Game Of The Year 2015: Earl's Picks

I struggled to write this opening paragraph as much as I struggled with putting my list together. The others in the gang will tell you that I've had issues with the concept of "Best Of 20XX" lists. I've come to terms with the idea by thinking of each of our lists as a personal journey. If you were to ask me if I think the following games were the best games of 2015, I couldn't tell you. There were great games that were released this year that I didn't get round to playing. The great news is that they will still be there next year, waiting for me.

Keeping to a definitive shortlist made me think long and hard about my year. I want to get it right. It made me think about our year here at GoPlayThat. When I think of each game, I think about the month I was playing them and the events in our lives at that given time. 2015 was a pretty crummy year for us. While we aren't seeking serenades from your tiny violins, we all encountered professional or personal obstacles that made maintaining this site and our brand a difficult challenge. At one point in time, the six of us were literally pulled in separate directions and were in six different countries at one time. Some of us have stayed that way; physically apart. Video games and this site keep us together. I think you will see that we have approached these lists with an energy we've all lacked for quite a while. This is an energy we all dearly want to carry through to 2016 and bring you all more content. More videos, more podcasts, more articles. Because no matter how shit things get, we bloody love talking about games. I hope you like listening.

Even if reflecting upon 2015 doesn't give me fond memories, thinking of the games I played this year does. This has been an incredible year for gaming. Last year, I was the scrooge; passing on contributing to our 2014 lists. I couldn't muster up five games I enjoyed enough. This year I could have named twenty, if pushed. If bad memories are scars, these five games are the tattoos of my 2015. I wear them proud and I want you to see them.


5 - Rise of the Tomb Raider

If I think back to 2013, the Tomb Raider reboot sits in my top 3 games that year. It was with that thought that I actually tried to resist putting the sequel here in my list, but as tenacious as Ms. Croft is, she climbed her way into my final five. It's rude to judge a game based solely on looks, but if I did, I'd be buying RotTR dinner. It's stunning and possibly the best looking game I played this year. Combat feels a little tighter than the last outing, but the biggest step in this year's game is the revisiting of the franchise's original concept - actually raiding tombs.

I mentioned on this episode of the GoPlayThat Podcast that the fact the tombs are optional was a particular stroke of genius. Lara is a woman on a mission, but when I play as Lara, she cannot resist being distracted by dark, damp enclosures and piles of treasure. Knowing I could bypass these tombs if I wanted makes me feel like I'm possibly having a different experience to some other players. Maybe other players didn't find this tomb? I'm not just an explorer, I'm a pioneer. 

 

4 - Pro Evolution Soccer 2016

I'd generally resist the urge to plonk a sports game on a list like this, especially considering how iterative they have become. In PES 2016, I feel there is an iteration worth celebrating. I wouldn't be the first to attach phrases like "return to glory" to this year's PES, but I can't help but feel Konami's "PES Productions" studio have created something more than that. PES 2016 is a landmark in sports gaming. Like International Superstar Soccer and Sensible Soccer, this year's game feels like it has a unique soul that deserves to stand out in time. Pro Evolution 2016 is the new Pro Evolution Soccer 5. Bear with me.

Not since I was a teenager have I obsessed over my Master League team. The emotional investment in each individual player. Wiping away tears of joy as your youth prospects grow into Champions League heroes over seasons of hard work and worn out thumbs. Swallowing the lump in your throat as a season-ending injury forces you to re-think your game plan and pore over tactics screens to fill the gap that your rivals will be keen to exploit. This is football. It's a game, but it feels human.

That humanity is transported into the accelerated 90 minutes of action you face week-after-week in your career. Individual players learn from their mistakes. That Cruyff turn may have gotten your striker into the box one time, but a second attempt will leave defenders poking the ball from your toes, your opponent already jostling position for a counter attack. No two matches are the same and last week's formation that led you to triumph could have you scratching your chin at half time and rethinking your approach for the second half. I think you get my point, but as a lover of football management as well as the action itself, these moments resonate strongly with me. The football itself is the most responsive, well considered recreation of the sport in 11 years. When a well orchestrated move from midfield leads to your centre-forward hitting the back of the net in spectacular fashion, you can rest assured: you did that.

 

3 - Splatoon

It wouldn't be my list if there wasn't a Nintendo game in there and although the big N don't take my top spot (spoilers!), I was pleasantly surprised that the game that captured my heart this year doesn't feature any plumbers or pointy-eared princesses. Nintendo's first new IP in over a decade captured my heart from the moment I saw the concept art. Yes, I'm one of those annoying people that rush out to buy the whole Amiibo set before I've even played the associated game. For me, both the game and the trio of plastic decorations on my shelf were some of my best purchases this year.

It feels like the game fulfils a primal urge, the main game mode being where the winning team is the one which has covered the map in the most paint after a timer reaches zero. From filling in colouring books as a child to painting the walls of our homes as adults, there is something satisfying about leaving your mark and establishing your territory in your colour of choice. Turns out, when a group of foes ruins your efforts by covering it in a colour of their own, it means WAR.

The assortment of paint weapons, from guns to rollers, creates a huge variety of combat styles. You adjust tactics on the fly when you see what weapon your opponent is holding, either finding higher ground to drop paint from above, or rushing towards them to grab a quick "kill" before they fire off a slower, charged shot. If you are more of a painter than a fighter, you are rewarded for your inky contributions should you want to avoid combat and lurk in the shadows. If you want to collect orange and purple scalps instead, you are welcome to the party as well. I confess that if I had more friends playing the game and Nintendo had better prepared the Wii U for playing and communicating with friends online, this would have easily been my #1 game this year. My hopes are that we see a return to this universe on whatever hardware Nintendo has in store for us in the next year.

 

2 - Mortal Kombat X

I grew up as a Street Fighter kid. Street Fighter 2 was better than Mortal Kombat. Even at a young age, I never even understood how that debate could exist. The photo-captured characters and over the top gore were gimmicks that hid a pretty shallow fighter underneath. Don't misunderstand me, there was a lot of entertainment to be had playing Mortal Kombat with friends and I admit, I loved watching those Fatalities. However, when you needed to determine who the best gamer in the playground was, mano-a-mano, Street Fighter 2 was the competitive game. Ed Boon and crew have delivered many, many fun instalments to the franchise since then (and a few awful ones), but the series was overshadowed by more serious efforts in Tekken and Virtua Fighter. As I said, MK games were fun, but not formidable.

In my mind, this changed with Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe. A smaller, more considered roster of fighters led to a focused, balanced fighting game. It felt like the watching eyes of DC and new license holder, Warner Brothers, may have led to some restrictions on what Boon could do. Sometimes restrictions are a good thing. Where that game lacked gory thrills, the game delivered stunning back-and-forth fisticuffs that felt solid and rewarding.

These learnings were taken into Boon's new studio, NetherRealm and the franchise reboot, 2011's Mortal Kombat. The general feel of MK vs DC was kept, albeit with a much deeper roster from MK's past, each fighter having a huge pool of unique moves and some of the slickest controls and combos I've played in a polygonal fighter. Taking a leaf out of Street Fighter 4's book and keeping the gameplay on a 2D plain was a wise move, keeping the gameplay down to reaction and execution. Oh, and ripping people's spines out made a return with an 18+ rating to boot. Perhaps what made the game stand out the most however, was it had the best story mode in fighting game history. Ever.

You'll notice I'm on a fourth paragraph and I haven't even started talking about Mortal Kombat X yet. All I really wanted from MKX was more of the same since 2011. I got a lot more. A LOT more. I'm not just talking quantity, although this delivers there. More characters, more moves, more fatalities. A huge Krypt full of unlockables that actually took me the entire year to unlock. Online "Faction" modes and hilarious mutators. Challenge Towers that are specific to the time you play (I recently kicked the shit out of some turkeys for Thanksgiving). Mortal Kombat X was a game that lived with me throughout the year since April. The game had its hooks so deep, I didn't hesitate to buy the Season Pass, a purchase which is continuing to deliver Klassic (sorry) characters and movie tie-in oddities into 2016. Today, I like Mortal Kombat more than Street Fighter. That hurt my teenage self to say and I'll take a bruised shoulder in the playground for this stance, but I'll own it.

 

1 - Rocket League

Cars and football. Two words that would make most men's bollocks swell with nervous anticipation in most circumstances. As Top Gear once proved, the combination of these two enjoyable pastimes can indeed successfully combine with entertaining results. Perhaps this isn't a surprise and in the build up to the release of the game, I had many friends very much looking forward to the game's release and planning online meet-ups in anticipation. What was a surprise however, was that for PS4 owners who subscribe to PS+, the game was effectively given away for free.

Knowing practically everyone on your friends list owned the game made playing with strangers completely unnecessary. It also helped that the game is so bloody fantastic, that having somebody decline a "quick" game is a rarity. Ah yes, the "quick" Rocket League session. "I'll join you for one". The game's accessibility often meant that you and your friends were matchmaking with groups of friends in similar situations. 5 minute matches often turn into best-of-ten grudge matches between parties. Not since World of Warcraft have I completely lost a grasp of time and the physical space around me while playing a game. One memorable session began shortly after my evening meal and ended when one of my team-mates said: "Um guys, the sun's up and we have to go to work in two hours". It wasn't the last time this was to happen.

The beauty of Rocket League for me is most likely rooted in the simplicity. Sure, there are extremely advanced techniques involving aerial acrobatics, but anyone who has ever held a gamepad is familiar with go/stop/steer and putting balls into nets feels like part of the human DNA. This meant that anyone can enjoy the game. Unless you are ultra competitive and only play for wins, a hilarious time can be had with your friends, regardless of their skill level. This resulted in me playing the game with people I don't usually play games online with. I was reconnecting with friends I hadn't spoken to in a long time. Drawn back together by the mutual love of pushing oversized balls into goals with cars. 

When I try to measure the love that not only I, but my friends have for Rocket League, I think back to the fact that this was a game we received for free. This is a game we can all enjoy together and not spend a penny on. Yet, the vast majority of people I speak to, do indeed spend money on the game. To date, all DLC for Rocket League has been cosmetic alterations for your vehicle. I happened to speak to a colleague today about the game, who told me he uses it as a way to keep connected to his younger brother. I'll share a small part of the conversation:

"I buy all the DLC when it comes out. Despite that, I still prefer to play with the car I made before the first DLC even came out."
"Why do you buy the DLC then?", I asked.
"To support the developers. I love the game so I want to give back to them, you know?"
"Yep. Me too. Me too."

Rocket League is love.