Sunday, January 3, 2016

My favourite games of 2015 and the rest

2015 was a great year for games. The different "Top 10 games of 2015" by big-time Youtubers and games media showed just how amazingly diverse the good games of 2015 have been. Sadly, I haven't had the time to play all of the best games of 2015. Partly because of lack of time, partly because I moved to a country with a rather spotty Internet connection, and partly because League of Legends took up so much of my time (although that is no longer a case, LoL and I have had a falling out, but more on that later). So this is the list of games that I played this year and enjoyed most of all. It is in no particular order although one game in particular stood out among the rest for me this year.

Starcraft: Legacy of the Void
The final episode of Starcraft 2 and the game that brought the huge Starcraft story to a close, Legacy of the Void was not a perfect game, primarily because of its story. It simply was not a good story or a great ending to one of my favourite sci-fi games. However, what it lacked in story it made up in amazing mission design (seriously, the missions in Legacy of the Void were some of the best-designed Starcraft missions ever), bringing back a lot of the older units from the first game as well as all the new units, the huge amount of customization in the campaign, and of course the changes to the multiplayer. In particular, Legacy of the Void introduced coop multiplayer missions and online character progression tied to those missions and I just can't get enough of them! They're an absolutely fantastic way to play Starcraft 2 with friends and not feel totally out of your depth.

Hand of Fate
This little virtual deck-building game came out of nowhere and I've enjoyed it greatly. You play as an adventurer playing a card game of life and death against, well, death itself (personified as the mysterious dealer). The dungeon you progress through is a deck of cards, your gear is a deck of cards, as are different abilities, potions and so on. The story is surprisingly good, the hack-and-slash combat (into which the game transitions when you land on a combat encounter card) is quick and satisfying, the deck building elements are fantastic, and for a virtual card game Hand of Fate is a surprisingly atmospheric game. Can't get enough of it, and it can be played in very short sessions if pressed for time.

Assassins' Creed Syndicate
Could this be the game to unseat Black Flag as my favourite Assassin's Creed game? Quite possibly, because as cool as pirate ships are, having your own Victorian train might be just as cool, and instead of one lovable roguish protagonist you get two - the twins Jacob and Evie Frye who have fast become some of my favourite video game protagonists yet. The city of London and its outlying areas are absolutely gorgeous, navigating the very vertical city with the aid of Batman-style grappling hook is super fun, the missions and side activities are very varied, and I love all the Victorian literature references and running into famous Victorians (Darwin, Marx, Nightingale, the list goes on). In addition to this, the present-day meta story of Assassins infiltrating the Templar corporation of Abstergo is nowhere near as intrusive as in other games (even in Black Flag the present-day sequences could be quite tedious) and is presented mostly in short entertaining cutscenes. The vehicle combat and barge hopping are also just fantastically fun. The music in this game is stellar, I could just listen to it all day long. The combat can be rather wonky at times, but this game really redeemed the Assassin's Creed series after the Unity disaster.

Rocket League
This game. This. Fucking. Game. Rocket League is one of the reasons why I virtually quit League of Legends. It is incredibly fast. Each match lasts 5 minutes and doesn't outstay its welcome. I never really get mad at stupid plays by my teammaters because: a) the match is over very quickly, b) I can very easily drop the match and find another one in less than a minute, c) I'm just as terrible as they are. Moreover, it has a lot of customization including the ability to create your own team and season and play it with bots or with your friends. It's got a good variety of maps and vehicles. Vehicles, paintjobs and other cosmetic elements are unlocked very quickly. And it's a game about playing football (the non-American one) with cars that are rocket powered and go VROOM really well! What's not to like! I could spend 5 minutes playing it, or a few hours, it doesn't stop being fun either way and rewards flashy play and skill as well as occasional dumb luck. I have it on PS4 and on PC, so that no matter where I am I can play it!

Pillars of Eternity
I love Baldur's Gate. I love Baldur's Gate 2 even more. I love Icewind Dale almost as much. And I love Planescape Torment most of all. So when along comes Pillars of Eternity, a game made by the folks who worked on all the games above, featuring the same kind of gameplay but with a better UI and smoother graphics, set in an intriguing completely original setting I knew I was going to like it. But Pillars of Eternity blew me away. Sure, the combat did start to feel repetitive and more than a little frustrating towards the end, but the writing, the story, the amazing characters you meet, the setting and the music just knock it out of the park! Add to it a pretty great huge expansion that came out the same year as the game, with another expansion on the way, and Pillars of Eternity is a huge and rewarding RPG.

Dying Light
I don't like zombie games. I don't enjoy shooter games as much as I did. I'm not a huge fan of Far Cry style games. But man, take all these things together, throw in the BEST first-person parkour ever (yes it's better than Mirror's Edge - get over it!), awesome day-night cycle mechanic and a huge sprawling city to explore and somehow Dying Light had me hooked. The story and most of its characters were cliche and the twists could be seen a mile away, but the gameplay and attention to detail more than made up for it. During the day, Dying Light is a fun open-world shooter and free-running simulator. But during the night, Dying Light turns into a terrifying and slow survival horror experience - it's so so so great! Plus, the developers have been releasing a steady stream of updates, free and paid DLCs, new levels, expansions, challenges and so on. My favourite zombie game of all time.

Rebel Galaxy
I love Firefly. I love big capital spaceship combat. I love grungy ZZ Top-style country rock (it's a guilty pleasure). So along comes a game that has a huge sprawling galaxy to explore, trade with, or blow up, that has a kickass soundtrack, pretty great capital ship combat, and some entertaining characters. And this ships you can buy and customize look great and handle very differently. It might not quite have the sprawl of Elite: Dangerous, but it has a better story, better trading mechanics, looks almost as good, and I enjoy its combat a lot more. Really didn't see this game coming, but it won me over.

Witcher 3
This is my game of the year. Plain and simple. I sunk more hours into it than almost any other game this year (or maybe ever). I love the Witcher novels, the first two games and I'm vested in the series but Witcher 3 surpasses any and all expectation. This is a game where many of the sidequests have a better story and more interesting characters than all of Fallout 4 (more on that game in a bit), nevermind the epic and supremely well-written main story. The characters, voice acting, music, crafting, combat, monster hunts, the ridiculously huge yet detailed world combine to create the best open-world RPG ever made. And I haven't even played the first expansion yet (which I have on good authority has a story just as awesome as the main game itself) because I just keep completing sidequests in the main game and constantly find something new! Oh and CD Projekt might be one of the best developers and publishers, giving away a ton of great free downloadable content, and making the season pass both very cheap and ridiculously packed with goodies if the size of the first expansion is any indication. Game of the year and a permanent spot as one of my favourite games of all time.

Games I wish I'd played in 2015 but will play in 2016!
I really want the new Tomb Raider but it is a delayed exclusive for X-Box One and since I don't have one of these I'll have to wait. I greatly enjoyed the previous Tomb Raider reboot game and this one looks even better.

Tales from the Borderlands. I'm one of those strange people who liked the setting and story of Borderlands series more than the actual gameplay. I don't know what it is, but I liked the off-beat humour, the characters and the colourful setting a lot more than just shooting thousands of dudes so I could pick up a better gun. Tales from the Borderlands strips away the gunplay and adds in more humour and characters and world-building. I just picked it up during the Steam holiday sale and would love to just sit and finish it in one day.

And speaking of interactive movie-like narrative games, Life is Strange is another game I want to sit down with and finish off in one day. The story sounds pretty interesting, I really dig the music choices, and I like the vibe this game exudes. Plus I actually really liked the game studio's last game Remember Me (even though a lot of people didn't) so I definitely want to throw money their way.

Mad Max. Vehicle combat?! Nuclear wasteland?! Vehicle customization?! MAD MOTHERFUCKING MAX?! The game caught a lot of flack of mainstream games media, but the player response has been overwhelming (my favourite Youtuber TotalBiscuit even put it on his Top 2015 Games list) and it just looks badass.

Soma. I've been doing my best to avoid spoilers about this game because a lot of people agree that its story is a total mindfuck and it does survival horror really really well. It is also supposed to be shorter than Alien: Isolation - a game I really enjoyed but could finish due to some interminable stretches towards the end. Soma has that intriguing mix of existential and body horror, science fiction and philosophy I like, so it's definitely on my list of games to finish.

Undertale. It's totally not my style of games, but supposedly it really subverts the genre and the story and characters are supposed to be unforgettable. I hope I'll enjoy it.

Warhammer End Times: Vermintide. I actually have this game. I played this game. I enjoyed this game. But with my terrible Internet connection and huge time zone difference between me and my friends I just can't play this game at the moment. I really hope 2016 will be different.

2015 Games That Disappointed Me
No bigger disappointment for me was Fallout 4. It was a brilliant game in many ways and I still played 100+ hours of it but in the end it left me drained, exhausted and not having much fun. Its main story started out really well only to take some predictable turns and peter out towards the end. Some of the companions were very interesting and awesome in their own right, while others were less so. The gunplay was much better than Fallout 3 or New Vegas. What made this game such a disappointment was that this game is not really Fallout. Let me be absolutely clear - this game is not an RPG, it may be set in the Fallout universe but it is not a real Fallout game. Where are the huge dialogue trees and non-combat options and huge variety of ways to solve encounters? Fallout 4 has basically two main ways of interacting with the world: shooting it up and occasionally pressing E (or whatever controller button you're using). In terms of its narrative and non-combat options it's actually a step back from Fallout 3 or New Vegas ans a massive leap back from the brilliant design of the first two Fallout games. Eventually I grew tired, frustrated and angry at the game, I just didn't want to shoot another super mutant or raider or mirelurk or whatnot so I could get some special named gun. I was done. Maybe with some mods to address the game's most glaring issues and some DLCs to inject more quests (and let's face it - Fallout 3 had some AMAZING expansions so I know Bethesda can deliver) I might come back to it.

Star Wars Battlefront. Almost as big a disappointment as Fallout 4 was Star Wars Battlefront. HOW COULD YOU FUCK THIS UP SO BADLY? I found myself asking the game. Look, it captures the feel of being in Star Wars really well - the sound, graphics, attention to minute details of the setting, that's all great. Where it completely falls apart is the gameplay. It's basically a squad-based shooter, but it's actually taking a step backwards from the shooter evolution. Its gameplay has NOTHING interesting to recommend itself. The guns don't feel very distinct from each other. It doesn't have a cover system. It barely has any vehicles - a Battlefield/Battlefront game with no vehicles?! What heresy is this?! The iconic heroes are either too weak or too powerful. The weapons and some of the upgrades are not balanced at all. The respawn system feels positively medieval and encourages spawn camping. The progression is a tedious grind. There aren't even that many maps or modes AND NO SPACE COMBAT! Such a fail. Glad I didn't actually buy it, I only borrowed it for a couple of weeks.

Total War: Attila. Hey, at least it's better than Total War: Rome 2, amirite? No, seriously, it is better, it's actually a pretty good game. The horde mode added quite a lot to the gunplay, while playing as the decaying remnants of the Roman Empire felt very distinct and interesting in its own way. The problem was that Total War: Attila did not fix the huge problems that players had with Rome 2. This was a golden opportunity to fix some of the big issues (wonky diplomacy, boring character progression, major AI issues, a world map that was far too big, etc.) and that opportunity was squandered. Plus it introduced a whole bunch of new units but most of them felt very bland or like a reskinning of older units. Total War: Charlemagne is supposed to be much better but I'm going to wait for a deep price cut before picking it up - fool me once, etc. etc. etc.

Civilization: Beyond Earth: Rising Tide. My disappointment with this game can be partly attributed to awful technical issues I've had with it. While my laptop can run Civilization V with no problems, Beyond Earth and Beyond Earth: Rising Tide have been very difficult to get going on my computer. Rising Tide introduced the ability to build and exploit sea tiles, four new factions, hybrid affinities, artifact gathering and a bunch of other stuff. The problem for me was that it didn't fix AI issues, the new ocean options (units, techs, wonders, etc.) are very overpowered, and the new diplomacy system - while much better than the crap we got in Beyond Earth - was still not that great. I feel like with must one more expansion or a couple of DLCs Cvilization: Beyond Earth will become really good, the game we know it can be. It's just not there yet.

League of Legends. This is a game I played more than any other game except maybe Civilization 2 and 5 and Baldur's Gate 2. I still like League. Or at least I still like the idea of League. But with massive changes introduce post-Season 5 it's just not a game I enjoy playing all that much. I don't like the new champions or the direction that Riot is taking with reworking the older champions. I really don't like the new vision system. I don't think the newly reworked Masteries are well balanced. But most of all, I think League of Legends lacks certain quality of life factors that I've gotten used to in other competitive multiplayer games. Where are the replays like in Rocket League or Starcraft 2? Where is a built-in streaming support? Goddammit, all joking about horrible human beings playing LoL, where's the built-in voice chat or at least a Smite-like quick voice commands to communicate with the team better? Stop putting out more and more skins and chroma packs and other bullshit like that and modernize the game! More than anything, the lack of these quality of life factors has driven me away from LoL.

Well that's that for 2015! I am cautiously looking forward to 2016! New Final Fantasy and FF7 Remastered! Tom Clancy's The Division (here's hoping it'll be better than Watch_Dogs)! A new Homeworld game (even if this one's not in space)! Hopefully Star Citizen will finally be out! I predict that some of these are going to be pretty disappointing, but there will be enough great games to make up for this. Happy New Year's everyone!