In 2018, we climbed mountains, we bonded with sons, we enjoyed a new D'Angelo song. We went to war with mechs on our side (twice), we visited old friends, we dressed up our Pikachus and Eevees. We went Super Saiyan, we unraveled the fate of a ghost ship, we slayed more monsters than we can count and used their hides for slick armor. We walked, jumped, and swung about a million miles in other people's shoes this year in video games.
And it's been another exciting year because of it. 2018 was the year indie games rose higher than ever before; where triple-A releases perfected familiar formulas and some forged new paths entirely. To celebrate the year in video games, the team at USG collaborated on a list of the 20 games we believe are the very best and helped get us through this trying year.
So here they are, USG's Top 20 Games of the Year. As always, thanks for sticking by and reading all year long. See you in 2019!
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
2018 has been a pretty excellent year for strategy games. Between Into the Breach and BattleTech, there’s been plenty of variety too, but it’s the latter that really made an impression on me. BattleTech gets its name from the popular board game, now called Classic Battletech, and certainly captures the slow, methodical nature it is known for. It’s an old-school turn-based strategy experience through and through, which is both a blessing and a sometimes a curse. New players will likely be turned off by the tough-as nails combat, or the more dicey RNG elements, but persevere and there’s a fantastic time to be had.
BattleTech’s story is one of greedy space-faring corporations and treacherous mercenaries. It sits somewhere between Alien and Dune, presenting grubby future-technology in stark contrast to the extravagant ships of the game’s many warring royal families. It’s all presented beautifully, with a touch of the choose your own adventure genre to it, like this: "The image of an imposing structure appears on your viewscreen. It has the solid, heavy walls that you’ve come to associate with Taurian architecture."
It’s the combat that really steals the show though, as you take on the role of a Commander in charge of a squad (or Lance) of powerful war machines. Every single move you make is a careful dance between risk and reward, with permadeath and costly mech repairs always nagging at the back of your mind. BattleTech is a fair game though, and you’ll be rewarded for making smart moves. Choosing to divert heat to main weapons, and then delivering a chest-shattering shot to an opponent only to find you don’t have enough power to retreat from the approaching fire—it’s all part of the fun. BattleTech is mean, obtuse, stubborn, but also dynamic, deeply customizable, and ambitious. For those willing to stick it out, there’s a rich balance of simulation and turn-based mechanics, perfectly emulating the feeling of being a battle-hardened Commander at the helm of a hulking, steaming BattleMech. —Jake Green
19. Call of Duty: Black Ops 4
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 might seem like a strange entry on this list. Every year there's a new one, and often, they seem only slightly iterative. We expect the same every year from good ol' Call of Duty, where the shooting feels good and the season passes are aplenty. And often when an entry swings for the fences—whether it's agile Titanfall-like combat, or even going back to World War 2 for the hundredth time—it doesn't quite work. Black Ops 4 seems like the exception though. It's, at last, the Call of Duty that has something for everyone.
Black Ops 4 is really just Black Ops 3, but improved to the maximum degree. Gone is the signature Call of Duty campaign, usually a vehicle for loud game trailers at E3 with a familiar celebrity face at the center. In its place this year, we got Blackout: Call of Duty's own take on the prominent battle royale genre. Blackout, some decreed, would be the PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds killer. While it isn't quite that, it's proven itself over the months, finding its footing not as a new Fortnite nor a new PUBG, but as its own thing. It is unabashedly Black Ops, complete with specialist perks, resting in the framework of PUBG's military action and Fortnite's ever-changing map. Blackout forged its own identity.
Of course, Black Ops 4 isn't just Blackout. It has standard multiplayer too, with an overwhelming amount of modes both old and new. (Traditional team deathmatch, for me, will always be the best.) It has Zombies, and launched with the most content ever for it on day one—great for fans of the co-op mode. While in the months since, I've preferred sticking to Blackout and multiplayer only, it's been the one multiplayer game this year to keep pulling me back; and the new Black Market, along with its Battle Pass-like system has only made progression that much more enjoyable. I didn't expect to exit 2018 being a huge fan of a new Call of Duty game, and yet, here I stand. Boots on the ground, I guess. —Caty McCarthy
18. Yakuza Kiwami 2
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Yakuza Kiwami 2 blends the best of both worlds together. Prior to its release in August, we had the semi-serious Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, and prior to that, we had Yakuza 0, the batshit crazy adventure where everyone is presumably on cocaine for half the entire game. Yakuza Kiwami 2 takes the crazy, and blends it excellently with the serious.
A remake of the original Yakuza 2 from 2006, Kiwami 2 runs on the suped-up Dragon Engine used for Yakuza 6. The newer engine opens up Kamurocho like never before, letting Kiryu weave seamlessly between ramen joints and beatdowns with thugs in the street without skipping a beat. Speaking of beats, this is also the best karaoke sim on the planet, for what it’s worth.
Yakuza Kiwami 2 brings the weird in the form of substory missions, which are just about some of the best things the remake has to offer. There are stories where Kiryu helps out amateur film directors, perverted salesmen, intimidated dominatrixes and more, all sprinkled in atop a plot that’s ripe with twists, turns, and memorable new characters. —Hirun Cryer
17. Pokemon Let's Go Pikachu and Eevee
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
Two years after the release of Pokemon Go on mobile devices and we're still feeling its outsized impact on games. Every mobile game leveraging AR feels like "Pokemon Go meets X," but as it turns out Pokemon Go's influence is now feeding directly into console Pokemon games as well, starting with Pokemon Let's Go Pikachu and Eevee.
While some have called Pokemon Let's Go entry-level spinoffs, the true achievement of Pokemon Let's Go isn't that it's the first Pokemon game on the Switch. It's how it leverages the mechanics of Pokemon Go to create a Pokemon experience perfect for kids and adults on the move.
Rather than watering down the Pokemon experience, Pokemon Let's Go streamlines the formula and highlights the multitude of experiences within any given Pokemon game. As an RPG Pokemon was never about just progressing through a story and leveling up, and Pokemon Let's Go understands that. Want to catch Pokemon? Do so in a fun and fast way. Want to battle? That's there too. Want to explore the world? You can now do so without a random encounter to slow you down.
Pokemon Let's Go is a Pokemon game for someone who is literally on the go, and the smoothness in which a player can progress through the game isn't just a distillation of what makes Pokemon great, but a revelation. —Matt Kim
16. The Messenger
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC
The core conceit of The Messenger is so genius that it's bewildering how it's never been done before. Inspired heavily by the Ninja Gaiden series, The Messenger outfits you as a ninja on a mission to deliver—you guessed it—a message. In the first batch of hours, it's a solid linear action-platformer.
The sections rooted in the past are in 8-bit, evoking classic Ninja Gaiden perfectly; whereas the futuristic portions shift to 16-bit. About half way through, you hit a twist though: the linearity falls away and suddenly the world folds onto itself like a metroidvania game, where you can double back and explore everything you've run across in the past, and then some. Oh yeah, and you can jump between 16-bit and 8-bit now.
You're no longer trapped in linearity, as now you're encouraged to jump back and forth in time in order to reach some areas. Together, the 8-bit and 16-bit worlds work together in harmony, with even the music alternating between the two worlds. (The music, I must add, is also bumpin'.) 2018 in general was a year with a ton of excellent platformers, and The Messenger managed to stand up to the best thanks to its unique generation-hopping twist, excellent soundtrack, and that juicy Ninja Gaiden-y action, of course. —Caty McCarthy
15. Dragon Ball FighterZ
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
Arc System Works brings years of expertise honed on the Guilty Gear and BlazBlue franchises to the classic Dragon Ball Z series from creator Akira Toriyama. The aerial-heavy gameplay and the wild 3D-faux-2D animation used in the Guilty Gear Xrd titles was a good starting point, but Arc System Works went the extra mile for its follow-up.
Dragon Ball FighterZ—officially pronounced "Dragon Ball Fighters" apparently—is chock-full of love for Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Ball Super. It copies classic manga panels or anime scenes perfectly. Dragon Ball FighterZ plays on existing rivalries and new combinations of characters specific to the game. If you love Dragon Ball, this game is a testament to that love.
At the same time, it's an excellent tag-team fighter. Despite characters flying around, teleporting, and shooting all manner of fireballs, Dragon Ball FighterZ is an amazingly readable fighter. It's also very aggressive, pushing players towards attacking and strong counters, opposite to pure footies and turtling. There's a reason FighterZ shot to the top of the list at the 2018 Evolution Championship Series in the same year it released. It was that good, and watching the best of the best fight it out on the EVO 2018 stage showed how great a job Arc System Works did. —Mike Williams
14. Return of the Obra Dinn
Platforms: PC, Mac
If you were to hear that one of the best games of the year was about an insurance adjuster, you might think, "That sounds extremely boring." And yet, it's anything but, even if that is the central premise of Return of the Obra Dinn. On the Obra Dinn, your job as an insurance adjuster is to figure out what went down on this eerie ship that's washed to port in 1807, five years after it went missing. You're geared with a handy manifest of everyone on board, as well as a mysterious pocket-watch like device where you can rewind time. It's not a fluid sort of mechanic though, as you can only rewind to the specific moment of a person's death when you happen upon their corpse.
That's where exploration comes in: you explore the Obra Dinn, finding dozens of skeletons laid throughout. You start at the very end of this grim journey, with an easy to solve mystery. At first, it seems like a pretty straightforward story will continue: the Captain went crazy, and all these people died because of it. Turns out, things are a lot more complicated. Your goal in Return of the Obra Dinn is to identify everyone on board and what their fate was—or rather, how they died and by what or whom. It constantly throws twists into the mix, as you jump around the livelihood of the crew non-sequentially as you explore each deck. It's built on moments and revelations that shock you; the sort that draw a hushed gasp or expletive.
Like no other game this year (or ever, by that measure), Return of the Obra Dinn lets you be a detective. A real detective, writing down clues in a journal, analyzing each character's clothes, voice, who they hung out with often, and the events leading up to their death, of course. It may be the bleakest game of the year, but it's also the most captivating in design, art direction, sound, and every other thing you toss its way. —Caty McCarthy
13. Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC
Dragon Quest XI is a bigger and richer Dragon Quest VIII, and depending on what kind of Dragon Quest fan you are, that might be exactly what you need in your life.
Even if you're an RPG fan who's not yet familiar with Dragon Quest, Dragon Quest XI might still be exactly what you need. Though its story contains tons of fun nods to previous games in the series, its story is self-contained and well-told. The whole shebang runs close to 100 hours—or more—so just be aware that you're in deep for the long haul.
Luckily, Dragon Quest XI's lively world and colorful enemies keep the quest interesting. New and old foes wander into your line of sight, and their wild designs make it clear the series' artist (and Dragon Ball manga artist) Akira Toriyama is as imaginative as ever. Unfortunately, by contrast, series composer Koichi Sugiyama phoned in the soundtrack. Dragon Quest XI's MIDI music, not to mention the appalling political beliefs of its composer, are dark marks on an otherwise lovely game.
Don't despair, though. There are mods that improve the soundtrack considerably (cough, cough), and one of the game's heroes, Sylvando, offers surprisingly strong representation for LGBTQ+ players. Not "perfect," mind you, but certainly enough to kindle hope that Japan is gradually learning gay people are human beings, not cheap punchlines. —Nadia Oxford
12. Assassin's Creed Odyssey
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Well, one thing I definitely didn’t expect to be doing this year was romancing my way around Ancient Greece. I played as Kassandra in Assassin's Creed Odyssey, firstly because I’m not a monster, and secondly because she turns men to ash by looking them dead in the eye and flexing.
But seriously, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a whole lot of fun. I liked 2017’s Origins a whole lot, especially Bayek, and Ubisoft actually managed to create a character in Kassandra that could go toe-to-toe with the Egyptian Medjay. Origins leaned towards being a role-playing game, while Odyssey goes harder into the role, offering up romance options for the first time in the series, as well as some hilarious and memorable side quests to boot.
I found the combat to be generally more refined in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey than in Bayek’s adventure. Sure, the main plot goes slightly off the rails at the eleventh hour, but there’s a whole lot to love and remember Assassin’s Creed Odyssey for, and fifty hours in I’m still roaming the lush hills, valleys, and oceans of Ancient Greece. —Hirun Cryer
11. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
I think I've already pumped more hours into Super Smash Bros. Ultimate than any other Smash game. As usual, being able to play the game in handheld mode on the Switch gives me great incentive to "pick up and play" at any time, which is great for working through Classic Mode and unlocking fun portraits and extras. The World of Light quest is still keeping me busy, too. I get why it's regarded as a slog by people forced to marathon it, but as a self-contained adventure, it's easy to play for half an hour at a time before moving onto something else.
And, lest we forget: "Everyone is here!" While I still think Nintendo should've included an "Unlock All" option for younger and less-experienced players, I really enjoy the escalating challenge of taking on fighters as they present themselves. It forces me to learn how to fight better, plus it lets me get a feel for newcomers like Simon Belmont and Ridley.
Smash Bros. Ultimate is not all fun and games, sadly. The community's reported problems with input lag, and the online connectivity stinks—though the latter problem might smooth out a bit once the hype dies down a tad. It's disappointing, but I still think Smash Bros. Ultimate's solo and local competitive play are a blast. Falcon Punch Forever. —Nadia Oxford
10. Into the Breach
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac
Into the Breach was the shock hit of 2018 for me, considering I hadn’t played it until two months ago. If there’s one type of game that actively gives me anxiety whenever I think about it, it’s strategy games. But maybe the reason I can forgo this is the fact that I’m the world’s number one defender of Pacific Rim.
Launching on the Nintendo Switch at a meager price point of $14.99, Into the Breach is a steal. The game takes time travel, mechs, pulpy sci-fi characters, and blends them all together into a streamlined strategy package. There’s never too much going on at once in Into the Breach, letting you sit back and strategize your next move against the hordes of alien invaders for as long as you please.
Then it has some fun with time travel. You’re always presented with the same five islands in Into the Breach that you have to defend. But you can run the gauntlet as many times you please, with a different group of mechs with various weapons and abilities each time, and you can even abandon a run through the game and start over again too. Put an upgrades system for your mechs on top of all of this, and it’s like a robot wars video game I never knew I wanted. —Hirun Cryer
9. Marvel's Spider-Man
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Since the first Spider-Man for the Atari 2600 back in 1982, Marvel's marquee hero has starred in around 35 different games. The sad part is that most of them aren't all that good. We buy them because we love Spider-Man, but 80 percent of his games are just okay at best. There's a reason folks are still losing their minds over 2004's Spider-Man 2 for PlayStation 2, Xbox, and PC. The swinging and open-world traversal was so sublime that it helped overcome a mission structure that was actually quite boring.
It's into this pool of mediocrity that Insomniac Games dropped Marvel's Spider-Man. It's probably the best Spider-Man game to date. Like another game on this list—Dragon Quest 11—and it does that largely through execution, not innovation. Spider-Man for PS4 doesn't particularly do anything new, but the quality of the execution is high enough that it doesn't matter.
It tells a fantastic story with Insomniac's own version of Spider-Man, and a grab-bag of his supporting cast. The swinging feels better than any other Spider-Man game outside of Spider-Man 2. The combat also does its best to highlight what Spider-Man is: a do-it-yourself engineer inhabiting the body of a ballet dancer trained by Jackie Chan. And most importantly, Marvel's Spider-Man for PlayStation 4 doesn't overstay its welcome. In an era of 60-plus hour games, it's a cool 25 hours to complete everything, which feels just right. —Mike Williams
8. Tetris Effect
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Tetris is a classic and will surely outlive many gamers. So it's good to know that almost 35 years after it was originally created, Tetris can stand as one of the best games of the year thanks to careful and considered use of modern technology.
Tetris Effect isn't just a flashy trifle that adds some trippy visuals and good music to same old Tetris. Its VR mode (which really is the way Tetris Effect is meant to be played) reveals that there is a hidden dimension to Tetris, one that needed the emergence of a new medium to help tap into it. Rez creator and producer of Tetris Effect Tetsuya Mizuguchi always seemed more hypnotist than game designer thanks to his rhythmic virtual explorations, and with Tetris and its famous "flow" psychological effect, Mizuguchi found a perfect canvas for his audio-visual fascinations.
Tetris Effect is an achievement in all the areas that make up great video games: visuals, audio, and gameplay. While Tetris Effect is still mostly the same game originally created by Russian game designer Alexey Pajitnov, the developers at Resonair mined human emotion from tetrominoes and that, along with its achievements in VR, is cause for celebration. —Matt Kim
7. Dead Cells
Is it OK to describe a game as "buttery?" Well, I'm doing it now. It's officially legal.
Dead Cells describes itself as a "rogue-lite, Souls-lite, Castlevania-inspired action-platformer"—in other words, exactly the kind of game that needs buttery-smooth controls if you want any hope of succeeding. Even your best efforts are unlikely to keep you alive for very long, though. You don't call your game "Dead Cells" if you plan on showing players even a molecule of mercy.
But there's more to Dead Cells than dying, resurrecting, and trying again. As you struggle to gain purchase in a hellish realm populated by hordes of vicious undead, you gradually earn currency that lets you purchase permanent upgrades. Thus, Dead Cells offers a vital sense of progression for people like myself who detest losing everything when they play a true roguelike. Better still, every time you die and return to your spawn point, you get to see your purchased upgrades hanging from bottles. It's kind of like looking upon novelty lights in a particularly macabre restaurant. So dark, but so satisfying.
Don't take Dead Cells' classification as a rogue-lite as an invitation to slack on combat, though. Learning enemy tells is vital, and so is learning how to master a wide array of weapons. Why? Because you never know what you're going to get stuck with after you respawn. If whatever you wield has a sharp edge, it is precious. Cherish it, and cherish every moment you manage to stay alive in Dead Cells. —Nadia Oxford
6. Forza Horizon 4
Platforms: Xbox One, PC
There are a few consistent things in life that you can rely on. Death, taxes, and Forza Horizon. At this point, Playground Games delivering another great Forza Horizon is a given. Every other year, Playground takes Turn 10 Studios' stodgy car racing simulation and turns it into a rip roaring open-world adventure. Forza Horizon is one of the last fun racing game series we have, with the previous generation winnowing those ranks with a vengeance.
Forza Horizon 4 leaves behind the beautiful beaches and deserts of Australia for a representative version of the United Kingdom. Same excellent driving, same cornucopia of licensed cars, same beautifully designed open-world. The first twist on the formula this year is that players are thrown online together into shared world servers, meaning you're always racing against Drivatars or other players.
The second twist are the seasons—spring, summer, fall, and winter—each offering a vastly different driving experience. Tearing lazily around Edinburgh in the fall, as golden leaves cover the trees. Plowing through the snow in winter, sliding around on icy lakes. Or drifting by the English coastline aided by the slick streets of a spring rainstorm. Forza Horizon 4 is the only game where you can get behind the wheel of 1962 Peel P50 in the worst snow the U.K. has ever seen, and still have a ton of goddamn fun. And that's why the series is still the best. —Mike Williams
5. Hitman 2
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
You'll never see Agent 47 coming, even though he is a tall, bald-headed white man with a barcode tattooed on the back of his head. Maybe it's because of his not-so-everyman appearance that he can seamlessly blend his way into society—into well-established bands, into the identities of reality TV tattoo artists, or as a person's closest bodyguard—without so much as a second glance. He is truly, as the game time and time again lays out for you, a master of disguise.
Hitman 2 may just be more of what Season One of the series' soft-reboot realized, but it's all of that and better. Where only about half of its predecessor's maps were worth going back to more than once, Hitman 2 builds on that, making all of its maps as dense, exciting, and full of surprises as the best maps of the series are. In Hitman 2, you'll infiltrate a high-society party with the scummiest people known on earth; elsewhere, you'll lurk around a Formula 1 race in Miami, Florida, which has more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye. Simply put, there is an obscene amount to explore in Hitman 2's sandboxes, and that's only the tip of what's in store.
Like all Hitman games, your goal is to take out a specific target. In IO Interactive's recent two entries, the possibilities for doing so are blown wide open: you can kill people with pretty much anything, even an exploding rubber duck. It's getting to your target that's tricky, but there's plenty of room for improvisation (or hand-holding through storied missions, if that's more your jam). Playing through Hitman 2's levels just once is never satisfying, it's replaying them time and time again (unlocking more gear with each completion) that makes Hitman 2 persist. That, joined with the creative custom targets other players can plot and upload, the new multiplayer modes, and the upcoming year of Elusive Targets, Hitman 2 has not just delighted us for this latter breath of 2018, but will continue to percolate for 2019. Unlike the fate of most games on my PS4 when I'm "done" with them, Hitman 2 is not one I will be deleting anytime soon. —Caty McCarthy
4. Monster Hunter: World
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
I can tell I've been covering video games for too long because I spend a lot of time looking for the seams in otherwise richly detailed digital experiences. God of War is an amazing game, for example, but I find myself distracted by its color-coded enemies and contrived traps. That's what made Monster Hunter: World so special in my mind; despite being a very mechanical game in many respects, it was able to draw me deep into its amazing ecosystem populated by incredible creatures of all shapes and sizes. They were the true Fantastic Beasts of 2018.
From the lowly Great Jagras to the diabolical Deviljho, every creature in Monster Hunter: World has a calling card. The beauty of MHW is in falling into an intense duel with an Odogaron, only to hear the tell tale musical cue of the Bazelgeuse, who flies in to pop you with exploding spikes. Every fight in Monster Hunter: World feels like a life and death struggle, making that moment when you finally skin them that much more satisfying. Even the fights where you have an obvious advantage can be satisfying in their own way, as every blow you land feels like a crushing one as you steadily cleave away claws, teeth, and tails.
I ended up putting more than a hundred hours in Monster Hunter: World, and my only disappointment was that there wasn't more to do beyond the big endgame grind, a few mostly superfluous events aside. Thankfully, that will be changing in 2019, as Capcom is preparing to drop an enormous DLC expansion called Iceborne. I truly cannot wait.
Monster Hunter: World wound up being a revelatory experience not just for me, but for the gaming community at large. It finally pulled what had previously been a regional favorite into the global mainstream, converting a tremendous number of new fans and becoming the best selling Capcom game of all time. It's been a period of rejuvenation for Capcom, with Resident Evil, Devil May Cry, and Mega Man all getting revivals. But until proven otherwise, Monster Hunter: World will remain Capcom's greatest success. —Kat Bailey
3. God of War
Platforms: PlayStation 4
When I think back over all the games I've played during this console generation, I don't think any are more perfectly suited to my gaming tastes than God of War. The initial reveal had me concerned, for sure, as I'd put hundreds of hours into the series over the years and the idea of a new camera worried me. It shouldn't have. Sony Santa Monica created one of the best (soft) reboots of all time, managing to reinvigorate the series while also maintaining its history.
The biggest surprise for me is just how well God of War works as an adventure. I was never a huge fan of exploration in video games, preferring to walk a set path, but I put a lot of hours into Fallout 4 a few years ago and since then I've had a relentless longing for more of the same. It's not just big worlds that I'm after. I want to feel like I'm discovering things. Ideally something that lots of other players won't find. God of War does a brilliant job at delivering this kind of experience without ever feeling like it has lost its focus. I felt compelled to look everywhere and loved every minute of it.
Kratos' Axe was also an area of concern for me, with its ability to be thrown making me wonder if this God of War wouldn't feel anything like the series I adored. Now I'm left wondering what I'd think if I went back to play the older games. I expect they'd feel rather restrictive in their combat options, and rather lonely. Atreus, Kratos' son, is a wonderful character, not only in a story sense but also as another tool to use during combat. Sony has delivered numerous prestige titles over the course of the PlayStation 4's life, and for me God of War is the best of the bunch. —Tom Orry
What's there to say about Celeste that hasn't been said already? Its platforming is tight and thrilling. The story? Emotional and resonant. The music? Absolutely fantastic. More than any other game this year Celeste might have the least amount of flaws, if any. And while a game is more than just its lack of flaws, I think it's worth highlighting just what a near-perfect execution of a game Celeste is.
Celeste could easily pass on its technical merits alone, but Celeste also delivers on an experiential level. Building upon the central metaphor of mountain climbing, Celeste melds tight, and more importantly, enjoyable gameplay with the rhythm of its fictional mountain. Celeste is difficult without ever being frustrating, inspirational without being cloying. With fantastic platforming at its foundation, and therefore no gameplay impediments in the way, Matt Makes Games was able to deliver a pitch-perfect experience in total game design.
Celeste makes it so that it feels like the player and Madeline climb the mountain as one. The difficulty is just challenging enough that each level completion feels like a major victory, even though the player is utilizing the skills taught to us and honed through every missed platform or slipped wall jump. Madeline's success feels like our success precisely because together we both earn every kilometer of the mountain climbed. —Matt Kim
1. Red Dead Redemption 2
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Red Dead Redemption 2 is, defiantly, a stubborn game. Arthur walks at a deliberate pace, always lumbering like he's in no rush to get anywhere. When he swaps out guns, he needs to retrieve them from the saddle of his horse. Guns deteriorate too, so he has to clean them periodically so they're at their best. Even the skinning animations of animals, a common complaint in its direct predecessor, have almost quadrupled in length. In Red Dead Redemption 2, gone are the easy, chill open-world ways of Grand Theft Auto and everything else in the genre. With Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar is demanding patience from its players, and resounding attention too.
And attention it earns.
In Red Dead Redemption 2, we play as Arthur Morgan, a man who like the more-familiar John Marston, grew up in Dutch van der Linde's gang. At first, Dutch's gang feels like a family, with each member looking out for each other, having its own internal bickering like any family does. We care for them and hate them in equal measure; we take time out of our busy schedule to go fishing or hunting with our comrades, or even just play Five Finger Fillet. But the more you play, the more Dutch's gang feels like a cult. Red Dead Redemption 2 ends up not being just a game about the dissolution of Dutch's gang, but about the dissolution of the ways of outlaws and of the American Dream. Dutch's American Dream, once, revolved around selflessness and self-sufficiency. Through Dutch and others, that ideology distorts into exactly the opposite.
But it's the world of Red Dead Redemption 2 that's most memorable. Since The Witcher 3, an open-world hasn't gripped me so much, from its side quests to the secrets lying in the areas between all its dirt roads. Riding on horseback one night, I swear I saw a ghost train. Another time, I happened upon a Ku Klux Klan meeting in the woods—one of the rare instances where if you initiate a shootout, you don't net bad karma. I robbed a shop in Valentine once, and it went horribly wrong; everytime I returned the shopkeeper still recognized me, and chastised me. In a side quest, Arthur and his ex-girlfriend attended a show. I sat and watched the entire performance of dancers and singers, which was about 20 minutes long. Red Dead Redemption 2's world feels like interactive theatre, where everything is ready to interact with you and most shockingly of all, remember you too. No action goes unnoticed.
Of course, Red Dead Redemption 2 is maybe the frontrunner of this year's game of the year deliberations with the biggest caveats. Its control layout is clunky, and feels more designed for something like PC (which is odd, considering there is no PC release at the moment). The nagging knowledge of overworked employees from reports earlier this year comes to mind every time you see an overkill of detail or systems, like the overt sunlight bloom that's dialed up a notch too high for stylistic purposes. The shooting, like in all Rockstar games, is not really the main draw (though, I grew to enjoy the emergent action that happens outside of story missions).
Red Dead Redemption 2 has no qualms being a slow burn. And more than any other big budget game this year, it astounded me, and its characters and story gripped me like a great television show. Even days after finishing the epilogue and feeling like my time with it was done, I hopped back in the other night with the hope of meeting more strangers on some unexplored neck of the woods. And mysteries, strangers, and more sure did await me. —Caty McCarthy