Monday, December 14, 2015

10 Favorite Games of 2015

I've been very intentional about referring to this as my "10 Favorite" instead of the more-definitive sounding "Top 10." I haven't played everything this year. Heck, I don't even have a PlayStation (I know, you don't have to remind me of what I'm missing) so to call this a Top 10 list would be a bit presumptuous.

I did, however, get in quite a few games this year (one of the joys of being a contributor to the Married to the Games YouTube channel) and would love to add to the internet pile of people with end-of-the-year lists if for no other reason than to give props and attention to the game companies, makers, producers, artists, and innovators who brought them to us.

1. Tales from the Borderlands

I'll be honest. I really didn't want to play this game. Although I like to play games, I don't consider myself a "gamer" and really didn't know much about the Borderlands franchise. I had tested the waters with Borderlands 2, but it never really stuck, so I went into this more as a fan of TellTale than of the subject matter itself.


Tales from the Borderlands was, for lack of being too lazy to go to to find a synonym for amazing, amazing. Artistically dead-on and eye-popping, the game ramps up to full speed and never lets off the throttle. Just when you think you know what's what the writers - good night, the writing in this game! - spin everything on its head, making the mobius strip narrative of Memento and Pulp Fiction feel like child's play.

As a student of comedy, if you can make me laugh, then I'm sold. If you make me laugh out loud, then we're best friends forever. The witty banter found within hit me right in my Community-loving funny bone. It's like Aaron Sorkin and Dan Harmon made a comedy baby (Don't linger too much on how that would work. It's a weird place you don't want to be in for long)

TellTale assembled an absolute dream team of voice actors and they take an already incredible script and make it incrediblier (Nope. Not a word. Don't care). Troy Baker, Laura Bailey, Erin Yvette, Dameon Clarke, Patrick Warburton, Nolan North... ARE YOU KIDDING ME? 

Kudos to everyone at TellTale for something so much bigger than just "a game." This was an experience. Favorite of the year, hands down.

2. Batman: Arkham Knight

You can always tell when I like a game - especially one of this length - because I play it twice. And upon completing Batman: Arkham Knight, I immediately started a new save file and played it all over again. I had a blast zipping through Gotham City, punching dudes in the face and then punching more dudes in the face. There was some internet chatter from people complaining about how much time was spent driving the Batmobile and to them, I say boo. It was a new element introduced with this title and I can't imagine how they could have done it better. 

Besides what I've seen in Batman movies and played in LEGO Batman games, I'm not terribly familiar with the mythology of the Dark Knight, so any deviations from canon didn't bother me and I didn't see any of the story twists coming. In the end, it was exactly what a game should be: A lot of fun.

Just like Batman: Arkham Knight, Rise of the Tomb Raider took what worked in the previous installment, tweaked it to make it even more fun, and then went from there. Once again the game designers have done a great job of placing you in one seemingly-impossible-to-get-out-of situation after another, hardly ever letting you stop to catch your breath.

This time around the story gets personal, bringing Lara's family into the picture and filling in some backstory that rounds out the experience nicely. Of course, any time family gets wrapped up in the proceedings, the stakes are raised and ROTTR doesn't fail to keep up with its own momentum. I'm looking forward to playing this one again.

I never would have thought an unfinished preview could make it onto an end-of-the-year list but that's a testament to how good this game is: Even when it's not finished it's incredible.

The gang at Bloober Team has thrown their hat into the horror genre ring and will no doubt raise the bar for all other games to come. Rather than going the tired Scary Monster Chasing You In A Creepy Setting While You're Critically Unarmed route, Layers of Fear goes more psychological, knowing that often times what you don't see - or what you don't see happen - can be scarier. There are no monsters and psychos stalking you, killing you as soon as they get near. Layers of Fear makes you jump by moving a chair. Yep. I jumped and my wife screamed at a freakin' chair

This has been a really good year for sequels and Assassin's Creed: Syndicate is another example of how good a game can be if you just keep giving people what they love most about your product. With some really nice tweaks (they've finally perfected they running/climbing feature and I played through the entire game without once inadvertently scaling something I didn't want to) and stories (they almost completely dropped the present-day Abstergo storyline - which I never quite understood as a latecomer to the series). It was fun bumping into the likes of Charles Dickens and Alexander Graham Bell and the addition of a Batman-esque zipline was the perfect way to navigate those busy London streets. 

When I think of online multiplayer games, I think of Halo and Call of Duty and 12-year-olds with usernames consisting of numbers for letters who are way better than me and leave me more frustrated than entertained (Stop shooting my head! I'm trying to figure out how to crouch!). So, when Star Wars:Battlefront was announced, I initially shrugged it off. I didn't need another game that I would play for two minutes before swearing it off. And besides, I'm not a Star Wars nerd so...I'm good, thank you very much.

But then, the free online Beta demo came out. And hey, it's free, why not, right?

Simply put, I was hooked from the get-go and when the full version came out, I was more than happy to snatch it up. With a vast array of modes to choose from - I still haven't tried them all - and stunning visuals, I still can't believe how much I enjoy this game. To say I'm pleasantly surprised is an understatement. The Force is strong in this one.

How good is Until Dawn? I didn't even play it (You know...the whole not-having-a-PS4-thing) and I still loved it. Beautifully executed (no pun intended), I love how the choices you make in this game really do effect the outcome. I watched a couple of different walkthroughs online by players who made completely different choices and I was impressed to see how many layers are tucked away inside, waiting to be found. If you look around enough and pay attention to detail, you can unfold the entire story. Of course, that's easier said than done when you're being stalked by a madman - or are you? - in this cleverly written and wonderfully acted twist on teen slasher flicks.

Sarah and I love having friends over to play games, and when a good party game hits (Just Dance, Raving Rabbids, Guitar Hero), we get some serious mileage out of it. As a longtime fan of You Don't Know Jack and Jackbox's first party pack, to say I was excited to see The Jackbox Party Pack 2 added to their repertoire would be putting it lightly. They kept favorites like Quiplash and Fibbage, and added the likes of Earwax (hilariously original) and Bidiots (it takes a time or two to get it down but once you do, it's pretty clever). If only they could solve the connection issues that at times plague the games (you play on a smart device), this might have been higher up on my list.

Sarah and I are LEGO game junkies. We've played every game that's been made available for consoles ever since we started getting them on the PS2 and our expectations for this go-around were high. LEGO Dimensions was a blast to play as you never knew which pop culture phenomenon you would encounter next.

Replay, though, is another matter altogether. In every other LEGO game, after you play you can go back through and replay all of the levels using characters you've unlocked along the way to uncover hidden items you couldn't on the first go-around. Now, though, in order to do that you have to buy those additional characters. Despite the fact that the additional characters come with bonus levels, they are disappointingly brief and we just aren't interested in shelling out that much dough. We played it once and have yet to fire it up again. 

Games are supposed to be loud and exciting and scary and fast-paced and in-your-face. Or so we've been led to believe. And when they're not, your first tendency may to become suspicious. " they're making me THINK nothing is going to happen, that must mean something is going to jump out at me and scare me."

And when that doesn't happen you realize...maybe good storytelling is really all you need.

That's certainly the case for Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, an intriguing tale that takes its time unfolding and I wouldn't want it any other way. Quiet and atmospheric, with some of the most talented voice acting you'll experience, this is something that'll stick with you long after the end credits have rolled.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

With Thanks To Gabe (and Games)

A few years ago a friend of ours who is a single Dad was talking about having his kids over for the weekend and asked Sarah and I if we had any idea on how to keep them entertained. 

I happily offered him our PS2 and the collection of games and accessories (Guitar Hero guitars, dance mats) that went along with it. Remembering how much mileage we had gotten out of it, we were sure that his family would do the same.

We gave him our collection (it took 3 boxes and one duffle bag to hold it all) and once in a while we would hear back from him as to how much they were enjoying the games and it was really cool to hear. 

Fast-forward to last week. Our friend's kids are now older and have all but moved on. Our friend asked us when would be a good time to return everything to us. It took us by surprise as we hadn't expected any of it to be returned but I admit part of me got a little excited to re-connect and pick up all of the games we had mostly forgotten about once again. 

As Sarah and I rode up the elevator to our place, our arms loaded with games and equipment, Sarah caught me smiling as I looked down into the box. "You can't wait to play these, can you?" she said with a smirk.

I confessed to her that it wasn't that as much as it was the games I was looking at: "Stuntman" and "Dance Dance Revolution." I spent a lot of hours playing those games at a time when I needed distracted most. 

Without going into too many details and to make a long story short (too late), I was going through a lot of ... stuff ... in the early 2000s. The marriage I was in was falling apart and things with my job weren't in the best place. 

There's a gender stereotype that is somewhat true: In tough times girls gather to talk about their problems and guys gather to just hang out together. For some reason, the latter can be just as therapeutic as the former, and in my case my therapy came from gaming with my pal Gabe. 

If he wasn't at my house, then I was at his, and we played Stuntman and DDR Max for hours (and hours. And hours) on end. We laughed. We struggled. We took turns trying to figure out how to get through "A Whoopin'," we built stunt courses and dared the other to take them for a run, and we imitated the voice over actors. 

Most importantly, though, Gabe was there at a time when I needed someone to be there. It's a time that it is very easily the hardest time of my life and as a result, has made me grateful for those glimmers of lightheartedness. 

I don't know why I'm writing this but when I saw those games again and how they took me back to a time when I needed them (and the friend in the chair next to me), I felt compelled to say a public "thank you". 

So Gabe...Thank you.