Written by Stephen Patterson
Welcome back to CritCandy for my top 5 games of the year for 2016. I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas day (I spent all of mine playing Uncharted 4). Without further ado, here are my favourite games of this year.
5. Stardew Valley
Stardew Valley is cosy. It is warm. If there was a video game equivalent of snuggling in front of a hot fire with a mug of hot chocolate, this is it. Stardew Valley is a game frequently called ‘the spiritual successor to Harvest Moon’, a top down farming game which, as a character, you have escaped to as a retreat from the confusion and stress of modern existence. The music is relaxing and comforting, and the game cares not if you work towards any of the goals it suggests. The whole package from start to finish feels like a sigh of relief, an escape to a world where your work is appreciated and the people treat you with respect and space.
You can, if you like, ruthlessly plan and manage your farm for the biggest yields and the largest profits, or work towards rebuilding the local community centre by donating required crops and items. Alternatively, you can work as slowly as you like, experimenting with fishing, raising animals, helping the villagers, exploring the local mines or simply relaxing. From a personal perspective, I found solace at a difficult time of the year pottering about on my farm, planting cabbages and berries and fishing on the rain-drenched shores of the game’s sleepy village. Stardew Valley is a game for people like me who sometimes like to turn off their phone, close social media and disconnect completely. It is wonderfully charming and engaging in equal measure.
4. Pokemon Go
There are not many games I’ve ever played in my lifetime that have helped me to realise how much I appreciate the friendship of the most important people in my life, but Pokemon Go achieved that in abundance. On dozens of occasions this summer I remarked at how incredible it was that a free mobile game had managed to bring people together so efficiently and easily, and that is why it has to have a place on this list. It was in fact the defining feature of my summer, because without it there is no way I would have wandered the shores of my seaside town for hours on end, talking, eating and enjoying everyone’s company in a collective zeitgeist. Never has a game encouraged me to approach strangers on the street to talk about our shared experiences, but Pokemon Go did that. It felt as though it was a movement, one which broke down social barriers and gave everyone on the street something in common that they never had before.
It’s disappointing then that Pokemon Go has been so poorly managed by developer Niantic, who repeatedly failed to implement an efficient tracking system to find new Pokemon in the hidden corners of the world and repeatedly banned community efforts to produce one themselves. I sit with the app open now, looking forlornly at a trio of Magnemite spawning 20 yards from my desk and wonder if Pokemon Go could ever recapture that initial excitement – probably not. It remains for me a reason to go for walks on the beach by my house, so I’ll keep it installed. I need more egg incubators though.
3. Dark Souls 3
Dark Souls 3 is a completely different game to the previous two in this list: it is harsh, lonely, brutal and will grind you down over time. That’s what makes it brilliant. The combat system is still one of the most technically impressive and exigent in any 3rd person action game. At many moments Dark Souls 3 feels like an homage to the previous two games, physically warping areas and enemies from previous titles and presenting them as new challenges. It all fits into the convoluted story of the series as a whole, including why there is a cathedral floating above the clouds and why it has to be infested with giant spider creatures that drop on you from the ceiling (my arachnophobia is continuously rewarded by my choice of gaming as a hobby).
Ultimately, Dark Souls 3 is a game for those people who have already invested time into the series, whether that be through Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls or Bloodborne. It presents numerous quality of life changes which are instantly recognisable to veterans, such as the introduction of a magic bar and an accompanying ‘ashen estus flask’ for recovering it. One of the greatest achievements for FROM Software in Dark Souls 3, it’s final game bearing that name, is that it melds all of the greatest elements of the previous games into one package without it becoming bloated, in fact, it feels like the most polished and streamlined Dark Souls to date. Flowing through areas is still challenging as hell and rewarding as it has ever been, but the progression feels well designed. When I beat the final boss to Dark Souls 3 after a week without putting the controller down, I let out an audible squeal of excitement as the cutscene kicked in – Dark Souls 3 is the only one of these games I’ve managed to finish and the entire journey felt like a colossal accomplishment.
Good morning, 47. You have two days to complete a new contract… GO AND BUY HITMAN.
I can’t speak highly enough about how impressive the latest entry in the Hitman series is, although I did attempt it in a recent article on the site. The game released episodically throughout the year, culminating in a full season package which I bought in November after keeping up to date on the development of the game by watching videos of the game across the internet. The final product, before we get a season 2 in 2017 (I cannot wait), is made of of six maps set in different locations: Paris, Sapienza, Marrakesh, Bangkok, Colorado and Hokkaido. Each of these levels has a number of story related targets which you can kill in any way you like, but each level also has 20 levels of ‘mastery’ to achieve. You can earn these levels by killing targets in special ways, finding hidden items and costumes and also by completing side missions with other targets. All of it combines to make a game that is replayable and remains interesting across dozens of hours regardless of the action taking place in the same locations, which is an impressive achievement for any developer.
The most exciting thing about HITMAN to me is that it tracks systems and how they interact on the map regardless of how far away you are from them or what else you may be doing. If you set a proximity mine in the storeroom of a kitchen on Sapienza, forget about it and wander off into the Villa to complete an objective, some hapless chef may find herself mincemeat 30 minutes later. I spoke on the podcast for CritCandy about one of these excellent situations involving overlapping and continuously running systems which you can find here. Ultimately, Hitman is a game for people who like stealth. However I think the game is so effective at creating tension and excitement that anyone who knows how to hold a controller can play Hitman and enjoy it immensely, which is the mark of a game that is doing everything right.
Chug, chug, chug. Blasting djent guitar pounds through my skull as I pull the cord on my chainsaw and a huge demon dog explodes into a pile of viscera.
DOOM is my game of the year, without question. When it released in May, a lot of those in journalism circles were worried because id Software and Bethesda refused to put out review copies for the game, causing concern that the finished product didn’t live up to expectations. What DOOM ended up being was one of the most impressive returns to form for a video game series since fucking video games were incepted. DOOM is that good. It is first person shooting taken back to it’s roots, cutting out the trash and the convoluted systems that have mired shooters for the last decade and simply saying to you: ‘Take this shotgun. Shoot demons in the face with it.’
There is no reloading in DOOM. You fire until you’re out of bullets, then you switch to the next gun and empty that one too. The levels have verticality and the movement speed is blazingly fast, encouraging you to keep moving and firing until everything around you has been smashed into a pile of gore. The soundtrack is brutal, combining elements of thrash metal, dubstep and drum and bass to power you forward through the combat sections. When you run low on ammo or health, you can ‘glory kill’ weakened enemies (marked by flashing outlines) to have them explode in a flurry and items to keep your momentum going – usually in the form of caving their cranium in with your bare fists.
There is a beauty to the simplicity of DOOM that cares not for elaborate exposition or context, it tells you that a gate to hell has been opened on Mars and it is your job to close it. That’s it. You’re not expected to come back and play the multiplayer for hundreds of hours to supplement the single player, or to grind through sections looking for upgrades or secrets. They’re there, but they’re not necessary. Id Software have made a game that takes you for 12 hours on an adventure of brutal power, speed and gore and spits you out on the other side feeling like the baddest motherfucker who ever lived.
It’s one of the best shooters ever made.
Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this article don’t forget to check out the one I wrote counting down from 10 through 6 here, and follow the site on social media in the sidebar on the right. Have a wondeful Christmas break.