll eventually take the fight to their hellish home turf.
There's no crouching behind cover here. No hiding and waiting for your health to regenerate. Instead, the game rewards players for getting right up in the bad guys' grill and unloading with the super shotgun, before launching into a gory "Glory Kill" – a melee dismemberment that calls to mind Mortal Kombat fatalities of old.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
Long the poster child for video games with meaningful choices, this year's instalment in the Deus Ex series again places players in a future where humans can "augment" themselves with mechanical abilities and equipment. Players once again step into the high-tech boots of Adam Jensen, who's now an agent with Interpol.
Mankind Divided kicks off two years after Human Revolution, which ended with a terrorist group hacking augmented people the world over and inciting them to riot against their will. In the aftermath of "the Aug Incident," a huge societal rift has opened up between Naturals and Augs, and it's in this stirred-up beehive of a world that Jensen investigates a new series of terrorist attacks.
Although it's a bit on-the-nose at times, the game is full of intriguing characters and difficult choices, and the same play-it-your-way style of combat: we're pretty proud to say we made it through without killing a single person – even those who really, really deserved it.
Pokémon Sun and Moon
It's been a strong year for Nintendo's never-ending bug catching/dog-fighting RPG – and rightly so, considering 2016 marks the franchise's 20th anniversary. In July, Nintendo and Niantic Labs unleashed Pokémon Go onto mobile devices, to a level of success that neither the developers nor local law enforcement was really ready for.
This year's mainline entries, Pokémon Sun and Moon, rode that wave to become Nintendo's fastest-selling titles ever. And not without merit, either: the games strike a nice balance between being accessible for newcomers and appeasing veterans by tweaking some of the series fundamentals. Gyms are gone, replaced by a more varied "Trials" system, and the ever-frustrating HMs have finally been given the flick. Instead of weighing down your team with sub-par moves out of necessity, you can now just call a service to help whenever you need a ferry or find a rock in need of smashing.
We only wish that the game wasn't so focused on the first generation. With over 800 of the catchable critters now, it might be nice not to dwell on the debut album.
From the indie team that brought us the dark puzzle-platformer Limbo, Inside is… well, a dark puzzle-platformer. But it's a fantastic one, and it might have slipped under the radar for many gamers this year.
Through the medium of box-and-switch puzzles and pixel-perfect jumping, Inside weaves the wordless tale of a young boy who falls through the fingers of a mysterious organization that's rounding people up for unspecified sinister reasons. Like its predecessor, the game can be quite brutal, swiftly and violently punishing you for the slightest misstep, but the puzzle solutions are never too obscure and always seem obvious once you've figured them out.
It's a short game, with the credits rolling after about four or five hours, but the atmosphere will linger long after. Especially that ending.
Buy now from Playdead
Looking to capture a slice of that sweet, sweet Team Fortress 2 pie, Blizzard turned its Midas touch to the world of cooperative-competitive shooters, and the result is probably the multiplayer game of the year.
Overwatch isn't a hugely innovative game, but what it does, it does really well. Characters come in four classic flavors: Offense, Defense, Tank, and Support, and they function much the way you'd expect, but their abilities mesh together nicely – providing you've got a team that knows how to work together. Like many in its class, Overwatch is at its most fun and rewarding when you and your buddies are operating as a single, well-oiled machine. Lone wolves need not apply.
While the launch content was a little thin in terms of modes and maps, Blizzard seems committed to releasing new stuff over time: a few extra characters, levels and loot have dropped in the months after launch, with more apparently in the pipeline.
Forza Horizon 3
The Forza Motorsport series has distinguished itself with its realistic physics, extensive car selection and real-world tracks, but if you're after arcade fun then the Horizon series is where you want to be.
This year's entry was the best yet, letting gamers get behind the wheel of everything from the Robin Reliant to a Lamborghini Centenario and enjoy the beautiful Australian scenery in an open world map. Sure, in the real world the trip from Byron to the Twelve Apostles would take 7.5 hours traveling at 250 km/h, but the geographic inaccuracies mean tight street courses and dusty outback trails are minutes apart – and details down to the wheelie bins, orange-topped phone booths, red post boxes, and cars driving on the left gave the game an authentic Australian feel.
But all that would be for nought if the racing didn't deliver, which it did in spades. And if you grow tired of racing, there are plenty if other things to keep you occupied, from the drift zones to our personal favorite, the ridiculous danger sign jumps. And if all else fails, it's fun to just cruise around: we're fans of jumping in a Lamborghini and seeing how far we can travel in as straight a line a possible at top speed, roads be damned.
Shooters need a change of scenery, and while this year's Call of Duty took the fight into the far-flung future, EA and Dice decided to run in the other direction. Battlefield 1 drops us into the thick of World War I, a setting that has been largely overlooked by first person shooters in favor of World War II with its obvious bad guys and more refined weapons.
Unlike the last two games in the series, Battlefield 1 has a surprisingly solid single-player campaign. It's told as an anthology of six smaller stories, skipping around Europe and the Middle East and letting the player navigate the conflict through the eyes of various soldiers, pilots and people caught in the crossfire.
Of course, it wouldn't be Battlefield without a strong lineup of multiplayer modes, and this iteration features plenty of classic game types – some of which have a period-specific twist. War pigeons plays a bit like a capture the flag variant, where each team fights to catch and hold a carrier pigeon long enough to send a message. From flyable biplanes to rideable horses, that 1915 flavor is one of the strongest elements of the game.
The Last Guardian
In development for almost a decade, The Last Guardian finally managed to slip free of the bonds of vaporware this year and dive straight into our holiday to-play list.
For better or worse, The Last Guardian feels and handles a lot like Fumito Ueda's previous games, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Explicit story is kept to a minimum in favor of a general vibe, implied environmental narrative, and a developing relationship between characters. In this case, that's between the young nameless boy the player controls, and his pet bird-cat-dog-beast, Trico.
Gameplay is exploration-based puzzle solving, as you work out how to get both yourself and your lumbering pet to the next area. By design, Trico isn't the most obedient companion, sometimes preferring to wander off or take a break when you need his help. Whether that's a fun, quirky approximation of real pet ownership or a frustrating game-breaker is up to you.
The average gamer is now in his 30s, and while most of us still want plenty of action, skill and excitement, it takes a lot more subtlety and intrigue to draw us into a plot line than it used to. And it's by catering to this more mature audience that Naughty Dog has established itself as the undisputed king of cinematic storytelling in the console world. We can't think of another studio that could've pulled off a nuanced, powerful story like 2013's The Last of Us, for example.
Naughty Dog's blockbuster release for 2016 is another sparkling example. Uncharted 4, in many ways, gives you exactly what you expect from the series; the chance to play a wisecracking Indiana Jones character through a series of jaw-dropping set pieces, tracing the footsteps of a historical pirate figure with a penchant for building incredibly elaborate traps and machinery to hide his treasured artefacts in.
For much of the game you're paired up with other characters working your way through puzzles and hordes of bad guys - and the interactions between these characters as you play add a depth and weight to the experience that really feels like it's pushing the art of storytelling forward. The acting is outstanding, the dialogue so much more natural than you're used to accepting from a video game that it's jarring to go back and play other games where there's such a stark delineation between cutscenes for storytelling and everything else for action.
As for the locations, Uncharted 4 takes you from underground prison dungeons to cobwebbed mansions, and from heart-achingly beautiful tropical mountains to the decaying ruins of an insanely opulent pirate paradise. The story skips back and forth in time, exploring a relationship between Nathan Drake and his brother Sam that threatens the (perhaps too) peaceful life Nathan's built with his wife Elena.
It's the closest thing to being in a Hollywood movie, and while it certainly gets to be a grind at some points, the parallel stories of greed, distrust, honour and redemption that wind themselves through the main characters and the history they're uncovering make this an experience not to be missed and a fitting end to Nathan Drake's adventures.
Of course, like any form of entertainment, video games are subjective, so what were your favorite games of 2016? Let us know in the comments below.
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