Game Of The Year 2015: Tom's Picks

2015 was a beast of a year for games. Magnificent. Unfortunately in the second half of my year I collected a lot of games while simultaneously losing a lot of my free time due to new work commitments. It's also a year where our previously tight knit group was rent asunder by various geographical movements, which is a big reason for the lack of local multiplayer games in my list.

I've also made a big shift from PC to console, as London house prices mean I don't have enough room for a decent PC set up. Luckily there are some great indie titles coming on to the current consoles, and between those, remasters of the last gens and a couple of free games every month, I'm spoiled for choice.

So spoiled in fact that there's more than a few I missed which I still want to play. Divinity and Wasteland are high on my list, and I want to check out Black Ops 3 with Rob and Earl. Diablo made an entrance right at the end of the year, and I look forward to seeing more of that. This list could go on, but I really should get started with the real list! So, without further ado...


5 - Tales from the Borderlands

2015 was the year that episodic games came into their own for me. A new job in a new city meant less overall time for games, and TftB, Game of Thrones and LiS were perfect for my lack of full commitment. TellTale seem to be the masters not only at the episodic format, but at twisting an idea that at first appears to be massively unsuitable for this type of game into something wonderful. Borderlands proper is all about that loot, and shooting things to get that loot. Tales... has minimal gunplay, delivering instead delivering its bullets in snappy dialogue, humourous characters and situations, and some of the best intro sequences ever seen in videogames (seriously, episode 2's intro made my jaw drop). Everybody is at least one part asshat, no one can be entirely trusted, and you will believe a caravan can fly!

It shouldn't work, but by some arcane alchemical process, it totally does. Unreliable narrators, flashbacks, a stellar performance from Handsome Jack and a total appreciation for the inherent lunacy of the Borderlands world turn Tales into one of the finest and silliest narrative games of the year. 

4 - The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

I'll just say it... I just couldn't like the first two Witcher games. That's why it's such a surprise that The Witcher 3 made me so happy in the early part of this year. 

Looking at it objectively however, it's plain to see that a whole raft of improvements have been made to the third entry to the series. Combat is the biggest change, in that now actually feels fun! Using Signs in combat is nice and intuitive, even if I did spend most of my time using one or two at the expense of the others. Rolling and parrying are a joy to use, and because of these changes I felt like an actual badass, rather than someone who'd accidentally been mistaken for a witcher like I did in number 2.

With combat being fun, I could turn my attention to exploring, and oh my, what a world it is to explore. It's rare that such a large game looks so good, but The Witcher's lush expansive landscapes really are a treat to behold. Populated with grand cities, poor hamlets, caves full of horrid beasties and some epic loot, moving through the world is always a delight. 

As you wander the world in search of your young protege, the quests range from the ridiculous to the sublime (as they should in a good RPG) and some tough choices have to be made. True to the world of the Witcher, most choices do not have an obvious 'good' choice, with the lesser of two evils being the best possible outcome. Often more rewarding than the quests are the battles with epic monsters, where preparation is key and simply charging in will get you proper deaded before you know what's happening. Bringing down one of these toughies is a great feeling, and even more so if you have done the groundwork to win the fight with aplomb!

Deep story, long and complex quests, beautiful scenery, big old monsters - The Witcher 3 has it all, and CD Projekt Red haven't been shy about throwing in a lot more free DLC content to go along with the paid expansion (which I haven't even got around to playing yet!) Great value for money, and well worth checking out, even if the previous games left you cold.

3 - Life Is Strange

18 year old me would have been very happy with a video game seemingly inspired by Donnie Darko and Twin Peaks, and while 34 year old me was initially more reluctant, turned off by its hipster pretentiousness, it turns out it's actually a very smart game. Boo to nearly missing it!

Teenage time traveller Max Caulfield has a vision of the future, and it doesn't look good for the seafront town of Arcadia Bay, so she resolves to hop around in time to try and fix it. Of course being a teenager isn't ever easy, so she has to deal with a high-school rich-kid psycho, a bullying classmate and a photo competition, while at the same time trying to keep an old friendship together and hunt down a missing girl. Things soon start taking a turn for the worse, and our poor heroine has to deal with it the best she can.

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This is another game that is all about choice and consequence, but on this occasion it actually feels like some of your choices do in fact affect the world around you. Helping you out is a nifty little rewind function that can be used to undo your last choice or flip back to an earlier point in a conversation after gleaning useful information. This power is never strong enough to be abused however, and many times the outcomes of choices are not immediately clear, which removes the temptation to see what happens and then flip back (no cheeky quick-saving to be abused here!).

The music is super cool (at least for my tastes), and the photography element is a nice touch (actually getting a character to use her hobby as just that, rather than a game mechanic, is really nice). The characters are well realised, with levels of vulnerability and surprising strength, and developers Dontnod have realised the impossible task of making teenagers sound real (even if they do have a tendency to slip into Dawson levels of precociousness on occasion). I really enjoyed my time with Life is Strange, and it did make me wonder how many other quality games I could have missed because of prejudice!

2 - Fallout 4

More Fallout! 5 years of waiting, and it's back! It's big, it's full of stuff to explore, it still has a slightly weird sense of humour and a sprinkling of odd little bugs. There's no point going into too much detail here: if you like Fallout, you probably already own this, and if you don't, well, that's your loss. 

All the things that I love about the more recent Fallout games are back: it's impossible to go to do a quest without being distracted by something along the way (the map is even busier than ever before, and I can't pass a new building without having a poke around) and it is possible to play for hours without actually doing anything that remotely advances the story.  On top of all the awesome Fallout goodies, there are new crafting elements (mod your guns, mod your armour, build a town!) and it is possible to level up perks and SPECIAL stats. The game throws a crazy number of possible companions at you, but as I am a sneaky lone wolf I just send them all to town, and the game even allows for this, with a perk that gives me more carry weight and damage for being alone.

More stable (in my experience) than other Fallout games, there are still many little foibles, but as I have experienced nothing game breaking (and I always have at least 5 save files) the small complaints are utterly subsumed by the joy of discovery.  It also feels a little more forgiving at the beginning than the other games, and this, coupled with a prettying up on current gen and PC mean that it's a perfect introduction to the series.

1 - Everybody's Gone to the Rapture

Without a shadow of a doubt, my Game of the Year 2015. Beautiful, evocative, tranquil and haunting, EGttR blew me away, and redefined my expectations for storytelling in games.  Strongly written, realistic characters abound, and this achievement is even greater given there are no physical characters to speak of. Simply interacting with radios and ghosts provide enough well written material to transport you fully into the story, while leaving enough ambiguity to draw your own conclusions to what has really happened. Even in the grand scheme of an apocalypse, small personal details don't get lost. The woman with the failing marriage, the train station guard with his model railway. These people that populated the village until recently lend an inescapable humanity which very few other games have reached. I played through four times, almost consecutively, just to find all of the snippets of story, not wanting to miss anything from any of the villagers.

The atmosphere is perfectly realised as well. A sleepy English village on a summer's eve, Yaughton has an air of the homely and the traditional, which makes the eerie desolation so much greater. A child's treehouse, or a country pub that could have been inhabited minutes before took are so well done that I was transported instantly to my home village (this could be one reason that I fell so in love with this game; it took me home). The astonishing soundtrack by Jessica Curry (also co-owner of The Chinese Room) puts a beautiful finishing touch to the entire project (and has been on my Spotify ever since I got the game). 

This is a game that has been made with loving care and attention to detail in every respect, and I want as may people as possible to experience this piece of video game art.  


Honourable Mentions

These are the games that didn't quite make it on to my list for one reason or another. I still heartily recommend them, they just lacked that special something that the other games had.

SOMA

This scary future body horror from the Amnesia crew spooked up a few of my afternoons late on this year. An effective exercise in creeping heebie-jeebies, it was a genuine contender until a bug dropped me through the floor, forcing me to restart an entire stressful section. Must go back and finish it, because apparently the ending is a corker...

Ether One

Similar in setting and atmosphere to Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, Ether One was so very close to being included. The tranquil English village is again the star, but this time we're delving deep into memories. More puzzley than EGttR, it was denied a place due an extremely frustrating (and now fixed) game breaking bug that stopped me finishing it the first two times I played. The fact I went back a third time to complete it is a testament to how good it is though!

Tearaway Unfolded

In a world of retro throwbacks and remakes, Tearaway does something clever by evoking the spirit of old-fashioned platform explore-em-ups while doing something new. The absolutely adorable papercraft world is a joy to manipulate, and I enjoyed the fact that it takes full advantage of a lot of the PS4 controller features. If you've never thrown a squirrel out of your screen and into your controller, you've never lived!

Game of Thrones

The second of Telltale's episodic stories, Game of Thrones holds pretty well to the source material while introducing a new tragic family into the GoT universe. Some of the original characters show their faces (and voices) and the multi-pronged story wouldn't seem out of place in the TV series. I really enjoyed it, but this being GoT, any choice you make is ultimately the wrong one, so the game eventually tired me out a bit.

Until Dawn

Boo! Ha, scared you! That's basically the first few hours of Until Dawn, another game that surprised me with its quality. Luckily the game lets up with the jump scares after a while and becomes a solid, tense game. I wrote about it here, but it deserves an honourable mention simply for being an 8 hour QTE that's actually a lot of fun.