Gamers have had it good this year, with the first full calendar year of committed now-current generation console development, as well as huge things going on in the indie scene. The Five Favorites selection process is, for me at least, one of the toughest minigames in this line of work. Deciding what's good or bad about a given game has its challenges, but trying to decide what I personally enjoyed the most puts everything into a relative context, and demands comparisons between the absurdly gorgeous, cinematic-driven Mortal Kombat X and the 90s-style graphics of Sublevel Zero, while trying to create some basis of comparison for a 2-D fighting game and a six-degrees-of-freedom ship shooter Descent clone. "Apples and oranges" is one thing, but this is more akin to "apples and duct tape."
My Five Favorites are everything I loved about entertainment in 2015. Sometimes I wonder if I'm entirely driven by nostalgia, and this list is not going to dissuade anybody of that opinion, but sometimes what is old is new, and, with one exception, my Five Favorites for this year showcase that exceptionally well.
I was late to the Fallout series, and was still working on my second playthrough of Fallout 3 when New Vegas launched. I never did end up going back to play New Vegas, but with such fond memories of alternately saving and nuking Megaton, I could hardly wait to get back into the universe. I was skeptical of the seeming importance put on settlement building and such from the trailers and previews, but once I started exploring the Commonwealth, all of my fears drifted away in the radioactive winds.
I'm an avowed sucker for the Taken plot archetype, and Fallout 4 was exactly that, with a bit more political intrigue and, on occasion, mini-nukes. There have been vocal critics of the game and its story, but I personally found the narrative to be the perfect motivation to keep pushing through the wasteland. Hacking apart my nemesis in the game with nothing but Grognak's Axe was among the more satisfying role-playing moments of the year for me. Sure, I could have just shot him to bits with a plasma rifle and saved myself a dozen Stimpaks, but brutalizing my enemy with a medieval weapon offered too much catharsis for my character to ignore.
I wouldn't say Fallout 4 was perfect, and I think there could have been a bit more effort spent on the environmental storytelling, rather than requiring the interested players to read through log entry after log entry in every terminal they can find, but the stories you make yourself have always been the most interesting where I'm concerned, and Fallout 4 gives you those opportunities, if you're inclined to seize them. When you inevitably tire of the Brotherhood of Steel's crap, I recommend donning Grognak's Costume (just a loincloth), and storming the BOS headquarters.
Hand of Fate is one of the games I've found myself going back to time and again this year, and, despite having actually completed the story mode, I continue to find new experiences to enjoy and challenges to overcome. Somehow, the game's antagonist, narrator, and generally smarmy bastard, The Dealer, who continues to berate you for your failures, and begrudge you your successes, doesn't ever seem to get old. He's like the dog from Duck Hunt, only he verbally derides, and the smirking giggle when you lose is covered by his cloth veil. He's still laughing at you, though. I know it.
This is an odd sort of game, because there's not really a story behind it, per se. You're the player, and he's the Dealer. You're in a battle of luck and wits in this life-and-death card game, but neither of you have total control. You'll explore a map of face-down cards, with each space you land on turning up an event or encounter. You'll need to manage your food resources, collect equipment to aid you in combat, gather gold and find shops in which to spend it, and engage your enemies in real-time, hack-and-slash combat. Once you've found the stairs, ferry, or ladder to the next area, you'll start again, each time your enemies growing stronger.
My favorite part of Hand of Fate was less to do with it doing anything particularly unique, and more with the way it assembled familiar puzzle pieces into an unfamiliar whole. You'll build decks for your encounters and equipment before each game, so you have a lot of control in how things play out, but the randomness and elements that the Dealer throws in keep you from being able to replicate the same run, even if you wanted to. There are dialogue options, which can have a huge impact in the outcome of an encounter, as well as a random chance system, which boils down to "pick a card," except that a keen-eyed player can often track the best choice while it's shuffled with the others. Of course, you can always close your eyes and leave it up to Fate.
I bought my very first Xbox solely because I was tired of playing Battlefront with my roommate splitscreen. TVs were smaller back then and, even on the largest TV, splitscreen is never optimal. So I got myself an Xbox and a crossover ethernet cable, and we hooked them up and played Battlefront forever. Then we played Battlefront 2 with the same enthusiasm with a particular focus on the Galactic Conquest mode. When the new Battlefront was announced at E3 2013, I was at once skeptical and hopeful, but had so little to base an opinion on with the original teaser, I opted to stick to hopeful in the long run.
As more information started coming out, some were vocally disappointed at the lack of space battles and a few other well-loved features of the originals. I kept hope alive, but my enthusiasm was losing a bit of steam. Then I finally got to play it at E3 2015, and all my fears were washed away. It might not have everything I loved about the originals, what it did have were true to its predecessors, and the wave survival mode I got to play was a ton of fun, even in splitscreen.
When I finally got Battlefront home, I was thrilled at the variety of the solo and co-op missions, and the nine distinct multiplayer modes offered basically everything I could hope for. I flew X-Wings and Tie Fighters (until I got disoriented in an evasive maneuver and crashed into the ground) and took on a squad of heroes as Darth Vader with Boba Fett and Palpatine at my back. I donned my Stormtrooper armor and charged the front lines tossing thermal detonators around every corner, just to be safe. It might not be what competitive shooter players are looking for, but Star Wars fans and old-school Battlefront players will likely find themselves as happy with the experience as I did.
Another case of extreme nostalgia, Mad Max: Fury Road promised to let me relive the old days of the apocalypse in the Mad Max universe. I have seen all the old Mad Max movies many times, and I still don't understand why people rag on Thunderdome so much. While I was cautiously optimistic about Fury Road, within a few days of release all of my social media feeds were filled with praise for the movie. I took the hint and committed one of my few yearly trips to the theater to seeing it.
Sure enough, every bit of praise was well deserved, and nearly everybody I know that's seen it were blown away. Not only were the world and characters masterfully crafted, but the battle cars offered some major innovations from earlier entries in the series. It's also very likely the only time you'll see an apocalyptic bard rocking out on a flame-throwing guitar while tied to the front of a combat vehicle Trust me when I say that it's absolutely worth it.
I started playing fighting games with Street Fighter II in the arcades. Then Champion Edition hit the arcades and I was unbeatable with Bison, though I still played mostly Ryu, since most of my friends refused to fight my Bison. That's around the time I first saw Mortal Kombat, and, as much as I loved throwing Hadoukens at my friends, the appeal of the over-the-top fatalities and way-too-gory special moves was more than my 10-year-old self could resist.
I'm still not sure how we convinced mom to let us get Mortal Kombat on the SNES, but the changes they made to the most violent visuals were enough to keep it from getting confiscated. I played other early iterations of the series, but fell off the MK wagon after MK3 So, when I got my hands on Mortal Kombat X early this year, I couldn't wait to see what I was capable of after all these years. I still had a decent game with my old favorites, but it wasn't this that caught my attention. I was shocked to see what NetherRealm had managed to accomplish with the story mode. I knew some of the basic lore for a number of fighting games, but never had I seen anything this in-depth. I've seen feature films for most of my favorite fighting franchises, even, but MKX put the mostly-mediocre films to absolute shame.
The story mode in MKX was a truly cinematic experience. There were hours and hours of cut scenes interspersed with fights, where you took control. I watch a lot of kung fu flicks, and MKX is best described as an 8 hour kung fu movie where you participate in the fight scenes. I'm sure the story isn't what most players are looking for in a fighting game, but fans of Donnie Yen (Ip Man was brilliant!) will almost certainly have the time of their lives.
As far as I'm concerned, 2015 was a great year for games and movies alike, evidenced by how much of a challenge it was to narrow my favorites down to just five. Stay tuned for our staff picks for best games of 2015, as well as the Escapist Awards coming up soon!