Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Top Ten Games of 2015: Monsters, Makers, and MOBAs

Yacht Club Games' Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows is just one of the gaming highlights of 2015.

If you hear anyone bemoaning the state of popular media, grab them by the shoulders and give them a good shake: there can be no doubt that these, right now, are the good ol’ days. 2015 was an incredible year for the pop culture enthusiast, whether you were a cinephile or a book lover, and gaming was no exception. The glut of fantastic, unique gaming experiences on offer this year was so generous that I wasn’t able to get around to many of the most popular ones (Bloodborne, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Batman: Arkham Knight, and Just Cause 3, just to name some bigger names). What follows are my favourite of the games I did have time to play, and some of them were so good that I suspect they’ll resurface as all-timers. I implore you to try these games out for yourself, or at least watch them in action on Youtube or Twitch.tv.

10. Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows
Shovel Knight was an instant hit for me. It felt like a lost platforming treasure from the NES era, complete with 8-bit music and visuals that beautifully complimented its simple (yet grueling) gameplay. Its success is also a success story for the concept of crowdfunding, as the game’s budget was funded by Kickstarter donors like me – and from these optimistic origins sprang a retro-flavoured title so popular, it’s been ported to nearly every platform imaginable since its release in June 2014. It was only a matter of time before the game’s massive sales crystallized in the form of new content, and in September of this year, we got exactly that with Plague of Shadows, a sort of re-tooled version in which you play as Plague Knight, one of the antagonists from the original game. Plague Knight carries no shovel, and instead throws his potions at his foes and employs a double-jump that Shovel Knight doesn’t have. You play through the same levels you did as Shovel Knight in a sort of parallel story, but the difference in Plague Knight’s moveset make Plague of Shadows a wholly new experience. Speaking of which: to my delight, the Wii U version of the game also added a multiplayer mode, in which you and a friend can shovel your way through the game side by side. These additions, while seemingly superficial, transform one of my favourite recent indie titles into a completely new game, which I was more than happy to revisit this year.


9. Jotun
I wanted to make adequate space on this list for the incredible indie game experiences I’ve had in 2015, not only to balance it out between the huge triple-A releases I’ve played, but also because I’ve wanted to sing Jotun’s praises for ages now. Independent developer Thunder Lotus Games crafted one of the shortest and sweetest action-adventure titles I’ve played, with a narrow gameplay focus and a captivating hand-drawn art style. You play as Thora, a recently-deceased Viking warrior who died an ignoble death and therefore is granted a chance to prove her worth to the gods of Norse mythology through a series of trials, and be granted the right to enter Valhalla. These trials take the form of several boss fights against the gods themselves, making Jotun reminiscent of games like Shadow of the Colossus in their focus on a limited number of big, show-stopping gameplay sequences. Your only weapon is Thora’s axe, although you are gifted a suite of extra abilities like healing and blocking by the gods whose favour you earn, like Frigg, Loki, and Heimdall. This simplicity of design, combined with a high difficulty level and that distinctive painterly style, made Jotun one of the most memorable games of the year for me – and reignited my interest in Norse mythology to boot.


8. Heroes of the Storm
An aspect of gaming that remains somewhat at arm’s length to me is e-sports, a thunderous cultural behemoth in southeast Asia which is slowly but surely making its way to the West. In South Korea, stadiums packed with tens of thousands of people (in addition to the millions watching live feeds online) gather to cheer on teams of professional gamers who compete for massive cash prizes in games like League of Legends and DOTA. Blizzard Entertainment, an American developer known for their strategy games like Starcraft and Warcraft, decided to dip their toe into this increasingly popular genre of online competitive gaming, called “MOBAs” (multiplayer online battle arenas), with Heroes of the Storm: a high-energy game in which characters from all of Blizzard’s disparate fictional worlds meet in a battle for supremacy. Purists decry the game for its simplicity and lack of depth; it pares down the traditional MOBA formula to make it more accessible to unfamiliar players (like myself), but lost some elements like item commerce and individual character leveling along the way, which they felt added necessary complexity. Not so, say I: the accessibility and instant fun of Heroes is precisely what has made it so successful against its much more famous peers. Matches are blessedly short (20 to 30 minutes maximum, which means that even if you’re losing horribly, it’ll be over soon), and its bright, beautiful visual design goes a long way to increasing its appeal. I’m still very new to MOBAs, but if the impeccable polish and uncomplicated design of Heroes is any indication, I may find myself more and more motivated to practice.


7. Star Wars: Battlefront
As a tonic to soothe the intense anticipation that led up to the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, nothing worked better than a few rounds of Battlefront. Say what you will about EA and their draconian pricing structures and DLC plans – no game has ever put you on the ground or in the air of the Star Wars universe with such immediacy and polish. With unprecendented access to the Lucasfilm archives, developer DICE (late of the Battlefield series of online combat simulators) was able to recreate the sights and sounds of iconic locations like the ice planet Hoth, the deserts of Tatooine, and the lush forest moon of Endor to a degree of exactitude that boggles the mind. With a high variety of game modes but the lack of a meaningful progression system, Battlefront makes for intense and exciting casual battling, but its lustre begins to dull after extended play – and this is to say nothing of its limited options when compared to its predecessors, like 2005’s insanely successful Battlefront II for the Playstation 2 and Xbox 360 (which contained maps and characters from across the entire Star Wars saga, not just the original trilogy of films, like the newest installment). Still, despite its shallow focus and limited replayability, Battlefront deserves high praise for its ability to bring Star Wars screaming to life through your TV, thanks to DICE’s dedication to beautiful graphics, immersive sound design, and fun – if imbalanced – gameplay. Helped in large part by Battlefront, 2015 turned out to be a great year for Star Wars fans.


6. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D
Depending on your outlook, Majora’s Mask is either the black sheep or the unsung hero of the Legend of Zelda series – it differs so much in tone, gameplay design, and style from its beloved predecessor, Ocarina of Time, that many outright dismissed it when it was first released for the Nintendo 64 in 2000. These differences, however, are precisely what its fans hold up as the elements which make it the utterly (and brilliantly) unique experience it is. The game follows the adolescent Link (hero of most other Zelda titles), who is given three days to save the land of Termina from being crushed by its moon, by using abilities granted through the use of various masks. That description, bizarre as it may sound, doesn’t even scratch the surface of the wonderful, melancholy strangeness at the heart of Majora’s Mask, which uses its core gameplay function – the ever-present countdown clock that ticks away three days until the grimacing moon plunges into the earth – to create gameplay scenarios and story situations of equal intensity and emotion. It’s surely one of Nintendo’s weirdest and riskiest titles, but the more I grow older, the more I appreciate its fun – and often frightening – charm. 2015 saw a re-release of the game for Nintendo’s handheld 3DS system, with added 3D visuals, touch screen elements, and an improved interface, and it earns a spot in my list simply for the gift of being able to experience the wonders of Termina wherever I go.


5. Hearthstone
Blizzard again flexes its muscle in an unproven field, this time strutting into the collectible card game arena and enjoying broad and instant success, as if it had always been a major player in the genre. This particular brand of arrogance – probably allowed by Blizzard’s massive, established fanbase that will follow them into any weird experiment – might burn detractors, but you can’t argue with success: Hearthstone, like Heroes of the Storm, is such a refined and accessible version of a known game style that it makes total converts out of gamers like me, who would otherwise turn their nose up at the genre. With a strong base of cards (which can be arranged into decks that align with a certain class, like Warrior or Mage), a clever pricing structure which strongly encourages but never outright forces you to pay a dime to collect those cards, and that inimitable “Blizzard polish” that makes simple actions like playing a card or opening a pack flashy, beautifully animated, and satisfying, Hearthstone made it clear that Blizzard could remake Pong and I’d still buy it at full price. Let it never be said that they don’t earn the loyalty of their players.


4. Fallout 4
Without delving too deeply into Fallout 4’s strengths and weaknesses – which are perhaps better saved for a future collaborative review with our other games reviewer, Danny McMurray – I’m comfortable telling you that it’s the game that has demanded the most of my time and attention this year (second only to one – but we’ll get to that). Developer Bethesda, creator of other RPGs like the Elder Scrolls series (most notably The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim), are renowned for the uniquely mercurial nature of their games, which are frustrating and engrossing in almost equal measure. Their wide-open, do-anything worlds are amazingly immersive and fun to inhabit, but this single-minded focus on player agency means things like visual polish and debugging fall by the wayside. Fallout 4, the latest in Bethesda’s series of retro-futuristic post-apocalypse games, is no different, sporting an outdated programming engine, limited character animations, bugs and glitches galore, and an almost baffling adherence to the gameplay systems of previous Fallout titles – which, by today’s standards, are positively archaic. None of this mattered enough to me, however, to stop me from diving headlong into the post-apocalyptic Boston Commonwealth, to the exclusion of almost everything else I could have done with my leisure time. Fallout 4’s strengths lie not in innovation, or iteration of the established formula, but in delivering that special Bethesda magic despite these shortcomings. Creating and crafting the story of Tallulah (named for Tallulah Bankhead, naturally) – my 1950s housewife-turned-wasteland sniper mercenary – has been among my most satisfying RPG experiences in recent memory. Since everyone’s playthrough is different, there’s no game better for water-cooler conversation of the “you’ll never believe what happened to me last night” variety. I hope Bethesda tries harder to innovate with their next franchise installment, whether it’s a Fallout or Elder Scrolls title, but man – there’s always something to be said for not fixin’ what ain’t broke.


3. Super Mario Maker
Nintendo’s second-highest grossing release of 2015 was another game that was so significant, it deserved its own review here at Critics At Large. Super Mario Maker sold 1.88 million copies worldwide, and for a glorified level creator, that number is mind-boggling. The reason is simple: it represents the entire thirty-year legacy of the Super Mario series through a suite of creative tools that allow players to use the familiar bits and pieces of the levels they’ve played since the 1980s to create their own wild (and sometimes wily) versions – and, most importantly, share and rate them with each other. As I noted in my review, it’s “more than nostalgia made manifest – it’s an opportunity to actively and meaningfully give back to a series that’s given so much to us. It’s a genius self-promotion tactic for Nintendo, and it’s nothing less than a milestone in gaming history for the rest of us.”


2. Rocket League
The surprise hit of the year for me came in the form of a multiplayer sports game that, thanks to word-of-mouth that spread like wildfire, quickly dominated the quick-play rotation for most of my gaming friends. Its bizarre blend of car driving, soccer, and cartoonish sci-fi stylings made it the most instantly accessible – and instantly unique – game of the year. Take the simplest sports format possible (two teams of up to 4 players each, in an enclosed arena, trying to knock a giant ball into the other team’s net), add a goofy physics engine that allows your compact RC car to boost up walls, jump, and flip through the air, and a seamless online matchmaking system, and you have a recipe for brilliantly addictive pick-up-and-play gaming. Rocket League’s dead-simple control scheme ensured the barrier to entry was as low as possible, and a shocking amount of gameplay depth made it worthwhile to practice your skills and learn to work efficiently with your teammates. For quick and easy fun – including excellent spectator action for parties and gatherings – there was nothing better in 2015 than a few rounds of Rocket League.


1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
As my first foray into the world of The Witcher, Wild Hunt served as an immediately appealing introduction to the titular monster hunter, Geralt, and his very adult fantasy world of swords, sex, and sorcery. Others argue that the earlier games in the Witcher series by developer CD Projekt Red are just as essential, but even without the benefit of any experience with them, Wild Hunt instantly and totally captivated me. It combined everything I love about action role playing games – the wide expanses of Skyrim, the action of Dark Souls, the skill building of Diablo, the gear hoarding of World of Warcraft, and the storytelling of Bioware’s best – and wrapped it in a package more beautiful and immersive than any I’ve seen. The inclusion of a strongly authored character in Geralt, who’s been around since Andrzej Sapkowski’s original novels, further set Wild Hunt apart from its peers, which are too often concerned with letting you craft your own character from the ground up. The simple truth is, as fun as that can be in games like Fallout 4, I’m simply not as good a writer as Sapkowski, or the writers at CDPR – and so being allowed to influence the story of Geralt, however minutely, wasn’t an annoyance; it was a joy. The first of two full-fledged expansions, offering hours of new content each, has just released (CDPR having proven themselves paragons of the DLC model), and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t excited to jump back into The Witcher – even though Wild Hunt has already claimed over a hundred hours of my free time. As I said in my review, I’d willingly give a hundred more. 2015 would have been an incredible year for gaming even if Wild Hunt was the only game I touched. The bar has been reset, and now every other game has an incredibly high standard to live up to.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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