The X Best Games
Welcome to the second annual edition of (what we're calling) the most prestigious awards in gaming. Who dares follow in the thudding footsteps of last year's winner, Alien: Isolation, and bag the top prize of Ultimate Game of the Year? Click through to find out.
Warning: If you still haven't played Batman: Arkham Knight, this feature contains a slight spoiler.
Ultimate Game of the Year - The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
If you'd told us 12 months ago that The Witcher 3 would end up holding the 2015 Game Of The Year award aloft like a freshly-severed head, we'd ask for a glass of whatever elixir you're sipping. In a year that saw new entries in blockbuster series such as Halo, Forza, Fallout and Tomb Raider, what chance did the latest entry in a notoriously inaccessible and niche RPG series have of making a dent? But you know what they say about hard work beating talent if talent doesn't work hard. This year has been defined by play-it-safe sequels that are shiny and confident and fun, but do little to push their genres forward in a meaningful way. Which is fine, but it means they lack that game-changing sparkle we look for in Game of the Year candidates.
The Witcher 3 is the first Xbox One game we've played since last year's winner Alien: Isolation that has that intangible GOTY feeling. The sparkle lies in the storytelling. The Witcher 3 untangles itself from the knotty lore of the books and gives its mercurial hero Geralt a simple goal track down a woman named Ciri. This focal point serves as a safety rope that frees the player to dive as deeply into The Witcher's vile and virile world as they want to, without ever being in danger of losing the plot's thread. The world-building is best-in-show, dense with mystery and violence, and populated with memorable characters. Its superior pacing and unforgettable side-quests make even the likes of whisper it Fallout 4 seem dated. The Witcher 3's influence will be felt in RPGs to come for many, many years.
Runners-up: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Halo 5: Guardians
Best Moment - Look Who's Laughing Now, Batman: Arkham Knight
The Joker may be dead, but he's a constant presence throughout Arkham Knight in the form of ghostly hallucinations experienced by Batman as he slowly descends into madness. In the hands of lesser writers, this exposition device could easily have fallen flat, but Rocksteady's scribes perfectly capture the sinisterly playful banter that makes Batman and Joker perfect foils for one another. More importantly, through the Joker's jibes the inner anxiety and self-doubt simmering underneath Batman's stoic exterior finally finds an outlet to escape.
The madness reaches a crescendo when Batman tries to apprehend Johnny Charisma, a singer infected with Joker's blood; as Robin defuses Charisma's bombs in the background, Batman distracts the explosive entertainer by listening to his latest performance. Except, blinded himself by the mind-altering affects of Joker's blood, Bats sees the singer in the image of The Joker who proceeds to croon an ode to his eternal rival. It's unnerving, malicious and undeniably catchy. An unforgettable moment in an unforgettable night.
Runners-up: Witcher 3's Bloody Baron quest, Ermac's Mortal Kombat X fatality
Best DLC - Destiny: The Taken King
If being a game developer is akin to playing god, then DLC packs are the verses where the makers of our favourite games get to cut loose with the plagues. Already this year we've seen Far Cry 4 invested with yetis, Forza Horizon 2 with monsoons, and perhaps most bizarrely, Mortal Kombat X began to rain 1980s horror icons.
But although we love the crazy as much as anyone, our favourite DLC of the year was something a little more sobering: The Taken King, a Destiny expansion that doesn't just add new quests and subclasses; it made sweeping revisions to almost every aspect of the base game, from levelling-up to enemy behaviour, in the process making Bungie's MMO shooter a bigger, better and brighter game. Peter Dinkage's bored dialogue was a small sacrifice to pay for such a comprehensively beneficial add-on.
Runners-up: The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone, Shovel Knight: A Plague of Shadows
Best Developer - Kojima Productions
We'd long since stopped trying to predict audacious auteur Hideo Kojima's next move, but not even the most contrarian of crystal ball-gazers could have predicted that under his watch, Metal Gear Solid a series that famously could talk the back legs off a D-Donkey would conclude with a sprawling open world thriller than banishes the small talk in favour of knuckling down and being a pure game, first and foremost.
Of course, game development is so short of 'characters' like Kojima, that it's tempting and lazy - to throw all the accolades his way, as though he personally chiselled every tree and rock formation himself. But Kojima Productions employed hundreds of skilled designers, and together, they crafted one of the most tactically ripe and responsive game worlds we've ever seen. Farewell, soldiers. *Does Big Boss salute thing*
Runners up: CD Projekt Red, Moon Studios
Best Publisher - Microsoft Studios
Ho ho ho. Oh, we would say that, wouldn't we? Except, actually, shh your piehole and get a load of this line-up: Ori & the Blind Forest, Forza Motorsport 6, Halo 5: Guardians, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, Rare Replay, Rise of the Tomb Raider and, er, Screamride. That's a god-tier line-up of games in anyone's book, spanning everything from indie curios to retro compilations to the winter's blockbusters. No other console had a first-party line-up as varied or as fascinating as the Xbox One's in 2015. If they were any doubts remaining that Microsoft had lost its focus on gaming, they were washed away in a sea of 9/10s as hit after hit rained down on Xbox One.
And the sense is that the best or at least, the most interesting is yet to come. If this year was about reminding us why we fell in love with Xbox in the first place, 2016 is less about old flames and kindling new passions. With ReCore, Scalebound, Quantum Break and more, don't be surprised if Microsoft successfully defend their trophy next winter.
Runners-up: Warner Bros, Bethesda
Best Music - Ori & the Blind Forest
What a treat for the ol' listening cups (or ears, as they're more commonly known), Ori & the Blind Forest's orchestral soundtrack is.
As light and flighty as the game's titular forest sprite hero, Ori's score caresses your ears during quieter moments with soft percussion sounds and dreamy flutes, before escalating in both volume and tempo during the game's tenser moments, such as a mad scramble across lava-sodden platforms. Crank up the volume, relax, and let Ori's soothing harmonies drown out your anguished screams.
Runners-up: Shovel Knight, Metal Gear Solid V
Best sound design - Star Wars Battlefront
George Lucas once said that sound is half of the picture, and nowhere is that more true that with Star Wars a franchise than managed to make even the sound of Darth Vader's disgusting heavy breathing iconic (the nose, Vader. Use the nose!).
Battlefront understands all too well how closely entwined the films' sounds are with fan nostalgia, and delivers big. From the piercing 'rrraaaahhhhh' roar of a passing Tie fighter, to the sharp, shrill symphony of the Stormtroopers' blasters on the battlefield, EA Dice couldn't have captured the sounds of the original Star Wars trilogy any more faithfully if they'd piped the sound effects directly from Lucas' brain.
Runners-up: Elite: Dangerous, Batman: Arkham Knight
Best Writing - The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt
Weirdly, considering how heavily the genre leans on storytelling, role-playing games are almost universally bad at dialogue. The problem lies in both the content and the delivery: so much as tip your hat at a passer-by in your typical BioWare or Bethesda epic, and they'll stand on the spot like a lemon for ten minutes as they dislocate their jaws and recite an encyclopedia in prose as dry as a mouthful of crackers.
The Witcher 3 is the first RPG we've played in ages that's populated with people who feel they actually exist in the world they inhabit. Uneducated and crude, but with a wisdom that can only come from living through times of war, Witcher's salty denizens are the perfect foil for Geralt's cool, collected cynicism. The savoury, relatable exchanges give import to even the most inconsequential of side quests, and in the span of a few curse words, Witcher's NPCs manage to get across nuances that are forever beyond Skyrim's lore-dispensers.
Runners-up: Tales from the Borderlands, Metal Gear Solid V
Best Art Design - Batman: Arkham Knight
Arkham Knight was one of the first big, big budget Xbox One games that wasn't sandbagged with an accompanying Xbox 360 version, which gave developers Rocksteady the freedom to cut loose and craft the immersive open world Gotham City of their dreams, without having to make concessions for decade-old hardware.
It was an opportunity they didn't dare squander. The result is a masterclass in art direction, and a tantalising taste of the rich, atmosphere-drenched open worlds we can expect on Xbox One in the years to come. From the far-away searchlights that pierce through the city's polluted haze, to the way the rain pounds down on Batman's cape as he swoops past the city's most iconic sites, Arkham Knight's vision of Gotham is one that is as dark and moody as Ol' Bats himself.
Runners-up: Star Wars Battlefront, Ori & the Blind Forest
Best Xbox 360 game - Rise of the Tomb Raider
Last year, we disqualified any game from this category that was merely a port of an Xbox One game. This year, we've discarded that rule, because with Phil Spencer as our witness, we're not handing out awards to the likes of SpongeBob HeroPants. This might have been the year where the ten-year old Xbox 360 really began to age, but not all last-gen ports were Black Ops III or Shadow of Mordor-esque horror shows. In particular, the Xbox 360 version of Rise of the Tomb Raider shows what kind of performance can still be squeezed from the last-gen console's geriatric graphic card with a little loving care.
It might not have some the Xbox One version's visual effects, and the framerate might take a hit, but the porting team did a superb job cramming a game of this scale on hardware that's old enough to get a bus pass. (One console year = seven human years. It's like dogs, people.)
Runners-up: Metal Gear Solid V, Transformers Devastation
Best indie game - Shovel Knight
Has there been another game released this decade that captures the spirit of the 8-bit era as faithfully as Shovel Knight? What we dig the most about Yacht Club Games' love letter to the 1980s platformer is that celebrates the period's warts just as passionately as it does the charms from the garish colour palettes to the rigid movement of the main character, this is as authentic as today's indie pastiches get (although, thankfully, it doesn't extend to having to input an alphabet-soup password to continue your progress each time you boot up the console).
But whatever you do, don't call it a throwback. Shovel Knight might be inspired by the past, but its design draws fiendishly from today's sensibilities. In particular, adopting the Dark Souls model of having our hero drop loot after each death is a masterstroke that makes each pitfall matter. One of the best 2D platformers of this, or any other, decade.
Runners-up: SteamWorld Dig, Ori & the Blind Forest
Best online multiplayer - Halo 5: Guardians
It bears repeating: the beauty of Arena really does lie in its purity. Unlike the barmy chaos of Star Wars: Battlefront or Black Ops III, where everyone's encouraged to bring their own personally customised guns and gadgets to the fight, Halo 5: Guardians forces each player to start in the blocks with the same base weapons; the myopic-but-powerful Magnum, and the master-of-nothing Assault Rifle.
With such an austere arsenal to hand, tiny moves and tricks that would have been swallowed whole amid Black Ops III's mayhem take on huge tactical significance. Knowing how to thruster-dodge out of danger when you're under fire, or picking the right time to knock out your opponent's shields with a Spartan Charge, are important skills that make all the difference when the final kill/death ratios are tallied. It all makes for a tightly-knit, tense multiplayer experience that serves to prove just how baggy the competition has gotten.
Runners-up: Star Wars: Battlefront, Pro Evolution Soccer 2016
Best local multiplayer - Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime
Local multiplayer is something of a dying art in these days of online-focused consoles, which to our mind is a shame - as amusing as it is to snipe the face off strangers with names such as 'BongWizard1996', it just can't compare to the laugh-out-loud hilarity of competing against someone in the same room you can talk to/laugh with/flip the bird at.
This year's standout effort, however, asks friends to link their hands together rather than trying to slice them off with swords. Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime plonks the two of you into a needlessly elaborate spaceship, which is (ideally) designed to be controlled by seven people. What follows is a frantic, hellish game of real-time teamwork and resource management as both players dart between different panels in the big, daft ship as circumstances demand. Success requires the kind of communication and mutual understanding that you can only get from your besties. And that doesn't mean you, 'BongWizard1996'. If that really is your real name.
Runners-up: Clusterpuck 99, Pro Evolution Soccer 2016
The Rest (we ran out of space in the mag)
Most improved - Life is Strange
The first episode's clumsy storytelling and try-hard teen speak meant expectations for this interactive teen drama began low. But we found ourselves drawn deeper and deeper in with each passing episode, as lazy stereotypes began to blossom into well-rounded characters we cared about, and we discovered the lengths to which we could shape their fates with our social interactions. It's flawed, yes, but it's still one of the most fascinating series we've played in years.
Best Innovation - Halo 5: Guardians' Warzone
The perfect counter-punch to Halo 5's brilliant but regimented Arena mode. Leave all thoughts of preserving kill/death ratios at the door, spawn some ridiculous weapons and tanks, and wage brutal, silly, constantly-evolving warfare across three enormous battlefields. In bridging the gap between campaign and multiplayer, Warzone rolls up everything that is good about Halo into one explosive ten-minute package.
Best Newcomer - ScreamRide
Not a vintage year for new game series, it has to be said. Although it has to be said that even in a stronger year, a game that asks you to knock down buildings like dominoes by firing rollercoaster carriages packed full of screaming passengers would have to be considered a serious contender. And look, it was either this or bloody Evolve, okay?
The Team's Personal Favourites
Matthew Castle, Editor
1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
2. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
3. Ori & The Blind Forest
5. Halo 5: Guardians
5. Hand of Fate
Alex Dale, Deputy Editor
1. Shovel Knight
2. Halo 5: Guardians
3. NHL '16
5. Rare Replay
5. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Tom Stone, Staff Writer
1. Batman: Arkham Knight
2. Life is Strange
3. The Witcher 3 - Hearts of Stone
5. Fallout 4
5. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Joe Skrebels, Community Manager
1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
2. Tales from the Borderlands
3. Life is Strange
5. Destiny: The Taken King
5. Ori & The Blind Forest