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Dec 24 2015

The Beardies 2015! HalfBeard HUD’s Final Game of the Year Awards

 

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Shooter of the year

Leading off with what seems like a strange choice I know, but Splatoon does so much new and makes such an effort to ingratiate players who are new to the genre, that it is wholly deserving of recognition, especially in year like this which was pretty sparse when it came to proper shooters. The simple fact that the focus of any given match isn’t on taking out other players, but rather on covering ground, makes it so much more inviting to those who are less confrontational or who don’t like the uber-agressive competitive edge of many modern FPSes. Instead those people can focus on efficient painting and support actions, while their more gung-ho squadmates defend them from the other team. Add onto that a very pleasing MOBA-style flow to the maps, some creative weaponry, and a feverish Pikmin meets Jet Set Radio style look and you have a game that both veterans and newcomers can enjoy.

Runner Up: Wolfenstein: The Old Blood

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Action Game of the year

Another seemingly odd choice, but Mad Max ended up being a guilty pleasure of sorts for multiple writers here on HalfBeard’s HUD, taking up more of our time than I think any of us expected. While it doesn’t really do anything ‘new’ with its gameplay, it uses a scrap heap of stolen mechanics from other games really well in order to convey the essence of the Mad Max universe, emphasizing brutality and scarcity over anything else. The guzzoline drenched convoy chases, the slow bone shattering melee combat, the mad dashes for resources as you foolishly spend your last shell to save your flaming wreck of a car from a last minute head-on collision, it all just screams Mad Max and the fact that it is the gameplay more than anything else that brings you into that world deserves recognition.

Runner Up: Rise of the Tomb Raider

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Platformer of the year

What makes Axiom Verge so damn interesting and deserving of this award is the way that it subverts many of the traditional Metroidvania and platformer mechanics, eschewing convention for more creative solutions. Probably the best example of this is the fact that at no point in Axiom Verge do you ever earn a double jump or a slide, two of the most bog-standard but generally essential upgrades that you tend to get in these sorts of games. Instead you are given alternative mechanics which can ultimately help you get to the same kinds of places but are so dissimilar to the boring old upgrades I just mentioned that it requires you to think about things in whole new ways. More importantly the game doesn’t pussyfoot around with these odd mechanics, instead incorporating them into intense massive boss fights that truly test your abilities. While on the surface Axiom Verge looks like a game you might have already played 20 years ago, once you dip your head below its oppressive alien waters, you’ll find it’s anything but.

Runner Up: Downwell

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Adventure Game of the year

While certainly a shorter experience than most of its contemporaries this year, Tormentum had such a great sense of atmosphere and such good use of moral choice, that it really ended up standing out for us. Everything feels rotten and corrupted and the world seems to be in a state of glorious decay, the beautifully rendered terror of which permeates your thoughts as you solve puzzles that force you into some very troublesome moral dilemmas with choices that are greyer than one normally expects. But where the genius of this game truly reveals itself is with the last question it asks you: “is your conscience clean?” With the implications of what that means hanging palpably in the air. That question is the reason HalfBeard played through this game multiple times this year, because the permutations of what you can do and how they ultimately impact that last question and what it means are just so damn intriguing.

Runner Up: Lakeview Cabin Collection

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RPG of the year

[Disclaimer: HalfBeard is currently employed by the PR company that represents this game. Though our review of it, and his initial praise of it, came before they hired him.] 

We’re going to end up talking about The Witcher 3 a lot on this list, and deservedly so, but the first award it’s going to win here is that of RPG of the Year. While admittedly you don’t have all that much agency when it comes to crafting the main character of Geralt, beyond choosing his wardrobe from a plethora of loot and doing some fairly minor skill upgrading, the ranges of choices you’re able to make while playing that character and how those choices affect the world more than make up for that. The decisions Geralt can make throughout the course of his questing can affect all manner of things, some subtle and some not, many of which culminate at the end of other quest threads providing a natural flow to things. Add onto that to some strong crafting and the aforementioned loot system that keeps the stats end of any good RPG flowing, and it becomes easy to lose yourself in the world of the Northern Kingdoms for the several dozen hours it will take for you to see Geralt and Ciri’s journey through to the end.

Runner Up: Pillars of Eternity

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DLC of the year

While technically part of a free patch and not strictly DLC, Shovel Knight’s Plague of Shadows expansion is so all-encompassing that it fully deserves this top spot. Not only does it make Plague Knight from the Order of No Quarter playable, but also gives him a full campaign to play through, with its own story and soundtrack. While admittedly it’s just a retread of the levels from the main game, Plague Knight’s mechanics are so opposite to Shovel Knight’s that it feels like a wholly new experience at times. Levels that were once Sunday strolls that you pogo-bounced through now become nerve wracking timing challenges as you figure out how to use Plague Knight’s various alchemical implements to traverse the same ground. Similarly, enemies that once provided the Blue Burrower with endless frustration can now be easily dealt with at a distance thanks to Plague’s wealth of bombs. It beautifully inverts the whole formula and makes everything feel new again, which is exactly what a good expansion should do, with the further challenge modes the patch adds only being icing on the cake.

Runner Up: Mortal Kombat X’s Kombat Pack 1

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FIghting Game of the year

It was a slim year for fighting games, with Street Fighter V still working out the kinks in beta and Tekken 7 only being a reality for arcade players over in Japan, but thankfully we had Mortal Kombat X this year to keep the blood flowing. With its fast paced and satisfyingly staccato combat that makes every hit feel like a world event, MKX is just so ridiculously fun to play, and with the multiple variations each character has, there’s enough variety to give you a constant sense of discovery. Paired with some fantastically silly lore, another massive story campaign, and some campy but really enjoyable arcade endings, there’s just so much for the solo fighting game player to do, in addition to the standard suite of online modes. While it was most certainly somewhat buggy at launch, as they’ve continued improve it and add new characters, it’s been worth coming back to again and again.

Runner Up: Dragon Ball Xenoverse

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Licensed game of the year

There’s been an increasing trend of surprisingly good games based on licensed franchises over the past couple years, with last year’s Shadow of Mordor and Alien Isolation being obvious examples. This year held another bumper crop with games such as Warhammer Vermintide and DB Xenoverse really conveying what those franchises are all about, but the undisputed king of this category for 2015 was Mad Max. Mad Max so perfectly manages to use all of its very familiar gameplay tropes to encapsulate the overall vibe of the Mad Max universe. While some may decry speeding across the wasteland looking for scrap as boring, it does evoke the mood of George Miller’s post-apocalyptic hellscape perfectly, and the fact that every journey out into the sands is punctuated by fun and emergent encounters with howling convoys, devastating sandstorms, and chase sequences, all threaded along the line of a harpoon which you’ve just used to rip a screaming bandit out of his makeshift caddy, makes things all the sweeter. There’s a strong sense of scarcity and brutality throughout the proceedings, with ammo being incredibly limited and fuel and water being an ongoing concern throughout the early parts of the game, it just creates that dire and desperate broken down feel which so exemplifies the Mad Max universe.

Runner Up: Warhammer End Times: Vermintide

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Indie of the year

We’ve always praised innovation here at HalfBeard’s HUD, and especially so when it comes to this particular category. We’ve always tried to pick games whose elevator pitches would send any sane publisher running but end up working out and becoming amazing experiences anyways. No game better exemplifies that this year than Pizza Express, a ridiculously in-depth pizzeria management simulator that features a surprisingly rich narrative about a bunch of anthropomorphic animals, and not even the ones you’d normally see; your best friend in this game is a damn slug. But, it all ends up working out; designing, pricing, and marketing pizzas of your own creation is endlessly engaging and the fast paced cooking gameplay keeps things moving at an efficient and enjoyable clip. The characters, despite being bizarre, are utterly charming and they give you a reason to see the narrative through to its end, beyond just trying to get the rest of furry town to appreciate your love of spinach-bacon-mushroom pizza. It all just ends up fitting together in a way that is wholly unique, utterly deranged, and undeniably enjoyable, which is exactly what a good indie game should do.

Runner Up: Undertale

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Sports Game of the year

It’s soccer with cars. Do I need to say anymore? I guess I’m obligated to. With their most recent free additions of car parts and community flags, and new games modes and stadiums, Rocket League is an addictive product with a slowly growing competitive scene will continue to produce unfathomable highlights as it continues to grow. Rocket League has grown into one of the most highly streamed games on Twitch, and it’s a game that anyone can pick up and get into right away.

Runner Up: NBA 2K16

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Open world of the year

While a lot of jokes have been made about the building mechanics in Fallout 4, it really does go a long way in making the Commonwealth feel like a living breathing place. Where other open worlds this year were impressive, many of them ultimately felt like little more than a means to an end, a canvas for the gameplay rather than providing any sort of specific gameplay themselves. Fallout 4 on the other hand has a world that you can build up to your liking, one that asks you to maintain it and work on creating an efficient interplay between all your settlements. The game even uses this mechanic in some subtle ways to keep the world populated with new things to do, as your settlements will often ask you to retake old bases you’ve already cleared out, which have had new bandits (carrying new loot) move in while you were gone, posing a threat to your nearby towns. In fact you could potentially play the whole game ignoring most of the major quests and focusing on nothing more than just building up your scrap metal and adhesive based empire, and still end up having plenty of fun.

Runner Up: Mad Max

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Story of the year

While the obvious choice for this award might seem like The Witcher 3 (don’t worry, we’ll get to that game’s writing in a moment), the actual overall plot there drags and meanders a bit too much. Mad Max on the other hand, while also dragging a touch in the middle, has a fantastic set-up and a great ending that hits the notes of what a Mad Max story should be perfectly, giving insight into some really bizarre and enjoyable characters while letting us further delve into the depths of Max’s lonely broken psyche. While I won’t spoil the big twist, I will say that it’s set up quite well while still maintaining a nice element of surprise, and the manic feeling the game takes on after said twist occurs, and things to start to unravel, is very memorable and ends up having a lot of impact.

Runner Up: Dying Light

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Writing of the year

Much has already been said of The Witcher 3’s writing but rather than try to find a new way to say the same thing yet again, I’ll let this excerpt from our review of the game do the talking.

“[…]for as great as that overarching story is, it’s the characters within it and the large number of sub-plots that run throughout this game like veins of gold that really make the world of the Witcher come alive. With perhaps the exception of the ethereal otherworldly riders from the Wild Hunt that are stalking Ciri, there are no truly ‘evil’characters in this story, or ‘good’ ones for that matter, instead you get a range of incredibly layered and intricately crafted people with proper motivations and deeply human flaws.”

That’s what makes this game so engrossing, the strength of its characters and the depth and humanity of their travails. While I could go on about the subtle nuance of Geralt and Ciri’s relationship or the heartbreaking yet human tragedy of the now infamous “Bloody Baron” quest line, I won’t, and instead I’ll simply say that this is a game that will move you and that you need to experience it.

Runner Up: Wolfenstein: The Old Blood

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Visuals (Technical) of the year

Admittedly there are a lot of complaints you can levy against The Order: 1886; it’s short, it’s dull, it’s stuffy, and frankly it’s barely a game, but this award is about who has the shiniest graphics and The Order absolutely kills it in that department. Bringing the full power of the PS4 to bear, this game does an amazing job of rendering out an absurdly well realized world, with each object showing a level of detail that is genuinely impressive, and seemingly every single thread of Galahad’s costume (and every hair of his immaculately kept mustache) being made real. There is a very tangible feeling of wear and age to the assets here that was clearly meticulously put together, and while the stock cover based shooting may not keep your attention, it does give you a chance to appreciate the insanely detailed guns that you’ll be firing at your bowler hat clad foes. Again, don’t consider this a ringing endorsement for the game as a whole, but credit is due where credit is due and the beautiful things that The Order manages to achieve with its visuals are definitely worthy of recognition.

Runner Up: Rise of the Tomb Raider

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Visuals (artistic) of the year

While there were certainly games with more vibrant palettes and more striking art styles this year, The Witcher 3 wins this award due to the sheer subtlety and grace of its visual design. Screenshots of White Orchard’s fields, Velen’s quagmires, Novigrad’s streets, and Skellige’s bluffs have the quality of a classic Monet painting, with trees softly blowing in the wind and colours that seem to bleed perfectly into one another, providing a deep cohesiveness to the game’s look while keeping each area visually distinct. Add onto that some incredibly expressive characters and evocative asset design that blends together influences derived from real world renaissance history with some fantastical otherworldly flair, and you have a game that truly manages to set itself apart from the dark fantasy pack with a distinct visual feel that exudes sensibility and meaning.

Runner Up: Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines

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Soundtrack (original) of the yearOne of the big things that’s made Splatoon so endearing and accessible is its upbeat and effervescent presentation, and the high energy soundtrack is a big part of that. Mixing together influences of Punk and Hip-Hop with a bright neon base of J-Pop, the music here just crackles with energy, with the main theme especially combining all those genres expertly together in order to set the pace of a match. There’s a strong bass line that runs throughout that keeps you focused on your goals, while the vocal and guitar sections continually rise in tempo and intensity, crashing together at key moments to keep you on your toes and subtly denote how close the battle is to reaching its climax. Even the lobby and mode selections have their own tunes that provide a calming down tempo feel built to settle you in as you prepare for the upcoming ink fueled onslaught. It’s a soundtrack that is both extremely functional and insanely fun, and despite the fact that I’ve more or less fallen off with the game, Splatoon’s bubbly tunes remain firmly lodged inside my head.

Runner Up: Halo 5: Guardians

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Soundtrack (Licensed) of the year

The Fallout soundtracks are always an absolute treat, and it really says something that the biggest complaint most people levy against them is that they want more of it, and Fallout 4’s Diamond City Radio keeps up the tradition. While admittedly many of the songs are repeats from Fallout 3 and New Vegas, the new songs added mesh perfectly with those we’ve heard before, and honestly it makes sense to me that all these wasteland radio stations would share a few tracks. However, much like the swing songs in New Vegas gave that game its own vibe, the newly added dreamy 50’s ballads and classic Rockabilly numbers help give the Commonweatlh its own aural flair, setting it apart from both the Capital and Mojave Wastelands. Stringing it all together is the initially bumbling, eventually smooth, but always charming Travis, Diamond City’s premier disc jockey, who much like Wayne Newton and good old Three Dog before him, helps better incorporate all these songs into the world via his commentary, further immersing the player into that world, and keeping our cravings for the oldies at an all time high.

Runner Up: Persona 4: Dancing All Night

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PS4 Game of the year

Gorgeously horrific and unrelentingly brutal, both in terms of visuals and gameplay, Bloodborne strikes a remarkable balance between subtle moody introspective exploration and monstrously vicious and challenging combat, bringing forward the best parts of the prior FromSoftware games and combining it with some next-gen Lovecraftian panache.  It even manages to differentiate itself from the core Souls series, though not to a massive degree. Where combat in the Souls games can be kind of slow and tremulous, Bloodborne’s encounters are faster and smoother, though no less unforgiving. Where environments in the Souls games can feel epic and indifferent to the machinations of the player, Bloodborne’s world has a more intimate feel to it with a malefic aura that pervades the affair. These things among others help Bloodborne stand out, while the tried and true gameplay gives a it nice solid base to build its uniqueness upon; overall it makes for a nice feather in Sony’s cap, albeit a feather that is absolutely saturated in the blood of wicked abominations.

Runner Up: Until Dawn

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XBO Game of the year

With this being our final year, and there being overall slim pickings when it came to exclusives, we decided to rescind our rule about not letting remakes win any awards and good thing too because Rare Replay is one hell of compilation. Containing a whopping 30 games made by Rare throughout the studio’s legendary career, this collection acts as a perfect vertical slice of almost the entirety of gaming history, with ancient and now practically indecipherable ZX Spectrum games sitting directly beside shiny and relatively fresh-faced Xbox 360 games. They went all out to make these games play the way you remember, with the quality of the ZX and N64 emulation being especially impressive, and wealth of behind the scenes content provides extra enjoyment for gaming historians looking for extra insight. While some notable exceptions are made in terms of the catalog, and in terms of some of the staff who appear in those featurettes, mainly due to licensing issues and other things, this collection still feels like it very much honors the full Rare Legacy, and at only $30 it is an absolute must buy for any Xbox One owner.

Runner Up: Rise of the Tomb Raider

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Wii U Game of the year

We’ve already talked about the quality of the shooting going on in this game, and the catchy as all hell soundtrack, but what truly makes this the Wii U exclusive to own is the fact that it is probably the most “Nintendo” game that Nintendo released this year. It has that somewhat intangible quality that all of the Big N’s most memorable titles and franchises do: an air of almost alien mystery and curiosity that surrounds the specifics of everything, while at the same time creating a comforting and homey atmosphere that utterly bleeds charm. Everything has a pleasant and down to earth quality that makes things feel relatable, but at the same time the Inkling’s world is designed in a way that is just the perfect number of degrees off from familiar that you become invested in it and want to know more. It’s that same feeling that turned me into a lifelong devotee of other Nintendo franchises like Pikmin and Animal Crossing, and I feel like I can speak for the whole staff here when I say I’m very excited to see where Nintendo takes things with our new cephalopodal friends.

Runner Up: Xenoblade Chronicles X

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PC Game of the year

Contrary to standard procedure, the PC was probably the system with the most proper enjoyable exclusives this year, and we had a fairly tough time picking out just one. However, we tend to lean towards games that can (or at least should) only be best experienced on their console of origin and DiRT Rally most certainly takes it in that department. A powerhouse of graphics and physics modelling technology, DiRT Rally strips the bloated DiRT series back down to basics and focuses on being simply the best damn rally game it can possibly be. The handling feels insanely accurate and precise, as the cars fight with you and the road in the exact ways that they feel like they should, and the environments are modeled and tracked in such a way that every surface provides a different driving experience with even the depth and compactness of snowbanks and mud roads changing based on the weather and further affecting the experience. While this kind of thing can be done on consoles (and in fact will, considering there are ports coming) corners will most certainly end up having to be cut, with either the gorgeously rendered graphics, the rock solid performance, or both taking a hit in the transition. It’s also worth noting that they have gone to extreme lengths to accommodate all sorts of different peripherals to provide the best driving experience possible for every level of racing enthusiast, with even the humble Xbox One controller having custom vibrations built for its haptic feedback motors, providing that extra edge of immersion. If that’s not the sign of a damn good PC game, I don’t know what is.

Runner Up: Undertale

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3DS Game of the year

Another remake slips onto this list, but much like Rare Replay, Majora’s Mask 3D does so much right when it comes to preserving a classic game that you can’t really ignore it. More importantly it improves upon the original N64 game in some very subtle but incredibly important ways. Things such as the Bomber’s Notebook and Song of Time have been granted expanded functionality, the more annoying collection quests have been made less tedious, and even the dungeons and Clock Town itself have been very subtly streamlined, smoothing out the general flow of those three monumental days. That’s not even considering the wonderfully restored graphics and art assets, which stay completely true to the original designs but are still updated in some great ways so as to be palatable 15 years later. Admittedly this game only wins because there wasn’t really too much else on the 3DS this year that was truly amazing, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still an absolutely essential experience for any Legend of Zelda fan, and you can no longer use not owning an N64 Jump Pack as an excuse for not playing this dark horse classic of the series.

Runner Up: Yo-Kai Watch

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PSVITA Game of the year

While the Vita may be all but dead in most people’s eyes, it did have a few unique little titles this year, and none quite captured my attention like Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines did. In terms of sheer gameplay, it’s nothing more than a very solid built but ultimately fairly standard dungeon crawling JRPG, but it is through its sub-systems that Oreshika reveals its true nature. You see due to story reasons, all of your characters can only last about two years of in-game time (with each dungeon run taking a month) and must procreate with the various gods of Japanese mythology in order to continue their bloodlines and spawn new characters who will continue the adventure. The short life spans and quick dungeon dives also help to keep the pace snappy while at the same time providing constant motivation to continue playing, wanting to go for just one more month as you wait for a new arrival or prepare for an elder to pass on. It’s also worth noting that the game is utterly drenched in style, sporting a gorgeous art style inspired by Ukiyo-e wood cuts and Kabuki theatre, which lends the game a distinctly traditional feel. Oreshika is easily one of the more unique JRPGs I’ve played in a long while, and definitely worth picking up if you’ve got a VITA or PSTV kicking around.

Runner Up: Persona 4: Dancing All Night

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Worst Game of the year

While 2015 was no stranger to disappointing franchise entries, none can claim to reach Alone in the Dark: Illumination’s level of sheer blinding hatred for its original source material. Even compared to the hot steaming pile that was 2009’s Alone in the Dark game, Illumination stands out as being especially egregious. Right off the bat you know things are going to be bad when you realize that A) It’s a four-player Left 4 Dead clone, so you’re not ‘Alone’ and B) that the central mechanic for fighting enemies involves bathing them in light, so you’re not in the ‘dark’. And somehow those are only the surface issues. To add injury to insult in this case, this monstrous affront to a once decent series ends up being saddled with levels that are nothing but fetch quests, meaningless interchangeable characters with differing abilities of only dubious usefulness, and a story so sheer and barely strung together that if it were clothing you could barely call it lingerie. At the moment Alone in the Dark: Illumination sits on a Metacritic score of only 19, and even that seems too high, as it still ends up ranking higher than the 2005 Uwe Boll movie, which was at least mildly entertaining in a ‘so completely freaking terrible, it’s funny’ kind of way. Yes, that’s sadly the point we’re at here, one where I’d rather watch the Uwe Boll movie adaptation than play the actual game, and I can’t think of anything more depressing.

Runner Up: Raven’s Cry

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Game of the year

We’ve already said so much about The Witcher 3 at this point that I don’t really know what else to say. Every aspect of it is just so expertly and lovingly crafted, and the care that went into every piece of it is so clearly evident. So with that being said I’ll just reiterate once more a point I made on my Top Ten List yesterday that I think really sums up why this game garnered so much attention this year:

“[…]the reason why I personally love the Witcher is because it feels so human in its design while still remaining very large in scope. The characters are deeply flawed but also relatable, the world is incredibly bleak but people eke out a living nonetheless, and even though there’s a massive war going on, it doesn’t dominate people’s everyday lives. The realism of not just facing adversity, but acclimating to it and learning to accept it as a part of your everyday life is something the Witcher has that really resonates with me.”

That’s what ultimately makes this game so special, its deep understanding of humanity. You can go on about the beautiful visuals, intricate gameplay, and astounding world building until you’re blue in the face, but it’s the small human touches that truly make The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt so special, and that is why we’re giving it our final Game of the Year award.

Runner Up: Fallout 4

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And with that our Game of the Year awards come to a close. If you’re curious about the reasoning behind our choices, then come back tomorrow to check out the unedited audio of our debates; be warned though, it’s quite long. We’ll also have my own personal goodbye video and post mortem on the site going up tomorrow, which will be the last piece of content we put up. Until then though, here’s our holiday card.

HOLIDAY

 

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