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It has been a hell of a year and the video games weren’t bad either. If you wanted to play as a superhero blasting away at a viking with a shotgun Fortnite had you covered. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey gave me a beautiful, bountiful open world. Red Dead Redemption 2 did the same but in a far slower, more philosophical way. The metroidvanias came out swinging but in the genre’s royal rumble Dead Cells and Hollow Knight fought each other to a stand still. Celeste reignited my love for and frustration with 2D platformers. Frostpunk gave me the chance to save an ice-bound city from certain doom either through faith, brutality or love. Whether it was web-swinging or axe-throwing I wanted Spider-Man and God of War had those bases covered
Below you’ll find my personal choices for what I think are the best games of 2018. Feel free to argue or agree with me but I’d prefer it if you’d agree.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
(PS4, Xbox One, PC).
Splitting a ship clean in two with an iron-shod ram feels pretty damn good. The crunch and splinter of wood. The screams as men are tossed into the shark filled waters of the Aegean sea. That’s only the second best feeling in the latest entry in Ubisoft’s long running franchise though. The best is the Spartan Kick ability granted to you early and, if you’re like me, used often. Seeing Kassandra boot a high powered enemy in the chest and watching them drop a hundred feet to the base of a cliff is one of the most satisfying feelings a game has ever provided me.
Although a lot of Odyssey’s mechanics don’t feel quite as polished as that one ability they combine into a whole that supports its multiple branching story-lines and beautiful, overstuffed world. While Kassandra’s (or Alexios’) story is interesting enough it’s all the other stuff that really kept me hooked. Whether it was hunting down the Minotaur or singlehandedly massacring an entire fortress or even just playing video game tourist Assassin’s Creed Odyssey grabbed me and didn’t let me go. I’ve still got loads to do and considering how much the game has been added to post-launch I’ll have lots more going into 2019.
(PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, MAC, Linux).
Celeste is probably my favourite game on this list purely because of how uncomplicated it is. As Madeleine you must climb Celeste Mountain. That’s it. Everything else is bells and whistles but those bells and whistles sure sound and look good. From its story of mastering fear and anxiety to its pitch perfect soundtrack to its charming characters like bearded hipster Theo and the laughing Old Woman Celeste is always endearing in between its attempts to give you a heart attack.
Celeste has over 700 levels from short, simple rooms to hair-pullingly frustrating marathons. All are designed in that they can be completed through patience and skill or, eventually, through blind luck. Its controls are so exact that I often found myself staring in disbelief at yet another death only to look down and see that my own thumb had betrayed me. Celeste also manages a wonderful mix of story and gameplay. It could have just been “You are Madeleine. You must climb the mountain.” Instead my own anxieties both in-game and in the real world overlapped with Celeste. I’m a better person for having played Celeste because as that cackling Old Woman said: “The mountain can’t bring anything out that isn’t there already.”
(PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, MAC Linux).
Dead Cells doesn’t allow for cosmetic customisation. Considering the Prisoner you play as is a headless corpse I don’t see why you’d want to cosmetically customise them. What it does let you customise about them is everything else. Dead Cells lets you fight with everything from the Prisoner’s own fists and feet to oil-drenched swords to a giant cartoon hammer. Add to this powerful abilities and traps and the Prisoner should be unstoppable right? Wrong. I died a dozen times going up against the first boss. Now I can’t believe that he ever got the drop on me as I run rings around him.
Dead Cells is about learning through failure. Zombies have eaten me, I’ve been skewered and stepped on and squashed but I got back up every time having learned something new. Dead Cells never lets you forget your failures thanks to the supremely sarcastic Scribe guarding the Daily Challenge door. But it never lets you forget your successes either. In the starting area jars displaying every weapon and ability you’ve ever collected hang from the ceiling. They serve as reminders that no matter how tough the going gets there’s always loot at the end of the tunnel.
(PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, MAC, iOS, Android).
Technically Fortnite came out in 2017 on most platforms but 2018 was the year it came to global dominance. A lot of headlines drew attention to its in-game currency scams, cheaters and the effect it was having on children. Very few drew attention to how much fun Fortnite actually is. Whether playing in a team or going solo Fortnite made the battle royale genre accessible. 200 million registered accounts can’t all be wrong or fake proving that Fortnite had something that Player Unknown’s Battle Grounds and others in the genre didn’t.
From its quirky, mid-range graphics to its tightly wound and fair gameplay Fortnite offered something different within the vast landscape of shooters. Its weekly events and challenges ensured that the game was never boring but despite Thanos, airplanes and floating cubes Fortnite’s core conceit of “Be the last man standing” never changed. The words Victory Royale appearing on screen after a hard-fought match are as close as anyone can get to a dopamine overdose outside of injecting the chemical right into their brain stem. As games as service start to become the rule rather than the exception Fortnite is leading the charge.
Do I start a new religion to ease their minds? Do I get the watchmen to crack some skulls? Do I ignore the cost to the generator and build another orphanage? All of these choices have their ups and downs. Do I really have the resources to train people in doctrine? Are there enough people to make the watchmen an effective judicial force? Will another orphanage waste my dwindling coal supplies and shut down the generator, effectively dooming us all? Frostpunk provides no answers, it only asks increasingly tough questions.
Frostpunk responds surprisingly well to empathy. The elements are harsh as blizzards and temperature drops can often slow down the gathering of desperately needed coal and timber. Sickness can leave research and medical facilities unmanned for days. Homelessness is a constant problem as more and more refugees arrive yet the game rewards you, more often than not, for choosing the option that leaves your city’s population with more, not less. The option to shut out refugees or create a cult of personality are always there but I found hope that even in this blisteringly cold world the warmth of human kindness still burned bright.
God of War
Was there a more satisfying piece of sound design this year than the whistling throw, cracking impact and thumping return of Kratos’ axe? If there was I haven’t heard it. Kratos is a deity of few moods and fewer expressions. That never helped him in the original seven God of War games and although his moods and expressions remain much the same other characters are there to add depth to the Ghost of Sparta’s shallow temperament. His son Atreus provides catharsis while the severed head of Mímir provides some desperately needed comic relief.
Still it was in its gameplay rather than its story that God of War excelled and reveled in. From the satisfying crunch of Kratos’ axe to the whip-like fluidity of the Blades of Chaos to the pummeling power of his own fists God of War never let me forget who I was playing as. Kratos’ well-intentioned mistake of trying to protect Atreus from his supposedly cursed destiny gave God of War its spine, the combat was the muscle that pushed that slim story forward to gaming glory.
(PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, MAC, Linux).
The history of the silent protagonist is a long one but Hollow Knight’s faceless, nameless, wordless anointed bug may be one of the best. Released in 2017 on computers Hollow Knight truly came into itself with its console releases this year which coincided with other metroidvania games such as Guacamelee 2, Death’s Gambit and the aforementioned Dead Cells all duking it out. Hollow Knight had the benefit of experience and a protagonist whose actions said a lot more than those of his mouthier contemporaries in the genre. Its hand drawn art style differentiated it from its pixel art counterparts and gave it a distinct personality.
Hollow Knight feels emptier than most games. There are enemies in abundance but few actual characters. Those you do encounter from the Stag Beetle coach to the Mapmaker to the Miner all make an impression and are a brief respite from the violent silence of Hallownest’s tunnels. This emptiness echoes down through the game and eventually resolves itself in the insect Knight you play as. I hesitate to make the over-used comparison but not since Dark Souls has a game world felt both so lived-in and so died-in.
Red Dead Redemption 2
(PS4, Xbox One).
I’m sure anyone that’s ever built Xanadu, stately Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan in Minecraft will disagree with me but Red Dead Redemption 2 is the slowest game I’ve ever played. That had its advantages and disadvantages. It made me appreciate the beauty and diversity of its vast, fully interactive world. It made its big set piece story missions more exciting even if the shooting eventually became rote. Most of all it made me finally appreciate Rockstar’s use of fatalist narratives. The smarmy nihilism of Grand Theft Auto never really worked for me but the caged animal quality displayed by John Marston and Arthur Morgan did.
Letting go was the hardest lesson I learned in Red Dead Redemption 2. As a prequel we witness the dissolution of the Dutch Van der Linde gang. Characters die and leave as the game goes on, characters I had learned to love over time spent on the trail with them. A bank job gone wrong forces Arthur to abandon a mentor and pseudo-protegé to die. A lot of games similar in scope and scale to Red Dead Redemption 2 would offer you the chance to save these characters. Red Dead Redemption 2 never does knowing that we might carry joy with us for a long time but we carry regret to our grave.
The feeling of a game is incredibly important. I’ve already talked about Kratos’ axe and how that felt great to throw and hack with. Spider-Man felt great because it put you hundreds of metres above New York at the very start of the game and literally showed you the ropes, well webs, from there. The game’s super-powered brawls never quite match up with Spider-Man’s dazzling, rushing mid-air acrobatics but that’s what all the ordinary goons are there for. Objectively Spider-Man is the best superhero because he’s the first that had to pay rent.
That relatability is key to feeling like not only Spider-Man but also like Peter Parker. Admittedly the gameplay goes a bit too far with this with its circuitry minigames and Miles’ and Mary Jane’s stealth sections but the story makes up for that. The game knows that great power comes with great responsibility and forces you to act on this by making Peter Parker’s seemingly trivial problems feel almost as big as the city destroying foes he faces. Spider-Man’s heroics become yours and even if those heroics are just rescuing a homeless man’s pigeons they mean as much as a skyscraper brawl with Doc Ock.