We’ve been told some superb stories over the course of 2015. Dontnod finally cracked the formula Telltale have harboured jealously these past few years, Pillars of Eternity and Her Story made a virtue of verbosity, while Rockstar and Kojima reminded us that triple-A could still surprise and provoke.
Not everything great happened in 2015 - our rundown of the best PC games to play right now features choices from this year and those gone by.
But we’ve written our own stories too, playing the likes of Prison Architect and Sunless Sea, that we’ll remember equally fondly. For those frozen in carbonite or stuck without a sufficiently powerful PC during the period in question, here are the year’s best.
Heroes of the Storm
It wasn’t going to be long until Blizzard entered the MOBA fray, and Heroes of the Storm is their stab at taking on Dota and League of Legends. Yet this 5v5 arena game isn’t just another clone. Instead Blizzard have made a game vastly more accessible than your regular MOBA, while holding tightly to the core characteristics of the genre: complex heroes and skill set memorisation.
The heroes in question are favourites pulled from Blizzard’s worlds - Warcraft, Diablo, and StarCraft - and each bring their unique approaches to the battle arenas. Heroes of the Storm’s multiple maps not only ask teams to defeat one another, but also to complete side-quests tailored to their theme. One requires you to power up a golem that can rampage through your enemy’s base, whilst another allows you to transform into an unstoppable Dragon Knight if you capture a shrine. Not only is it varied, but it’s intensely fun.
Grand Theft Auto V
We were forced to wait over a year for it to arrive, but when Grand Theft Auto V showed up on PC we got the best version possible: huge resolution textures, heavier traffic, more wildlife to hunt, a first-person view, and frame rates that don't bog you down. GTA’s satirical Los Angeles is huge, and it looks phenomenal on PC. Baggy shirts ripple in the Californian breeze, and the branches of trees gently swing. Waves froth at the tips, and the individual gritstones of tarmac driveways glisten in the baking sun.
It also just so happens to be a great game too. Observe: three distinctly different protagonists who you can swap between at any point, and missions that never fail to entertain. Then there’s GTA Online, your weekend multiplayer go-to - a sandbox to get together with friends in and run amok, robbing every bank in the state and buying a sweet penthouse. Indisputably the pinnacle achievement of Rockstar’s current generation of game design.
2015 has been a fine year for PC RPGs, and Fallout 4 can stand proudly among them. Its radioactive Boston is a treasure trove of treats, mostly in the form of springs, shards of metal, and broken lightbulbs. It’s what Fallout lets you do with those odds and ends that’s its strength: while other RPGs fiddle about with random numbers and heavy decisions, Fallout 4 is about rebuilding society out of the scraps left behind. That can come in the form of an awesome new gun used to assassinate a key enemy, or a whole village built to accommodate survivors and traders. Whatever manner rebuilding comes in, it’s always done by your hand through the game’s brilliantly deep crafting system.
Aside from that, it’s business as usual for Fallout. There’s the Brotherhood of Steel to contend with, a shadowy mystery buried deep beneath the ground, and armies of super mutants to fend off. Fallout 4’s combat is the best Bethesda have ever made, so while war may never change, we're thankful that some things do.
Warhammer: End Times - Vermintide
Yes, Vermintide is basically a Left 4 Dead clone - down to the long-tailed equivalents of its special infected. But we’ve not had a Left 4 Dead game for six years, and Fatshark have expertly mimicked the art of throwing murderous beasts at a four-strong cluster of players. The odd randomer can make completing some missions a bit of a nightmare - but you can hack off a ratman’s head and see it roll down a cobbled street, set them on fire or blast them apart with a blunderbuss, so every cloud. The skaven are the smelly stars, evoking the goblins of Moria in their gleeful, feverish bloodlust. If your dream apocalypse situation is the Plague of London on steroids, then Vermintide is for you.
The game’s greenish gloom comes from Mordheim, and its classes from Warhammer Quest - plus there’s a loot and crafting system that embraces Games Workshop’s gothic weapons and tools. It’s a fantastic magpie effort, and a fitting celebration of the now-retired Old World.
Life is Strange
Life is Strange is the first example of the Telltale episodic formula really working for someone who isn’t Telltale. Not only are developers Dontnod not the architects of The Walking Dead, they’re also not interested in telling comic book end-of-the-world parables. Life is Strange is a coming-of-age story, focused on the trials and troubles of teenage life. Sure, there’s a paranormal aspect to it all - main character Max can manipulate time, saving players from reloading saves to test out alternative outcomes - but it’s the realistic, relatable elements of this schoolyard tale that really resonate.
With all five episodes now released, a marathon awaits. As you play you may find the narrative begins to unravel as its video game-y elements take hold. But for every misstep there’s a moment that nails teenage love, that hammers home terrible sorrow, that catches you off-guard. Even the smallest decision can lead to life-destroying consequences.
Marvel Heroes 2015
If you were to give this superhero action RPG a name from the Marvel comics, it would be Project Rebirth. Upon its launch two years ago, there’s no way it would have made this list. But Gazillion turned the lacklustre combat mechanics around by paying attention their community, and Marvel Heroes is now one of the most-played games on Steam. You’ll notice, too, since the game doubles as an MMO: packs of Wolverines and Hulks mill about environments made familiar by the Thor and Avengers films, and make more than adequate co-op partners.
Gazillion’s adjustments have lent Marvel Heroes that all-important flow that the very best action RPGs share - a hypnotically murderous rhythm punctuated by a satisfying progression system. And all the while, you’ll hear one-liners from a smirking Spider-Man, or whoever your hero of choice might be. There are more than 100 from the comics, from the iconic to the obscure, so you’ve a strong shot at fulfilling your particular power fantasy.
Divinity: Original Sin - Enhanced Edition
Not content simply to be the best RPG of 2014, Divinity: Original Sin returns to stand alongside the likes of The Witcher 3 and Pillars of Eternity, and doesn’t come off any worse for the comparison.
Over a thousand enhancements bolster the already stunning turn-based classic RPG. Controller support, a revised plot and dynamic split-screen are the headliners. But you’ll also find new voiceovers, enemies, loot, and a variety of game modes that allow you to either relax - the better to take in a supremely silly yet shrewdly written story - or play as a hardcore tactician. Given that the, er, original Original Sin could be teeth-grindingly difficult even on its default difficulty, that’s an option only for those confident they can navigate Divinity’s spell system without accidentally electrifying a comrade stood in a puddle of blood. The rest of us can muddle through in appreciation of the sublime simulation that invokes Dwarf Fortress as much as the Ultima games.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
For once in its history, Metal Gear Solid has treated the PC like a first class citizen and come to the platform in a timely fashion. Built on the fancy new FOX engine, The Phantom Pain is a huge leap for the series, featuring expansive, open-ended levels that allow players to pick their approach to objectives and freely play about with the game’s systems without falling foul of scripted sequences.
Snake has a plethora of toys available to fulfil his tactical needs, and the expected idiosyncrasies of Hideo Kojima introduce a strange internal logic to proceedings: in what other stealth game could you rely on a horse for mobile concealment, or slapstick-airlift inconvenient enemies out of the way? If this is to be the eccentric auteur’s final opus, then we couldn’t ask for a finer exit. Never has Kojima’s radio been so keenly attuned to both the needs of contemporary gamers and his own peculiar vision.
After decades of Dogmeat and other not-so-subtle references to the Road Warrior in videogames, Warner Brothers finally okayed an official adaptation from Avalanche. Vehicle combat is the backbone of this open-world game (would we expect anything else, especially after Fury Road?), but the wasteland is also full of utterly insane gangs to go head-to-head with in close combat. Customisation is a huge element, with Max’s car able to undergo numerous upgrades and refits until you find your ideal mechanical match.
With the Just Cause guys pulling the strings, the Mad Max films’ sense of violent insanity has been transferred wholesale into the game. And it’s absolutely gorgeous, thanks in no small part to the sandstorms that whip up from time to time. They’re a microcosmic look at Mad Max’s strengths: beautiful on the horizon, utterly chaotic once you’re caught up in their whirling debris and lightning strikes.
OlliOlli 2: Welcome To Olliwood
While the PC is chocka with throwback RPGs and adventure games, there’s one corner of our nostalgic brains usually left unstimulated - the part willing to hold down a physically ambitious combination of buttons in pursuit of a half-pipe high score.
OlliOlli 2 brings the moveset of Tony Hawk to the side-scrolling format of Trials. You jump, you land, you maintain momentum. Sloppy landings slow you down, break your combo and stumble your skater. There’s a hypnotic flow to the subtly highlighted dangers and luminous rails, as well as the flashes of pink and green that reward perfect timing. Daily challenges, split-screen multiplayer, pro-versions of tracks and a really cool soundtrack seal the deal. Don’t be surprised if, as the minutes turn to hours, you experience an almost spiritual sensation. If you’ll let it, OlliOlli will engender a zen-like partnership between your mind and fingers that your conscious brain isn’t invited to participate in.
Tales From The Borderlands
The greatest story ever told by a pair of utterly unreliable narrators, Tales From The Borderlands is a proud variation on the blueprint drawn up for The Walking Dead. Where in Georgia you were usually picking from two terrible outcomes, Pandora more often has you choosing between tempting trophies. It’s a game driven by greed rather than gruelling survival. What’s more, Telltale are now willing to mess with the limits of their toolset - tricking you into triggering alarms with big on-screen buttons, or causing double-takes by removing items from the background.
It’s also funny: a series that forefronts comedy made by a studio founded on it. The gags come fast, but are deliberate rather than scattershot - somehow retaining comic timing even when the player is in control of the conversation. Telltale play with the haplessness of their protagonists, who are professional bluffers rather than bounty hunters, and take glee in nudging them towards total chaos - setting up some exquisitely-directed action sequences. Oh: and there are electro-funk interludes.
Detective games have never quite captured the feel of being a genuine police inspector. That was until Her Story came along. Sat infront of a ‘90s CRT monitor and sifting through countless video files, you need to piece together the story told by a woman interviewed in regards to a missing man. If Her Story’s reticent database were real, whoever designed it would probably be out of a job. But here it ensures that you’ll hang off every word uttered by interviewee actress Viva Seifert. How did events unfold? With no guiding hand or mission markers, it’s up to you to decide the outcome of the case.
The FMV nature of the game doesn’t date Her Story to the same era as that CRT monitor, though you’d be forgiven for expecting it to. Proper human acting, for once not muddled by translation into a rendered world, actually brings this unique game closer to reality.
Guild of Dungeoneering
We’ve played countless dungeon crawlers where we act as the hero. Why not be the dungeon for once? Guild of Dungeoneering flips the formula, asking you to relinquish direct control of your adventurer and instead pick the tiles they’ll encounter - funnelling them through rooms you’ve populated with enemies and coin towards an objective. It’s like the scene in The Wrong Trousers where Gromit lays the track before the toy train while it’s in motion, but with barbarians and torture chambers.
Tempting your warrior down the right path can be terribly important. What you’re doing is managing your own difficulty curve - ensuring that your character meets appropriately-levelled enemies where possible; allowing them enough time to level up and loot better gear before facing bosses.
Guild of Dungeoneering takes what it needs from the best in CCGs and tactics and folds it all into a structure that’s clever and consciously underivative. It’s a deck you’ll want to keep playing with.
It’s the football game that’s taken the world by storm, probably because all the men with legs that kick the ball have been replaced with awesome cars that go brum brum and zoom zoom around futuristic stadiums. Yes, it’s vehiclular soccer, and it works brilliantly. This is a game where you can chase a ball while driving on the ceiling, as fans cheer from their sleek sci-fi seats. This is a game where a goal is accompanied by an explosion and an aftershock that sends every car hurtling backward.
While it’s football that obviously inspires Rocket League, it actually feels more like a big, bouncy game of 3D pinball. There’s a hint of pool or snooker there, too, in the angles and the trick shots. At launch the servers just couldn’t cope with the demand, but now that everything is fine and dandy Rocket League is fast-paced, ridiculous fun.
Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward
When an MMO has four million players, a darn good expansion pack is what it deserves. Heavensward provides exactly that for Final Fantasy XIV, adding a massive new world, a new race, three new jobs, and an extra spin to its exciting story, pushing the plot in new and dangerous directions. Here be dragons, so expect epic boss fights.
The base game remains essential - a full-fledged Final Fantasy with all the trimmings. You’ve got Eorzea as the huge open world: a mix of parched deserts, lush forests and sunny coasts. You’ve got your extravagant characters, including the series’ ubiquitous recurring character Cid. And you’re got a good versus evil story holding your hand from level one to 50 and beyond, propelling you through the various zones, directing you to the quest hubs. Cheesy humour tops off the whole affair like cheddar on an especially meaty chocobo burger.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
This is a much more personal tale than either of the previous Witcher games, exploring Geralt’s history and relationships, both romantic and platonic, but it’s still vast in scope, and a great deal of effort has also gone into developing the dark fantasy world and its denizens. Despite Geralt’s urgent quest, he’s able to go off gallivanting and do what he does best: killing monsters.
Now he’s doing it in a huge, mostly open world. That means more monsters to kill, more nooks and crannies to explore for relics, alchemical ingredients and monster dens and more quests than you could possibly keep track of without a quest log. And it stands as a lesson in how to make an open world game that’s filled with compelling content instead of inane busywork.
The reason it continues to enthral is simple: every time you begin what appears to be a fetch quest, you know to expect a twist in the tail from CD Projekt RED’s tricksy writers.
Order of Battle: Pacific
Grand strategy games have, typically, always failed to get naval forces right. Order of Battle: Pacific cracks it right on the head, making just the act of transporting from island to island a tactical joy. It's a Panzer General-like serious wargame, but with an unprecedented approach that combines detail, pace, and challenge to create a compelling battle against Japanese forces.
The biggest obstacle in the game is the ocean itself. You need to both find a suitable landing location, figure out where the enemy’s warships are hiding, intercept their fighters and bombers, and then make sure your invasion force has enough reinforcements and supplies coming ashore to survive. Oh, and the waters near the beaches are probably mined. Good luck with that.
This is a history buff’s paradise: a powerful recreation of the complexity of operations in the Pacific, but one that never gets too bogged down in the, er, specifics.
After the disappointment that was SimCity, we've all been waiting for the essential city builder to come our way. It finally arrived in the form of Cities: Skylines, Paradox's superbly wonderful mayoral management game. Covering everything from the granular systems determining which buildings adorn the footpaths of your streets, to the major complexities of sewerage pumping and transportation networks, Cities: Skylines manages to make every mechanic work together in absolute harmony. Each stretch of road, every bus stop, every link in the transport network is important, and even small changes can have meaningful results.
Its scope allows for unrivalled flexibility, helped by the growth of an impressive mod scene and a great expansion. Skylines is an elixir concocted by Finnish alchemists, made from all the ingredients that the genre needs. It kept us up late again and again fashioning urban utopias - and when we did sleep, we were haunted by roundabouts and sewage pipes.
Pillars of Eternity
Leading a pack of nostalgic RPGs in 2015 was Pillars of Eternity, a spiritual successor to the Forgotten Realms games of yesteryear. Buoyed by RPG superstar Chris Avellone, Obsidian’s team created a brand new universe with untold stories, unseen races, and unexplored dungeons. That’s perhaps the most exciting element of Pillars of Eternity; it’s bespoke.
With that new world comes a network of complex RPG systems and real-time combat, embracing all the possibilities of multi-character parties. You’ll become attached to your companions, but the pause button will be your greatest friend, since combinations and timing of attacks are absolutely vital to making it through Eternity’s encounters alive.
Obsidian had a daunting task before them: to make a follow-up to a series of games that are inextricably tangled up in nostalgia, over a decade after the height of those games’ popularity. This is the best parts of the lot of them, wrapped up in something new and brilliant.
In the far future, we won't be relying on overpaid human sports stars to provide our Saturday afternoon entertainment. Oh no: robots sprinting after balls will be the most popular sport of tomorrow, and Frozen Cortex makes a strong case for why. Transposing the turn-based tactics of Frozen Synapse from office complexes to open-air stadiums, Frozen Cortex requires you to scrutinise your opponent’s player positions, assess what their next move will be, and try to out-move them. Played back in real-time, games take just seconds. But split into turns, they could take you a whole afternoon if you want to plan every move to perfection. It's sport for the scientific mind, and gosh is it glorious.
While the stark simplicity might feel cold or even cruel at first, Mode 7 have in fact boiled the Synapse formula down to something perhaps more beautiful, burning away its impurities to leave hard diamond.
Total War: Attila
Attila quite literally sets the Total War franchise on fire, thanks to its new fire propagation mechanics that let you raze entire cities to the ground. The Huns are a relentless hurricane that cannot settle down and doesn’t want to be contained. Where other cultures build cities and hide behind walls, they are like a force of nature, sweeping through Europe and the east, never stopping.
By escaping the cold climate and dealing with horde-based armies, Attila finds safe footing for the series after the stumble of Rome II. Indeed, it feels like a significant improvement in all areas, leading to a much stronger, more confident game. This is Creative Assembly’s most aggressive Total War, set in a shifting, turn-based campaign map where warbands and armies rearrange borders with axes and spears in rock, paper, scissors combat. More warlike than ever, the Total War torch burns on.
Sunless Sea gives you a vast subterranean ocean to explore in your frail ship. Dotted about the sea are islands filled with Lovecraftian horrors - mummified ghouls, tentacled monsters, and mysterious strangers. You’re tasked with sailing between them, trading your way to a quick buck, and keeping your crew sane enough not to mutiny.
The whole thing turns into a sort of choose your own adventure novel every time you dock your ship. You’ll be presented with a string of possible story threads - maybe a veiled woman waits for you at the pier, or you overhear a ghastly scream you can choose to investigate, or perhaps a group of masked men invite you to play cards with them. Picking your way through stories might lead to coin, or a new crew member, or maybe something so horrific it causes your men to abandon you. All of this rises from the frenzied minds that brought us Fallen London and, as such, is one of the best written games on the PC.
Ubisoft’s Grow Home came as a delightful surprise. You play a little robot with a propensity for gardening who’s trying to grow a beanstalk up into a sky filled with floating islands. The beanstalk doesn't have enough energy to reach the atmosphere in one go so, instead, you need to grow it towards the islands, using them as stepping stones. To grow it you have to sing to red flowers which dot the trunk and then hold onto the branch that shoots out, directing it towards an island. The whole thing is packed with colour and neat ideas, like being able to use leaves as hang gliders and daisies as parachutes.
This experiment from Driver studio Reflections is a fresh, green shoot in a garden of gnarly old game series’ dried out by annualisation. Grow Home is welcoming and sweet, and its simplicity as elegant as BUD (Botanical Utility Droid) is adorably clumsy.
Chaos Reborn plonks two-to-four opponents down on a board, and asks them to kill each other with a clever combination of summoned monsters and offensive spells. Each spellcaster and creature is allowed one move and one action, after which point they’ll pass control back to the enemy. Matches are over, literally and figuratively, in a flash.The twist is that Chaos is like a bad trip: you’re floating above yourself. That’s you down there on the board, in the hood with the nobbly stick. The wizard is your Queen piece, and the consequences of your death are match-ending, leaving you at once vulnerable and powerful.
X-Com creator Julian Gollop’s trademark tabletop ethos returns here with a percentage-to-hit system: the best the player can do is steer the probabilities in their favour, or throw their opponent off with bluff summons - make-believe monsters that hit just as hard as the real ones. It’s poker. It’s chess. It’s Warhammer. It’s brilliant, and now comes with a single-player mode set in a procedurally-generated Realm.
The aim of Besiege is simple: smush everyone and smash everything. Left to your own devices in a cutesy medieval world, you need to look into your siege engine-themed Lego box for the components to build a whirligig of death and destruction and kill all the enemy soldiers on the map.
Besiege gives you an incredibly robust crafting system with which to work. You can build a chassis out of wooden beams, slap on a few wheels and cannons and have yourself a medieval tank. Alternatively, you can do what the Besiege community has done: go a little crazy with the sandbox, creating complex clockwork robots out of simple components. You don’t necessarily need to mimic their bizarre fascination with wanking automata, though.
With just a small selection of gizmos you can construct the most ingenious, bizarre, joyful, and imaginative creations, and then use them to utterly destroy a village filled with tiny men and sheep. Besiege is a game that will feed on your imagination for weeks.
Satellite Reign is a spiritual successor to Syndicate, and unlike the 2012 FPS reboot not only looks and plays like the original game but is also rather good. Its Blade Runner-inspired cityscape is absolutely stunning: the perfect stage for your squad of cyberpunk soldiers to storm about on, huge coats billowing, splattering brains all over the pavement.
The combat is satisfyingly strategic, with shades of both the original Syndicates and modern real-time tactics games. Your infiltrator can fire up his cloak, hiding from cops and security; the support agent can scan crowds, worming his way through their digital lives to snatch important bits of information; our pal the hacker can jack into all sorts of things, switching off cameras or siphoning off cash from ATMs; and there’s also a shooty man who is good at shooting things. It’s Syndicate. Not the actual Syndicate, mind, but the one that exists in the memories of those who played it over 20 years ago. And that’s a real treat.
Another crowdfunding success story, Project CARS offers a sandbox experience for racing enthusiasts. Pick your preferred racing style and attempt to make a career out of it. From small, nimble karts to high-performance F1 cars, there’s a multitude of different motorsport paths to pursue, with realistically recreated tracks to compete on. Building on their Need for Speed: Shift engine, developers Slightly Mad Studios have worked with motorsport veterans such as Top Gear’s ex-Stig Ben Collins and Touring Car Cup winner Nicolas Hamilton (brother of Lewis) to ensure their simulation is as painstakingly accurate as possible.
Project CARS is about listening to each vehicle, understanding what it’s telling you, and respecting their differences. It’s about adapting to the unexpected, as the sun sets and the storms close in, just trying to survive the next few minutes until you get to the pits. Make your peace with the evil AI, and you’ll enjoy a great drive.
Everyone and their dog had been playing Prison Architect thanks to its long use of the Steam Early Access model, but only in 2015 was the game finally released [...on bail - Obligatory Metaphor Ed]. Introversion’s incarceration sim has evolved from a group of well-functioning but obviously still-in-development systems to what is a fully-fledged sandbox incorporating alternate modes, random events and endless possibilities.
It’s a virtual delinquency ant farm in which you tread the line between your prisoners’ happiness and the prison’s efficiency and safety. Set up metal detectors and order extensive searches of every cell and tensions will rise, but neglect to de-shiv your inmates in favour of a feel-good prison atmosphere and those happy prisoners will end up all stabbed to bits in a bodybag. Now that the game’s finished, you can even play as escapists attempting to vacate the hellhole you’ve inadvertently created. Prison Architect sets a new bar for the long-lapsed management genre.
Indie darling Mike Bithell returned in 2015 with Volume, and while it couldn’t be more different from his breakthrough act Thomas Was Alone, it does require the same intelligent approach. Volume is a stealth game heavily inspired by the first Metal Gear Solid. Demanding exactly zero contact with the enemy and absolute silence from your actions, Volume requires swift planning and execution and the use of decoys to complete a variety of heists.
As with Thomas Was Alone, there’s a strong narrative that runs alongside its complex gameplay. In a sci-fi retelling of the Robin Hood legend, Volume’s lead Robert Locksley performs heists in an AI simulation (voiced by Danny Wallace), broadcasting his actions to an internet audience as a kind of anti-establishment Let’s Play. He faces off against Guy Gisborne, CEO of future England’s corporatocracy, played by Andy Serkis. The heist simulator can also be used to construct player-made levels, meaning there are already a nearly-infinite amount of extra options through Steam Workshop.
And that's the way it was. Or at least it is in our eyes - what do you think? Anything we've missed out when it comes to the top games of 2015?