One of the best years in years
From the rain-slick streets of Gotham City, to the arid desert of Afghanistan, 2015 has transported us across the globe and to worlds beyond. We have slain monsters for coin and breathed new life into an irradiated wasteland. The incredible size and scope of this year's biggest releases is truly staggering, and I am confident we will still be uncovering new surprises within these games throughout 2016 and beyond. This undoubtedly has been the year of the open world, but orbiting those titans are exciting, emotionally-charged games that stand apart from the shadows of their competition and stride alongside them as equals. Without further ado, here are our definitive picks for Game of the Year 2015.
20. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate
I spent as much time this year using talking cats to fish for lobsters as I did sucking the toxic juices out of mega-beetles faces - and that, in essence, is what makes Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate quite so special. An action-RPG built around loot, with no levelling to speak of, your characters skills are determined by the arms and armour they wield - and almost all of that equipment is crafted out of monster pieces youve chopped off in the course of the game. It makes every suit, every blade a map of how you played this strange, massive game. See someone stride into a multiplayer lobby wearing full Khezu armour, and you know theyve had to kill a lot of monsters that look like angry, flying penises.
Stellar localisation, massively improved tutorials and combat systems deep enough to give you vertigo make this a game designed to offer something at all times - Ive farmed in the space between train stops, spent eight hours fighting Elder Dragons on a plane, and spent countless days screaming at friends in my bedroom (mainly because I was playing Monster Hunter). I cant fully explain how something like MonHun exists, never mind on a 3DS cart, but we are very lucky to have it.
In the five years since Frictional Games released Amnesia: Dark Descent, the studios distinctive horror went from being a calling card to a trendy design style. SOMA wasnt just saddled with being a follow up to one of the most affecting thrillers in video games, it had to teach challengers like Slender: The Arrival, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and myriad others how its done. SOMA is so much more than the "Sci-Fi Amnesia" it first appeared to be, though. Simultaneously defying and exceeding all expectations, it cements Frictional Games reputation as one of the most potent developers working in the field today.
For horror junkies, SOMA is initially befuddling. There are few jump scares, and the games weakest moments are those infrequent sequences when it reprises Amnesias boogeyman chases forcing you to hide behind corners rather than exploring the games sunken, ravaged research facility. As you plumb further into its world, though, uncovering the sad history of what happened to both the crew and life as we know it, SOMA reveals its true identity as a more classic, existential type of science fiction horror. It excels not at eliciting involuntary screams, but at making you wallow in universal doubt. There were many exciting, frenetic games released in 2015, but SOMA thrilled slowly by asking very big questions before answering them in a variety of equally unsettling and inspiring ways.
18. PES 2016
After years locked in a mutually-destructive physics and AI arms race with EAs FIFA series exchanging blows over enhancements like PES ID, M.A.S.S. Collision System and Emotional Intelligence - PES 2016 nukes the jargon to feel like football. You dont need lightning-fast right-stick tricks to dribble past players, just an intuitive understanding of your players' real-life attributes, and measured sweeps and pokes of the left stick. Yet Konamis defining success isnt individual, but collective: in the way your players make incisive off-the-ball runs, hustle and harry in packs, or segue into preset formations like migrating swallows; mirroring real-life team attributes. The fluid formation system allows your team to seamlessly shift tactics based on phases of play: at kick off, in possession or when chasing the ball. It transforms single-player games against the AI, but makes online multiplayer matches against humans almost maddeningly tactical.
PES 2016 isnt just played on the pitch, but in the 90 seconds of pre-match tactical adjustment, with players reacting to their opponents play-style - or trying to impose their own - desperately shifting players into intricate 11-point-polygons, precision-matching team compactness to passing length, or doubling-down on aggressive pressing. Its the Hearthstone of football tactics, but youll need sublime reflexes and, well, luck to triumph on the pitch. Yeah, the licenses still suck, and Japlish translations jar, but PES 2016 is the series finest distillation of footballs bittersweet juxtapositions since its PS2-heyday - walking a tightrope between scientific precision and maddening, delightful, unpredictability.
17. Halo 5: Guardians
Much has already been said about Halo 5: Guardians' lackluster (to put it lightly) story, but you can't say that developer 343 Industries didn't take risks, and that attitude extends far beyond plot. Adding aim-down sights was considered by some to be heresy of the highest order, the removal of split-screen prompted petitions, and the news of microtransactions riled the playerbase. A new character taking the spotlight away from Master Chief was equally surprising, as was the new multiplayer mode, Warzone.
While some of these experiments didn't pan out quite the way we hoped, those that succeeded did so in a resounding way. Larger, more vertically-designed battlefields in the campaign kept us challenged, aim-down sights haven't changed the feel of combat, microtransactions feel fairly priced and aren't a slog if you opt to earn them, new traversal options make Halo 5 the fastest and most freeform Halo yet, and Warzone is the best new mode since Firefight. It's a shame about Halo 5's story, but that shouldn't stop you from appreciating an otherwise impeccable package.
16. Ori and the Blind Forest
Theres been a lot said about how Ori and the Blind Forest might make you cry actual tears out of your stone-like gaming eyeballs. Its Ghibli visuals and Pixar storyline hit people where they least expected it - their emotions. I cried too - but primarily at a section where I was using fireballs and my enemies corpses as mid-air catapults to escape being crushed. Ori is arguably the most lushly beautiful 2D game ever created - a neat disguise for a Metroid-inspired platformer with sections designed by, I think, Pol Pot or the Devil.
Its retro, through and through - gear gating, skill trees and pixel-perfect jumps all included - as you help the titular forest spirit traverse the Forest of Nibel to save lives and break hearts. But theres a smattering of modern thinking used to tie it all together. Those looks notwithstanding, a Dark Souls-inspired save system and Bash - one of the single most satisfying new platforming mechanics of the last few years - give Ori the touch of unfamiliarity that makes it feel quite so special. In a year of reboots, this felt more like the platforming genre itself was getting spruced up. Its enough to make you want to cry.
15. Star Wars Battlefront
There's no denying it: The Force is strong with this one. Star Wars Battlefront is easily one of the best Star Wars gaming experiences you can get. Everything from the blaster models and environments to the sound effects and music score is spot on authentic. We can't count the times we just stopped mid-battle to marvel at the space-age chaos, watching the battlefield light up in blaster fire as an AT-AT goes down or getting a closer look at the icy interior of a Wampa cave. As soon as you drop into battle, you feel like you've just taken your first steps into Star Wars' larger world.
The gameplay takes a bit more of a mainstream approach to it, foregoing shooter staples like character classes and intricate loadouts for in-game power-ups and point-and-shoot blaster mechanics that anyone can get a handle on. This is a game for the masses. It's for those fans who have stuck with the series for the last three decades, and the padawans who got a fresh taste of the Star Wars universe with The Force Awakens. What Battlefront does for its audience, it does exceptionally well, and with a massive amount of free DLC and Season Pass expansions on the way, it has the potential to be even better.
14. Life is Strange
When you're a teenager balancing schoolwork, budding romance, peer pressure, and hiding the fact that you're a social trainwreck, you don't need anything else to worry about. But that's not an option for Max Caulfield, who suddenly develops time-rewinding powers in time to save her childhood friend Chloe's life. Thus begins the story of Life is Strange, which manages to combine the supernatural, teenage detective work, and a touching story of friendship (or love, depending on your perspective) into one genuinely engrossing, time-bending bundle.
It would have been easy for a premise like this to go wrong (adults trying to write realistic teenagers and use the appropriate amount of hellas often ends badly), but Life is Strange thrives on the fact that the creators' approach its subject matter with utter sincerity. Domestic abuse, lack of faith in educators, gun violence, suicide - they're all treated with the respect they deserve, and anchored by Max and Chloe's deep and abiding friendship. The story occasionally stumbles along the way (particularly toward the end) and can sometimes feel melodramatic, but its genuine look at what it feels like to be a teenager makes it stand out in a powerful, affecting way. It proves that video games are only limited by what we imagine them to be, and if we open our minds a bit, there are a whole lot of different stories they can tell.
13. Her Story
Were still debating the "real" solution to the mystery at the heart of Her Story, a brilliant tale that plays out over several videotaped interviews in a police interrogation room. I dont mean the whodunnit, though youll likely have a few arguments about that, too, I mean how scribe Sam Barlow managed to tell a story completely out of order and still have it make perfect sense. No two players take the exact same path through the snippets of video tape stored in the polices database, yet the story always seems to unfold exactly as it should.
Her Story is also that most rare of detective games: one that trusts the player to think. Youre given a few important keywords to begin your search through the video archives, but after that, you must rely on your own intuition to locate more clips. Some of your searches will lead you down blind alleys, others will open up entirely new branches of investigation, exactly the way any good mystery should. Her Story is positively ingenious, and were pretty sure the answer is one. Right? It has to be. But then again...
12. Assassins Creed Syndicate
After the seriousness of Unitys Paris, twin criminals Jacob and Evie Frye are a veritable breath of fresh yet oh-so-polluted Victorian air in this stabby slice of 1868 London. The most modern Assassins Creed in the franchise, Assassin's Creed Syndicate doesnt just deliver the Batman style rope launcher for portable aerial assassination - stab and go! - but also vehicles to hurtle around the city and induce horse packed chaos. Admit it, you like shooting the equines just a little too much.
For the first time in literal Creed centuries, our twin Assassins not only have a sense of humour but are genuinely entertaining to spend time with. However, if you say that your favourite character is Jacob instead of Evie, you might actually be broken. Add in a rollicking story that manages to juggle a dual-bladed narrative of hunting for Creed maguffins as well as causing as much gang-related chaos as possible across London, and Syndicate is the most fun weve had with the series in years. To severely paraphrase Oliver Twist, more like this please.
11. Tales from the Borderlands
Nobody saw Tales from the Borderlands coming. Developed by a company renowned for their narrative-heavy episodic games, yet based off a franchise that's notoriously light on story, it seemed like a strange little side-project. But Tales from the Borderlands is full of surprises - stomach-turning, nerve-rending, guffaw-worthy surprises - and works so well that it sets a new standard not just for episodic adventures, but all comedy titles to come.
Starring a goofball salaryman way out of his element, a con-artist who isn't nearly as smooth as she thinks, and a huge supporting cast brimming with eclectic charm, Tales from the Borderlands tells a bizarre story the perfectly captures the best parts of Borderlands and repackages them for fans and non-fans alike. It's hard not to laugh when two characters share a tearful goodbye before falling two feet, feel solidarity with a sassy robot that questions the protagonists' life choices, or twitch uncomfortably when impromptu surgery comes into the picture. It's a ridiculously fun thrill-ride and over before you know it, and soon enough you'll be banging on the Vault gate for more.
Nintendo is a century-old company, but you wouldn't know it from the vibrant and self-consciously youthful experiment called Splatoon. A frustrating array of rough edges, like intentionally limited match selection and locked-in loadouts, kept Splatoon from cracking the single digits on GR+'s Game of the Year list. But its brilliant new take on staid shooter traditions and utter refusal to pander to Nintendo nostalgia will keep it in our thoughts for a long time to come.
Splatoon circumvents the nasty, headshot-hunting skirmishes of online shooters by making kill counts largely irrelevant. Your goal is almost always related to keeping the arena covered with your team's colorful ink - taking out enemies is only useful insofar as it briefly prevents them from undoing your progress. Splatoon is still staying fresh more than half a year out with community events like Splat Fests, new maps, and extra weapons. And all of that is built on top of a surprisingly substantial campaign mode, helping to make Splatoon one of the most promising new projects from Nintendo in years even if you don't play online.
9. Until Dawn
Weve all seen this movie: a bunch of "teenagers" (give or take ten years) head to a remote location for some partying and end up getting bumped off one by one. Weve all yelled at the screen, chiding the about-to-be victims for their stupid choices, smug in the certainty that wed never make such idiotic decisions. Until Dawn sets the scene with a group of friends in an isolated cabin being hunted by an unknown killer, and then gives us the chance to put up or shut up as we make all their important choices for them. Turns out its way, way harder to survive than it looks and you probably shouldnt go wandering off into the scary mine by yourself. Yeah, that last part seems obvious in retrospect.
Perfectly mimicking the cheesy dialog, contrived relationships, and far-too-old-for-the-part cast of classic slasher movies, Until Dawn is both a loving homage to those films and a well-crafted game experience. It expects you to try and outsmart its machinations and cleverly twists the script to remind you that youre not in control of this tale. Youre just another would-be victim, and youll have to make some sacrifices if you want to make it out alive. Marvelously manipulative, Until Dawn is just as fun when you make a wrong choice and get one of the kids killed as when you make the right one and save them from a grisly fate. The entire adventure is a hoot, with plenty of secrets and choose-your-own-adventure style choices that will have you rushing to replay to see how things could have gone. Still not sure what the right thing to do with the machete was.
8. Batman: Arkham Knight
For all their bone-crunching combat, empowering exploration, gratifying detective work, and copious Riddler trophy tracking, the Arkham games have always revolved around the complex relationship between Batman and the Joker. And by putting so much emphasis on the interplay between Kevin Conroy's Batman and Mark Hamill's Joker - stoic versus sadistic, unyielding versus unhinged - Batman: Arkham Knight serves as a fitting finale to Rocksteady's legendary superhero series. Those divisive Batmobile bits and a few questionable side plots can't detract from the brilliant resolution between the Dark Knight and his most dangerous, charismatic nemesis.
Arkham Knight (the game, not the mysterious new villain) is also the pinnacle of the franchise when it comes to polish: the graphics are stunningly gorgeous, Gotham's three humongous districts exemplify smart open-world architecture, and the Rogues Gallery is more diverse than ever. Whether you play Batman as a masterful, combo-building bruiser or an adept stealth predator, the flow of every fight feels immaculate. And, given enough practice with the controls, even the Batmobile segments can become a joy. Remember, kids: those are unmanned drones that Batman's obliterating with bat-missiles, and all those thugs he's slamming into at high speeds are merely unconscious.
7. Rocket League
Rocket League is not a difficult game to describe. Its just difficult to describe in support of what you usually say next: that its a brilliantly designed video game, too. Listen - its cartoonish cars playing soccer, and they can drive on the walls and smash into each other and blast off like rockets and when the big-huge ball rolls into the goal it explodes into an ecstatic puff of happy-paint. So stupid. So good. So smart. So much flipping fun.
Frankly, it feels inappropriate to rest your chin on your fist and then analyze the design heart of Rocket League, like a statue of The Thinker left at a kids rainbow-splattered paintball party. In the moments that make Rocket League - like when the ball is prodded into the goal by a skillfully aimed, squealing tire in the final second of the match - you forget all about the clever design. You dont spare a thought to the immediacy of the controls, the speed of back-and-forth jostling between teams or the subtle techniques that can turn a clumsy rocket-somersault into the perfect game-winning punt. If a game is so good you forget to think about how good it is, thats... well, pretty good, for a stupid car-soccer game.
6. Super Mario Maker
Super Mario Maker is the ultimate 2D Mario game, but you don't even have to master a classic-style 2D platforming adventure to enjoy it. It's a level construction game, giving players the ability to create Mario levels of their own, post them online, and challenge others to overcome some of the most intricate and intriguing Mario experiences they've ever seen.
But it isn't just that you can torture your fellow gamers with near impossible jumps, towering stacks of Goombas, or treacherous spike pits; as you build your own levels, you begin to appreciate the work that has gone into the series' 2D games. Super Mario Maker brings out the game developer in everyone who plays it, and thanks to the simple ways Nintendo introduces Super Mario Maker's level-building tools, just about anyone can learn to create their own Mario masterpiece.
5. Rise of the Tomb Raider
'New' Lara Croft returns after her baptism of blood and fire in the Tomb Raider reboot in 2012, and she's at the top of her game. Shooting, exploration, puzzles, stealth each facet of the game is polished to a sheen, just like the visuals. The beauty of this new-gen world is breathtaking but, appropriately for something so naturalistic, also fraught with danger. The sense of isolation that's been missing from the series for so long is finally back, especially if you tackle the game on its hardest difficulty, Survivor, which seriously lives up to its name.
The tomb interiors are some of the best-realised environments in any medium, and they're filled with canny puzzles and enjoyable treasure hunts. The story and sequencing are both expertly-paced, so you're never forced to linger on any one gameplay type for too long for its duration. Few games manage this level of quality for a 20-minute segment. Rise of the Tomb Raider does it for around 50 straight hours.
4. Fallout 4
Obviously Fallout 4 was going to make an impact 2015. Games with that much hype behind them do not go quietly into that unplayed pile. And the fact that its not number one probably reflects just how dauntingly huge it is. Theres so much to process, with many a gamer clocking up tens of hours and still feeling like theyve only just got started. Its a rich and dense world that will be still be offering up plenty of adventures in the new year and likely be the GOTY for many then as well.
Its an experience that takes the Bethesda RPG template of large, open narratives and exploration, and fills it with more content, colour and detail than any previous installments. Its a dangerous time sink. Had enough of adventuring? Build a settlement or a perfect house. Craft some guns, tinker with your armour, or head out to a location someone mentioned and see what you can find. Its that flexibility and freedom that means its absorbed some peoples lives completely and rightly so.
While hundreds of other games do the 'creepy graveyard' and 'gothic architecture' thing, Bloodborne makes them all feel childish. Its world of cold stone and blood on dark fabric is the stuff of nightmares but never purely for effect. For the deeper you peer into the depths of its lore, the more you unearth. Everything has meaning. Everything has a reason.
That this world of detail hidden in plain sight can effectively be ignored and just enjoyed as window dressing for one of the most beautifully-weighted challenges gaming has ever offered is proof yet again of FromSoftware and Miyazaki's genius. There are entire areas you may never discover without a guide. Ways to summon a boss to fight alongside you before he 'transforms'... and a way to distract him with a child's music box when he does. The more you play, the more it gives, and you realise it's in a class of its own. Bloodborne is the real deal.
2. The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt
The Witcher 3's success and popularity is a feat made all the more impressive by the series' relative obscurity up to this sequel. This is a series that went from a PC-only game utilizing BioWare's Aurora engine (and frankly, didn't look or play very well even in its prime) to a multi-platform powerhouse that plays as good as it looks - and it looks really damn good.
The level of passion and care developer CD Projekt RED put into making the game is self-evident; combat is smooth and satisfying, Geralt is more fleshed-out (and flesh-baring) than ever before, the plot eschews video game morality and presents something wholly more ambiguous, and the devs' commitment to fans (whether it's free DLC, patches that make managing inventory easier, or humorous additions like an in-game taxman sent to collect money from exploit users) is commendable. From start to finish, you feel like The Witcher 3 is something made by people who made truly cared about it, and who wanted you to have fun with it. That's the spirit of gaming right there, and CD Projekt RED encapsulated it perfectly.
1. Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain represents the culmination of everything series creator Hideo Kojima has worked on in his almost 30-year-long career, but it's so much more than just a bigger or better stealth game than its predecessors. It's the evolution of the free-form chaos promised by games like Far Cry 2, where its open world isn't simply a means to provide an empty checklist of things to do, but rather an invitation to use its surroundings to solve a never-ending set of constantly evolving situational challenges. Do you take the high road or the gulch below as you slink into the enemy's desert fortress? Do you use the approaching sandstorm to retreat or as an opportunity to continue your assault? Do you head straight for your objective, or do you break left because you spotted a soldier with an S-Rank in R&D and you just have to have him on your team, damn the consequences? These moments feel like they've been placed by a guiding, directorial hand yet feel completely emergent and organic, a paradox that can only happen in a series like Metal Gear.
There are also the weird, distinctly Metal Gear moments that make it so much more than a collection of clever, intertwining systems. There's the part where you can infiltrate a heavily-fortified base while blasting Hall & Oates from your Sony Walkman. Or the part where you can tranquilize sheep, goats, or zebras, attach balloons to them, and send them back to your burgeoning zoo back on Mother Base. Or the series of cassette tapes that let you listen to a man essentially invent the McDonald's hamburger. Then there's the story; an infuriating, brilliant, and completely Metal Gear send-off that simultaneously embraces three decades of built-up lore and lovingly gives it the middle finger. While other games come and go, The Phantom Pain's Lynchian narrative will stick with you like a waking dream long after its final credit sequence plays out - a fitting end to the most enigmatic series in video game history.