It's been a fascinating year for video games. I feel like we got plenty of really good video games this year, but I'm not sure that any one thing really jumped out above the rest. As a result, I think a lot of the ordering on my top 10 list is slightly interchangeable. That didn't stop me from staring at the list for hours and subtly moving one game up here or one game down there until I felt like I had a list that spoke to my specific year in games.
That's kind of the cool thing about where video games are at. Once you get past the weird internet thing where some games are "too big" to receive any criticism without some sad mountain of fanboys trying to collapse on top of you because you dared to not like an anticipated release, the medium has really expanded in some exciting ways. It used to feel like you either played the big games or you didn't have much to play. Now, you could practically ignore the entire packaged video games industry and still find a ton of things worth your time. I think my year ended up being a split between "the big stuff" and... well, I was going to say "indie" here, but much like it did in the music industry, the term means nothing these days. It's an aesthetic more than a well-defined classification. Anyway, what I mean to say is that there was a good mix of games, big and small, released this year. I liked big games I expected to be totally indifferent about, I fell in love with some small, wonderful games. I disliked a large swath of games, big and small. So… mostly a typical year. But as much as I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again here: it feels like the average quality of games is going up as time goes on. For me, personally, the highs of 2018 aren’t as high as some of the previous years, but the bar still keeps going up. It’s pretty cool.
Here’s my list and some additional stuff I just needed to mention.
Before EXAPUNKS, I would’ve placed myself firmly in the “not smart enough for Zachtronics games” category. I don’t know that this means that EXAPUNKS is dumbed-down or “easy” by comparison. It’s more that this particular logic/programming/puzzle game takes a form that is very much up my alley, aesthetically. This is a game about writing code to hack remote computers to perform various tasks. It starts out simple, giving you a hacker zine in PDF format (my printer is broken, so I couldn’t print it up and staple it together like a proper zine) and essentially turning you loose on some tutorial hacks.
Hacking entails you literally writing code. The code is visualized as tiny robots that spawn, do your bidding by manipulating files, and despawn by your command. The visualizer actually helps most when I’ve made some kind of dumb mistake, since I can step through the program and see where the robot is doing the wrong thing. It’s smart.
The whole thing is set against the backdrop of AIs harassing you between missions, a phage that is slowly turning your body into useless (but hackable!) computer parts, and fun little hacks where you get your pizza delivered before everyone else’s, remove peanuts from a candy recipe, and other little hacks that feel more like “hijinks” than the more serious stuff you deal with later on. I haven’t finished EXAPUNKS--I might not actually be good enough to get there--but it’s cool to be able to go back to something resembling my mid-80s-ass programming skills and actually do something with it.
9. Dragon Ball FighterZ
Arc System Works has been making extremely stylish fighting games since the 1990s, but lately the studio has made huge leaps forward in terms of making those fighting games more accessible to a wider audience of people. BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle deserves a quick shoutout for being a solid, accessible fighting game that just about anyone could get into. But it ain’t got Goku in it.
On the other end of this transaction you have Dragon Ball Z. A beloved anime franchise that has been done dirty time and time again over the decades. It seems like the most bone-simple project in the world: take this fighting anime and turn it into a proper, good video game… probably a fighting game, but hey, you could probably make a more story-driven thing, whatever. Yet developers have screwed that up over and over again. Video games: they’re harder to make than you think! Even if you think they’re already hard to make!
DBFZ walks a nimble line between fan service and mostly-accessible fighting in a way that makes it all look easy. It also looks fantastic. I was going to write something here about how it’s also nice to have a new fighting game that is fun to watch when played by top competitors, but it’s sure starting to sound like the license holders behind the game are doing their best to sink that scene right now. That sucks.
8. Monster Hunter: World
I like this Monster Hunter game. I have hated my time with every other Monster Hunter game I’ve tried, which stretches all the way back to the release of the first game in 2004. You could take that to mean that it’s either the best Monster Hunter game ever made or the worst. I was expecting there to be more backlash from the stalwart fans of the long-running franchise, but Capcom didn’t make their game dumber. They made it better. They cut down on the busywork, they made it easier to get in there and see what made Monster Hunter special while existing players (for the most part) still have something that largely resembles the series they already liked. That’s pretty cool. Hey, hopefully they’ll find a way to make the online stuff not such a chore to get going next time around.
7. Donut County
Donut County is a beautiful little game that I’d probably compare to Katamari Damacy, from a gameplay perspective. But it has more of a puzzle-like slant to it at times, forcing you to think a bit along the way as your mobile hole gains new abilities. While the scenario is clever and the game itself is a joy to control and play, the writing is what keeps Donut County moving. It has a terrific cast of characters and a modern approach to dialogue that most games can’t pull off without sounding forced or overly corny.
It doesn’t overstay its welcome and it almost left me imagining some kind of “Donut County Hardcore” or something, where the puzzle mechanics are really explored and expanded upon? That’s probably a dumb thing to want, but there you go. Donut County is probably also my favorite soundtrack of the year. It’s great, low-key music that I found myself listening to in all sorts of situations. Also, the iOS version has some pretty good iMessage stickers, while we’re on the topic.
6. Destiny 2: Forsaken
I guess I’d say I’m a little conflicted about Destiny 2. I’ll never see the top-level, high-end, endgame content in Destiny 2. I may never run a Destiny 2 raid ever again, and that’s unfortunate, because that content seems, at the very least, neat and unique amongst big-budget action games. I’m in a clan, but I’m not in a clan, you get me? The most multiplayer portions of Destiny 2 are more or less beyond me for reasons of time and timing.
But there’s still a sizable chunk of this year’s Forsaken expansion that I can play. That stuff turned out pretty well, making some positive changes to the game’s systems that help open up the loot system and make more of your items matter. I probably changed out my equipment more in the first hour of Destiny 2 than in did in the entirety of the previous two DLC add-ons.
But don’t think I’m just here to talk about Destiny 2: Forsaken because they fixed the stuff they broke last time around. That wouldn't be impressive, that'd just be meeting expectations. The new content and modes are the things that actually drill it all home. Gambit mode is a fun addition that makes me actually want to team up with strangers. The story missions lead to some interesting places and are structurally different than a lot of what they’ve done in previous content. And it still plays well. Destiny 2 just feels good. That’s why it’s bittersweet that I’ll probably never get to see some of its coolest content. I just don’t ever schedule multiplayer sessions with friends. That's on me, I guess I wouldn't say that Destiny should totally change its whole thing around just to better satisfy solo players... actually, maybe that's exactly what I'm saying, for better or for worse (probably worse).
5. Forza Horizon 4
The open-world racing genre has taken a real beating over the last few years, but Forza Horizon is one of the bright spots out there keeping this whole thing going. In some ways, the franchise has gotten a bit repetitive--I’m 120% over the whole “let’s race against something that isn’t a car but it’s rubber-banded all to heck to suck all the tension out of things” showcases they throw into every Horizon game. But Horizon 4 both found a way to expand on that concept ever-so-slightly while also structuring itself in a way that gets those events out of the way early.
It also turns the series into a proper online game with a connected world and live players that are just driving around the world. Eliminating all the lifeless “drivatars” from the open-world part of the game just makes the whole game come alive, even if you aren’t actively communicating with those other players. The game also throws regular events that bring all the connected players together into one location, something I’d love to see them expand upon in the future. At times it almost feels like those old, great Burnout Paradise co-op challenges.
Everything gets backed up by the rock-solid handling and driving that you’ve come to expect from a game with Forza written on the box. It’d be easy to write this off as just another solid entry in the franchise, but the changes made on the online and multiplayer sides combined with some fantastic visual design for menus and end-of-race moments help make it stick out a lot more than it would otherwise.
4. Tetris Effect
You’d think that Tetris would be an impossible thing to get wrong, but at this point I’ve been doing this long enough to have seen way more bad versions of Tetris than good ones. There are a lot of clumsy, ugly versions of Tetris out there. Some of them have bad modes, some of them have icky-feeling movement. Tetris Effect brings all the elements of Tetris together in a harmonious way. Then it layers the skin system from Lumines in there. I was going to say “on top of” the existing Tetris, but the visual design doesn’t feel like something draped and hung onto Tetris. It lives right alongside it, forming a bond that makes the whole thing better than it’d ever sound on paper.
It’s been nice to reconnect with Tetris in a way that makes me want to understand the modern rules of the game. Up until now, the last Tetris I probably played obsessively was the bootleg-ass online clone, TetriNet. It was pretty good for 1997. It’s also nice to have another good-ass VR game from Tetsuya Mizuguchi and company. They seem to understand this whole "let's make some trippy shit in VR, but let's also make sure it's a decent video game, too" thing better than a lot of other studios.
3. Hitman 2
Hitman 2 is an immense package of stone cold murderin’ that is flexible enough to let you really play things out your way. If you want to scheme for an hour and wait for the right time to execute the perfect stealth kill, Hitman is there. If you want to drop a duck on ‘em and walk out of the room right before the duck explodes, Hitman is there. The game has a really effective mix of free-form high jinks and scripted sequences and situations that let you step through the levels in ways the developers deliberately accounted for. And you can either opt to follow those scripts or not. Or, hell, you can follow the script for awhile, see something else you’d rather do, and break out immediately.
Hitman 2 does a better job of teaching players the scope of the tools at their disposal and how the various systems in the game actually work. It enhances some systems over the first game, then rolls those systems back onto the last game’s levels, providing some light but cool changes for players who may have already played a ton of the previous game.
It also builds the characters out in a way that makes the overall plot of Hitman way more interesting than it has been in the past. I feel like I’ve always wanted to connect with the Hitman franchise, but the old Hitman games were never this good. Post-reboot Hitman smooths out the edges and plays into the depth that the series has often had in the past without turning it into a messy, trial-and-error tale of loading screens and frustration. Hitman 2 just lets you roll with it. I like that a lot.
2. Dead Cells
We’re years and years into the pixel art, “new old game” revival or... whatever you want to call it. It’s kinda starting to feel played out all over again, honestly. But then a game like Dead Cells comes along and makes it all fit again. It’s a fantastic-looking game with a deliberate approach to its pixely aesthetic. But of course, the gameplay is the reason we’re still talking about Dead Cells after all its time in Early Access.
My favorite thing about playing Dead Cells is that any combination of items and weapons feels like something I at least want to try out. I eventually gravitated toward my favorite weapons and traps, but I never once bailed on a run because of “bad gear.” It was always fun to try out weird combinations and see how it all came together. That said, I always felt like my “best” combination was better than everyone else’s. Of course, everyone else felt that their ideal build was better than mine. That’s usually a pretty good sign that you’ve got a solid set of cool choices in a game.
When I finally finished Dead Cells, I told myself that I’d keep at it, since there were still things I hadn’t unlocked or seen, but I slowly fell away from it. The big changes rolled into the game fairly recently do sound pretty good, though, so I expect I’ll get sucked back into this one sometime in 2019.
1. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4
I’ve talked a lot this year about how surprising this game was for me. It seemed pretty bad back when they first unveiled it, both in how it played and what their stage presentation was focused on. When the beta hit, the competitive multiplayer didn’t grab me at all. It just felt too limited and the changes felt like they were there for the sake of a bullet point on a “what’s new” list rather than things that actually meaningfully changed the game. The Blackout beta felt promising, but I wasn’t exactly sold on it then, either.
It wasn’t until the game actually launched that it all clicked into place for me. Once the actual XP and weapon unlocks and loadout building started happening on the final, shipping, game, it all started to make sense. Having to hit a button to manually heal went from sounding like a needless hassle to actually adding a light, additional tactical depth to the game. I knew that if I pressed a damaged enemy, I might catch them before the heal finishes and get a kill that I might have otherwise missed. I eventually started figuring out when to disengage from a fight to back off and heal because I was in control of the entire process. There are loadout options to better support this, too, letting you plan to heal faster and more frequently than the other guys (I mean, unless they’re similarly specced out but let’s keep moving). Even the character selections, with their unique abilities and cooldowns, worked here in a way that they never did in Black Ops III, where it was first introduced. It becomes a simple, but effective set of options and counters that make it all matter. This is the most I’ve played of Call of Duty’s competitive multiplayer since 2014, but I suspect by the time I’m done with this one it’ll end up being the most competitive multiplayer I’ve played since Black Ops 1 or Modern Warfare 2.
The battle royale mode, Blackout, is surprisingly good. The Call of Duty shooting mechanics translate well to the format and the map is really fun. It’s more focused on item scavenging than some of the other games in the genre, and there are a ton of healing items that can make the final moments of a match a little more intense, since you always have that option to break away and attempt to quickly heal up. It’s got a fast pace that feels good. It’s more or less replaced the other battle royale games on the market for me (though that PUBG snow map sounds pretty cool).
Hell, even the zombies mode seems like a slight improvement on what’s been there before. It’s not enough to get me to play a significant amount of it, but at least it’s moving forward.
Jazztronauts is a mod for Garry’s Mod, which is, if the name is to be believed, a mod. The writing and characters in Jazztronauts are really terrific and the concept is profound. In practice, though, the act of going through random Steam Workshop levels for gmod and stealing everything that isn’t bolted down gets a little monotonous over time. But it was worth it to stick it out and find all that stuff just to see the next bits of dialogue.
Also the music they used for this is really great.
It was nice to see this thing finally take shape and release. The physics and collisions are brutally satisfying, but the career progression is pretty weak. Also, some of those great physics and smash-ups seemed a bit cooler before the game became, you know, a game.
I like Celeste a lot, especially the story, but I think I eventually discovered that I got most of what I needed out of the game by listening to the tremendous soundtrack and remixes.
Astro Bot: Rescue Mission
This Is really neat, but it still feels a little too proof-of-concepty for me. It wore out its welcome faster than I thought it would.
Return of the Obra Dinn
This game makes some bold choices that pay off pretty well. There isn’t anything quite like it.
Well, the first half is rad, at least.
Time Warpers is a recent Early Access release that folds the idle/incremental game concept back on top of itself. Like, remember how Progress Quest had the joke of “what if we took all the game out of this game and you just saw the numbers increasing, hilarious, right?” Time Warpers is the other shoe dropping in a steady progression of “what if we took all these idle/incremental concepts and dropped them into a first-person shooter of sorts” games. It’s fun and funny. It’s also online, letting you form huge, snaking convoys of players, all carrying each other through level after level. It probably still needs some work, as it perhaps feels a little too idle right now, but that hasn’t kept me from leaving it running for hours on end like I’m searching the skies for SETI signals or mining an even more worthless cryptocurrency than actual cryptocurrency.
That’s more or less it. I’m spending this week hanging out in a pair of sweats, looking at a big list of things I told myself I’d get done while I was off, but beyond piling up a bunch of old speakers in the center of my garage, I haven’t done much else. Oh, I got the SDRAM board I needed for my MiSTer, so I’ve been messing around with that, too. It’s rad! Maybe we’ll have more on that next year. Until then, I’m going to get back to doing as little as possible for a few days, then frantically taking those speakers off to Goodwill at the last minute so I can fit my car in the garage again. Wish me luck!