You can tell 2015 was a great year for new video games by the titles that didn’t make this list. It was a year that saw inventive new mobile games like Prune and Alto’s Adventure, and much-anticipated blockbusters like Star Wars Battlefront and Metal Gear Solid V. There were even plenty of wonderful surprises like Until Dawn, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and Cibele. Those games aren’t on this list — which was voted on by various members of The Verge's staff — but the titles we did choose show the breadth of what games can be. Whether its massive open worlds, playful multiplayer experiences, or small, personal stories, the medium can cover a lot of ground. These are the 10 best games from the past 12 months.
Batman: Arkham Knight
PC, PS4, Xbox One
The power fantasy at the heart of Batman: Arkham Knight remains one of the most seductive in all of gaming: spend enough time brawling, blasting, and winching, and you can liberate an entire metropolis with a single tool belt and tank. (Seriously, you’re going to be doing a lot of winching.) You can spend hours soaring above Gotham’s skyline, tuning into radio dispatches from friends and foes alike. No one can touch you. If you hear a bunch of thugs wailing on a captive or daring to insult the Caped Crusader, you can swoop in and show them the cost of tempting fate. The city is your oyster.
The combo-heavy combat system that birthed a dozen action-adventure knock-offs remains fluid and physical, and the deep bench full of various Batman villains helps to liven up what would otherwise be boilerplate beat ‘em up side quests. Like its predecessors in Rocksteady’s Arkham series, Arkham Knight understands that Batman’s toughest battles are mental; there’s no villain more dangerous than the darkness looming in Bruce Wayne’s mind. Arkham Knight’s treatment of that truth is heavy-handed, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying.
Read next: Batman: Arkham Knight review
Bloodborne isn’t like most modern games. It doesn’t ease you into the experience, slowly teaching you the rules and giving you time to understand its complex systems. It doesn’t put you in the role of a super-powered hero capable of taking down dangerous beasts with ease. Instead, it casts you as a regular person and throws you into a gothic world of violence and despair. And then it kills you, over and over.
Bloodborne’s unforgiving nature is a large part of its appeal. The spiritual successor to the Dark Souls series, it’s a game where every victory feels hard won. The bosses are huge, grotesque monstrosities that will take every ounce of your skill to defeat, but even the standard enemies — the plague-inflicted inhabitants of Yharnam — can kill you. Bloodborne forces you to learn how it works, and then tests your knowledge in the most brutal ways possible. It’s a game where you will die a lot — but that only makes your eventual victory all the more satisfying.
Read next: Bloodborne review
Destiny: The Taken King
PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Telling people you liked to play Destiny used to feel a little like confessing you smoked cigarettes: it was an addictive habit, one you couldn’t really justify and were always trying to quit. That finally changed with the release of Destiny: The Taken King, an expansion that built on vanilla Destiny’s solid gameplay skeleton and fulfilled the promise of Bungie’s ambitious, galactic FPS-MMORPG.
When you list all of the ways in which The Taken King improved the Destiny experience, it sounds like you’re just finding another way to make fun of the game. There are real characters and non-terrible dialogue, bosses that are more than just bullet sponges, levels that ask you to do more than kill stuff while you scan doors and platforms, a leveling and gear system that rewards normal play instead of encouraging grinding, a robot companion with real personality. Add up all of those potentially humorous additions and toss in dashes of space lightning and flaming hammers, and the product is a game that’s better than ever and continuously evolving.
Read next: Destiny: The Taken King review
The best action game of the year is about falling down a well. The aptly named Downwell is thrilling in its apparent simplicity: your only real goals are to make it to the bottom and not die in the process. The fact that it looks like a game from 20 years ago only makes it appear even simpler. But once you start playing, Downwell slowly opens itself up and becomes something much more complex. At the beginning it feels like a twitchy game, one where fast reflexes are what will keep you alive, and where the best route to the bottom is the fastest one.
The more you play, though, the more you realize Downwell is about strategy and planning. Knowing how different enemies react and can be killed, and upgrading your character in just the right way, are just as important as pure speed. Every item and skill is more than what it seems. Your main weapon is a pair of boots that shoot bullets when you jump, for instance, but they also double as a way to control your downward descent. Downwell eventually turns into a never-ending loop, one where you’re constantly searching for the best possible way to make it to the end of the terrible, H.P. Lovecraft-inspired well.
Read next: Downwell review
PC, PS4, Xbox One
Fallout 4 is a sprawling, complicated game, one whose greatest pleasures are simple and plentiful. You stumble on a new, mysterious location, and you’re gifted with a ping and a little experience bump. You target a foolhardy raider’s head in V.A.T.S. and separate it from its body with a bloody, visceral snick. You find a new piece of duct tape, the one you need to build the scope you’ve been eyeing all weekend. Play it for a while, and you’ll feel like you’re popping a sheet of bubble wrap piece by piece.
The combination of these little details and a powerful narrative hook — you’re a parent, and you just want to find your child — give Fallout 4 sturdy bones. That’s important, because this is a game that occasionally groans under the weight of its ambition. (Or maybe it’s all the junk you have to drag across the wasteland?) The game’s demands might border on excessive, but they never compromise the twin thrills of exploration and discovery.
Read next: Fallout 4 review
Video games don’t do crime thrillers very well. There are lots of games that turn you into a criminal, but few that let you experience what it’s like to chase one down. Her Story is the closest the medium has come to a Law & Order-style procedural. It’s a game that’s almost entirely about watching videos. In order to investigate a cold case, one where a woman’s husband died under mysterious circumstances, you’ll pore over her police interviews, pulling out key places, names, and other terms that you can then search in the database to open up more clues and leads.
What’s so great about Her Story is that it’s a narrative that wouldn’t work in any other medium. Its story is completely non-linear, letting you pick up on threads and clues in any order, and the joy comes not from watching things unfold, but feeling like you’re a part of them. In an age where much of our time is spent on YouTube and Google, Her Story turns watching videos and searching for words into a thrilling mystery unlike anything you’ve played before.
Read next: Her Story review
Life is Strange
PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
While blockbuster games continue to imitate Hollywood with a focus on spectacle and celebrity, another strain of games is doing its best to create a new, interactive take on television. Series like The Walking Dead helped pioneer the format, with games divided into episodes and released over a period of months, but Life is Strange shows the genre’s potential to tackle themes and settings that aren’t typical for games. It’s a series that takes place in a modern-day high school, stars two teenage girls, and covers everything from suicide to time travel.
Life is Strange isn’t just refreshing, though; it’s also a fantastic game with moments that will stick with you long after you stop playing. Like most episodic games, Life is Strange is light on action but heavy on difficult moral dilemmas, forcing you to make tough choices that can often determine if people live or die. The time travel mechanic even adds an interesting twist, letting you jump back in time to try to make things better — though chances are when you complete the game you’ll have at least a few regrets.
Read next: Life is Strange review
The most exciting sports highlight clip I saw this year wasn’t shown on SportsCenter or one of its competitors. It didn’t even involve humans, not unless you count the ones operating the controllers. It was the final few minutes of MLG’s first Rocket League tournament, a contest that included both a thrilling comeback and a heartbreaking, gravity-defying gut punch of a game winner. I’ve seen it a dozen times since September, and it’s still powerful enough to give me a near-heart attack. ESPN has felt a little dry ever since.
Rocket League gets in the door with one of the goofiest, simplest one-line pitches you can imagine: it’s soccer, but with rocket-powered cars. It sticks in your craw because the minute-to-minute gameplay is easy to learn, tough to master, and somehow produces a handful of those heart-stopping moments every time you play. That’s why people kept coming back and revving their engines even after the game’s novelty wore off: once you’ve had the chance to play hero yourself, it’s hard not to chase that feeling.
Read next: Rocket League review
Online shooters are among the most popular games around, and they’re also the opposite of what Nintendo is known for: the company doesn’t make violent games, and has been historically bad at embracing online gaming. And that’s what makes Splatoon so surprising: it’s a multiplayer shooter from Nintendo that actually works. More importantly, it’s a game that only Nintendo could make, a shooter that’s bright and vibrant and playable by just about anyone.
Splatoon pits teams of four squid-like creatures against one another, but the goal in each match isn’t to kill your opponents, it’s to coat the stage with your particular color of ink. Think paintball, not Counter Strike. The result is a game that anyone can have fun with, even if they aren’t good at head shots, but also one filled with depth that makes high-level play a lot of fun. And thanks to a constant stream of free updates, which range from stages and weapons to brand new game modes, it’s a game that keeps getting better over time.
Read next: Splatoon review
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
PC, PS4, Xbox One
Do you remember the moment you realized The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt actually had a chance to fulfill its Novigrad-sized ambitions? I remember mine. I’d just spent 10 minutes riding around the hamlet of White Orchard and the surrounding countryside. I wasn’t trying to advance a specific quest or find a specific item. I was picking up herbs, battling the odd bandit, exploring the game’s lush and detailed world. That’s when it hit me: I was drowning in the depth of what was ultimately a glorified tutorial level. An entire world was waiting for me. I couldn’t help but laugh.
The Witcher 3 doesn’t change the gaming landscape with innovation or visionary style, but it shocks you with its scale and wins you over with pinpoint execution. You can roam the countryside on horseback for hours, passing by ruined landmarks and abandoned settlements cast in gorgeous sunlight. Its combat system is challenging and robust without inspiring the transcendent frustration of a game like Bloodborne. The world is full of characters with personality and perspective, many of whom could play the lead in games of their own without a batted eye. And dozens of hours after you discover White Orchard’s just a tiny piece of the game’s pie, it keeps fighting to impress you. Games this generous are gifts.