Looks may not be everything, but they still matter. That may sound superficial, but hey: video games have always been a platform for visual technical achievements. And, in most cases, it’s not how many polygons you can push around, but whether or not you can do it artfully. That said, the following games definitely set a new standard for visuals in 2016, either for their sense of style, approximation of actual reality, or both. 2017’s games will have to work pretty hard to outdo these showcases of impressive visual feats.
The Last Guardian
In terms of sheer graphics, The Last Guardian excels in two very different ways. For one, it presents an absolutely beautiful environment with its abandoned sacred land you travel through with your chimera companion. And it doesn’t simply go for photorealism, as the many environments of The Last Guardian—from grassy groves to torch-lit caves—feel like moving impressionist paintings.
But really, The Last Guardian’s best graphical achievement comes in the form of Trico, a massive beast who can’t speak, but still speaks volumes with his body language alone. The Last Guardian’s ability to craft an entirely believable companion out of a finite number of hand-crafted animations stands as an absolute creative victory for the talented team behind this game. [Bob Mackey]
Developer Naughty Dog created some of the best looking games on the PlayStation 3, so there were high expectations for what the team could do on the PlayStation 4. The long-awaited Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End delivered on those expectations and then some. The adventure game built gorgeous vistas, spectacular action set pieces, and incredibly detailed moments. Uncharted 4 is easily a pinnacle of PS4 graphics.
And Uncharted 4‘s visuals delivered in little ways that were just as impressive. Most faces in games struggle with displaying intricate human emotions, but this game does it with ease. You can see the subtle shock in Nathan Drake’s eyes in pivotal moments or Elena’s lowkey disappointment. Its deftness at handling moments big and small are what make Uncharted 4‘s visuals unforgettable. [Henry Gilbert]
Overwatch may not look too flashy on the surface: for the most part, its graphics get the job done—and, more importantly, don’t interfere with gameplay. But really, Overwatch’s attractive, cohesive visual style matters the most. Not only did Blizzard create a whopping 23 distinct and charming characters, none of them feel like an afterthought or over-designed. And the game’s globetrotting nature gives its developers a chance to craft a number of varied and visually interesting multiplayer arenas, from the pink cherry blossoms of Hanamura to the well-worn roadside attractions of Route 66.
Plus, you have to give the artists at Blizzard credit for creating a cast that so many people on the Internet have grown attached to for more than their personalities alone. Simply put, you might want to turn on SafeSearch before searching for Overwatch fan art. [Bob Mackey]
Tokyo Mirage Sessions
Tokyo Mirage Sessions isn’t just one of the last great Wii U games, it’s also one of the prettiest. This Japanese role-playing tale recreates modern day Tokyo as a vibrant battleground. Greens, blues, reds, and more explode out of the screen in a lovely rainbow of a world that you wish wasn’t too beautiful to be real. And it does it under the vision of fancy pop music videos.
Both the real world and the dungeons give the artists a chance to shine in Tokyo Mirage Sessions. However, the visuals are arguably at their strongest during battle. Neon battlegrounds are full of multicolored enemies and giant billboards that turn each sortie into something of a stage production. It’s a wonderful aesthetic that makes the already enjoyable battle system even more satisfying. [Henry Gilbert]
After impressing gamers with the very simple art of Limbo, developer Playdead had even more complex art to show off in its 2016 followup. Inside is similar in tone and style to its predecessor, but more impressively complex, and that extends to the art design. Now that Playdead could work in three dimensions and an expanded color pallet, they made great use of them while still keeping a muted design.
The sharp reds, the harsh industrial setting, the danger inside are all crafted beautifully. Even some of the more grim moments, especially towards the end, look fantastic. It’s not the longest game, but it’s still a visual marvel for as long as Inside lasts. [Henry Gilbert]