Well, day one went so well that we figured we'd just keep going with this Game of the Year thing. Four more categories await your consideration below, along with another daily video recapping the awards and a second deliberation podcast that spells out in excruciating detail exactly how we came to select these winners. Find that stuff on the GOTY hub page!
Splatoon is fresh as hell for a multitude of reasons, but a huge part of its freshness must be attributed to its endearingly goofy soundtrack. Mixing together rock guitars and a wide variety of electronic samples, composers Toru Minegishi and Shiho Fujii effectively invent their own peculiar genre of music. Absent an actual name for it, we'll just call it Squidpunk.
Whatever you call it, Splatoon's soundtrack is uniformly perfect for the game's overall vibe. This is the kind of music squid teens would be listening to while splatting one another in this world of upbeat gladiatorial combat. You can find the bulk of the soundtrack online, but even if you don't want to take the time to listen to all of it, definitely check out the track Gusher Gauntlet. It's just the weirdest, most wonderful thing.
Most Disappointing Game
The long-in-coming second sequel to a relatively little-known downloadable tower defense game might seem like an odd choice for the most disappointing game of 2015, but let's break it down. War Chest--the third Toy Soldiers game to mix tower defense and third-person action in a really fun way--should've had everything going for it. With the first game, Signal Studios proved it could make an engaging game with a little-seen historical period like World War I. With the sequel, Cold War, it gave the series a healthy dose of personality, with cheesy '80s action-movie machismo that filled every inch of the bedroom-sized battlefield. Cold War also brought about a really satisfying, robust multiplayer mode that made it seem like Toy Soldiers could become something you'd play for months instead of a few days.
On top of that strong foundation, War Chest had an absolutely incredible set of real-world toy licenses in G.I. Joe and He-man (which, being perfectly honest, are the toy licenses most strategically positioned to tweak the nostalgia of the mid-30s Giant Bomb staff). And the game even replicates the toys from those properties in exquisitely accurate detail, to the point that merely scrolling through the list of Rattlers, B.A.T.s, Hisses, Cobra Commander, and Battle Cat was enough to get more than one of us a little misty-eyed for our childhoods. This game seemed poised to be incredible.
(As an aside, the game also had the best main menu music of the year, and it was a certain unexpected delight to find you could actually buy an MP3 of that music with uPlay points, marking the first time in history uPlay points were actually useful for something cool. If the person who thought up that idea is reading this: good job.)
With all those extremely promising elements in its corner, War Chest just plain failed to meet the Toy Soldiers series' previously high bar of quality. The level designs were downright bad in some places, and merely limp in others. The game was fraught with some painfully ugly performance problems and audio bugs. It felt uninspired and rough around the edges in a way we just didn't expect after the first two games were so good. You even had to pay extra just to access any of those licensed factions, and the way the game was structured meant it wasn't especially worthwhile to play the campaign multiple times just to see them all anyway. What should have been a nostalgic triumph instead ended up feeling like an enormous missed opportunity.
Best Short-Time Game
As the followup to last year’s Hitman Go, Lara Croft Go had a hard act to follow. For some reason, Square Enix Montreal’s minimalist take on Agent 47’s surreptitious activities just made sense, and it was hard to imagine the complex puzzles, run-and-gun action, and vast vistas of Tomb Raider translating to a pocket-sized experience in the same way. But somehow, they pulled it off. Not only does Lara Croft Go meet the high quality of the first game in the "Go" series, but it even exceeds it.
The result is not only a great Short-Time game, but also a great take on classic Tomb Raider. Lara moves through ancient ruins one tile at a time, and whenever she moves, so does the dangerous wildlife. The player learns to anticipate enemy movement patterns, utilize a variety of weapons, and dodge devious traps. It's a tense puzzle game that rewards patience and careful thinking, and it does all this while being incredibly stylish.
Lara Croft Go trades in the board game aesthetic for a look that’s low on polygons and high on character and color, distilling and sprucing up the recognizable style of the early Tomb Raider games. And because the game’s look is both simple and striking, it’s never hard to understand what the game is trying to communicate to you.
It’s pretty, smart, and it’ll make you miss your stop on mass transit. Is there higher praise for a short-time game?
Best New Character
It would’ve been really easy for CD Projekt Red to flub the landing on Philip Strenger, the petty tyrant known as the Bloody Baron. Plenty of games (and works of other media for that matter) try to make sympathetic bad guys, but most of the time they lean a little too far in one direction or the other. Either the supposed villain is just a badass anti-hero or else the antagonist’s hidden heart of gold does little to redeem their terrible deeds. With the Bloody Baron, CD Projekt Red (and the Baron’s actor, James Clyde) found that rare middle ground of just right.
In a game filled with monsters, it would’ve been easy to make the Bloody Baron one more amoral, inhuman creature. But this would be letting him off easy: Monsters don’t have to feel guilty. Instead, the horror of Strenger’s crimes are met equally by the depth of his regret. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt never lets him off the hook, but it does go out of its way to remind you that the thing hung up on that hook is a human, for better and (often) worse. He is complex and cruel; a clever conversationalist and a disinterested leader; a loving father and a terrible husband and sometimes all of those things mixed and remixed in different arrangements. Nothing is simple with him. Even his nom de guerre isn’t actually as bloody as you might first think.
CD Projekt Red rolls all of this complexity out slowly. There’s nearly a dozen hours between first meeting Strenger and finally seeing some degree of resolution with his story. All this time gives the player the time to think about him and his predicament, opinion swinging back and forth not only because of big story twists but also because of the natural sway of feeling. Is he an asshole or a screw up? Was he sincere when he said he was sorry? Does it matter in the end? It’s rare that a game character can inspire this sort of internal back and forth, let alone do it with such a forceful performance. For all these reasons, the Bloody Baron stands tall among other new characters this year.
May the crones take his goddamned soul.