(Alternately titled “10 Games that Aren’t Undertale”)
Before I list out my favorite games of 2015 (which you will likely disagree with), I just have to apologize to everything that didn’t make it on this list. 2015 was one hell of a year for gaming, and despite the number of open-world, 100-hour behemoths I turned away from, there were dozens of titles that really made their mark on me. I probably missed a good ten or twenty games that would have given even this stellar line-up a run for their money: after all, a good number of these came out of nowhere for me and really made their home in my head.
So, sorry in advance to everything that didn’t make this list. You’re all winners anyway.
- Rock Band 4
How the hell did this make it here? If you follow me on Twitter, you likely saw me ranting about the disappointments of Rock Band 4 through late October and much of November. The career mode is a joke, I couldn’t properly patch my wireless guitar (?!?) for a good month, and if you’re coming into the game with a decent chunk of old DLC, be prepared to spend an hour individually downloading every song through a menu buckling under the weight of your library. In several respects, the whole enterprise feels like a shadow of its former self.
But in spite of all its failings, Rock Band 4 is still Rock Band. It harnesses the purity of enjoying music, offering an addictive, soothing experience regardless of whether you’re strumming along on your own or partying with friends. So go ahead, throw on some leather pants and boot up Ziggy Stardust. You won’t regret it.
- DiRT Rally
In a year where everyone and their uncle offered their own take on simulation racing, DiRT Rally was the only one I kept coming back to. It helped that they were slowly trickling out more content under the banner of Early Access, but the real draw happened behind the wheel. Forget lapping the AI or driving a Ferrari: here, you’ll be lucky to make it to the end of the track without careening off the edge of a cliff. DiRT Rally prioritizes self-improvement over messy wins, which makes it the first racing game I’ve ever played where finishing in fourth place isn’t a blow to my ego.
- The Beginner’s Guide
It takes just over an hour to reach the end, but in that time, The Beginner’s Guide weaved a quietly implosive story that left me feeling like utter garbage. I can’t say much more without spoiling what makes it so special, so trust me when I say that I just gave it a compliment of the highest order, and it’s very much worth your time.
- Halo 5 Guardians
The campaign’s slapdash pacing and utterly boring Warden boss (seriously, who thought inserting the same boss fight 5+ times was a good idea?) really grated on me. And Warzone’s “pay-to-win” collectible card nonsense has no place in a $60 game. But Halo 5 Guardians also has Breakout, a lightning-quick, wildly-addictive game mode that makes a solid case for hardcore traits like instant death and no helpful radar. It’s the only new game this year that marketed itself as a potential eSport and felt totally justified in doing so.
- Rise of the Tomb Raider
As much as I like to tear into Assassin’s Creed and its inability to change with the times, Rise of the Tomb Raider is the rare case where more really is better. It brings in bigger tombs, higher stakes and a combat system with even more varied ways to set people on fire, but when you’re building on a base as solid as 2013’s reboot, it pays off in spades. Could have done without the card system but just like 2013’s baffling multiplayer, it never ends up hurting the game itself.
- Until Dawn
It happened: someone took a typical cabin-in-the-woods horror film and made it into a game that puts each and every David Cage effort to shame. I’m still in awe that this turned out so well, given how it looked like an utter disaster just a few years ago, but I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Whether you’re watching a YouTuber chuckle his way through the monkings or earnestly attempting to save some jerk teens yourself, it’s worth every minute.
- Her Story
Speaking of unexpected miracles, this small project by the ever-talented Sam Barlow turned searching through video archives on a dusty old police computer into one of the most exciting narratives this year. Turning search queries into an investigative method makes it almost impossible to mirror the path of your neighbor, leading to “aha!” moments you can truly call your own. A bit of a shame that parts of the story feel so far-fetched, but that isn’t too much of a blow when the act of discovery itself is so satisfying.
Hey, Nintendo actually figured out how to make an online game I’d want to play! Between the quick rounds, the sheer variety of weapons and and a funky-fresh style that fills my heart with joy, I cannot get enough of this semi-violent clash between squids who are also kids. Many have said that it feels like a lost relic of the Dreamcast era, but between you and me, the Dreamcast’s library has nothing on this.
- Super Mario Maker
What first looked like a downloadable time-waster (and eventually a “why the hell are they charging $60?” full retail release) turned into a true obsession amongst my friends. I could see the sheer joy that filled Colin as he built more levels for me to challenge (and mostly defeat), and even if it weren’t such a well-crafted font of creativity, that would be enough for me to hold it in high regard.
Frictional really outdid themselves this time. This is more than a great “horror” game: from top to bottom, it is an experience that transcends its genre, offering up a journey that I struggled to put down even during its most terrifying moments. After defining an era of horror, Frictional have enough swagger to toss aside genre conventions and deliver something that never stops surprising. Forget raising the bar: there is no ceiling to the sheer brilliance SOMA represents from start to finish.