And so we stagger to the end of yet another year. Even by my high standards 2015 has been an excellent year for games, and the coverage on here has been spottier than I liked – I ended up reviewing a round thirty games, which is a solid effort but also the first time this blog hasn’t wholly reflected what I’ve been playing over the last 365 (and a bit) days. That makes this an excellent point to look back and consider the best and worst that 2015 had to offer — whether I reviewed it on here or not – and you know what that means: it’s time for the Scientific Gamer Totally Made Up Awards Ceremony 2015!
Best Game That Showed The Decomposing Remains Of Maxis How SimCity Should Be Done: Cities: Skylines
It wouldn’t be entirely fair to say I didn’t get on with Cities: Skylines. I played it for ten hours. I enjoyed it. I also never made it further than a mid-size city, as the game’s relentless focus on traffic planning and transportation tripped me up time and time again and I couldn’t bring myself to tear down what I’d built just to move a roundabout ten metres to the left. It’s not a game you play if you are in any way a perfectionist, and in my opinion it’s also got something of a flaw in that it’s just as reliant on its traffic system to carry the game as SimCity was on its much-vaunted Agent system. The difference here, of course, is that Cities’ traffic system is really really good and a much stronger base to build a game on. The actual running-a-city part doesn’t have a huge amount of depth to it but there’s still hours of fun to be had tweaking contraflow systems, bus routes and subway tunnels. SimCity didn’t exactly set a high bar to clear, but Cities: Skylines vaulted clean over it with considerable aplomb.
Most Stylish Game: Invisible Inc.
I have a funny history with Klei games. Shank is the only one I ever reviewed on here, and I hated that game’s guts; I acknowledged that their subsequent efforts (Mark of the Ninja and Don’t Starve) were considerably more imaginative, but something about them just failed to grab me.
This makes Invisible Inc. the first Klei game I’ve played for more than a couple of hours. It’s an intriguing tactical stealth ‘em up that is heavily crippled by its procedurally generated levels – Invisible Inc is supposed to be a cross between XCOM and a roguelike, but a campaign takes four hours plus and losing your progress because the level RNG decided to present you with an all-but-unwinnable scenario is a bitter pill to swallow. However, while its gameplay is decidedly flawed, Invisible Inc’s art style, animation and music are simply to die for. I don’t know what you’d call the art style exactly – a sort of cartoonish art deco version of cyberpunk that’s animated incredibly well is about the best I can do — but it’s a game worth playing just to see it in motion, not to mention experiencing the excellently-pitched soundtrack slowly ratcheting up the tension while guards close in on your oh-so-vulnerable agents. Invisible Inc. may not have gotten everything right, but as far as art and music are concerned it’s pretty much without peer – this year, anyway.
Most Disappointing Game: Pillars of Eternity
Disappointment was arguably a trap that Pillars was never going to fully avoid. Nevertheless it’s disappointing in and of itself just how deeply it waded into it; Pillars was a game of which I had some unreasonably high expectations, but even taking those into account it still fell some way short of Obsidian’s previous output. The world and mechanics they created for Pillars had a lot of promise, but the writing and the plot were so average they were almost substandard. Nine months later and I couldn’t tell you who the main baddie is or what his motivation was, which is never a good sign of a well-crafted story. I was hoping that now that they had a solid mechanical base to build on Obsidian could do something really interesting in the DLC, but from what I’ve played the White March expansion is just as staid and stodgy as Pillars’ main campaign. The most infuriating thing about it is that all the time you’re playing Pillars you’re repeatedly told about the backstory of Waidwen and the Godhammer, which all sounds way, way cooler than the complete non-entity that is the actual main plot of the game. It’s one of those weird inexplicable things that I guess you have to see from the inside to really understand, since I don’t understand why Obsidian didn’t just make the Godhammer the story instead.
Best First-Person Game Where You Run Around Solving Fiendish Puzzles While Listening To Audio Logs That Tell A Tragic Yet Affirming Backstory: The Talos Principle
Runner up: Infinifactory
I feel a little bad for Infinifactory. It was a great puzzle game from Zachtronics that managed to recapture something of what made 2010 classic SpaceChem so amazing, and I still recommend it without question if you liked SpaceChem even a little bit. It was just rather unfortunate that the very next week I played The Talos Principle, which married up puzzles of equally brain-teasing quality with a fantastic setting and backstory that told the tale of Earth’s final days thousands of years after they’d actually happened. It was a refreshingly different take on the end of the world that hammered on some of the AI buttons that I have, but which did so very effectively. In most puzzle games (including SpaceChem and Infinifactory) the setting is just window dressing, but in the Talos Principle it’s inextricably bound up with what the game is on a fundamental level. It’s not *the* best game I’ve played this year, but it’s certainly one of the most memorable.
Best Soundtrack: Grey Goo
Runners up: Tales From The Borderlands, Invisible Inc.
Oh, it’s been a really good year for soundtracks. I already mentioned Invisible Inc., while Tales From The Borderlands had impeccable taste when picking music to accompany its elaborately choreographed intro sequences (seriously, go and listen to the playlist). The Witcher 3, MGS V, The Talos Principle and Shovel Knight all had extremely good music to accompany them that I still listen to every now and again. It’s odd, then, that the game with the best soundtrack of 2015 is one that I didn’t actually like all that much: Grey Goo was a very average and forgettable strategy title that demonstrated why the classic style of RTS has faded to nothing more than a footnote in the annals of videogame history.
Grey Goo’s soundtrack is a different beast entirely, however. Ignore the first track – it’s the signature theme for the game, and so it’s oddly fitting that it’s just as wishy-washy as the rest of it. Focus instead on track two, which is a far more rockin’ remix and which sets the tone for what is to come. It’s no surprise that C&C maestro Frank Klepacki is behind this, and he goes on to produce several more outstanding tracks – both Beta themes, Crush Under Foot and Wall Defence in particular evoke the best of Red Alert’s industrialised soundtrack fused with the dubstep that is so popular with the young people these days. It is a far, far better set of music than Grey Goo deserved, not to mention an excellent accompaniment to tricky coding problems at work. I highly recommend giving it a listen even if you haven’t played the game.
Most Unnerving Gas Giant: Alien Isolation
This might be a very personal thing, but the most unsettling part of Alien Isolation wasn’t any of the jump scares from the paper tiger of the Alien or the creepy androids that would sneak up on you silently while you were trying to hack a terminal and throttle you to death. No, the scariest part of Alien Isolation was the part with no enemies or monsters on screen at all. It’s the part where you’re doing an EVA to align a communications dish for some reason or another, which means you’re inside a spacesuit. All you can hear is your own breathing echoing in your ears. All you can see in front of you is a gantry leading to the dish – and above it a huge, pitiless gas giant hanging against a backdrop of dead stars. Gas giants give me the willies since it’s hard to think of a place more inimical to life without getting into exotic stellar object territory; they’re hauntingly beautiful yet lethal at the same time, and Alien Isolation renders it with the same trademark attention to detail that made Sevastopol station such a (creepy) joy to explore.
Worst Game Of The Year: Chroma Squad
AKA this year’s Game I Would Most Like To Purge From My Memory. The premise doesn’t sound bad; a JRPG-like take on a Power Rangers-esque TV show, complete with terrible costumes and improbable baddies. I don’t even think the tactical combat side of Chroma Squad is that bad, either – mechanically it is reasonably solid while at the same time being astoundingly average in every way. However, you have to be really, really talented at writing to make the sort of hackneyed dialogue found in your typical episode of Power Rangers not only bearable, but entertaining. That’s a really tricky needle to thread, and I can’t think of all that many games that have successfully managed to do knowingly bad writing..
You can probably guess what I’m going to say next: whoever was behind the script for Chroma Squad is most definitely not a talented writer. The writing in this game isn’t knowingly bad, it’s just plain terrible, and made all the worse for being littered with precisely the sort of banal, repetitive internet in-jokes that are hilarious to twelve year olds but which drive me up the wall. After hour one I was unconvinced but willing to see if it got any better; after hour two I was getting increasingly angry; and hour three just made me want to jam forks into my eyeballs to make it stop. I settled for turning the game off instead. Even thinking of Chroma Squad now provokes a tiny flash of rage, though; it’s so insufferable it made me damn near apoplectic at the time and I was unable to turn out a coherent review because of this. Please heed my warning now, though: no matter what else you might hear about, do not play this game. You will regret it if you do.
Best Film Of The Year: Three way tie between Mad Max, Star Wars and The Martian
I’ve been visiting the cinema a little more frequently this year and have seen many of 2015’s supposed blockbuster hits. Most of them were exactly the sort of bland entertainment that you enjoy at the time but then instantly forget about five minutes after you leave the cinema, but there were three standouts that have stuck with me long after the popcorn salt had faded from my taste buds. Mad Max had some astonishing visuals and an excellent mix of practical and CGI special effects; The Martian was highly implausible in an entertaining way without outright breaking science at any point; and Star Wars had some duff bits but was for the most part exactly what the franchise needed to convince people that Star Wars was safe again after experiencing the prequels. It certainly convinced me.
Best Six Million Dollar Man Simulator: Metal Gear Solid V
MGS V was many, many things. It was one of the best stealth games in years. It was a competent third person shooter. It was a better Thief game than the recent Thief reboot, letting you steal everything that wasn’t nailed down by attaching balloons to them and watching them zoom into the stratosphere. It let you play Guard Pokemon, with all the gotta-catch-em-all compulsiveness that entails. However, despite all of these high points (and quite a few low ones) my enduring memory of MGS V will forever be sprinting across the African savannah towards a cluster of guards and clotheslining them into the dirt with my bionic arm while the Six Million Dollar Man sound effect plays.
(Calling in the chopper for an airstrike with Rebel Yell blaring out over the speakers is a close second.)
Best Game Of The Year: The Witcher 3
Yeah, despite MGS V being a very strong showing in the open world stakes this was ultimately no contest whatsoever. The Witcher 3 felt like a real landmark, both for open world games and for gaming in general. It was the first open world game that really, truly felt like a fully fleshed-out world, and which had a considerable amount of depth to go along with its sprawling breadth. Its writing was laced with humour, heartbreak and pathos, and it could be delivered via a shrug of the shoulders or the upturned corner of a mouth just as well as through voice acting. It had believable, flawed characters with believable, flawed relationships, and while it took some pride in being a gritty, “mature” world, for once it actually felt like it earned that description as it effectively dealt with adult themes such as fatherhood and family. The Witcher 3 is so good, in fact, that I struggle to stop myself from going back to replay it before the second expansion DLC is released and I can get the most out of a repeat run. That’s the sort of genuine classic that comes along only once every five years – if that. If you play one game from 2015 (which, let me say again, was a very good year in general) make it this one.
That’s it for the blog this year. Thanks to everyone reading for sticking with me so far, and I hope you have the very best of Christmases.
The Scientific Gamer will return on Monday 4th January.