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John "Cowboy" Bellomy's Top 10 Games of 2015

Naughty Dog's Cowboy returns once again to list off his favorite games of the year.

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John Bellomy is a programmer at Naughty Dog, known for his work on such popular franchises as Uncharted, The Last of Us, and USB Drivers for PlayStation 3 Fight Sticks/Instrument Controllers. Please yell "YEE-HAW" at him via Twitter.

As the year winds down we head into the home stretch of our own little project, leaving me with quite a post-ship backlog, including: Fallout 4, SOMA, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Her Story, Yoshi’s Woolly World, Just Cause 3, and Undertale. Still, I did manage to play some games, mostly an even split of big budget blockbusters and smaller darlings (and kind of a surprising amount of multiplayer focus for me this year). Overall there were a number of great experiences to be had so here’s a number of them in some particular order:

10. Batman: Arkham Knight

Somehow I managed to thread the PC configuration needle that left me able to run this game without too much trouble. Rocksteady’s chops for designing mechanics continued to feel on point here, and while the vehicle stuff felt vestigial at times, there were moments for me where it all clicked together in some sweet chain of flying, vehicle, and combat. I ended up wringing every bit out of this game, doing every challenge which resulted in a number of tense battles for leaderboard supremacy against the one other person on my friends list who could play the game.

9. Tales from the Borderlands

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Having played all the Borderlands games up until this point, I felt like I had gotten everything I needed out of that story and universe. So, of Telltale’s latest throng of releases, I expected the least out of this one. All the more surprising then to see them craft an interesting and engaging story in that universe. Cribbing enough to make the world comfortable and recognizable, but finding new aspects and focus to really craft a compelling story that I was excited to see through to the end.

8. Sublevel Zero

I can’t remember the last proper 6DoF corridor shooter I’ve played. I mean, it was probably Descent, right? So, I was excited to see a fresh take on the genre. The aesthetic hooked me instantly and moving around using keyboard+mouse felt shockingly good to the point where I eschewed the controller entirely. The roguelike design helped fit it as my “I have a spare 10-ish minutes or so” game of choice. I found myself filling many a down beat with a quick run through neon laser populated tunnels.

7. Bloodborne

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Dipping my toes back into one of those games again with Bloodborne felt like a fine return to form. My Dark Souls play style was big weapons and shields so being forced into a faster stick and move approach I found to be a refreshing change of pace. Then I got the Kirkhammer. Both styles felt visceral and satisfying, especially after pulling of a particularly deft dodge and counter combo (or beating some monster to the punch with a heavy slam).

6. Destiny: The Taken King

When I first played Destiny, I finished the story missions and felt no compulsion to go back. Reading more about their end game and what kind of dice rolls they were putting in front of players made me sad they couldn’t have taken a page from another favorite of mine: Diablo. So, when I heard they had the Diablo team personally deliver said page naturally I got interested again. Bungie has really improved their game, not only on the loot treadmill front, but in just giving you new things to do even after the main story missions are complete. A lot of credit for how much I enjoyed Destiny 2.0 I suspect is the availability of family, friends, and coworkers to play with. This was my introduction to raiding and it made for some truly terrifying and satisfying encounters. Now Destiny has found its home for me as a game where they took Diablo and replaced the clicking with satisfying feeling shooting.

5. Splatoon

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Another pleasant surprise for me this year was how tight a package Nintendo put together with Splatoon. The core nugget of gunplay-affecting-traversal-affecting-gunplay was interesting by itself, but for the first time it felt like Nintendo turned their eye for polish towards the user experience of playing online. Just one match inevitably became three or four (or more). I even didn’t hate the motion controls.

4. Super Mario Maker

I remember when they first announced Super Mario Maker and thinking there’s a path to a truly amazing game they’re headed down, and a lot of ways it could easily go off the rails in traditional Nintendo fashion. To see it all come together has been a fantastic experience, deconstructing the design elements of the series into its constituent parts in a way that elevates the overall appreciation of the series. I keep coming back to do a quick 10 Mario challenge, but more than that this game has settled nicely as a quite enjoyable spectator sport, reveling in all the excitement, anguish and triumphs sprung from the evil insanity this game seems to foster.

3. Rocket League

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For extracting pure emotional reactions from me nothing this year beats Rocket League. No game has had me yelling at my TV (in good ways or bad) more. The simplicity of design belies the brilliance of the execution and the result is a pure expression of joy that comes from having rocket boosted cars knocking a giant ball around a stadium. If you open their general design document on page one I expect to find in 72 pt. font: CHILDLIKE GLEE.

2. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

Geralt of Rivia: Professional. Don’t get me wrong, the setting was good (a nice departure from the more bog-standard fantasy fare) and the story more than interesting enough to hook me. But really leaning into the idea that Geralt is a man with a job to do and he’s going to do it right was where this game sang for me. Almost immediately I cranked up the difficulty, which emphasized your need to use the right tools for the job as well as the “Investigate -> Hunt -> Prepare -> Execute” loop, far and away my favorite aspect of this game. Populated with a bountiful amount of side quests, which felt like a major step up in quality from what typical expectations for side content are, I did every single one I could get my hands on. And, oh yeah, motherfuckin’ Gwent.

1. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain*

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Metal Gear Solid V is much more than the sum of its parts, and those parts are very well made indeed. From the modern player movement, shooting, AI, every system feels individually well crafted. But, one of Kojima Productions' strongest points has been systems interacting with other systems. Shoot a fire extinguisher and you can obscure an enemy’s vision, unless they’re wearing night vision goggles, but then you can blind them with a flashlight. Guards have routines, so more people will be asleep at night, or maybe take advantage of a opportune sandstorm. All these elemental systems overlaid atop one another in a sandbox stealth/combat sandbox makes for a wonderful double pendulum effect of game design. Just being out in the world it was fun to experiment and refine my tactics or change gears entirely and blow stuff up all set against the sounds of A-Ha.

*Confession Time: I did use cheat engine to skip past some resource constraints and other less savory elements of their meta game design, and came out feeling quite pleased with the resulting experience. Plus after I finished all the story missions I unlocked all the remaining weapons and gear and got right back to even more experimenting in side ops. Still, even without the ability to edit out some of the lamer aspects, there’s a truly amazing experience to be had here.