Mini-games can be brilliant, a little piece of genius design tacked onto a game, all understated and unnecessary to the wider game as a whole. Or they can be awful, which tends not to be a problem anyway as even when they’re awful you can generally ignore them.
2015 seems to have been a better year than most for them, introducing us to mini-games of a size, scope and complexity hitherto unseen outside the realms of, well, actual games.
For purposes of this list of the best of 2015’s mini-games, we’re looking at games within games that are mostly self-contained and optional to the completion of the games main storyline.
4. FOB Management – Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Build bases, defend bases, raid bases. Such is the circle of life in Konami’s creepily moreish aside to the wildly playable but narratively dysfunctional MGSV. So much of this mini-game feels like it is designed to take your time, even your money, but given how much fun MGSV is when you’re sneaking about stealing people and things, and given that attacking another player’s base is much more challenging than anything the story has to offer it becomes a worthy addition.
Trying to fend off an army while extracting as many shipping containers as you can lay your Fulton Recovery Device on before getting overwhelmed is always good clean fun, as is trying to sneak your way to the heart of the base, or just systematically picking everybody off so nobody knows you’re even there. The bases themselves might look painfully similar, but the means of attack have plenty of variation.
There are some flaws here too however, and this game mode is clearly something of a work in progress. For instance if somebody does decide to defend their base in person they’re almost certain to beat you if you are attacking them.
The combination of all the defending guards and their reinforcements, plus an infinitely respawning opposing player right on the objective itself can mean you are doomed if an opponent does show up. For example once defending my FOB I spawned in, ambled around vapidly, came under fire from an unseen adversary, panic fired a stun grenade into the wall nearby, blacked out completely and still won.
That said since this particular mini-game seems to be part of a long term revenue generating scheme for Konami the chances are good that it will develop further and even if it doesn’t in the long term that just improves the odds of never running into a live opponent.
3. Racing and Golf – GTA V
While the PC version of GTA V took a long time to arrive it was definitely worth the wait. While there is a lot of entertainment to be had in GTA V’s various activities there are a few that particularly stand out, especially when played online. The mini-game that most stands out most of course is the tennis, but this is by virtue of it being painfully bad. Consider this a public service announcement; Friends don’t let friends play GTA tennis.
More pertinently however GTA V does do two things in particular spectacularly well outside of its violence and crime wheelhouse. The first of these is golf. The golf is surprisingly good. In fact it is good enough that even forewarned as you now are that it is good it will still probably surprise you with how good it is.
GTA V’s golf is just complicated enough to be a game of skill while being easy enough to pick up quickly and it does a great job of capturing the simple joy of sinking a putt, and the disproportionate sudden fury of a messed up shot. Plus if you’re the sort of person who loses their temper after a bad round you can always hop back into the main game and cut loose in the parking lot with a machinegun.
The racing, particularly in multiplayer, is also very enjoyable. Between the hordes of customisable vehicles and the ability to create your own tracks there is masses of scope for everything from fairly serious organised races to piling into random public games, or getting a few friends together and going head to head in everything from bicycles to jet planes.
Driving in GTA V is nicely balanced for racing, encouraging proper race driving skills while at the same time not crushing all your hopes of glory because you strayed off the racing line for a fraction of a second. Also the ability to turn off contact between cars means that not every race is decided by who gets in the last PIT Manoeuvre (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PIT_maneuver). This means that in some cases racing can even be more fun than repeating the Pacific Standard heist over and over.
2. Building Towns – Fallout 4
The Fallout games have always been about scrabbling around in the wreckage of the world, eating molerats and wondering why if war was so long ago how come nobody bothered to clean up. Now, with Fallout 4 and its settlement building system you’re able to clean things up yourself and build yourself a series of little towns all over the Commonwealth.
It is arguable that this capability doesn’t truly represent a mini-game, but I think, given that the settlements and how they are built has close to no relevance at all to the game world (and certainly none to the story), that it counts. Towns have some basic needs which must be met to get the people up to the highest achievable level of happiness and thus population, but from there on in you’re just in it to play with the building tools in an array of interesting Commonwealth locales.
Just because the settlement management has only a tiny bearing on the game doesn’t reduce its value however, indeed if anything it enhances it. Poetry makes nothing happen, and neither do your towns in Fallout 4. This means you’re not punished for opting for form over function and you won’t lose anything of value in the long term if an attack happens and you’re not there to stop it.
It is rare for a game like Fallout 4 to include something as absorbing and apparently important as a settlement building system merely as a boondoggle, without making it a core part of the story in any way, but here it is and put simply it’s great.
1. Gwent – The Witcher 3
Gwent is a fully functioning collectible card game built into The Witcher 3. Played by all manner of people throughout the game world it serves as the centrepiece of a few quests and as a ready source of money and supplies on your travels. It is also, perhaps more importantly, easy to get into and a lot of fun.
The strange thing with Gwent is that unlike most card games that feature in videogames it is a giant anachronism. It casually breaks the fourth wall with regards to who is pictured on the cards and the knowledge of their powers and their true nature, and there is no explanation for where these cards come from and what determines their value.
But this weirdness, this sidestep out of the world, serves an incredibly valuable purpose. It is a break from the game within the game and the big holes in the fourth wall it creates help to distance you further from it, while not detaching you entirely. If Bertholt Brecht ever rises from the grave he’ll get a real kick out of it.
The oddness of Gwent is something that is often played for laughs. The game is this kind of secret vice across the whole of the land, and you often find yourself in incongruous situations having the ability to challenge whomever you are talking with to a game. The professional players too are an interesting bunch; from child savants to spies and assassins you never know who might be looking for a game.
Alas there is a fly in the ointment of Gwent and it is simply that, as much fun as it is, sooner or later you’ll break it. You do not play Gwent on an even footing with the rest of the world in The Witcher 3, you lose a game and you’ll lose money, but you win a game and you’ll win a card.
Win enough cards and like with any collectible card game, you’ll find yourself winning more and more easily until it becomes vaguely perfunctory. There is a difficulty slider specifically for Gwent though to a point this can force even tighter adherence to your tried and tested tactics.
For what it is as a game in its own right, in terms of how it affects the tone of The Witcher 3 and for all the odd adventures it can lead you on, Gwent is a borderline work of genius.