Even though PC games were predominately my favorite games this year, I am happy to see that we're finally moving past the initial doldrums following a new console generation. There's always that awkward time right after release where developers haven't learned all the little tricks and quirks of the next-gens and are still splitting time developing on the previous consoles. After a few dry years, it is great to be back in a position of having a bunch of games to choose to highlight. These are the games that were at the top of my list.
On the surface, Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide is pretty easy to pigeon-hole as simply Left 4 Dead with loot and replace all the zombies with ratmen, Skaven. Hell, even the special infected share some similarity with the ones in Vermintide: one that jumps on you, another strangles you, and there's a big beastly ogre rat. But going a little deeper and you'll see a number of clever features that really set Vermintide apart.
The characters have fun personalities that play out through occasional audio quips, and each one gets a variety of weapons that have their own little quirks and differences. A mace and shield might not do a ton of damage, but it will hit a wide arc in front of you, whereas a rapier will stab quickly straight ahead. It gives a surprising amount of freedom to develop a character's combat style, even in a fairly constrained system of hit the ratmen with the pointy or smashy end of your weapon.
What I've most enjoyed is the balancing of how the game handles loot. Scattered across the level are items that improve your chances at better loot at the end, however all these items come with drawbacks. Just holding them takes up an inventory slot, meaning you can't carry potions or healing items along. Others will debuff the health of the whole party. So there's this great push and pull between needing to be in good enough condition to still finish the level and wanting to get the best chances at better items.
If you've got a few friends jonesing for some co-op, or you just love the Warhammer Fantasy setting, go grab Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide.
Tiny Side Note & Honorable Mention: If you're interested in more co-op, I'd suggest checking out the recent release of Helldivers on the PC.
MMOs are in kind of a weird place lately. The big MMO craze that dominated much of the game industry a few years back has all but dried up as other genres have slowly bleed into what used to set MMOs apart. However, a few game companies and their respective games have been able to carve out little pockets for themselves. Specifically, some of the early adopters to free-to-play. Games like EVE that speak to a very specific fan base, and ArenaNet with the Guild Wars series.
Guild Wars 2 broke down a lot of the little game mechanic walls that every other MMO simply repeated, and its latest expansion Heart of Thorns is no different. The most radical of these is that there is no level cap increase. You instead spend your experience on unlocking account crossing abilities, like being able to arrest your fall and glide which comes in rather handy in the new rather vertical maps areas of the expansion. This means that leveling up in the expansion is more of a side-grade rather than wiping out all your progress in the last few years right away.
The best part of Heart of Thorns is the continued approach to embracing exploration and getting players working together. Maps are littered with little unlocks and points of interest, along with map wide events that players will need to tackle together - like a day / night cycle where all your friendly camps get overrun and need defending at night. A lot of MMOs just feel like crappy RPGs with a chat program stapled on, and Guild Wars goes a long way to combat that by embracing what makes MMOs special.
I'm just going to come out and say it, I freaking love the Baldur's Gate series. Without a doubt, Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn is top five games of all time. So back when the initial KickStarter fervor was in full swing, I was fully on board when Obsidian Entertainment announced they wanted to crowdfund a spiritual successor to isometric RPGs.
When Pillars of Eternity finally did come out, not only did we get a great new entry into the genre, that was faithful to the games that came before it, but it wasn't all rose tinted nostalgia and winks to the camera. It was a great game that could stand on its own. The game has a great cast of interesting characters and companions, along with a rich story which you're given a ton of agency over. The quests love to toss you into these tough moments where there's no clear right answer. What's that? Having to roleplay in my RPG? Sadly unheard of these days, I know.
When it comes to progression and combat, there are plenty of new ideas and mechanics rather than just repeating older games, but it's all cleverly mixed with just enough familiar concepts that it's easy to grasp, yet still feels new. Pillars of Eternity stands shoulder to shoulder with some of the best RPGs released this year.
From Software has found something that works and a fan base willing to support it, and we all love them for it - though I wouldn't mind a return to classic Armored Core eventually.
So when Sony wanted a new exclusive IP for the PS4, their solution was to make totally-not-Dark Souls *cough*cough* Bloodborne. While Bloodborne is technically outside of the Dark Souls franchise, it does draw heavily from it, and perhaps most importantly it was the return of Hidetaka Miyazaki, who directed the Demon's Souls and Darks Souls, after he taken a more supervisory role for Dark Souls II. Not that everything great should be attributed to him, but most fans will agree there was a marked drop in certain aspects of Dark Souls II.
Drenched in a Lovecraftian vibe, Bloodborne retained many of the elements fans have come love from the Souls games. The game is challenging and brutal at times, but it rewards players for carefully exploring and finding what works for them in combat. Perhaps trying to appeal to a wider console gamer market, it was also refreshingly a little faster paced than previous games, owed in part to a de-emphasis on shields, with the player instead using a gun in the off-hand. It is an excellent example of how to modify your game for a wider audience without throwing your whole gameplay experience under the bus.
It's uncanny how it's almost worth owning a PS4 just for Bloodborne, especially if you've enjoyed Souls games in the past.
Looking back over the last year, one game stood above all the rest. I've enjoyed a lot of games this year, but Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt kind of blows them all away. I remember getting my hands on the game for the first time at a press event, I didn't stop playing until the community manager finally kicked me off because the venue was closing up. I was even getting into sections that they hadn't fully QA tested yet.
Witcher 3 is such a rich and engrossing experience from the story, characters, and the world itself. I'd challenge anyone to play through the Family Matters quest line and not think Witcher 3 deserves all the praises heaped on it. Outside of the story quests though, there's a big open world to discover, and the game manages a careful balance between the two.
The game maps are littered with Witcher contracts, monsters to slay, treasures to hunt down, and side quests. There's so much to see and do in the game it's almost overwhelming at times. It helps that the game looks positively gorgeous as your traveling here and there, though it's hard to not just ride around on your horse taking in the scenery.
Without a doubt it's the best game released this year, and that's really saying something given other strong contenders.