Casey Malone is your comedian friend that loves LEGO. You can follow him on Twitter.
Hi! I’m Casey Malone, your large comedy friend who loves LEGO. No, you’re thinking of Pat Baer. No, we’re not related. Look, if you’re going to get us nerdy big boys mixed up the rest of these Giant Bomb top tens are going to be pretty rough.
If 2017 tried dominating every spare moment I had with 2 or 3 massive modern classics, 2018 decided to dropping a hot new hit every dang month. I felt like I would finally wrap up a game after a few weeks when a new one would knock on my door and demand to that I check it out. And that if I didn’t, I was a coward! They’d say this to my face! Luckily for everyone involved, it was a nonstop hit parade, and culling this list down to ten games wasn’t easy. As I’m sure someone else has pointed out, there’s never been a better ti… you know what, you get it.
Before we get into the video games, though, let’s pull up a chair, crack a Diet Dr. Pepper and enter… Casey’s Board Game Corner.
♪♫♬~~~ CASEY’S BOARD GAME CORNER ~~~♬♫♪
In 2017, Fantasy Flight Games dropped a new edition of arguably the ultimate board game, Twilight Imperium. Imagine Risk with space lions and political aspirations, a space opera writ small enough to fit onto a dining room table, but still so big it requires an entire goddamned day to play. YouTube videos promising to teach this game quickly still clock in at over 30 minutes. Until this year, it was my personal board game Everest, a strategy game so huge I have to bring enough oxygen or my friends will leave my frozen corpse behind on its landscape. And in 2018 I finally climbed it.
Playing Twilight Imperium took a full 12 hours of slinging spaceships and making deals, colonizing foreign planets and trying to conquer the massive Coruscant-esque Mecatol Rex. It was exhausting, and I left crushed under my friend Mike’s strategically superior heel. I would play it again right now if you asked. I’ve been chasing that Twilight Imperium high since April, digging through Steam’s catalog of 4X games and space sims, and still haven’t found anything close.
Of all my 2018 gaming experiences, this is the one I still think about every day, whispering to friends about it, looking for the next person I can convince to waste a day with me on this cardboard behemoth (I suspect that person’s name is Vinny Caravella). So I’m spreading the word - if any aspect of Twilight Imperium sounds exciting and you haven’t tried it, you absolutely have to.
ANYWAY. SOME VIDEO GAMES.
In the spirit of fairness, here are a few games I wish I’d played but haven’t: Artifact, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Astro Bot, Below, Cultist Simulator, Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom, Moonlighter, and Mutant Year Zero. To these games, I’ll see you soon, boo, and I’m sure will regret not putting some of you on this list.
Also, a moment of recognition for two HD remasters I spent an unreasonable amount of time with this year==Burnout Paradise Remastered and Skyrim: Special Edition. I’ve been screaming at EA for years on Twitter - you know, like a normal person--to release Burnout Paradise in HD, and they did it! Probably not the lesson they wanted to teach me, but it’s too late now. And Skyrim… I don’t know what made me decide I should revisit the world of Elder Scrolls, but spent the 3 days after Thanksgiving doing nothing but running errands for the Thieves’ Guild and trying to find a wife, and it was exactly what I needed. Who knew between this and God of War I’d spend this much time killing draugr in 2018.
TOP TEN LIST, HERE WE GO.
10. Donut County
If Donut County was just the Trashopedia, a comprehensive list of items in the world as described by a slacker raccoon, it would have a home on my top 10. But Ben Esposito carries that playfulness through the whole game, a relaxing experiment in zen comedy and gentle puzzles. My only complaint is that the game wraps up too soon! Conventional wisdom is to leave them wanting more but like actual donuts, I always want more.
You know in a movie where a character wakes up after a bender and they can’t remember a thing? That time is just gone, and now they have to get their car back from aliens* or whatever? I’ve never blacked out like that from partying, but I did lose a weekend to Tetris Effect. That time is just gone, replaced with spinning tetrominoes and burning monks and cranking windmills. Not content to just be “pretty Tetris”, Tetris Effect also adds beat matching and variable tempos to its levels, sneakily being one of best music games I’ve ever played. I should have been less surprised, given the team - we’d all be lucky if every major publisher gave Tetsuya Mizuguchi control over their games and let him set them to a beat.
If you don’t have a friend trying to convince you that the newest Monster Hunter is the most accessible one ever, then I’m sorry, but that friend is you. And if you do have one of those friends (Hi, @dry_hugs), I am sorry to tell you that they’re finally right. Monster Hunter: World is the first entry in the series I’ve tried that didn’t seem to be actively discouraging me from playing it. It’s still obtuse as hell, but Capcom smoothed down enough sharp edges that I can stop worrying about if I brought enough whetstones and focus on fighting the giant purple fire-breathing T-Rex with my small cat friend. Which, it turns out, is awesome.
7. Hitman 2
Okay, buckle up, I’m gonna get real pretentious here for a second. You know what Hitman 2 reminds me of? Sleep No More. That’s right, it’s 2018 and video games have finally gotten on the level of experimental interactive theater. Sleep No More is a performance of Macbeth, except it’s happening all over a hotel or a school, and the audience wanders around as pieces of the play unfold all around you, in the same places at the same time every night. You can’t see all of it in one go, and you have to know where to be and when to catch the best parts. See? Not such a bad analogy, right? I guess the question I’m getting at is this; can video games be art?
...I’m being told to drop this topic immediately.
Anyway, Hitman 2 is tense, intricate, hilarious and the rare game that’s fantastic to play and twice as much fun to watch. Merry HitsMas, everyone.
6. Dead Cells
I’m so bad at video games, y’all. My thumbs are just… they just sit there. I’ll get combo’d out in a fighting game while they mash and smash. If there’s any precision involved? Just the worst. Something about Dead Cells, though, makes these fleshy bone prongs sing in a way that a dozen odd Castlevania games before it could not. It’d be a noteworthy feat if Dead Cells felt this good to play with only one set of weapons, but there’s over fifty of the dang things! With that many options to try, a single unwieldy part of the controls could be completely distracting, a real ‘Princess and the Pea but with Knives’ situation. By making sure everything feels great, Dead Cells lets you focus on finding exactly the right overpowered weapon combination to turn your enemies into oiled up, on fire, frozen puddles of goop.
5. God of War
Hey, heads up, minor spoilers follow.
Until 2018, God of War was a strong contender to top my “I Don’t Get It” list of game franchises. The previous games were a non-stop barrage of hyper violence and grunting, embarrassing mini-games where you *ahem* ...make love… until a vase falls off a shelf. Seven installments of Kratos screaming at you! You know what? Most of my day is spent avoiding getting yelled at by guys who look like Kratos with a Dunkin Donuts cup and a Patriots jersey, so I never felt like paying for the privilege.
It’s 2018, though, and God of War is different. Instead of being font of rage and chaos, everything now feels… deliberate. Even contemplative. The combat is best in class (how good does it feel every time that frost axe snaps back into your hand?!), but the hack and slash is furthest from my mind when I think about my time in Midgard. I think about terse conversations and heavy silences between Kratos and Atreus. I think about long boat rides with Mimir and his tales of Norse mythology, so expertly told that I circled land longer than I needed to in order to hear the end. I think of the pathos and pain in Jeremy Davies’ performance as Baldur! Jeremy Davies! Why are we not talking more about how good he is in everything?!
Everything about this year’s God of War felt like an intentional shift away from explosive spectacle and toward sincere emotion. The story occasionally stumbles--the women in the game get an especially raw deal, either dead when our story begins or villains by the end of it--but so much more attention is paid towards each character’s inner turmoil than just their ability to shove a blade through an eyeball. The result is a moving story, with every element masterfully crafted by everyone at Sony Santa Monica.
I realized earlier this year that it’s been 24 years since I started playing Magic, and it’s the single thing in my life I’ve been doing the longest. Whether you find that fact “kind of interesting” or “a little troubling” probably depends on if you’re learning this fact from a Giant Bomb Top 10 list or from me on a second date. A constantly evolving mixture of chess, poker, and Dungeons & Dragons… for me, Magic is the perfect game. For the past couple years, though, I didn’t really have any way to play the dang thing anymore.
I’m old and grey! I don’t really want to spend my Friday nights in my local hobby shop anymore. My friends who I could count on for a Saturday afternoon of booster drafts have moved away, or had kids. What I’m saying is that I got older, but Magic stayed the same age, except without the extremely creepy part of that quote. But this year Magic: Arena launched its Open Beta, and it’s (almost) everything I’ve been missing from Magic. Using the interface from their earlier Magic: Duels of the Planeswalkers games as a starting point, the digital team at Wizards of the Coast has made Magic the easiest it’s ever been to get into and, digitally at least, the smoothest it’s ever been to play. Tournament style events are playable at your own pace, Booster Drafts are happening non-stop. You can flip a switch and have fine-grain control over every time you take play priority in a game or just let the game’s pretty clever under-the-hood rules manager keep the game moving along. Magic: Arena is also so clearly built with streaming legibility in mind - something that has lured me into finally streaming on Twitch in my free time.
I’ll admit, Arena is still rough--the deckbuilding interface has lost some of the old Magic Online’s utilitarian simplicity, and the game strains and buckles a bit whenever a combination of cards do something that overloads the battlefield with more 1/1 Goblins tokens than it expected. But that’s the Beta part--if Wizards of the Coast continues their pace of updates and upgrades, I expect Arena’s going to be the way I play Magic for another 24 years**.
If I was the least likely person to enjoy God of War, I was the person most likely to go absolutely bananas for Spider-Man. I’ve loved the character my entire life, and that passion is a big part of how I’ve ended up as the Lead Designer on a Marvel mobile game. But I was so excited for the release of this game that at some point during the lead up, it flipped to panic. There have been a lot of middle of the road Spider-Man games over the years (not to mention some outright bad ones)! What if the combat feels bad? What if they fail to ride that fine line between quippy and Spidey and we end up with a web-slinging Bubsy?
100% of that worry melted away as soon as Insomniac put me on top of a building and taught me to swing. This is the first time I’ve played a Spider-Man game and felt like the people behind it love the character as much as I do. It’s an intricately detailed shrine to 56 years of stories that got more rewarding the more time I spent examining it. The spider-suits alone show how hard the team worked to dig through thousands of comics and find things to reward us True Believers with.
I can’t overstate how impressed I am, though, that Insomniac’s reverence didn’t also keep them from making big changes. Mary Jane Watson is practically a brand new character, but every change make her more central to the action and Peter’s equal. And recasting J. Jonah Jameson as an blustering podcast host who screams at and hangs up on callers is an astoundingly brilliant choice (and made me immediately wish I could hear Tom Scharpling’s take on J.J.).
If you don’t give a lick about Spider-Man, though? And just want a game? Well, luckily this is a damned good one. It’s not going to surprise you--Insomniac took what other super hero games have done before and tweaked just enough elements, exactly in the ways they should have, to help you focus on feeling like Spider-Man. It’s everything I liked about Rocksteady’s recent Batman games with none of the grimy hyper-masculine pseudo-fascism. And Insomniac keeps adding more! I haven’t had a chance to play the DLC yet, but the moment my holiday break begins I’m jumping back in and webbing up bad guys.
There were a few weeks after its release that I was buying a copy of Florence for anyone I knew with a phone. It’s simple and beautiful, its limited mechanics chosen precisely for the story it’s telling, a story whose themes were near universal. Florence takes less than 30 minutes to finish and moved me more than any television episode I’ve seen in years. Honestly? I have the least to say about Florence of any game on this list despite my love for it, because I just want you all to play it. If you see me on the street, and you haven’t played Florence, I will buy you a copy.
Boy oh boy do I owe Fortnite an apology. Well, a half apology. I guess that’s what putting it atop this list is? Anyway, for most of 2018, in hushed tones and private Discords, I talked a lot of mess about Fortnite. Like 7.53 billion other people on the planet, my friends moved to Fortnite from games like Destiny and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and I was real crabby about it. I find the pure battle royale experience of Fortnite beyond frustrating. The shooting is imprecise (yes, I absolutely suck at games, but even then). And wow do I hate building! Every match I managed to make it to the end of turned into a rapid buildfest, like some chaotic time-lapse video of an ant colony that ended with someone jumping down and murdering me. So, yeah, I sincerely hated this game. What changed?
Honestly? They added a dog.
I know, I know. But the dog even looked a little like my girlfriend’s dog! My couch friend, Jake! Look at this handsome man. He’s staring at literally nothing in that photo, but he looks damned regal while doing it.
So, I figured, if I’m going to play Fortnite with my friends, I may as well have a good dog friend strapped to my back. But to earn that dog, I had to learn about the actual core game of Fortnite: the Battle Pass. If you somehow aren’t familiar, Fortnite’s Battle Pass is a months long series of challenges and rewards. Each week, 7 new challenges encourage you to try different weapons, visit different areas of the map, or do things completely unrelated to the battle royale happening around you. Dance in front of different knock-off Billy Bass singing fish plaques. Ride a rocket powered RV over a chasm. Parachute on top of a giant toilet. The genius of the Battle Pass is that not only is doing these things fun, having them to do at all makes losing fun.
If I get sniped while on that toilet and get knocked out of the battle? Who cares! I still got credit towards my Battle Pass. I’m never going to win the battle royale, but I am going to spend months clearing out those challenges. My friends and I get excited every week when new ones open up, which makes no sense, but it happens every week! Imagine getting a list of chores for your birthday and being thrilled about it, and you’ll get an idea of the Fortnite experience.
The Battle Pass wouldn’t feel worth it, though, if what you earned was disappointing, and in my time with Fornite, Epic has never disappointed me. The quality of new outfits--full body cosmetic character skins--are matched only by their weirdness. I mean, just look at the Beef Boss! Look at him! He’s an FDA Certified Grade A nightmare, and I would take a bullet for him.
The last component to Fortnite that really cinches it as my game of the year is that… it’s alive. It’s constantly changing and growing in ways and at a speed I’ve never seen before. I’m not talking about things like weapon rebalances or UI updates (the latter of which, frankly, Fornite could sorely use). I’m talking about major, constant updates to the island the game takes place on. To really understand what I’m talking about, we need to talk about Kevin**.
Kevin is the name the Fortnite community gave to a giant purple cube that just… showed up in game one day. Over the course of weeks Kevin moved across the map, before melting, reforming and skyrocketing into the air, taking a chunk of the map with him. Then Kevin exploded, sending fragments of himself all over the map where his lil cube monster zombie babies started emerging and attacking players trying to finish the Battle Royale, kicking off a new game mode. In any other game, this would be the set-up, a beautifully animated Blizzard animatic you watch at the launch of the latest World of Warcraft expansion. In Fortnite, it’s all happening in game, in real time. Having these events unfold in front of you makes Fortnite mysterious, constantly evolving, and, like I said, feel… alive!
When I look at everything the team at Epic is doing with Fortnite I see a group of creatives firing on all cylinders. I see a team unafraid to take chances and try bold new things and, thanks to a combination of smarts, talent, and luck, having a staggering number of those chances pay off. While I still have my problems with the controls and the building, when I look at everything Fortnite is trying, I don’t just see a game; I see the future.
*Why don’t we talk more about the fact that Dude, Where’s My Car ended up being about aliens?
**And yes, before Eric Pope mentions it, I was once accidentally banned from competitive Magic for 8 months. No, I don’t want to talk about it.
*** I’m sorry.