2015 was a special year in games for me. Though I’ve begun to drift away from gaming in my career path and no longer have tons of time for hobbies, I still spent hundreds of hours this year exploring virtual worlds. However, I did so in my spare time, scraping to get in an hour of The Witcher here, a few games of Rocket League there as I spent much of my time and money pursuing new career paths and experiences. The changes in the rest of my life have cemented gaming as a favorite hobby for me, and the sudden resurgence in quality gaming experiences in 2015 couldn’t have come at a better time. When I did get to play, I loved the original and creative experiences that companies big and small released in 2015, releases like Axiom Verge, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, and Yoshi’s Woolly World, which didn’t make my list but nonetheless brought joy into my life this year. So without further ado, here are my most special games from a very special 2015.
Favorite Game Released Before 2015, Played in 2015: Forza Horizon 2
Forza Horizon 2 had a spot in my Top 5 last year, but I didn’t stop playing it when the year ended. With early 2015 surprisingly light on quality releases (Bloodborne was great, but ultimately too stressful for someone working 70-hour weeks like me), I gravitated back towards the beautiful open roads and meandering fields of Forza’s northern Italy. Even after I finished the game’s core progression, there were still hundreds of races, cars and collectables to grab. The excellent Storm Island expansion added a whole new environment to explore, and only fueled my car lust further. I’m itching to revisit Forza’s tight handling model and infectious online modes even as I write this, and that’s the real mark of a quality game.
5. Until Dawn
Until Dawn was my most pleasant surprise of the year. I love cheesy horror movies, but there had never been a game that managed to blend the schlocky dialogue and bloody kills of cinema’s best with the compelling gameplay I desired. Add in the fact that Until Dawn started as a PlayStation Move exclusive, and I wasn’t exactly counting down the days to its release.
Oh, how happy I was to be wrong. This game is not just a great horror story - it’s gorgeous, creepy, mechanically solid, and whip smart to boot. For fellow horror fans, I cannot recommend Until Dawn enough. It’s easily my favorite PS4 exclusive yet.
4. Rocket League
Soccer, but with cars. It’s an easy sell even to non-gamers, and that’s why, for a brief time this summer, Rocket League managed to completely absorb my life. Whether I was playing intense games with my roommate or starting a pick-up game at a party, Rocket League never failed to completely absorb everyone I played it with, delivering a great time spent yelling, cursing, and (ideally) scoring in this ridiculous riff on traditional soccer.
Like Rocket League, Splatoon is all about simple rules that belie deep gameplay. In classic Nintendo fashion, anyone can pick up this infectious shooter and have a great time splattering the varied environments with colorful paint. The characters are cute, the shooting is just tight enough, and each level is designed with symmetry and fairness in mind.
But beneath its colorful exterior, Splatoon can be both a challenging shooter and a punishing platformer. I loved the game’s nontraditional objectives, which emphasize coverage over kills, and revelled in its bizarre weapons and side characters. I also enjoyed the game’s single-player campaign, which featured some of the best boss battles I’ve seen in recent memory. It’s incredibly impressive that Nintendo managed to nail the balance so perfectly even with such an unproven gameplay concept, but then again, that’s why people love the company’s best works. And make no mistake, Splatoon is most certainly among Nintendo’s best works.
2. Just Cause 3
Just Cause 3 is the most pure sandbox I’ve played in a long time, and I think that makes it somewhat divisive. While the story missions are fun and provide just enough structure to keep you focused, it’s the open-world chaos that’s the real draw of this third-person shooter, so those who enjoy creating their own mayhem will be the ones to get the most out of the game.
As it happens, I fall firmly into that camp. The other day I spent nearly an hour using Rico’s grappling tethers to drag a single AA emplacement across an entire military base, including up the side of a 50-story oil rig, to dismantle the place piece by piece. Before that, I tore apart a sniper tower and then reassembled it into an elevator using tethers, pulling myself from floor to floor of an enemy structure killing everyone inside. And before that I made a statue of an evil dictator punch itself in the crotch until it crumbled to pieces, dragged a helicopter to the ground using a dangling car as a counterweight, and strapped approximately 500 bad guys to explosive devices before cruelly detonating them. I didn’t have to do any of those things, but the incredible thing about Just Cause 3 and its peerless physics system is that it lets you explore to find your own solutions - no matter how stupid.
1. The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt
Wow. Where do I even start with a game as massive - yet meticulous - as The Witcher 3? Plenty of games can claim to be large, and plenty of games can claim to be complex. But only one game this year had characters that made me feel happy, sad, annoyed and excited right alongside them. Only one game created a fantasy world so detailed, it pulled me in for 6 months straight and wouldn’t let go. Only one game got me addicted to the freaking card-based mini-game you play in the taverns, something that would be the afterthought of an afterthought to most developers.
But CD Projekt Red isn’t most developers, and The Witcher 3 isn’t most games. It is a truly special experience, a one of a kind role-playing game in which it actually feels as if you are playing a role - not just a blank slate character with a few good and evil dialogue options here and there, but an actual, three-dimensional character whose fate you get to guide over the course of dozens of hours. And though The Witcher 3 has depth, it is this heart that truly endeared Geralt of Rivia’s journey to me. Like the tales spun by the game’s superstitious townsfolk, it is a story that I will remember for years to come.
Honorable Mentions: Yoshi’s Woolly World, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Axiom Verge, Stella Glow, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime