Batman: Arkham Knight
Given the divided opinion over Arkham City and the unexpected delay for ‘more polish’ (a term that adds even more pressure to any development team), I was beyond pleased that Rocksteady delivered all they promised and more with Batman: Arkham Knight.
The marketing tagline of ‘Be The Batman’ sums up the game’s glory perfectly: this is the best example to date of a title that really puts you in the role of a superhero. Expanding the open world could have robbed the game of its focus but the freedom to swoop into any situation from the air or charge in with the Batmobile gives a sense of power that few games can rival.
Yes, the Batmobile is perhaps a little overused but it never feels like a chore and the increasingly tense storyline compels you to embrace the motorised monstrosity in the name of saving Gotham.
A wonderful culmination of a stunning trilogy by the folks at Rocksteady – although this moment alone was almost enough to secure Batman a place on my list.
Regardless of whether or not you consider this to be a ‘game’, you cannot deny that Sam Barlow’s indie sensation as unique. Taking role playing to a new extreme as players search through video clips to solve a murder, Her Story gives gamers more agency that any title in recent memory.
There are no instructions, no objectives, no dotted line to follow, no hints of any kind – it is entirely up to the players to decide what they’re trying to accomplish and whether they have done so or if they should keep searching for more answers. Even the visual and audio hints that you have learned something important are subtle enough that you are left wondering what the revelation might be.
The writing is superb, to the point where I can’t even pinpoint the video that first made me realise the game’s shocking twist. But once you stumble upon it, you’ll be desperate to find out more. The fact that the ‘ending’ is left open to interpretation has also been a major point of discussion this year, meaning Her Story had a far bigger impact than we might have expected prior to its launch.
A bit of a cheeky inclusion, but one I can justify by the fact that the PC version was launched in 2015 – plus I only discovered it for the first time this summer.
Inkle’s fresh take on the Choose Your Own Adventure formula is one of the most impressive narrative-driven games I have ever played. The steampunk take on Jules Verne’s classic Around The World In 80 Days tale is already an attractive setting, but the way the writers use it to explore a world of weird and wonderful inventions – often just a few paragraphs at a time – is remarkable.
Another strong factor is the ‘race against time’ nature of the game. While it’s tempting to explore every city’s options to their fullest, the constantly increasingly number of days you have spent travelling reminds you of the 80-day deadline. Choosing the fastest, most direct route becomes a gamble at every turn as you never know when the story will take an unexpected twist.
And it’s here that the game’s greatest strength lies: the branching narrative that contains so many stories, every possible route around the world could be a novel in itself. Discussions with colleagues about whether you lead a successful mutiny, survived a train hijacking, solved a murder, discovered the truth about your master and more evoke memories of grander-scale and personalised titles like Mass Effect and Heavy Rain – and yet the whole thing is achieved with text and an interactive map.
A highly compelling title that will constantly have you wondering what happens at the next city, on the next journey, or on your tenth trip around the globe.
I’ve actually missed many of the biggest triple-A games this year, so I feel it unfair to judge them. Two that I must mention is the tense stealthy antics of Metal Gear Solid V and the post-apocalyptic glory that is Fallout 4 – although I’ve only started this last night. Dabbled in Splatoon during Nintendo’s beta weekends, as well – that’s good fun.
Beyond that, it’s mostly mobile games. I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time (but not money) on DomiNations, the free-to-play strategy game that comes closest to recapturing the Age of Empires magic, and I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed the colourful wonder that is Rayman Adventures.
Dark, dank, unforgiving and sometimes downright disturbing, Bloodborne is not just one of the finest gaming experiences I’ve had this year, it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played.
Streamlining the often obtuse levelling system and user interface of the Souls series, Bloodborne allows its Lovecraftian world of Yharnam, engrossing narrative and fantastic visual design to shine through unfiltered.
Casting aside the slow creep of the Souls’ shield-focused blocking in favour of do-or-die offense is a masterstroke in psychological (and physical) combat, with the transforming weapons and off-hand firearms providing an energised shake-up to the well-worn swords and armour clashes of its predecessors.
Oh, and did I mention the bosses are equally the most incredible and disgusting-looking opponents I’ve ever encountered in a game?
Wrapped up in mystery, lore and allegory, Bloodborne’s tale is an exercise in how to utilise the medium of games to tell a genuinely gripping and deep story. I’ve rarely spent so much time simply reading into a game’s world and surrounding lore and, with The Old Hunters DLC now out, didn’t hesitate to jump straight back in.
Life is Strange
Yes, the characters often say silly things, act like fools and have THE most eye-rolling tastes – but isn’t that what being a teenager is all about?
The fact is that Life is Strange presented me with some of the most affecting game relationships I’ve come across, as well as some genuine gasp-out-loud moments at the closure of each episode.
Just when I thought I had had my fill of Telltale-style episodic adventure games (having walked both Walking Dead seasons, Wolf Among Us, Game of Thrones…), Life is Strange convinced me to tune in on release day for each new instalment, just to see what happened next.
And boy, what did happen. A lively blend of teenage angst, soap-style melodrama and Twin Peaksian surrealism, Life is Strange continued to experiment and play with format throughout its debut season – I can’t think of another title where I’ve gone from working out the best way to photograph a squirrel to travelling back in time to save a life to breaking into a swimming pool to stealthing through a nightmarish dreamscape.
I don’t know what more I can say without spoiling its fantastic and touching story – all I can say is that Life is Strange is a game you should play, without a doubt. And it has one of the best soundtracks going.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
‘Pain’ is the right word when it comes to discussing Hideo Kojima’s swansong.
A lifelong Metal Gear Solid fan (seriously, just check out my Twitter username, the fan film I made as a teenager and the lengthy feature I wrote comparing MGS2 to James Joyce’s Ulysses), I unsurprisingly went into MGSV with unbelievably high expectations. After all, Kojima and his team had never let me down before – why would they this time?
Well. They didn’t – and they did. For a franchise plagued by convoluted control schemes and overwritten plotlines for more than two decades, Phantom Pain tips the scales completely in the opposite direction.
Gone was the need to dislocate three fingers and recite the Necronomicon backwards in order to lean around a corner and shoot in first-person. Instead, one of the most versatile sets of equipment was balanced with a nuanced and smart button layout to make skiing down a hill in a cardboard box as easy as headshotting soldiers with a tranq pistol while hanging off of the side of a galloping horse.
But also gone was the narrative thrust that has – for better and worse – propelled Kojima’s mad-cap tale of military forces gone rogue, pseudo-magical powers (ie. nanomachines) and quadruple-crossing twists to such
Sure, there are defining moments a-plenty, from animated flaming corpses to a child psychic clad in a gasmask but, for all the promise set up by the game’s mid-way break, MGSV’s ending falls flat and barely resonates as a closing chapter for the epic tale.
As with Life is Strange, to say any more would spoil the reason why MGSV ultimately did make it into my Games of the Year. I did play just under 30 hours within two days of release, after all. The polished gameplay allows players to create the best stories Metal Gear Solid has ever seen, it’s just a shame the game itself drops the ball.
I almost forgot it because it kicked off the year with a bang (and I technically played it during Early Access last year), but Sunless Sea is easily worth a second mention for 2015. Excellent writing, brilliant visual design (like Bloodborne, it’s highly Lovecraftian with spooky monsters and creepy strangers) and atmosphere in buckets make it a must-play.
Speaking of the spooky, I (and everyone else) was also pleasantly surprised by PS4 exclusive Until Dawn. As a horror film buff, it nails the B-movie tone and plot points of the genre’s best, without diluting into boring cliché. It’s technical achievements are impressive, too – albeit at the occasional cost of the framerate
Having had the Souls bug rekindled in me by Bloodborne, I also went back to its predecessor in the form of Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin. It doesn’t quite have the lore of Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls or Bloodborne, but it’s a great punishing romp through some of the series’ finest boss battles. Scholar perfects the formula with a buttery-smooth framerate and improved texture resolutions – plus the trio of challenging DLC packs thrown in for a few more hours of masochistic fun.