The 2016 Special Achievement Awards
It's been another outstanding year for video games, and while we'll soon unveil our picks for the best 25 of 2016, not every outstanding game released in the last 12 months could make our final list. The games we've listed below are all remarkable in some way, but for a variety of reasons, didn't make the final cut during the GameSpot editorial team's many hours of deliberations for this year's Best of awards. But despite their shortcomings, they are still truly deserving of being recognised in some way as being some of the best gaming 2016 had to offer. They may not be in our Top 25, but all of the games here are most definitely special in some way.
Best Overall Storytelling--Mafia III
Though its core mechanics feel dated and its missions quickly become repetitive, Mafia III's storytelling is indisputably excellent. The writing and narrative excel, of course, but truthfully, the story owes its success to a huge variety of moving parts, all of which not only succeed individually but also contribute meaningfully to the greater whole.
The use of present day documentary footage in concert with in-game cutscenes and clips from an earlier congressional hearing creates an ingenious framing device that allows the narrative to convey exposition in a compelling way, while simultaneously building up the mythos of protagonist Lincoln Clay. The soundtrack employs an immaculate selection of classic tracks not only to immerse players in the '60s but also to surprise them with Tarantino-esque song choices during pivotal sequences--we'll never think of Paint It Black the same way again. And voice actor Alex Hernandez does a commendable and convincing job bringing nuance to the deeply damaged Clay.
Perhaps most importantly, though, Mafia III deserves recognition for fully committing to a real, honest portrayal of an incredibly dark period in America's past. In an industry that for years seemed pathologically devoted to playing it safe and preserving the status quo, choosing to tackle racism head-on isn't just admirable, it's courageous. Here's hoping other developers follow Hangar 13's lead.
- Scott Butterworth
Best Game That Really Deserves a Second Chance--Street Fighter V
Street Fighter V launched with a dearth of content and enough minor annoyances to diminish the overall experience. These issues have come to define the discussion around it, which is unfortunate because, fundamentally, it is a one-on-one fighting game that manages to be both approachable and deep. In many ways, Street Fighter V feels like an amalgamation of Street Fighter III and Street Fighter IV. It makes moment-to-moment strategy using footsies a vital factor in securing victories, does away with complex button strings for elaborate combos, and minimises frame-precise requirements.
Instead it finds elegance in simplicity, asking the player to fret less over juggling systems and instead think about the capabilities of a character, delve into the mind of an opponent, and exploit limitations and habits to your own advantage. It also takes risks with characters that have played largely the same since they were first created. Ken is no longer a palette swap of Ryu with a more powerful shoryuken: he's a flamboyant fighter that is incredibly mobile, running around the screen delivering devastating kicks. Flashy wrestler R. Mika is capable of converting risky grabs into ambiguous situations that can take an opponent from full health to unconscious in a matter of seconds. She brings a dynamism and unpredictability to fights unlike any character before her, which makes watching professional tournaments very exciting.
Since its launch, Street Fighter 5, as a package, has improved significantly. It now features the much requested story mode--though admittedly it is a throwaway experience--and has daily challenges for dedicated fighters to keep coming back for. Most importantly it has introduced a number of new characters, adding further complexity to an already mechanically rewarding game.
Season 2 of Street Fighter 5 promises to bring a number of new characters, stages, and gameplay tweaks. And while many have dismissed it off the back of initial problems, it remains a fighting game that we can heartily recommend.
- Tamoor Hussain
Best Open World in a Game--No Man's Sky
No Man's Sky takes place in a massive chunk of outer space, a simulated galaxy purported to contain 18 quintillion planets. Every single planet within is accessible, be it by warp-jumping between solar systems, or by manually piloting your ship from one neighboring planet to the next. The fact that every planet is procedurally generated doesn't take away from the magic feeling they give off, both for their dangers and splendor alike. Some are dense with toxic plants, and others contain hidden caves beneath the surface full of glowing crystals and valuable resources--with so much ground to cover, it's literally impossible to see it everything the game has to offer.
Hopping from one location to the next is an equally impressive feat as you seamlessly travel from the surface of a planet, through its atmosphere, and eventually out of orbit without ever encountering a loading screen. It's hard to think of another game that communicates sense of scale so well while also offering unfettered exploration. Yes, the game at large continues to face some controversy, but No Man's Sky's open world is an undeniable achievement of open world design that deserves recognition.
- Peter Brown
Biggest Gaming Social Phenomenon--Pokemon Go
Seemingly everyone was playing Pokemon Go this summer when it arrived on smartphones, and many are sticking with it today thanks to new updates that keep pulling us back. Pokemon Go doesn't rank in our Top 25 games of 2016, but it's one that we're sure will be remembered for years and years to come. Is it all that fun? Your mileage may vary. But you should definitely give it a crack, as there is something magical about finding Pokemon in the real world, in places you walk every day like the street outside your home or in the woods. The new buddy Pokemon system and seasonal updates continue to draw players back, but if you're anything like me, Pokemon Go is more of a passing fancy than something I feel the need to play every day. And that's exactly what I'm looking for from a mobile game in this case. What's clear is Pokemon, as a brand and for this game specifically, remains massively popular. Pokemon Go was the No. 1 most-searched thing on Google in 2016, ahead of Donald Trump and iPhone 7, after all. And as long as Niantic keeps putting out new updates and more creatures to collect, Pokemon Go will remain popular and keep raking in money.
- Eddie Makuch
Best Game Based on a Movie Based on a Game--Ratchet and Clank
Movie critics really didn't like the Ratchet and Clank film. However, the film’s reception was in stark contrast to the game itself. The PS4 revision of Ratchet and Clank is a reimagination of the original game. It’s enhanced with all the features of a modern action game such as twin-stick controls akin to most third-person games, and upgrade trees for weapons and gadgets.
Ratchet has access to a vast arsenal to toy around with which gives players incredible variety in play style. A few standouts, such as the Groovitron that forces enemies to break into dance and the Sheepinator which turns foes to sheep, add a comedic touch the gameplay itself.
Ratchet and Clank’s vibrant color palette and beautifully crafted environments made it one of the best looking PS4 games to date. Its narrative has moments of hilarity that add a layer of joy in a world that’s just plain fun to explore and experience.
- Michael Higham
Best Return to Form--Gears of War 4
Gears of War: Judgement--the most recent Gears of War game prior to this year's numbered entry--was, in our minds, a bit of a disaster. Though it was always intended as a detour away from the original trilogy, it strayed a bit too far and sacrificed much of the series' identity in the process. That's why we have to applaud The Coalition for Gears of War 4. Though it couldn't quite compete against the tidal wave of quality shooters that washed over 2016, it did recapture much of the magic that made Gears special in the first place: musclebound heroes, grotesque enemies, bloody shooting, battlefield camaraderie, massive action sequences--it's all in there.
We especially want to celebrate The Coalition's handling of Gears' trademark Horde Mode, which received a handful of incredibly smart updates. The addition of classes, skill cards, and the Fabricator--which allows players to purchase defenses on the fly--turned Horde Mode 3.0 in one of our absolute favorite cooperative experiences this year. We also think every single triple-A shooter from here on should have a Dodgeball mode. Though the single-player campaign fell slightly flat and kept Gears 4 just outside of our top 25, The Coalition still deserves a nod for shepherding the franchise back in the right direction.
- Scott Butterworth
Best VR App--Google Earth VR
VR is undoubtedly a great platform for games, but it’s also a fantastic medium for tools and applications. Though VR is still in its infancy, we saw notable standouts in 2016 including Tilt Brush, Medium, and Quill, but it’s the power of Google Earth VR that cannot be denied.
Google Earth VR still uses real satellite imagery, but expands upon the desktop version by allowing you to fly around the world. Much of the planet is rendered in photogrammetric 3D, which gives buildings and landmarks a sense of weight and presence. If you’ve never used the desktop app, you’d think Google Earth was built from the ground up for VR. You feel like Superman as you fly through the sky, and you can even zip down into the nooks and crannies of the streets below.
Arguably Google Earth VR’s biggest strength is that it indulges nostalgia. In a way, it’s a time machine. It captures a snapshot of the world. Waves on the ocean and cars on the road are suspended in time. One of the most popular things that people do in Google Earth VR is revisit familiar places. Grown men have cried like babies revisiting childhood locales. Google Earth VR is that powerful, which is exactly why it’s VR’s killer app.
- Jimmy Thang
Best Free Update--The Elder Scrolls Online - One Tamriel
Big free game updates are par for the course with an MMO. Even in a year with many strong updates (for MMOs and non-MMOs alike), The Elder Scrolls Online's One Tamriel stands out. Even setting aside its titular component, it had the makings of a strong update: Among other things, it added new items, made it easier to play with friends by removing restrictions on alliances, introduced Ultimate abilities for weapon skills, and provided higher difficulty levels for dungeons, presenting high-level players with reasons to revisit older conten.
More importantly, One Tamriel made ESO feel much more like an Elder Scrolls game by allowing you to freely explore the world. After the introductory area, you're invited to go wherever you wish. A new level-scaling system ensures you don't find yourself outmatched because you want to head to a particular area instead of following the more linear path through the world players were previously shepherded through. ESO will never be able to completely mimic the level of freedom that's possible in a single-player Elder Scrolls game, but One Tamriel is a giant step toward making it feel like it's worthy of carrying the venerable Elder Scrolls name.
- Chris Pereira
Best Game That Got Even Better Thanks to a Lot of Patches--The Division
The Division had a rocky 2016. It debuted in March behind huge results, becoming Ubisoft's fastest-selling game ever. It remained the best-selling game of the year well into 2016. But player figures eventually fell, due in part to the in-game experience getting stale for many and balance issues that drove players to other games. Credit should be given to Ubisoft, as the developer delayed the game's paid expansions (in turn delaying the revenue derived from them) in an effort to fix the game's issues and balance problems. Fans generally agree that this was a successful campaign, with major patches, including 1.4, significantly improving the game in the areas of balance and more. The newest expansion, Survival, mixed things up with a brutal...survival mode where players fight for resources in a version of Manhattan blanketed in snow and cold, crushing conditions. There was an erroneous report about player figures returning to where they were at launch, but it's clear The Division has improved with age.
- Eddie Makuch
Best Game for Emotional Impact--That Dragon, Cancer
That Dragon, Cancer plays like a point-and-click adventure with occasional brief minigames that symbolize creators Ryan and Amy Green's anguish during their young son Joel's battle with cancer. The low-poly art design complements its seemingly sporadic storytelling. Its scenes and sequences serve as vignettes of pivotal moments in Joel’s life.
The game erratically jumps around the emotional spectrum. Moments of peace are interrupted by bad news. Uplifting moments are wrapped into a story of tragedy. It’s heart-warming at times, but heartbreaking throughout. That Dragon, Cancer isn’t just about the Green family, though. It’s about anyone who was lost to cancer and the struggle their loved ones endure. Cancer victims are memorialized through cards, paintings, and notes within the environment.
May we never experience the tragedy of cancer. But may we also step closer to understanding what others feel in times of tragedy. If anything else is to be taken from That Dragon, Cancer, it’s to cherish the time you have and through the toughest of times, you’re not alone.
- Michael Higham
Best Game for People Who Do The NY Times Crossword Every Morning--Picross 3D Round 2
Graphically and narratively, games in 2016 are some of the best we've ever had. But it's easy to forget when handing out end-of-the-year awards that the same platform that can rival film both in enjoyment and excitement, can also offer the best version of a puzzle book. Picross 3D Round 2 on 3DS is essentially a game where you're carving 3D sculptures using Sudoku and Minesweeper-like skills. To the uninitiated, the puzzles look like abstract, numbered cubes, but after a few tutorial stages, Picross reveals itself as the ultimate number logic puzzle.
Round 2 carries on the tradition of a series that goes back to the original Game Boy, but for newcomers, this is the best place to start. The tutorial explains the complex techniques that previous games required you to intuit from experience. And for expert players, you can start the game at a higher difficulty without ever having to replay levels or work your way through overly simple challenges.
Picross elicits the same kind of joy and challenge you might find in a book of crossword puzzles. And that's the best thing about gaming; even in a year packed with bustling storylines and graphical powerhouses, there's still room for simple pleasures.
- Justin Haywald