The People’s Choice(es)
2015 was a divisive year — tremendous in terms of media (TV like Master of None and The 100; movies like Spotlight and The Force Awakens; games like…well, keep reading) and a garbage year in terms of my life. Entertainment became a personal necessity, even when the experiences in question were too “heavy” to be considered traditional escapism. As a result, I dabbled in a veritable cornucopia of video games this year, sampling genres I had not touched in years.
Out of the dozens of games I played this year, these were the ten that stuck with me. The best game of the year is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, let’s be clear. But my heart is with these ten. This is Mike Cosimano’s favorite games of the year, damnit.
(Honorable mentions: Ori and the Blind Forest, Volume, Star Wars Battlefront, Rocket League)
I got back into Yu-Gi-Oh this year. Please don’t ask why, because then I’d have to think of an answer. My local friends decided to join me in this endeavor, which was a true delight. You don’t know happiness until you’ve seen a gaggle of college students playing a child’s trading card game while pounding vodka shots like a sequel to Big that takes place entirely in the titular Animal House.
Actually, I might have found patient zero for this newfound cardboard addiction: Legacy of the Duelist, a Yu-Gi-Oh game that goes beyond what you would expect from a licensed title from Konami in the year 2015. It has a surprisingly robust campaign featuring every era of the anime to date, draft play, and multiplayer that would be a lot of fun if anyone was actually playing it. (See also: Titanfall.) Like many of the games on this list, Legacy of the Duelist is a Very Subjective Pick, so I understand if any of you want to rake me over the coals for this one. But also there’s a character named Gong Strong, so…take that into consideration.
Ever since the first Guitar Hero, purveyors of plastic instruments sold their games on the concept of bringing rock stardom to living rooms across the world. We assumed this had basis in truth, having lived in a world before Guitar Hero Live. This was truly the year of full motion video, but no other developer used it to quite the same effect. The boos of the crowd feel all the more potent when they come from people we recognize as human, and not computer-generated puppets. And, for as realistic as Harmonix’s initial guitar controllers may have felt at the time, adding two different rows of buttons makes the player one step closer to a genuine guitar player. Combine the FMV with the improved controller, and you’re left with a potent musical simulation that I couldn’t help but fall in love with.
If a game provides room for improvisation, I am at least 75% more inclined to enjoy it. For example, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate allows you to skip over a major part of its side objective routine, simply by following an earlier step to its logical conclusion. Over the course of your takeover of London, opposing gang leaders will often stop by and taunt you before throwing some goons in the mix and running away. It’s meant to be an establishing character moment; a sliver of motivation so your eventual confrontation carries a modicum of weight.
Or, if you prefer, you can just chase the leader and kill them, skipping the final battle almost entirely. This design ethos continues into the major assassinations; framed as a choice between either a unique kill that requires setup on the player’s part, or a hastily sketched-out plan strung together by a plethora of murder tools. Everything about Syndicate is the best possible version of this blindingly polished formula, which is no bad thing.
I’ve seen people all across the games industry engage in level rivalries, I’ve watched game developers strip well-known design sensibilities to their very core, and I’ve driven a friend to madness — all thanks to one game. Perhaps what I did to Myles Cox this past September crossed a line that even I found uncomfortable, because I’ve only messed around with Super Mario Maker since then, fully aware that I belong in an e-prison. That social element is what takes the game beyond the realm of level creation tool and into a whole other stratum. I had an inordinate amount of fun crafting a torture device for Myles and watching him struggle with the weight of my nightmare engine. Even my tinkering managed to bring a smile to my face, something LittleBigPlanet could certainly learn from.
(Myles, if you’re reading this, we should go for Round Two. I want to make a real level this time.)
Is it sacrilegious to say that I didn’t find Bloodborne egregiously challenging, and that I appreciated the restraint on display? Yeah, From Software’s latest definitely has its moments (Father Gascoigne, Shadows of Yharnam, that one time a guy pops out from behind the corner), but there’s a sense of equity to each unique encounter. If you get smashed to a pulp, that’s likely because you skipped too many enemies and walked into a fight under-leveled, or perhaps you’re still trying to play this game like Dark Souls. Don’t pick up that shield, friend! It’s a goof!
That pervasive feeling of fairness helped to balance out the perverse sense of dread slowly oozing from every corner of Yharnam like so much, well, blood. Few other worlds shown to us this year were quite as rich in atmosphere; a singular vision brought to life by a monkey’s paw, twisted beyond recognition. The immensely satisfying combat (a one-game argument for bringing ‘visceral’ out of retirement) is certainly the game’s hallmark, but the content on the periphery of Bloodborne is what makes it truly special.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is the purest form of the AAA video game sequel. It’s a rip-roaring adventure, featuring a slight open world, a disconnect between story and gameplay, and improvements on the previous game’s systems that sound enormous to Fans of the Genre. I am a sucker. I am part of the problem. When you squint at E3 and wonder how it got to this point, rest easy: your villain has been found.
This game is dope, alright? It is sick, it is rad, and the jury’s still out vis a vis whether or not it is bodacious, but I’m optimistic. Rise of the Tomb Raider managed to outdo Uncharted, the series it liberally apes at every opportunity, with a more realized evil conspiracy, setpieces with legitimate thrills as opposed to flash-in-the-pan excitement, and a wide range of tools that are fun to use but just inconvenient enough to make the upgrade system worth your time. Tomb Raider‘s engaging moment-to-moment gameplay adds up to a title that is exactly the sum of its parts: the fifth best game of the year.
This was the year people decided they were done with Bethesda’s excuses. Not me, though! Keep feeding me these technically incompetent masterpieces, you monsters. Just shove it right down my gullet. Bathe me in rich world building, drown me in the part where important side characters get stuck on walls. I want to gorge myself on combat that still kinda sucks, all the while smacking my lips in anticipation of the compelling quests I will spend the next month thinking about. Give me a food metaphor, so that I may apply it to this bug report stained with my kisses.
Ha, you thought my little bit at the start of this article meant Wild Hunt wasn’t going to make this list. No such luck! Consider this entry my mea culpa; a sort of apology for not putting Geralt’s latest adventure at the top of my list, where it rightfully belongs. Every part of The Witcher 3 is beautifully crafted, from beginning to…uh, where I had to stop because I was going home for the holidays.
Nevertheless! The 20-odd hours I spent in The Witcher‘s miserable world felt like a master class in dark fantasy. The impending apocalypse was always slightly less important than the broken people who inhabit it. Arguably, the end of the world could even be a blessing in disguise for some of the monsters (literal and metaphorical) who make this sad realm their home. It’s a game with a central thesis, a Wii Fit Trainer-esque rarity in the AAA development space. For that alone, Wild Hunt should be lauded — for succeeding, it deserves much more.
This game is perhaps the epitome of putting your heart before your head when it comes to Game of the Year. The first couple episodes are kinda weak, it’s got that apparently inescapable Telltale Jank (a billion people work at that company by now, somebody should maybe give the console ports a second pass every once in a while), and I do not give a sh-hi-it about Borderlands‘ lore.
And then, at some point, Tales from the Borderlands clicks. It’s different for everyone, but the back half of that game is so good that it makes the first part excellent in retrospect. Telltale Games figured out choice-based, narrative-heavy gameplay a long time ago with undefeated champ The Walking Dead. Now, the studio has made good on The Wolf Among Us‘ promise — it figured out style. I really cared about each and every one of these characters; a feat not unheard of in video games, or even for Telltale. At the same time, the needle drops that accompanied each title card were spot on, brilliantly choreographed character work set to killer music. It’s like a symphony played entirely by your best friends, right? They’re kinda messing up, but they’re just going for it and it’s almost over and you can feel yourself about to leap out of your seat and applaud.
Tales from the Borderlands is the true successor to The Walking Dead, picking up the torch from the profoundly disappointing Walking Dead Season Two and showing the games industry how to make people care about some god damned characters.
Transformers is at its best when someone actually tries to do something with the idea of Transformers; exploring the lore beyond “Autobots hate Decepticons, and they’re fighting over a MacGuffin.” That’s why there are so many awful Transformers things out there — this franchise is not quite as fully formed as it appears. Michael Bay’s first Transformers was a solid example of this because it framed the Autobots and Decepticons as part of a larger narrative, almost incomprehensible to the humans who suddenly found themselves in the deep end of the galactic pool; an extension of the basic story concepts seen in Generation 1.
Transformers Animated, conversely, scaled it down. It put a small, ragtag team (Optimus Prime wasn’t even the leader of the Autobots — he was in charge of an asteroid cleanup crew!) at the show’s emotional and narrative core. They were a very small part of a larger story, but the humans were even smaller. So you have these failures and rejects suddenly thrust into the unenviable position of being the first and last lines of defense against Megatron and his reborn Decepticon army. They weren’t just in the deep end, they were trying to keep a whole planet afloat. It’s a Transformers series with an idea, even if that idea lacks any sort of larger thematic resonance.
That’s where Transformers: Devastation comes in. It’s not a great Transformers game because it goes back to the well, bringing the iconic G1 designs to the fore once again. It’s spectacular because this is a Platinum Games Transformers game, not a Transformers game made by Platinum Games. There’s scope to the boss fights, there’s weight to the combat, there’s style pouring out of every move the player makes. It’s an action game made with a propulsive sense of purpose, one that also stands as an argument for my well-documented love of this franchise.
Devastation works as a sort of counterpart to my beloved More Than Meets the Eye comic, a work similar in execution if not profoundly dissimilar in tone. This game belongs to Platinum, just as much as MTMTE belongs to James Roberts. In any year, a singular work like this deserves recognition. Consider it luck that the task of recognition falls to someone who adores this particular universe. Transformers Devastation is my profoundly subjective Game of the Year.