By Kyle Holmer, Tommy Robbins, and Jarrod Jones. This is LOAD FILE, where we take one final look at the year that was… and then blow that sucker out the airlock. This week, the LF team assess the finest in gaming for the year 2016.

Image: Respawn Entertainment

Titanfall 2. I am not by nature, a multiplayer advocate.  I primarily come to video games as an individual looking for compelling stories and some escapism, so when the original Titanfall was announced (an exclusively online multiplayer shooter) there was literally nothing about that game that drew me towards it.  Yes, it received glowing reviews, but I was having none of it; I need the promise of a full single player experience if I’m to even consider a purchase.

Moving forward to 2016, Titanfall 2 was released, and while there was some positive early talk about the tech tests, I was pretty hesitant to purchase the game. I had assumed that while yes, this game now includes a single player campaign, I assumed it would be nothing more than an extended tutorial a la Call of Duty or Battlefield. I was elated to eventually find out I couldn’t have been more wrong.  

I’ll be the first to admit that storyline in Titanfall 2 is rather throwaway, but the team at Respawn have clearly sought to make a campaign that is both compelling and fun. Titanfall 2s camping has some of the most inventive level and mechanical design I’ve seen all year, with entire new systems being added over the course of the 8 hour storyline. There was never a point during my game that I didn’t have a stupid smile plastered all over my face; it is never not awesome. From the unbelievably tight character movement, to the ridiculous new powers the store will grant you (this game somehow has a level with a freely controllable time traveling device), I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t enjoy playing this game. 

Beyond all of single player content, there’s also the return of the series multiplayer which I was uncontrollably drawn towards because of just how damn fun the campaign was. I went from being a multilayer denier to a fanatic over the course of my time with this game and that just flat out never happened to me before. Titanfall 2 is just that damn fun. — KH

Image: Thekla, Inc.

The Witness. I was sold on The Witness at first glance. Seeing its vivid landscapes unfold in the initial game trailer gave me a childish sense of excitement. I wanted to roam that weird, colorful land.

It was later that I learned that Jonathan Blow (Braid) was the creator and that it was intended to be a sort of logic puzzle game that nested itself inside of a world of deeper and more surreal environmental puzzles. That’s when I knew this would be something special.

In 2017, The Witness one-hundred-percent lived up to expectation, and then some.

The Witness managed to present a game full of mind melting logic puzzles while easing the dull aching migraine that is ‘playing puzzle games’. Art direction serves a true purpose as vibrantly oversaturated landscapes unveil themselves over every hill, presenting calm and peaceful spaces before introducing further challenges.

Navigating those spaces is reminiscent of exploring the unknown areas between neighborhoods as a child. The Witness balances difficulty with wonder and achievement. What’s more, it even manages to provide beyond these triumphs.

Post game in The Witness reveals more about the playful nature of the game and encourages the player to continue to explore. We’re going to remain spoiler free here, but it’s safe to say that while there is a definitive end, there is much, much more to see. Just look around. — TR

Image: Ubisoft

Watch_Dogs 2. I’m not gonna talk around it — Watch Dogs The First really bummed me out. From its slate-gray open world that only vaguely resembled the city in which I live, habitated by a protagonist that was a cross between an Assassin’s Creed reject and an especially obnoxious bicycle courier, Ubisoft’s first foray into the wide world of *cough* “hacking” made me want to eat glass.

Watch_Dogs 2, on the other hand, made me want to pick up and move to San Francisco, in spite of the fact that I would have been destitute within five steps of its city limits. Ubisoft pulled a 180 that would have made Michael Jackson blush with this followup, from its phosphorescent color palette to its YOLO-brand crew of hacking misfits. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy the aesthetics of Watch_Dogs 2, I genuinely appreciated the effort from its developer to improve.

Of course, it was the gameplay kept me going all the way through its painfully short run time. The hacking that made me want to punch things in the first game was finessed seamlessly here; whether I was tossing remote droids into the air to surveil a particularly well-guarded facility, or causing mini-explosions in the middle of the street from the safety of my rearview mirror, there were moments in this game where I felt genuinely immersed inside of its adorably glib world. There simply wasn’t another game I played this year that left me hankering for DLC. — JJ

Image: FromSoftware

Dark Souls 3. As I attempt to gather my words regarding Dark Souls 3, it’s tempting just to mention I endured over 300 hours of gameplay and move along. But seeing as the man in charge would likely request more in my copy, here’s that.

Brutally challenging, unforgiving as all hell, and mockingly cryptic — In the world of Dark Souls, it’s the thrill of achievement that keeps folks moving forward. Dark Souls 3 was no different, and with the franchise’s age came insight. FromSoftware has become pretty talented in their pursuits and the third installment featured some of the most utterly rewarding (and punishing) gameplay of the series. Knowing that each success or failure was determined by my ability to perform, there was never a moment where I blamed my failures on controls or gameplay dynamics. As the internet would lovingly put it: Git Gud.

But Tommy, 300 hours? Really? 

Yes. Playing with friends was the moment Dark Souls 3 went from great to extraordinary. Summoning friends into my subsequent playthroughs just never got old. And through this, an understanding was formed that allowed me to show friends pieces of the game they missed in their own playthroughs. The understanding that came from exploring every nook and cranny of this world remains unparalleled.

My opinions may contrast with many long time Dark Souls fans out there, but I feel safe saying that Dark Souls 3 was one of the most balanced and enjoyable games of the series, and co-op play gave the game legs that brought me back, not just for a second playthrough, but a third and forth as well.

I still scoff at myself when I see my hours played displayed on screen but Dark Souls 3 stands, without doubt, as 300 of my most enjoyable hours of 2016. — TR

Image: Naughty Dog

Uncharted 4. I’ve been simultaneously Uncharted’s biggest supporter and detractor; I was a dedicated fan for the original PlayStation 3 games, but upon wrapping up Uncharted 3, I was pretty confident that Naughty Dog was done. The lead writer had departed the company, they had formally wrapped up Nathan Drake’s storyline, and most importantly, Naughty Dog had proven with the Last of Us that they have some really compelling stories to tell outside of the Uncharted-verse.

So when Naughty Dog announced at the Game Awards that there would indeed be an Uncharted 4, I was both confident it was going to be a completely enjoyable game and infuriated that they were gonna force some superfluous story onto Nathan Drake. Upon starting up the game however, I was almost immediately proven wrong.

Not only is this a relevant story for the series, it is unquestionably the most relevant and evolved. Naughty Dog, instead of just inflicting a fourth Indiana Jones-style adventure onto the hapless Nathan Drake, have instead decided to humanize the characters in a way that is both natural and foreign. For the first time you actually learn something about these characters and more importantly, you see them engage with each other in a completely human way. For a series that has been known for outrageous set pieces and outlandish scavenger hunts, it’s telling how compelling this game is that the best bits are seeing how Nathan comes to terms with a domestic life or seeing him reconcile how his life choices impact his family.

Beyond the maturation of the storyline, there’s also the incredible gameplay the series has always been known for. In total, it’s one of the smartest sequels we’ve seen in years and unquestionably one of the best games of 2016. — KH

As for the rest…

Firewatch is one of those rare indie gems that looks and feels like a triple A release, but tells a story that no modern publisher or developer would dare touch. It’s a quiet story about a man coming to terms with his where he’s at in life by way of a summer job as a firewatch attendee in the middle of a secluded forest. There’s a lot for other developers to learn from with this game. It looks incredible, the writing is gorgeous and the acting believable. — KH

Stardew Valley tells the story of a young adult stuck in a life of tedium, given the chance to bail on their monotonous day job for a life of freedom and unpredictability. Their inheritance, a sizeable farm in the quaint town of Stardew Valley, is found to be in shambles. While agricultural tasks certainly make up a steady chunk of each day, the local interactions and depth of possibility is where the unique flavor originates. Finding love, friendship, and sense of community are the real throughlines in Stardew Valley and the small encouragements to embrace local commerce only furthers its charm. — TR

Batman: The Telltale Series might have been the worst Batman-related story I sat through in 2016, if not for the fact that there were at least three other Bat-related entities vying for that honor this year. — JJ

With Hitman, IO Interactive managed to take what many saw as a stagnant and dull property, lacking any real curb appeal, and turn it into one of the most grandiose, must-play games of the year. The episodic model induced skepticism at first, but actually ended up being extremely intuitive, giving the individual episodes room to breathe. By creating a new pace by which the game is experienced, Hitman encourages the player to revisit each objective from a different perspective. Now that I’ve discovered the immensity of potential in each level, those humorous stories told from Hitman fans about dropping pianos on old folks are now my own. — TR

Mafia III continued Hangar 13’s tradition of providing the least stirring version of Rockstar’s grandiose open-world experience. Stuffed full of references to real world problems while nestling itself deep inside of its own fictional world, Mafia III sought to be the most culturally relevant game to hit shelves in years only to find that it was in way over its head. Maybe leave the social commentary to the experts next time and focus on offering us some variety next time. — JJ

Dark, moody, and at times distressing, Playdead’s Inside was one of the most impactful games of the year that, following completion, I didn’t mind revisiting. Inside is a tough one to discuss. It’s simple. You move to the right, similar to every platformer you’ve played for the past 30 years. Clever puzzles offer deviation, but then it’s back to the right. Inside has some beautiful moments that, though initially striking, manage to resonate beyond their impact. The tone and style stuck with me days after I was done playing. A structurally and mechanically perfect experience, Inside allows you to play at a comfortable and unhindered pace, taking in the experience as it unfolds. Also, if there was only an award for strangest moment in a game… — TR

No Man’s Sky arrived and went away so fast that it’s almost impossible to remember a time when everybody was hyped on it. Between this and The Last Guardian, I hope our collective expectations have been adequately tempered for the next big releases in the years to come. I dunno about you, but I just can’t stomach that kind of disappointment again. — JJ

No Man’s Sky hypers let it be known: Starbound was the actual answer to our space-exploration prayers in 2016. Starbound is a 2d action-exploration RPG from Chucklefish, the same folks that brought us Risk of Rain and Stardew Valley. Starbound allows total freedom to create a character and define their path as they jump from star to star across the game’s universal sandbox, mixing the creative freedom of Minecraft and Terraria with the explorational aspirations of No Man’s Sky. Full of vibrant pixel art and disparate environments, exploring the Starbound universe holds dozens of hours of potential. Even the weaponry is diverse, offering everything from flamethrowing spears to guided missile launchers. Unfortunately the combat boils down to point and shoot, but this aspect of the game is more of feature of the expedition. It’s seeing the sights and wildlife that keep Starbound feeling fresh after hours and hours of planet hopping. — TR

Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst talked a big game when it said we could openly defy its fascistic day-glo open world with a series of smokin’ parkour moves and a sassy haircut. After following miles of red arrows pointing us towards a seemingly endless array of increasingly banal platforming puzzles and crap-tastic combat mechanics, I finally had enough of Mirror’s Edge 2 bossing me around. — JJ

There’s not much more that can be said about Doom that hasn’t already been written about on a thousand other end of the year lists. ID Software have done the impossible — they’ve taken a classic franchise (arguably the most classic) and updated it for 2016, and made it the coolest game to come out this year. It boasts gameplay and style that is unabashedly Doom, but in a way that never talks down to or ignores what made the original game great. — KH

Set aboard a deteriorating space exploration vessel just after a nasty meteoroid encounter, Tharsis puts the lives of 4 crew members into the hands of the player. As things continue to fall apart, systems failing and equipment malfunctioning, it’s up to you to triage each turn of events. Playing more like a board game, the premise and delivery of Tharsis is both simple and simultaneously complex, promising thoughtful, challenging games that can be squeezed in when there’s not enough time for other, more robust titles. This was my go-to game when time was an issue. Tharsis takes my time-killer award of 2016. — TR

Agree? Disagree? What games rocked YOUR world in 2016? Let us know in the comments section below.

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