In a year of gaming that I am now officially dubbing, “The Best Year of Gaming Since 2011”, we have welcomed into our lives a simple but beautiful tale of Victorian Orders, Lego dinosaurs, zombie parkour, first-person Raptures, Gothic nightmares, and a man with a metal fist and an eye patch. Short experiences are now an oddity, with an open-world fervour sweeping over developers large and small. The size of the games we play is only mirrored by the size of console sales, with both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One eclipsing their predecessors in both speed, numbers and quality of experiences.
But enough of sounding like a terrible representative for some large technology company, and onto my top five games of 2015.
Beginning with my most obscure choice, Apotheon delivers an incredibly rich experience of Greek mythology, using the two-tone, flattened art style of Grecian pottery to its advantage, as one of this year’s most unique-looking and striking titles. Stick-thin figures strut around coloured stages, with varying degrees of aplomb, menace and even drunkenness. Despite the simplicity of its visuals, Apotheon’s characters, whether good or evil, are entirely expressive. Hades sits atop his throne as the weathered and misjudged lord of the dead; Apollo is an arrogant goat, and the disciples of Dionysus dance in hearty grandeur to the sounds of flutes and wine-induced laughter. The atmosphere of every scene is only heightened by the game’s authenticity. These deistical portrayals are far from the hyperrealism of God of War, but they present each god as they should be: Ares is rapine, Demeter is fair-haired, Artemis hunts all and always.
Apotheon’s gameplay consists of regional exploration, in which its protagonist, Nikandreos, ventures from hell to heaven in search of vengeance against the gods that destroyed his home. The metroidvania-style landscapes are full of citizenry, treasures, secrets and retraceable areas, meaning that newly unlocked abilities encourag romps back and forth between lands in the interests of upgrading your Grecian hero. Environmental scrutiny is only eclipsed by Apotheon’s satisfying combat system, however, as clubs, maces, swords and spears have a responsiveness not often seen outside of large scale hack-and-slash games. Every weapon feels uniquely powerful, and enemies flail and fly when struck, emitting lashings of blood onto the sun-baked scenery.
Why not take a look at my review? It’s shockingly well-written.
4. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
Assassin’s Creed has always taken me into a world that surpasses that of videogames. Ezio’s journey in ACII supplanted within me a love for architecture; an art form that transcends the beauty and awe of games one hundred times over. In 2015, that same feeling was garnered, as Syndicate took me to Victorian London, a city teeming with historical nuance and constructed elegance. Having been there myself, it is easy to see the likeness between the locale’s wider boulevards in game and out. Monuments have been impeccably recreated, with the Elizabeth Tower, the Tower of London, and Saint Paul’s Cathedral acting as stand-out features. The stonework on the latter two has a smoothness that looks entirely palpable, while the clock face on the former is just as lifelike, brightening up even the foggiest of nights with its circular glow. But Syndicate is not just home to a fantastic architectural playground, as it expertly captures an atmosphere in tune with that of the Victorian era. Small children beg in the streets, smokestacks pockmark the horizon, heady businessmen gossip outside of banks, and the well-to-do sorts of Westminster play cricket in the park. Just as Unity understood what it was to be part of the French Revolution, Syndicate bounces between these scenes of absolute poverty and gaudy richness with accuracy; the grime of London’s degeneracy mirrors the work of Dickens and Wilde.
A thing or two about game making has also been learnt from Unity, despite its historical precision. No longer is your protagonist jittering over rooftops, or getting stuck on chimney pots. Thanks to less interior environments, and a toning down of graphical presentation, due to London’s smoggy appearance, Syndicate runs smoothly, with Evie and Jacob Frye zooming up and over buildings without any unappealing hitches. Their dynamic as twin playable characters works splendidly, as they play off one another with differing personalities. While Jacob is willing to take on the streets head first, in a bout of class-based conflict that would have Marx applauding, Evie is much more cautious in her mission to retrieve a precursor artefact for the Assassins. Both may have clashing desires, but each is extremely likeable, and the brother and sister pairing providing many witty remarks at every turn.
Check out the review here.
3. Tales from the Borderlands
I do not give a flying fuck about Borderlands. It’s a shooter that I find boring, and have given up multiple times in playing through its painted lands. Tales from the Borderlands, however, is a joy to behold. Its characters and story brought me into a world that I have always considered bland and repetitive, with personalities reaching far into both comedic and emotional spaces. The dynamic between Rhys and Fiona, the game’s twin protagonists, is crafted in the beginning in terms of obvious hatred. The former is part of an evil weapons-manufacturing company, while the latter is a resident of the planet on which those weapons cause chaos. It was like sending a Wehrmact soldier into the heart of Jerusalem, with tension strengthening the game’s divided narrative structure. Each episode is shared between the two, with an essence of unreliability coating the proceedings. Rhys would tell a portion of the story, only for it to abruptly end through Fiona calling bullshit on his heroic self-presentation. These moments, along with countless others, are some of the funniest I’ve experienced in gaming, with timing, irreverent comments and impeccable voice acting leading the laughs.
But as has been previously stated, it isn’t all sunshine and whimsical robots in Tales from the Borderlands, with emotions swaying, at times, from heartbreak to darkness and back again. The final episode in particular had me holding my mouth in anxious awe, as the fate of its many characters hung in the balance. I would also be remiss not to mention the game’s fantastic opening sections, in which licensed music plays over a slow-motion scene, where are heroes are either enjoying the highlife, blasting off into space, or being blown out the backside of a freshly destroyed vehicle while holding on for dear life. These openings are superbly choreographed, with the audio tracks hitting an atmospheric height that expertly captured the spirit of each moment.
Check out the review for Episode One here.
2. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Hideo Kojima has produced a sprawling masterpiece.
Metal Gear Solid V is a game that mixes continually innovating gameplay, with a mature and violent tale, concluding an endlessly complicated series in a finale that places story-wide subtly at the top of its docket. Snake has become a ghost, a legend amongst men – much like the developer himself – and as he skulks along on a disease-ridden journey, from Afghanistan to Africa, his soul becomes worn and tainted by the blood of his enemies and comrades alike. Keifer Sutherland’s performance, as the weathered war veteran, may not hold a candle to that of David Hayter from previous entries, but he brings a tranquil intensity to the role, highlighting the character’s descent from heroism to villainy. Other characters are portrayed in a similar light, with Kazuhira Miller sternly governing Mother Base without limbs or empathy, and Revolver Ocelot supporting Snake in a gruff mentor role. Each man is tormented by inner battles, and their paths towards darkness are constantly recognised by uncomfortable moments of physical and emotional struggle. The physicality of Metal Gear Solid has always been in evidence, but never has it been so visceral or physiologically resonant.
As well as this, the series’ stealth has never run so smooth. Big Boss’ movements and gunplay alike are satisfyingly precise, as the tank-like manoeuvres of Metal Gear Solid’s past appear even more archaic than previously thought. Scuttling over land masses is accurately portrayed, and enemies can be taken out quietly, or under circumstances of chaos, with equal fidelity and fun, thanks to the beautifully crafted Fox Engine. Freedom is of the utmost importance here, as the open world in which The Phantom Pain is set allows for a breadth of stealth scenarios not seen in any other game to date. You could be tailing a target under the cover of weeds and bulrushes the one moment, to firing missiles into a large convoy the next. Each method, together or separate, can achieve the same goal: a goal that has no guidance, and a goal that remains constantly fluid.
Check out our review here.
1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
A while back, I had written an article concerning the argument that The Witcher 3 is better than Skyrim, an argument that still stands today, but one that has since garnered a higher sense of opinion. The Witcher 3 is not only better than The Elder Scrolls V, but it is better than every other game in 2015, and is certainly heading on a journey towards my game of the generation.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a fantasy epic made of differences. It can be distanced from the dragons and warlocks of standard folktale fare by a number of noticeable traits. Costumes and armour are distinctively Renaissance in their style, despite a Medieval architectural design holding up the castles and homesteads throughout the land; women are allowed upon the stage, as well as holding respected positions in both governmental and magical circles; science is a topic talked of in modern terms, with theories on genes and bacteria providing bold yet interesting anachronisms. Characters are also modern in their conception, and, much like those of Game of Thrones, share personal issues that are far-removed from the game’s archaic setting. Each story is instantly relatable, and impeccably told.
The Bloody Baron’s side quest is a much touted example of this personal depth, but the larger tale circulating Geralt of Rivia, the game’s titular Witcher and protagonist, is just as profoundly moving. Instead of solely focusing on the danger of an otherworldly force, Geralt’s story is one of private turmoil, in which his adopted daughter Ciri goes missing, while also being stalked by a group of heavy-metal monsters known as the Wild Hunt. Geralt claws desperately towards each piece of evidence regarding her whereabouts with a determination of spirit, and will stand at nothing to retrieve her life intact. The loss of a loved one, living or dead, is a central thematic concern in almost every real-world or fictive narrative, past present and no doubt future. Player empathy is therefore a central concern of The Witcher 3, as miscarriages, filial death and mental illness are presented in an all-too-real light.
The maturity of its stories are both comparable and contrasting to the presentation of its lands. Both areas of darkness and glowing beauty can be found throughout each of the game’s stunning locales: the sprawling city of Novigrad and its surrounding farmland, the swamps and dark woods of Velen and the snowy, mountainous peaks of Skellige. Novigrad’s bustle and grandeur is antithetical to the corpse-strewn battlegrounds of the south, contrasting further with the stunning vistas of the isles to the southwest. The beauty and variety of these landscapes is dwarfed by their size, however. Hours can be spent searching for hidden depth amongst Velen’s unsettling bogs, while countless towns have realistic ecosystems of work and toil. The Witcher 3 is not just the most visually impressive game of the year, but one of the largest games of all time.
The breadth of the features not mentioned here are too numerous to list, but on top of its heartbreaking stories, awful vistas, and paramount size, are contextually rich zones of death and destruction, difficult yet satisfying combat, wonderful card games of skill and collectability, numerous quests, hunts and treasure-finding missions and a protagonist that throws out wit, candid thoughts and emotion at every turn. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is an outstanding achievement for gaming, and successfully delivers a unique, fantasy experience that I shall not soon forget.
Thank you CD Projekt Red, and, to quote Geralt of Rivia, “thanks bunches.”
Check out The Witcher 3 review here.