Sunday, February 7

High Horse Audit 2015: The Best and Worst of the Year

For a long time I thought I wouldn't write a "Game of the Year" post for 2015 because it seemed pretty redundant, given that most of my free time in 2015 was spent playing Destiny. After spending the first few weeks of a new year playing games from the last one, however, I've gained the perspective to put together a list of my favourite experiences from last year. I also had time to reflect on the worst of it.

The Janet Jackson Award: Destiny (Year One)
For the second year running, I've found it necessary to acknowledge the game that most effectively said Come Back To Me a year on from release. 

On my main character alone, I've amassed more than 21 actual days of play time in Destiny. If I took my alternate characters into account, I'm pretty sure I'd come depressingly close to a month of play time on the shooter MMO hybrid.

This hasn't been addiction, or a force of habit; throughout a year of play I became increasingly confident, and took on all the challenges that Destiny's first year had to offer. The House of Wolves expansion was pivotal in that it gave me that little bit of extra strength to take on the most intimidating activities that, in some cases, had been available not long after launch.

Without those extra four levels of experience (and gear), I wouldn't have been able to fell Crota, nor would I have been able to tackle Skolas, or Atheon on Hard mode. The raids, and higher level Prison of Elders runs made up a weekly ritual that I was anxious to complete for months on end. So rehearsed were my movements that I could even finish raids remote playing on a Vita; without a headset, no less!

I didn't make many new friends in Destiny's first year, but my word did I develop a throng of acquaintances. Some were terrible human beings, some were genuine fun to hang with for an hour or so a week. For every racist American teen decrying Obamacare, there four or five genuinely nice people who were praying just as hard as I was. Until the launch of The Taken King, RNGeezus answered almost all of my prayers too.

Destiny rewarded my loyalty with everything I wanted, except for Praedyth's Timepiece.

The Most Disappointing Game of the Year: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Metal Gear Solid V features the most fluid controls the series has ever iterated, and for the first time, it had something resembling a coherent narrative. For those reasons alone, I had next to no interest in it.

Put another way: Metal Gear Solid V is a great game, but a terrible Metal Gear Solid instalment.

Save for the first hour, gone are the ridiculously long codec conversations, paranoid political fantasies, and David Hayter. Snake's voice is noticeably absent, not because Keifer Sutherland is a feeble replacement, rather because he's an absent replacement.

It's telling that I haven't finished this game. More telling that I don't want to. The first few hours were packed with thrilling stealth and recon encounters, but following that, I found it grating how often I had to capture the same outposts, and extract the same, albeit slightly stronger combatants.

The formula that first appeared in the PSP's best game, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, doesn't work on home consoles because of the large sandbox environments. Peace Walker put you right where you needed to be, Phantom Pain made you grind from point to point. I can tell Phantom Pain was rushed to market without even having completed it.

Keep on walking, tough guy.

The Top 5 Games of the Year
I didn't play too many different games last year, but almost all of them were great. I mean, if Metal Gear Solid V and Witcher 3 were the low points, the following represent the dizzying heights of my most treasured pastime.

5. Batman: Arkham Knight (played on PS4)
A stunning return to form after the combined disappointments of Arkham City and Arkham Origins.

While Batman still has more gadgets that anyone could hope to have any idea what to do with, the final chapter in Rocksteady's bat saga blazes forward like a speeding Batmobile. While we're on the subject of the titular characters turbo-charged, armoured vehicle, it never overstays its welcome (it may have come dangerously close to becoming stale, but it just evades this outcome).

There are some big punches pulled, and some favourite rogues shelved, but on balance, it's the strongest Batman game since Arkham Asylum.

4. Streets of Rage 2 3D (played on 3DS)
If you write a love letter to one of my favourite games, I will read it repeatedly and it will make me happy.

Streets of Rage 2 is the best sidescrolling beat 'em up of the 16 bit hardware generation, and the ability to use the Nintendo 3DS hardware to simulate a CRT TV evoked a grin that stretched from ear to ear. I have no right to still be enjoying pressing the same 3 buttons to beat the shit out of street gangs, but I continue to, and I'm sure that I'm not alone.

3. Her Story (played on iOS)
To me, Sam Barlowe's crime fiction search engine was terrifying. For others it was tragic. Some developed the most unbelievable, paranoid theories about the events that transpired, but my interpretation was clear.

A truly unsettling, almost solo performance made looking up the most innocent words feel like an exercise in suspense. Fantastic, inexpensive, and available on your phone. Play it now.

2. Rise of the Tomb Raider (played on Xbox One)
I've been meaning to write up a review for weeks, but this is a great game with some of the most awe-inspiring visuals rendered on current generation hardware. The story may fall a bit flat, but Lara's latest adventure rolls on at a solid clip, and rarely stumbles across twenty hours of shooting, stabbing, and dying rather gruesomely.

The actual tomb raiding, which unfortunately makes up the minority of the adventure, is worth the price of admission alone. The creepy death porn of the previous instalment still appears, but with far less frequency. Imagine if they made a Tomb Raider game that dropped the Uncharted-esque murder marathons, and focussed solely on the dangerous, mysterious treasures of yore. Game of the Year material, right there.

1. Destiny: The Taken King (played on PS4)
Again, never really in doubt. I figure if pretty much every games site treated The Taken King as a separate game, I'll jump at the chance. This is isn't the game Destiny should have been at launch, but it is a noticeably different, and in some respects, better experience.

A story is again not only shown, but told a la House of Wolves. A wealth of PvE missions and questlines offered new experiences, even months after launch. Activities that were previously too daunting, like Trials of Osiris, have been reconfigured to entice new players. The new raid has been harrowing, but also allowed me to connect with a group of players that have since become friends.

It's not without fault, though. The end game is even more arbitrary that that from Year One, with random rewards of meaningless power levels and perk rolls proving little reward for completing difficult, and time-intensive experiences. The best PvE activities have been left behind, with no sign that they'll be updated for tired veterans. Worse than that, grindy, unrewarding events like the Sparrow Racing League and Festival of the Lost are being offered up instead of meaningful new content.

The shooting aspect of Destiny is still fantastic, it's the MMO part that is starting to fumble hard. If Bungie don't come out with a roadmap for the year ahead, I fear the Janet Jackson award won't be able to come back to the Tower.

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