Just when you think you’ve seen it all, the world of video games will surprise you in the best possible way. This year had even more great surprises than usual.
This piece originally appeared December 12, 2016.
As has become an annual tradition here at Kotaku, we’ve made a list of the best surprises of 2016. (For a good time, read back over the lists from 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.) As with those years, I polled our staff to come up with a bunch of the wildest, weirdest, and best surprises of the year. And as with past years, we’ve also shared our list of 2016’s biggest disappointments.
For now, happiness! Good times! Unexpected delight! Let’s do it.
There are always a few long-suffering games that everyone jokes about never coming out. Duke Nukem Forever, Half-Life 3, Beyond Good & Evil 2, and so on. This year, not one but three of those games actually came out. Final Fantasy XV, née Final Fantasy Versus XIII, actually came out. Doom 4, rechristened as Doom, actually came out. Last but not least, The Last Guardian actually came out. Best of all, the quality on those games ranges from pretty good to flat-out fantastic. Turns out they were right about good things and those who wait.
Actually, let’s highlight Doom from that previous entry. While we were surprised enough that it was actually coming out, all signs were pointing to this game being a dud. The development had been famously rocky. The big names behind the series had left the studio. The early trailers were corny. The meathead vibe was already wearing thin. No one got an advance review copy. We were worried. Then we played it, and fast realized that it was one of the most immediately fun, best designed first-person shooters of the last several years. It’s exhilirating, it’s smart, and crucially, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It captures the enemy-centric combat fundamentals established by the original game while using health-replenishing melee attacks to encourage aggressive play. The competitive multiplayer will never be quite what I’d hoped it would be, and it’s a shame that it doesn’t support proper modding on PC. All the same, we’ll be playing this game for years to come, and that’s not something we ever thought we’d say.
Back during E3 2015, Hitman fans on our staff were encouraged to hear the game’s creative director talking about their new focus on open level design, unpredictable and complex AI, and allowing for player creativity. We were less sure about the episodic, always-online structure of the game. Turns out our fears were unfounded, as Hitman morphed into one of the best games of the year and made a strong argument for applying a seasonal, episodic approach to non-adventure games in general. Season 2 can’t start soon enough.
Over the last six or seven years, Ubisoft games had become predictable as Big Ben. Every fall, a new Assassin’s Creed game. Every year or two, a new Far Cry. Every game has towers that you have to visit to unlock new parts of the map. Every game has a season pass, and the PC version of every game has issues at launch. This year, Ubisoft changed up almost every one of those assumptions. Assassin’s Creed took the year off from a major game release, and will almost surely return next year stronger for it. We did get a new Far Cry game, but it was an oddly sweet and animal-loving caveman game, not another brutal tour through a war-torn nation. It didn’t even have a season pass!
Rainbow Six Siege has transformed through patches and DLC into one of the best competitive shooters going today. Both Watch Dogs 2 and more notably The Division delayed their paid DLC in order to have time to work on post-release patches, and both games released solid PC versions that have been improved over time. Watch Dogs 2 did launch with deactivated multiplayer, but the developers got it working reasonably quickly and, hey, better that than launching with multiplayer that crashes the game. That game also ditched the infamous Ubisoft towers and unlocked the entire open-world map from the very start. Now if they’d just make Uplay a little less awful...
This should have been a disaster. World War 1 is not a war that lends itself to video games. It was one of the bloodiest, most pointless conflicts in modern history, a dark period during which millions of young soldiers died in the mud for almost no reason at all. Yet for the most part, EA and DICE managed to pay respectful tribute to the horror of the Great War, with an unusually anti-war story campaign and a suite of multiplayer modes that, at their best, often channeled the terror and hopelessness of early 20th century warfare. There were some bad Tweets, of course, because there are always bad Tweets. But we still didn’t expect them to get this as right as they did.
The best video game movies and TV shows aren’t direct adaptations, but rather stories that creatively adapt video game mechanics to a different medium. How nice, then, that HBO’s Westworld managed to become one of the biggest and most interesting shows of the fall by embracing video games at every turn—asking questions about emergent vs. scripted narrative design, the nature of power fantasies, open world gaming, and the secret lives of NPCs. It’s definitely going to be interesting playing Red Dead Redemption 2 after watching this show.
Microsoft’s move to put all their first-party Xbox One games on PC is a bit puzzling from a business perspective, since it all but removes the need for most PC gamers to even consider buying an Xbox One. But it’s fantastic from a gaming perspective, particularly if you prefer to play games on PC but want to play with your Xbox friends. Joining a party chat with my Xbox One friends from my PC and playing an evening of Gears of War 4 felt like a taste of a future that I can get behind. Now to somehow make it so that every gaming system can play with all the other ones…
Some folks had been following the one-man development of Harvest Moonalike Stardew Valley with great anticipation, but none of us on staff were prepared to be quite as charmed by it as we were. In this stressful modern age, it’s nice to have a routine to fall back on, particularly if that routine involves small town life and the occasional huge-ass pumpkin. Stardew Valley was one of the most pleasant gaming surprises of the year, even if Haley still won’t dance with me.
Titanfall 2’s single-player campaign probably shouldn’t have been as much of a surprise as it was, given that many on the team behind it were responsible for the groundbreaking Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. But the fact that the first Titanfall didn’t have a proper single-player campaign at all had most of us expecting some sort of stapled on bot-match. What we got was somewhere between Modern Warfare and Half-Life, full of cleverly designed platforming and combat challenges that sometimes felt downright Nintendo-ish in their execution.
This dovetails with the previous entry about Ubisoft, but it deserves its own mention. The Division launched as a promising co-op shooter to complement the likes of Destiny, then quickly fell from grace as its endgame was revealed to be shallow and full of holes. After a couple of disappointing endgame incursions and a promising but flawed expansion, the developers at Ubisoft Massive hit the pause button, publicly owned their game’s flaws, and set about fixing them. They delayed their next expansions and released the massive 1.4 update, which added a ton of new things to the game and greatly improved the loot system. It was probably too little to coax back most lapsed players, but it was still refreshing to see a developer slow down, back up, and fix so many fundamental problems.
No one would have expected a standalone PC rendition of a dead Facebook game to somehow stand as a successor of one of the most venerated PC strategy series of all time, yet that’s exactly what Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak did. Set as it is on a planet’s surface, it has almost nothing in common with Homeworld… except where it counts. It is one of the finest strategy games released during a year of fine strategy games, and eminently worthy of the Homeworld name. We did not see that coming.
If you think it through, it makes sense. Limbo was great, and the people who made it have been working on their follow-up for five years. Yet we had heard so little buzz about Inside, with its forgettable name and its one vague trailer. When a couple of review codes turned up in our inboxes, we had no inkling what we were in for. Three hours later, Stephen Totilo and I were texting each other trying to figure out what the hell we’d just played. The “surprise” of this game goes beyond the mere fact that it’s good, though it is very, very good. The game itself is so filled with jaw-droppers that even months after it came out, we’d be loath to say anything more specific here.
Several games got good downloadable expansions this year, most notably The Witcher 3’s fantastic Blood & Wine sendoff, Dying Light’s beefy The Following, and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s well assembled System Rift, the last of which worked as well as anything in the base game. Rise of the Tomb Raider got a terrific survival mode on the very cusp of the new year, so we’re counting it, and it also got a nifty standalone Baba Yaga side-story. The Division got a fine survival expansion as well. These days most DLC is skippable or, at best, something you might wait to play all at once on a second playthrough. Kudos to those 2016 games for getting expansions that felt like indispensable additions.
Praise be, the Nintendo Switch looks good! Not interesting, not provocative, not weird, just good. It doesn’t have some weird gimmick—we don’t have to play it while standing up, and we don’t have to shake it every 20 minutes. We don’t have to talk to it, or sync it up with our toy collection, or plant it in the ground next to a ficus. The only “gimmick” is that it’s portable, which is hardly a gimmick at all. That’s just a neat thing that sounds great. We’re hopeful that by aiming their 3DS and set-top development power at a single platform, Nintendo will find a new, unified home for all their wonderful game ideas to live. Maybe they’ll even improve the Virtual Console, while they’re at it. (We can dream.)
There were some pretty cool VR games this year, but none of them were as cool as an app that Google casually released on Steam, for free, one Wednesday in November. That app was Google Earth VR, and it let you tour the entire world in virtual reality. It instantly became the most fascinating, jaw-dropping demonstration of the new technology, surpassing even the most well-made and exciting VR games as the definitive “welcome to VR” application. You stand there, giant-sized, looking down on the house you grew up in. You trace the trails in the woods where you used to play. Then you go stare at the Grand Canyon and ponder your life.
In the summer of 2016, there were only two things that mattered: The U.S. presidential election and Pokémon Go. (Quick, write me a thousand-word thinkpiece about the relationship between Trump and Pokémon Go.) Almost no one was prepared for Pokémon Go to be as big as it was. Seriously—I bet you still don’t fully grasp just how widespread a cultural phenomenon this stupid AR phone game became. This video game was played by more people in total than have even said the words “video game” out loud. This game was played by more people than there are smartphones on earth. Your mom played this game. Your granddad played this game. Your cat played this game. Your great-grandmother played this game, and she’s been dead for years. Whatever you think of Pokémon Go itself, we will likely not see another video game achieve this sort of cultural saturation for a very, very long time.
Every time Nintendo announces a new Zelda game, it comes with a wrinkle. This time, Link can reset time. This time, Link can turn into a 2D painting. Because Zelda games follow a series of established rules, it’s important that they innovate within those boundaries, and they often do. They also often don’t (This time, Link has a… motion controlled sword?), which makes it a pleasant surprise that next year’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild looks like it’s more fundamentally different than any core Zelda game since… hmm. Majora’s Mask? A vast, lonely open world; emergent AI and fire propagation mechanics straight out of Far Cry; a crafting and survival system borrowed from current PC games; and that’s just what we’ve seen. All signs point to a Zelda that makes a dramatic departure from the series’ safe formula.
Remember when people said PC gaming was dead? (Don’t worry if you don’t, because WE WILL NEVER FORGET.) Imagine if we could’ve shown those naysayers 2016's lineup of excellent PC games, from XCOM 2 to The Banner Saga 2 to Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak to Darkest Dungeon to Endless Space to Planet Coaster to Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun to Stellaris to Total War: Warhammer to Tyranny to effin’ Civilization VI. We play a lot of video games here at Kotaku, and none of us has been able to even scratch the surface of the PC gaming bounty that 2016 brought. We wouldn’t want it any other way.
There you have ‘em, our favorite surprises from 2016. As always, there are doubtless a couple that we forgot to add. We’re sure you have some of your own, too, so please share them in the comments below.