Forget all the other ‘Game of the Year’ titles, all eyes in the gaming world are on my own Top 5 of the year, what is going to make the list and of course which title is going to land that illusive top spot!… I assume…
It has undoubtedly been an exciting year in for gamers with Bethesda controversy, Red Dead Redemption 2, and the new Smash game, but strangely these are not things that I’ve been involved in. Looking back on the list of new games that I’ve played this year there are no signs of a big AAA release; I usually tackle at least one of the major releases in the year so in that way 2018 is an anomaly. It’s also surprising that I’ve relatively few multiplayer games in the list this year; Wednesday evening online gaming has been a little sporadic and when we have played it’s generally been to revisit old favourites rather than sampling anything new.
So what has characterised my 2018 gaming year? Two things: Retro & VR. Much of my gaming time has been revisiting, or playing for the first time, some classics of yesteryear. I’ve covered a good amount of PS1 ground and, in recent months, PS2 going back to my favourite ‘Resident Evil‘s, scratching an itch by completing ‘Men in Black‘, and finally getting around to that revisit of ‘Silent Hill 2’. On the PC I tackled the DOS version of Jurassic Park (to add to my meandering trip through all the JP games I can get my mitts on!), Theme Hospital, Max Payne, and even discovered that populated Unreal Tournament servers are still a thing!
Since entering the world of VR back in August I’ve also been sampling as many flavours of that particular ice-cream as I can stomach and, as many of these games are short experiences, it has undoubtedly ‘artificially’ inflated the number of new titles that I’ve checked out compared to previous years.
… but enough retrospective rambling, you’re all here to read the Top 5!
For those unfamiliar with my ‘Top 5 of the Year’ format I’ll give a quick rundown of the criteria (also, thanks for joining me). I keep a list of games that I’ve played for the first time over the course of the year; this doesn’t mean that they have necessarily been released in 2018, only that I have to have first sampled their gameplay stylings within the past 12 months (i.e. it doesn’t include revisits or continued playings of old favourites). For anyone interested, I’ve put the full list at the end of the article. From this I pick my “Top 5 Games That I’ve Played This Year!”, but before we get to the countdown I’m going to pick out a handful of honourable mentions that didn’t quite make the list:
Bully: Scholarship Edition – The shear number of times this crashed when I played it is a good indicator of how much I enjoyed it. Normally I would have gotten frustrated and given up, but the silly guilty pleasure charm of Rockstar’s schoolyard simulator held my attention and despite its lack of depth I stuck with it to the end, even picking up much of the side content.
Spy Party – Finally making it to a Steam release, Spy Party proved to be the most unique multiplayer game I’ve played this year and one of the most unique multiplayer games that I’ve ever played. It’s a subtle game of deception which takes time to fully learn, but is worth the effort for the feeling of accomplishment at the close of a well played game. It also conveyed an unexpected level of intimate intensity that I can only liken to a game of chess; luckily (or maybe because of this) the community was very welcoming to me as a newcomer and I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with the game.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm – The original Life is Strange picked up my no.1 game of 2015 and despite being a shorter prequel game (rather than the sequel that I have yet to try) ‘Before the Storm’ still carried with it the emotional weight of a story well told both happy and sad. It fills in much of the backstory from the first game so is not the best place for newcomers to start, but if you did enjoy the original then I highly recommend checking it out.
The Invisible Hours – Whist it is more of an experience rather than a game, The Invisible Hours manages to capture some of the simple pleasure of an Agatha Christie style mystery and put it in an immersive VR vehicle. The player gets to freely move around a mansion as the events following the murder of famed futurist Nicola Tesla play out in real time around them. It is ambitious, but an ultimately enjoyable immersive play that has been one of the best VR experiences I’ve had with the Vive yet and is worth looking in to if you want a more measured take on how VR can be used to tell a story.
… but enough about those that didn’t make the list; here are the Top 5 of the Year!!
With its comedic veneer, retro 60’s vibe, and depiction of outlandish spy scenarios, this is a game for anyone wanting to sit in the chair of the great Roger Moore. It’s a polished VR experience that offers one of the best introductions to the world of VR gaming with simple intuitive controls and a comfortable seated play position, so much so that it is the go to title I fire up whenever a non-VR-initiated guest visits Hundstrasse manor.
The gameplay takes the form of something akin to a locked room puzzle with 50% of the enjoyment to be had from working out the next step to achieve the overall objective and 50% from trying the wrong thing which often ends in panicked arm waving and an unceremonious demise. Despite being only 5 short missions long, it holds surprising replay value with bonus objectives and a speedrun target for each forcing the player to explore different options when battling through each puzzle.
Other VR titles may have held my attention for longer, or provide a more substantial meal, but ‘I Expect you to Die’ makes the list for its superb presentation and balanced gameplay… Oh, and excellent title sequence!
The hand-drawn, 1930’s cartoon inspired, graphics complete with grainy filter and colour bleed instantly make the Cuphead visuals the most memorable of the year. Combined with outlandish, sinister, and downright bizarre stage & enemy design wrapped up with an original big-band jazz soundtrack it is a true spectacle to behold.
Cuphead puts the player into a punishing stream of platforming multi-stage boss battles broken up by a sprinkling of run & gun stages. It is notoriously unforgiving with the screen often being crammed full of projectiles for the player to dodge whilst they look for an opening to attack.
It released to almost unanimous acclaim but in the following months did see a certain amount of backlash from players complaining that it was just too difficult and that the easy mode cut some of the content for those gamers wanting a less intense experience. Looking back I suspect some of this was due to the platforming presentation of the game. Yes, Cuphead mechanically a 2D platformer (and you need to be pretty competent in the genre to get anywhere), but each stage is much more like a puzzle, forcing the player to learn the attack patterns, evasion techniques, and capitalise on the boss vulnerabilities.
It was this sense of learning, progression, and improvement with each successive attempt that sucked me in and compelled me to continue until the devil himself was defeated by our crockery protagonist.
YARRRRR!!!! Give us a song! Ooooooohhhhhhh…. *Degenerates into incomprehensible shanty singing*
Black Flag is the best pirate-themed game I’ve ever played. It’s a swashbuckling ride from start to finish incorporating everything that makes the life of a pirate enchanting and alluring. Black Flag’s main plot takes the player through a variety of adventures featuring some legendary pirates along the way whilst the world is full of enough side-quests, collectables, and opportunities for independent exploration to satisfy those with a wish to just roam the world and see where the wind takes them. The sea combat adds a further facet to the experience being suitably spectacular and challenging.
Despite being a few years old it still holds up visually and loves to show this off with dramatic weather effects and view of the open-world sprawling fortress cities that get showcased whenever the player finds one of those classic Assassin’s Creed synchronisation points…
… “Assassin’s Creed“. My biggest gripe is still that Ubisoft released this as an Assassin’s Creed title rather than a standalone game called “Black Flag”. Those parts set in the modern day office feel so out of place here that I struggle to think of another title that shatters the immersion so spectacularly. The overarching plot of … whatever… barely touches the main events of the game and to jump from acrobatic pirate antics to looking for post-its and flimsy hacking mini-games is absolutely unnecessary. Honestly I rushed through these sections as quickly as possible to get back to pirate-ing and do what I can to erase them from my otherwise fond memories of the game.
No other game gave me ‘the feels’ this year as much at ‘Night in the Woods’. At the time I rambled that the exact why and how of this was difficult to tangibly describe, but looking back I think it’s the raw way in which it taps in to an almost universal feeling of seeing your home through the eyes of an adult. The world that Mae playfully leaps through is one changed by the passage of time whilst she was absent; her once care-free friends slowed by the weight of adulthood and her neighbourhood struggling to keep up as the world evolves around it.
Visually and audibly it is a charming experience which relies of the journey to hold the player’s attention rather than flashy visuals or clever mechanics. Much of the emotional force is achieved through the delivery of the dialogue in short staccato phrases encased within speech bubbles. I imagine that the writers came up with pages and pages of speech that they gradually whittled down to just a few words that fit in the bubble to convey each character’s meaning. Each of these phrases is blunt and delivered without the crumple zones of conversation that we normally use to soften the impact of our words. Try it yourself; think of a recent conversation and boil down what you wanted to say to just 5 or 6 words… maybe if we all spoke like that there would be less misunderstanding in the world.
The seventh numbered entry in to Capcom’s sprawling survival horror franchise is a long overdue return to form. Although many gamers (insert obligatory “not including me“) praised the revitalisation of the main series around the fourth outing, the games have gradually deteriorated since that point with the sixth game and Umbrella Corps being almost unanimously disliked.
Resident Evil VII feels less like a sequel and more like a reimagining of the original concept. The survival horror aspects have been ramped up and are further heightened by the cramped, cluttered map, superb graphics, and truly unsettling members of the Baker family. The experience is excellently paced managing to give the player just enough time to recover from each intense encounters before gradually ratcheting the tension back up for the next. It also manages to impressively capture so many flavours of horror including well used jump scares, the unstoppable pursuing entity, grotesque & absurd monstrosities, and all out gruesome violence.
Switching the game to a first person experience was a bold move that certainly achieved the desired restriction of the player’s view although it could hardly be termed a FPS and part of me hopes that CAPCOM abandons this method of delivery before it becomes stale. Best of all however is that despite all the new directions, VII is a truly Resident Evil experience with the same backtracking, exploration, obscure puzzles, keys, and green herbs that made the original games so distinctive. For long time fans of the series or newcomers it’s an excellent survival horror experience that I thoroughly recommend… even if it is super-pants-scary!
For those of you who are interested, here is the full list of games I played for the first time this year:
- Assassin’s Creed Black Flag
- iUBES 2
- Super Mario Odyssey
- 1, 2, Switch!
- Jurassic Park: Trespasser
- Batman Arkham VR
- I Expect you to Die
- Resident Evil VII
- The Wild Eight
- Zombie Army Trilogy
- Bully: Scholarship Edition
- Spy Party
- Theme Hospital
- Near Death
- The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Redux
- Night in the Woods
- Life is Strange: Before the Storm
- Darwin Project
- Jurassic Park (1993 DOS)
- The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit
- 911 Operator
- Arizona Sunshine
- Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin
- Portal Stories: VR
- The Price of Freedom
- Duck Season
- The Lab
- Overcooked 2
- Payday 2 VR
- Catch & Release
- Metal Gear (NES)
- The Invisible Hours
- Ancient Amuletor VR
- Resident Evil Outbreak
- Skyrim VR
- Rec Room
Whatever you’re doing and however you’re celebrating, I wish everyone out there a happy festive-ness-time… there may or may not be another post before 2019!