Obligatory GOTY Post, 2015 Edition

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Every year I seem to count a different number of “top” games I played. I don’t like having to struggle to figure out a top 10 or top five or whatever. Do the academy awards have a set number of nominees they have to have every year? I just go over whichever games in a year actually stood out in terms of quality as well as how continually drawn I am to them, no matter what number they come up to. In 2014 that number was pretty much zero (maybe one), this year it’s three, listed in order below.

As I said last time, I like to think of 2015 as the year when AAA video games became interesting again. Not since 2011 had I been truly hyped about any new major game coming out. I’d also like to say that 2015 seems like a year when we got some unusually good writing in video games. Some other people say it’s also been a great year for adventure games. I don’t know if that’s true or if I just hadn’t been playing enough adventure games or games with good writing in previous years. In any case, both of those trends seem to be set to continue into next year if nothing get’s delayed.

Before I start on my top games though I want to go over what I unfortunately didn’t get to play this past year so I don’t make anyone mad. My main gaps seem to be in two specific areas.

First, I pretty much ignored the main periodic AAA franchises. That means no Call of DutyAssassin’s CreedBattlefield/Battlefront, or Batman. I’ll go ahead and be real on Batman: I thought Arkham Asylum was an okay game, and didn’t really see the need for any sequels, so I didn’t play any of its sequels. On the others, I pretty much decided to stop caring so much about those games that reliably come out every year or couple years. Creed just doesn’t seem fresh enough to me anymore, and I’m mostly done with mainstream military shooters, particularly multiplayer ones. They might be good games, but I haven’t been hyped up for one in a long time.

Second, I still don’t own any of the new consoles. That means no Bloodborne, Until DawnHaloMario Maker, or Xenoblade Chronicles X. I’ve been trying to afford a Wii U for a while but it just hasn’t happened yet. I can’t really justify a PS4 yet because from my perspective at this point it would literally just be for Bloodborne.

Some other games I wish I’d have gotten around to this year include Odallus: The Dark CallEnvironmental Station Alpha, and Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, the last of which I’m just now starting.

With that out of the way, here we go:

#3

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The Phantom Pain is most certainly a very flawed game. Its storyline is both ridiculous and incomplete. Konami is trying to ruin the game by pushing microtransactions to an egregious level. The game has problems and I won’t blame anyone for straight-up disliking it. I’ll even admit this game is pretty much “Metal Gear for people who don’t like Metal Gear.” The actual game we got underneath all this however, is still probably the best open-world action game in years.

Simply put, Phantom Pain is the open-world stealth action simulator I’ve been waiting for. It’s the game I’ve always wanted Far Cry to be.

A Japanese developer of all things finally made that game where I get to look at a huge map, pick an insertion point, carefully plan out how I’m going to slip into a mission area, and deal with the consequences if and when everything goes wrong. It’s that military shooter where instead of following a script that’s trying to be a movie, you’re pushing and pulling at certain factors and dealing with the results of those factors interacting with other factors. You’re doing all of it on a large scale with vehicles and squads of soldiers and complex building interiors against open fields.

Sure Far Cry succeeds at being an action sandbox, but the missions in the last couple games just turned into standard linear scripts. Missions in Phantom Pain on the other hand often just give you a place, a set of goals, the tools, and let you figure out the rest. A lot of western action games used to do that, but they stopped. The last major game that did so was the original Crysis (and its expansion, Crysis Warhead). Phantom Pain often feels like it’s the new Crysis, especially during its more linear missions, which themselves are wide corridors that still give you a lot of freedom.

And Phantom Pain does this with smooth controls and a set of tools that are both well balanced and fun. The game feels like a culmination of years wroth of careful iteration and inspiration. The result is a skillful combination of western action game standards and Japanese arcade fine-tuning.

The balance and design of the player tools is probably what makes the elaborate upgrade and base-building segment of Phantom Pain work so well where the ones in Ubisoft games have gotten stale. The weapons in Metal Gear are fun, fresh, and rewarding tools players actually want to work towards. Being able to tangibly see and interact with the army you build makes it all the more rewarding too. Kojima made the game Ubisoft has repeatedly been trying to make since 2009. People complain about the “Ubisoft Game” formula, but Phantom Pain actually did it right. Ubisoft and basically every developer making an open-world action game needs to closely examine this game.

#2

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Undertale is probably one of the best-written role-playing games in a while. It knows how to set up characters, be lighthearted when it needs to, be dark when it will pack a punch, and do all that with just the right touch. On top of that its actual game design is really good too. The only real “downside” of Undertale is its extremely low-budget restricting it to MS Paint graphics and the bare minimum of functionality features. And those things just make its achievements all the more proof that good writing and good game design are still much more important than production values.

Undertale manages to be a great deconstruction of the Japanese RPG, but that’s not what really makes it matter. The game continually cracks effective jokes and even manages to poke fun at tropes without being too glaring about it, but what really makes Undertale succeed is that it has characters who stick with you through the story’s light and dark moments. All that along with its excellent soundtrack make for an overall superb sense of atmosphere, even with the sloppy 8-bit graphics.

One reason I enjoyed Undertale so much is because I think I’d always been searching for a game that used the format of a JRPG to deliver a more modern story. The big JRPGs of today and even the indies walking in their image seem to generally stick to the tropes they’d codified in the 90’s, though some may poke obvious fun at those tropes. Undertale has a different kind of story, a different kind of world, manages to poke fun at the old ways  in a way that feels smart, and executes it all with good writing to top it off. It really feels like Toby Fox considered everything when making this game.

Then you have the actual game underneath, which manages to combine classic Dragon Quest-style combat with adventure and even shoot em’ up elements. Going the pacifist route made every encounter with enemies a lot more interesting than just hitting them over and over. Having to read and understand each character to get past them peacefully emphasizes the player’s involvement with those characters and the world. The system for defending yourself is basically a series of well-designed minigames that combine bullet hell with a sort of WarioWare mentality.

If you’re one of those people looking at Undertale’s fanbase in utter confusion wondering why you should give the game a look, let me just say it’s an expertly-crafted piece of work. It’s a rare example of a game that’s expertly-crafted in just about every way. The story is fantastic and feels fresh. The game mechanics are fun and challenging. That’s really just it.

#1

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I would say that both Undertale and The Witcher 3 are achievements in RPG writing. I’m not sure which game is better in that department, but just as Undertale has characters that work and stick with you, so does Witcher 3. The latter just manages to combine that great writing with an actual production budget to make for a AAA game that actually has a soul.

Admittedly, part of that comes from the existing bed of literature and lore the Witcher games have had to build on. It makes you wonder why more developers don’t base games on book franchises. Hollywood practically lives on books. After three games though I think we can agree CDProjekt RED is definitely a special studio when it comes to world building. More importantly, it’s a studio that has clawed its way into the AAA leagues while still having the humility of smaller developers in its design.

 Witcher 3 just seems like the achievement of something I thought never possible in today’s world with today’s budgets: a massive AAA game where absolutely nothing feels phoned-in. The game has huge maps filled with towns, characters, secrets, and stories, but none of it feels like someone just scattered “content” all over a map. Every quest feels like some writer or designer actually cared about making it feel unique and independent instead of just another part of some massive grind. Even random treasure chests you find out in the world usually come with some unique piece of writing or game design to set them apart. That’s all on top of how believably laid-out the world in Witcher 3 is. It’s been a long time since exploration in an open-world game felt this rewarding. It’s really what an open-world RPG is supposed to feel like.

Okay, so the combat isn’t to everyone’s liking. I’d say the only weak part of Wither 3 is that its combat is just okay, or serviceable. Even that criticism only really touches on the melee system, and possibly the inverted difficulty curve or the fact that the default difficulty setting is way too easy. Outside of that, I still found a lot to enjoy when dealing with potions, magic, and crafting which a lot of people perhaps ignored. In absolutely every other element however, Witcher 3 excels.

Witcher 3 is probably the best AAA game I’ve played in years.

So, 2016…

I’m not gonna go over what my most anticipated games of next year are, but there are some general trends headed our way that seem worth looking forward to.

Overall it looks like 2015 and 2016 are going to be when this generation of gaming software is going to finally get into full gear. A lot of indie games now have decent production budgets and that train looks to just be plowing on through next year. Even more AAA games that aren’t this-year’s-edition-of-shoot-mans are coming in just the first half of 2016.

Oh, and it looks like 2016 will be the year when Japanese developers in general finally make a comeback on consoles. At the beginning of this year I was thinking Final Fantasy XV was going to be the last hope for major Japanese home console gaming, but now we see it’s being flanked by sequels of smaller beloved franchises and new games from beloved developers. I just hope we can finally get complete PC support from those developers. Atlus and Vanillaware are pretty much the last hold-outs.

Further on the PC side of things, I hope Nvidia’s Pascal graphics cards and AMD’s Arctic Islands cards that are finally moving on from 28 nanometer chips can make bigger performance gains than what we’ve been seeing recently. I hope DirectX 12 and Vulkan can do something similar.

All-in-all it looks like 2016 has the potential to be a pivotal year.

BULLETS:

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