2018 was super, super rad for video games. Largely fueled by the continuing rise of studios of all sizes being able to spit out awesome stuff, it seems like almost everybody I talked to this year had a wide ranging list of different games that were their favorites. Usually there’s a handful of “AAA” games that everybody plays, the lists all look the same, and that’s it. Not this year. The Nintendo Switch being not just the best Nintendo console in probably 20 years, but an indie gamer’s dream has certainly helped this cause. A lot of games this year to me, maybe more so than other years, were personal for various reasons. I think it speaks to the strengths of narratives and the voices behind them for 2018 titles that so many stories were personal for so many people.
First, some shoutouts for all media.
Some of my favorite films this year: Mission Impossible Fallout, Spider Man Into the Spider-verse, Black Panther, Incredibles II. I made a Letterbox’d account if you’re interested in following my movie exploits!
Some of my favorite TV shows this year: Succession, Money Heist, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan.
Some of my favorite albums this year: Converge – The Dusk in Us, Architects – Holy Hell, Black Panther’s Soundtrack by Kendrick Lamar, Drake’s Scorpion, Spiderman Into the Spider-verse’s soundtrack, Sevendust – All I See is War.
In lieu of books, in which admittedly I’m not a huge bookworm, some of my favorite articles this year included the powerful piece on mental illness and PTSD by former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk, Kotaku’s investigative look into the culture of sexism and misconduct at Riot Games, “The Last Curious Man” which is an article on the life of one of my heroes, Anthony Bourdain, and that absurd hate-click Refinery29 money diaries article because it made me laugh.
Games Not Released in 2018 that I keep playing: Competitive levels of Overwatch, Doorkickers, SWAT 4, Enter the Gungeon. If you haven’t played Doorkickers specifically, you absolutely need to get on that.
Games I’m Bummed I Didn’t Get Around To: Frostpunk, Astro Bot, Return of the Obra Dinn, Tetris Effect, Fire Pro Wrestling World, Exapunks.
- Monster Hunter World for making a formerly impenetrable game accessible to everybody.
- Sea of Thieves for making a great pirate game with the best water I have ever seen in a game in my entire life.
- Super Smash Bros Ultimate for making a good one of those.
- Just Cause 4 for making me laugh with its ridiculous physics engine.
- No Man’s Sky NEXT Update for making that game now incredible.
- Far Cry 5 for scratching the itch of that type of game really well.
- Jurassic World Evolution for finally giving me the sequel to Operation Genesis I waited 15 years to play.
- Assassins Creed Odyssey for making too much video game, but taking some risks on a now-exhausted formula and making a decent chunk of it really good.
It took literally 20 years but somebody finally made a good Dragon Ball Z game. Arc System Works deserves a lot of credit for not only making a good DBZ game, but also simplifying what have always been incredibly complex 3v3 tagging-style fighter games and making one that is incredibly accessible to almost anybody. The graphics are fantastic, and very faithful to the show. It’s like playing an episode, and it’s so much fun. There’s a lot of fan service here, but they do a great job justifying it and incorporating it masterfully into moves that never feel overpowered. Plus, it led to probably one of the greatest moments in EVO history.
Forza Horizon 4 is sort of what all these years of fine tuning, graphical enhancements, and environmental effects have culminated in. The Forza Horizon series has certainly always been better than the Forza Motorsport series, namely because it leans way harder into arcade craziness. Yes, I would like to race a Lambo across grass fields. Yes, I would like to flip a Bugatti Veyron while doing a stunt jump. The game is stunning to look at, especially on a giant 4K TV with an Xbox One X. Graphics aside, making the game have four real seasons and making exclusive events tied to those seasons is one of the smartest things I’ve seen. Not only does the map look different and play different (the season changes every real-world week), but it keeps you coming back. You may master a course in the fall, but then winter comes along and you’re sliding all over ice. Between this, the level of detail, the amount of stuff to do, and how relaxing the whole experience is, Forza Horizon 4 might very well be the best racing game ever made.
I was bummed when Activision announced the new Call of Duty wouldn’t have a campaign. I’m that 1% that has traditionally played these games for the campaign, and I felt left out. Look, Activision has the data, and they know the numbers. There’s a reason I was 1% of the market. Then I became excited. I largely played these games for the campaigns because the multiplayer to me has never been great since Modern Warfare 2. What if they devoted those resources to making the multiplayer insanely good? And that’s exactly what they did. One of my favorite changes is making hero-based Overwatch style loadouts. Sure, you still create classes, unlock guns, the whole nine. But now there’s unique abilities per characters. Every character has an ultimate ability. It’s not a grenade festival (only some heroes have one grenade on a cooldown), the shooting is insanely tight, and the movement is amazing. No wall running, no jetpacks. Just some good Call of Duty with a decade of knowledge behind it combined with new, fresh ideas. I probably play a few rounds per day just because of how satisfying it is. Combine this with an absolutely phenomenal battle royale mode in Blackout that has no right being anywhere near as good as it is, and you have the best Call of Duty since MW2 easily. Not to mention your unlocks between Blackout and the normal multiplayer are tied together. If you’ve stepped away from the franchise for a number of years, I don’t blame your skepticism, but this is absolutely the time to come back.
Celeste is probably the second most difficult game I have ever played, but it’s so incredibly satisfying. Celeste at a very top level, has a very clear objective. Reach the top of the mountain. Its gameplay can very closely be compared to Super Meat Boy, however it’s much tighter with no random dice rolls. Every single level is meticulously created and easy to accomplish once you have the pattern down. You never feel cheated and you want to keep going. As the levels go on, more elements are introduced, and it never gets repetitive. One map is entirely done while wind is blowing you around, or another needing to navigate moving stones to get around spikes. Along the way, you realize this game is about more than its letting on. This is a game about anxiety and depression, and poorly trying to constantly run from mental illness instead of using it as a tool. You play as Madeline who has gone to Mount Celeste to climb the summit. Along the way, you meet characters both friend and foe, who either encourage you or tell you you’re foolish and not good enough. It’s a game about confronting your demons, and while you will die thousands of times, you feel so proud each time you master a level. There’s particularly one sequence everybody will be talking about, involving being stuck on a chairlift and having a panic attack, that is one of my favorite moments this year. If these kind of issues are ones you can relate to, I found it incredibly therapeutic. I can’t recommend Celeste enough, which is the best platformer I’ve played in several years.
Dead Cells rules. On paper, I absolutely have no business enjoying this game. I hate Metroidvanias. I hate roguelikes. I hate making 45 minutes of progress only to die and start over. Dead Cells is all of these things, so why did it work for me? The answer lies in its masterful formula of slow-dripping you new items. There’s tons and tons of weapons to unlock in Dead Cells, and the game feeds you a little taste each time. The controls are also incredibly, incredibly tight. There is nothing more satisfying than ever door kick, every ground stomp. Because you feel so in control, you just want to keep playing, knowing that you will eventually beat a boss. This is all combined with incredible combos and loadouts. For example, I kept getting to the first boss and dying. Eventually, I got a weapon combo that froze him while getting him stuck in bear traps as I swung away at his health. I defeated him without taking an inch of damage. Then it was onto the next area where I immediately died. Dead Cells on paper should feel incredibly frustrating and difficult, but it doesn’t. It’s one of the most polished games I played this year. The soundtrack is also killer.
The Hitman series is one of my favorite series of all time. They’re so weird and technical, but they always deliver on the satisfaction and hilarity that ensues. The reboot of Hitman in 2016 is an incredible game, leaning into the absurdity and tongue-in-cheek humor of the whole premise. It’s hilarious to think you’ve nailed a hit, only for it to go so incredibly south you’re throwing spaghetti sauce cans at security guards. Hitman 2 is 100% more of that, and that’s okay! The maps are enormous, and super distinguished between each one. One of my favorite maps is a Miami F1 race where you can make the hit by rigging the racecar, or hell, just sniping the driver mid-race. There’s so, so much to unlock on each map that there’s no way you could see and do it all without dozens of hours invested in each map. Combine this with a clear roadmap of elusive targets, more maps, and more content and Hitman 2 is one of the best packages of 2018. Not to mention you can even go back and play Season 1’s maps but retweaked with features added in Hitman 2 (mirrors, bigger crowds). Hitman 2 is one of the most entertaining games of the year, and I can’t recommend it enough.
It’s cool that Sony got a AAA studio to make a very good Spider Man game. Everybody has their arguments, but we all know the best Spider Man game was Spider Man 2. Not anymore! The swinging is so goddamn good that even if you’re not doing one of the many collectibles or side missions, you just want to keep running around NYC. It’s the only game with fast travel that I have never fast traveled in because it feels so good to get around. I am deathly, deathly afraid of heights. I take pills to walk on an airplane. I get extreme vertigo looking up at buildings. My friends made me go to the top of the Empire State Building once, right below the needle where there’s floor to ceiling windows. I hung back, the asshole guide asked me if I was afraid of heights, I said yes, and he shoved me against the window. I almost threw up everywhere. Spider Man was super special to me because it gave me this sense of not being afraid of heights or having anxiety when it comes to looking down. It was really special to climb on the top of that same needle in the Empire State Building, just feet above where I was, surrounded by an absolutely gorgeous recreated New York City, and diving off of it while the incredible soundtrack played, smiling. It gave me a sense of relief I haven’t had in video games before because of how therapeutic it was to just not be afraid of super tall buildings for once. Combine this feeling with a really beefy campaign and a narrative that is super well written, absolutely stunning graphics, and you can see why Spider Man is a hell of a package. It’s not some random movie tie-in, it’s a full fledged AAA game that is one of this year’s best. The DLC is also all very good, and I love checking off all the game’s boxes as I snatch up every collectible. By far one of the best this year, and easily the best superhero game ever made. Every time I boot it up, I’ll never stop appreciating the sense of freedom it gives me and my brain.
God of War is an extraordinary piece of work. Who would have thought that Kratos would be one of the most compelling characters this year? God of War has such an interesting narrative, completely changing the way we look at Kratos and telling a much more personal story. Kratos, who’s entire 4 games before can be summed up with “I’m really mad!” is now an old bearded man, tasked with caring for a son. His wife has just passed away unexpectedly, with her last wish being to spread her ashes on top of a mountain with your son. I do think there is a justified argument for the tired and problematic “fridging” trope of women in narrative writing, but that aside, I think the team believed in the story they were telling and it pays off. There are no camera cuts in the game and its massive campaign, which is very technically impressive. I’m a sucker for one-shots and long tracking shots, so it certainly sold me. The dynamic between Kratos and his son Atreus, having to all of a sudden deal with a child when your whole life has been murdering everything, made for something really special. As so many have said, it’s a problem Kratos can’t just smash into oblivion, and it was neat to see them take the series in this direction and flesh that issue out. The payoff and ending were really great, and I’m excited to see what they do moving forward as some things are hinted at in the game, namely ANOTHER mythology entirely. Moving into another entire mythological pantheon of Norse was super, super smart, and it’s a neat idea that all these different mythologies exist in the same universe. There’s a button dedicated to calling your axe back, and that felt so good every single goddamn time I did it. The combat is fun, Bear McCreary’s soundtrack is phenomenal, the sound design/mixing is some of the best I’ve ever heard, it has some of the best moments this year, and it’s one of the best looking games probably ever made. God of War is an absolute must-play.
FTL took over pretty much everybody’s PC (and then iPad) a few years ago. Super smart procedurally generated maps, snappy gameplay, neat premise. Of course it did. Cut to this year with their new game Into the Breach. Look, I’m a huge mech guy. I will literally watch anything that involves a human getting into a giant robot and fighting monsters. Pacific Rim is REAL GOOD. This game is absolutely that, but also one of the most addicting puzzle games I’ve ever played. Into the Breach has you playing as one of several squads of three mechs, each with their own ability, with names such as the Rift Walkers, Rusting Hulks, and Flame Behemoths. It has Brett written all over it. The objective of the game is to defend cities from giant invading monsters known as Vek. These games play out on a 8×8 grid, which are procedurally generated. The game is so well made because you place all your pieces, combine attacks, and always know what is going to happen so you can plan accordingly. There’s almost no random to the game, so it’s up to you to make the right choices. Mech squads are built with specific powers and combos in mind. For example, one mech can shoot monsters to an adjacent tile, then another can grab that same monster and move them towards the mech, only for your third mech to punch it in the face. It’s so satisfying when you nail a perfect combo, protect every building on the map, and not take any damage. You always know the exact order which monsters will strike in, and it’s your job to not mess it up. You also only get one turn reset per map, so turns can last a super long time. It’s so simple in concept, but incredibly complex in execution. I have put dozens of hours into this on PC, and then it came to Switch, where I put even more dozens in. It’s absolutely one of my favorite puzzle games ever, and I cannot recommend it enough, especially on Switch.
The case can be made that Red Dead Redemption is the best game of the Xbox 360/PS3 generation. It certainly is for me, so needless to say I was fairly excited to get my hands on the sequel eight years later. It was worth the wait. This game was an absolutely massive undertaking, and despite its flaws, I still can’t believe what I’m playing every time I boot it up. It’s by far the most immersive game I’ve ever played. Doesn’t matter the character or interaction, it has been accounted for. The amount of context in this game is insanity. The best games to me are ones where friends come together and share stories that are wildly different experiences, and I think Red Dead II is the natural conclusion to those. I never have wanted to stop exploring, and I never have stopped finding something new to talk about later, mark on the map, or just see where it goes. Just one example of the level of context is I found this completely random guy in the wilderness trying to sell me a map he hid somewhere. At first, he said $10. I stared at him long enough without giving him an answer, and he dropped it to $5. Then (naturally) I hogtied him. Even THAT action was accounted for, when he told me that if I untied him he’d tell me where it was. Then I pointed a gun at him, where he revealed it was in his pocket. This simple little interaction in this massive world could have gone 800 different ways, and all of them led to something. Almost every interaction is like that. Almost everything leads to a story. I found a random cabin in the woods which led me down getting robbed, beaten, left for dead, only for me to wake up and reenact revenge. First, I shot the wife who pulled a gun on me. The husband reacted to me doing this by calling her out in name before swearing revenge and running upstairs to get his guns instead of just another target for me to shoot. I still have not seen anything like this. I have gotten more lost in this world than any game I have ever played. I’ve said it before, but to me the best way I’ve summed it up is playing like a game that shouldn’t exist yet because of how technical it is. Sure, there’s a lot of flaws that can break the immersion, but they never bothered me because I’m so wrapped in the world they’ve created. This is all backed by what are maybe the best graphics I’ve ever seen (Xbox One X running on a 4KTV), fantastic sound design (even just going over a wooden bridge with your horse sounds great) and a pretty decent narrative over probably a 60 hour campaign ensures you’ll get lost forever. It’s basically a Westworld come to life. I’ll never stop exploring this fascinating world, and I can’t wait to see what I find.