Another year of spectacular (and completely forgettable) video games has come and gone, delivering new, exciting, refreshing, or downright groundbreaking sequels and original titles. And as tempting as it may be to leave AAA experiences in the dust and look ahead to the most promising titles of 2016, it wouldn’t be right to do so without first taking stock, and giving credit where it’s due.
After 2014 brought fruitless teases, compelling indie titles, and far too many underwhelming or disappointing sequels, 2015 tackled many of those challenges head on. Our list of 2015’s best games features long-awaited sequels that kept us engaged for hours just like the good old days of their franchise’s beginnings, brand new unconventional indie games that proved just as addicting, and more than one title that blew away fears of copycat game design or cashing in on established brands.
It wasn’t easy to narrow a packed year down to these entries, but here they are: our list of the The Best 20 Video Games of 2015.
In a world of space shooters like Destiny and online cooperative RPGs like Diablo 3, it seemed a fool’s errand to try to compete with their gameplay or fiction. But Arrowhead, the makers of Magicka took their finely honed cooperative twin-stick mechanics into the world of science fiction soldiers and alien enemies, and the results couldn’t have been more addictive.
The affordable price tag for this PC action game would have made it a hit all by itself, but supporting cross-platform play across the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita shot it to the top of Sony’s titles tailored to friends across consoles and handhelds. Relying on a healthy dose of frenetic gunfire, grenades, and friendly fire to add to the tension (and laughs), it may not have gotten the marketing push of some other games on our list, but it proved to be ever bit as memorable (and one we’ll be going back to for years to come).
The expectations were high when Bloodborne, the spiritual successor to From Software’s Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls brutal third-person experiences. Thankfully, this PS4 exclusive delivered, not just refining and carrying over the grueling boss encounters and weapons mechanics, but using the existing devotion and investment in the team’s unconventional design to unlock something new.
It goes against the prevailing wisdom to think that a game that doesn’t spell things out for players, doesn’t contain and obvious story, and doesn’t allow players to succeed on their own can win over the masses. But just as Dark Souls‘ runaway buzz lifted it to the top of the industry (in discussion, if not dollars), Bloodborne turned a third-person action game into a dance between designer and player. Some fans may have called it easier, more forgiving, or simply too much of a departure for their liking. But in the end, it took a massive step forward for the genre and series – and took the fans right along with them.
The waterlogged adventure from Frictional Games would be an easy one for consumers to make assumptions. After the developer redefined PC horror games with Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a follow-up taking place in an underwater facility could be seen as another dose of the run-don’t-fight horror (with some influences taken from BioShock‘s Rapture). The reality was a game that was better, even if it wasn’t quite as horrifying.
From design to writing and actual gameplay mechanics, Frictional managed to chart a new course through a minefield of imitators and shared influences (how original would any ‘abandoned/infected lab facility’ be these days?). It’s hard to talk about SOMA without getting into spoilers, since its strengths truly do lie in the game’s most unforgettable moments. And although a step towards the less difficult/less paralysis due to terror path is usually maligned in horror, SOMA shows just how much the studio has improved over a few short years.
17. LEGO Dimensions
While The LEGO Movie ended up to be a more than pleasant surprise, the same level of optimism wasn’t reserved for LEGO Dimensions, one in what seemed like a paraded of Skylanders imitators. Built on the idea of purchasing standalone figures, portals, and power-ups to add to the basic gameplay, some went so far as calling it a copycat, or cash grab on the part of Warner Bros.’ game side. But it had a secret weapon – actually, two: for one, it would be developed by Traveller’s Tales, the minds behind the entire LEGO game series. And two, it would call on nearly every property Warner Bros. held, and several it doesn’t.
Aside from being one of Traveller’s Tales’ best experiences yet, the voice talent of Gary Oldman, Troy Baker, Joel McHale, Peter Capaldi, Elizabeth Banks and more was just the beginning. As if a dream come true, characters were represented from DC Comics, Lord of the Rings, Doctor Who, Back to the Future, Jurassic World, Portal, Ghostbusters, The Wizard of Oz, The Simpsons… you get the idea. It may not have been the commercial hit of its predecessors in the genre, but for movie fans curious to see what all the collecting and fuss is about, LEGO Dimensions remains a top pick.
16. Super Mario Maker
From the moment that Super Mario Maker was announced, video game fans of all ages knew that it was, potentially, an experience that would seem like decades in the making. The proposition alone – the opportunity to build your own Super Mario levels, and share them with friends – was all Nintendo needed to offer to get fans salivating. And the finished product most certainly did not disappoint.
Not only were fans given the chance to build levels from scratch, but able to draw upon nearly every generation and rendition of the Super Mario series to date. But what made the game a success was the user interface (typically the most intimidating hurdle to any level-building experience), which used the Wii U’s Gamepad to its utmost potential. Building levels was satisfying. Sharing them with other players online was exhilarating. Seeing the online phenomenon surrounding Let’s Plays and the most unforgiving stages was entertaining. But the newfound appreciation for the work put into building a Super Mario adventure was the biggest takeaway.
15. Game of Thrones: A Telltale Game Series
Fans of the Game of Thrones novels and HBO series have known for years that George R. R. Martin’s fantasy tale of political intrigue and family betrayal was the perfect backdrop for a video game. But most had a sprawling RPG in mind, not an episodic point-and-click adventure series.
Luckily, the partnership between Thrones and Telltale Games, the makers of the award-winning Walking Dead games, proved a perfect combination. From the first chapter, it was evident that the writers had fleshed out a memorable, and faithful family in the world of Westeros, and found the perfect way to torture players, dropping them into the treacherous world in multiple roles. By the end of the first season, the game hadn’t just proven itself a must-play for Game of Thrones fans, but for anyone fond of intrigue, social maneuvering, or just excruciating decisions.
With over a decade having passed since Nintendo internally created a new brand, with entirely new characters, it was tempting to think that the company was sticking to their history for a reason. But Splatoon wasn’t just different; it was an adoption of game designs and genres gamers had long written off, deemed beyond the scope of Nintendo’s skillset.
The game isn’t just a successful rendition of an online, team-based multiplayer shooter, but one with a twist (that works beautifully).To win, cover the map in ink. To reload, submerge your playing into the ink itself. And finally, navigate the arena below the surface, adding a layer of platforming that most shooters can’t even attempt. It wasn’t perfect (and few really expected it would be), but the frenetic pace and colorful landscapes heaped on nostalgia for vibrant platformers, while a surprisingly rich singleplayer made Splatoon a no-brainer for Wii U owners.
13. Her Story
You can’t have a discussion about the most surprising or refined games of the year without at least one entry that stirs up the controversy of “whether it’s even a ‘game.'” For 2015, it was Her Story that covered that base, but did so with more originality and intrigue than most. For those who missed it, the game really has just creator Sam Barlow and star Viva Seifert to thank, putting players into a cold case, with hundreds of video clips of the same woman, discussing random topics. The challenge: unravel the truth out of the jumbled mess, and find out the circumstances of her husband’s disappearance.
The game hearkens back to Full Motion Video (FMV) games of old, but the video files aren’t punctuating gameplay – they are the gameplay. With a barrier to entry so low, Her Story offers as much as the player is looking to get. They’re free to spend hours searching key phrases or terms, heading down a dead end street of suspects, with no one to blame but their own false assumptions. It’s a trick video games can hardly ever pull, and in the end, is one of the most truly narrative-focused games in recent memory.
12. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
Look, 2014 wasn’t the year that Assassin’s Creed fans, or Ubisoft hoped it would be. The previous generation offering, Rogue, was seen as a rehash, while the highly-touted next-gen Unity was a technical mess, weighed down further by at-times-unplayable online multiplayer. So to say the pressure was high for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate would be a serious understatement. Thankfully, the shock to the system forced the developers to go back to what worked at the start, delivering one of the franchise’s best narratives, and heroes.
Giving players two protagonists – a brother and sister – and downplaying the online components tackled the biggest criticisms head on, while a focused story and refined leveling and upgrade system covered the RPG bases. The same problems that have hampered the AC series remain, confirming that there are still changes that Ubisoft has to make if they hope to compete with the industry leaders. But Syndicate‘s gameplay, story, and environments gave passionate fans a game to be excited about – and one that showed the best of the series, despite its flaws.
11. Until Dawn
It began its life as a PlayStation 3 title back in 2012, but Until Dawn‘s path to release ended up to be far, far better. The PS4 exclusive follows in the vein of Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls before it, offering a dark, cinematic narrative punctuated with player decisions that greatly affect the outcome of the story (specifically, who lives and who dies).
But where those games focused on supernatural, or crime narratives, Until Dawn was an unabashed love letter to classic horror movies, sending its cast of characters into the shadowy forests of Canada, pursued by… something, or someone. Fantastic acting, music, dialogue, and the immeasurable allure of replayability (the developers at Supermassive confirmed a single playthrough wouldn’t reveal all of the game’s content.) made Until Dawn a solid experience for horror fans. Especially those who have been left aching for another Quantic Dream or Alan Wake adventure.
10. Halo 5: Guardians
It finally happened: a main entry in the core Master Chief-focused Halo series was released with the Chief playing a supporting role. It’s perhaps the best compliment imaginable, then, to say that Halo 5: Guardians doesn’t suffer as a result. Sure, the story still hinges on the games that have come before, and John-117 is still the top dog in that respect. But 343 Industries set out to do something different, and pulled it off. In the end, fans might not be disappointed to spend most of the game’s time with Fireteam Osiris, led by Jameson Locke (Mike Colter) and Buck (Nathan Fillion).
There are drawbacks, of course, the absence of splitscreen campaign for the first time in Halo history chief among them. But the power of the Xbox One is put on full display, along with the clear priority of making Halo 5 a bigger, bolder experience than ever before. Thankfully, the game best shines in multiplayer, delivering the franchise’s best online experience. 343 and Microsoft needed a killer app, and they got one.
RPG fans knew something special was on the way when Toby Fox, the creator of UnderTale took to Kickstarter for $5,000 to fund his game – eventually reaching a total over ten times that amount. The finished product was a top-down role-playing game informed by everything from TV to movies, hit video games, and everything in between. The combat itself was clever and refined, but it was the characters and writing that instantly hooked players.
Sometimes clever, sometimes touching, and occasionally self-aware, the humor and personality on display ranked UnderTale among the best written games of the year, regardless of budget or genre. The mechanics, leveling, and quest design beneath the story of a boy traversing an underground world was just the cherry on top. That is, one of the most refreshing and well-tuned, minimalist RPGs in recent memory. And a perfect illustration of just what a single game designer can achieve in today’s industry.
8. Batman Arkham Knight
Even though Rocksteady Studios showed a surprising knack for the world of the Batman in Arkham Asylum, it’s hard to believe even they would have guessed that Batman: Arkham Knight is what they were building toward. Put quite simply, the game was as big, beautiful, detailed, and varied as any Batman fan probably ever dared to dream. And yes, it finally brought a Batmobile worthy of the name to video game fans the world over.
The game wasn’t flawless, since the addition of a Batmobile – and its combat mode – divided fans of both the character and the previous games. But the developers only innovated to keep the game fresh, while they refined and mastered all other elements they had introduced the first two times around. The third person combat system is likely to be copied for years to come, but every other winning element or system was made bittersweet, knowing that Arkham Knight was Rocksteady’s last edition of the dark knight. But then, they didn’t leave many other heights to reach, delivering their most ambitious project before they were through.
7. Tales From The Borderlands
It was hard to be completely optimistic when Telltale Games parlayed its success with The Walking Dead into not one, not two, but three episodic games based on popular franchises. And considering how hit-or-miss the humor of Borderlands may be, the initial pitch of Tales From The Borderlands seemed poised to follow a similar path. But in the end, the decision to follow two brand new characters in the game’s universe allowed newcomers a way into the world’s unique sense of humor.
By framing the adventure as having already happened, with either Fiona or Rhys taking over less-than-reliable storytelling duties, the writers gave themselves an entirely new kind of freedom. Not that they needed it: the humor, heart, and overall sharp dialogue and character journeys made Tales one of, if not the studio’s most consistently top-notch releases. The fact that the traditionally point-and-click gameplay engine was tweaked to include some Borderlands action didn’t just surprise us, but had fans everywhere wondering: is there a TV, movie, or video game that Telltale can’t adapt into their own kind of episodic series?
6. Rocket League
Ask any devoted PC gamer, and they’ll tell you that creating the next best competitive eSport is far from easy. The developers at Psyonic weren’t looking to take the eSports world by storm when they released Rocket League, instead just making an improved sequels to their previous outing, Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars. But the nifty physics and undeniably addictive gameplay of rocket-powered cars playing soccer with an oversized ball took the gaming world by storm.
The claims that Rocket League offered a more genuine simulation of soccer than even soccer games drew attention, and as players became more adept at the floaty phyiscs, teamwork, and strategies, the best of the best started competing online. Thousands of spectators soon followed, since the game was infinitely easier to grasp than other eSports leaders. By the end of 2015, the game boasted almost nine million players spread across the PC and PlayStation 4. Its momentum hasn’t slowed down yet, making it not just one of the best games of 2015, but one of the most interesting stories, period.
5. Ori and The Blind Forest
It was the ethereal music and art style of Ori and the Blind Forest that first turned heads when the game’s trailer was unveiled during Microsoft’s Xbox showcase at E3, with most assuming that the look and feel of the game made it the latest in a number of watercolor-y indie titles. But Moon Studios had something far more technically impressive up their sleeves, building Ori not in the shadow of indie hits, but some of gaming’s most acclaimed platformers, like Metroid and Castlevania.
In the end, it was those mechanics that ended up shining through, with combat, platforming, upgradeable abilities and checkpoint systems all receiving critical acclaim. But the art and music weren’t a bait-and-switch: the visuals, soundscapes, and above all storytelling worked throughout the game earned just as much praise. So even if it appeared to be a small-scale passion project, or ‘artistic’ indie, the finished game succeeded where AAA platformers fail, in too many different aspects to mention.
4. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Legendary video game creator Hideo Kojima is nothing if not enigmatic, and his most famous game series, Metal Gear is a testament to the fact. Over the years, the Metal Gear Solid storyline has strayed from eccentric into outlandish, with characters all but ludicrous to the uninitiated. But with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, it was the game’s mechanics and open world that took the most risks, as opposed to the story or cast. That resulted in multiple massive environments, and a wealth of choice, strategy, and upgrading that was almost unheard of beforehand.
Since the abundance of chance and coincidence meant even the best laid plans could go awry – and often did – the game managed to occupy the gaming conversation for weeks, if not months after its release, attracting attention and praise even from those who had felt too alienated from the franchise to take part. It’s a shame that Kojima’s own business prospects weren’t bolstered so strongly, but regardless of what projects lie in his and his team’s future, The Phantom Pain is one endless riddle that players will be discussing and dissecting for years, if not decades, to come.
3. Fallout 4
Bethesda made sure to keep fans of the Fallout series salivating at every rumor surrounding Fallout 4, until the years-long wait came to an end in November 2015. The time was well spent, fine-tuning an expansive customization system, the ability to craft entire towns and settlements from pieces of scrap, and a streamlined shooting system allowing non-VATS firefights to prove even more effective.
Of course, there were still the same bugs and glitches that have become, for better or worse, expected of a Bethesda release.But bring up that point among RPG fans, and you’ll hear just as many people dismissing the studio’s ability to ‘finish’ a game before release as defending them, claiming that it’s the studio’s ambition that leaves room for rough spots at all. It’s not quite fair to call Fallout 4 an update to Fallout 3, but even if it were, the game’s place on any ‘best of’ list would still be a formality, assuming Bethesda does what they do best.
2. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
It’s no surprise to see The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt top our list, since the developers at CD Projekt Red were advertising a truly mammoth game from the moment they first began talking about the follow-up to The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. The final game seemed to take every single one of their pledges to heart, if not outdoing them: a game world bigger than most players could fathom, a wealth of well-written sidequests in which to spend countless hours as a monster hunter, and a core storyline rewarding long time fans of the franchise more than any other.
It’s fair to say that The Witcher 2 took the average gamer by surprise: a European studio that few in the mainstream had heard of, and a hero who, while unforgettable in all the right ways, was something of a stranger. But the team made the most of their newfound fame, and did what so many modern studios chose not to do, at their own peril: delay. It’s rare that fans or critics will commend a studio for missing milestones or ship dates, but as one anticipated, AAA game after another was released half-finished, fixed in patches over the following year, CD Projekt made the better call. Fans knew that when The Witcher 3 hit store shelves, it was the exact game the creators wanted it to be. And what they were going for was… well, an open world RPG that all others will hopefully take as a roadmap moving forward.
1. Rise of The Tomb Raider
There may not be a video game heroine as well known, or as well-seasoned as Lara Croft, the titular star of the Tomb Raider series. It was no easy task for the developers at Crystal Dynamics to, for lack of a better word, reinvent Lara in a post-Uncharted world with 2013’s Tomb Raider, telling an origin story of Lady Croft, as she transformed from an aristocrat to a certified adventurer. Rise of The Tomb Raider picks up where that momentum left off, and took the accomplishments of the team even farther.
Sending Lara and her weaponry into the Siberian mountains, it’s hard to decide if it was the mechanics, or the time spent delving into Lara’s past, using old information (not to mention the decades of familiarity) to craft a gripping, compelling, and at every turn, satisfying adventure. Polished combat, insane visuals that helped sell the story actually propelling the campaign, and every element serving to cement Lara as a one of a kind heroine singled Rise out from the pack. And as Nathan Drake’s absence from the AAA space is becoming more and more apparent, Lara Croft swooped in to remind people why she’s still the most famous tomb raider around – and if we have our way, will retain that title for countless sequels to come.
Those are all the best games we played over the past year, but we were sure to miss some, or spend hours with games that weren’t necessarily the “best” of the year, but undeniably addictive (or guilty pleasure). Let us know what you think of our list, and share your own favorite gaming experiences from 2015 in the comments!