By Epsilon82 6 Comments
2015 Year in Review/Top 10 List
It's hard to believe 2015 has already come to a close; it was quite a whirlwind and there was certainly no shortage of incredible new titles to dive into. If certain games down the stretch like Fallout 4 and Just Cause 3 hit just a bit more strongly on target, I'd be inclined to rank it up there with 1998 and 2007 as one of the greatest gaming years of all time.
At the outset of the year, I took a glance at my absurd backlog and resolved to only buy new games this year when I fully intended to play them immediately. At the very least, this would presumably help me start whittling down the insane list of games I've relegated to the "I'm TOTALLY going to play that someday" category and also help save some money in the process.
How did I do? Well, for the first few months of the year, not bad. I was quite a bit more selective than I had been in the past and did a good job of staying on top of actually playing the relatively few games I did buy. Predictably, however, the two major Steam sales pretty much torpedoed that plan with aplomb. I have still not yet quite been able to truly internalize the absurdity of my game glut, and so I ended up buying quite a few games that I really would like to play but realistically knew I wasn't going to be able to get around to anytime soon.
So my resolution for 2016 is, as you might guess, exactly the same as it was for 2015. Maybe this year I'll finally come a lot closer to sticking to it.
Along these lines, I'll memorialize the games I bought in 2015 that sadly will have to wait until sometime in 2016 or beyond. This will not merely serve to make me look foolish but also indicate the games whose absence on my Top 10 list should not be imputed as a slight or oversight. I definitely think I'll like most if not all of the following games quite a bit, but I just couldn't find the time to get around to them for various reasons (*cough* Rocket League *cough*.)
2015 Pile of Shame (in alphabetical order)
The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 (haven't played the first one either)
Crypt of the NecroDancer (played like 15 minutes in Early Access)
Pillars of Eternity (I doubt I'll ever actually play this, but I like the idea of playing it)
Prison Architect (see Pillars of Eternity)
Shadow Complex (the remastered PC version)
Splatoon (probably the most shameful of the list; paid $60 and still haven't touched it)
Technobabylon (to be fair, I did wipe the entire Blackwell series from my backlog this year so I give myself a pass on this one)
The Escapists (the absence of native controller support on PC is disgraceful but I bought it anyway)
TIS-100 (can't wait to actually get some use out of my college Systems Programming course)
Undertale (probably not my bag but I just have to see what the fuss is about)
If you think that's bad, you should see my piles of shame for every other year since 2008. Believe it or not, I'm actually really improving here!
I want to briefly explain the presence of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain in my Pile of Shame; initially, I didn't want to play the game right away because I was so rusty on the story and hadn't even played Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots yet, so I actually watched an LP of the first game, played the HD remaster of the second game, and started watching a movie version of the third...and at a certain point I got so burned out that I questioned whether I really cared at all about the story in this series anyway. I probably would have just said screw it, read a brief synopsis of Peace Walker, and then dove in for what doesn't appear to be a particular story-focused entry in the series anyway. But then the microtransaction stuff all blew up, and the idea of a METAL GEAR SOLID game being dependent on any kind of online systems turned me off so hard that even the promise of unprecedented quality open-world gameplay hasn't been enough to get me to take the plunge. I hope this somehow gets rectified or worked around in 2016 so I can experience the good parts of what otherwise seems like a landmark title, but I wouldn't be surprised if the pull of the rest of my backlog keeps me from doing so anytime soon. It's a real shame, and probably the first genuine example of what I consider disgusting mobile F2P business practices infesting a AAA single player game that I've personally encountered.
2015 Honorable Mentions
Here I will list the games that came up short of the cut; these are all games that I enjoyed to varying degrees but couldn't quite justify the inclusion in my Top 10. Perhaps in a weaker year (last year for example), they might have squeaked by.
Super Mega Baseball (PC "Extra Innings" version)
There were definitely quite a few others that I enjoyed but didn't seriously consider for the Top 10, but I thought the above deserved particular mention. Batman in particular was very close, but ultimately the fact that it was (and continues to be) a smoldering dumpster fire on PC combined with what I felt was a heavy over-reliance on Batmobile combat pushed it just outside the cut. I almost feel dirty about cutting Grow Home, because it was such a breath of fresh air in a favorite genre of mine, but ultimately it fell victim to its limited scope. I just wanted more (and would have gladly paid more for a fleshed out, elaborate version.) But what it did deliver was fantastic and I dearly hope they build on it in the future. I didn't quite have the same ecstatic response to Tales from the Borderlands as a lot of others seemed to, but I did still enjoy it and might attribute my muted response to some slight Telltale fatigue I might be experiencing at this point (having played every single one of their series since the first season of The Walking Dead.)
2015 Old Games of the Year
Before launching into the main event, I thought I'd mention a few games not released in 2015 that sucked up large quantities of my gaming time this year.
To start with, I've been a huge fan of Rock Band since shortly after its release in 2007. There were several years I played so much of it and its sequels that it was almost as responsible as my general lack of restraint and self-control for my ever-burgeoning backlog. Over the last few years, even though I would still play Rock Band 3 regularly, I found myself latching onto a few other games as ones I regularly returned to when I didn't particularly feel like playing a new or story-driven game.
This past year I reverted a lot to three particular games. (Well, four, but one of them features prominently in my Top 10 to come so I'll omit that one here.)
As a huge pinball fan who mourns the fact that real machines are so hard to come by and that they're typically in rotten mechanical shape when I do find them, this game is a complete godsend. I spent a rather embarrassing number of hours on "extra-legal" Visual Pinball PC conversions in past years, so having a legitimate commercial product to get my regular pinball fix is a wonderful development. Sometimes I scroll through the list of available tables (I have them all, of course) and marvel at how relatively quickly this product has become such a nearly comprehensive package of pinball goodness. Adding The Addams Family (the "holy grail" of licensed pinball machines) was an enormous coup this year.
In a year when fans of the EA golf games ended up sorely disappointed, I happily played hundreds of rounds on the fictional courses (and very well-done fan recreations of real ones) in The Golf Club. One of the things I love the most about this game is how simple it is structurally. The crazy progression systems, complicated equipment setups, and elaborate career modes of past Tiger Woods games eventually wore on me, and the simple beauty of just being in a gorgeous patch of nature playing a casual round of golf just for fun was a truly refreshing change of pace that has not yet even started to get old. While the quantity of new courses released by the community of creators for the game has dwindled from its previously dizzying pace over the back half of the year, I already have dozens of phenomenal courses I will happily return to time and again over 2016.
I simply cannot say enough about how much I love this game. Unlike the two other titles mentioned previously, this game has no discrete content additions like new courses or tables to keep things fresh, but I keep coming back almost daily just to enjoy the satisfaction of its expertly tuned gameplay loop. The developer has done an absolutely unbelievable job over the years supporting the game with massive and free updates, including an Extreme Difficulty New Game Plus Mode that dramatically improved an already terrific game. Even though the core gameplay could be considered as not much more than a dressed-up typing game by the cynical and reductive among us, it just strikes such a chord with the pleasure centers in my brain that I don't think I'll ever voluntarily stop playing it. The recently announced sequel is seriously my Most Anticipated Game for 2016, and nothing else is even close.
I've been meaning over the course of the year to get around to playing some of the other well-regarded mobile games, but that would require breaking my utter addiction to this masterpiece of elegant game design.
5) Grand Theft Auto V (PC version)
Despite having played it to completion twice before, finally having the chance to experience Rockstar's magnum opus at 60 fps without jaggies was one of the best times I had all year, and I still periodically hop into it just to cruise or fly around and take in the incredible sights of probably the most richly detailed game world ever conceived. In a year with a few surprisingly butchered PC ports, I was extremely pleased with what Rockstar achieved with this one in terms of quality and stability; it was certainly well worth the seemingly interminable wait.
So now I'll finally get to my Top 10 Games of the year, listed in reverse order as is custom 'round these parts.
Top 10 Games of 2015
I have to confess that I've only played about four or five hours of this, and that I roughly possess the creative skills of a pencil eraser, but even just playing a handful of the ridiculous levels that people have put out with this thing convinces me that its staying power will be limited only by the life span of the Wii U. The editor is clearly a landmark achievement in user-generated content, and it almost seems like the GamePad was created with this game in mind. Whether the synergy between Super Mario Maker and the GamePad was nothing more than a happy accident, the fantastic results are the same, and I'm definitely planning on sinking a lot more time into this thing over the course of 2016.
Leaving the utter hogwash story and largely forgettable characters aside, nobody does single-player RTS campaigns like Blizzard. As someone who finds the intricacies of multiplayer StarCraft nothing short of cripplingly overwhelming, Legacy of the Void nevertheless allowed me to experience the thrilling joy of building a massive army and watching it obliterate everything in its path with flair and bombast that exceeds even high-budget science fiction movies. While it's certainly just "more of the same" at this juncture, there's nothing else quite like it, and there probably won't be again for a very long time.
I've long held what I've considered a mildly shameful fondness for the pioneering CD-ROM FMV games; as horrible as most of those games actually were, the promise of seeing real live action prompted by your interaction as a player really appealed to me. Contradiction is probably the first game that I've ever played to actually meet that promise in a game that combines appropriately campy-yet-believable acting performances within a decently written murder mystery and perfectly functional game design. It may have taken around 20 years, but someone finally nailed it, delivering one of my most pleasant surprises of 2015. And Paul Rand was such a delicious villain that he makes Stan Kroenke seem like a cherubic angel.
I will readily confess that my affinity for this game is certainly inextricably tied to my long-time adoration of Hideo Kojima's Snatcher, but this game goes well beyond the evocations of its obvious inspiration to deliver a thought-provoking cyberpunk tale that stuck with me as much as anything I've played this year. It overcomes its clear budgetary limitations (and the attendant absence of voice acting) to paint some of the most memorable and rich characters I've encountered in a game. What perhaps impressed me the most was the level to which it surprised me with its puzzle and gameplay designs; every time you think you're settling into the conventional graphic adventure gameplay loop, Read Only Memories defies your expectations on a regular basis. It is a real gem in a crowded cyberpunk rock pile.
In a similar vein to my confessed devotion to a well-done FMV game, I'm a sucker for a good Western. Red Dead Redemption just might be my favorite game of all time, so merely putting a nifty action shooter set in the Western theme already goes a long way toward achieving high marks from me. But Westerado goes much, much further by supplementing its simple-yet-effective combat with an almost unbelievable amount of player choice and depth in its quest system. It's by no means the first game to basically allow you to do whatever you want (to occasionally comic extremes,) but it's the first that really resonated with me rather than simply making me feel overwhelmed or nagged with the constant sense I was doing it wrong. It's a marvelous achievement that came seemingly out of nowhere, and I surely will relish hopping back into its quirky and endlessly varied world on multiple occasions in the coming years.
I was so bummed out by the 45 minutes I played of the free copy of Assassin's Creed Unity I received with my Xbox One system last year that I had pretty much decided that I was done with the series. I had come to realize that the only reason I loved Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag so much was the incredible ship combat and pirate theme, and I strongly doubted a return to the more conventional roots of the series would hold any real appeal for me. But Syndicate (sorry, Jeff!) defied my reluctance from the outset; from the wonderfully detailed and interesting setting of London to a gleeful return to the more silly elements of their boisterous "historic-ish" storytelling, the game not only held my attention all the way through, but compelled me to play it again all over again for a second time on the PC. I don't know if "another one of these" is going to have the same appeal the next time around, but Assassin's Creed Syndicate proved that maybe a grappling hook, a home base preposterously set on a moving train, and some delightful wacky cameos from Karl Marx and Charles Darwin are enough new tricks for a dog getting pretty long in the tooth.
As my inclusion of the likes of Westerado: Double Barreled and Read Only Memories on this list aptly demonstrates, I'm not much of one to let conventional graphical quality dictate my enjoyment of a game. But Ori and the Blind Forest equally illustrates how truly transcendent artistic and technical prowess can elevate a game from a serviceable Metroidvania spiced with some devilish platforming challenges to an experience far greater than the sum of its parts. The lavishly hand-painted backgrounds and magnificent lighting produce a setting so pleasing to the eye that it at times seems impossible to believe. With a few design missteps along the way, I honestly can't say that this game would have made my list had its aesthetic accomplishments been merely average. But the fact that they're so superlative easily drives it to the top half of it this year, and I make no apologies for conceding that sometimes the graphics really DO matter.
In a year during which my enjoyment of Telltale's episodic series began to wane a bit, Life Is Strange admirably filled in with its poignant story of Max Caulfield and her best friend Chloe. It certainly takes a deft touch for producers of electronic entertainment to make a thirty-something male feel perfectly at ease inhabiting the character of a young woman half his age, but Dontnod Entertainment pulled off the feat with startling aplomb. Unlike many of Telltale's series which often feel like they are single games somewhat arbitrarily segmented into episodes, I was often so emotionally drained and overwhelmed by what transpired in Life is Strange episodes that I welcomed the relief of a break even though I was bursting at the seams with anticipation to find out what happened next.
Though it's certainly not without some serious flaws (the dialogue can be uneven, some of the more action-oriented sequences were a bit clunky and annoying, and it didn't quite stick the landing as well as I'd hoped,) Life Is Strange was a phenomenal effort from start to finish. Dontnod Entertainment deserves a lot of acclaim for having the guts to pursue their vision and tackle some really uncomfortable themes. A game like this could have easily fallen spectacularly on its face rather than comfortably residing on a perch alongside the greatest games of the year, and I'm definitely excited to see where the studio goes from here.
It's almost a shame that The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt had to be released in 2015, because it would have had an almost certain claim to the top prize for me in nearly any other year. CD Projekt Red's latest tale of Geralt of Rivia has a breathtaking scope outdone only by an almost literally unbelievable depth of content. From the earliest moments in White Orchard to its bittersweet conclusion that I reached some 110 hours later, I was transfixed to an extent unmatched by any RPG I've ever played.
With any ordinary game, that kind of time investment would have required me to take an extended break. But what did I do with this one? I almost instantly started up a new game to focus on the incredibly fun (and addictive) Gwent card mini-game that I had entirely ignored in my first playthrough. It's extremely rare for a narrative-driven game to sink its claws in so deeply to me that I can't bring myself to put it down and move on after the quest log is empty and the credits have rolled, but the wondrous world that CD Projekt crafted immersed me to such an extent that I had to force myself to put it down. At least until the first expansion came out and floored me once again.
Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay to this game is the number of times that I completely lost track of whether the quest I was currently playing was a main story quest or an entirely optional side quest. I don't know what compelled me to dive into this series effectively blind despite having a veritable pile of well-regarded RPGs sitting untouched and mocking me in my backlog, but I'm exceedingly glad I did.
Bring on Blood and Wine!
I say this with no malice toward anyone who pours hundreds of hours a year into competitive multiplayer games, but I've always felt like you were just doing the same repetitive thing over and over again, with only a thin layer of unlock progression and numbers going higher to keep you coming back. I never understood the appeal.
Rocket League just might be the greatest sports game ever made.
Lofty words, but I don't consider them hyperbolic. Amidst an era of saturated and strained "e-sports" promotions, Psyonix has developed an "e-sport" in the truest sense of the phrase: a real sport that can only work electronically. It's easy enough to identify with Rocket League from a general sports perspective: after all, it just takes soccer, adds cars, and subtracts all the boring rules. But due to Psyonix's wonderfully deft design decisions and mechanics tuning, it defies that reductive characterization to result in something more like a maniacal version of hockey with nearly limitless nuances that is nothing short of pure joy to play.
The adage "easy to learn, hard to master" is often overused (chess isn't really that easy to learn, you guys) but nowhere is it more aptly applied than here. Virtually anyone who's played video games is familiar with driving a car, and almost anyone alive is conversant with the concept of putting a ball into the other team's net. So even at the most basic beginning levels, Rocket League provides plenty of thrills just driving around and running into the ball.
But that veneer of simplicity belies an almost dizzying array of complexities that can be engaged at each player's personal pace or preference, and it all revolves around Psyonix's brilliant implementation of the boost mechanic. Players will quickly realize that their effectiveness largely depends on the amount of boost available at a particular time, but not only does boost provide the obvious ability to drive faster (and thus hit the ball harder) but in conjunction with your car's jumping and rolling abilities allows you to fly. Aerial play can be extraordinarily challenging (and I've barely scratched the surface of it myself) but the brilliance of it is that it enables a skill ceiling that is nearly impossible to truly maximize.
As significant as the manual dexterity the game can leverage is the constant mental engagement: you're constantly forced to think about where your teammates are, where the opponents are, where the ball is, and then decide what the most effective thing to do at that particular moment. Should I charge in after the ball in the corner? Should I hang back to play defense? Should I use what's left of my boost to try this shot, or should I abandon the action briefly to refill my boost meter before pulling a quick handbrake 180 and diving back in? Should I try an aerial to reach this high ball, or bide my time and hope to catch a bounce, knowing if I fail then I'm going to be out of commission for a precious few seconds? Every single collision can result in bounces that are logical within the established physics framework, yet remain unpredictable enough at times to make every moment tense. The combination of mental and mechanical requirements the game puts forth ensures that unlike real sports, absolutely nothing in a Rocket League match is ever boring.
Nearly every decision Psyonix made with this game has been superb; from the decision to build a huge user base at the outset by providing the title as a PlayStation Plus freebie to the wisdom of resisting the temptation to sully the game's integrity with rotten microtransactions and non-cosmetic paid DLC that would serve only to alienate and fragment the user base, they have shepherded this project with a sure-handed nature that would be laudable for a developer with twice their established pedigree.
I could go on for hours gushing about this game like the effusive fanboy I am, but I'll stop here. Suffice it to say that if someone had told me at the beginning of the year that my 2015 Game of the Year would be essentially an exclusively competitive multiplayer title, I'd have asked him to get his head examined. But not only is Rocket League my favorite game of 2015, it's going to take something pretty astounding to knock it off its current perch as my presumptive Game of the Generation.
1) Fuck Stan Kroenke.
2) Seriously, fuck that guy.