My Apparently Annual Top 10 Games of the Year List – 2015

Last year, I hopped on the internet end-of-the-year zeitgeist by making a top 10 games of 2014 post. I’m not sure how many people care about my opinion–and probably far fewer do now, seeing that I had a sports game at #1 and a visual novel at #2–but hey, why not do it again? #content

I played a lot of video games this year, which is nothing new, but I also released my first game and contributed significant dialog writing to another. I’ll be releasing my second game in a few weeks, and another visual novel in collaboration with Woodsy Studio in the late spring. I don’t know whether any of this makes my opinion more or less valid, but working on games has certainly informed and changed how I approach them. Which is weird, because this list is probably way less eclectic than last year’s.

The Annual Disclaimer: A shitload of video games came out in 2015. More games that I wanted to play than in any year I can remember. There’s a lot I still haven’t gotten around to playing that I could see making it on this list: SOMA, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Just Cause 3, AC: Syndicate (yes), Axiom Verge, Nuclear Throne, and Pillars of Eternity, just to name a few off the top of my head.

I’m also leaving off MLB: The Show 16 to keep things interesting

And as usual, large gifs ahead.

Decision Pending/Provisional Mention: Star Wars Battlefront

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I can’t really rank Star Wars: Battlefront here, since I’ve only put a few hours into it and I have no idea whether the game has legs. What I’ve played is a ton of fun, with only one little annoyance: some very useful equipment is locked behind a lot of playtime, and its frustrating to be killed by the homing shots and bowcasters I can’t equip. That’s just the price of progression in a multiplayer game, though, and I suppose I have to accept it.

Battlefront has solid (if basic) shooting and map control mechanics over a variety of modes, but is carried entirely by its full-throated embrace of the Star Wars aesthetic. Everything looks right. Everything sounds right. You can fight Darth Vader as Luke Skywalker with TIE fighters screaming above you and blaster fire echoing in your ears. The novelty might wear thin–there are only five locations, though multiple maps across each one–but right now I’d be remiss without mentioning Battlefront.

If I had more time in Call of Duty Black Ops 3, it might sneak onto the list too. But I can’t decide whether it’s better than Advanced Warfare and right now (thanks to The Force Awakens) I’d rather play Battlefront.

10. Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires (PS4)

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Dynasty Warriors? Really? That’s right. I’m a longtime musou apologist, and the Empires spinoffs are my favorite installments of the series. Early this year, I wrote about how the much-vaunted “Nemesis” system of Shadow of Mordor was largely similar to the AI officer system that’s existed in DW: Empires for years.

My fondness for this particular branch of Dynasty Warriors is twofold: I’m a huge fan of the Three Kingdoms setting, to the point that I even read the source material, Luo Guanzhong’s exhaustive novel. And on top of that, Empires let’s me populate ancient China with various characters from my own stories, games, and other fictional universes before starting a game. Playing is mindless chaos, but it’s fun to gather up my own motley crew of Chinese historical figures and my own creations to conquer the country.

9. Persona 4: Dancing All Night (PS Vita)

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I’m kind of breaking my own disclaimer rules here, since I just picked up Dancing All Night a week ago and I’ve only put about 5 hours into it. But trust me here. Persona 4 is one of my favorite games of all time and I’m so into portable rhythm games that I buy and play Hatsune Miku games and purposefully ignore the vaguely creepy stuff surrounding them.

Dancing All Night is more than just a re-skinned Hatsune Miku title that uses music from Persona. Much like the Arena games, there’s a full visual novel sequel to Persona 4 spacing out the musical sequences that is just as campy and charming as you’d hope. And even if I thought the P4 soundtrack was a bit hit-or-miss, I played that game for well over 100 hours. Every single song is tied up with sweet, sweet nostalgia. Is it weird to have nostalgia for a game that came out in 2008? God damn I’m old.

There’s a good chance that when I finish this game I’ll regret not putting it higher than #9 but, like I said, only a few hours in.

8. Life is Strange (PS4 and basically everything else)

LiS

So I understand the problems with Life is Strange. The dialog, especially at the beginning, is cringe-worthy. The writers just love sticking the word “selfie” into every possible idiom and exhaust all the potential insults you can append onto “step dad” within an hour…but keep digging in that mine for ten more. The ending is a bit of a mess in the Mass Effect 3 vein and it’s clear the creators had one of the two potential paths in mind, since they barely wrote one of them.

All that said, Life is Strange fulfills the potential shown by the episodic Telltale games and more. Not only is Dontnod’s engine better than the Telltale games, but they append a great gameplay mechanic onto the branching dialog paths of most modern adventure games. Rewinding time feels meaningful and is used in various different ways throughout the five episodes.

More than anything else, Life is Strange is one of the few games to attempt to exist in the real world. Rather than couch itself in a fantasy or sci-fi setting, it takes place at an artsy high school. Even if the writing is iffy at times–and breaks realism for a Twin Peaks inspired murder mystery–the fact that it even tries to ground itself in an actual setting is impressive. And the relationship between Max and Chloe carries it through any rough territory.

7. Elite: Dangerous (XBO, PC)

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Billions of fucking stars, man. Billions of stars.

Technically, Elite: Dangerous came out in 2014 for the PC but I played the Xbox One version, so I’m going to count it as a 2015 release for the purpose of this list. Also because I want to mention it. Elite: Dangerous is a game you can play forever if you enjoy or “get” the gameplay loop. Exploring the galaxy and branching out to unknown systems is addictive as hell. You can discover unique (or, you know, semi-unique) star types, resources, and procedurally-generated missions. Unless you want to dogfight, the game is chill as hell, perfect for listening to podcasts or trying to wind down for the night. Vast expanses of space, dotted with stars and spaceports, all just waiting to be discovered. Earlier this year, I called it Euro Truck Simulator in space and that’s absolutely true. But that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes I just want to stare at the stars.

The PC version has already added another huge update, allowing for exploring individual planets, and that’s supposedly coming to XBO at some point. It’s the only reason I haven’t gone back to the game in the last couple months. I can’t wait for it to be bigger, as crazy as that sounds.

6. Fallout 4 (XBO, PS4, PC)

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Bethesda games are often criticize for being a mile wide and an inch deep.That’s a valid criticism, except I just wrote a bunch of words about how much I like Elite: Dangerous.

The biggest problem Fallout 4 has is that it’s not Fallout: New Vegas. New Vegas, an Obsidian Entertainment joint, had such top-notch world-building and writing that a new game developed internally at Bethesda was destined to disappoint. Going in with low expectations for the story was a huge help in enjoying Fallout 4, which to it’s credit is a huge step up from other Bethesda tales. The dialog system is stripped to hell compared to other Fallout games and the endgame forces you into some choices that seem entirely unnecessary, but it’s still serviceable.

More importantly, Fallout 4 nails what I actually like about Bethesda games: there’s a big, open world with a ton to do and all sorts of places to explore. FO3 was missing the scale of Oblivion and Skyrim, but FO4 finally translates what made those games so addictive over to the Fallout universe. Plus, the game maintains the guilty-pleasure slow motion kills that I sadly can’t get enough of.

Performance on Xbox One isn’t nearly as bad as I expected, with only one area really giving me any  problems. The way people talk about the console version of FO4, I was expecting Drakengard 3 flashbacks with single digit frame rates every time there are multiple enemies on screen. Even the climactic battle, with at least a dozen armored dudes shooting lasers at me, ran well enough I only noticed hitching when one of them exploded. So I guess it’s either overblown or way worse on the PS4.

5. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (PS4)

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Let’s just start with this: the soundtrack to Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is maybe one of my favorite things to come out of video games in 2015. It’s fantastic choral music on its own and one of my go-to writing albums on Spotify. Listen to it here.

Rapture is also one of the most beautiful titles on the PS4, in large part because it only has to render environments. The entire game consists of exploring a tiny, abandoned British town in the wake of some unknown disaster. You see the lives of the townsfolk before the disaster unfold through “echoes” of their last days, represented by glowing beings of light scattered throughout the village.

Every character is flawed and compelling, with some excellent VO performances throughout. The story is a meditation on interpersonal connections and, surprisingly, religion–a subject barely handled by games outside of killing god in Japanese RPGs. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was the first so-called walking simulator (Gone Home, Stanley Parable) that spoke to me in a voice other than nostalgia or pastiche. Go and check it out.

4. Heroes of the Storm (PC)

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I never thought I’d even play a MOBA, let alone put over a hundred hours into one. HotS changed my mind. I wrote about it a few months ago and theorized that I’d move on from the game in the fall when the AAA season hit. I was wrong. If anything, I’ve probably played even more HotS since writing that post.

HotS is a free-to-play game with a limited, rotating group of characters that you can use without putting any money into the system. If you like a character, you can buy them with real money or gold, which you earn by playing. I’ve probably bought half the roster with gold, and used real money to purchase costumes for my ~8 favorite characters.

I know why HotS is different. My objection to MOBAs was twofold. First, games of DOTA 2 and League of Legends last upwards of 40-50 minutes, with the first half dominated by tedious farming of AI monsters. Second, the only way to get a full kill on an enemy is to land the “last hit”, which leads to bizarre and unfriendly mechanics in which you can steal kills from your own team, hurting your chances of winning by successfully eliminating a threat.

HotS eliminates both the laning phase of the other games and the last-hit mechanic. Games rarely last longer than 25 minutes, usually resolving somewhere between 15-20. And there’s no reason not to kill anything that’s hostile. Everyone shares a pool of experience and earns talent upgrades (instead of items they have to buy) at the same rate. That’s pretty fantastic.

I’m not particularly good at HotS. Or at least I don’t think so. I’ve mostly played games on a controller, so my keyboard-and-mouse mechanics probably leave something to be desired. But–remarkably!–that hasn’t stopped me from enjoying the game. Compared to other MOBAs, hostility in Quick Match seems relatively low. Which isn’t a surprise, since a loss only takes 15 minutes and you’re not competing with your team for kills.

Also a shoutout to SMITE here, which doesn’t have last hits and managed to make a MOBA playable on Xbox One. It’s just not as addictive as HotS.

3. The Witcher 3 (PS4/XBO/PC)

betterwitcher

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. This is the only game in recent memory (outside of the Battlefield 4 campaign) that hit me with a progression-stopping bug. 30 hours in, I suddenly stopped gaining experience points for completing quests. This was a huge problem, since quests were the main way of getting experience and levelling up.

As I understand it, there’s a mechanic which denies you XP for completing quests several levels below your own and in the release version of Witcher 3 this could be triggered and never turn off–denying you XP for every quest you hit. It sucked, because I was loving the game and wanted to go further. But I had to wait for a patch or just accept I’d be underleveled.

Why did this annoy me so much, in an era of buggy, huge games? Because I never hit anything like this i Assassins Creed: Unity, or any of the aforementioned Obsidian/Bethesda games. Sure, they’d crash or the physics would go crazy. But nothing a reload/restart wouldn’t fix. This was a much bigger problem, and Witcher 3 largely received a pass while these other games would be skewered for their buggy releases.

But the real reason it pissed me off was I wanted to play more Witcher 3. The combat was occasionally clunky, but it was also one of the best-written RPGs I’d ever played. The world felt real and alive. Even minor characters like Morvan Voorhis or Birna Bran were nuanced and interesting. The facial capture and voice acting was fantastic.

Witcher 3 is now patched. Hell, it’s more than patched. CD Projekt Red added all sorts of new things, like Gwent (the in-game collectible card battler) difficulty levels and new movement options. I suppose this is why they get a pass for the initial release mess. I’ll give up my grudge against it because it’s still one of the best games of the year.

2. Bloodborne (PS4)

yarnham

Copy everything I wrote about MOBAs and sub in “FROM Software games.”

I have been a Souls curmudgeon for years. I played Demon’s Souls when it came out and I thought the first few hours were fantastic. Then, somewhere around the second area of the third world, I couldn’t do it anymore. Maybe I did things out of order. Maybe I hit a wall for a reason. I don’t know. Even more than its successors, Demon’s Souls was an impenetrable mess of bad translation and intentional obfuscation. To progress, I was going to need to rigidly follow a guide and that just didn’t seem fun to me.

A similar experience awaited me in Dark Souls. I played on the PS3 and loved the game until I reached Blighttown. Then it was unplayable. Single digit framerates and poisonous enemies killed me over and over again, until I didn’t have any way to even get more antidotes to save me from the poison. If I was annoyed at the free pass Witcher 3 got on its bugs, I was incredulous about Dark Souls. Games were (and still are) routinely raked over the coals for performance issues that barely touch Blighttown in Dark Souls.

Bloodborne was just what I needed to make me understand. The story and setting were just as inscrutable as Demon’s Souls but it was never unclear where I needed to go (and where I needed to avoid until I was stronger). The art design was phenomenal and consistent in a way that none of the Souls games had really pulled off until now. And the standard/safe way of playing a Souls game–blocking a bunch with a shield–was denied in favor of aggressive, well-timed attacks.

The game was hard. I streamed almost all of my first playthrough and some of you probably watched me die again and again versus Ebrietas and Gehrman. But I persevered. I defeated every boss, even the optional ones (except the last couple chalice dungeon bosses, I’ll cop to avoiding those). And then I did it again. I started up a new character and beat them all down again. After hours at it’s mercy, I finally understood how fluid and responsive the combat could be and I just had to show them all what I’d learned.

1. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PS4, XBO, PC)

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Did you expect anything else?

I understand why The Phantom Pain isn’t a good Metal Gear game. It does not follow in the footsteps of the Metal Gear games I loved before it–specifically 2 and 4, the craziest entries in the series. The story is sparse and spread out over 50+ hours instead of a tight, cutscene-heavy 15 hours. Stealth is encouraged but not at all necessary. There is an open world dotted with side missions and busywork that seems completely disconnected from the narrative.

But The Phantom Pain is also the best Far Cry game ever made. It takes the best moments of other open-world military titles and boils them down into an addictive crack that kept me playing obsessively for weeks. With dozens of tools–from regular guns to air strikes to remote-controlled fists–you are tasked with infiltrating and taking over a bunch of enemy bases in an open world. And how you do that is up to you.

As you push further into the story, the enemies start to adapt to your tactics. Plan your attacks at night? Suddenly they have searchlights up. Use tranquilizer darts to the head? They’ve got helmets. Explosives? Body armor. But then you turn it around on them. You capture soldiers, train them, and send them out on missions to disrupt the supply lines for search lights body armor. You equip your helicopter with better rockets and bring it in for air support, blaring “The Final Countdown” as it guns down a bunch of enemy soldiers who were expecting you to fight with a tranquilizer rifle. You defeat an enemy sniper by ordering a supply drop of rations on his head. Your dog pulls a knife on an approaching scout and slits his throat. You ride a walking robot that uppercuts people and then douses them with a flamethrower. Then you attach some balloons to a sheep and an ass and send them to your seafaring petting zoo in the Indian Ocean. All of this actually happens.

The Phantom Pain is the best military sandbox game ever, even if it’s not the best Metal Gear game. The story picks up 30 hours in and touches on some interesting weirdness regarding language and identity. Kojima always at least fakes his research on his pseudoscience and makes it worth listening to the meandering voice over. But that’s not why you play Phantom Pain. You play Phantom Pain to chase a tank on horseback, disable it with a rocket launcher, and abduct its occupants to be brainwashed into helping you develop a pistol that shoots grenades.

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