It’s the end of the year. The Christmas music being played in my office, the cold weather that’s not quite as cold as it probably should be, and the profusion of ads for toys, TV’s, and perfume all over the telly are all dead giveaways – but the biggest one if you’re a video game player like I am is the endless “Game of the Year” posts. They’re everywhere. Big sites have them. Little sites have them. Individual journos, pundits, and players are all posting their own. So, after a little internal debate I’ve decided that the world needs mine too. One year I’ll do my own “Top 5 ‘Top 5 Game of the Year’ posts post” but for the moment I’ll save that for another day. It’s probably not as funny as I think it is. We’ll see. If I read this back to myself in June and chuckle, maybe the concept has legs.
Anyway, I need to start this with a caveat. Not all of the games on my list were released this year. I just played them all this year. If that’s a problem, nevermind! There are dozens of other top 5 lists on the internet; I’m sure you’ll find enjoyment in at least one of them. They also aren’t in any particular order. Narrowing down the list of games I played this year to five was hard enough, putting them into ascending or descending order felt like a level of effort that’s frankly offensive. If these little side notes are not a problem for you, then walk this way, oh reader mine.
I played this in the warm summer days of July – which seemed appropriate given that it’s a game about a guy living in a firewatch tower for a summer. It was a game I’d read a lot about before I started out, so my expectations of it were high. Usually when I go into a game expecting a lot, I end up disappointed on some level – but that wasn’t the case with Firewatch. Campo Santo crafted a tightly plotted walking simulator and a world that you came to know intimately through the 7 or 8 hour running time. The characterisation and dialogue were wonderful – I felt like I knew both of the central characters well by the end of it. The central theme for me was one of guilt and regret, with the visuals and setting reinforcing the loneliness of the protagonist. It was just a really pretty, really well thought out and really well-delivered game – I loved every moment of it and was sad when it was over. It’ll be interesting to see what Campo Santo come up with next – as they were acquired by Valve in the middle of the year.
Sea of Thieves
I’ve said so much about this game this year. I’ve poured hundreds of hours into it, both solo and with various crews. It’s the first game that I’ve really played with my kids to the point of a session being a weekly Sunday ‘thing’, and even hitting Pirate Legend hasn’t slowed me down.
In case you haven’t been paying attention, Sea of Thieves is developer Rare’s pirate simulator. You assemble a crew, pick a ship and spawn into a world. Rare’s catchphrase is “tools not rules” and the approach permeates every aspect of the game. If you’ve the patience to make your own fun, and play a game for the moment-to-moment entertainment it can provide rather than for some form of aspirational grind, it’s probably one of the greatest games you’ll ever play. It’s also part of Microsoft’s Gamepass service, and is receiving constant updates – and the dev team are one of the most open and transparent out there. If you haven’t played it, you should. And if you do play it, you know exactly why I love it so much.
As I said, this list isn’t in any kind of order… but if it was, this game would be number one. No question.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
I have a Playstation 4 that I barely use. I wanted to play this game so badly that I almost bought it on the Playstation, then saw an announcement that it was coming to XBL. I was really pleased to see it. Part of what attracted me to Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice was the studio’s heritage. Ninja Theory was the studio behind one of my favourite Xbox 360 games in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and I was in a minority that also really enjoyed DmC: Devil May Cry (maybe because I’d never played any of the earlier games).
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice wasn’t an easy game to play. The subject matter was dark, the imagery brutal – and it’s honestly not a game I’ll probably ever revisit. That’s not to say that it wasn’t a masterpiece though, as it absolutely was. It’s a ‘game’ that’s not so much ‘played’ as ‘experienced’, which is absolutely aligned with what it’s attempting to do – which is as accurately as possible depict a mentally disturbed central character and challenge players to experience what she does. The result is an incredibly unsettling experience which is of enormous value to the medium. In my opinion, Ninja Theory deserve a lot of credit for even going near this subject matter. That they handled it so well is testament to the dedication and passion of the team there. They were picked up by Microsoft this year – and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.
Monster Hunter World
I’d never played a Monster Hunter game before Monster Hunter World, so really didn’t know what to expect. It captured the attention of my Destiny clan back in February during the wait for either the Curse of Osiris or Warmind expansions – the period of Destiny 2’s life in which it had the most problems, anyway. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why it attracted the attention of so many Destiny players – it was a game that rewarded grind with difficulty, and difficulty with grind in a way that appeals to so many Guardians. The basic premise of the game was simple: kill monsters to obtain materials to make weapons to kill bigger monsters. And so it repeats, on and on and on. Ten months on, there are still guys in my clan playing this game; slaying arch and tempered beasts of such size and ferocity that my HR Monster Hunter would fall in battle in mere moments.
For me, it represented the best of Destiny (the grind) without the worst of it (the endless repetition of the same activity) because the world in which you were operating – in addition to being ridiculously pretty in 4K on the Xbox One X – felt alive in a way that few games do. It was also a game that taught you very little from the outset, leaving you to experiment with weapons, outfits, and systems in order to develop an understanding of them. I eventually put it aside to go back to Destiny… but it’s still installed on my Xbox. And one of these days, I’m gonna go back to it. I never did finish my Nergigante set.
Song of the Deep
This is probably the most out-there entry on my list. I’d finished Ori and the Blind Forest and was contemplating what to play next when I stumbled across this one and decided to take a punt – and I’m glad I did. It tells the story of a girl who builds her own submarine so she can rescue her Dad – a sailor who sank and never came home. It’s an underwater exploration game, and it reminded me a lot of Metroid, which is never a bad thing. It had a cool old-fashioned cartoon art style, and controls that had just the right amount of weight and momentum behind them – which is what most reviews criticised the game for most, but was one of my favourite things about it. It was charming, it was just the right length, and I’d recommend anyone who’s a fan of Metroid style games to check it out.
Other things I’ve played this year that didn’t quite make the top 5 include Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 – my first foray back into CoD multiplayer since Modern Warfare 2, and which I’ve found myself unexpectedly really enjoying. The first couple of levels of Strange Brigade have made me laugh out loud. Onrush is a really good game that I really liked, but which didn’t sell enough to get a big enough playerbase – which is a real shame. Race The Sun is a zen-like indie game that I’ve put a decent chunk of time into. Destiny 2 is the biggest game I’ve fallen out of love with. Ori and the Blind Forest was one of the best Metroidvania games I’ve played this year and possibly ever. Batman: The Enemy Within spun a solid, enjoyable yarn that was fun while it lasted. And Never Alone made me feel things.
It's been a good year, at any rate. This time next year, I wonder if I’ll be writing about Destiny again, or if Sea of Thieves will have held my attention? Or maybe Anthem will be at the top of the list. I’m looking forward to finding out, that’s for sure.
I have one last thing to post about this year – but life’s about to become hectic with the festive season. If I don’t manage to post it, you all have a good time. Hug your loved ones. Play games you wouldn’t normally play. Take a punt on something. Back soon.