by Matthew Thompson
The end of 2015 is upon us and it is time once again to look back at the best games the year had to offer. Last year I went with a top ten list because I didn’t have a clear-cut Game of the Year, but this time I will be returning to my traditional awards-style approach. Well here it goes!
Best Downloadable Game: Ori and the Blind Forest
What really struck me upon completing Ori and the Blind Forest is what a well-rounded game it was. Whether you have played the game for yourself or just seen videos, you know how beautiful Ori is. Sublime character designs and breathtaking environmental art combine to make for a game that is a sight to behold. It is also an aural delight with a phenomenal musical score which would be my runner-up in that category this year. Ori’s narrative may not be as big or grand as most of this year’s blockbuster titles, but it still manages to best many of them with a moving tale that features some surprisingly touching character moments. And finally it delivers where many a stylish indie game has faltered in the past by treating players to a compelling gameplay experience. Tight controls, unique mechanics and impressive level designs make for some seriously challenging and satisfying platforming while the Metroid-esque structure makes for a world that is a joy to explore. This is all to say that Ori and the Blind Forest is a wonderful game that delivers on all fronts.
Best Narrative: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
With so many of my most anticipated games delayed until next year, I found myself branching out and playing some titles I normally wouldn’t have tried. One of those was The Witcher 3 and it delivered a story unlike any I had experienced in gaming before. The scope of the world they have created here is just so big and the narrative matches it. At times that massive scope can be a detriment – the main plot has some pacing issues during its first act – but it makes up for these shortcomings elsewhere. Like in all the small stories and colorful characters you find spread across the game’s vast world. Or the strong bond between Geralt and Ciri that lives at the core of the game’s main storyline. It is definitely the kind of dark grey fantasy I like as well. This year saw me playing several choice-based games and I felt The Witcher handled this aspect the best by making my decisions feel important when the various narrative threads came to a close. Throw in some impressive writing to bring it all together and The Witcher 3’s story was my favorite of 2015.
Best Handheld or Mobile Game: Lara Croft Go
Lara Croft Go is exactly how you should adapt an existing console-centric game franchise to work on the mobile platform. Sure you could just throw Lara in a Temple Run knockoff, but then you fail to capture the essence of the series. And you could port the classic PS1 games, but then you are stuck using virtual gamepads that just don’t get the job done. Lara Croft Go avoids both of these issues that plagued some of Lara’s other mobile adventures. All the things you’d expect from a Tomb Raider game are present here. Thought-provoking platforming. Clever puzzles. Battles with mythological baddies. It is all here plus the developers even threw in a bunch of nods to TR games of yesteryear that long-time fans will get a kick out of. And the swipe-based controls are a perfect fit on today’s smartphones and tablets. The fact that developer Square Enix Montreal makes all of this work within a turn-based gameplay system makes the feat all the more impressive.
Best Soundtrack: Life is Strange
While there have certainly been more varied licensed soundtracks in games over the years never has one been so in tune with my own personal taste than the one created for Life is Strange. It feels like the developers have been studying my Spotify habits over the years to deliver a selection of tracks just for me. That included songs from artists I had been listening to for years like Bright Eyes, Syd Matters, and Angus & Julia Stone, but it also introduced me to acts I was unfamiliar with like Message to Bears and Foals. Syd Matters frontman Jonathan Morali delivers an original score that fits alongside its licensed counterpart perfectly. And the developers know just when to deploy all this wonderful music to compliment quiet character moments or back episode ending montages. Life is Strange’s soundtrack is perfect to put on when exploring the small details of Max or Chloe’s bedrooms or when just chilling out at home in your own room.
Best Downloadable Content: Animal Crossing x Mario Kart 8
I played a number of worthwhile pieces of downloadable content this year. I have only just started The Witcher 3’s Hearts of Stone expansion, but it delivers more of what Witcher fans loved about the base game. Far Cry 4’s Valley of the Yetis helped fulfill my long-time wish of playing a Far Cry game in a snow-covered open-world. Resogun’s Defenders DLC had me hooked on this gen’s most addictive title all over again. And Lara Croft Go even received a great expansion about a month ago.
Despite all of these quality choices, I have settled on Mario Kart 8’s latest DLC as my favorite from 2015. Once upon a time, a new Mario Kart meant 16 total tracks. Here we get eight tracks for $8 (or $6 if you buy the bundle… which you should). And these courses are great too. That includes fresh new tracks like the stunning Wild Woods and the intricately crafted Super Bell Subway. That includes ones based on popular Nintendo series like Animal Crossing. That includes the superb remake of Ribbon Road which stands as one of the game’s best classic tracks. They even threw in Baby Park so those who aren’t any good at racing might squeak out a win here and there. And I haven’t even gotten to the new racers and kart pieces this pack added. This Mario Kart 8 Animal Crossing-themed DLC package delivers on both value and content and gave me something I will be playing for years to come.
Best Non-2015 Game I Played This Year: Sunset Overdrive
As a long-time Insomniac fan, I was pretty bummed to miss out on Sunset Overdrive last year, but it made for a great way to break in my new Xbox One purchase this year. Certain elements of Sunset Overdrive remind me of other games out there. The colorful graphics and wacky weaponry certainly recall Insomniac’s own Ratchet & Clank series. The silly, somewhat vulgar sense of humor is somewhat reminiscent of Saints Row. The way you move through its sandbox setting feels a bit like Infamous while how you link together maneuvers reminds me of something like Tony Hawk. But Sunset Overdrive does a lot of great things in its own right. Like how it integrates traversal with combat so well or how it manages to add a layer of challenge to the platforming that is usually missing in open-world settings like this game’s. It all comes together to create a game that is just a whole lot of fun.
Overall Game of the Year: Rise of the Tomb Raider
I spent most of 2015 uncertain what my Game of The Year would be. I enjoyed a number of titles throughout the year immensely including the ones I talked about above along with a few I haven’t been able to touch on – most notably Yoshi’s Woolly World and Batman: Arkham Knight. And yet I didn’t feel GotY-level passionate about any of them. It is hard to describe, but there is a feeling that goes along with that caliber of game for me and I hadn’t felt it yet. And then Rise of the Tomb Raider came along and blew me away.
It was just two years ago that its predecessor was my disappointment of the year. While a solid game in its own right, it had simply strayed too far from what made the series special to me. What I’d seen of Rise of the Tomb Raider certainly looked like an improvement on that game, but I didn’t know it would be such a dramatic one. Everything is better here. Part of that for me is certainly it veering back towards the series’ roots with a greater emphasis on the adventure elements TR is known for. That means more tombs, trickier puzzles and improved platforming, but also an expanded focus on exploration that feels unique to this rebooted take on the series while at the same time feeling like a perfect fit for the franchise. Just as important are all the other improvements. Combat is easily the series’ best with much more thoughtful enemy encounters and a host of new options for Lara to tackle them with. Lara gets fantastic new gear that adds more depth to traversing through Rise of the Tomb Raider’s bigger and better hubs and their various linear offshoots. Setpieces have never been Crystal’s strong suit, but they managed to craft some memorable ones here. And honestly I could go on and on about other ways in which Rise of the Tomb Raider tops 2013’s TR reboot.
The result is an incredible action/adventure game. Well-balanced between its action and adventure components in a way few entries in the genre are and an absolute blast to play throughout its lengthy campaign, Rise of the Tomb Raider is an easy choice for my 2015 Game of the Year and my favorite game of this young generation so far.
That will do it for my 2015 Gaming Awards. I have at least one more post looking back at gaming in 2015 planned to supplement this one, so be on the lookout for it in the new year. As always thanks for reading!