In a time of broken games, shaky multiplayer launches and buggy (and full-priced) pre-alpha releases, a few of this year’s games show us that there’s still hope for the industry. Here are the games that we couldn’t put down this year, setting the bar high for 2015.
Grand Theft Auto V
Platform: Xbox One, Playstation 4
The verdict: These days, it’s tempting for publishers to drop an unfinished product on initial release, then follow it up with a definitive version one year later. This is not the case for Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V. The original release on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 was a complete, detailed and varied open-world romp that pushed the consoles to their limits. GTA Online, given to players for free, was its own, wholly robust multiplayer experience. Nonetheless, the re-release—sporting crisp, 60-frames-per-second gameplay, enhanced graphics and even a first-person mode—included enough new features to merit a second purchase.
Platform: Wii U
The verdict: After a rough start with its Wii U console, Nintendo had a banner year following its late-year releases. Boasting polished, weird gameplay in which you can strap multiple weapons to the title character’s hands and feet while fighting off demonic cohorts, Bayonetta 2 is fast-paced from the get-go. Unlike other titles on Nintendo’s console, the game also offers an incredibly responsive control system, allowing the chaining of insane combo attacks as the game progresses to a climax of epic proportions. The only downside is that you might have to buy a Wii U just for this game.
Platform: Xbox One, Playstation 4, PC
Dragon Age: Inquisition
Platform: PC, Xbox One, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, Playstation 3
The verdict: Bioware’s Dragon Age: Inquisition offers an expansive RPG experience that immerses players in the beautifully-rendered world of Thedas, made even more believable by the attention paid to its characters. Every decision has a consequence that subtly shapes the universe, something made more impressive when you factor in that it’s an open world that lets you literally build onto it as you please.
Dark Souls 2
Platform: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, PC
The verdict: The world of Dark Souls 2 is unforgiving,period. Player death results in the loss of all one’s souls, which are used to level up. Spoiler: this will happen, a lot. Fiendishly powerful boss creatures and poorly-timed jumps across bottomless abysses are just two of the many, many ways you can die—which, in turn, makes getting past each obstacle that must more satisfying.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
Platform: PC, Playstation 4
The verdict: Proof that games don’t need explosions to earn a top spot on a list such as this one, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter puts the player in the role of a detective unraveling the mystery behind the death of a boy. The first-person game accomplishes this with little more than photorealistic graphics, a few puzzles and exploration mechanics, making it an atmospheric—and, at times, frightening—escape worth pursuing.
Super Smash Bros. Wii U
Platform: Wii U
The verdict: A combination of approachability and surprising depth makes this the exclusive brawler that may have saved Nintendo’s floundering console. Hearkening back to the by-gone era of battles waged on GameCube and Nintendo 64, Super Smash Bros. Wii U revitalizes the franchise with the addition of frenetic eight-player local battles, new characters and the use of amiibo—real-life collectible figurines that level up as their in-game counterparts progress. Few games these days offer the same variety of game modes, unlockables and replay value.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Platform: Playstation 4, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC
The verdict: Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis System lets you encounter unique, memorable enemies, each with their own strengths and weakness, as you slay the ranks of Sauron’s Uruk army. Oh, and they’ll hold grudges if you see them again—especially the ones you disfigure by throwing them in a fire. Despite a dodgy stealth mechanic that hides Talion, the playable character, in plain sight, the fighting in it is pure pleasure. A raft of gory finishing moves (decapitations!) and upgradeable weapons are bolstered by Talion’s inventory of wraith abilities.
Platform: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC
The verdict: Titanfall did running and gunning with jetpacks better than Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare ever could, about half a year early. The multiplayer-only game infuses its maps with storyline elements that help flesh out the universe, making it more than just a shooter with giant, pilotable robots that fall out of the sky. Speaking of which, Titanfall achieves the tricky balancing act between making titans feel like machines of mass destruction and giving pilots a credible shot at fighting them.