8 Video Games That Mattered in 2015
Finally, a year where we discuss actual games rather than “ethics in journalism.”
2015 was an epic year for video games. While 2014 saw some stumbling blocks as the PS4 and Xbox One found their footing, 2015 displayed a combination of powerful hardware, design innovation, and creativity—from both AAA titles and indie developers alike. There were so many notable titles that you’ll find many critics choosing from a wide range for Game of the Year.
However, this is not a comprehensive best-of list (plenty of those are already floating around the interwebs). Instead, in such a standout year for gaming, this is a closer look at the titles with the most impact in a year where “ethics in journalism” thankfully wasn’t the lead story. Both positive and negative, here they are in alphabetical order. 8-bit drumroll please …
Disclaimer 1: Until I have a TARDIS to steal away all of time and space, I wasn’t able to play all major releases across consoles and Steam.
Disclaimer 2: Based on my own personal preferences, I lean more towards console games than Steam. If there are impactful Steam-only titles I missed, feel free to mention them in the comments.
Batman: Arkham Knight
Impact: Narrative Still Matters
The latest Arkham game from Rocksteady is, on the surface, what you’d expect. It takes the formula created by Arkham Asylum and expanded in Arkham City, then adds a new mechanic in the Batmobile (one that’s not necessarily always successful) and makes the open world even bigger. But a few hours into the game, something happens in the narrative that suddenly elevates the whole experience.
**Spoiler Warning: Scroll past this or turn away now if you haven’t played Batman: Arkham Knight.**
Arkham Knight, Mark Hamill’s delightfully twisted Joker pops up every few minutes to give wonderful/horrible running commentary. This turns “a bigger Batman game” into one of the most memorable Batman experiences in franchise history. Despite the game industry shifting towards open-world content over narrative, Arkham Knight demonstrates how a strong narrative can elevate an excellent game into Game of the Year material.">
Impact: The Kitchen Sink That No One Saw Coming
Fallout 4 surprised in 2015 in two huge but completely different ways. First off, it surprised simply by existing. With rumors swirling around the title for years, Fallout 4 wasn’t officially announced until E3, and the knockout blow of the event was the release date: a mere five months from the title’s announcement. By being vaporware for so long, the hype machine built itself into a frenzy with every rumor that surfaced, so much so that all Bethesda had to do was release a solid game (which they did); the sales and merchandise would take care of itself simply through stealing the spotlight. It was an unorthodox move from a marketing perspective, but given the through-the-roof sales and non-stop merchandising, it appears to have worked.
The second way Fallout 4 made an impact was in how it blended completely different genres into its apocalyptic landscape. While Metal Gear Solid V presented player freedom for accomplishing missions, Fallout 4 focused on literally every other aspect of the experience. Part Minecraft, part The Sims, part SimCity, and even with elements of tower defense thrown in there, Fallout 4’s secondary experience is, for many people, more fun and more involving than the core game, even with the somewhat flawed menu mechanics behind crafting and building. For developers looking at a model for the “bigger is better” mentality, they should ask Bethesda how it’s done.
Life Is Strange
Impact: Pushing Protagonist Diversity Boundaries
In an industry that’s focused on open worlds and combat, it’s hard to believe that an episodic narrative-based title about a high school girl who can reverse time would be a hit, but developer Dontnod got exactly that; both a critical darling and a million-seller, Life Is Strange packed away the Buff Space Marines and gave us Max, the nerdy hipster girl. It’s certainly not perfect—you can complain about specific narrative moments, puzzles, or controls—but it adds more evidence that developers don’t need to rely on age-old stereotypes to engage a constantly growing and diversifying audience.
Interestingly, Dontnod stated that when they pitched the game, other publishers wanted to genderswap the protagonists into men.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Impact: Seamless Gameplay Options
Hideo Kojima’s mega-opus comes to a supposed close with The Phantom Pain, and it arrives with the smoothest integration of gameplay systems we’ve seen for an action game. While Fallout 4 blends different genres in its crafting, modding, and base-building areas, The Phantom Pain delivers unprecedented player freedom during in-game action. How you scope out the scene, equip, plan, infiltrate, defend, execute, and escape is presented in a buffet of possibilities, with techniques seamlessly grafted layer by layer on top of each other. When things inevitably go wrong, all of these choices and configurations can be changed on the fly, from your weapon loadout to your stealth equipment to your mission buddy. Other games have tried a bigger-is-better mentality, but Kojima shows that the best approach is sometimes to just refine the hell out of the gameplay systems.
Oh, and The Phantom Pain is also notable in the industry for this:
The Order: 1886
Impact: How Not to Launch a New IP
The Order: 1886 was supposed to be Sony’s new IP, a graphically stunning shooter set in an alternative Victorian England. Many of the checkboxes were ticked: It visually showcased the PS4’s strength, it delivered a rich and engaging mythology, and it came with a number of cosplay-worthy characters and designs.
The game itself, however, was a relatively short single-player campaign with decent gameplay. Without any particular innovations in action or level design, The Order: 1886 was a pretty good game dressed up in stunning clothes, and that lack of depth quickly sunk Sony’s investment. The game sold well enough for an apparent sequel (which the game’s narrative leads straight into), but if and when The Order: 1887 arrives, it will have to come with something besides cosplay potential to earn back goodwill. Simply put, when launching a new high-profile IP, particularly with a new hardware cycle, “pretty good” isn’t good enough.
Rise of the Tomb Raider
Impact: Console Exclusivity Woes
Third-party console exclusives are a bit of a rarity these days, so when Rise of the Tomb Raider launched with a roughly one-year Xbox One exclusivity window, many industry observers raised an eyebrow. We don’t know how much Microsoft paid Square Enix/Crystal Dynamics for such a deal, but both the publisher and developer must be wondering if it was worth it given the smaller Xbox One install base compared to the PS4. Low initial sales are one concern, but once the game is released for PS4, Square Enix has to wonder if a one-year-old game can steal the attention of the Holiday 2016 lineup.
Impact: Multiplayer for Everyone
Why do many gamers still stay away from online multiplayer? Besides the torrent of jerks online, the other reason often lies in the huge gap many games have in skill level. Players that are good enough to beat a single-player campaign are often victim of quick and painful online deaths, turning them off from that entire experience.
Rocket League—which, if you don’t know it, is essentially soccer with vehicles—is fast, fun, chaotic, and quite simple to pick up. Just like the good old days of 16-bit sports titles, Rocket League is easy enough to learn that newbies can get the hang of it in minutes, not hours. Launching as a free Playstation Plus title certainly didn’t hurt exposure, but a free download doesn’t create longevity. Rocket League’s success has much more to do with accessibility and casual fun, two things that aren’t always associated with online multiplayer. Perhaps the impact of Rocket League will make developers reconsider what they want to do for the online component of their game.
Tales From the Borderlands
Impact: Developer Partnerships Can Work
Ever since The Walking Dead’s first season, Telltale games has focused on pretty grim narratives. Tales From the Borderlands is a breath of fresh air. With some of the best comedic writing game history coupled with sparkling performances all around, Tales From the Borderlands demonstrated a new type of Telltale experience. Perhaps more importantly, this joint venture between Telltale and Gearbox (the primary Borderlands developer) showed how a franchise can be exploited (in a good way) through partnering with outside developers focusing on a different kind of experience. Given the success of Tales From the Borderlands, I have a laundry list of franchises I want Telltale or other narrative-based developers to explore.
Finally, for what it’s worth, here are my personal top five games of 2015.
- Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
- Divinity: Original Sin, Enhanced Edition
- Fallout 4
- Tales from the Borderlands
- Galak-Z: The Dimensional
What games mattered to you in 2015, and what are you looking forward to in 2016?
Mike Chen is a freelance writer who used to cover the NHL for Fox Sports and SB Nation but now writes about geek parenting and video games. He also builds WordPress websites and writes novels that walk the line between mainstream and science fiction (repped by Eric Smith of PS Literary Agency). Follow him on Twitter.
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