Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Games Of The Year!

                This year’s GotY will be presented from two different perspectives. Rather than just having my thoughts about what I consider to be the best game of this year, I decided to make things more interesting and so Wolfe and I will give our opinions on what games moved us the most.

                Choosing my most representative title of 2015 is not an easy choice to make, as there have been multiple games that I have enjoyed greatly. Among those, I could count The Witcher 3, Arkham Knight, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and Ori and the Blind Forest (an indie game standing proud among AAA giants).
                Arkham Knight will probably be remembered by its catastrophic launch on PC, and although that will serve as a warning for the developers who do not plan on paying attention to PC ports, it is a shame, as the game was pretty good. Having played the entire Batman series, Arkham Knight quickly became my favorite due to its story and refined action elements. Batman’s psychological conflict and Joker’s “return” were some of game’s excellent parts that will be hard to forget for me, and the confrontations with Gotham’s villains were also very enjoyable. Despite all that, The Game Slashers focuses on PC games and cannot forgive the state in which the game was launched, so Arkham Knight left a sweet and sour taste in our mouths. It is one of the best games of the year, but surely not the best.
                The Phantom Pain finds itself in the same situation: excellent action and stealth elements accompanied by a poorly paced story and butchered second half of the game. Once again, it is a great shame. The open world and the great layers of customization offered the player the possibility of approaching every mission in so many ways, which makes The Phantom Pain the title with the best gameplay of 2015. However, the content that was not cut from the game was way too repetitive, while the content that was cut effectively left the game without a real ending to its story. To whom should we point the accusing finger? Konami or Kojima? Perhaps both. Nonetheless, The Phantom Pain tried and finds itself among the best games of the year.
                Ori and the Blind Forest is the title that has surprised me the most this year.  A platformer developed by Moon Studios, Ori is a game with a lot of heart and soul. It tells the story of a small white guardian spirit who is on a journey to save the Spirit Tree. For a platformer, the game features superb visuals, audio and atmosphere. These elements blend together perfectly and create one of the most engrossing experiences in video gaming. Ori’s story is both simplistic and symbolic, and at times very emotional. The game is also very challenging, with my frustration often reaching Dark Souls levels. After the 12 hours that I’ve spent with Ori, I was left wanting to see and explore more of its world, even though the ending had left me feeling content. Weirdly enough, the game has no noticeable minuses, yet it only occupies the spot of my second favorite game of the year. So who could be the first?
                The Witcher 3 has left its mark upon me and has been my most memorable experience of the year. In the future, when I’ll be looking back to 2015, this will be the game that will first come up in my mind. It is a beautiful mess of contradictions: for all the downgrade fiasco, it still is one of the best looking games of the year, and despite its fantastic story, the gameplay elements are not on par with Arkham Knight or The Phantom Pain. Nonetheless, I consider The Witcher 3 to be the game that provides the best overall experience of 2015, especially given its huge scope. Its open world is probably the most impressive and consistent open world created so far from a visual and atmospheric perspective. In terms of audio, it offers a fantastic soundtrack and the voice acting is top notch. The narrative is where the game truly shines though: I found myself fully immersed in the story, investing 10 hours per day into the game even though real life expected certain things from me. CDPR showed once again that they have a knack for creating believable characters and decisions that will make you dread their consequences. As a long time Witcher fan, the ride has been very emotional and this ending was the perfect conclusion to a very long story. Sure, I’ve mentioned that the gameplay aspect was not up to par: the game was too easy even on the highest difficulty, the combat felt unsatisfactory, arcade and clunky due to the controls and the itemization was a mess. Some of these issues have been addressed in Hearts of Stone, its first expansion which delivered another adventure that was perhaps even more interesting that the base game. Regardless, even without the expansion, I felt that the minuses of the game could be easily overlooked given the passion and soul that was put into the world of the Witcher, its characters and its story. For all these reasons, The Witcher 3 is my game of the year and I’m looking forward to the release of its second expansion in 2016, Blood and Wine.


                I could easily guess what Wolfe’s game of the year will be considering how much he was invested emotionally in the Witcher’s saga, for me though things are much more complicated. I’m having a hard time letting the flaws go and weighing their value against each game’s qualities is a tormenting task. It would have been much easier if Batman: Arkham Knight wasn’t such a technical mess, but that’s not the case and I have to cut this game from the list before I even start to make one. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain was already described by me as the most disappointing game of the year 2015 and while it did get the best action that’s because of its great gameplay which isn’t enough to get a GotY (at least not on this website…).
                If I take every game that was chosen as best in the respective category and start nitpicking none of them will be worthy of being GotY. Last year I’ve went for high production value and the rounded up quality of the features and to be honest as time passed by I wasn’t so sure that Dragon Age: Inquisition was the right choice. So, this year I was very close on not choosing any title, but I’ve decided constrained some of my calculated thinking in this matter and let loose some of my emotions (I’m human!). Wolfe went for the most critically acclaimed game of the year, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, for different reasons than the common ones. My choice goes to a game that will probably get a cult following and hopefully a sequel of some kind: SOMA.
                In a year of adventure games it seemed fair for an adventure game to be high up there, but I didn’t base my choice on that. SOMA is more than just an adventure game is a philosophical concept that uses a video game as a platform to get you thinking.
Usually, video games make the players feel important and heroic, they prey on the fact that most of the players want to be heroes. The sensation induced by playing SOMA was entirely different. I felt small, insignificant and bothered by questions without any answer at the horizon.
                SOMA might be a stealth horror about a guy who wakes up 100 years in to the future in an oceanic research facility that should contain the last remnants of human kind and unintentional the horrors that hunt them down. This is the premise of a good horror game that has you sneaking around malformed robotic beings that went insane and now behave like killers hunting down the few living humans that define our species as we know it. But behind the scary curtain of a Frictional game hides a narrative so deep and intelligently engaging that had me thinking for days (writing this down doesn’t help me get past it).
                SOMA is bluntly asking the question of what it means to be a human either trough the annoying protagonist or a series of scientific concepts that might be just theoretical in today’s scientific world but can become reality in the close future. Our mind is what defines us and what does this represent for our existence if the one thing that makes us who we are can be copied, multiplied and transfer into a computer? SOMA is toying with this idea in a logical yet disturbing way presenting an unforgettable landscape riddled with sci-fi drama, tragedy and horror at every corner.
                Besides its book like quality of storytelling and an atmosphere that is hard to get rid of even after you stopped playing, SOMA has a good enough gameplay to have you going from start to finish. The gameplay is more tactile than everything I’ve played and while this doesn’t have much to do on how you solve the puzzles and conundrums on the PATHOS-II station, it helps immersing in the game’s twisted and claustrophobic world.
                Into the story’s and gameplay help come the visuals which are great through their artistic design and level of detail, but lack in technological quality. The OpenGL engine feels limited and unable to give this game the graphics it deserves. The textures are washed up and the play of lighting and shadows is not what you would expect from a horror game. SOMA makes up for that building much of its atmosphere through sound effects and music.
Much of the sounds were recorded in nature and this is greatly reflected in the game’s sound design quality which is gruesome and awesome at the same time. The monsters’ screams the constant crackling of the metal structures under pressure and the water sounds intensify the tensioned atmosphere to a great extent with the music keeping the tone.
                Last year I rewarded production value and this year I’m rewarding creativity and the courage of doing something different showing off to the world that video games are much more than a form of entertainment. SOMA is nowhere near a perfect game, but is not hindered by its flaws and continues to deliver a story on a high note ending with one of the most mind fucking conclusions that surprised me even if I’ve seen it coming.

                Another year of gaming is ending. The year 2015 had a lot of good moments and sadly a lot of bad moments. Lessons have been learned, trust has been shuttered, doubts have been reinforced, but hope didn’t die.
The multitude of delays has turned this year somewhat dry ultimately being saved by many pleasant surprises coming out of nowhere. Though we can remember 2015 as a year of shifting sands, the year when GTA V finally made it to the PC platform together with a full Metal Gear Solid game. It is also the year that brought back to the main stage the adventure genre and continued the classic RPG renaissance. Another year filled with interesting crowdfunded projects and many promising Early Access game rising to the surface between many shady titles.
                In the end 2015 was a good enough year that sets the path for a promising 2016 with a ton of major releases (in before delays again) and enough innovative indie titles to balance things up. Time will tell how things will turn out, but I’m positive we will have good games to play.


The Most Disappointing Game

                Only by reading the conflicting ideas referring to the best action game of this year and it becomes obvious that one of those games mentioned there will make it here as well. If you wonder why a game made it into the best action and the most disappointing categories at the same time is because that much I like and dislike this game at the same time.
                I’ve mentioned that my expectations from The Phantom Pain were high. I’ve played its “demo” called Ground Zeroes and it made me aware of what the gameplay could be, but that wasn’t exactly what impressed me the most. I was impressed by the edgy story that Ground Zeroes had translating real life political issues into a game in a horrific and touchy way. Having to go through Camp Omega has awakened in me many feelings some of them not so nice and I knew that this dark kind of story was something I would enjoy. With this knowledge and the promises made for The Phantom Pain my expectations grew with each new trailed showcasing the amazing gameplay fragmented by amazingly looking cutscenes and a music that was spot on in a surreal way.
                In all my years of gameplay I’ve never experienced a game in which what was shown in the trailers was exactly what was given in the game, nothing more nothing less. I was expecting gameplay mechanics that weren’t as complex as shown in the videos, but not this, and I was taken by surprise. What should have been a story of a hero turned antihero turned villain, was less than 6 hours out of a game that took more than 70 to finish. And for a series renowned for its cinematography there was little of that in those 6 hours as most of the storytelling was comprised of audio tapes. This was a hard and unexpected blow from a game that weirdly scored only 9s and 10s from the professional critics. I said that I’m not a MGS player, yet I was expecting more from this game and I can only imagine of what the earth bounded fans went through when they’ve played this game.
It’s hard not to notice how much content was cut from this game (besides mission 51) because of the disjunction between the missions and the storytelling. The Phantom Pain is suffering from the same illness that takes over most of the games these days, especially the open world ones. There is a terrible focus on quantity that takes precedent over the content’s quality severely affecting the end product and that focus is present in this game as well. So many repetitive main and secondary missions are thrown at the player with a complete disregard for the story itself. In the end the developer’s focus on the accountable playtime took part of the game experience away diminishing even further the value of the story that was present in the game.
                The story isn’t that bad. It relies on metaphors and hidden details rather than the visual storytelling that is Kojima’s trademark. This unique take on storytelling is clearly interesting but hard to perceive and understand to its full extent. But this strange storytelling combined with the slow paced narrative and the butchered content ends up making things worse.
It’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain a good game? Sure it is. Objectively speaking the game has some extremely good features but its problems are enough to diminish them. In the end the gradation of goodness found in this game is up to each player’s tolerance and the relationship with the franchise. But when I think about The Phantom Pain, I first feel the bitter taste of disappointment and only after that I remember its great gameplay…


The Best Graphics and The Best Sound Design

The Best Graphics
                Before things started to unfold, I thought this year’s graphics battle will be between The Witcher 3 and The Division. In the end things turned out to be different. The Witcher 3 suffered a huge graphics downgrade affecting the quality of the textures, the lighting effects, the view range, the water quality and other graphical assets. The game still looks good but it isn’t all that impressive anymore. On the other hand, The Division’s release date was moved to March 2016 (and a downgrade is visible in the latest videos).
                DICE has proved in the past that the Frostbite engine’s capabilities are quite high and they go outside of the Battlefield range. But the engine was designed with shooters in mind and it fits perfectly with this genre creating spectacular landscapes for explosive action. Such is the case for Star Wars Battlefront which takes advantage of the latest version of the Frostbite engine to show the best looking maps that a Star Wars game has ever seen. Adding to this powerful engine the technology called photogrammetry and some of the most iconic battles in the Star Wars universe come to life. Only if the gameplay and content quality was on par with its technology and Battlefront would have been an absolute hit. Even so, the landscapes in this game are close to photorealism with detailed textures and special effects that are a true feast for the eyes. It’s hard to look at Battlefront and not fall in love with its visuals and feel immersed into the Star Wars universe.
                One might say that DICE spent too much time and resources with the photogrammetry and too little on developing the actual game which might be true. But this is the best graphics category and there is no question that DICE nailed it. When most of the games are one step in the past held back by the aging consoles and cheaper technology, Battlefront takes a leap forward and it does it with grace running smoothly at the highest settings on any decent rig.

The Best Sound Effects, Voice Acting and Soundtrack

                It’s a difficult task to choose the best in a category where subjectivism is probably the primary factor. Nevertheless, I’ll try to find a middle ground between my general music preferences, the quality of sound design and the voice acting.
                From the games I’ve played the ones that stood out the most and are relevant to this category are: Kholat, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and SOMA. I’ve enjoyed all these games not only for their overall quality but for their sound design and soundtrack.
                Kholat’s sound design is annoyingly awesome to the point that it stands out as the most horrifying thing in the whole game (an adventure horror) and when it doesn’t the soothing narrative voice of Sean Bean surely makes things easier.
The Witcher 3 has found a perfect balance between a slightly original soundtrack befitting for the game’s setting, good sound design and tremendously performed voice acting.
 The Phantom Pain has everything for everybody featuring some of the best music of 80s including the foreshadowing track The Man Who Sold the World, good sound design and a great voice acting that is only lacking a protagonist that can speak more than four words at a time.
SOMA’s sound design is excellent with a lot of recording done outdoors to sound as realistically as possible and with monster’s screaming in a terrifying electrical way that make you lose your mind in tandem with the protagonist.
So how can I choose between these games?
To be honest I can’t, so I went for the equality in quantity and quality as it seemed the fairest way to deal with the problem at hand.
                The Witcher 3 soundtrack inspired by Slavic songs is extremely amazing and fits perfectly into the eastern European setting. The combat music is so engaging that I still listen to it from time to time to get some courage on the way to my boring work place. The voice acting, that voice acting! How can I describe it in such a way to make it justice? Every feeling is lived by the actors and through their performance is induced to the players. There are so many memorable moments and created by unforgettable voices and supported by good writing making it extremely hard not to sink in this game’s adventurous story.
                In a subjective category I choose The Witcher 3 for the best sound effects, voice acting and soundtrack. Did I love the sound in the other games? Of course I did, I was listening from time to time some of the songs in The Phantom’s Pain soundtrack before the game was released and Sins of the Father has become one of my favorite song ever. And this is just an example, there are many others.
I feel like the soundtracks have become more original and more spot on over the years and the sound design has made such huge progress that there fewer and fewer games failing to execute this properly. This year is filled with games that sound awesome so take your pick as my choice shouldn’t necessarily be yours.


The Most Promising Early Access Game

                Early Access has become something so frequent and popular these days that it cannot be ignored so I thought it will be a good idea to take a look at the games that are in this stage of development/commercialization and see which one stands out the most. Does this mean I support a system that is partially flawed? Not necessarily, but it means I acknowledge the games with high potential that are part of this system and I would like to point them out as they might have a bright future.
                I’ve played a bunch of Early Access games released this year, but among them only a few stood out: Killing Floor 2, ARK: Survival Evolved, Call to Arms and Squad. I’ve given all these games a fair amount of time, some of them I’ve played more than fully released titles (I have 95 hours in ARK), but coming to a conclusion was a lot easier than I expected.
                There are enough horde mode games out there to keep the enthusiasts busy and the genre has a high replayability by nature and the fans are usually tolerant to the repetitive content. Killing Floor 2 might be a reenvision of the first game with a lot of cool new features and a shooting worthy of AAA games, but it’s still Killing Floor.
                ARK: Survival Evolved takes on the mechanics set up by Rust and puts them in a prehistoric world inhabited by various species of dinosaurs. It’s a fresher setting for the survival genre, but it’s taken to extreme heights through nerve-racking grinding that can lead up to hours of wasted time when somebody destroys your entire work. It’s a good game for those interested in such a game style and looks fantastic with Unreal Engine 4, but most importantly it is closer to a release than any other Early Access survival game of the last three years. Still, ARK doesn’t take the survival genre by storm and just serves its continuity.
                Call to Arms is the modern warfare reimagining of the Men of War: Assault Squad series with the addition of physics and a 3rd person aiming that can be more accurate than the unit’s AI. It’s a good RTT with a lot of gameplay depth, but a little less personality. The game is promising and for the fans of the Assault Squad series it’s surely a step forward after the disappointment of the sequel, but too many degrees is too similar to those games. Being in Alpha a lot of the features are subject to change and that is good because this game and the genre deserve the best.
                The last, but not least is my pick from this year’s pool of Early Access games. Why do I consider Squad to be the most promising? First of all, the game is designed out of passion by a group of modders who worked on the Project Reality mods for Battlefield 2 and ARMA 2. They worked with some of the best shooters and improved on them based on the needs of a community that was looking for a more niche simulator gameplay experience. Now they are using Unreal Engine 4 to make their own standalone game named Squad.
                Squad is a sandbox tactical war simulator played from a first person perspective. It’s a game with brutal gameplay depicting perfectly the dehumanized war of today.
Squad’s need of tactics comes from the game’s mechanics that keep the players from going solo rampage like in the latest shooters style. The slow movement, the difficult shooting, the deadly weapons and the small view range support a gameplay that requires teamwork and coordination more than anything else. Because of these factors the VOIP plays an important role allowing squads members to communicate between them and receive orders from the squad leaders on the strategy and how they should proceed to combat. This level of realism leads to a thrilling war experience where teamwork and tactics win over shooting skill.
                Squad is part of a niche genre that isn’t for everybody and the only real competitor it has is ARMA 3 with the big difference between the two games being the engine. With the power and flexibility of Unreal Engine 4 Squad has an actual chance of becoming a problem free game, compared to the ARMA series which is carrying the same issues from a title to another with no fixes in sight.
The development roadmap for Squad is fascinating with transport vehicles in January and later in the future combat armored vehicles, main battle tanks and even attack helicopters. The already tactical sandbox experience of the today’s game will change completely in the future with the features planned. And with mod support the game’s lifespan and replayability will be expanded for years to come.
                Video games’ portrayal of war has never looked as realistic as it does now and the future looks extremely promising for Squad as it does for all the games I’ve mentioned above. But with Early Access games (not exclusively with them) the question remains if the developers can deliver on their promises. Let’s hope they do, because these games deserve the best.


The Best Online Game

                It seems fairly easy to choose the Online game from 2015 with the most impact. This year we had GTA V Online, Guild Wars 2 Heart of Thorns, Call of Duty Black Ops III, Star Wars Battlefront, Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void, Rainbow Six Siege and many others, including many MMOs changing business model and even some going free to play.
                Guild Wars 2 Heart of Thorns is the first expansion released by ArenaNet after three years of providing free content for the core game. Not only the expansion is great bringing by enough new content to keep the players going for quite a while, but the core game has become free to play in such a nonrestrictive way that puts the actual free to play games to shame.
Heart of Thorns adds four new large areas in the Jungle of Maguuma. The new areas are difficult but interesting to explore and very rewarding. To help with the exploration an upgradeable glider has been added to the game that said NO to mounts repeatedly which seems like a great choice by the developers. The glider is fun and easy to use but has a bit of skill cap if you want to arrive safely in the harder to reach areas of the new maps or if you want to score high in the new challenging adventures.
                Following the expansion’s release Heart of Thorns has received an extremely challenging 10man raid to give the hardcore PvE players more things to do. The PvP players are enjoying a rebalancing of the maps in WvW with the addition of a new map. The Structured PvP has received a new map and mode inspired by MoBAs, but more importantly the long waited Guild vs Guild is here and so is the ranked system.
                There is also a new profession, the Revenant, while all professions now have an elite specialization which allows the usage of a new weapon and new abilities. A lot of balancing has been done between the professions to make them more competitive and equally strong in PvE and PvP.
                Heart of Thorns a new personal story continues from where the Living Story has left and does a lot of things right compared with the original one. The story feels rushed and a little too short for what it has to present skipping on information that should tie some of the story episodes together. Even so, it does a great job for an MMO and opens up loads of possibilities for future Living Story Seasons and expansions.
                There are a ton of new interesting things to do in Guild Wars 2 and the previous politics for gear quality and the maximum level haven’t been changed as the old gear isn’t outdated and the level cap remains at level 80 thus validating the player’s work. Instead the expansion added a new mechanic named Masteries which acts as a new progression system.
                The list of new additions, improvements and changes is gigantic. What it’s important is that most of the things on that list are great news for the game and its players including those who continue to play the core game. The life span of Guild Wars 2 has been extended tremendously and not in the artificial carrot on a stick way which most of the MMOs use.
ArenaNet will continue to support the game with free content and probably a new Season of Living Story proving once again that high quality MMOs can exist with a non-subscription based business model. 


The Best Strategy

                There is little to say about the strategy games of this year. There were very few titles and even fewer worth mentioning. Aside from the annual Total War release there are a few notable titles. This year Eugene Systems put aside the RTT series Wargame returning to their RTS roots after a break of 10 years. Act of Aggression is a spiritual successor to Act of War following on its legacy while improving it but not in a very impressive manner. The quality of the campaign is questionable and the multiplayer is missing the feeling of micro/macro management strategies.
                Other indie developers have tried with some pretty decent titles including Grey Goo, Satellite Reign, Hard West and Mordheim: City of the Damned. But clearly the most notable strategy of the year was StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void, the standalone expansion that brings the series to an end.
                Legacy of the Void story shows the protoss race lead by Artanis standing against the Dark Amon corruption in a fight for the galaxy’s future in a lengthy campaign filled with mechanically interesting missions and disappointment. For a game that marks the end of an era putting an end to a story that spans over one and a half decades, Legacy of the Void singleplayer was torn between the high quality content and the average narrative. The story was cheesy, clich├ęd and generally not captivating.  The game made up for some of those flaws with the great production value and the interesting missions that Blizzard’s strategy games always had. Still, the ending wasn’t something worthy of such a legendary saga. But StarCraft is StarCraft after all, the game made e-sport a real thing and for all the bad things that can be seen in the singleplayer there is a lot of goodness to be experienced in the multiplayer.
                Blizzard’s main focus with the release of StarCraft II has been the e-sport scene and Legacy of the Void continues on what its predecessors did by improving and revitalizing the game for its competitive multiplayer component. The fast gameplay revolving on a lot of micro and macro management is a beauty either if you watch the game or play it.
                The problem with the StarCraft titles has always been the abrupt learning curve and for the players that didn’t manage to adapt to the game’s complex gameplay there was little to do in StarCraft II after the campaign. Blizzard has tried to address this issue by adding a Co-op mode which expands the singleplayer with a progressive and friendlier multiplayer environment.
                At the end of the day, StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void isn't the finale this series deserved, but the great gameplay combined with high production value make it the best strategy of this year.


The Best Shooter

                If I have to condemn this year for something other than what I’ve said in the introduction it’s the lack of shooters. Besides the annual releases which include a new Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 and two Battlefield wannabe games: Battlefield Hardline and Star Wars Battlefront, most of the interesting shooters that could be played this year are part of Steam’s Early Access program. Killing Floor 2 and Squad are two games that can be purchased and played in their beta/alpha state and are probably some of the most enjoying games of this year and definitely two shooters to follow. But the shooter of the year can’t come from Early Access, so the only true option in this matter comes this year from Ubisoft (surprised?!).
                Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege is a game that carries two names that might upset many players, but does it with a certain pride that I cannot deny. This is not a Tom Clancy game, because Tom Clancy has passed away two years ago and it isn’t a true Rainbow Six game because it doesn’t have the tactical singleplayer of the series. So why pick this game as the shooter of the year? Because despite its controversial name Siege is probably the closest a competitive style shooter can get to what Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six used to be and one of the most innovative games of the year.
                Rainbow Six Siege is a tactical 5v5 FPS which has one team attacking an objective in a building while the other team is defending it. The twist of this game stands in expanding the simple concept behind Counter-Strike into a much more complex game. In a preparation phase the attackers scout the building with drones in search of the objective position and any information that could help them. On the other hand the defenders reinforce walls and place traps creating a maze-like area that leads to the objective with them waiting in the right spots to surprise the attackers. The actual phase of the game takes only four minutes but these are probably some of the most intense four minutes you will get in an online shooter. The game transforms technology into a tactical gimmick that can change a match’s course and make each round unique. Most of the walls are destroyable and the players can create pathways to avoid chock points and traps. The destruction in this game is at a small scale due to the smaller maps but it’s probably unprecedented and offers so much gameplay value making Siege the strong game that it is.
                Siege has its problems inherited from Ubisoft’s long history of unstable servers and poor netcode. The matchmaking isn’t working properly either and there are some smaller issues with the interface. Most of them will be worked out and they should be worked out as soon as possible, because it would be a shame if a game like this will fade away just because Ubisoft didn’t fix it fast enough.

                Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege is the best FPS of 2015. It might not say much considering the small number of shooters that came this year and their questionable quality, but this game tried to innovate in an era where shooters come out of the annual assembly line and bravos Ubisoft for finally having some courage.


The Best RPG

                For me, 2015 has been a fantastic year for this genre, even more so than 2014, which marked the renaissance of the old-school RPGs through crowdfunding with titles such as Divinity: Original Sin and Wasteland 2. This year, the RPGs that came out can be spread among three categories: the big AAA releases (The Witcher 3, Fallout 4 and Bloodborne), the crowdfunded titles (Pillars of Eternity, Serpent in the Staglands and Shadowrun Hong Kong), and the ones almost nobody knows about because they were developed by very small teams (The Age of Decadence and Underrail).
Out of all the titles that I’ve mentioned, three have really stood out for me: The Witcher 3, The Age of Decadence and Underrail. The first has been the game I have ever been most excited for due to it being the conclusion of Geralt’s story. The Witcher 3 has been one of the most memorable RPG experiences due to its amazing narrative, characters and atmosphere, despite the fact that the gameplay was lacking. After sinking almost 200 hours in it, I told myself “Wow. Let’s see if any other titles can best this.” And perhaps surprisingly so, there were two that did.
                Iron Tower Studio (a team of less than ten people) has worked on The Age of Decadence for the past eleven years and the wait has been more than worth it. The game features brutal and yet very tactical combat, immense replayability due to the vast amounts of choices and consequences available and complex character customization and progression. It is a RPG which you can finish with a “class”, then start over with another and see a completely different story unfold. Again, I told myself that it was very unlikely that there could be another RPG in 2015 that would be better than this.
                But the surprise of the year came from Underrail, a title of which I hadn’t even heard of one year ago. It has been developed for almost seven years by a Serbian programmer under the alias of Styg, who only had help from two other people (thus “forming” Stygian Studios) during the final stretch. From a games development perspective, this is an astonishing achievement: Underrail is a RPG that can take up to 100 hours on the first playthrough, and it lacks filler content such as the points of interest from The Witcher 3. However, that would mean nothing if the game wasn’t good. And it is more than that... Underrail feels like what Fallout 3 should have been, it is the spiritual successor of Fallout 1 and 2.
                Perhaps the reason why I love it so much is how well all its systems work together: the character creation and progression is deep, with characteristics, feats and skills which allow for several different builds. The combat system takes advantage of this: all encounters are challenging and let you create your own strategy based on the build you’ve chosen. There were moments when I believed I couldn’t get past one area, but after giving it some more thought I always realized that I already had the necessary tools at my disposal. There are other systems that come into play: crafting allows you to create some of the most powerful gear – if you have the appropriate skills -, and stealth is a completely viable option, especially because the sound system in the game works very well. The game also features an interesting setting: in a post-apocalyptic world, the remnants of humanity live in the metro and have formed several factions with compelling ideologies but conflicting purposes – sounds like Metro, but it is more fleshed out from a narrative perspective and also very atmospheric -.
                Even though the story isn’t as engaging as in The Witcher 3 and the choices and consequences aren’t as complex as in Age of Decadence, I’ve found that the way in which all of the game’s systems come together forms a very coherent mix which is tremendously enjoyable to play. For the ones out there who love old-school RPGs and especially the first Fallout games, Underrail simply cannot be missed. And as such, it is my favorite RPG of 2015.


The Best Adventure

                For me the year 2015 was a letdown in many ways, but through many disappointments something wonderful happened, the adventure genre came back to life. It was quite annoying to see that at this year’s Game Awards there wasn’t a category for Adventure games (nor Strategy games) especially considering the huge number of good titles we had from this genre.
                The first half of the year was a real warm up, starting the year by playing with time in Life is Strange and enjoying the delicious writing of Sunless Sea. There were many fun moments in the quirky episodes of Tales from the Borderlands put in a counterbalance by the emotional Ori and the Blind Forest. The middle of the year set the darker tone for what was to come through Kholat with its haunting sound design and marvelous graphics. Daedalic Entertainment couldn’t be missing from this party bringing one of their best works with Anna’s Quest.
The surprise came from the indie studio THE BROTHERHOOD which worked 5 years on a gem that many might have missed but they shouldn’t have. STASIS is a great isometric horror adventure with a gruesome atmosphere built through great writing and Mark’s Morgan awesome OST. In September Frictional Games returned with a title to remind the players how it is to be scared and while this wasn’t their most scary work it was probably one of the deepest and philosophical games ever made.
                SOMA is a first person adventure stealth game in which the player has to run and hide from disfigured monsters in the known style of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The story has the player seeing what’s left of humanity after an apocalyptic event that wiped out most of our race, but this isn’t the theme of the story but rather one of its implications. The story of SOMA (body) has existentialism written all over it, putting the player into situations which often raise the question “what it means to be a human”. It’s a philosophical half scary journey through the depths of the ocean but also the depths of our existence something that few games have tried to exploit. SOMA has the most predictable story that I’ve ever enjoyed in my entire life, only pointing out the greatness of this game’s writing that doesn’t need extreme twists to keep you wanting to see the end. And the decisions I had to take in this game were some of the most emotionally intense and the hardest to live with I’ve experienced in a game despite not having any impact on the story or the ending.
                SOMA’s twisted tone and dark atmosphere are the result of the game as a whole. The writing, the setting, the monsters and the mind shattering sound design make for some moments that are hard to forget. Yet, for all the horror in this game, SOMA is a scary game not because of its monsters but because of what the narrative is trying to convey. The questions without an answer that will be left imprinted into the player’s mind will probably stick there for days and even when they fade away they won’t be completely gone.
                The year 2015 was great for the adventure genre and this game is right up there. SOMA stands as an example of the meaning of video games beyond their entertainment value as a cultural and artistic tool to present to the public difficult subjects. If only the game wasn’t hindered by its OpenGL graphics, AI problems and other issues that take away from its greatness stopping it from reaching heights that few adventures have reached before. Still, SOMA is without a question one of the best games of this year and the best adventure of 2015.
Looking over the upcoming adventure games in 2016, it’s safe to say that the genre’s future is at least partially secured.


The Best Action

                Choosing the best action game was problematic because all the actions games of this year had major flaws. Trying to objectively weigh between these games’ flaws and strong points is not an easy task and the result might be upsetting for some, but this article wasn’t written to make people happy.
                Being honest with the readers but also with myself, my highest hopes for 2015 were in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain while the least appealing action game for me was Batman: Arkham Knight (I’m not sure why). But in an ironical turn of events Arkham Knight was a somewhat pleasant surprise (in terms of gameplay and story), while MGS V was a little disappointing. Then there was Dying Light which was very entertaining with its innovative way of fighting a contained zombie apocalypse by using parkour, but even this one is full of problems.
                I liked Arkham Knight a lot with all its slightly annoying flaws and its poor design choices. But all of them could be overlooked, the one thing that couldn’t be is the performance problem which was and still is experienced by a big percentage of the PC players. Despite Warner Brothers and Rocksteady Studios attempt to fix the game after it was pulled from the stores, the taste of the terrible first release and the problems that still weren’t fixed after its re-release stole this game’s chances.
So, choosing the best action game was difficult, but I’ve set my mind on a controversial title with a stunning cinematographic presentation and probably the best gameplay I’ve experienced in years: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
                Right off the bat I have to say that before Ground Zeroes I haven’t played any MGS game, so I’m not part of those two extremist categories of fans, those who zealously defend the game or those who hate it for its failures compared to the rest of the games in the franchise. I’ve read and watched a lot of stuff about the franchise before playing The Phantom Pain and I was pretty caught up with the messed up story and how the game really works. As a guy that only experienced the theoretical part of the series, there was no emotional connection for me. But maybe this was for the better as I could judge the game for what it is without many prejudices.
                The Phantom Pain is an action adventure stealth game heavily focused on gameplay mechanics befitting for a wide variety of play styles. The game’s strongest point is clearly the gameplay which allows switching from intensive action shooting to complex and smoothly working stealth in such a way that no other game has done it before. The options are mind boggling and the unique scenarios that can rise from putting your imagination to work while using the game’s tools are completely amazing. I can’t remember the last time when I had such a realistic freedom of doing things the way I wanted while still in some boundaries of logic ironically placed in a game with a hardly logical story.
                Sadly, The Phantom Pain deeply suffers from its narrative which starts extremely strong but dilutes in a matter of hours lost between tons of repetitive missions designed to have fun with the gameplay mechanics but not with the story itself. The storyline is weak and gets weakened as the game progresses with only a few moments where it truly wakes up and delivers what was promised. The game that was supposed to present a hero’s descent into madness doesn’t deliver on that promise, showing instead a phantom of that very hero. I can’t say the story is bad, because the more you search through it and explore its possibilities you find out what Hideo Kojima tried to do, but the exposition is hard to digest and the pacing is extremely weak. The story is there, maybe not the greatest in the franchise and with a  lot of cut content to make everyone mad on Konami, but sure it’s there, slightly hidden in a presentation style that won’t be on everyone’s taste.
                But for all the cut content and the weird story presentation, The Phantom Pain is still a tactical stealth game delivered with the help of an open world platform. And while the AI is dumbed down for that reason, the gameplay still stands undeniably strong worthy of a masterpiece that missed the mark through its various problems.
                The Phantom Pain will leave the fans of the series in pain over the cut content and the departure of Hideo Kojima from Konami, but will remain the game with one of the best and most refined action stealth gameplay ever made.


The Best and The Worst of 2015

                The year 2015 was full of controversial moments, not because of the release of Hatred, in fact the most controversial thing related to this game was the fact that it was pulled from Steam for a short period of time. What stand out the most this year are the horrible things that we the gamers had to endure, the things which are threatening our awesome hobby. Aggressive false advertisement, games launched in a deplorable state and even unfinished products are some of the issues that came up more often than in the previous years. While for many they have been forgotten, for me these problems are still fresh and I would like to remind everyone of the dangers of these practices. The developers and publishers are taking us for fools more than ever and with ignorance we won’t get anywhere. So I want you to remember that in 2015 we were tricked multiple times by multiple publishers/developers and this probably won’t stop here. We need laws to protect us from these horrible practices and we need them now! The first step has been taken with the introduction of the refund option by multiple sellers. Because of this one developer/publisher was forced to retract its game and re-launch it after it was “fixed”. But in order to fight false advertisement, we need more than that.
                Leaving the controversy aside, the year 2015 also came with some pretty sweet games that will probably be cherished by the gamers for years to come. It was a relatively balanced year with good games from most of the genres. The revitalization of the adventure games should be the talking point with some of the better titles we had in years coming from unexpected rather unexpected places. Nobody thought this genre still had a chance in its old format and while the sales are not in extremely high figures, there are many developers who are willing to make these games. I’m glad to see that the adventure genre who many thought to be dead is coming back to life both in its older form and in the revised more cinematic presentation that sprung after Telltale’s success. Looking at this comeback I’m hopeful that one day strategy games (RTS in particular) will get the developers’ and consumers’ attention as they did at the start of the 2000s.
                As before, I have to say that I couldn’t go through all the relevant games of this year, the time (or wallet) didn’t allow me to do so. But I did play a good amount of them (way too many) and I’ll be choosing the most worthy games based on that with Wolfe taking over a few categories.
So let’s kick in with the best games of 2015!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Screenshot of the Week #65: Happy Holidays!

                The Game Slashers team wishes you a (late) Merry Christmas!!! Stay tuned for our upcoming end of the year articles!
Santa is real!!!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Mordheim: City of the Damned Review!

                Mordheim: City of the Damned was originally a spinoff to the popular tabletop game Warhammer Fantasy. It was designed to cater the needs of Necromundia and Warhammer Fantasy fans and somehow it didn't manage to do either. Mordheim wasn't received well by the fans and while it was and still is played, the game doesn't show the best of this universe. Nevertheless, in the light of recent events with the massive overhaul brought by the Age of Sigmar, games like Mordheim which are based in the classic world might be looked at from a more positive perspective.
                Rogue's Factor Mordheim: City of the Damned is a video game adaption to the tabletop game that comes as part of the huge wave of Games Workshop licenses that has been spread to various game developers. This is a title that managed to come out from the now dangerous process that is known as Steam Early Access with the support of the fans and a listening ear from the developer.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Screenshot of the Week #64: A war story...

                This week’s screenshot was not taken by me. I got the permission to use it by the one who took it as I’m in this screenshot which comes with a whole lot of story. I was part of an US military Squad in the game with the unintuitive name of Squad, which is a war simulator translated into a tactical shooter, but that’s hardly relevant to this article so I’ll get back to the beginning.
                I was part of a US Squad together with Wolfe and some other guys that were recruited on the fly. Our initial assignments given by our squad leader was to capture a strategic point, build an FOB in the area and hold it at any cost. The first two tasks went quite smoothly, we hit some bumps when some lazy soldiers didn’t want to put their shovels to work and some stray bullets stirred us. Nevertheless, in a few minutes we had a reinforced position from which we could provide some cover fire and protect the backs of our advancing squads.
                 It was blissfully quiet the kind of quiet that shouldn’t be heard on a battlefield and usually means something isn’t right. But ignorantly we were taking pleasure in these moments of peace, taking pictures of our unit while making jokes and generally enjoying life. Then the orders came. Our unit was to be dispatched to the center of the enemy controlled territory in a desperate attempt to capture a high priority position which was heavily defended. We followed a creek upstream staying in the cover of the trees that were showering the river bed with their shadows. The crystal clear water was joyfully reflecting the light of the summer afternoon sun on our faces taking the worry away. In short time we arrived at a bridge. We were supposed to move northwest from here and engage the enemy compound which was half a click away. We went through a cornfield full of poppies which felt like disjunction from the cruel reality that was about to hit us. As we reached the first line of buildings that was on the other side of the cornfield hell was unleashed on us. In a matter of seconds our brave squad leader was on the ground badly injured and multiple voices were asking for the same person: medic! I could see our medic was desperately trying to avoid being shot while treating as many wounded soldiers as possible. By the time I could get in position and respond to their fire most of our squad was dead. I tried to look for my friend, but Wolfe was nowhere to be found. I ran into the cover provided by a stone wall and launched all the smoke grenades I had to cover my back and the only survivor left from my squad. We fought back, we shot left and right, he was taking them down and I was providing suppressing fire. The battle frenzy made us unaware of the fact that the smoke wasn’t providing a good cover anymore so we didn’t change our positions. Then a violent sound came followed by a few more. My eyes got blurry and I turned to the direction of those sounds. I’ve seen the enemy, we were surrounded, I tried to fire back and before I knew it I was on my back looking at the blue sky of a summer afternoon. Everything went dark. I woke up in our FOB where my courageous squad was waiting for me to get up and ready. We were not going to give up on taking that position. So we went back by the creek, but this time with the knowledge from our first attempt. But this didn’t matter to me, because it was quiet again and I was thinking about the picture we took in those early blissful moments. 
That blissful time...

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