If I have one regret from the last time we did this (“this” of course referring to spending far too long discussing a year’s worth of video games in the horrendous heat of summer), it’s that I let Shadow of War win most disappointing. They killed Mass Effect, goddamnit! Anyway, I’m sure I’ll come to rue some decision we made (or I allowed) this year, but honestly it felt very easy to look at the list of games we were considering for each and every category and think “I’d be totally fine with so many of these featuring in this”.
That kind of sums of 2018 in the world of video games for me. There were so many just f**king solid releases that spanned such a breadth of genres and styles, that you could hardly go wrong. I may yet again have more #11’s than any year prior, but more than that I had a near impossible time of separating those ultimately doomed to look in on the Top 10 from the outside from about #6 onward. The order of my top 5 was in pretty much constant flux too. Ultimately, I’d have a pretty darn hard time telling which of any of these is a better game, or which I enjoyed more, or even which is more unique, or deserves to be celebrated more.
To even further emphasise what a weird and wonderful year of variety we have experienced, let’s just take a quick look at the concepts for some of my favourite games;
- Insurance claims investigator on a ship
- Leader of a steampunk colony attempting to survive an apocalyptic winter
- Victorian vampire doctor
- Racoon controls a hole
- Mutant duck and boar attempt to stealth and ambush their way through super mutants
- Cold war spies jet set around the globe for clandestine murder missions
- Greek god raises son whilst battling through Norse mythology
- Pilot mechs against giant bugs across infinite doomed timelines
- Girl in magic dress works through the stages of grief
- Dance your way out of a collective dream prison disco
- Pick a plot from a Yakuza game
Anyway, best get on with it.
Games I Wish I Had Played/Played More Of
I’m pretty sure that I managed to cram in even more games this year than last, but even so there were a few that slipped by, their outstretched fingers just out of reach as I played my third Yakuza game of the year. These are a few of those that I wish I had found the time to play more of, or at all.
- The Messenger
- Tetris Effect
- Warhammer: Vermintide 2
- Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom
- Dead Cells (super glad I played some, and will definitely be continuing on now)
- Life is Strange 2 (thankfully only one episode to catch up on so far)
The aforementioned #11’s. I have no doubt the content of this list will change numerous times before I’m done writing the next list.
Donut County – Amazing, funny and genuine writing. Super satisfying, simple gameplay. Quack Anthem.
- GRIS – Neat puzzles & evolution. Downright f**king gorgeous.
Dead Cells – The smoothest handling. My anti-Red Dead.
Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight – Definitely didn’t expect to platinum.
Destiny 2: Forsaken – Markedly improved in just about every way.
Moonlighter – Strangely engaging and fun loop.
State of Decay 2 – Deeper and more interesting management than I expected.
Forza Horizon 4 – Beautiful to look at, fun to handle, seasons change everything.
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden – Weird but welcome twist on a classic.
Phantom Doctrine – Nails the tone, strategy layer, almost gets the tactical.
My Top 10 Games of 2018
10. Return of the Obra Dinn
What a bizarre idea for a game. Not that I should surprised given Lucas Pope’s last curious release (Papers, Please was #4 on my 2013 list), but if you’d told me a year ago that one of the most interesting and innovative games of 2018 would be a monochromatic blend of Sudoku and Guess Who? with no almost no animation in which you play as an insurance claims assessor… well, I’m really not sure how I’d react. Honestly I’d probably be all in, but not actually believe it was a real game.
But here we are. It’s real, and it’s great. Return of the Obra Dinn won out for the final slot on my list largely due to the truly unique things it does in both gameplay and visuals. The level of satisfaction gained from correctly deducing some of the more challenging demises (especially since they come in sets of three) was some of the most rewarding gameplay I experienced this year. It also features my absolute favourite soundtrack of the year, which also entwines so perfectly with the game. There aren’t many games I could pick a level based on just the music track.
9. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life / Yakuza Kiwami 2
It’s my list and I can do what I want. I played three Yakuza games this year, so it has become somewhat difficult to seperate them in my mind. These two came out this year and are on the same engine so gooood luck.
While there was definitely some diminishing returns on playing so much of the series in close succession, Yakuza 6 had some genuinely refreshing changes of pace from the others. The charming, quiet Onomichi and its ragtag family of knuckleheads was a delightful respite from the super intense monster-men of Kamurocho. Running a baseball team (and occasionally playing on it) and joining the cast of Cheers were some of the town’s absolute highlights, not to mention the spearfishing, and Ono Michio.
Yakuza Kiwami 2 however had no such respites. It was every bit the elaborate, bombastic, non-stop thrill ride of a story I had come to expect, with that unique blend of heartfelt seriousness and ridiculous humour that Yakuza does so well.
The engine of 6 was a nice change, and came along with some great quality of life improvements, and the most-welcome seamless transition into fights. However, the over-simplified combat, lack of heat moves, and anti-climatic boss finishers really started to impact upon my enjoyment. Throw in a disappointing lack of Majima and a squandered cat cafe arch in 6, and a less interesting reversed take on the reverse-tower defence game in Kiwami 2, and these games unfortunately fell short of my favourites in the series. As usual though, there was such a massive breadth of things to do in these games and such great stories, that a couple stumbles are easily overlooked. Bring on Yakuza 3.
8. Red Dead Redemption 2
Oof. Red Dead, huh? This is an odd one. I managed to admire Red Dead Redemption from afar. I tried playing it, but just couldn’t get past how poorly it controlled (my problem with many a Rockstar game). As RDR2 was approaching release I hadn’t even decided if I was going to play it. In the end, I figured I should give it a chance, if only so I could partake in informed discussion of one of the year’s biggest releases. I was just hoping it would be a better controlling game so I could enjoy all the other things I had reason to believe they would do well. It kinda wasn’t, but I enjoyed it anyway. Most of the time.
The writing, acting, visuals, music, environment, tone and immersive world are stellar. I cannot deny that. This game frequently features some of the best writing and character work in video games, and that went a long way into making me want to see it through to the end. For the most part I even enjoyed the very slow, deliberate pace that absolutely every action has. It felt very much in keeping with the world. Combined with the music, and the way that the environment reacted around you, or at times didn’t, and this felt like such a rich, living, breathing world that was a wonder just to occupy.
Then there was the game part. I hate the shooting in this game. Hate it. It’s slow, boring, unchallenging, feels terrible, and there is way too much of it for something of that quality. Every single drawn out shootout (of which the main story missions almost always result in) goes far too long, and every single one I was just wishing would end. After a while, I gave myself over to the shooting enough that I stopped being constantly angry at it, but that was just replaced by a dull dissatisfaction.
The slow, deliberate actions work wonderfully for the tone, but when they tried to apply that to movement it become a slow and unresponsive mess that results in frequently fighting against your own character’s movement to get somewhere you want to go, or simply running over some townsfolk or a dog which rapidly devolves into you being the most wanted man in history for puppycide while you’re still trying to stand up after your horse catapulted itself off of a twig. The inconsistent, unintuitive, ungainly controls and menus are criminal in an age of intelligent control systems.
Sadly, by the end, not even the story holds up. **SPOILERS** A bizarre stint in Guam (the only redeeming feature of which is the scene when you return), and some very misguided story missions and pacing throughout the final chapter, and RDR2 had me begging for the end. Thankfully, I found Arthur’s end – and indeed his entire story – to be very well crafted and satisfying. I was not so keen for the epilogue to come and squander all the good will that had rebuilt after a disappointing final chapter. Honestly, I was so very done with the game, and grew very quickly bored of the epilogue, that I failed to pick it up again after my final session.
Oh and the Online? No interest in experiencing the worst parts of that game with no purpose and more assholes to kill me.
Ultimately, the things RDR2 does well, it does best in class, and it should truly be lauded for that. It’s such a shame it is so held back by Rockstar’s inability to make a game that actually feels good to play.
7. Marvel’s Spider-Man
Now here’s a game that feels good to play! While it’s not doing any thing particularly novel or new, it most definitely exhibits a refined and well executed idea of what Spider-Man game should be. The swinging, combat and controls in Spider-Man really do come closest to making the game something special. The character and story work is surprisingly nuanced, with some really neat attention to detail (especially in the collectables), and they really go for their own take on a few of the most well-trodden characters in superhero media.
The game falls short with a selection of several unimportant feeling upgrades, and unnecessary items, and a pretty typical open world splatter of icons containing fairly generic/repetitive objectives. That said, the game does not require or even particularly push you into engaging with all of these components, and I was able to thoroughly enjoy a sampling of each to my content before disregarding the rest to pursue an engaging and driving story.
6. The Banner Saga 3
The Banner Saga (as a series) is a truly impressive piece in the choice-driven story genre. I feel pretty confident in saying it is both my favourite and the most well executed branching story I have ever experienced. Every choice feels like it carries an appropriate weight for the situation, and frequently manifest in consequences that are unforeseeable, but seem completely fair. The character interactions and relationships make for a fascinating tapestry, but also a minefield, that makes for a rich, grounded world despite the fanciful, magical cataclysm that is unfolding around you. Ugh, and that art! Gorgeous, wonderfully tone-setting, and often beautifully surreal.
The combat system continues to be engaging and satisfying three games in, with some intelligent and natural additions/refinements being made in this final chapter. Some of the combat encounters in 3 were not my favourite in the series, but then a couple of them were, so I guess that balances out somewhat.
This has been one of my favourite series in recent years, and I was very glad to find that the conclusion did not disappoint. In fact it featured some of my absolute favourite moments in the series, good and bad. Rook fucking died! He didn’t need to do that. I fucked up. I love/hate that I could do that.
I very much want to take the time to go back to the start and play through all three in succession. So I probably will.
I really enjoyed This War of Mine, but perhaps most of all for it’s tone and message rather than its gameplay (though I did like that too). So it should be of little surprise that the follow-up resonated with me so well, especially given the genre.
Frostpunk absolutely nails its tone and aesthetic of a tiny beacon of hope in a crippling, freezing, depressing wasteland of impossible decisions and savage encounters. It does this through excellent (but minimal) writing, sparse and perfectly selected music and sound effects, subtle and deftly designed UI elements, and of course the never ending (but deftly paced) onslaught of ice, snow and disenchanted masses with short memories, that are trying to kill everything or banish you from the flickering flame at the centre of this little doomed colony.
Combine this with some very clever and thematically appropriate takes on the city building/strategy game genre, and you well and truly have me hooked. Honestly, my only complaint coming out of playing this at release was the limited content, but they’ve already added to it extensively with a whole new scenario, an endless mode, and still more to come.
One minor complaint is that my endless mode is now over 100 days, and I have enough resources that I could just stop production for over two months and be absolutely fine, but it seems I may have reached a limit on how many buildings I can construct, because whenever I try to add another storehouse to my… I’m gonna go with hundreds, the game crashes. Not a big deal, just saying. Though I do love that I am able to overcome the harshness of this world to such an extent, when at other times it all goes to absolute snowy shit in a heartbeat.
4. Into the Breach
I love FTL, but I’m not super great at it. Or at least every one of the many times I have made it to the final boss I sure haven’t felt great at it. Enter Into the Breach; a game that is very clearly from the same developer, evokes many of the same feelings, and yet feels 100% defeat-able and fair – if I can just stop myself from fucking it all up.
Into the Breach quickly sheds its thin veil of a turn-based tactics game to reveal the puzzle perfection beneath. There is a way to do this right. You’re not here to kill bugs, you’re here to save lives. Sure, killing bugs can result in that, but what if they killed each other? Or if instead of hurting the bug, you just relocated it into the path of an exploding volcano? Or what if your mech took the hit instead of the power grid? Or the time pod, and you recruit a new pilot? Oh, did I mention the whole story is about travelling to infinite parallel timelines in an attempt save them all? Throw in an array of interesting different mech squads, pilot abilities, upgrades, and weapons, and you’ve got yourself some replay-ability there. Love it.
I can’t decide if the most surprising thing about Vampyr is how close I was to not playing, or how much I ended up loving it. When they first started showing and talking about the game, it seemed super interesting. Some less than favourable reviews and a full slate of other games to play managed to keep me away for some time, but it was always one of those games in the back of my mind. I am so glad I pulled it to the front.
I didn’t love the combat at first. It was a little punishing, if largely by the deliberate animation priority, but with every upgrade and encounter I learnt and adapted, until not too far into the game I really started to enjoy it. The upgrade path decisions (both in skills and weapons) allowed for some significantly varied combat approaches, enough that I felt like I got to craft a build that really suited me, and allowed me to counter my weaknesses in the actual action.
Vampyr isn’t perfect by any means, but the themes and tones of this Victorian dating-murder game really worked for me. The many varied characters, coupled with their writing and voice-acting, made for some really impactful relationships and story moments, and created a world I thoroughly enjoyed exploring and becoming a part of, was often motivated in saving, and occasionally propelled towards murdering.
2. Hitman 2
They made more Hitman. Great!
Hitman 2 is definitely not a great deal more than a refinement on 2016’s release, but that’s not a bad thing. Really, the only thing I wanted out of that game was more of it. So here it is. New maps (including some of their strongest), new outlandish disguises, targets and scenarios, and some really intelligent additions/changes to the mechanics and UI. It even contains all the maps from the last game, updated with the new features. They made more Hitman, and they made it even better.
What’s more, they made an even more engaging story (despite the lack of full CG cutscenes) whilst doubling-down on their unique, perfect blend of self-seriousness and zany humour. Agent 47 is an unexpected crackup in a whole host of scenarios, and the game continues to allow you to design all kinds of bizarre murder attempts.
I really don’t have much more to say about Hitman 2, other than it is undoubtedly the 2018 game I will be playing for the longest time to come, so long as they keep throwing more content our way. Bring on the elusive targets.
1. God of War
Honestly, God of War wasn’t even going to be in consideration for my list when I wrapped up my first stint with it. I had played through to about the time you first hit the lake, it opened up, aaaaand I had other games to play. It seemed well made and polished. The story seemed alright enough, even if I wasn’t super invested just yet, and I’ll always enjoy Christopher Judge. But it had failed to grab me.
As the year passed by, and those around me continued to tout it, I had resolved myself to having another crack at it, if only so as to form my own informed, complete opinion. By the time I found the time to come back to it, there was a defined window of opportunity, so I was able to go in with the aim of just smashing it out. By focusing on the main story (and the less indirect side quests) I was able to progress through both the story and the combat systems to a much greater extent, before I finally fell all the way into the well.
It was probably about the time you first encounter Mimir that it all finally clicked into place for me. The combat was growing deep enough, the characters were fleshing out, and with the addition of Mimir the writing was becoming a whole lot more clever (it also helped that have always quite enjoyed Norse mythology, and this talking head came with a whole boat load of it).
For me, God of War went on to offer some of the most impactful, well crafted story moments of the year, all surrounded by an interesting twist on a world that was already an unexpected twist on the formally Grecian series. While they didn’t nail every beat, the evolving relationship between Kratos and Atreus was engaging enough to keep me going even when it was the only story happening, and it was frequently accented by some breathtaking moments of scale or destruction or just stunning art design.
Having said that, even the moment to moment combat became incredibly fun and satisfying once the tool set was expanded somewhat, and the opportunity to ply my icy axe-wielding trade was at times driving force enough. I didn’t feel the need to dive super deep into finely tuning or crafting gear, but even dipping into those systems added some depth and motivation to the game.
While I didn’t end up visiting all of the other realms and trying my luck at their various challenges, or pursuing the many components of completionism that litter this game, I appreciated that those avenues were there, and very much enjoyed what I saw of others that attempted them. This absolutely became a game that I would have spent a lot more time hunting down every little morsel, had I played it at a different time.
The implications of what might be to come that are spread out through the story and world, and the promise of more satisfying-as-fuck combat, are more than enough to officially make me an eager fan of the God of War series, and that is something I most definitely was not before.
FYI I have determined my rue’d decisions: Should have pushed harder for Return of the Obra Dinn for Best Music, and Sea of Thieves for Most Disappointing.