Now that we're past the doom and gloom of 2016's biggest disappointment, it's time to move on to a category that's a little brighter: Best Surprise.
We will continue publishing a different category each day through the end of the year, leading up to our final vote for best game of 2016. Join us as we count down to our Game of the Year! And remember, you can follow the rest of our 2016 coverage in our handy hub.
Best Surprise: The Nominees
When the year begins, most critics peg a few games as probable standouts. But sometimes an unexpected dark horse breaks out to become a major hit with fans and reviewers alike. This is probably our favorite category, as a fun surprise goes a long way toward making the usual churn of triple-A releases more interesting. Here are some of our favorites.
I remember being distinctly unimpressed when I first played Bethesda's DOOM reboot. It was ugly, it was kind of janky, and it leaned on a nostalgia for '90s shooters that I frankly didn't share. Happily, the finished version was a perfect ode to the original DOOM and the genre at large. And unlike more modern shooters, its single-player campaign may be its strongest element, making it more digestible for those who were never reared on Deathmatches. In any case, after the rather dark (in more ways than one) DOOM 3, this reboot is a welcome return to the franchise's roots.
I think I said it best in my review of Hitman's Complete First Season:
"I was skeptical in the beginning, but the studio stuck the landing with the entire season. Taken together, it's one of the best titles in the Hitman series and one of the best games in 2016 that no one's talking about. Even at its worse, Hitman Season One is a solid, enjoyable game. At its best, it'll test you and make you really think about how you're going to get to your target. What IO Interactive has done here is very impressive and I can't wait to see where Season Two takes us."
Playdead's glorious platform-puzzler absolutely blew me away earlier this year. It's a highly compelling journey into mystery that involves the player guiding a nameless character through an unspecified dystopian environment while trying to avoid the attentions of a faceless enemy. Does that sound a little vague? That's part and parcel of what makes Inside so incredibly fascinating. Most of the time you have no idea what the hell is going on, other than the only way to go is ever onwards, solving the increasingly inventive and creative puzzles that stand between you and - hopefully - the answers you seek.
Nadia: Stardew Valley
"I haven't played a good farming game since Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town," I told myself. "I'm done with farming games."
"Oh," chuckled Stardew Valley. "Oh, are you?"
Jeremy: Pokémon Go
I had zero interest in Pokémon Go myself — I barely got past the point of designing a trainer and choosing a starter — but I can certainly appreciate what the game represents. Even a few weeks ago, I was out at lunch with my family and heard the totally normal-looking, totally unassuming man and woman at the table behind us strategizing about catching ’em all. I don't know if any other game has ever become as interwoven into the fabric of people's day-to-day life as Pokémon Go has managed; and yes, it was a flash in the pan to a certain degree. But I knew people from all walks of life, of all genders, of all ages, who found themselves pulled into Niantic's translation of the Pokémon concept into a real-world pursuit. And if the company manages to roll out a new generation once or twice a year, it's a real-world pursuit that promises to surge and resurge, pulling hardcore fans and casual enthusiasts alike into its sticky snare.
The Winner: DOOM
Everyone wondered if DOOM would be any good when Bethesda opted to withold early review copies. Instead, it quickly became a critical and fan favorite, joining Titanfall 2 as one of 2016's most lauded shooters. Like Wolfenstein before it, DOOM leads a budding renaissance of '90s-style shooters that successfully mix nostalgia, camp, and fast-paced shooting action. Even if you're not an old-school shooter fan, DOOM is a delight. Who knows what DOOM 2 will bring...
Runner-up (Weighted Average): Stardew Valley (3.4)
- Best Single-Player Campaign
- Best Multiplayer
- Best Visual Style
- Loveliest Soundtrack
- The Game Universe We'd Like to Live In
- Best Surprise
Tomorrow: 2016's Best Sidekick