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The Top 10 Video Games of 2015

Walker Evans Walker Evans The Top 10 Video Games of 2015
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2015 was a great year for video games. Now that the eighth generation of home consoles have at least two years in existence under their belts, the games being released are fully capitalizing upon their capabilities, both from a graphics standpoint and a content distribution standpoint. This year was full of big Triple-A blockbuster titles, including Metal Gear Solid V, The Witcher 3, Fallout 4, Halo 5 and Batman: Arkham Knight…

…none of which I actually played this year. My personal preferences for videos games generally falls into niche genres and indie titles where the highest resolution graphics are traded for storytelling and physics engines are traded for unique gameplay concepts. Not that any of that is mutually exclusive, and not that I don’t enjoy the look of bleeding-edge gaming tech — but I generally consider myself to be more of an indie/casual gamer these days, who looks for a good bang-for-the-buck ratio when it comes to budgeting both my time and my cash.

All of that being said, I feel that this list is a solid one for any type of gamer — from hardcore to casual — who are looking for a couple of new games to play that may have slipped through the cracks this past calendar year. And I should probably disclaim that there’s a few that didn’t make this list just because I haven’t gotten around to playing them yet (I’m looking at you Telltale’s Game of Thrones, Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void and Hotline Miami 2). Anyway, enough stalling… on with the list!

10. Hard West

Five Words: Like X-COM, but with cowboys.
Available for Windows / OSX / Linux

hard-west

I knew I’d love Hard West when I heard it described as a Western X-COM. Not that I’m particularly a big fan of the Western genre of storytelling, but I am a huge fan of turn-based strategy games, and X-COM is the high water mark for the genre. And as far as the combat goes, Hard West apes the feel of 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown to a tee, down to the keyboard shortcuts and move-once-shoot-once action point system. That familiarity is both comforting and enjoyable.

The big difference comes in the non-combat portions of the game. While X-COM entertained players with a base/resource management simulator, Hard West dumps players into an overhead map where a choose-your-own-adventure narrative helps to advance the stories in each chapter. The difference isn’t really a bad thing, though I had some trouble feeling the weight of some of my decisions when venturing off on sideways campaigns left my previous equipment purchases thrown out the window. The inclusion of talismans and playing cards add a couple levels of player customization that are a nice touch, and fit well within the western universe of the game.

Play this game if you like: X-COM, Clint Eastwood, Final Fantasy Tactics, Deadwood, Red Dead Revolver or Sergio Leone.

MSRP $19.99 — Details at www.gambitious.com.

9. Robot Roller Derby Disco Dodgeball

Five Words: The name says it all.
Available for Windows / OSX

roller-disco

After first playing Robot Roller Derby Disco Dodgeball, I was stunned upon the realization that (to my knowledge) no one has ever thought to affix the rules of dodgeball to a first person shooter. It’s the simplest ideas that turn out to be the most amazing ideas, and I have to give props to indie developer Erik Asmussen who single-handedly implemented that idea with RRDDD.

The game places competitors into the bodies of smiling unicycled robots who are programmed with one purpose in life: throw dodgeballs at the other robots until they explode. The shots are one-hit kills, but first require players to seek a ball to scoop up (or catch) and throw. The controls are very “floaty” compared to other twitch-based shooters, as your robot will continue to roll even after you let go of the movement buttons, and both your throwing and jumping strength relies on a charge-hold of the button to reach full power, requiring you to anticipate your moves further in advance. It takes a little getting used to, but feels great once you get the hang of it.

Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention the fact that all of this takes place in simple reflective arenas where pulsating lights are synchronized with a thumping dancefloor soundtrack that blends elements of dubstep, drum and bass, chiptune, psytrance and tech house music together into a 12-track album that’s worthy of a five dollar download by itself.

Play this game if you like: Team Fortress 2, House Music, Splatoon, Raves, Team-Based Gameplay.

MSRP $14.99 — Details at www.82apps.com.

8. Broforce

Five Words: Oldschool Contra meets The Expendables.
Available for Windows / OSX. Coming to PS4 in 2016.

broforce

On the surface, Broforce is easy to write off at first glance. Retro-styled pixel-art indie games are all the rage these days — you can’t throw a controller without hitting a dozen at them. And while Broforce ramps up the nostalgia factor by paying homage to the past four decades of action movies, underneath lies a game that’s both simple at the core, but high on replay factor.

You control a team of action heroes (Rambro, Brommando, Brominator, get it?) that complete missions through run-and-gun levels where hordes of terrorists, aliens and bloodthirsty demons are threatening the American way with their simple existence. Your job, of course, is to wipe them all out as quickly as possible. You’ll die in this game a lot, but the quick restart feature keeps the action frantic while the random bro selection keeps the play style diverse in the way you approach each mission. Most bros are straightforward blow-em-up shooters, while a couple require some alternative tactics, like Indiana Brones with his grappling-hook whip or the melee attacks of several bros who fight with swords or fists. The boss fights offer a unique break from the madness while the narrator’s over-the-top growl (it sounds a lot like the voiceover work from Epic Rap Battles of History) will continue to make you laugh every time a new bro is unlocked.

Play this game if you like: 80s action movies, the Metal Slug series, Team America: World Police, arcade-style gameplay, NES-style simplicity.

MSRP $14.99 — Details at www.broforcegame.com.

7. Tie: Axiom Verge and Undertale

Five Words: Two trips down nostalgia lane.
Both available on Windows / OSX. Axiom Verge also available on PS4.

axiom-undertale

Ok, I’m cheating a little bit to expand my list into a “Top 11” by including a tie in here, but I have a couple of reasons for it. These two games are similar in the way that they are nostalgia-tripping throwbacks to the classic eras of 8-bit and 16-bit gaming. These two games are similar in that they are passion projects created entirely by individual developers. And these two games are similar for me in that I’ve not spent enough time with either one yet (no where close to beating them), so while they’re worth mentioning based on what I’ve played so far, I can’t give them a full nod as standalones in the list.

Axiom Verge is heavily inspired by Super Metroid for the SNES, and isn’t shy about what it’s paying homage to. You control a scientist who awakes after an experiment gone wrong, and must explore a unfamiliar world to figure out what exactly is going on. This game lives and breathes Metroid, from the level design (vertical columns mixed with horizontal corridors) to the progression techniques (you have to acquire certain weapons and upgrades to progress into certain areas, with lots of back-tracking in store) to the pixel artwork style (I swear that some of the sprites are direct lifts from the original game). Some might call it a Super Metroid rip-off, but the game is crafted so lovingly — and it is just hands-down fun to play — that it’s worthwhile for anyone with fond memories of the SNES masterpiece.

Undertale goes even further back to the NES area, and lifts heavily from a Japanese Famicom RPG called Mother, which didn’t get a US release until much later (2003 on the Game Boy Advance and just this summer on the WiiU). The game’s SNES sequel was released stateside as Earthbound, which is more of a cult classic than a well known property. Anyway, in Undertale you take on the role of a small child that falls through a hole in the ground into a world of monsters to navigate. The game’s text and story is interlaced with jokes and silly humor, which was a somewhat unique aspect of Mother in the days when RPGs were generally more serious adventures about swords and princesses. The experience-based level system will be familiar to fans of the role playing genre while the combat system relies upon mini-game interactions and talking your way out of fights rather than engaging. The game is short and cheap, making it a worthwhile distraction to work into your schedule.

Play these games if you like: Metroid (duh), Mother/Earthbound (duh), Spelunky, Final Fantasy I-VI.

MSRP $19.99 — Details at www.axiomverge.com.
MSRP $9.99 — Details at www.undertale.com.

6. Splatoon

Five Words: Kid-friendly team-based shooter.
Available for WiiU.

splatoon

Nintendo took a big risk with Splatoon. The WiiU has not sold extraordinarily well. First person shooters haven’t been widely popular on Nintendo platforms, and doubly unpopular in Japan where the WiiU has actually sold ok. Further, what has worked well on the WiiU so far are existing IPs, and Nintendo opted out of sticking Mario into this game. What’s left is a cartoonish new property about half-squid-half-human children who cover each other in goo. And it’s fun as hell.

If you own a WiiU or plan to pick up a WiiU in the near future, Splatoon should be on your short list of titles to own. This online third-person shooter drops players into a world where two teams of combatants face off in quick matches to coat the world in as much colored ink as possible before the timer is up. The turf war style of play gives some added depth to the strategy of what would otherwise be a simple deathmatch, while the unique arsenal of weaponry offers players a diverse way to alter focus between offense and defense. Don’t be fooled by the bright-colors and cartoonish avatars — the style is kid-friendly, but leveled-up players will fight in ranked matches that promise a challenge for the most hardcore of gamers.

Play this game if you like: Paintball, all things Nintendo, Team Fortress 2, Jet Set Radio.

MSRP $59.99 — Details at splatoon.nintendo.com.

5. Cities: Skylines

Five Words: The next generation of SimCity.
Available for Windows / OSX / Linux. Coming to Xbox One TBA.

cities-skylines

Do you love the older SimCity games, but hated the way that 2013’s SimCity reboot was handled? Then congratulations because Cities: Skylines is for you! Seen as a spiritual successor to 2003’s SimCity 4, Cities: Skylines takes all of the city building tools you loved in the old games and adds plenty of new layers of complexity to the experience. The learning curve may be steep for newbies into the world of city simulation games, and even experts might end up flooding their towns with backed up sewage before realizing that drain pipes are a necessity to take waste water away (I may or may not have made that mistake on my very first town).

Purists and the obsessive compulsive may be inclined to snap streets into clean gridlines, but the free-form drawing and curvature tools are incredibly fun for building winding country roads, highways and railroads. Skylines’ ability to draw districts is a great addition if you want to legalize marijuana in a certain business zone while limiting heavy truck traffic in a residential neighborhood. The latter will become a necessity as the realistic traffic simulator will map every vehicle’s route from origin to destination, and jams are likely to happen, making traffic management a big component of the later game when your city has matured into a congestion-filled metropolis.

Play this game if you like: SimCity, SimCity 2000, SimCity 3000, SimCity 4, Reticulating Splines.

MSRP — $39.99 — Details at www.citiesskylines.com.

4. Don’t Starve Together

Five Words: Explore with friends; don’t die.
Available for Windows / OSX / Linux. Console ports likely in 2016.

dont-starve

Don’t Starve Together is the standalone multiplayer version of 2013’s Don’t Starve. While the game is still in “Early Access” development mode on Steam, DST is a worthwhile advance purchase that is largely glitch-free, and has received regular updates and tweaks throughout the year.

If you’re unfamiliar with the original, Don’t Starve is a real-time exploration game where you’re dropped into a randomly generated world to search, collect, craft and survive the dangers that await you. In addition to vicious hounds and tree monsters, you’ll also need to keep a fire lit at night to fend off the darkness, keep your hunger in check by hunting and gathering, and find ways to retain your sanity before creepy hallucinations come to life. The multiplayer adventure sheds the original story mode in favor of customizable server options where a group of friends (or strangers) can gather online to work together, or to sabotage each other. With no specific game end-goal, it provides more of a platform for players to craft their own stories, not unlike Minecraft or its parade of clones and knockoffs.

Play this game if you like: Tim Burton, Lost in Blue, Edgar Allen Poe, Terraria, Paper Mario.

MSRP — $14.99 — Details at www.dontstarvetogether.com.

3. Super Mario Maker

Five Words: Design your own Mario levels.
Available for WiiU.

mario-maker

More level-building tool than game, Super Mario Maker was designed to allow your digital childhood fantasies to come to life. And that can safely be said for people of many age groups, whether you grew up with the original 1985 release or the 2009 Wii update, because Mario Maker allows you to switch tile sets between games of multiple eras.

Many level-editing tools can be a chore, but Mario Maker makes great use of the WiiU’s unique gamepad touchscreen, so that you can implement your creativity without a whole lot of game design know-how. And for those who enjoy playing more than building, it’s easy to search through millions of uploaded homemade worlds to challenge yourself with.

Play this game if you like: Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Little Big Planet.

MSRP $59.99 — Details at supermariomaker.nintendo.com.

2. Invisible, Inc.

Five Words: Procedurally-generated turn-based strategy.
Available for Windows / OSX / Linux.

invisible-inc

I’m cheating a bit on this entry, as I likely played more Invisible, Inc. in 2014 than 2015 due to its availability as an Early Access title on Steam for those who didn’t mind playing an incomplete pre-release (I didn’t mind at all). The full retail release came about in May 2015, and Invisible, Inc. officially entered the canon of procedurally-generated turn-based strategy games.

If “procedurally-generated turn-based strategy game” sounds intimidating, let me break it down in terms of this specific game. Invisible, Inc. is the name of the intelligence agency you work for, and it’s your job to guide your field agents on an increasingly difficult set of missions that advance the general storyline. Levels are somewhat randomly generated (you’ll notice a few patterns here and there) which means that no two runs are the same, and there’s a huge unpredictability factor lurking behind every door. While you can certainly attack the game with guns blazing (a la Broforce), your agents are primarily equipped to stun rather than kill, and your stealth and hacking tactics are generally the safer bet to making it to the escape elevator at the end of every run. Customizable difficulty levels help the game range from impossibly easy to impossibly impossible, making the game accessible to all.

Play this game if you like: roguelike games, cyberpunk science fiction, FTL: Faster than Light, Blade Runner, Shadowrun Returns.

MSRP $19.99 — Details at www.kleientertainment.com.

1. Rocket League

Five Words: Cars plus soccer. Nuff said.
Available for Windows / PS4. Coming to Xbox One, OSX & Linux in 2016.

rocket-league

I’m not really into sports games. I’m not really into racing games. But somehow, a racing-meets-soccer game managed to easily become my favorite game of 2015 when I began to play Rocket League.

Rocket League is the perfect example of a game being both incredibly simple to understand (hit the ball in the goal with your car) and incredibly complex to master. The reason for the latter lies in the advanced control mechanics of jumping your car into the air and propelling yourself with a rocket boost to strike goals with amazing mid-air flips. To even intermediate players, the rocket controls maneuver like you’re steering an elephant on ice with a fire hose… and watching someone who’s mastered those controls (just search YouTube for Rocket League goals) is a stunning sight to behold.

Beginners shouldn’t fret though. Online matchmaking is based on skill points, so you’ll primarily compete with others who align with your abilities pretty well. And while random online matches are certainly fun (games only last five minutes, so even when you lose, you’re on to the next game pretty quick), the ultimate fun — as always — comes from teaming up with friends. You’ll be screaming GOOOOOOOAL in no time.

Play this game if you like: fun. Seriously, this game is for anyone who enjoys fun.

MSRP $19.99 — Details at rocketleague.psyonix.com.

Do you have any other favorite games of 2015 that aren’t in the list? Leave a comment below!

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