Gaming Highlights of 2016

2016 was a bountiful year for games, in a way that could never be summed up in a top ten list. The Crossfader staff would like to shine a light on significant titles that, either due to obscurity or recognition for the wrong reasons, slipped under the radar. Listen to the podcast and read the roundup below to learn about some of our favorite games of 2016. 

gaming highlights pony island

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Satan is an independent game developer, and a frustrated one at that. PONY ISLAND offers a disturbing development journal of his work, combined with a genuinely clever and challenging puzzle system. Tying everything together is the overall aesthetic, with its fake computer terminal system, constantly changing at Satan’s manic whim. Developer Daniel Mullins juggles horror and hysterics with ambitious jaggedness, not to mention confident style. PONY ISLAND is a game that rewards patience with a well thought out, entertaining ride, with some moments that’ll make you simultaneously backing away out of fear and leaning in and laughing along with it. [Rocky Pajarito]

gaming highlights beginning

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BEGINNING HOUR (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC)

Video game hype has always been the bane of the medium. Demos have become a relic of yesteryear, with staged and outright fabricated E3 “gameplay” footage becoming the norm in previewing titles. Cue Capcom’s RESIDENT EVIL 7: BIOHAZARD, a game that didn’t release in 2016, but brought us a free demo that shattered all our expectations. Aside from being a perfectly spooky experience, the aptly titled BEGINNING HOUR was a brief demonstration of the franchise’s reinvention (and subsequent return to roots). What at first felt like a tired retread of Hideo Kojima’s P.T. quickly cascaded into an ever-developing teaser with a string of subtle updates along the way. The cherry on top: a bonus ending that would unlock an item for use in the final game. Rarely has a demo incited so much excitement among the Crossfader staff, wonderfully balancing mechanical and tonal introductions in one fell swoop. Gone are the days of GameStop pre-order unlockables. This is how teasers ought to be done. BEGINNING HOUR is just what it promises: The Beginning of RESIDENT EVIL’s rebirth. Here’s to hoping that “dirty coin” finds its use. [Sergio Zaciu]

gaming highlights infin

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INFINITE WARFARE’s campaign will probably go down as one of the most unappreciated gems of the past year. Overshadowed by a ‘member berry-fueled remaster of MODERN WARFARE and the predominantly multiplayer-focused nature of its own package, INFINITE WARFARE’s single-player story was a fresh take on not only the series, but the shooter genre as a whole. Breaking up the default, linear level structure of FPS campaigns and choosing instead to scatter its 20+ missions over a semi-open solar system, the game felt closer to a space opera than yet another gritty war tour. Zero-G shootouts over hidden loot, immersive difficulty settings, and the most kickass void-based dogfights on consoles only sweeten the pot further. [Ed Dutcher]

gaming highlights abzu

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ABZU (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC)

Games like ABZU are to be cherished, even if there’s technically not much to them. Developer Giant Squid puts their ideas and efforts toward the small details, such as art, physical flow, beautiful score, and rushing visual sensations. Objectives are relative, as ABZU seems to encourage taking your time exploring. It’s an exhilarating, open enough experience for personal projection. The journey it offers can be therapeutic in its catharsis of pure feeling. ABZU is the game equivalent of a sensory deprivation tank; there’s an emotional time and place for it. In it, ABZU shines bright. [Rocky Pajarito]

gaming highlights ambient

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For collaborative project AMBIENT MIXTAPE 16, developers were given two constraints: a first person controller and the theme “After Hours.” It’s very hard to talk about any of the nine resultant works, particularly my personal favorite, Pol Clarissou’s t- e ni hтm-are of·`a c ty (and not only because its title is hallucinatory gibberish). Most of the time, when you talk about a game, you describe what you do, or what story is told. But neither of these options really explain what this game is. Yes, you wander a city at night, but it feels like more than that, and a lot less at times. So if you want to begin to understand games as neither puzzles or narratives, but purely “felt spaces,” check out this free-to-download 2016 highlight and all of its sister works. As for what the t- e ni hтm-are of·`a c ty does or says or is, I’ll let it speak for itself and agree wholeheartedly: “it is late and i am lost,” indeed. [Jimmy Evans]

gaming highlights dishonored

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DISHONORED 2 (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC)

Calling DISHONORED 2’s level design the best we’ve seen in years would be a massive understatement. From the constantly shifting floorplans of the Clockwork Mansion, to the dual timelines at play in the chronologically-challenged Stilton Manor, figuring out the layouts of Karnaca’s labyrinths is just as much of a challenge as keeping track of the goons that patrol them. While many stealth games simply task players with discovering the most efficient path to their goal without getting spotted, DISHONORED 2 throws in the extra layer of making the environment itself an active adversary. Though DISHONORED 2’s plot is fairly forgettable, the stage it tells it on is anything but. [Ed Dutcher]

gaming highlights rain

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RAINBOW SIX: SIEGE (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC)

RAINBOW SIX: SIEGE may have come out at the tail end of last year, but to call it a classic would be a huge understatement. What with forced obsolescence and all, multiplayer shooters these days survive their brief shelf life of a year (if that at all), yet RAINBOW SIX: SIEGE proved that we can still have it the old fashioned way. In what has slowly blossomed into the thinking man’s tactical shooter, Ubisoft’s overlooked gem of last year (and one of our top 10 of 2015) has nurtured a growing, vibrant community, unprecedented support from the devs, a dense competitive scene, and an exceptional season pass. I would go as far as to say that this is the first modern multiplayer shooter to avoid almost all cash grab tendencies. SIEGE is, by all accounts, the closest thing console gamers will have to a modern COUNTER STRIKE competitor, and even PC gamers have latched on in droves. With OVERWATCH dominating the multiplayer dialogue in 2016, it felt essential to give a shoutout to Ubisoft’s stealth-shooter (arguably the only one on the market). Fingers crossed they keep up the great work. [Sergio Zaciu]

gaming highlights civ

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Firaxis hasn’t quite reinvented the wheel with CIVILIZATION VI, but instead managed to make it a different kind of wheel altogether (So, ball bearings or something? Proper metaphors aren’t discovered for six more turns.) The new edition of Sid Meier’s Civ series delivers the same historical nation-building and world-conquering enjoyment as its predecessors, but changes the rules of the game just enough to make those that can defeat CIVILIZATION V’s Deity mode in their sleep scratch their heads and reconsider their strategies. Instead of stacking improvements, buildings, and wonders onto one city, players are forced to really consider how they improve the lands of their nation, as decisions made at the beginning of the game will remain in effect millennia into the future. In addition to some reconfigurations of war mechanics, religion, and diplomacy, CIVILIZATION VI makes an excellent addition to an excellent franchise. [Steven Porfiri]

gaming highlights firewatch

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FIREWATCH (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC)

What FIREWATCH strives for is a beautiful evolution in video game storytelling potential. It’s an emotional ride utterly about choices, feelings, and the pragmatism behind following the head or the heart. Campo Santo takes the point and click adventure sleeve to the first person, and to a genre type explored by few, such as GONE HOME or a little game called OXENFREE. Low-key dramatic journeys about human interaction are normally saved for cinema, but video games like FIREWATCH prove that injecting a sense of control into these interpersonal high-stakes scenarios has merit. While not perfect, it continues to offer an above-average example of potential worth praising. [Rocky Pajarito]

gaming highlights banner

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THE BANNER SAGA 2 (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Vita, PC)

THE BANNER SAGA 2 stands out as an ideal video game sequel in many ways, but the most fascinating is in how it handles continuity. Carrying over saved game data from one game in a series to the next has been done for years now, but the execution has always felt somewhat superficial, rarely doing anything that a pregame recap couldn’t also accomplish. Not only does THE BANNER SAGA 2 remember which characters made it (and which ones did not) in your playthrough of the original, it carries them over in their entirety as well. Experience gained, items equipped, and supplies gathered all remain just as you left them. While most game sequels rely on deus ex machina to reset the plot or character arcs, THE BANNER SAGA 2 effectively continues the story right where it left off in the first entry, making the daunting exodus your convoy of refugees must undertake feel all the more hard-fought. Using in-game mechanics to augment themes is a concept few developers seem able to master, but Stoic uses the simplest implementation of progression to staggering effect in the latest entry of their saga. [Ed Dutcher]

gaming highlights darkest

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DARKEST DUNGEON (PlayStation 4, Vita, PC)

Despite a few minor technical glitches, DARKEST DUNGEON serves as a satisfying dungeon crawler, superbly combining tabletop gaming elements with unforgiving rogue-like mechanics that help to cement its heavy Lovecraftian influences. DUNGEON encourages players to throw warriors into the depths of hell, but as they grow increasingly neurotic and terrified, they must also be nurtured back to sanity in order to send them back in again. Encouraging the player to care about their characters in order to overcome tougher and more difficult challenges ratchets up the sense of looming dread and effectively heightens the experience. On the flip side, callously playing with the lives of your hired swords makes for one of the most grim games out there. [Steven Porfiri]

gaming highlights zero

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I didn’t know that anime SAW was something I wanted, and I didn’t know that anime SAW was something I needed, but ZERO TIME DILEMMA proved to be exactly what I was looking for in video game narratives. “Nonlinear” storytelling has been around for a while, but rarely ever in a true sense. Films like RASHOMON and MEMENTO toy with the concept, but can ultimately only be watched a certain way. ZERO TIME DILEMMA breaks free of cinematic constraints by presenting its entire plot all at once. Much like a jigsaw puzzle scattered across a table as many unconnected pieces, ZERO TIME DILEMMA allows players to pick any of its scenes to start from at the onset of the story, regardless of their narrative placement. Like the amnesiac protagonists, the player must use context clues to figure out where, and when, they are in the plot. Combined with the rock-solid premise and gripping story, ZERO TIME DILEMMA delivers a truly one-of-a-kind tale. [Ed Dutcher]

gaming highlights thumper

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THUMPER (PlayStation 4)

Pitching rhythm games seems to be met with a lot of eye-rolling these days, which is a real shame. The genre’s next move needs to be in subversion, such as in THUMPER, a rhythm violence game that practically digs into your system and controls the BPM of your heart. Its tribal percussion emphasizes the urgency to line up rhythmically, which is met with its inherent reward; an absolute mental rush. There are few better feelings in gaming last year than the few seconds where you sync with THUMPER. Maybe it’s a placebo, but it’s a sugar pill that’ll make you feel alive. [Rocky Pajarito]

The good people of Crossfader Magazine.

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