Brad Shoemaker wrote much of this list on like three hours sleep on an airplane. They had a nice little snack mix.
Last year I started this list by bellyaching about the rotten state of America and the fact that I spent more of 2017 worrying about that than playing video games. This year, for a variety of reasons I won't get into because who in their right mind wants to talk about their personal life online in this day and age, somehow managed to be worse. I envy people who can fall back on games as a reliable escape or distraction when things are crummy, but for whatever reason, games mostly just feel trivial to me when Real Life intrudes. So, for the second year running, I'm a little behind, but I still had a great time with more than enough games to populate this list.
There are several games I might have included here--like Below, Forza Horizon 4, God of War, Monster Boy, and Astro Bot Rescue Mission--if I'd lowered my year-end-list threshold to "played it at all and liked it at all," and a few others, like Return of the Obra Dinn and Moss, that I've barely touched but am sure I would like quite a bit if I spent some real time with them. But if I'm going to set the reasonable bar of having played enough of a game to be really sure how I feel about it, then these are the ones that rate. Thanks for reading my list, and here's to a 2019 with a little less strife and a few more games.
Every time a new Monster Hunter has come out, at least for the last three or four iterations, I've tried my best to fall for it because, hey, who doesn't like killing stuff and fashioning cool armor out of its carcass? Each one of those games has mightily resisted my attempts to like it, but World took such great strides toward a truly modernized design, and cast off so much of the tedium and minutiae of the handheld games, that it got me most of the way there. Ultimately I fell off before finishing the main story due to the astonishingly clunky multiplayer features and the fact that, at the end of the day, you're kind of just hunting the same big monsters over and over again in slightly different scenarios. Those hunts were streamlined and exciting enough to plant Monster Hunter firmly on the Franchises That Matter list, but there's still work to be done in clarifying the mess of bounty-like quests you take on between hunts, and just giving you a little more to engage with once you're out there roaming around. But then, when you think about it, the fact that Capcom finally caught the mass market American audience at all is remarkable on its own.
I wanted to like Sea of Thieves. I still want to like Sea of Thieves, and the steady release of new content since it launched has me feeling like the time may come soon to dive back in. Plenty has been said elsewhere about the game's lack of variety and, by Rare's standards, uncharacteristically lifeless presentation. But the two hours we spent streaming the beta a few weeks before release really was among the best moments I had with a game this year. That feeling of madcap collaboration, everyone trying their best (or not trying at all) to steer this big, unwieldy ship around with only the wind and the sun to guide us, that sense of camaraderie and high adventure on the vast, wacky, gorgeous open sea: it all foretold great things for the full version of the game... which, as everyone now knows, was an awful lot like the beta. There's so much promise in Sea of Thieves, but they need to fulfill so much more of it before I feel good about coming back. Give me some deeper storylines, more elaborate pirate hideouts and quests, some meaningful booty; give me something. Come on, Rare. I need this. You need this.
8. Hitman 2
"Hey, it's more Hitman" is really all you have to say about this sequel to sell it to anyone who enjoyed the last one, but here are a few more words for the sake of completeness. The few new mechanics like tall grass to hide in and a briefcase to smuggle illegal items around read like minor back-of-box bullet points, but really do add new twists to the gameplay. While overall I don't think the lineup of maps is quite as strong as in the 2016 reboot, the Miami racetrack, suburban Anytown USA, and Billionaire Island locations are real standouts. And I just can't sufficiently express how cool it is of Io to let you import all the original game's content, so you can replay it with the better graphics and new abilities of the sequel. Seeing two Hitmans' worth of content nestled into one tidy interface is like snuggling up under the warmest, fuzziest murder blanket you could hope for.
7. Dead Cells
Dang, this game plays just about perfectly, doesn't it? It's the rare action game where you get the sense someone spent a long time thinking very hard about every minute technical detail of the mechanics--the frame-specific timing of the attacks, the size of the hitboxes, the length of the dodge invulnerability, the flexibility to cancel from one move into another. For all those carefully considered pieces to fit perfectly together and produce a game that plays just right is a true accomplishment. Take that perfected foundation and layer on a massive amount of weapon and tactical variety, a grim world of branching paths and intriguing secrets that's consistently fun to run through over and over, and a high skill ceiling that has you cursing a boss the first time and running circles around it a dozen fights later, and you end up with one of the best and most replayable 2D action games in years. I never got around to beating the Hand of the King before other games distracted me, but I suspect the developer's exceptional post-release commitment to refining and remaking large parts of the game over time will be a great reason to get back in there.
The superhero action here is plenty entertaining but nothing especially new if you've spent a lot of time playing the Arkham games, with the crucial exception of the web-swinging. There's a gut-level satisfaction to soaring around New York City, with the camera tossing and rolling frantically behind you, that Batman and his weird grapnel thing never achieved. Spider-Man is fun enough that I'm going to finish getting the platinum trophy, but--and I still can't believe I'm saying this about a superhero game--it's the effectiveness of the storytelling that really made the game stick with me. The many parallel character threads, from Peter and Mary Jane's on-again-off-again thing to the Morales family's tumultuous fate and especially the tragic emergence of Doctor Octopus, had me eagerly plowing forward through the game even after clearing out Kingpin hideouts and collecting backpacks had gotten a little rote. The comic book-ish A plot about secret serums and high-tech paramilitaries and whatever was serviceable, but the game's heart and soul is in its tasteful and restrained approach to developing its characters, made so much more believable by a lot of great acting. (This and Red Dead make me wish we had some sort of Best Performance category.) There's a more touching and nuanced relationship between hero and villain here than I can remember in almost any superhero movie of the last couple decades. This was a fantastic job by Insomniac, and I'm very happy it sold as well as it did, because I'll happily be there day one for the sequel. And I'm not even a big Spider-man fan.
Whoever first said this game is less a turn-based strategy game and more a puzzle game had it right. Into the Breach gives you so much predictability and insight into the way future turns will play out, and exposes so much tactical information about the consequences of your and the enemies' moves, that you feel more like you're studying a problem for an optimal solution rather than surrendering your fate to the capricious whims of a random-number generator. The highs of a successful turn are that much higher with so much potential to thread the needle and come through a seemingly impossible situation unscathed. I don't think Into the Breach gets enough credit for its presentation, either, with a pixel-art visual style that has a modern feel rather than leaning on obvious retro kitsch, and a post-apocalyptic pastiche where out-of-control AIs, CEOs, and giant bugs all seem to play an equal part in making the world suck. It's not the same style of game as FTL but it's unmistakably the work of the same developer as soon as you sit down to play it. And as much as I love FTL, this is a more successfully executed idea. What's the opposite of the sophomore slump? Whatever you call it, Into the Breach is it.
This sequel grabbed me where its predecessor failed to do so by... looking more like The Sims, I guess. The avalanche of information you need to process to build and manage your zombie-survivor settlement--character traits, building functions, resource types, and the various bonuses and debuffs that arise from the interplay of all these things and more--is made so much easier to parse by a vastly friendlier UI full of, well, a lot of red and green text and smiley and frowny faces. Pretty obvious what that stuff means! That readability lets you focus more intuitively on hashing out the ridiculous emergent squabbles that arise between, say, the guy who's nervous you have too many vegetable gardens and the gardener-turned-warlord who rules your community with an iron fist. Besides a better presentation and co-op, this is kind of a lot like the first game, so State of Decay 2 is largely on this list just by virtue of finally allowing me to really play and enjoy it. The game has such an entertaining, bleak sense of humor in the writing around all the ridiculous character traits, the nonsensical lines of ambient dialogue that pop out of your survivors, and so forth that it gives the whole proceedings an absurd air that's equal parts macabre and comical. I played this game obsessively till I had a thriving, self-sufficient community and finished the story, such as it is, and had a fantastic time the whole way.
Sure, it's just Tetris, but let me go out on a limb here: Tetris is a pretty good game. To its credit, Tetris Effect actually did expand my sense of how the game is played, forcing me to appreciate the infinite spin to survive its brutally fast levels, or finally learn what the hell a T-spin is. But what made me care about getting that deep into the Tetris play in the first place is the uniquely Mizuguchi-esque audiovisual treatment that covers every inch of the game. For whatever reason, Miz's games have often gotten away with an uplifting tone and life-affirming sense of togetherness that would seem cheesy in almost any other game, and that feel-good vibe is what convinced me to finally get my own PlayStation VR, just so I could jack in and zone out whenever I felt like it, man. With all the side modes and weekly events, there's plenty of serious Tetris to chew on here, but it's all the particle systems and jazz notes and dolphins and camels that really make this package come together. What a thing to say about a game.
Yes, what a surprise there's a Destiny entry on my top 10, ha ha, very funny. But the initial version of Destiny 2 barely made it onto my list last year, since I had plenty of fun playing it for the first month and then, after quickly running out of things to do, barely thought about it again. Then Curse of Osiris was so bland earlier this year that I dropped Destiny 2 entirely, on what seemed like it might be a permanent basis. But Forsaken rejuvenated every bit of Destiny with a dramatically more satisfying loot system, a much friendlier and easier-to-grasp layout of activities that give you clear and meaningful objectives at all times, a very different multiplayer mode from Crucible in Gambit, and more innovative storytelling and mission design. Most importantly, the game finally has staying power and mystery again with all the strange happenings in places like the Dreaming City and Ascendant Realm that come and go on a weekly basis. It's simply the best Destiny has been since the franchise's debut, and it's not particularly close. While Black Armory, the kickoff of the new "annual pass" style of ongoing content, made an underwhelming debut, the plan to roll out new stuff on a more frequent (perhaps weekly) basis than under the old DLC mini-campaign model sounds promising, and I hope there are a lot more reasons to keep up with Destiny throughout the course of its second year. I played more of Forsaken than was probably healthy, and there's still a ton of stuff I haven't done yet.
[NOTE: spoilers follow]
I've played every Grand Theft Auto and never managed to finish one; something about all the over-the-top, sneering satire and exhausting nihilism just wears me out time after time. By contrast, the first Red Dead Redemption became my favorite game of the previous console generation due in large part to its more earnest and romanticized setting and characters. This year's sequel created an even more likable protagonist and tragically moving character arc in Arthur Morgan, and also gave me a world of such scope and detail, and such a broad range of ways to interact with that rich setting, that I was able to inhabit the character more fully than I've ever done in a game before.
Red Dead Redemption 2 draws elements from the traditional Rockstar style of open-world game, truer and more fully free, discovery-oriented open worlds like Breath of the Wild and Skyrim, and purely systems-driven survival games that operate with effectively no authored narrative content. For me, it's the first game to effectively synthesize elements of all those types of games, giving me a playground of seemingly impossible vastness and historical detail, an intricately cinematic presentation, and a character whose fate I cared so much about that I wanted to engage with every bit of what the game allowed me do, up to and including taking a bath whenever I felt like I was dirty or treating myself to a haircut and some new clothes after my heart was broken. I did chores around camp, chatted with gang members, went fishing to unwind, made camp when it got dark. Everything I did to engage with the absurd, obsessive level of mechanical detail was to support my innate sense of what I felt was natural for my character to do given his state of mind and the events of the story. Keza MacDonald over at the Guardian called it "the sensation of a lived experience," and that's the most succinct description I've seen of the uncanny feeling the I got from becoming utterly engrossed in this game for what must have been a hundred hours or more.
It's not a perfect game; the main mission design, while exciting from a storytelling standpoint, is awfully familiar shooting-gallery-like territory, and I wish a couple of aspects of the story, particularly Dutch's unceremonious and wordless exit from the whole proceeding, came together a little more fully. But the core tale of Arthur's turn from a blindly loyal, tough-talking thug to a guilt-ridden, vulnerable, frightened man brought low by something as mundane and human as a terminal illness got to me in a way almost no game has. That vast freedom to embody a role and just exist in a world, propelled by an uncommonly affecting tale of wickedness and tragedy and, yeah, redemption, are what make Red Dead Redemption 2 my top game of 2018 by a very large margin. In a number of ways, from the storytelling to the sense of immersion to the otherworldly ability to capture the look and feel of the American landscape, I've scarcely ever been so impressed by a game.