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John "Cowboy" Bellomy's Top 10 Games of 2018

The Cowboy wrangles up his ten favorite games of the year.

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John Bellomy is a programmer at Naughty Dog, known for his work on such popular franchises as Uncharted and The Last of Us. You can follow him on Twitter.

As I write this I am surrounded by moving boxes, my computer desperately holding on from being packed, so I can scratch out some last ravings about games I really loved this year. 2018 saw games grow and expand on horizons new and old (also, Horizon, pretty good) and left me optimistic about where things can go from here and sharing in this joy with the Giant Bomb community is no small part of that. So thank you, once again, for having me back, and in some kind of particular order here’s what stood out to me this in 2018!

(For fairness I’ve once again left Threes off the official list.)

10. Tetris Effect

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At the outset I came into Tetris Effect expecting a nice Winamp-style visualizer built on top of a solid Tetris implementation. The music is brilliantly composed and wormed itself permanently in my ear. Set against ethereal and dreamlike scenescapes it is the interaction between the two where you start to get a sense of how richly textured the experience is. Actions, sounds, and visuals both play off and drive each other as a kind of feverish feedback loop culminating in the real genius of the game: flow. Coming out the other end of journey mode I had experienced levels of tension and zen, anxiety and relief, defeat and triumph rarely seen in other games. The masterful combination of sensory and challenge had me playing Tetris harder (and better) than I ever had before.

9. Yoku’s Island Express

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I picked this up for the Switch which ended up being a perfect fit for me during our summer vacation. What could have easily been a cheap gimmick instead found an inspired use in traversal and puzzle mechanics, to the point where by the time I got back home I had checked every box there was to tick in the game. There’s an infectious joy that permeates the game and I found no end in satisfaction rolling my ball and tooting my horn up and down the island.

8. Forza Horizon 4

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Perhaps my favorite game series, no other franchise can put a smile on my face as consistently as the Horizon series. From trading paint in a night race to fine tuning drift specs helping my team finish out a Forzathon Live event in my S-Class UPS van, the game shares in my love for all the ways driving can be intense, goofy, relaxing, thrilling, or just plain ridiculous. This was the game that finally prompted me to get an Elite controller which elevated even further the mechanical differences brought out by the seasonal system.

7. God of War

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From a series defined by ever-increasing levels of bombast and spectacle it is a testament to Sony Santa Monica’s both restraint and excessive talent. Coming into a new generation of hardware the temptation is easy to dial everything up to 11, but in God of War it is the lowering of volume, the narrowing of focus which yields something even more impressive. Trading world cataclysms for a deeply personal journey and story which leaves the older games in the series feeling dated in more ways than just the impressive graphical advancements.

6. BattleTech

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Perhaps the best example of the Austin Walker spell working its magic over me this year I fell deep down the rabbit hole of lore and technical intricacies, building my mercenary brand and bloodily striving to keep us out of the red. Every pilot, every mech, even pieces of my gear all had their own story of how they came into (and sometimes fell out of) my orbit. Much like Hitman, BattleTech is very enjoyable as a spectator. Seeing Austin and Rob piece their way both into, and out of harrowing situations tided me over at work nicely until I could head home and enact some new build or strategy.

5. Monster Hunter: World

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I love it when a blind spot in my tastes gets shattered. It feels like I’ve stumbled upon a secret trove of treasures to be had. I mean, I had a giant bagpipe/horn which I alternated smashing dinosaurs upside the head with and blasting out some sweet tunes to buff my friends. C’mon. I can’t say for certain if it’s purely willful ignorance or if Capcom tweaked the formula just right for this series to finally catch fire in the west (probably some of both) but man I am ready for more. The diligent preparation felt reminiscent of my favorite hunts in Witcher, the game worships food with Meowster Chef as head priest, but perhaps my favorite aspect was the SOS flares. I would spend entire evenings doing nothing but coming to a loudly blaring rescue with my horn-pipe to help take down a particularly nasty beasty (freaking tempered Kirin…).

4. Marvel's Spider-Man

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Superhero games occupy an interesting, dichotomous place in games. On the one hand they offer an easy direct translation to the kind of power fantasies typical to the medium. On the other it only seems like we are only recently getting to the point of having real substantial manifestations of their source material. Or maybe it just seems that way because games are getting better all the time. Either way, Insomniac was firing on all cylinders here in all aspects of their production, yielding a game that sells the experience of actually being Spider-Man like no other. Of course the requisite swinging is real good, slinging my way through the city is a technical marvel, the sounds and music are evocative in all the right ways, and the combat is both fun and a good reflection of Spider-Man’s abilities (slinging guys off roofs never got old).

3. Picross 3D: Round 2

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For my birthday this year I finally got a 3DS! That is to say, I got a Picross machine, as that has been its sole purpose in life until as of a couple weeks ago when I finally cleared every last puzzle on hard, no strikes, rainbow gem. Late to the 3D party I thought I would be swimming from game to game in the best way that only comes from coming to a platform late in the life cycle. Instead my attention was quickly dominated by charm and sometimes head-scratching difficulty. To be sure I have quite the backlog I am looking forward to, now that I’ve rung every last drop out the thus-far best 3DS game ever.

2. Dead Cells

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There’s a real obvious point to make about this game, but it is for good reason: the controls in this game are real fucking good. Everything you do in the game from the biggest attacks to the smallest interactions has a snap-like quality and feel like the result of many hours of painstaking consideration and iteration. The combat design is both generous and punishing which, speaking personally as a developer, is damn impressive. You’re generally free to dodge, attack, or change your mind whenever you want but you never feel overpowered as a result. If anything you’ll need to master that freedom in order to survive the later stages. I’m not generally one for run-based games (I tend to like my experiences more crafted) yet I found myself filling a spare 15-30 with a run here and there, and sometimes losing several hour long streaks in the process.

1. Return of the Obra Dinn

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Continuing to define and lead the “this paperwork is a nightmare” genre of video games, Lucas Pope’s latest grabbed me like no other game I can remember ever playing. The visuals are the notable feat here (and I highly recommend reading up on how he did it) but what I was unprepared for was how quickly and completely I would be drawn into the world and the mystery of the ship. From the little touches (and really, this is a game about the details) to the brilliantly composed score Obra Dinn is evocative of my favorite parts of Master and Commander and The Terror. So often I would go from a smash cut to a gruesome scene, both fascinated and horrified, only to find myself ruminating on the exacting definitions of say, being speared versus spiked. That I found myself living the life of an insurance agent in a video game is surprising and great; that I loved it as much as I did is a testament to the medium itself.