Over the past year, I’ve built my reputation as the “Shooter Guy” here at PUG. After reviewing Halo 5, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, and Splatoon, it’s quite obvious that online shooters are my forte. And while some of these games might have made my top 5 list of 2015, some of my best experiences this year sprouted from a platformer, an isometric twin-stick (okay, fine) shooter, and, I don’t think it comes as a surprise that, like many, I was impressed by at least one of this year’s massive RPGs. Here are my top five picks for 2015’s Games of The Year.
5. Helldivers: Super Earth Ultimate Edition
The pitch for Helldivers is almost as intimidating as those for Bloodborne or Dark Souls: Four players are dropped onto hostile planets where almost everything can kill you; whether that’d be the infinite patrolling enemies, the uncooperative elements, friendly fire, or your equipment falling from the sky.
As a co-op game, Helldivers is a brutal test in attentiveness and coordination between you and your allies – nonverbal or otherwise; and because of this, there’s a social conditioning that develops throughout everyone’s time in this galactic war. Players learn how to shoot around each other naturally, learn to follow one another willingly, and learn how to memorize their Stratagems assertively. But what makes Helldivers different is that almost everything in the game that drives players towards a common goal can also kill them. A dropped automated turret can cut you in half if you stand in front of an enemy. A lumbering mech suit from a friend can crush you if you don’t escape its path quickly, and, of course, standing under a Stratagem is a quick way to get flattened and killed.
Arrowhead Studios is unapologetic in its design of Helldivers making perhaps the most deliberate co-op experience I’ve ever played. It’s success in fully committing to being a very specific multiplayer experience has impressed me in a way that I can’t ignore it from my top five.
What We Said: It’s not often that co-op games emulate the feeling of communicating with your fellow players telepathically. Helldivers just happens to be one of the few. (Read the review)
4. Tower of Guns
This single man project by Joe Mirabello is the only first person shooter that has made it into my top five, and for good reason: I’ve never played a game quite like Tower of Guns before, and it’s likely you haven’t either. One part rogue-like, one part bullet hell shooter, Tower of Guns is a wholly unique FPS that’s quirky, insane, and incredibly empowering.
The game’s limit-pushing tendencies on all fronts is what best defines Tower of Guns. Everything from the near-labyrinthine level design, to the obnoxiously destructive arsenal, there’s never a dull moment in each of your runs. Walking into a massive bullet chamber and almost instantly having to move above and around hundreds of cannon balls, missiles, and other projectiles may sound ludicrous at first. But Tower of Guns incorporates gratifying rewards into its feedback loop that stress the game in ways that you wouldn’t expect. My best runs come from a stacked set of power ups that allowed me to practically fly across areas while others augmented my shotgun’s spread to duplicate itself every few feet, creating literal walls of death.
Tower of Guns often feels like a loose cannon when striving to create over the top encounters, which is worth noting becomes problematic at times. In a game that gives the illusion that you can break its own rules, it doesn’t seem to always be in control of that. Heaps of bullets and enemies that quite literally cover the screen knock the frame rate on its ass, which can be frustrating on some of your better runs. But it’s an endearing problem to have: Tower of Guns is so intense, that even Tower of Guns can’t handle it.
What We Said: TOG almost creates a sub-genre within a sub-genre. It splices together the single-life pressure of a rogue-like, the instant gratification of an FPS, the airborne inertia of a platformer, and heightened stimulation of a bullet-hell shooter. (Read the review)
2015 was the Wii U’s best year yet, and that began with Splatoon. The game that Nintendo fans have always wanted (but never thought would happen) finally came out this May, and has been well received enough to win The Game Awards’ Best Multiplayer Game of 2015
The interesting thing about Nintendo is that when they don’t invent a genre, like Blizzard, their efforts in recreating genres end up being a bona fide success. It happened with games like Smash, and it’s happened yet again with Splatoon. Though Splatoon’s online features may not be as seamless and smooth as your Call of Duties and Halos, the sheer design of the game’s attritional splatter-fests is nothing short of genius.
The core concept ‘inking’ your way to victory stands alone as a marvelous spin on the shooter genre. Not only does it empower less skilled players who aren’t capable of “360 No-Scopes”, but it keeps the player engaged at all times. Even after playing nearly all of 2015’s biggest shooters, I still feel confident in saying that Splatoon is unequivocally “the best paced shooter I’ve ever played”.
Splatoon has also spurred a highly engaged and passionate community with a post launch philosophy that stands heads and shoulders above other game companies. Starting off with Splatfests, these fun – yet admittedly superfluous – events that take center stage in the Tower hub, create friendly rivalries among the community. Cats vs Dogs, Autobots vs. Decepticons, Pirates vs. Ninjas. You choose! But its Splatoon’s steady content rollout over the course of the last 6 months that truly stood out, giving players new maps, weapons, gear, modes, and multiplayer features, all for free!
As a new IP and a new genre in Nintendo’s catalog, Splatoon is easily Nintendo’s best surprise of 2015.
What We Said: The intricacies of [Splatoon’s] design fit the Nintendo bill of offering both complexity and approachability in a genre that’s otherwise intimidating, which is why Splatoon is just as good as almost any Smash Bros. or Mario Kart out there. (Read the review)
2. Super Mario Maker
Ending the Wii U’s best year was Super Mario Maker. While Splatoon was a game that fans never thought Nintendo would make, Super Mario Maker was the game everyone wondered how it hadn’t come sooner. But much like Splatoon, Nintendo has shown up fashionably late in dabbling in a well-established genre and made one of the best, if not the best, games in class.
Super Mario Maker has successfully broken the barrier to entry that nearly all other user generated content (UGC) games, including LittleBigPlanet, couldn’t breach: creating levels is achingly simple and intuitive. This is the Wii U’s best Gamepad game as you simply drag and drop tile-sets of your creation together with ease. Super Mario Maker also has the advantage of pulling from the legacy of the best 2D platformer franchise in modern gaming by both inspiring players such as myself to recreate SMB classics, and making even the worst levels somewhat salvageable with Mario’s pitch perfect controls.
Super Mario Maker is yet another Nintendo title to be treated with the company’s well received post launch content approach. They’ve both effectively filled in some of the issues player had at the game’s release, and added much, much more. Checkpoints, invisible Warp Doors, and the ability to give Small Mario a Mushroom instead of, say, a Fire Flower, are some of the more practical additions to SMM. The game has also began creeping towards LBP levels of genre-blurring creativity by adding a shooter feature to the Koopa Clown car which easily opens the game up to side scrolling sh’mups. And lastly, the much lamented search tools for levels have been improved with the portal site that can be accessed via smart phone or PC.
Some of these updates might sound minimal, though most can argue otherwise after seeing the many, many ways in which SMM’s creation tools have been used. But nothing beats the fact that Super Mario Maker in and of itself churns out brilliant pieces of add-on content through the community. The simplicity of the level editor, buoyed by Mario’s tight controls, gives way to countless brilliantly designed and enjoyable levels. Super Mario Maker is everything Nintendo fans have wanted and more.
What We Said: With hundreds of thousands of other active creators doing their best to stand out, Super Mario Maker has the potential to exist as a conduit for seemingly limitless amounts of new and creative Mario stages. (Read the review)
1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Somehow, I’ve forgotten how much I loved The Witcher 3. That was until I took one look at the fem-lead mod with Triss and kid Ciri staring off into the Skellige horizon, and after I heard another GOTY discussion that ranked The Bloody Baron as the best character of 2015. So yeah, The Witcher 3 is a pretty incredible game.
There’s a well-executed action RPG that exists in The Witcher 3, but it’s the incredible world building, and the seemingly emergent story telling that makes this game best in class. Speak to anyone who’s played The Witcher 3, and they’ll tell you how they weren’t prepared for how distracting and compelling its side quest design is, all creating an unparalleled level of believability in the world of The Witcher.
Games like Fallout and the Elder Scrolls (is there any other game that we can use in this type of comparison?) inundate players with massive amounts of side quests that are, to their credit, fleshed out narratively. But The Witcher 3 takes it a step further by writing emotional and character nuance in every story that deviates off the beaten path. A random event in almost any other open world RPG would either script a damsel being robbed or spring an ambush of some kind. A random encounter in The Witcher can blind side you with a mutli-part mission that further illustrates how fiendish and fucked up the denizens of the Northern Realms are.
The narrative bow that ties this package together is complimented by just how drop dead gorgeous the game looks and sounds. The artistic variety here is astonishing, from the bubbling swamps of Crookback Bog, to the bright bricked architecture of Novigrad, and let’s not forget the tear jerking beauty of Skellige (hats off to the Northern Irish for inspiring my favorite region in video games).
If simply looking at Skellige made me veklempt, then the vocal driven, old century European instrumental soundtrack made me misty eyed. Few games utilize its presentation to such great effect in creating a sense of place, and I would argue that in the pantheon of video games, Grand Theft Auto V might be the only title that bests CD Projekt RED in world building. If another game that comes out in the next 5 years that matches The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt in open world design outside of perhaps another Rockstar game, then ooooohhhh boy, this is gonna be one hell of a console generation.
What We Wrote: This is a game that surpasses all open world RPGs I’ve played before, a game that truly feels next-gen, and that has elevated CD Projekt Red to the level of Bethesda. That’s quite a big level up. (Read the review)