2015 was a…strange year in gaming. On the one hand, the PS4 and Xbox One kicked into full gear, resulting in an avalanche of quality titles of all sizes, scopes, price points, and genres. Despite the quantity of solid games, it seemed like there weren’t as many elite standouts in 2015’s crop, and even fewer that resonated with me personally. Critically acclaimed games like Bloodborne, Super Mario Maker, Her Story, and Life is Strange that seem to have been populating several other lists have either not fit my tastes or I simply did not think they were as good as others do. That being said, I played plenty of great games this year and per tradition, I’ll be counting down my Top 7 below!
As with every year, writing about gaming in my free time means I can’t possibly play every game that deserved to be played. Notable games I didn’t get to play this year: Fallout 4, Xenoblade Chronicles X, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.
7) Rocket League | Psyonix
I normally shy away from including storyless, purely mechanically-driven games on my Top 7 lists. It’s not that I don’t think these types are games aren’t fun, or that they aren’t great pieces of interactive entertainment, but to me being one of the best of the year means utilizing as many different aspects of a medium as possible. It’d be like nominating a black and white film or a silent film for Best Picture in 2015–it’s not impossible, but that would have to be one helluva film to make up for the things it’s not doing. On paper, Rocket League has no business making a list like this; it’s a relatively straightforward game about RC cars playing indoor soccer. But this game is just so damn fun, it’s simple concept giving way to a polished, meticulously optimized game that has taken the industry and living rooms by storm. I could talk about any number of ways that Psyonix nailed the execution of a full-fledged hit: endless customization options, different ways to play, and the continuous drip of digestible, affordable DLC. But at the end of the day, it’s the pure sense of joy that Rocket League captures and its embodiment of that “just one more game” feeling that earns it a spot on this list.
6) Mortal Kombat X | NetherRealm
Much like Injustice: Gods Among Us before it, NetherRealm did something incredible when it came to Mortal Kombat X: it made a fun, engaging, and sensible (if otherworldly) story–in a fighting game. It’s not a story whose writing is going to win any awards, but it builds out the characters and their motivations to fight each other, gives the player a better sense of the how the various settings fit together, and finds clever ways to repeatedly pit the playable cast against each other–and even features some guest appearances. NetherRealm brought back its approachable-yet-deep control scheme and interactive environments to sweeten the pot, and its new generation graphics engine makes the game one of the prettiest graphical showcases for the current systems. Mortal Kombat X certainly isn’t for those with weak stomachs for gore, but it’s a fine fighting game with a worthwhile story mode.
5) Until Dawn | Supermassive Games
Of the influx of the modern take on point-and-click adventure games, Until Dawn stands out as the best. Unlike the episodically distributed adventures in Game of Thrones, Tales from the Borderlands, Life is Strange, and MineCraft: Story Mode, Supermassive has built an impressive graphical engine that takes the cinematic presentation of this genre to a new level. Until Dawn is boosted by its stunning aesthetic and expertly choreographed, occasionally creative camera angles and cuts that bring the experience to life and punctuate its most intense moments. Despite a mostly familiar arsenal of game mechanics, Until Dawn really earns its spot on this list by being one of the most unique games I’ve ever played. It’s a horror game at heart, but it also doesn’t shy away from poking fun at its derivative teen movie premise before eventually easing into its own identity and taking a turn for the serious and gruesome. The game is so often simultaneously thrilling and unnerving, and its inspiration from Heavy Rain to do away with “Game Over” screens makes for an engaging interactive experience that keeps adapting to the consequences of the player’s actions.
4) Ori and the Blind Forest | Moon Studios
Ori is one of those games that from the moment you turn it on, it traps you in a state of continuous awe because of its mesmerizing art style. Under that truly majestic veneer is the substance of a rich Metroidvania platformer and an emotional prowess reminiscent of Pixar’s best efforts. Ori is polished and magical in the way the best Nintendo games are, and yet it also carves out a wholly unique identity of its own. Playing Ori and the Blind Forest is like playing a vibrant HD painting that shines and shimmers while it puts those thumbs to the test (despite the inviting look, Ori can be a demanding platformer at times–perhpaps communicating via mechanics the peril that the titular character must navigate throughout the game). Truth be told, I’ve only managed to sink a couple hours into the game so far, and yet that was already enough to find a spot on this list. I can’t wait to start the year by taking a deeper dive into the Blind Forest.
3) Batman: Arkham Knight | Rocksteady Studios
After two strong outings and a B-team prequel, Rocksteady claims it’s done with the Caped Crusader after Arkham Knight. If that’s true–and I’d be excited to see the studio’s talent invested in another IP–then Arkham Knight serves as a fitting, if flawed, swan song to a series that redefined action games, superhero games, and licensed games all in one fell swoop. While the PC version famously burst apart at the seams, the console versions showed off a beautiful, rain-battered version of Gotham City. Unlike Arkham City‘s erratic main story, Knight‘s Most Wanted system manages to incorporate many of Batman’s iconic rogues gallery into one of the better stories the studio has told–save for a ridiculous and forced subplot involving the Joker. Rocksteady continues to show it can keep bringing fresh ideas to both Batman’s arsenal and the still-peerless rhythm-based melee combat system. The story twists and turns with some truly unexpected developments, even if it climaxes with a predictable reveal. The Batmobile looks cool and has its moments, but overall it’s got clunky controls that make it difficult to navigate Gotham’s snug streets. In these ways, the game is a strange amalgamation of exciting achievements and frustrating shortcomings–even the DLC strategy, which was initially panned but ended up being fantastically executed, embodies this–but in the end, it’s hard to shake off the smile after pounding through a sequence that makes you feel like you can truly say the words, “I am Batman.”
2) Rise of the Tomb Raider | Crystal Dynamics
Crystal D’s follow-up to their 2013 reboot seemed to fly a bit under the radar during the busy holiday season, but after they nailed their reimagined vision for Lara Croft, I couldn’t wait to jump into the heroine’s climbing boots once again. The result did not disappoint. Rise of the Tomb Raider is a fantastic blend of frenetic third-person gunplay, exhilarating climbing and traversal scenes, gorgeous vistas, and some genuinely good writing and performance capture. I found myself pausing numerous times just to stare in awe at blizzard-battered cliffsides in the sweeping Siberian wilderness. Rise continues its predecessor’s reliance on a string of connected open areas without being a true open world, and it slowly unlocks new pathways through an item-based, Metroid-like progression system. Crystal D introduced plenty of fun new items to a now-experienced Lara’s arsenal, building successfully off of the first game’s already impressive suite. All in all, Rise of the Tomb Raider is simply a wonderfully executed game that excels in nearly all aspects of its production. After two stellar outings, it’s become “Crystal” clear that Lara Croft is in very good hands.
1) The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt | CD Projekt RED
While there’s a sizeable gap between Arkham Knight and Rise of the Tomb Raider, it was tough to pick between Lara’s return and Geralt’s marvelous quest in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, but ultimately, it is the latter’s ambitious breadth that earns it the crown Best Game of 2015. The Witcher 3 is just so impressive in so many ways. Its open world is absolutely massive and features a wide variety of settings, characters, and mission types. It truly feels like an entire world we’re stepping into, and a little corner of it at that despite the expanse of the playable area. The game’s writing is both complex and fearless as it tackles heavy and mature issues with aplomb, truly selling the dark fantasy grittiness of Geralt’s world. But it’s not just the fiction, as rich as it is; Geralt’s status as the most famous of a dwindling population of witchers (mutated monster hunters for hire) makes him an ideal protagonist for an action RPG, and all the character building and all the ramifications of choices give the experience a level of personalization that only further enhances it. And while the fighting mechanics still aren’t perfect, they’ve come a long way since the often cumbersome Witcher 2 and allow for multiple approaches depending on play style. The game is so expansive, I sometimes wondered if I’d ever finish it, yet I enjoyed every moment I spent in that world. The Witcher 2 took the top spot on my list in 2011, but its sequel is an even more impressive and complete experience…and the best game I played in 2015.