2020! The year when video cards were announced...but were then impossible to find! Someone named HotGirlVideos69 became the shadow queen behind game news leaks! The biggest release of the year somehow became Schrodinger's game, both on sale and not at the same time! What a year for events, which were eventful all year long. I am now done with my introductory paragraph and would like to discuss other things before returning to the subject of games.
I regret to inform you that I did not read a tremendous amount of books in 2020 when compared to the couple of years preceding it, so I don't have a lot of my usual recommendations along those lines. (You can check out my 2018 and 2019 reading lists if you want, and I recently blogged about the exciting television that I've been watching in 2020.)
The bulk of my reading time was spent catching up with human word factory Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive books, which is up to around 5,000 pages even though only four of the 10 books have hit the shelves. I'm not a heavy fantasy reader, and I wasn't super impressed by his Mistborn Trilogy (the first thing of his that I've read), but if you're looking for something long and distracting, well get out of my pants and into one of these books! I also spent a bunch of hours catching up on the back catalogues of Adrian Tchaikovsky and Martha Wells, and I'm now working my way through Kim Stanley Robinson's The Ministry For The Future, which yet again blends a realistic look at how climate change will affect us in the near future paired with what feels like an increasingly fantastic optimism about what we can do to mitigate those effects. I'm a bit more of a pessimist than he is!
Anyway, games! I played fewer games than I probably would've liked in 2020 but that's mostly because I spent significant chunks of time on a few comfort food games that kind of ate up a lot of the year! It was a year for some fuckin' meat and potatoes and I'm not going to apologize for my tastes drifting towards the AAA summer blockbusters with surprising celebrity cameos and maybe an intriguing after-credits sequence implying an inchoate expanded cinematic universe...in these unprecedented times.
I didn't turn on my consoles too often this year (except for FFVII Remake but I bounced off of that pretty hard when Aeris shows up), so this is mostly PC-oriented stuff. Before I get into my list of BEST GAMES, though, here are a few titles that I thought were worth noting even if they aren't on my actual list.
GAMES OF NOTE
There's a ton wrong with this game! The client is poorly optimized, there's plenty of bugs, and it could use a million quality-of-life improvements. But it's still by far my most-played game of 2020 and it's a rare day that doesn't see me sit down for at least a few matches or some fiddlin' around with decks. While that is definitely more due to the fact that it's one of the best card games ever created more than the technical aspects of it, I still put hundreds of hours into it and don't see that changing anytime soon.
I really wish someone could take the shooting model from Destiny 2 and surround it with something other than the layers of cruft that Bungie is eternally piling onto it. I don't like the game's sense of humor, I don't care about the worldbuilding, the magic system has no internal consistency, and even after they Scarlet Witched half the planets in the game to make it simpler I'm still constantly confused as to what I should be doing at any given time. Beyond Light just makes me angry when I think about the design decisions that they made. "Keep It Simple, Stupid" should be graffitied above the doors to Bungie as a reminder and an insult to everyone who makes this game.
But the shooting is so damn good! It's just not good enough to make me want to spend any more time in Destiny than I already have and therefore I am breaking up with it. After a half-decade of wrestling with the franchise's shortcomings and baffling decisions, I've decided to jump ship, cut my losses, avoid the sunk-cost fallacy, etc. Keep what you do right, Destiny, and get rid of everything else. Otherwise this is goodbye.
I unfortunately have only really dabbled in Hades; I enjoy it well enough but simply haven't played enough of it to really get a sense for its quality. I know I'm pretty bad at it, but hey, we're all bad at roguelikes at the start! This came out around the same time as Spelunky 2's PC port and I've spent a lot more time with that game. But I'll try to get back to it!
Also I really don't like the weirdo caryatids that crop the action if you're on a BIG MONITOR. Should've just been black bars and are pretty distracting.
I really dig the vibe of this game and its predecessor (Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun). I only got a few missions into it, though; beyond the early missions I just find some of the levels in these games to be a bit overstuffed, especially when you're juggling three or more characters. I dig solving puzzles in them but I feel like I'd dig the game a lot more if the missions were a tad shorter. But I do really dig the writing and the characters that I've come across. I might try and weave some more time for this in the new year, but that's what I said about Shadow Tactics, too. Anyway, this is a really good game.
Not really a "game" per se, but a fun little town-building app/tool that has led to some really interesting community creations. There's no win condition or economy or plot or anything like that; it's just a happy little game where you make happy little towns. I don't know if there'll ever be anything more than what's already in the game, but hey, it's nice to plop some buildings down in a stress-free environment now and then.
Not many games are bold enough to send you to the archives, but this CIA research simulation basically just puts you in a room full of boxes and says "figure out what happened." It might be less thrilling to read about covert drug planes and assassinations than actually be out there James Bond-ing it up, but hey: you can make a pretty cool twine map on your bulletin board!
I don't know if these games released in 2020 or not or are still early access or what, but I had a blast playing them both on streams throughout the year. We'll try to get back to it sometime!
GAME OF THE YEAR
My first impressions of this game were...unfavorable. It's weird to start with so few weapons! I need more ammo! Jumping around is weird! New things are scary!
I'm super glad I stuck through the rough first few hours, though, because I really think this is one of the best FPS games to hit since, well, Doom 2016. There are a lot of changes and a million buttons to hit and I still get pretty flustered by the size of some of the fights, but when you have the flow down and are locked in, there were very few games in 2020 to reach the adrenaline highs that Doom Eternal offered. Even though I was playing on whatever the "normal" difficulty setting was unlike most (and seriously, my main advice for anyone having trouble getting into the game is just to turn the difficulty down!), I still had a ton of fun simply trying to survive any given encounter.
I get that there's been a lot of criticism of the game for encouraging people to mix up their approaches to any given encounter; you can't just use your favorite weapon over and over and instead really have to branch out when it comes to matching specific weapons to specific enemies. There's definitely a way to approach this with a carrot, but instead Eternal kind of went with the stick: if you don't use an appropriate weapon, you're probably going to run out of ammo and die. I know a lot of people found this to be discomfiting but I didn't really have a problem with it at all, and in fact came to really enjoy it as the glue that kept the combat together. There were more than a few frenetic combat sequences where I would've died had I not had a chainsaw or flamethrower pop up at the perfect time, and that contributed to this being the most edge-of-my-seat gameplay experience I've had in years. It's a shame because I paid for the whole seat!
More than anything, you have to give id a lot of credit for making the choice to iterate on their incredibly well-received previous title and make some bold choices in terms of how this sequel would play. It couldn't have been easy for them, and I'm sure some of their playtesters gave them harsh feedback (the opening level really is unfun to play right out of the gate! Why are you adding Mario to Doom?!?!), but they stuck to their guns and delivered a game that had a lot more depth to it than just Doom 2016 Part 2. I know a lot of people would've preferred that game, but I'm glad they took some risks and made the changes that they did. I've only dabbled in The Ancient Gods (waiting for a new video card before getting through the whole thing), but I've enjoyed what I've played of it and look forward to digging through the rest.
I think it's also worth mentioning the sheer technical achievement on display here. Doom 2016 was always the game I'd break out if someone wanted to see something running at 120 fps on high-refresh widescreen monitor, and Doom Eternal continues that tradition of looking and running amazingly well. I've finally run into some weird framerate drops on the first level of The Ancient Gods (which, to be fair, is pretty ambitious from a level design perspective), but the base game is still an exemplary mix of performance and bells-and-whistles graphical expertise.
Some tips if you maybe bounced off Doom Eternal the first time around:
- Try remapping the flamethrower to something else. Even after 20 hours I was still hitting R to reload which would waste the flamethrower charge and that made me mad! I rebound it to middle mouse button click and just left R unbound to prevent me from doing that and it made things a lot better.
- Also try rebinding the punch and grenade buttons to the two side buttons on your mouse (a good idea for all FPS games, really). You're going to be using them a lot and it helps to have them under your finger. This will also free up your E bind for your favorite weapon, if you want.
- Also, again, I cannot recommend just yanking the difficulty down a notch if you hit a wall. Some encounters are way more complicated/vertical/whatever than others. I normally tick FPS games to one difficulty above the default, but I stuck to Hurt Me Plenty for Doom Eternal and that was a great balance of challenge and fun considering I have the reflexes of Data's daughter at this point in my life!
- Use the super shotgun's alternate firing mode a bunch! The first time I picked it up I saw that it wasn't upgradeable and kind of ignored it for a few levels and that is a mistake. It sets people on fire and is a fantastic traversal tool too. If you get low on health and armor, it's a good idea to run around and find a low-level enemy to alt-fire super shotgun to, then chainsaw as you land for a quick boost of stats. It's also a great source of fire damage if your flamethrower is on cooldown.
- I assume that at higher difficulty levels you'll need to be switching between weapon alt-fire modes to maximize efficiency or whatever, but for the most part I found it easier to just pick one of the two (whichever feels better) and stick with it. I barely ever switched alt-fire modes and I don't think I was losing out on too much; it seems like trying to keep track of that would drive me crazy. So maybe don't!
- But seriously, Marauders can get fucked.
I like this game a bunch! Great game 2020!
OTHER GAMES I REALLY LIKED
If you know me at all, you'll know I'm a pretty big Assassin's Creed fan. There are very few entries into the series that I haven't enjoyed, and I've really loved the shift in direction they took with Origins and Odyssey. Valhalla doesn't offer too many major shifts to the formula that those games lined out, but I'm still having as much fun as ever running around choppin' people's heads off.
A lot of the choices Ubisoft made here are interesting. The absence of level-scaling (at least on the default difficulty settings) means that if you spend a little time doing side quests early on, you can pretty easily outlevel the rest of the content by 20 or 30 levels as you go through it, which makes everything pretty easy. The inclusion of a healing/ration system basically identical to Horizon: Zero Dawn's (an amazing game as well!) makes the game even easier since you can stock up four or five life bars before any given encounter (not that it's necessary to use the system too much in any ordinary fight). Both of these factors combined have made Valhalla basically into a murder simulation par excellence; I roam through Britain erasing entire bandit camps with nary an issue. Castles fall to me like the wind. It's Eivor and taxes - and I'm all out of taxes.
One of the downsides to this is that without level scaling the traditional emphasis on stealth and assassination (which was already seemingly being sidelined in Origins and Odyssey) is basically out the window. My lady Eivor was built mostly as a Raven stealth assassin, and it's perfectly fine to creep around and take people down from the shadows or with a Predator bow from a rooftop, but I very rarely run into any situation where it's not easier and far quicker to just murder everyone with my axe. This is one of the weirder balancing aspects of the game since the more challenging encounters (zealots, witches, some of the other arena fights) don't seem to allow for stealth at all that I've seen. The combat system is robust but AC purists might get mad about not being able to assassinate everyone!
I'd be remiss at mentioning Valhalla without reiterating what Alex has said on a few podcasts now: this game is insanely long. I have 50 hours on record and still have a huge amount of land left unexplored on the map, and I've barely even looked into what we'll call the "dream realm" to avoid spoilers. Hell, I haven't even found all of the abilities I'm supposed to be able to use yet! But I'm still having fun with it and look forward to taking down the rest of the Order. But I'm not boning enough people! I've only boned two people in 50 hours. Get me bonin' more and this might've been my GOTY.
What to say about Spelunky 2? It's more Spelunky. A LOT more Spelunky, in fact. The moment-to-moment mechanics have not changed all that much compared to Spelunky 1 (as opposed to, say, Doom Eternal vs. Doom 2016), but man is it longer and harder. (Eyes up here, perverts.) I've plopped in a little over 25 hours into the game and I still haven't completed a Tiamat run and haven't even started to dig into all the secret stuff that's required to get beyond her, so there's still a lot more to explore for me, but that's OK - I always intended to take this one slow.
It's difficult to talk about this game without mentioning the difficulty. Spelunky was hard but Spelunky 2 ramps the challenge up a few notches, to the point where Mossmouth actually had to patch some of the earlier levels so that people could get through them. It's still a game where you can usually avoid obstacles by going slow and looking ahead, but there are some mechanics here, especially lava traps, that can create impassible dead ends where you either restart or die, and that's not super fun. Hopefully the balance can be massaged a bit more over the coming patches (if they want to!) such that more people can penetrate beyond the second world. I do feel like my rusted Spelunky skills have revived a bit over my first few hundred runs, though, so there's more to be gained from my end as well.
You could certainly make an argument that Spelunky 2 doesn't really change much about the formula, and it's difficult to disagree with that. I was curious if they might implement some roguelite elements or progression, but it's pretty much the same as it always was: you start from the beginning and when you die, you start right back over. The merits of that level of purity are up to the reader to decide, but it's easy to see a world where there was some kind of Hades-esque key system to get more powerful the more you play, but would that have been Spelunky? Probably not!
Anyway, I'm happy to just kick it with Spelunky 2 for a few hours a week at this point, come what may. If the Switch version of this winds up being excellent (liiiitle worried about the framerate on stuff like the lava physics) then I'm sure I'll sink a ton more time into that version!
Hey, it's more World of Warcraft! It's early days in this expansion yet, but I'm already liking it far more than Battle for Azeroth. The numbers go up, I never die, and everything is pretty. Shadowlands also gets points for taking one of my all-time favorite abilities from any game, Avenger's Shield, and giving you another special ability that lets you cast it five times at once. A-10 warthog go brrrrrr.
I'll say that I've had a really pleasant couple of months post-launch just exploring the Shadowlands a bit, and it seems like they're weaving some interesting story points around characters old and new. It's especially welcome that fuckin' Sylvanas is not front and center in the story this time around; I've seen her maybe once in the hundred or so hours I've played of Shadowlands thus far. She's an extremely tiresome character and I can't wait until we finally kill her off; the Jailer, on the other hand, seems cool and menacing and all the kinds of stuff you want to see in an expansion's villain.
The main addition here is the Torghast, a roguelike dungeon where you obtain different powers each run. Like any roguelike, you can have some easy runs and some more difficult runs, but as a tank class I've found it to be pretty relaxing and fun (but then I've always liked roguelikes!). Like the Maw zone in general, though, there doesn't seem to be a lot of rewards for spending an hour on it a week after you craft your first legendary, so I don't know if that'll keep me logging in. My good friend who many you know as Fake Pope from back in the Screened days has just stopped playing entirely. BfA just drained him of his desire to play the game - it was basically the only game he played, too!
Anyway, I haven't done a couple of the dungeons and haven't tapped into the raid here at all; I just generally like it when I can log into WoW for half an hour while I watch TV and not just find my teeth grating for no reason like they were for most of BfA. The flight paths are a bit too long and there are plenty of other things that I don't necessarily care about one way or the other, but hey - I'm killing a lot of things very quickly, which feels like a welcome break from my other MMO friend this year.
This seemed off-putting to me from the earliest trailers, and honestly, not much of the gameplay trailers did much for me either. I like Ubisoft open-world games as much as the next person (probably a lot more so, in fact), but the tone of it just seemed childish to me. I was pleasantly surprised when I tried it out to discover that the humor was more endearing than cringe-y, and it was easy to slot right into the gameplay since the controls mirror Valhalla's quite a bit. (I tried to get into Watch Dogs: Legion, too, but the controls are so different than the other recent Ubisoft games that I found it difficult to go back and forth and I don't want to stop playing Valhalla.)
I haven't explored all of Immortals to exhaustion, but I've really dug what I've seen so far. Yes, you are climbing towers and zipping around an open world, but the Breath of the Wild mechanics makes Immortals a lot different than just another Assassin's Creed game (which is what I was worried this would be when it was announced, since Odyssey was pretty proximate to that). I dig Fenyx as a character, and the Zeus/Prometheus narration isn't as cringey as I feared it might be when I started this up for the first time. The game is kind of aggressively cute, but not so much that I find it difficult to handle. I'm looking forward to getting further into it!
I'd be remiss not to point out that I spent a lot of long hours with Final Fantasy XIV: Stormblood during the early months of quarantine. I am well behind the rest of the world when it comes to FFXIV and I was looking forward to getting through this and moving on to Shadowbringers, but...alas. I really have enjoyed my time with FFXIV and the storytelling seems to get more assured and more dramatic as the expansions have rolled on. I really did enjoy most of my time with this expansion! It's nice to just kick back and relax with a bunch of odd-looking NPC friends and find out just what those rascals the Garleans are up to.
Mechanically the differences between this and WoW are numerous and varied and I'm sure that some people will far prefer one over the other. It's certainly a slower game in terms of leveling and combat, where you're pulling one or two enemies at a time rather than the dozen+ that I like to mop up with my paladin tank in WoW. And, lest it need to be said, FFXIV is far more story-driven, with constant cutscenes and a shitload of talking. It does better at keeping the story front and center, and I appreciate the fact that I've basically been able to play it as a single-player Final Fantasy. If nothing else, Square manages to nail a succession of epic moments into the player's memory on par with any mainline Final Fantasy game in each expansion.
That said, the post-Stormblood quests before you get to move on to Shadowbringers are insanely dull. Just hours of wandering around, talking to NPCs, barely any fighting, all cumulating in a lengthy diplomatic sequence. It's like an episode of Star Trek where you want everyone to just fire the phaser torpedos but then Admiral Kirk goes all "maybe we should talk to the nanomurder machines and see how they feel." Lame! Just shoot 'em! I thought they couldn't top the original A Realm Reborn sequence of 100 quests before you could move into the first expansion, but they sure tried to match those quests in terms of pure tedium. I was really enjoying this game up until these 40 quests, but they really put a damper on my excitement to get into Shadowbringers, which is a shame!