10. Metal Gear V: The Phantom Pain

I have mixed feelings on Metal Gear V: The Phantom Pain. It’s the most fun I’ve had playing a Metal Gear game, and certainly the best Stealth gameplay of the year, but it had the least engaging narrative of any previous entry. When it comes to the Metal Gear series, that’s a strange observation.

Gameplay wise, The Phantom Pain is an open world stealth game. Which, again, for the Metal Gear series, known for its linear storytelling, is a strange feeling. Still, this seems like the ultimate inevitability of Metal Gear’s gameplay. The method of infiltration is left entirely up to you, right down to where the chopper drops you off (and what music it plays while doing so.)

There’s also a base to build between missions, and the decisions you make there on what to upgrade and research informs what equipment will be available to you in later sorties. These two layers - the base upgrading correlating to new equipment in the field - creates an addictive gameplay loop. I wanted to go out and complete more missions, to get more stuff, to upgrade the base, so I’d have more options for the next mission.

It pains me to say, however, as someone who’s always enjoyed the Metal Gear series, that Phantom Pain’s story fell quite short for me. It takes a while for the major narrative beats to occur, and when they do, they take odd turns. I’m all for the unexpected, but less so for the unexplained. I couldn't help but feel Phantom Pain was meant to have one more episode to answer a few lingering questions. I especially found the twist - because of course there’s a twist - irrelevant.

a brief aside on twists in general: an M. Night Shyamalan style reveal is at its best when it allows the audience to see the entire story in a new context. This is what makes The Sixth Sense a masterpiece and The Happening nonsense. The twist in Phantom Pain is revealed by making the player experience the tutorial again from start to finish, which already left me sour three minutes into the big surprise. At the end, when everything was out in the open, I asked myself a simple question.

Does this change anything in the Metal Gear series?

Without yet another game, I don’t think it does. And given the current state of Konami and their relationship with Hideo Kojima, I don’t see another Metal Gear happening anytime soon.

Still, when it comes to actual stealth gameplay, the series has never been better. Scouting an area, plotting the optimal entry route, and then escaping with the intel or hostage in tow was addictive. I spent eighty hours with Metal Gear V this year, and I enjoyed all eighty.

Except for maybe time spent doing the R and D Platform’s target practice. R and D team, you're fired! New R and D team, make old R and D team's platform less confusing.

9. Super Mario Maker

Mario Maker isn’t a game, it’s a canvas, a set of tools. All the creators are little Masaccio's, Michaelangelo’s, and Machiavelli's.

I didn’t find much enjoyment creating stages in Mario Maker, but the act of playing new ones endlessly fascinated me. There’s an entire genre of stages designed around telling the player not to move. So, after following instructions, the stage just plays itself. The world fills with excessive sound effects, noises and enemies as you fly to the flagpole. These are the nice ones, the Michaelangelo’s. They put a lot of painstaking work into making something for you to enjoy and observe. They ask no effort of you. In fact, they actively discourage it, as effort on your part will ruin the painting.

Then there’s the Masaccio’s. This is when you come across a genius stage in Mario Maker that's fun to play, almost like something Nintendo itself would've designed. But then, in a search for more, you find no others like it. The creator has never made another stage. If they made more, would the Mario Maker experience change, as others create stages trying to emulate thiers? We may never know.

And then, then. The Machiavellis. The ones who demand you turn to deception and trickery to conquer their stages. They may force you to do the impossible, but they’ve done it, damnit. You know they had to in order to upload this torture, so you know, you know it can be done. Even if you must toss Yoshi into a pit of lava to make it happen. Multiple times.

The creativity and abject horror of the human race is on display here. Some day, when the Wii U’s servers are taken down, someone ought to archive every uploaded stage so they can be studied by psychologists for years to come.

8. Resident Evil: Revelations 2

This year Capcom tried their hand at the episodic approach, releasing Revelations 2 in five installments early this year. Despite the Resident Evil series fumbling to find its way in past iterations, with Resident Evil 6 and Operation: Racoon City standing out as particularly atrocious blunders in recent memory, Revelations 2 marked a huge return to form.

Claire Redfield and Barry Burton return as main characters this time around, so as a Resident Evil fan, Revelations 2 already had a lot going for it. I immediately dug Claire’s new look as soon as I saw it, too. She looks like a detective who works a tough beat. She doesn’t have time for this zombie nonsense, slowin' down her case. She's caught a body, dammit, and this murder needs solvin'.

What I didn’t expect was for Revelations 2 to also feature some of the wittiest dialogue I’ve heard in a Resident Evil game, most of it between Claire and newcomer Moria Burton, Barry’s daughter. Here’s a small sampling of their exchanges.

Exchange one:

[Claire leaps across a broken bridge.]

Claire: See? You can do it.

[The bridge collapses under Moria’s feet. Claire catches her before she falls.]

Moria: Fuck you Hollywood, that wasn’t even close to easy.

Exchange two:

[The gang discovers they need a battery and fuel to get out of their current area.]

Moria: Oh, and we’re gonna find exactly what we need in this shitdump?

Claire: From my experience, yes. Help me look.

Exchange three:

Moria: Oh my god, are you okay?

Claire: Yeah, I was almost a Claire sandwich.

Moria: Ugh, does Barry tell everyone that story?

I especially appreciate the witty retorts designed to poke fun at tried mechanics in the series as a whole. Resident Evil could really benefit from a healthy dose of levity. This is the series famous for “the master of unlocking,” after all.

What's really remarkable about Revelations 2 is that even though it's the first entry in a while to try its hand at a lighter tone, its also the first since Resident Evil 5 to actually feel like a horror game. Ammo feels scarce again. The environments are dark and unsettling, with thick woods and dense fog obscuring your vision. It’s a fantastic move in the right direction. A right turn on to ”horror/ survival” lane, off the main road the series has been travelling on, “Bad hollywood action movie highway.” (Locals call it the BHAM.)

The included extras make for nice additions, too. While the extra episode Little Miss seems lazily slapped on, The Struggle was an important inclusion that fills a sizeable gap in Revelations, answering one of the questions that bothered me the most in the final episode. The return of Raid Mode is even better. In Raid Mode, players pick a character and conquer challenges together. Characters level up, which allows them to equip more weapons, learn new abilities, and even equip active skills. With fifty maps across three difficulty levels, fifteen characters, and daily challenges, there’s a lot to keep players entertained here.

Revelations 2 is not without a few flaws. The PC port was a buggy mess on launch, and still suffers from a few sub-par quirks. A few weeks after the game’s release, Capcom issued a patch intended to fix the stuttering frame rates players were experiencing - and instead made it worse. The patch was reverted soon after. Also worth mentioning is the new enemies known as Glasps, which are invisible to all characters except Natalia. While I appreciate the concept of the enemy, I’m not sure Glasps are executed in the best possible way. The screen becomes fuzzy around the edges, which helps to let you know there’s danger nearby, but doesn’t help indicate what direction it's coming from, making it quite easy to accidentally rush to your death.

Considering my complaints about entries prior to Revelations 2 though, these gripes are minor at best. Revelations 2 is the first Resident Evil game I’ve enjoyed in a long time that wasn’t a remake or port of an older entry.

If you haven't played Resident Evil: Revelations 2 yet, but still intend to, let me give you a piece of advice.

Have Moria pick up the gun in Episode four.

Trust me.

7. Luckslinger

Luckslinger is the type of indie game I wish we saw more of.

It feels like a new indie platformer shows up on the Steam home page every day. Many are content to emulate older games, sometimes amounting to little more than palette swaps for the properties inspiring their creation.

Luckslinger took inspiration from the “bit wars” era, but brought its own flair, style, and mechanics to make something grand and original. Every single element of Luckslinger supports its rap-infused design, right down to its bangin’ soundtrack, and scribblin’, scratchin’ sound cues.

If we handed out best debut studio awards, make no mistake: Duckbridge would be my champion for that fight.

You can read a full review of Luckslinger here.

6. Undertale

Undertale blended both mechanics and narrative into one cohesive experience.

We’re all used to seeing the typical RPG menu, with:

  • Fight
  • Magic
  • Item
  • Run

as the standard gamut of options, but how about:

  • Compliment hat
  • Ditch jerry
  • Hug

Every encounter with an enemy gives the player a unique set of options on how to approach the fight. Each enemy is a solvable puzzle, with a correct course of actions acting as the pieces. Once all the pieces are in the right place, you can end the encounter without ever attacking.

Or you can kill everything.

The attack option is still there, if you so choose, but Undertale’s cast of characters always felt too alive and real for me to consider raising a hostile blade. The first boss, Toriel, is the same person who finds and protects you at the start of the game, creating a reluctance to fight on both sides of the conflict. This murky middle ground punctuates the first boss encounter, and sets teh tone for the whole game.

In Undertale, most enemies attack by flinging bullet hell style patterns of projectiles at the player. (For those wondering about the qualifier “most,” There are a few surprises further in.) Since Toriel does not wish to harm you in the first encounter, her bullet pattern actively avoids any player low on health. This is one of the many times Undertale presents a character’s intentions via mechanics instead of words, and this trend continues right up until the final moments.

Undertale had a story that wasn’t afraid to trod down darker paths, but still presents everything with a dose of levity and wit. Whether or not the player chooses to still murder everyone they meet is up to them. It’s a story where player choice really does define not only the final world state, but molds the path there, changing how the beings inhabiting the world percieve you.

And, at a nine to ten hour length, Undertale never outstayed its welcome for a single playthrough. Brevity went a long way to helping Undertale stand out for me this year, as the periods of adventuring between set pieces isn’t truncated by hours of random combat and grinding.

Did I mention the music is great? The music is great. I’ve seen a lot of love for Spear of Justice, but my personal favorite is Spider Dance.

Bird That Carries You Over A Disproportionately Small Gap is real great, too.

5. The Beginner’s Guide

The Beginner’s Guide struck me somewhere deep and personal this year, like a knife right to the core, exposing all the least desirable emotions that make up the design of me.

The only thing I knew about The Beginner’s Guide upon launch was that it was made by Davey Wreden of Stanley Parable fame. Approaching The Beginner's Guide with the expectation you’re about to experience “Stanley Parable 2” is exactly the wrong expectation to have, but it’s the perfect one to maximize surprise.

The Beginner's Guide presents itself as a guided tour through a digital museum, presenting the works of a fictional designer named Coda. The Narrator acts as your guide, sharing insights and commentary along the way about how each stage is a reflection of Coda’s mentality and creativity.

This hook will be especially effective, I think, on two types of people. The first is anyone who grew up in the Sven Co-op, half-life deathmatch era, when the source engine was being pushed to its limit to create a cavalcade of challenging user made maps. There were times in The Beginner's Guide I was sure I’d seen the map I was on, or at least one similar to it, during late nights in Sven Co-op.The second person is anyone who works in a creative field for a living, as The Beginner's Guide subject matter is entirely about artistic expression, and to a greater extent, what its like to live in the shadow of someone you respect perhaps a little too much.

It’s the ending, during the final moments of the penultimate map, where I really felt the deep cut. It was an emotional outburst that caught me by surprise, both in the game and within myself.

I will remember the night I stayed up to finish The Beginner's Guide for many, many years to come.

4. Galak-Z: The Dimensional

Over the past five years, the "roguelike" design concept has boomed into its own genre. Once all you had to do to make it as a roguelike was force the player to start over after every death, but these days, that isn’t enough. In order to succeed as a roguelike now, you’ve got to offer something unique.

Galak-Z: The Dimensional accomplished this by blending the roguelike genre with space shooter combat, gradius style power-ups, and a saturday morning anime cartoon aesthetic.

If the game wasn’t on your radar prior to release, then one of the game’s biggest surprises was sadly lost on you. See that giant robot at the top? Well, 17-Bit took great strides to make sure the entire transformation mechanic would be a surprise to players. In truth, though, Galak-Z: The Dimensional was my second biggest surprise of the year in it’s own right. I knew I would probably like Galak-Z: The Dimensional long before its release, but it wasn’t until I played it and was able to feel the weightlessness of space in the controls that I knew it was something special.

You can read the full review of Galak-Z here.

3. Rocket League

Of all the games on my list, I predict Rocket League will beat the others on longevity.

In the simplest explanation I can provide, Rocket League is “car soccer.” It’s more complicated than that, of course, but for the five people reading this article who haven’t heard of Rocket League, it conjures up the most accurate mental image.

Now slap a hydraulic system so powerful it allows the car to leap like the Mach 5, strap a rocket to every car's exhaust, throw on anti-grav tires on that allow the car to drive vertically, and you’ve got yourself the full picture. Every match of Rocket League is car-spinning, rocket fumed, ball-ricocheting insanity.

Rocket League has already exploded on to the streaming scene in a huge way, and I can see why. The only unlocks in Rocket League are cosmetic, giving you more choices on how to trick out your ride but never altering the core mechanics.

You can’t improve your gear in Rocket League. Instead, you have to improve you.

It’s a game capable of appealing to any audience, and its goals and systems are immediately understandable to anyone. People looking just to have fun with friends can get that without needing to explain any complicated rules. There's only two rules here: Put the ball in goal and don't let it into your own.

People looking for some real competition can hit the ranked ladder, where you’ll need to start learning some more complicated techniques. I’m not sure I’ll ever be good enough myself to pull off some of the boost-off-the-ceiling-and-score aerial plays I’ve seen, but I can sometimes boost up and hit the ball in midair.

Small victories.

All of this would’ve been enough to cement Rocket League a spot on the list, but Psyonix has taken it a step further by supporting the shit out of Rocket League during the year. They’ve added more arenas into the pool, released a number of DLC car packs (including a delorean to commemorate Back to the Future’s anniversary), and recently introduced mutators, which allow players to manipulate the properties of the ball, arena, and vehicles in custom games. I often thought my time with Rocket League was done for the year, but Psyonix would then release something making me want to drop back in and test my game.

Rocket League is here to stay.

2. Life is Strange

“Someday we will foresee obstacles

Through the blizzard, through the blizzard

Today we will sell our uniform

Live together”

  • Syd Matters, Obstacles

For a long time, I thought Telltale would have the market cornered on narrative driven, Choose-your-own-adventure style games. I entirely expected one of their games to top my list yet again.

This year though, Dontnod’s Life is Strange upset the formerly seeded champions.

I played every episode of Life is Strange within days of their release, eager to see what impact my choices had, and what mysteries Max and Chloe would uncover in Arcadia Bay. Life is Strange is a game with many themes, but among them is the entire concept of “choice,” and how our choices, even seemingly innocuous ones at the time, can have tremendous impact.

To put it another way: There’s a reason the autosave icon after a major choice is a butterfly flapping its wings.

The major mechanic in Life is Strange is Max’s ability to rewind time. The first immediate benefit of this power is the ability to get a “mulligan” on major choices, since it allows you to rewind, see both outcomes, and stick with the one you want. Time manipulation soon presents itself a tool for creative puzzle solving too, as it allows Max to manipulate objects and spaces in ways that aren’t immediately obvious until after experimentation.

The relationship between Chloe and Max is the ultimate focus of Life is Strange, but the supporting characters still feels just as thought out and real as the dynamic duo. By the end of Life is Strange I knew the whole cast extremely well. They all felt like friends, and that made the final choice so much harder to make.

There are many games out now that claim to be "Shaped by the choices you make," but Life is Strange is the first I can think of where choices and their cost is expressed as a main theme, and not just a gameplay mechanic.

1. Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward

Surprised? I know I was.

I’ve given many MMO’s a shot capture my attention throughout the years. The Secret World came the closest, but even then, I burned out before tackling any endgame content. I started playing Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn around the summer, telling myself I’d give it thirty days and see if I was still interested.

Then I gave it another thirty.

And another.

And another.

Then Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward came out, and I gave it another thirty.

I could spend hours lavishing praise on all the aspects of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn I fell in love with, but I’ll instead focus on the aspects that made it feel like an MMO tailor made for me, which allowed it to snag my number one spot this year.

In other MMO’s, picking a class is often a binary choice. You either are a class, or you aren’t. In Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, you choose a starting class, but can pick up any other you’d like along the way. This becomes a core mechanic to unlocking the ascended versions of classes, Jobs, as they require progress in at least two classes, but it also has other benefits. Certain abilities are cross-class skills, useable when not in the primary class. So, if you spend a lot of time experimenting with other classes, you’re rewarded with a wider diversity of options for your hot bar.

Being able to cast Protect and Cure on myself at low levels, regardless of my current class, was a huge help. I also enjoyed being able to raise dead strangers and save them from having to warp back home.

As with any game bearing the Final Fantasy name, the story is a huge part of the experience. Many MMO’s are content to make the player part of the supporting cast, there to prop up the major players of the world and then step back into the shadows. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn requires the player to work their way up for recognition, but does an excellent job making them a main player in the world. At the start of the game, you’re merely a wandering adventurer seeking glory, doing odd jobs for the local innkeep and guilds. By the end, many NPC’s in the world will recognize you as the hero of light you are.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn also provides all sorts of distractions from the core gameplay, most of them housed in The Golden Saucer. Triple Triad and Chocobo Racing are fully fledged distractions in their own right, but there’s a whole host of other tiny mini-games available, with community events taking place at the fifteen and forty-five minute mark of every hour.

It may seem Heavensward acts as an excuse for me to give an award to A Realm Reborn, but in truth Heavensward did a tremendous job cementing A Realm Reborn as a constant addiction in my life. Heavensward added three new classes, seven new areas, new dungeons, new trials and introduced flying mounts to the game. The new class, Dark Knight is my favorite tanking class in any MMO, requiring the player to balance all their resources and make smart decisions. And, prior to the release of Heavensward, Square Enix doled out numerous story quests, dungeons and Primal Fights, all acting as a narrative arc between the core game and the expansion.

If Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn continues this trend of introducing content in chunks throughout the years, I may be playing A Realm Reborn for many years to come.

All of this is coming from someone who played Final Fantasy XIV before the grand redesign, and wrote it off as a tremendous disaster. If it weren’t for friends who encouraged me to play it again, I would’ve never discovered the first MMO to enrapture me.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is proof well supported games can get a second life. It may seem impossible for a former disaster to become one of the best MMO's are the market, but like fictional chaos theorist Ian Malcolm might say, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn found a way.

Honorable Mentions

Monster Hunter 4: Ultimate

Reason for exclusion: No fun alone.

I spent an exceptional amount of time hunting monsters on my 3DS this year. However, when I think back to my time with Monster Hunter, I had the most fun when playing with other people. While I appreciate the way Capcom supported the game throughout the year with free content, none of it got me to boot up Monster Hunter 4 the same way a simple “Monster hunter?” text could.

The memories with friends, and this absurd article, at least earn Monster Hunter 4: Ultimate an honorable mention.

Rainbow Six: Siege

Reason for exclusion: Questionable price tag, but mostly The Uplay Experience.

Rainbow Six: Siege marks the return of one of my favorite tactical shooter series. The destructible terrain makes for a unique, adaptable approach to combat, and the sudden severity and lethality of a shootout demands caution and patience from players. At the time of writing, this is the game demanding most of my time.

So why did it get downgraded to an honorable mention? The answer is a sixty price tag and the unrealiable Uplay platform. As much as I love Rainbow Six: Siege, sixty dollars is a tough price to recommend for what feels like a slim amount of content and dubious free-to-play style mechanics. It isn’t Battlefront slim, thankfully, but coupled with numerous voice chat glitches, partymaking errors, dropped games and occasionally unstable servers, I could not, in good conscience, place it on the list.

In all fairness, Ubisoft does have plans to support Rainbow Six with more maps and operators throughout the year. These updates to the map and operator pool could potentially make Rainbow Six: Siege worth its hefty price tag before the end of 2016.

Wicher 3: The Wild Hunt

Reason for exclusion: How do I play this? Send help.

There’s no denying Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is a masterpiece of game design. The characters are all well written. The map is massive in scope. Even every side character is important enough to have their own story. Also the historian in me is giddy the old myth of The Wild Hunt, a cavalry of undead soldiers who stalk the land, is featured prominently in a game.

Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is massive in scope. Massive to the point I feel like a deer in the headlights when starting it up, drowned in the headlights of quests and mini-map markers.

I was so fascinated by the story of Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt I ended up reading at least two books in the series, and will probably still read the others. A world that rich deserves an honorable mention, even if it didn’t place (on my personal list, anyway).

Game likely to be forgotten on every GOTY list, but probably deserves to be considered.

Dying Light

Dying Light was everything I originally wanted Dead Island to be. Because Dying Light was released in late January, I predict it will be absent from many Game of the Year lists, which is a real shame. The day-to-night cycle changed the gameplay from a zombie murderfest to a tense parkour escape through abandoned facilities and residential districts. The inclusion of multiplayer, (although a bit strange considering everyone is running around as the main character, like a cloning experiment gone horribly wrong,) made for great fun.

Dying Light didn’t make my list mostly because of its sub-par story and lackluster ending, (the Coup de grâce being a quick-time-event boss fight in a game that had no previous OTE's to speak of), but I still feel it deserves recognition for being the first zombie game to live up to the promise of jolly brain bashing since Left 4 Dead.