Phew, well, that's 2015 officially in the books. The App Store should thaw sometime tonight or tomorrow, and we'll be back to business as usual, or, as "usual" as the constant state of insanity that we've grown used to following the world of iOS can be. This year felt weirder than most when it came to figuring out our best games, as the App Store has really been trending towards the idea of making games "evergreen." If you're not familiar with the term, it basically means developers have figured out that it's often better to just endlessly support existing titles with live teams constantly pumping out updates and other content than it is to continually release new stuff. For our "official" best games and Game of the Year post we decided to only include games released in 2015, which makes sense, but feels odd at the same time because a lot of my favorite games of this year were actually released last year.
When figuring out what to do about all this, I consulted with friends who run other web sites focusing on PC and console, and this is just one more thing unique about the world of mobile that no one else needs to deal with. For instance, it's easy to treat World of Warcraft as distinct individual expansion releases and potentially include those expansions in end of the year coverage as they're sort of their own game release even if all you're doing is adding more stuff on to a title originally released over a decade ago. Similarly, the three chunks of campaign content that make up Starcraft 2 all are treated as distinct releases, even though by former standards, Starcraft 2 would only be "complete" now, as it originally only launched with the Terran campaign, leaving the Zerg and Protoss coming soon as separate $60 purchases. It's hard to find any parallels in mobile, aside from maybe the recent substantial Temple Run 2 [Free] update, as most games are updated slowly and constantly. You wouldn't treat a random Hay Day [Free] update that adds a few tiny things any different from any other iOS update, but when you pool together twelve months worth of those tiny updates, it feels like a whole new, super significant improvement to the game. So, here's what I've been loving over 2015:
Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft
The iOS game I spent the most time playing this year was Hearthstone [Free], but again, does it feel right to consider what essentially amounts to new card sets for "best" game consideration? These are strange times. Anyway, to back up a bit, if you've followed my reviews or the podcast here on TouchArcade, you'd know I am a pretty hardcore fan of Magic the Gathering. I've been playing, following, or otherwise participating in the game on some level since I was in Junior High, which means I've been involved in Magic for well over 20 years. (And thinking about the amount of money I've likely spent on cards in that time makes me queasy.) A large portion of my best friendships have come from people I've met playing the game, and anecdotes surrounding a Magic tournament even made it into a recent Best Man's speech at a friend's wedding. I had very early beta access (or technical alpha or whatever Blizzard calls it) to Hearthstone, and for the longest time, I really didn't like it, because it wasn't Magic.
But, as you grow up, your friends start getting married and having kids, you buy a house, and just generally have responsibilities that both prevent you from attending 2-3 paper Magic events a week and effortlessly dropping $400 on a eBay playset of Jace the Mind Sculptor. With that the game loses a bit of its luster due to how difficult it is to keep playing competitively. The digital offerings aren't great either, with Magic Online in a state of constant, unbelievable jank, and Magic Duels [Free] feeling like a real watered down version of the game I love. These days, I really just follow Magic through watching tournaments that are big enough to get streamed on Twitch, which sucks, but, that's life.
Hearthstone, on the other hand, I can play anywhere, any time, from any mobile platform, or even my PC. Purchases, my collection, decks, quests, overall progress, and everything else is synchronized across everything. It feels like what a card game in 2015 should be. Once I got over the whole "This sucks, it's not Magic!" thing (which many of my Magic friends I've converted have also gone through), it's scratching nearly all the same itches of strategic CCG gameplay that Magic used to. Also, as far as the professional scene is concerned, watching Hearthstone tournaments are far more entertaining and well produced than Magic tournaments, which you can plainly see any time you're comparing the differences on Twitch. A lot of that entertainment factor comes from RNG, for sure, but that's true of any "real" sport as well- Hell, there's an entire industry that surrounds releasing crazy VHS/DVD/BluRay releases of crazy sports moments. Ragnaros going to face for lethal when there's almost no way that's even possible statistically isn't really any different.
Blizzard has done some super interesting stuff with card releases over the year, both in single player expansions and more traditional releases of sets through card packs, and a lot of great mechanics have been added to the game. I feel like it'll still take some time before The Grand Tournament reaches its stride as more cards enter the pool, but I love what they've done with The League of Explorers. Not only was the single player content amazingly fun, but Discover as a mechanic is the best one they've released yet. I love how they've embraced RNG as a thing while allowing you to mitigate it via choosing one of three cards. It's got all the flavor of crazy Hearthstone RNG while still allowing you to structure a strategy around it. The coolest part of all this is you could conceivably get all this for free. I've spent money on the game, for sure, but many friends of mine play without spending a cent, and from doing interviews with Blizzard, a lot of the development and balance teams intentionally maintain entirely free to play accounts.
I really miss playing Magic as much as I used to, but, thanks to Hearthstone the only real thing I feel like I'm "missing" from that world is the social aspect of sitting across the table from someone and playing. Hearthstone definitely doesn't offer that, but, I guess it's a decent trade off as it's impossible to play a game of Magic in less than ten minutes from the toilet.
Tales from the Borderlands
It's really pretty incredible how far Telltale has come. We called Jurassic Park: The Game [$2.99] a "technical disaster" in our review, and really, that aptly described most Telltale games of the time. The games themselves might have been decent, but their iOS ports were so terrible it was almost unbelievable. That all changed with the release of Walking Dead: The Game [Free], and since then it almost feels like Telltale found some kind of genie or something who granted the wish of all their games be awesome. I wasn't super into Telltale's Game of Thrones [Free] and Minecraft: Story Mode [$4.99] isn't doing a whole lot for me, but I think it's because I loved Tales from the Borderlands [Free] so much that everything else pales in comparison.
I absolutely love the Borderlands universe, but the way it's presented on PC and console in traditional Borderlands games always kind of made me wish it was told in any other medium. Total Biscuit, I believe, coined the Borderlands PC and console games as "First Person Looters," which is pretty perfect. If you've never played one, you're revealing the (admittedly, simply incredible) lore of the Borderlands universe via MMO-style kill quests and other stuff with the typical gameplay loop of "Go here, kill X things, come back, get loot, equip any updgrades, repeat." It's perfectly fine, and that cycle is the foundation of many games, but I've been doing that for decades now. The feeling this gameplay invokes in me is perfectly nailed by this Penny Arcade strip:
But, like I said, I love the universe the games take place in, so I put up with it. The writing in Borderlands 2 is simply phenomenal, and even though the gameplay loop was incredibly boring at times, the game features some of the most memorable moments, characters, and high points of any PC/console game I've played in recent memory. Tales from the Borderlands takes all that stuff I love, strips out all the stuff I hate, and what you're left with is pure distilled awesomeness. That being said, Tales from the Borderlands is also sort of difficult to recommend because much like me not really being into Minecraft and not really appreciating Story Mode, if you're going into Tales from the Borderlands cold... Chances are you won't love it as much as I did.
If you looked at how I played iOS games as a pie chart, simple one-button games with super-short sessions time likely make up the majority of the time spent gaming on my phone. It's how games like Candy Crush [Free] boast such huge numbers, as when you're playing a game for a few minutes a time, many times a day, you really don't realize how quickly that all adds up. Particle Mace [$2.99] came out in early January, and has lived a happy life of near-daily play on my iPhone ever since.
You control the game one handed and play in portrait mode, so it's a really great title for killing time in line or wherever else. The basic concept is that you're a space ship that has a, well, particle mace, swinging from the back of your ship. Gameplay involves seeing how long you can survive while you clear the game field of enemies by swinging your mace around. It's a clever physics-based gameplay mechanic which always seem to resonate well with me, and it's one of those games where you can do incredibly well, sometimes unintentionally, and just have that feeling of "Oh man, this is such an amazing run" before dying an untimely death moments later.
Particle Mace is a game that could've been packed to the brim with free to play shenanigans and Crossy Road [Free] collection mechanics, but it's nice just getting the whole thing for three bucks and not needing to worry about any of that. Also, while I know they're not for everyone, the low-fi vector graphics and particles really do it for me. We loved Particle Mace in our review, and it's a pretty effortless recommendation for anyone looking for a good one-handed game to play.
Here's another great example of what I was talking about earlier with update craziness: Bean Dreams [$2.99] was released in early December of last year, and while we liked the game quite a bit in our review, the amount of content Kumbobius has added to the game over 2015 more than doubles what was included in the original, all for free and without any kind of IAP. The gameplay of the Bean games is so great too, and features mechanics I straight up tell developers to steal to add replay value to their games.
So, you can just bumble through a level in Bean Dreams without much issue. Your little jumping bean jumps automatically, and finishing them without jumping into spikes or other obstacles isn't supremely challenging, particularly if you have roots in platforming gameplay. Just beating each level is just the beginning, as you've got three other goals: Collecting all the fruit and the hidden axolotl involves scouring each level from top to bottom, but where the rubber really meets the road is in beating the maximum jumps threshold.
Say a level has a goal of 15 jumps, you've got to fully make it to the end of the level by only touching the ground 15 times. It sounds trivial, but I assure you, it is anything but easy- Particularly on later levels. It's fascinating how this extra goal also transforms the game from what otherwise would be a pretty basic platformer into something that feels more like a puzzle game. This ramps up the replay value to sky-high levels as what the game is asking you to do is maddeningly simple, but it will often require a near-scientific analysis of the level to meet the goal. It's awesome, and again, I encourage more developers to straight up steal this kind of level objective because it's amazing.
For the longest time, mobile games, particularly during the J2ME days, were a total dumping ground for terrible games tied together with some kind of IP that barely made sense. Namco has been especially terrible with this sort of thing, releasing games like Pac'N-Jump which combined Pac-Men with Doodle Jump [$0.99] because someone at Namco looked at Doodle Jump and said, "Doodle Jump, he's so hot right now. Doodle Jump." Anyone around for the early days of iOS gaming know all about this phenomenon of mashing together popular character plus popular gameplay model at the time. Not even Sonic the Hedgehog was immune to the "Just throw him in a Doodle Jump-like!" Because, you know, when I think Sonic I think slowly jumping up platforms vertically.
Anyway, cautious optimism was the key when we first heard about Pac-Man 256. It's published by a company who historically has done some pretty crazy things with their characters but developed by the indie studio responsible for Crossy Road, one of the biggest (and best) indie hits in recent history. It seemed like a delicate balance, because learn too far towards the Namco side and you're left with another crazy Pac-Man game that would leave gamers scratching their heads. Learn too far towards the Hipster Whale side and surely someone high up in Namco would look at the game and say, "Can't we make it more like, hmm, let me look what's on the charts, ah yes, Candy Crush?"
Thankfully, it all shook out flawlessly. I'd go as far as to say Pac-Man 256 is the best Pac-Man game I've ever played, and as a child of 80's arcades, I'm even including the originals in that which admittedly may be sacrilege for some. It's got a shockingly fair pay model, power-ups which spice up the gameplay nicely, and recently they're pumping out additional content updates to do things like re-skin the game in fun and exciting ways. Pac-Man 256 is going to live a long and healthy life on every iOS device I ever have.
Oh, and of course, outrunning the level 256 glitch is potentially the most clever way to explain why you're trying to go fast in an endless game.
2015 was a great year for iOS gaming, both in regards to individual releases as well as updates to existing titles. I'm super excited for what 2016 will bring, as we're on the verge of highly anticipated titles like Crashlands which undoubtedly will kick off what will be another exciting year full of awesome stuff that we similarly end up whiddling down at the end of the year. To all of our readers who have stuck with us, you guys are the best, and I look forward to keeping this train rolling through whatever insanity the App Store throws out way.