Video-game obsessives will look back at 2015 fondly, as the year has given us an uncommonly high number of killer prestige titles featuring an impressive level of storytelling and craftsmanship. But after surviving hundreds of hours of enemies slain, villains defeated, and controllers thrown, we’re ready to declare the following 11 titles as the best video games of 2015.
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11. Ori and the Blind Forest
Shooters, RPGs, adventure games and action-epics -- these are the categories you’ll find on any year-end list. But one can’t forget the 2-D games that keep an old-school spirit alive, especially when they’re presented as beautifully as Ori and the Blind Forest. In the game, players control Ori, a guardian spirit who trots across a colorful, wooded environment with all the vibrancy of a Pixar film. Don’t mistake it for a “kid’s game.” Blind Forest is difficult -- damn difficult. Using Ori’s magical skill-set to traverse the forest is no easy task. And the resources to increase those skills -- or even to save your progress -- is in very short supply. This is one for the patient, classically trained gamer.
Ever since the success of Telltale’s Walking Dead series, choice-driven adventure titles have been on the rise. More about in-the-moment problem solving than inventory management, these throwbacks to simpler adventure games are increasingly cinematic. Many stumble and become mere dialogue simulators. Life Is Strange avoids the rough by adding a fascinating wrinkle: time travel. Short-range time travel, to be precise. To solve the game’s complex puzzles and manipulate its well-drawn characters, photography student Maxine Caulfield must utilize her ability to rewind time. Try and fail? Reverse a minute. Piss off a friend? Take it all back. Plug the mechanic inside a Twin Peaks-esque high school and you’ve got a game that’s not only unique and challenging, but brimming with character. Bold plot twists and an unpredictable story make Life Is Strange one of 2015’s unexpected gems.
Sony Computer Entertainment/YouTube
9. Until Dawn
This PS4 game thrusts players directly into a horror film. Made for anybody who ever shouted out loud at a movie screen, the game poses the question: Could you survive? Co-written by and starring horror maestro Larry Fessenden (You're Next), and also starring Heroes’ Hayden Panettiere and Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek, Until Dawn picks up with a group of in-fighting twenty-somethings spending a debauched wintery weekend at a massive chalet a year after a tragedy that nearly broke them. Celebrating cliché and mashing up genres, the crew is subjected to masked killers, ghosts, torture-traps, creatures, and more, and with every false step or stupid decision made, your desire to replay it only increases. If you love horror flicks, add Until Dawn to your Christmas wish-list.
8. Mortal Kombat X
In many ways, Mortal Kombat X is the Mortal Kombat game we’ve always wanted. Those of us who spent days mastering fatalities in the local arcade scoffed at console Kombat games that went soft on the violence. If anything, we wanted more. Better graphics, better kills, better animations. Mortal Kombat X doubles down on all of it. Quick on its feet and insanely atmospheric, this latest brawler offers a reasonable roster of Kombatants with a deep move-set. With interactive environments and some truly, stomach-churning fatalities, you’d think the game couldn’t get much better. But its high-quality downloadable add-ons take it to the next level, throwing iconic film characters like Predator and Jason Voorhees into the ring. Promised for 2016: Leatherface and the Alien Xenomorph. Bloody hell.
7. Halo 5: Guardians
It was a tricky year for shooters. Call of Duty blew past modern warfare straight into sci-fi; Rainbow Six: Siege went multiplayer-only; Battlefront amounted to half a Star Wars game. So count us surprised that Halo 5: Guardians was the title to save shooters for 2015. In a series known for convoluted stories, flat characters, and repetitive environments, Halo’s level of polish once again set it apart. Everything about Guardians over-delivers. The double-sided narrative; the Chief-vs-Cortana dramatics; the relentless gunplay and multi-layered environments -- each element tied the Halo universe together in a fun and meaningful way. Not to mention the relentless, tea-bagging insanity of its multiplayer, featuring a number of new maps, a revamped, card-based perk system and “Warzone,” its new, wide-scale game mode.
6. Fallout 4
If ambition were all that mattered, Fallout 4 would claim Game of the Year. There’s never been a more explorable, densely populated game world -- this, coming from the same team that created the previous high-watermark, Skyrim. Yes, Fallout 4 is packed with sights to see, missions to conquer, and enemies to kill at every conceivable turn. Yes, the nuclear wasteland of the Boston Commonwealth is brimming with secrets, set ablaze by four, warring factions. Yes, gamers are offered a more emotional narrative than ever before. But? War never changes. And where it does, maybe it shouldn’t. There’s a certain sameness here; a franchise tangled up in its own roots. The RPG elements take a back-seat to the gunplay; the missions are more objective-based than character-driven; the various factions can’t be manipulated against each other. Each incredible mechanic is shoehorned into the next. Overall, it’s a game of checkers hoping to be chess, but after nearly 100 hours lost in the wasteland, it’s the best damn game of checkers you’ll play this year.
5. Rise of the Tomb Raider
The first chapter in the Tomb Raider reboot put you in the headspace of a lost and frightened heroine forced to kill for the very first time. It was a pivotal, narrative moment in a game that didn’t take murder for granted (while still giving players the chance to bow-and-arrow countless foes). That same Lara Croft returns for this year’s sequel, emotionally damaged by her past, tomb-raiding trauma. The mysterious, often terrifying environments are beautifully detailed; the challenge tombs are more plentiful; the leveling system is more robust; the weapons, more brutal; the combat, more satisfying. The large, open-world hub areas are a wonder to explore, hunting for treasure and resources. While the story isn’t quite as gripping as the first chapter, the overall experience is a tight and finely crafted adventure.
Here’s a bold statement: Of all the comics, films, games and TV series to ever envision the Dark Knight’s Gotham City, the Arkham franchise does it the best. Stone and metal, neon and glass, vintage ‘50s meets near-future sci-fi -- it’s as if Batman had a baby with Blade Runner and BioShock. The world itself is the most important character in these games, meticulously detailed with iconic locations and oozing with atmosphere. While you can see the story’s third-act twist coming from as far back as the checkout counter, the missions are perfectly paced, the set-pieces are imaginative, and the boss encounters are twisted, stylized affairs. Being the Bat has never been this immersive. With a utility belt of incredible toys, a move-set of brutal takedowns and the all-new Batmobile added to the mix, players will soar through the skies and roar through Gotham’s streets for well over 25 hours of gameplay.
3. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Despite a metric ton of behind-the-scenes controversy between creator Hideo Kojima and publisher Konami, Metal Gear Solid V is still a creative masterstroke. A chaotic harmony of game mechanics, The Phantom Pain provides all the narrative insanity of its predecessors with a game world that challenges players to carve their own path. Go in guns-blazing or stake out the stealth approach? Call in artillery support or opt for an air-drop? The Afghani wilderness and African jungles are yours to conquer. The ‘80s-set, sci-fi story and insane attention to detail truly set MGSV apart. Whether you’re managing your very own military industrial complex, engaging in some bizarre boss fight or plotting out your next plan of attack, there’s never a lack of options for the tactical or trigger-happy player.
Hardly the most mainstream game of the lot, this spiritual sibling of the Dark Souls franchise was as rewarding as it was punishing. With little direction and tremendous difficulty, players set out across a sprawling schizopolis of grotesque creatures and deeply puzzling mysteries. Like its predecessors, Bloodborne forces players to learn and adapt to the world around them, eschewing the press-A-to-win mentality of more traditional titles. An armory of utterly bat-sh*t weapons and uniquely imagined monstrosities will keep even the most frustrated players coming back for more. Bloodborne is unlike anything else you’ll play this year: terrifying, infuriating, and an absolute thrill.
Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment/YouTube
1. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
With all the focus on Fallout 4, it was another role-playing game that delivered on the full potential of modern gaming. A massive scope, a pristine combat system, an emotionally gripping narrative, and a damaged, morally ambiguous hero, Wild Hunt takes its place among the elite. Where so many modern RPGs pad their 100-hour playtime with grinding side quests, the game makes every adventure feel meaningful. Every choice is important, every character recognizably human. It’s a fantasy that looks and feels real. Not only does Witcher 3 deliver more nuanced drama than any game this year, it delivers a deep, creature-tracking mechanic guaranteed to make you feel like a sword-wielding monster-hunter. What we talk about when we talk about “badass.”
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Christopher Monfette is a former editor for IGN and G4 who's not at all ashamed of clocking 100 hours on Fallout 4. Follow him into the Wasteland: @cwmonfette.