The time has come to name my favorite games of the year. I’ve put this day off as long as possible. I love the games I played this year, and it’s quite difficult to put them in order for my favorites list. The games I’ve settled upon are epic and simple. They made me laugh, smile, grit my teeth, and pull my hair out. And I’m pretty sure that there’s not a gamer out there who will agree with my full list.

This list is based on what held my attention for the longest time and what gave me the best moments in gaming this year. It’s not a list of the critically acclaimed games that I should like, or a list of the most innovative titles. This is purely about fun and my own unique tastes.

The core console and PC game makers didn’t disappoint me this year. In sheer number of hours, I played Total War: Attila the most, with its beautiful strategic map that covered the vast Roman empire as it was crumbling. I was dazzled by the Butterfly Effect in Until Dawn, so much so that I played it multiple times. The current generation consoles are in their prime, and I’m loving the results.

I was disappointed in games like Evolve and The Order: 1886. They looked so promising in previews but turned out to be pretty limited in scope. I also couldn’t get so excited about Super Mario Maker and Star Wars Battlefront, which seemed either too familiar or lacking variety. I didn’t like the combat system in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Guns Up! and Rainbow Six Siege looked enticing, but network troubles stopped me from playing those games more.

I didn’t have nearly as much time to play games as I had hoped this year. I don’t even try to play a lot of games anymore, and I don’t pretend to say that I’ve played a large sample of games. Certainly, I’ve previewed a lot of games, and I tried a lot of mobile games. I zeroed in on the ones that I liked.

Some of the titles that I hoped to play this year were pushed off to 2016. I would have loved to play Tom Clancy’s The Division, but Ubisoft postponed it until next year. Still, I didn’t feel like I had a shortage of games to look at.

I’m sure that many readers will find this list to be uninspired. It’s full of commercial blockbusters, but I am glad to have a mix of PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and mobile games this year. I would love to get excited about more indies titles and games on new platforms, such as virtual reality. But there will be time for that in the future. For the sake of comparison, here are my favorites from 201420132012, and 2011. And be sure to check out the GamesBeat staff’s own votes for Game of the Year and the best individual favorites of the staff soon.


1) Until Dawn
Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Sony
Platforms: PS4

Check out this character's eyes in Until Dawn. You have help eight teens survive the night.

Above: Check out this character’s eyes in Until Dawn. You have help eight teens survive the night.

Image Credit: Sony

Until Dawn surprised me as one of the finest collaborations to date of Hollywood and gaming. I wasn’t expecting much from it, as it could have been as underwhelming as a Hollywood horror B-movie. But Supermassive Games and horror film creators Larry Fessenden and Graham Reznick took their time. They started on this title on the PlayStation 3, then threw out that work and remade the game for the ground up for the PlayStation 4. That was a good move, as the ultrarealistic facial animation capabilities of the PS4 made the game believable. The team took four years to complete the title, which is an interactive story that is both immersive and emotional.

In this game, eight young teens are trapped on a remote mountain lodge, and they find there’s a killer loose among them. Your job as the player is to make snap life-or-death decisions and save as many of them as you can during the night. You can play the game over and over again as you try to get all eight to survive Until Dawn.

the interesting twist that Until Dawn brings to the plot is the theory of the “Butterfly Effect,” or the chaos theory idea that suggests a small change in a system’s initial conditions can result in huge variations in a later state. The name was coined by Edward Lorenz, and it comes from an example where the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can cause subtle changes that affect the path of a hurricane weeks later. In the game, your smallest and biggest decisions can affect the outcome of the evening and who will survive “Until Dawn.” Sometimes, seemingly trivial choices will mean the difference between survival and death. The result was a game with more than 10,000 pages of script and a real innovation in how consequences play out.

At its best, Until Dawn has some unbelievably tense moments, and it reveals things about characters that you thought fit neatly into a horror movie’s stereotypes. I can still remember the facial expressions and acting performances of characters like Samantha (Hayden Panettiere). At a critical moment in the game, her eyes were tightly closed, and she was struggling to contain the sound of her breathing. I measured my own pulse myself during part of the game. After one “jump scare” scene, my pulse shot up from around 70 to 108 beats per minute. The plot had some surprising twists. And that’s why this unlikely title is my favorite game of the year.


 

2) Call of Duty: Black Ops III
Developer: Treyarch
Publisher: Activision Publishing
Platforms: Windows, Xbox 360, Xbox One

A character named Hendricks in Call of Duty: Black Ops III.

Above: A character named Hendricks in Call of Duty: Black Ops III.

Image Credit: Activision

You hear it all of the time. Gamers are tired of Call of Duty. Yet 40 million of them play one of the titles every month. And this year’s Call of Duty: Black Ops III is especially popular and could very well return the series to growth after a couple of down years. I’ve played Call of Duty for more than a decade, and so have a lot of people. That’s why it has generated more than $11 billion in lifetime revenue.

This game’s single-player campaign showed that creativity and Call of Duty are not mutually exclusive. There are some surreal dream-like sequences that take you into unfamiliar territory and bring in imagery from the Zombies co-op campaign. Treyarch’s designers took some risks and created a story that focused on the doubts that arise when we merge humans with cybernetics in the name of creating super soldiers. The levels can be quite massive, as they take full advantage of the current-generation tech.

The game takes place in 2065, which allows for a fresh story with all-new characters and new kinds of weapons that are only on the drawing boards today. As the hero, you’re a cybernetic warrior who has to go after a soldier who has gone off the deep end, like the tale in the Tim O’Brien novel Going After Cacciato, a Vietnam War era book where an AWOL soldier is hunted down. You can jump to the top of buildings and do battle with huge walking robots, dubbed quad tanks.

The multiplayer is also an improvement over past years. You can become one of nine different Specialists whose unique abilities activate in the middle of a match, particularly when you are doing well. These abilities help equalize the playing field and make it harder for the experts to completely dominate a match. I’ll likely hit Prestige (the top level) in multiplayer earlier than I ever have because I’m playing the game a lot more.


 

3) Total War: Attila
Developer: The Creative Assembly
Publisher: Sega
Platforms: Windows

Total War: Attila. Attack on the city gates.

Above: Total War: Attila. Attack on the city gates.

Image Credit: Sega

I put about 461 hours in to this game, based on the hours log on Steam. In fact, I liked this real-time strategy game so much that I neglected many other titles that came out this year in order to keep trying to save the Western Roman Empire from the barbarian hordes. The strategic gameplay takes place across a huge Civilization-style map of the Roman Empire in 395 AD. You build your cities, create armies, and maneuver your armies to deal with dozens of threats to the empire. Then, when two armies meet in battle, you fight on a beautifully rendered 3D battlefield. Some of those battles can be truly epic, with thousands of your troops squaring off against thousands of enemies.

The game starts out in a no-win situation for the Romans, as barbarian tribes attack on every frontier and rebellions break out in conquered provinces. You can get out of this thorny situation by playing the Eastern Roman Empire or by being Attila, the destroyer of civilization, and sacking Rome yourself. When I started out in charge of the Western Roman Empire, I was immediately fighting wars on six fronts. I only had about 10 large armies and fleets to defend 75 cities. I had to decide which of my cities to burn and cede to the enemy. After a while, I got the hang of the defense. But then the unpredictable and plentiful Huns showed up under the command of Attila.

Not only must you guard your borders, you have to deal with family politics, civil war, betrayal by allies, disease, starvation, and bankruptcy. It is a very difficult game, and that’s what made it so fun. Critics may say that this is a derivative title, as the series has been around for 13 years. But the execution in this game and the balance of the grand campaign make it infinitely playable.  After every turn, I was wondering if the fall of Rome was imminent. And I was always happy when then answer was, “Not today.”


 

4) Rise of the Tomb Raider

Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publishers: Square Enix and Microsoft
Platforms: Xbox One and Xbox 360

Lara Croft in Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Above: Lara Croft in Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Image Credit: Crystal Dynamics

Tomb Raider has sold more than 45 million copies over time. But it has only become good in the last two games. In 2013, Square Enix’s Crystal Dynamics studio rebooted the Lara Croft character and franchise.

In that game, Croft was just 21 years old, starting out far more innocent and vulnerable than the confident Angelina Jolie, who played the character in two Tomb Raider movies. At the start of that experience, she was trusting but not naive. She believed in people and wasn’t cynical. But she was put into an emotional crucible, shipwrecked on an island full of menacing mercenaries.In Rise of the Tomb Raider, the storytellers took the character and gave her even bigger challenges. Croft is a little older, and now she shows us more of her intellectual capacity. She knows she can be heroic, but now she has to deal with a more pernicious and ubiquitous enemy. Not only does she have to deal with the physical challenges of survival (this time in the Siberian wilderness), she also has to solve ancient mysteries and architectural puzzles.We see more of Croft’s emotional side, as she tries to solve the mystery of a prophet who created the hidden city of Kitezh — a mystery that Croft’s own father died trying to solve. The game has some epic battles with nature as Croft takes on a giant Russian bear. The voice-acting and dialogue is superb, and action is absolutely brutal. It’s just one more example of how developers can’t go wrong by creating strong female characters.