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Best Expansion/Update/DLC Winner - StarCraft 2: Legacy of the Void
Developed by Blizzard. Published by Activision Blizzard. Released on November 10, 2015. Available on PC.
John says: There has been debate whether StarCraft 2: is three distinct games under the StarCraft 2 label or whether Wings of Liberty, Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void comprise one game and and expansions focused on the various races. We are taking the easy way out and going with the latter because, even though it wasn't the best Strategy game of the year, Legacy of the Void deserved an award because it was just so damn good.
Yes, Wings of Liberty may have been the previous benchmark for the series, but Blizzard wrapped up the trilogy with an almost flawless presentation of the embattled Protoss fighting for survival against the Xel'Naga menace Amon. The gameplay took the strengths of WoL and HotS and added in some tweaks and modifications that made playing the campaign challenging and enjoyable. The game was meaty enough in its own right, but then having three prologue missions AND three epilogue missions added to the enjoyment.
Throw in that Blizzard one-upped itself with the addition of Automated Tournaments and Archon mode for its incredibly popular multiplayer component, and Legacy of the Void just had to be recognized as the best expansion/update of 2015.
Best Expansion/Update/DLC Runner-Up - Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns
Developed by ArenaNet. Published by NCSOFT. Released on October 23, 2015. Available on PC.
Justin says: While many other high-profile MMOs were crashing and burning, the folks over at ArenaNet have been steadily pushing out content for Guild Wars 2 and a few months back released their first expansion Heart of Thorns. Much in the same way that the original game push boundaries, Heart of Thorns plays with some of the basic expectations of an MMO expansion. For instance, there is no new level cap and a lot of the game's content is open-world PVE events which require grouping up. It's a game that stresses exploration and players working together like few other games do, fostering one of the best feelings of adventure and community in the MMO space.
Best Co-op Winner - Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide
Developed and Published by Fatshark. Available on PC. Released October 23, 2015.
Ron says: Co-op gaming is one of my favorite distractions, and in 2015, no one did it better than the awkwardly-named Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide.
Set in the Warhammer Fantasy universe, Vermintide pits you and three friends against hordes of Skaven ratmen who are assaulting cities during the End Times, the prophesied end of the world. As you try to save the city of Ubersreik, you can't help but notice what a good job developer Fatshark did at embodying the look and feel of the universe. It's appropriately Gothic, and every detail, down to the weapons, outfits, and architecture, just oozes atmosphere.
The gameplay is obviously inspired by Valve's Left 4 Dead, and you can see the influences all over the place, from the number of items and weapons you carry to the interface to the "special" types of ratmen you encounter. However, those similarities are not nearly as important as what sets Vermintide apart.
Players can choose from one of five classes to play as, and each class has its own playstyle and role in the group. If you want to get up close and personal with melee damage, the Empire Soldier can wield a two handed hammer or a one handed weapon and a shield, among other things. he has a taunt-like bash attack, and excels at drawing attention. If you'd rather stay back from the fray, the Waywatcher wields a bow that does significant damage, as well as a pair of long knives should the action come her way.
Weaponry isn't fixed, as Vermintide also packs in a loot system that rewards you for finishing missions with new gear. There are multiple levels of rarity-based gear, and the weapons and trinkets you gain can be used to deck out your character to play exactly the way you want. You could choose a slower weapon that does more damage, or a fast weapon that spreads its damage out to multiple targets. Even if you don't get exactly what you want, there's a basic crafting system to let you try to customize things to your liking.
Getting a co-op game right can be tough. It needs to be challenging, but not impossible, and it has to be well-balanced. Vermintide hits all those notes, and offers a mix of melee and ranged combat in a first-person game that has a little something for everyone. The AI leaves a bit to be desired when playing alone, but if you fill those slots with humans, you'll quickly see why this is our co-op game of the year.
Best Co-op Runner-Up - Helldivers
Developed by Arrowhead Game Studios. Published by PlayStation Mobile. Available on PC, Mac, PS3, PS4, PS Vita. Released March 3, 2015.
Jon says: With a flash and a boom, a crew of loyal Helldivers slam into the ground of an alien world ready to deliver well-managed democracy to the enemies of SUPER-EARTH. A starship troopers sendup for the ages, Helldivers delivers the kind of managed chaos that the developers got so right in Magicka. Unlike Magicka, though, Helldivers eventually takes off the training wheels and ramps up the difficulty, so that your team of bumbling grenade-chucking lunatics eventually has to get it together and stop blowing each other up.
Going from simple chaos to managed chaos is hugely enjoyable. Eventually, weapons diversify and you're calling down tanks and artillery strikes to slam away at bizarre, interesting enemy types in varied environments. While the game can get grindy at times, it's still hilarious to watch an unfortunate ally get smashed by a drop pod delivering the very ammo they called in - or do the same to your enemies. The lovely icing on the cake is the game's brilliant multiplayer world, where your individual games of drop-in drop-out co-op contribute to an overall campaign across the galaxy culminating in assaults on enemy homeworlds.
Best Early Access Winner - Darkest Dungeon
Developed and Published by Red Hook Studios. Available on PC, Mac, PS Vita. Releases January 19, 2016. Offered in Early Access.
Josh says: Before I played Darkest Dungeon, I knew it was a game I'd enjoy, but nothing could have prepared me for just how much fun I'd have with it. I play a lot of games, so I rarely commit more than 30 or 40 hours to any one in particular. There are exceptions, of course, but Darkest Dungeon has the particular distinction of being the game I've sunk the most hours into in the shortest span of time. In the first two weeks I played DD, I'd committed 110 hours to exploring, looting, leveling, and, of course, treating the various physical and psychological ailments that afflicted my team.
Darkest Dungeon is a grim, gothic dungeon crawler, where the class makeup of your team is just as critical to success as your equipment or tactical abilities in the turn-based combat. With Lovecraftian monsters, plenty of loot, an impressive collection of character classes, and, most uniquely, devastating ailments your team will be afflicted with over the course of exploring. Wandering through an unlit dungeon with only a torch to guide your way, while encountering terrifying cthulhu-esque monsters is a stressful experience which, if you're not careful, can cause characters to snap and panic, which, as you might expect, is even more stressful for the rest of the team. Topping off your health isn't enough when you run the risk of stress-induced insanity.
As you may have guessed from the award, Darkest Dungeon isn't even released yet. When I first played, there was an entire zone and some classes that hadn't even been released to Early Access. DD is one of the most content rich, feature complete, and polished game I've ever played in Early Access. Its January, 2016 release is right around the corner now, and I can hardly wait to sink another few dozen hours into the launch build.
Best Early Access Runner-Up - ARK: Survival Evolved
Developed by Studio Wildcard, Instinct Games, Efecto Studios, Virtual Basement LLC. Published by Studio Wildcard. Available on PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One. Currently in Early Access. Planned release in 2016.
Ron says: The game drops you onto a large tropical island that is largely populated by dinosaurs. To survive, you'll have to scavenge resources, craft tools, and build yourself shelter. As you slowly advance through the game, you'll be able to hunt the over 60 types of dinosaurs for food and materials, or tame them to use as mounts, pack animals, or weapons.
You'll be able to construct fortifications, firearms, and other weaponry, and you'll need it. Dinosaurs are dangerous enough, but the real threat is from the other people playing on the servers you inhabit. If you're fortunate enough to find a friendly tribe, join it immediately.
The game is gorgeous, but you'll need a powerful system to run it well. It also has a few optimization issues that are slowly being weeded out as development continues. It's enormously satisfying to play as is, and holds the promise of improving as time goes on. If survival games are your thing, you should really give Ark: Survival Evolved a chance. I doubt you'll be disappointed.
That's it for our Escapist Awards picks! Check back tomorrow for our ultimate Game of the Year winner! Can't wait? Read about the nominees in our Best Games of 2015, and hop into the forums to let us know what your picks were for 2015.