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Halfway Point: Best Games of 2016 (So Far…)

With E3 now behind us, most of us are already thinking about what games we can’t wait to play in the upcoming months. Be it The Last Guardian or Final Fantasy XV, the world’s largest video game expo showed off some truly remarkable titles, many of which are set for release between now and Christmas time. While we impatiently await some of these releases, we thought it would be a great time to look back at the first half of 2016 and compile a list of our favorite games of the year, so far. If you haven’t tried any of the following eighteen titles, now might be a good time to catch up. Enjoy!

Stellaris

18) Stellaris

Since man first looked into the sky and discovered other celestial bodies, he has yearned to control the heavens. This has been reflected time and time again in gaming, and while Paradox’s Stellaris is far from the first space-born strategy game, it quickly positioned itself as one of the best. Taking ideas from classic 4-X games likes Galactic Civilizations and Masters of Orion as well as a healthy dose of Paradox’s own grand strategy titles like Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron, Stellaris is a game that tasks you with thinking big while operating small. What it lacks in originality it more than makes up for with depth, and it sets itself apart from other 4-X games with the sheer amount of options it gives the player and the ease with which the player can use the game’s tools. It’s not perfect, with lacking combat and a slog of a middle game, but with Paradox’s history of patches and DLC, there’s nowhere for this game to go but up. (Andrew Vandersteen)

Darkest Dungeon

17) Darkest Dungeon 

Darkest Dungeon left early access in January and came out to rave reviews and the hardcore Rogue-like RPG is one of our favorite games of the year.

In Darkest Dungeon, you start out with a team of heroes in a rundown town that has once belonged to your family, and your goal is to redeem your legacy. Dungeon-crawling makes up the core of the gameplay loop, all while you’re managing your heroes, building up your town, and focusing on beating the many bosses and eventually making your way to the Darkest Dungeon, and retaking your family’s land. Brutal gameplay mechanics, punishing turn-based combat, managing stress, health, team composition, positioning, diseases, and other things all add a great amount of depth to every encounter and make every dungeon mean something. Whether it be sending in a suicide squad into a dungeon to make a few bucks, or putting your beloved Crusader in the insane asylum to help him de-stress, the game has a surprising amount of mechanics.

Darkest Dungeon, overall, is definitely one of the best games to come out this year and is one of the best Rogue-likes to come out in recent years. The combat and gameplay mechanics make the combat intense and fun, while the randomly generated dungeons keep the game varied enough to play for hours on end – if you’re me. Darkest Dungeon is out right now on Steam and is coming to PS4 this summer. (Devin Taylor)

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16) Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley is an “open-ended country-life RPG” released on Steam in February this year and came out to rave reviews, earning universal praise.

After quitting your dead-end job working for a large corporation, you inherit your grandfather’s farm in Stardew Valley. The main structure involves buying and planting vegetables, fruits, and other things, raising animals, fishing and foraging. maintaining relationships with the townspeople, and even fighting bad guys in the mines.  You can basically do whatever you want, whether it be focusing on building your farm or building your relationships. Seasons in this game last 28 days and you can only grow certain crops during certain seasons and when the season is done, all crops that are planted die, so that adds a certain depth to the farming rather than just mindlessly harvesting and planting, you have to plan what you’re planting and when.

Stardew Valley is a really fun game, the charming graphics, fun gameplay, and just pure tranquility make this game playable for hours on end. Though the story is barely there, it isn’t really something to be expected from this, considering it was developed by one guy. If you are remotely interested in Animal Crossing or Harvest Moon, though, this is a game for you.  You can get Stardew Valley right now on Steam, and it is coming to consoles in Q4 of 2016. (Devin Taylor)

enterthegungeonlogo

15) Enter the Gungeon

The profile of indie games is growing every month, and the first half of 2016 was amazing for these smaller-budget releases – not least of which was developer Dodge Roll’s fun, funny and adorably dumb Enter the Gungeon. In the game, players descend into a gun-themed fortress filled with bullet-themed enemies, shooting them with all manner of weird firearms.

To be frank: the 2D shooter, Rogue-lite, bullet-hell, dungeon-crawling genre isn’t new. Nuclear Throne has Vlambeer’s screen-shaking chaos and underground vibe going for it. The Zelda-styled, vulgar audacity of The Binding of Isaac also has its place in many gamers’ hearts. But Enter the Gungeon separates itself from the pack with high points of its own.

The gameplay is sharp and polished, from the carefully-timed dodge roll to the interactive cover; from the way that shell casings whoosh into your character when you clear the room, to the teleporters that cut down on backtracking. Enter the Gungeon respects the player’s time, limiting everything outside the actual shooting, and guiding the player through smoothly – though not too easily. The moment to moment combat can be nerve-wracking, forcing players to master the use of cover and dodge-rolling to survive.

As for presentation, the cute character designs, and terrible gun-puns are backed by a deep (and deeply silly) lore, collected in the Ammonomicon. Discovering new enemies, items and bosses reveal a mix of science fiction, magic, and absolute nonsense in the Gungeon. Finally, the retro-inspired sounds, and prolific indie composer Doseone’s score, combine into an atmosphere that feels both unsettling and compelling at the same time.

Enter the Gungeon is a great first game from Dodge Roll, another feather in publisher Devolver Digital’s cap, and stands tall as one of the best games of 2016. (Mitchell Akhurst)

Salt and Sanctuary

14)  Salt and Sanctuary

In an era where we haven’t seen a truly great Castlevania game in nearly 20 years, who would have thought that the best Castlevania game to arrive in two decades wouldn’t be a Castlevania game at all, but an entirely new IP.

Marrying the dense dungeon-crawling and 2D exploration of Castlevania with the intense challenge and pitch black lore of the Dark Souls series was certainly a gamble for Ska Studios. Luckily, this was one roll of the dice that paid off in spades. Salt and Sanctuary is not just a great game, but a marvel of game design in and of itself. Any studio that can so carefully merge the worlds of two disparate series like this into an entirely new entity, one that manages to mirror its source materials while still feeling like its own beast, is certainly worthy of commendation. (Mike Worby)

X-Com2

13) XCOM 2

Firaxis has once again shown why they’re the number one name in turn-based strategy. XCOM 2 is the perfect kind of sequel, taking the best ideas from the first game and mashing them together with insane amounts of new content. Flipping the script you take command of the destitute human resistance forces, battling the alien overlords for a free earth, and the gameplay wisely follows suit, requiring you to think more like an insurgency with hit-and-run actions and stealthy ambushes. Subtle tweaks and additions, like the ability to customize your soldiers and weapons, add new layers of depth to an already neck-deep pool of a game. Yes, the RNG nature of your soldier’s aim is frustrating, and the math on hit calculations can be confusing, but these are minor gripes to an otherwise fantastic experience. An absolute must for any fan of the original, or anyone looking for a challenging tactical experience. (Andrew Vandersteen)

StarFoxZero

12) Star Fox Zero

The Star Fox team’s return to home consoles after over a decade, Star Fox Zero is an action-packed, nostalgic thrill-ride that throws a lot of surprises into a familiar environment. Considered a re-imagining of the N64 classic Star Fox 64, players control Fox McCloud and battle their way through unrelenting waves of interstellar baddies using his trusty Arwing. Alongside Fox are his iconic teammates: Falco Lombardi, Peppy Hare, and Slippy Toad. Flying through levels & hearing their banter exclusively through the GamePad audio with 3D sound makes you feel like you’re in the seat of the cockpit, making for quite an immersive effect.

While many have claimed that the controls can be wonky and hard to work with at times, it’s really just a matter of honing your skill. While a bit difficult to get used to right off the bat, with enough practice, anyone can become an ace Arwing pilot using the game’s gyro aim controls. With the view of the cockpit on the GamePad screen and the traditional view on the TV, more precise aiming can be pulled off with the right amount of dexterity. There are even more vehicles to pilot than just the Arwing; certain levels employ the Walker, the Gyrowing, and the Landmaster (along with its upgraded, flight-capable model). The bosses are just the right amount of challenge, some returning and some completely new; of course, Star Wolf returns as well to cause trouble for Star Fox. Dogfights with Star Wolf are some of the most intense battles you’ll experience during the game, making victory all the more sweet in the end.

While the control scheme may not be fit for some, Star Fox Zero stays true to its roots while still managing a decent amount of new features. If you think barreling through space and gunning down Venomian troops is your forte, then this is the game for you. (Matt Ninomiya)

HyperLightDrifter

11) Hyper Light Drifter

By making it clear from the get-go that your project is heavily inspired by The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past you’re simultaneously opening the floodgates to endless criticism and setting the bar for success very high, but that didn’t stop indie developer Alex Preston from wearing his heart on his sleeve when launching the Kick Starter campaign for Hyper Light Drifter.

Beautifully animated and vividly colored,  Hyper Light Drifter has a distinct visual identity that concurrently pays homage to the 16-Bit era while also having a new-age feel. The game’s opening cutscene is awe-inspiring yet confounding, perfectly setting the tone for the rest of the adventure. Outside of some text during the first few minutes of the game, Hyper Light Drifter is devoid of any comprehensible language, as the game tells its story through its imagery and leaves much up to the player’s own personal interpretation. The neon colors are heavily contrasted by the game’s brutal and unrelenting world, creating a grounded and heartfelt experience.

At the game’s core is its fluid yet unforgivingly difficult combat. Mixing melee and ranged attacks with fast-paced movement, forcing the player to be quick on their feet, constantly moving, weaving sword and gun attacks together in a symphony of blood and guts. The excellent enemy variety and large-scale boss fights will not only test your dexterity but also your resolve.

Hyper Light Drifter is a successful tribute to 16-Bit era and a mandatory experience for players who enjoy cryptic storytelling and challenging gameplay. (Matt De Azevedo)

The Witness

10) The Witness

Back in 2008 rookie independent developer Jonathan Blow struck gold with his debut title Braid, but it didn’t come easy. In pursuit of his dream, Blow invested three years of his life and roughly $200,000 out of his own pocket funding Braid’s development. The mounting debt never dissuaded him, though, and in the end, his dedication paid off, as Braid’s eventual triumph made him a millionaire. Success and riches would change most men, but not Blow. Rather than buying a mansion and some cars, he turned around and invested all of his earnings on his next passion project. After years of radio silence, on January 26th of 2016 Blow released The Witness, and miraculously struck gold once again.

When describing The Witness it may come off as mundane. The game features no enemies or combat of any kind, there is no real story or characters, and the primary gameplay mechanic is guiding a line through hundreds of mazes. Sounds simple, right? The Witness is very much a one-dimensional game, as there is nothing to do aside from exploring and solving puzzles, but the breadth, complexity and constantly evolving challenges the game presents make it a must-play for any gamer who enjoys a test of their mental dexterity.

The Witness takes place on a secluded island; the player is free to explore at their own pace, brilliantly merging open world design with the puzzle solving experience.  The polygonal art direction in conjunction with the vibrant color palate makes for a unique and appealing visual style, and the island itself is crafted with a meticulous attention to detail, as nearly everything  you see and hear holds relevance to some nearby puzzle or hidden secret.

Many were quick to criticize the game due to its $40 price point, which exceeds what most people deem “appropriate” for an indie game, but The Witness held my attention for just as long as most Triple A titles, and the sense of accomplishment that comes from overcoming the game’s most difficult trials is well worth the price of admission. (Matt De Azevedo)

legend_of_zelda_twilight_princess_hd_review_wii_u

9) The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD 

The best adventures don’t always have to be new ones.  Often, it’s more enjoyable reliving a journey and rediscovering what made it so diverting in the first place.  This is absolutely the case with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD, one of the best games to come out so far this year.  Building on its predecessors, in many ways, Twilight Princess represented the best of the Zelda franchise.  With impeccable controls and gameplay, some of the best combat featured in a Zelda game yet, and its signature tone and design, Twilight Princess built on the familiar formula of Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker and escalated it.  This is again the case with the HD version of the game, and Twilight Princess HD is the definitive way to experience the game.  Every enhancement is notable, from the improved graphics to the ease and simplicity of aiming as a result of the Wii U’s gyroscope controllers.  Twilight Princess HD also validates the Wii U Gamepad, as an easy access inventory and ever-present map couldn’t be more convenient.  On top of all of that, the game supports amiibo, utilizing every Zelda-themed figure to either support the player or make the experience more challenging.  The Wolf Link amiibo even brings additional content in the way of a small challenge course. Twilight Princess was always a brilliant game, with a gorgeous art style, some of the best dungeons in franchise history, and the well-designed gameplay Nintendo is renowned for.  Twilight Princess HD builds on all of that brilliantly and is the single best way to experience one of the best journeys to Hyrule players have been permitted to embark on. (Tim Maison)

FireEmblemFates

8) Fire Emblem Fates 

If the first half of 2016 only gave us Fire Emblem Fates, we would be satisfied. The North America release in February gave fans of the tactical role-playing franchise two new games (Conquest and Birthright, later Revelations) with unique emotional gut-wrenching stories. The 30+ hour gameplay follows your personally customized prince or princess as he or she gathers an army going up against their own family. The conflicting battles conjure between Hoshido and Nohr, as the former tries to hold off the latter’s forces. The scenarios look better than ever in Fates, especially in the time since it’s predecessor, Awakening. The vibrant colors of luscious green fields and flowers seem to jump out from the screen while darker colors appropriately set gloomy and mysteries moods. The musical score adds another element to Fates. Sounds of joyfulness and hope background scenes where character relationships build, and on the other side, the music intensifies for battles. I’m not usually adept at listening to music in most cases on handhelds, but I always had my headphones plugged in for Fates. With all that said, the best part of the game is building your characters. Characters gaining experience is better than ever, and a new feature called the Support System uniquely creates interesting character conversations and relationships. As you travel through the game, you strongly feel for your characters and their fates, which of course are all in your hands. Fire Emblem Fates gives fans two different games designed for two different players. If you’ve played the game before, Conquest’s more difficult tactics could be for you. If you’re brand new or haven’t played in awhile, Birthright is an easier game to adapt to. Don’t miss out on one of the top games of the year (so far). (Steven Elliott)

RatchetAndClank

7) Ratchet and Clank

When the first installment in the Ratchet & Clank-series was released in 2002, it shook up the entire industry and left a mark on all games that were yet to come. Through its extreme innovation, the game became a fan favorite and a household name altogether and received praise from a huge amount of critics. The controls were excellent, and the graphics were mind-blowing at the time. As a result of all this, it doesn’t really come as a surprise that the game was re-imagined and released under the same name for the PS4 in 2016.

Usually, when someone decides to remake such an impactful game, there’s a lot of turbulence along the way. There’s always gonna be some people who remain a little bit too attached to the original game, and don’t want to see a new version of it at all. Then there’re the people who are initially positive to the idea of a new installation in the series but end up disliking the game because they feel it differs too much from the previous installations. Then there’re the players who feel as if games themselves hold expiration dates, and therefore assume that a 14-year old game can’t possibly stand its ground amidst the sophisticated games of this era.

Luckily, Insomniac Games managed to deliver a game that seemingly suited us all. The graphics are amazing, the controls are smooth and fluid, and somehow it’s all so very faithful to the original installation from 2002. It’s the same old environments, the same old characters, the same mechanics, but now brandishing a new, overhauled exterior that does complete and utter justice to the original Ratchet & Clank game we all know and love. (Johnny Pederson)

pokken_tournament_wallpaper_by_nintato-d9odpp2

6) Pokken Tournament 

Much like the Super Smash Bros. series, Pokken Tournament takes a huge leap away from other, more traditional fighting games. While maybe not as easy to grasp as Smash, it is relatively accepting of young or inexperienced players. The quick and easy tutorials will help them grasp the intimidating — at least at first sight — mechanics, and while it seems complex and outlandish during the beginning play sessions, the battle system proved itself to be fluid, exciting, and rewarding once players have gotten the hang of it. Pokken Tournament is a 3D fighter meshed with a 2D fighter which, again, sounds extremely complicated. But, players need only perform a certain combo or deal a certain amount of damage to switch the perspective, which changes most of the mechanics. Certain buttons will now do different things, new combos will be added while others are dropped. It’s a system that keeps the battles moving at a brisk and satisfying pace.

The multiplayer is fantastic, and easily the most fun to be had in Pokken. Playing online is almost flawless; players can expect little to no frame drops or crashes. Playing with friends locally is less polished — as player one is forced to use the lower resolution gamepad as their screen — but it can still be played for hours on end. On the other hand, the single player is surprisingly lacking, especially when considering this game’s Pokemon relatives. It attempts to tie together generic battles with a mysterious antagonist in Shadow Mewtwo but ends up feeling more like fighting random CPUs until you reach an unimportant conclusion. Otherwise, Pokken is a truly addicting experience. It may not offer much past the multiplayer, but fighting games have always been more about beating the snot out of your friends and random strangers anyway. (Ricardo Rodriguez)

doom

5) DOOM

After its original announcement in 2008, DOOM survived the loss of key members of the development team and the scrapping of the entire project in 2011. After a disappointing response to the multiplayer beta and review copies being withheld from the media, the game’s future looked dim.

And yet DOOM rose victorious, becoming both a critical darling and fan favorite upon release. Simultaneously paying homage to and modernizing classic gameplay elements like frenetic gunplay and map exploration, DOOM provides a perfect balance of chaos, calm, and carnage. Fought at a blistering pace, battles play out in dizzying ballets of death as players weigh split-second tactical decisions using a huge arsenal in the face of a relentless host of enemies.

A pulse-pounding musical score backs up superlative visuals that run beautifully on both PCs and consoles. While the multiplayer may not be what everyone wanted, SnapMap is a fun, intuitive way for players to create their own content, and DOOM’s campaign elevates the game to far more than just a pleasant surprise. DOOM is without doubt one of the best shooters in the last 10 years. (Michael Riser)

2609427-firewatch

4) Firewatch

The gaming community is often asked the loaded question, “are video games art”? In this case, absolutely. With one of the most intriguing, heart-wrenching, and thought-inducing relationships I’ve ever witnessed in a video game, it would be very difficult to argue that this experience is anything less than a beautiful piece of art. While the gameplay is rather simple, the connection between Henry and Delilah is incredibly complex. I thought hard about every dialogue choice I was given and catered their relationship with care. I looked forward to every conversation the two characters would have and strived to do whatever I could to improve on their relationship.

The plot and environment are often intertwined, leaving the player sorrowful and alone in a cave at one point, then feeling cheerful and inspired on top of a mountain at another. The storytelling and beautiful scenery coincide to create a world that truly feels alive. Topped off with wildlife and tons of Easter Eggs, players will love exploring the wilds of Wyoming. This rollercoaster of emotions is accompanied by tons of genuine humor. It is very rare that a video game actually makes me laugh out loud, but Firewatch did this consistently.

In the end, the most beautiful part of Firewatch is the realism in its world. With the shocking revelations of the mystery and the incredibly emotional finale, the developers were sure to create a memorable experience that seems very believable. Firewatch is like a fine book; although it does not take long to complete, it certainly leaves a lasting impression on you. I felt a massive amount of emotion throughout the 5-hour campaign and plan on revisiting that world again one day to experience this masterpiece of gaming history once more. (Chris Souza)

Best Games of 20163) Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Naughty Dog has once again crafted a breathtaking adventure that can stand alone as the best game on PlayStation 4, yet. A Thief’s End may not have that big, iconic set piece moment found in previous Uncharted games but it succeeds as a collection of smaller sequences that help set a new benchmark for the way video games can communicate a narrative. A Thief’s End is a fitting send-off for Nathan Drake and one that perfectly balances the action-packed extravaganza we’ve come to expect with the slow and heavy emotional toll of Naughty Dog’s other hit title, The Last of Us. Uncharted 4 might just be the best title developed by Naughty Dog, and not just because of the stunning graphics, but because of how the sum of all it’s parts come together in a brilliantly cohesive whole. Everything from the dialogue, character actions, visual motifs, audio cues, art direction, sound effects, artistic presentation, tone and setting help create a breathtakingly efficient, immaculately constructed game that is a sheer joy to play. This is the ne plus ultra of triple-A blockbusters! (Ricky D)

overwatch

2) Overwatch

Not only did id produce a reboot of a classic FPS franchise with Doom, we also got a second surprise FPS in the first half of 2016, with Overwatch. From veteran developer (but FPS newbie) Blizzard Entertainment, best known for its real-time strategy, MMO, and action-RPG offerings, Overwatch began life as a failed MMO only to become one of the world’s best-loved competitive multiplayer team-shooters. 7 million players can’t be wrong.

Overwatch has a massive following for a reason. Packed to the brim with 21 different characters while still maintaining the tactical, chaotic gameplay necessary for a good shooter, there’s no shortage of either action or personality. The small number of game types hasn’t proved an issue for most people, and the 12 colorful maps are beautifully designed and fun to play. It’s even good enough to overcome a host of aesthetic and gameplay concerns, reach people who don’t like Team Fortress 2, and appeal to people who normally don’t play competitive shooters.

With tightly-balanced gameplay, a heavy focus on unique characters (without excessive MOBA trappings), and an active community, Overwatch is likely to have both player and developer support for years to come. (Michael Riser)

Dark Souls III1) Dark Souls III

Few series have made the kind of mark on gaming over the last decade that the Souls series has made, and Dark Souls III is the crowning jewel of that achievement. The cleanest, balanced, and precise game that From Software has yet to produce, even with the buckets of crowd service and nostalgia, one can’t help but be blown away by what a beautifully polished experience Dark Souls III offers.

In a series that has always been known for its atmosphere, the level of detail here is still staggering in its idiosyncrasy. Look at the way the wind catches your enemy’s clothes as they attack, the hundreds of tiny individual candles that are animated in a cavern, or the way the dust separates in the air when you smash an old table or bookcase. This is game design at its finest, carefully crafted and lovingly curated. Even if you might not have the patience to tackle a game like Dark Souls III, anyone can look at it and appreciate it for what it is, and that’s one of the most gorgeous, involving, and challenging games ever designed.

Dark Souls III is not only a wonderful love letter to the fans but a great send off for this series as well. (Mike Worby)

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