All the sessions from Transform 2021 are available on-demand now. Watch now.
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.
Three top investment pros open up about what it takes to get your video game funded.
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 2014, 2013, 2012, 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
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
Publisher: Activision Publishing
Platforms: Windows, Xbox 360, Xbox One
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
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.”
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Publishers: Square Enix and Microsoft
Platforms: Xbox One and Xbox 360
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.
5) Halo 5: Guardians
Developer: 343 Industries
Platforms: Xbox One
Even before Halo 5 came out, the Halo series had sold more than 65 million copies and generated more than $4.6 billion in revenue. It is one of my favorite game series of all time, but this is one of the first times that a Master Chief game isn’t really high on my list.
The game has a big plot twist that changes my view of Master Chief and the series, but I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t played it. But that twist causes Master Chief to go AWOL and leads to charges of treason. The authorities send Spartan Jameson Locke in pursuit of Master Chief, and the missions alternate with the player fighting as either Master Chief or Locke. The action is better because the current-generation technology allows for more expansive playing arenas that give you new options for attacking. And the game is a co-op title where you are constantly leading a squad of A.I. or human characters in the single-player campaign.
And while I didn’t like the story, the combat mechanics were familiar and improved. The graphics of the game are amazing, and multiplayer combat was challenging. 343 Industries made use of the Microsoft Compute Cloud to offload a lot of processing to its data centers. That allowed for massive 24-player Warzone battles that pitted humans against humans as well as A.I. characters. The multiplayer also had some esports-friendly competitions such as the Arena where you only get to spawn once.
6) Game of Thrones
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Platforms: Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, Android, PS4, Xbox One, PS3, and Xbox 360.
This six-part episodic tale has superb writing that matches the quality of the George R.R. Martin books and the HBO television show on which it is based. The cast includes members of the HBO show, voiced by the same actors. But it also has an all-new story and characters from a new set of clans.
Telltale, whose version of The Walking Dead: Season 2 was on my top games last year, has mastered the storytelling genre. Telltale has superb writers, and it knows how to force you to make difficult choices with limited information. This series and most of its others are about making the right choices at the right time.
As with the books and the show, the “good guys” are always under pressure in this game, and the can’t get a lucky break. House Forrester begins the game allied with the Starks, and as that clan’s fortunes falter, so does Forrester’s. The clan has to find ways to survive even as it is surrounded by Machiavellian rivals and houses with far greater power and military might. House Forrester’s one blessing is its control of a valuable Ironwood forest that other clans — the evil Whitehills and the Boltons — all covet.
I loved getting to know the new characters such as Asher, Mira, Rodrik, and Gared. I had to make crucial life-or-death decisions for them just to keep them from going from one disaster to another. If there’s a flaw, I’m still frustrated with the poor quality of the graphics and interactivity. I would love to see Telltale marry the storytelling and choice mechanics with the 3D graphics quality of a game like Until Dawn.
But this is a wonderful way to get a Game of Thrones fix while you’re waiting for a new George R.R. Martin book or the HBO television show’s next season to arrive.
7) Batman: Arkham Knight
Developer: Rocksteady Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
The Batman: Arkham series immersed us in the dark side of the DC Comics superhero and the insane world of Gotham’s criminals. This fourth and allegedly final piece in Rocksteady’s series was a full-fledged open world with endless plots and missions to pursue. It started out with a gripping line, where Commissioner Gordon narrates and says it’s about “the night that the Batman died.” From there, you go into a story full of anger, pain, insanity, and regret. The theme of madness runs throughout, and it adds some wonderful creative touches, like how The Joker becomes Batman’s constant imaginary companion. This is the Dark Knight at his darkest hour.
In this game, a mysterious Arkham Knight character pledges to bring an end to the masked vigilante. The basic mechanics of brutal hand-to-hand combat is still a big draw. Batman breaks bones when he fights, and his madness constantly drives him to the edge of murder. There’s plenty of slow motion for you to appreciate the best takedowns, and Batman’s cape is always flowing realistically. In fact, there is nothing so wondrous as flying through the darkened city with your cape rippling in the wind. I just loved jumping off buildings in this game.
This time, you also get to cruise through Gotham City in the Batmobile, wreaking havoc on the Arkham Knight’s giant mobile army. It’s just as satisfying to blast one of the Arkham Knight’s robot tanks as it is to take down a bunch of thugs with a flying tackle. Gotham is also brilliantly rendered in moody, hazy darkness. It’s enough to put you in a foul mood, and it’s one that you won’t want to escape.
8) Fallout Shelter
Developer: Behaviour Interactive/Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: iOS and Android
Free-to-play mobile games rarely rise to the level of Triple-A games, and that’s why it’s very hard for them to win in a list that considers all platforms. But Bethesda’s Fallout Shelter was one of the surprises of the year. The release of the first Fallout-themed mobile game was a brilliant marketing move, as Bethesda unveiled it during its presentation at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, when millions of fans were watching. The title shot to the top ranks in terms of gross revenues on iOS, and that was amazing in itself as it briefly broke the grip of Candy Crush Saga on free-to-play spenders. The title was also a great vehicle to get fans excited about Fallout 4.
In Fallout Shelter, you oversee one of the Vaults that safeguards the last of humanity after a nuclear war. You have to attract and raise dwellers. And they you have to arm them, feed them, provide water, and give them electricity. That’s no small task as you’re constantly running out of resources, and you can be attacked at anytime by Wasteland Raiders or Rad Roaches. I had plenty of Vaults that were wiped out because of an attack that got out of control. I never thought I would have so much fun tapping the screen and collecting resources. And I had to think about how to safely expand my shelter and scrounge more resources from the Wasteland.
The game didn’t pressure you to buy something every hour, and it totally left the option to spend money in your hands. That gentle monetization earned the good will of hardcore gamers, and they made the game last longer than it would have. Sadly, Bethesda clearly wasn’t ready for the great response. It had to scramble to provide updates, but it waited so long that the game fell in the rankings. Players ran out of things to do. But they got the rare pleasure of having a Triple-A franchise on mobile that really worked.
I played this game for a long time, and it gave me a lot of chuckles. I hope that this is a sign of things to come, and that Bethesda really learns how to make a killing in mobile games. That will definitely level up the mobile gaming experience for all.
9) Fallout 4
Developer: Bethesda Games Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: Windows, Xbox One, PlayStation 4
The new open-world and role-playing adventure game isn’t a disappointment. Bethesda surprised everyone by staying quiet for four years and then springing the surprise of Fallout 4 on a grateful E3 crowd. Then it delivered a great game about the end of the world with an oddly appropriate sense of humor.
From the very beginning, this Fallout is more dramatic. You start out in the 1950s-themed suburban home and then find you’ve got seconds to race to a fallout shelter. Nuclear Armageddon arrives just as your family descends into the shelter. But some time after you are strapped into the cryogenic chamber, a malfunction causes you wake at some point to see someone kill your spouse and steal your baby. As you fall into another cold-induced sleep, you wonder what is happening to your kid.
When you emerge, the world is a wasteland, albeit a beautiful one. Beyond just scrounging for stuff, you now have to search for your child and get some kind of revenge. The scrounging part is an enormous task by itself. you run into Raiders and all sorts of mutant creatures. And you have to help out other humans who give you one mission after another. The world is richly detailed and seemingly limitless. You can craft your own weapons, make your own food, and send your dog out after your attackers.
The combat system is still the same, giving you the ability to freeze time and target your enemies more thoughtfully. I never liked it all that much as I felt like it made me waste a lot of ammunition. But it works well enough so that it doesn’t get in the way of the fun.
I have a ton more exploring to do, but Bethesda has clearly created an awesome, believable world.
10) Mad Max
Developer: Avalanche Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Windows
I’ve been wandering in the desert with Mad Max for many hours. I hate walking. But I love driving around in my souped-up combat car, with my humpback mechanic Chum Bucket. Mad Max isn’t quite as riveting as this year’s movie, but it is an open world where you can lose yourself in the wastelands.
It’s not nearly as richly detailed as Fallout 4, but it has its moments. I love the car combat, where you can move close to a rival, put the scene into slow motion, and fire a harpoon at the driver. You can then pluck the driver out of the car and send the enemy’s car crashing. It’s a bit like pirate ships fighting on the water. Your enemy can board your vehicle, and you can jump out and fight on foot. Over time, you can armor up your vehicle and become more powerful. But the challenges before you will multiply. And you can attack big fortresses on foot and engage in Batman-style close combat with bone-crunching results.
My complaint about the game is that it’s very easy to lose track of the main story. And when you do, it’s not always obvious how to get back on track. There are just a ton of missions to do. And even when you are trying to get one done, random enemies will appear in vehicles trying to carjack you. There were many times when I ran out on the desert to collect some loot and an enemy came by and ran me over.
Despite these problems, I felt like Mad Max truly transported me to the world of a desert, where there was a lot more happening than meets the eye. I was quite satisfied, even if I didn’t always understand what I was doing or where I was going in the desert.
Runners-up: I enjoyed playing FIFA 16, which finally added female athletes after 22 years of only male players. Battlefield Hardline was also a good adaptation of the Battlefield franchise to cops and robbers, and Star Wars Battlefront had beautiful graphics (I just wish it had a single-player campaign).
What’s your vote? Let me know in the comments.
GamesBeatGamesBeat's creed when covering the game industry is "where passion meets business." What does this mean? We want to tell you how the news matters to you -- not just as a decision-maker at a game studio, but also as a fan of games. Whether you read our articles, listen to our podcasts, or watch our videos, GamesBeat will help you learn about the industry and enjoy engaging with it. How will you do that? Membership includes access to:
- Newsletters, such as DeanBeat
- The wonderful, educational, and fun speakers at our events
- Networking opportunities
- Special members-only interviews, chats, and "open office" events with GamesBeat staff
- Chatting with community members, GamesBeat staff, and other guests in our Discord
- And maybe even a fun prize or two
- Introductions to like-minded parties