The best console games we saw at GDC 2016

Every year, the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco offers the chance for a bunch of brilliantly creative people to get together and show off what they've been working on. For us, that means the exciting chance to play a plethora of cool games, made by major studios and up-and-coming indie teams alike. While GDC 2016 was definitely the Year of VR (and trust us, you'll be hearing plenty about our best VR experiences in the near future), there were loads of stellar games on display that don't require strapping a peripheral to your face. Some we simply had to write about right away, like Stories: Path of Destinies; others like Kill to Collect, Gonner, and Mages of Mystralia are looking great, but haven't yet been confirmed for consoles. Here’s our choices for the best non-VR games we saw that are set to land on PS4 or Xbox.

Hob (PS4, PC)

The oddly named Hob is one of those games that just feels right the moment you start playing. From Runic Games, makers of the Torchlight series, Hob is a dialogue-free take on Legend of Zelda-esque adventure, as you explore a lush forest that's been infected by a morass of purple ooze, nasty pustules, and freaky mandibles. In place of a green tunic and a Hylian shield, Hob's blank-faced, teal-eyed hero sports a red hood and a gigantic, metal left arm that can block attacks and push giant stone blocks with relative ease. He almost looks like a cute creation from Joe Madureira (of Darksiders character design fame).

Hob's combat and exploration both feel instantly familiar and gratifying, as you guide your intrepid knight through a colorful world that springs to life in large chunks, rotating and unfolding as if powered by some ancient underground mechanism. Battles against the ooze-infested beasties you'll encounter are full of sword slashing, strategic blocking, and dodge rolling; once the dust settles, you can try to seek out health pickups in classic Link fashion by dicing up patches of tall grass. Environmental puzzles start out simple, but you'll eventually upgrade your mecha-arm with a magnetic grapple, opening up the levels with some satisfying platforming. All the while, you'll be admiring Hob's gorgeous, expressive animations, which infuse a real sense of life into the denizens of this fantastical forest.

Sniper Elite 4 (PS4, Xbox One, PC)

The fourth entry in the Sniper Elite series sends you to the battlefields of Italy, where once again you take on the role of the American sniper Karl Fairburne. From what we've seen so far, Sniper Elite 4 is a by-the-numbers Sniper Elite game. You'll need to infiltrate German occupied territory, using your stealth skills and precision marksmanship to overcome your enemies.

You can use all of the classic sniper tricks from the previous games, like sabotaging gas generators to create a sound mask for gunshots, or knocking out structural weak points in the environment for bone crushing kills. But what's gotten a noticeable upgrade is the slow-motion, x-ray bullet cams that show your perfect shots ripping through flesh and bone. Not only is the gore more detailed on the new console hardware, but now the environment kills and explosions get the slow-mo treatment. And yes, testicle shots are still a thing.

Kingdom (Xbox One, PC)

The makings of a kingdom - loyal followers, fortified defenses, sustainable agriculture - don't just suddenly pop into existence because you will it. They must be built up slowly and steadily, with great care taken to make sure your best-laid plans don’t fall apart in the face of terrifying nighttime demonspawn before they can come to fruition. Such is your undertaking in Kingdom, an almost meditative blend of strategy and survival that oscillates between moments of beautiful tranquility and panicked desperation.

As a pixelated queen or king, you enter this picturesque, procedurally generated world with little more than a trusty steed and a golden crown. The latter is coveted by a horde of alien-looking creatures that only come out at night, so you'll need to build up a kingdom bit by bit as you carefully balance your precious resources and race against the day/night cycle. The Xbox One is getting is an enhanced version of the current PC build (which will also be patched in on PC), with a wealth of exciting additions like bear mounts, changing seasons, and boats you can build to explore new lands. But most affecting of all are the new animations; your heart will break the first time a peasant wordlessly stretches their hand out, begging for a coin you don't have to give.

TMNT Mutants in Manhattan (PS4, Xbox One, PC)

The Ninja Turtles are back in the gaming scene with a new co-op centric beat 'em up from Platinum Games (creators of Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising). The game takes inspiration from multiple Ninja Turtle sources such as the original Mirage comics, the IDW comics, the original TMNT cartoon, and even the new animated series, to create the art style and personalities.

Mutants in Manhattan is best played with four players, but if you can't get enough friends to fill all four shells, the extra turtles will be AI controlled. As you progress through the game, ridding New York of the Foot Clan in open environment missions, you'll earn special, turtle-specific skills that can be activated in combat. Leo can slow down time, Raph activates stealth mode, and Mikey cheers on his bros to instantly recharge their abilities. The brothers can also join together to unleash devastating team attacks. With the classic characters, catch phrases, and constant references to Michelangelo's pizza obsession, Mutants in Manhattan oozes with nostalgia and fan service.

Shiny (Xbox One, PC)

Shiny is a 2.5D side-scrolling platformer that has the familiar feel of a Sonic the Hedgehog game and a setting reminiscent of Pixar's WALL-E. The world is a desolate place. Humans have used up all of the natural resources on the planet and have abandoned it, leaving their now obsolete robots stranded and without power to fuel themselves. As a robot yourself, it is up to you to collect power from energy sources such as batteries and generators, use the energy to recharge your robot worker companions, and build a spaceship to escape the planet.

The gameplay is all about maintaining your energy meter. Everything from running and jumping to using special items like jetpacks and shields drains your energy, and if you completely run out, you die. Successfully moving through a level requires speed and a conservative attitude toward your energy resource. So, you might want to delay helping a robot in need in order to find an energy station to power up, then backtrack to recharge your mechanical buddy.

Thimbleweed Park (Xbox One, PC)

We'll never quit you, 2D point-and-click adventure games. There's just something so wonderfully nostalgic about tinkering with item puzzles and observing every bit of your environment just to see your character's response - and that old-school charm is exactly what Thimbleweed Park is going for. Adventure game godfathers Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick originally pitched (and successfully Kickstarted) Thimbleweed as the spiritual successor to the seminal Maniac Mansion. That sensation of playing through a classic point-and-click shines through in every inch of this mysterious '80s town, from the pixelicious aesthetics and catchy music to the witty, wry dialogue and ever-present, off-kilter humor.

Our story starts with two detectives investigating a mysterious dead body. Bite your tongue before you make any X-Files comparisons; the tone of Thimbleweed Park has much more in common with the secrecy and slowly escalating weirdness of Twin Peaks. Agents Ray and Reyes are joined by Ransome the foul-mouthed clown, tech geek Delores, and a ghost named Franklin for a total of five playable characters, all with their own personality quirks (and possibly some ulterior motives). Between the multitude of verb-based inputs, retro font straight out of the first Monkey Island, and a steady stream of chuckle-worthy (and laugh-out-loud) moments, Thimbleweed Park promises to transport you back to the golden age of point-and-click puzzling in the best way possible.

Below (Xbox One, PC)

Tutorials be damned because you aren't getting any when you dive into Below. The Zelda and Dark Souls inspired roguelike is all about discovery and leaving you to uncover the intricacies of the game mechanics and environment on your own. From the start of the game, you're dropped off on an island beach with nothing but a sword, a shield, and a lantern. No instructions. No waypoints on a map. Nothin'.

Eventually you find yourself exploring deeper and deeper into the island's depths where your surroundings get darker, forcing you to find alternate light sources. You also need to manage your hunger and thirst, and, when you become wounded in a battle, find a way to heal yourself before you bleed out. I won't tell you specifically how to fix each of those problems because delving into Below is all about taking a step into the unknown, and you'll want to figure it out for yourself.

Unbox (PS4, Xbox One, PC)

If you miss the 3D platformers of old, Unbox is a little bit of Mario 64, Banjo Kazooie, and Ratchet and Clank rolled up in one...well, package. In Unbox, you play as a shipping package - like one that you'd send to the post office - and fulfill postal deliveries while doing all sorts of things a piece of mail shouldn't be able to do, like drive cars and fire rockets at pompadour-wearing evil boxes. Yeah, this game is weird.

The gameplay has you performing platforming challenges as you try to collect rolls of tape within a time limit or using the game's physics to solve puzzles. Then there's the action elements that could have you blasting enemy boxes with a assortment of rocket-propelled explosives that are equipped via a Mario Kart-style slot-machine random item selector. Unbox pulls ideas from lots of sources, and while the combination of cardboard boxes, platforming, and Mario Kart mechanics might sound bizarre, propelling a box through the air while firing rockets from its cardboard flaps sounds oddly enticing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucas likes his games like he likes his music: eclectic. With all the weird and wonderful stuff he's played over the years, the two of you are bound to feel the same way about something!
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