Wednesday, December 30, 2020

My Top 5 Video Games of 2020

As I look at the games that I loved the most in 2020, I see one common thread: big, immersive worlds. Games that, for the most part, I could spend hours just losing myself in. And when the real world is as much of a shit show as it is right now, that does not entirely surprise me. So here goes. My favorite games of 2020. 

5. Cyberpunk 2077

Despite it being a buggy, unfinished, full price video game, I would be lying if I said I was not pretty taken with Cyberpunk 2077. I was initially pretty disappointed. This game had been announced almost 9 years ago, and had 9 years worth of hype behind it. I was initially so disappointed; the early moments of the game were a snoozy talkathon. There were the glitches and bugs and crashes. The combat mechanics were pretty much like every other shooter on the market. This thing that I was so sure would be a revolutionary jump forward for video games ended up just being...a video game. A fine video game.

And once I accepted Cyberpunk for what is was, I found myself liking it a lot more. The bugs are often hilarious and silly, but rarely debilitating. It gives the game a certain kind of charm. It has been fun to send screenshots and share experiences with friends about all the funny mistakes the game makes. The hard crashes are a different story. Being in the middle of a quest and having the game crash to the dashboard on PS5 is more than a little bit frustrating. But I keep coming back for more, even so. Night City is just a fun place to explore, and has a ton of little stories and characters for you to interact with. I look forward to the patches and bug fixes to come to make the game a more stable experience, but I will also miss the hilarity of the inarguably unfinished product.

4. Ghost of Tsushima

Ghost of Tsushima had the unfortunate luck to come out on the heels of The Last of Us Part 2, a game that looked unlike any game I had ever seen, and that told one of the best stories ever told in a video game. It was a tough adjustment to get into Ghost, with a lot of stilted dialogue, less than exemplary character models, and a story that was good but not extraordinary. 

The strength of Ghost of Tsushima, and the aspects that really put their hooks in me, were the style and the combat. Ghost of Tsushima looks unlike any other game I have seen. There are various environments around the island of Tsushima, and all are equally breathtaking; from a village nestled atop high mountains, to the flat, flower filled plains. For my money the combat in this game is some of the best I have played. It definitely borrows some from the tired and overused combat that the Batman: Arkham games pioneered, but brings plenty of fresh new mechanics to the table that kept encounters tense and fun. And the sheer amount of options you had for dealing with the different encounters was also nice. You could charge right into battle, pick enemies off with a bow, or creep along in the shadows with a stealth approach. All in all, the game was so well polished and tons of fun to play.

3. Doom Eternal

Doom (2016) was an incredible reboot for the Doom series. Everything we loved about the original was there, just modernized. This year's Doom Eternal turned the dial to 11, then ripped off the dial and sent it straight to hell. Doom Eternal is fast paced, explosive, and pretty damn challenging. It elevates the status of the Doom Slayer to that of a near-god, and that power trip makes for a fun ride. It is really refreshing to play a game that isn't so bogged down with a complicated story. Sometimes you just want to pick up a big gun and blast motherfuckers away, and Doom Eternal definitely gave me that.

2. Spider-Man: Miles Morales

Marvel's Spider-Man on the PS4 game was a terrific game with a lot of lackluster bloat. Beside the main story and a few side missions, you were mostly running around collecting an innumerable amount of collectibles and doing some very monotonous, tedious science mini-games.

Enter the PS5 launch title and follow-up Spider-Man: Miles Morales, a game that trims all of the fat that its predecessor had, and goes even further to fine tune the experience. From a story perspective, Miles Morales is a much more laser focused game. Miles, still relatively new to his gig as Spider-Man, has a much smaller world than Peter Parker. The stakes are smaller, but just as important. Miles Morales takes a lot more time to let things breathe, and gives you enough time and reason to care about its characters.

The game is much shorter than the first Spider-Man game, but for all the right reasons. There are still collectibles, but you are not absolutely inundated with them. There is no equivalent to the slow, miserably boring Mary Jane Watson missions. All the mini-games are gone. It gives you more time to do exactly what you come to a Spider-Man game for: to be Spider-Man. To swing around the city and fight bad guys. Any time in the previous game where you had to play as MJ or do something as civilian Peter Parker, the whole thing ground to a halt. That has been totally excised from this new game.

Spider-Man: Miles Morales also opens up combat in a fun and interesting way. Unlike Peter Parker, Miles has his “Venom Strike” and his ability to become invisible. These abilities make tackling baddies feel like a whole different experience than the previous game, and also makes stealth an easier, more viable option.

Miles Morales is an improvement on the preceding Spider-Man game in almost every conceivable way. And being that that first Spider-Man is one of my favorite games from the last few years, that's saying something.

1. The Last of Us Part II

A lot of games are overly concerned about fan-service. The developers and writers care more about appeasing fans, so games sell, and they make money. It is oh so rare that a developer chooses to do something nobody saw coming. To challenge the player to grow with the story, even if the story is difficult, and even if you hate yourself for what you have to do.

The Last of Us Part II is a totally uncompromising vision. The writers and developers at Naughty Dog studios knew where they wanted their story to go, and they did it. Fans be damned.

And fans were mad. There were (useless) calls to boycott the game by some groups. There were petitions. A lot of people had little hissy fits, all of which got no one anywhere. All of this before the game had even come out.

Visually, The Last of Us Part II is maybe the most impressive looking game I have ever seen. The motion capture and facial performances from the actors playing the main characters is the closest to lifelike I have seen thus far in a video game. And for the most part, the actors were giving these performances in the studio together, actually able to bounce off one another, unlike what is typical, where actors might be on a green screen alone playing pretend. This adds so much more authenticity to their work.

Despite the visual splendor, The Last of Us Part II is not a beautiful story. It is an unbelievably well told story; the writing is unparalleled. It is the only game that really puts the weight of your decisions on you the player. It is a game full of death, revenge, and terrible violence, and it makes you feel all of it. Even unimportant NPC fodder enemies have names, and if you kill them you might hear a friend or family member scream out “They killed Sarah!” before charging you for what you have done. Kill a guard dog, and watch another NPC weep over the corpse of their dead pet, which distracts them long enough for you to sneak up behind them and shove a makeshift shiv into their jugular. 

The game leaves you feeling nasty and traumatized. The whole things exists in a shade of gray. There are no good guys and no bad guys, only different people trying to survive. The game may initially lead you to believe that this is a black & white fight between good and evil. But a mid-game twist turns everything on its head and asks you to see things from another perspective.

Not only is The Last of Us Part II an incredible video game, but it is just one of the most harrowing and effective pieces of storytelling that I have ever come across. You can look away from violence in a movie. You can cover your eyes. But when it's a video game, and the controller is in your hands and you personally have to pull the trigger it's a whole different story.