A year to remember
What a wonderful year to be a PC gamer.
Sure, there’s been some portentous gaming hardware releases in 2015, from the launch of the first graphics cards capable of 4K gaming to the long-awaited introduction of Valve’s Steam Machines. But that’s not what I’m talking about. When it comes down to brass tacks, gaming is all about the games—and 2015’s blitz of new top-tier games was so outstanding that it gives the legendary 2004 lineup a run for its money.
Narrowing down to just 10 favorite PC games was a struggle, but these are the ones that gave PCWorld’s gaming team—reporter Hayden Dingman and editor Brad Chacos—the biggest smiles in 2015. Note that our focus is limited to the PC as a platform, so you won’t find console exclusives like Bloodborne or Rise of the Tomb Raider here, no matter how delicious they are. And aside from our overall game of the year, these aren’t ranked in any way—they’re all just plain great games.
Got it? Great. Buckle up!
Crypt of the NecroDancer
Hayden: Crypt of the NecroDancer actually sneaked onto our 2014 Game of the Year list—but only as an Honorable Mention, given it was still in Early Access.
Well, this rhythm-based roguelike game danced its way out of Early Access earlier this year and subsequently onto 2015’s official list. It’s reminiscent of dungeon-crawling in Zelda (in fact there’s even a mod for that), except everything moves and attacks to the beat of the background music. Bonus points if you break out your Dance Dance Revolution pad to play, though be sure to stretch beforehand.
Kerbal Space Program
Hayden: Cobble a rocket together out of spare parts. Transport it to the launch pad. Count down from 10 in your bedroom. Launch it. Watch it soar majestically into the heavens over the planet of Kerbal. Detach the boosters as they run out of fuel. Resolutely guide your tiny capsule into orbit. Realize you don’t have enough fuel to get out of orbit. Leave your poor Kerbal floating in space for eternity.
Another escapee from the cold, grasping clutches of Early Access, I’ve actually been playing Kerbal Space Program on and off for about three years now. It’s an excellent space program simulator—lighthearted, with a charm that belies its unapologetic learning curve.
Brad: Unlike Hayden, I only picked up Kerbal after it exited Early Access. And while I’ve been just as enthralled as he has, the game’s found an even bigger fan in my household: my preteen daughter, who has been soaking in complex physics theories and sifting through Wikipedia pages in her quest to conquer the cosmos. I, on the other hand, love making ridiculous Frankensteinian creations loaded with rockets and watching them explode. Science!
Pillars of Eternity
Hayden: Pillars of Eternity takes the 2015 nostalgia vote as an isometric CRPG from Obsidian that feels like the Infinity Engine games of old—same chunky interface, same overwrought writing, same micromanage-heavy combat. It even has the “You must gather your party before venturing forth,” thing.
If you’re an old-school fan, this one’s for you. It’s not quite the same caliber as Baldur’s Gate II or Planescape: Torment, but that’s a tall order for any game to live up to. Instead, what we have here is homage. It’s a “close enough” approximation of what those games might be like in 2015, and after fifteen years it was a joy to play something new created in the same old style.
The expansion, The White March Pt.1, is also pretty good—though I’d perhaps wait until the second half is released in 2016 before committing money to it.
Hayden: Soccer. With. Cars. Rocket League elevates a simple (and admittedly dumb) concept into maybe the best sports game ever made, a tightly tuned experience where rocket-powered vehicles drive (and jump and flip and fly) around an arena trying to get the oversized ball into the oversized net.
Rocket League’s easy enough to pick up and dabble in, but it also replicates the feeling of true team sports better than any Madden/FIFA/NHL/NBA game—rewarding practice, urging you to work with your teammates, and encouraging sportsmanship win or lose.
Wow! Nice shot! Nice shot! Nice shot!
Brad: Hayden summed up the tight, dumb fun of the game already, but I want to touch on a tidbit that makes me love Rocket League even more: Local split-screen support for up to four players. I adore old-school gather-‘round-the-big-screen gaming, but the vast majority of games these days—even Halo 5 on Xbox One!—are ditching local play for online-only solutions. Rocket League bucks the trend and rocks at parties because of it. There’s a reason Valve bundled copies of this game with Steam Machine preorders.
Fallout 4 (with mods)
Brad: Yeah, the inventory’s still janky. Yeah, the voice and dialogue changes suck. Yeah, the loot system is a step back, and the settlement building is unintuitive. But dammit, Fallout 4 ’s core exploration/gunplay loop is just so damned addicting I can’t put it down. This isn’t the game hardcore Fallout fans were hoping for—it’s even difficult to call it an RPG, as the whiny-voiced main character never felt like my own—but Fallout 4 is still a fun, expansive game that you can (mostly) happily sink entire days of your life into.
Hayden: Bethesda’s version of Fallout 4 wouldn’t make my game of the year list. But then someone pointed me toward the Atom Bomb Baby mod, which lets you replace your mini-nuke stash with exploding babies. Now the game gets to be on this list.
In all seriousness, this is why we play PC games. It’s not that Fallout 4 is bad, per se, but it’s infinitely better when the community’s fixed its weird dialogue system, the janky menus, and other Bethesda-style quirks.
Ori and the Blind Forest
Hayden: Ori and the Blind Forest is occasionally lighthearted, mostly heart-achingly sad, and always stunning. It’s one of those games that takes you by surprise, with the well-worn trappings of the Metroidvania genre giving way to arresting watercolor landscapes and a phenomenal soundtrack and a simple-but-effective fairytale story. It’s like a more effective Child of Light, or a lengthier, more self-assured Never Alone.
There is emotion here, and awe, and beauty. And, if we’re being honest, a healthy amount of screamed obscenities as you get into the later areas. Ori and the Blind Forest can be an uneven and sometimes frustrating ride, but it’s testament to the game’s strengths that I persevered even through its worst sections. It’s a gorgeous experience.
Hayden: This one’s pretty simple: If you liked SpaceChem, you’ll like Infinifactory. Why? Because they’re from the same developer, and Infinifactory is pretty much just SpaceChem-in-3D.
You’ve been abducted by aliens and are forced to create “factories” for them, routing the correct boxes to the correct places by means of conveyor belts, platforms, welders, big metal pushy things, et cetera. If it sounds easy, you could not be more wrong. I’d warrant Infinifactory is actually harder than the already brain-bending SpaceChem.
It’s also the most satisfying puzzle game I’ve played in 2015, if you’ve got the patience. And its silly alien frame story kept me motivated long past the point where I might’ve given up.
Hayden: Part of me wishes Soma were more traditionally scary. After years of anticipating Soma as a horror game—one from Amnesia/Penumbra creator Frictional, no less—there’s still a bit of disappointment that the game is more cerebral than in-your-face terrifying.
But there’s not much disappointment, because Soma sacrificed horror for an excellent science fiction story. In fact, the game might’ve been better if it eschewed “monsters” entirely. With Soma, Frictional proved once again that a strong sense of setting and thematic consistency are far more memorable than cheap jump scares.
As I said in our review: “It’s a story you might’ve seen in grainy black and white on Twilight Zone or maybe The Outer Limits. It is bits of Blade Runner, of Demon with a Glass Hand, of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream and The Martian Chronicles and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and so many other legendary works of science fiction. It’s a story that deals with that most human of all topics: What does it mean to be human?”
Hayden: “SimCity done right.” That’s how I felt when Cities: Skylines came into this world, and it’s still how I feel nine months later, periodically returning to the game to discover more community-generated content and tinker with my city.
With massive cities, decently realistic (but still fun) simulations, and unequivocal support for mods of all types, Cities: Skylines is a proper city-builder with a healthy amount of respect for its players. Also, someone recreated San Francisco.
Brad: Hayden already hit the high points, but I just want to stress how deeply developer Colossal Order created Cities: Skylines with hardcore gamers in mind. The game skips all the B.S. that brought SimCity to its knees to offer a deep, complex city-building experience that will suck you in for days, complete with Steam Workshop and even native Linux support. Plus it’s only $30 retail! Bravo, Colossal.
Game of the year: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Hayden: This is the big one—Game of the Year, 2015. I don’t think this pick will come as a big surprise, though there was a fairly substantial piece of my heart that wanted to award the big prize to Rocket League.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is a monumental achievement though—one of the best, or maybe the best, open-world RPGs ever made. CD Projekt filled Geralt’s world with an incredible amount of detail, with quests that truly felt like they mattered, with some of the finest characters and character-based moments I’ve seen in any game. The Bloody Baron’s story alone is a master class on open-world storytelling, as is the first expansion (Hearts of Stone).
It’s not perfect, by any means, but in a year literally chock-full of open-world games I’d still argue The Witcher 3 is a genre-defining classic—a new baseline by which all other similar games must be judged.
Game of the year: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Brad: No other game nails epic quite like Witcher 3, from witnessing a glorious, thousand-colored sunset settling over Velen to dueling a basilisk atop a ruined tower as local lords cower. But perhaps more impressive is how intensely personal Geralt’s story is, despite being set in a world ravaged by war and magic. It masterfully coaxes you into caring about everybody you meet—even characters in one-off scenes.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! The game’s combat is deep and nuanced (though it gets easier as you level up). No quest, no matter how minor, feels superfluous. The world feels amazingly alive; simply watching deer scatter while you gallop through swaying forests on horseback takes your breath away. And chopping down royal griffons, swooping wyverns, and ancient vampires after carefully researching their weaknesses to enter battle with the perfect blend of bombs and potions makes you feel just plain badass.
Deus Ex has long held the honor of being my favorite game of all time, with no true contenders to the throne since it launched in 2000. In 2015, Geralt of Rivia seized the crown. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the best game I’ve ever played.
Honorable mention: Homeworld Remastered and Grim Fandango Remastered
Hayden: Grim Fandango originally released in 1998, and Homeworld in 1999. They earned their accolades at the time, and don’t really need to take up space on our official Game of the Year list.
But the new remasters are worth highlighting as pretty great efforts, with Grim Fandango Remastered rectifying the original’s terrible tank controls and Homeworld Remastered (pictured) looking simultaneously better-than-ever and just-like-you-remembered.
That’s not to say there are no issues. Grim Fandango still sports some ugly textures, and Homeworld’s campaign introduces some controversial feature changes. But these are legendary games for a reason, and well worth playing even in 2015—especially if you never had a chance to take them for a spin the first time around.
Honorable mention: Grand Theft Auto V (with mods)
Hayden: It took almost two years for Grand Theft Auto V to finally make it over to PC, but it was worth the wait. Why? Mostly because of mods.
As fun as it is, I don’t really care to replay the original game. I played it once on the Xbox 360 and once was enough. But mods have brought us this amazing GTA V version of the Teletubbies theme; and Full House; a gun that shoots cars; whales falling out of the sky; everyone (including seagulls) breathing fire; Half-Life 2’s Gravity Gun; Iron Man; and a million other things.
These tweaks breathe exhilarating new life into GTAV—and you’ll never be able to use them on the PlayStation or Xbox versions of the game. Mods are one of the things that make PC gaming so great.
Honorable mention: Dying Light
Brad: As a whole, zombie slugfest Dying Light really doesn’t really hang with the top 10 games of the year. The story missions are snooze-fests that all too often devolve into simple, overly long fetch quests, and the main character’s voice acting is atrocious. (He always sounds so bored.)
But! Some of my favorite gaming moments of 2015 came from Dying Light because the core gameplay just feels so damn good. Free-running up and over the zombie hordes in this massive, open city is satisfyingly fluid, and smacking zombies around with melee weapons feels physical and brutal—as it should. Every corner of the map is brimming with hidden blueprints for over-the-top weapons and hilarious easter eggs (like this Mario Bros. recreation). Even better, you can bring friends along for the ride, as Dying Light offers full four-player co-op.
Just forget the main story even exists after you’ve unlocked the basic abilities and a couple of safe houses. Grab a buddy or three, whip up some secret SiCK bombs that force zombies to fly off farting into the sunset, and then parkour out into the wilderness. Dying Light’s great once you stop worrying and learn to love the dumb.