As 2016 draws to a close, it's time to look back at a year that – despite everything else going on in the world – has been fantastic for video games. Quality releases big and small have offered something different more often than they adhered to cliché, resulting in fresh experiences, realised potential and shaken formulas.
Whittling our initial list down to a top 10 was difficult as so many games that would have made personal lists missed out on IBTimes UK's final ranking. Games like Dark Souls 3, The Witness and Pokémon Sun and Moon sadly fell to the wayside.
Two games that deserved recognition for their impact, for better or worse, on the year past (a factor we considered) also missed out as we favoured quality and our own personal preferences above them. These were Pokémon Go and No Man's Sky.
Ordering the list was tougher still, but below is our top ten games of 2016, culminating in our overall game of the year.
10) Titanfall 2
Titanfall was a welcome breath of fresh air in early 2014, a much-needed inhalation offering the then-fledgling console generation something different when it came to first-person shooters. The faster, wall-running movement has been seen in each Call of Duty since, serving as proof of its influence, and the mech-piloting side of its play is an effective USP.
The problem with Titanfall was that it was multiplayer-only (not always a problem, as we'll get to later) and an Xbox One exclusive at a time when opinion of Microsoft's console was at its lowest, as players flocked to the PS4. For these reasons, it was never quite the hit it could have been. Respawn gave fans what they wanted in Titanfall 2 by making it multi-platform and including a full single-player story. What nobody was expecting, however, was for that mode to totally outshine the multiplayer aspect that had already amassed a cult following on Xbox One.
Wonderfully crafted, the campaign has many highlights. The early mission set in a cavernous factory assembling buildings around the player as they move through it, the auto-aim pistol that gives players an unstoppable flourish late on, and, of course the exhilarating, time-travel level Cause and Effect. With the benefit of time Titanfall 2's multiplayer refined and built upon what came before, but it was the campaign that made Respawn's latest something special.
Gone Home, Dear Esther and The Stanley Parable all helped shape a particular genre of games most widely-known as "walking simulators" – a term that is reductive, overly-simplistic and was born from a subset of the public that didn't see the point in such games. These titles focus on character and story over a depth of mechanics, they trade on intrigue and emotion over bullets and high scores, and they belong to one of the industry's most important emerging genres.
Firewatch is a high point for this genre, refining the format to tell the year's most mature and affecting story. You play as Henry, a man seeking solitude in the forests of America's heartland, beautifully realised by environmental artist Jane Ng, working from the gorgeous, colourful inspiration of Olly Moss. While there, Henry's only contact is with his supervisor Delilah, with whom a friendship blossoms as the lost pair confide in each other and uncover mysterious goings-on in the forest.
Campo Santo's debut is the product of a great writing, wonderful performances from Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones and the work of a confident and talented team – one we hope has a lot more to offer.
8) Stardew Valley
With countless seasons under our soil-covered belts and hours-played clocking in at triple digits, it's safe to say that Stardew Valley got its Iridium-grade hooks into us in a big way. Eric Barone's country-life RPG became the year's breakout indie game early on, presenting PC owners (and now console players) with the perfect antidote to the grisly real-world events of 2016.
Or, as the quote on its opening screen puts it: "There will come a day when you feel crushed by the burden of modern life... and your bright spirit will fade before a growing emptiness."
Stardew Valley's addictive mix of farming, fishing, mining and other horticultural habits wears its distinctly Nintendo-like influences on its sleeve, embracing the spirit of Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing with its delicately refined open-ended gameplay loop.
It's real triumph however, is its sense of character. Players will find themselves intently listening to NPCs revealing their hopes and dreams, deliberating the perfect name for a chicken and marvelling as fluorescent jellies drift past in the moonlit sea. Stardew Valley slipped a heartfelt fable about the struggles of living in a diverse community into a game about root vegetables and slime monsters. That's special.
Doom fans waited 12 years for a sequel, and in that time the game underwent a great many changes. Originally envisioned as a large-scale, story-driven spectacle, the project was christened Call of Doom before it was cancelled for simply not feeling enough like the genre-defining series.
What Doom 4 became following this development set-back was, like its numberless title suggests, 100% pure grade-A DOOM. One of the best-designed opening sequences we've ever played sets the scene beautifully, conveying with aplomb the game's no-nonsense approach. That said, aside from its perfect tone, it's the gameplay that makes Doom 2016 such a joy.
It's fast, and not so much furious as absolutely raging. Brutal Glory Kills reward players with health and ammo, constantly encouraging them to bound shotgun first into brawls with the bloody hellspawn that have invaded Mars. It's a viscera-coated, bone-crunching rush – and the perfect reinvention of a classic.
6) Uncharted 4: A Thief's End
When it comes to serial adventurer Nathan Drake, acclaimed developer Naughty Dog saved his best and most personal treasure hunt for last.
Uncharted 4: A Thief's End saw one of PlayStation's most iconic franchises transition to the current gen with its spectacular set-pieces, laconic quips and gun-slinging, wall-climbing action intact. It also coaxed some truly stunning visuals out of the PS4.
Yet what really sticks in the memory from Uncharted 4 isn't the seamless integration of semi-open-world vehicle sections, the enhanced stealth-lite combat options, or the incredible sequence in which players leap from truck to truck in true Indiana Jones style. Instead, it was seeing Naughty Dog's deft character work – honed in The Last of Us – turn the poster boy of ludonarrative dissonance into a fallible, relatable, vulnerable man torn between familial safety and the thrill of the chase.
5) Dishonored 2
Few developers have ever created worlds as unique as the Empire of the Isles in Arkane Studios' Dishonored series. There are settings in games, like those of Red Dead Redemption and Fallout 4, but then there are worlds – worlds that are so rich in detail and a sense of place that they almost feel tangible. In this regard, Dishonored 2's Karnaca deserves to be held in as high regard as the worlds of BioShock and Dark Souls.
Arkane Studios' sequel to its cult favourite successor to the stealth-action crown held by Thief is a game steeped in so much lore and smaller, more personal tales hidden away that it feels as though every NPC, every building, every alleyway has its own story to tell.
All that is the backdrop for a tale of revenge as Emily Kaldwin's throne is seized from her, on her father and royal protector Corvo Attano's watch. Players play out the story as either character however they choose, with a huge amount of choices available thanks to a variety of weapons and abilities that work together flawlessly in unexpected ways. A true wonder of modern game design.
4) Watch Dogs 2
When Watch Dogs 2 was announced, most were happy to see the sequel would be a much lighter, more vibrant game than the original. Then they saw its cast of young, bantzy twenty-something characters and expected excruciating results.
The youthful hackers of DedSec were far from painful company however – in fact they made the ride of Ubisoft Montreal's open-world tech thriller all the more enjoyable. Driven by their desire to defend the little guy from an increasingly sinister corporate machine, not to mention their devout loyalty to one another, they're passionate, idealistic and refreshingly, unashamedly dorky.
With its heart in the right place, its hacking gameplay expanded upon and an open world setting of worthy of the industry benchmark set by Rockstar Games with Grand Theft Auto, Watch Dogs 2 is an incredibly entertaining proof of concept for a series that got off to the rockiest of starts – but now has a very promising future.
After 2012's Hitman: Absolution disappointed fans with its ill-fitting Grindhouse tone and move away from the popular sandbox stealth style of 2006's Blood Money, many were worried when developer IO Interactive revealed that its next instalment in the DIY assassination series would arrive in bite-sized, episodic chunks.
Despite traditionally being reserved for story-driven indie games of the Telltale ilk, the staggered release of new murder-playgrounds in Hitman 2016 turned out to be a match made in assassination heaven, quickly becoming the gift that would keep on giving.
The episodic format fit the bold, opportunistic ways of protagonist Agent 47 like his own piano-wire-scuffed leather gloves, jetting players to gloriously expansive locations with manipulable death traps waiting around every turn and enough challenges (set by the game and created by the community) to warrant multiple playthroughs in the pursuit of level mastery.
From its glitzy Parisian premiere, through the sun-kissed, all-time great Hitman level Sapienza and all the way until its clinical Tokyo-set finale, IO rediscovered a killer touch worthy of the besuited angel of death himself.
Inside contains the most jaw-dropping, outlandish and altogether baffling moment any video game had to offer in 2016. One that also happened to be its best.
After two years of radio silence from Playdead following it's sophomore game's E3 2014 reveal, the Danish studio's follow-up to ubiquitous puzzle platformer Limbo took many by surprise. In hindsight it really shouldn't have. Inside expands on Limbo's strengths throughout, simplifying its predecessor's brainteasers without dumbing them down and replacing its large-domed child avatar with a faceless boy brought to life with eerily naturalistic movements.
The once Xbox One-exclusive title (now on PS4 and PC) also doubled-down on Limbo's opaque storytelling. Playdead's dystopian nightmare is characterised by its detailed, haunting monochrome backdrops, with colour used sparingly and poignantly to both highlight puzzle solutions and attract the player's eye to key, symbolic events.
As for the ending, we won't spoil it here – but it's safe to say it won't be a moment any player will forget in a hurry.
IBTimes UK's Game of the Year 2016 - Overwatch
Overwatch has no single-player campaign, no season pass and isn't beset with blood-splattered violence – three things it has been hard to imagine a modern shooter without. What it does have however, is a simple ethos that saw Blizzard excellently distil the first-person shooter genre, then pair it perfectly with the personality and tactical possibilities of hero-based games like Dota 2 and League of Legends.
Blizzard is incapable of half-measures, and as with the vast majority of its games, the studio has continued to lend Overwatch some incredible support in the months since its launch. Constant balance tweaks and new cosmetic items have been joined by free maps, new modes, themed seasonal updates and a ranked mode.
Overwatch's success is down to its excellent character work, the best of Blizzard's exemplary record. The twenty-plus heroes gamers can play as are unique in terms of how they function, the tactical opportunities they offer and their personalities. The game's cast is also wonderfully, refreshingly diverse, joining each other from around the globe to compete on maps that also lend to an international feel.
In a unique move for such a high profile game, the narrative that ties everything together exists largely beyond the game itself – in animated shorts, comics (you may have read about the most recent, which revealed cover star Tracer is gay), reams of written lore and in the imaginations of the fans who have taken the game to their hearts.
Its moreish competitive play will make it a permanent fixture of the eSports scene for years to come, but more so than anything in the game's bright future, its Overwatch's good nature, universal appeal and superlative design that have made it IBTimes UK's game of the year for 2016.