Everyone who is a gamer understands that there are certain games and certain gaming experiences that defy our expectations. These remain with us for the rest of our lives. These are the shared experiences that bring gamers together and inform our culture. Whether it’s the surprising death of a favorite character in a single player game or the eventual triumph over that MMO raid after weeks of trying, every generation has its moments that not only define the joy of video games for us, but also alter our expectations for the future.
While I still love video gaming, as I’ve grown older and more jaded it’s rare that I feel the same sense of surprise and wonder as I once did from new releases. These moments and games that change my understanding of what video gaming is and can be have become much rarer. Every year has great games but sometimes a span of years pass where even the greatest games don’t reinvigorate my passion for this hobby. Those periods make me forget what it feels like to be so engrossed in a game that you think about it every moment you aren’t playing it. It’s easy to be cynical and say that we live in an age where the industry takes fewer risks and innovates less than it once did. We can point to the endless sequels of storied franchises like Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty, and declare the industry stagnant.
But this year, this glorious 2015, has proven all of that wrong! This year has made me remember what it feels like to be offered something truly exceptional, something that raises the bar for everything that comes after it and simply demands your full attention.
My 2015 will be remembered for three games that offered this experience. They’re games that offer new experiences, rise above expectations and elevate gaming as a whole. These are the games that, for me, will forever define 2015.
If you haven’t played Rocket League, you should. If there’s ever been a competitive multiplayer game that’s for everyone, this is it. It’s an utterly brilliant game, a veritable masterclass in its design. The more you reflect on its apparent simplicity, the more you realize that there are few other games so perfect and so elegant with their execution.
Rocket League is functionally soccer played by rocket-powered cars. The idea is simple enough but the absolute joy of this game comes from its brilliantly simple, but deep design. How many other competitive sports games teach you enough to enter a competitive online match in under five minutes, yet offer infinite room for meaningful improvement? Rocket League does just that. Part of its brilliance is that there are almost no rules that need to be obeyed. There are no off-sides, no out of bounds, no fouls and no red cards. Get the ball into the opposing team’s net and prevent it from going into your own; that’s all you need to know. The action only ever breaks when a goal is scored.
By getting rid of artificial boundaries to the pitch and instead creating curved walls and a ceiling that can be driven upon, Rocket League not only eliminates unnecessary stoppage, but also increases tactical depth. Using the walls well is often key to victory.
But Rocket League does more than this. The rockets that every car possesses allow these cars to temporarily fly, giving players the power to pass and shoot from high in the sky. Doing it well requires precise timing and control. Using this ability isn’t necessary to enjoying a game, but mastery of it sets the pros apart from the beginners and provides a meaningful edge over the competition. The fact that it’s not strictly necessary means that beginners can still play and have fun, but that there’s endless room for increasing one’s skill.
I’ve only identified two elements of the brilliant design of Rocket League and there are countless more. Every aspect of the game has clearly been tweaked over and over again until a seamless, near-perfect experience had been created. It’s hard to think of another game that bottles pure fun so well as Rocket League does. It’s a game I imagine I will still be playing with my friends years from now.
Ori and the Blind Forest
I may have played Ori and the Blind Forest on my Xbox One but I understand it’s just as beautiful and brilliant on PC. This is a game you should absolutely play on as big a screen as you can muster, because it’s one of the true visual delights of this year. The art is stunning, yet subtle and together with the masterful audio and subdued story, it simply sucks you into its beautiful but deadly world.
The gameplay is equally compelling. Ori and the Blind Forest is a game that represents the refinement of platforming mechanics and raises the bar in the genre. It may not be a game that innovates enormously from previous platformers but it builds upon them and polishes the mechanics into a neat, unified whole. Nothing feels extraneous or tacked-on. The game constantly introduces new abilities and mechanics and combines them wonderfully into scenarios that carefully grow in complexity and difficulty. In its best moments, all of its elements come together harmoniously in a symphony of light, sound and action–you forget that you’re playing a game at all. It’s one of the few games and possibly the only platformer, I’ve ever played that can induce something like the state of flow.
For that alone, Ori and the Blind Forest will remain one of my gaming touchstones. It’s unfortunately all over too soon and it leaves you wanting more. But it’s one of those experiences that I think back on regularly and it’s the new standard for platformers. Play it if you haven’t. You will not regret it.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
I save the best for last. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is quite possibly my favorite game of the last five, even fifteen years! This isn’t a game that merely exceeded my expectations, it’s a game of a quality that I didn’t even imagine was possible in the modern gaming industry. It kicked the cynicism right out of me. Maybe it took a lesser-known Polish studio to shatter triple-A standards and make “next generation” mean something more than just graphics. The Witcher 3 is next generation through and through, from its narrative depth, to its expansive world, to its fascinating characters, to its combat, to finally its audio and visual design. This game has it all.
The Witcher 3 is not without its flaws but they are utterly trivial next to the immense beauty and depth of this game. It’s a complete masterpiece and quite possibly the first game I can set next to Planescape: Torment at the head of the pantheon of RPG greats. It’s a game with so many facets that I can’t begin to detail them in this space but you can read my glowing review here.
The first expansion, Hearts of Stone, is also wonderful. Fortunately, the story of the Witcher 3 isn’t over yet and we can look forward to the larger expansion Blood and Wine sometime in 2016. I also can’t wait to see the next title from CD Projekt Red, which is suddenly one of the hottest developers in the world. Here’s hoping Cyberpunk 2077 lives up to our new, much higher expectations. After all, following The Witcher 3, our expectations for a triple-A RPG will never be the same.
Of course, many other great games came out this year that deserve acclaim. But the three above will define 2015 for me, forever. They will remain with me for the rest of my life. Nonetheless, a few others deserve mention.
Pillars of Eternity comes to mind as a truly excellent RPG, though one that hews a little too closely to the formulas of the past to be a defining experience. Fallout 4 was predictably great but it barely innovates and it’s ultimately another iteration of the same (very good) game that Bethesda has been making since Morrowind.
Blizzard made a couple of noteworthy splashes with Heroes of the Storm and StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void, both of which are worthy of Blizzard’s pedigree and reinvigorate their respective genres. As an avid StarCraft II eSports fan, I can only hope the latter re-establishes the game as a premier eSport. Had Overwatch actually come out in 2015, it would have been huge, as the beta reveals a polished, near-perfect first-person shooter that’s pure fun.
There are so many other great games this year that I didn’t have the time to play even all of those that are critically acclaimed. Metal Gear Solid 5, Just Cause 3, Rainbow Six: Siege, and many others will have to wait until next year. But with the line-up for 2016, will I even have time then?
Will 2016 Be as Good?
The short answer, I think, is quite possibly yes. 2016’s line-up is already enormously strong, before we even start imagining what sleeper hits might emerge from the woodwork. Whether any of them live up to expectations or surpass them, as many of the games of 2015 did, remains to be seen. But for the first time in years, I’m very optimistic about the state of the industry and about the excellence we can now expect. Here are just a handful of the PC games, in no particular order, that I think might define 2016.
After playing the beta, I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to the full launch of this title. It’s already likely to be an eSports darling, as it should be. It’s basically Team Fortress 2 with twenty-one highly differentiated and visually striking classes, creating even more frantic, more tactical and deeper gameplay. It’s simply addictive and also loads of fun.
A game that’s made over a hundred million dollars before its release is hard to ignore and if Star Citizen can live up to the hype, this first-person space sim is going to be one for the ages. From Wing Commander creator Chris Roberts, Star Citizen is supposed to have a full release in 2016, complete with a single-player story and deep multiplayer aspects and a reactive and persistent online world. Whether it actually comes out in 2016 is a whole other matter.
No Man’s Sky
The space sim is dead, long live the space sim! Yes, space sims are making a big return also thanks to No Man’s Sky, which while originally slated for 2015 was pushed into June 2016. We were all blown away by the pure scale of No Man’s Sky’s procedurally generated universe and if the gameplay proves equally seductive, it’s sure to be one of the highlights of 2016.
Torment: Tides of Numenera
As I’ve mentioned above, Planescape: Torment is one of my favorite games of all time. I couldn’t have been more happy to hear that the same writing team is back, creating its spiritual successor. It’s set in the world of Numenera rather than Planescape but it’s an equally fascinating setting, ripe for the same kind of mind-bending and perspective-changing events and characters that made Planescape the classic that it is. Look for it sometime in 2016.
Mass Effect: Andromeda
Mass Effect games are usually pretty good, endings notwithstanding. And while Andromeda loses Commander Shepherd, there’s no reason to suspect it won’t be every bit as good as the previous titles, hopefully even better. BioWare’s writing team is one of the best in the business. It’s currently slated for December 2016 but with a date like that, there’s always a good chance it’ll get pushed into the next year.
Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst
When Mirror’s Edge was released back in 2008, it brought novel mechanics, a fascinating world and an awesome heroine together for an experience that showed loads of promise but was ultimately a bit undercooked. That EA would revive the series is perhaps surprising but we should be glad they did. Hopefully we’ll finally get the great first-person parkour puzzle game we were promised almost a decade ago. Expect Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst on May 24th of 2016.
Total War: Warhammer
Maybe this one’s just for me but I was truly impressed from what I saw of Total War: Warhammer at E3. It’s the first truly asymmetric Total War game, featuring five very different factions in the Vampires, Counts, Empire, Dwarves and Greenskins. It looks to build on everything Total War has done before, but will also bring huge monsters and powerful mages into its massive real-time battles. It’s been a while since I’ve touched a Total War game but Total War: Warhammer looks set to bring me back come April 28 of next year.
Dishonored was a great game that, like the Thief games before it, tasked the player with achieving an objective. It offered multiple paths to how you could accomplish these objectives. One can go for brutal mayhem or take the path of the silent shadow. A host of interesting abilities rounded out the protagonist’s arsenal, including the wonderful ability to possess others. Hopefully Dishonoured 2 can build upon the premise of the first game and offer even more dynamic gameplay and possibilities to expand upon its fascinating world. It’s slated for release sometime in the second quarter of 2016.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
It’s unlikely that we’ll see a lot of innovation in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided but its predecessor was a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable game. We can expect that Mankind Divided will deliver more of the fascinating future world and the solid gameplay of the Deus Ex series with an additional focus on social interaction and other refinements/improvements in August of 2016.
And Many More
This list can’t do justice to either the great PC games of 2015 or the raft of prospective greats for the coming year. It feels like it’s been a long time since we’ve been so spoiled for excellence. 2015 proved that gaming is still innovating, still raising the bar for everything to come after and it’s brought some of the best experiences in gaming I’ve ever had.
Who knows what’s over the next hill? With virtual reality set to launch in a big way in the next few years, we could be in the midst of quite a revolution. But for now, let’s just be happy that we’ve been served as well as we have. I know this is a year I won’t soon forget and hopefully 2016 will be even better.