I feel like a broken record (a record? what's that?) saying this, but gone are the days when a critic could reasonably expect to play all, or even most notable games during a particular year. As I sat down to create 2015's rankings, I noticed that the assortment of titles here feels less like a comprehensive look at the last twelve months, and more like the best of what I managed to play.
There's just no possible way that any one critic could devote time to everything that was worth looking at, and even though I made a heroic effort to check things out, there were still many, many more that I just didn't get to. So, if your favorite didn't manage to make it on this list, it's probably because I didn't have time to play it!
That said, it is a time-honored gamer tradition to rank things in numerical order, and I'm certainly not going to skip it this year. So, out of everything I played this year (and granted, these were just a fraction of the year's total) here are the top ten best experiences I had.
11> Marvel Puzzle Quest (iOS, Android) The Gamecritics Review
Did I say ten? I meant eleven.
As I have for the last two years in a row, I need to give a shout-out to Marvel Puzzle Quest. Despite the fact that it's a free-to-play game with microtransactions, I think I've probably put more time into it than anything else this year.
Not only is it great for short sessions here and there, but it's a deep enough to feel like a satisfyingly strategic experience thanks to the wide array of characters (over 85 at this point!) and the constantly-refreshing events. There's always something new coming up, always something different to see.
It genuinely never gets old, and I don't feel even remotely bad about spending money on it. When I look at how many hours I've put in this game, it's provided me more entertainment time than pretty much any $60 experience could have, and I'm happy to keep supporting it.
Plus, Ghost Rider finally made it into the roster this year, and how freaking awesome is that?
*Note: The versions of MPQ on console and PC are not F2P and have some major differences in content. Although largely the same at the core, I'm repping the mobile versions here.
10> Splice (PS3, PS4, PC) The Gamecritics Review
While I first saw this game a few years ago, it finally made its console debut this year. Thanks to this reissue, I'm counting it in for 2015.
It's tough to describe what Splice is exactly, but it's essentially a puzzler that uses manipulation of biological cells that divide in certain ways and in certain places. The player's trying to get the organism into a specific configuration, so deducing the right cellular actions and the right order to do them is where the challenge lies.
What I like best is that it's basically the perfect package. It has satisfying, cerebral gameplay, intensely minimalist aesthetics, and a brand-new spin on puzzling that I have genuinely never seen before. It's the perfect bait for a critic like me, and I swallowed it hook, line and sinker.
9> Hand Of Fate (PS4, XBO, PC) The Gamecritics Review
As a critic, I play a lot of games. Like, a lot. As such, I adore titles that bring something new to the table, or those that take established ideas and find a neat way to spin them. The components in Hand Of Fate — a card game, a roguelike element, third-person combat — have all been done countless times by other titles, but the way that Defiant Development has mixed them up is pure brilliance.
The game abstracts dungeons into arrays of cards on a table, and each card presents a small-scale role-play question to be solved with clever decision-making or with small bouts of real-time sword-and-board. Making it to the end of a level requires careful management of resources, and there's a good dollop of luck involved to keep you on your toes. The campaign is great, offering loads of encounters and things to unlock that keep the game fresh. Best of all, the narrator does a fantastic job of being a DM while also being an antagonist… His presence and performance elevate the entire experience.
8> Blood Bowl 2 (PS4, XBO, PC) The Gamecritics Review
I really don't like sports games, so it may seem bizarre that I enjoyed this one is much as I did, but that's probably because there's more under the hood than just athletic simulation — while Blood Bowl 2 looks like football, it's actually a lot closer to something like XCOM or Fire Emblem. The turn-based tactics are deceptively deep, and the laser-focus on staying true to the source material's tabletop origins create a richly satisfying experience.
What put it over the top was that the devs included a full campaign mode for single players like myself, complete with a series of interesting challenges and a solid story told by two wonderfully-voiced characters. It's one of the best turn-based tactics games I've played in quite some time.
7> Monster Hunter 4: Ultimate (3DS) The Gamecritics Review
Do I need to explain this one? Is anybody even remotely surprised that this is on my list? 4 Ultimate is a fantastic game, tweaking the classic Monster Hunter formula and making it better than it's ever been. The new "rodeo" mechanics where players can mount monsters are a blast, the new enemies are great, and there's so much content and free DLC that it's easily one of the biggest games of the year.
Despite being a fantastic group experience, this latest installment continues in the tradition of providing a satisfying single player campaign which can be completed in a reasonable amount of time. Oh, and did I mention it's finally got legitimate online capabilities?
Overall, it's basically the best MonHun that's ever been, so why didn't it rate higher? The hardware. Nintendo's aging handheld can barely do justice to what's here. The content feels hamstrung by the underpowered 3DS, and the game could (and should) be so much more. Don't get me wrong — I enjoyed the hell out of it, but I couldn't stop thinking that it would just be better with more horsepower.
6> Transformers: Devastation (PS3, PS4, 360, XBO, PC) The Gamecritics Review
This is easily one of the best licensed videogames that's ever been. Platinum perfectly captured the essence of the seminal 80s cartoon, and playing Devastation is exactly like what Transformers was like (in my head) back when I was a kid… The Autobots jump into the mix with free-flowing combat and rapid transformations, the voices are either perfect or pretty close to it, and the game even plays like an extended episode of the TV show, complete with screen wipes and transitions into and out of a story which only makes sense in the context of a Saturday morning. This is the best Transformers game by a mile, and it was wonderful to see a developer that finally, genuinely "gets" what it's about.
5> Dying light (PS4, XBO, PC) The Gamecritics Review
Techland's second attempt at the open-world zombie-survival genre is a strong one.
Adding parkour into the expected formula was a great idea, and being able to acrobatically traverse a large world to avoid the undead is every bit as exciting as it sounds. The current level of technology also means that there are several scenes in the game that were never really possible before — turning a corner and seeing a street absolutely filled with rotten shamblers made me hold my breath the first time I saw it. I also appreciated the writers' sense of humor (although it's usually found outside of the critical path) and the entire campaign is playable with others, which makes a great adventure even better. Experiencing the entire game from start to finish with my wife was an amazing ride.
4> Mad Max (PS4, XBO, PC) The Gamecritics Review
Between this and Transformers, it's been an utterly amazing year for licensed games. Avalanche studios clearly understands what makes the iconic films work, and they've captured that same essence in a game which sets out in its own direction. Mad Max succeeds by not being a re-creation, but by being a new adventure which is absolutely true to the spirit of the franchise.
Mechanically, the game has the best car combat in memory, and the open-world structure is a perfect fit for the wasteland survival that this IP is based on. I also have to give a standing ovation to the wasteland itself. With locations and structures that were never the same and a massive desert that managed to showcase unique aspects of itself in every region, it was a masterclass in environmental design and worldbuilding. Shout-out to my man Chumbucket, too — he's sidekick of the year in my book.
3> Grow Home (PS4, PC) The Gamecritics Review
It's hard to believe something like this came from Ubisoft, but I'm glad that someone on the AssCreed assembly line decided to give these developers enough time and money to create this little gem because it's pure joy to play something that throws normal game conventions out the window and focuses on doing its own thing.
Creating an entire experience out of climbing a giant beanstalk was absolutely engrossing, and by taking away the normal penalties or hurdles that gamers expect, it gained a very atmospheric, easy-going, blissful adventure for people burned out on the AAA scene. It's a fantastic one for kids too, and playing it with my youngest was true quality time.
2> Helldivers (PS4, Vita, PC) The Gamecritics Review
I love this game. I absolutely love it.
Although on the surface it doesn't seem much different from other top-down shooters, fundamental choices in the core design radically alter the experience and create something which is head and shoulders above what has come before.
With a brilliant spin on pick-up multiplayer, team dynamics come to the forefront. Playing with strangers actually turned into a great time as survival in harsh environments meant that everyone needed to rely on each other, with absolutely no benefit coming from griefing.
The richly strategic system of being able to select only a few pieces of equipment out of everything available meant that there was much depth and strategy to the choices, especially when working with a regular team. And did I mention the friendly fire? The action comes in with unmatched intensity, so having to constantly check aim and being aware of splash damage before pulling the trigger ramped everything up ten notches.
1> The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt (PS4, XBO, PC) The Gamecritics Review
I don't think anyone is more surprised than I am to see The Witcher 3 at the top of my list, but I have to say that it really, really earned it.
While the game is extremely long and certainly has pacing problems (especially in the final third) there's no denying that CD Projekt Red have basically thrown down the gauntlet to everyone else who thinks they can create an open world — each quest that I went on was interesting and varied, the land felt real and had a sense of history and culture, and the writing was second to none.
Geralt is also a great character, and he's supported by an extremely strong cast — special praise goes out to the female stars who were all strong women in their own right. Geralt may have been the protagonist, but he was only part of the equation. Without Keira, Triss, Cerys, Ciri and Yennefer, the game wouldn't have been nearly as interesting. The writers tackle some very difficult material, as well. I don't think anything else this year got as much emotional reaction out of me as Witcher 3 did.
While it's true that I took a six-month break from the game because it wore me out with just how much content it offers, I'm so glad that I came back to it and finished when I did… When all was said and done, it was worth the time and effort, and the bar for this type of experience has been raised significantly. Kudos, CD Projekt Red. I can't wait to see what you do next.
…And there you have it, another top 10 for another year. Agree? Disagree?
Now that I've had my say, I'm interested in hearing about the best games YOU played this year. Leave me a message in the comments below and let me know what made your list over the last twelve months.
Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.
Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway