Last year I recapped a year of gaming that I felt was one of the absolute best and a vitally important one for the industry as whole. Comparing it to 1998 when a litany of new franchises and gaming innovations spawned, I found 2018 to be the hangover I was dreading after celebrating a bit too much in 2017. While 2018 was no slouch by any means with the global financial and cultural impact that was, still is, and will be for years to come, Epic Games’ Fortnite, this year is a lesson to gamers about the importance of replay value and originality that I hope to see improved in 2019.
Now I would hope these words aren’t taken the wrong way. Rather it be seen as the beginning of a dialogue as we head into another year of maturation in the esports industry and the video game community as a whole. Notably missing from this list are games that continue to sell successfully, yet offer nothing at all new, outside of really big budgets and 4K graphical pornography. Titles we won’t be discussing on this Top 10 list are Call of Duty: Black Ops IIII, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, Far Cry 5, Tomb Raider, Pokemon Let’s Go, every ‘19 sports title, and Monster Hunter: World. Sorry, not sorry.
#10 - Florence (Android, iOS)
Far from your traditional video game, this interactive story makes the list because of the power of gamification and what the future has in store for us. More than just a medium to tell a story, video games like this one prove their ability to inspire and teach. In a span of 30 minutes with an asking price of only $1.99 you find yourself enjoying simple puzzles and silly touch-screen play mechanics that capture the moments of day-to-day life, personal relationships, and a journey to self-discovery. This application of video game mechanics supported by a superb soundtrack makes Florence a shining example of the evolvement of the video game industry as it stretches its limbs in the mobile markets. I’m looking forward to more complex themes being explored by more software development teams with the effectiveness of Florence. With so many of us self-proclaimed “gamers” enjoying our hobby as a form of therapy it won’t be long before the rest of the world enjoys that same therapeutic power. Tip of the hat to Jane McGonigal for her ideas in the book SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully that clearly resonated with this title and others to come later in this list.
#9 - Shadow of the Colossus (PS4)
When a game gets the HD treatment from PS2 to PS3, only to go through another upgrade rebuilt from the ground up for the PS4, it should come as no surprise Shadow of the Colossus is not your average video game title. Whether you’ve played the original or not, the latest version of Shadow of the Colossus is not to be missed. While I had some choice words about big budget makeovers earlier, the experience of Shadow of the Colossus has only improved as you take on the role of Wander without the limitations of earlier generation Playstation hardware. The improved sound and vibrant visuals only give the Colossi and the world around them that much more life. As this Shakespearean-like tragedy unfolds, the power of our actions only sting more and the many levels of emotion hidden away in a 13 year old game ring ever more clear (Artax had nothing on Agro). A story left entirely to the player’s interpretation, controls that are far from precise, and the sense that your character isn’t particularly up to to the challenges ahead, make this action/puzzle/platformer title the masterpiece that lands it on a Top 10 list every time it’s re-released. Say it with me, “Rosebud.”
#8 - Soul Calibur VI (PS4, Xbox One, PC)
2018 has a laundry list of quality new fighters with notable additions like Dragonball FighterZ, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st] (trust me, it’s a thing), Fighting EX Layer, BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle, Lethal League Blaze, and of course Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (not yet released at the time of this writing) to make this a year to remember for the most passionate of gamers, the fighting game community. With all that said, the one that hit me in the feels the most, was Namco Bandai’s weapon clashing fighter, Soul Calibur VI. Creeping up quickly on my time spent on Tekken 7 (welcome back Lei Wulong) and further distancing myself from Street Fighter V (never thought that day would come), Soul Calibur VI went back to its roots and we’re all the better for it. The freedom of movement with the 8-Way Run, the core character roster bringing old favorites back to life with new flashiness by way of Soul Charge and Critical Edge attacks only to add the new defensive options of Reversal Edge to my favorite parry system Guard Impact makes Soul Calibur VI a video game that gives players the ability to truly express themselves. And that’s not including the Character Creation mode. Now if we could just convince the Project Soul team to add the Khan Super Session soundtrack as future DLC.
#7 - Return of the Obra Dinn (PC, Mac)
Earlier in the year, the team behind FTL released Into the Breach and with the amount of replay value FTL had, I knew Into the Breach was going to land a spot on my Top 10 list of 2018. That was until Lucas Pope, the solo programmer who created Papers, Please released Return of the Obra Dinn. Suddenly the excitement of battling building-sized bug monsters with Mechs was quickly tossed aside for the sheer thrill and excitement of playing as an investigator for an insurance company... Seriously. Comparisons to the original Myst or Her Story might be the easiest way to describe this murder mystery title but I saw it more as the evolution of the jigsaw puzzle some five hours into the game. No one is here to hold your hand. All that is required of you is patience, deduction, and persistence, in uncovering the mystery of the doomed ship and its crew of 60. And suddenly my preaching about replay value gets thrown overboard and replaced with that of a once-in-a-lifetime moment you’ll recount forever.
#6 - God of War (PS4)
Boy, oh boy. Short attention span review time. If you’re a parent and you have a PS4 you are required to play this game with your child and the subsequent God of War sequels upon their release. A technological marvel of a video game (Load times? What load times?) combining a solid battle system, beautiful set pieces, the right touch of fan service, and the lone wolf and cub motif that I personally romanticize in my own life and you’ve got one of the best titles of the year.
#5 - Spider-Man (PS4)
Take everything you loved and might’ve hated about the Batman: Arkham series and sprinkle in the best web-swinging game mechanic developed for a video game and you have a Top 5 video game title of the year. Fact is, the enjoyment of the core mechanics of Spider-Man all but guarantees you will complete every single objective, side-mission, and collectible simply because acrobatically swinging in between the exhilarating New York City environment performing SSX:Tricky combos is part of the process. And the level of immersion is taken to new heights with amazing voice actor work and written dialogue that takes the Spider-Man mythos to a more modern and palatable world. It’s a real testament to the development team at Insomniac Games that what small issues do show themselves during the 20+ hours of gameplay aren’t enough to justify in the writing of a sentence. Enjoy this for what it is. The best comic book superhero video game made to date and a fitting tribute to the late, great Stan Lee. Excelsior!
#4 - Red Dead Redemption 2 (PS4, Xbox One)
Also known as Grand Theft Auto: The Magnificent Seven Edition. We can always expect to see quality and an ever growing attention to detail in the worlds that Rockstar Games creates and RDR2 doesn’t fail to live up to the hype. Where so many other publishers churn out reboot, sequel, and soulless rehash, the amount of time (and money spent) Rockstar Games takes to create new worlds showcase a real vision by the development team. This is not the only open-world sandbox game to be released in 2018 but it sure is the most vibrant, most alive, and most detailed one to date. While graphically, I can’t say there’s a better looking game out today, what had me most excited was the sound. This is clearly a game to showcase your surround sound system and another example of just how far video games have come in terms of immersion. You can hear the faintest environmental vibrations like raindrops hitting the ground versus how it hits a lake, all the while hearing the exertion of your horse dredging through the mud or lumbering on hardened ground, as the bass rumbling explosions of gun-fire pierce the serenity of the landscape. One complaint is the voice acting levels don’t seem properly mixed at times, but that’s the audiophile in me and I’m sure it’ll be overlooked by most. While the story is par for the course with bad guys searching for, wait for it, redemption, there’s just so much to do in this game the story becomes less important when all you want to do is explore every inch of this majestic world (regardless of sometimes clunky controls) while maintaining your honor system as best you can knowing full well what happens in the end if you played Red Dead Redemption nearly 8 years ago. Fact is, the longer you take to complete this game, the longer it takes to start exploring the online component of RDR2 (currently in Beta form) and considering GTAV brought in over $1B in microtransactions, I’ll get my money’s worth simply playing cards and dominoes while having a drink at the saloon.
#3 - Celeste (PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac)
It’s safe to say we’ve all dealt with anxiety and depression in some form in our lives. Recently, it’s become clear that mental health is something that requires more discussion in our society and for me, until Episode 6 of Bojack Horseman’s fourth season, an honest depiction of depression was never properly expressed to those of us who weren’t necessarily looking for one. Which brings us to Celeste. First thing to make terribly clear, what makes this game so impactful is the sum of all its parts. Tight controls and solid level design. Unforgiving difficulty yet achievable goals. A beautiful art style and a world begging to be explored. All wrapped up with characters you care about while lost in what I consider the best soundtrack of the year by Lena Raine. So with that out of the way, let’s talk about the delivery of the message of this video game. Again… the message in a video game. Similar to what made Florence worthy of a spot on our Top 10, to see a video game present to the player the struggles of anxiety and depression that wasn’t heavy-handed or preachy in and of itself is commendable. But what made it work was how the team at Matt Makes Games respected the intelligence of the player and made it resonate subtly as you try to conquer the mountain ahead of you. When you find the replay value of a game not only from the need of a high score or a hidden secret to be claimed, but to remind you that dealing with mental health is to continuously work on it, that it’s not to be beaten in one sitting, is to value the medium of video games like never before.
#2 - Dead Cells (PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac)
I like my videogames like i like my beats. Harder than two day old shit (RIP Phife). And that’s why Dead Cells, an indie title by French game developer Motion Twin, has seen 70 hours of game time invested on my Steam account. While it’s easy to classify the game as a rogue-lite Metroidvania, I like to view it as the evolution of the side scrolling beat ‘em up. It’s all about the combat, folks. Essentially a 2D pixel-art retro Dark Souls inspired platformer with the forgiveness of an 80’s arcade cabinet on the highest difficulty level, Dead Cells is everything I want in a video game experience. No excuses, just git gud. Fast twitch response gaming that doesn't rely so much on pattern memorization as it does picking up a variety of bad-ass weaponry (think swords, axes, daggers, whips, the Dark Side Force bolts, Sub-Zero’s Ice Blasts, or Ken’s fireballs to name a few) and flying around various terrain like Naruto firing off arrows from your Infantry Bow (whose “Thwack!” sound is so satisfying (another title with amazing sound design)) or parrying an attack with a well timed Shield strike, only to find yourself dead by your reckless behavior and starting it all back up again from the very beginning. And I love every minute of it. Or in this instance about 4,200 minutes of it.
#1 - Fortnite (PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac, Android, iOS)
Last year I crowned PUBG the king of the Battle Royale video game category. H1Z1 was on its way out. Every PC game was working on a BR mod. The rumors were already circulating on Reddit that Call of Duty was developing their own version of it, and most hardcore gamers scoffed at Fortnite while Twitch stars Shroud and Dr. Disrespect brought in huge numbers playing PUBG. But as the saying goes, “Pioneers get the arrows. The settlers get the land.”
Fortnite: Battle Royale was released September 26, 2017. Fortnite: Battle Royale became the most important video game of this year and possibly this generation in March 2018. And this isn’t just the Drake phenomenon. This isn’t just Twitch personalities so many of us now follow. Or just YouTube’s millions upon millions of views by new content creators or even that time elrubiusOMG streamed his own event clocking in over 1.1M concurrent viewers. This isn’t just professional athletes playing a video game on the jumbotron in their home stadium during practice or a pro baseball player getting put on the injury report because of a video game related wrist ailment. This isn’t just huge payouts for competitive gaming (note: not esports) popping up everywhere. This isn’t just the NFL cross-promoting a video game that wasn’t by EA Sports and this isn’t just Ninja invited to be a guest on the most popular daytime talk show in its 15th season.
The Fortnite phenomenon was a combination of all these factors along with the ingenious approach to gaming that DOTA fans can hang their hat on: The free-to-play business model. But Epic Games took it a step further. The creation of new and exciting seasonal content along with a devil-may-care attitude that promotes risk-taking. The Mad Titan, Thanos fresh off the heels of a $2B blockbuster movie in a first-person shooter? Get out of here, that's dumb. Riding shopping carts down mountains and off ramps? Stop already, it’s not helping the core gameplay. Mysterious comets and asteroids entering the atmosphere? Silly cosmetics, nothing more. A new season event where a mystery rocket ship takes off? Childish fan-fiction nonsense. An alien cube exploding on a Sunday afternoon in November which created rifts in the game universe while every single player stopped exactly what they’re doing to find themselves magically transported to some time/space continuum where a butterfly teleported them back into a new map only to drop their controller and run out to share their excitement to their friends and family? Well, wow. That’s actually really cool.
See, I remember how much a game like Street Fighter impacted me when I was young and how I would continue to play each new iteration for the next 30 years. I remember my first major competitive gaming event back in 2005 at Green Valley Ranch in Las Vegas in a room of a few hundred people who loved the same game I did. I remember how many times I told people about EVO event #37 and how it inspired me to build a gaming community in DTLV. And I also remember how people outside of gaming didn’t understand what made those elements of gaming special to me. Now we have a video game franchise like Fortnite and a mainstream audience that’s actually receptive to that message. We’ve still got a way to go, but audiences are finally starting to listen and gamers have more outlets than ever before. And that’s why every single award that Fortnite wins this year is well deserved and all the kids should dance like nobody’s watching (especially if it’s the Intensity emote)!