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aodhhinsai

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Game of the Year 2018

This is the first year that truly felt like we were smack dab in the middle of a console cycle. The last few years I had enough older games to play that I was always standing with one foot in the past. Things were different this year, with a cavalcade of new games and not a ton of interesting older titles left for me to check out. The obvious caveat to this is my purchase of a Switch. I hadn’t expected to love it as much as I do, but after I picked one up near the beginning of this year it rapidly became a staple of my day to day life. I rarely if ever use it as a TV based console, and the number of times I’ve thought to myself “I can’t believe that I’m playing this on a handheld” really sold me on the concept. It became my go-to indie box, the machine that gave old favorites a new lease on life, and some of my favorite games of this year.

As far as games go, this year’s list has been dominated by various sizes of open worlds. Some, like Prey, Spider-Man, and God of War were narrower and more focused on the story content, while massive worlds like those in Red Dead Redemption 2, Assassin’s Creed Origins, and Breath of the Wild allow for exploration and discovery. This year also marks a departure from last year’s list of lost causes and severely compromised games. Outside of Picross S2 I don’t think that there’s a single item that would be hugely surprising on any game of the year list. On one hand, I’m glad that I don’t have to get defensive about a top ten pick, but, I also cringe just a little bit about a list that is primarily made up of AAA titles.

List items

  • Game of the Year - #1

    I think that God of War was so good for me because I actively hated the previous games, characters, and stories. I’m already not huge on character action games so, when coupled with a story that was meant to appeal to oversexed 13 year olds, the series was one that I figured I could write off. That’s why I was so surprised when I saw the new game in action.

    From the get go it looks really good. In a year of really phenomenally pretty games, the art and tech come together to makes something really striking. Couple this with a really good mechanical feel (The axe throw/recall feels so stinking good it’s crazy) and you’ve got a really great framework to build on. That’s where the multitude of other touches come in.

    This game feels like the future thanks to stuff like total HUD customization. Setting it to disappear except when I brush the touch pad is the kind of thing that every game should (and probably will) have in a year or two. The seamless, cut-free, style really sets a high bar for story based games. I haven’t seen a story that pulled me along like this in a long time. It’s subtle, but because of the lack of cuts I never feel like I can completely walk away because I’m always in the middle of something. I can’t remember the last time I played a game where I didn’t listen to a podcast or watch something in the background.

    Even with my lack of character action experience I made it to the end credits without too much trouble. It got a bit harder once I went for the platinum (which I got, thanks to my trophy based sickness). The secret bosses were rough, but gave me a reason to focus on improving my understanding of the combat system. I appreciate that God of War not only gave me an appreciation for a genre, but it helped me get better at them as well.

  • Game of the Year - #2

    What am I supposed to say about a game that features the entirety of my 2016 game of the year plus updates to gameplay and graphics AND a full game’s worth of new content? People will harp on whether the non-episodic release structure added to or subtracted from the experience, but I think it’s fine either way. In fact, it’s not just fine, it’s superlative, and I just want this game hooked to my veins.

    The new levels are massive but, like with the first game, there are a few that took time for me to warm up to. I don’t feel like there’s a single standout level, but the overall quality of the levels has increased (which is saying something, considering how good they were last time around). As with Hitman 2016, just standing around and absorbing the world is great. I liked Whittleton Creek in that regard because it’s reminiscent of my favorite aspects of Sapienza. It’s a place that feels lived in and mundane, but also has huge mind-blowing dark secrets ( like Sapienza’s apartments with armed guards, or Whittleton with its secret tunnel and vault).

    I love Hitman 2 not only as a game, but as a platform that promises future content. I’ve been playing Hitman nearly continuously since it came out two years ago and with this release and IOI’s transition away from Square Enix I think I can finally look forward to more years of Hitman built off of this platform. I know there will have to be a clean break at some point, especially with the unknowns of the next generation of consoles on the horizon, but until then I know I’ll always be able to come back to Hitman 2.

  • Game of the Year - #3

    Breath of the Wild is the only physical game I’ve ever had in my Switch and I have no doubt that it’ll be that way for the lifetime of the console. I had massive expectations going in and was surprised that they were met, let alone surpassed. Breath of the Wild dominated my game playing life for weeks, I barely touched anything else. As trite as it sounds, I haven’t felt this way about a game since my seminal Zelda game— Link to the Past. I can still remember the first time I made it to the Dark World and heard the music change as I stood on the top of the pyramid, staring out at the bright red and orange of the horizon with the dark tower standing ominously over me. It felt big, and important, and cool. BOTW is a game that, though I can return to it, I’ll miss. There’s something lonely about finishing a game you’re connected to, even when it can be played for hours more on a finished save or started again. You can’t ever really go back.

    The music is superlative and one of the first things that jumped out at me. It’s sparse, but has enough references to the Zelda musical canon that it never stopped giving me goosebumps. The freedom is also amazing, but it took awhile to adjust to. I was thinking way too small early on and it hindered me. I had trouble thinking within the context of all the runes. I’d sit staring at a puzzle with no clue how to solve it before I realized that Along the line though, I started playing with the tools and it was wondrous. Bridging a circuit with an axe and skipping the majority of a trial felt like I was a certified genius, even though it seemed like it was intentional design. It’s a rare game that makes you feel like you’re innovating when you come up with an unintended solution—not cheesing.

    There are a few minor issues. All of the authored content felt too easy ( I practically slept through every boss and Hyrule castle) and the real challenge comes from the world itself and the puzzles that inhabit it. Even then, short of a few exceptions, the shrines weren’t too tough once I learned my runes. There also might be a tinge of disappointment in the lack of some classic Zelda-esque features. One of my favorite parts of 3D Zelda games are the epic and evocative large interior spaces. Breath of the Wild features very few of these. The shrines are all cut from the same cloth (they look good but it wears thin) which leaves the Great Beasts (shrug) and the Hyrule castle spaces (which got me missing the old school atmospheric dungeons). This disappointment doesn’t leave me sad for Breath of the Wild, it makes me doubly excited for whatever comes next.

    In the end I spent 120 hours with Breath of she Wild. I finished the DLC, I beat every single shrine, and I was still thinking about it for months after I’d finished.

  • Game of the Year - #4

    I watched people play Origins for months and it never left me feeling anything other than cold disinterest, but thanks to positive coverage during game of the year. After picking it up on sale I was immediately sold. Bayek is one of the best Assassin’s Creed protagonists and one of my new favorites across games in general. His relationship with Aya and his interactions with random villagers, especially kiddos, was a highlight.

    Having a player character with that kind of personality really highlighted the side quests, which ended up being some of my favorite this year, especially when compared to the usual bland cruft pushed to the side of previous Assassin’s Creed titles. The fact that you revisit characters over lengthy sequences was inspired, with some involving tense investigations that you dread finishing because you know that they can’t end well. Most of the time, when I can see the end coming from a mile away it really deflates the story, but the fact that Bayek seemed to see it coming too meant that the tension still held. The investigation mechanic was largely uninspired (find marker, interact with marker) but were set up in a way that at least made the clues themselves interesting. All of this points back at the solid writing and characterization throughout.

    A multitude of anti-frustration features keep things running smoothly. Arrows being plentiful incentivizes their use instead of the supply hoarding seen in previous games and the ability to call your horse and hop on without ever breaking from a dead run feels amazing, even if it doesn’t save more than a few seconds. Finally, the modern day content handled fairly well. You can choose how much you want to engage and the modern protagonist is likable enough to become the new Desmond-esque narrative through-line.

    By the time I saw the bittersweet ending and credits (all twenty minutes of them) I had experienced just about everything that Origins had to offer. It took a month or two but I earned the platinum trophy and still spent a few hours chipping away at other side content.

  • Game of the Year - #5

    Red Dead 2 has been galvanized in my mind because of the discussion surrounding it. I love a bunch of the things that turned others away. I love how deliberate (slow) everything is. I love contemplative media and this game really does it for me. It really appeals to the same part of my brain that makes me love playing open world multiplayer games as a lone wolf. It’s that feeling of seeing everyone around you but not being part of the crowd. Arthur feels like a character who has that same mindset.

    The story in Red Dead 2 is more than the sum of its parts. It’s ridiculously on the nose in some places, especially as it relates to morality, but that’s dulled somewhat by the fact that you embody Arthur for so long that you start to think in terms of what he would do. It transcends the clichéd aspects of the material. The fact that I was queasy about the money collections missions really says something, and despite the lone wolf attitude that I have in open worlds, having the camp to go home to felt great. Seeing the progression of the camp, with the parties and the happy moments, made it even worse when you start to see the pieces pulled apart as things went bad. This crescendos into the endgame where a deathly ill Arthur has to rescue Abigail with Sadie. It’s a fantastic sequence, and the palpable dread that you feel on your way to deal with the remnants of the gang is fantastic… up until the point where the terrible melodramatic song plays and spoils the mood.

    I loved the ending to Arthur’s arc, and I like how it transitioned into the epilogue. Playing as John is great and opened up opportunities to play as John would (for example, the fact that my version of John carried Arthur’s old satchel) but it makes it even more painful that I can’t play as Arthur ever again. After spending dozens of hours with the character, I’d kill for the ability to switch back to 1899 to play as Arthur. I know that would defeat the entire purpose of the story/game, but something just doesn’t feel right about diving into an old save

    Red Dead Redemption 2 is terrific — but not for everyone. Even though I love it, I don’t think I could play through it again. It just isn’t a ride I feel like I could get anything from a second time around. It’ll be a game that I remember fondly, but any trips back into its world will be taken solely to my epilogue save to wander around for a bit. I also doubt that I’ll spend much time with online, but hey, stranger things have happened.

  • Game of the Year - #6

    Odyssey proves that we could use more happy-go-lucky games. I loved being able to chip away at it over a few months, with no pressure, at my own pace was exactly what I needed as a palate cleanser between the heavier titles I played this year. That said, it didn’t immediately click with me.

    The biggest hurdle was the time it took to get used to the modern “easy to mainline and hard to 100%” Mario design strategy. It can feel like a bit of trifle to blitz through the bare minimum number of moons to see credits. Even though I kind of miss the segmented formula of something like Mario 64 or Galaxy, having all the moons packed densely into the world was a great idea. It did lack the focus and, for lack of a better term, specialness of those previous games. In the end that really didn’t affect my enjoyment. For every moment I missed the excitement of chasing after a single goal, I was distracted by the joy of finding all of my exploration and hunches rewarded with moons.

    It took me a year to work my way to the darker side of the moon, and to be honest I keep almost finishing and then rage quitting, but I’ll keep returning to Odyssey whenever I need a little breath of fresh air.

  • Game of the Year - #7

    The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the tide ebbs and flows, and I play every decent Picross game that’s set in front of me. I technically finished both Picross S and S2 this year but for simplicity’s sake I picked the latest entry. The puzzles are solid as ever, there’s a ton of content, the extra creature comforts are nice, and the new Clip Picross mode is a superfluous wrapping on additional great puzzles. If this all sounds underwhelming then you JUST DON’T GET IT. If this doesn’t prove that top ten lists aren’t about what’s better than something else, than I don’t know what does. I’m not saying this is objectively better than Spider-Man… at least, I think I’m not? But I did play and enjoy it for months. Every time I needed to kill a few minutes, it was always there for me. You should pick it up!

  • Game of the Year - #8

    Spider-Man feels great to play with swinging mechanics that I was able to get a hold of immediately and decent combat. There was an adjustment period where my Arkham series muscle memory got in the way of successful counters (for the first couple of hours) but once I settled into things everything felt snappy and enjoyable.

    The character work is good, with the Miles/Peter interactions and time at the shelter sticking out in particular. The writing really captures the core of the character and the mix of snarky and kindhearted that you’d expect.

    The forced stealth sequences are just as unnecessary as you’ve probably heard, but not as terrible as some people have made them sound. They’re over fairly quickly and then you can get on with your life. These missions do have their highlights; MJ’s sequence at grand central, the street level walk to the shelter as Miles (pre-stealth), and the alleyway scene are benchmarks that retroactively make the rest of them seem worse in comparison.

    These little character flourishes were good, especially because they personalize what could have been clinical/by the numbers AAA title. Even still, I think Spider-Man falls into the same spot as Horizon: Zero Dawn last year. It’s competently made, beautiful to look at, fun to play, and ultimately left me feeling colder than I would have expected. It’s a good game (worth a spot on my game of the year list!), and I took the time to get the platinum trophy, but it just doesn’t quite click as an all time classic.

  • Game of the Year - #9

    To be honest, I don’t have much to say about Donut County besides: Play it! It’s short but sweet with killer writing and some of the best characters of the year. Do yourself a favor and pick it up. (It also has a pretty easy Platinum trophy, if… uh… you’re into that sort of thing.)

  • Game of the Year - #10

    I love RPGs like Prey, but I also usually hate horror tinged games. I dragged my feet for a year before I played it but having finished it I can say that I really screwed up by waiting so long. Games that invoke a sense of place as strongly as Prey are rare. It’s so good that I would kill for a DLC that lets me explore the station before the disaster. No monsters, no conflict, just moseying around. I just love the art and the setting that much.

    I was blown away by the emphasis on each individual person. So many games treat NPCs as a disposable resource, but building their lives and personalities into the structure of both the story and the mechanics at such a fundamental level made the game hit so much harder. When I heard from a character through the early parts of the game and eventually discovered their body it meant something. It’s also a game where I was grateful when I met my first live NPC. I felt less lonely, as would be expected if I had survived that scenario. It makes me wish I could play a game with the same emphasis on people and a tight, well conceived, environment but without disaster and horror. I’d love a good mystery set in a bottle like Talos 1.

    Even with a great feel, the story was only serviceable. I didn’t have the same issues with it that some others did, especially with the third act changeup, which I chalk up mostly to the fact I was playing on the lowest difficulty so the final act enemies barely touched me.

    I enjoyed my first playthrough so much that I took the first steps towards learning speed run strats and got through a second run in 2 hours 45 minutes. Granted I did it to help grab some extra trophies, but still, that’s high praise.

  • Special Mention - Winner - “Lukewarm mess” award

    This award goes to the game that isn’t bad at all but makes some heartbreaking mistakes that keep it from greatness.

    There are parts of an amazing game trapped in Odyssey. I played in a bit of a weird context since I experienced Odyssey on the Project Stream beta with an in-game credit for a free XP boost. I finished all three main storylines and hit level 48 in a little over 40 hours. The boost kept frustration at bay, but I could still feel the disrespect that others have noted in regards to their time.

    The segmented story structure could have been a fascinating choice, but ended up fizzling for me because the ends seemed to exist within a vacuum. When I beat the main ‘family’ story it was abrupt and, even though I enjoyed the family dinner scene, didn’t really give enough weight to what you had accomplished. The cult ending was so tossed off it was infuriating. I loved the cult system and the mechanics of hunting down clues and members, even though I had guessed the identities of several VIPs almost immediately (I mean really, was the final cultist shocking at all?). Finally, the precursor storyline/modern day stuff felt bad? I’m enjoying the direction it’s headed in (I’m a sucker for medium quality sci-fi) but the VO was terrible for several present day characters and it felt like it was added in at the very last second before the game shipped.

    Overall Odyssey is a step down from Origins. It’s a much less cohesive package. With all of that said I still found myself coming back for more. The changeover to a straight up demigod skillset was amazing, and I really hope it’s where Assassin’s Creed goes in the future (maybe a grounded, less mythical, setting with crazy abilities?) I also LOVED the character of Kassandra. She has joined Ezio and Bayek as the most charismatic and likable of Assassin’s Creed protagonists and I hope that she marks a return to consistently decent leads.

    The graphics are beautiful and the world has great art— even if the open world feels a bit mechanically dead behind the eyes. The diversity in locales was also appreciated.

    I think the new mission system (conversation driven/context clues to find objectives) was good in theory but ended up being less about finding things yourself and more about tapping through conversations as quickly as possible and then waiting for Ikaros to ping the objective. Maybe this HUD element could be turned off, but I didn’t check until it was too late.

    I liked my time with Odyssey, but it left me a bit disappointed in the game that’s here, wistful for the game that it could have beeen, and optimistic for where Assassin’s Creed as a series could head in the future. This may be a small step back from Origins, but it feels like a change in footing that will facilitate a giant leap forward in the future.

    My pitch for a new Assassin’s Creed setting: Move the present day characters into the primary roles. We know the animus is more than reliving memories, and it’s clear that the present day world of Assassin’s Creed is ALSO a simulation, so maybe it’s time to have a present day character pull a Quantum Leap and hop though time and location as themselves. Imagine a game in which crossing the map changes time period not just physical space. this island space is in the past, this one in the 19th century, etc… or even a smaller map with an Oracle of Ages/Ocarina of Time style time travel system. I dunno, it’s easy to be an armchair designer and much harder to be in the actual hot seat.

  • Special Mention - Winner - “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed… actually, I really am angry” award

    This award goes to the game that went straight past disappointing and wrapped all the way around to fully anger inducing.

    I never skip cutscenes in games, but I got to the point in FarCry 5 where I did so without hesitation. Every single bit of story is a drag. Literally every second of writing you hear or read saps the entertainment out of the experience. All of this on top of the fact that I had issues with the story and it was uncomfortable in spots because of some WEIRD-ASS POLITICAL COMMENTARY. It’s all so off-putting. Hearing Jess talk about ‘the cook’ (and his cannibalism, masochism etc…) was the most predictable bit of writing I’ve seen in a while. Worst of all, the ending sucks so much that it retroactively makes the meager positive aspects of the story meaningless. Between that and the forced abduction sequences and mindscrew there isn’t a single part of this game’s story and structure that I have positive things to say about.

    Even the mechanics seem to have taken a nosedive straight towards mediocrity. Shooting felt great in the previous games in the series. Here however, every gun feels toothless and lacks any substantial weight or feedback. That’s assuming you even find a gun you like. While previous games have had a plethora of interesting weapons, FarCry 5 has a small selection bolstered by a variety of unimportant palate swaps.

    There was exactly one moment where I saw the potential that’s (very well) hidden. I was driving through the forest with Creedence Clearwater Revival blasting on the in-game stereo and I drove past a burning car that was slowly spreading flames into the tree line. The game does look great and it still has good fire tech. When it was coupled with a decent song selection I could briefly see what this game should have been.

    …and then I sold the game on eBay, something I haven’t done in years, and haven’t regretted it since.

    Don’t bother playing this game.

  • Special Mention - Winner - “Born to roam” award

    This award goes to the Switch port that best sold me on the Switch as a mobile console.

    I did it again. I sunk another 200 hours into yet another version of Skyrim. I had just moved on and hung up my adventuring gear when I saw the Switch version on digital sale. I played through the entire thing in handheld mode and honestly, even though it doesn’t have mods and isn’t as pretty as its cousins, taking it on the go or playing in bed has made it hard to go back to any other version.

    This version of Skyrim proved to me that old games ported to a console that can be used on the go can revitalize it. I was skeptical of the difference it would make until I tried it. To be honest, I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to another version.

  • Special Mention - Winner - “I don’t wanna think about it” award

    This award goes to the game that served a simple purpose: Helping me check out and relax after a long day.

    There are some times where you come home and just don’t have the wherewithal to do anything that requires mental engagement. Steep is one of those games that requires nothing of the player and can be fiddled around with. There’s a bunch of cruft around the edges that (thankfully) can be ignored completely. I might not play in huge bursts, but an hour is enough to let me space out and get back to baseline.

  • Special Mention - Winner - “Dead behind the eyes” award

    This award goes to the game that is singularly devoid of any warmth or spark. These are games that lack that fleeting something that connects you to its world.

    I wanted to like Mad Max. It had all of the hallmarks of previous sleeper favorites: Bargain basement purchase price? Check. Low expectations? Check. A developer that I’ve enjoyed in the past? Check. Some positive word of mouth that implied this could be better than it seemed? Check.

    I knew going in that the story was going to be pretty bland, but as I jumped into the game proper their were such big mechanical hurdles that I just couldn’t get into it. Driving felt oddly heavy and unresponsive (odd because it felt less like a deliberate choice and more like an oversight) from the get-go with zero indication if it would improve over time.

    I’ve had plenty of fun with games who win this category (last year’s winner, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst for example) when they have mechanics that are too fun to spoil with the crappy trappings. Mad Max just doesn’t have anything that’s compelling enough to help me overlook the bland story and dead world. I’ve played through compelling wastelands— this isn’t one.

  • Special Mention - Winner - “Hindsight is 20/20” award

    This award goes to the games that came into focus only after being revisited after several years.

    I hadn’t played through the Mass Effect trilogy in years, and I found the time to play through all three and their DLC. This may come as a shock, but, it was really good.

    There are a lot of games that only work because of the emotional reaction you have to them in the moment. Over time you lose the ‘right place right time’ connection to it and the game never quite clicks again. Playing through the whole trilogy has me thinking that this is the reverse situation. In the middle of the whole controversy surrounding Mass Effect 3 there was such a strong emotional maelstrom surrounding the game that whether you liked it or disliked it it was tough to analyze it as it was (yeah, I know that there were plenty of even-keeled reviews at the time, but I was a senior in high school and the controversy was the only thing we were talking about at the time).

    Playing through this time gave me a view of things that was both rosier and more realistic. I came away feeling slightly better about Mass Effect 3 and slightly worse about Mass Effect 1 & 2. This was actually pretty wonderful. The first two games are no longer some untouchable flawless experiences, and the third game isn’t just some huge disappointment — it stands on it’s own as a solid entry (although playing with all of the DLC helps).

  • Special Mention - Winner - “It doesn’t really matter why” award

    This award goes to the game that made enough of an impact this year to warrant taking about, even if it didn’t fit in anywhere else.

    I first played The Old Republic back in 2012 when it went free to play. It was my first MMO and I was excited to experience the Imperial Agent storyline that I’d heard people talking about. What I hadn’t expected to deal with was one of the grindy-est experiences I’d ever had. My second surprise was when I was compelled to keep going anyway. It’s probably just the fact that I’d never experienced the scale, scope, and freedom of an MMO coupled with fascinating storyline. After a few months I started to get tired of being chronically underleveled and facing the choice between a metric crap-ton of meaningless grinding and trying to do story content that is so far above my level that one hit from a filler enemy wiped me out. That same cycle repeated itself several times over the following six years. I’d dive in, relearn the skill tree (which was inevitably different), use some XP boost that would alleviate the grind, and ride that wave until it got to be too much. In 2015 I reached the halfway point in the Agent storyline and put the game down for what I thought would be the last time. This year though, things changed.

    I found a killer sale on a three month subscription with all of the expansions and it was a game changer. I was suddenly over-leveled for everything (not that it mattered since they had rolled out automatic level scaling) and found myself able to do more in a month than I had in the previous six years.

    The mainline content was as good as I’d heard and I was surprised by how each successive expansion just got more interesting. I’d heard some mixed things about them, and I can see how they might be disappointing if you had massive gaps between them, but when played all at once the story is compelling. The Eternal Throne stuff is genuinely interesting and feels like an amazing capstone to the entire experience. I recognize that my own experience/backstory for my character had a large impact on my perception of the game, but I don’t care. I’ve never experienced the uniquely MMORPG feeling of role playing a character over years and seeing the way that they can subtly change and evolve.

    There are, of course, complaints about the hyper linear nature of the expansion content. The linear nature of these chapters weren’t a problem in practice since I’d been mainlining the story since the beginning, but it did feel noticeably restrictive. There are also the complaints about the mechanics of the endgame, but that doesn’t interest me (I’m not sticking around past the story), so if they’re no good, no worries. Having finished the entire agent storyline, all of the expansions, and playing several other characters through some of their stories, I really enjoyed my experience. I know this isn’t the best example of an MMO, but it’s my first, and one I care about deeply.