The best games of 2016 took us to the Shoshone National Forest, a magic-filled pseudo-Victorian society, a stark dystopia where children are hunted by faceless adults, countless barren planets with awesome music, a future Earth still dealing with fallout from the Omnic Crisis, the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the throbbing depths of rhythm hell, and a multitude of other destinations both real and imagined. (And now I sound like an Oscar presenter.) Together they illustrate the breadth and scope of what game artists can accomplish today, both on our TV sets and in our VR faceboxes. 2016 reminded us once again that, even as technology lets games become increasingly cinematic in their storytelling and photorealistic in their visuals, that precision is still the key—that the most important facets of a successful game are the confidence and focus necessary to explore its mechanics, story and aesthetic as deeply yet succinctly as possible. Some of these 25 games come closer to that goal than others, but they’re all winners in their own ways.
Hey: here are some games.
25. Forza Horizon 3
Forza Horizon 3 has one of the most organic senses of progression I’ve ever seen in a racing game. You, as the player, constantly keep moving to explore and find the next cool thing to do. Much like discovering cars in old barns was an element in the original, this game is designed to provoke a sense of wonder and curiosity through exploration.—Jason D’Aprile
24. Final Fantasy XV
Male intimacy in games usually revolves around slapping each other on the back for how well you shot other dudes, or how you will learn to shoot them better as time goes on. The brotherhood of XV is a little different, as they tease each other, talk about girls, push to better themselves internally and discuss the photos taken at the end of each day. It’s a side of friendship you don’t get to see often in games, and that levity helps keep the thin story afloat through the first half of the game.—Eric Van Allen
Superhot’s shootouts make its case better than its narrative layers ever could. Its methodical take on shooter combat forces you to linger on the consequences of your actions without saying a word. And that’s all it needed to be.—Suriel Vazquez
22. XCOM 2
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a boring game in the sense that to solve it means to operate it like the most undependable machine. XCOM 2 is the most extreme opposite from base management to isometric choice, requiring that you take risks, move quickly and generally understand that you’re always going to be between a rock and a hard place when it comes to making decisions that get the job done and minimize risk to your soldiers. That final factor is the core strength of XCOM 2, and it is what elevates it beyond yet another tactical game in an ever-growing genre. If the alien invasion genre is really all about humanity and how it gets tested, then this game mobilizes that genre in order to frame the individual player being put to the test at all times.—Cameron Kunzelman
21. Dark Souls III
Dark Souls III would be a fitting end to a videogame series, and we don’t get many of those. I enjoyed almost all of my time with it, but I’m not sure if I’d want another game like this to come by for a long time. As a comprehensive second draft of the best moments from the series, it left me with fond memories of everything I love about these games. And by sprucing up those moments, it gives new players a chance to finally understand why these games matter. It doesn’t make sweeping changes to the series’ structure or rhythms, but just this one time, it can get away with tugging at familiar heart strings. I came into this game hoping it wouldn’t be “just another Dark Souls game.” But I’m glad that’s what I got.—Suriel Vazquez