Starting Screen is the USgamer staff's weekly column. Check back every Monday as we share our thoughts on the news as well as our favorite game music, movies at the box office, and more.
Last year was a big year for firsts. Of games in well-established (and hardly-established) series taking something already familiar, and putting its own spin on it. Sometimes it was twisting a genre, sometimes it was morphing a games form overall. 2017 was a landmark year for video games because of it.
Breath of the Wild redefined The Legend of Zelda, plopping Link into a desolate Hyrule with breakable weapons and intimidating foes—as tedious as that sounds, its open-world was full of consistent surprises. Nier: Automata took the JRPG genre in new, unexpected directions in terms of story, form, and more, even if some felt its action-combat was lacking. Resident Evil 7 ushered the series in a new first-person direction. Assassin's Creed Origins did the unspeakable and turned Assassin's Creed into a—gasp—RPG. Even the smaller successes of the year like Danganronpa V3 shocked players in refreshing ways. While this year's indie games carried that mantle, skimming the list of the biggest releases of 2018, a lot of games were great in a different way. In a shorter expression: the trend this year was iteration, rather than innovation.
I don't say this with spite: but a lot of the games that will land on most sites' game of the year lists wouldn't have happened without the games before it. That could be said about most years, but this year, it feels most true. Marvel's Spider-Man, a PlayStation 4 exclusive from Insomniac Games, is a by-the-numbers open-world adventure, elevated by its clever spins on Spidey lore and its fantastic swinging exploration. Dragon Ball FighterZ had the anime fighting game champions of Arc System Works working its magic on the beloved series. Forza Horizon 4, like the Forzas before it, is just beautiful and bigger than ever, and has weekly-shifting seasons now to boot. Far Cry 5, likewise, was more Far Cry. Assassin's Creed Odyssey more Origins; Hitman 2 more Hitman. Be those things as they may, arguably, a lot of the aforementioned games are the platonic ideals of their series. There's room for growth, but Hitman 2, Assassin's Creed, and more are some of the best they've ever been. The trend shows that iteration, sometimes, isn't really so bad.
Some of those statements might be slight disservices, such as Odyssey building upon Origins in every way and swinging for the fences, even if it sometimes flung the bat straight into a pitcher's face, rather than hit a homerun. While this year wasn't the juggernaut that was last year, maybe it was better this way. After all, 2017 was exhausting.
I'm still plugging away at my personal game of the year list, which you'll find popping up on the homepage next week at some point, alongside the rest of the team's. A lot of my favorite games of the year fall into the iterative category, from Hitman 2 to Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. (I'll be the first to tell you: I did not expect 2018 to be the year where I got back into Call of Duty.) They are games I knew what to expect from, and came out the other end greatly enjoying my time with. Where some games of 2018 left me largely bored, others delighted me.
The year wasn't entirely creatively stagnant in the realm of triple-A development. While Red Dead Redemption 2 moved forward Rockstar's open-world design, it still felt like an open-world game from the late 2000s. God of War basically Resident Evil 4'd the series, but it was soooooo long. Where 2018 had clear standouts, 2017's gaggle of big probable-award-winning games are all littered with big caveats. For some players, the highs outweigh the lows, and for others the lows are too glaring to ignore.
In my opinion, that's what makes the end of the year scramble more exciting for 2018. With a more diverse array of games that people think are the best, it's not just our team and personal lists that will differ strongly, it's every other outlet and reader's picks too. I think that makes 2018's game of the year deliberations somehow more exhilarating, even with the muted onward movement in the industry.
Once in a console generation, we seem to get years like 2017. In that way, 2018 is a fitting follow-up: still strong overall, with a medley of stellar sequels that iterate on their predecessors, and then some. There's no runaway winner such as Breath of the Wild, Nier: Automata, or Super Mario Odyssey, but that's just what will make our end of the year bash all the more intriguing.
So that leaves us: What will land on our Top 20? Find out later this week.
Major Game Releases This Week: December 17 to December 21
- Firewatch [December 17, Switch]: Firewatch debuted nearly three years ago, but that doesn't mean the port wheel has stopped turning. There was one forest left unguarded from fires, and that was the Nintendo Switch. Firewatch is a fantastic little adventure game, and will feel right at home on Switch.
- Donut County [December 18, Xbox One, Switch]: Donut County originally launched across PC, mobile platforms, and PlayStation 4. Reviewing it on PS4, I had one thought on my mind: "This would be great on Switch, and also on an Xbox One X too I guess." Luckily, my plea was heard. (Though it does not have any special enhancements on the latter.) Later this week, the raccoon controlled hole will swallow two additional platforms for release.
- PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds: Vikendi Map [December 19, PC]: It's only been a couple weeks of Vikendi being in PUBG's PC test servers, but it's already en route to join Sanhok, Erangel, and Miramar in the full game proper. The snowy map will come to PS4 and Xbox One at a later date.
- Spider-Man: Silver Lining DLC [December 21, PS4]: Spider-Man's last DLC in its The City That Never Sleeps saga will be out this Friday, just in time for the holidays. Silver Lining will focus on Silver Sable, who returns to Manhattan very pissed off after the events of the previous DLC chapter. The new DLC pack will also contain three new Spidey suits, including one based off Peter's suit in the new (and excellent) animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Nadia's Note Block Beat Box: Sigma Stage 3 (Mega Man X)
Today marks the 25th anniversary of Mega Man X, one of the greatest side-scrolling action games of all time, if not the greatest. Shh. No arguments.
There are countless reasons to celebrate Mega Man's 16-bit debut. Mega Man X boasts near-perfect level design, it still looks great, and its soundtrack is some epic-tier stuff. The mood swings back and forth wildly, from "upbeat and determined" to "sinister and foreboding." Best of all, the closer you get to Sigma, the darker the music gets. Sigma Stage 3 is as unsettling as the game's music gets, barring perhaps the music that accompanies you as you make your final climb up Sigma's domain. Pew-pew-pew-pew-pew pew.
This Week's News and Notes
- Last week, Blizzard announced in a blog that it was shuttering Heroes of the Storm's esports division, as well as shifting developers away from the game. From the sounds of it, Heroes of the Storm is basically sunsetting now. Matt reached out to pro players of Heroes of the Storm about what their plans are next after being blindsided by Blizzard's decision.
- Red Dead Online's controversial microtransactions have gone live. Woo-hoo?
- Assassin's Creed Odyssey's director recently revealed the more popular protagonist of Kassandra and Alexios, and surprisingly found that two-thirds of players chose the latter. What a shame, Kassandra's way better.
- Kingdom Hearts 3 somehow leaked six weeks before its release. Worry not though: director Tetsuya Nomura took to Twitter to assure fans that the epilogue and true ending will seemingly be patched in at launch, likely to be included in the Day One patch. While a smart preemptive move on Square Enix's part, I wonder how this will affect critics who will be reviewing the game in the coming month. Oh yeah, and there's a new trailer too, which you can watch below.
- Like all years, 2018 had a lot of games. Last week, I put together a list of the 20 games you probably missed last year.
- That's not all for lists! As a team, we wrote up a list of our 25 most anticipated games of 2019. You can check it all out, from Wargroove to Devil May Cry 5, here.
- Up in Canada, Nadia is still playing quite a bit of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Last week she wrote about its excellent soundtrack, and how it celebrates its third-party characters too.
- Earlier today we published a profile from contributor Luke Winkie on a streamer upholding the Metal Gear community in marathoning each game; so much so, that his regular audience participates, almost like at a Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight showing.
- Axe of the Blood God: It's a full house on this week's Axe of the Blood God. Matt, Mike, Hirun, Jake, Tom, and myself join Kat and Nadia to talk about our favorite games of the year. And don't worry: we don't spoil any games that we discuss. Subscribe here for the full podcast!
- Last but not least: Thank you all so much for reading another year full of Starting Screen columns! Expect more in the new year, of course. Happy new year and happy holidays!