Another year, another journal post listing the best, the worst and the indifferent of the games I've played this year. I haven't actually done a count, but my sense is that I've not quite played so many games this year as I have in years past (despite my disposable income levels having rallied substantially from the low-point they hit in 2013). That's partly down to long hours at work and some home-life pressures leaving less time for gaming. It's also down to the fact that games seem to have grown a lot this year; gone are the days when you could blast through a campaign in 6-8 hours. Just as the corridor-shooter came to be the staple of games during the last console generation, this generation's flavour seems to be the 40+ hour open world game.
What this means is that there are a few big releases this year, such as Star Wars Battlefront, Until Dawn and Mad Max, which I just haven't gotten around to playing. I've also probably sampled a smaller portion of the minor releases than I would in the past and have largely skipped the indie-scene entirely (though I don't seem to have missed much). I didn't buy a single Wii-U game over the course of 2015; neither Splatoon nor Mario Maker appealed to me and while the new Fatal Frame looked interesting, poor reviews and the hoops Nintendo make you jump through to purchase it (a tiny, over-priced physical release and a download release which almost entirely fills the Wii-U's storage drive, plus the fact most external passport drives don't work on the Wii-U without supplementary power) meant that I skipped it.
As in previous years, my main gaming platform has been the PC. The consoles are very much only used for exclusives this time around; my sense is that the PS4 had better releases in the first half of the year, while the XB1 had a better Christmas line-up. I've also played a few Vita games; that platform never really came to life, but nor does it show any signs of actually dying any time soon.
On the whole, I think this has been a fairly good year for games. That's not to say there haven't been disappointments, but we are clearly now at the point in a console cycle where the market matures and games get more polished and better developed, as the "shiny new hardware" thrill of the first year wears off. On which note, I both think and hope that this is the last year in which we see continued development for the last-gen consoles. Declining sales numbers for them would suggest that they are dying as serious commercial propositions for most developers and it would be good if games no longer had to be shackled to their obsolete technology. Of particular note this year has been an uptick in high quality Japanese games; Bloodborne and Metal Gear Solid 5 would appear to imply at least some level of recovery for a regional industry that has been some fairly ugly places in recent years.
And so, with no further ado, on with the top-10 countdown:
10) Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance - (PS4) - A return to form for the series after the disappointing Disgaea D2. The essence of the series isn't much changed, but this is slicker, better executed and simply more interesting than the last couple of installments in the series. A lot of previous niggles and frustration around the game's balance and interface have been worked out.
9) Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin - (PC, also PS4, Xbox One, PS3 and 360) - I was skeptical of this, expecting a quick and dirty cash grab. In reality, it is a significantly improved version of Dark Souls 2, which remedies many of the pacing and difficulty curve levels assosicated with the issue, as well as bundling in the well-crafted DLC areas. Definitely the best way to play the game, even before you consider the graphical facelift.
8) Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void - (PC) - A fitting conclusion to the Starcraft saga. The Protoss campaign delivers some very solid RTS action, even if the Protoss themselves are slightly too close to the "wise old space elves" stereotype to make for really engaging protagonists. Fortunately, Blizzard clearly understood the need to deliver a proper conclusion, shifting away from the Protoss for the final few missions. The difficulty curve can be a bit erratic, but this is still excellent.
7) Forza Motorsport 6 - (Xbox One) - A big improvement on its predecessor, which remains one of the biggest let-downs of the last few years. This is almost, but not quite, a true successor to the magnificent Forza Motorsport 4. My main gripe is the horribly broken Drivatar system, which remains markedly inferior to the old fashioned AI used until Forza 5. That said, this is still an extremely good game, with the inclusion of Formula 1 and Indycar adding a more distinctive end-game.
6) Rise of the Tomb Raider - (Xbox One) - A pretty darned good sequel to the recent franchise reboot, albeit one slightly hindered by awkward input lag (which hopefully will be fixed for next year's PC release). It doesn't quite have the gut-punch impact of the last game's opening sections but is, on average, better paced and balanced, with the focus shifting back towards problem-solving rather than shooting.
5) Pillars of Eternity - (PC) - A deliberate throwback to the days of the early Bioware/Black Isle RPGs, this is an attempt to provide a spiritual successor to the Baldur's Gate games that almost succeeds. It doesn't quite manage to replicate the atmosphere of the classic series, striking a slightly too "grimdark" tone and missing Baldurs Gate's sense of humour which humanised its cast. But it works on every other level, with an excellent combat system, a decent class/skills system and a pleasant, clean interface and art style. A sequel with some slightly better writing talent on board could be something very special.
4) Tales from the Borderlands - (PC, also most other platforms) - Telltale's foray into the Borderlands universe does a substantially better job of capturing the mix of manic energy, madcap humour and sudden pathos that defined Borderlands 2 than last year's rather halting Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. Pacey and well written, this is a really enjoyable little game (even if it does cling very close to the usual Telltale formula in gameplay terms).
3) Bloodborne - (PS4) - It took me a long time to decide whether I loved or hated this game. In fact, I'm still not sure. Compared to the Dark Souls games, it feels narrow and restrictive, with an intolerance of different playstyles. It also suffers from some horrible technical issues, including jarring framerate drops at the worst possible moments. That said, it also has many magnificent features, including world-design that is fantastic in both aesthetic and gameplay senses and a combat system which, while narrow, is also fantastically tightly tuned. The Old Hunters expansion is spectacularly difficult (possibly excessively so even by From Software standards), but adds some fascinating lore and some good environment design.
2) Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain - (PC, also PS4 and XBox One) - There are two ways for a game to achieve greatness. The first way is to hurtle along perpetually on the edge of disaster, but somehow strike a balance and never quite fall off. Metal Gear Solid 5 exemplifies this path. In most respects it is a sublimely good game. Possibly the best stealth mechanics I've ever seen in a game, combined with well-implemented upgrade and base-building mechanics. The plot contains plenty of trademark Kojima lunacy, but wisely keeps it more tightly under control than other games in the series, never allowing it to overtake the gameplay. There are so many times the game could have gone badly wrong; it could have descended into heavy-handed moralising over its setting. It could have failed to subvert the sickly sentimentalism with which it introduces the child soldiers plotline. It could have allowed itself to be buried in the series backstory. But it doesn't and what emerges is magnificent. My only gripe - and it is a serious one - concerns the miserly checkpoint system.
1) The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - (PC, also PS4 and Xbox One) - The second means for a game to achieve greatness is via icily-constructed perfection. That's the route The Witcher 3 takes. The game is flawless in almost every respect; gameplay, storytelling and technology. It took me almost 80 hours to finish the story (with a handful of sidequests still unresolved) and I didn't regret a moment of it. This is the first time we've really seen the "intimate" storytelling of classic RPGs transposed into an open-world context and it works amazingly well. It will be very hard to go back to clunky morality systems and good/evil mechanics after The Witcher 3's nuanced approach. Plus it actually manages to be both genuinely funny and genuinely scary at times along the way. The best game of the last several years.
And now for the games which were good, but not quite good enough to crack into my top 10, listed in alphabetical order rather than any kind of quality ranking.
Assassin's Creed: Syndicate - (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - Not a fantastic game, but a solid installment in the series after the train-wreck that was Unity. Besides, I think I have a soft-spot for games with a London setting.
Cities: Skylines - (PC) - After Simcity fumbled badly with an underwhelming reboot, Cities: Skylines steps into the breach with a game that feels like a true spiritual successor to the classic series.
Cross Ange: Rondo of Dragon and Angel tr~ - (Vita) - One of the most divisive anime shows of the last few years, but my personal favorite since Madoka Magica. Fortunately, the spin-off game is much less than a rip-off than is usually the case, with some decent 3d shooting action (even if I could only understand maybe a third of the dialogue on this untranslated import). Those crappy Attack on Titan games could learn a lot from this. A Western release would be much appreciated.
Dirt Rally - (PC) - A proper, hardcore rally sim, the likes of which we haven't seen for many years. In some respects, a bit too hardcore for me (I would quite like a rewind button and some easier AI difficulty settings). But it's a game that both demands and earns your respect. The Dark Souls of driving games.
Dying Light - (PC, also PS4 and Xbox One) - Open world zombie games have been rather done to death (pun intended) of late, but this is one of the better examples. Solid visuals and world design make up for an occasionally cumbersome combat system.
Deception 4: The Nightmare Princess - (PS4) - A decent remaster/expansion of the PS3/Vita game, which not only adds new content but also fixes some of the technical issues that plagued the original release.
Final Fantasy Type-0 HD - (PC, also PS4 and Xbox One) - An eccentric but solid entry in the Final Fantasy series, with a storyline that goes some interesting places and a neat combat system. Unfortunately, the game's roots on the PSP do occasionally show through. Note that the console versions have serious problems with motion blur levels and control sensitivity that are fixable in the PC version.
Halo 5: Guardians - (XB1) - I don't like Halo. I don't like the combat, the pacing, the floaty movement, the stupid ammo system or the writing. People who like Halo seem fairly united in disliking Halo 5, because it messes around with all of the aforementioned factors. Surprise surprise, while I wouldn't say I'm in love with it, I do quite like Halo 5.
Higurashi: When they Cry (episodes 1 and 2) - (PC) - The classic visual novel, remastered with new artwork that doesn't make me want to gouge my eyes out. The pace of releases is slower than I would like, but this is worth sticking with.
HyperdimensioN Neptunia U: Action Unleashed - (Vita) - It's basically Senran Kagura with the cast of Hyperdimension Neptunia. And there's nothing at all wrong with that.
Idol Magical Girl Chiru Chiru Michiru - (PC) - Don't ask. In fairness, even though I've never seen the Grisaia anime/visual novel series this is a spin-off from, it made me laugh quite a lot. Bought it on Steam entirely on the basis of its name, but was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining it is.
Just Cause 3 - (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - I've heard a lot of complaints about bugs in this game and one part of me feels I should be marking it down as a result. However, my own experiences with it have been pretty much bug-free, so I won't. It's a fun, but ultimately shallow fast-paced shooter which feels like a blast from the past in many ways. Grows boring if played in long sessions, but excellent as a "quick blast" action game.
Life is Strange - (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - I was wary about this to begin with, because of the comparisons people were making to Gone Home (to my mind, one of the worst "games" ever released). Fortunately, those comparisons are unfair. This is a decent and innovative title, which might have made the top 10 if it hadn't flubbed its ending a bit in the final episode.
Onechanbara Z2 Chaos - (PS4) - Another entry in the burgeoning "two strawberries and a banana gymnastics" genre. While not in the same tier as the likes of Devil May Cry or God of War, the brawler mechanics are pretty well developed and the controls are pleasantly responsive. Combined with a pacey and endearingly nonsensical plot that knows not to outstay its welcome, this gives a surprisingly good little game.
Persona 4: Dancing All Night - (Vita) - A fun little rhythm game that will raise smiles if you've played Persona 4. That said, this particular cast is feeling that they've worn a bit thin now. We desperately need Persona 5.
Prison Architect - (PC) - Spikey, uncomfortable, but fascinating. Not much more I can say about it.
Project Cars - (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - Mixed feelings on this one. The driving physics are fantastic and the weather effects are among the best I've ever seen in a game. Unfortunately, they're coupled to a joyless career mode that gets very dull very fast.
Valkyria Chronicles - (PC) - Part of me would like to put this in the top-10, but given it is just a director's-cut rerelease of an old PS3 game, that doesn't feel quite right. At any rate, this is an excellent port of what was arguably the best game of the last console generation and certainly one of the best games ever made. I was shocked at how well the graphics scaled up from the console original; seen in 4K, this game really is something to behold, despite its age.
And now the disappointments. The games which, while perhaps not outright bad, nevertheless fell badly short of expectations. A slightly shorter list than in previous years; time constraints have meant I have been more active in avoiding games I think I won't like, on the basis of their predecessors or word-of-mouth.
Ar Nosurge: Ode to an Unborn Star - (Vita, also PS3) - Ok, slightly cheaty here; the PS3 release was in 2014 and I missed it. But the Vita release was in 2015 and that's the version I played. I was pretty excited to find out that there was a new game in the Ar Tonelico universe, but they've not made it easy for Westerners to get into. For starters, it is a continuation of a visual novel for mobile phones and the Vita that was only ever released in Japanese. There's a web translation that requires hours to read and is more or less a pre-requisite for this game. But even after getting over that hurdle, this falls slightly flat compared to the Ar Tonelico games. It spends too much time on techno-babble and too little on plot and characters. Plus the combat system is fairly awful. It's not an outright bad game, but it isn't what it should have been.
Batman: Arkham Knight - (PC, also PS4 and XB1) - Even leaving aside the mess of the PC version's launch, I didn't like this much. It's distressing to chart the decline of this series since the phenomenally good Arkham Asylum, as its core strengths get diluted in favour of a generic open-world checklist of features. An over-emphasis on boring vehicle combat and fiddly item-hunt challenges are particular flaws with this game. I remain of the view that the series should have remained true to its Metroidvania roots.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 - (PC, also PS3, PS4, 360 and XB1) - The world's premier spunkgargleweewee series has settled into a pattern over the last few years, with installments alternating between "competent" and "crap". Last year's Advanced Warfare was reasonably competent, so this year's Black Ops 3 is in the "a bit crap" camp. It's not as bad as Ghosts, which will likely set the benchmark for particularly vile spunkgargleweewee for years to come, but it still feels like a step back from Advanced Warfare, in terms of both gameplay and visuals.
Fallout 4 - (PC, also PS4 and Xbox One) - I agonised over this one. It has a few startlingly effective moments. Unfortunately, it's also badly dated, borderline broken and usually not very much fun to play. Floaty combat, trash-mob enemies with immersion-breaking bullet sponge tendancies, dull NPCs, boring party members and a general lack of any kind of human interest all hold this game down. This would have been the best game of the year... in 2010 or so. Standards for open world games have moved on a lot since then and Bethesda don't seem to have kept up with the pack.
Hyperdevotion Noire: Goddess Black Heart - (Vita) - If Neptunia U was the decent spin-off from the series in 2015, this was the disappointing one. It tries to be a Disgaea-style tactics RPG, but its systems just aren't deep enough or sufficiently well-thought-out to sustain the game. As such, it becomes shallow and repetitive very quickly.
Omega Quintet - (PS4) - Compile Heart's first venture onto the PS4 is a let-down, given that they had becoming slowly more proficient with their releases for the PS3, Vita and PC. The cast and plot are entertaining enough, but the gameplay and technology feel like a step back. It's not as bad as the original Hyperdimension Neptunia, but it is nevertheless poor compared to the Vita/PC remakes.
Tales of Zestiria - (PC, also PS3 and PS4) - 2007 called; it wants its JRPG back.
The Order 1886 - (PS4) - A very curious game to see released in early-2015. With its 6-hour campaign, tightly linear levels, sloppy controls, poor checkpointing and halting storyline, it feels like a throwback to the poor quality Gears of War clones that defined the early sections of the 360/PS3 generation. Only a decent visual aesthetic saves it from the "outright bad" camp.
And finally the outright bad games. Or game. I only actually played one of these this year!
Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax - (PS3, also Vita) - A shockingly bad fighting game. The only reason to buy this is because of the cast of well-known anime/light novel characters. Unfortunately, the game isn't even proficient in using its cast properly; they do no more than repeat a handful of catchphrases. As for the game itself; this is an astoundingly lazy arcade port, which can't even be made to fit the screen properly on a normal TV. The controls are stiff and unresponsive, the movesets and characters are unbalanced and the less said about the production values the better. This would have been fairly embarrassing in the late 1990s. In 2015, it looks shocking.