While I did play a lot of games this year, I realized as I sat down to write this list that I played a lot of old games this year. Some new and notable ones for sure, but I find myself sticking to games I really like over trying new ones more often than not. I think the main reason for this is pretty simple: gaming, as a hobby, has changed for me fundamentally. I used to game to compete, to win, etc. Now I game to unplug from stress, and to socialize with friends. When I play Rainbow Six these days, it’s not because I have visions of getting good. It’s mostly because I want to hang out in Discord with my pals and just have fun.
Because of this, I’m doing something different with my list this year. I’m making up some categories to write about games I really enjoyed this year. Because they’re all winners to me, damnit.
HITMAN Levels, Ranked:
In hindsight this level is pretty remarkable. It’s the second one they shipped, which given the Games as a Service method by which it was rolled out, probably means it was the second level they finished. Given that, it makes its level of polish and detail astounding. The playable area is both large and densely packed with set-pieces and interesting things to do. I stopped counting how many times I’ve played this level, and I still find new ways to try and kill the primary targets. The only knock I have with this level is the third objective--destroying the virus. There’s not as many unique and fun ways to achieve this directive as the other two, so as I explored all the parts of the level, this portion of the map got old for me. All that being said, this is without a doubt my favorite level in the modern HITMAN games.
This map shares a lot of similarities with Sapienza. A sprawling landmass, super-interesting ways to kill the targets, and a seemingly endless stream of feats to accomplish: Figuring out how to infiltrate the secret meeting, the “lie detector test,” shooting the cannon at one of the targets mid-speech. They go on and on, and all are remarkably fun to poke at and try to figure out.
The first time you play Hokkaido, you learn the developers changed some of the rules on the player a bit--and I’m not gonna lie, I found it quite annoying. But once you’ve played the level and started to explore it a bit, that initial annoyance is swept to the side as you realize that season one is going out with a bang. This level tends to get bloodier than the others--performing perfectly clean kills can be very challenging here, but this added challenge felt appropriate as season one drew to a close.
4. New York
Breaking into a bank and murdering its villainous manager before stealing data from its core is the stuff of spy movies, so it felt right at home in HITMAN. I found getting into this level more difficult than most (getting past the first ring of security cleanly was a bit tricky to figure out) but get past that initial bump and you’ll find this level has a ton of gimmicks to discover and exploit. The job interview set-piece is one of the best in the game, and almost single handedly catapults this level near the top of the list.
This is by far and away the best three-target map. All of the targets are interesting in their own right, and figuring out how to get close to each of them individually--or better yet, getting them all to meet at once--is tons of fun. And no spoilers, but not all is as it initially appears on the island, so if you take the time to explore the environment fully you may get rewarded with some of the best environmental storytelling the game has to offer.
My opinions on Paris have changed since I first played it. It’s an interesting map from a design perspective, because you’d think IO would have tuned the difficulty to be relatively low, and that’s certainly not the case here. Instead what IO did was make one target very easy to get close to, while the other is very difficult to approach. By doing this, the designers more or less make you play the game different ways, letting you figure out your own personal style, and teaching you all the systems and mechanics in one go, without you even know it’s happening. Also, Paris has Helmut Kruger, so there’s that.
This is probably the best example of IO taking something that is very well-known and understood by lots of people (suburban life) and turning that concept on its head. Who hasn’t wondered what weird stuff their neighbors have lurking in their basement? This map takes that really simple idea and goes ham with it. The only real negative of the map is that the endgame isn’t that interesting, and you have to do it over-and-over again if you want to explore the level to its fullest.
Setting a level at an F1 race is, without a doubt, the most “Oh shit!” premise in HITMAN 1 or 2, and Miami delivers in most of the ways racing enthusiasts would hope for. Pit row. Mechanics. Fast race cars. Fancier VIP parties. It’s all great and spot-on for that scene. What keeps this level from being higher on my list is how large the loops are, and how long you need to wait for Person X to get to Person Y makes playing this map over and over a hair on the tedious side, but that’s really just a quibble.
9. New Zealand
Despite being a tutorial level, this map is well put together and a fantastic way to get thrown back into the world of assassination. It suffers a bit from the same problem Miami has--long loops and waiting for triggered events--but once the level starts (for real), I really enjoyed poking at all the different ways you could off your targets in what’s, by HITMAN standards anyway, a fairly confined space.
This level is at its best with some of the set-pieces (everything with the “other” assassin is fantastic), but I never really found a way to handle the underground gang in a way I loved, which made me not want to replay this map as often as I’ve played the other ones. There are no bad maps in either game, but I did find the swing between the highs and the lows in this level to be more off-putting than most.
Taking out a drug cartel’s leaders is a great setting for a map in HITMAN, and Colombia largely delivers. The map is huge, but I feel like the things you can do in that space aren’t quite as intricate as some of the other levels. That being said, when this map is good, it’s fantastic. The tattoo artist, finding the studio where they are shooting their propaganda videos from, and feeding the hippo are all top-tier moments in any HITMAN game.
For the way I play the game (stealth all the way if possible), the difficulty tuning in this level is a hair on the harsh side. There’s plenty of stuff to do in the levels, and the unique set-piece-kills are very rewarding, but the security team protecting your targets have their stuff together, and you need to proceed at a very deliberate pace to avoid catching their eyes.
For a long time I couldn’t really figure out what didn’t click with me with this level, and I think I’ve finally got it sorted out. It seems like there’s the same amount of unique stuff to do in this level as any other. There are some interesting and fun kills to be had here, but they are spread across three targets instead of two (or one), and as a result I feel like there’s less freedom to do things the way I want to do them. On top of that, the endgame of the map isn’t that fun, especially when you have to do it over-and-over to see all the rest of the interesting things the level has to offer.
Again, I’d like to restate for the record I don’t think there’s a bad map in these games…but one of them has to be my least-favorite and Marrakesh is it. It suffers from a lack of flexibility in how to achieve your goals, and a harder-than-normal difficulty tuning, both of which stick out a bit when held against the backdrop of some of the other levels in the series.
My Game-Ass-Game of the Year: Control
I love everything Remedy does, but you don’t need to be familiar with their back-catalog of games to dive in and get started with Control. Your familiarity does, however, make selling you on the game much easier. Control is the love child of Alan Wake and Quantum Break. Control features the world-building and storytelling weight of Alan Wake, and the crazy world-shifting set-pieces from Quantum Break. If you liked those games, okay cool, you’ll probably like Control too, but there’s something else. Remedy has greatly improved on the combat and game-feel over any of its predecessors, and this is probably their most fun to play game, ever (yes, even Max Payne).
Remedy has a way of telling a story. They don’t tell it to you so much as let you experience it. As Jesse was learning things about this off-kilter world she found herself in, so was I, right there with her along for the ride. As she learned what this mysterious government agency does, and their place in history, I did too. The narrative got its hooks in me within the first 15 minutes, and I wanted to keep playing to find out where it all went.
It’s also scary in a way I didn’t expect? I wouldn’t say I ever got fully Monked, but the audio design keeps you on edge pretty much the entire time. This is probably an artifact of the world and the characters resonating with me in a way that colored all my perceptions about my experience, but without fail when Jesse got scared, I got scared right along with her.
The only real gripe I have with the game is the final battle is completely unnecessary, but if you played the game that far there’s no way you’d walk away without seeing the end, so I guess who cares?
And holy shit that ending.
Bonus: This game is super fucking weird. And it gets weirder as it goes. Soak it up and savor the flavor.
My Actual GOTY: Teamfight Tactics
I didn’t play DOTA Underlords when it came out. People in the studio talked about it in hushed, lofty tones: “This is something to watch,” “so many viewers on Twitch,” “new genre,” etc. But despite all that traction around the office I still never tried it. This is because I’m a League person, not a DOTA person, and it was really as simple as that.
When TFT launched I didn’t try it right away, either. But after a few months I finally caved in and played it…and then it became all I play.
TFT is a game for people enthusiastic about system-heavy games, and people that enjoy learning the ins-and-outs of those systems so well you start to talk in a different language. A language that people who have never played the game won’t understand. “I put a mage hat on an Annie, and once she casts two bears at Gold Mage it was kind of all over.” Fun stuff like that.
But Dave, in your preamble you talked about how you’re over competitive games and geeking out about them? What about that?
Well, TFT is also a social experience. You can play (even ranked!) against friends, and the game has a pacing (moments of intense thinking and concentration bracketed by some quiet downtime), that chatting with pals on Discord as you play is extremely easy. Turns out this is one of the main draws of the game for me.
If you decide to dive in and play (or watch a stream to see what it’s about), I guarantee at some point you’ll say: “Too much RNG in this game for me.” I say that, friends, to let you know, there’s actually very little meaningful RNG in this game. I’ve been stuck in ranked at Silver 3 for a few weeks now, and that wouldn’t happen if their matchmaking wasn’t amazing and this wasn’t a very skill-based game.