Top 5 Games of the Year 2018

It’s that time of year again.

Honourable mention: Red Dead Redemption II.

Holy Moly. Say what you want about RDRII, that game is a hell of a thing. In terms of scale, attention to detail and sheer quality it is unparalleled. It is really a sight to behold. The problem with RDRII, in the end, is that it just wasn’t that fun. Unlike this year’s fantastic Spiderman, the moment-to-moment action in Red Dead II was simply tiresome and dull. Yes, the story was great, the voice-acting was spot-on, the shooting was fun. The bits in between – as in, the majority of the game – were not fun. When it came down to it I think I resented Red Dead II for not respecting my time. I felt like I was constantly having a hypothetical argument with the Houser brothers, where I wept for the 50th time “Why can’t I just fast-travel there?!” and Dan Houser spits back through gritted teeth “Because you’re going to fucking ride a horse for ten minutes instead”

5. PlayerUnkown’s Battlegrounds

It’s back. Flying against the rules of my top 5 list that I made up, I am including the same game two years running. PUBG was my game of the year last year and it has remained such a constant feature in my life that it has to make the list again.

The ongoing criticisms of PUBG are well-documented and as I approach 1000 hours of playtime I am not going to argue with them. The netcode can be bad. The microtransactions are shitty. The performance is spotty. But the core mechanics of the gameplay are so damn good.

There is something about the long periods of peace, frantic moments of violence and satisfying shooting mechanics that keeps me (and my friends) coming back to PUBG. It has to be said that I would not be so keen on the game if I didn’t have a close group of friends still playing it – but that fact it has kept us all so hooked is testament to the game in itself.

Further in the defense of PUBG Corp, they have made a concerted effort to appease fans this year with the Fix PUBG campaign and the release of a huge update in December. The new snow map has proved a big hit with the community (and me) and PUBG‘s concurrent player count once again surpassed one million. Despite fierce market competition from the likes of Fortnite and Black Ops among many others, PUBG is not out of the battle royale just yet.

4. Into The Breach

Released early in the year on PC and more recently on Switch, Into The Breach has proven to be a huge success. From the makers of FTLInto The Breach is a turn based strategy puzzle game that pits teams of mechs against alien insects.

The most remarkable thing about ITB to me is just how solvable many of the predicaments you find yourself in are. If you stare at the field of battle long enough, you can frequently find a way out of the seemingly hopeless state you have gotten yourself into. You might have to accept some damage here or sacrifice a city to the Vek there, but you can get out of it (most of the time).


ITB really makes decisions feel meaningful and impactful and encourages – or rather, insists upon – sacrifice and compromise in order to move forward. It is satisfying and frustrating in just the right ratio and gives you the feeling of being a strategic battle commander in both ways – when you lose, you know it’s your fault but when you win, it’s you (and not the roll of a dice) that made it happen.

3. Spiderman

The swinging in Spiderman is excellent. This is a really important point because it makes up most of the game. If you like the swinging, you will probably like this game and it feels truly majestic to move around Manhattan this way. Unlike the ponderous RDRII, every moment of Spiderman is good fun.

The combat has come in for criticism for being Arkham-lite, and that may be fair. Nevertheless, I found it to be enjoyable, strategic and generally what one would expect from an arachnid superhero.

I found the story relatively luke-warm but for me the sheer joy in every moment of Spiderman got it easily onto this list.

2. God of War

The hype for God of War was one of the reasons I bought a PS4 earlier this year. The console did not disappoint, and neither did GoW.

The axe mechanic – which can be thrown and recalled by magic at any time – is enough for GoW to score highly, but in addition to that there are breathtaking visuals, an intricately designed world and a relatively in-depth loot system.

Despite the criticism God of War received for lack of female representation, I think the game should be praised for its portrayal of the difficult aspects of masculinity and the nature of the father-son relationship. Sure, it may be a little clumsy at times but the game makes good use of voice-acting, cut-scenes and game mechanics to develop the relationship between Kratos and Atreus to make a truly compelling story.

After completing the game I took great pleasure (and a little frustration) in beating all the Valkyries, which added many hours to the game and is an indisputable marker of the good time I was having.

1. Horizon: Zero Dawn

So H:ZD didn’t actually come out this year, but I played it for the first time in 2018 and was so blown away that it not only made the list – it made the top of the list. Horizon swept in and became one of my favourite games of all time. H:ZD is Dutch studio Guerilla games’ first attempt at the open-world genre and their fresh and unique approach has produced a very fine contribution to the field.

The first thing that stands out is the combat mechanics. The game revolves around fighting various kinds of robot animals – from ostriches to dinosaurs. The player gradually acquires a variety of weapons to take on these cybernetic beasts and the range available keeps the fights fresh, fun and strategic. It is possible to just brute force your way through the encounters, but much more satisfying to scan the creature for weaknesses and use the most appropriate weapon to achieve the most devastating results (which could be a catastrophic explosion, the removal of a limb or freezing). It is by far the most engaging combat mechanic I have ever seen in an open world game.

I must also highlight the story in Horizon, which could easily stand alone as a book or film. Guerilla opted for the conventional open-world technique of drip-feeding narrative through written and audio logs interspersed with cut-scenes. The characters are compelling, mysterious and supplemented by on-the-mark voice-acting, with the fantastic protagonist Aloy chief among them. I was keen to seek out every available audio log to find out more about the world.

The open-world of H:ZD is densely-populated and beautiful. Sun-scorched deserts give way to verdant forests, all in a vibrant and varied colour pallet. Tribal hunting parties roam the dangerous wilderness and well-developed side quests are ever-present. In harmony with the story-telling Guerilla have built something that feels very like a living world.

Of course, nothing is perfect and H:ZD is no different. The inventory management is clumsy at best and off-puttingly overwhelming at worst. However, the flaws in Horizon only serve to underline the potential for a sequel that builds on the strong foundation that the first game started. Here’s hoping for some news on a follow-up in 2019.

Northern Powerhouse Podcast Episode 8

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Get festive with Stephen and Jake as they recount their trip to Edinburgh, talk Christmas culture and, naturally, bowling.

Download available here:

https://jakeharrisweb.files.wordpress.com/2018/12/NP-December.mp3”

Northern Powerhouse Ep 1 and 2

Northern Powerhouse Episode 1:

Downloadable from this link:
https://jakeharrisweb.files.wordpress.com/2018/07/northern_powerhouse_e01.wav”

Northern Powerhouse Episode 2:

Downloadable from this link:

https://jakeharrisweb.files.wordpress.com/2018/07/northern_powerhouse_e02.wav”

Top 5 Games of the Year

As we all know, this has been an incredible year for playing videogames. Despite not being an industry professional, I have tried to play as many of them as I can. The games on my list are the cream of a very strong crop.

To that end I feel the need to mention a couple of close runners up. The Dishonored 2 DLC, Death of the Outsider gets a very important shout out; the game distils what made the series great into arguably the best product of the bunch. Secondly, Heat Signature was an indie game that got a relatively quiet release but is an incredibly fun roguelike in a roughly similar vein to FTL. Honestly, Heat Signature was the closest to making the top five and if I’d had a little more time to play it it could have been up there.

Finally there was the much maligned Middle Earth: Shadow of War. I seriously thought this game was amazing. I am a big fan of the (admittedly crowded) open-world genre, and SoW does this very well with the glorious cherry on top being the nemesis system, constantly bringing new and interesting enemies into your world. No game this year gave me the “where did those six hours just go” feeling like SoW as I was clearing out strongholds, assassinating orcs and just having a jolly old time. It would have no doubt made the top 5 if it were not for the atrocious final act, which effectively has you play the same tiresome mission 20 times. You read that correctly: 20 times. In each repetition the enemies become more difficult in a shamelessly ham-fisted attempt to encourage players to buy loot boxes. If the game had just stopped before this final act it would have been great but I found it to be so offensive that my opinion of the game as a whole was irreparably damaged.

With all that out of way, lets get down to the business of the stuff that did make the list:

5. Assassin’s Creed Origins

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I debated long and hard with myself about whether AC:O would be up here, but after completing my 20th hour in the game I decided it was on.

The reasons not to include AC:O are numerous: it’s just another AC game; traversing the world can be tedious; the main storyline is lacking. Nevertheless, Ubisoft have changed enough about the game to really make a lot of it work. The complete overhaul of the combat system is more engaging than the former Arkham-style and the upgrade tree, while a little sterile, is satisfying and empowering. The game really shines when clearing out one of the “bandit camps” or “military bases”, in which you employ all the tools at your disposal to clear out an enemy outpost.

AC:O has done enough to scratch my Ubisoft-open-world itch in fresh ways this year to make it onto the top 5 list.

4. Stardew Valley

While not technically released this year (came out last year on PC), I had been waiting a long time for SV to be released on Switch, and I was not disappointed.

The game is ported to Switch well, and is perfectly suited to mobile play. Bringing back nostalgia of playing Harvest Moon on GBA, SV provides a deeper experience than any Harvest Moon game that I’ve ever played. It has farming, dungeon crawling, crafting, fishing and a relationship sim all wrapped up in a charming visual and audio package. The scale of the achievement is underlined by the fact the game was made by just one person!

I haven’t spent as much time as I would have liked with SV, but I am in no doubt it has earned a place on this list.

3. Super Mario Odyssey

As the follow-up to Mario Galaxy 2, Odyssey had a lot to live up to. Not only did it succeed, but added to the series in new and amazing ways.

Every moment playing Odyssey is a joy, the movement control is flawless and the level-design is top-notch. The frequent acquisition of moons gives you a constant feeling of progress. Super Mario Odyssey is a fantastic game and I would argue the best platformer of all time.

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SM:O would probably have made its way further up this list if it had held me a bit longer than it did (I fell off at about 400 moons, feeling I had gotten everything I could from the game) but nevertheless is a ride that I am delighted to have taken.

 

 

2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Having played every mainline Zelda game but never really getting gripped, I have always felt like something of an outsider when it came to the series. This all changed with BotW, which drew me inescapably in within moments of entering its vibrant open world; BotW uses everything in its power to create one of the finest pieces of game design I have ever seen.

The game teaches its sometimes complex mechanics without ever resorting to a tutorial. A careful drip-feed of knowledge from NPCs combined with playful encouragement of experimentation teaches players how to live and survive in the world. Sight-lines have been carefully considered so when you finally reach that distant glowing shrine, two more, plus a mysterious lake, are visible. Unique combinations of unrelated in-game mechanics frequently yield useful results.

Aside from the wonderful design, the game looks beautiful and really sold me on the Switch when I first bought it. The characters are charming and the world dense with wonder and excitement.

BotW is certainly not without flaws – the non-existent end game and lack-lustre DLC offerings to mention a couple – but no game has transported me back to the feeling of gaming as a child like BotW.

1. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds

A quick and horrifying calculation revealed to me today that I have spent 12% of my waking hours playing PUBG since I purchased it in April. This just about sums up the impact it has had on my life.

The issues and problems with PUBG are well-documented, from lag to bugs to performance, but despite this the light of its wonderful core concepts shine through. While far from the first to tackle the battle royale genre, PUBG – by either luck or design – brought together all the necessary factors into the prefect storm of a game.

Long periods of quiet looting punctuated by moments of abject horror and glorious victory form the addictive loop of this game, with the drip feed of dopamine just enough to keep you coming back.

I wrote at length about PUBG back in May, and my feelings for it have only intensified since then. I have never seen anything quite like it.

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