The Shacknews staff is preparing for its long winter's nap and will be revealing our Game of the Year countdown starting next week. First, though, we're sitting by the virtual fireplace and recalling some of our own personal favorites. These games are among the ones that stood out the most to us this year.
Tales from the Borderlands
Some may consider Telltale's work formulaic, but more astute players will notice not only the differences in each of the studio's games, they'll also see the improvements. Tales from the Borderlands represents the peak in Telltale's brand of storytelling, with brilliantly realized characters and major consequences in choice. The big criticism to this point was that all roads lead to the same destination. And while that's still true to an extent, Telltale has embraced the fact that the journey is where the fun lies and that aspect can change from choice to choice.
Also, narratively, Telltale can't be lauded enough for towing the line between high-stakes drama and laugh-out-loud hilarity. It's a gripping story of legacy, whether it's in Rhys and Fiona setting out to forge their own or it's in Handsome Jack looking back at his and contemplating his own path. Yet Tales is also one of the funniest games I've played in a long time, up there with South Park: The Stick of Truth and Knights of Pen & Paper, with a great blend of witty dialogue and sight gags.
I fell in love with all of these characters and hope for nothing but the best for them going forward. Fingers crossed that Gearbox treats them right.
Life is Strange
I'm going to take a moment to be frank. While I had Tales from the Borderlands squarely in my GOTY conversation, Life is Strange actually fell off for me at the end. It wasn't just that the plot details got all topsy-turvy because of the time travel element, but the ending soured me greatly. Without spoiling the details, one ending dealt with the fallout of choice cavalierly, while the other ending took prior failures and just threw them out the window.
So then why is this game on my favorites list? Up to that point, Life is Strange had been unlike any story-based game I had played and had me completely invested in its characters. Max and Chloe were three-dimensional, fleshed out to remind people of their own teenage insecurities. The key difference was Max's rewind powers, which any one of us wish we had as a teen. Everyone wanted the ability to make everyone happy, but Dontnod Entertainment brilliantly showed the consequences of this and why some things, no matter how tragic, are simply meant to be. That's life. No one can explain it, but there is a grander plan at work, whether you believe in God, the order of the universe, fate, or whatever.
I took the ending as hard as I did precisely because I care about this story and its characters and it takes an incredible game to get me that invested in the first place.
Mortal Kombat X
It's hard to imagine NetherRealm hitting its peak on its tenth game, but Mortal Kombat X appears to have taken everything the developer has done and improved on it… well… tenfold. The fighting remains just as fun and intuitive as ever, but by sprinkling in elements of past games and even sister franchises, it all comes together in a great package.
What I love the most about MKX is its three variation system, which means there are new and interesting ways to master each character. It also reduces the mirror match problem greatly, which is something of an annoyance when it comes to fighting games. One version of Scorpion will play totally differently from another version of Scorpion and that's a great addition to this franchise.
Then there's the story, which capably introduces an entirely new generation of fighters. Storytelling has been a major NetherRealm staple since the last Mortal Kombat upped the stakes with the universe's reboot and MKX's narrative is definitely one worth watching. Story has become a major strength for NetherRealm and it's one I can't wait to see continue in the future.
Local multiplayer games are a lot of fun, but none this year had me more engaged than Runbow. It's racing at its most simple, going from start to finish while pushing, shoving, or butt stomping anything in your way.
But it's Runbow's gimmick that helps it stand out. Having anything that matches the background color removed from play is brilliant and leads to some truly hilarious moments. That's especially true when you mix it in with power-ups and their unique effects, like lightning strikes, backwards controls, and screen flips. The level design feeds into this perfectly and games go at a brisk pace.
It's a tremendously fun party game and it's truly a case of "the more, the merrier." Having nine players racing to the finish or trying to take control of a hill is just insanely fun. And yet, Runbow also has a pretty decent single-player campaign to go along with it. This is one of the Wii U's unsung heroes of the year.
Guitar Hero Live
I had to think long and hard about this one. I'll preface this by saying that I'm a huge fan of Rock Band. I've loved the series since its inception and it's still in my regular rotation. But there's no denying that once the initial thrill of Rock Band 4 wears off, it still feels like the same Rock Band I've always had. That's not a bad thing, but it is what it is.
Guitar Hero Live, on the other hand, feels like a true reinvention of a classic series. It's not so much the three-fretted guitar. In fact, that's actually one of my least favorite aspects of it. (Of course, I could be saying that, because I still haven't quite gotten the hang of it.) No, the true beauty in Guitar Hero Live lies in its overhauled presentation.
Even as hokey as they are, the live concert element of GH Live is fun for a few laughs. But it's GHTV where the game really comes to life. The idea of playing with music videos in the background is a great idea in itself, but embracing 24-hour streaming channels is unspeakably genius. It means there's always something to play and someone to play with, albeit asynchronously. And it goes back to the root of what I love about these games and that's discovering new music I never would have tried before.