We're a little over half way through the year and it's easy to see that 2015 is shaping up to be one of the best years gaming has seen in a long time. Amidst declarations against remasters and some disrespectfully bug-laden launches (Assassin's Creed Unity on every platform it touched), 2014 was certainly a hard year for a lot of people to get through.
With a new year comes renewed promise, and the first half of 2015 has seen a landslide of wonderful gaming experiences. On top of that, with games like Fallout 4, Mad Max, Star Fox Zero, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and Transformers: Devastation releasing in the months ahead (as well as many others), it's clear that this is the year that many of us have been waiting for.
It's an exciting time to be playing and enjoying videogames. Without further ado, here are the 9 games that have best defined 2015 so far (in order of release). Agree or disagree, we'd love to see your opinion in the comments below!
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D
(3DS/New 3DS, February 13, Nintendo EAD Tokyo/Grezzo)
2000’s N64 swansong The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask remains a legendary oddity in a series that mostly plies its trade on a certain sense of childlike whimsy: this game is super weird and, at times, shockingly dark.
Caught in a “Groundhog Day” scenario, Link must save the surreal citizens of Termina from a horrifying, smiling Moon that bears down on the planet in real time. Link only has 3 days to explore and quest, and players will have to rewind time frequently in order to avoid a grisly fate.
The need to rewind can be a point of contention, as permanent progress is saved but things like expendable items are lost each time. This time limit combined with resource management gives this particular Zelda a tension that is lacking in similar action/adventure experiences that have come before and since, and that tension is a big part of why a remake of Majora’s Mask was a proposition that fans immediately latched onto.
With a wealth of quality-of-life improvements and greatly enhanced presentation, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D is the definitive way to experience this 15-year old classic.
The Order: 1886
(PlayStation 4, February 20, Ready At Dawn)
Ready At Dawn is a talented developer, previously responsible for the excellent Daxter, God of War: Chains of Olympus, and God of War: Ghost of Sparta for Sony’s PlayStation Portable system. News that they were finally stepping into the console limelight was met with instant excitement and the long wait for its release began. Sadly, Ready At Dawn’s first original project wasn’t well received by critics and many initial players alike, with its myriad charms wholly drowned out by rallying cries about its lack of innovation and brief length.
Let’s get that out of the way: The Order is short, taking roughly 8-16 hours to complete, and if you have played a cover-based shooter since Gears of War popularized the form in 2006 you’ll find little that is exciting and new here.
What you will find is an intoxicating blend of exceptional storytelling and smooth, polished shooting action married to one of the most accomplished technological and artistic presentation this generation of consoles has yet seen. The Order looks like a CG movie, with subtleties in its animation, facial expressions, environments, and ambient effects that have yet to be rivaled by even the likes of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
The gameplay blends setpiece moments, smartly paced QTEs, and cover-based shooting so refined that it is genuinely hard to go back to Uncharted. Galahad darts between cover points with an almost telepathic accuracy, never “sticking” or misinterpreting my actions the way that the heroes of so many other games in the genre have.
No, Ready At Dawn may not be doing anything “different”, but with action this smooth and some of the most satisfying firearms this side of Resident Evil 4, playing through the game’s exciting narrative and getting to know its fascinating cast of characters is a treat. And now that the game doesn’t cost $60, the brief length (which lasts as long as the campaigns of Uncharted and Gears of War) hopefully will stop being such a point of contention.
In short, The Order: 1886 is an accomplished shooter with a fun story and gorgeous visuals, and it deserves to be experienced by far more people than it has thus far.
Ori and the Blind Forest
(Xbox One/PC, March 11, Moon Studios)
Downloadable, sidescrolling, indie Metroidvania titles are as widespread in the gaming industry as oxygen is in air. With that in mind, it takes a special kind of game to stand out in such a crowded market, but Moon Studios’ heartbreaking debut is just that.
If The Order can be argued as the pinnacle of 3D graphics in games, then Ori deserves to be called the most lovingly rendered and animated 2D game ever conceived. Like a classic Disney or Studio Ghibli film made into an interactive work of art, Ori’s boundless style and haunting music form an instant connection in one of the most emotionally stirring opening segments since Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us.
For those that subscribe to the stereotype that all artsy indie games are lightweight, toothless experiences: be warned. Ori is tough as nails, and Moon Studios seems to revel in the misconceptions that its adorable protagonist might cause.
Ori has some of the most polished, precise controls of any action game in years, and puts players through some of the tensest reflex driven platforming sections of any game since Super Meat Boy. Ori adds an interesting risk-reward mechanic, allowing players to offset the game’s stiff challenge by placing checkpoints wherever they want… at the cost of expending essential resources. It’s not all high-octane action, though, as Moon Studios has given players a vast and beautiful world to explore, using newly acquired abilities to open up new areas in true genre style.
Ori and the Blind Forest is a glorious debut for Moon Studios, and stands as one of the most beautiful and playable games of this console generation thus far. If you’re up for a challenge, you’ve found your next download.
(PlayStation 4, March 24, From Software)
Speaking of challenge. From Software’s Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls games hit the last console generation with a meteoric impact, resetting publisher, developer, and player expectations of what a modern game can be. Featuring mysterious storytelling, intriguing worlds, and challenging gameplay that embraces failure as much as success, From has incited a quiet revolution of challenge and player respect in games, and Bloodborne is their latest to bear the banner.
At first blush, Bloodborne sticks closely to the previously established formula, and for good reason: it works. Players hack through an army of uglies while exploring a dark, dangerous world, learning the ins and outs of each environment and enemy type through grueling repetition. The game relies on skill more than stats, and it is possible to die to an enemy in the opening area no matter how leveled up your character might be.
So what sets Bloodborne apart? Whereas From’s previous games in this style have been slow, even clunky, Bloodborne is Dark Souls by way of Devil May Cry. One of the slickest, most frantically paced action games ever created, Bloodborne ditches defensive options like shields, gives the player unheard of agility, and dials up the aggression of enemies to ridiculous levels. Fights often look like something out of a hyper violent, gothic-tinged anime, blood spraying everywhere as your character darts between monstrous foes, a blur of transforming meat cleavers and viscera set against sweeping, picturesque environments that call to mind what a 3D Castlevania has always been meant to look like.
On the topic of looks, Bloodborne has more style and swagger than any other game this year. Unrelentingly confident and creative in its singular vision, From Software presents a horrific world that is at turns beautiful and disgusting, and populates it with characters whose motives are never quite trustworthy. Transforming weapons (such as a long sword that plugs into a giant tombstone to form a hammer), unique costume design, and slick animation round out one of the year’s most iconic presentations.
The streets of Yharnam are a hostile place, and as you harvest blood from enemies that run the gamut from Bram Stoker to H.P. Lovecraft (and everything in between) the plot keeps quietly churning in the background, asking players to pay attention to environmental clues and read every item description in order to piece together the puzzle that is the game’s labyrinthine backstory.
Bloodborne is a wonderful, challenging action game that plays with its formula as much as it adheres to it. Breathtaking, rewarding, and with style to spare, few games will get under your skin the way Bloodborne can.
Mortal Kombat X
(PlayStation 4/Xbox One/PC, April 14, NetherRealm Studios)
The last generation of consoles injected much needed life into the ailing fighting game genre, and with titles like Street Fighter IV and BlazBlue leading the revolution it’s little wonder. 2011’s Mortal Kombat 9 was a big deal when it hit, helping the cause while also putting NetherRealm back on the map as an A-tier developer.
After a string of experimental but largely tepid releases, Mortal Kombat 9 was like a sharp, gut-spilling punch to the stomach for fans and newcomers alike, and put MK back in the public consciousness. With the release of Mortal Kombat X, NetherRealm has proven that its success was no accident.
In addition to being insanely gorgeous and playing even smoother than before MKX adds new wrinkles to the formula like offering up different fighting styles for each character, which greatly extends the variety and replayability of the experience. Additionally, the game continues NetherRealm’s unheard of devotion to single-player content and narrative within the fighting game space with a ludicrously over-the-top story mode that allow players to not only take the controls of their favorite klassic fighters, but their children, such as Cassie Cage (daughter of Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade).
NetherRealm has brought Mortal Kombat to the new generation of consoles in a huge way, and their work stands as this generation’s first must-have fighting game experience.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
(PlayStation 4/Xbox One/PC, May 19, CD Projekt RED)
CD Projekt RED is the developer to beat this year. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a towering interactive achievement, one of the largest open world games ever created merged with some of the finest role-playing the gaming world has seen since the golden age of PC RPGs. It’s bold, it’s ambitious, it’s polished… and it comes with an adorable thank you letter to the fans in every first-run copy of the game!
Don’t underestimate the importance of that letter. CD Projekt has always done things differently, and the sheer amount of stuff that comes in the box for no extra charge, along with 16 free DLCs post launch and two upcoming expansions that will equal the length of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, is testament to the fact that Polish developer CD Projekt thrives on its respect for the people that play its games.
More than its considerable scale or the sheer value-for-dollar of the game’s content, the thing that makes Geralt of Rivia’s final adventure so compelling is simpler: it has heart. So many open world games and sprawling RPGs are stuffed to overflowing with meaningless side content and brainless fetch quests, but you’ll find almost none of that across The Witcher’s wild expanses. What you will find is a blurring line between “main content” and “side content”, a rare respect for the player’s time that sees nearly every single task you can do wrapped up in compelling storytelling, believable acting, and sharp writing.
Every single thing you get up to in Wild Hunt feels significant, impactful, and it makes going back to more conventional games a difficult proposition. A simple quest to clear a ghost from a village can turn into a multi-hour narrative arc that effects multiple characters and settlements. Geralt’s adventures are unpredictable, with consequences that can surface in delightfully (and heartbreakingly) unexpected ways hours after your actions.
That all of this scope and content is wrapped in some of the best visuals the industry has ever seen is… well, it’s mind-blowing. The Order: 1886 may look slightly better, but Wild Hunt impresses more because of its scale: that it can have models and animation that look this good, with such awe-inspiring lighting effects and dynamic weather effects (you’ll never find better looking storms in a game) , across a game world of such vastness is humbling and fills me with nothing but hope for where games can take us from here.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a profound achievement in interactive narrative, open world design, and role-playing and CD Projekt RED’s respect for its audience shines through not only in every corner of the game world, but also in how it handles every post-release patch and piece of DLC. In a console generation that has left some gamers feeling burnt, I can’t think of much higher praise than that.
(Wii U, May 29, Nintendo EAD Group No. 2)
One of the last, great things that the wonderful Satoru Iwata (rest in peace) did as President of Nintendo before his untimely passing was allowing the younger talent within Nintendo to flourish and express themselves in ways that many Japanese companies, tradition and seniority-bound as they often are, simply don’t.
An unproven new team made up of talented developers with experience ranging across titles from Animal Crossing: New Leaf to Nintendo Land was tasked with creating a game in a genre that I doubt many ever thought Nintendo would dabble in: a competitive, online multiplayer shooter. The result? Splatoon, one of the year’s most charming and playable games and a beacon of hope for the ailing Wii U platform.
Nintendo’s new team builds out an impressive, fully featured online shooter that can go toe to toe with genre greats like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and classics like TimeSplitters 2 and Goldeneye 007, but makes it appropriate for all ages by swapping bullets for paint. More than a simple aesthetic decision, coloring in the environment with weapons that include a paint shooting rifle and an oversized paint roller comes into its own as a unique experience, and the way the game allows you to sink into painted surfaces to refill your ammo lends a unique quality to the action.
Outside of the well-handled online play (which will hopefully help keep the Wii U afloat for months, maybe years, to come), Splatoon also sports a meaty and creative single-player campaign, filled with charming characters and a blend of platforming and puzzle-solving that complements the paint-soaked action very well. The way that you coat the environment in paint to move up walls and navigate treacherous environments reminds me of the best moments of Portal 2 in which players used gels with different properties to solve tricky puzzles.
Splatoon was a wonderful gamble for Nintendo, and it has paid off handsomely. Splatoon joins Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. as potent examples of the kind of gameplay experiences Nintendo can bring to the modern era of online gaming, and packs in strong single-player content on top of it. It’s one of the year’s most pleasant surprises and, along with Xenoblade Chronicles X and Star Fox Zero’s releases later in the year, cements the Wii U as the go to “side” system that every gamer should own to complement their main platform of choice.
Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward
(PlayStation 4/PlayStation 3/PC, June 23, Square Enix)
When it first released in 2010, Final Fantasy XIV was something of a train wreck and a sorry successor to the long-running Final Fantasy XI (the series’ first MMORPG). Rough in terms of both technology and design, it was also a knife through the hearts of fans at a time where the masses had all but lost faith in Square Enix after the divisive Final Fantasy XIII and a string of other controversial and often ill-advised decisions on the company’s part.
When the open and conversational Naoki Yoshida was charged with “fixing” this mess of an MMO, it seemed like a Herculean task, but when he and his team rebuilt the game (in real-time, while making it a part of the narrative for the players no less) as 2013’s Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, the impossible was accomplished: through hard work and open communication Final Fantasy XIV became a gorgeous and world-beating MMO on both PC and console.
The story doesn’t end there, however. Through constant post-release support and meaningful updates, Final Fantasy XIV hasn’t slowed down a bit, consistently offering some of the best storylines, quests, and endgame content in the genre. APG’s own William Armstrong is obsessed with the game for no small reason!
The game’s first, gigantic expansion does justice to A Realm Reborn’s legacy, including meaningful new storylines, quests, raids (such as exploring the insides of series favorite castle/summon monster Alexander), and a host of nostalgic content enough to make any longtime Final Fantasy fan weep, such as Dark Knights and Dragoons that evoke Final Fantasy IV.
Maintaining and nurturing an active MMO community takes hard work and a willingness to hear fans out and strike at the heart of their feedback in order to improve the experience for everyone involved. Under the guidance of Naoki Yoshida, Final Fantasy XIV has evolved into one of the finest MMORPGs the world has yet seen, and with expansions like Heavensward it’s clear that it won’t stop evolving anytime soon.
Batman: Arkham Knight
(PlayStation 4/Xbox One, June 23, Rocksteady Studios)
Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Knight is the most powerful finale a series of games has received since Mass Effect 3 and God of War III, and delivers a breakneck stream of memorable story beats and brain-shattering surprises the likes of which I haven’t personally experienced since going through Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty in the early months of 2002.
For fans of the Arkham games, you have some idea of what you are getting here. Using the most polished versions of the series’ often ripped-off Freeflow combat and masterful Predator stealth systems, Arkham Knight sets players loose in one of the densest, most finely detailed open world sprawls ever created. What Gotham City lacks in size compared to game worlds like Grand Theft Auto V, it makes up for by feeling rich with history and singular in detail across nearly its entire spread.
The addition of the Batmobile, which doubles as an insanely fast mode of transportation and a tank that can decimate the titular Arkham Knight’s remote-controlled drone forces, is the game’s primary point of controversy (the other is its horrendous PC port by Iron Galaxy), and as much as I enjoy cruising around Gotham and using the Batmobile to solve complex environmental puzzles in tandem with Batman, I can understand where people are coming from. The vehicle’s controls, although polished, can be slippery and some of the challenges geared towards its addition can be radically more challenging than any of the Batman-focused content, such as the convoluted racetracks The Riddler has constructed to challenge Batman’s driving skills.
All that said, the Batmobile is still fun to control and Rocksteady’s legion of highly talented developers are obviously in love with the thing, and that love can be felt in every aspect of its design. Gotham itself is made with the Batmobile in mind as much as Batman himself, with wide streets and a dizzying level of verticality making it an inspiring playground for Batman’s increased mobility.
The way that Rocksteady has seamlessly integrated interior and exterior environments while allowing players to call the Batmobile in real-time to any street location is beyond impressive, and when you alternate between launching yourself out of the Batmobile at top speed into Gotham’s skyscrapers before descending back to earth and landing directly inside of it, without missing a beat… you know you are in the presence of one of this generation’s first true technological marvels.
Arkham Knight’s blend of combat, exploration, stealth, and puzzle solving makes it great. Its polish makes it great. But these things don’t make it one of the most special interactive experiences I have ever had. No, its heartfelt narrative and its commitment to confounding player expectations and getting under their skin is ultimately what has made it not only my favorite game in its series, but my favorite piece of Batman media ever.
I can’t say much about the story, despite it being the game’s crowning achievement and what it will no doubt be remembered for decades from now. To spoil it would be a crime, as some of the big twists here exceed anything the medium has seen. Riffing on fantastic Batman stories while mixing in some of the best cutscene direction and most creative camera work and interactive setpieces the medium has ever seen, Arkham Knight is the most textured and heartfelt Batman story that I have ever experienced and rivals The Last of Us and Mass Effect as my favorite interactive narrative.
The Batman we get here is different from most other representations, even the other Arkham games. The man beneath the cowl is damaged, broken, and dealing with more in one night than most people do in a lifetime. He makes mistakes, and not in the “Hollywood” sense: Bruce irrevocably damages relationships and loses loved ones in his quest to do right by the greater good, and there are events here that have a gravity and permanence that is so often lacking in superhero fiction. That Rocksteady has kept most of this game’s big surprises and moments under wraps in the Internet age is a feat deserving of some kind of award.
Going into Batman: Arkham Knight, I expected it to be the most refined entry in an accomplished series to date, featuring polished gameplay systems and a stunning world. I never imagined that I would be treated to one of the most emotionally draining narratives the medium has ever produced, or that it would be so committed to experimenting with and pushing the boundaries of the ways that videogames have and can tell stories. Rocksteady has produced a bold, almost Kojiman work of art whose true value and design innovations are quieter and subtler than we are used to from huge AAA sequels. The way that Arkham Knight uses camera, dialogue, and interactivity to consistently pull the rug out from under players is a marvel, and deserves to be studied by anyone with a passion for game design.