December starts tomorrow, and this cursed year is thankfully one month closer to an end. The start of the final month of 2020 also marks the start of the long, arduous exercise we undertake every year: writing a list of our Game of the Year choices.
I've tried to be better about tracking my own playtime this year, mostly because it's been sporadic; I've whittled away at various games several hours at a time over the last 11 months. Now that I'm putting pen to paper though, I've encountered a familiar question of what to do about all these early access games.
The topic came up in this week's Axe of the Blood God, in relation to Baldur's Gate 3 instituting the first split that will fork its early access branches. Larian Studios is setting a new patch live soon that will have some story changes, and with that comes a break between the current build and the old one, and saves from the latter will be incompatible with the former.
This isn't an uncommon circumstance for Larian's early access games, as Divinity: Original Sin 2 had the same sort of "breaks" in development during its early access time. It raises a curious problem for me, and others who might be considering Baldur's Gate 3 for their GOTY shortlist: what are we putting on our list when we write down Baldur's Gate 3?
It's a Ship of Theseus argument that has cropped up around in-development games for some time. It was only a few years ago that Kat Bailey was pondering whether a game like PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds could be a GOTY contender. Compared to then, the ever-evolving service game and early access industry has grown larger, with even more games making waves well before their "launch."
As a game evolves, changes, removes old parts and substitutes new, what remains of the original game? Games like No Man's Sky have evolved radically from launch, with entire systems that didn't exist at launch now in the "base" game. The base game was a cold, serene, sometimes lonely experience of drifting through the outer reaches of an uncaring universe. Now its planets are richer and its worms are even larger.
The version of Baldur's Gate 3 I played this year might be one of the 10 or 20 best things I've played in 2020, but it isn't finished. Its vision isn't fully realized, as evidenced by the giant "Under Construction" image I was greeted with when I finally got to Lae'zel's romance scene. It was almost mocking the earnestness with which I careened into that in-development wall, like Wile E. Coyote chasing the Roadrunner.
On the other hand, Hades is one of my Game of the Year contenders, but it wasn't finished until this year; do its various incarnations, over major and minor patches, constitute different versions of the game? It might have been my GOTY at various points prior, but its still-unfinished finale left it absent from consideration. I didn't devote much time into it until earlier this year, purely because it wasn't going to be in version 1.0 for the foreseeable future. Being able to roll credits in a game seems like the cutoff point, for whatever reason.
In the meantime, Dota 2 has grown a little stale for my usual group, even in the wake of its Diretide event, so we've somehow found ourselves returning to Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm. Did you know Heroes of the Storm is actually pretty fun right now? It might be the time and distance that's made it seem so fresh, but I'm genuinely enjoying a new MOBA filled with a bunch of Blizzard characters, both iconic and a little obscure at times. (Seriously, who the hell is Hogger?)
The culmination of games as a service, prevalence of early access, and continued development of games months after they've launched has made me really consider the way we talk about games. As I wrote in my Valorant review, the version of that game as it existed then is not the game it is now. Game of the Year lists can sometimes feel like a moment to reconsider and revisit, but in re-evaluation, it can be tough to separate the game we enjoyed in the past from the game it is now, good or bad. Ghost of Tsushima got an inarguable bump in popularity thanks to its multiplayer update, but conversely, I don't think adding a final boss—cool as it is—is enough to put Risk of Rain 2 on my GOTY list for the second year in a row.
It might sound a little navel-gazey, but I'm thinking about this issue a lot this year. Maybe it's just because I've played more early access or constantly-in-development games, or maybe—more likely—it's because this year's pandemic has resulted in tangible effects on the industry, including some features arriving later and release dates shifting around. Games aren't arriving whole, and it's even making me question what "whole" means in games these days.
As much this year as ever, GOTY lists are a frozen image in time. No doubt our opinions of games have been shaped by the world events that happened around us, because it's impossible to divorce real-world events from the stories we take in. It makes me wonder if this version of Baldur's Gate 3 really is the one I want to commemorate, or if there are better iterations of it on the horizon. When is a game finished? Considering this is the year of retro fighting games getting rollback netcode to be playable online in 2020, we may never know when. We can only know when it feels like the right time to celebrate the things we play, and what's stuck with us throughout the Lego Under Your Foot of a year we've had, even if it's the Under Construction banner of a slightly judgemental mindflayer, smack dab in the middle of an intimate moment with a party member.
Major Game Releases: November 30 to December 4
Here are the major releases for the week of November 23 to November 27. Want to see the complete list? Check out our full list of video game release dates for 2020.
- Empire of Sin [Dec. 1 for PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC]: Shine up those shoes and grease your Tommy Guns, because it's almost time to throw down like a Prohibition-era gangster. Empire of Sin, a mashup of strategy, empire building, and RPG mechanics set in '30s Chicago, is making a move on your free time this week. Just last month, the team at Romero Games (including creator Brenda Romero) took time to give USgamer a lengthy preview of Empire of Sin and to talk over all the Civilization-esque hooks it hopes to offer. With the holidays and Game of the Year discussions looming, there's a good chance you've already got a backlog of games to consider, but folks enamored with tales of bootleggers and "one more turn" gameplay should consider giving this one a shot.
- Twin Mirror [Dec. 1 for PS4, Xbox One, PC]: Life Is Strange and Tell Me Why makers Dontnod are hoping to make a story that can measure up to the works of Hitchcock (or perhaps, short of that high bar, something to give Quantic Dream a run for its money). Twin Mirror will step outside of Dontnod's drama wheelhouse and instead tackle the thriller genre; there might be a tender relationship or two in the mix, but players should prepare themselves for something icier and more unsettling than what they've seen in Dontnod's episodic work.
- Sam & Max Save the World Remastered [Dec. 2 for Switch, PC]: The old Telltale may be gone, but it seems there's no keeping the Freelance Police down. Sam & Max Save the World, first released in 2006, got the whole episodic Telltale adventure game engine running, and now it's getting a remaster treatment from a group of its original developers (Skunkape Games, a new company formed to handle the remaster, includes Telltale founder Dan Connors and Jake Rodkin in its roster). The new version of Save the World will include all six episodes, lots of reworked visuals and sound, and is even a bit cheaper on Steam for those who own the original release.
- Immortals Fenyx Rising [Dec. 3 for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X, Switch, PC, Stadia]: A little bit Breath of the Wild, a little bit Assassin's Creed Odyssey, and (unfortunately) a bit later to the Greek God party than Supergiant's Hades, Immortals Fenyx Rising might become the next big Ubisoft property if it can prove itself worthy in the shadow of so many long-lived franchises. Our former Reviews Editor Mike Williams found a lot to like about the game formerly known as Gods and Monsters after a couple hands-on sessions, calling it "an enjoyable, family-friendly romp through Greek mythology[.]" We'll have some more thoughts on Immortals up on the site soon, but if you're eager for a verdict on it already, Christian Donlan already has a review up at our sister site Eurogamer.
Five Things You Should Know Heading Into This Week In Gaming
- Red Dead Online is getting a standalone release tomorrow. Technically, this item could go in the previous section, but since it's not a new game or remaster it's gonna live right here. Ahead of next year's next-gen updates for GTA 5 and Grand Theft Auto Online, it seems Rockstar wants to experiment with splitting up its open world single-player and online offerings by cleaving off Red Dead Redemption 2's communal cowpoke component. It'll still be a heck of a big download on PC, Xbox One, and PS4 (backward compatible on new consoles), but Red Dead Online is setting off on its own with a teeny tiny pricetag: $5. It may be a bit feature-thin compared to its online San Andreas cousin, but that's a darn-tootin' good deal.
- Someone made competent, feature-rich remasters of those wacky Legend of Zelda titles on the CD-i. Already, creator Dopply has started to scrub download links for his remasters of The Faces of Evil and The Wand of Gamelon for fear of a Nintendo takedown, but the story behind them is probably a good deal more interesting than playing the infamous trainwrecks. Dopply started the project four years ago to learn Game Maker and to "fulfill an in-joke between friends." Considering how many low-effort memes have been mined from these CD-i sideshows, this one—ports of the games that actually work and which might even be nicer to play—has to take the Hyrulian prize for dry humor.
- Super Mario Maker for the Wii U is being put to rest. You'll still be able to play the first (and perhaps best) entry in Nintendo's DIY platformer series, but the original Maker of Marios is losing support for course uploading earlier next year. It's also set to disappear from the eShop sooner than that, with a delisting planned for Jan. 12, 2021. After that point, owners will be able to redownload the game itself, but if you want to keep some kind of archival record of the first Super Mario Maker, it's probably best to get it downloaded to your Wii U along with any courses you want to keep ASAP.
- The Metro series is still chugging right along. The latest entry, Metro Exodus, is not the end of the line for the Metro series; alongside a next-gen version of the more open-world Metro game, 4A Games has confirmed it's working on a new single-player Metro. The studio is also considering how it might take the Metro series into the multiplayer realm. Can I boldly recommend it not be Metro Royale?
- Cuphead's last sip is still warming up. The Delicious Last Course, Cuphead's final DLC, has been pushed back indefinitely, until it's ready to be served. Sorry, I promise I'll stop reminding you that Cuphead is a sentient beverage container whose head might contain a liquid you could sip. What does it taste like? We don't know, but Eric wants to find out.
Axe of the Blood God for November 30, 2020
Axe of the Blood God is our official RPG podcast releasing every single Monday. You can find subscription info here. We also put out an Axe of the Blood God newsletter every Wednesday, which you can subscribe to here.
Kat and Nadia are joined by USgamer's dynamic news duo (Eric Van Allen and Mat Olson) for some talk about The World Ends With You, Cyberpunk 2077, and the nature of early access games before the whole group launches into an RPG trivia game show segment. Can the guest competitors hold their own against one of the hosts, or is this a resounding win for our resident Kefka-head? Listen here!