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I love Hideo Kojima's Twitter account

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The Top 10 Best Games of 2019 (Plus a few others)

2019 was a pretty different year in video games for me. I had the least amount of time to play, and therefore I’ve only finished 1 of the games on my list. There weren’t as many absolute all-time bangers this year as there have been the last few years, and the majority of the games on my list also have a fair amount of issues. Despite all of that, games are still good, and I want to celebrate my top 10 games of the year, as well as some other games I want to shout-out for various reasons.

Top 10 Games

10. Mortal Kombat 11

One of my earliest gaming memories is going over to my friend’s house and playing the original Mortal Kombat on the Super Nintendo. Even though that is not the most definitive version, it still got me hooked on the series in a major way. I’ve played nearly every Mortal Kombat game that has come out since (including the extremely underrated Mortal Kombat: Shaolin Monks), and watched all of the movies (including that old animated one that split between drawn animation and VERY EARLY CGI fight scenes). Mortal Kombat as a series has been ever-present, and Mortal Kombat 11 seems to be made for fans of the series like me. The story mode is really where it’s at: Raiden went bad at the end of the last game, and a new god-like villain who controls time has entered the scene to try and scrub Raiden from all of existence. Doing so, she brings back early-timeline versions of characters, which serves to literally bring nostalgia into the main plot. It is extremely well done video game nonsense, and it somehow fits well into the established lore. These games have had actually very good story modes for a while now, but this one has both better pacing and better writing (despite its extremely goofy premise) than the last few, making it the most fun I’ve had in a fighting game story mode ever. Most of the characters feel very good to use outside of a few weird exceptions, although nobody feels bad to use either. Mortal Kombat games find a balance between over-the-top moves and animations with frame-tight precision, making them good choices for both casual and competitive play, and this game is no exception. I’m also playing this one on the Switch which is its own unique miracle. Cutscenes are pre-rendered, making them look identical to the other consoles, and gameplay is fast and fluid with only minor adjustments to graphical fidelity. Oddly enough, the only time that the game really looks rough is in the few moments of trash-talk between the characters before matches start. For whatever reason, the anti-aliasing is just gone, and textures are extremely blurry. To my eyes, these things fix themselves once matches begin, so it’s a weird difference that sticks out amongst generally great performance. I haven’t had much time to dig into the Towers or the Krypt, but playing through the story mode alone is enough for this game to be one of the 10 best games I played in 2019.

9. Killer Queen Black

My friend Carter came to visit right around Thanksgiving, and we went to a local barcade. We decided to play this very large machine called Killer Queen. Neither one of us had played it, but I remember one of the workers walking by and saying something about how awesome the game was. 8 tokens (a piece!!!) and a few minutes later, Carter had won, and I had absolutely no idea what happened. The game mentioned something about a queen, the workers, and riding a slug to victory. I’ve never laughed so hard from being so confused, and it was a great time.

There was something about the game that stuck with me though, and I noticed that it was on sale on the Nintendo Switch eShop. I found out the game has a huge, dedicated following in the arcade scene, and I really needed to know just exactly what this weird game was about. I’m glad I did - while the tutorial is fairly long for a game that is designed for quick in-and-out sessions, there is a deep layer of strategy mixed within the fast and frantic action. Each match is played out on one static screen, giving the player all of the information they need to know immediately in front of them. There are three ways to win: eliminate the other team’s Queen three times, place a certain number of berries inside your team’s base, or ride a purple snail all the way to a finish line. Each of these victory conditions can be achieved fairly quickly, requiring everyone to pay attention to a number of things at once. That sounds stressful on paper, but in practice it creates a fun energy each and every match. The online functionality is a little bit hit or miss - I’ve had a number of flawless matches that all performed well, but I’ve also had some matches with pretty devastating lag. I don’t think that’s a problem with the game as much as it’s a problem with the Nintendo Switch online infrastructure, but nonetheless it’s one of the only flaws I can find with the game. Riding a snail all the way to victory right in front of the other team is one of the best multiplayer moments I’ve had in a long time, and it’s nearly worth the price of the game by itself. I can’t recommend this game highly enough if you’re looking for a great multiplayer Switch game, but I also recommend trying this out with some friends if you ever find it at an arcade.

8. Resident Evil 2

Resident Evil 7 in VR is one of my favorite gaming experiences of this generation, so Resident Evil 2, while not being a direct follow-up to that game, had big shoes to fill (for me at least). While it is not as immersive or intense as RE7 was, it is an extremely well-executed iteration on the Resident Evil 4 style of gameplay. Every moment of the game feels extremely polished - I never ran into any glitches, frame rate drops, or other technical flaws. The game looks phenomenal - I’ve never been so wowed by a nasty zombie mouth in my life. Updates to the map system should carry over into every other game from now on to infinity — the map will show any remaining items or tasks left in a certain room before it changes color, indicating that the room is “finished” and you don’t have to worry about going back to it any more. This is extremely helpful, especially in situations where a room was blocked-off from the player. I loved that I didn’t have to stress out about how to get into a certain room, or that I was going to miss something that I desperately needed - the map was always there to let me know I was doing just fine. That little bit of stress relief is especially valuable any time Mr. X was present, because he raised the stress level by one hundred million bajillion fafillion gazillion. Mr. X is a big boy zombie/tank/dapper gentleman who can’t be killed, and will always chase you. Hearing his footsteps get louder and louder as he tracks you down from one end of the map to the other is such a brilliantly terrorizing aspect of this game, and it was far and away what made the game scary. The story was a little bit disappointing compared to more recent releases in the series, but it was a nice throwback to how a lot of older Capcom stories used to be - really cheesy, terrible, yet endearing voice acting, and more convoluted than coherent. Resident Evil 2 is a fantastic remake, and an excellent horror/action game on its own, even if it doesn’t get close to the heights of Resident Evil 7. There wasn’t a more polished game that I played in 2019, and it is easy to recommend to anyone who likes thrilling third-person action games.

7. Luigi’s Mansion 3

Speaking of thrilling third-person action games with a nice dose of spooky, Luigi’s Mansion 3 is...actually pretty opposite in tone from any of the Resident Evil games, but that’s part of what makes it great! Luigi’s Mansion 3 is set in a haunted hotel rather than a mansion, but each floor comes with a unique gimmick, decoration, or combination of the two, keeping the experience fresh. As Luigi (and also companion Gooigi, Best New Character 2019), the player is tasked with saving his friends (Mario, Peach, some Toads) from imprisonment by King Boo. The gameplay revolves around using a vacuum and flashlight to get rid of ghosts, find secrets, and clean up everything in sight. Everything. Nothing is safe from Luigi’s vacuum - anything sitting on a shelf, mice, curtains, tablecloths, table items, pool balls on a pool table, ghosts, luggage...the list goes on and on. Coins, dollar bills, and gems are commonly found in and around the various clutter in the hotel, giving great motivation to vacuum literally everything in sight. This is satisfying in its own way, but it also makes for great moments when Luigi would get startled by something he vacuumed - which happens a lot. Nintendo is known for how charming their games are, and Luigi’s Mansion 3 is no exception. The music, use of animations, and sound effects create a fun and often funny atmosphere, despite the game’s location. The music is particularly good - it has a jazzy, noir feel to it that perfectly matches Luigi’s situation as a scaredy-sleuth. The game is not particularly challenging, but it doesn’t need to be - I’ve best enjoyed it in short spans, clearing out a floor before moving on to the next or doing something different. The satisfying nature of clearing out absolutely everything with the vacuum mixed with the game’s lighter tone makes for a relaxing, fun experience each time I play. Luigi’s Mansion 3 is no Breath of the Wild or Super Mario Odyssey, but it’s fun and charming - what else can you ask for?

6. Control

There was a time when Control was at the top of my list. The premise of the game is extremely up my alley: the protagonist Jesse Faden arrives at the Federal Bureau of Control seeking answers about...something. Everything looks like the inside of an ordinary office building until it extremely doesn’t - people are floating in the air, there is a small murmur of incoherent voices constantly in the background, and some rooms shift their entire architecture around. There are some rooms that house ordinary items behind warning signs, and some rooms that don’t seem to adhere to the rules of time and space. There seems to be some sort of demonic invasion happening, and Jesse regularly receives messages from the recently dead (murdered?) Director of the FBC, and also messages from upside-down pyramids who only sort of speak coherent English. Also, Jesse becomes the new Director within a few minutes of starting the game, and she receives a weapon that can shift its form in order to have multiple functions. Jesse also gains powers like levitation and telekinesis along the way.

You might read all of that and think, What the heck? And you would be right - Control has a fair amount of sci-fi/horror storytelling that hits hard all at once before slowing to a drip-feed through the rest of the game. I love this kind of stuff though - the kind of stories that initially raise a ton of questions and then giving them a long time to simmer before answering them later. I was immediately drawn in to the game, and I am still enjoying finding out more about what exactly is happening (I have not yet beaten the game, but I think I’m getting pretty close to the end). The central narrative surrounding Jesse’s quest is interesting on its own, but the real treat is discovering the world of the “paranatural” that has been right under everyone’s noses the whole time, and what an office dedicated to studying and/or containing it would look like. The game has a semi-dark sense of humor as well - whether it is from office memos about haunted objects, or instructional safety videos, the small amount of levity helps to keep the tone from being completely dark and serious the whole time.

Using Jesse’s powers make Control actually the best Jedi game of the year (more on that later), as the balance between supernatural powers and gunplay is perfectly tuned. Combat encounters have a pendulum-like feel to them, as you bounce back and forth from using Jesse’s powers and using the Service Weapon (which is the name for the only weapon you receive in the game). The telekinesis power in particular feels great, and is backed up by excellent sound design. Much like the axe-recall power in the most recent God of War, there is a supernatural “whoosh” noise that accompanies objects as they rush towards Jesse’s open hand before stopping in suspension, ready to launch away at an enemy. Also - just about any object in Control can be launched via telekinesis, and if there is no viable object within range, Jesse will just fling a chunk of architecture instead. This eliminates the need to constantly scour for a “throwable” object - if you need to use the power, you can just do it, and know that at least something is going to show up.

Combat encounters can sometimes end really quickly, but not in a good way. Sometimes depending on where and when enemies spawn, they will all launch attacks at the same time, ending the encounter before ever having a chance to retaliate, which can be frustrating. Checkpointing isn’t always the best either, as there have been multiple times where I had to run a decent amount from my last checkpoint to where I actually needed to be, oftentimes also needing to engage in a pop-up combat encounter that wasn’t there before. Load times aren’t the fastest either, so dying can almost feel punishing in certain moments. I have encountered a fair amount of frame-rate drops when there are a lot of enemies and/or particles flying around in combat encounters, and also any time after leaving the pause menu. Most of these moments are more of a distraction than a detriment, but they are nonetheless annoying.

I’m excited to finish the story in Control and find out more about the truly spectacular world built within. The technical difficulties mixed with the often frustrating combat holds this game back from being truly great, but I still recommend Control for anyone who is into supernatural mysteries with their action games.

5. Gears 5

Gears 5 was a pretty big surprise for me this year. I loved the original three games and played them a ton, so I was pretty excited to play Gears of War 4 when that came out. Rather than exploding back onto the scene after a few years, Gears 4 was...just more Gears. The story was mostly forgettable outside of a few moments near the end with the new character Kate. I was more excited to see that Kate would be more of a central character to the story of Gears 5, but I was beginning to think that maybe I might be over the gameplay of these games. Once I finally sat down to start Gears 5, I didn’t stop playing until I was done with the entire first act. Gears 5 returns to what made the first three games so great - huge, cinematic set pieces, exquisitely designed combat encounters, and enough interesting story hooks amidst all the explosions to keep you guessing about what is going to happen around the next corner. The gameplay itself is still the same cover-based combat as the previous games, but they nailed the execution. Combat is fast and furious, while still placing importance on flanking and smart usage of cover. Honestly, both Gears 4 and 5 are two sides of the same coin - they are both more Gears of War, but where 4 felt stagnant, 5 feels vibrant and exciting again. I’m not sure this is the best game to start from in the series, but for folks who have played through the first 4, there is a lot to be happy about.

4. Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is what you get when you combine Persona, Harry Potter, and medieval-anime-strategy-action. The premise of FE3H has the main character becoming the leader of one of three houses (think Harry Potter houses) in a medieval military academy. Each of the three houses have different characters within, as well as different small stories to encounter. The overarching plot of the game remains the same regardless of house choice, but the smaller stories between are drastically different. This concept on its own promises that there is hundreds of hours of content in the game right at the very beginning, and I think that’s pretty cool. The structure of the game is reminiscent of the Persona series in that everything follows a calendar. Usually, a quest is given at the beginning of the month, and the end of the month will culminate in a battle sequence that resolves the story of the quest. The days between can include a number of different activities: practice battles, exploration of the academy, hanging out with the students in your chosen house, “lectures” during the week (which amount to raising the stats of your students), and other various mini-activities. Each week, the player is allotted a certain amount of activity slots, which means you have to pick and choose carefully which activities to do on a certain day. I’m only about halfway through the story, but the writing has consistently been good to great. Getting to know the students in your house is a fun addition to the already great combat of the Fire Emblem series. Combat is slightly different this time around - older games have used a rock/paper/scissors mechanic based around the effectiveness of different types of weapons. This time, the rock/paper/scissors mechanic is gone, which places more of an emphasis on tactics and strategy, rather than making sure your team is balanced to “win” any matchup. I do think that this has taken some of the difficulty down from previous games, but I really enjoy not having to worry about that mechanic any more. Most of the characters look good, and the academy is fun to explore in full 3D (a first for the series), but there are often some bland textures and map designs. The music is consistently very good, whether it is in battle or running around the academy. There’s a whole lot of game in this game, and all of it is fun to play, making FE3H one of the easiest Switch games to recommend.

3. Death Stranding

I’ve been anxiously awaiting Death Stranding ever since its creative director, Hideo Kojima, was let go from Konami. The Metal Gear series is one of my favorite game series of all time, and the prospect of Kojima doing whatever he wants with his own studio was something too juicy to ignore. A few years later and it’s here - and it delivers on everything one might expect from a Kojima passion project: thoughtful gameplay, masterful intertwining of systems at play, and a whole lot of bonkers story elements that hold together just enough within the rules of the world to work. Death Stranding is a challenging game to describe: there was an apocalyptic event that brought about the presence of a purgatory-like realm; this realm brought about ghosts who will create almost nuclear-level explosions if they come into contact with humans. This new realm (called “The Beach” due to its appearance) also brought about the ability to transport materials through it at hyper speeds - almost like an inter-dimensional 3D printer - which they have named the “chiral network.” The apocalyptic event seems to have knocked out the regular internet, but and not everyone is connected to the chiral network. This is where the player comes in: the main character, Sam Porter Bridges (played by Norman Reedus), is tasked with traveling across the country to try and get other cities (and sometimes individuals) connected to the chiral network to try and rebuild the nation. Sam is a porter by trade, which means he is tasked with hand delivering items that can’t be sent through the chiral network. Along the way, Sam has to avoid the explosion ghosts, as well as a group of terrorists who seem to have special powers of their own. I’m simplifying some elements of the story here (believe it or not), but this is exactly the kind of story Kojima likes to tell - large, universal themes mixed with some wild and imaginative sci-fi (and in this game’s case, light horror) elements.

The gameplay is where Death Stranding sets itself apart from other third-person action games. Instead of violence and gunplay being the main ways the player interacts with the game, Death Stranding is best-described as a hiking game. Each mission gives Sam a particular package or group of packages to deliver, and it’s up to the player to manage this cargo and walk it to the destination. Sam wears a pretty cool sci-fi backpack, and he can pile up an almost comical amount of packages on his back. The moment-to-moment gameplay asks the player to find the best possible route from destination to destination, and Sam can craft tools and equipment to help out. Is there a large hill standing in the way? Craft a ladder and place it down. Is there a sheer drop in the way? Craft a climbing rope and climb down. Want to make trips faster? Build a road and drive a truck. In line with the theme of connection and helping out your fellow people, any equipment you place or road you build remains there, and will show up in other player’s games once you connect cities to the chiral network. This is always cool to see: one time I had to traverse a super rocky section of terrain to get to where I needed to go. Once I connected that person’s settlement to the chiral network, I went outside and there were bridges and footpaths that appeared that made it exponentially easier to navigate. I started building a road once and then 5-10 minutes later it was finished thanks to the work of some other player(s) out there. You never see any other players in-game, but the results of their work are always helpful. There’s something special about the idea of helping out other people represented mechanically within the game - knowing that anything that helps you out will also help out other people is pretty cool. I find the pathfinding elements enjoyable, but I also like to figure out what’s the best path while I’m on a hike as well.

Death Stranding is also far and away the best looking game of 2019: the performance capture of all of the characters is fantastic, giving each performance a depth that is closer to watching a movie than most video games - the all-star cast certainly helps here as well. There is a clean fidelity to everything in the game that makes it all very pleasant to look at, and the technology design is imaginative sci-fi while still feeling grounded in real life. The landscapes that Sam traverses don’t remind me much at all of anything in the United States, but they are often gorgeous on their own. There are a few moments where Sam turns a corner or reaches the top of a hill and is met with a spectacular view, and that’s always awesome.

Death Stranding is certainly a different experience than a lot of other action games, and I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s for everyone, but I also think it’s a game everyone should try. Kojima really went for it with this game, and I think it mostly succeeds, which is even more exciting for whatever he will do next.

2. Super Mario Maker 2

I only played Super Mario Maker on the Wii U once, and ever since then I’ve been hoping it would come to the Switch. Super Mario Maker 2 is everything that was great about the first game, but now you can take it anywhere. The “Make” portion of the game is still the same suite of features, creatures, and obstacles from multiple 2D Mario games, and it’s still relatively easy to jump in and begin making a level. There are mild templates available if you need a jump-start, but it’s also not too difficult to begin building from scratch. Levels can be nightmarishly difficult, closer to a “regular” Mario level, something easier and more relaxing, or something else entirely. Some levels are configured to play full songs; one level I’ve seen was a functioning calculator (I have no idea how they did that but it works); recent updates have made it possible to turn Mario into Link from the Zelda series, making it possible to completely change how a player should approach a 2D Mario level. I’ve made two levels so far, and I had a great time making both. The “Play” portion of the game has two sub-modes: Story, and Course World. Course World is the way to access levels that people have made from all across the world - search functionality is a bit convoluted, and finding specific creators isn’t very easy, but it’s easy enough to find new levels of varying quality within a minute or two. Story has a large amount of Nintendo-created levels that Mario must play through in order to get enough coins to rebuild Peach’s castle. These levels are often showcases for different mechanics to use while making a level, but they generally are all high quality levels. The sheer amount of content in SMM2 is staggering, and it’s potentially unlimited Mario depending on how long this game will continue to be supported.

Some of the games on my list I wouldn’t say are for everyone - Super Mario Maker 2 is a game for everybody. Levels of all difficulties can be found both online and off, and the creation suite is simple enough for anyone to make a level, and complex enough for anyone who really wants to dig into making spectacular creations. Super Mario Maker 2 was worth the wait, and I’m excited to see what new creations will be made for years to come.

1. Outer Wilds

Super Mario Maker 2 was my clear number one game on this list until December, until I really decided to see what this Outer Wilds game was all about. I had been seeing it on top of a lot of publications’ GOTY lists, so I know I needed to at least try it out. What I found was the only game in 2019 that I couldn’t stop thinking about when I wasn’t playing it. Outer Wilds is the best Zelda game to come out this year, even though Link, Ganon, Zelda, and Hyrule are nowhere to be found. Outer Wilds is a game best experienced knowing very little coming in, so before I write a little more about it I’ll say this: I can’t recommend this game highly enough, and even though it might seem a little intimidating at first, keep at it - it won’t take long to find out that this game is an absolute treasure.

The premise of Outer Wilds is simple enough: you are a member of an alien race who have developed a space program, and you are getting ready to head out on your first interstellar voyage. There are already a few explorers out in the galaxy who are available to meet up with and share discoveries, but there’s also hints that an ancient civilization used to occupy the galaxy, and finding out what happened to them is a motivating mystery. Once you take-off for the first time, the whole galaxy is open for exploration - each planet or moon is immediately available to land on and discover, and each location is full of interesting items to discover, and often wild environmental effects that the player needs to avoid (or sometimes utilize). The journey moves along, and each time you learn something new, your ship’s log takes note of it - turning knowledge itself into the rewards and “inventory items” that you gain. Then - something happens: all of a sudden, a wistful song fades in and plays for a couple of minutes. Then, the sky goes dark...before slowly turning bright white. The light takes over - and everything is reset to the beginning. What just happened?? Did the sun just go supernova? Why does time reset every 22 minutes? Is this connected at all with what happened to the ancient civilization? All of these questions got me hooked deep into the game, and I’ve enjoyed getting closer to the truth every time I play. This game is jam packed with jaw dropping moments - most of which I want to avoid talking about here. There is a magic and a terror to exploring the galaxy, and it makes for a truly compelling experience.

I say that this is the best Zelda game not because it shares a time-loop mechanic with Majora’s Mask, but because I haven’t had this much fun exploring since Breath of the Wild. What at first seems wide open to an almost intimidating degree soon becomes a densely-packed galaxy, full of wondrous moments and impactful revelations about the truth of the situation. Outer Wilds can also be a lot of moods: lonely, wondrous, hopeful, terrifying, inspiring, melancholy, and mysterious - but it is always satisfying. Play this game if you can - it is undoubtedly the best game of 2019.

Best of Backlog

  1. Red Dead Redemption 2 - I finally beat the single-player story this past year, and it lived up to the hype.
  2. Bloodborne - Playing through The Old Hunters DLC with my friend Cory was one of my favorite highlights of the year.
  3. Stardew Valley - This game continues to be one of my favorite relaxing games to play. The addition of multiplayer is seriously impressive - the entire game is feature-complete with friends, and that’s awesome.

Best Music

  1. Outer Wilds - This game has a backwoods-but-space vibe to it, and the music plays a large part. Ambient synthesizers mixed with banjo is the best combination I didn’t know I needed.
  2. Luigi’s Mansion 3 - The noir-mystery style music adds its own layer of charm to an already charming game.
  3. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order - The best part of the game, elements of previous soundtracks are intertwined with original music that holds up with John Williams’ best.

Most Disappointing: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

2019 was also a very weird year for Star Wars - The Rise of Skywalker came out and was very terrible, but The Mandalorian came out and was very, very good. So where does Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order fit within that spectrum? Somewhere in the middle. The story is set a handful of years after Revenge of the Sith, as the Empire is rising, and the Rebel Alliance is still in its infancy. You play as Cal Kestis, a former Jedi in hiding, working as a scrapper on a distant planet and keeping his Jedi powers suppressed out of safety. An early event forces Cal to use his powers, outing him and pushing him on the run. The rest of the game is spent regaining Force powers, learning more about Cal’s backstory as a Jedi padawan, and searching for an item that might save the future of the Jedi. Along the way, Cal meets a few different characters, each with their own motivations for wanting to help out the Light side, as well as a few villains who might be familiar to some fans. The story is just okay - Cal is pretty bland, and the main objectives are little more than Macguffin hunts that led to a disappointing resolution. There are a few flashback scenes that lead up to the infamous Order 66 moment from Revenge of the Sith that were really well done, but those are few and far between. The gameplay is really where the game shines - as well as where the game falters the most. The combat system is similar to Dark Souls or Sekiro in that defense and proper timing are key. The game (for the most part) punishes a button-mash, hack’n’slash approach, as the majority of enemies can dodge, counter, and overpower Cal pretty easily. Learning to properly dodge and parry is essential, as well as knowing when — and subsequently when not — to strike. While this combat system eventually “clicked” for me, I spent the majority of the game feeling a bit underpowered, which felt really strange in a game spent playing as a Jedi. Combat was at its best in one-on-one encounters, especially in lightsaber vs. lightsaber duels. The system felt perfectly tuned for the back-and-forth of a saber duel, where both characters mixed up parries and defensive maneuvers before picking the right time to strike. Combat was absolutely at its worst when facing large groups of enemies all at once. Large group encounters seemed tuned to force (no pun intended) the player to use Force powers as well as lightsaber skills, but the powers themselves were never very effective, and the “Force meter” ran out all too quickly. There is a fair amount of platforming in the game as well, and it’s mostly bad the entire way through. The amount of health lost from Cal not grabbing onto a ledge or rope, or from sliding off of the edge of a slippery slope (of which there are MULTIPLE for some strange reason) was extremely frustrating. Rather than providing a fun form of exploring the world, platforming felt like the game was trying to fight me, and that got exhausting. From a technical standpoint, the game is an absolute mess. The enemy A.I. would routinely ignore Cal, even in the midst of a fight, and I had at least one hard crash out to the system menu. I fell through the floor of the ship during hyperspace once, which ended up being more funny than frustrating, but it is still inexcusable. The camera couldn’t really keep up with the action in close spaces, which made the difficult combat unnecessarily more difficult. Overall, when the combat was at its best, and the outstanding musical score was playing, there aren’t many better games at conveying the awesome power of being a Jedi. Despite the numerous issues I had with this game, I still really had fun with it - when it all worked as intended. I wish that the developers had more time to add more polish to the game—with a lot less glitches, more finely tuned combat encounters, and tighter platforming controls, this could have been a much greater game.

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Top Ten Games of the Year 2018

GOTY #10: Dead Cells

Dead Cells is a run-based, roguelike (or roguelite? Rogueish? In the company of rogues?), side-scrolling action game by Motion Twin. You are a prisoner on an island trying to escape, and you only have one life to get out. Think Castlevania, but every time you die, you have to restart at the beginning. That might sound terrible on paper, but each run can last between a few minutes to a little over an hour, so it’s never completely world-ending each time you have to restart. The prison is semi-randomized as well: each run will look slightly different as the layout of the rooms will change, but the rooms themselves are curated, meaning the prison still feels hand designed while feeling fresh each run. There are ways to have persistent progression though, either through unlocking new weapons to use in later runs, or by unlocking upgrades to your character.

The best part of the game is far and away how good the combat feels. Each weapon feels distinct (and there are a lot of weapons), and the controls are precise, leaving success or defeat almost entirely up to player skill, which is nice. Rarely have I found a moment that felt “cheap” or wonky in a way that killed me unfairly — either myself or my weapons needed to be better. There is a wacky sense of humor that shows up in subtle ways, whether it is from a comment by an NPC, or by a goofy gesture in response to something in the world by the main character. I was surprised by the humor, as the setting seems to be fairly dark in nature, but I appreciate it. The game takes itself seriously enough in ways that benefit gameplay, while not taking itself seriously in ways that provide some needed levity. The game is quite difficult - I still haven’t beaten it, and I’m not super sure I’ve even gotten very far - but the challenge is balanced enough to make you feel like you’re always getting better at the game each time you play. The game saves at pretty frequent intervals as well, which means the game is well-suited for both short and long sessions, which I find helpful. The story isn’t told traditionally, but rather through clues in the environment or NPC comments, much like a Souls game. It’s possible (maybe probable) that I haven’t seen enough of the game to get a good enough grasp on the story, but what I’ve been able to deduce so far doesn’t seem like there is much that is interesting. There are glimpses of an interesting world, but the focus definitely seems to be on finding new weapons and using them to take out monsters, which is fine by me.

I keep coming back to Dead Cells, partially due to it’s addicting gameplay loop, but also because it’s great to play in shorter sessions. The auto save is great — I’ve never really lost progress any time I’ve left and come back before a run was over. If there was more and/or a better story, I could see this game being higher on this list, but it is still a great game and an easy recommend.

Played on: Switch Also available on: PC/Mac, PS4, Xbox One

GOTY #9: Celeste

Celeste is a game that flew under my radar until I started hearing folks on podcasts rave about it in a way that seemed special. Review scores were in the high 9s (or even 10s in some cases), and my friend and former podcast partner was singing its praises as well. Initially this didn’t look like my thing at all - I’m not huge into deadly tough platformers or 8-bit graphics - but I’m glad I finally decided to give it a shot. What I found was a game with super responsive platforming, a great soundtrack, and a story I found meaningful in a way that I didn’t expect before I played.

The secret sauce of Celeste is really the instant reload after you die. You die a lot in Celeste (I’m somewhere north of 3,000), but you immediately start back at the beginning of the screen you are on, hardly missing a beat. This helps curb the frustration of completing some of the platforming challenges, as they are some of the most difficult I’ve ever played in a 2D-platformer. The quick respawn helps to encourage you, that no matter what, you can get through the challenge as long as you keep trying. The game chooses to trust that you, the player, can get through the challenge without much handholding, and that message is consistent in the story as well. I don’t want to spoil much of the story here, but Celeste is the journey of a girl named Madeline as she is attempting to climb a mountain. Along the way, Madeline runs into a quirky cast of side characters who both help and hurt her along the way. The emotional beats of the story resonated with me in a way I wasn’t necessarily expecting - which was a nice surprise - and ultimately was the reason I continued to subject myself to the ever-increasing and punishing platforming. I wanted to see Madeline’s journey through, even if that meant failing over and over and over (and over) again along the way. I don’t mean to knock the challenging aspect of the platforming — I just personally found it taxing to run into a buzzsaw (figuratively, not literally) over long sessions. If you’re into that though, Celeste brings along a quality story to go with the platforming, as well as a top-notch synthy soundtrack. The main quest is about 8-10 hours (depending on how good you are at super difficult platforming I guess), but there are unlockable alternate versions of each level that amp up the difficulty significantly, so there’s a fair amount of game in the game as well.

Played on: Switch Also available on: PC/Mac, PS4, Xbox One

GOTY #8: Hitman 2

There was my target: Vicente Murillo, a revolutionary military leader trying to take over Columbia. He’s arrogant and surly, and he just finished recording a speech in a room with a green screen, trying to convince the people to follow him into a better Columbia. He’s also a facist, and I’ve caught him stepping outside the small shack where he recorded his speech, taking a second to gaze out over the river. Maybe he’s taking a second to go over the speech he just recorded, considering how people will react, or maybe he is taking a second to “smell the roses,” knowing that his moment is near, or maybe...he’s turning around to go back in the shack? Wait, that can’t be right? I watch as he returns back to the seat in front of the green screen, starting over with the same exact speech. Okay, that’s a little weird, I think, as I hunker down in the small shop I have commandeered to spy on Murillo (so sorry to the guy I had to put to sleep and dump into a laundry box - I know you’re just trying to work hard to make a living). I watch and listen as he finishes his speech, and again gets up and walks out the door to the back of the shack, taking a second to look over the river...before he goes right back in, sits down, and starts his speech all over.

At this moment, I realize he’s glitched. He’s stuck in a never-ending loop of sitting down, recording a speech, walking outside for about two seconds, and then repeating the entire process over and over. This isn’t great for creative assassination, which is what I’m there to do. Well, I guess we just do this the basic way, I think, as I prepare my silenced pistol - effective, but extremely boring in a game where you can knock someone out with a blueberry muffin to the face. I take aim and shoot - success! Target eliminated! Time to go! I immediately leave my makeshift base of operations and start walking towards the closest exit. I thought I got my shot off without anyone noticing, but someone somehow saw me, and now everyone’s mad. I’m getting close to the exit, so I start sprinting (in serpentine motion, naturally). Within feet of the exit, my heart pounding, believing that I’m gonna barely make it out, I finally get taken down. I’m Kevin Dyson at the goal-line, the Rams win, I fail the mission. That was my one shot at the Elusive Target, one of a series of one-off, one-attempt missions in Hitman 2, and I was left laughing with a goofy grin on my face. I loved every minute of it, even though it all went down in flames.

This story is the best way I can describe Hitman 2, outside of the very reductive: it’s more Hitman. The sequel to the 2016 iteration, Hitman 2 brings more levels to explore, more ridiculous ways to complete your objectives, and small details that add wrinkles to the experience. When it works (and this is most of the time), Hitman 2 is the best James Bond movie simulator out there, complete with gadgets, costumes, lavish set pieces, and a solid sense of humor. Not much of that has changed from Hitman 2016 - there’s just more of it. The level design is still absolutely amazing here, and each new area brings its own distinct flavor of fun. Some new details like tall brush to conceal yourself (or someone else) and working mirrors bring new things to thing about as you approach your mission, and the graphics engine seems to have been given a slight overhaul in order to run more smoothly.

Sometimes though, the simulation breaks in ways that create my story above. People glitch and get stuck in a loop. People find an unconscious body and then track me down (wearing a different costume than before) halfway across the map during a cutscene. Sometimes the simulation breaks in ways that are more funny than they are frustrating, but other times it’s just frustrating. Thankfully, those moments are few and far between, and even after completing the main story, I’ve had fun replaying the levels and trying new things. Hitman 2 a great addition to the best stealth action series of this generation, and it would be higher on this list if it was more innovative than iterative.

Played on: PS4 Also available on: Xbox One, PC

GOTY #7: Monster Hunter World

Monster Hunter World, for a while, was much higher on this list. If this was Gameplay Loop of the Year, Monster Hunter World might be number one. The basic loop of explore the map, track the monster, fight, gather materials, craft, rinse, repeat caught me in a major way. This is the basic loop of all of the Monster Hunter games, but the big difference with World is the amount of quality of life improvements within. In the old games, the map was broken up into different sections, and there was a fade out/fade in between every section, so it never felt like a living, breathing world. The basic function of sharpening your weapon was tied to finite consumable items, but now all you need is time and space, and there’s no limit on the amount of times you can sharpen. Other granular details like this make this the easiest to get into Monster Hunter game in the series by a country mile. I sunk 40-50 hours into this game and had a blast throughout.

Some of the best emergent storytelling moments I had in a game happened here as well, whether it was chasing down a monster only to have two bigger and badder monsters meet us all in a corner of the map, taking a huge leap down onto a flying monster and nailing the landing, or the first time my friends and I discovered the table in the one area in the hubworld where you can see each other, there were countless unscripted moments that really made the game special. Along with all of the cool emergent moments, another great aspect of this game is the quality of the animations. Instead of a health bar, monsters convey how weak or strong they are by how they move. Monsters might start limping away, or they might get more aggressive and reckless if they are hurt. When monsters fight each other, even more animations occur, making it awesome to watch. Every time you eat a meal at the main hub, there is a montage of the cat chef cooking, and it wins Best Cutscene of the Year, no contest.

Despite all of the quality of life enhancements, there are still some really bewildering design decisions, especially when it comes to multiplayer. It’s not made clear initially how to join up with other players, and it is impossible to join at all if one player hasn’t seen the opening cutscene for a certain monster. I understand that they wanted to have that moment of discovery for the player without any other people around, but in practicality it made things less intuitive. There are still way too many menus, and the drop rate of certain items needed to make high level loot is not great, forcing you to really grind once you hit a certain point. There is a story, but I’m not sure there should be one. I ended up blazing through dialog boxes because the writing wasn’t the best, but also the overarching themes of imperialism and conquest weren’t my favorite. The good news is, you really don’t need to engage with the story to fully enjoy the game. This was far and away the most fun multiplayer game I played this year, and I’m looking forward to how this series will continue to evolve in the future.

Played on: PS4 Also available on: Xbox One, PC

GOTY #6: Florence

Early in the year, I checked the Apple App Store to check and see what was new — and that’s when I lucked out and saw Florence. I was initially intrigued by the hand-drawn art style, and then once I found out the lead designer worked on Monument Valley, I decided to give this game a shot. This game is a gift. A refreshingly different experience than most games I play, Florence had no violence, took about 45 minutes to complete, and told a story that, while not in comparison to books or film, is mostly unique to video games. We follow the journey of Florence Yeoh, a 25 year old Asian-American woman who works in a stale office job but has aspirations for more, and her relationship with Krish Hemrajani, an Indian-Australian street cellist. The gameplay mechanics and the story intertwine in ways that are endearing and creative. Conversations play out as puzzle pieces that fit together to create a speech bubble — there is no dialogue, but the puzzles have less and less pieces as Florence and Krish get to know each other, just like how real conversations become easier. Moments like this use mechanics to connect you to the narrative in a way that I haven’t experienced much in other games. Some moments in particular actually hit me pretty hard - instead of reading or watching important story beats happen, the way you interact with the game end up being a metaphor for what the characters are going through, which ends up being pretty powerful.

The story itself isn’t groundbreaking, but I appreciate that the main characters aren’t the typical white couple that is in hundreds of love stories, and I appreciate that the overall theme is positive, even if it deals with both love and loss. I was left wishing I had more of this game, but the short length worked perfectly for the story. Fortunately, replaying through it is still charming in large part due to the incredible soundtrack, filled with piano and cello lines that sweep in and out, and create an emotional framework for the story to move. This is an easy recommend for anyone interested in playing through and experiencing a well-told love story, and the unique mix of story and mechanics make it one of the most interesting games I played this year.

Played on: iOS Also available on: Android

GOTY #5: God of War

As a fan of the original God of War trilogy, I was really looking forward to this year’s entry to the series, and BOY (Boy! Boy. Boy...BOY) was I happy with the result! God of War is the story of Kratos, the Greek god of war, as he has settled down in Norse mythology land with his son, Atreus, after the death of his wife. The tone of the game is set pretty immediately — the opening scene is of a funeral pyre. Unlike the over-the-top-ness of the previous games, this God of War opts instead to be more introspective, somber, and weighty, while still providing moments of intense and large-scale action. The Kratos of the previous games was as one-note as any character could be: always angry, loud, and boisterous. The gameplay was equally singularly focused: kill everything, and be as extremely violent as possible. While those games were fun in a mindless monster mash kind of way, God of War 2018 expands and improves on the formula in satisfying ways.

The biggest change in combat is the change in weapon. Kratos begins the game with the Leviathan Axe, which is an axe that can return to Kratos’ hand after throwing it, similar to Thor’s hammer. The axe is also imbued with ice magic, so Kratos can use the axe to also freeze enemies. The complexity of the combat does come with a much steeper learning curve than the previous games, but the trade-off is immense. I really felt like the God of War by the end of the game, assessing combat situations and making the right call to clear any and all enemies as efficiently (and stylishly) as possible. My favorite game mechanic this year is that axe recall — it might not sound like much on paper, but the animation and sound design of the moment the axe returns to your hand is just so satisfying.

This game also has my favorite soundtrack of 2018. Bear McCreary created a soundtrack that weaves unique themes created for different characters, and it contributes as much to the narrative as anything that happens on screen. Almost midway through the main theme, there is a choir crescendo that gives me chills every time I listen! The music provides gravitas during dramatic scenes, and ramps up the tension during combat. Frankly, I think this is a perfect soundtrack, and it’s one I’ll continue to listen to long after this year.

While this is most certainly a new step for the series in many ways, there are still some great nods to previous games that I appreciated as a longtime fan, including one extended sequence that might also be my favorite sequence in a game this year - just not one I want to spoil here. The art design and animation are at the top of the industry, and while I do enjoy the “no camera cuts” design choice, it is also easy to see some of the shortcuts they took to get there. I enjoy this game a lot, but I don’t think it’s perfect.

I was left disappointed with some major elements of the story, and it’s hard for me to explain without spoiling so -

SPOILER WARNING FOR ELEMENTS OF THE STORY - SKIP DOWN IF YOU NEED

A major theme of the game is the reconciliation of Kratos’ past as an extremely violent character, and how he wants his son to be better than he was. I feel like the story was doing the work to get to that point - that you don’t have to be so violent to do what needs to be done - until the killing of a main character is shown to be an act of redemptive violence. I’m not super into the idea of redemptive violence, so I was pretty let down that the end of the story went in that direction. I feel like it undercut a lot of the character work done for Kratos, basically saying that even though he might never escape from his violent nature, sometimes that’s okay if that’s what needs to happen. As a lesson from a father to a son, I wasn’t happy with it, and it also was disappointing for another reason: the character death that was viewed in the light of redemptive violence also culminated with the devaluing of the sole main female character in the story.

We first meet Freya a few hours into the game, and she is revealed to be the mother of the main antagonist, Baldur. Freya is a complex character, one who helps out Kratos and Atreus while trying to uphold and maintain her complicated relationship with Baldur. Freya is portrayed as a level-headed, strong, and wise character - which goes out the window completely near the end of the game. As Kratos and Baldur fight, Freya becomes emotional and fragile, and would rather herself die than Baldur - while this isn’t necessarily a surprising emotion for a parent, but it isn’t very consistent with her portrayal leading up to these final moments. The death of Baldur reduces Freya into the vengeful mother, the kind of harried and intensely on-the-edge portrayal of a female character that removes the majority of the complexity that was carefully constructed up to that point. It is a shame that the major female character of the game doesn’t get an ending that she deserves, and becomes a caricature more than a character.

END SPOILER WARNING

Story issues aside, I also felt like the back half of the game is a bit of a slog. The plot does devolve into a Macguffin hunt for about 5-6 hours, and the encounter designs slip into “clear out this room of enemies” a little too much. While the combat itself was still fun, I grew tired of seemingly doing the same kinds of things without much plot movement. The final area of the game and plot revelations therein lift the game back up, but it still felt like more of a grind leading up to it than I would enjoy. There is a plentiful amount of side activities, loot to find, and mini-bosses to fight, but after I completed the main story, I didn’t feel very compelled to do much of it. Not to say that it isn’t quality — it just didn’t particularly move me to continue playing. God of War is a heck of a thing, and something that I still highly recommend, even if I wish some aspects could have been better.

Played/Available on: PS4

GOTY #4: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

“Everybody’s here!” Literally. This game has every single character that has ever been in a video game. Okay not really, but it feels like it sometimes. This game is the definition of CONTENT RICH. At launch, there are 76 characters and 103 stages, with more to come in future DLC. Each character has a Classic Mode route, which includes 6 fights and a bonus stage. There are numerous challenges to complete, Spirits to collect (more on that later), rulesets to tweak, and items galore. There are 27 different assist trophies, which act as computer-controlled extra characters that are completely different from the main roster. Other modes include a replay saving/viewing system, a tournament mode, special modes with different variables at play, and a soundtrack mode where you can listen to an exhaustive amount of music from the different games represented. There is so much game in this game — a dream for longtime fans of the series, but also nice for people just now getting into it.

All of this content - and then there’s World of Light mode. This is the new single-player mode where the player begins as Kirby, trying to save the rest of the heroes who have been swallowed up by a strange energy, and transformed into shadow versions of themselves. This mode alone is 20-30 hours long, and it includes references to hundreds of games from both Nintendo and other publishers. You travel along a 2D map littered with encounters of all sorts, each one is a reference to a specific character (or groups of characters). The way the game pulls this off is through changing colors/costumes of characters from the main roster, and adding different variables to the match — one match the floor might literally be lava, another might have a character who gets stronger as the match goes on. I’m not nearly finished with this mode, but I’m excited to continue digging further into it. It’s not perfect - the difficulty swings from stupid easy to stupid hard - but I’m glad it exists, as it is more than enough single-player content, which is something Super Smash Bros. Wii U didn’t have.

Generally, this game feels really good. Some characters feel a bit floaty, and some feel like Luis Mendoza from D2: The Mighty Ducks (if you inexplicably haven’t seen that movie, it means they move really fast but have trouble stopping where they need to stop), but for the most part the characters feel good to use. With the over-abundance of characters, there is surely at least a handful of characters that feel good to use for anyone who plays the game, and that’s a good thing. The updates to the graphics are subtle but noticeable, and the game runs smoothly whether in handheld or docked mode, with one exception: online. I’ve only played a few online matches, but even in those, there were moments of lag. Mine weren’t so bad, but I’ve seen videos of multiple seconds of lag — pretty unacceptable for a fighting game. As I continue to finish more of the single-player content, I’m sure I’ll move more towards online matches more frequently, so I hope some of that gets worked out in the coming months. Overall, this game is a dream for Nintendo fans, and a triumph for Super Smash Bros. fans, and one of the best games available for the Nintendo Switch.

Played/Available on: Nintendo Switch

GOTY #3: Marvel’s Spider-Man

Marvel’s Spider-Man is simply one of the best PS4-exclusives in the console’s lifetime so far. More than just another super-hero game, Insomniac’s take on the classic hero nails down everything about the character. Whether it is the perfect swinging (really, the swinging is so good, I had a stupid grin on my face even hours into the game whenever I would jump from a building and start doing my Spider-Thing), the writing, the flow of combat, or the abundance of suits, gadgets, and powers, Spider-Man is the definitive Spider-Game. The story, while ultimately predictable, is really fun, and I enjoyed the inclusions of Mary-Jane Watson and Miles Morales as more than cameo appearances. The game also spends time with Peter Parker, not overlooking the importance of that side of Spider-Man as well. Each of the performances are true to character, well-written, and well-acted. Honestly, the narrative portions of the game feel like a really good Marvel movie, but it’s cool because you get to play this one.

There is a staggering amount of side-missions, collectibles, and checklists to check, and I find it remarkable that each of these activities are fun and rewarding in their own ways. Often, open world games with a million dots on the map to find end up with a quantity-over-quality result, but that’s not the case in Spider-Man. Particularly, the backpacks scattered throughout the city were my favorite, because they all come with a short memory about the item’s significance in Peter’s voice — a nice little story touch. The pacing of the game is something I appreciate, as it is easy to play in short chunks or long sessions. Banging out a few story missions is fun, but taking a few minutes to swing around and find backpacks, stop crimes, or find one of Black Cat’s kitten dolls is still productive. 2018 was a year where I rarely had long sessions to play games, and I’m glad Spider-Man was able to still be fun even if I couldn’t devote hours to it at a time.

There are no huge complaints I have about this game, but there are two aspects of the game that left me a bit wanting. First, the main music theme is really good (especially in comparison to the vast majority of the music in the Marvel movies), but it’s really the only musical theme in the game. There are a few different variations of it that play during different situations, but...it’s still generally the same music throughout the whole game. I would have liked a bit more variety in the music, but at least what is there is good. The other part of the game that I wasn’t in love with is the combat. Just like the music - what’s there is good, but I figured out what works for me pretty early and stuck with that for the entire game. I didn’t feel very compelled to switch suit powers (and there are a lot of suit powers), and I was able to get through most combat situations using the same few moves. The combat encourages you to stay airborne, and that by itself is fun, but I wish I had more reasons to switch tactics or move sets more often. Despite those little issues, I still had a great time with this game. There’s something refreshing about a game that isn’t trying to deconstruct a hero, or tell a dark and edgy tale. Instead, Spider-Man is bright and vibrant, and a joy to play, and that’s the kind of game worth celebrating.

Played/Available on: PS4

GOTY #2: Red Dead Redemption 2

I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about Red Dead Redemption 2. I really loved the first game, but that was a while ago. Going back to the first game recently, I was far less enthused to replay it. I think I was beginning to feel fatigue with Rockstar’s open world game structure, especially after being somewhat disappointed with Grand Theft Auto V. None of the trailers for RDR2 really punched me in the gut — I thought it looked good, but basically just more Red Dead, just prettier. That as a concept never truly got me super excited, and then I realized that Red Dead Redemption 2 is most certainly more Red Dead, just prettier...and I’m really here for it more than I thought I would be.

For starters, it’s not just prettier - Red Dead Redemption 2 is the best looking game. Period. Not more than others in the genre, not more than other console games, just best looking ever. I’ve not seen a level of detail and visual fidelity in any other game, and they nailed it on both a large and small scale. There are spots in the map that literally made my jaw drop when I saw them, including a hill in the beginning hours of the game where you can look one way and see a large lake in the distance, or turn the camera around and see snow-capped mountains and rolling hills. The map has a larger variety of landscapes than the first game, making the journey feel less like playing through a playground set in the Old West, and more like the player is traversing through a sizable chunk of the American West and South. The way the light of the moon provides just enough visibility at night is remarkable. The fog and haze effects change the look of familiar areas dramatically, and muddy areas leave mud everywhere. The smallest details are considered as well, especially in the animations. In a lot of games, when you come across an item you can pick up in the world, you might press a button and then the item automatically enters your inventory and disappears from the world. In RDR2, Arthur, the main character, will bend down and pick up the item before placing it carefully in his pouch. These animations are intricately designed, and not once have any of them looked unnatural. Even during firefights, animations rarely look outlandish, despite what might be happening in the situation. I don’t recall a single time where I’ve seen a body rag-doll around, and that is mind blowing — it really feels like every animation for every situation was handmade. This game looks like what I imagine “next-gen” games would look like, but we have it right now. With each new generation, the level of realism in graphics has improved, and Rockstar has set the bar for future games in RDR2.

Improved realism isn’t only present in the graphics, as Rockstar created a world to inhabit rather than a Wild West playground. This distinction is made clear by the sheer amount of systems happening in the background, similar to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The rules that govern how the world works are focused on delivering the most realistic experience possible, which means that for the most part, people, animals, weather, and physics act and react in ways that they would in real life. If something could work in real life, it generally will work in this game, and vice versa. Anytime that statement isn’t true, we end up with “jank” that we see in a lot of open world games, and there’s just not a lot of “jank” here. To me, this adherence to realism is fun to navigate, but it makes it that much more worse when the realism breaks. Glitches stand out even more, and the odd moments where the world doesn’t act or react like it should become frustrating. These moments haven’t happened for me much, but they certainly are present.

The game doesn’t always control the easiest either, whether due to the amount of options the game is presenting, or due to Arthur’s movement animations. There are two to three sub-menus available at any given time, and inside those are changeable options, making it a bit confusing to get to and/or remember how to get to a certain option. The directional pad has multiple options available depending on the amount of time each button is pressed, adding more control elements with which to keep up. The same button is pressed for aiming a weapon or for initiating the context-based interaction menu. This caused me to aim my gun at people I was just trying to talk to, which was always frustrating. At first, it feels a little bit like Arthur is wading through molasses when he moves, partially due to the game’s insistence on a slow pace. Just like in real life, Arthur wouldn’t necessarily run or walk fast at every moment and while that makes sense, it does take a bit to get used to Arthur’s movement.

The slow pace also extends to the rest of the game — it takes a solid hour or two to get out of the first tutorial area, but it isn’t until Chapter 3 that tutorial-type missions stop happening. This game requires some dedication, especially initially, before the story or gameplay really gets going. For players wanting to stick to the main narrative, it would be difficult to play this game in small sessions, but the large amount of side activities can make short sessions productive. Different types of challenges with unlockable rewards return from the previous game, and they are especially good for short sessions. Even just living in this world as Arthur with no specific goal is decent for short sessions, as there is a litany of different mini-events that could happen in the world at any moment.

The story, like the rest of the game, also takes a while to get going. At the time of this post, I’ve only seen about a third or so of the narrative, and only half of that time I’ve found interesting. It doesn’t seem to be telling too much of a different tale than the first game, but the multitude of characters in Dutch’s gang really add a lot. Unlike the first Red Dead Redemption, where we spent most of our time with John Marston and met different characters along the way, RDR2 is intentional about giving Arthur plenty of opportunities to spend time with the rest of the gang. Coming back to camp always brings opportunities for having and listening to conversations in order to get to know the rest of the group. Story missions involve at least one (if not more) members of the group most of the time, shedding more light on these characters along the way. I’m excited to see more of this story, despite the fairly long time it takes to really get going.

A little over a month after launch, Red Dead Online Beta launched, and while I’ve had some fun with friends messing around, the experience (at the time of this post) is still extremely barebones. There is a short tutorial that provides a bit of story as well as introductions to the mechanics of online gameplay, but after that there isn’t much else to do. The world is less populated, assumedly to make room for other human players, which steps back from the single-player experience by making it feel more like a playground than a real world. There is a suite of competitive modes, mostly built around the shooting mechanics in the game, but I don’t think those mechanics are suited nearly as well for competitive multiplayer as they are for the single-player game. I expect Rockstar will continue to add and refine Red Dead Online into something that could be special, but it’s not nearly there yet.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a special game, and is Rockstar’s best game to date. There are aspects of this game that are absolutely amazing, and the attention to detail and devotion to creating a (mostly) realistic open world make this one of the best AAA games of all time. I wish that the shortcomings didn’t stand out so much, because I do think that this game is nearly perfect. I also wish that games of this caliber didn’t basically require developers to devote every waking moment they have to working on them — an issue that has been well-documented for this game in particular. The result of all of that work certainly speaks for itself, but hopefully the industry can do better in the future.

Played on: PS4 Available on: Xbox One

GOTY #1: Hollow Knight

I had no idea that a game about bugs in an underground kingdom would beat the sequel to Red Dead Redemption on my GOTY list for 2018, but here we are! No other game left me so transfixed as Hollow Knight this year. Disclaimer: I know this game originally released on PC in 2017, but it released on consoles in 2018 so it counts as far as I’m concerned! Hollow Knight is a 2D side-scrolling Metroidvania-style game about a bug who explores an underground kingdom called Hallownest. What once was a magnificent kingdom is now reduced to ruin, but that doesn’t stop explorers from searching for glory among the depths. What follows is a game that excels in exploration, action, and atmosphere.

I’ve never felt so immersed while playing a 2D game — Hollow Knight sets a tone early and only becomes more interesting. The story isn’t told in a traditional way, but rather through clues in the environment and dialogue by the NPCs. This allows the story to unfold piece by piece, and it gives the player agency in finding it, rather than spoon-feeding it at a regular pace. I found the mystery of “what happened here” interesting at every turn, even if at times it is a bit vague. Finding the story is only part of what makes exploration so satisfying, as Hollow Knight also has a map-making mechanic. Each time you enter a new area, the map screen is blank until you find the mapmaker NPC, who hums a cheerful tune that brings a sense of calm every time. In some areas, the mapmaker is fairly deep inside, forcing you to explore blindly until you find him, ratcheting up the tension. Once you find him, the map won’t fill in until you rest at a bench, which are the “safe” spots in the game. There is a little animation of the main character pulling out a pen and drawing more of the map, which is a nice little touch.

Benches also serve as checkpoints and places where you can engage with the progression system. Across the map, you can find charms to equip that come with different additions to gameplay. Some charms assist with offensive-combat, while some reward more defensive styles of play, and others give entirely different bonuses that can match well with other charms. This means that you can build your character to suit different challenges in the game, and change at any point. I had a build set for exploration that included quicker attack speed, a compass to help with navigation, and a longer length for my weapon (called Nails in this universe). For some bosses, I would switch to a build that would replenish my Focus meter (a combination of “mana” and health regeneration) every time I got hit, and would allow for faster health regeneration. The amount of build variety means that not only is the progression system helpful in making your character stronger, but it also helps keep the game fresh over long periods of time.

The combat is extremely satisfying, as it is fast and fluid. The game doesn’t hold back any challenge in combat, but it is rarely ever unfair. Every battle, from regular enemies to the numerous bosses, can be won using skill. Added charms, health masks (this game’s version of a health bar), and special moves can make fights easier, but ultimately each battle is a test of skill. I enjoyed feeling like I was leveling up as I was playing, feeling myself getting better and then reaping the rewards.

All of the mechanics and systems in this game are stellar enough to make it a top notch game, but the superstar feature of Hollow Knight is in it’s world design and atmosphere. At first, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the art style — initially, I thought it looked like a Flash game, which is certainly reductive. The more I played, the more I fell in love with the art design of both the characters and the world itself. Each area of the game has a different color tint to it, which helps to differentiate each area in a subtle way. This helps - there are a lot of different areas on the map, and the world never feels samey or boring. There are swampy, overgrown areas, a city where it rains constantly, a crystal cave, and an area that feels like the inside of a bee hive, just to name a few. Some parts of the map can be calming, where others are closer to a nightmare. The world in Hollow Knight is huge, and always interesting to explore.

The soundtrack is wonderful - a very close second to my favorite soundtrack of the year - and a large addition to the game’s overall atmosphere. The music will change dynamically based off of whether or not you are in combat, adding a bit of adrenaline to each encounter. A mix of melancholy and whimsy, the music never gets old. The standout track for me was the theme for the City of Tears — easily my favorite track in a game this year. The voice acting is also my favorite of any game this year - even though no one speaks English - because it is weird and often funny. While there are no performances that come close to anything like a God of War or Red Dead Redemption 2, the voices in this game bring an otherworldly life to each of the characters.

I got completely lost in this game in a way I haven’t been since playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild last year. From June to August, Hollow Knight was basically the only game I played. I found myself rooting for the main character in a way that was strange considering I was controlling him, but that’s how much I became immersed and invested in this world. There is a charm and a magic to this game that is hard to describe, but it’s one of the reasons why this game stood above the rest for me this year. Hollow Knight is on consoles and PC, and it’s only FIFTEEN DOLLARS. Please do yourself a favor and play this game, my Game of the Year for 2018.

Played on: Nintendo Switch Available on: PS4, Xbox One, PC

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Stardew Valley and Self Care

I never expected to be diagnosed with cancer. At least, maybe not until I was an old man, when those things become more expected. But alas, at 27 years old, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Unfortunately, that diagnosis usually only comes after surgery to remove the affected testicle. So, in the span of a week, I had major surgery, followed by the news that I indeed did have testicular cancer.

Nobody ever wants to be diagnosed with cancer, but at least for me, it meant I got to spend more time with my family than usual. The day I heard the news about my diagnosis, it was good to have people who cared for me around. They helped me by asking the doctor questions that seemed to escape my mind before I could ask them. They helped me do tasks that required more mobility than I was able to give. They provided assurances of love and care, regardless of what happens next.

I'm thankful for how my family were able to care for me through the initial week and a half from surgery to diagnosis, but there came a moment when processing everything that had happened sent my brain into overload. Keeping a level head felt difficult, and I felt like any illusion of control over my life was spiraling away. The part of my brain that makes words come out in an orderly fashion decided to take a vacation, and I was left feeling a bit helpless. I needed to process, but I felt like I showed up to play football without any pads on. Against the NFL. The whole entire NFL.

In that moment, I decided to start up Stardew Valley. For those unfamiliar, Stardew Valley is a farming simulator, with light RPG elements. Developed by Concerned Ape, it was one of my favorite games released in 2016. I immediately felt comforted by elements of the game that, until that day, I had taken for granted. Everything in the game happens in days starting from 6:00am until 2:00am, which means it takes some strategizing and organization in order to maximize productivity in each day. For example, this could mean knowing that by 11:00am, you need to have all of your crops watered, animals fed, and items stored, so that you can go into town to meet one of the many other residents in order to continue building a relationship with them. Then, that leaves some time to buy more seeds in the local produce store (absolutely NOT the giant-corporation owned Joja Mart), process a geode discovered in the local mine at the blacksmith's shop, or to spend some time fishing down at the beach. Once it gets later in the evening, you could visit the local tavern and buy everyone a round, or do some last-minute landscaping around your farm's property before the last of your energy is spent for the day. Adhering to the structure of organizing and executing activities in a productive way allowed me to feel a sense of control that I was missing in real life.

The music of Stardew Valley is quite charming, living in a space between retro-game devotion and modern sensibilities. The sound and tone of the music changes with each season within the game, each change seeking to capture the feeling of spring, summer, fall, and winter within a few different songs. I had always enjoyed the music while playing the game, but in this particular instance, the music felt deeply comforting, reaching a part of myself in a way that only music can. I picked up on melancholic tones that made me feel relieved, as if the music was reaching out to give me a hug, and tell me that life would be okay. While this may sound dramatic when speaking about a video game soundtrack, it is a testament to the artistry of the music that it could speak to me in such a way.

As I mentioned earlier, you can also go from your farm into the town in a short walk's time, and interact with other residents who have their own schedules to follow. Most of the relationship building in Stardew Valley is superficial at best - giving a gift that someone really likes and talking to them every day can quickly make them like you more. If there is a way to make people dislike you, I haven't found it yet. While this doesn't make for a very complex system, it does serve to make the player feel welcomed. Every conversation with the other residents of Stardew Valley isn't necessarily always sunny and positive, but there is a general feeling of warmth from most of the other people who inhabit the town. Usually, I had been seeing the other characters in the town as another stat to build, as more meters to fill up. This time, they represented a departure from what usually happens with other characters in a video game: they weren't creating conflict with me, and they weren't being used as parts and pieces of a conflict presented for me to overcome. I recognized the relief that the simplicity of the relationship system brought me in that moment, that I didn't have to experience an ounce of stress when interacting with the other characters in the game.

Suddenly, Stardew Valley was becoming more than a refreshing indie-game that hooked me with the progression of building both a farm and relationships with other characters. More so, it became an immediate source of self care that helped to calm me down and give me back a sense of control over what was happening in my life. Amidst the chaos and uncertainty that comes with a cancer diagnosis, it helped to keep my spirits on track, and helped my brain to stay away from hanging out with worry and fear for too long. I was able to escape from my anxieties for just long enough, so that way I could enjoy hanging out with my family again without feeling like a complete nervous wreck. When I thought I was building a farm, the game was building me up, bringing me back into a better, more positive place.

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OOPS It's Almost February but Here's my GOTY Lists!

Game of the Year:

10. Forza Horizon 3

I typically don't play racing games any more. For me, the genre peaked at Burnout 3: Takedown, and unless we are talking about Mario Kart 64, most racing games don't occupy a big piece of my gaming heart. Then, E3 2015 happened, and I was immediately mesmerized by Forza Horizon 3. I had only played Forza Motorsport 6, and neither of the other Horizon games, but the presentation given for FH3 immediately jumped out at me. I was intrigued by the diverse racing areas in Australia, and then I was hooked when I saw the race against the helicopter. What I saw was some of the insanity I loved about Burnout 3, along with the graphical prowess of more modern racers. Thankfully, FH3 is everything I loved about its E3 presentation: incredible graphics and the diverse landscape of Australian beaches, cities, jungles, and desert lands, driving that is the perfect balance of arcadey-fun and sim-realism, a great sense of speed, and an attitude that doesn't take itself too seriously. It is the first racing game in a long time that I would say is one of my favorite games of the year, and I also believe it is one of the ten best games of the year. Also -- the soundtrack is one of the best soundtracks in any game in a long time, which was another fun surprise about this wonderful game.

9. Doom

The original Doom was the first video game I have any memory of in my life. I was hanging out with my dad at the local college activities center, and I remember catching someone play it on a demo-computer that was set up in one of the breezeway areas in the building. I was not yet at the age where I could play video games, but the memory of watching this dude with crazy guns kill crazy monsters has stuck with me. Through the years since, I have kept up with Doom as a series, even though Doom 3 is the only Doom game I have put any significant time into before Doom 2016. From what I can understand, Doom 2016 recaptures the feeling of playing OG Doom back in the day -- over-the-top insane action at a pace that never lets up from the get-go. From the very first seconds of Doom 2016, you are charged with killing everything that gets in your way, often as fast as you can. This is clearly not a new gaming concept, but D16 makes it as much fun as it can be. There are a lot of great shooters out this year, but (of those I played), none come close to matching the intensity and balls-to-the-wall feel of D16. This is your favorite shooter's favorite shooter, and is some of the best Video Game™ fun to be had in 2016 and beyond.

8. Inside

Inside is quite a thing. The follow up to Playdead's Limbo (2010), it takes a lot of what made Limbo unique and fun and improves on it. Mechanically, Inside takes the time-tested gameplay of Running To The Right and makes it dangerous and exciting in a way few games do well. You are not quite sure what you are running to (or from?) for most of the game, but the world-building - usually in the background - keeps you interested from start to finish. The puzzles are mostly challenging, but I never got stuck, which helped the game keep a steady momentum throughout. It is a very dark game, both graphically and in subject matter, but Inside uses color in bursts to help punctuate certain moments. I am not super sure what really "happened" in Inside, but the story is ambiguous enough to allow for multiple interpretations, which I like, as well as a hidden ending if you are into that kind of thing. The last section of the game is not one I want to spoil, but is without quarter one of the most insane sections of a game I played all year, and is one of the best watercooler gaming moments in 2016.

7. Overcooked

Overcooked is a game I watched a lot of in 2016, and then finally got my hands on in the waning days of the year. I've never had so much fun messing up in a game maybe ever as I do in Overcooked, but I feel equally as satisfied when everything goes off without a hitch. The basic premise of Overcooked is hilarious: the apocalypse happens, and The Beast arrives to destroy everything. The only way to stop the apocalypse from happening is to cook well enough to appease The Beast. Naturally, you fail, and you are sent back in time to work on your skills of "cooking and co-operation" in order to be better when The Beast comes back. The premise alone is worthy of any top-10 list, but the gameplay cements it. There are always two to three too many jobs per player - you'll need to grab ingredients, chop ingredients, use a fryer, cook in a pot or an oven, clean dirty dishes, place clean plates, and turn in completed orders in time, all while avoiding obstacles, moving portions of stages, certain death by lava, or by setting the arena on fire due to literal over-cooking. I say "arena" instead of kitchen, because even though you start in kitchens, the stages progress to pirate ships, moving vehicles, icy platforms, haunted houses, and space stations. You rarely do the same thing twice in Overcooked, and the stages are short enough that each play session is guaranteed to be varied, fast, and furious. The only downside I found is that it does not have online play -- Overcooked is the kind of game where it is certainly best with local play, but I wish I still had the option. That being said, Overcooked is a riot, and some of the best multiplayer of the year.

6. Batman: The Telltale Series

Batman: The Animated Series is the first superhero-related property I remember in my life. I would watch this show every day, and I have memories of this classic cartoon before I have memories of most other things in my life. I've been a Batman fan ever since - so any new Batman game is going to certainly have my attention. Telltale's interpretations on The Walking Dead and Fables (via The Wolf Among Us) were interesting and compelling enough that I found myself eagerly awaiting each chapter, and Telltale's Batman is no exception. Traditional elements of the Batman narrative are flipped on their head, making this version of Batman a unique and risky vision of the Batman universe. Character origins are modified, and some characters end up being completely different from other, more standard portrayals, but Telltale pulls off each of these tweaks in a way that I found satisfying. I do wish that Telltale would revamp their engine, as I experienced some pretty wonky graphical glitches, and the frame rate never seems to be too interested in staying smooth, but this was a fun ride through a bold new telling of the Batman story - one that I will be excited to continue in future installments.

5. Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley is a game that came out of nowhere earlier this year. Developed by one person, it took the PC gamingsphere by storm. Since I don't play on PC, I had to wait until December to finally play it on PS4 - and I'm glad I did. The game is a farming and relationship sim, mixed with light dungeon crawling and resource gathering. At the start of the game, your character receives a letter from your grandfather with the deed to the family farm. After toiling away at a boring desk job at a big corporation, the character decides to finally move into the family farm and start a new life. The game is split into days, months, and seasons, with a myriad of gameplay options each day. Some days you might spend clearing space in your farm, others you might spend tending to your crops, and others you might spend in the local town, getting to know each townperson. The relationship-development in the game is fairly shallow, but each character has a distinct personality, and it is fun getting to know them. You can go fishing, learn recipes for cooking, or try to reach a new level in the mine. The only combat options in the game are within the mine, but it is never super challenging. This is part of the appeal of Stardew Valley for me -- it is never traditionally "challenging," and is instead quite laid back. I didn't know I needed a game that is built for the player to take it at their own pace. I found myself continually drawn to play through "just one more day," while also feeling super relaxed. Aesthetically, Stardew Valley evokes old 16-bit era games, but with the best lighting I've ever seen in a 2D game. Stardew Valley is the positive game I needed in 2016, and I can't wait to continue my new life as a farmer-fisher-Casanova-dungeon master in the days to come.

4. Dark Souls III

Back in 2009, I picked up a little game called Demon's Souls, and it changed my gaming life. I had never been challenged in an action-RPG in quite that fashion, and it had some of the best combat I had ever played in any game. Two Dark Souls games (and a Bloodborne) later, Dark Souls III finally dropped, and it is the Souls game of my dreams. The basic idea of the game is the same - traverse through an extremely dangerous world battling the toughest enemies and the meanest bosses, all the while upgrading your gear and skills to become the strongest warrior in the world. Bloodborne (the Lovecraftian cousin of the Souls series) sped up the game in a major way, and DS3 has injected a bit of that speed into its traditionally slower-paced combat. The co-op mechanic has also simplified from previous games (another lift from Bloodborne), and is how I experienced most of the game. Some of the most satisfying moments in gaming this year for me were battling bosses alongside my friend and having some serious skin-of-our-teeth victories. I am not as on top of the Souls lore as I would like to be, but I did recognize a lot of neat throwbacks to previous games in the series. According to Hidetaka Miyazaki, the director of Dark Souls & DS3, this will be the last game in the series. If this is indeed true, then the series has gone out on a high note with one of the best action-RPGs ever made.

3. Uncharted 4

Some of my favorite movies growing up were the Indiana Jones movies. I always wanted a good video game version of those movies (emphasis on good), and the Uncharted series has been that for me for the last few years. I loved the first Uncharted, and then was blown away by Uncharted 2. Uncharted 3 was still awesome, but it didn't quite live up to the charms of UC2. While I thought the end of 3 was certainly good, I didn't feel like it was as conclusive of an ending as it could have been. I was not surprised when they announced 4, as I felt like they left a little bit of room for more after 3. After announcing that this would indeed be the final Uncharted game, I didn't know how to feel - while there have been hundreds of action-adventure games, this series in particular really hit the beats that the Indiana Jones movies gave me, and I am sad that this series is going away. I'm sure that Naughty Dog felt the pressure to deliver a game worthy of being the final in this spectacular series, and they absolutely nailed it. The Uncharted series has always been on the bleeding edge of graphics technology and art direction, and UC4 is the crown jewel. This is undoubtedly the best looking video game I've ever played, and it's not really all that close. Sprawling island vistas, colorful and crowded towns, and incredibly realistic animations (even for this series) left me consistently in awe of what I was seeing. How good this game looks even this early in the console cycle adds to the impressive visual fidelity, and it deserves any and all awards for graphics this year. Beyond the graphics, the gunplay is the most finely tuned in the series, and the set pieces are the biggest and boldest since Uncharted 2's train sequence. There is a particular sequence involving a jeep, a grappling hook (another mechanic added to this game to great effect), and a motorcycle chase that is equal parts classic Uncharted and modern excellence in game design. The story does a great job of validating the existence of another Uncharted game, as well as including nods to older games in neat ways. The epilogue in particular will stay with me for some time as a long-time fan of the franchise. Nate, Sully, and Elena are all back, and it remains fun to see them in action (or not, as represented by a chapter early in the game). The inclusion of Sam as Nate's brother is something I was initially concerned about, wondering how the game would make me care about a brand new character this late in the overall story, but they did a great job of making him another worthy character in a series filled with fun characters. There is not much I can say negatively about this game -- any other year, UC4 is a shoe-in for my number 1 game of the year. Sitting at number 3 on this list does not mean that this game isn't good - it is truly great, especially for those who have kept up with the series so far.

2. Hitman

When I was a kid, my usual answer to "What do you want to be when you grow up" was always "James Bond." As I've grown older I have come to appreciate more and more that I am not James Bond, but I still love it when movies or games make me feel like a super cool secret agent. This year's installment in the Hitman franchise is exactly that - the world's best secret agent simulator! Well...maybe not exactly that but I've not had more fun playing a stealth-action game in years than I have with Hitman. The episodic nature of this game's release meant that each level required some serious heft, and IO Interactive pulled through in a major way in each of the game's sprawling levels. Whether you are in a mansion in Paris during a fashion show, walking around a gorgeous Mediterranean coastal town that hides a cavernous science lab, or a volatile marketplace in Marrakesh, each level is alive with detail, and expertly designed for creative solutions for each mission. Depending on how you want to play, the game can show you exactly where and how to perform some of the sillier ways to accomplish your mission, or you can go through blind, figuring out exactly how you would want to successfully find and take out the targets. Part of the success of Hitman 2016 is that it doesn't take itself too seriously - the AI is good enough to make things difficult if you are sloppy, but not hawkish enough to avoid being exploited. NPC dialogue can be funny as well, and while you certainly can play the game straight and use traditional weapons to carry out the hits, the game offers so many different bonkers ways to take out your targets, it's hard not to play through each mission without cracking a smile at least once. Hitman is also gorgeous - the Sapienza map in particular is stunning, but each map has a distinct aesthetic, each with superb lighting and colors to suit the setting. The music also takes cues from spy movies, giving the situation a curious vibe as you are sneaking around, and escalating if needed to go along with the action on the screen. I wish the load times were faster (playing on an Xbox One), and there are occasional janky glitches (like throwing a battle axe at a target through a wall), but neither of those take away from the immense amount of fun to be had in the gameplay (also, one could argue throwing a battle axe through a wall is actually hilarious and awesome). Where some stealth-action games take themselves too seriously and become save-scumming nightmares, Hitman hits the spot, nailing a goofy sense of fun to a well-worn concept. Bonus points - this game is also so entertaining to watch - I was sold on this game by watching Giant Bomb's video coverage of the game through the year.

1. Overwatch

This list was pretty difficult to make this year, and ordering was even more difficult. That being said - there was always a clear number one, and that game is Overwatch. I have joked that this might be my Game of the Every Year, and depending on when you ask me, I may not actually be joking. I was beyond skeptical of this game when it was coming out - I had fallen away from the competitive multiplayer shooter scene somewhere around Halo 3 and Modern Warfare 2. I scoffed at the game not even trying to offer anything for single-player players like me. I knew that I enjoyed the objective-based gameplay of Team Fortress 2 back in the day, but it was never the type of game I was especially drawn towards. But, every game podcast I listened to, every review I read, and just about everyone in games journalism I follow on Twitter could not stop talking about how much fun this game was. So, on a whim, I got the game at GameStop, thinking that I could just trade it in if I didn't like it. I texted one of my friends to let him know I got it, and it turns out he also got it. We played for a couple of hours that first night and right then I knew - I had stumbled backwards into something special. I immediately fell in love with the bright, positive aesthetic, the heroic-sounding music in the main menu, and the enticing possibilities of how different the game could feel depending on which character you use. I was hooked by the pace of each match - not too short and not too long, leaving you perfectly ready for "just one more match." Each character feels great, and I found out quickly that the game was balanced extraordinarily well already out of the gate. That first session lead into more the next day, and the next day, and every day for a week, two weeks, a month...and so on. What started as just my one friend and I playing turned into a steady group of six or seven of us ready to play most days of the week! Part of this is due to the evangelism of my friend and I, bugging our friends to buy the game at an almost daily pace, but an even bigger reason is that Overwatch is accessible while remaining a deep gameplay experience. Multiple characters are perfect for just starting in, whether you have played other multiplayer-FPS games, or whether you are still figuring out how to move with the left stick and turn the camera with the right - there is a character for everybody. The diversity of the cast of characters is also a highlight, as many different races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and personalities are not something that is typical for video games. Overwatch also does a great job at making the player feel positive reinforcement - there is no K/D list constantly in the face of the player, and post-match screens are always a celebration of what players did well in a match rather than highlighting who did the best and who did the worst. As Blizzard is known to do with their other games, they showed that they are fully capable of supporting Overwatch via regular content updates and gameplay balance patches, which paves the way for the game to continue to be great in the years to come. The promise of free DLC forever is another great way they are sticking it to their competitors, and continued proof that Blizzard cares about the people who play their games. Sure - do I wish that duplicate items in loot boxes gave out more in-game currency? Of course - but that is also literally the only negative thing I can think of to say about this game. I have logged in more hours into this game than any other game I've ever played (except for maybe Mario Kart 64, which I started playing almost twenty years ago), and I continue to add hours every week. This game has made me new friends, and kept me close with old friends, and has been a valuable portion of my week nearly every week since its release. There was never any other option for my number one game of the year this year, and it deserves any and all praise and awards possible from now until the end of time. PS - please please please get on the point. Thanks!

Barely Missed the List:

-Firewatch - this is a gorgeous game with an understated, sad, and ultimately genuine and human narrative that hooked me from beginning to end. I'm not sure I'll ever revisit it, but it was a compelling look into the consequences of failing to communicate effectively, as well as speaking to how we tend to go to great lengths to avoid tough situations at times.

-Gears of War 4 - This is a solid re-entry into the Gears universe, one which I was a huge fan of in Gears 1-3. Gears 4 is definitely more Gears, although it didn't quite have the same magic for me as the first 3. That being said, I'll be ready for Gears 5 - and this one would have made the list in a lot of other years that weren't as jam packed as this year.

-Final Fantasy XV - This was tough to omit from the list. I was really enjoying my time with this game until they announced that they were going to add in story scenes to the game at some unspecified time down the road. As someone who wants to experience a game the best way possible the first time through, I have yet to continue the game since they made this announcement. Despite all of that, I'm thrilled that Final Fantasy is back, and I think that the overall presentation and battle system make for a fun game to play. I'll be excited to get back into this game...once they finish it.

Haven't Played but Wish I Had:

-Hyperlight Drifter

-The Last Guardian

-Superhot

Games I Want to Play More:

-Darkest Dungeon - I love the aesthetic of this game, and I can always fall deep into a good rogue-like

-FFXV - reasons above

-The Witness - this game makes me feel so smart, but can also be so frustrating.

-SFV/Guilty Gear - I want to be better at fighting games, and I love how both of these games look. SFV definitely has more players, but GG feels like the better game.

Most Disappointing Game

-Tom Clancy's The Division - I wanted to love this game. I was so ready for it after the initial E3 presentation. The promise of another game like Destiny where I could group up with friends, take down enemies, and find better loot is something that I can always get behind. But then, I played The Division. The empty open world was boring, the netcode was a struggle, and the constant cheaters in the Dark Zone bounced me off of this game in a way I wasn't ready for. The loot and customization failed to impress me, and the bullet spongy enemies got old real fast. I haven't felt this disappointed in a game in a long time.

Runners Up:

-Rez: Infinite - this is not a bad game, and I enjoyed my time with it in VR, but based off of what I heard about this game, it should have brought me closer to God. Needless to say I don't believe it was as transcendent as the conversation around the game would lead me to believe, and that's the only reason it is on the Disappointing Games list for me this year.

-No Man's Sky - Or, Game that Makes Me Sad of 2016. The promise of this game based off of the (potentially maliciously) misleading marketing of this game is such a huge disservice to what this game actually is. Thankfully, I did hear enough impressions from some who played it at preview events so that I realized a little more that NMS would be closer to a survival game than the end-all-be-all Sci-Fi epic that was advertised, but even that couldn't help me from eventually falling off of this game. I still really love the aesthetic of the game, and it has some great music. The addition of the Foundation update gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, NMS will one day resemble its initial, ambitious vision, but until that day comes, NMS will ultimately remain disappointing.

VR Lineup:

VR is finally here! So far I have only experienced VR through the PSVR, and I feel hopeful for the potential VR can bring to gaming. Here are my top 5 PSVR experiences of the year:

Job Simulator

Batman: Arkham VR

Here They Lie

RIGS

Until Dawn: Rush of Blood

Best Game for On The Go:

Batman: The Telltale Series (iPad)

World of Final Fantasy (Vita)

Super Mario Run (iPhone)

Game of the (Not This) Year

-The Witcher 3 - I've continued to progress forward in The Witcher 3, and I still haven't beaten the main game or touched either DLC pack. This game is so full of great content, it is almost overwhelming. Every time I play TW3, I am more and more convinced that this is one of the best games of the generation, and absolutely one of the best open-world games of all time.

Runners Up:

-Persona 4: Dancing All Night - I haven't been this into a rhythm game since Rock Band 3! It has been fun coming back to the Persona 4 universe, and jamming along to some of the best video game music in years. This is also a great way to continue the excitement for Persona 5, coming out later this year.

-Life is Strange - This is a charming adventure game that I picked up on sale for $5, and I haven't regretted the decision. I haven't yet beaten the story, but I appreciate the indie-movie nature of the game's story, cinematography, and music. The time-rewinding mechanic has been used in many other different games, but the usage of this mechanic in Life is Strange takes pressure off of making decisions, allowing me to see more of the story as I go along.

Best Looking Game

Uncharted 4

Overwatch

Ratchet and Clank

Best Music

Overwatch (shoutout to Numbani theme!)

Uncharted 4

Stardew Valley

Overcooked

Hitman

Best Story

Batman: The Telltale Series

Uncharted 4

Firewatch

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Overwatch and the Value of Games as Social Life

I have put in over one hundred hours into Blizzard Entertainment's objective-based shooter Overwatch. I have a full-time job, as well as other responsibilities that do not allow me to play games as much as I would want. I have other games that are great and warrant significant play time, but something keeps drawing me back to Overwatch. Is it the finely-tuned balance between each character that makes the game feel different each time you play? Maybe. Is it the Goldilocks pace of play, where matches aren't too long, or too short, but just right? Could be. Or is it just that the game is fun in a way a game hasn't been for me in a while? Possibly. Overwatch is certainly all of those things for me - it will probably be my Game of the Year - but what keeps me coming back to it doesn't have anything to do with what the game does well, but instead how it is best way for me to hang out with my friends. Put simply, Overwatch is a major part of my social life.

Moving to a new place is that special mix of excitement and fear - like a horror movie that you are excited to watch, even though you can't shake that pit-of-your-stomach anxiety the entire time. Moving means meeting new people, experiencing new restaurants, and hearing (and maybe deciphering) new accents. There is a magic of discovering a new place -- the feeling so many games try to capture as the player-character enters a new area. If you're lucky, the new place retains some of this magic even after the luster of "newness" wears off.

New places are not always shiny and filled with real-life volumetric god rays (my new favorite video game phrase maybe of all time). Moving to a new place also inherently means leaving the familiar in exchange for the new. Plus, if the old place was good, leaving it behind is not always fun. Moving is a little death followed by a new birth: the death of old experiences, opportunities, or ways of life, followed by the hope of that magic new places can bring.

I have recently moved to a new place for my career, and thankfully it has been a positive experience. The biggest downside: I am geographically far away from the majority of the people I would consider to be inside my closest social circle. I am not in particularly close driving distance to most of my closest friends, and would even need airplane tickets for others. Sure, you can never really be out of touch with anyone any more in 2016 (see: social media, smart phones, video chat, etc etc etc), but the experience of getting together with friends to do something cannot be replaced simply with text-only communication, or even the occasional phone call. This is where video games have provided an often overlooked benefit: the ability to stay connected to those who might be far away.

This is not the first time I've moved to a different place. I moved twice between 6th and 10th grades, and when I moved the second time, my friend got me Xbox Live for Christmas so that we could continue to "hang out" in the virtual space even after I left. Back then, it was Madden 2005, Halo 2, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare that kept myself and my friends on the controller for hours at a time, allowing us to stay connected to each other for experiences unique to gaming, and in ways that felt more substantial than simply talking to each other.

Today, that game is Overwatch. What started as a game that myself and one other friend played has turned into a semi-regular full group of six, putting in hundreds of hours blasting away at the other team, healing each other, and screaming in triumph as we win a closely-contested match. The colorful roster of heroes is diverse and charming, leading to the creation of a running head-canon of character behaviors and motivations that keep us entertained. The accessibility of the game's Quick Play mode allows us to experiment with different team makeups, even if that means we try out an impossible gimmick-team of six of the same hero (even if it makes zero strategic sense to do so). The nature of the game makes communication vital, so we have not only grown closer as friends, but also as a legitimate team. We have shared the joys in finally getting the coolest hero-skins in loot boxes, just the same as we have shared lament in receiving far too many grey-grey-blue-grey loot boxes (the lowest possible combination of reward items you can receive upon leveling up). I could go on and on about features within the game that have created so much joy for our group, but our enjoyment of the game has gone beyond simply the in-game content. We keep a running message feed when we aren't playing, where we speculate on future content, strategize, or post hilarious memes. I do not remember a time where everyone in this group hung out together in real life (even though we were all friends pre-Overwatch), but the game has created a vibrant social space for all of us, and one that is immensely valuable to me, personally. I am glad that I can still hang out with my friends, even if none of us live close to each other.

Playing online games with friends is not a new phenomenon, and my experience with Overwatch is not a new story in the world of video games. That being said, online gaming is still relatively new -- Xbox Live arrived in 2002, giving console gamers an accessible path to online gaming while also bringing it into the mainstream. World of Warcraft, Blizzard's immensely successful MMORPG - and arguably the biggest online video game ever - was released in 2004, making it only twelve years old.

There is still a stigma about people who play lots of video games as people who are anti-social, people who have "no life," or worse, the dreaded "live in your parent's basement" stereotype. I am baffled as to how anyone could continue to make these kinds of statements, but I think the relative youth of online gaming is a contributing factor. Games are praised and criticized on so many factors, usually of mechanical and artistic value. All of this is fine and necessary, but games are also done a disservice when their social nature is not as publicized as how pretty they might look, or how good they might play. Online games provide the opportunity for unique shared experiences, and in our increasingly connected world, they have the potential to be key components of a social life.

My new place is not one of isolation. I interact with other people daily, and I have created and fostered new relationships and friendships in the time since I have moved. I have participated in new, shared experiences with people here that have been valuable. I hope and believe that I am creating a healthy social life in this new place...but I am also thankful for the social life that Overwatch has given me, and what it has meant for me as a way to stay connected with people who are close to me. We often do not give games the credit for the meaningful experiences that they give - especially when it allows for keeping real relationships alive and well.

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