GOTY 2016: 2016's 2015 Game of the Year

This year we've brought back our category awards to recognize achievements in specific areas of game development. There are ten awards in all, with two new ones being awarded every day this week. Keep checking back for more winners!

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2016's 2015 Game of the Year: Rise of the Tomb Raider

Crystal Dynamics | November 10, 2015 (initial release) | PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox One

Runners-up: Rock Band 4, Downwell

I have no doubt that, had I played just a few more hours of Rise of the Tomb Raider before our 2015 Game of the Year deliberations, the game would've cracked our top 10. Unfortunately, every year a few amazing titles release right around the time we dole out awards. Despite our best efforts, true gems slip under our collective radar.

This year we’re making up for it by awarding Rise with what may seem to be a conciliatory (if not apologetic) prize, but make no mistake: the game is worth the nod.

While 2013’s reboot recast Lara Croft as a helpless shipwreck survivor, Rise reintroduces us to the hardened and determined heroine we left at the end of the last game, one year later. She’s still not the callous, cold protagonist a generation grew up with in the 90’s who showed no sign of remorse mowing down bad guys with akimbo Uzis, but she’s far more dangerous in Rise. Lara is a true survivor in the sequel — and unlike the 2013 reboot, she’s ready to fight from the beginning, which keeps players interested and avoids a retread of the last game’s emotional development arc. In Rise, the eponymous tomb raider isn’t hesitant to take a life or risk her own to get the job done.

Worth noting is the spectacular level design: Rise takes place throughout verdant forests and the geothermal tundra of Siberia. The technical accomplishment of the lighting effects, texture design and the overall fidelity of Lara’s adventure stands among some of the most-beautiful console games of this generation. While the game was released as an Xbox One exclusive last year, even the so-called less-powerful home console did a fantastic job of keeping the game at a high frame rate and rendering the gorgeous snow-capped mountains, misty forests and dank caverns from start to finish.

Although the first game in the rebooted Tomb Raider franchise gave fans new and old a chance to get to know a younger, greener Lara Croft, the overall game barely stuck the landing. It borrowed too heavily from Uncharted, a series that, in an ironic twist, began by swiping features from the original Tomb Raider. Thankfully, Rise of the Tomb Raider shifts the focus away from heavily scripted encounters and instead gives us a freer, more open playground. In doing so, this renewed Tomb Raider finally comes into its own and out of Nathan Drake’s shadow. — Aaron Thayer