Congratulations! If you are reading this, then you have (just about) survived 2016, which was a monumentally shitty year in almost every respect except for videogames. I remarked at the end of last year that I thought 2015 contained some games of exceptional quality, and yet 2016 makes it look like it wasn’t even trying; I’ve played so many good games this year that it’s actually difficult to think of any actual bad ones, and while that’s partially a result of the industry saturating the market with new titles (to the point where I suspect we may be headed for a mini-crash sometime in the near future as there’s only so much money to go around and the sheer volume of commercial failures could become unsustainable) it’s also a pleasing indicator that many previously-moribund development houses have rediscovered the internal spark that made their games fun in the first place. And there’s no better way to examine this phenomenon than through the usual medium of the Scientific Gamer Completely Made-Up Awards Ceremony 2016!
The Hentzau Self-Injury Award: Devil Daggers
It’s been a while since there was a decent contender in this category; the most recent I can remember was SpaceChem, which caused me to think so hard I gave myself a migraine. Devil Daggers at least causes a more traditionally known injury — where tennis players get Tennis Elbow, FPS players get FPS Left Index Finger RSI — but it does it over a hugely accelerated timeframe, since your panicked flight from a horde of demonic skulls and other beasties chasing you around the arena is so tense and unnerving that your hand will inevitably be clutching the mouse in a rictus claw grip the whole time you’re playing it. A typical game of Devil Daggers lasts maybe 2-3 minutes, but it’s an incredibly intense 2-3 minutes and you’ll find yourself playing game after game as you chase after your friends’ times on the high score table. In a way, Devil Daggers is the perfect indie game. It only has the one idea, but it’s a really good one and it doesn’t get sidetracked with any extraneous bullshit; 100% of the development effort has gone on exploring its one good idea, resulting in a more polished and focused experience than every single one of the AAA titles I’ve played this year.
Best Game That Caused Me To Do A 180 On The Franchise: Dishonored 2
Runner up: The Banner Saga 2
The Banner Saga 2 is possibly the best RPG I played this year and a huge improvement over the original in almost every single area, and yet it still finds itself outdone by a game which only really improved in one — level design — but which poured so much creativity and intelligence into it that I went through much of Dishonored 2 with my mouth gaping slightly open at what Arkane had managed to accomplish. Each of its levels is a densely-packed warren of secrets, and unlike the first game an awful lot of care and attention has gone into contextualising them as actual conceivable places in a world rather than levels in a game. Thanks to this, and to its choice of two playable characters, Dishonored 2 passes the replayability test unusually well; I’ve been through some of its levels three or four times and I was still finding new things on each subsequent run, and one of them absolutely blew me away with how reactive it was to certain things that only a tiny fraction of players will ever do. With Titanfall 2, Dishonored 2 and DOOM, 2016 was unusually well-served in terms of excellent first-person games; all of them were different, all of them excelled in their respective niches, and all of them are well worth your time. If you had to pick just one, though, I would highly recommend making it Dishonored 2.
The Section 8: Prejudice Multiplayer Award: Titanfall 2
Another near-perfect sequel, Titanfall 2 took everything the original game did, cut in places, streamlined in others and added a single-player campaign that really had no right to be as good as it did. I don’t like waxing lyrical about it too much as I think it was merely Very Good rather than having the all-time classic quality that certain parts of the internet seem to think it does, but that’s still far better than I was expecting; the contrast between Titanfall 2’s campaign and the creatively-monotonous campaign in Infinite Warfare was proof that the talented parts of Infinity Ward really did all jump ship to Respawn, and that they’ve still got what it takes to make a really good shooter.
It’s the multiplayer I’m here to talk about, though, and Titanfall 2 is the most fun I have had in a multiplayer game in years. Maybe even the last half decade. Everything about it is so well thought-out, so finely-tuned, that you can’t help but have fun whether you’re sliding round a corner firing your SMG one-handed into the back of an enemy or goosing ejecting Pilots with your Titan’s laser weapon. It’s even fun when you’re losing, for crying out loud; this is multiplayer so a certain amount of toxicity is expected, but I’ve found myself resenting surprisingly few losses in Titanfall. Partly this is because individual matches are not long enough for you to get overly invested in winning or losing; mostly, though, it’s because it’s extremely difficult to have a truly negative experience when you’re thundering along in a Titan wasting enemy players and AI mooks alike. That’s why I’ve sunk thirty hours into the multiplayer so far, and it’s where something like Overwatch really fell down: I’m practically guaranteed to have fun when I play a round of Titanfall 2, and there’s not very many multiplayer games I can say that about these days.
Most Incomplete Game: Stellaris
Runners up: Civilization VI, No Man’s Sky
It’s a little sad that I can make up an award for this, but that’s the unfortunate state of videogaming these days: it’s viewed as entirely acceptable to skip the polishing phase these days and push out a product that’s only 80-90% complete, and while the missing 10% might not sound like all that much it’s usually the effort that would have been spent on the most important player-facing bits of the game like the UI. No Man’s Sky was obviously released way too early, but it has far deeper problems than a lack of polish or balancing and even if Hello Games had had theoretically infinite time and resources to finish it I believe No Man’s Sky would still be a bad game thanks to its almost intentional ignorance of the collected history of PCG in games up until this point. Civilization VI similarly was missing a good 3-6 months of additional development with pivotal aspects of the game such as the UI and the AI being barely functional on release, but it was still possible to have fun with Civ VI in spite of this; it at least delivered the core of a working game.
Stellaris, though, is a game that was over-ambitious, over-hyped, released about six months earlier than I thought it would given typical development cycles, and which failed to include something rather more fundamental to a 4X: a mid- and endgame that was actually worth a damn. Once you had explored the galaxy there was almost nothing to do besides make war with your neighbours, and since the warfighting system was absolutely atrocious that was an absolutely huge problem for Stellaris. In the event it appears that my six month estimate may have been generous, as they’ve had seven months of additional development and I’ve not heard any encouraging evidence that Stellaris is worth playing yet. I plan to revisit it sometime in the new year to see if Paradox have succeeded in bolting a viable endgame onto it, but I’m not holding my breath.
Best Worst Game: No Man’s Sky
Runners up: Call Of Duty: Infinite Warfare
Ah, now this where No Man’s Sky excels. It’s not like there isn’t a huge amount of talent that’s gone into it, but quite aside from its significant issues on release I believe that No Man’s Sky is the most misguided game I’ve played this year. The developers simply didn’t grasp the strengths and weaknesses of what they were trying to make, and consequently fell into almost every single one of the blindingly obvious traps awaiting PCG-driven games. It’s built around a PCG algorithm that produces planets that are seemingly identical, with their similarities disguised only by their surface textures; there is no point exploring in this game that’s supposedly about exploration, because once you’ve landed on one planet you’ve effectively landed on them all. It has crafting, because open world games are supposed to have crafting, but it’s a painfully shallow affair; ditto for the combat. But this would all make it merely bad; the reason No Man’s Sky attains “Worst Game” status this year is because it does have a hint of promise lurking within it if you play it as an interstellar version of Pokemon Snap, jetting about the universe to get pretty screenshots of places and lifeforms. Unfortunately Hello Games were so hell-bent on aping other open world games that they spent almost no time exploring the potential of exploring. I don’t think it warrants the shocking amount of vitriol that’s been directed towards the developers in the months since, but the disproportionate backlash from Angry Internet Men doesn’t change the fact that No Man’s Sky is a game that didn’t understand how to be a game, and is consequently the most abject failure of 2016 by some considerable way.
Best Film Of The Year: None
I’ve maintained my cinema-going habits this year, but the results were substantially more disappointing than 2015. There was no Mad Max or The Martian released in 2016 just a series of increasingly identikit blockbusters that, while I couldn’t call them bad (except for the new Independence Day), weren’t exactly good either and which were almost instantly forgotten the moment I walked out of the cinema. Rogue One was good, but I almost feel it wins by default rather than because it is a particularly good film in and of itself, and I’m not sure it’ll stand up to repeat viewing in the way that Mad Max and The Martian did — and which The Force Awakens did not. So no dice this year, Hollywood. You’ll have to step up your game in 2017.
(And no, I haven’t gotten around to seeing The Arrival yet, which is a shame because it sounds like the one film that could legitimately go here.)
Best Soundtrack: Nuclear Throne
Runner up: Brigador
Considering the unusually high quality of many of the games that were released this year it’s curious that nearly all of them were paired with rather unmemorable soundtracks. Some of them had great individual tracks, as with XCOM 2’s Squad Loadout theme, but when considered as a complete body of work there were only two games that serenaded me with great music the whole way through. One was Brigador, whose retro synth stylings were a perfect accompaniment to its neon-drenched arcade shoot ‘em up gameplay. However I’d not heard anything quite like the strummy guitar/harmonica soundtrack to Nuclear Throne before; it lays its cards out on the table the moment you hear that incredible main menu music and continues exploring the idea from there. I’ve been fond of acoustic guitar tracks in videogames ever since the Tristram theme from Diablo, and Nuclear Throne is basically an entire game of that, so it takes the prize this year.
Best Game Of The Year: Total War: Warhammer
Runners up: Dishonored 2, Titanfall 2, DOOM, The Banner Saga 2
(In any other year XCOM 2 would have been on that list, and the only reason Hitman isn’t on it is because I haven’t yet gotten around to playing episodes 3 through 6 and so can’t comment on it as a complete game.
I must admit I’m a little bit shocked to be writing this. I love bashing the Creative Assembly on here; up until this point they’ve always looked to me like a talented developer that nevertheless keeps falling down in terms of their general approach to development, resulting in games of unpredictable quality. For every Shogun 2 there is a Rome 2; for every Empire a Napoleon; and even their successes bear the unfortunate hallmarks of a development process that seems to value wide, sweeping, and unrealistic scopes over the tight focus required to make a really good game. It’s no coincidence that their best Total War games have been the ones whose scope has been limited by either the time period or by geography, and it’s also not a coincidence that their worst ones have been brought down by too much bloat diluting their development efforts.
Total War: Warhammer changes all of that. Total War: Warhammer appears to be the end result of the Creative Assembly finally putting somebody in charge who knew how to correctly scope out a development plan that was achievable with the resources on hand, and then successfully executing on that plan. That, or they’ve been reading this blog, since Warhammer does what I’ve been saying they should do for years: trade breadth for depth. What’s the point in having thirteen different playable factions if three of them are just the the same barbarian horsemen in differently-coloured trousers, after all? Warhammer cut the number of playable factions down to just four (that were available on launch), but it compensated the player for this apparent reduction in scope by making each faction genuinely different to play. Obviously it was helped in this regard by Warhammer being the first non-historical Total War game and the Creative Assembly’s collective imagination suddenly being let off the leash; it must be so refreshing to work on something like this after a decade of doing the line infantry of Napoleon or the legionaries of Rome, and that enthusiasm really shows through in the design, the art and the animation. So the cavalry in Warhammer aren’t the umpteenth identical set of medieval knights or barbarian horsemen; no, the cavalry in Warhammer are giant green orcs riding boars, or undead knights riding skeleton steeds, or… well, okay, there are some medieval knights in here, but they’re fantasy medieval knights and the two factions that field them are still very different. This cavalry rubs shoulders with hordes of trolls, chaos spawn, giants, dragons and other monstrous creatures, and even the basic foot troops are just as likely to be a shamble of zombies or a disciplined, unbreakable line of dwarves as they are a group of Empire swordsmen.
Add to this the rich lore of the Warhammer world and a map that has landmarks from that world prominently displayed on its surface — resulting in somewhere like Karaz-a-Karak properly feeling like the dwarf capital city when you can see the giant dwarf statues that are carved into the face of the mountain above it — and you’ve got a game bursting at the seams with character and factions that are so different the replayability of Warhammer is dramatically enhanced. I’ve spent a significant chunk of time as each of the four original factions now, totalling over seventy hours. I actually went back to play Total Warhammer twice this year instead of playing other, newer games, simply because it was that much fun to try new races and new strategies. Also because the Creative Assembly are supporting it with a meaty program of DLC that’s adding in whole new playable races to the game — Beastmen and Wood Elves have been added so far, with the Bretonnians scheduled to be released in February — as well as new sub-factions with more interesting goals and starting locations than their parent races. That’s one of the most interesting things about this Total War: instead of trying to do all of the races of the Warhammer world at once and spreading themselves too thing, they’ve instead focused on just doing the original four properly while leaving themselves enough hooks to add in other races later via DLC or even full-on expandalones1. The extra time they’ve spent on the core factions has ensured they’re good enough to provide a suitably full-fat experience, which in turn means I don’t feel short-changed that additional factions are going to be added via DLC: if each of them has the same effort put into their individuality as the Dwarves or the Orcs then I know that DLC will be well worth the money, and it lets the Creative Assembly slowly build their game up in a way that does it justice.
With so many other excellent games having been released this year I genuinely was very surprised to find a Total War game topping the list when putting together this post, as I hadn’t quite been immediately blown away by it in the same way that I was with DOOM or Dishonored 2. Total Warhammer is much more of a thoughtful, slow burning game whose true potential has only become clear after many months of playing it. It’s earned its place, and not just because it’s the result of the CA finally pulling their act together: in terms of playtime, replayability, character, imagination and sheer fun, Total War: Warhammer is my Game Of The Year.
- This struck me as ridiculously ambitious when I first heard about it but the more I play Total Warhammer the more I think the CA might actually pull it off: the idea is that each “expandalone” will focus on a different group of core races, and that if you own two or more of the planned trilogy you can optionally play a version of the Grand Campaign that’s effectively all of the games bolted together into one map that provides the full-fat Warhammer experience. ↩