The most exciting games of 2015
Barbarians and Batmen, spacemen and squid.
2015 promises an exciting mix of the old and the new, as legendary heroes make room for upstart Victorian super-squads and planes that fly underwater. Here are some of the games we're looking forward to the most - and the reasons why.
American Truck Simulator
For giving us the American open road how it's supposed to be experienced - at 55mph and with Hawkwind puffing you along the way.
The world might currently be ensconced in Elite: Dangerous, but we all know it's really just a stopgap until the one true and mighty open world trade simulator returns: SCS Software's incredible Truck Simulator series. We've already been treated to the thrills of Europe and the electric buzz of shipping piping from Folkestone to Lille - now we get the slightly more storied routes of America, allowing you to haul goods across the sunny state of California. Whether the slightly grubby charm can survive the shift in climate remains to be seen, but the formula's strong enough to suggest it can stand being supplanted to pretty much anywhere in the world.
At the Gates
For offering a 4X set in the twilight of an empire.
Why play as Rome when you can eke out a thrillingly precarious existence under Rome's faltering shadow? That's the premise of At the Gates, the new 4X from Civ 5 designer Jon Shafer. Conifer Games promises dynamic maps that respond to changes in weather, with forests catching fire and ice forming precarious bridges over rivers, and the whole game feels tilted towards reacting to the whims and whiles of an unpredictable environment rather than memorising favourite tactics and refining victory strategies.
Batman: Arkham Knight
For the moment you get out of the car.
It's not the Batmobile, it's the way you erupt from it, springing out of the cockpit and high into the air so that you might better pick the precise spot to stick your size twelve bat-boots when you land. Arkham Knight's new armoured tank might make a slight mockery of the Caped Crusader's no-guns rule, but Rocksteady's clearly taken pains to fit the whole thing into the Arkham games' existing template as thrillingly as possible.
For heralding the return of one of gaming's most exciting visionaries.
The amount of praise heaped on Hidetaka Miyazaki has always seemed a bit unfair on From Software - after all, his Demon's Souls and Dark Souls games were themselves continuations of the King's Field series that stretches back to well before his own tenure - but it's clear the director brought a little something extra to his own take on these brutal, bleak and quite often beautiful action RPGs. What that is exactly can be hard to quantify, but that's the charm, really - it's in the mastery of systems as well as the depths of mystery in Miyazaki's games, something he, commendably, refuses to be drawn to comment on. In Bloodborne we've the proposition of a fresh new enigma, and we're all so desperately eager to unravel it.
Code Name S.T.E.A.M.
For two words: Intelligent Systems.
After the precision delights of Fire Emblem and Advance Wars, Intelligent Systems' latest feels wonderfully chaotic. It's a steampunk adventure in which you control a gang of patriotic superheroes led by Abraham Lincoln for starters, and the foes you're battling are all Cthulhian tentacles and chittering mandibles. Underneath all that, however, ticks the same old clockwork heart as you take turns to move around grid-based environments handing out coal-powered justice. Glorious stuff.
For those hand-painted explosions.
Have you knocked anyone's head off in Skulls of the Shogun? If you have, you'll be aware of the strange charm that 17-Bit can bring to horrible violence, and this kind of thing is front-and-centre in Galak-Z, a game about blasting your way through a fidgety 2D universe, one fireball at a time. When we saw the game last year, the designers had already nailed the lurid disco colour scheme and the deliriously pleasing aim-and-thrust controls. Since then, the whole thing's become a full-blown roguelike.
For all that underwater gliding.
Inner Space is an exploration game with a difference. You're flying through the skies this time, and the skies you're flying through are locked inside a series of inverted planets where gravity pulls outwards, away from the center of a series of interconnected spheres. All of which starts to make sense when you see the game in motion: Inner Space is a beautiful pastel-coloured dream of flight and one of 2015's most tantalising prospects.
Just Cause 3
Another dictator to depose, another paradise to defile, Just Cause: you have been missed. An open-worlder with a surprising eye for physics-based slapstick comedy, Just Cause 2 is the best game about tying two things together with a grappling hook that has yet been made, so it's going to be fascinating to see how the team builds on such exalted foundations here. (Hopefully they'll start by making the guns better.)
Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
For the chance to own our own oil rig.
Ground Zeroes has already introduced MGS 5's wonderfully natural approach to contemporary stealth and offered a glimpse of how well it will work when splashed across a handful of huge environments. One of the most tantalising things about The Phantom Pain, though, is Mother Base, your oil platform base of operations, decked out with staff and equipment airlifted in via those magical Fulton recovery balloons. Does war ever really change? Who cares, when a smart game finds time to sketch the strange pleasures of maintaining a militaristic doll's house onto the wider geopolitical landscape.
For all those stealthy pigeons.
"I woke up on Tuesday like, "I'm going to put pigeons in Neon Struct!" That's David Pittman, describing the eternal pleasures of indie development over on his blog. Neon Struct now has pigeons, but the designer's coldly chic follow-up to Eldritch has a lot more going for it, too. Stealth, global surveillance themes, and some gloriously loud carpeting all conspire to make this one of the most intriguing prospects of the new year.
No Man's Sky
It's full of stars.
Explore the universe: sometimes it's nice to step back from the nuance, the detailing, and the intricacy to hear a really simple, really primal video game pitch. Hello Games is using procedural generation to provide players with an entire skybox of stars to pick through, and the early videos, featuring seamless surface-to-orbit transitions, dogfights and dinosaurs are enough to make you suspect they might be able to do it.
Not a Hero
For showing that there's plenty of life left in pixel art.
The aesthetic might be a little wearisome - even if, with its 2.5D 'IsoSlant' perspective developer Roll7 has, quite literally, found a new angle on the well-worn look - but there's enough ticking away under the bonnet Not a Hero to make this quick-paced shooter fresh. Blending cover play with lurid knee-slides and crackling bursts of hyper violence, it is - lazy comparison inbound! - a little like a side-scrolling Vanquish, which is of course a Very Good Thing. Designer John Ribbins has got the chops to make it all hang together, too - his last game, the Vita skater OlliOlli, was one of 2014's deepest, most satisfying diversions, and there's every reason to believe his 2015 effort will be able to repeat the trick.
Pillars of Eternity
For keeping it old school.
When old people talk fondly about fantasy role-playing games they mean the Infinity Engine games, the Baldur's Gates, the Planescape Torments. Wordy, deep, challenging, tactical: it's exactly what Californian developer Obsidian is trying to bring back with Pillars of Eternity. Better yet, it's exactly what a team comprising many of the people who made those old games - a team that's also made good games in the intervening years - is trying to bring back. Pillars of Eternity represents precisely the dormant experience Kickstarter promised to resurrect. It's a good idea in good hands.
Rainbow 6 Siege
For bringing down the house.
Sometimes, development hell lands you here - in a quiet, middle-class suburb where some well-intentioned counter-terrorist types are methodically turning a nice family home into a flaming shell of a structure with bullet holes you could post letters through. There's focus in amidst the chaos, though, as Ubisoft offers up a wonderfully tense asymmetric shooter with an emphasis on tactics, forethought, and diving through windows.
New Nintendo IP.
A new Zelda may have stolen the show at this year's E3, but Splatoon offers the kind of energy you only get from brand new IP. Both an explosion of colour and a rigorous tactical shooter, Nintendo's latest is as focused as it is ingenious. Ink is everything here, tying ammunition, traversal, and territory capture together in a way that's immediately comprehensible, and allowing small, intricate maps to host matches filled with surprises.
For offering a Steampunky Spelunky.
Nicking stuff is an underused delight in video games, and when you combine a burglar's stealthy nimbleness with a roguelike's procedural generation and clockwork enemies, you're hopefully onto something very special. Size Five Games is putting The Swindle together with wit and style, by the looks of things, and this should be a great reminder that the real fun of being an imaginary criminal kicks in when things go horribly wrong.
For the nostalgia and the nightmares.
Interactive drama with an early 1990s twist, Virginia focuses on an FBI agent investigating a missing child and being slowly drawn into a world of folksy surrealism and dark intrigue. Twin Peaks is, inevitably, the main touchstone, and it's fascinating to ponder what nasty magic David Lynch may have conjured with the game's artfully primitive character designs and rustic colour palettes.
For finding out if it was worth the wait.
Few developers could keep the hype-train chugging along through so many delays like CD Projekt - and few games could control the ever-building pressure that followed the magnificent toot of The Witcher 3's announcement back at the start of 2013. It's thanks to the pedigree of previous Witcher games that the developers can suggest the shifting release date is down to polishing rather than mismanagement, and the prospect of a more open-ended adventure for Gerart is still enough to excite us - whenever it turns up.
Wheels within wheels.
Or mazes within mazes, anyway. Jonathan Blow's follow-up to Braid sees you exploring the various nooks and crannies of a bucolic paradise while simultaneously working your way through a series of 2D puzzles. Early glimpses suggest that this is a game about context and the blurring of lines, as physical and abstract worlds converge playfully.
Xenoblade Chronicles X
For proving that the JRPG never went away.
2015 looks set to be the year of the JRPG - provided, that is, all the games lined up to land actually arrive on time. With a little luck we'll be getting Persona 5 and, at the very least, a little slice of Final Fantasy 15. Perhaps it's a little optimistic to lump Xenoblade Chronicles X in too, but let's cross our fingers anyway - Monolith Software's epic RPG was originally slated for release in 2014, after all, and 12 months ago we spoke at length as to why this is a game very much worth looking forward to. Like one of its own elegant mechas, Xenoblade Chronicles X towers above all around it. There's scale and ambition on display in all that's been shown so far, and director Testuya Takahashi looks to have the patience to deliver on his own grand vision. Maybe we'll have to wait that little bit longer, but it'll definitely be worthwhile.