There were hundreds of great games in 2016 – from complete surprises like the release of The Last Guardian and masterclasses in design like Total War: Warhammer, to Nintendo’s excellent take on the short-form mobile game in Super Mario Go.
And while we’d love to recognize every game from the last 365 days individually, there’s simply not the time to do that. With 2017 quickly approaching, we had to do something drastic and, well, actually kind of fun: we sat down and voted for the games we thought were most deserving of critical acclaim – and, more importantly, your money – from the last 12 months.
We’ve divided games up in two different ways, the first of which is by platform. If you’re looking for the best exclusives on each system, this is where you should start. After that, we head to the best game in a given genre – a.k.a. best shooter of the year, best RPG, etc...
In order for games to be considered for this list they had to be released between the dates of January 1, 2016 and December 31, 2016, but other than that, everything was on the table: HD re-releases, iPhone and Android games and short, experiential titles like Firewatch.
But enough exposition for now. Without further ado, here are the best games of 2016 and the inaugural TechRadar Game of the Year awards.
Game of the Year 2016 - Overwatch
While some of this year’s award winners were subject to debate, was a near unanimous choice and it’s obvious why: Overwatch modernizes the class-based shooter into a mainstream, accessible genre. So while previous entries in the genre might’ve told you which generic-looking soldier you needed to pick to provide a solid composition, Overwatch never hits you over the head with your role. Instead each character shepherds you to a certain playstyle which you can then modify to your liking.
But it goes deeper than that. While the action on the field might be filled with intense firefights, there’s a surprisingly smart metagame happening behind the scenes that Blizzard has balanced beautifully. Ultimates add balance (and fun) while regular abilities help each character conquer the battlefield. But more than balanced gameplay and great aesthetics, Overwatch has stolen our hearts with its creative and I daresay loveable cast of characters – each one feels like there’s truly something special about them that would warrant each of them having a standalone title. Sure, there’s parts of the game we’d like changed, but in our eyes there was just no way we could overlook this gem.
Runner up: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Best Xbox One exclusive - Forza Horizon 3
Microsoft’s console had a flagship year in 2016. It trimmed off some excess plastic when Microsoft debuted the Xbox One S and it had a slew of excellent exclusives that really covered the entire spectrum of gaming genres. And while there were a few games that really came close to stealing the show on the Xbox One this year, we had to give the award to one of the best racing titles any console has ever seen: .
Forza Horizon does everything right for an arcade racing game. Steering is tight and toned, but still fluid enough that it doesn’t require absolute precision to snag a first place spot on the podium. Not only do the cars look incredible in upscaled 4K on Xbox One S, but there’s more variety here than almost anywhere else barring Sony’s rival Gran Turismo series.
But what Forza Horizon does to really shine through is that it bridges the gap between the casual racing fans and the gearheads who expect to be able to customize everything under the hood. Appealing to both camps is always an impossible task, and to see it done here truly elevated the bar for racing games from now until the end of time.
Runner ups: Quantum Break and Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition
Best PS4 exclusive - Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
While Naughty Dog could’ve ended the series after Uncharted 2, which many have considered the best game on the PS3, we’re quite happy it didn’t. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End was easily one of the best in the series, fleshing out more of Nate’s backstory and cementing Elena and Drake as one of the cutest couples in video game history.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End really doesn’t shake up the series’ rhythm that it’s worked so hard over the last decade to define, and instead works to polish the already shining example of what action-adventure games should be on next-gen systems. To that end, driving sequences and rope mechanics added a little something extra to this year’s romp through quasi-historical caves and churches, while the online multiplayer entertains long after you’ve collected that last relic in the story mode.
Runner up: The Witness
Best Wii U exclusive - The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD
Yes, you could make the point that a remake of a 10-year-old game shouldn’t necessarily be the recipient of a Game of the Year award. You could, but you shouldn’t. In a relatively paltry year for the Wii U, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD was an excellent remastering of one of the best Zelda games in recent memory. Graphics look crisp in glorious HD, inventory management becomes a bit easier while using the Wii U gamepad and amiibo support finally gives our collection of plastic figurines a real purpose.
While Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will almost certainly steal a Game of the Year nomination when it eventually comes out (fingers crossed for 2017!) Twilight Princess HD is deserving of a nomination in its own way for re-releasing a key part of the franchise for those of us who missed it the first time around. The gameplay stands up all these years later, the story is as memorable as it is refreshing a second time around and, in a year where the only other contenders were Pokken Tournament, Paper Mario Color Splash and Star Fox Zero, those reasons are more than enough to warrant an award.
Runner up: Pokken Tournament
Best handheld game - Pokemon Sun and Moon
Innovation can be polarizing. Some people will see the new direction a franchise is heading in and, leaving behind their expectations, revel in the novelty. Others might be a bit salty about the change. It’s fair to say we were more in the former mindset when we picked Pokémon Sun and Moon as the best handheld game of 2016.
We found the new Alola region to be an enjoyable depiction of what the Orange Islands might’ve looked like had GameFreak followed the anime more closely. On top of that, the unique S.O.S. system was an extra mechanic that makes battling more difficult, but the feeling when you finally catch a Pokemon much more fulfilling.
There aren’t any gyms here. You won’t find any HMs. And there’s a weird ghost pokemon that resembles Pikachu with a blanket over its head. But Sun and Moon’s willingness to eschew tradition while embracing the strange new direction the series has taken are what makes these handheld titles the best of the year.
Runner ups: Steamworld Heist, Shin Megami Tensei IV and I Am Setsuna
Best virtual reality game - The Lab
Imagine being the team tasked to introduce people to virtual reality. What people think of your game is going to either elate the person who just spent $800 on a headset, or completely and utterly destroy what they think of virtual reality as a medium.
It’s no small task and one that could’ve easily gone in the other direction. But we’re thankful the team at Valve were up to the task and created The Lab.
On the surface Valve’s The Lab is a mere collection of demos. There’s not a deep storyline here like you’d find in some of the VR titles that have come out since the HTC Vive’s launch. Heck, you’re unlikely to spend more than a few hours here before moving on to something else. But it’s not the quantity of time you spend with The Lab, but the quality. When you pick pick up the Vive’s controllers for the first time and don the headset, you expect to be wowed. Shooting arrows at stick figure minions, playing fetch with a virtual canine and launching personality cores into a bunch of crates may not sound like the best way to see VR’s potential, but each and every one offers a taste of what the future of gaming could be like.
Runner ups: Batman: Arkham VR, Rec Room and Onward
Best PC game - Total War: Warhammer
Picking the best PC game was a challenge. There were simply too many great games in 2016. And yet, when we put our heads together to work through which game we felt needed to get some extra recognition, Total War: Warhammer was the game that came to mind.
The reason for that is two-fold. First, Total War: Warhammer is an excellent all-around strategy game in an industry that’s abandoned the genre for multiplayer online battle arenas. But, moreover, each race has an excellent backstory provided by the minds at Games Workshop, the creators of the Warhammer universe.
The blending of the stories from the Warhammer universe that have only been told in books until now and the amazing game development talent from the team at Creative Assembly have coalesced into what we’d consider one of the best strategy games of all-time, sitting up there with Warcraft 3 and the original StarCraft.
Runner ups: Planet Coaster and Civilization VI
Best mobile game - Pokemon Go
We have to call it what it is: Pokemon Go is a global phenomenon. In the first week after it came out, there were over 26 million people in the US playing it and well over 25 million more playing around the world. Any mobile game that can garner more downloads in a week than some popular apps receive in an entire year is worth taking notice, and the fact that it was based on Pokemon was just icing on an already sweet cake.
Pokemon Go arguably doesn’t have the best gameplay of any game on App Store or the Play Store – Pokemon’s intricate battling system is reduced to a petty two-move system. But Pokemon Go’s beauty isn’t found in the battling. It’s found in the catching and leveling up 150 of the little critters that dominated our childhoods that have suddenly appeared in our world. Governments, app developers and famous figures have worked for ages on trying to make games that got people outside and moving, but all of them fell short of what Pokemon Go did. We expect even more from Niantec, Pokemon Go’s developer, in 2017 (seriously, can we move on to Generation 2 yet?) but if there was one mobile game that captured our hearts in 2016, it was Pokemon Go.
Runner ups: Super Mario Run and Steamworld Heist
Best gaming hardware - HTC Vive
2016 was a great year to be a gamer, no matter what platform you gamed on. Xbox gamers got the new Xbox One S that offered UHD Blu-ray playback and a massive 2TB hard drive, while PlayStation Nation received the updated PS4 Pro for higher framerate gaming and 4K UHD images. But the real winners this year was the PC gaming crowd who received not one, but two of the best virtual reality headsets on the market, the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.
While we’d love to give all the products mentioned above a spot on our best-of list, the one that’s most deserving to be there is the HTC Vive – the only headset on the market that offers room-scale tracking and motion controllers inside the box. Oculus Rift might’ve finally added that support thanks to the Touch Controllers in November, but it was the Vive that offered those features from day one. Beyond the obvious advantages, though, we like the Vive because it’s built off the Steam Store, the place we’ve gone to for years to buy our favorite titles on the PC. The partnership between HTC and Valve has clearly been a productive one thus far, and one we hope to see grow with the inevitable HTC Vive 2.
Runner up: PlayStation VR
Best shooter - DOOM
DOOM is very, very good. Not in a “wow, that’s good for a remake” kind of way, either. It’s genuinely a great shooter – so much so that many other gaming and technology outlets have given it their game of the year award. And while we here at TechRadar think it’s well deserving of that title too, something about creating a “Game of the Year #2” award didn’t go over well with the other editors.
But while Overwatch wowed us by reinventing the wheel, DOOM impresses us by bringing us back to the time where dial-up internet was the only way to access AOL email.
DOOM is, in so many ways, an excellent evolution of what the series was 20 years ago. It’s brutal. It’s bloody. It has devilish, frightening creatures that bleed when you slice them in half with a chainsaw. It’s the experience we wanted two decades ago but couldn’t articulate because of the limitations of technology.
Runner ups: Titanfall 2 and Battlefield 1
Best role-playing game - Dark Souls 3
Don’t kill us for not picking Tyranny. That’s a great game, too. But hear us out: Dark Souls 3 is even better for a multitude of reasons. Dark Souls 3 has everything old school RPGs used to have before the handholding “checkpoints every two seconds” era. It’s hard, yes, but there’s a dozen ways to play it and, if you’re lucky, outsmart it. Whether that’s by picking a lightning-fast fighter or a long-range archer (or the dozen-or-so other builds available) is up to you.
Regardless, what makes Dark Souls 3 special is the way it rewards you for knowing its secrets inside and out. There are dozens of hidden chests, hidden paths to make it easier to get from one campfire to the next, dozens of loot-laden side-quests and, when you reach the end of your rage-inducing journey, four possible endings.
What makes Dark Souls 3 better than its prequels is that it’s punishing, but not in a break-your-controller kind of way. Instead of taking away health every time you die like in Dark Souls 2, it’s done infrequently here in Dark Souls 3, just once after you die until you use an ember. That said, the extra bit of health won’t keep you alive long and you’ll still die – a lot – but when you do it won’t feel as soul-crushing as it once was.
Runner up: Pokemon Sun and Moon
Best action game - Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Some people have called the Uncharted series an Indiana Jones rip-off … which is actually a pretty fair comparison. But what Uncharted does that Indy can’t is have a successful fourth entry in the franchise – A Thief’s End is far and away a better game than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a movie. It’s better because instead of alienating fans, the game gives Drake a fitting send-off into the sunset.
Before everything ends all sunshine and rainbows however the plot takes a few twists and turns that throws Drake up against the rocks both figuratively and literally before giving him some relief. It’s this emotionally turbulent story, mixed with the stellar gameplay we mentioned earlier, that makes A Thief’s End one of the best games the PS4 has ever seen.
Runner up: Hitman Season 1
Best racing and sports game - Forza Horizon 3
You don’t expect to see a lot of innovation in sports games. That’s simply not part of the genre. Games like FIFA and Madden are built to be iterative rather than innovative. But Forza Horizon 3 actually did something unique. Instead of sticking to the pavement, Forza’s terrain of choice for the last eight entries, Horizon 3 took to the Australian Outback – a dusty, perilous place that’s both beautiful and treacherous. Aesthetically beautiful and challenging to navigate, Forza Horizon’s new setting is a massive factor in why it’s receiving so much praise from critics this year.
But there’s another major difference here that separates Horizon 3 from the pack, and that’s the way it puts you in the driver's seat of the festival itself. It’s up to you to create the Horizon festival from the ground up, building out a new festival site or expanding upon ones that are already there. It’s an illusion Horizon 3 creates fairly successfully, making you feel like both the star racer and ringleader simultaneously. Where other games in the genre are content swapping player names and dropping in a tweaked mechanic year after year, the work Horizon’s development team put in this year left everyone else in the dust.
Runner up: FIFA 17
Best story in a game - Firewatch
There’s two ways to create a game: You can shoehorn a story into a game with great gameplay (cough, Titanfall) or you can build it from the ground-up with the plotline in mind. The latter sometimes lacks interesting gameplay mechanics but in exchange offers a story that rivals anything you’d see in cinemas. The game that exemplified that the best in 2016, in our opinion, was Firewatch, an eerie, thrilling and disquieting mystery game developed by Campo Santo.
What Firewatch does so well is create an atmosphere that changes from relaxing to thrilling in no time at all. An active day on duty switches from careless meandering to panicked sprinting when you discover a secret base on the outskirts of the mountain and hikers disappearing without reason. The reasoning behind the events is explained, in detail, and yet the sense that everything isn’t alright pervades long after the credits roll. It’s a game that leaves more questions than answers and opens up new avenues for storytellers going forward – making it the obvious choice for our best story in a game award.
Runner ups: The Last Guardian, The Witness and Virginia