Games I Think Were Pretty Good in the Year of our Lord 2015

All right! So! I wrote one of these and didn’t finish it and then I wrote another and scrapped it and wrote a third that was just a reflection on the year and I think it’s maybe too negative to really post as a GOTY thing, especially since 2015 was such a great year for games. This time, I'm just making a top five list. That said, I do want to mention some games that from this year that I'm not so hot on. It is spoiler'd, so if you want to skip it all, you can, but I played a few real disappointing games this year. 2015 was overall great, don't get me wrong, but as I was reflecting on this year, these games just wouldn't get out of my head.

First up, and the one I feel most strongly about: Rise of the Tomb Raider. It seems like everyone else likes this game a lot and I'm in that position where I feel like I played a completely different game. This is coming from someone who thought the 2013 game was one of the best games of that year - like second or third best. I would like to replay it at some point to see if that opinion holds up - it probably doesn't, but I seriously doubt my opinion will change enough to bring it as low as what I think of this year's Tomb Raider game.

Brad argued strongly that Rise of the Tomb Raider was a more full realization of what Crystal Dynamics wanted to do with Tomb Raider. That's where I completely disagree - this game feels very unfocused and unrefined. This sort of cinematic Uncharted-esque set-piece heavy linear game depends heavily on pacing to keep up momentum. What we get in Rise of the Tomb Raider is frequent breaks in pacing for you to explore some psuedo open-world area that's full of collectibles. You can't even move the cursor on the map without it locking onto a collectible, and most of them are completely useless. They all contribute XP to a skill system, but a lot of those skills are useless (an icon appears when you have a headshot lined up? Oh, really, I need to be told that I'm aiming at the head?) and/or stupid (you need a skill to make explosives from gas canisters?) The 2013 game wasn't without this problem, but it was a far lesser problem - that game felt well-paced unless you, specifically, pulled yourself off of the beaten path to go gather useless collectibles and solve side tombs. Even worse, the game often decides to put collectibles in your path when there are enemies all around. You might have Lara walk up to a document or something twenty feet from a bad guy and pick it up and start listening to an audiolog. They're totally out of place and should have been completely rethought.

There's also less to the story of this game, and what's here is a predictable, cheesy story full of bad voice acting and terrible dialogue. There's nothing at all that makes this game's story worthwhile. The first game's story doesn't deserve any awards either, but what's in Rise is just delivered terribly.

That's not to say that the game lacks likable qualities. When the game starts to feel focused, it has glimmers of brilliance - the challenge tombs are easily the best parts of the game and you're doing yourself a disservice if you play this game and don't seek out and finish all of the challenge tombs. It's a shame they're not better woven into the story. When the game becomes a linear Uncharted-like game, it still out-Uncharts Uncharted, and still looks pretty cool doing it. I think this game would work way better as a truly open world game, where you have to solve tombs and gather items to unlock things and move forward. No skills or XP or RPG stuff. Just you, your equipment, a bunch of ancient puzzles, occasional long-dormant creatures, maybe a T-Rex or something, and some bad guys here and there. I think Crystal Dynamics can do it, they've just got a lot of fat to cut off.

Halo 5 sucks. OK, it doesn't really suck, it's actually pretty OK, but I type that and then something in the back of my head just says "no, Halo 5 sucks". They try to add some new wrinkles to the gameplay and that's all right, I guess, but I don't think it's even the best that Halo's gameplay has ever been. The story in Rise of the Tomb Raider was at least consistent and understandable, even if it wasn't great. The story here makes Halo 4's story look like a consistent and well-told masterwork, and this is coming from someone who thinks the first three Halo games have some pretty good popcorn sci-fi stories (and ODST and Reach are no slouches, either). The multiplayer's pretty good, at least, but I used to play Halo campaigns over and over again. I still sometimes replay the old ones. This one? I can't see myself touching its campaign much again.

Props to 343 for sticking to 60FPS, though, and I don't mean that in a backhanded sort of way. The Master Chief Collection means that almost every other Halo game runs just as well, but I'm glad a AAA game that isn't a racing or fighting game or Call of Duty shipped with such a high framerate. Make this more common. Please, devs, make this more common.

I don't want to say much about Fallout 4, really. It's basically a Bethesda game where the usual strengths weren't all that strong and the usual (myriad) weaknesses were a fair bit weaker. I actually want to give it another shot at some point, just to see if my opinion changes, but I played fifteen hours of this game. I bought it, downloaded it, played it for seven hours, deleted it, redownloaded it, played it for eight more hours, then just gave up. I couldn't do it. Nothing ever clicked with me.

Ah! All right! Now that we have that done, let's talk about some games that I really enjoyed! This is not the list, just some games I want to mention two games that I really liked but didn't make the cut.

Axiom Verge is pretty good. Axiom Verge is... kinda just a worse version of Super Metroid. All right, look, I know that Jeff says that Axiom Verge constantly subverts your expectations when it comes to what it's doing, but I can't agree with that. Too often, it felt like Thomas Happ was playing Super Metroid, writing down what different items do in that game, and then figuring out ways to achieve the same thing in a different manner here. That's a commendable thing to do - Nintendo sure as hell aren't going to do it, even if they do release another Metroid game - but I don't think it subverts much of anything. Instead, we've got a game that wears its inspiration on its sleeve and it happens to be very, very good at emulating that inspiration and maybe adding a few minor elements into the mix. One thing I must mention, however, is the dash - I kept accidentally dashing no matter which controller I was using and that got annoying, especially when the dash button could have been assigned to a shoulder button and one of the shoulder button functions could have just been a weapon. But then I'm the guy that always puts dash on L in Mega Man X because that's where it makes the most sense, guys. In any case, Axiom Verge is a very well-designed Metroidvania with lots of nooks and crannies and items and weapons and gadgets, most of which are put to very good use.

Mad Max is not a great game! You could safely argue that it's actually a pretty bad game! But those car chases are pretty goddamn awesome and the visual style it has going on looks pretty goddamn good and some of the combat is pretty brutal (although it doesn't play well!) I spent a few weekends playing this and only this for hours in a row. And I don't feel bad about that. I enjoyed my time with it. I didn't finish it and don't want to return - I got my fill of this game in 20 hours - but I had a lot of fun with this game. I really, really want to see this team at Avalanche make a car combat game, one that is nothing but car combat, where your character is the car and you never get out of it. With what's on display here as far as car combat goes, it could easily be one of the most awesome games my inner 12 year old has ever experienced.

Just Cause 3 was pretty good but not quite as good as anyone had hoped, I guess. I just don't have much more to say about it than that. I didn't have any problems with the PC version, but I still wound up feeling like it had some of the same problems that Mad Max had without the strength of an insanely awesome car combat system. Instead, we've got an insanely awesome movement system paired with some pretty good stuff blowing up emergent action. Although, for whatever reason, Avalanche doesn't seem too keen on giving you unlimited rocket ammunition, or at least way more of it. That feels weird in a game where you can carry around unlimited C4 and tether helicopters to one another. Still, they seem to have a pretty good understanding of why people liked Just Cause 2 and they did their best to encourage players to play around with mechanics to do things in the most extravagant, action movie, impractical way possible, and when it works well - and it usually does - it's still a pretty great thrill.

All right, all right, I'll get to the bloody list already.

5) Destiny: The Taken King

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Full disclosure - I played Destiny for a little while on the PS3. Then I bought The Taken King on Xbox One. Then I played through Destiny again, and then through all of the DLC. Well, I haven't actually done much of The Taken King stuff, but the gameplay leading up to that has been extremely tight and extremely fun to participate in. Yeah, guys, I know, I haven't even seen the best stuff, but after a lot of time playing all of the previous stuff I had to take a break. I'm going to jump back in at some point and play some more, but what I did play was some of the most satisfying and involved shooting since... well, since Halo Reach. They have done an admirable job of making a console shooter that doesn't rely on cover and where aiming down sights is a something you do to get a better shot, not to make your weapon fire accurately enough to hit something five feet away. I had fun with vanilla Destiny, and I had even more fun playing through all of that content again only with a much better wrapper.

4) Pillars of Eternity.

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Yes, it's one of these. You know. A CRPG. Only it's not impenetrable.

This should be much higher. I only played thirteen hours of this game. I loved what I played, I think it does such a great job sucking in anybody who wants to participate with meaningful, deep, complex content (in terms of writing, world design, and gameplay) without also feeling like there's a high barrier to entry. Seriously, if you've ever wanted to play a Baldur's Gate-esque RPG but have been scared off by overly long tutorial dungeons (fuck you, Baldur's Gate 2) or combat systems that don't explain themselves at all, Pillars of Eternity should be in your Steam cart. Like, now. It's probably the best game released this year, but I can't justify putting it much higher on my personal list when I didn't play much more of it. I was knee deep in it and then stuff came up and I couldn't get back to it until the busy Q4 started to roll in and I just never found the time. That sucks.

3) Assassin's Creed Syndicate

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Variations on the cane sword are starting to become to me what the Kirkhammer is to Jason. And that's crazy.

This is a recent development. I played about two hours of Assassin's Creed II a few years ago and I thought it was boring. I've watched this series from the sidelines here and there, but never jumped in because of that. Black Flag looked interesting but I never bought it. I finally bought this one when I watched the Quick Look and thought "that cane looks pretty cool..." Evie does some messed up stuff to people with that cane. Seriously. The fighting animations might be some of the most brutal I've seen in a while. But even with that aside, the rest of the game is pretty great. Unlike Rise of the Tomb Raider or Mad Max, I don't feel like there's too much "icon barf", so simply opening the map doesn't feel overwhelming. I've found the stealth-y gameplay pretty intuitive and the combat, while basic, fun enough. It's a lot of fun to just run up to two Blighters, push Assassinate, and watch Evie cut one's throat, spin around and slice the other's throat, and do all of that in the span of maybe two seconds without really breaking out of a run. Sure, that's somewhat psychopathic, but our industry is built on controlling psychopathic superhereos with barely justifiable reasons for mass murder. I guess Jacob fits my playstyle a little more but Evie's a more interesting character.

Worth noting that I got a few hours into the story and then I spent the last, I dunno, ten or fifteen doing side missions and picking up collectibles. I don't know how the story turns out past getting the grapple hook, though I doubt it's anything particularly substantial. Also worth noting that, while this may be one of my favorite games of this year, I really can't see myself wanting to play one of these every year. If I had been playing these games since the beginning, I would be completely sick of them by now. Even if I had played every other one instead of every single one, I would have stopped before now. I'll probably play Black Flag at some point but I don't see myself becoming a fan of this series in general, just of this game. And cane swords.

2) Ori and the Blind Forest

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You can launch yourself on those little lightbulb things. That's just one of many platforming mechanics that the designers used to make extremely effective, satisfying levels.

I like Ori a lot more than Axiom Verge. People keep talking about how gorgeous this game is, but I don't think I've ever played a game that's a better example of why game developers should focus far more on performance. This game runs as smooth as butter and, as a result, the simple act of controlling Ori is a joy in and of itself. The platforming and level design of Ori and the Blind Forest are both no less stunning - the whole Metroidvania-ish world is better-paced, better-designed, and better-focused than anything in Axiom Verge. It's not without its problems - the story goes from another cutesy wordless indie platformer to the most sickeningly saccharine thing I've seen since the third fucking Santa Claus movie and the timed chase sequences go from a pretty awesome test of skills (the first one) to a frustrating, baldness-inducing set of movements that require lots of memorization and perfection and luck (the last one) - but simply playing this game and exploring its world was such a huge joy for me that neither of those things bring it down much at all.

1) The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

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I have no comment. Or taste.

For a game that so many forum posts heralded as the obvious game of the year, I'm sure not seeing this game top many lists. There's a whole lot of "well, I like the scope of the game and it's pretty and that Bloody Baron questline sure is some of the best video game writing ever but I didn't want to play past that because Novigrad". Well, yes, chasing Dandelion drags on for far too long, but there's a ridiculous amount of other things for you to go do while you're doing that. The city of Novigrad is chock full of things to do and people to see. And the whole world of The Witcher 3 is like that, really - not only is the game overflowing with content, it's overflowing with quality content. All those question marks on your map? All of those have, at the very least, some little note or something that adds to the world, something more than just a collectible or some treasure. Even Contracts, which would have just been some grind-y monster hunt in any other game, have unexpected twists and turns to them that you probably didn't expect. This game is abundant in everything fantasy, from small short stories to the weird and quirky to epic sidequests about monsters and magic to sidequests dealing with fantasy politics to treasure hunting and dungeon diving - it really does have it all. The actual act of participating in all of these things has been a point of contention here and there, but for what it's worth, I usually had no problems with the movement and usually found the combat satisfying. With The Witcher 3, I found myself embroiled in a huge, cohesive, extremely well-built world with writing chops far beyond what any of its contemporaries (save maybe Pillars of Eternity) have achieved. As with Skyrim, I love exploring a good fantasy world, and this is an excellent one of those. I finished it once and got the best ending I could have asked for - and I'm leaving it installed, maybe to finish it again and delay playing some other 2016 game that probably deserves some of my time.

And there's my Game of the Year list! One last thing... well, it's not much of a thing, but there a few 2015 games that I own but haven't played yet.

Metal Gear Solid V on Xbox One - I'm kinda scared to start it up, considering all of the shit I've heard surrounding how Konami handles FOB stuff. I never want to engage in that. I can totally just never even touch it, right? And I'll still be able to get upgrades and new weapons and I won't get to the end of the game and feel left out because I didn't want to bother with Konami's shitty business practices? Also fuck Konami.

Life is Strange - I never have been a huge fan of games that are more extremely elaborate choose your own adventure movies than games (note that I don't mean that in a derogatory way - that's just not my thing), but I bought Life is Strange and now everyone is putting it on their lists and I want to give it a shot. I know so little about it, other than the fact that there's time travel involved.

Undertale - thought I'm starting to suspect I won't like this one much because it sounds like a bunch of random stuff all feeding into some theme of not killing things? Of the game giving you some obvious way to not kill something? I dunno, I'll play it. Maybe blog about it like a lot of the internet seems to have done.

Galak-Z was a game that I was super excited about and then it came out and it had problems and by the time it came out on PC, I was busy playing other games and didn't want to mess with it. I own it now, though, and apparently it has an arcade mode that makes it not a roguelike and that's pretty awesome!

Austin Walker made an impassioned case for Invisible Inc. and I'm going to own that game soon thanks to him. Maybe it didn't get it on top of the list, @austin_walker, but it did get on the list and you did get at least one more person to play it.

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