For video games, as with movies, fall is both blockbuster and awards season. Game publishers save their heavy-hitters — the biggest, most eye-popping releases — for the end of the year so that they’ll be bought up for the holidays. (Everything is marketing, right?) Anyway, because it’s all too easy for the stars of the early months to be easily forgotten in that end-of-year rush, we’re giving them their moment. So, here they are: the 10 best games of 2016 so far. And it’s truly a diverse bunch.
10. XCOM 2
Have you ever given up on a project — a presentation at work, an assignment at school — but been forced to carry on and finish it anyway, because walking away would be even worse? In that moment, after you realize it’s over, you’re overcome by a paradoxical rush of both stress and relief. That moment, that feeling, is where XCOM 2 lives.
In this sequel to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a reboot of the beloved strategy ‘90s strategy series, players manage a group of human freedom fighters, choosing their battles and managing their resources, to wrench control of Earth back from alien invaders. You have to fight a war, and you lack the numbers or resources to compete with your enemies, so you’re going to lose. A lot.
Even when you’ve lost, though, you can always lose more. If you just give up, all of your soldiers will die. You have to at least try to keep some of your squad from getting killed. Despite some unfortunate technical missteps — even on powerful PCs, many say the game runs poorly — the game manages to pull some powerful feelings out of you. They aren’t always what you’d like to be feeling, but they’re compelling all the same.
XCOM 2 is available on Windows, Linux, and Mac — but don’t buy it if you have a Mac. It’s pretty broken. It’ll be released on PS4 and Xbox One come September 9.
Initially created during a week-long game jam, Superhot is a puzzle game disguised as a first-person shooter. Players control a nondescript avatar that has to eliminate a room of enemies. The catch? Nothing in the world — not the enemies, not their bullets, not your bullets — move until you do. Where most FPS games require twitchy fingers and quick reflexes, Superhot forces players to think about where every shot will land, and what every thing in the room will do. When you figure out exactly how to overcome each scenario and finally put things into motion, the scene plays out like the famous office lobby bit in The Matrix: you take down bad guy after bad guy, dodging buckets of bullets directed your way.
Superhot is available on Windows, Mac, Linux, and Xbox One. You can play the original prototype version of the game for free on the developer’s website.
Inside is the second game from developer PlayDead, the team behind 2010 indie darling Limbo. While this game is similar to Limbo in its mechanics (simple) and its tone (dark), PlayDead has once again proven itself as a master of minimalist interactive storytelling. While some of its early physics-based puzzles will feel familiar to those who played their last game, Inside quickly ascends to new, more complicated heights.
Inside is available now on Xbox One, and will launch on Windows later this month.
7. The Darkest Dungeon
Many, many artists across film, TV, and games, have tried (and failed) to visualize, or otherwise bring to life, the notion of madness and existential dread obsessively described by H.P. Lovecraft. But, as far as I know, none of them have ever tried to turn that madness into a metric — until now.
The Darkest Dungeon is not a horror game, per se. Really, it’s a strategy RPG. You manage a party of heroes that’s come to a New England town to investigate and destroy the deep, dark horror beneath a nearby abandoned mansion. In addition to managing your fighters’ health and abilities, you must also manage their sanity: The more they search the mansion, the more deranged they become, which can have practical effects on their fighting capabilities.
The unabashedly Loftcraftian story and stylings — it reminded me of The Dunwich Horror, but there could be a better comparison — combined with the ever-present concern for your party’s safety make The Darkest Dungeon the best adaptation of the author’s work to date.
The Darkest Dungeon is available now on Windows, Mac, and Linux. It’s expected to launch on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita later this year.
In the rebooted Hitman, players once again assume control of mysterious assassin Agent 47, and must infiltrate and discretely kill targets without being noticed, a task that’s managed by changing costumes, manipulating targets’ behaviors, and, occasionally, creating chaos.
After more than 15 years and five core games, open-box stealth-puzzle series Hitman found its stride, not with a great story or some new genius mechanic, but a simple structural tweak: the game now releases a new level every month, and releases new weekly missions. Technically, there’s always a little story, but the truth of it is that each level is a puzzle box. You have to figure out how it works, then twist it the right way. With a steady stream of new challenges, you can replay the same levels over and over. Plus, it certainly doesn’t hurt that the game’s sprawling locales, which include a Paris fashion show and an Italian villa, are beautiful and a blast to navigate.
The first three episodes of Hitman are available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows. Developer IO Interactive is expected to release new episodes monthly through the fall.
5. Stardew Valley
Stardew Valley is an indie PC action RPG, built out and around a farming simulator in the tradition of 16-bit cult classic Harvest Moon. The core of the game is simple: You play as a young man who inherits and takes over his grandfather’s farm, raising crops and livestock while engaging with the nearby town. You can meet and marry a man or woman, you can raise money to save the local community center, and you can become a pillar of the community.
Aside from the surprising appeal of tending to and harvesting simulated crops, every aspect of Stardew Valley features impressive depth. You can spend hundreds of hours farming, but you can also spend time exploring a Legend of Zelda-esque dungeon in the form of a nearby abandoned mineshaft. Courting a romantic interest, in many cases, comes with its own set of quests and mini-games, which include playing video games. So meta.
Stardew Valley is available now on Windows. The game will eventually launch on Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Wii U.
The 2016 version of the classic FPS Doom looks and plays like what you might have imagined as the idealized version of the game you’d played as a child. Players dart around arena-like rooms firing rockets and lasers and bullets at demons, blowing their heads off and spilling tubfuls of blood. The game maximizes its two strengths — speed and over-the-top violence — by incentivizing players to run in and perform melee executions, many of which include decapitation or dismemberment of some kind.
For all its crazy gore, which can get tedious over time, the game actually manages to be kind of… smart? From its moments of tongue-in-cheek satire, to its pitch-perfect heavy metal battle music, the 2016 version of Doom manages to do a hell of a job of modernizing a 20-year-old game.
DOOM is available now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows.
3. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
The fourth and final chapter of Uncharted, a series of cinematic third-person shooters heavily inspired by Indiana Jones, is, without a doubt, the best and most thoughtful entry to the series. As is the case in most post-trilogy sequels, protagonist Nathan Drake is pulled back in for just “one more job,” this time by his brother, whom he thought had been dead for years. Refining the storytelling techniques that have produced some of best straight-forward narratives in games, Uncharted 4 may be the closest you’ll ever get to “playing” an action movie. If not ever, then certainly this year.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is available now on PlayStation 4.
2. The Witness
The Witness, the long-awaited second game from developer Jonathon Blow, is, when you think about it, just a series of line puzzles that task players with getting from point A to point B. Players control an unnamed character on a mysterious island and must complete maze-like puzzles. Sometimes they’re literal mazes, other times one must simply use tools in the environment and context clues to create the solution.
While that sounds like it could be repetitive, the game manages to keep it fresh through truly innovative rules, puzzle after puzzle. Similar to the ’90s adventure game Myst, The Witness communicates information to players in unusual ways: there’s a language to its puzzles that players learn over time, even if they aren’t explicitly taught it. Despite the fact that there are hundreds of puzzles, all of which boil down to a single goal (traveling from A to B), the game keeps changing the rules in new and perplexing ways.
The Witness is available now on PlayStation 4 and Windows.
Blizzard’s multiplayer “hero shooter” — a first-person shooter (similar to Team Fortress 2) where players pick characters with distinct abilities, rather than selecting guns or equipment — has quickly become the year’s biggest phenomenon. And for good reason: The game is surprisingly easy to learn, and its wide range of characters means there’s always a new way to play. Plus, in cutscenes and rare cinematic moments, Overwatch looks exactly like a Pixar movie. (That may explain why so many people were using it to make porn.)
A word of warning: While players can choose to play with random players online, Overwatch is definitely easier and more enjoyable when you’re playing with a group of friends. If it sounds like something you’d be into, I’d recommend trying to corral a few friends (ideally a group of 6) to jump in with you.
Overwatch is currently available on PS4, Xbox One and Windows.