When I say this has been a really bad year for gaming, let me provide a caveat to that: its been a really bad year in gaming for me.
I’ve not been enthralled as much with a whole ton of games as I thought I would be. Even for games I usually fall over myself for, I just didn’t feel it as much this year.
That’s not to say this year hasn’t been incredible in general, though. There have been some incredible games this year, some fantastically made titles in a lineup of releases that would rival most years.
But for me, as someone who’s played games for 21 years now and written about them professionally for ten years next year, this has been the worst year I’ve ever had as someone who has a massive vasted interest in them personally and professionally. Saying I was apathetic to a majority of the games that came out is massively concerning and I can only hope next year will be a better year for me.
That being said, the ten games that did make this list are next level special for me to make me feel anything other than nothing. They provided fun, excitement, enjoyment, surprises and more. In some aspects, they showed the future of the games industry – for better and worse.
Lets talk ten awesome games.
10 – Donut County
Look, you control holes and basically use them to clear areas of everything in them. Oh and you’re a racoon sitting on the john controlling these holes via an app. That in itself should sell you on a game that is as funny as is ridiculously fun.
But it also goes to strengthen a prediction I made last year. I said Annapurna Interactive would be a serious player as a publisher in the industry and this year, they continued to push that agenda. But Donut County is merely one facet of how it did that (and I’ll get to the other below).
And although, god forbid, if Annapurna does disappear as it starts to make itself a massive player in the industry as rumours rumble of financial difficulties, what its provided so far, from dorky fun to beautiful storytelling, is something that’ll be remembered for a long time.
Did I mention you control holes and basically use them to clear areas of everything in them in a sorta Katamari-like inspiration?
9 – FIFA 19
Here’s the thing about FIFA. I like these games, but you would usually only find them as an honourable mention on this list in some years. But this is the first time since I started doing a GOTY list on this blog that a FIFA game has made my top ten and the first time its made a personal GOTY list in ten years.
And honestly, its hard to see why it shouldn’t be here. For me, this is the most I’ve played of a FIFA game ever after a summer where I’d completely fallen back in love with football again after the greatest World Cup of my lifetime to date when feeling otherwise apathetic to club football in light of my Manchester United just generally being… … … *sighs really loud* (can we sack Jose now please?)
FIFA 19 sees the series gain back from Konami the rights to the greatest club competition in football with the Champions League, and it’s also the final chapter of Alex’s Hunter story, but the thing that has kept me with this year’s game so far is the one thing that I least suspected: Ultimate Team.
In past years, I couldn’t give a massive shit about it because I didn’t know how to do it or because it was primarily online based. Now, with single-player FUT being a thing and building teams that give me the confidence to take on online matches and tournaments, it has me playing more than past instalments, even if I’m still awful.
I’m as surprised as anyone that FIFA is on this list. But in fairness, its earned it this year.
8 – Shadow of the Colossus
How do you remake such a beloved classic that still maintains the essence of its original release?
Bluepoint Games, well known for their brilliant remasters on franchises like Metal Gear Solid, God of War and others including the 2011 Team Ico Collection on PlayStation 3 featuring Ico and the original version of Shadow of the Colossus, were tasked to bring Fumito Ueda’s masterpiece to a whole new generation of players who may never have played it on PS2 or even on PS3.
At the same time, it had to keep what made Shadow of the Colossus so beloved in the first place for players who wanted to return to that world. After all, the original version on PlayStation 2 was flawed severely on a technical level and although the PS3 version helped in that department, most people had longed packed their PS3s away. In the end, what Bluepoint achieved was nothing short of brilliant, both technically and artfully.
The game runs buttery smooth, especially on a PS4 Pro, ridding itself of the technical problems that plagued the original PS2 version in a massive way. It updated its art style in a way that was not only on par with the original, but actually somehow surpassed it and even made the game’s melancholic beauty stand out a lot more.
But it still maintained everything that made the game so special for the most part on a gameplay level: the same nine colossi, the same way to beat them (swords and arrows to the weak spot by climbing all over them), the same feeling afterwards that climbs more and more as the game progresses of ‘are we the baddie?’.
As remakes go, its high on the list of the best ever. Bluepoint absolutely killed it and now the studio’s standing has risen even more as a result, as speculation fervors on on what it’s making next.
(It’s Demon’s Souls, right?)
7 – Hitman 2
If you want a look at how much can change in the games industry over two years, just look at IO Interactive. At this point in 2016, it had just wrapped up the first season of an episodic release of a semi-rebooted Hitman as a Square Enix-owned studio. And although the episodic nature was sort of scattebrained between announcement and release, the game was highly praised. It was not so much a return to form following the massively panned Absolution in 2012 as it was the best Hitman game ever made, even more so than 2006’s Blood Money.
A little over six months after its final episode released, Square Enix separated with the Danish studio.
The studio’s future was at risk, employees jobs were in danger. The last time something like this happened on this scale was Bungie departing Microsoft as a first-party studio to become independent, but at least Bungie had a plan and a short-term future still with Microsoft. IO were in the middle of developing Hitman Season 2, but beyond that, its future was in serious doubt.
Somewhat miraculously, IOI survived. They somehow managed to become an independent studio and even gained the rights to the Hitman franchise from its former overseers. From there, they continued to build upon the foundation left upon from the first game with Hitman 2, published by Warner Bros, who had also published the Definitive Edition of Hitman 1 a month before 2’s pre-E3 announce.
With 2 itself, it manages to become an evolution of 1 in so many fun and great ways. Miami is a level that will go down as one of the best in the franchise’s history and even after just one Elusive Target already with Sean Bean and expansions to come for the game, the groundwork is already there for Hitman 3 to further evolve on the previous two games, especially considering its ending.
Hitman 2 also felt more gamey than recent other games before it, but while that’s something that is a con against other games of a similar nature is actually a pro that helps in its favour in this case.
IO Interactive is one of the rare studios to have not only been shut down under a corporate parent or even get away, but achieved great success. Who knows what its future brings, but the one thing that is clear is that, Square or no Square, IOI is still an incredibly talented studio.
6 – Monster Hunter World
Monster Hunter’s success until this year was primarily in Japan. It’s THE series now in Japan, its popularity akin to the likes of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. But elsewhere in the world, it was nothing more than a niche series that otherwise had a cult following.
When it was unveiled at E3 2017, Monster Hunter World was already massively obvious in its direction from its first trailer: to hit the western audience in the biggest way it could and grow the series’ audience even more.
But World’s success, given as it was in Japan, blew up massively in the West thanks to the word of noise surrounding past entries and how critically acclaimed they were. And you could see why. This comes from a first-time Monster Hunter player too (besides a brief play of the demo of the first game on the PS2).
For its first outing on a non-Nintendo home console in thirteen years, World delivered an experience that was new and fun to experienced players in the series, but for those new to the series like myself, it was something of a massive learning curve, but one that was worth going through.
For the sake of disclosure, I’ve not finished the main path in World, but it’s here for two reasons. The first being it was generally an awesome experience in the still substantial time I put into the game.
The second being easily one of my gaming highlights of the year and quite possibly this generation: a UK games industry WhatsApp group talking MH silliness non-stop all day, every day; talking strategies; sharing our created characters (mine accidentally being if Hiroshi Tanahashi was actually gay) and more.
Since then, World has run with the ball and punted it into the stratosphere with its success. Its no longer a niche series with a cult following. It is now seen in much more demand as a franchise and is an even bigger staple in Capcom’s plans going forward. And after World, you can’t help but feel its much deserved. Because as a game to help further the expansion of the series, it not only did it as much as knocked it out of the god damn park.
5 – Tetris Effect
If you read my list from two years ago, you know how much I loved Rez Infinite. You know how much as a first-time player to that game, playing it in 2D was one thing, but playing in 3D was akin to a religious experience for me.
So when Enhance Games and Tetsuya Mizuguchi announced its take on Tetris in a similar trippy way to Rez and even Child of Light, you know it was going to be something special.
Except… it wasn’t. At least for me, at first anyway.
Upfront: I’ve not played Tetris in a long, long time (we’re talking as a kid long time) and I’d more or less forgotten how to play it (before you say it, SHUT UP). And when I first tried the demo, I didn’t get on with it. I was not getting on with it at all. And I thought that was that.
But then, everyone on my Twitter would not shut up about it. And so I took at £30 gamble on it and see what the fuss was about again because apparently, the demo wasn’t sufficient enough to form an opinion.
And so I stuck with it. And kept sticking with it. And then…it made sense. And then it clicked. And then I kept playing and playing on and on to the point that every one more go turned into two into three into six into 12 into 24 into 48 and so on and so on. It got so desperate at one point that I lamented the fact this was not on the Switch because all I wanted to do while I was away from my TV was play this game. I literally wanted to go home and play this game whenever I was away.
Oh, and here’s the twist: the time I’ve spent playing Tetris Effect so far has been entirely in 2D. I’ve yet to play it on PlayStation VR.
Basically put, I have an addiction to this game. And I need a fix for on the go when I’m away from my TV. Because Tetris Effect really is just god damn fucking special. So yes, I am going to be that annoying dickhead when I say PLEASE BRING IT TO THE NINTENDO SWITCH.
4 – Florence
Florence is a little over an hour long. Florence costs the price of a sandwich and coffee. Florence is otherwise a mobile title, something that very rarely makes the honorable mentions of someone who primarily plays games on console or PC – the exception to this rule being three years ago with Her Story (and even then, that was also on PC). Florence is not a heavy gameplay experience, rather some simple (but still fun!) puzzles that help tie into the game’s story in genius ways.
But Florence is also one of the most profound experiences I’ve had this year across any device that plays games. A story of the love that comes in the most unexpected way and goes in the most depressing and disheartening but expected way. The titular character Florence and her passion for painting is seen in ups and downs throughout, you experience the awkwardness of the first date that any budding couple goes through with Florence and her soon to be partner Krish.
In the end, true love arrived. But not so much a person, but a life’s pursuit. And although there was a story told in the game, a great one at that which told the realness and awkwardness of a relationship, there was an interpretation I had of it: pursue the love that keeps you going. And I realise that is the most stupidest thing I may ever write. But it’s the truth.
I mentioned above how Annapurna Interactive has become such a massive player in the industry and the reason for that is for helping to release games that are so outside the norm. Not just in how dorky their games can be (see: Donut County or the upcoming Wattam), but stuff that mixes powerful storytelling and fantastic gameplay (see: What Remains of Edith Finch, Kentucky Route Zero – TV Edition and, umm, this).
But Australian studio Mountains, comprised of vets from Monument Valley developer ustwo, helped make something so impactful and beautiful, the latter in many ways.
Florence is beautiful. Florence is incredible. Florence is an essential must play.
3 – Spider-Man
I’ll be honest. I really, REALLY underestimated Spider-Man and how incredible it would be.
I knew it’d be great, don’t get me wrong. Insomniac Games are an insanely talented studio who’ve done little wrong with the work they’ve done over the years (lets not mention Fuse, though). And Sunset Overdrive was, lets be honest, a testbed for what they could do with a superhero game. Better yet, a Spider-Man game. And you knew it was going to be great. I knew it was going to be great.
But not in a million years did I expect it to be next-level great, an incredible experience even. Spider-Man’s story and certain moments – including and especially its ending – feel earned in their execution. Its art design is impeccable (and that’s not saying anything on the graphics – PS4 Pro and a 4K TV plus Photo Mode = *vincemcmahonfainting.gif*).
But Spider-Man in how it plays is just *chef’s kiss*. It not only refines what made Spider-Man 2 so fun to play, but even surpasses it in massive and brilliant ways. What it provides in activities outside the story is the usual open-world side-tasks in a Spidey way, but the thing is with most games, you’ll end up doing one or two before going back onto the main plot. With Spider-Man, you not only feel compelled to do them, you actually want to clean up as many of them as you can.
And I’ve still yet to finish up all the side activities and even get a start on the DLC. There’s something to do over the Christmas break, then!
For its gameplay and how it refined what made Treyarch’s Spider-Man 2 so fun, Insomniac’s take on your friendly neighborhood Spidey already makes it the best Spider-Man game ever. But roll all of that into other elements that makes the game so incredible, Spider-Man has quite possibly taken the mantle of the best superhero game ever away from Rocksteady and the Batman Arkham series.
And you have to feel Insomniac, considering the monster success of this, will have had a sequel greenlit by Marvel Games and Sony the second it became Sony’s most successful first-party launch ever, even more so than a game made and released by one of their own first-party studios less than six months earlier (which begs a much bigger question of when Insomniac CEO Ted Price will finally say yes to Sony’s advances and officially become a first-party studio).
Spider-Man is brilliant. That’s all there is to it.
2 – Red Dead Redemption II
Do you ever feel so conflicted about a game that you don’t know how to judge it?
The pre-launch stories and articles about Rockstar’s working practices when working on Red Dead Redemption II has only stoked further demand of unionization within the games industry, to say the least. And not to mention the ethical aspects of critically looking at a game that has working conditions that border on the extreme, if not already there.
The countless hours and days that staff at Rockstar’s many studios across the world – its flagship developer North in Edinburgh, the game’s main developer in San Diego, its QA studio in Lincoln, its headquarters in SoHo, New York that holds the company’s co-founders Dan and Sam Houser and countless others – have sacrificed in the pursuit of making the perfect videogame. In fact, time itself feels like the less important thing sacrificed here compared to the potential sacrifices made to people’s friendships, relationships, marriages and even mental health.
It’s rather appropriate, then, to mention Heart of Darkness here considering not only the similarities in what Rockstar went through making this game are arguably on par with what Francis Ford Coppolla went through making Apocalypse Now, but was actually something that was cited in a past interview by Sam Houser in regards to how Rockstar makes its games.
“We’ve all seen Heart of Darkness. We’re definitely in that realm of excitement and misery at the same time. It’s not supposed to be easy,” he said in a rare 2013 interview with The Times in the run up to the release of Grand Theft Auto V. “Each time, we push everything to its limit. I don’t think it’s conscious, but it’s sort of how it has to be. It has to hurt more. You want to find Kurtz every time.”
This was mentioned in regards to GTA V, but you can easily apply it to Red Dead Redemption II as well. In a way, if Red Dead Redemption II is Rockstar’s Apocalypse Now, the game’s development could be argued to be its Heart of Darkness.
And yet… and yet… Red Dead Redemption II is still the most incredibly crafted, well made game I’ve ever played.
Its story is legitimately brilliant throughout the entirety of the game, a lot different to how I felt in regards to RDR1’s story after entering Mexico, especially with a moment at the end of act 3 and the crescendo it builds to (you know the moment).
And I love a good majority of the characters in the game, especially Sadie Adler (who by right deserves her own game). Rockstar’s world-building, from the obvious to the subtle, is still untouched by many in the industry. And there are moments in this world that just feel unique, whether made by the game or the player. For example:
— Johnny Cullen/JehutyRunner (-_•) (@JohnnyCullen) October 27, 2018
Whereas before I didn’t think a whole lot of Red Dead Redemption 1 – it’s a good game but I thought of it to be vastly overrated – Red Dead Redemption II feels like the best game Rockstar has ever made and released.
And considering that’s over the likes of Grand Theft Auto III, a title that changed how videogames were seen and viewed, and Grand Theft Auto V, a title once and for all solidified the standing of videogames in the mainstream as a legitimate medium and art form with its success, it’s a big deal.
The craft put into Red Dead Redemption II is unlike anything I had ever seen and feels like something that won’t be seen again for a good while (baring the final product of The Last of Us: Part II, going by the demo of the game shown this past E3). It’s easily moved the medium forward in terms of its storytelling, immersion and honed craft and what Rockstar does next will still be awaited with baited breath, whether that’s GTA VI or something else, and that the 2,000 plus people who worked on it can easily be proud of what its done with the game because it’s a massive achievement.
But in another way, was it worth it?
Was it worth the physical and mental toll that it cost the people working on the game? Was it worth the sacrifices given to it, both personally and professionally? Was it worth making the bosses happy? Was it truly worth pushing videogames forward with just one game? Was it worth pushing the already negative stigma of crunching for the pursuit of perfection? Was it worth finding Rockstar’s own Kurtz? Or to reword that, was it worth finding Arthur Morgan?
Was it worth it?
1 – GRIS
The magic number of screenshots (and one accidental video clip) that I took of GRIS when playing on Nintendo Switch.
And in all honesty, it’s hard to be blamed for that. Because the first immediate thing about it is its art style and design. It’s legitimately one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played. And it’s certainly the most photogenic game I’ve ever played anyway.
But the real number I should mention is 5.
As in it took five minutes after I had first started playing the game when I had my first wow moment. And every wow moment I had subsequently throughout – and I had an absolute ton of them – came from a majority of just incredible game design moments throughout the entirety of the game, things I didn’t expect in awesome ways. Every time I had these moments, all I could say or think to myself was ‘this game. This fucking game, man’.
Indeed, this fucking game. Because inbetween the art design and the game design, the other thing that stuck out was how this was a game about grief and to a lesser extent, mental health. I’m not going to talk specifically about the grief of a woman depicted in the game – I think it’s best to hear on that part from female critics in the industry (so for that, hit up the brilliant Vikki Blake’s review on Eurogamer and also follow the wonderful Natalie Flores on Twitter who have better takes on this than I can ever give because I ain’t qualified for that) – but I can talk about the facets of grief, the struggles of it and the mental health toll it takes on you and how I related to it with GRIS.
This year has been the best year of my life for a long time since my mother died. In fact, even a bit before. For the first time in years, my mental health – specifically my depression and anxiety – has been the best its been in years (not without its bad days of course, but this year, that felt few and far between compared to a year or two ago when it was super bad).
I’m doing some stuff outside games which is making me feel productive and able to socialise more than I was able to, again, a year or two ago when I was a massive hermit and screaming at people to go away and wanting to get away from the world.
And for the first time in years, I have a semi-regular gig in the industry alongside freelance, doing the one thing in this industry that I not only love, but quite frankly, I am fucking great at. And I am doing so with a brilliant team, including a wonderful boss who – even after doing this for nearly ten years – is still giving me valuable lessons.
But it took me a long, long time to get here. It took me four years – in fact, going further back, it took me six years – to get where I am today. And no, it still ain’t perfect or where I want to be personally. However, this is a good foundation for me to build upon and you can bet 2019 will be where I go all out – bats swinging, guns blazing.
So what does this have to do with GRIS? It’s simple. I related to it because it feels like it was reminding me of my own journey with grief, fighting with the darkness and fighting a monster that wanted to devour me whole. It was a journey that reminded me that I can win against the most impossible of odds. Grief nearly killed me – mentally and even in some aspects, literally – but although it’s still there at times during certain moments like a birthday or the anniversary of the passing itself, it’s certainly in a place where I can manage with it.
A fellow critic who was reviewing the game told me before its release that “knowing the kind of stuff you like, I’m almost certain it’ll be one your games of the year.” And while he was right, that still felt like that was underselling it.
I’d been looking forward to GRIS since its reveal earlier this year and I always expected to be an incredible game, but not in a million years did I expect it to be something else. It really is just truly a magical game.
And in a year where I’ve been apathetic to a majority of games released this year, how fitting then is it that GRIS is my game of the year. It’s nice to be reminded of the kind of power games can have after playing it.
Honourable mentions: Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner – MARS, Burnout Paradise Remastered, Katamari Damacy Reroll, Forza Horizon 4. Far Cry 5, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, God of War, Super Smash Bros Ultimate, The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit (Life is Strange 2 prequel), Life is Strange: Before the Storm – Farewell, F1 2018, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, WWE 2K19 and Detroit: Become Human.
Games too late for the cutoff: Below, Battlefield V, SoulCalibur VI and Ashen.