From indie trailblazers to Triple A blockbusters, 2015 has seen some genuinely interesting developments in the world of video games, and with December upon us it’s about time we celebrated the greatest experiences the year has had to offer.
There have been some heady highs along the way, with the next-gen finally shifting into gear and the alternative scene continuing to bear surprising fruit.
Without further ado, we humbly present our own personal countdown of the 20 best games of the year.
Disagree? Have your say in our interactive voting list at the bottom.
20. White Night
Something of an under-appreciated gem, this stylish mystery-horror from former makers of Alone In The Dark combines noir tone with haunted house chills to admirable effect; trapping the player in a pitch-black mansion in which malevolent spirits reside, with only limited numbers of dimly-glowing matches to light your way.
As you negotiate the complex web of rooms, uncovering hidden chambers and unnerving secrets aplenty, your spine tingles continuously. Lovely to look at, and absolutely dripping in atmosphere.
19. Dying Light
Techland built upon the fun but decidedly rough platform of their Dead Island games to finally deliver on the promise their zombie-sandbox concept offered: serving up some of the finest first-person melee combat ever seen, as well as introducing fluid, free-running movement into the infested equation.
Hardly high-brow, but who cares when you’re having the time of your life? Bashing in a zombie’s brains with a hammer has never been more satisfying.
18. Halo 5: Guardians
While the lack of local co-op is something we can all understandably mourn, it’s fair to say that as an online multiplayer experience, Halo 5 is almost peerless.
Responses to the campaign have been mixed, but it deserves credit for at least attempting a new direction. That said, the real attraction here is obviously the multiplayer – and it proudly shines with the force of a thousand suns. Epic competitive modes, cool new features, and an enviable degree of technical polish and flair make it one of the most complete competitive shooters around.
17. Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate
Ubisoft managed to claw back some much-needed goodwill here following the catastrophic launch of last year’s Unity, finally taking us to the Victorian London setting many had craved since the start of the series – and doing so in some style.
The two leads made for the most engaging central focus since the charming Ezio, the British capital provided one of the finest backdrops of the franchise to date, and all the horse-and-cart hijacking, alleyway scrapping action lent real excitement and bite. A return to relevance for a flagship series.
16. Mad Max
Releasing simultaneously to another certain desert-set sandbox featuring in this list was always going to be unfortunate timing – and left Avalanche’s contender for ‘most pleasant surprise of the year’ sadly overlooked in comparison.
That is a real shame, because we personally love it. Capturing enough of the feel and visceral adrenaline-pumping action of the rebooted movie saga while also doing very much its own fun, the vehicle combat and dusty, post-apocalyptic style have us craving a sequel.
15. Batman: Arkham Knight
A caveat here. We are not, of course, forgetting the diabolical issues that sadly plagued the magnificent Arkham series’ swansong on its PC launch. But for those of us who could enjoy the experience as intended, it really was a breathtaking one.
Building on the foundations of already terrific previous instalments, the story was gripping, the addition of the Batmobile truly inspired, and the overall feel of stepping into the boots and cowl of the caped crusader more thrilling than ever before. Gotham made for quite the playground.
14. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number
Ah. That neon glow. Those sumptuous synths. The brutal-bloody-brawling as puzzle game shtick. Hotline Miami was back, with about as much retro visuals, kick-ass music and gaudy ultra violence as you would expect.
Tougher than the first instalment, and sometimes unfairly so, it nonetheless provided ample entertainment and pitch-black humour to accompany the hefty challenge, throwing a satirical story into the mix for good measure. Fast-paced and packed with style, it certainly left its mark.
13. Grow Home
Who would have thought that a game about cultivating a giant plant would prove so compelling? Highly original, distinctive and fun, Ubisoft’s colourful and quirky adventure cast you as one of the most adorable robot characters around, on a mission to craft a beanstalk to the stars on a remote planet.
Fun, fun and more fun. It’s great to see major game companies so influenced by the best of the colourful indie scene.
Thomas Was Alone creator Mike Bithell proved he’s no indie one-hit wonder with this thoroughly intriguing experience: a Metal Gear-inspired adventure that also doubles as a cyberspace take on the Robin Hood legend.
Tasking the player with completing sneaky ‘heists’ in a VR simulator, it’s one of the most engaging stealth games currently available.
11. Her Story
A potentially important entry in gaming’s current endeavour to explore new and interesting avenues for the medium, Sam Barlow’s highly distinctive creation tasked players with searching a virtual police database for information surrounding a fictional missing person’s case; piecing together what happened from resulting video archive clips.
Weirdly absorbing – obsession inducing, even – Barlow’s creation provided a fascinating avenue with which to uncover a compelling, emergent story, and Viva Seifert deserves high praise for a terrific performance, upon which the game’s authenticity invariably hinges.
10. Rise Of The Tomb Raider
Taking on the same slick, rebooted aesthetic as its 2013 predecessor, while also trumping it at the same time by actually including TOMBS, Crystal Dynamics’ latest entry in the Lara Croft origin story has a breathtaking sense of scale – and the production values to match.
Action-packed as you like, those aforementioned Tomb sections are enough to give you salivating flashbacks to the heady heyday of the ’90s originals. Only now with (much) prettier graphics – and a more intriguingly rounded, character developed lead.
9. Super Mario Maker
Hats off to Nintendo. Giving us all chance to craft our own versions of classic Super Mario levels is an inspired idea. But as well as the creative joy that comes with building our own goomba and power-up packed landscapes, the real pleasure is in diving into the countless ingenious concepts others have come up with.
Ranging from the utterly mad to the brilliantly funny to the outright inspired (if you stick to the cream of the crop, that is), there’s enough here to keep even the most ardent Mario obsessive happy for years. Oh, and now they’re adding in checkpoints too. Thanks guys!
8. Life Is Strange
An offbeat high school drama meets sci-fi thriller to rival Donnie Darko, Dontnod’s intriguing tale of a teenager who discovers she can rewind time – acting as compelling plot device, thematic talking-point and neat game mechanic all in one – might just be the finest episodic adventure of its kind since the first series of Telltale’s Walking Dead.
It certainly stands on its own from a story standpoint and concept, while the level of character development here is stupendous; and it even delivers on choice and consequence. Flawed as it is, with some ropey dialogue at times, its attempt to pursue a far different path than the norm nonetheless earns it a place as one of 2015’s most important releases.
7. Metal Gear Solid V
It’s always thrilling stepping into the shoes of Snake – but doubly so when you’re given free reign to approach your objectives from all manner of different directions and with a whole possible range of different tactics at your disposal. Hideo Kojima took his much-loved series full metal sandbox with its final proper instalment; and as a stealth-action game, it was glorious.
The only real reason this doesn’t rank higher is its narrative failure to satisfy long-time fans, with an ending that has to be largely summed-up as disappointing. Overlook that, and you’re having a blast.
6. Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture
If we can all just get past the whole ‘walking simulator’ label for a second, let’s just take the time to appreciate an original, absorbing creation from interactive narrative specialists The Chinese Room that was gorgeous to look at, supremely atmospheric, and blessed with some of the most beautiful music in gaming history, courtesy of Jessica Curry.
Immersing yourself in the tangled flashbacks surrounding residents in a picturesque village, after it had been ravaged by a strange, otherworldly force, proved there’s space for video game experiences that thrive on mood and story-telling alone.
5. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Expect this to be higher? Yeah. We know. There’s certainly no doubting that Geralt’s third and final adventure offered a wealth of content, fascinating side-quests, and some of the most vividly enthralling story-telling of any game in the history of the medium. And many of us are still playing it.
Aside from the fact that it cements CD Projekt RED as one of the most generous, skillful and downright special developers around, the saga took an already compelling RPG tale and translated it neatly into full open-world. Whether the gameplay itself was as satisfying as uncovering the game’s mysteries is up for debate. But what a vivid universe they created.
4. Fallout 4
While it’s tempting to focus on the frustrating new dialogue system, the stripping out of some key role-playing elements and – as always – those oft-reported Bethesda bugs, the simple truth is that Fallout 4 is about as fun an open-world game as we’ve had since its last-gen predecessors: offering an intoxicatingly rich gameworld to explore, loot and (hopefully) survive.
The combat is far more satisfying than before, the settlement building will draw you in for hours and hours, and the attention to detail in each and every location, complete with hidden backstories and lore, adds even greater depth to the typically rewarding experience. Superb.
Frictional’s eagerly-anticipated follow up to their slow-burning sleeper phenomenon Amnesia: The Dark Descent was not an attempt to cash-in on the unexpected YouTube reaction fame their previous creation had spawned. Rather, it was a deeply thought-provoking sci-fi thriller – strong in story and philosophical ideas.
Were some of the creature encounters unnecessary, and frustrating? Sure. But Simon’s journey from modern-day Canada to the depths of the futuristic Ocean served up so many memorable moments, puzzles and horrifying implications it’s impossible for that to over-shadow the end result. This is a game that really makes you think.
2. Until Dawn
Many liked the idea of Supermassive’s interactive slasher flick experience, but it wasn’t until the game actually landed that we realised just how brilliantly the developer had pulled off their central concept.
Putting you in control of various young characters caught in a deliberately corny horror tale, top-notch production values – from the fine voice-acting to the stunning visuals – helped sell this as a ‘cinematic’ experience, but it was the interactivity itself that added the real bite. Decisions that actually matter? Take a bow. Quick-time event sequences that are genuinely tense? Bravo. Managing to actually trick us into falling for the horror cliches we all assumed we’d expertly avoid? We take our hats off to you.
This was an absolute dream for slasher fans, and Peter Stormare’s half-funny, half-terrifying psychiatrist might just be our favourite video game creation in years.
How could it not be top?
From Software’s magnificent action-RPG takes a brutally simple approach and wraps it in layer upon layer of exquisite complexity and challenge, all presented in a visually spectacular landscape so dripping in evocative, atmospheric sights and detail that the city of Yharnam and its surroundings are forever embedded in our psyches.
Steeped in formidable bosses to vanquish, nightmarish gauntlets to run and a whole delicious heap of additional dungeon sagas to shatter the nerves of even Souls veterans, overcoming the game’s trademark adversity reaps rewards of euphoria unheard of in virtually any other video game. And that’s before we even get onto its rich, captivating lore, all Lovecraftian cosmic horror, lurking just beneath the Gothic surface.
The newly released, devilishly difficult Old Hunters DLC offers a timely reminder of how special a game this is. If you haven’t taken the plunge already, you owe it to yourself to do so.