Neon Dystopia’s Top Games of 2016

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2016’s been a good year for games, and we’re betting there are some you may have missed. We went through everything the last 12 months had to offer and picked eight of the best cyberpunk games available. All of these are picks we chose based on their ability to innovate, entertain, and deliver interesting experiences to players while playing with the concept of science and technology in interesting ways to set up their premise.

So here it is, Neon Dystopia’s Top Games of 2016.

VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action

Collect all the best cyberpunk tropes from 80’s anime, arrange them around a dive bar, simulate cocktail mixing that really isn’t and combine it with tales of a sci-fi future and you’ve got VA-11 HALL-A. The mechanics in Sukeban’s game isn’t anything worth talking about. You may blend the wrong ingredients once or twice or misinterpret a patron’s cryptic order, but before long you’re in the swing of things and able to play the role you were meant to. Tired businessmen get drunk and blurt out their experiences with demanding idorus; self-aware love dolls hit on you before running off with their johns; mysterious ex-pats hide their history from you; mercenaries talk about their dangerous killings; flying soldiers shed their armor and seek your opinion–VA-11 HALL-A takes a lighthearted approach to the dark cyberpunk worlds in anime and gives them a great deal of levity. That the game can run as long as it does without its jokes getting stale, which shows a godlike understanding of the world the game and the setting its in. Rarely do we see that in fiction, much less in games.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Human Revolution gave us hope that modern prequels could respect old properties. It gave us a new world and protagonist that fit in with the established world of Deus Ex and dropped us into a story of corporate conspiracies and global enslavement that lined up perfectly with the universe. That it would continue in Mankind Divided made us excited, but publisher Square Enix tried all it could to diminish enjoyment upon release.

With pre-order nonsense that tiered versions of the game in hopes to push duplicate purchases from consumers, a superfluous multiplayer tacked on to seduce with microtransactions, and a story presumably cleaved in three to make the next two installments in the series,  (Here’s a rundown of Square Enix’s shady practices with this game) gamers were given every reason to discard the latest installment in the cyberpunk masterpiece, but they couldn’t. While the main story was lacking, side quests were well suited to what’s come before, and the praxis kits and in-game credits for sale didn’t hinder their ability to advance in the main game. Tried they did, but Square Enix couldn’t undermine five and a half years of development.

In a corner of Prague that could easily be a slightly renovated City 17, Adam Jensen walks the streets with other augmented people trying to survive in a police state triggered by the likes of Bob Page. And Adam has to deceive both the Illuminati and Interpol in order to fix the world he feels he had a hand in breaking. His cyborg body finally feels superhuman. New augments allow for this spy boy to remain invisible to his enemies and navigate maps that sprawl out and rise stories into the air. Or Jensen can become a juggernaut that mows down enemies, power suits, drones, and robots without the game breaking into a power fantasy. RPG rules remain strict in Mankind Divided, meaning creativity, investigation, and planning guides all of Adam’s actions.

In the hands of a better publisher, one that respects that a story can’t be arbitrarily divided up and made into a trilogy of stories, it would’ve been near perfect. But even with a main story that disappoints, Adam Jensen lives in a world that’s both challenging and inviting, employing a gameplay system that makes it mechanically the best of the series to date.

Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst

While Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst went largely ignored this year, didn’t make much in sales, and didn’t do anything particularly special with its story (though it did reward fans of the original if they watched closely and there were a few decent moments on the way to the end), there hasn’t been a game that fosters as tight a connection between player and controller to hit the market this year like this one. Whether chaining runs, jumps, slides, and rolls to traverse unfinished constructions sites or simply hopping over a gap between buildings, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, like the original, made sure the player knew that everything that went right or wrong was the result of their level of attention to what was going on around them, the natural peaks and valleys that make up Glass’s skyline, and their understanding of Faith’s athletic ability. The dedicated player wound up stepping into Faith’s sneakers and takes on time trials and challenging runs over a clinically-clean sci-fi world that made for immersive levels that went unmatched this year.

And for those wanting to take that focus a step further, test it out in VR.

Orwell

In The Nation, only one thing keeps the public safe from itself: you. Working as a foreign computer forensics analyst and investigator, players investigate a citizen of the Nation following a bombing at Freedom Plaza. Beginning with one suspect, the investigator is soon given a suspect list of potential suspects in a string of terror attacks across The Nation. Every social media post, blog comment, dating site profile, phone call, text, email, or deleted file from their desktop is accessible to Orwell and its personnel.

Is a “media punk” a revolutionary or a poseur looking for groupies? Is an anon sincere in their threats of violence? Does a government really want what’s best for its people? Orwell places the player in the role of an intelligence contractor, though citizens of The Nation believe them to be with the government, which is an instant commentary on practices of intelligence bodies like the NSA, whose contracting practices were better understood by Snowden’s leaks. But it also gives a complex look at the work of analyzing metadata in hopes of finding a culprit of a crime. Short of a confession via a phone call to a confidant, how can anyone know for sure? Even then, is the data factual? When moments in people’s lives are captured online they’re weaponized in a potential case for their own incarceration whether they fit the crime or not, and so the investigator has to decide whether to carry on with their duties from the government or perhaps side with the people fighting for the dismantling of that data-gathering apparatus. They investigator may have to consider that neither side is in the right any longer.

Though short-lived, Orwell gives players a lot to think about when considering either side of the surveillance state that’s already in play, and in doing so offers up a nuanced play with disparate characters that might convince some that right and wrong aren’t settled things on this issue.

Pony Island

Pony Island invites players in with a bright time in a magical place before a malicious programmer reminds them their trapped inside an arcade cabinet. Trapped in this Tron-y hell, this helpless pony will gallop, hop, hack, and lazer its way to freedom. The satanic programmer taunts the player with a meta-analysis of game design but it’s also a descent into pure dread. Monotony slowly gives way to sneaking by way of hacking into the game’s code in search of an escape from this machine prison. Pony Island does away with most conventions of horror games and does its own thing with puzzles that urge you to play just a little bit longer before you realize the sun’s risen and your time in virtual limbo is over.

Titanfall 2

Everything in Titanfall 2 takes the bones of the original and packs on layers of muscle and metal, making the first installment feel like a demo by comparison. Players team up with BT-7274, a titan that plays the Iron Giant role of a building friendship in the middle of a robot war taking place off-world. This time players got a solid campaign that offers up a variety of titan types and weapons that allow the player to mow down enemies as they wall-run and jet-pack across maps or stomp from within the safety of their robot buddy.

Even multiplayer improves on what was first offered. With 6 Titan types to choose, a dozen modes, free maps, no season pass, and a robust customization system, Titanfall 2 is the battlefield of the far future mech games have always wanted to portray but didn’t have the technology or know-how to pull off.

Developer Respawn Entertainment seemed to understand every point of contention gamers had with the original, which is probably why Titanfall 2 feels like such a franchise selling game. Hopefully, the second installment isn’t too late to pull that off, because this is a shooter we want more of.

Watchdogs 2

If you read our review of Watch Dogs 2 you know that this was one of the most fun games we got our hands on in 2016. The idea of a smart city running on one OS and hacking reduced to smartphone apps (though a pocket drone and an RC car require a laptop to run for some reason) is laughably bad design, but it doesn’t matter because it never hinders in the fun of being a near-future hacker turning everything against everyone while making enemies of corporate masters and government lackeys in the heart of America’s tech sector. And while this isn’t as close a facsimile of a real city like The Division’s recreation of Midtown, the most convincing representation of New York in a video game this native New Yorker has ever seen, San Francisco is a huge playground with plenty to do, people to annoy, and easter eggs to find.

Seriously, Ubisoft has some talented students of architecture on staff. They know how to recreate cities that take into consideration the need for accuracy and invention, but Assassin’s Creed fans would know this already.

It’s not Mr. Robot and never pretends to be. Watch Dogs 2 invites you to troll its world with all the technological inventions that are slowly creeping into the real world while reminding you that there are some concerns that accompany their arrival. It’s one of the better ways games can deliver narratives that matter while not forgetting that this is a medium primarily concerned with entertainment.

Hitman

Our beloved, genetically-engineered, near-albino assassin has endured much since escaping the shadow of his clone brothers. He’s killed in many places and endured several questionable changes, and yet IO Interactive finds ways to do new and interesting things in stealth games with this test tube killer that other developers can’t seem to figure out.

What many thought to be a reboot of the franchise turned out to be a continuation. Hitman takes place seven years after Agent 47 and Diana Burnwood rescued Victoria, another genetic experiment, from the ICA in Absolution. Hiding from the International Contract Agency ought to have put 47 out of business, but the assassin’s skills are more in demand than ever. Like with everything else in his life, 47’s previous contracts have put him in the center of an international conspiracy set up by powerful people who need to die and shadowy figures that may have had a hand in the agent’s scientific distillation. Unfortunately, this threadbare story only manages to get to a second act climax before the curtains close, and with news that a second season is already in production, we can see Square Enix’s business practices dictating the length of a story yet again. But IO Interactive, who’ve helped to shape the stealth genre through 47, have delivered another installment in the series that tests a player’s commitment to mission objectives and their intelligence to think around obstacles.

The biopunk killer still delivers despite story shortcomings. Across six locations spread all over the world, Agent 47 introduces a little chaos into the tightly-knit world of the rich and untouchable. By selecting tools of the trade, 47 can silently or loudly kill his targets, or even turn the world around him against them. All the conventions of a solid Hitman game are there, making for challenging encounters with targets that are surrounded by innocent civilians. The skilled assassin is a patient one and looks for opportunities to outsmart an AI system that has dozens of people roaming locations, intent on keeping the target protected. And if that isn’t enough of a challenge, a long list of modes and challenges restrict 47 in what he can do and what tools can aid him in completing his objective. The variability runs into the dozens for each contract, making Hitman one of the most replayable games of the year.

Those were our picks for the games of 2016. Let us know what you think of our picks and share your own in the comments below.

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