2018 was a big year for big games. It saw the release of the most technically-advanced, beautifully-rendered work in the medium to date, as well as a lot of inventive lower-budget titles. Some were surprisingly good. Others were disappointingly bad. Gaming culture itself remained expectedly bad. But the medium continues to grow and expand in weird and wonderful directions.
My favourite games of the year follow. Disclaimer: I did not get a chance to play several of the year’s biggest games, most notably God of War and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. These things happen. Life gets in the way, and in my case that included writing game scripts for the first time, so I feel that's a solid excuse. Counting those games out, here we go:
10. Donut County
Donut County was a favourite at Fantastic Arcade a couple years ago, and launched this year on nearly every current platform. The game mechanics start Katamari-like, with the player swallowing up increasingly large objects with a moving hole in the ground, then add complexity as the game goes on to use elements like water, explosives, and a catapult to solve puzzles. Its levels create little tableaus about their inhabitants and offer the satisfaction of dropping things into a sinkhole, but it’s the story that ultimately endeared it to me. In a game that could have existed without a story, it tells of a town under siege by evil raccoons using donut shops as cover - and tells it via wonderfully amusing dialogue. Player character BK is a total dickhead and one of my favourite characters of the year.
9. Life Is Strange 2
It’s no surprise that Life Is Strange 2 is solid, coming from the team behind the incredibly strong original, but this sequel took me aback with the particular story it’s telling. Much like the original, it’s about teenagers dealing with personal issues along supernatural ones amid faintly Lynchian Pacific-Northwest Americana, but this sequel bolsters that appealing formula with cultural currency I never expected. Being about a pair of Latino brothers around the time of the 2016 presidential election gives it a soaring sense of urgency and immediacy, as its characters face racism and uncertainty in a variety of guises. Even in the single episode thus far released, it’s emotional and endearing, and I’m absolutely hooked to find out what happens next.
8. Alphabear 2
I put the first Alphabear on my best-of list back when it came out, and if anything, Alphabear 2 improves upon the formula. Its Scrabble-like word-making gameplay is as compulsive as ever. The letter boards are more varied, with a wider range of mechanics and abilities to change up gameplay, and you can now look up the weird unknown words you cobbled together. The cute bears can be customised now. There’s even a story campaign, of sorts, which adds to the existing daily and levelling modes to make up a pretty generous amount of play. And even though it goes fairly heavy on in-app purchases, I haven’t paid a cent and I still get a lot out of it. If anything, restricting the number of rounds you can play in a certain amount of time is a blessing in disguise. Otherwise, I’d be on this damn thing 24/7.
7. Dark Souls Remastered
A six-year-old game, on the Best of the Year list? Truth be told, I hadn’t played much of Dark Souls before this remaster came out. I’d finished its sequels and spinoff, but the PC version of the original I bought on sale ages ago was always a little janky. Now, however, I’ve played through this modern classic on PS4, and I finally get it. The world design, the storytelling, the visual aesthetic - this is a game worthy of its influence and place in culture. Of all the Souls games, this one settles the best into the psychological loop of dying so often it ceases to have meaning anymore. The fact that it’s available everywhere, even on Switch, means there’s no excuse. You gotta play Dark Souls.
6. Red Dead Redemption 2
I’m hot and cold on Red Dead Redemption 2’s languid pacing, and its particular wish-fulfilment fantasy is maybe not for me. But it’s impossible to ignore the achievements of Rockstar’s talented, horribly overworked team. RDR2 is the prettiest game of the year, its vistas often gasp-inducing, its attention to detail nearly unparalleled. When it’s at its best, it’s a grand, sweeping vision of the Old West, driven by a compelling cast of characters and rendered with the highest production value in the business. Allow yourself to relax into the pacing, and it’s an immersive experience par excellence. If you can meet it on its own terms, it’s utterly absorbing.
5. Super Smash Bros Ultimate
Fast-paced, skill-driven, uncompromising when it involves able opponents, and silly fun when it doesn’t, Nintendo’s crossover fighting franchise Smash Bros has always been a party-game favourite. This new release doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does present the most comprehensive wheel yet, with a roster of characters and stages so long you have to squint to see them all on screen. So many features has this game, it’s possible to keep discovering new elements long after you’ve started digging into it. There’s even a single-player adventure mode, with cut scenes, an overworld, and progression mechanics, that’s just sort of sitting nonchalantly in a submenu. It’s hard to imagine Nintendo topping this entry in the series - “Ultimate,” for once, is an accurate descriptor.
4. Into the Breach
Hey, you know that game Chess? What if instead of moving knights and pawns around, you used fighter jets and mechs, fought aliens, and travelled through time? This is the appeal of Into The Breach. The developers of FTL brought all their talents to bear on this roguelike, sci-fi version of chess. Your mechs, and your enemies, have rigid move and attack patterns, and every turn is an exercise in strategic positioning, often involving thinking multiple turns ahead. Its game loop is compelling, made up of short engagements, making it the perfect game for the Switch (on which I play it), and there’s a real sense of accomplishment when you complete an encounter flawlessly. Compulsively moreish.
3. Destiny 2: Forsaken
My Destiny addiction is well-documented by this point, but with the Forsaken expansion to Destiny 2, Bungie has borderline reinvented its pseudo-MMO shooter. The story has become significantly more interesting, now developing from week to week, and dealing with weird Lovecraftian shit in a milieu that mixes sci-fi and high fantasy. The world design has graduated from pretty, empty landscapes into mysterious, glittering realms filled with secrets. An entire new gameplay mode has been added, and it’s one of the best yet; ditto the new raids and dungeons. Destiny 2 is still the game I play the most out of any, and it’s brought many special moments within the group of friends with whom I play it.
Not every game has to be a life-consuming epic, and few games demonstrate that better than Florence, a mobile title that can be completed in under an hour. Small but perfectly-formed, Florence tells a simple, painfully relatable story about a young woman in her mid-twenties. The game takes her through the entire arc of a romantic relationship, depicted wordlessly via illustrations and animation, and guided by simple player inputs. It’s the game’s elegant use of interaction to communicate emotion and story that makes Florence truly special: to detail them here would be to spoil some wonderful, heartbreaking surprises, but suffice it to say there hasn’t been a more successful binding of storytelling to mechanics since, oh, maybe Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. A gem.
1. Marvel's Spider-Man
I almost never 100% open-world games. I haven’t 100%ed Spider-Man either, but I've come closer than on any other such title. This Spider-Man the best interactive rendition of the wall-crawler yet, full of snappy, balletic combat and exhilarating webby traversal. The story is superb, too, with great character work (including multiple playable characters), a devastating and surprising use of a classic Spider-Man enemy, and some of the best mo-capped acting in the medium. It’s all wrapped up in a package so polished it has no business being in this charmingly grubby rendition of New York City. A demonstration of what AAA developers can achieve given time, money, and tremendous creative talent.
2019, meanwhile, promises to bring even more riches - figuratively, to gamers, and literally, to developers. Here are the ten to which I’m most looking forward:
- Dreams, the stunningly deep new game-creation game from the creators of Little Big Planet;
- The Outer Worlds, a new RPG from Obsidian, which would sell me the game even if it didn’t look cool as hell;
- In the Valley of Gods, the gorgeous-looking new game from the developers of Firewatch;
- Anthem, BioWare’s huge-budgeted attempt at making a “live game” like Destiny;
- Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the latest evolution of From Software’s Souls formula, now set in a fantastical version of feudal Japan;
- Dying Light 2, the sequel to a surprisingly-great zombie game, now with added narrative oomph from Chris Avellone;
- Afterparty, the new one from the creators of Oxenfree, whose tagline reads "Party your way out of Hell";
- Yoshi’s Crafted World, a cute, papercrafty take on the platformer from Nintendo that will undoubtedly be full of innovations;
- Psychonauts 2, one of the longest-awaited sequels to one of the cleverest games in the biz; and
- A string of games that may or may not actually launch next year, like The Last of Us Part 2, Beyond Good & Evil 2, Control, Death Stranding, Cyberpunk 2077, Jedi: Fallen Order, and so on. Expect delays on giant games like these.
What were your favourite games this year? Do you share my opinions? Diverge from them? Do I need to hand in my gamer credentials for not having played God of War?