While 2014 proved to be more of an adjustment period, wherein the industry took a break of sorts from major releases in order to make the shift away from the last generation of consoles, 2015 has comparatively been a nonstop torrent of landmark blockbusters such as the late arrival of GTA V on PC, The Witcher 3, Fallout 4, and Metal Gear Solid V. In other words, 2015 had no shortage of potential GOTY nominees. In addition to this, the past year has also been marked by a steady string of smaller scale releases such as Life is Strange or Hotline Miami 2.
But as eventful as 2015 was, it was equally marked by disappointment. While games like Fallout 4 and The Witcher 3 were great games, there was simply an absence of innovation or seeing anything truly new or risky from developers. The Witcher 3 for example, took an almost formulaic and heavily calculated approach to producing an “ideal” RPG experience. Of which took popular mechanics from a variety of other titles and carefully stitched them together in a balanced order. Or Fallout 4, which felt like more of the same from Bethesda simply with updated graphics and streamlined gameplay.
This isn’t to say that 2015 was a bad year for gaming, rather that I found myself being equally let down by particular games as I was surprised by others. What follows isn’t so much a “best of” or retrospective of the past year, rather simply a selection of games that stood out to me personally for better or worse.
Much in the same vein as the original Flashback or more recent Gemini Rue, Dex follows in the tradition of classic cyberpunk sidescrollers, calling forth a sense of nostalgia for both these mechanics of old, as well an attempt to capture the initial speculative magic of the cyberpunk worldview which has long since been outdated.
And unlike its ilk such as Gemini Rue, Dex doesn’t suffer from feeling antiquated, rather gives a commendable effort towards reinvigorating the sidescrolling system of play to meaningfully express a compelling narrative. Players will likely actually care about Dex’s struggles and efforts to discover who she is. In addition, despite the world being limited to a single plane of movement also feels dynamic and depthful. Backdrops and the subsequent art direction paint an elaborately multi-faceted world, that isn’t simply defined by the possible range of movement available to the player.
In a sense, playing Dex feels like a game made in its own time, rather then the attempts of a nostalgic few trying to recapture some age-old magic via Kickstarter. Instead of celebrating the limitations of legacy systems as some sort of marketable gimmick, Dex actually feels like a game trying to stretch the confines of what is possible. In a way Dex felt as richly developed as something akin to Deus Ex: Human Revolution without the necessity to rely upon a modern day 3D engine and the monstrous budget that comes with it.
Set shortly before the events of Portal 2, Portal Stories: Mel is a fan-made mod that seemingly seeks to create another full length entry in its parent series. To this end it thoroughly succeeds. Portal Stories: Mel is by every measure impressive and if one wasn’t told otherwise, it would be doubtful that they could fathom that it wasn’t officially sanctioned or produced by Valve themselves. From the sheer scope of production, professional voice actors, and engaging puzzles, Portal Stories: Mel sets forth a thoroughly worthwhile experience.
What was likely most striking however was how it so easily blended in with both official Portal games by elaborating on existing lore and crafting some of its own. And while the whole venture must be written off as pure fan fiction, it is easy to mistake as the real deal. And furthermore Portal Stories: Mel doesn’t simply offer up more of the same, rather retains its own unique identity despite modeling heavily after its official counterparts. Instead of Chell we have Mel, and instead of Wheatley we have Virgil.
But from its significantly more elaborate puzzles to a refreshingly surprising narrative, Portal Stories: Mel succeeds in offering something entirely new. And all for the price tag of absolutely free.
Pillars Of Eternity might be a great RPG but one that simply didn’t connect with me personally. I can’t exactly describe what was seemingly wrong since objectively Pillars Of Eternity did everything extremely well. But at the end of it, I found I didn’t really much care for the characters, story, and conflicts within. It simply felt like another game to be completed or another menial task to get through.
If I had to guess though, my issue with Pillars of Eternity might lie with its very premise. The game seemingly sets out to “out-do” Baldur’s Gate, which is arguably one of the greatest RPGs of all time. Such motivations fueled by nostalgia are not so abnormal, however can be problematic if it becomes its defining trait. And that might be my problem with Pillars Of Eternity, that it seems somewhat pointless past its nostalgia.
Compared to the already mentioned Dex or last year’s Wasteland 2, Pillars of Eternity ultimately seemed more concerned with its framework and technical systems over other concerns. And while something like Dex is equally cloaked in nostalgic systems and aesthetics, this didn’t prevent its developers from utilizing more modern advancements like voice acting or cinematics.
The Longest Journey remains arguably one of the greatest point and click titles ever to be produced, which leaves Dreamfall Chapters with quite the high standard to meet. Especially in the face of the recent successes of Telltale’s model of storytelling, Dreamfall Chapters often felt misplaced and somewhat unsure of itself.
The constant need to remind players rather explicitly that “their choices will have consequences” becomes quickly tiresome and reeks of a lack of confidence on the developers’ part. It should be enough to simply experience the narrative firsthand, instead of constantly being reminded that a particular choice does indeed lead to a different outcome. If anything, this only leads to taking the player out of the experience, and making the game feel more “game-y” then necessary.
Things are only made worse by the fact that most of these highlighted choices don’t seemingly matter, at least not in the first several episodes. But regardless, the supposed need to emphasize choice at all seems like the game’s downfall. Player choice was never a defining feature of either The Longest Journey or Dreamfall, and if anything seems like a rather desperate attempt to modernize an old franchise to somehow meet an arbitrary checklist of desirable features.
But regardless, Dreamfall Chapters has still been an overall worthwhile experience. One marked by engaging characters, a rich lore, and a refreshingly open sense of exploration. Despite many heavy-handed attempts to inject some form of political or social commentary into the narrative, the writing is more or less on point. Fans of the series will likely be able to jump right in despite Dreamfall leaving things off on a massive cliffhanger nearly a decade ago.
The common complaint about Fallout 4 has largely been a lack of roleplaying potential. With the new dialogue wheel, voiced player characters, and a much more centralized narrative, this isn’t that surprising to hear. But in its place, the new systems of crafting and settlement building are doubly disappointing. At the surface, much of Fallout 4’s newly added features seems intriguing but only until one actually starts to piece them together.
For example, the appeal of weapon customization quickly wears off when it becomes apparent the number of available base weapons is extremely limited, and the range of mods leaves much to be desired. Looting as well while touted as being more worthwhile actually feels cheapened. While technically every piece of supposed junk now has a use, this doesn’t alleviate the sense that the more desirable loot such as equipment often feels pointless when it is simply repeated variations of the same several items over and over again.
And from a narrative perspective, Fallout 4 also feels somewhat shallow. The opposing factions dynamic feels haphazardly lifted from Fallout: New Vegas more then actually being there for valid narrative concerns. In New Vegas, players were able to talk to people, convince them (or not) to work together and look past their differences. It was similar to playing as Shepard in Mass Effect, simply walking around the Citadel and organically learning about all the various complex conflicts and histories of its inhabitants.
In Fallout 4 however, the faction lockouts seem to happen simply for their own sake. The Brotherhood, Institute, Minutemen, and Railroad don’t so much as hate each other over meaningful or long-lived tensions, rather are simply in the way of each others’ goals. Having to completely eradicate one faction or the other because of a systematic lockout sounds and feels extremely ridiculous, especially coming from the same developer as Skyrim, where one could without issue become the leader of the Companions, Dark Brotherhood, Thieves’ Guild, and Winterhold College simultaneously.
In either case, these lockouts don’t have any variance or room for adjustment depending on other systems in play, such as companion affinity. For example, a player could reach the highest level of affinity with X6-88 but still have to kill him if they side against the Institute. None of this is to say that Fallout 4 is a bad game, rather that it lost a part of what people ultimately liked about Bethesda’s open world titles. And that is a true shame especially when they have seemingly worked so hard to provide us with countless new toys to stretch out our play times. But while I thoroughly enjoyed my 70 hours or so returning to the Wasteland, I don’t really see myself returning anytime soon.
While criticized somewhat heavily for its seemingly convoluted narrative, subject matter, and formulaic output, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number still manages to be a difficult game to hate. From its cinematic tonality, pulsating visuals, and stellar soundtrack, Hotline Miami 2 despite its lower resolution provides an absolute feast of sensory overload. Layered atop a minimalistic yet awesomely brutal action system of ultra-violence, the experience is one that is impossible to dislike.
While Dennaton Games didn’t stray too far mechanically from the first Hotline Miami, the followup does still manage to separate itself. If the first one was Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number takes a far wider pastiche approach, channeling the likes of De Palma’s Scarface, David Lynch, to Gasper Noe’s Enter The Void.
Where the game does go off track is in its attempts to seemingly legitimize its nature by expounding and justifying its own violence. The issue isn’t so much that the subsequent lore and character histories aren’t up to snuff, rather that they felt a need for it in the first place. And to be fair, for such a simplistic game the presented lore and world is fairly impressive albeit nonsensical.
If I have to be completely honest, I was never a huge fan of the Witcher series. I could never get past the first game’s awkward controls, and the second game while both visually and mechanically impressive, didn’t really connect with me. The narrative expected players to already be familiar with its characters and world, to an extent that for the large majority of my initial playthrough, I had little idea of what was going on.
The Witcher 3 on the other hand takes a completely different approach. While continuing where the first two games left off, it positions Geralt in a conflict that leaves both returning and new players equally in the dark. The two central characters in the narrative Yennifer and Ciri, are introduced within The Witcher 3 barring players who might already be familiar with the original novels.
Without wasting too much time explaining why, The Witcher 3 was without a doubt an amazing game. Combat felt extremely fluid, the world was massive, and the narrative was actually engaging. I actually cared about Geralt, his surrogate daughter Ciri, and their subsequent relationship.
But if one thing should be said about The Witcher 3, it’s that the tired old trope of father/daughter relationships in games have finally been beaten to death. From Bioshock Infinite to The Walking Dead, placing an otherwise majority male gamer demographic into the role of a father trying to “save” their daughter has often been a surefire way to draw an immediate sense of empathy. And while at least Ciri isn’t the seemingly innocent and sheltered “daughter” of other AAA titles, she still lacks agency with her own fate dependent upon Geralt or the player’s actions.
For what was arguably one of the most if not the most anticipated titles of 2015, I don’t have much to say about Metal Gear Solid V except to speculate on what could have been. With Hideo Kojima departing from Konami before the game’s completion, it seems fairly obvious that the game isn’t exactly finished. The game distinctly veers downhill once players play through half of the main story. Snake faces off against Skullface and the conflict seemingly appears over. The rest of the game is then comprised of replays of older missions with various modifiers with the occasional “new” mission that progresses the story at a snail’s pace, of which only seems to lead to a twist that is more infuriating then actually intriguing.
But past concerns over the quality of writing or lack thereof, Metal Gear Solid V also suffers from its own framework. The open world nature of the game’s space lends itself to a certain degree of freedom unavailable in the series’ past. However outside of distinct “conflict” zones, the space proves unworthy of real exploration. Everything there is to discover is contained within the confines of actual missions areas or side ops.
For better of worse, the one game I clocked the most hours in and have also regularly returned to throughout the past year was GTA V’s online play. I’ve long since past the point where I need money for anything, with a bank account in the millions and owning pretty much every item I would ever want. But I still like to return to Los Santos to just fool around, drive through the countryside, create chaos, or get into a variety of emergent activities.
And while online play is plagued with hackers, it typically isn’t too hard to find several good players willing to simply cruise around.
While The Beginner’s Guide may not be a great game, at the very least there is nothing else quite like it so far. Never has a game been so directly reflective of its creator nor been so autobiographical. While much of the narrative of The Beginner’s Guide is seemingly fictional despite its introductory framework, it sheds an incredibly blunt and heartfelt vulnerability from creator Davey Wreden, previously made famous for his earlier work The Stanley Parable.
The Beginner’s Guide opens as an interactive narrative of the games designed by Coda, a supposed friend of Wreden’s. The whole experience is curated by Wreden himself, as he discusses why he thinks Coda made a certain game a certain way and his own subsequent relationship with Coda.
In this sense, The Beginner’s Guide simultaneously offers a glimpse into the arena of game design from both the creator’s perspective and from a critical angle. As the narrative progresses, it becomes clear that past a simple interest in a friend’s game design, The Beginner’s Guide is more about Wreden himself and the guilt he feels about the manner in which he ultimately destroyed their relationship.
Likely speaking from actual life experiences, Wreden’s The Beginner’s Guide while somewhat rough around the edges, should be required playing for anyone remotely interested in what games as a medium are capable of.