Game of the Year 2015: ‘Life Is Strange’, ‘Super Mario Maker’ stand out from the crowd

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Ground rules, as in the past: This list only includes games I played. This means that The Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid V won’t make an appearance. Sorry.

Much like last year, DLC is fair game for consideration, but HD remakes and re-releases are not. Alas, that Deadpool HD remaster is nowhere to be found.

In case you missed last year’s Top 5 list:

5 – Ultra Street Fighter IV
4 – South Park: The Stick of Truth
3 – Shovel Knight
2 – Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
1 – Dragon Age: Inquisition

With great joy, I present my top five games of 2015.

5. Rocket League

Rocket League

A pure gaming experience is hard to come by these days. With so many games determined to have the largest game worlds, memorable characters, and crazy plot twists, it often feels like a rarity to see a video game that wants players to only have fun. In many ways, Rocket League is a modern day Pong: The game doesn’t have an ulterior motive or prophetic message.

They simply want you to drive a car into a giant ball with your friends.

It’s the modern gaming equivalent of that giant parachute that gym teachers across the United States coerce elementary school students into using. On the onset, the entire concept seems overly simple and ridiculous. If you just stop thinking about it and jump in head first you’re in for a lot of pure, undiluted fun.

That is Rocket League’s greatest success. Sure, the massive amount of money that the small indie game has generated is impressive. I’m far more impressed by the wide and varied types of gamers that Rocket League has snared with it’s speed and simplicity. A large part of that is due to the responsive controls, allowing even novice players to jump into a car and feel like they have control of every movement their metal machine makes.

Video games don’t always need a thesis statement. Sometimes, and especially in the case of Rocket League, having fun is more than enough.

4. Heroes of the Storm

HOTS

Fun fact about me: I am overly and aggressively competitive, but especially in gaming. My wife and friends have learned this the hard way, dealing with my inability to handle losing in anything, whether it’s a cooperative board game or playing Street Fighter against a novice.

I’m not proud of it.

Wait: Maybe I am.

In fact, I think I enjoy apologizing for being so aggressive in regards to competition. Really, it’s the only way I can explain why I’ve latched on so hard to Heroes of the Storm. At the start of 2015 I would have made a snarky onomatopoeia if someone had asked if I play MOBAs. My few hours in DOTA and League of Legends was more than enough, and I found the genre to be a slow, meandering mess where complete strangers yelled at me for not immediately knowing what to do.

So, as usual, Blizzard decided to take an obtuse, hardcore genre of game and make it accessible. Jerks.

Heroes of the Storm is the best MOBA on the market. Full stop. Complete sentence. Why? It knows what parts of the genre to eliminate and what mechanics really matter.

At its heart, Heroes of the Storm boils down the MOBA genre to talent building and team fights. Sure, the maps all have different objectives, but the end result is the same. Where Heroes gets things right is not forcing players and teams to slog through a half hour of laning, item grinding, and half-hearted poke fests in order to get to the good part. A twenty minute Heroes of the Storm match has more action and intrigue than the average hour in length DOTA match.

That’s a somewhat controversial opinion on my part, but I’m willing to stick by it. Heroes of the Storm is the best parts of a MOBA game without the baggage. Add in the typical Blizzard flair and you have a game that completely exceeded expectations.

Honestly, I suspect I’ll be saying the exact same things about Overwatch this time next year.

3.  Bloodborne

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I’ve seen a great many people sour on Bloodborne as the year has progressed. Back when the game released in March, everyone was stepping over themselves — myself included — to glowingly exclaim and extol the wonders of the PlayStation 4 exclusive.

Now, in December, I see many of those same people backpedaling and comparing the game more to Dark Souls 2 than Dark Souls. Which is to say that people seem to be let down.

First: Dark Souls 2 is an incredible game. I roll my eyes each time I see someone go on a tangent about how that game was a letdown and the worst in the series. Considering that every game in the series from FROM Software could be in the discussion for greatest game of the last 15 years, it seems silly to talk about Dark Souls 2 as if it’s some steaming, hot mess. It wasn’t Dark Souls, sure. But, what is? Dark Souls, in my opinion, is the best game of the last decade.

Which brings us to Bloodborne, where I’m seeing a lot of the same complaints. I refuse to bite. Bloodborne is an incredible game that brings something different to the table. If anything, fans and critics need to move past their own expectations they have of FROM and just enjoy the experience.

Few games have bewildered and left my jaw hanging open like Bloodborne has done. From the haunting architecture to creature designs that seem like they came from combining the minds of HP Lovecraft and Hayao Miyazaki, Bloodborne does everything right that Dark Souls did while feeling more like Demon’s Souls, the game that originally dragged me into this dark hole of action adventure that I’ve yet to escape.

Maybe Bloodborne is the victim of being released too early in the year, easily forgotten and out of the public mind. I don’t know. But that doesn’t change the fact that Bloodborne is one of this console cycle’s best and biggest exclusives, and a sign that FROM isn’t willing to rest on their laurels.

Play this game. You have to. The blood compels you to.

2. Super Mario Maker

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Super Mario Maker is a game concept that seems like a slam dunk idea and the worst idea ever, all at once.

On one hand, everyone who has ever picked up a video game controller knows Mario. He’s the most recognizable figure in the world for a reason. The ability to spawn and play an infinite number of Mario levels seems like a pipe dream; A beautiful idea that could never be brought to life because it seems too incredible to ever actually happen.

Of course, the worry is what happens after it does actually come out. What is the purpose of that game? Who is it for? Do people really want to make their own Mario levels, or is the the gaming equivalent of an Easy Bake Oven: Sure, being given the ability to create something you love is great, but does anyone really want to play crappily made versions of a game that is universally loved?

Apparently, the answer is yes.

The best thing Super Mario Maker has done is that its given players the perspective of a game developer, and perhaps some empathy. Creating anything is hard, but making video game levels that make sense and are fun seems like another thing all together. Putting my own levels together, I couldn’t help but think of just how miraculous it is that games such as Super Meat Boy not only came out, but were excellent.

This might be why Super Mario Maker’s biggest achievement is that it’s some much needed perspective for the industry.

I’m not sure where Super Mario Maker leaves the franchise. What do you do after you’ve metaphorically let Charlie into Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory?

I trust that Nintendo will think of something. Until then, I have more terrible Mario levels to create.

1. Life Is Strange

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Funny story: I never expected to play Life Is Strange this year. I received episode 1 for free from a bundle package. With nothing better to do on an errant Friday night, about a month ago, I burned through the first episode, not sure what to expect.

I would proceed to power through all five episodes that weekend, with the emotional climax hitting my late Sunday night. A torrential downpour had set in over Toledo, pushing the daylight away and leaving a cloudy haze in its wake. It felt appropriate, as the game’s ending felt like a complete punch to the gut and a chance for introspection.

I sat at my computer for a few minutes after the final scene, silent. My wife was ready to talk about the game, but I told her I just needed some time to sit clear my head. Life Is Strange had put me through an absolute roller coaster of emotions, with episodes 4 and 5 being especially manipulative.

Very few games have ever made me cry. This isn’t to say that I’m some tough guy. I cry from films and music all the time. Hell, I cried during Big Hero 6. Yet, games have never made an emotional connection with me in the same way that traditional media had done.

lifestrange

Bioshock Infinite and Mass Effect 2 had been the only games in the past to really hit me on that emotional level. Now Life Is Strange is added to that list.

I don’t want to give much away. That may be a cop out, given that this is an end of year list. There’s an article in my head breaking down the intricacies of Life Is Strange, but that’s another day. For now, it’s enough to say that Life Is Strange is a beautiful game with a quiet, stirring soundtrack and two lead voice actors that turn in performances that, at times, save the game’s script from itself.

I imagine that selling a game where the main story is about the friendship between two high school girls was hard. After all, it sets a precedent. Gaming has never seen that kind of representation and it’s about damn time. The story of Max and Chloe is poignant, beautiful, harsh, and messy in all the best ways. The game may not be mechanically perfect, and more than a few minor characters are either weirdly written or poorly voiced, but that doesn’t detract from an absolutely incredibly experience.

I know that Life Is Strange is special, because I find myself wishing I could go back i and play it all again for the first time. It pains me that I won’t experience this game again in that same way. The last time I felt this way was upon finishing the series finale of Breaking Bad.

Even if you hate adventure games, and even if you dislike games that put story first, stop what you’re doing and play Life Is Strange. There is nothing else like it right now in mainstream gaming and it deserves and demands attention. Gaming as an industry is changing, with Life Is Strange being one of the first major shots across that metaphorical bow.

Games that just missed the cut

Dying Light: Consider this to be number 6, as Techland created a terrifying open world experience that perhaps just had the bad luck of coming out in Q1. I’m greatly looking forward to the upcoming expansion and the chance to jump across buildings and break zombie jaws yet again.

Batman: Arkham Knight: Talk about terrible post-release experiences. In a vacuum, Arkham Knight is a top 10 game, but there’s a lot of crap holding the game back. Terrible DLC practices are usually enough to sink a game for me, but the way that WB has handled the fiasco that is the PC version of this game is astounding to me. That game is still broken, even now. How?

Mortal Kombat X: Seventh place, ostensibly. MKX keeps the momentum that MK9 built by not only jump starting their own canon, but changing the status quo and creating new characters that are in many ways better than the originals. I’m still amazed that the main character of MKX is Cassie Cage, the child of Johnny Cage and Sonya Blade. I’m even more astounded that she’s a nuanced, interesting character that I absolutely love. While the fighting game community scene for MK has died off, I continue to keep loving Mortal Kombat X for its story and commitment to trying new things.

Nuclear Throne: I mean, it finally came out. That in and of itself is a miracle. I love this game. You should play it. Just don’t blame me when you continually die over and again.

Downwell: I spent many long car rides this fall playing this quirky indie game. I still want to play the Steam version and play it with a real controller, but I highly recommend you give it a spin. Err… Fall.

Games never considered

Rise of the Tomb Raider: Well, I don’t have an XBone, so there’s that. But more to the point, it appears to be more of the same as last time, but in a prettier cookie crust. Maybe I’ll be wrong, and I suppose we’ll find out next year when it comes out on other platforms, but I expect that Rise will let me down like it’s predecessor did.

Witcher 3/Metal Gear 5: I know: I’m a bad games critic. Thanks to the PS4 version of Witcher having multiple bugs and loading issues, I kept putting the game off. In regards to Metal Gear, I ended up getting Fallout 4 two weeks early, eliminating any time I had planned for Metal Gear 5. I’ll do better in 2016, I promise.

Fallout 4: This is not a good game. In fact, if I was asked to review it now instead of last month, I’d probably give it a lower score than the 3 and a half I gave it for The Blade. I really hope that the DLC expansions can save it for me, because as it stands I kinda hate Fallout 4 more and more with each passing day.

UndertaleHer Story, other “big deal” indie games: Much like Gone Home, Papers, Please, and other indie darling games from years past, I will get to these when I get to them.

Splatoon: Boy, I missed the boat on this. I loved the open beta, and by the time the game came out I got backed up by reviewing duties. I look forward to jumping in squid-first in 2016.

Destiny: I don’t think that’s a video game.

Will Harrison is the video game critic for The Toledo Blade, a daily newspaper and website in Toledo, Ohio. Disagree? Want to talk? Need a hug? Get a hold of me on Twitter @DoubleUHarrison or email me at backlogadventures@gmail.com. 

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