A truly Epic Enterprise.
2018’s been a pretty strange year for games. Since I started working for Chooch, I’ve habitually kept an ongoing ranking of every new game I’ve played in as the year has progressed, and 2018 was the first time that I’ve really been faced with a dilemma the likes of which I’ve had this year. Ordinarily, when GOTY time rolls around, I find myself agonizing over my top ten, having to cut games that I’d really rather not, usually feeling like there’s a good five to ten that could easily have made the list, but have to miss out. This year, things have been very different.
There’s more video games out there than ever before, but 2018 as a whole felt incredibly flat to me. That’s not to say there weren’t good games, because there most definitely were. But compared to the non-stop onslaught of great stuff 2017 brought us, and 2016’s banger second-half, there was very little that excited me in 2018. I’ve been thinking about the reasons why a lot this year, and ultimately, I’ve come to a couple of conclusions. The first, I think, is related to the opening of the floodgates and subsequent oversaturation of Steam as a marketplace.
In previous years, I’ve been able to get my hands on a lot of smaller games that have meant a lot to me through Steam, but as the store gets flooded with shitty hentai tile puzzles and generic, slapdash haunted houses, it’s been getting more and more difficult to find the Emily is Away’s and the She Remembered Caterpillars’ amongst the rubble. I’ve got little doubt that I missed some truly special indie games this year, and it’s a real bummer. With the increasingly difficult nature of finding indies that really hit home, it falls on the bigger, more hyped games to live up to expectations, and, by and large, 2018 was emblematic of the increasingly obvious reality that “Triple A” gaming is well on the way to creative bankruptcy.
With big budget games publishers doubling down on making their games grindier and less fun in service of bleeding players out of additional cash, it’s becoming more and more difficult to justify spending any time with games put out by the likes of Ubisoft or EA. What’s more, aside from a couple of notable exceptions, most of the handful of major titles that didn’t engage in outrageously scummy business practices missed their marks pretty spectacularly in my eyes. Red Dead Redemption 2 was an absolutely miserable experience, God of War and Detroit: Become Human failed to tell the engrossing, mature stories they were lauded for supposedly weaving, and the less said about Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the better.
Of course, 2018 wasn’t all bad. I played a lot of stuff this year that I did enjoy, but before I dole out the back-pats to the new releases that brought me joy this year, I’ve also got a quick shoutout to an older game that’s really revved up my generators the last month or so.
Old Game of The Year: Dead by Daylight
There’s something about Dead by Daylight that causes my brain to constantly yell at me that it’s a badly made, not actually all that fun experience, and yet, for some reason, since picking it up around Halloween, I’ve been having an absolute blast. I’ve spent the last couple years trying to find a “hobby” game of my own as I’ve watched various friends get deep into games like Overwatch, Final Fantasy XIV, Street Fighter and Soulcalibur, but nothing seemed to stick.
I’ve had brief runs, from my on-and-off relationship with PUBG, a short and immediately miserable run with Rainbow Six: Siege and a somewhat lengthier but ultimately casual fling with Rocket League, but now that I’ve discovered Dead by Daylight, I might be ready to finally commit. Maybe it’s my fondness for slasher movies, and the feeling of sneaking to safety from a lurching Michael Myers, or maybe it’s as simple as the fact that unlike the others, I’m actually doing pretty well at it, but for whatever reason, The Entity has its gross hooks in me now, and it’s actually got me thinking about specific builds and strategy in a way no other multiplayer has.
Man, Onrush is a game that makes me sad. Months before I got into Dead by Daylight, I had a feeling that Onrush could be that (pretend I’m saying this in Randy Pitchford’s voice) “hobby grade” game I was looking for. Onrush burned bright and fast, and within a couple of weeks of launch it became pretty difficult to find matches that were fully populated by players. In some ways, Onrush is going to set a theme for the year when it comes to my relationship with gaming; it’s a game that could’ve been so much higher on this list if only it hadn’t wound up on the scrapheap so quickly. Bright, colourful and a ton of fun, Onrush’s mixing of team based, Overwatch-style gameplay with Burnout-esque mechanics and dressing was an incredibly good time at its best. Maybe I’ll go back to it soon, now that it’s been out for free via PS Plus, but I fear the GOTY rush may have seen me miss out on a brief rebirth.
To say Undertale was a phenomenon when it released in 2015 is probably the understatement of the decade. Unfortunately, while I could happily sit there, play it and totally see why people loved it, Undertale had essentially zero impact on me emotionally. I got the game a couple months after release, and by that point I’d seen so much of the game out of context, been spoiled on so many of the big moments, that it all just felt kind of flat. So, when spiritual-successor Deltarune released this year, I immediately muted all mention of it from my timelines, went out of my way to avoid spoilers, and, a couple weeks later, had a much more positive experience than with Toby Fox’s previous work. While I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about Deltarune from a mechanical standpoint, it’s the game’s look and feel, the world that it creates and so successfully immerses the player in that makes it one of the year’s standout experiences. Deltarune may be short, and may serve as little more than a prologue for bigger things to come, but if the rest of the experience hits these highs, it’ll be worth the wait, however long.
I still haven’t finished Celeste. I think that, if I had managed to get it done by this point, it’d probably have cracked my top three at the very least, but my failure to beat the game to this point is a reflection more on me than on what is a truly wonderful video game. For something that deals with such heavy subject matter, Celeste still manages to somehow contrast its darker themes with an experience that’s a pure joy to play and control. The writing is sharp, and the characters, even those who quickly come and go, all manage to be sympathetic, well-realized and relatable, while the game’s beautiful score and charming aesthetic add wonderfully to the experience. I think Celeste might be a masterpiece, but I wanna finish it before I give it that stamp.
Speaking of games that might just be masterpieces, let’s talk about what I think would have, without question, been my personal Game of the Year, if only it hadn’t been so broken. There might not be a more interesting and ambitious video game to have come out in years than Vampyr; a game that feels like the kind of risk-taking, bold move that we’ve largely lost in the years since the original THQ went bust and took the mid-tier game with it. Vampyr weaves all its mechanics together in amazing fashion using its District Health system, an overarching spectre fueled by each and every move you make to influence the world around you, the difficulty of the game itself, and the prospects of the residents of London. Moral choices aren’t anything new in games, but never has one given such weight to your every decision quite the way that Vampyr does. Everything you do has a massive effect on the world and people around you, and watching as Dr. Reid battles with his affliction and the necessity to balance his own needs with those of the people he’s sworn to protect is truly unlike any other game. The past couple of years have seen the medium take great strides in storytelling, but Vampyr may just be the best yet.
For all that games have made great strides in the past few years, sometimes there’s something to be said for a game that’s just fun. Spider-Man may not be all that big or clever, and may have a protagonist who’s a little too much of a cop, but god, there’s something that’s just so damn satisfying about the feeling of flying through the air across Manhattan, slinging webs all the way. Spidey offers an increasingly rare example of an open-world experience that’s just a good time to be in; as other series’ desperately try in vain to chase the coattails of The Witcher 3, Insomniac instead chose to just simply tell a good superhero story, while evoking the feeling of the classic PS2 Spider-Man games. Spider-Man kept me hooked from the get-go, so much so that I actually breezed through the entire thing in a weekend, something which few games, if any, have managed to do in years. Now if only I could play as Spider-Gwen instead.
5. Project Warlock
Sometimes you’ve had a stressful day at work, the boss has been a dick, or maybe you just don’t have the mental energy necessary to do much else than sit around and watch YouTube videos of dudes in ski masks drinking malt liquor and yelling awful things. On those kind of days, you need something to really get the blood pumping, a quick shot of adrenaline to get you back on your feet and feeling good again, and on days like those, Project Warlock has been better than any shot of caffeine for me. There’s no shortage of games aiming for to replicate the look and feel of old-school id Software shooters, but none have done it quite as well as Project Warlock; it’s fast, chaotic, and has some fucking awesome weapons. It’s beyond satisfying to hack down waves of enemies with the axe, or blast through hordes with any of the game’s numerous shotguns, each of which lives up to the legacy set by DOOM years ago with aplomb. Project Warlock is a hell of a good time, it’s a snort of video game cocaine right to the brain, and boy is it potent.
4. The Jackbox Party Pack 5
I’ve been a big fan of the Jackbox games for a while now, but as good as they’ve generally been, none of them have come close to hitting the heights that Jackbox Party Pack 5 does. Split the Room offers a fun new spin on the tried and true Jackbox formula, Rap Verse City never fails to bring the laughs and the latest iteration of You Don’t Know Jack is probably the best that Cookie and the boys have managed yet. But what really sets Jackbox 5 apart is Patently Stupid; far and away the most fun game across the entire series so far. Sure, most of the inventions you’ll be brainstorming have to do with coming up with solutions related to various bodily fluids or genitalia, but sitting there as friends try to explain why their Cum Tube or Dick Extender is a viable product is always an absolute blast regardless.
3. The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories
The Missing is not a game that I thought I’d like very much. Side-scrolling 2D puzzle platformers have never really been my thing, and having already broken that trend once this year with Celeste, I thought the odds were stacked against Swery’s latest effort, especially with it dropping seemingly out of nowhere. If it hadn’t been for Rose and her wonderful review of the game, I’d probably not have touched it at all, but instead what I found was the most moving and heartfelt game of 2018. I can’t relate to everything J.J. goes through, but I also don’t need to; so well told is The Missing’s story, so well-paced and thought out its every sequence. Even though it becomes pretty apparent where things are going quite quickly (and prompts a reasonable amount of skepticism given Swery’s dreadful handling of LGBTQ issues in Deadly Premonition), The Missing hits all of its marks with a deft touch. Equally moving and macabre, The Missing was the only game of 2018 to make me cry, and for that I can’t help but praise it.
2. HITMAN 2
Generally, I’m not a fan of sequels that are just more of the same, but I love everything IO Interactive has done with HITMAN since the 2016 reboot. In a year where Triple A games doubled down on pretentious, vapid, “prestige” storytelling and gravitas, HITMAN 2 took the opposite route. A game that embraces its inherent silliness like none other, HITMAN 2 is both a blast to play, and a genuine unicorn amongst games, managing to be actually, legitimately funny in the process. Playing everything from SUPER COCAINE to Drake Nathaniel, Archaeologist Extraordinaire with a completely straight-face, the absolute ridiculousness of every single one of Agent 47’s missions unfolds in beautiful, controlled chaos. HITMAN 2 might just be more of the same, but when what already exists is as good as it is, is that really such a bad thing?
In some ways, I feel kind of bad for CrossCode; it’s a fantastic, beautifully polished video game that nails the feeling of old-school SNES ARPGs while updating them for a modern audience, but it almost feels too easy to pencil in as my number one game of 2018. With so little else out there that really moved me this year, it could be read that I’m picking CrossCode simply because it was just good enough; but that’s not the case. In its own right, CrossCode succeeds on just about every level; it’s got a great look and feel to its aesthetic, a pretty damn good soundtrack, and likeable, engaging characters fleshing out a colourful and unique world, a pretty special accomplishment in an era where there’s no end to the “I’m in a real MMO!” trope.
What makes CrossCode truly special though, is in its flow; combat is fast, focused and fun, with the game doing an excellent job of funneling players through quests on an almost constant basis to keep things fresh. It’d be easy to look at some of these quests and see them as padding, but CrossCode does such a good job at keeping things moving while winking at the camera just enough that even in its grindier moments, it almost feels more like a parody of the kind of game design that’s always kept me away from actual MMOs. It’s a rare example of a game that I sit down at and happily lose myself in for hours, and as someone whose time to actually play games seems to be ever lessening, sitting down to play one and suddenly finding it to be five hours later is a rare blessing. I played CrossCode’s demo years ago, and was so impressed that I purchased the game on the spot, despite being in the nascent stages of Early Access. I didn’t touch it again until it hit 1.0 a few months back, and I couldn’t be happier that I waited. CrossCode is simply wonderful. It evokes classics like Illusion of Gaia, Terranigma and Secret of Mana while stamping out an identity and vibe that’s entirely its own, and I love it for that.