TOP TEN GAMES OF 2018

I find it hard to summarise my thoughts on gaming for the previous year, partly because it’s been an eclectic mix of tragedies, tedium and triumphs, but perhaps the overall word that comes to mind is “unadventurous.” What’s good was good, but very rarely was it surprising (with a few exceptions I’ll be getting to in a moment). Gaming feels like it’s running further than ever into safe, unchallenging places, where even quality products are made not by experimentation and innovation, but by refining well-known formulas to the point of… well, making them feel formulaic, a problem that is already coming round to bite a few major companies in their grossly overbudgeted behinds.

Still, quality has shone through despite this, sometimes by bucking the trend of predictability and sometimes by pushing head-on through it, and today we celebrate those who did just that.

 

  1. The Red Strings Club

the-red-strings-club-press-release_729_388_c1_c_t.jpgA little-known entry to start off with, an independent cyberpunk Steam game based largely around booze and banter, mixing the perfect drink to manipulate your customers’ minds and gaining information to use against others. Though its world goes somewhat undeveloped and the decision not to have a third act is… bewildering, to say the least, what’s there is unique and memorable enough to be worth trying out. If nothing else, you might learn how to make a decent cocktail.

 

  1. Subnautica

It’s been out for a while, but only came out of early access this year, so we’re counting it as a 2018 release. subnPut simply, Subnautica denies a lot of the obvious trends and tropes of survival games to its advantage: it has an interesting premise, a fixed map with surprising variety, a unique aesthetic and a natural sense of tension and development as the plot progresses from start to end. Coming face-to-face with a luminescent coral reef gives a sense of eerie wonder matched in intensity only by the fear of flicking on your light in dark waters and seeing alien horrors descend on you.

 

  1. Hitman 2Hitman_2_selfie_1920x1080.jpg

Though little more of a expansion pack for the previous game and generally in need of a bit of evolution, it’s hard to deny Hitman 2 manages to capture the same impish pranking and black humour of the 2016 game. Yes, whether feeding drug lords to hippos, shoving illuminati leaders into iron maidens, or flapping about Miami in a giant pink mascot costume while Agent 47 wears his constant expression of stony-faced seriousness; it’s all delightful fun broken up by the occasional muffled gunshot or impromptu toilet-drowning.

 

  1. Shadow of the Colossus: Remastered

I try not to put remasterings and reboots on these lists if I can help it, but at the end of the day Shadow of the Colossus is still as hypnotically enchanting as it was over a decade ago, and even now there really isn’t much out there like it.

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Yes, a few of the colossi don’t quite live up to the standard (Headbutt-Henry and his Crumbling Columns of Doom come to mind), but Phalanx, the giant balloon tapeworm, is still one of the greatest boss fights in all of gaming, and most of the other titans aren’t far behind.

 

  1. Dead Cells

headerAnother one to make a break from early access, and Dead Cells was a game I couldn’t help but be utterly hooked by for about three months; a 2D rogue-like Metroidvania platformer with a combat system flexible enough to bend without ever breaking. At times it becomes too difficult for its own good (last I checked, there was still a bit of balancing needed overall) but the simple core loop becomes a lasso that’s very hard to escape. It’s never been so fun to be a piece of snot swinging a sword, including Cloud from FFVII on that list.

 

  1. God of War (2018)god-of-war-key-art-01-ps4-us-01nov17.jpg

This was a good year for exclusives (by which I mean, a good year for bloated corporations holding games hostage in an utterly anti-consumer practice) and the adventures of Kratos and his pet goblin was undeniably part of that. Yes, God of War is a good game, albeit with some notable flaws, mainly that it feels like a three-hour plot stretched over a fifteen-hour story, and like The Red Strings Club it also declines to have a proper ending, though did just about stretch to a hand-waving “to be continued.” Nonetheless, hacking Draugr to pieces is fun, the relationship between the Ghost of Sparta and his mini-me is well-handled, and it’s still hard to think of a franchise that can convey sheer scale and size any better than this one.

 

  1. Into the Breach

Ah, the makers of FTL: Faster Than Light have done it again, with an incredibly compelling set of mechanics that had me hooked from the start and thinking about them even when I had to leave. 20190104163641_1.jpgDon’t be fooled by the Pacific Rim premise; Into the Breach is more cerebral puzzle game than brutish combat brawler, artfully moving your mechs around to evade and control your enemies. You’ll spend ages staring fixedly at the board before committing yourself to a strategy… And then realise in frustration that you forgot about the sodding push effect on that attack, and everything’s gone wrong now. Time quietly make my exit and abandon that timeline to chaos, I think.

 

  1. Spider-Man (2018)

562944_scr10_a.jpgI agonised for ages about whether to give this game second or third place, and in the end I reluctantly gave the bronze medal to Insomniac’s web-whipping, wall-crawling adaptation of Spider-Man. Yes, the story has its problems, the Mary-Jane-Morales stealth sections are now infamously tedious, the new costume design is a little “meh” and the game is probably too easy even on the hardest difficulty, but I can’t deny that the basic mechanics are a blast, a combination of acrobatic, free-form movement and frantic, elastic brawling. Hell, the impact web alone would’ve gotten this game into my top ten. Thwip!

 

  1. Red Dead Redemption 2

Cards up front: Red Dead Redemption 2 is not as good as Read Dead Redemption 1. It’s less focused in everything it does, suffers from a case of too-many-cooks, of being overbudgeted, but mainly of coming after the overpraised mess that was GTA V. And yet it’s hard to deny that RDR2 has a lot of strengths, with a strong central cast of characters, an incredibly underrated soundtrack, a detailed world and shooting/exploring gameplay that’s just fun enough to make you forget it really isn’t that innovative.

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Perhaps its best strength is the relative grounding of tone. Whereas GTA V was a mix of teenage sneer, stupidity and sub-par satire, Red Dead 2 takes itself and its ideas a bit more seriously, and consequently you just might find yourself caring about its cast as people, not punchlines. Who would’ve thought it?

 

  1. Return of the Obra Dinn

I know you’ve probably not heard of this one, but stick with me as I tell you about the adventures of a nineteenth-century insurance agent that – no, don’t go yet!

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Return of the Obra Dinn is a detective game, pure and simple, a genre that’s so rare that it almost doesn’t exist. Oh sure, some games will tell you they offer investigative work, but all you get is a cereal box puzzle or a glowing line to follow before it just gives you the answer. Obra Dinn actually lives up to the promise, presenting a compelling mystery full of betrayal, excitement, blood and seamen (you heard me) and asking you to properly untangle to the web of events that lead to over sixty people going missing at sea. The ability to walk through frozen tableaus of people’s deaths is a fascinating one, and the only thing I really dislike about the game is how short it was, over and done with before ten hours had elapsed and leaving me whimpering for more. And while the plot might not be as elaborate as Red Dead’s or the gameplay as complex as Spider-Man’s, it almost doesn’t matter, because Obra Dinn is the only game on this list that would actually make me punch the air in satisfaction when I got everything right, and when something is engaging me that much, nothing else can compare. This is my game of the year, and frankly by quite a wide margin.

 


 

Hope you all have a good 2019 (a hope which seems less and less likely with each news cycle), and a special thanks to those who still read this site even when events keep me from adding new content anywhere near as much as I should. However, in the spirit of the new year, I’d like to ask you for something – a favour, if you like, that could maybe form the basis of one of those new years resolutions everybody’s already abandoned by now.

This year, don’t do the obvious. Don’t buy the game that’s marketed to high hell, especially if it’s something you suspect you’ve seen before, instead look for the game that might be a little more out there, a little more peculiar. Gaming had been falling into a rut for a while, but now the danger is that all our loot-box, multiplayer-only, hamster wheel games are so well-polished we don’t see how little they matter to us in the long run, because they’re serviceable… but that’s all. Red Dead Redemption 2 has a lot of strengths and is certainly worth playing through, but it didn’t really surprise me, and so I couldn’t give it the gold. Obra Dinn, contrarily, is something new that bucks every trend going, and consequently I don’t think I’ll forget it in a long time. Even Red Strings Club and Subnautica probably wouldn’t be on this list if they weren’t held aloft by their own unique fascination. And the problem with something being only attractive and functional is that we forget what it’s like to be really… well, moved.

So this year, expand your pallet. Enjoy the big company games – they can still be good, even in this era – but buy something different or a little less obvious every so often, just to keep the industry remembering that games don’t have to be a process, a service or a product. They can also, funnily enough, be art.

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GOD OF WAR (2018) REVIEW – “BOY-OH-BOOOOOYYYY!”

Tell me, dear reader, what kind of relationship did you have with your father? Perhaps it was caring and full of love. Perhaps it was sternly repressed and patriarchal. Or perhaps you struggled to get past your dad screaming at you to shoot the undead monstrosity attacking him before his insides were pulled out onto the forest floor.

No, I’m not reviewing The Last of Us again, though in a sense I suppose I might be, and will probably have to keep doing so for a very long time. It’s well-recognised now that the rather dodgy “save/avenge romantic partner” narrative that dominated gaming narrative for a while is slowly being upended and replaced by an arguably more understood motivation – namely, protect a kid from things that want to kill the kid, at least until the kid can grow up and protect its own damn self. Previous entrants include the aforementioned zombie-poppin’ game from Naughty Dog, as well as Telltale’s: The Walking Dead, Bioshock Infinite, Dead Rising 2, Witcher 3, and that new Wolverine movie.

And now to that list we can add the new God of War, the sequel that’s also a soft reboot, filled with all the stuff that makes for the usual big-budget, critically-acclaimed AAA exclusive title – but perhaps it can be good despite that?

 

SIT BY THE HEARTH, PICK UP YONDER MEAD FLAGON, AND I’LL TELL YE OF AN ANCIENT LEGEND…

I was never a huge fan of the previous God of War games, but let me give you a refresher for anybody who isn’t familiar with the series. Our protagonist, Kratos, is a Spartan warrior from a hyper-mythical interpretation of Ancient Greece where all the related legends and old religion are completely true, working on a “Clash of the Titans” level. Unfortunately Kratos got bamboozled by the god Ares into accidentally slaughtering his own family, and rode the resulting wave of vengeful aggression for several games, to the point where he’d killed most of the Olympic pantheon and became the new god of war in the process, while finding out along the way that he was Zeus’ secret son. With me so far?

Right, because now we’re dragging a whole new mythos into this story – the Norse gods, Odin, Thor, Baldur, Freya and so on. It turns out in the time since the last game that Kratos skipped town after his run of aggravated deicide and fled to the world of Viking myths and gods to hide out in secret, where he fell in love with a woman named Faye, gave birth to a son, Atreus, and also grew out a big ol’ survivalist beard. Faye then drops dead of… I don’t know, plot-necessitated absence, right at the same moment Kratos is attacked by a mysterious stranger with powers that match his own.

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Kratos returns after a five year absence to come and try out the whole Beowulf thing, armed with a large axe and a small son.

And that’s how the game starts, but frankly this is one of those stories where the plot’s mechanics feel a bit secondary to the character arcs; namely how terrible Kratos is as a father and how badly both he and his son are dealing with Faye’s death. See, you might notice all the other examples of games I mentioned above have father-daughter relationships, but God of War is very clearly not just about fatherhood, but about masculinity as a whole. Kratos comes from a culture where locking your emotions down so you can do unspeakable things is just part-and-parcel of being a Spartan, but both characters are clearly struggling with their feelings anyway and no amount of repression will make it stop, no matter what Kratos thinks. Add to that a violent warrior mentality and that Kratos feels obliged to make his son into a fighter as soon as possible after the attack, and this is clearly going to be the worst road trip since that Vacation remake a few years ago.

Now I have a few issues with this concept. Firstly, while the whole idea of hyper-masculinity is absolutely ripe for deconstruction in the games industry and certainly needs bringing down a peg, the problem is that this whole things takes place in Viking lore, where the only measure of worth is how big the horns on your helmet are and how many villages you can burn down before lunch. A scene where Atreus must try to hold back his emotions as he uncertainly cuts the throat of a deer would certainly make sense in any other situation, except, well… he’s starving to death! The writers seem to have crafted the only world where all of Kratos’ bullshit masculinity lessons actually do apply, and it heavily undercuts the overall message. Yes, Atreus has to kill animals or he’ll have nothing to eat. He has to kill the human bandits or they’ll try to eat him. And he has to shut down his emotions to a certain degree when confronted with the corpse of somebody he’s killed falling over onto him, else he’d go into shock and get more easily picked off by all other threats.

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Friendly NPCs are few and far between in the wastes of Midgard, and can occasionally be a bit too quirky for the game’s more serious tone.

Do you get what I mean? The game spends all this time musing about how wrong Kratos‘ behaviour is, but they all make sense in this very specific situation. I can’t help but feel this dynamic would work better in a time of peace and prosperity, where all of this cold-hearted warrior nature isn’t needed anymore.

Not to mention that the actual engine for storytelling feels contrived and a bit weak – Faye wanted her ashes spread on the highest mountain in all the universe, and rather than cough awkwardly and say “how about just under that tree in the garden instead,” Kratos and Atreus decide to go along with it, and it takes them forever. At one point you think they’re going to accomplish it halfway through the game, but then somebody says “sorry, wrong mountain, the one you’re looking for is over in a locked-off dimension nobody can ever get to,” and you can almost hear the characters groan as they realise that this one job still isn’t over.

All that being said, there is some story stuff I really like. The game’s quite good at the “hell yeah” moments when Kratos or Atreus do something awesome, the changes the two characters go through are solid (if a little rushed at times), and I appreciate the attempt to undercut masculinity in a medium that usually venerates it. I also like how Kratos’ flaws are honestly addressed, and it’s very clear that Atreus is strong in all the places where Special K doesn’t really know what he’s doing, i.e., anything that doesn’t need brute force. At the beginning it feels like the kid is a hanger-on, but by the end of the game they do feel like a team, reflected well by a gameplay system that allows you to upgrade Atreus and his weaponry until he’s a formidable ally in combat.

The only other flaws are those that come as a result of it being a AAA game with marketing obligations. The ridiculously big (and therefore cinematic) world serpent Jormungandr takes up a lot of the promotional material and even gets the lion’s share of the box blurb, but I don’t think he’s involved in the plot for more than thirty minutes tops, and usually to divulge a bit of exposition. There’s also a slightly limp ending that has a very cool fight in it, but then peters out and meanders on for another half hour, with a whole group of promised villains we haven’t even seen yet (presumably planned for the inevitable sequel), and a twist reveal that’s… I don’t know, important, I guess? It’s hard to explain without spoiling it, but it all feels a bit anti-climatic after bringing down supergods a while earlier.

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Though stunning in the sense of scale evoked, SuperSnake feels a little over-promoted by the marketing when he ends up being little more than an excuse for raising and lowering water levels in a lake. No, really.

GAZE UPON THE GLORY…

Yes, of course I’m going to tell you God of War has good graphics. You know it has good graphics, it was always going to have them, what with being a big budget game that’s largely sold itself on spectacle. The rest of it could’ve been absolute pigeon guano and the graphics would still be top-notch.

That being said, what works here is what you’d expect to work on any God of War title – a palpable sense of scale. Things can look very, very big when they need to, whether it’s the world serpent looming into view, his distant tail coiled around mountain ranges, or the incomprehensibly huge corpse of giant dominating the landscape, every beard hair looking like a bridge cable as you get closer and closer. Not only that, God of War wisely doesn’t devalue this by breaking out the super-big monsters every five minutes. In fact, I’d almost wished there’d been a few more beasts of that size, but there’s still moments that make it work. One early fight designed to remind us of just how much power Kratos has within him is particularly effective, destroying the landscape in dramatic, spectacular ways as he clashes ferociously with an opponent of equal power.

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Kratos’ trademark rage is still with him, serving him well in his efforts to brutally pummel anything that looks at funny.

There’s also some decent sound design in there. Kratos is very ably voiced by Christopher Judge, channeling the character on a level that reminds me a little of Darth Vader, and snapping effectively from rumbling monosyllabic speech to furious screams as battle frenzy takes over. Even Atreus himself is voiced pretty well, though I can’t help but feel that there was a conscious effort made not to tax his actor with any overly-emotional scenes.

Mind you, I’ll have to buck the trends a little and say that I’m not wowed much by the art design. It’s not bad, not in the slightest, but there’s not a lot that really captures my attention. The ogres look like ogres, the giants look like giants, the world serpent is just a big snake and little more than that, and everything looks like how you’d expect it to look, with a couple of exceptions. Some of it is very beautiful presented – the landscapes, for one – but the issue I have is that there’s very little that seems original or sticks in my mind later on, compounded by a penchant for repeating character animations (you’ll notice that one pretty quick).

I also think the game fails pretty hard in making a lot of the world make sense. This is a particular bugbear of mine, but I can’t stand it when games don’t bother to contextualise the puzzles within their games, such as the silly traps in a lot of Zelda. Atreus can waffle on about how these desiccated ruins we stand in used to be a thriving market, but there’s nothing here to suggest that, and all these traps and puzzles with spikes and trapdoors have no reason to be here. They’re not bad or unsatisfying to beat, but they’re complete nonsense in the world provided to us, almost as bad as the puzzle disconnect in games like Resident Evil.

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Impressive vistas and the promise of satisfying battles make exploration seem both necessary and desirable.

THE GREATEST WARRIORS IN ALL THE REALMS

So here’s my issue with the easy comparison between God of War and The Last of Us: the latter has a decent story, but the whole enterprise is made a little sticky by slightly drab and uninspiring gameplay. Contrarily, Kratos can butcher draugr like an absolute – well, God, appropriately enough – and the hack-and-slash/brawler fighting is actually rather fun, enough to easily paper over any other cracks in the whole enterprise. Gone is the wide selection of weaponry from the previous games, instead brought down to three tidy, well-designed separate forms of attack – an axe that can be summoned back to your hand after you chuck it, rapid fist-fighting that allows you wear down enemies for powerful finishers, and a third weapon that I won’t spoil as it gets introduced later in the game.

But honestly, it’s the first of these that’s the real winner. The Leviathan Axe is fun to wield, freezes anything it’s lodged in, and can be pulled back to your hand at any point just by pressing the triangle button. I’d see a pair of monsters baring down on me, throw the axe at one, holding it in place, unleash a barrage of devastating punches on the other, then duck around behind it and whistle for Old Slicey, watching it scythe through the air, decapitating hel-spawn along the way until it smacks satisfyingly into Kratos’ palm. Along with this is an EXP system that allows you to buy new powers and attacks, most of which I’d forget about immediately until pulling them off by accident and wondering why I didn’t use them more often. And at the same time, Atreus is hanging around with a bow to pick off anybody you tell him to. And though his early attacks are naught but the soft pecks of an emaciated woodpecker on reinforced concrete, he becomes an invaluable asset over time, a nice use of ludonarrative synchronicity to show how he’s growing as a fighter in both mechanics and story.

 

Not to mention that it’s all open world now. It happens suddenly and quite out of nowhere, but about a quarter of the way through the game you look around and realise that you’re in this big lake with paths leading off to explore, secrets to find and many, many more monsters to kill. And I happily did, engaging in just about all the extra stuff I could. I like doing the side-quests because they provide good rewards and usually have some story tied into them, even if it’s just a bit of byplay between Kratos and son. And I like the puzzles, which though contrived and a bit too “video game-y” are still satisfying to beat, usually using the Axe’s throw-summon-freeze functions in some way. Take note, designers, this is how you make an ability really effective in a game: make sure it has applications both in and out of combat.

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Though not as big as they once were, Kratos’ and Atreus enemies are more fun to fight with a system that encourages creative weapon use blended with raw skill.

Mind you, the open world isn’t quite as open as it could be, with linear routes leading off key locations. In fact, nowhere is the freedom/restraint clash more obvious than the main hub location for travelling between realms, featuring a detailed map showing all the wondrous, incredible places we can’t go, and will never go.

It’s really very odd, trying to select the fast travel option for Asgard and seeing a little message telling you that you’ll never set foot there. And this isn’t uncommon either, there’s about four separate realms out of nine that we never get to even see, despite them constantly being mentioned, and out of those five we do get, three of them are too small to be meaningfully explored, two of those have to be unlocked through side-quests, and one just exists for a single, extendable cutscene where you can’t do anything but follow a single path and then leave again. I suspect this is all to tease us with the possibility of DLC – “The Trials of Svartleartlheimmunjorgunbjork” and so on – but I don’t even feel cheated, just confused.

But I guess it doesn’t matter too much, when Midgard is plenty big enough on its own, filled with all sorts of things to discover, and you know it’s a good sign for a game’s quality when you can smell the ending coming and start doing optional stuff just to delay it. In fact, God of War is the first game in a while that I found myself planning for when I wasn’t playing it, which is always a good sign. “Hmm, I guess next time I’ll try to beat the next stage in Muspelheim, free that dragon I heard about in the north, find a couple more stones for my talisman and then get killed by that Valkyrie Queen again, because Gods only know what else she’s there for.”

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AAAAAAAAAAAAGGGHHHHHHHHHH

VERILY, WHAT SAY YE?

In sum, God of War is a good game, almost verging on being a great one. I know it might not sound like that from the amount of things I’ve been ragging on it for, but all the imperfections can’t impede too much on a rock solid core of combat and decent characterisation. The only really significant flaw it has is being too slow, as our two poorly-groomed heroes shrug their shoulders and go to spend another ten hours fighting gods and monsters so they can dump mama’s ashes on the mountaintop, but on a moment-to-moment experience it can really work, and certainly reminds us that having pretentious story ambitions doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice honest gameplay fun.

 

COMPARATIVE RATING: ALL THE VISCERAL SATISFACTION OF BITING INTO A THICK STEAK, AND ALL THE CULTURAL FULFILLMENT FROM KNOWING HOW WELL IT’S BEEN COOKED