VG247's Games of the Year
This isn't just a list of good games that have been released this year. This is personal. These are the games we play for fun outside of work. Hell, some of them were released a couple of years ago. It doesn't matter. They have to be special enough for us to take a break from being paid to play games to playing them for our own entertainment. It's a tough life.
Here are the games that have kept Brenna, Matt, Pat, Sherif and Steph sane through it all. Thank the stars for great video games.
Life is Strange
It was a great year for episodic adventure games, but it was a newcomer to the scene who knocked it out of the park. Spotty dialogue aside, Life is Strange develops and refines TellTale’s formula, foregrounding its branching system and allowing players to explore proper 3D fields. The tech is head-and-shoulders above Telltale’s as seen in most of its series to date, but it’s the slowly building plot that shines.
Life is Strange combines the ordinary with the extraordinary, granting your average teenager a power all of us have wished for at one time or another, especially during our mortifying adolescent years. Outside this supernatural element the stories it tells are all-too-grounded in reality, ensuring a series of escalating tragedies arrive like a flurry of gut-punches.
Over the course of five episodes we go from mundane little concerns like impressing a favourite teacher to making an apocalyptic choice, made only more weighty by the strong bonds players have developed not just with BFF Chloe but the whole town of Arcadia Bay: the butt of jokes who’s always getting stuff spilled on her, the evil princess with a heart of gold – even the local dealer who dreams of getting out with his girlfriend by his side, the alcoholic headmaster and the over-protective step-father.
The material is powerful enough that Square Enix and Dontnod saw fit to build in guides to seeking help for those who relate strongly to the residents of Arcadia Bay. If you like to have feelings and let them leak over your face, Life is Strange is the game for you.
I wasn't expecting much from Until Dawn apart from some cheesy and cheap thrills, but what I actually got was a detailed, tightly scripted and accomplished horror game.
Until Dawn does everything it sets out to achieve really well. Comparable to the best TV series', it splits the game into digestible chunks and lets the player sample everything the game sets out to be in 45 minute sessions. It's a recreation and subversion of horror cliches, there are likeable characters, jump shares, interactive drama, intriguing mystery and the facial animation is pure technical showoff.
It doesn't take long to complete but the game is so well crafted you want to see the conclusion. And having that ability to go back and change key decisions to save (or kill off) your favourite characters makes it more replayable than you'd imagine.
Until Dawn is one of the best surprises of 2015. It's a little game that achieves a great deal.
From the perspective of a Souls fan, Bloodborne is what happens when you attempt to shake-up the formula before it gets stale​, ​the result of flipping some well-established rules on their head to create something just as great.
Bloodborne doesn't just “work” because of your character’s spry movement or lack of shields. The real strength of the game is in how it adapts Lovecraftian horror themes into game mechanics, without letting them spoil the core of its gameplay. All across Bloodborne’s streets, etched on its many items, and through adages recounted by its many NPCs, it paints a picture of an eldritch world that’s full of mysteries and leaves some of the details to your imagination.
If you allow it, if you let it lead you into its brutal, spiralling web of tales and scenes, you'll​ come out appreciating it even further.​ ​Bloodborne plays many parts, and plays them all very well. ​In some spots, ​It could easily be mistaken for a survival horror ​game, the same way it would for a hyper-action game. That it balances all of its acts this well, is just another reason for it to be my top achiever.
I can’t tell you if Hidetaka ​​Miyazaki’s masterpiece will be held in the same high regard the original Dark Souls enjoys to this day, but whatever series fans and the gaming community at large decide, Bloodborne will remain my 2015 game of the year, and a strong contender for ​the ​series’ best.
Destiny: The Taken King
Destiny. Holy jeepers. I don’t think I’ve ever played something so capable of shifting between “essential” and “infuriating” with a snap of its constantly updating fingers. The Taken King, the year-two content released in September, easily puts Destiny to the top of my list for this year, but it hasn’t been without its problems. A pin-thick end-game raid grind, the most questionable gameplay addition yet in the free Sparrow Racing League and an eye-watering bottleneck at light level 310 has made for some fraught progression, but just as you think Bungie’s actually gone and broken its magnum opus - a constantly-levelled accusation - you find yourself in a session so awesome it resets your faith.
Just as I was on the verge of quitting for good, Bungie launched the raid Challenge Mode and everything changed. The two-hour session to beat Golgoroth (more accurately known as Mr Lumbering Fuck-head) flirted with irritation, frustration, camaraderie, strangers, friends and, eventually, glory. The 320s dropped and we danced in the Tower with glee. That single game saved Destiny for me. I was so close to uninstalling.
I’ll save the details as to why for a fuller look at Destiny’s 2015, but I’m over my grumpiness and happy to be shooting for victory again. Destiny still ranks for me as a masterwork of this console generation, both in terms of mechanics and concept, and, despite constant problems with the relevance of old content and leveling niggles, it’s evolving into a dramatic, egoistic, grandiose project that could well change video gaming forever. This year’s best game.
Basically a survival sim, you are tasked with building a settlement in the middle of nowhere with finite resources (if you aren't smart about it). You start off with just a few settlers and a stash of goods. If you choose easy mode, you have six heads of livestock which are randomly generated: chickens, cows or sheep. A small amount of wood, stone and iron are available in which to craft tools, buildings or firewood. You need to assign certain jobs to your citizens in order to maintain and eventually expand your population: a fishing dock, wood chopper, hunter, farmer, etc. are needed right away if your citizens are to survive the first year. Be warned: they are greedy bastards.
Many of your towns folk will starve or freeze to death due to some residents hoarding food and firewood in their homes. A market helps control this, so you will need to build one as soon as possible. Obviously, once your population reaches zero, the game is over. It can get a bit frustrating at times, but once you get the hang of it, you'll do well: if your citizens aren't acting stupid and do what you tell them to do. There are some really great mods available through the Steam Workshop too, but know that if you use them, you won't earn any Steam Achievements. One of the more popular Banished mods out there is Colonial Charter. It looks great. I haven't downloaded it yet, but I plan to give it a go in the next couple of weeks.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
2015 was a great year for great big games you could get lost in, but The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the only one that walks the tightrope between offering plenty of content and respecting the player’s time.
You can’t customise your backstory and character in the Witcher 3. You can’t build settlements. You won’t get a massively different experience with a different build. There’s no persistent character progression to carry into future games or an online mode. What there is is masses of fun stuff to do in a self-contained world that invites you to go out and tick off all the things you want to experience, and then put it down – until the next story drop.
This isn’t just about your time; for all its modern open-world setting, this commitment to self-contained narrative content is pure old school RPG. By eschewing more recent trends The Witcher 3 lives up to the promise of its forebears by delivering terrific adventures, loveable characters and more than a little humour, all wrapped-up in a compelling story that allows the player room and time to explore without descending into silliness by betraying its core story and character tenets. You won’t see Geralt changing ideologies to max out every faction or companion, or abandoning his quest for six months to take up the reins of some other, totally unrelated plot. This commitment to lore, character and narrative is unrivalled in this year’s triple-A RPG offerings.
There are plenty of games for children but not many for families. Lego Dimensions is one of the only games where a parent (me!) can sit down with two children (mine!) and play through a game without one of them (us!) being completely bored.
With two players on controllers and a third shifting characters on the dimensional portal thing, Lego Dimensions is all about co-op team work. Sure, you can play it on your own, but there's nothing like couch co-op for laughs, in-jokes, stupidity and pausing for a big bag of Maltesers. The fun I have with this game is more about the company I'm in than the game itself.
But that's not to knock what Traveller's Tales has achieved. Letting the developers have access to massive names like Portal, The Wizard of Oz, Batman and friends, Dr Who, Scooby Doo and more just lets them roll out every available gag they can think of. It's well written, funny and crammed full of pop-culture references. Add that solid Lego slapstick gameplay that's been honed over the years and you have the best Lego game so far. I've even started to like the Ninjago level.
Don't Starve: Shipwrecked (Early Access)
Klei continues to update its popular roguelike Don't Starve with fantastic content. Reign of Giants was released last year, which added new biomes and creatures to contend with. The goats are the best. Recently, the developer put its latest expansion Shipwrecked on Steam through Early Access.
It's missing a few features such as map generation, but the one map available is enough to keep me hooked. Being able to build a boat and venture out to sea is fun and various ships can be built ranging from a humble raft to one with armor and a lantern so you won't die should you still be adrift when nightfall arrives. One of the islands has an entire village of monkeys. Those who have played the core game came across them in caves. I hate them so very much. They steal your stuff, and fling their poo at you if they get pissed off. Every time a pile of excrement hits you, your sanity meter goes down. Once you are certified insane, the Shadow Creatures come and they will kill you if you don't fight back hard enough. I can't recommend this game enough, I really can't.
The mod offerings for the core game and Reign of Giants are top notch. I have a highly modded game which I am playing in God Mode just to try out all the different offerings which can be used to build your base of operations. You can see it in the screenshot above. In my main game, I have survived 65 days without any mods or using console commands, after the umpteenth try. I feel rather good about that. Shipwrecked? I have yet to get the hang of it, but it's super fun. And here's some advice: if you venture to monkey island, don't stay too long.
Batman: Arkham Knight
There are some games that excel at creating power fantasies for the player, whether through hard-hitting action combat and the resulting havoc, or through equally-compelling, empowering scenarios. There are even fewer games that do that for comic book characters. Batman: Arkham Knight’s tagline of “be the Batman” was more than just a sales pitch, it’s the epitome of almost everything you do in the game.
Rocksteady was so sure of its delivery, that (outside of the Riddler’s racing mini-games) all parts helped make you believe you are Batman. And it achieved that while doing a masterful job at including as much of Batman’s universe as possible, and have everything fall into place, working for the game, not against it. Arkham Knight’s story, pace, and set-pieces all exceed its predecessors in quality. Quiet moments feel personal, and loud encounters deliver hefty blows that change the direction of the story every time. There are few action games as compelling to play as Arkham Knight, or as accessible, as it is.
As a complete package, Arkham Knight’s shortcomings are well surpassed by its triumphs. As a comic nerd’s Batman game, it’s the one I've been waiting to play, and the natural conclusion to what came before. Arkham Knight set a new high bar that I am not sure even its makers can go beyond.
Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell
No, damn it, I’m serious – Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell is one of the best games I played this year. Nothing else has provided such a shot in the arm of pure joy.
Gat Out of Hell builds on the superhero fun of Saints Row 4 by granting the player a pair of wings, somehow delivering one of the best flight systems ever to slide under the radar. With a few upgrades and a short learning curve under your belt, you can gracefully, blissfully wing your way over the hellish cityscape below, swooping down to unleash your fury.
Much shorter than your average open-world game, Gat Out of Hell is entirely upfront in its design: mission descriptions openly reference the fact that your checklist of goals are necessary not to further the plot but rather to extend the sandbox’s lifetime. But as with Saints Row 4 – or any open-world game these days – you’re likely to be out there ticking off all those icons anyway, because that’s what we do. Gat Out of Hell stands out in this regard in that the activities it offers rarely feel like chores you’re doing out of sufferance; instead, it’s a matter of seeing what you can do with the huge variety of toys at your disposal.
As ever, the whole thing is wrapped up in irreverent Saints Row humour, including musical numbers, familiar faces and some memorable takes on famous historical characters. But it’s those wings that make it an essential experience.
Rise of the Tomb Raider
While I’m apparently happy to waste what little life I have left shooting pretend spacemen on Bungie’s internet, it’s important to appreciate variety. I reviewed Rise of the Tomb Raider for VG247 last month and found one of the most violent, exhilarating games I’ve ever played. I was pretty fortunate in that.
Crystal Dynamics’ second stab at Lara, as it were, continued the good work done in the 2013 reboot but layered on crafting and healing mechanics, as well as a bunch of other gubbins to ensure the raiding of tombs won’t be going out of fashion anytime soon.
But, like I said, it was the violence that really got me this time. There’s an endless debate about whether or not Lara should ever be portrayed as a one-woman army, but I can answer that question for you, and all others, right now: yes she should. She should kill, kill some more, then finish off with a large spree of killing. She should perform so brutally that every living thing standing in her way should come with default skull and crossbones tattoo on their foreheads to indicate they’re already dead. Let her wade through gore, smashed skulls and the bloody fur of bears and wolves. Let her melt screaming men with napalm. Let her murder with impunity.
It’s out next year on PC. There’s a small chance I may play it again.
The Long Dark
This is one of the hardest sandbox survival games I've played yet. In The Long Dark, you are the sole survivor of a geomagnetic disaster and in order to survive, you will need to find shelter from the cold along with food and supplies. Other than the persistent cold, there are dangers lurking in the wilderness: bears and wolves. Don't get too close to either or it's lights out. Bears will give you a warning when you get too close, and if one comes after you, run like hell. Wolves are easier to contend with, but only if you have an axe handy. Wolves get especially upset if you come near their kill, so wait until they are finished eating before you scavenge what's left of the deer.
You have the option to turn off aggression, which I recommend at the start, at least until you become accustomed to survival techniques such as monitoring your calorie count, hunger and thirst, fatigue and body temperature. There are over 30 square kilometers of wilderness, and everything is dynamic: the weather, wildlife, and time of day. All of these will have impact on your survival. And like the games listed above, it has permadeath. So, if you die - which you will, trust me - you'll have to start over. The Hinterland title is still in Early Access on Steam, but the developer continues to expand the game. Story Mode, which will add an additional 3-4 hours to the game, along with co-op is coming in spring 2016, and more content is coming. If you like survival games, you really should give this a try.
There's a lot broken about Fallout 4, but that didn't stop me having a hell of a time in the Boston Commonwealth. Because when the main storyline doesn't do a lot for you, and you get over the ropey framerate, the ugly visuals and the fiddly UI, there's so much still to see and do
For me, Fallout 4 is about exploration. I spent weeks looking for exceptional weapons, because I could and it was fun. I poked around old Vaults, donned armour and roamed around the highly irradiated wasteland, plodded through the sea, followed emergency broadcasts, conversed with the mad, violent, hilarious and mysterious. I'm not interested in finding my son or helping the fascist Brotherhood of Steel. I'm assassinating Raiders in the dark, nuking Super Mutants and doing fetch errands for strangers. Fallout 4 has one of the most complete open worlds of this generation and I'm free to do whatever I want there.
It shows just how much time Destiny sucked out of my room this year that it was a struggle to find even another two games to write about for this feature, but Hard West was one of very few I felt compelled to play as an adjunct. Many have it billed as “XCOM with cowboys,” and I suppose it may be that, but the ambiance and raw brutally of this satanic turn-based PC strategy western set it apart. Everyone dies here - although some are so driven by the urge to kill their tormentors they find a way back to the living - and the snaggle-toothed inbreds limping around these dusty maps are fierce shots with six-shooters. Hard West is the best €20 (or whatever it was) I’ve spent all year. I can’t recommend it enough.
Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
Throughout most of my time with MGS5, I've always maintained two opinions at odds with one other. On one hand, I've enjoyed the act of “playing” it more than any of the prior entries. Its sandbox may not be the biggest or richest by today’s standard, but the situations it creates, both those of your own making and the ones it throws at you, are unmatched by anything else. The Phantom Pain is a game about opportunities, and you're given all the freedom possible to make of them what you will, using the long list of tools the game lavishly provides.
On the other hand, I kept wondering why Snake spoke so little, why some parts of the story
​were unfinished, and why there were five fucking cassette tapes about Miller’s burgers. I was angry, I felt the Snake character I know, the one he’s always been, ​was betrayed.​ ​Until I reached the end, listened to the tapes and watched myself go from anger​ to absolute joy that most of my complaints about the story were ​resolved with a simple twist. A twist, I couldn't in a million years see coming, and one that elevated the game’s status for me even further.
Yes, the unfinished content still hurts, and I would've still liked Snake to speak more, but none of my feelings about these are strong enough to take away from my respect and love of the game as a whole, but more importantly, the fun I've had with it. For me, Hideo Kojima’s eccentric taste was redeemed, ​yet again.