Hey duders. In recent years I’ve struggled to put together five appropriate games for my Giant Bomb list, but it turns out a global health crisis is the type of thing that gives you a thirst for escapism. So here are my top ten ways to keep my mind occupied in 2020, with a few bonus adventures listed at the bottom. Let’s get into it…
I’ve always wanted to be Drew Scanlon, but I’m a bit afraid of flying. So this year I took the plunge, bought a USB yoke, and dove into the life of a “simmer”. And once I got over the many technical aspects of setting up and operating this sim, I’ve really enjoyed my time with it. I’m a sucker for a good view, and love exploring in real life, so I’ve relished the experience of sitting down at my PC, plotting a course and pointing my nose at the destination. It’s pure escapism. Assuming we can fly this summer, it’ll have been two years since my parents saw their granddaughter. So being able to jump in a Cessna and buzz over my parents' house, or take the short flight to Dublin or London to check in our family and friends has helped a little bit on the nights where I’ve needed a little bit of help.
Like a handful of the games on this list I also created a documentary about it on Noclip which you can check out here.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to get into the Yakuza series. But try as I may they always push me away. I wondered if it was a backstory I didn’t know, or the treacle-like pace these games unravel their plots, or the combat system--in truth it was probably all of these things and more. But for some reason, Yakuza: Like a Dragon had me hooked from the very beginning, and 30+ hours into it I feel like it was one of my essential 2020 games. Maybe quarantine has made me more patient. Perhaps these days I don’t enter every game assuming I’ll play them to completion. Whatever the reason, I’ve had a blast sitting down in the evening with a glass of whisky and going on ridiculous adventures with my rag-tag group of friends. If nothing else, it’s given me a deeper appreciation of adult friendships, and the tapestry of life playing out in the city outside my door. And dudes who like to dress up as babies. Those guys are alright.
There was a time when buying a new console involved playing a handful of games that had been curated specifically for that new machine. Exclusive games with novel ideas and flashy graphics that warned off the dreaded demons of buyer's remorse. Astro’s Playroom--like Astro Bot Rescue Mission before it--is a tech demo with ideas above its station. Like Wii Sports, a bonus pack-in that ends up being an essential experience for anybody with the system. The game is fun enough as a standard platformer, but the utilization of the DualSense controller, coupled with a genuinely wondrous tour through the history of PlayStation, made it an absolute joy. For decades PlayStation has struggled to create a “mascot” for their brand--because Crash, Sly, Ratchet and Sackboy had little chance to reach the gameplay zeniths of a Mario or Sonic. Astro, on the other hand, has arguably achieved this twice now. This is the best platformer of 2020, and it came packed onto the console. Terrific.
Here’s a video of me singing its praises.
I noted Hades on my Game of the Year last year, so forgive me for not putting it higher--like many others I’ve been playing it in early access for over two years now. In fact, I’ve been playing dev builds for a lot of that time and talking to Supergiant Games frequently, as we’ve been producing a series of the early access development of Hades since it was announced in 2018.
The game underwent some terrific polish in the final nine months of development, with the true ending being added alongside loads of gameplay tweaks, new game plus content, final passes on artwork, and an insane engine change that made everything look and perform much better. But the reason Hades is on my list this year had a lot to do with our work with Supergiant Games in 2020. Our documentary production took on a very different tone once the pandemic hit, but through honest communication and problem solving we managed to continue the show and tell a different type of story than we had predicted. The fact that the game came out so well and has been so critically and commercially successful has been the icing on the cake. Playing it this year and through 1.0 has been a constant source of joy, multiplied by being so close to production over these past few years.
You can watch episodes 1-5 of our series on the development of Hades here--the final episode comes out in January.
6. Black Mesa
2020 was a bumper year for Half-Life fans, and it was even better for me, as I was one of the few people in the world who got to play Arkane’s unreleased Half-Life title when we filmed our documentary on the studio in February. So by the time Black Mesa finally reached its final complete stage with the addition of their entirely rebuilt version of Xen, you could have forgiven me for being burned out on physics puzzles and headcrabs. But Black Mesa isn’t just a loving recreation of one of my favorite games--in fact, played outside of that context it’s probably the best shooter of the year. The ‘earthbound’ levels have been available for a few years now, but they’ve undergone some major changes in 2020 with the release of new content patches. While the remade Xen levels (the part of original Half-Life that most people like to forget about) are a fantastic reimagining with an infinitely grander scope than the original. Crowbar Collective, having spent years learning the Valvian philosophy of game design, applied those lessons to their new world, and in so doing created a timeless first-person campaign. Black Mesa is so good that there’s a case for playing it over the original Half-Life. And as a double feature, they are a terrific lens to view how first-person games have changed over the past 20 years, and the ways in which they haven’t.
My playthrough of the entire game is here, and we’ll have a Noclip documentary of the design of Black Mesa and Xen in 2021.
Some games come out at just the right time. In July many of us were at the height of cabin fever, and I’m not sure in any other year I’d be as enthusiastic about another one of those open world map games. But there’s something special about Ghost of Tsushima that made it perfect for those clammy, claustrophobic summer days. The movement and combat flow are effortless. Player progression offers meaningful upgrades and new ways to play. The natural world is its own character, providing genuine moments of beauty and intrigue as you chase foxes, explore forests, and take a rest in a nearby onsen to meditate on your journey. During a time where many of us were stuck with our own thoughts for the first time in a while, Ghost of Tsushima provided a helping hand in mindfulness & being present.
Something odd occurred to me when I started playing THPS1+2--I realized I’d never played much of the first Tony Hawk game. I’ve played every game in the series since, and some of them (2-4) to absolute death. But I didn’t know most of the maps in the first game and none of the secrets. So not only did I get to enjoy a fantastic rerelease of THPS2, but I essentially got a brand new Tony Hawk experience out of it too. The game achieves everything you’d ask of it--fluid controls, carefully rebuilt levels and a solid soundtrack--while the new unlock system was an inspired way to get me to play the game three or four more times after completion. It’s pretty much a perfect remake.
Technically this came out in late 2019 but it will always occupy a special place in my memory as a 2020 survival game. My wife plays a bunch of city building games, but our multiplayer experiences were traditionally kept to console co-op games like Spelunky. That was until they released this fantastic remake of the second (and best) Age of Empires game. Over the course of quarantine we logged hundreds of multiplayer hours playing across an endless number of game modes, team allegiances, and map combinations. The game was well supported with updates and patches throughout 2020 too. I hope they keep it up, because when my wife and I are bedbound geriatrics I hope we can still take a few hours to trebuchet the Byzantines.
Having never played the original release, and having spent most of the past few years slowly making my way backwards through the Soulsborne titles, I had my schedule cleared for Demon’s Souls once my PlayStation 5 arrived. Just as well, as most of my November evenings were spent gleefully exploring the vibrant and diverse landscapes, while trying not to be distracted by the sheer beauty of it all. This game looks and runs superbly. Even by Bluepoint’s high water mark, this is a remarkable achievement, and I suspect a lot of housekeeping has been done to make this version of the game friendlier to experience. And unlike other games in the genre, being able to swap between the various zones helped me keep momentum when a boss or area was frustrating me. It was also the first one of these games I played during launch window meaning that there were bunches of people online to help or hinder my progress. I’ve still not completed it, and there are a few boss fights which feel cheaper than I’d appreciate, but I am relishing every level of this wonderfully crafted game. Bloodborne may have more of a personality, but Demon’s Souls remake may be the most fun I’ve had playing a Soulsborne game.
What can I say? They pulled off the impossible.
Alyx is just the most fun I’ve had playing a video game in forever. It controls and feels more intuitive than any first person VR game I’ve played. The environmental puzzles are smart and varied. The world design and graphical performance is remarkable. Combat is fun and rewards lateral thinking. Each level pulls on different gameplay levers and usually takes place in a new environment, leading to an experience that constantly feels fresh. In fact, once the first half the game has adequately educated you on how to interact with its world, the training wheels come off and Half-Life: Alyx really starts to sing. The final few levels are nothing short of incredible, with one late-game chapter--“Jeff”--easily one of the best single player levels of all time. It’s also extremely long for a VR game, ending up closer to the length of a full length Half-Life than even the episodes.
But none of this would have mattered had they not stuck the landing. And this is where Half-Life: Alyx emerges as a bona fide classic. The narrative crescendo at the end of Half-Life: Alyx was one of the most powerful gaming moments of my life. A moment created not only by games designed over a decade apart, but by the sodden, burdened weight of expectation that has lingered in every one of those intervening years.
If you’d have told me that in 2020 we’d get a Half-Life sequel that moved the first person genre forward in a meaningful way, solves Valve’s creative cul-de-sac of Half-Life 2: Episode Two, and tees up a proper numbered sequel I’d have called you mad. Half-Life: Alyx does all this and more. It is nothing short of a game dev miracle.
You can watch my full review here if you want to hear me gush even more about my experience with the game.
Best of the rest.
I had a blast playing Spelunky 2, my wife has countless hours in it too. I also had a great time with Carrion--it probably would have been #11. That game is special. The Last of Us Part II was a lot of fun in parts, but enough about the story and pacing kept it out of my top 10. I have a race-seat in my garage with F1 2020 on it that keeps me sane when I need to drive around Monza for an hour. Oh, and I've been loving the fantastic real time tactics western Desperados III, which would’ve likely made my top ten had I started it earlier. Too many good games this year. I’m still playing half of them, and Hitman 3 is out in a few weeks. Probably just as well, we still have to ride this thing out. Peace out duders. Be well.