2018 Sucked, but the Games Were Pretty Good

Well, that was a year. Simultaneously a neverending nightmare and gone in a flash. But hey, we’re still alive!. Constantly exhausted and despondent at the current state of humanity, but still living. Hooray? The role of games in my life has changed due to the paranoia creep inflicted by the daily news cycle. Namely, I played fewer of them, made it a point to read more, stopped looking at Twitter, generally trying to spend less of my life scrolling through feeds on backlit screens. I found it harder to fully enjoy things this year; fully diving into some great virtual world was harder to justify than ever. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s just that there were fewer games that immediately demanded my time and attention the way many 2017 games did. Most of the games I did play came from my always-expanding backlog filled with stuff that is practically ancient in internet time. Those older titles provided some of the best moments in games for me this year - Night in the Woods gamified small town anxiety and young adult angst in a way I’ve never seen before, and Superhot is the best shooter I’ve played since Titanfall 2 - and it was impossible for this year’s crop of games to be anything but a letdown after the glut of greatness that arrived in 2017, but there were a few games from 2018 that made feel joyous in a time that makes enjoyment almost impossible. Here is my top 5.

5. Fifa 19

My relationship with the FIFA series is a textbook case of a love/hate relationship. I play the latest rendition of this franchise every year, knowing that I’ll be annoyed yet again by the game’s design emphasis. I play sports games almost exclusively in franchise modes, and over the last couple of years, it has become blatantly clear that EA no longer makes these games with players like me in mind. Sure, they added the officially licensed Champions League and Europa League to the game, and that’s nice, but that’s the only example of EA remembering that this mode still exists. The same tired pratfalls that have held career mode back for years are still there. Same bizarre line-ups from CPU-controlled teams. Same woefully unrealistic transfers that are far too common. (Congrats to Huddersfield’s Philipp Billing on his transfer to Barcelona.) Same training system that hasn’t been expanded upon since it was introduced three years ago. Meanwhile, anything even tangentially connected to the Ultimate Team stuff (the most consistent moneymaker that EA’s got at this point) get consistent updates and attention. It makes financial sense, but career mode has needed a reboot for the last three years and there’s no sign of this in the offing. To its credit, The gameplay is better this time around; the revamped tactics system does make the differences between different teams and gameplans more readily apparent. But it still doesn’t work as well as you’d want it to, making playing against AI-controlled opponents, which is all you do in career mode, a bit underwhelming. The last pre-holiday patch for the game enacted a widespread career mode ratings glitch despite being made to rebalance Ultimate Team modes. All that said, I’ve still put dozens of hours into FIFA 19, and will only stop when I sell it to get some money back before buying FIFA 20, which will likely impress and annoy me in equal measure. The FIFA games are great. The FIFA games are maddening. The cycle will never end. I am an idiot.

4. Burnout Paradise Remastered

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Saying that a re-release of a racing game from 2008 is one of the best games of the year is either an indictment of the year’s offerings or high praise for a totemic game that still holds up after all these years, but in the case of the last game peak-era Criterion ever put out before becoming just another studio in the EA stable, it’s certainly the latter.

Driving hard through Paradise City, smashing billboards and hitting sick jumps hidden in this impeccably designed racing town, all while listening to Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend”, is an eternal joy. Takedowns are still cool as hell. It felt like seeing an old friend for the first time in far too long. Paradise shows its age in the margins - the inability to set checkpoints would be inexcusable if this was a new game - but the complete package is so blissful that negatives get set aside. The physicality and sense of speed of the cars has still never been matched by any driving game released in the last few years. That there have been so few competitors makes this game even more special to revisit. Arcade racers are nearly extinct, but at least one of the best titles this genre ever produced is available on modern consoles.

3. God of War

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I remember really enjoying this game a lot. I completed every quest, got most of the trophies, but a few months removed from my experience and I’ve forgotten so much about what I actually did in that game. The performances are incredible, but the story revolves around a well-worn cliche about gruff, sullen men reluctantly becoming caring fathers. It’s well produced, but it’s been done before. The two prominent female characters are the dead wife/mother, and Freya, who gets cut down in a late-game twist that does a profound disservice to her character. I literally said “oh no” out loud to an audience of no one when she tried to save her villainous kid.

This game does a lot of things right though! The combat was fantastic, and the open world was surprisingly seductive. The side quests were interesting enough that I wanted to complete all of them, the side characters adding a surprising comedic element to the proceedings. I never got tired of Brock and Sindri’s routine, and the bodiless guide Mimir told stories so fascinating that I would wait in the boat to let him complete his extremely violent tales of Norse mythology. The one-shot camera thing is a bit gimmicky, but there were certain sequences that made good use of the directorial choice, such as the part where Kratos resignedly gets the blades back from the basement of his home.

After God of War 3, I was pretty content to never see Kratos again. That this game managed to give me a compelling reason to spend time with him again is a statement of quality for this reboot.

2. Red Dead Redemption 2

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I was as skeptical as anyone when Rockstar announced a sequel to Red Dead Redemption. That first game - who remembers Red Dead Revolver, really? - and I’m so happy to have my pessimism swatted away by the sheer quality of this game. Rockstar’s labor practices deserve plenty of questioning and criticism, but the finished product is easy to be seduced by. From the minute the game begins with the gang trudging through the late night snow on that mountain, I was all in. Their presentation and ability to frame moments in the most cinematic way possible just does it for me. And once the game opened up after that introductory chapter, I was astounded by the breadth and detail of this world. They had more money than God to make this, and thankfully, they used their resources well. From a technical standpoint, it’s probably the most impressive game of all time. I love the painterly landscapes. Blue skies have never looked this good. The amount of detail into making this place feel real is barely fathomable. I drew glee from wandering through the environment and documenting the assorted wildlife in the world. I usually hate survival games, but the crafting mechanics were laid back enough to not be a hassle. I fully committed to living Arthur's life as realistically as possible. I go back to camp every couple day just to see the rest of the gang and sleep in a “real” bed. In its own way, this is the game I wanted No Man’s Sky to be. There’s something intriguing over every horizon. That’s how I ended up a Saint Denis well before the game provides a narrative reason to go there. I went up north into the mountains and found the skeleton of what I think is a Bigfoot slumped under a cliff space for shelter. And I know there’s plenty of other weird stuff out there that I haven’t seen yet.

As much as I love the game, I understand why some people seem to hate it. It is pretty wild that a big-budget game came out like this. I applaud the audacity. I love that a game of this size is comfortable with large swathes of empty space to roam and do your thing. Everything takes time in RDR 2, which can be an impediment to fun for some, but to me, speaks to the larger themes of the game, that this lifestyle was difficult and mostly ugly. As much as the game is fascinated by the cowboy myth, the game restrains itself from glamorizing it. The game repudiates and accentuates the cowboy myth in equal measure. Arthur spends most of his time/life working for malevolent egotists who nevertheless have the power to make him do whatever violent deeds they need to get done. The downfall is inevitable. He’s trapped in an increasingly claustrophobic world, and the ways he bristles against that is really well portrayed. The journal is a fantastic touch. I get why the slower pace bugs some people, but a game set at the turn of the 20th century should be slow compared to modern times. It’s slower than most games, but it’s never sluggish. Red Dead asks different questions of the player than any other game of this scope, but that commitment to its own vision is what makes the game so great.

That’s not to say that the game doesn’t have any faults. I like many of the characters around the camp, but the Dutch storyline hasn’t done much to grab me. Exploring the same terrain as the first RDR. Dutch’s hold over these people isn’t especially convincing, and since this is ultimately a prequel, I have a pretty good idea of how this ends. I’m still in Chapter 3 at the time of writing, so all of these opinions could change as the plot progresses. The quick draw system was so poorly implemented that I actually bought a new controller to get better at that system. But I’ve enjoyed the vast majority of what I’ve played too much to let that get in the way. Also, this is a game that lets you knock out eugenics advocates and kill KKK members with zero repercussions, so I can only criticize it so much.

1. Tetris Effect

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Tetris Effect is a thing that shouldn’t exist. There are few franchises where the concept of innovation is more undesired than in Tetris. The basic loop is unimpeachable. The more developers messed with the formula, the worse the results tended to be. That is, until now. Tetris has always demanded one's full attention, but Miziguchi’s direction appeals in such a special way. It's sensory overload for the ages. The visuals are exemplary and clear enough that they never get in the way of the actual gameplay. The songs are sumptuous and more varied than the tracks in Rez or Lumines. But the magic of Tetris Effect is in the way it adds up to so much more than the sum of its parts.

For a game whose main directive is to put puzzle pieces together to make disappearing lines, Tetris Effect has a remarkable capacity for emotional resonance. I didn’t think it was possible to become emotionally invested in puzzle blocks falling from the sky, but the game’s brilliant aesthetic makes that possible. The first thing I did when I downloaded the game was play through the Journey, the game’s story mode, in one sitting and was genuinely moved by the implicit narrative about humanity’s connection to nature, and by extension, the rest of this mostly incomprehensible universe that we call home. Finishing the last level of the Journey was probably my favorite moment in gaming this year.

The other new modes are pleasantly enjoyable. Mystery is my favorite. It’s chaotic nonsense in the best way. The online component is also way better than it has any right to be. Plays into the game’s message of community and cooperation.

It all adds up to a package that makes all other forms of Tetris look basic by comparison. So many parts of this game - the visuals, the music, the new modes, the online stuff - could’ve been terrible in lesser hands. What Miz managed to do with a thirty-year-old franchise is an achievement worthy of the highest superlatives. What a game.

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