Breathe a sigh of relief, as with 2016 behind us, it’s high time we rejoiced in the one aspect of that godawful year that was truly outstanding – its video games.
Even as the year drew to a close we were seeing things like the phenomenal The Last Guardian or Final Fantasy XV finish it out in style, topping off what was easily the best month-to-month period for gaming this generation. Granted it’s taken about this long for the industry to regain its footing after a disastrous 2014/half of 2015 showing, but now we’re in full swing, the medium is firing on all cylinders.
But what if you’re just entering this console cycle right now?
Although it may feel like developers are forever grappling with releasing games smooth and totally bug-free, the PS4 and Xbox One are entering their fourth year on the market, allowing for a huge amount of fantastic titles to be considered for any new owner.
One of WhatCulture Gaming’s Best Games of 2016, Overwatch was the one title that made all those who never played Starcraft or World of Warcraft truly appreciate how immaculate a developer Blizzard have always been.
Literally every single pixel, voxel, character model, line of dialogue and animation feels purpose-built for mass appeal, all contributing to a multiplayer experience that effectively weaponises the ‘one more go’ mentality to devastatingly addictive effect.
See, Overwatch may be multiplayer only with zero progression outside of amassing blind loot boxes, but it’s testament to just how !*$% fun learning the abilities and movesets of its cast of characters are, that nothing else is ever needed.
There’s a somewhat essential caveat to recommending Uncharted 4, in that yes, you can play this final instalment having not touched the original trilogy (available as the Nathan Drake Collection), but you’re far, far more better off coming into A Thief’s End with full knowledge of those first three games.
And why? Because Uncharted 4’s meta-narrative is an exploration of what it means to grow old, to lose or forget the parts of yourself that define you so much growing up, and how to rekindle them in an entirely new context.
This only really works if you – like Drake – have a fondness for his old adventures, but providing you do, Uncharted 4 is one of the most mature and progressive tales a video game has ever told.
If you have a PS4, you owe it to yourself to experience The Last Of Us. Simple as.
Written by twin-narrative masterminds Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, TLoU is easily Naughty Dog’s most mature and impressive narrative work to date, including Uncharted 4.
Granted it’s a slight shame that with the announcement of a sequel featuring these same characters, some of the impact of how the story plays out is a little subdued, but the tale of Joel and Ellie’s trek across a post-apocalyptic Boston in search of an effective cure to the surrounding zombie population is one of gaming’s very best.
So much for the assumption that intricate A.I. worlds – the likes of what Bethesda build -must always have to come with handfuls of bugs and glitches, now it’s not only CD Prokekt RED who proved that wrong with The Witcher III, but IO Interactive, too.
All that is to say: You’ve not seen a genuine world of game design until you’ve seen one of Hitman’s gloriously labyrinthine concoctions.
Spread across six gargantuan maps ranging from elegant Parisian galas to security-clad Colorado strongholds, the sheer depth to each environment lets you either go it alone, killing your targets in the most interesting/entertaining way possible, or tutorialises a handful of step-by-step introductions to each maps’ darkest secrets.
Together it forms hands-down the best Hitman there has ever been, and objectively one of the most impressive feats of game design seen this generation.
It’ll forever be a crying shame that the backstage happenings between Konami and Hideo Kojima soured how MGS V’s story comes together in the end (which is to say, it doesn’t), but for the gameplay, scope of the open world and sheer minute-to-minute enjoyability of the thing, The Phantom Pain is the best-playing entry in the saga by a mile.
Going open world for the first time, you’re tasked with rebuilding your own Mother Base HQ by hoovering up as many new recruits as possible. This gives MGS V a bit of a Pokémon vibe as you whip out your binoculars, scout various bases and mark high value targets for extraction. There are seemingly millions of ways to go about doing this, involving everything from tying balloons to vehicles full of troops, to unlocking tons of fancy weapons, to even deploying with your own robo-suit, canine companion or half-naked supernatural sniper buddy.
Yes, it’s as crazy as that all sounds, but thanks to Kojima Productions being one of the best studios in the business, The Phantom Pain spins all of its various plates with ease.
Yes, it may look as though it’s rendered on a particularly thick piece of ham, but trust me, trust me, Nidhogg is one of the best one-on-one couch multiplayer games money can buy.
It can be played online or against an A.I. opponent, but the rules are literally: You’re both fencers with an attack button, a jump, and the ability to do dive kicks and dodge-rolls.
That’s it. Go fight:
Combat is fast and frantic, and once you’ve stabbed your opponent, you’ll be able to advance to the next screen – unless your opponent spawns in the way, and the two of you face each other once again.
There are some fancier abilities like throwing your sword, pulling off ground executions and parrying if your two blades clash at the same height, but for fun, immediately competitive and ultimately hilarious pixellated fun, Nidhogg is simply excellent.
There are some games that encapsulate pure, unadulterated joy. Crash Bandicoot had it, Super Mario 64 had it, and Shovel Knight has it.
Birthed from a Kickstarter project that saw developers Yacht Club aim to deliver a throwback 2D platformer as a love letter to the old school, every fact of Shovel Knight’s production oozes a level of charm and warmth that makes the whole thing genuinely loveable.
The level design, the immaculate chiptune soundtrack – even the way the titular knight forward-flips onto every level before holding his shovel aloft as though gallantly proclaiming he’ll tackle anything in his way – it’s the best 2D platformer this side of Rayman: Legends, yet one with even more passion beating at its core.
Depending on what order you play the games in this list, there’s a very good chance that Square will have patched in a ton of additional story content into Final Fantasy XV. So broken is it’s final third that even the most staunch supporters were wondering what the hell was going on, yet – and it’s testament to how immaculately well-playing the first 20-30 hours can be – there’s still a lot to love.
Mostly structured as Monster Hunter meets Dark Souls, the real meat of this fifteenth main instalment is – for the first time in Final Fantasy history – not contained in its story, but instead the surrounding world design. Eos is a landscape that uniquely combines mod-cons like gas stations, cars and highway diners with towering monsters, mystical giants and swords the size of people, encouraging you to get lost in endless side content, hunting beasts, retrieving items, driving your car whilst listening to old Final Fantasy scores, camping to bank XP and doing it all over again.
As mentioned, the story’s main thread is a complete mess towards the back third, but gameplay-wise – and especially when it comes to the sheer enjoyment of exploring such an immaculately designed world – thankfully, Final Fantasy XV has far more to offer.
The one and only really big takeaway from 2014 (aside from Hotline Miami 2), Shadow of Mordor was a staunch reminder of what an Assassin’s Creed game could be like if Ubisoft took the time to perfect their own formula.
Brilliantly gory and downright fun melee combat, stealth that always feels confident and rewarding, enemy orcs that can be turned to aid you in battle and an entire ‘Nemesis system’ of antagonists to dismantle, Shadow of Mordor was as surprising to play back at launch as it is cheap to find today.
Ostensibly letting you remix Mordor’s key players by mind-controlling or killing certain chieftans, you’ll develop dynamic antagonistic relationships with specific enemies that’ll repeatedly come back from the dead to at least attempt their revenge. All of this factors into an endlessly experimental feeling when exploring and fighting, culminating in a final boss encounter that’s entirely customised based on who killed you along the way.
Insanely neat, it remains a hugely missed opportunity that more games don’t utilise this very system.
Formerly an Xbox One exclusive, Lara’s latest arrived on PlayStation in 2016, ready to do battle with the mighty Uncharted 4.
In all fairness, whilst the ‘Raider’s 2013 reboot bore a ton of resemblance to the Uncharted formula of collapsing handholds and protagonist-abusing set-pieces, Rise is a far more accomplished and steadfast beast.
Crystal Dynamics really went all out in giving Ms. Croft a new lease on life, combining an open world with myriad hidden tombs, the ability to craft makeshift weapons from dropped enemy items, a ton of unlockable abilities, a Metroidvania system of environmental unlocks and the option to go for all-out stealth in a number of places.
It still doesn’t quite topple Naughty Dog’s masterpiece, but this is a fantastic alternative and evolution of the third-person action adventure shooter, putting Lara right back to the top of the pile alongside Nathan Drake.
Sometimes you need ruddy good local multiplayer games to truly make a console feel special (Crash Team Racing/Mario Kart, anyone?). Overcooked is that game, and whilst you really need three other pals to pad out your digital kitchen in full, Overcooked is a righteously stressful – yet ultimately rewarding – experience with even one fellow player.
Basically a game of allocating roles, button-bashing and improvisational team work, you’re tasked with delivering a set number of orders in a variety of challenging environments, dealing with the various hazards that present themselves along the way.
Fires will need to be put out just as much as tomatoes need slicing and dishes need cleaning for the next course, but if you’ve a soft spot for huddling around any past console with a handful of friends, Overcooked is a love letter to local multiplayer in the best cherishable way.
There’s a distinction to be drawn between crafting a Batman story for the fans, and one for a wider audience, as while I – and many other hardcore fans – would say Arkham Knight’s various “Who’s the Arkham Knight?” story beats are blatantly obvious from the get-go, it’s still an incredibly well-playing game that got way too much negative press back at launch.
Even the maligned Batmobile sections are brilliant fun for the most part, providing you can suspend your disbelief that all those mangled car wrecks are filled with ‘unconscious’ perps. There’s simply no better sensation of ‘being the Batman’ (in the suit anyway, Telltale’s series has nailed the Bruce Wayne side of that coin) than solving crimes and bringing down notable criminals, all before firing your grapple to the sky and soaring off into the night sky.
Oh, and it looks absolutely stunning.
Right, time for a shooter. Not yet another Call of Duty or the twitch-based, skill-less likes of Battlefield 1 though, oh no.
Titanfall 2 is precisely where it’s at, both in the online arena with its weighty, ability-based combat, and a campaign which contains a bevy of innovative and just outright cool sequences. Time-bending and discovering a multi-target lock pistol aside, your basic movement in Titanfall is just head and shoulders above the rest, combining standard ground combat with wall-running, boost slides and the occasional mid-air exchange that Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare wishes it could pull off.
Speaking of mechs, they’re ace. Where the original game made its titular selling point too lumbering and slow to call to actually be fun, here they’re a worthwhile buff on the battlefield; the perfect counterbalance to an oppositional winning streak. That said, you can always find a way to bring them down on foot, connoting Halo’s contextual animations where you’ll win the game in a blaze of planted explosives and last minute bravado.
It’s ACE, and it’s worth pointing out that nowhere near enough people are playing Titanfall 2, as EA released it slap-bang in the middle of COD and Battlefield, thereby crippling its chances from day one.
Sometimes a game comes along that has a certain mark of quality, you can tell a team of devoted and outstandingly talented individuals put it together.
In five years of solid, back-breaking work, CD Projekt RED took the cult classic Witcher formula that already had a devoted fanbase from two prior games, before blowing it out into one of the most impressive and enjoyable open-worlds of all time. Perfecting the balance between letting the player explore and delivering a solid narrative alongside, Geralt’s existence as a supernatural bounty hunter means you’re free to dart off and save the local populace, just as much as finding the next clue to progress the main quest.
CDPR’s ethos has been remarkable and cherished post-launch too, as the developer put out 16 pieces of free DLC, have continued to iterate on and optimise any faults brought to their attention, and topped 2016’s critic choices by releasing one of the most expansive DLCs of all time in Blood & Wine.
Seriously, when your side quests have more worthwhile story content than most indies and your DLC is tantamount to a full-priced triple-A, you really have to hand it to CD Projekt RED, and The Witcher III overall.
Hands-down the finest multiplayer experience money can buy, both from an ‘easy to pick up, hard to master’ perspective, and that of local couch co-op (a somewhat forgotten aspect of gaming that nowhere near enough games implement).
A physics-based version of ‘soccer with rocket-powered cars’, there’s something in the way developers Psyonix approach the sport that plays into how it feels to score a goal, nail a pass or work as a team in real life. You can practice and plan ahead all you like, but it’s not until you actually connect foot to leather, that everything comes together.
Consequently, playing and mastering Rocket League takes you from a fumbling amateur to a mid-air goal-bursting phenom; a journey covered in fireworks, barrel rolls and roof-slide celebrations as you quick-select an insult to further goad your opponents.
Competition and the joy of video games personified? That’s Rocket League.