Forza Horizon 3 - Xbox One/Windows 10 Digital Code
The calm between the storms
This is it. 2016 is over, and it’s time for us to take a long look back—all the way back to January, through 12 months of games. One will be crowned our “Game of the Year” and the remaining nine are all “First Runners Up” or “Second Place” or whatever you prefer.
Our first review of 2016 was Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak; our last was Batman: The Telltale Series. We’ve seen some surprise hits (Doom, mostly) and also quite a few buggy, high-profile flops—Mafia III, No Man’s Sky, and Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst are three that come to mind.
Yes, 2016 was a weird year, and maybe not the best in recent memory, but one that also gave rise to some games we could be talking about for years to come. So without further ado, let’s talk about some of the standouts, with PCWorld’s games reviewer Hayden Dingman and games editor Brad Chacos chiming in.
And again, before you start a fight: These are in no particular order. It’s just nine entries tied at second place, each with some arbitrary designation like “Best multiplayer;” that’s followed by “Game of the Year,” and some honorable mentions. Got it? Good.
Best toilets (oh, and best builder): Planet Coaster
Hayden: I lost something like 20 hours of my life to Planet Coaster in a single weekend—placing rides and building coasters, sure, but also doing weird stuff like “Constructing the perfect Spanish Colonial-themed bathroom.” With extensive scenery and building construction tools, Planet Coaster is the Sims-crossed-with-RollerCoaster-Tycoon I never knew I needed until I had it; the range of custom items on the Steam Workshop says everything you need to know about its appeal. If you’re looking to build the theme park of your dreams, strap in.
Oh, and the coaster construction tools are decent too—you know, once you’ve finished building that perfect bathroom.
Brad : I’d tell you what I love about Planet Coaster, but within five minutes of booting the game, my family hijacked my PC and have played it for dozens of hours since then—and my wife never plays games. I’d guess diehard park sim fans may dislike the easy-peasy management aspects, but not me; that easy money lets you focus on crafting creative parks rather than spending hours optimizing traffic logistics.
Best racer: Forza Horizon 3
Hayden: I’ve long loved the Forza Horizon series, but my affections have been thwarted by its Xbox-exclusivity. Well, no longer. The introduction of Microsoft’s Xbox Play Anywhere program in 2016 saw most Xbox exclusives find their way over day-and-date to the Windows 10 Store, including Forza Horizon 3.
And you know what? It’s even better on the PC. Whether you’re playing at 4K or at 144 frames per second (or maybe both if you’re reading this article in 2023), the PC version of Forza Horizon’s Australia is the definitive version. It’s gorgeous, the music is excellent, and the racing is as good as ever. With Burnout dead and Need for Speed flailing, there’s finally an arcade racer worth playing on the PC again.
Brad: I’ve been pining for a kick-ass arcade racer on the PC ever since Burnout Paradise faded into the rear-view mirror—Forza Horizon 3 scratched that itch in spades. Speeding round the vivid open world in a fully customized Lamborghini while DMX barks in the background just feels good—so good, in fact, that I can overlook the fact that FH3 is only available in the Windows Store, barred from your Steam friends list.
The fun has only ramped up in the numerous online multiplayer modes, especially if you’re paired up with friends rather than strangers. My biggest complaint? Forza Horizon 3’s lack of split-screen multiplayer. I know local multiplayer’s a rarity on PCs and in open-world games, but my kids fell just as head-over-heels in love with Forza as I did, and I’d love for us to be able to play together.
Best adventure: Obduction
Hayden: Cyan does world-building better than just about anybody. Myst, Riven—even now, 20 years later, there’s an amazing sense of place to those games. The puzzles are the challenge, but exploration is the draw.
And Obduction, Cyan’s first big game in a decade, captures the same sense of wonder. From the first moment you step into its Wild West town, a bubble of the familiar nestled within a purple alien landscape, there’s a need to know why. That’s what pulls you forward, even when you’ve spent half an hour butting your head against a locked door and typing fruitless combinations into a keypad.
At times Obduction’s ambitions clearly outstrip the constraints of a Kickstarted budget, but never so much that it loses that Myst feeling fans have so dearly missed.
Best RPG (that's not a Witcher DLC): Sorcery!
Hayden: Technically Sorcery! is a very old game, drawing its core ideas from Steve Jackson’s 1980s-era gamebooks.
But now updated for the digital age and given the same attention to detail that landed Inkle’s 80 Days on our short list last year, Sorcery! is a stunning example of text-based storytelling. You’ll guide your character through the treacherous Shamutanti Hills, through a city filled with thieves and swindlers, across deserts and lakes ravaged by time, on your quest to recover the Crown of Kings. And when I say guide, I mean you’ll make hundreds of decisions, some with immediate effect and some which won’t be apparent until hours later.
It’s an incredible and sometimes-intimidating story, and handily makes up for the game’s lo-fi graphics and simplistic (read: exploitable) combat.
Best puzzle game: The Witness
Hayden: It’s a truism that games released in the very beginning and very end of the year suffer when it comes to these Game of the Year lists—the former because they’re released so long ago, the latter because they’re crammed into the last few weeks.
So it’s testament to how much I loved The Witness that it finds its way onto this list after releasing in January. Say what you will about the game’s philosophical aspects—maybe they resonate with you, maybe they don’t. Regardless, The Witness is an excellent puzzle game for those who have the patience to meet it on its own terms. It gave me some incredible “Ah-ha!” moments. Who knew you could do so much with just a grid and some line puzzles?
Best strategy game: XCOM 2
Hayden: There are some aspects of XCOM 2 I can’t say I love—the prevalence of timer-based missions, for instance. Still, Firaxis’s follow-up to the acclaimed XCOM: Enemy Unknown is easily the best turn-based tactics game of 2016, and I’ve lost more than a few nights to its clutches. Worst of all is spending time customizing the perfect soldier, only to have them die on their first outing. Rest in peace, Paul McCartney.
But the time I’ve lost dressing up my soldiers and sending them out to die is nothing compared to Brad. He went hard on XCOM 2.
Brad: How hard? So hard that I’m watching an XCOM 2 stream on Twitch right now as I write this. XCOM 2 is the first game in a decade that I started playing again immediately after beating it—and I’m considering firing it up again during this year’s holiday break.
A big reason I can keep going back to the well is XCOM 2’s procedural level generation, a first for the series. And unlike Hayden, I adore the abundance of timer-based missions, as they’re just one of many new gameplay additions that reinforce the fact that in XCOM 2, you’re fighting back after the aliens already won. While you commanded a multi-national force in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, in XCOM 2 you’re in charge of a rag-tag force that leans heavily on guerilla tactics. Your base is a mobile command center that flies around the globe, hunted by UFOs as you bolster resistance efforts; those timed missions instill a fast “strike-and-move” feeling; a new concealment system helps you get the drop on patrolling forces; and now-destructible environments help you literally drop turrets and Sectoids off of roofs and out of cover.
All the while, monthly “Dark Events” give the alien overlords bonuses that can’t be avoided and must be planned around. You thought XCOM: Enemy Unknown was tough? Ha. You constantly feel harassed, oppressed, and on the brink of disaster in XCOM 2—but XCOM’s legendary RNG-centric gameplay and customization options help the game shine rather than suck. It’s not perfect, as Hayden says (what’s up with those slowdowns during alien turns?) but this gem is a beauty despite its minor flaws.
Best shooter: Doom
Hayden: There have been some excellent shooters in 2016—we’ve got two others on this list—but none get the adrenaline pumping quite as much as Doom. With its frenzied soundtrack and the shoot-punch-shoot-punch-shoot groove to its combat, Doom simultaneously hearkens back to the genre’s arcade roots while feeling fresh and unique.
Its story is dead stupid (as if anyone played Doom for the story) and its arenas grow stale a bit too early—I feel like the game runs out of surprises about two-thirds of the way through. Oh, and the multiplayer is terrible. But ultimately Doom’s one of the games that stuck with me most this year. It’s just damn fun.
Brad: Doom ’s second-to-second gameplay is pure dumb shooter, honed to perfection. As Hayden says, the game gloriously mixes firepower and fisticuffs, and the way Doom forces you in close to refill your health and ammo (via melee and chainsaw attacks), forces you to keep pushing, dodging, and punching while Mick Gordon’s outstanding techno-industrial-metal soundtrack blares guitar riffs in the background. The sheer frenetic ballet of it all is pure adrenaline and instinct; its primal allure helped make even those weaker later levels thrilling, at least to me.
Hayden’s down on the story but I love how ferociously Doom embraces the dumb. Doomguy fist-bumps collectible action figures he stumbles across and smashes exposition-spouting computer terminals. If it isn’t killing demons, Doomguy doesn’t care. Shut up, rock out, and reload that shotgun. I dig it.
I don’t dig the multiplayer whatsoever. It sucks that the developers wasted time and money bolting it on rather than crafting more single-player shenanigans, and it doubly sucks that all of Doom’s DLC thus far has focused on multiplayer rather than beefing up the campaign even further.
Best murder simulator: Hitman (2016)
Hayden : Going into 2016, I was skeptical. 2012’s Hitman: Absolution felt like a misstep—maybe not a bad game, but definitely not a good Hitman game. And with news that Hitman’s 2016 incarnation was going to be released episodically? It seemed like a disaster.
Apparently miracles happen, though. It turns out Hitman’s loose story structure is a perfect fit for an episodic release, especially when you return to the creative sandbox-centric assassinations of fan-favorite Hitman: Blood Money. With missions doled out over the course of the year, players had ample opportunity to jump back into old levels—whether to find creative paths to the objective or to take out the one-and-done, special-event “Elusive Targets” the developers added every few weeks.
It’s been exhilarating, and I’m already looking forward to what next year brings.
Brad: Yeah, I was all too ready to hate Hitman when they announced the episodic release structure, since I hate episodic release structures. But to my surprise, the delay between new levels inspired me to explore the game far more than I would if it was a traditional release. I scoped every corner of this glorious assassination sandbox—scouring for wild weapons, perfect disguises, NPC routes, poisonable sushi, and those thrilling, unique, time-limited, one-and-done Elusive Targets. It’s a blast teasing out alternative solutions and optimal runs.
Even better, a dark sense of humor lies just beneath the surface of the game. Sure, you can go in guns blazing, but many of the more interesting assassination setups drop Agent 47 into hilarious disguises and amusing scenarios.
This is the Blood Money sequel you’ve been waiting for for nearly a decade—and in many ways, this new Hitman surpasses its beloved predecessor. I love Hitman, full stop.
Best multiplayer: Overwatch
Hayden: This sums it up: Overwatch released seven months ago and I’m still playing it. In my line of work that’s a rare thing, but Overwatch is just a damn solid multiplayer shooter, on your own or (especially) with friends. When Blizzard announced it was making a shooter people scoffed, but it brought the same polish and sheen to Overwatch as you’d expect from a new StarCraft or Warcraft.
With a colorful character roster, creative abilities, and some excellent holiday-themed events (I’m hooked on Mei’s creepy snowball purgatory), Overwatch is a game I keep coming back to and probably will for some time. Sure, it’s basically just Blizzard’s take on Team Fortress 2, but is that a bad thing? Not in the slightest.
Brad: As a person who’s enthusiastic-but-mediocre in online shooters (hey, I’m getting old), I deeply appreciate that Overwatch’s teamwork-focused design makes even crappy players feel useful. I may never pull off a sick 360 no-scope headshot again, but dropping some healing beats as Lucio or Symmetra’s teleporter can spell the difference between an epic win or an epic loss without ever firing a shot. There’s no other game that’s quite as successful at embracing everybody.
Like Hayden, I keep coming back to Overwatch months after its release. Just not as often as I dip back into…
PCWorld's 2016 Game of the Year: Battlefield 1
Hayden: I loved Doom and I continue to enjoy my time with Overwatch. But if I had to pick the shooter I had the best time with this year, it’s Battlefield 1. Abandoning the tired modern war setting of Battlefield 4 and eschewing the near-future science fiction embraced by Call of Duty—a setting I was tired of even before this year’s Infinite Warfare—Battlefield 1 instead takes us back to 1914, to World War I, or The Great War, or the war to end all wars, or whatever you want to call it.
WWI was the beginning of “War As We Know It,” basically. Battlefield 1 explores this concept, particularly in its five vignette-style campaigns, each coming in around an hour and covering everything from a boastful (and dishonest) dogfighter to early tank warfare to a member of Lawrence of Arabia’s resistance. It’s a unique structure, but one I hope we see more of—it seems suited to Battlefield in particular, allowing the game to jump between different facets of the war without creating some absurd Forrest Gump-style character.
As for multiplayer? It’s Battlefield in bolt-action clothing. Loud, bombastic, and the complete antithesis of the campaign, it’s the most fun I’ve had in Battlefield since Bad Company 2—not least because the destruction in Battlefield 1 finally returns to pseudo- Bad Company 2 levels. Complete mayhem.
Brad: I love Battlefield 1 for all the reasons Hayden states, and because I can hide in bushes as a medic then hop out and murder my enemies with my supposedly life-giving revival syringe. Hippocratic Oath, my ass!
BF1’s sense of spectacle, scale, and destruction can’t be beat, and unlike Doom or Overwatch, it’s a complete package, with satisfying single-player and multiplayer. Okay, okay, Battlefield 1’s admittedly not the standout, slam-dunk pick that Witcher 3 was as last year’s Game of the Year, but it’s gorgeous, tons of fun, surprisingly respectful to the source material, and wonderfully addictive. See you in the trenches.
Honorable 'game from 2015 that still rocks' mention: Rainbow Six Siege
Hayden: I’ve seen a lot of articles this year seemingly surprised that hey, you know what, Rainbow Six Siege is good. I don’t know where those people were last year, because Rainbow Six Siege has been good since day one—though it’s certainly much better now.
A year’s worth of balance patches, new maps, and new operators has turned Rainbow Six Siege into one of 2016’s must-play games, at least if you’re in to slower-paced, more tactical shooters. The level of destruction allowed on each map is still wholly unmatched, and players just keep finding creative ways to kill each other. And with Ubisoft already committing to another whole year of free content updates? There’s a long tail on this one.
Brad: I’ve been playing Siege since it dropped and haven’t been able to stop. This was the first shooter that feels truly next-gen—joined only by the insanely innovative Superhot—and it’s only gotten better with time as Ubisoft curbed early problems with rampant hackers and continuously updated the game with new content and gameplay tweaks. The tactical team-based warfare is a perfect blend of methodic planning and tense, high-stakes bursts of action.
How good is Rainbow Six Siege? I prefer it to Overwatch. That’s right, I said it.
Honorable mention: The Witcher 3 - Blood and Wine
We’ve traditionally excluded expansions from Game of the Year consideration, which is a shame because not only is The Witcher 3’s second expansion, Blood and Wine, better than most of the games that released this year, it’s also bigger. So big, in fact, that at 20 hours long it might as well count as its own game.
Most important though is that it’s the farewell longtime Witcher fans needed. With CD Projekt saying that The Witcher 3 will be the end of Geralt’s story, some closure seemed necessary. Blood and Wine’s delightful adventures through the faux-French land of Toussaint provided exactly that.
Honorable mention: The Division - Survival expansion
Brad: Rainbow Six Siege updates and Blood and Wine. Notice a connection? Ongoing support is breathing new life into all sorts of games. I want to highlight an expansion that turned a good game into a great one in many ways.
The Division didn’t earn especially high marks from us when it launched (though I liked the loot shooter’s lush world and co-op-friendly action much more than Hayden did). The grind just got to be too much the more you played, and the so-called end game was woefully lacking. Then the $15 Survival DLC dropped.
Survival blends elements of the survival and “battle royale” genres with The Division’s superb core gameplay. It condenses the Division experience into a delectable two-hour chunk, dropping you and 23 other agents item-less into a blizzard-ravaged New York. You’ll need to find materials to craft everything (even skills!) in order to gear up, make it to the Dark Zone, find some vital antivirals, and then safely extract them—all in white-out conditions. Enemies, fellow players, the bitter cold, and a nasty infection will try to kill you; you’ll need to manage your gear, temperature, sickness levels, hunger, and thirst. If you die, you’re done. And if you do manage to survive long enough to call for an extraction, fierce new NPC “Hunters” will try to ruin your day as you wait for a chopper to fly in. They’re tough.
It’s outstanding. Paired with the superb 1.4 and 1.5 updates, this is what The Division should have been at launch. If Ubisoft released Survival as a standalone game it’d easily be in my top five games of the year.
Honorable mention: Quantum Break
Hayden: Quantum Break’s biggest sin was releasing in April as one of the first Windows Store exclusives—thanks Microsoft, for that. The port was in pretty rough shape to say the least.
But even in that condition, I still really enjoyed my time with Quantum Break. I can’t say I loved it, but I’m glad it exists and that Remedy’s still out there making weird experimental games with blockbuster-level budgets.
Performance in the Steam version released six months later seems totally fine for what it’s worth. On that note, it gets a “Recommended” from me, even if it wouldn’t quite make our list.
Honorable mention: Virtual reality
Hayden: It’s official: Virtual reality is a “thing,” at least until the whole industry collapses and/or the world ends. With the consumer release of both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, VR got real in 2016.
And with it came some excellent experiences—maybe not “games” in the traditional sense, but still stuff I spent many, many hours in this year. Google’s art-centric Tilt Brush, Oculus’s sculpting tool Medium, the zombie shooter Arizona Sunshine, horror game A Chair in a Room: Greenwater, and robotic labor museum Job Simulator.
People can be skeptical of VR all they want—I get it. It’s expensive, it takes up space, it’s clumsy, it’s niche. But I’ve had some excellent times with the visor on this year, and an even better time demoing it to other people.
Brad: Fantastic Contraption’s fantastically quirky constructions wouldn’t be half as compelling if you weren’t physically building machines by pulling parts out of an anime cat’s back, and The Blu’s gorgeous undersea recreations had my 80-plus year-old grandmothers laying on the floor and reaching up to touch legions of virtual jelly fish as they floated past.
Yes, VR still has some major flaws that need to be fixed, but with the right experiences, the medium already feels downright magical—so magical that I ripped apart a beloved bar in my family room to create a “VR nook” for my HTC Vive.