DRG 2016 Game of the Year Awards

DevinRogersWelcome to the first annual Devin Rogers Gaming Awards!  Though this won’t be as fancy an occasion as a video award show, I hope it provides some entertainment and draws your attention to a game or two you missed in 2016.

Awards will be handed out for the traditional and special categories listed below.  In addition to celebrating the winners, I will also be honoring the runner-ups for some of the awards.  Please enjoy!

  • Backlog of the Year (Special Award)
  • Best Visuals
  • Best Soundtrack
  • Best Gameplay
  • Best Story
  • Heroes Never Die (Special Award)
  • Game of the Year

award_backlogoftheyearThere were a lot of good games that came out in 2016, and many of them I did not have a chance to play.  As you read through the awards below, you may ask “why wasn’t Game X included in the awards?”  Odds are I simply did not get a chance to play it.

With the Backlog of the Year award, I wanted to honor a game from 2016 that I didn’t get to play.  Specifically, if there is only one more game from 2016 that I will go back and play, this will be the game.

And the Backlog of the Year Award goes to…

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I’m not a fan of Dragon Quest, but I’m not a detractor, either.  I have only played Dragon Quest VIII, and even then I didn’t finish it, though not for lack of trying.  Dragon Quest Builders wasn’t a game that landed on my radar until very late in the year when I listened to some commentary about how it was the best Minecraft clone out there.

I love the idea of leveling up a base, complete with NPCs and some mild storytelling.  Different “islands” is also a great mechanic.  In my mind it sounds like a mix between having different biomes and the Nether in Minecraft.

After some research, and being a huge fan of Minecraft (though nowhere near that of the 9-year-old generation), Dragon Quest Builders shot up to the top of my purchase list.  However, with Final Fantasy XV and The Last Guardian still on my plate at the time, I decided to hold off on purchasing the game.  The release line-up for 2017 looks to be unforgiving, so hopefully I can find time to squeeze in for Dragon Quest Builders.  Just waiting on a sale…

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Running at 60 FPS, Doom presents a bloody aesthetic that is a delight to watch.  Smoke, sparks and blood spray particle effects are in full use here and to great effect.  The level and enemy designs do a fantastic job of simulating a Hellish invasion without being overly gothic like Diablo 2.  The highlight of the game’s visuals are its glory kill animations.  There are numerous, flashy ways to execute your foes, and doing so never gets old.

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What Final Fantasy XV lacks in FPS it makes up in the scale of its art design.  The game contains some impressive open-world draw distances and creative landmarks, but it’s the characters, enemies, and their animations that really stand out.  Although it can seem messy at times, battles are a blast to watch because of everything happening on-screen at once.  Some of the boss fights are the game’s biggest set pieces, but your first introduction to the Venice-inspired city of Altissia is the most impressive visual snapshot of the game.

And the Best Visuals Award goes to…

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Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is visual perfection.  The first time I took control of adult Nathan Drake, I walked around the area just snapping pictures with my PS4 share button.  The game easily boasts the best and most breathtaking visuals I have seen in a game to date.  The combination of next-gen lighting and textures couldn’t have been executed better.  Though the visual set pieces are the highlight, such as being dragged through the mud behind a jeep, there are plenty of inconsequential areas such as Nathan’s master bathroom that are jaw-droppingly gorgeous.  I’ve never seen a game with so much level of detail to the scale Uncharted 4 was able to achieve.

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There are few things in life that are certain.  One thing that is certain, though, is that mainline Pokemon games contain quality music.  Pokemon Sun and Moon continue this tradition.

What struck me immediately was the island influence in some of the tracks.  As soon as you start-up a New Game, you are greeted with the Welcome to the World of Pokemon theme.  The tribal chanting at the beginning is a firm statement that these Pokemon entries are different from their predecessors, and it also fits the island motif quite well.

The music for Pokemon battles, especially against major opponents, historically are often be quite dramatic.  Typically these are the tracks that most Pokemon fanatics will stand up as the best in the series.  Battle! Hau plays whenever you battle your friend Hau, but it isn’t dramatic at all.  In fact, it has the tone of friendly competition, which is something I really appreciate in a series known for having serious rival battles.

Though not the best track, Encounter! Team Skull sticks out to me as the most memorable music in the game if only because it really adds personality to the Team Skull Grunts you come across.  Story details aside, it is because of this track that I feel Team Skull is the best enemy organization in the Pokemon series.

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Say what you will about the game itself, but No Man’s Sky has an epic soundtrack.  65daysofstatic, the math rock band behind the game’s music, did a stellar job at creating a soundscape that helps define No Man’s Sky’s tone.  A special tool was developed to dynamically generate what you hear in-game in real-time, based on random combinations of musical elements.  As a result, you won’t be able to find the exact track you hear in-game in the official soundtrack, but you will certainly hear pieces of the soundtrack in-game.

Supermoon, a track that paints a picture of activating your ship’s hyperdrive and barreling through the vastness of space, released ahead of the game’s launch and was used in some of the game’s promotional material.  The combination of the layered choral portions and echoing piano notes is one of the biggest building blocks that make up No Man’s Sky’s overall identity.

A Minecraft-inspired game would be no good without a Minecraft-inspired musical piece.  Hypersleep fits that bill quite nicely.  It is an atmospheric track similar to that of the softer, more contemplative arrangements found in Minecraft, but with a space-like spin on it.

My favorite composition is Escape Velocity.  It starts out with light piano, illustrating the beauty and simplicity of the stars.  It slowly builds throughout the track, adding distorted guitars and synth to symbolize the chaos and complexity of space.  It ends on a softer note, though, as if to say that despite our inability to comprehend the sheer number of stars and planets out there, it is all still encapsulated within one thing: the universe.  At least… that’s my interpretation.  If the title is any indication, the track is likely about escaping a planet’s gravity.

And the Best Soundtrack Award goes to…

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The soundtrack of Final Fantasy XV is the only one from 2016 that I feel will be cherished years from now.  It is full of home run hits and has a surprising amount of variety in both style and instrumentation.  Some of these tracks are instant classics and rival some of the best that the Final Fantasy franchise and the gaming industry as a whole have to offer.

A track that only appears briefly and can easily be overlooked, Dining Car is a jazz-infused remix of one of the game’s adventure themes: Valse di Fantastica.  The tune itself is reused in a few areas of the game, but it’s use in Dining Car is my favorite.  It appears during a somber part in the narrative, and it’s reprisal here is a bittersweet reminder of everything that led up to that point.

Veiled in Black (Arrangement) is one of Final Fantasy XV’s best battle themes.  It is a very frantic track and fits perfectly with the overwhelming strength or number of enemies currently on-screen.  Though not as epic as the “not Elder Scrolls” track Apocalypse Aquarius, Veiled in Black contains the perfect blend of senses of urgency and determination in the midst of battle.

No discussion of Final Fantasy XV’s soundtrack is complete without the game’s main theme Somnus.  This melancholy and emotionally-charged performance perfectly sums up the tone of the game’s story, and it is used expertly in-game.  For me it easily falls within a top 10 list of the best tracks from any Final Fantasy game.

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I expected to enjoy the gameplay of The Witness.  I expected it to be challenging.  What I did not expect was the paradigm shift the game offered up relative to game design.  Completing puzzles and figuring out their changing mechanics was my most internally rewarding experience of 2016 (for a video game, anyway).  I am not usually a fan of puzzle games, but The Witness is truly something special.  Though it can be extremely difficult, it is a game anyone can play, and I would urge anyone who would turn their nose at a puzzle game to give it a try.

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Final Fantasy XV’s gameplay was surprisingly addictive, despite its relative simplicity.  A rough Kingdom Hearts clone, I very rarely ran from battle as each enemy encounter was exciting, and with the AP system even battles against level 1 foes could reap meaningful rewards.  The open world gameplay provided plenty to do, but it wasn’t overstuffed with worthless tasks.  Quests, hunts, dungeons… all offered some sort of benefit for completion (even if some of the quests weren’t the most exciting endeavors).  Fishing, cooking, and Prompto’s photography skill added fun diversions to keep the adventure feeling fresh.  And once the credits roll, there is plenty of post-game content to keep fans going.

And the Best Gameplay Award goes to…

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I feel with a lot of GOTY lists, Dark Souls III was forgotten because of its early 2016 release.  Being the fifth game in the SoulsBorne series may have lessened its impact, but it can’t be denied that From continued their streak.  Though there were plenty of fun games in the second half of the year, none came close to touching the gameplay perfection of Dark Souls III.  Fluid movement, many viable weapon builds, smart enemy placement and tactic combinations, boss fights, and the brilliant level design all contributed to the best gameplay experience of 2016.

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Though I didn’t stick around to see how the latest Warcraft expansion ended (it is actually still going), the pre-expansion questlines and the 100 to 110 storylines in Legion were great.  I love World of Warcraft’s Horde/Alliance team-ups, and seeing both factions race to stop Gul’dan from unleashing the Legion was a fun adrenaline rush to kick-start the adventure.  Though there is certainly a lot of soap opera drama with faction leadership, I still enjoy seeing where the chess pieces fall.  My favorite questline from this expansion involved Malfurion, Cenarius and Ysera.  Seeing these characters together and where they ended up was surprisingly moving, even though I’m not overly familiar with pre-World of Warcraft lore.

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The story focus of Final Fantasy XV is on the four brothers.  There is an over-arching plot that they are involved in, and it is one we rarely get to see.  Some players did not like this.  Though I also would have liked to have seen more, that larger plot was relatively simple at the end of the day.  The best parts of Final Fantasy XV’s story were in its moment-to-moment encounters, the banter between the main characters, and seeing the ebbs and flows of their relationships over the course of the adventure.  The ending packed a punch that is arguably better than any Final Fantasy since IX.

And the Best Story Award goes to…

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Uncharted 4 easily had the best story in a game from 2016.  Naughty Dog opted to go with a character study over telling an Indiana Jones-style supernatural tale.  Uncharted 4 surprisingly hit deep on topics such as marriage, sacrifice, family and greed.  Although many will remember Uncharted 4’s unrivaled visuals and set pieces, the big moments that stuck out to me were Nate and Elena playing video games at home, Elena surprising Nate in the middle of his adventure, and the tension between them over whether or not their marriage was over as the story approached its conclusion.  It is rare to see that level of emotion and character development in a video game, and Uncharted 4 pulled it off expertly.

award_heroesneverdieThe Heroes Never Die Award is a fancy award for what most would call an “Honorable Mention.”  Essentially, this is the game that came in at eleven on my top ten list of games from 2016.  Had one of the games before it been postponed to 2017, or had I simply not played one of them, the winner of this award would have made the top ten.  I wanted to pay a special tribute to this hero of a game because as Mercy says: “Heroes never die!”

And the Heroes Never Die Award goes to…

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No Man’s Sky scratched the Minecraft itch while maintaining a great sense of discovery.  In some ways it felt like the evolution of the original Mass Effect’s planet exploration portions.  Though the gameplay was nowhere near as ambitious as some expected, I went into this game relatively in the dark.  What I found was something very special and exactly what I was looking for in a Minecraft-like game.  Despite it’s shortcomings, No Man’s Sky has a unique personality and is one that I hope they can carry over into a No Man’s Sky 2.  Whether or not the industry will care is the question.

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The Last Guardian infuriates me because it could have been Game of the Year had they fixed three simple things: the not-so-stellar framerate, the wonky camera, and the sometimes unresponsive Trico A.I.  These are all technical issues that could have and should have been nonexistent in a PS3-turned-PS4 game with the many years in development it had.  Instead, these issues ruined what would have been a more emotional story than what I experienced.  The Last Guardian’s art design is amazing but seeing it through the lens of its low framerate was distracting and deflating.

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Doom’s one sticking point is its story.  The campaign was surprisingly well done from a gameplay perspective and the visuals were perfection.  Though the story wasn’t bad, it was rather forgettable and had the potential to be something with substance.  It detracted from its overall score and position on this list, but the narrative didn’t hold the frantic gunplay and level traversal back from being one of the most talked about good-news stories of 2016.

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Legion promised to be the anti-Warlords of Draenor.  Ironically, it was just Warlords of Draenor done right.  Still, the base building mechanics got pretty stale once the level cap was reached.  The combat is still a blast and I love what they did with the story this time around.  That said, I hope Blizzard thinks about marching towards an epic conclusion for this long running MMO.  World of Warcraft makes them tons of money, but they can only stretch the story so much more before their subscriber base fades away (like detractors say after every successful expansion).

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Although I believe there is a double standard when it comes to Overwatch and its launch content (relative to a game like No Man’s Sky), it’s hard to deny Blizzard’s polish in all facets of the game.  The character variety both in gameplay and personality is pretty great.  Though we are starting to see additional game modes appear in the game, the offerings at launch got pretty old pretty fast.  Hopefully someday they release an Overwatch campaign.  I would buy that in a heartbeat.

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Pokemon Moon is the best Pokemon game I have played since Platinum, and I still haven’t dipped into the end game content.  Even with Exp. Share turned on, the game proved to be quite a challenge as enemy levels grew rapidly throughout the adventure, and match-ups often were tooled to be tougher than in previous games.  Towards the end of the game, the story took a turn (for the better), but otherwise they didn’t change the formula much outside of gym replacements.  Once Pokemon Bank is turned on, I can’t wait to archive my team and attempt another Nuzlocke run.

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A surprising campaign, the same quality Battlefield gameplay, and DICE’s amazing audio/visuals brought Battlefield 1 higher up the list than I anticipated.  Had they not messed up some of the Multiplayer progression systems, the game could have been a lot higher.  The respect the campaign gives to World War I was a breath of fresh air and something I would love to see more of in these types of games going forward.

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Uncharted 4 is great.  It has perfect story and perfect audio/visual design.  However, if its gameplay was just a bit more innovative and didn’t become a total slog in certain areas, Uncharted 4 could have been one of THE greats.  Still, Naughty Dog is responsible for what is undoubtedly the PS4’s best exclusive release of 2016.

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Coming off of the high of 2015’s masterpiece Bloodborne, I wasn’t sure how I would feel about Dark Souls III.  Though it didn’t quite hit the same level as that game, Dark Souls III was an awesome adventure.  The enemies were designed incredibly well, the world building was great, and the combat felt like butter.  Having not really played the Dark Souls franchise before, the story was a bit lost on me, but it was still engaging nonetheless.

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Filled with visual awe, heavenly music and oozing with character charm, Final Fantasy XV is the game that stole my heart this year.  Though not perfect, there is little I could say really struck me as a negative about this game outside of some story pacing.  Still, the ending hit me like a bag of bricks, not necessarily because of the overall narrative, but because of the smaller, inconsequential moments the four brothers had while adventuring.  Final Fantasy XV was an incredible journey, one I hope to replay again someday.

And the 2016 Game of the Year Award goes to…

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Though not my personal favorite, for me The Witness is undeniably 2016’s Game of the Year. Brilliant gameplay design and a fantastic visual aesthetic contributed to one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve experienced in a video game. Ever. Period. Anything you could find wrong with this game is a nitpick. The sense of accomplishment I felt in this game was unreal.  If any game from 2016 deserves a 10, it is The Witness.

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And there we have it!  2016 was a fantastic year for games, and my top ten easily trumped the top ten from 2015, as you can see below.  What were your favorite games from 2016?  Are there any games I snubbed?  What should I add to my backlog?

2016 Top 10 Average: 8.78
2015 Top 10 Average: 6.92

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