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GOTY 2018

I don’t know when, if ever, we as a culture will get to a point where we collectively get to the end of a year and say “You know what? This was a great year generally!”. It seems, at least in the takes that come across my radar, each year is ended with a disdain for the world and a sense that we should all hope for better next year, because this year just wasn’t it. Just kidding! We all know next year will be terrible too!

But at least the video games are good right? Let’s talk about those!

My list for 2018 feels like a strange mix, and there’s no real through-line except for the one reason that they are all here. Each of these games managed to surprise me, or shock me, or create some reaction from me that was genuine, incredibly powerful, and in most cases not something I thought I needed or expected. I’ve had very strong feelings, moments, or interactions with each of these games, in a way that has stuck with me up until the end of the year. And of course, they also happen to be damn fine video games.

List items

  • Call me sentimental or simple, but I think everyone can use a good dose of joy and fun. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has brought me so much of both, even though it is less than a month old as of this writing. With every fighter from the series history, and a handful of really great newcomers, so much of Nintendo and the larger gaming community is rendered with glowing personality and attention to detail. This is evident in not only the roster, but the stages and the gigantic single player options of Classic mode and World of Light. All of these offer different ways to experience Smash Bros. remixed and organized to salute video games, their characters and worlds, and the joy we have all gotten from playing them. Ultimate is absolutely a celebration, and I am here for it.

    Beyond the shiny and celebratory exterior, though, is a fighting game that I still love. With Ultimate being the fastest playing entry since the GameCube, and movement options being refined and expanded, this game feels great to play. I cannot get enough of dialing it in as the Wii Fit Trainer to put together an impromptu combo moving across a stage with floating platforms, ending with an off stage air battle for superiority. The dynamic and freeform fighting mechanics still make Smash Bros. the only fighting game I actually care about being halfway good at, and Ultimate is giving me all of the big moments, tense matchups, and come from behind miracles that I could ask for. For all of these reasons, and the many more small touches I won’t go through here, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is my favorite game of 2018.

  • If you want to classify Hitman 2 as a sequel that mostly does more of the same, but better… you’re right. To use that as an excuse to write off this game in the conversation of the best games of 2018? That would be dead wrong. Hitman 2 takes everything from 2016’s game and crafts a new mission for Agent 47 that excels with intricate and unique clockwork maps and probably the best self-aware and surreal comedy in video games to date. In my opinion each of Hitman 2’s mission locations is equal or superior to the best maps from the previous game, and the situations I found myself in, both scripted and systems driven, could be tense, hilarious, and baffling, often at the same time. The constant loop of exploration, planning, and execution is addictive, but it wouldn’t work if it wasn’t so fun when the gears turn unexpectedly and things really go off the rails. I could (and probably will) continue to play in these virtual murder playgrounds for hours and hours more, even after the 30 hours I’ve already sunk in.

  • Everyone is probably familiar with the quote about Responsibility and Power that has long been tied to the Spider-Man story, but this game made me feel it. Yes the swinging feels great; I found every collectible because I just wanted an excuse to swing around. The costumes are amazing! The way Spider-Man’s agility, momentum, and gadgets are implemented into combat and exploration is exciting and unique. But the thing I always come back to when thinking about this year’s Spider-Man game is the feeling of being a powerful but vulnerable man who lives by a mantra, and how his motives and his struggles were playing out across this beautifully rendered city. The city itself - all the people and forces within it - joined in this struggle of Power and Responsibility. Those who are allied with Peter Parker are genuine and warm, but determined. None of them are content to stand on the sidelines or look the other way while others suffer. They are GOOD people, and when they connect with each other they do so with an understanding built on a shared vision of a better world, bolstered by a real affection for one another. It’s refreshing and very welcome to see relationships between good people explored so well. This is a Spider-Man story that captures everything I love about these characters and what Spider-Man is all about.

  • There’s a sound effect that plays when you strike the last hit on a boss in Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon. It’s a high pitched sword clash sound, but gleaming and muffled, dampening immediately and paired with a brief flash of light that fills the screen. I probably only remember it so well because I was committed to finishing Curse of the Moon’s Boss Rush mode, and that sound was a momentary release of tension that told me I could let out a breath. I was chasing that sound effect. Boss Rush isn’t that long, 7 or so fights that take a few minutes each at most, and that’s kind of how all of Curse of the Moon is. Tight, enthralling, and mesmerizing while contending with the game’s formidable but not oppressive obstacles, wrapped in terrific audio and visual treatment. This adventure was crafted with a purpose for every tiny piece, and includes enough alternative modes to encourage seeing everything it has to offer in new ways. Curse of the Moon is a terrific action game by any definition.

  • Frostpunk is so bleak that I feel like I should be repulsed by it. This is a city building simulation in which you ask questions like “Should I put sawdust in the soup to make it more filling” and “Do I want my city to be a police state or a theocracy?” Spoilers: the theocracy and police state are roughly the same level of oppression! These questions are constant and lingering, and there are always a few more lines that you can step over as conditions worsen. The nights get colder and colder, supplies become harder to find, and refugees pour in to seek aid. At what point do the ends justify the means? At what point do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? How much unrest are you willing to tolerate from people who are starving, cold, and afraid? If those answers seem easy for you, then I envy you. I spent most of my playtime with Frostpunk wrestling with the idea that these tiny, fictional people were relying on me. When I finally pulled the trigger and let the unruly masses publicly beat the “heretics” and the “sinners” in the town square just so they could let off some frustration and stop rioting, I knew my city would survive to the end. I can’t say I felt any pride for the success, but those are moments of vulnerability in myself that have stuck with me.

  • The gothic streets of Vampyr’s 1918 London are submerged in rain, blood, plague, and violence. The people of London seek shelter and medicine, or are preyed upon by dark and twisted beasts. A militant cult prowls the streets to hunt down and burn anyone tainted by plague or occult powers. And to top it all off, Dr. Jonathan Reid, who the player embodies, is mysteriously turned into a vampire. Vampyr is as ridiculous as all of that probably sounds, but it takes itself incredibly seriously, and constantly works to remind you that London and its people are suffering. As a talented Doctor suddenly imbued with dark powers, you are put in the position to help the people you find, or exploit them. What follows is an atmospheric, genuinely written, and sometimes grueling quest to shine some light on the dark streets of London in the search for answers, for what hope and comfort can be gained, or for the greater good. Reid, and most other characters in the game, always feel like they are moments away from collapsing under the weight of so many malevolent forces: war, famine, plague, aristocracy, fear. That melancholy combined with some fantastic character writing made me become so invested in these people and this place, that I worked as hard as I could to use Reid’s gifts for good, despite the hefty rewards I would have received from succumbing to the vampiric bloodlust.

  • My favorite thing about Into the Breach is that spending 10 minutes staring at the field feels like playing it correctly. No game that I’ve played before has blended tactics and puzzle mechanics so beautifully, and had the confidence to push players into a corner and say “figure this out”. It is intentionally engineered to make you feel like a genius. Despite the tough situations it puts you in, Into the Breach is extremely player friendly through giving you perfect information about enemy actions, being able to reset character movements, and even the ability to rewind a whole turn. These are all core to how the game works and are intended to make you focus on the actual problems at hand, namely those giant bugs that are targeting the few cities of civilization that remain. And yet, despite the very direct focus on mechanics, I still love the setting and style of Into the Breach. I admire its vision of an apocalypse where the heroes are time traveling mech pilots, full of hope and willingness to fight through timeline after timeline just to save anyone that they can. There are always more people that need saving, and it is heartening to think that there will always be someone willing to fight for each one.

  • I almost cannot believe that a survival and crafting game actually sucked me in, but Subnautica, you did the darn thing. The simplicity of the premise and the clear expectation of a beginning, middle, and ending were enough to get me to start the game, but it was the finely tuned loop, the quick and visible progression, and the gorgeous environments that kept me in. The alluring possibilities of what you might find from diving deep into a dark underwater canyon is intoxicating. Looking to the next crafting options for vehicles, or important upgrades for your base, or tools is the most delicious looking carrot ever dangled in front of you. Subnautica deliberately and expertly fills it’s beautiful sea with mystery, discovery, and opportunity. What I found while delving its depths was an experience that, in a simulated fashion, mirrored the very spirit of survival. In the decisions I made, in the processes and routines I practiced, and in the constant limits I had to set on my own immediate ambitions: I was, through my own simple and human powers, going to survive the impossible, and overcome.

  • Endings are fraught things. The Banner Saga 3 has the unenviable job of ending a series that not only revolves around an end of the world cataclysm, but has at every turn swatted the hand of the player that dared to hope. There is no light here. All any individual can do is strive for survival. And that is where The Banner Saga 3 begins. What happens over the course of this finale nearly broke me when it tightened the noose, daring me to keep fighting for a better way. I was gripped by a sickening fear for these characters, for this world, but even more for the consequences that could result from MY decisions, no matter how good intentioned they were. Other, less virtuous characters had acted only in self interest, but I had tried every step of the way to do what was right for everyone, hadn’t I? At the end of things, I hoped that I had held true to my own ideals, that my banner meant something in this horrid darkness, and I felt the despair along with these characters I had grown to love. In The Banner Saga the larger forces at play and how they are resolved feel much less important than the small, hopeless people, and how they choose to face the darkness. Most of the characters under your command waver, but you can keep them willing to hope with heroic deeds and pleas to their humanity. But the rest? The end of the world reveals what feels like undeniable and horrifically ugly truths about the darkest natures of people, and how willing some are to set other’s lives on fire.

  • There is something fundamental to human nature that likes to see the small hero topple the giant monster. Monster Hunter both embodies that desire, and extremely doesn’t, depending on how you interpret things. As a human hunter, I wield the insect glaive - a staff with two bladed ends. [Insert Darth Maul reference here]. The monsters I have hunted are towering, flame breathing, stone-skinned giants made of teeth and talons. In order to hunt them, I find their scent, go into their home, and then I pounce. Literally. Using my trusted glaive I will pole vault my way into battle, bouncing from end to end of the enormous beast’s hide, slashing and twirling. When it is wounded enough, it scampers away, limping and making any attempt it can to escape. This is where the David and Goliath story ends. Once I’ve chased it down enough times, I bring either its various parts, or the creature itself, sedated, back to a thriving camp full of industry and infrastructure focused almost solely on this type of hunt. These hunts can be vicious, prolonged slugfests, and it is so powerful to finally fell the massive dragon that you have been intimately locked in a mortal struggle with for 20 minutes. After the adrenaline and the blood, there are many things to think about, even beyond what kind of weapon you are going to forge from the dragon’s teeth.