Here we are at the end of 2015. This was a year that saw developers finally beginning to cut the cord on the older generation of systems and focus on what’s ahead, aside from a few holdouts. It was also the year where “biggest map ever” was the selling point for just about every other game, whether it be Mad Max or Just Cause 3. We also saw “the end” to a few great series like Metal Gear Solid 5 supposedly finishing up Snake’s story and Batman: Arkham Knight as the end-cap on Rockstar’s Batman trilogy. And, of course, more remasters than anyone could shake a stick at. Now’s the time to take the year in review and see what really shines. Here are my picks for the year!

3RD: Fallout 4 (Bethesda, PS4/XB1/PC)

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Open-world games have exploded this year, with seemingly every title promising it has the largest map ever, but not all developers understanding that “big” is only a selling point if there’s something to do in all that space between point-of-interest A and point-of-interest B. Fortunately, Bethesda is on top of things with its latest entry into the genre. Fallout 4 offers not only a huge map but a guarantee that, at some point between A and B, you’ll find yourself sidetracked by into points C, F, and P, and you may forget that you were heading to B in the first place. And if you’re not the type to wander about, then there’s the excellent crafting system which allows you to build the settlement of your dreams in an almost Minecraft-esque fashion…so long as your dreams involve run-down shacks and twisted metallic constructions.

The latest entry into the series of irradiated wasteland exploration sims is great at getting you to find your own adventures, and can instill a greater desire to explore than any other title. There’s always something on the horizon that catches the eye, but along the way you might come across a drainage pipe with a mysterious door and a terminal keeping it locked. Hacking that terminal could lead to all sorts of outcomes. More often than not, I’ll spend 2 hours attempting to get somewhere but coming up short because I just had to go see what was in that Subway station, or on that freeway overpass. It took me 35 hours to reach a city I was told to visit in my 2nd hour of playing. The game is perfectly content with letting you do just that, getting out of your way so you can truly immerse yourself.

2ND: Bloodborne (FromSoftware, PS4)

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A sprawling city is consumed by a mysterious disease that affects both its residents and unwelcome outsiders. Villagers patrol their streets, armed with nothing but tools better suited to farmers – pitchforks, scythes, and a hunting rifle or two – as they desperately attempt to cleanse their home of the murderous beasts which prowl about. In a large plaza, they gather around the burning, lifeless figure of one of the monsters, as if it provides some small comfort to them, knowing that the beasts can be felled. But unknown to them, even larger monstrosities exist within their walls.

This is just the introduction to the world of Bloodborne, and your hunter will receive no better treatment than the creatures the villagers are purging. FromSoftware was the developer to beat all the way back in February with this latest release, a sort of semi-fresh IP. It would be easy to look at it from afar and call it another entry in the Souls series of games, but that would be doing it a disservice. While certain elements have been carried over, like the pool that your body leaves behind to be collected after your death, the system has also been radically altered.No longer can players hide safely behind their shields, or poke at mobs with magic and/or arrows from afar. Bloodborne’s lack of shields and effective ranged attacks means each battle needs to be up close and personal. While the risk is greater, the Regain system (hit an enemy after taking damage and some of it will be healed) makes it much more viable. And if it’s too difficult to do alone, then you can always summon a friend to co-op with you.

This is a game positively dripping with atmosphere, while at the same time refusing to tell you exactly what’s going on. It’s up to the player to discover as much or as little about the history of the city, the beasts, and the disease as they like. Beyond the city lie even greater threats, from twisted creatures that reside in the uncanny valley to completely alien beasts of massive proportions. Add in the grisly, visceral details of the dreary world of Yarnham, along with a soundtrack that leaves you with nothing but your own footsteps during the tense hunting areas before flaring up into intense boss themes, and it’s compelling enough that you can’t help but continue further, despite how unsettling the journey may be.

GAME OF THE YEAR: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (CD Projekt RED,  PS4/XB1/PC)

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Find Ciri. That’s basically all you’re told to do in the opening act of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Though it seems like a simple enough premise, it can lead to dozens of other sidequests and diversions that end up consuming dozens or even hundreds of hours. This title is supposedly the final chapter in a trilogy telling the story of Geralt of Rivia, a witcher (not to be confused with witches or witch hunters) of some renown, but it’s the first to be released for all major platforms. Unfortunately, it’s a bit harder to jump right in to this world than other open-world titles like Fallout, as there are firmly established people, places, and events that are brought up fairly commonly, and it can be easy to feel like you should know something, but don’t.

That being said, it’s hard to pick any one single area that pushes Geralt’s story to win the crown this year, as it’s more of an accumulation of small parts that weaves together perfectly. One would be the fantastic world. Romping around through lush green forests contrasts starkly with sneaking around dark, abandoned castles, and differs yet again from the bright, colorful marketplaces within the larger cities. There’s a lot of life, too – the waves rock and roll gently against your small boat and trees bend and creak in the face of gale force winds. Of course, there are also the monsters who wish to add your unique hue of blood to the scenery, and fighting them off is another of Witcher’s marvels. Combat is weighty and strategic, with even grunts being able to claw you to shreds on lower difficulties. Preparation and tactics are key to survival, whether it be the proper use of Geralt’s magic signs or simply the right armor for the right job.

While the small bits are a delight, the one thing that truly stands out compared to other RPGs is the care given in bringing the various NPCs to life. Sure, there are always going to be fetch quests and any number of missions that assign you to “go to X and kill Y baddies”, but the fully-voiced cast of characters manages to add a bit of character to every task, such that even the smallest chore can feel particularly meaningful.  And sometimes they are, as you’ll often be surprised to discover that helping someone with a seemingly menial task can lead to changes in other areas and quests. Ciri can wait, I’d much rather help the farmers find their missing chickens.

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