This year I’ve got an honest-to-god list of games from 2015. Even if it is late.
I’ve played plenty from previous years too of course (the highlights of which I’ve also listed below), but it feels good to know that, for once, I’m somewhat with the times. Mind you, I still didn’t get a chance to play any of the big hitters or many of the smaller and arguably more interesting titles like Invisible Inc., Her Story, and the 82-years-in-the-making Feist.
Contrary to xtal’s ‘Does anyone else agree that the last three years have been underwhelming for games?’, every year I’m floored by how much amazing stuff there is to play and how little time I have to play even a fraction of it. Here’s my almost 5000 word ‘fraction’ for 2015, loosely in order:
7) Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide
Vermintide is essentially Warhammer Left 4 Dead with Skaven instead of zombies, five classes, and a gear and loot system that’s light enough to not be the be-all and end-all of your success– at least on lower difficulties. Perhaps one of the most innovative things about the game is that the elf has a Scottish accent instead of the dwarf. Subversive, I know. The dwarf actually has a dialect similar to mine too, which is pretty cool.
Here’s a great overview of the game set to what sounds like a terrible Powerpoint pitch.
6) Frozen Cortex
I’d been looking forward to this for a long time having adored Frozen Synapse and I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint. Frozen Cortex is essentially a future sport variant of American football with robots and the deterministic semi-turn-based mechanics of Frozen Synapse. It’s a lot leaner and more streamlined than FS but every bit as smart, deep and nerve-racking. nervous_testpilot’s music is characteristically great and the commentators are pretty damn funny at times too:
As someone who doesn’t really follow much sport, let alone American football (which I know doesn’t involve much feet), the tutorials in Frozen Cortex I felt were lacking and not thorough enough at explaining the rules and mechanics of the game, which is a shame but nothing I couldn’t work past.
Like Frozen Synapse, I never ventured into the single-player component which includes a simulated league, in-depth management and a story, believe it or not. It’s something I’d like to have a go at at some point because the AI is apparently a real challenge and managing my team was something I remember loving in Speedball 2.
5) Dirt Rally
A late entry to my list but it’s been so long since I played a proper rally game without Ken Block wanting to be my dudebro buddy. It’s the only racing game where I have to quit out after a few races because it’s so intense thanks to the persistence of the career mode and the knife edge tension between flooring the accelerator to grab crucial seconds and losing control, potentially wrecking your car and being retired for an event. Here’s a replay of my best drive in the most powerful car class I’ve rallied in so far. Hair raising but incredibly rewarding stuff.
I’ve sunk a good 130 hours (and counting) into Evolve since February, and mostly without friends too. That’s more than any other game I’ve played over the last year or so.
Developed by Turtle Rock Studios, the team responsible for Left 4 Dead, Evolve is a unique 4v1 co-op competitive beast, confident and bold but practically stillborn thanks to the atrocious handling and short-sightedness of its pricing and business model. You may have heard about it.
I pre-ordered (gasp!) the PC ‘monster race’ edition at a discounted £46 (gasp!) to sidestep the mess of DLC and pre-order bonuses, and to get in on the action while the player population was likely to be at its healthiest. It was a smart move because since then I haven’t spent a dime on the game while having access to mostly everything that’s been released so far, and the player pop indeed tanked over subsequent months from 27,000 concurrent players a day and plateauing around 500-600. Yikes. With 4v1 though, you thankfully only need four other players for a full game and the bots are surprisingly good anyway. You can even take them over while playing which is a very cool feature.
Getting back to the game itself though. Evolve is a laser focussed game of cat and mouse where the mouse can eventually eat the cat. As the hunters, it’s about the art of tracking, intercepting, trapping and bringing down the creature with your teammates before it feeds, evolves and grows strong enough to either hunt you and your team down, or destroy the power generator on each map. Woe betide the team that fluffs any of these things up because teamwork is absolutely critical, just like it was in L4D.
As the monster however, you start out much weaker than the hunters so it’s initially about evasion, be it through speed, or stealth and cunning. Your key objective is to kill and eat as much wildlife as possible to amass enough energy to evolve into a larger, stronger creature and turn the tables. That’s easier said than done though because you’re the size of a house. A big noisy house, that scares wildlife, leaves footprints, breaks down foliage and attracts carrion birds from all your chowing down. The trick is to mislead the hunters with all these kinds of ‘tells’ so they go traipsing across the map in the wrong direction so that you can feed and evolve in peace until you’re ready to take the fight to them.
This is all just the tip of the iceberg though. Evolve is a smart and unique design, far deeper than most people gave (and still give) it credit for.
I love its diverse range of hunters and their distinctive personalities and gear (I mean, come on). I love the unique monsters and their abilities, and the alien wildlife of Shear with its lush, varied — and surprisingly vertical — environmental design. It’s like Jurassic Park meets Avatar and just a real spectacle in motion.
But above all, it’s the interplay of the game’s systems and the combinatorial possibilities of the different maps, the weather types, modes, hunters, monsters, their abilities and perks, buffs, the lethal flora and fauna of Shear, the different strategies and tactics that can be employed with, and against, each other. All these things mean that every game plays out differently. It’s shortsighted of people to say there simply isn’t enough content here (there is though). That’s like saying DOTA2 doesn’t have enough maps, or Chess doesn’t have enough pieces, or Counter-Strike doesn’t have enough story — they’re missing the point. The meat is in the mechanics. Gah.
(And if you do want backstory, pay attention to what the characters are talking about during play. Different character combos and maps have different conversations so… there’s a lot to hear. That’s where the backstory is: in the back. This is a multiplayer game after all.)
Evolve’s had some great trailers since it was released but I think this one is my favourite.
I also think, as a graphic designer, that Evolve has one of the greatest logos in gaming.
3) Chaos Reborn
Chaos Reborn is Julian Gollop’s sequel to his 1985 turn-based classic Chaos: The Battle of the Wizards. I didn’t play the original (despite having a ZX Spectrum back in the day) but I backed this on Kickstarter and I can safely say that it’s one of the most elegant games I’ve had the pleasure of playing, mechanically as well as aesthetically. It features a single-player ‘realms’ mode but, like Frozen Cortex, I’ve only really played the async multiplayer (and the odd live game).
In a nutshell: you control a wizard with a deck of spells and your objective is to destroy the enemy wizard(s). You do this by summoning creatures and gear for your wizard, and casting offensive and defensive magics.
Now, the clever part is that you can summon real creatures or illusions. Every spell has a percentage chance of succeeding (this can be affected in a number of ways) so for example, Sapphire Dragons have a base chance of 20% while a Spider’s is 60%. Whether you succeed or fail at casting a spell, the spell card will be discarded afterwards.
The thing is, summoning an illusion never fails. They look real, they’re just as solid, and just as deadly. So why would you ever want a real creature then? Every wizard has the ‘Disbelieve’ spell. It’s unlimited, never fails to cast, has unlimited range, no line of sight requirement and is exclusively for dealing with illusions. If you disbelieve an illusion, the creature will disappear and you’ll get another action. However, if you try to disbelieve a real creature then… nothing will happen and you’ll have effectively wasted your action. Bummer. Summoning illusions can be risky then, but using Disbelieve is also risky. Both can reap huge rewards though if used carefully.
While this is a key part of Chaos Reborn, this is just one of many great things about it. It’s easy to play and has a robust and, more importantly, fun set of tutorials and challenges to get you started. This is supplemented by easily accessible and crystal clear in-game documentation (more of this please!) The UI is clean and simple, the spells are all useful and well balanced and the game’s many systems overlap in so many cool and interesting ways. I love the way that certain creatures’ abilities give them unique play personalities eg. the paladin is the only unit that can counterattack so it’s dangerous to attack them; the elephant can bulldoze through tangle vines, gooey blobs and forests; the lion can leap attack from cliffs.
Ultimately it’s a game about chance and managing risk. Yep, just like X-COM, the RNG will shaft you, but it’ll also throw you small miracles as well. “The math giveth and the math taketh away”.
This Terry Pratchett quote from Mort springs to mind a lot while playing Chaos Reborn:
Scientists have calculated that the chances of something so patently absurd actually existing are millions to one. But magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.
I love that so much. And like the Discworld, not believing in dragons in Chaos Reborn could save your bacon too…
Whoever thought of ‘Splatoon‘ as the game’s title deserves a rise.
I adore Splatoon but I’ve also despised it for so many reasons. The horrendously temperamental matchmaking. The inability to quit said matchmaking without turning your Wii U off. Not being able to change your gear without quitting out (and you can only quit out between games). The spotty worldwide megaserver latency. Not being able to communicate in any meaningful way with your team through vsays or contextual pings or even with the Wii U controller map. No voice chat with friends despite the Wii U controller having a god damned mic built-in. It was the loneliest of multiplayer times playing in that insulated Nintendo bubble. These are all major and infuriating problems to me but nevertheless Splatoon effortlessly held me in its viscous glop for several months.
So why do I still adore it? The interplay between inking, squidding, squid jumping and turf control is such an intuitive, smart and downright satisfying design. The gyro/motion control aiming is a revelation. Callie and Marie’s news channel is an inspired way of announcing changes and new content within the game itself, and their banter is pretty amusing and charming too. The varied game types totally transform the way you use the myriad weapon combos and they neatly fold into a single ranked mode (so there are no ‘ghost town modes’). The perk system is slight but a welcome way of tuning your inkling. The sound, music and visuals fizz with this sort of intoxicating Dreamcast-era Sega energy. The final boss is Platinum crazy good. My favourite weapon is a bucket of ink. And it features one of the most adorable animations I’ve seen all year.
Another ‘great’ thing about Splatoon is the way in which it pulls in stuff from the Miiverse. Stuff like:
1) Rocket League
Easily my favourite multiplayer game of the year and arguably one of my favourite multiplayer games full stop. Rocket League is proof that there’s nothing at all silly about rocket boosting cars playing football. Or soccer. Or socCAR. Hell, this is what games are made for because you’re not going to be doing this sort of stuff in real life, amirite? Here’s why I love it so much.
Firstly, it’s immediate and simple. We all know how football works and we all know how cars work. I’d argue Rocket League does football better than football games do football thanks to the very physical act of controlling the ball. There’s no snap-lock dribbling, auto-targeting or power gauges here. If you want that ball somewhere, you’ve got to work at it.
Secondly, it’s polished, tightly tuned and well oiled. Everything just works as expected. I’ve listed a few multiplayer games above but none of them have matched the slick presentation on show here. I’m not talking about the visuals here, though they’re fine. I’m talking about the clear UI, the plentiful options and features (up to 4-player local and combo co-op online, solo modes, a fantastic replay system with replays that can be saved(!), horizontal and vertical split-screen), the speedy matchmaking and transitions from game to game, the gratifying handling of the cars, the intuitive controls, the robust tutorials/challenges, the neat personalisation of your vehicle. Nothing snags. The only ‘levelling’ is your rank and that can be hidden and has no meaningful effect on play. Yay!
Thirdly, it might be immediate and simple, but it’s so nuanced too. Rocket League isn’t about chasing, hitting and hoping. I mean, there’s plenty of that early on when you’re still learning, but, like football and any other kind of ‘ball’ sport, you realise it’s about reading the ball and other players, timing your manoeuvres and, ultimately, executing them. These things take hours and hours to hone — and successful aerial play even longer — but as the standard of play increases, as you start nailing those shots, those saves and volleys, so does your… ‘range’ of emotions. You will fist pump. You will facepalm. You will freak when you lose your lead in the space of 30 seconds. There are few things in gaming however, as badass or rock and roll as Rocket League‘s high risk/high reward aerial play, whether as a spectator or when you’re engaging in it yourself.
Rocket League is at its best when you’re playing with others of a similar standard, and over my many hours with the game I’ve had some incredibly close games online so the matchmaking is obviously doing it’s job. It’s with friends however, where Rocket League truly shines, whether 1v1, 2v2, 3v3 or 4v4, offline or online, co-op or competitive — it’s an absolute blast. Thankfully, if you don’t want to be thrown in with real players then the bots are a good challenge, as Joel and I discovered when we first played it back in July.
GAME. OF. THE. YEAR.
Honourable 2015 mentions:
8) Viscera Cleanup Detail
Play the poor bastards who have to cleanup after the likes of Dead Space, System Shock and Doom. Bring a friend. Tread bloody footprints all over their clean floors. Spill buckets of blood all over their clean floors. Collect viscera in bio-hazardous waste bins and knock it all over their clean floors. Crank the annoying radio volume up and dump it in your friend’s work area. Sweep up shell casings and reinstate med stations. Mop the walls down and repair bullet holes. Incinerate trash and other contaminants. Throw the radio in. It’s a weirdly relaxing and rewarding experience, especially with a friend or two, where you can shoot the shit and lark around. Cleanups can take hours so when you get the report back the last thing you want to see is ‘99%’ clean. Here’s some before and after pics of a recent job top scrubber and bucket-kicker Luke and I tackled. This was a 99%. Damn it.
If you have OCD this game could be for you.
7) Flame Over
The perfect name for roguelike firefighting hell. I played this at the EGX earlier in 2015 and it was easily one of my highlights, so much so I picked it up on release– and on the Vita too, of all things. Flame Over is a tough game where you’ll die a lot navigating each floor of a towering inferno putting out fires, rescuing survivors to increase your time and keeping your water and foam levels topped up. If you’re up for a challenge then Flame Over is definitely worth a look. Unfortunately, by the time I made it to the chemical labs I was pretty… burnt out by it. It also has one of the least annoying and jauntiest music loops I’ve heard this side of Greed Corp.
6) Card Crawl
Solitaire meets a dungeon crawler with beautifully illustrated cards. Tricky with quick play sessions make it perfect on your phone. Get it.
Tonight, we dive in hell! Think Magicka’s always-on friendly fire and high-pressure ‘casting’ meets Alien Swarm and Starship Troopers. I know right?
Unfortunately Helldivers got off to a rocky start after its much touted cross-platform multiplayer failed to work reliably for the best part of a two months or so. By this time — being a lowly PS3 player trying to play with my PS4 friends — we’d lost the enthusiasm we’d had for it, which is a shame because it is a great game. It’s worth noting as well that I was disappointed to return to the PS3’s ever more aged visuals knowing that the game could have looked so much better on other hardware (excluding the Vita of course). I couldn’t bear the thought of using that god awful overpriced Sony bluetooth ear-piece-mic thing either. Bleurgh.
The PC version should be just the ticket then, not least because that’s where my Magicka and Alien Swarm friends are.
4) Fast Racing Neo
Accurate but dreadful name aside, this is about as close as you’re going to get to F-Zero GX or Wipeout, and with local and online multiplayer too. A late but very welcome surprise on the Wii U. And it’s fast. So very very fast.
3) War for the Overworld
Steerpike and I discussed this around release and were both really impressed by it, not just as a spiritual successor to Dungeon Keeper but as a game by a fledgling development team. It’s a remarkable achievement, and damn funny too thanks to Richard Ridings’ lines and delivery.
Still, it launched with a lot of issues that cooled its initial reception. However, since then the developers have been patching the crap out of it, literally. I’m confident that it’s now the game they envisaged and the game we all expected. In which case, you probably ought to check it out if you’re at all a fan of the Dungeon Keepers, which you should be because they’re great.
2) Affordable Space Adventures
Not one I’ve finished yet but sooooo good. Affordable Space Adventures is a real poster child for the unique and innovative possibilities of the Wii U controller and co-op gameplay. I’d love to see more stuff like this. Clever, atmospheric, intriguing and utterly charming. If you have a Wii U and some family and friends then you should grab them for this.
1) Life Is Strange
Sod it, I’m putting this here. Provided Life is Strange doesn’t shit the bed in the last couple of chapters, this would easily make my main list. I’m not a fan of the photography/collectible system and the rewind mechanic can be as interesting as it can be confusing and tedious, but it’s the evocative visuals and ambient sound design, the delicate soundtrack, the writing and acting, the tough decision making and the slowly unfolding story that’s keeping me playing.