Welcome to my 2016 countdown of the top ten video games with the best graphics from last year. Any gaming countdown has room for discussion, so I want to hear your opinions. After seeing my choices, leave a comment telling me what games you thought were ranked too high, what games were ranked too low, and what games should have been included but weren’t.
10. Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
Starting this year’s countdown, is Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, which has completely legitimate story reasons for Quiet’s choice of clothing, or lack thereof. Playing as Big Boss...you do stuff...and end up having to do more stuff....actually, even a brief overview of the story would take long to explain in this video, so I’m not even going to try.The gameplay involves using primarily stealth tactics to complete mission objectives, but it’s understandable if you adopt the “no one will notice if there’s no one to notice” tactic.
After the stellar graphical showcase of Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes, Metal Gear fans had expectations for the Phantom Pain to build upon the foundation established by Ground Zeroes, as both projects ran on the Fox Engine but the Phantom Pain would have more time for development and improving visual quality. Instead, development went in the complete opposite direction, with the Phantom Pain tearing down all the strong foundations Ground Zeroes established. It is very disappointing, as the Fox Engine’s power is underutilized. There are no more dynamically generated puddles that have their own reflection and splash effects. Screen space reflections are gone entirely, there are fewer reflective surfaces, and reduced reflection quality overall. There are fewer dynamic light sources, and intersecting shadows lack the discrete, complex layers found in Ground Zeroes.
If there is so much to criticize about The Phantom Pain’s graphics, then why even put it on the countdown in the first place? Being able move freely about the in-game locations of Africa and Afghanistan, the sheer scale of the open world merits mention. The Fox Engine allows for dynamic weather conditions. Rain can become a useful gameplay element, helping the mask the sound of your approach to enemies. The live day/night cycle can change the direction of shadows, creating different possible approaches depending on the time. The game’s characters are brought to life using facial mapping and motion capture. The characters of Big Boss and Quiet borrow from the likeness of Kiefer Sutherland and Stefanie Joosten, respectively, with both actors delivering outstanding performances.
Ensuring breast physics development receives a return on investment, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, splashes into 10th place on the countdown.
9. Dying Light
The next game in our countdown, Dying Light, takes you into the quarantined Turkish city of Harran as Kyle Crane, an agent of the fictional GRE, Global Relief Effort, which is analogous to a consolidation of real life organizations the UN, FEMA, and the Red Cross. A viral outbreak In Harran has mutated the infected residents into zombies and monsters with varying levels of aggression and physical capability. The few remaining survivors scavenge abandoned dwellings for supplies, while awaiting opportunities to make treks across the hazardous cityscape to secure Antizen, the vaccine, from airdrops. Your superiors want you to focus on your missions, but you become too involved in the survivors’ struggles, and have to make impossible choices as your loyalty is put to test.
Dying Light’s story is a rather cliched telling of government corruption and tired moral dilemmas, and the characters are unrelatable and underdeveloped, but the gameplay and visual experience more than make up for narrative shortcomings. Chroma Engine 6, the upgraded version of Dead Island’s engine, is running on its maximum horsepower in creating the open world of Dying Light. The game’s graphics lack polish in some areas, with occasional shadowing errors and bland small object detailing, but all the positive visual elements combined make for an engaging, living, or shoulding I say unliving, world. Dynamic weather systems give surfaces reflective qualities from the rain. Trees and grass sway in the wind. Objects and actors are properly occluded in a variety of lightning conditions.
Square-inch-for-square-inch, Harran is one of the most detailed gaming cities. The city has numerous fully-realized and explorable structure interiors, which feed into the addicting crafting mechanic, as you can get obsessive about riffling through every last drawer and cabinet looking for supplies. The Harran’s verticality is only surpassed by the cities of Assassin’s Creed. Parkour is a critical gameplay element, allowing you to take advantage of the urban verticality to find shortcuts across the rooftops and through the alleys while avoiding zombies.
The game runs on a live day-night cycle. When darkness falls, prepare for a real survival challenge. Stronger and faster monsters can find you. It is a high-risk, high-reward prospect to venture out of safe zones during in-game night hours, because you gain more experience, but you also have relentless Volatiles that chase you if they hear you. At early levels, it’s best to sleep through the night.
An impressive draw distance allows for dozens of unique zombies onscreen at once. The game physics allow the zombies to react differently based on where they get hit, so each attack feels like it has real weight behind it. Depending on your weapon, you can dismember zombies or pulverize them, or you can let gravity do the work for you. Because of the reactive collision physics, it never gets old to use different weapon types to disembowel zombies and watch them collapse into a bloody mess.
For giving us a complex urban playground to practice parkour, Dying Light Spartan kicks into 9th place on the countdown.
Nothing can prepare your mind for the psychological torture that SOMA delivers. From the creators of Amnesia: The Dark Descent comes another survival horror experience. What starts as an experimental medical visit takes you down the rabbit hole again, this time, into a derelict, underwater research facility. While searching despairingly for human help, more mysteries unravel about what happened to those who previously inhabited the station, and you realize the entirety of humanity’s future depends on your success.
Meanwhile, those who would see you fail unleash biomechanical monsters to kill you- and you have no weapons with which to fight them. Worst. Doctor’s. Visit. Ever.
In providing the surreal setting of Soma’s underwater world, the graphical artists crafted an immersive setting that simultaneously inspires curiosity and chills to the bone. Dimly-lit corridors induce trepidation in wandering. Destroyed equipment, toppled furnishings , and scattered remains of workers litter the decks. Communications records and relics of past workers add context to their final moments. Biomechanical mutations contaminate the hardware.
Soma’s graphical prowess doesn’t come from pixel-perfect rendition- in fact, some of the close range textures are muddled and much small-object geometry has sharp edges- but rather, the level of immersion that the game creates through its atmosphere. The deliberate gameplay interactions, like having to drag a door closed all the way instead of just hitting a button, increases the level of engagement with the game.
The world of Soma takes some design cues from BioShock’s Rapture. but takes place in the future instead of an alternate history. Upon hearing rumbling and heavy footsteps of the biomechanical monsters resonate through the bulkheads, you almost expect to see a Big Daddy guarding a Little Sister in the next corridor.
For creating a claustrophobic nightmare that induces the feeling of drowning while being perfectly dry, SOMA smashes a window into 4th place on the countdown.
For creating a claustrophobic nightmare that induces the feeling of drowning while being perfectly dry, SOMA smashes a window into 4th place on the countdown.
7. Project Cars
The next game on the countdown is Project CARS, and yes, it is an acronym, standing for Community Assisted Racing Simulator. The primary mission of the simulator is to create a virtual driving experience with as realistic-as-possible visual, audio, and vehicle performance characteristics. Whether it accomplishes the driving authenticity goals is a topic for more seasoned racing simulator enthusiasts, but even a casual gamer with no racing experience will acknowledge realism of Project CARS’ graphics. The cars have incredible levels of detail, reaching up to over 300,000 polygons on some models. With shots of them side-by-side, the in-game models are virtually indistinguishable from pictures of their real-life counterparts. In motion, the game has even more realistic scenes incorporating dynamic illumination and reflection. While not at the same quality as Driveclub’s, the rain effects are excellent, enabling physics-based splashing and adding a layer of wetness to increase the number of reflective surfaces.
Photorealism or not, there are inexcuseable flaws in Project CARS visual quality. The background scenery is so underdeveloped that it creates a comical contrast with the cars, sometimes making it look like the cars are driving in front of the local news station green screen with an unpaid intern doing the editing. The damage models and crash effects are laughable for a game that prioritizes realism.
Although disappointing in some areas, Project CARS does give us the CARPORN addict their wet dream. Project CARS Go-Karts into 7th place on the Countdown.
6. Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege
For this year’s best graphics countdown, the completely coincidental choice for number 6 is Rainbow 6: Siege, the latest installment in the tactical shooter franchise. The game facilitates intense, high-stakes close quarters combat. Two 5-operator teams take turns attacking and defending an objective. No team has time for complacency- the competitive nature of the game design punishes the smallest mistake. Even the casual multiplayer playlist is unforgiving. There is no respawning once you die. Dead players watch the living battle it out, and have the entire rest of the round to analyze their mistakes or complain angrily on the forums about horrible netcode.
Fortunately, while you’re waiting for your chance to redeem yourself in the next round, you have a front-row seat to the best-implemented destruction in gaming. There are endless obstacles and barricades that can be blown apart, shot through, or torn down. And the destruction isn’t scripted- environmental components disintegrate dynamically. Shooting through a door, hitting it with your gun, or setting off a breaching charge destroys it in different and reactive ways. The destruction is more than eye candy- it is a critical component of tactical gameplay. The best players improvise murder holes that give them optimum concealment for a line of sight on breaching enemies.
As a real-life gun enthusiast, I am ecstatic to see the game go over the top with graphical details on weapon models. The team’s artists did their homework in researching modern combat weapons, and modeled their in-game counterparts with true-to-life features like having the magazine catch actually engage. Even the optics feature subtle details like scratches on the anodizing.
With advanced shadowing, lighting, reflection, and Nvidia’s advanced ambient occlusion creating realistic interiors, you almost feel bad about wanting to blow up everything in sight.
Rainbow Six: Siege rappels into 6th place on the countdown.
5. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Visiting the world of the Witcher 3, you live the story of Geralt of Rivia, a monster hunter with supernatural abilities brought about via alchemical mutations and lifelong training. The entire kingdom faces an otherworldly threat of the Wild Hunt, an army of spectral riders. Geralt traverses an open world of no man’s land, with corpse littered battlefield, swamps, and monster nesting grounds, to find the emperor’s daughter and save the kingdom from impending doom.
It’s inevitable that placing the Witcher 3 this low on the countdown will upset many viewers, as The Witcher 3 had received so many game of the year awards, with graphics poised to set a new generational standard as a major selling point. The graphics have an overall pleasing quality but underwhelm in many critical areas. The graphical quality has significantly declined from the original development direction. Textures on architecture are less developed and flatter than comparative open world games, with fewer discrete elements that comprise a realistic appearance, such as roofing panels, wood grain, and stone building surfaces, even when viewed at a relatively close distance. Particle, smoke, and atmospheric fog effects, abundant in early development videos, have all but been removed entirely. Foliage, water, and geographical elements have the sharpness of a watercolor pastel painting, but not in the aesthetically pleasing way. Self-shadowing and occludable assets are scant, and the actual shadows themselves appear painted-on instead of the natural looking, soft-edge shadows we’ve come to expect from modern games. The lighting is maddeningly unrealistic, creating a floodlight effect over the scene instead of providing dynamic illumination, and even wet surfaces provide poor light reflection. In an effort to mask the game’s visual deficiencies, the game goes overboard with saturating the color pallet, creating dissonance with the narrative’s grim tone.
What’s worse about the Witcher 3’s graphics is that each game update on PC leave the game looking worse than the previous version. The developers refer to these patches as optimizing the game for better performance for those running older hardware, but in actuality, it lowered the graphical intensity to improve framerates instead of actually optimizing the game to run better. The most obvious way to show this is the reduced distance of shadow maps. Even advanced configuration file tweaking has not managed to bring the game’s graphical intensity back to the launch-day baseline.
Regardless of its graphical deficiencies, the world of the Witcher 3 is replete with diverse landscapes for exploration, from the imperious cityscape of Novigrad, to the desolate war-torn, no-man’s-land of Velen, where fearsome creatures of Polish fantasy literature come to life in deep woods, swamps, graveyards, and islands. A day-night cycle creates variety in scenery lightning, and inclement weather adds another depth to the scene. You will by and large enjoy the visual experience of the Witcher 3, but redhead sorceress breasts aside, too many deficiencies in important elements that comprise realistic scenes prevent the game from achieving a new benchmark in gaming graphics.
The Witcher 3 ignites into 5th place on the countdown.
4. Assassin's Creed Syndicate
The Assassin Order has not yet realized the unfavorable logistics of bringing a knife to a gunfight, as Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate takes place in an industrialized Victorian Era London. You alternate playing as either Jacob or Evie Frye, male and female twin Assassins, but the rest of the gameplay remains largely unchanged: keep mashing the attack button and carry on.
What keeps the series interesting is the vivid portrayal of historic cities. Keeping with the series’ motto of history being your playground, Victorian Era London comes to life with attention to art direction on the level of Oscar-bait Hollywood blockbusters. From traveling the city, you get a sense of a country racing to devote every possible resource to manufacturing and mechanization. You also see many of the effects of industrialization on society and living conditions. Child labor powers many of the factories. Living in slums, much of the working class suffers poverty and poor standards of living. The world is so developed that the only thing that could compare to this level of detail is if a Charles Dickens novels physically manifested its setting and characters as you read it. Really- I learned more about the day-to-day lives and living situations of Pip and Oliver Twist from a few minutes of playing Syndicate than my hundreds of hours writing book reports on classic literature. Victorian themes of imperialism, wealth, and corruption are reflected in the gameplay, as well. With some eccentric background characters and activities, there is definitely some artistic liberty and exaggeration when designing the world, especially to make it fit the context of the game, but Syndicate’s London is the most captivating of any historical city seen in video games so far.
A lot of attention went into making the city’s buildings look authentic. The textures are detailed and contain plenty of discrete elements. For example, each brick on a wall look like it was placed there and built around, instead of that wall being painted with bricks. The rust on the surface of some steel girders and factory machines has depth to make it look like it actually rusted over instead of just being part of the default texture. Many building interiors are fully-realized. The best part of any Assassin’s Creed’s city is its verticality. Free-climbing to extreme heights, getting a bird’s eye view of the surrounding area, and doing a leap of faith is still a satisfying element of Assassin's Creed gameplay.
Advanced graphical technologies are at work, as well. A day-night cycle, changing weather, physically-based rendering, and advanced ambient occlusion create realistic scenes with high-fidelity lighting, shadowing, and reflections. Additional eye candy comes from clothing physics, smoke effects, and particle physics like from the pouring molten metal.
Syndicate doesn’t have the population density of Assassin’s Creed Unity, but the diverse range of character models have fine detailing, especially apparent when looking at the clothes of working class laborers.
For making me interested in Victorian society in a way no literature class ever could, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate commits grand theft carriage into 4th place on the countdown.
Grand Theft Auto 5 PC
Grand Theft Auto 5 is approaching its third birthday, but it has been available on PC for less than one year. The PC version is far more than a simple remaster- many of the game’s visual elements have been rebuilt to take advantage of the PC’s hardware advantage over consoles.
Many are sure to question whether Grand Theft Auto 5 is worthy of a spot this low on the countdown. The concerns are valid, because some aspects of Grand Theft Auto 5 are visually inferior to many other games behind it on the countdown. Much of the geography has unrealistically sharp corners, and have textures that don’t hold up against scrutiny when viewed closely. The character models and building interior detailing are very simple. We can keep listing areas where other games outperform Grand Theft Auto 5, but since they are so numerous, we’d never finish the countdown. GTA 5 can’t go toe-to-toe in pixel-to-pixel comparisons with other heavy hitters on this list. However, the strength of GTA 5’s graphics are what it accomplishes within a world of unrivaled scale. Rockstar has always set the standard by which all other open world games are judged. Other games can only hope to have as active and diverse a world on the same scale as GTA 5’s. Los Angeles, I mean, Los Santos has the authentic look and feel of a Southern California city, with a dense and diverse population, all of whom can have unique interactions. But for everyone’s best interest, the constant gridlock does not make an appearance. The in-game city mirrors its real life counterpart. There is a different vibe and atmosphere from the business center than the suburban neighborhoods. You can visit historic landmarks like, Hollywood, I mean, Vinewood, Boulevard, and the Los Angeles, I mean, Los Santos, River. While driving around, the infrastructure and architecture have photorealistic quality. The environment diversity continues when you go north into the wilderness. If you need a break from driving, you can always go swimming and explore underwater, or you can take to the skies. You can choose to play the game in third person or first person.
Graphics technology is well-implemented, as the PC version has more realistic lighting, shadowing, and reflections, especially when seen at night.
With a busy world and endless ways to explore it, Grand Theft Auto 5 brings the Black Lives Matter Movement into 3rd place on the countdown.
Batman: Arkham Knight
Batman: Arkham Knight takes you back into the open world of Gotham, as you fight the titular Arkham Knight and Scarecrow, who threatens the release of bioweapons into the city. Batman has new armor, giving him greater stealth and hand-to-hand capabilities. Dispatching enemies is more efficient than ever. Fighting controls are fluid and responsive, and the Batmobile becomes an important weapon to turn the tide. Summoning the Batmobile to get you out of a tight spot is a thrill few games have the intensity to reproduce.
The PC version of Batman released with technical difficulties that gave the game poor performance even on powerful hardware, and Steam even removed the game from its store until its performance improved. After a series of fixes, the game runs better on a wider range of hardware, but in many gamers’ eyes, still cannot overcome its original label of figurative crash test dummy.
Technical hurdles aside, Batman: Arkham Knight is one the most graphically intensive games with modern effects powered by Nvidia Gameworks features. Although the base game engine still builds upon Unreal Engine 3, Gameworks gives the city of Gotham a level of visual detail unmatched by any other game world. PhysX and turbulence technology allows for dynamic smoke, dust, and debris effects, especially apparent when driving the Batmobile and seeing the cloud of smoke from drifting. Vapor trails from rockets can diffuse if you move through them or blow them aside with the air from the wake of your Batmobile handling. Even more impressive are how smoke and dust clouds are capable of self-shadowing, producing an even more realistic scene. Clothes, like Batman’s cape and jackets on main characters, also use PhysX technologies to have realistic soft cloth characteristics when moving. You can destroy many surfaces and objects, watching them break into small fragments each have their own physics properties. Nvidia’s enhanced rain is a gameworks feature specifically developed for Arkham Knight, giving each individual raindrop physical properties like viscosity, allowing you to follow its path as it drips down Batman’s suit and flies off when he swings his cape. Wet surfaces produce realistic reflective appearances in varied lighting. Combining with Nvidia’s advanced ambient occlusion technology, Arkham Knight has the best-looking rainy nights in any action game.
Even with realistic graphics, the game still maintains the visual charm of a comic book. Combat has pop art that has effect of KAPOW! bubbles in comic books.
The more you look at Arkham Knight’s graphics, the more finer details you uncover. Such is the level of detail that on the glass, you can see dried water drops. Character faces have an uncannily detailed appearance. Even non-essential characters have developed facial features.
Regardless of its graphical achievements, there are a few things holding Batman: Arkham Knight from receiving the top spot in this year’s countdown. Without the nighttime rainy weather, the game looks unremarkable. Also, Arkham Knight can’t break from its perception of being a technical mess. Nonetheless, from the game’s widespread implementation of realistic rain and wet effects and physics-based graphics technologies providing eye candy, even those who aren’t action or comic book fans are in for a giddy, explosive, gaming experience. Batman: Arkham Knight, summons the Batmobile into second place on the countdown.
1. Star Wars Battlefront
Some of my best gaming memories come from playing Battlefront 2’s Galactic Conquest mode on all-night gaming binges with friends. Therefore, I was disappointed when the latest Battlefront release doesn’t provide the same content depth or variety. All of that goes out the window when you see an AT-AT bearing down on your defenses, a Star Destroyer in the sky, and come face-to-face with a barrage of blaster fire.
Using the Frostbite 3 engine as a starting point, Battlefront’s developers and artists set out to create the most visually accurate representation of Star Wars battles, bringing memorable experiences of the silver screen to the LED screen. Battlefront’s graphical quality exceeds that of the prequel trilogy’s CG. Heavily featured in developing the game’s environments, photogrammetry technology allows for generation of game assets from photos. The artists visited real world locations that formed the basis of Star Wars worlds, like Redwood Forests in California for Endor, and took meticulous detail to photograph the real-life inspiration for the game’s maps, using photogrammetry technology to create the most true-to-life virtual depiction of Star Wars.
Battlefront’s geography is gorgeous. The barren ice fields of Hoth has the most visibly pleasing snow in any video game. It’s not just a flat texture- there is an actual depth to the snow, and you make footprints. It’s so fluffy-looking that no one would blame you if you wanted to ignore all the fighting around you to drop and make snow angels. The forest moon of Endor has dense foliage and diverse flora, with lushness and detailed texturing that rivals even the vegetation from the Crysis games. The leaves moving from contact with soldiers or shockwaves from the AT-AT walking adds another depth of realism to the scenery.
The effects of physically based rendering appear again, allowing for realistic illumination and dynamically- reflective surfaces, adding more polish and greater fidelity.
You can play the game in first person or third person. When in third person, you can actually see your character lose balance and adjust their running motion when an explosion hits near them. The character models have a wide range of customization options. All of them are sharp-looking, but the models that have the most impressive detailing are the ones with battle-worn armor.
One minor criticism of the graphics is the lack of environment destructible. The Frostbite engine is capable of map-wide destruction, as seen in the Battlefield-games, where you literally level anything standing. A few trees here and there can be destroyed, but I would definitely have liked to see more destructible environments. The limitation of destruction was possibly for gameplay balance, but most likely for technical reasons so that consoles can run the game.
The game has support for up to 20 players on each team. Even with high player counts, the game has consistent and stable performance on PC, even on older hardware. For a game of this level of graphical intensity, that is no small feat. Hats off to the PC development team.
Star Wars: Battlefront is the most immersive Star Wars experience from any video game, faithfully creating the look and feel of battles in the movie. Star Wars Battlefront Force Chokes to 1st place on the countdown.
Thanks for reading!
I hope you enjoyed this year’s countdown. After leaving a comment about how you would have ranked these games, let me know if there are any upcoming games you hope to see on next year’s countdown.