You can debate whether it's been a weak generation so far, but it's been a very good year for sports game enthusiasts.
With Rocket League breaking out, Madden NFL making major strides, and NBA 2K and MLB The Show continuing their customary excellence, most every type of sports gamer has found something to like about 2015. Unfortunately, end of the year awards being what they are, sports games are unlikely to get the recognition they deserve. With that in mind, here's some of what I consider the best in sports games for 2015.
Best Presentation: NBA 2K16
Not much question about this one, is there? NBA 2K16 consistently has the best, most accurate commentary, includes lots of in-game cutscenes, and features multiple openings for each team. Following in the footsteps of NFL 2K, it has been the series that has done the most to push forward the notion of a TV-style presentation for its games. Moreover, its smooth and attractive presentation is more in line with modern triple-A gaming than most sports games, which tend to skimp on menus in favor of focusing on the in-game action. Other sports games have started to catch up with NBA 2K in the presentation department, most notably NHL and FIFA, but 2K's basketball sim is still the king.
Best Representation of a Sport: MLB 15 The Show
Most sports games these days can at least approximate the feel of their real-life counterparts, but none of them come closer than MLB The Show - still one of the best-looking sports games around. Powered by a top-notch physics engine and some of the best animation of any sports game this generation, everything about MLB 15 The Show just feels right. Of course, the flipside of all that is that The Show is also one of the hardest sports games to actually pick up, as hitting successfully is an artform that requires an almost sixth sense for what is coming at you. Still, when you're standing on-base in Road to the Show, it's remarkable the degree to which it feels like you're at a real baseball game.
Best Career Mode: NBA 2K16
I'll get this out of the way immediately: Spike Lee's in-game sports movie was ambitious but ultimately disappointing, and the usually excellent MyCareer mode took a step back as a result. But out of all the sports games on the market, it still does the best job of putting you in the shoes of a real pro athlete, with all of the attendant perks. It's bolstered by an excellent GM mode with well-balanced progression, clearly-defined goals, and lots of cool options like the ability to straight-up buy your team and move it across the country. Once again, if there's one thing that NBA 2K does better than any other sports game, its to lend its modes a warmth and personality that make them feel like more than a set of spreadsheets. You can see your MyPlayer avatar take meetings with owners, your players will complain if they aren't getting enough minutes, and your advisors will offer their thoughts on who you should draft. In short, it feels like you're really a GM. Hopefully the rest of the sports sim developers are taking notes.
Best Ultimate Team: FIFA 16
Ultimate Team has proven tricky for a lot of sports devs. The mode has proven incredibly popular because it pairs the addictive nature of collecting cards with a high degree replayability - the holy grail of sports games. However, in their quest for more money, some games (Madden) have gone overboard in putting out ridiciulous sets and incredibly rare cards to entice people to spend on packs. Others, like MLB The Show, haven't updated nearly enough. Of them all, FIFA has done the best job of balancing the demands of regular updates with cards that are actually obtainable. It helps that FIFA has by far the deepest player pool of any sports sim - a product of it being a truly international sport. NBA 2K16 and MLB The Show have both made strides with Ultimate Team this year, but FIFA Ultimate Team is still the king.
Best New Addition: Draft Champions (Madden NFL 16)
Having said that, though, Madden NFL's Draft Champions outshines its more limited counterpart in a number of ways. In addition to featuring both a paid mode and a free version, it's possible to play with friends, making it a great couch mode. It also captures one of the most popular elements of the NFL - fantasy drafts. Its tremendously fun to put together an elite collection of players under your team's banner and try to go on a lengthy winning streak with them. Draft Champions was hurt by limited replayability out of the gate, but strong support from EA has pushed it over the top. Out of all the new additions this year, this one is the best.
Most Improved Sports Game: Madden NFL 16
And on that note, I think it's fair to say that Madden NFL is this year's most improved sports game. NHL 16 deserves mention as well simply because last year was such a disaster, but I think the strides that Tiburon's football simulator have made this year merit recognition. Out of all of this year's sports games, Madden has taken the most risks with its established gameplay. In introducing aggressive catches, Tiburon has made the matchup between receiver and corner much more exciting, which has more than outweighed the balance concerns out of the gate. They've also been aggressive in addressing the criticism surrounding XP gain, bugs, and the limitations of Draft Champions with a handful of major content updates. Madden hasn't quite reached the summit yet, but it's quite clear that Tiburon is serious about making it a top-tier sports sim. That alone is a giant improvement from the previous generation.
Secret Best Sports Game: Pro Evolution Soccer 2016
Konami has deservedly gotten a lot of criticism for their handling of Hideo Kojima (not to mention reportedly being a terrible place to work), but they're still putting out one series worthy of note: Pro Evolution Soccer. PES has been the popular choice among hardcore sim fans for years now, but this year's version showed why more casual soccer enthusiasts should be paying attention as well. With its support for fan updates, its lack of licenses have become less of an issue, and a much deeper career mode has served to bolster its already excellent sim engine. Not only that, but Konami will be making it upcoming Euro 2016 content free for all users as an apology for its roster issues at launch. True, in terms of looks and presentation, its still a step behind its more polished counterparts. Nevertheless, Konami deserves a lot of credit for righting what many considered a sinking ship and giving FIFA legitimate competition for the first time in years.
Kat's Favorite Sports Game of 2015: Rocket League
It's difficult to overstate what Rocket League has meant for sports games. On the face of it, Rocket League is a relatively simple three versus three soccer game with RC racers. Dig deeper, though, and you start to realize that Rocket League captures the fun of actually playing a sport in a way that more advanced sports sims simply don't. That's why it has proven so popular with mainstream fans who would otherwise never pick up Madden or FIFA - it's fundamentally easy to understand fun to play. What's more, it's deeper than it looks. Its best players have developed sophisticated team-based tactics while mastering aerial maneuvers that allow them to accomplish some truly extraordinary feats. Though it follows in the tradition of NBA Jam and NFL Blitz, it is better and deeper than either of them, making it pretty much the best of all worlds. Back in July I asked if Rocket League will be able to continue thriving into the fall and beyond. I've received a clear answer: It has, and it will.
Kat's Personal Power Rankings for 2015
- 1. Rocket League: Came out of nowhere to become a big hit by encapsulating almost every major trend in gaming. Broke out as a mainstream favorite because it captures the fun of playing a sport rather than just managing it.
2. NBA 2K16: Probably the strongest overall sports sim. Its attempt to turn its career mode into a sports movie was flawed but ambitious. Managed to avoid the sort of significant online troubles that have plagued it in the past.
3. MLB 15: The Show: An awesome physics engine and top-notch animation makes MLB 15's on-field gameplay a real delight. Even better: It's finally fun to play online.
4. Pro Evolution Soccer 2016: Big improvements to career mode, a rock-solid engine, and great community support has Pro Evolution Soccer continuing to trend upward. FIFA is more accessible, but PES is the better sim.
4. FIFA 16: Women's teams and FUT Draft were good additions, but not enough to keep pace with the other top sports games. Fun as the action is on the field, the career modes have gotten stale.
5. Madden NFL 16: Extremely fun to play, and Tiburon has been aggressive in addressing its issues with bugs and gameplay balance. Tiburon's ambition is evident in what might be the most improved overall sports game this generation.
6. NHL 16: This year was all about stabilization and getting much-needed modes like the EA Sports Hockey League back in the game. For all its improvement, though, NHL 16 still feels decidedly last-gen. Hopefully 2016 will be the year that EA's hockey sim really takes the next step.
7. Rory McIlroy PGA Tour: Lays the groundwork for better games to come, but is limited by a small roster and a limited number of courses.
8. WWE 2K16: Still struggles with glitches, bugs, and crashes, and the wrestler A.I. is more predictable than it should be. Still, it does more to engage with its sports history than most any other games.
9. Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash: Nintendo's sports games have been to play in the past, but not Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash. In addition to suffering from stiff animation and an awkward camera, it's not all that fun to play solo. A rare disappointment from Camelot Software and Nintendo.
10. NBA Live 16: Tiburon has their heart in the right place, but it's not clear what NBA Live has to offer over NBA 2K other than simply being from a different company. Both the modes and gameplay remain under-developed, making it easily the weakest of the annual sports sim crop.
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