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.

The Joy of Travel (in Videogames)

pyre_wallpaper_01

There is something comforting about being “in transit”. I like being on buses and trains and planes and just being conveyed from one place to another. You can sit back, relax and watch the world go by. “I like the peace/ In the backseat”, as Arcade Fire put it.

I think the main reason is that you’re not really expected to be doing anything else when you’re travelling. I’ve never had to commute long distances, Leeds-to-London-style, so I’ve never been obliged to do work on a train. For me it has generally been for leisure and therefore I can spend the travel-time as I please; a welcome retreat in a world of constant stimulation and distraction.

My first recollection of having a similar feeling in a game was in my excitement for the release of Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles. I liked the idea of me and my chums hunkering down in our caravan and journeying from one adventure to the next – even though I was aware that that would actually make a pretty boring game and the fun itself revolved around the bits in between the travelling. I liked the concept nevertheless.

This was brought to mind in the time I’ve spent this week with Supergiant’s new game, Pyre, which offers the familiar opportunity to lead a mismatched bunch of companions on a caravan-based foray. Pyre actually offers a bit more time inside the caravan than FF:CC, albeit only while the caravan is stationary (I don’t quite get the same cosy feeling if the vehicleisn’t moving).  Still, the game captures the excitement of a travelling adventure quite admirably.

Some of this feeling is even captured in open-world games such as The Elder Scrolls Series, where one experiences the quiet anticipation of setting a distant waypoint and journeying through the wilderness to reach it.

Ultimately I suppose travel is a fundamental part of being human, harking back to our ancient nomadic routes. This is underlined by other art forms, which frequently employ the “travel tale” as part of their narrative to inspire a feeling of wonder in the audience (The Lord of The Rings, On the Road, Heart of Darkness). I’m happy to see Pyre using this technique in its unique graphic-novel-esque setting and hope to see more games packing me up in a wagon and sending me off to war.

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe- Impressions

As a day-one Switch adopter, Breath of the Wild kept me interested for about 70 hours and I loved playing the console handheld, on-the-go. I was disappointed with Zelda’s lack of end-game content, however, and left wishing I had something else to play on my shiny new console. Enter MK8D.

Everything about Mario Kart radiates quality, craft and fun. The game looks stunning, and is incredibly easy to pick up and play. I quickly set to work attempting to get gold on all of the Grand Prix, which up to the Mirror Cup was challenging but not overwhelming. 200cc mode was whole other beast, and many of the cups took several (many) attempts. All of it was thoroughly enjoyable.

In comparison to my previous experiences with Mario Kart games, MK8D feels fairer. It is still frustrating to be blue-shell’d, but knowing there are ways to avoid it mitigates this considerably. Items can be used to repel the blue shell, and letting an opponent cruise into first place only to get nuked from above is extremely satisfying. Similar goes for red shells and other obstacles in the game. Ultimately it feels more like a game of skill.

This has been evident through the online play as well, in which I have seen my ranking slowly improve as I gained skill and finesse. Again, nothing seems unfair and the consistency of the top players within a tournament indicates that the role of luck is minimal. Furthermore on the online play, the netcode seems good once in-game with little to no lag and generally good performance. I have been kicked from pre-game lobbies more than a few times though.

My main criticism of MK8D is that after around 15 hours I have gold in all the cups (unlocking the Gold Mario character) and feel unsure what else there is to do. More gold equipment can be unlocked by getting 3 stars in all the cups, which sounds like much more of an ordeal than it is worth. I still need to investigate Time Trial mode which could reveal some more addictive challenges, but (while fun) I don’t feel compelled to go back to the online mode. Hopefully MK8D has something to hook me back in lest I return to my wanderings in the Switch release schedule wasteland.

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds – Impression

After seeing a Quick Look on everyone’s favourite videogame entertainment site GiantBomb, I knew PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (henceforth referred to affectionately as PUBG) was a game I would like very much. I struggled to justify the expense on an early access game, but succumbed one lonely evening. And I did not regret it.

The streams of PUBG fail to express the sheer intensity of the experience, especially when playing solo and especially when you’re new to the game. Every sound spawns terrified jamming of keys while trying to go prone. I am a particularly jumpy person and this can be embarrasing when dead team-mates (more on squad play later) are spectating my play and see my view leap up and down again when a gunshot rings out. Despite being in early access it’s clear that PUBG neatly walks the fine line between the thrill of looting, the fear of being shot, and the sadism of ending another player’s round in a bloody haze.

I was fortunate to notice friends also playing on Steam (not surprising since everyone is playing at the moment) and was quickly able to form a regular squad. The game takes on a slightly different tone when playing as a group of up to four, the abject fear of a lonely death replaced with considerations of strategy, positioning, resource management and not humiliating yourself in a more public way. The best way to describe squad play in PUBG is to say it is the best game that I have ever experienced at replicating children playing soldiers. You get to shout “Moving to cover!”, “Reloading!”, “Check my six!” and other such pseudo-militaristic jargon in a non-ironic way that actually means something in the game. It’s cool.

Frustrations are definitely present, however, particularly for those of us who are not very good at shooting. I find myself regularly able to get into the top 15 or 10 living players, only to be deftly outgunned by more skilled opponents. This is not unfair, but it’s vexing that the only practice I get at PUBG’s shooting is in a live fire situation. One cannot help but feel that you’re in the ever-closing circle with 12-hour-a-day streamers, but I’ve got a day job. Some kind of training or deathmatch mode would definitely be appreciated.

Despite this, I have definitely spent a lot of time thinking about PUBG recently and am keen to see its development in the coming months. More on this to follow, probably.