The latter half of 2016 was certainly a challenging year for gamers on a budget. From giant laser-wielding robots to rocket-propelled cars, to commanding armies of bloodthirsty Dwarfs and Orcs, this year certainly suffered from a definite case of so many great games, and not nearly enough time to play them all.
First world problems aside, here are some highlights of several of the biggest, hardest hitting games of the year.
Because Zombies Are So Passe
Zombies were so 2016. For at least the second half of the year, it seems like the fickle tastes of mass media geekdom have ebbed and flowed away from the slavering masses of the walking dead to none other than giant robots.
We can't complain. Giant robots are cool.
When it released in 2014, Titanfall took the gaming world by surprise. A cross-platform multiplayer opus, the sci-fi shoot 'em up didn't reinvent the wheel. Instead, Titanfall crushed the puny caveman invention beneath several tons of metal, wiring and hydraulic pistons, proof that you don't need to reinvent a tried and true FPS formula to get noticed.
Nope, apparently, just adding giant robots works. Because giant robots make everything cooler, and it's a fine, fine world we live in.
The brainchild of Respawn Entertainment and published by Electronic Arts, Titanfall was hotly anticipated as the debut title from the developers who brought us the much-beloved Call of Duty series. In Titanfall, players are “pilots,” puny mortals robed in this pathetic substance called flesh and guts and maybe some battle armor for utterly insubstantial padding.
The real stars of the show are the titular Titans, giant mechanized exo-suits, that the pilots get to, uh, pilot, across a theater of vicious six versus six matches that take place in frontier space colonies ravaged by interplanetary war.
Story wise, it's the usual Oppressive Faceless Corporation versus Freedom-loving Colonial Militia go-round, but all care for storyline really goes out the window when you climb into the seat of your first mech.
Ain't My First Time at a Titan Rodeo
Titanfall 2 reprises all the winning gameplay elements of the first. Here's how it works: you begin each level as your pilot. Squishy though it is, your puny human form is capable of great feats of mobility, able to parkour, wall run, zip line, double jump, and more, to get you from Point A to Point B with as much flexibility as possible.
In Titanfall 2, your pilot gains a few new tricks in the form of tactical invisibility cloaking, a pulse blade that reveals the location of nearby enemies, and the snazzy holo-pilot that serves as a clever decoy that intelligently mimics your movements, meant to throw off the enemy from your tail.
You'll need all the tricks you can get, because your parkour and dirty, tricksy fighting is all that stands between you and getting smushed by enemy Titans. After a countdown clock reaches zero, which can be accelerated by killing enemies, Titans get air-dropped onto the field. From there, it's a mad scramble to reach them before the enemy team does. Titans, while significantly slower than their pilots, pack a lot more firepower and durability.
New to Titanfall 2 is the introduction of six Titan loadouts that can be unlocked through gameplay. Scorch, the Ogre class Titan, as its name suggests, specializes in incendiary weapons. Ion, an Atlas class, directs focused blasts of energy to vaporize enemies at long range. Ronin is a nimble Stryder class, wielding an enormous sword and specializes in lightning quick hit and run strikes and close quarters combat. Tone is another Atlas class that relies on evasive maneuvers and lock-on attacks. And finally, the agile Stryder class Northstar is the only Titan that can fly, and specializes in precision attacks and trap setting.
Man vs. Machine
Another pleasant surprise to Titanfall 2 is the addition of a single-player campaign, and an alarmingly enjoyable single player campaign at that.
Progression through the story is linear, but levels are deliberately designed as open-ended arenas, similar to the multiplayer experience. This allows players multiple locations to explore and many routes to accomplish a given mission.
Also evident are platforming elements that require you to use your extensive parkour abilities to navigate environmental hazards and solve puzzles in a true to form platforming style. And since every hero needs a sidekick to banter with, another neat surprise is how well they've woven in a 'personality' to your Titans, as they will communicate with you throughout the mission. A smart directorial decision, as it adds a lot of personality to the world and your constant partner in crime.
Buy Titanfall 2:
Oh, boy. Where to start with Rocket League. Let's try summing it up, with the words of the developers, “It's like Soccer, but with rocket-powered cars.”
If you've ever been a kid who owned a toy RC car, but you've never driven it like it was meant to be driven - say, off impossibly vertical walls, off highly dangerous ramps, and/or into other RC cars - then Rocket League is right up your alley.
Each player gets a rocket car that drives and controls like an RC vehicle and squares off against others on a playing field. A countdown begins, and a giant glowing golden ball is introduced into the arena. Then, the brakes are released, and each team tries to score goals into the opposing team's net.
Only, there's no dribbling; there's only smashing the ball with your cars, maneuvering around your opponents, doing crazy stunts off walls, and mayhem. If the premise sounds simple, it's because it is.
“Like soccer, but with cars and rockets.”
Playable solo or multiplayer (online and local!) cross-platform over PlayStation Online, Xbox Live, and PCs, Rocket League is bar none the runaway smash hit of the season. Its simplicity and addictive gameplay, as well as the ability to modify the core rules by adding in new game modes (including ones that are based on ice hockey and basketball!), has won it widespread critical acclaim and many high profile industry awards. It's even been officially adopted as an eSport, with professional players competing worldwide through ESL and Major League Gaming.
If the premise sounds super amazing, it's also because it is.
Eschewing the 'ultra-realistic car and environment destruction' route the title could've easily gone down, your cars in Rocket League handle exactly like an RC car, albeit an incredibly durable RC car. Instead of crumpling or breaking apart, your vehicle is more likely to flip end over end and perform spectacular accidental aerial pirouettes before landing, relatively unscathed except for the blow your vehicular faux pas would've dealt to your ego.
The cars are also highly maneuverable, with each vehicle able to 'jump' vertically and hit the ball in mid-air. Most maps also feature glowing marked spaces on the field, which grant you a short but powerful burst of super speed when you drive over them. Ramming into a rival car in this way serves as the only way to destroy enemy vehicles; doing so is tough, but you are rewarded for the feat by seeing your opponent removed them from the game for a few seconds before they respawn.
Skilled players can also perform quick dodges, which means seeing their car doing a short 'hop' and spin according to their directional momentum. You'll see this a lot in competitive play, and is one of the key ways of maneuvering your car and the ball across the field.
Mods and Mutations, Oh My!
To add to the fun, players can also introduce 'mutators,' modifications that tweak certain aspects of their game modes to allow for, say, increased or decreased gravity, ball speed, and bounciness, or even add weather complications to the field like snow and icy field conditions.
With its crisp, simple design, jaw-dropping visuals and enormous replayability, Rocket League gets everything right and succeeds both at being a great casual game. But give it half a chance, and you'll be hip-deep in trash-talking it up with the best of the Rocket League players across the globe before you know it.
Buy Rocket League:
I know I say 'robust' a lot, guys, but for a game that ostensibly is about putting together amusement rides, Planet Coaster takes 'robust' and knocks it out of the theme park. If you shrugged your shoulders and said 'meh' to Planet Coaster thinking it's just another Roller Coaster Tycoon updated with next-gen graphics, like I once did, you're in for one heck of a surprise.
With its suite of comprehensive building tools, you can craft your theme park from the ground up – instead of pre-built structures, you can actually design each wall, pillar and decorative element of your buildings, completely customizing your floor plan and buildings to your liking. Then, just place kiosks to sell souvenirs, food, sugary sodas, and sweets to your clamoring customers.
It's a smart and straightforward system, and it works brilliantly on so many levels. Build curved paths, dramatically elevated walkways and grand staircases. Terraform the landscape by adjusting elevation, carving out gentle slopes to steep hills to sweeping valleys and majestic bays, digging out tunnels and flood filling regions with water...all with a few simple keystrokes.
Construct a bustling pirate bay, complete with mechanized colonial security bots, or a wood, thatch, and stone medieval village and adjoining castle peopled by animatronic knights and jesters. Or, my personal favorite, a sci-fi moon base under siege by alien invaders that shoot lasers, bedecked with laser gates and (novelty) planetary death cannons.
And because it wouldn't be a rollercoaster game otherwise: the same ease and functionality extend to your coasters as well! There are a variety of pre-built rides, like the carousel, tea cups, Ferris wheel, and vertical drop, but you are able to, and encouraged to shape your roller coasters piece by piece.
Lay out the track to your liking, customizing the angle of each vomit-inducing turn and gravity-defying drop. Then hop into first-person mode and witness first-hand the expressions of terror and impending nausea on the faces of your surprisingly well-rendered customers.
Naturally, your customers are as varied as your coaster types, with some preferring rides that yield maximum speed and terror, while others might prefer a family-friendly whirl around the teacups, with most customers falling somewhere in-between. Making the most profit out of your patrons depends on constructing a large variety of rides for both the thrill-seekers and not-so-thrill seekers. Luckily, as you're assembling your epic coasters, you are able to see a real-time update for how each segment modifies the terror and nausea ratings.
In general, you'll want to maximize thrills while keeping jarring, nauseating corners low, as the latter leads to messy clean-ups for your often overtaxed janitors. I love zooming in to see the expressions of the patrons, and to see them lugging around the souvenirs, soda cups, and silly hats they purchase at the concession stands.
While the career mode can be a drag at times, where Planet Coaster excels is in its creative mode. With hundreds of objects available in a variety of themes, you can customize your theme park to look like a pirate cove, sci-fi space base, fairy tale kingdom, Wild West gold rush town, and more. If you're a fan of building games that offer you a lot of freedom in your designs and object placements, and make it super easy to create something amazing, make sure you roll your way over to Planet Coaster.
Buy Planet Coaster:
The sequel to the original Xenoverse released for major consoles in 2015, Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 borrows heavily from its predecessor's action-packed, hard-hitting superhero-esque gameplay.
Arguably one of the chief reasons why the original was so popular is the fact that you get to customize your own Mary Sue and play out your favorite scenes from DBZ fanfiction—I mean, your very own protagonist, a Time Patroller charged with correcting temporal anomalies during major historical events in the Dragonball world.
Character customization is back in a big way, with an even more comprehensive suite of appearance and species options. Returning from the previous game is the exciting ability to play as traditionally villainous races, such as the diabolical Frieza species and nearly-amorphous Majin... blob-things.
Naturally, each race has its own strengths and weaknesses: Earthlings have balanced stats for both offense and defense, and their natural pluckiness means their Ki refills automatically. The warrior tribe Saiyans get stronger when their health is low, and their stats rise each time they revive. The Namekians have an impressive stamina and are able to regenerate lost health when things get dire, and so on.
As they skill up, each race has the potential to transform into even more powerful and visually impressive forms, adding a lot more incentive to the usual humdrum RPG “your stats have increased by +1, grats” mechanic. Interestingly, not all races have separate genders, but for those who do, the genders differ in strengths as well; Earthling males hit harder with their Strike Super attacks, but females are able to unleash more devastating Ki Blasts and Supers.
Even though many will spend hours getting lost in character creation, the core of Xenoverse's gameplay lies in the art of hard-hitting, 3D aerial brawling combat that's been a hallmark of the Dragonball franchise.
Buy Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2:
My first visit to Animal Crossing was on the good ol' Nintendo Gamecube, where I spent many happy hours tweaking and resetting my console clock so I could fast-forward tree growth and snag all the fun seasonal events and loot my neighbors had to offer.
Hey, don't judge. I loved me some phat seasonal lewts. Just don't tell Tortimer.
Heh heh heh... horf!
Happy Home Designer takes the beloved, multi-console Animal Crossing formula and...throws most of it out the window. Like its title suggests, HHD is not so much a full-blown Animal Crossing game like New Leaf. Instead, players are employees (instead of indentured servants) at Nook's Homes in New Town.
Nook's Homes sees a lot of customers each day, and it's your job to see to their interior design needs. Each customer will request a theme, and you get to put together the interior with the help of an extensive catalog of furniture, carpet, and wallpaper while staying in budget. In the case of new residents to town, you also get to pick the spot where they will build their home.
Compared to previous Animal Crossing games, the catalog of home furnishings and decorative items has been significantly expanded, and is now helpfully sorted into specific themes to make it easier on you to put together the perfect home. New furnishings are unlocked as you become more successful at your job and the population of New Town blossoms. Eventually, you'll get requests to help customize other buildings in town, such as the bridge and the school.
No More Tanning Booth, You Say?
Players who were dissatisfied with previous Animal Crossing games' extremely limiting character customization options will be pleased to hear this: customization has been given an extensive overhaul, and features many more options for putting together your little cartoon representation in New Town.
New clothing options are unlocked as you help out more characters; most often, the clothes that get unlocked correspond to the personality or style requested by the animal who hired you. Now, you may customize your face, hair style and color, eye color, as well as skin tone – that's right, if you've ever quirked your eyebrow at the fact that the only way you could achieve a darker skin tone in previous Animal Crossing games is to use a tanning bed (if you've never heard of this, that wasn't a joke, that stuff be real), you now have cause to rejoice.
Players will be able to alter their character's appearance in-game as well, by unlocking the Styling Machine. As an added bonus, the Styling Machine also gives you access to hairstyles of the opposite gender.
Built to Last
Much of the gameplay of Happy Home Designer involves you running around town helping redesign the homes of your animal neighbors, along with series staples like the supercool K K Slider, the weasley home insurance salesman Lyle, and the every disapproving mole miner Resetti and his brother.
HHD is the first game in the series to feature extensive amiibo integration. By using special Animal Crossing amiibo cards, players can unlock special villagers, who will drop by and request special room redesigns for premium rewards and special bonus items. And, if you also have Animal Crossing: amiibo Festival for the Wii U, you'll unlock bonuses content in both games as well.
Buy Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer:
If you somehow managed to survive last year's holiday shopping season with your savings intact, you're one lucky individual. With numerous big budget releases recently, the AAA gaming world proves it's still performing in fine form and more than worthy of its moniker.
It's going to be one excellent year for gaming!