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.