80 Days is less about gameplay subversion than stylish, thoughtful immersion, employing a beloved genre–interactive fiction–to set you loose in a reimagined, politically contemplative rendering of Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days. Here be mechanical golems, underseas trains and steam-powered creatures as you traverse a game world (designed by a British-Indian woman) that doubles as trenchant commentary on the nature of colonialism.
You, a derelict space station, platoons of deranged androids and one relentless, homicidal, agile, terrifyingly perceptive xenomorph. Creative Assembly’s hulking orbital haunted house may be the most frightening game of hide-and-seek ever made. It’s also a stunning homage to Alien film artists H.R. Giger and Ron Cobb’s conceptual work, a chance to inhabit and scrutinize the world they and director Ridley Scott created in 1979 as if it in fact existed.
This War of Mine
How do you craft a game that conveys the insanity of war as well as the plight of wartime survivors dislocated by the chaos, all while keeping the gameplay connected to the narrative and the allegory unforced? This War of Mine manages both with unflinching elegance and a grimly poetic pulse. It drops you into harrowing survival scenarios that keep you clicking to assuage your survivors’ physiological and mental needs, but at the expense of no-win moral choices that illuminate the demoralizing, identity-scrubbing plight of civilians trapped in conflict zones.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
Dragon Age: Inquisition (reviewed here) is Bioware finally world-building with the mythic sweep of a Peter Jackson or Todd Howard, cultivating a sleek, reimagined, wildly blown up rendition of writer David Gaider’s fantasy preserve that feels at once grander and more holistic, a world whose craftsmanship you can admire and at points obsess over and occasionally even gawp at. If Dragon Age II was a weird, turtling retreat to button-mashy, bam-pow brawls in a village-sized city patched together from generic, recycled components, Dragon Age: Inquisition feels like the yang to its yin. On an epic scale.
Dark Souls II
A game that celebrates the notion of death as strategic outlook, Dark Souls II is less an improvement on its predecessors than a superlative alternate take. It rejiggers its rules in ways that echo through its combat subsystems, revitalizing the approaches you can take as you hew to its otherwise familiar approach-study-fight-die-repeat formula.
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
Part of the allure of Blizzard rolling its bejeweled carriage through the hoof-tramped mud of a played-out genre (collectible card games) is the Blizzard name. But that names signifies scrupulous playtesting and elaborate design values, all of which converge here to make Hearthstone the quickest, slickest, goofiest, most lavish online CCG around.
Mario Kart 8
A carnival of race tropes, a grab bag of driver profiles, tactics and race types, a melange of little gameplay iterations and configuration tweaks and “Holy crap, I’m racing up and down that?” moments jammed into a single game. This (reviewed here) is the best of all Nintendo’s Mario Karts to date: lavish, kaleidoscopic, gasp-inducing, ingenious, exotic, balletic and something you’ll be playing for a very long time.
Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor
In Shadow of Mordor, developer Monolith fashions a Middle-earth playground that finally works. You play as Talion, an undead Gondorian ranger merged with a wraith-like entity and endowed with supernatural abilities. The game’s unusually clever and hierarchically organized enemy orcs as well as Batman Arkham series-inspired combat dovetail brilliantly, producing something that shines with or without the Tolkien license.
Making the impossible possible, Monument Valley celebrates non-Euclidean geometry, beautifully bizarre architecture and the art of silent storytelling. Combine royalty with optical trickery, trajectory-fiddling with bonsai pruning, aesthetic contemplation with tactile interaction and you wind up with something like designer ustwo’s delightful, enigmatic puzzler.
The best NES game you never played sporting glorious high-definition pixel-block levels and incredible chiptunes and superlative platform-bounding gameplay. Shovel Knight is something like a crowdfunded miracle, the new archetype in gaming (or any other creative medium) for what letting developers who know exactly what they’re doing actually do it, unencumbered.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War
At once whimsical and horrifying, Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War–a contemplative sidescrolling adventure–explores gradually interlinked story threads laid across the brutal sweep of the world’s first imperialist implosion. And it does so by way of superbly crafted hodgepodge, allowing you to, among other things: sneak across moonlit barbed-wired battlefields, square off with German bomber planes, delve beneath cratered battlefields in search of the lost, amputate limbs in makeshift hospitals and race through explosive Parisian boulevards brilliantly synchronized to Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5.
In Upper One Games’ haunting, folkloric puzzle-platformer Never Alone, you alternate between Nuna, a resourceful Inupiat girl, and an ethereal arctic fox, exploring a blizzard-assailed landscape unpacked through multigenerational Alaskan myths. The gameplay–classic leaping, climbing and superb partner-related puzzling framed by gorgeous otherworldly scenery–dovetails with the game’s indelible story, enhanced by video vignettes (narrated by tribal members) that presage and illuminate each task.
Sunset Overdrive (reviewed here) taps the same screwball vein as developer Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank series, only with a grownup twist. Imagine a punk quasi-parkour game by way of a zany skateboarding simulation by way of a metropolis-sized circus playground that wants you to know it knows it’s a nerd-power fantasy. Think Tony Hawk meets Sam Raimi crossed with Sid Vicious multiplied by pinball.
A shoot-em-up meets a platforming game meets a stopwatch with a stick, Velocity 2X thrills and punishes and ultimately delights. Want to zip a spaceship through vertical obstacle-riddled levels that require precision execution of unique button sequences? Fold those split-second demands into a sidescrolling maze of daises, chutes and teleportation portals? Alternate between both in levels that unfurl like nested lines of code, shifting from one to the other like a crazy interstellar duathlon? Then play Velocity 2X.
Far Cry 4
Surviving Ubisoft’s superlative Far Cry 4 (reviewed here) often feels abrupt, slightly mad and sequentially unhinged. It’s you in a jam band, an improvisatory celebration of net-less oneupmanship (versus your own best performances) as you vector from mission to mission. It’s like playing pinball, lured off course by too-cool-to-ignore distractions, bounding into bedlam with the fleet-footedness of a huntsman by way of an exuberant toddler.