European sports are dead. Long live America. Yes I am currently preparing for another round of immigration interviews but that has nothing to do with why Super Mega Baseball is probably the only sports game that will make it onto any Giant Bomb GOTY list this year. My favorite aspect of the sport of baseball is that while watching I am actively encouraged to completely check out, and the developers of this game understand this. Games are punchy, animations are quick, and the next game winning homer is a swing away. You can play a game in a few minutes with similar highs and lows of the real sport. The ability to crank the difficulty up and down is super handy when you’ve turned off the podcast and decided to actually concentrate.
The problem with Theme Hospital was that it got too hard too quickly and levels became repetitive. Two Point Hospital attempts to address both of these by adding in far more variability into its emergent management simulation. Even if sometimes that simulation stumbles, I think they do a wonderful job of capturing what made the Theme games so satisfying all those years ago. Building rooms can get a bit repetitive but dammit if I don’t just love being in the world of this game. A satisfying re-imagining of one of my childhood favorites.
8. Hitman 2
It was the start of 2018 by the time I had finally stopped playing HITMAN (2016) so if this was the promised “season two” and just a bunch more levels I would have been satisfied. In fact the team at IO used the time, and perhaps the fear of their newfound independence, to tinker with several quality-of-life areas to make a much sharper, easier to read game. The levels are massive, and the trademark humor the series still manages to land perfectly.
7. Fallout 76
Yea I’m gonna be that asshole. Perhaps it’s because I talked to the developers of this game for a few weeks in preparation for my documentary on the development of the game, but Fallout 76 is essentially the game that I expected from Bethesda. This is effectively a Fallout version of The Forest or The Long Dark--both games that I’ve sunk dozens of hours into. A large, varied map with light questing and a greater emphasis on base building and personal storytelling. The narrative has never been what hooked me in Bethesda games and what I’ve specifically enjoyed about their Fallout titles has been shooting a bolt action rifle from mid-distance and exploring every inch of the map. Fallout 76 has this in spades. That said, it’s a technical mess that I cannot in good conscious recommend, especially on console. I get at least one crash or freeze during play sessions on my PC. But even that hasn’t stopped me coming back to its West Virginian Wasteland over and over. I’ve played almost 50 hours of this game since the beta and have half of the map yet to explore. I’m very interested to see how the life team in Austin picks up the title and runs with it over the next six months.
How about this little guy huh? Astro Bot Rescue Mission isn’t just surprising because of how fun it is right out of the box, but the fact that it keeps the action fresh throughout the experience. Just when you think it’s found its gear the next level shifts it up. I found myself beaming from ear to ear throughout my time with it. My wife wanted to know what all the fuss was about so I joyfully watched her play hours of it too. If you’ve been on the fence about getting a PSVR, this is as good a reason as any to justify the purchase. Even if you’ve just had a baby and playing games in VR sounds like the first line of a particularly tragic episode of Black Mirror.
Do you like chess? How do you feel about short but satisfying runs? Got a nostalgic feeling for XCOM era isometric graphics? Let me tell you about a video game. Also you can play it while on the dozen or so airplane trips you’ll take this year. Cool. Good stuff. The writing is brilliant too. Unlike this review. Better take another swing at it. Initiating Temporal Breach Protocols.
The most enjoyable Tony Hawk game I’ve played in ages. While most open-world games use interesting missions to breadcrumb you through the monotony of getting from point-to-point, Spider-Man is essentially the opposite. Traversal is the reason to play this game. 20 hours in, it was the joy of webbing around New York that kept me coming back. And while the missions are largely forgettable, the game’s strength is that it doesn’t linger on its weak points. The unlocks are largely superficial but there are so many it’s fun to give each a whirl. The missions are incredibly simplistic but they’re easy and varied enough that you don’t care too much. The lukewarm boss fights don’t overstay their welcome, and the story ends up being remarkably better than you’d expect. Spider-Man isn’t so much an incredible game, as it is a game that has been designed to exceed your expectations.
Part of the reason I enjoyed Obra Dinn so much is that I knew basically nothing about it before starting. The story of this ship and its cursed crew totally hooked me, and as each individual's drama played out I felt compelled to uncover truth after truth. It’s a real page turner, and while the way you interface with memories can get a tad cumbersome, it didn’t stop me gorging on this terrific mystery until every truth was revealed. I’m not a big fan of studios churning out sequels but if you’re listening Lucas, I’d play ten more of these games.
If Spider-Man’s player-focused fun injections exists on one side of the open world spectrum, then Red Dead 2 lives on furthest reaches of the other side of town. I’ve never played a game like it. The plodding pacing and world-building depth make it impossible for me to play it without giving it my full attention. Like the previous game in the series, and the movie genre it owes much of its style to, the run-time of the story is vast. As a result, at times Red Dead Redemption doesn't feel so much like a fun game, than an impressive game. But when I take the time to put away my phone and play the game at my own pace--to feel the breeze and go wandering wherever it pushes me--it’s given me some of the best evenings of video game playing I’ve had all year. I love the shooting and locomotion of the characters. The freedom to role-play has had me go off on week-long camping adventures in lonely parts of the map. The attention to detail with voice-acting and the complex emergent storytelling often gives rise to wonderful moments I’ve felt obligated to share on the 21st century campfire of Twitter. It’s also the best written Rockstar game by a country mile. I look forward to enjoying it slowly over the coming weeks and months.
While I’m here I’d encourage you to visit www.gameworkersunite.org and follow @GameWorkers to learn about how you can help game developers secure better working conditions. 2018 was a wonderful year for games. Let’s make 2019 a wonderful year for game developers.
1. Bloodborne (+ Dark Souls Remastered)
Hands-down the best game I played in 2018 is Bloodborne. It’s probably my favorite game of the past decade. Perhaps of all time. I absolutely fell in love with it during paternity leave and have put around like 300 hours into it since August. Much of that time was overnight with my newborn girl sleeping on my arm--the only way she would settle for the first month of her life. We played from sundown to sunrise each night, a nice mirror to the changing light of Yharnam over the course of the game. I was also unable to move for hours at a time, and couldn’t even flinch without waking her. So pretty much the ideal way to force-feed yourself a game that most of the Noclip community had been screaming at me to play for two years.
I’m not sure what else can be said about these games but I just loved not having a fucking clue what was going on in a game for the first time in years. Unravelling the idiosyncratic gameplay of these worlds has been a dream. The way you develop your skills and knowledge over time reminds me of my youth learning how to play video games. Combat skill and environmental mastery comes through playing and learning--not through some prescribed drip-feed of experience dictated by the developer. You start that game sloppily hacking and slashing, but by the end of 100 hours I was sliding between attacks with the grace of a ballet dancer and cutting down enemies like a pig through warm strawberries. If you want to know why I love Bloodborne and why if you ghosted on it in 2015 you should give it a second chance, here’s a video all about it. During this period I also finally played Dark Souls via the remastered version on PS4. So this entry is basically a proxy for getting Bloodborne in here.
Not only is Bloodborne one of the best games I’ve ever played but my experience playing it while bonding with my newborn will forever be special to me. I named our character after her, she kept my heart-rate down during difficult boss battles and when she woke I’d put down the controller and talk to her about how the hunt went. When she began to be able to sleep on her own, we went on one last hunt. We slayed Master Willem together right as the sun rose in the woods behind our house.
I’ve since had a licensed professional cut the hunter’s mark into my upper arm on the spot where she rested. Whenever I look at it, or see the game playing on YouTube, I think only of her and our quest together. How we entered fearful, but emerged stronger than anything the world could put in front of us.