Shacknews is preparing to release its selections for 2015 Game of the Year. Before we get to the staff's selections, Shacknews is taking a look back at the past 12 months in video games, spotlighting a handful of major releases, including a few that readers may perhaps like to include in their own personal GOTY conversations. Next up: October!
The fall season kicked off in September, but October took things into overdrive. A number of marquee franchises saw representation this month, whether it was through a sequel or through an attempted comeback. And there were even a few notable story-based games that saw their long-awaited finales. October was a tremendous month for games and yet somehow was merely a warmup for what was still to come.
Halo 5: Guardians
It was easy to ignore the Halo 5: Guardians marketing push when compared to the absolutely ridiculous hype for Fallout 4. Microsoft and 343's efforts to push Master Chief's next outing was nothing to sneeze at, though, whether it was the months of ads pitting two teams of Spartans against one another or whether it was a well-produced podcast documenting the story ot this point.
As for the game itself, Halo 5: Guardians offered a new twist on the Halo campaign by adding in AI partners. It could have led to something special, had the AI been smarter than a box of rocks. But even with the AI's shortcomings, the campaign still featured many of the bombastic set pieces that make Halo into a memorable space opera.
But one of the game's biggest highlights was its multiplayer, segregated into competitive Arena play and objective-based Warzones. Warzones, in particular, answered the toughest question going into Halo 5's release, which was, "What could this game offer that Halo: The Master Chief Collection can't?" Warzone's objectives introduced some enjoyable new ideas, while also retaining the core of the Halo multiplayer experience, and that's a triumph in itself.
From our review: Halo 5: Guardians isn't 343's first Halo game, but it's the first that really makes the series its own. This isn't a reflection of Bungie's efforts, or a remaster, or stage-setting. The studio has put its own identity on this Halo game with smart moves like a more identifiable story and a wider array of multiplayer options, along with increased polish like Guardians' incredible visual punch and impeccable multiplayer balance. For the first time since 343 took the mantle, I came away feeling that it was a change for the better.
Rock Band 4
After years laying dormant, it was time for the plastic instrument era to live again. For Harmonix, that meant giving players a chance to play their old catalogue on a next-generation console. More importantly, it meant not fixing what wasn't broken to begin with.
Rock Band 4 isn't as much of a follow-up to Rock Band 3 as it feels more like a return to Rock Band 2 form. The emphasis was taken off learning "real instruments" and placed back on having fun with plastic ones, while adding in new, modern-day tracks. That's why the game's major new addition, freestyle solos, places an emphasis on just cutting loose and having a good time. It can be debated whether the original thrill is gone, never to return, but it still feels good to have the option to jump back in play a well-constructed music game, just like the old days.
From our review: Like any band's reunion tour, it's easy to get caught up in nostalgia. But Rock Band 4 proves to be far more than that. It's a return to form, putting the focus back on four-player fun without any overly-complicated mechanics. The new additions all focus on just letting loose and having a good time and even those mechanical additions aren't forced. The DLC situation is something of a mess, but those willing to bear through it will have a sure-fire party gem on their hands.
Guitar Hero Live
After years laying dormant, it was time for the plastic instrument era to live again. For FreestyleGames, that meant blowing up everything anyone knew about Guitar Hero and starting over from scratch. The result was an entirely new way to play a plastic guitar, with three frets of two-sided buttons. This meant re-learning what it meant to play a plastic instrument, but just like the old days, it's something that can be picked up with some practice.
But more than that, Guitar Hero Live was about overhauling the overall presentation. Animated set pieces were tossed aside in favor of overly-produced interactive concerts, which were interesting, if a bit hokey. However, GHTV mode features music video backdrops, offering the kind of MTV experience that even MTV doesn't offer anymore. More than that, Freestyle has embraced modern methods of enjoying music, employing on-demand and Spotify-style streaming content, offering up 24/7 rotating entertainment. Guitar Hero Live's best contribution is its implementation of in-game currency to pick up songs on demand, while also rotating new music into the free streaming channels regularly. This meant the days of draining one's wallet for pricey DLC was at an end, though it unfortunately also meant no way to permanently own any new tracks released.
More than anything, though, October saw the realization that for the first time, Rock Band and Guitar Hero were now two distinctly different games. Though they're the same genre with the same goal, they now feel different and special in their own way. And that means the new plastic instrument era is off to a great start.
From our review: Forget what you know about old Guitar Hero games. Those are in the past. FreeStyleGames has taken only the most fundamental pieces of what Harmonix and Neversoft introduced and instead put their own unique stamp on Guitar Hero Live. In many ways, it's for the better, especially in GHTV. In fact, GHTV might even have some players wondering why that wasn't the whole game. It certainly makes the live action concert element feel superfluous.
Assassin's Creed Syndicate
Assassin's Creed Unity and its array of bugs undoubtedly had many people approaching Assassin's Creed Syndicate with a degree of skepticism. However, some new blood was assigned to this incarnation of the series in the form of Ubisoft Quebec and the result is one of the better efforts in years.
Syndicate's story is an engaging one, especially as it leads to the game's new gang mechanic. Total anarchy in an AC game is always fun to witness and making all-out gang wars a part of the game was a good decision on Ubisoft Quebec's part. The new ideas also fit in well with Syndicate's new protagonists, a strong pair of twins that are looking to take back London from the Templar influence that has taken over. The annoying series issues that have lingered in previous games remain present, but Syndicate's story is at least worth following, especially for anyone turned off by Unity's narrative.
From our review: After spending over 35 hours exploring the nooks and cranny of Assassin's Creed Syndicate, I'm saddened to report that my initial findings still ring true. What I had hoped would be a return to everything great about Assassin's Creed has failed to really pull me in. It isn't a terrible game by any means, and I'd rank it much higher on the totem pole than the previous installment, Assassin's Creed Unity. But that doesn't change the fact that Ubisoft's latest assassin-centered story is only a few shades above mediocre.
Tales from the Borderlands
The idea of Telltale venturing into the world of Borderlands sounded far-fetched at the time. And while its opening episode was a fun romp, delays in scheduling didn't sound particularly encouraging. But Tales from the Borderlands not only proved to be a fantastic series on its own, it stands up with some of the best work that Telltale has ever produced.
It's more than just the Borderlands setting that wonderfully followed up on the events of Borderlands 2. It was the raucous humor (both light-hearted and dark) that filled each episode, it was the brilliant characters, it was the relationships between those characters, it was that dialogue choices did indeed lead down distinctly different paths, and it was some of the most well-produced action sequences seen in a Telltale game. Anyone with even a modicum of attachment to the Borderlands universe will be blown away by what was produced, but more importantly than that, it was just a plain good story that introduces a pair of con artists and makes them people worth caring about.
From our review: Tales from the Borderlands succeeds on a number of fronts. As the latest chapter of the ongoing Borderlands story, it's a fine progression and sets the table for a post-Borderlands 2 world. As a story-based game, it features some of Telltale's best writing to date and its humor separates it from the developer's more recent efforts. It also features a shocking amount of replay value and actually made me want to play the finale more than once to see the various character interactions, as well as find any little things I might have missed. The actual final seconds of the story itself may be infuriatingly cliche to some, but after the experience of the journey, it's forgivable. Despite that, Tales from the Borderlands marks some of Telltale's best work to date.
Life is Strange
Telltale wasn't the only studio working storytelling magic this year. Dontnod Entertainment crafted some of the best character work seen all year with Life is Strange, taking a strange tale of limited time travel powers and successfully crafting together a tale of teenage angst and a missing persons mystery.
More than anything, Life is Strange succeeds because of its beautifully-written, three-dimensional character work. They're teenagers, but the events they've witnessed and the drama that's unfolded around them were incredible to see. And their reactions to it and their goals, dreams, and fears made them all worth caring about. There's been some discussion about the story's ending. Personally, I strongly disliked it, but time has proven me to be the minority on this stance. But regardless, the reason the ending was a point of contention was because these characters were so strong and there was so much emotion invested in them. I wanted to see what happened to Max. I wanted to see what happened to Chloe. It's been a long time since I've been this interested in a character's outcome. Life is Strange gradually pulled people into Max and Chloe's world, proving that a teen drama can work in the video game medium.
From our review: Through four episodes, Life is Strange proved innovative with its take on the point-and-click style of adventure game and also heartwarmingly captivating with its story. The former remains true, even as the series reaches its conclusion with Polarized. Even if it utilizes the "trial and error" dialogue a little less this time around, it's still used exceptionally well across the whole series. If nothing else, Life is Strange should be experienced for this novel addition to the point-and-click adventure.
Yoshi's Wooly World
Finally, it's time to move from the dark to the adorable. Yoshi's Wooly World ran a heavy risk of rehashing the Yoshi's Island formula with a simple new coat of paint. But instead of relying on the yarn gimmick for a mere visual upgrade, Wooly World actually built the Yoshi's Island formula around it, leading to interesting new gameplay additions and the freshest the series has felt in years.
The best part is that none of the new gimmicks overstayed their welcome. Few, if any, of the individual level ideas were used more than once, leading to the constant introduction of new mechanics from start to finish. And nothing came easy here, as Wooly World's deceptive sweet presentation hid a surprisingly challenging platformer. Even if the end was another anti-climactic Baby Bowser encounter, Wooly World proved to be a fresh Yoshi experience throughout the entire journey.
Plus, it was darn cute!
From our review: Yoshi's Wooly World isn't content to repeat the franchise's usual ideas, nor does it forego them. Instead, Nintendo and Good-Feel offer something of a reinvention, making an old sweater feel like new again. It's easy to let your guard down with this game. It's sickeningly adorable. Yarn Yoshi makes the baby-like Yoshi sounds that have become such a recognizable element of the character, but now more brightly-colored than ever before. But behind this sugary exterior lies some of the most challenging stages the series has produced. Think of this less like a lollipop and more like a jawbreaker. But like any good jawbreaker, it's worth sticking with and savoring its flavor. With fresh concepts introduced in each stage, lots of collectibles, and creative level and boss designs, Yoshi's Wooly World stands as Yoshi's best outing in a long time.
The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes
This wasn't Nintendo's first outing with multiple links, but Tri Force Heroes introduces some interesting new ideas in the form of online co-op and the totem mechanic. The Zelda dungeon crawling doesn't quite feel the same with more than one person, but Tri Force Heroes is a competent effort, assuming you can find such an odd number of friends.
Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree's Woe and the Blight Below
This spin-off of the Dragon Quest series sees the harmony between humans and monsters disrupted, leading to players picking up the role of a Captain of the Royal Guard. With 12 different hero types available, there are ample gameplay possibilities in what's otherwise the latest in the "Dynasty Warriors" style action games.
Chibi-Robo: Zip Lash
Nintendo hasn't quite had the same success with Chibi-Robo as it has with its other newer IPs, but the little robot's latest 3DS effort was a pretty competent platformer. Using his plug as a grappling hook, Zip Lash added some new platforming possibilities, as well as chances to explore and find new secrets. It still doesn't quite have the same appeal as some of Nintendo's more established franchises, but Chibi-Robo's latest does deserve a look.
After making its home on Steam Early Access for over a year, Devolver Digital and Free Lives finally released the full version of Broforce. The result was some fantastically fun shooting with various action hero parodies. The wild action is everything about old-school side-scrolling shooters like Contra and Metal Slug and turning up to its maximum level, with levels short enough to play through in just a couple of minutes. Broforce spent a lot of time in the oven, but the final product came out freshly baked and as American as apple pie!
Since High Moon's Transformers trilogy ended on a whimper (and without High Moon, no less), there was almost no fanfare for the latest action game based on the long-running "Robots in Disguise" property. That's a shame, because the name "Platinum Games" should have gotten everyone's attention. And indeed, Platinum put together some deep combat mechanics and massive boss fights that perfectly encapsulated all of the high-octane action that the Transformers series has always had the potential to produce. And transforming back and forth was even woven into the game's combo system. Transformers: Devastation is a woefully overlooked action game and one that does the license justice.
Join us at Shacknews as we continue our look through the year 2015, month-by-month. Coming up next, Fallout 4! Also, a lot of games that are not Fallout 4!