Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Top ten games of 2018

It's blog clean up day! Time to trim the 'this year's games' list down to one and stare with bewilderment at the actual backlog. It's bad this year. I blame Assassin's Creed Odyssey.

My personal top ten games of the year were already codified aurally but I think it best to write them down here as well. I have not changed my mind about any of them. They are all precisely where they should be. If I must add an honorable mention then it goes to Beat Saber for being the single most expensive piece of software I purchased this year, at least when all of the bits of electronics required for it are added in.

This is my list. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

10. Assassin's Creed Odyssey

When I initially compiled by best of the year list I was twenty hours into Assassin's Creed Odyssey. That was twenty one days ago. Aside from dabbling with PSVR, Odyssey is all I have played since. Last night I passed ninety hours. That is past The Witcher 3 and edging dangerously close to the all time champion of time devouring, Skyrim. This is not to say that taking forever to get through is a positive, it's not, but holding my interest for that long is certainly an accomplishment.

I must admit that I am playing Odyssey the wrong way, which is to say, the same way I have played all of the other Assassin's Creed games. At its outset Odyssey offered two ways to play: the way it is meant to be played - with the pinpoint question marks on the map removed in favor of general directions from NPCs - and the way the old games were played, with every discoverable location illuminated as soon as the player arrives in the area.

It took ninety hours but I understand why the new way is the correct way: no one is supposed to find everything in this game. It's just too big. The player is supposed to take vague directions, like 'go south along the coast past a bunch of trees,' and strike out into the world, perhaps discovering something else along the way. I am playing a guided tour of glowing question marks.

It's still fun but I do think that I have robbed myself of the game's true intent.

Aside from that, this is barely an Assassin's Creed game. This is an open world RPG set in ancient Greece with reasonable combat, excellent stealth and a pretty good loot system. Is it better than Origins? No, but being cooler than Bayek is almost an impossible task, one that Alexios was just not up to.

9. Iconoclasts

There were a lot Metroid-vanias this year and the one that most people would call the best, Hollow Knight, disagreed with me on a cellular level. Iconoclasts is not as deep or as long as even as polished as its peers but it does not punish me for being bad at video games. It's playable, if a bit easy, and that is all it needed to be.

It also tells a pitch black story with a few incredibly grotesque scenes hidden behind its bright exterior. Robin goes through some ridiculous circumstances, all without speaking, and it worked because of her incredible animation.

For the first two thirds of the game Robin would shrink back in terror when terrible things happened. No words, just a very obvious 'oh shit, I am going to die' reaction. When the last boss arrives (and it was an out of left field last boss) instead of being afraid Robin flexes. She's ready. The game has seen her grow tremendously and it was conveyed with a simple and effective animation.

8. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

More indy games in your top ten?! Chamberlain, are you well?!

I'm fine. Mostly. And I am not joking about Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon. It is a modern day 8-bit Castlevania with none of the slow down or flicker and just the right amount of modern day concessions to make it enjoyable. It also has a brilliant new game plus mechanic.

Much like Castlevania III the player can choose from three different characters any time. Different areas and bosses are better suited to one character's abilities and if one dies off the player starts again a few screens back with one of the remaining characters. At the end of the game one of them dies and, in the manner of Ghosts and Goblins, the player is sent back to the beginning of the game.

The bosses are harder and the player has less options. It was so good that I almost attempted it. Almost.

7. Dragon Quest XI

Speaking of well done post game content.

Spoiler: I have never played a main series Dragon Quest game before. I do not know how it stacks up against previous entries. And the game is far from perfect. The music is terrible and enemy variety drops off a cliff in the second half of the game.

So why is it here? Because it is the best JRPG that came out in 2018. The world was big, it told a sprawling story full of sacrifice and heartache and the combat was simple but effective. It was everything that a modern JRPG should be: loyal to genre tropes but not averse to streamlining things for the player.

And the post game content nearly got me. I almost looked past the silly time travel bit and played on. One last complaint, though: please allow the main character to talk.  I understand that this is a Dragon Quest thing but it just doesn't work any more.

6. Guacamelee 2

My running gag of 'not being very good at video games' is mostly true but I do take some small amount of pride in my NES and SNES honed side scrolling platformer skills. There are reflexes living in may hands that I forget about for months at a time only to have them roused by games likes Ori and the Blind Forrest, another game that is higher up on the list, and Guacamelee 2.

I do admit that Guacamelee 2 is not as good as the first game. The developers hand is a bit too obvious in places. You can almost here them say 'Oh, you manage to do that, did you? Well do it again, but as a chicken, in a windy area, where touching any wall will fucking kill you.

Thank you, senor, may I have another.

5. Red Dead Redemption 2

Put your pitchforks down and disband your posse. Stop it. Stop it.

Everyone started out 2018 thinking that Rockstar's western magnum opus was going to be the best game of the year. And parts of it certainly were. Arthur Morgan is the best character out of any game that came out in 2018. He is the best written and is impeccably performed. His quiet moments, moments of introspection and, at the end, fear, are heart wrenching.

The world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is equally impressive, at least visually. Environments are varied and all equally gorgeous. From the swamps surrounding Saint Denis to the rolling plains further west, this is as close to a real, living, breathing place as has ever been encoded on to plastic discs.

So why not higher? There is an arrogance to Red Dead Redemption 2 that cannot be ignored. It stems from the arrogance of a company whose representatives reportedly stood up and left the VGAs when their game (rightfully) did not win game of the year.

A small example: Arthur skinning an animal is a very well done, detailed animation. It would have been fine to see it in its entirety the first time and then a shortened version thereafter. At least give the play the option to skip it. Nope, that lengthy animation plays out every single time. Red Dead Redemption 2 got so far up its own 'western simulation' ass that it forgot to be a fun game to play.

If there was a category for excruciatingly detailed simulation then this game would win. It would win this year and probably would win the same award again and again, forever. I don't know about anyone else but I am here to play games, not watch games.

And I don't care what anyone else says, the shooting sucked.

4. Forza Horizon 4

If there is an entry on this list whose position I cannot adequately defend, this is it. By my own admission Forza Horizon 4 is just more of the same. It is Forza Horizon 3 repackaged in the UK (which was just Forza Horizon 2 repackaged in Australia). It also has a few pieces of the game carved off into multiplayer and carrot on a stick mechanics designed to pull the player back in for the next season.

But this is also the best looking racing game I have ever seen. 4K, 30fps, all day, every day, regardless of what is going on. It continues to ride the fine line between arcade and sim racers, eschewing its name sake in favor of balls out, over the top racing with just enough sim in the mix to make the player work for it.

But this is the last time I will open this package, see that the contents are the same, and be satisfied. Playground Games is officially on notice. Time to shake things up.

3. Celeste

I am not properly equipped to speak about Celeste as anything more than it is on its surface. Its deeper themes are somewhat lost on me. So that is all I am basing this placement on. At its core it is a 2D pixel art side scrolling platformer whose difficulty is a hairs breath away from Super Meat Boy territory. Translation: I died a lot in Celeste. I died a lot and I kept coming back for more.

If a game is going to require nearly pixel perfect inputs then the controls themselves had better be both streamlined and responsive. Celeste does both. The player is never overloaded with skill choices, and as new powers are added they are skillfully taught through use instead of text. They feel natural before the player is asked to be perfect with them.

And then the player is asked to be absolutely perfect with them and dies, over and over, until they get it right. This is not the kind of punitive nonsense that I despise in games like Dark Souls and their ilk, this is a more old school 'you missed that jump because you took off too late, try again.' Try again from the same screen, mind you, not minus any progress or collected macguffins, just try again. And again. And again.

And then you get it right, and you are the top of the mountain, and the sun is rising, and everything is okay, at least for a little while.

2. God of War

I am not embarrassed of the original run of God of War games. I refuse to retroactively apply modern jadedness to things that worked in the context of their time and place. That being said, it is very good that this God of War is not that God of War. It would not have been okay.

This shift is applied to all facets of the game. It is now an over the shoulder action game that never cuts away. Combat is more personal, much closer up and a lot crunchier thank to the change of weapon. The world is now more open. Not quite open world, more of a hub with many linear areas spun around it, but there is something to be found around every corner, and most of it is useful.

Kratos has mellowed quite a bit in his old(er) age. He is quite self aware - he knows what he was and he doesn't want to be that any more. He wants to shelter his son from both his past and his burdens, even when that sheltering causes the boy pain. I believed his hesitance to retrieve an old weapon, making it all the more powerful when he literally confronted the ghosts of his past to try and save his son's future.

Much like Red Dead Redemption 2, the game is not perfect. There are perhaps two boss fights of any size and scope. The rest will bee soon forgotten. The Valkyrie fights are thankfully optional because they are difficult in the all the wrong ways. Freya is a terrible character, Baldur is under used, and the game ends and what should be the starting point for the third act.

But it got a lot more right than Rockstar did. Just not as much right the next game.

1. Spider-Man

Why do any of us play videogames?

To be entertained, of course. We play games because they are fun. We play games to escape for a few hours at a time. We play games to indulge in child like fantasies that have long since been burned away by decades of grown up life.

We play games to forget. We play games to remember.

Every single moment of Spider-Man accomplishes this. It is intuitive, it is satisfying, it is beautiful. The swinging feels like a long lost skill that is quickly dusted off and ready to go. Combat is fast, precise, and always at the sweet spot of not too easy but not too difficult. The game world is relatively small but more tasks are unlocked in the same space as the game progresses. creating a familiarity with the world that is not possible in the sprawling expanses of other open world games.

Characters are well written and well acted, Peter especially feels lived in, like he has the whole Spider-Man thing pretty well figured out and is getting a bit bored with it. He just wants to be able to pay his rent on time.

This is a list of the best games of 2018. Not the best simulations. Not the best apology tours for previous sins. Not even the best returns to well worn genres or tropes. Spider-Man is hands down the best game I played. It is a reminder of what games can be:

fun.

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