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 FTL, Into 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.
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.