Welcome to another Post-Launch Reviews yearly retrospective!
As I'm looking at this blank page, 2015's picks feel a little thin - I had two periods where I had to slow down on gaming this year so I have a smaller pool to chose from. Plus I feel like I was impressed by fewer games overall. But once I actually go back and look at the reviews I wrote, well, maybe it's not quite as short a list as I thought. On the other hand, once I highlight the games that HAVE to be on the list, I felt a lot more ambivalent about the remainder, and I'm back to "which of these did I actually like enough to put on the list".
As always, this is a list of my favourite ten games I played this year, not a list of the best games that released this year. So here we go - top ten games of 2015, in more or less the order I played them.
Titles are links to full reviews.
(when I load the page, some of the titles end up behind the images. After messing around with layout I still don't know what's causing it. Tried a fix and it seems more okay now; hope it works better for everyone else.)
Looking back at the review I wrote early in the year, it seems I was more addicted than I was enjoying the game. I've warmed up to it since then and would love to get in some multiplayer games. The turn-based approach combined with a whole lot of exploration and building are what overcame my usual dislike for complex strategy games. With the expansions in place, Civ V is wonderfully complex without being overwhelming.
Tomb Raider is the model of how to do a reboot right: lots of respect for the original but with plenty of new elements and great design. The island is full of detail and the hub design provides a good balance of exploration and forward pressure. It's a little disappointing the tombs are so small and optional, but the story as a whole is true to form, and I didn't really have much of a problem with the main criticism of the game (the alleged incongruity between the character writing and the amount of violence). Looking forward to the next one.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown (with Enemy Within expansion)
The combination of base building and turn-based tactical combat is a strange mix that you might not expect to work, but it really really does. Like Civ V, XCOM is an exception to my usual discomfort with strategy games, and it's great. It's amazing how I felt so attached to my soldiers, and the customization and replayability are off the charts. Cool aliens, great aesthetics, lots of layers of strategy.
Video games based on movies are bad? Well, not this one. Alien: Isolation is a remarkably faithful sequel to the original Alien movie, with absolutely masterful dedication to the film's aesthetic and tone. Some elements are unnecessary and some bits drag on, but overall the game is an excellent sci-fi horror, and it gave me some real shocks and surprises. The alien's AI will is different between games and even between attempts at a level, so it'll keep you on your toes. And I have to reiterate the greatness of Amanda Ripley.
I loved Bastion, but Transistor really blew me away. I'm sure the sci-fi setting has a lot to do with it, but I also loved the gameplay - I didn't know it was possible to do so much with four ability slots. The combining and recombining of abilities is a great system to experiment with, and combat is both action-packed and tactical. Plus the art direction and music and voice acting and story and writing in general are top-notch. Loved this game.
This is not the kind of game I usually enjoy, but to fully explain that thought would thoroughly spoil the ending, so I won't. Instead I'll say that this is one of the most visually astonishing games I've ever played and should really be experienced at maximum, but the story is powerful as well, and damn, that ending. To reiterate a point from the full review, Gone Home flirted with horror themes and disappointed me, but Ethan Carter did it right.
I wanted to like Shadowrun Returns, but it was too generic. Dragonfall, on the other hand, is everything I could have wanted from a Shadowrun game: a well-characterized misfit crew in over their heads, everything going wrong, small-scale stories and the experience of shadowrunning and exploration of the intricacies of the setting that all lead into something big. Plus it's got a pretty solid tactical combat system.
This game gave me something I've never experienced before: a strong sense of solidarity and attachment with a complete stranger and near-zero communication. The game is beautiful and the environments are lovely; the ending seemed a little underwhelming at first but what's really important is the journey.
I had to cut down from 15 games on the list this year, so here's a quick look at the five that didn't make the cut, and why.
- Pokémon Omega Ruby / Alpha Sapphire: Despite calling these the best Pokémon games to date, I think I'm finally starting to burn out on the formula. This year it went from something I play whenever I'm on transit to something I'll finish and set aside.
- Lost Planet 3: Loved the new perspective on the world and the ice planet visuals, but it doesn't quite feel right without the thermal energy survival element.
- Saints Row IV: A blast to play, but nowhere near as memorable as Saints Row III.
- Dishonored: Great gameplay and worldbuilding, but meh story.
- The Walking Dead Season Two: Excellent, but didn't quite feel as impactful to me as the first.
I'm starting to realize that I get most excited to play AAA action games, but indie masterpieces are usually the ones that leave the biggest impact. I don't think it's that indie games are somehow better at story and emotion - it's more that AAA games are so focused on size and graphics and scale and depth and replayability that there tends to be less focus or room for an emotionally impactful story.
To be clear, I'm not saying one or the other is better. There's great stuff you simply can't do on a small budget, that you can only find in big-budget AAA titles. But there is something to be said for a highly focused artistic title as well. I won't make sweeping statements about the quality of AAA or indie as a whole, I'll just say that it's important to evaluate games on an individual basis or you'll miss some real gems.
Well, enough rambling. That's the list for 2015! I've already got a bunch of games I'm really looking forward to for 2016 - Silent Hill 2, Assassin's Creed 4, most of the Halo series, The Evil Within - as well as a bunch of wishlisted titles that will probably soon be discounted enough for me to add to the backlog. We'll see what makes the cut next year.