With the impressive number of fantastic games of 2015 behind us, we at The Escapist like to take the opportunity to celebrate the best of the best, but, as with Highlander, there can be only one Game of the Year, and we collectively loved a lot of games, so breaking out some categories lets us offer accolades to worthy games. There’s also the overarching issue with Game of the Year awards, in that a single game can’t possibly be a good fit for everybody, so discussing the best of several different types of games lets those of you who may not care about whatever the GotY’s genre might be.
The core genre categories often present issues in labeling any given game these days, since you’ll find RPG elements in virtually everything you play, and we’ve still yet to decide what exactly “action adventure” really means. Does Fallout 4 – an action-packed game about adventuring through the Commonwealth – fit? We’ve made an effort this year to avoid some of the ambiguity, and we’re eager to share our choices for The Escapist 2015 Video Game Awards. Check them out, and hop into the forums to share your own picks!
Best RPG Winner – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Developed by CD Projekt Red. Published by CD Projekt. Available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One. Released May 19, 2015.
Ron says: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt was certainly one of the most anticipated games of 2015 prior to its release in May, but it was likely the game that most delivered on its promise as well. It eschewed the mostly linear structure of previous titles in the series for a truly massive open world filled with things for players to immerse themselves in.
It’s hard to talk about The Witcher 3 without dwelling on the world. It’s beautiful to look at, but filled with intrigue and danger. Besides the main story quests, you’ll be able to hunt down mythical beasts, explore the vast open world, and take on a number of side quests. Unlike many RPGs, the side quests in The Witcher 3 are more than filler. Instead, many of them have their own mini-story arcs, multiple ways to complete them, and several choices can affect not only the outcome of the quest, but the player’s continued interaction with the world.
In The Witcher 3, you’ll find a combat system that’s far more forgiving than previous games in the series. Crafting is much improved as well, opening up access to weapon and armor customization that’s far in excess of anything the series has previously done.
Most importantly, The Witcher 3 is a shining example of how video games can tell a story in a compelling way. The characters are well-rounded and believable, lending an air of credibility to the world and the story. These are not just randomly generated quest givers, these are people who live in this world, and respond to Geralt as you’d expect they should. Your choices will affect their lives directly, and you feel that weight in the game.
The Witcher 3 did many things quite well, but its emphasis on story and world-building has raised the bar for every RPG that comes after it. Even today, seven months after its launch, the game still stands out in my mind. That’s a huge accomplishment. Geralt’s story may have ended, but he went out on the highest possible note.
Best RPG Runner-Up – Pillars of Eternity
Developed by Obsidian Entertainment. Published by Paradox Interactive. Available on PC, Mac, and Linux. Released March 25, 2015.
Liz says: There are a number of mechanics necessary for a game to be considered an RPG. However, in order to be considered for the honor of “best” RPG, there is one factor that is arguably more important than all others: how was the journey? Role playing games are, at their core, about playing a role. Pillars of Eternity from Obsidian is one game that feels more like an experience you’ve had than a game that you’ve played.
Pillars of Eternity is an obvious labor of love from start to finish. While at first look, one would not be faulted for assuming it is a traditional “beat the bad guys, get stronger, beat more stronger bad guys, make some things, claim victory” storyline, it emerges as a series of intricate narratives and locations woven together to create one brilliant world. It is not simply a fictional universe that has been built in PoE, it is a realistic one. No matter how rooted in fiction a game might be, it is the details that bring it to life – and Pillars of Eternity nails the details. Pillars of Eternity utilizes the best aspects of old-school RPG experiences while incorporating newer features and limits that showcase the growth of the genre, allowing you to experience the game exactly how you want.
Pillars of Eternity has all of the core necessities. There is insane character customization, plentiful side quests, brutal tactical combat, and stats – so many stats. But what Pillars of Eternity does best is the journey. It is, without a doubt, one hell of a journey.
Best Strategy/Sim Winner – Cities: Skylines
Developed by Colossal Order. Published by Paradox Interactive. Released March 10, 2015. Available on PC. Review copy provided by Publisher.
Ron says: Cities: Skylines jumped into the opening left by EA’s 2013 SimCity debacle. Developed by Colossal Order (Cities in Motion), the new title embraced the ideas that made city sims so popular in the past.
Cities: Skylines will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played a city sim before. You’ll lay out roads, water, and power, and after zoning the areas, your city will begin to grow. Keeping citizens happy is a constant balancing act, and doing it all while staying within your budget can be a major challenge.
Speaking of citizens, one of the new things Cities: Skylines brings to the genre is individual citizens. These aren’t just randomly numbered faceless bots. Each person has a name, and you can click on them to see where they live and work, and you can actually watch them go about their lives. Of course, they’ll also communicate with you on the game’s pseudo-social media platform, Chirpy.
Keeping up with your city is simple, thanks to the intuitive and easy-to-use user interface. Most of the vital information you need is just one click away, and the simple overlays make that information understandable in short order. It’s a lot of information, but it never feels complicated or overwhelming.
Besides getting most everything, from the interlocking systems to the user interface, right with Cities: Skylines, Colossal Order also embraced the modding community. That means that there will always be one more new building type or map to download, and it’s all integrated into the Steam Workshop, making it simple.
Best of all, Cities: Skylines is super fun to play, and it clocks in at a $30 price point, making it one of the best values for your money you’ll find. If you were upset at the state of SimCity, or just want to try your hand at running a city, you can’t go wrong with Cities: Skylines.
Best Strategy/Sim Runner-Up – Grey Goo
Developed by Petroglyph. Published by Grey Box. Available on PC. Released January 23, 2015.
Josh says: It didn’t take much for Grey Goo to capture my interest. It was promoted as an RTS with a focus on the bigger picture, rather than micromanagement. My actions-per-minute sucks. A lot. Alongside the game’s novel titular faction, I was sold fairly quickly. When I learned of the development team’s pedigree – coming from Westwood Studios, they were in part responsible for the game that originally coined the phrase “Real-time Strategy” in the early ’90s; Dune II – I was even more thrilled to see what was in store. I played a lot of Dune II, and Westwood was one of my old-time favorite studios, also responsible for Eye of the Beholder and fan-favorite Command and Conquer.
Despite the recent troubles Petroglyph has been having – the current project appears to have been cancelled amidst recent layoffs – the team was on its game for Grey Goo. The factions were well balanced, the promise of bigger picture focus was excellently implemented, and some of the mechanics, while having been present in other games over the years, combined in a particularly novel way. With the super units – incredibly expensive, but devastatingly powerful units – and the Goo faction’s mechanic of having a mobile “Mother Goo” that can split off other mothers – serving as satellite bases and harvesters – as well as the combat units, it brought a lot of the most entertaining aspects of various RTSs over the years into a complete package, with a tad more accessibility than the more competitive-focused StarCraft.
Best Open World Winner – Fallout 4
Developed by Bethesda Game Studios. Published by Bethesda Softworks. Available on PC, Mac, PS4, Xbox One. Released November 10, 2015.
Josh says: It didn’t surprise many gamers when Fallout 4 turned out to be a great game. It’s Bethesda. It’s Fallout. It’s got a Jetpack Power Armor mod. What more could we want, right? OpenCritic shows an overall rating of 87%, putting it squarely into the top 5% of all games listed on the new review aggregator. Fallout has a history of launching with some visible bugs, which some gamers embrace as an enjoyable imperfection, while others despise for showing a lack of final polish. With Open World being such a regular feature in games these days, especially with the additional power afforded by the latest console generation, it’s becoming a matter of refinement. The Open World concept isn’t a new idea by any stretch, but it’s actively being refined by defacto iterative process, as more and more games come out with minor tweaks to the formula.
This year, we saw several variations on the theme in Batman: Arkham Knight, Mad Max, and Fallout 4 to name a few. Looking back on the year, there was something special about Fallout‘s open world by comparison. With the Junk system making every item you loot have some value or usefulness, coupled with the resource sink of building out your settlements and modding your gear, you’re given a huge practical incentive to scavenge every building you can find. There’s surprisingly little by way of direct storytelling, but those who want it will be driven to explore and investigate every nook and cranny to learn the stories of the Commonwealth.
Where many open worlds require you to be a self-starter to explore extensively, Fallout 4 gives everybody a reason, whether practical or story-driven, to venture out into the Commonwealth over and over again.
Best Open World Runner-Up – Xenoblade Chronicles X
Developed by Monolith Soft & Nintendo SPD. Published by Nintendo. Released on December 4th, 2015. Available on Wii U.
Jon says: Taking the famously huge open world stage from Xenoblade Chronicles and blowing it up into a whole game, this is a sprawling love story to the whole idea of “exploration.” From the first scenes, you’re bombarded with sprawling vistas and massive alien landscapes inhabited by bizarre creatures. And you can go to (and kill) all of it. See a mountain? Go climb it. Despite the sprawling size of the landscape, there are all kinds of secrets, caves, and beacons to discover. You get to uncover the map as well, placing probes that create a network of discovery for you – so you can go back through later for more detailed sweeps.
Just when you’re settling in to the scale of the game, Xenoblade Chronicles X ups the ante by giving you a transforming, rolling, flying mecha to stomp around in. The scale then increases, as you realize that early areas were designed for high-level mecha play all along, and that the later areas of the game are completely insurmountable without one. The vast valleys of Oblivia, for example, are scaled to a tiny person… until you can fly over them and see the hidden peaks, with special enemies tucked away, that don’t show up until later.
Just when I thought I was getting cynical about discovering a landscape, a game sucks me back in.
Best Expansion/Update/DLC Winner – StarCraft 2: Legacy of the Void
Developed by Blizzard. Published by Activision Blizzard. Released on November 10, 2015. Available on PC.
John says: There has been debate whether StarCraft 2: is three distinct games under the StarCraft 2 label or whether Wings of Liberty, Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void comprise one game and and expansions focused on the various races. We are taking the easy way out and going with the latter because, even though it wasn’t the best Strategy game of the year, Legacy of the Void deserved an award because it was just so damn good.
Yes, Wings of Liberty may have been the previous benchmark for the series, but Blizzard wrapped up the trilogy with an almost flawless presentation of the embattled Protoss fighting for survival against the Xel’Naga menace Amon. The gameplay took the strengths of WoL and HotS and added in some tweaks and modifications that made playing the campaign challenging and enjoyable. The game was meaty enough in its own right, but then having three prologue missions AND three epilogue missions added to the enjoyment.
Throw in that Blizzard one-upped itself with the addition of Automated Tournaments and Archon mode for its incredibly popular multiplayer component, and Legacy of the Void just had to be recognized as the best expansion/update of 2015.
Best Expansion/Update/DLC Runner-Up – Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns
Developed by ArenaNet. Published by NCSOFT. Released on October 23, 2015. Available on PC.
Justin says: While many other high-profile MMOs were crashing and burning, the folks over at ArenaNet have been steadily pushing out content for Guild Wars 2 and a few months back released their first expansion Heart of Thorns. Much in the same way that the original game push boundaries, Heart of Thorns plays with some of the basic expectations of an MMO expansion. For instance, there is no new level cap and a lot of the game’s content is open-world PVE events which require grouping up. It’s a game that stresses exploration and players working together like few other games do, fostering one of the best feelings of adventure and community in the MMO space.
Best Co-op Winner – Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide
Developed and Published by Fatshark. Available on PC. Released October 23, 2015.
Ron says: Co-op gaming is one of my favorite distractions, and in 2015, no one did it better than the awkwardly-named Warhammer: End Times – Vermintide.
Set in the Warhammer Fantasy universe, Vermintide pits you and three friends against hordes of Skaven ratmen who are assaulting cities during the End Times, the prophesied end of the world. As you try to save the city of Ubersreik, you can’t help but notice what a good job developer Fatshark did at embodying the look and feel of the universe. It’s appropriately Gothic, and every detail, down to the weapons, outfits, and architecture, just oozes atmosphere.
The gameplay is obviously inspired by Valve’s Left 4 Dead, and you can see the influences all over the place, from the number of items and weapons you carry to the interface to the “special” types of ratmen you encounter. However, those similarities are not nearly as important as what sets Vermintide apart.
Players can choose from one of five classes to play as, and each class has its own playstyle and role in the group. If you want to get up close and personal with melee damage, the Empire Soldier can wield a two handed hammer or a one handed weapon and a shield, among other things. he has a taunt-like bash attack, and excels at drawing attention. If you’d rather stay back from the fray, the Waywatcher wields a bow that does significant damage, as well as a pair of long knives should the action come her way.
Weaponry isn’t fixed, as Vermintide also packs in a loot system that rewards you for finishing missions with new gear. There are multiple levels of rarity-based gear, and the weapons and trinkets you gain can be used to deck out your character to play exactly the way you want. You could choose a slower weapon that does more damage, or a fast weapon that spreads its damage out to multiple targets. Even if you don’t get exactly what you want, there’s a basic crafting system to let you try to customize things to your liking.
Getting a co-op game right can be tough. It needs to be challenging, but not impossible, and it has to be well-balanced. Vermintide hits all those notes, and offers a mix of melee and ranged combat in a first-person game that has a little something for everyone. The AI leaves a bit to be desired when playing alone, but if you fill those slots with humans, you’ll quickly see why this is our co-op game of the year.
Best Co-op Runner-Up – Helldivers
Developed by Arrowhead Game Studios. Published by PlayStation Mobile. Available on PC, Mac, PS3, PS4, PS Vita. Released March 3, 2015.
Jon says: With a flash and a boom, a crew of loyal Helldivers slam into the ground of an alien world ready to deliver well-managed democracy to the enemies of SUPER-EARTH. A starship troopers sendup for the ages, Helldivers delivers the kind of managed chaos that the developers got so right in Magicka. Unlike Magicka, though, Helldivers eventually takes off the training wheels and ramps up the difficulty, so that your team of bumbling grenade-chucking lunatics eventually has to get it together and stop blowing each other up.
Going from simple chaos to managed chaos is hugely enjoyable. Eventually, weapons diversify and you’re calling down tanks and artillery strikes to slam away at bizarre, interesting enemy types in varied environments. While the game can get grindy at times, it’s still hilarious to watch an unfortunate ally get smashed by a drop pod delivering the very ammo they called in – or do the same to your enemies. The lovely icing on the cake is the game’s brilliant multiplayer world, where your individual games of drop-in drop-out co-op contribute to an overall campaign across the galaxy culminating in assaults on enemy homeworlds.
Best Early Access Winner – Darkest Dungeon
Developed and Published by Red Hook Studios. Available on PC, Mac, PS Vita. Releases January 19, 2016. Offered in Early Access.
Josh says: Before I played Darkest Dungeon, I knew it was a game I’d enjoy, but nothing could have prepared me for just how much fun I’d have with it. I play a lot of games, so I rarely commit more than 30 or 40 hours to any one in particular. There are exceptions, of course, but Darkest Dungeon has the particular distinction of being the game I’ve sunk the most hours into in the shortest span of time. In the first two weeks I played DD, I’d committed 110 hours to exploring, looting, leveling, and, of course, treating the various physical and psychological ailments that afflicted my team.
Darkest Dungeon is a grim, gothic dungeon crawler, where the class makeup of your team is just as critical to success as your equipment or tactical abilities in the turn-based combat. With Lovecraftian monsters, plenty of loot, an impressive collection of character classes, and, most uniquely, devastating ailments your team will be afflicted with over the course of exploring. Wandering through an unlit dungeon with only a torch to guide your way, while encountering terrifying cthulhu-esque monsters is a stressful experience which, if you’re not careful, can cause characters to snap and panic, which, as you might expect, is even more stressful for the rest of the team. Topping off your health isn’t enough when you run the risk of stress-induced insanity.
As you may have guessed from the award, Darkest Dungeon isn’t even released yet. When I first played, there was an entire zone and some classes that hadn’t even been released to Early Access. DD is one of the most content rich, feature complete, and polished game I’ve ever played in Early Access. Its January, 2016 release is right around the corner now, and I can hardly wait to sink another few dozen hours into the launch build.
Best Early Access Runner-Up – ARK: Survival Evolved
Developed by Studio Wildcard, Instinct Games, Efecto Studios, Virtual Basement LLC. Published by Studio Wildcard. Available on PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One. Currently in Early Access. Planned release in 2016.
Ron says: The game drops you onto a large tropical island that is largely populated by dinosaurs. To survive, you’ll have to scavenge resources, craft tools, and build yourself shelter. As you slowly advance through the game, you’ll be able to hunt the over 60 types of dinosaurs for food and materials, or tame them to use as mounts, pack animals, or weapons.
You’ll be able to construct fortifications, firearms, and other weaponry, and you’ll need it. Dinosaurs are dangerous enough, but the real threat is from the other people playing on the servers you inhabit. If you’re fortunate enough to find a friendly tribe, join it immediately.
The game is gorgeous, but you’ll need a powerful system to run it well. It also has a few optimization issues that are slowly being weeded out as development continues. It’s enormously satisfying to play as is, and holds the promise of improving as time goes on. If survival games are your thing, you should really give Ark: Survival Evolved a chance. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
That’s it for our Escapist Awards picks! Check back tomorrow for our ultimate Game of the Year winner! Can’t wait? Read about the nominees in our Best Games of 2015, and hop into the forums to let us know what your picks were for 2015.