2020 was supposed to be a big year for video games. The latest Xbox and Playstation consoles were launching. Marquee titles such as Halo Infinite, Final Fantasy VII, Cyberpunk 2077 and The Last of Us II were arriving after years in development.
Then the pandemic hit.
As it turned out, video games are basically pandemic-proof. When people had no choice but to go into lockdown, they turned to video games in huge numbers for entertainment. Perhaps the most serendipitous game launch of 2020 was Animal Crossing: New Horizons which came out in March. It is perfectly suited to killing long periods of time whilst keeping your spirits up with its cheery presentation and community-oriented gameplay systems that encouraged players to visit one another’s homes and leave them gifts.
Not unexpectedly, certain triple A games suffered immensely from the abrupt transition into being developed entirely by staff working remotely. The Xbox Series X|S launched without Halo Infinite, which ended up being delayed by a year. Cyberpunk 2077 clearly should’ve been delayed into 2021 but instead it infamously launched in terrible shape, running so poorly on the PS4 and Xbox One that the platform holders actually pulled the title from their digital stores and offered no-condition refunds.
Miraculously though, the PS5 and Xbox Series X|S managed to launch this year. Quantities were scarce and they were made doubly hard to come by thanks to prevalence of scalpers and bots. The consoles themselves were also pretty buggy, but there doesn’t seem to be anything drastic that a future firmware patch couldn’t fix.
When it came down to the games, 2020 really delivered. There were incredible choices for all kinds of players – whether you played online (Fall Guys, Among Us) or single player (Hades, Animal Crossing, The Last of Us II).
It was really tough to pick a favourite game of the year. Hades was an incredible accomplishment for a small studio and pushed the rogue-lite genre to new heights. Animal Crossing felt like it was the game people turned to when the pandemic initially hit and was a fantastic way to bring people together. The Last of Us II had incredible production values and really pushed the medium forward with its story-telling and presentation.
The time for deliberations though, are over. These are my ten favourite games of 2020.
The Last Of Us II
GAME OF THE YEAR
Naughty Dog, Playstation 4
Expectations were sky high but Naughty Dog delivered.
Seven years in the making, The Last of Us Part II shows every bit of spit and polish in its production values and world building that have made Naughty Dog one of the pioneers of the action-adventure genre. TLOU2 continues their fine work in pushing the medium forward with ambitious storytelling that draws challenging and demanding performances out of their voice acting talent. Naughty Dog’s eye for small details in their animation (facial ticks, subtle body language etc), exceptional sound design and stunning visual effects are also ever-present in this game. The Playstation 4 may be seven year old hardware but I suspect TLOU2 will remain a high watermark for production values and visual effects for some years yet.
Improved enemy AI, new weapons and wider, more expansive locales all help elevate the moment-to-moment experience. Some of the set pieces and boss battles are genuinely scary and absolutely thrilling. TLOU2 has its roots in sci-fi horror and the encounter with the Rat King in the hospital will surely go down as one of the most tense and riveting boss battles I’ve played of any game this generation.
The first Last of Us game was the perfect swan song for Playstation 3 and an exciting harbinger for what was to come. The same can be said for The Last of Us 2. It’s an incredible technical achievement on the Playstation 4 and I believe what this sequel accomplishes makes it one of the flagbearers for the future of narrative driven games.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Nintendo, Nintendo Switch
Every now and then, a game comes along at just the right time, offering just the right type of gameplay that clicks with audiences, that it becomes something more than just a video game. It transcends the medium and becomes part of the cultural zeitgeist of the time.
In 2020, during a historic and world changing pandemic that has forced the entire planet into self-imposed lockdown, Nintendo had the serendipitous good fortune of releasing Animal Crossing: New Horizons in March, just as the severity of COVID-19 restrictions really kicked into gear. Animal Crossing is famous for its relaxed, stress free gameplay where players are encouraged to while away long hours fishing, catching bugs and socialising with their friends. It was the perfect game for this moment in time.
It’s a game that can be played for dozens, if not hundreds of hours. For the uninitiated, Animal Crossing operates on a real time clock, changing from day to night and from weekday to weekend just as you do in real life.
The secret sauce that makes the Animal Crossing formula sing is that it gives the players a ton of goals to achieve (attracting fun residents, expanding your home, finding rare collectibles) but it leaves it completely up to the player which tasks they want to pursue. The player is never, ever penalized in the game. If you change your mind about where you want your home, you can relocate. If you decide you don’t like the features of your island you can customize it by demolishing hills or reshaping entire rivers and waterways.
It is also a game that exudes charm with its colourful, minimalist art style and cleverly written dialogue for the residents who can be anything from exercise-obsessed rhinos to neurotic night owls. The day to day loop of fishing, gardening, shopping and interacting with friends (both real and virtual) is an incredibly pleasant way to while away the hours.
In a series that has existed for nearly two decades, New Horizons is the definitive game in the series. It has never been bigger, more customizable or easier to share with friends. There are small annoyances that emerge once you put in dozens of hours of playtime (the crafting and online lobbies are especially cumbersome) but these pale in comparison with the overall product. In an absolutely wretched year that has delivered relentlessly bad news day after day, its nice to have a game like Animal Crossing to distract from our troubles. It is an absolutely wonderful, crowd pleaser of a game and couldn’t have come at a better time.
Supergiant Games, Nintendo Switch
Born and seemingly trapped in the Underworld for eternity, Zagreus embarks on a quest to escape the realm. His disapproving father Hades hinders his progress by setting the minions of the Underworld upon him. Death for Zagreus simply returns him to his home momentarily before he goes again.
Hades is the fourth game from renowned indie games studio Supergiant Games and arguably one of their finest yet. The developer made a name for themselves a decade ago with the excellent isometric action-RPG Bastion. They’ve since refused to allow themselves to be pigeon-holed in any one genre, creating follow up titles as diverse as Transistor (a turn-based strategy game) and Pyre (I can’t really think of a way to describe this other than a fantasy NBA Jam RPG). If there was a through-line that linked the games so far, it would be the incredibly polished art style and overall production values, and strong focus on delivering engaging characters and story.
I’m not normally the biggest fan of rogue-likes as even the best in the genre tend to either be too difficult for me or have a threadbare narrative which eventually causes me to drop off. Hades is the exception. The learning curve is demanding but never feels unfair. It always feels like you’re learning and progressing further. The game is packed with charm and charisma in the form of the various Olympian deities who add plenty of life and entertainment to the dungeon crawling grind.
All of this is a long roundabout way of saying that once Hades gets its hooks into you, you’ll inevitably begins to lose hours to the game and ‘just one more go’ begins to set in. For players who make the time and fall down that rabbit hole, one of the most engaging and cleverly told narratives of any video game this year is there to be enjoyed.
Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time
Toys For Bob, Playstation 4
Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, as the double meaning in the title playfully implies, has been a long time coming. The Crash series was a mainstay of the original Playstation console in the Nineties and was both a critical and commercial hit. At the height of the series’ popularity, for a brief moment in time, the Crash games were genuinely as popular as their Super Mario Bros counterparts.
Crash 4 makes a very positive first impression. It goes without saying that this is the best the series has ever looked. The art style is eye-catching and smartly constructed; the cut-scenes vividly bring the series to life like an interactive Saturday morning cartoon. It’s the most elaborate storytelling that the series has ever had but its still short, sharp and punchy and gets you right into the action. Crash and Coco are tasked with collecting Quantum masks in a time travelling adventure that sees them form alliances with old acquaintances and even some old foes.
Once players get their hands on Crash and begin navigating the first level, there’s a sense of relief that the controls feel tight, responsive and instantly familiar. As the game unfolds, the player begins to acquire new Quantum masks that each add a fresh wrinkle to the gameplay – the ability to soar over long distances, flipping gravity upside down, slowing down time and teleporting objects in and out. The later levels mix and match a variety of these unique effects making the game more complicated and demanding than any previous Crash.
Crash 4 is a challenging game. Maybe more challenging than some fans might expect. The last level was an utter bastard and took me over a 100 lives to finish. But despite the difficulty in the pointy end of the game, its still stands tall as one of the best platform games in recent memory.
Super Mario 3D All Stars
Nintendo, Nintendo Switch
Nintendo marked the 35th anniversary of Mario with this highly anticipated compilation of some of his most famous 3D games – Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy. Sunshine and Galaxy in particular, have not been easily accessible for players since they launched on their original consoles (both over a decade ago).
I suspect covid may have impacted the development of this title and perhaps stripped away any extra content that may have been planned for the anthology (you can listen to the soundtrack as a bonus feature and nothing else) but honestly, its just a pleasure to have a copy of the seminal Super Mario Galaxy running in HD on a modern console.
It’s a bit weird to use the touch screen as a surrogate for the motion controls from the original game but you get used to it. More importantly, its a relief to find that after thirteen years, this game still absolutely R U L E S. The planet hopping gameplay remains an absolute treat, the soundtrack is still magical (Gusty Garden is king) and when the challenge begins to ramp up in the later stages, it feels immensely satisfying to work your way through some of the most cleverly designed 3d platforming levels of any game in the genre.
Ghosts of Tsushima
Sucker Punch Productions, Playstation 4
Ghosts of Tsushima is a finely tuned and thoroughly enjoyable open world adventure game. Most importantly, I think it absolutely delivers on the power fantasy of being a soft spoken samurai bad-ass who wrecks anyone who gets in his way. Like a lot of games of its ilk (Horizon, God of War etc), the game has light RPG mechanics where you trade experience points for new attacks and abilities. It doesn’t take long for you to become a one man wrecking crew, slashing fools in half with your blade and taking down a dozen bandits in a single barrage with your katana.
The game is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Whether you’re running through picturesque bamboo forests on horseback, scaling snow-covered mountain peaks or exploring sprawling Japanese villages, Sucker Punch makes every locale looks an absolute picture.
The gameplay mechanics, although largely derivative of many games before it, are smartly put together in this package. There are multiple fighting styles to discover, weapons to craft, outfits to unlock, hidden locations to discover, side quests and characters to explore and a non-intrusive minimalist UI that communicates all this information to you.
This is it. If you ever wanted a sprawling, open world samurai adventure that looks like a million bucks, Ghosts of Tsushima is that game.
A Short Hike
adamgryu, Nintendo Switch
I think every single other game on this top ten list requires a commit of time. Hades, Animal Crossing, Yakuza, Final Fantasy, Assassin’s Creed…they all require something in the ballpark of 40-80 hours to get the full experience. A Short Hike lives up to its name. This charming indie title can be completed in 1-2 hours and I suspect most people will do it in a single sitting.
Players take on the role of Claire, a bird that visits Hawk Peak Trail. As she talks with other campers and holiday makers, she acquires golden feathers that allow her to fly further and explore more of the mountainside.
A Short Hike has charming ‘Playstation One’ style low-tech polygon visuals. It has a warm, relaxing aesthetic and the dialogue is witty and playful in its tone. The game is exactly as long as it needs to be and doesn’t trade in that brevity for shallowness. The actual mechanics of flying across the mountainside are a pleasure to control and exploring the peaks and hidden nooks of Hawks Peak Trail is fun and rewarding.
Video games in 2020 come in all shapes and sizes and A Short Hike is my favourite snack sized video game of 2020.
Final Fantasy VII: Remake
Square Enix, Playstation 4
I still can’t believe this game is finally out.
Although it didn’t officially enter into development until years later, the first time we got any sort of notion of a Final Fantasy VII remake with modern graphics was when Square made a Final Fantasy VII tech demo for the Playstation 3 in 2005. FIFTEEN YEARS AGO. Now its finally released on the Playstation 4 in 2020.
It’s hard not to talk about anything over than the graphics first and foremost. They look absolutely stunning and anyone with even the faintest bit of nostalgia for the original Playstation One version of Final Fantasy VII will be delighted when the game recreates that memorable intro cutscene on the train line as the Avalanche freedom fighters storm the Shinra corporation to blow up one of their reactors. The art design, the soundtrack and the stunning fidelity of the visuals make for a jaw-dropping spectacle. We get that same terrific camera swoop over the bustling Midgar metropolis, only this time the detail is increased a hundred-fold.
The original game released in 1997 and thematically, it’s stunning that its ideas are more relevant today than they were over two decades ago. Most big budget modern games tend to stay away from politically charged subject matter but in Final Fantasy VII, the heroes are unashamedly eco-terrorists fighting a mega-corporation that is polluting the Earth and ignoring all signs that they are mining natural resources to the point of oblivion. One of the game’s biggest villains is a billionaire CEO who despises the working class. During a firefight between the Avalanche freedom fighters and the private security firm that defends Shinra, one of the allies calls the corporation a “bunch of fascist pricks”. Topically, its the most relevant and interesting that Final Fantasy has ever been.
The story line initially follows the original game quite closely but does an excellent job adding depth and colour to the motivations of the main cast (Aerith in particular benefits from this) and the supporting cast of Avalanche characters – Biggs, Wedge and Jessie – are suddenly given so much more charm and detail that they threaten to steal the show at times.
The final act of the game goes ‘full anime’ and is bigger, crazier and wilder than anything we saw in the original game. It finishes on a high note that will leave fans desperate for the next chapter to arrive, whenever that may be. I’m so glad that after such a long wait, Final Fantasy VII Remake was such a success.
Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla
Ubisoft, Xbox Series X
I have played eight Assassin’s Creed games and finished none of them.
I always start off with good intentions that this will be the Creed game that I see through to the finish. The earlier games (1 and 3 in particular) I ended up bouncing off because of the repetitive game mechanics and unengaging protagonist.
I gave the series a wide berth and skipped Syndicate, Unity and a handful of others before jumping back in with the recent releases which have transformed the game into an action-rpg with levelling, crafting, looting and character customization. I really enjoyed Origins and Odyssey. The story-telling, world-building and play mechanics are all reaching a level of polish and finesse that finally match the ambitious and scope that the earlier games hinted at.
Valhalla is the latest chapter in the series and this time we play as the viking warrior Eivor during the Nordic invasion of Britain in AD 873.
Thanks to Halo Infinite’s unexpected delay at the launch of the Xbox Series X, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has become a go-to “launch game” for a lot of new Xbox owners. The game looks very polished, runs at a smooth 4k/60fps and is easy on the eye with its warm, colourful palette portraying 9th century Britain.
Ubisoft have largely kept the new rpg-lite features that were added in Origins and Odyssey but taken on-board some player feedback and streamlined the acquisition of new weapons (you’ll no longer end up carrying a dozen functionally identical spears) and removed the level scaling with enemies. It’s also pleasing to see that the ability to choose a male or female protagonist will be the standard going forward.
Assassins Creed Valhalla is not a radical reinvention of the series but this longstanding franchise continues to make positive strides with each new instalment, with meaningful tweaks and changes to the play mechanics that show a good understanding and engagement with the wants of its player base. It wasn’t the next gen launch game I expected to have a few months ago, but I’m very happy with what I got.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon
Sega, Xbox Series X
Where did Sega go after retiring Kazuma Kiryu in his seventh chapter of the popular, long-runing Yakuza series? They flipped the script entirely by introducing a new protagonist Ichiban who has almost the complete opposite personality of Kazuma (Ichiban is funny, silly and inexperienced) and they confounded expectations even further by moving away from the beat ’em brawler gameplay and transforming the series into a turn based RPG. “Like A Dragon” is an explicit reference to Ichiban’s love of Dragon Quest games, the most famous of Japanese turn-based RPGs.
The switch to RPG mechanics is a breath of fresh air for the series. Arguably the weakest aspect of the Yakuza games was the repetitive nature of the brawling. Its a lot more engaging to have a party based combat system that gives players depth of choice by including character classes and teamwork attacks. It also has all the quality of life improvements that modern RPGs have like auto-battling to make the grinding faster and more efficient against lesser foes.
Everything else about Yakuza: Like A Dragon is solid gold as fans of the series have come to expect. The fearless storytelling explores subjects rarely covered in video games including the plight of homelessness, wealth inequality and the right to safe work and dignity for sex workers. A staple of Yakuza games is that somehow it threads the needle of mixing melodrama, goofy comedy and serious social commentary all in the one package.
Like A Dragon also has TWENTY FOUR minigames including kart racing, a business management sim and mahjong. You can also visit the arcades and play the full versions of classic SEGA arcade games such as Outrun 2 and Virtua Fighter 2.
I’ve been championing this series for years now. There are so many other open-world games that are bigger, have a higher profile and far better graphics. But I’d still take the Yakuza series over most of its contemporaries any day of the week. Like A Dragon is up there with Yakuza Zero and Yakuza 6 as amongst the best in the series.
Stardew Valley 1.5 [Nintendo Switch] – Eric Barone continues to expand and improve his masterpiece Stardew Valley and his version 1.5 update is one of the biggest and most meaningful updates yet. Players can now enjoy the game in coop mode, there are substantial new additions to the story mode, a new island and over a dozen new craftable items. It’s not quite a full blown sequel but it should be enough to get lapsed fans to return and gives even more reason for newbies to give this game [rated Game of the Generation by The FAT Website] a try.
Mortal Kombat XI – Netherrealm’s outstanding fighting game got even better in 2020 with the addition of the Aftermath DLC which added even more storyline content to the game (honestly, the single player mode is the best thing in the game) and Fighter Pack 2 included the return of old favourites Mileena and Rain as well as JOHN RAMBO. Finally, they added a brilliant character pack that introduces the likeness and voice acting of Sonya Blade, Raiden (Christopher Lambert!!!) and Johnny Cage from the 1995 movie. This game has an absolute wealth of great content and is clearly a labour of love for the developers. A must for any fan of the Mortal Kombat series.
Spiritfarer [Nintendo Switch] – a gorgeous looking crafting and management sim game where you are the successor to Charon and are tasked with ferrying spirits into the afterlife. I haven’t spent as much time with this game as I would’ve liked but it’s ideal for anyone who enjoyed Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps [Xbox Series X] – the sequel to Ori and the Will of the Wisps is an outstanding, beautifully animated and enjoyable Metroidvania game that had the misfortune of launching within a fortnight of Animal Crossing and didn’t get the attention it deserved.
Grindstone [Nintendo Switch] – I loved Capy’s latest puzzle game Grindstone when it launched on Apple Arcade last year. Hopefully it will continue to find a wider audience as it makes its console debut on the Nintendo Switch. Like all Capy games, it has terrific artwork and addictive ‘just one more go’ gameplay. One of the best new puzzle games in years.
Where do you even start with this one? CD Projekt framed themselves as ‘one of the good guys’ in the game industry but that reputation is in tatters after the disastrous launch of Cyberpunk 2077, a triple A game that was so buggy at launch (especially on Xbox One and Playstation 4 where the majority of players would play it) it feels close to unrivalled in the modern era of gaming. To be honest, everything else surrounding this game sucks too. The edgelord social media account. The exec who said they wouldn’t do crunch. The exec who said the staff did crunch, but enjoyed doing it, then later apologized for making this claim.
The Witcher 3 was a monumental success that appeared to position CD Projekt as one of the most important developers in the world but everything in the last eighteen months has been such a shit show its unclear what the path forward is for this studio. Who could trust them again after this?
The silver lining is that Cyberpunk 2077 was such a disaster that it may force Sony to introduced a proper refund policy for customers and it might also encourage games media to re-examine their policies about game reviews (CD Projekt effectively blocked coverage of the Xbox One/PS4 versions prior to launch) to ensure players are no longer blindsided like this.
New Console Launches
The increased sophistication of bots overwhelming retailer websites and the massive number of scalpers made getting your hands on a PS5 or an Xbox Series S|X an absolute pain in the ass. It wasn’t impossible but it required a stupid amount of planning and luck. Hopefully it won’t be too far into 2021 before these new consoles can be purchased with minimal effort both instore and online.
The French newspaper Libération published an expose on Ubisoft in 2020 revealing an awful culture of sexual misconduct and workplace bullying that had been supressed by the executive team and HR for over a decade. There were a couple of fall guys in the aftermath but very little about how Ubisoft has handled the affair suggests things have necessarily improved. A gross peak behind the curtain of one of the biggest game makers in the industry.
Best Platform of the Year
In its final year, the Playstation 4 went out with a bang.
The hugely popular system had major exclusive titles all year round such as Final Fantasy VII: Remake, Ghosts of Tsushima, The Last of Us Part Two and Iron Man VR. There are Playstation 4 versions of most of the big holiday season PS5 titles such as Miles Morales and Sackboy’s Adventure and unlike Cyberpunk 2077 they actually run properly (!). If you enjoy online gaming, it nabbed a wildly popular exclusive with Fall Guys too.
It’s also a great time to jump in with the system’s impressive back catalogue of the past seven years with many classic titles such as God of War and Horizon Zero Dawn available for just a handful of bucks.
A fitting swan song for one of the industry’s best ever consoles. It’ll be interesting to see what changes next year: Sony will be unlikely to rest on their laurels as the Nintendo Switch has been the most popular console of the last two years and Microsoft made major waves with its recent acquisition of Bethesda and Obsidian prior to the launch of the next generation of consoles.
Top Ten Video Games of 2019
Game of the Year – Slay the Spire (Nintendo Switch)
Platform of the Year – Playstation 4
Top Ten Video Games of 2018
Game of the Year – Astro Bot: Rescue Mission (Playstation VR)
Platform of the Year – Playstation 4
Top Ten Video Games of 2017
Game of the Year – Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo Switch)
Platform of the Year – Nintendo Switch
Top Ten Video Games of 2016
Game of the Year – Stardew Valley (Playstation 4)
Platform of the Year – Playstation 4
Top Ten Video Games of 2015
Game of the Year – The Witcher 3 (Playstation 4)
Platform of the Year – Playstation 4
Top Ten Video Games of 2014
Game of the Year – Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)
Platform of the Year – Wii U
Top Ten Video Games of 2013
Game of the Year – The Last Of Us (Playstation 3)
Platform of the Year – Playstation 3
Top Ten Video Games of 2012
Game of the Year – The Walking Dead (Xbox 360)
Platform of the Year – Xbox 360
Top Ten Video Games of 2011
Game of the Year – Clash of Heroes: Might and Magic (Xbox 360)
Platform of the Year – Xbox 360
Top Ten Video Games of 2010
Game of the Year – Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360)
Platform of the Year – Xbox 360
Top Ten Video Games of 2009
Game of the Year – Uncharted 2: Amongst Thieves (Playstation 3)
Platform of the Year – Playstation 3