Dec 30, 2018
Evan Rowe’s Top Video Games of 2018
Evan is a friend first and foremost, but last year we became co-workers at our day jobs too. Which, is just the coolest thing. It pleases me greatly he’s now a father (to one h*ckin’ cute kid, I might add). I think it’s safe to say 2018’s been good to him, and to games. And after a hiatus of making a list for 2017, he’s back with a surprising amount of games played this year for a new dad.
Well it sure has been a year, hasn’t it? It’s been a year of adjustments, not the least of which for me has been learning to restructure and re-prioritize my gaming time to be as well optimized as possible, particularly around the need to be able to get as much done in a game as possible in fewer, shorter stints of time. This can often be a challenge in today’s landscape of open-world everything, but it is in fact possible to get quality gaming time in. The main adjustment for me has been learning to curb my exploratory habits and also to be more choosey with my multiplayer time.
As such, you’ll find this list leans heavily toward games which are well suited to a “new dad” gaming lifestyle, but I have probably actually completed more singleplayer experiences this year than usual and for that I’m grateful. Alright, let’s get on with it; in no particular order, here are my top
ten eleven games of 2018.
I bought into Dead Cells in its nascent days of Early Access and really enjoyed what was on offer, even if at the time the game was limited to a few levels. I barely touched it again in the time between its debut on Steam and its full release this year, so much of what had been changed over the years was fresh for me, even if most of the game’s trappings felt familiar. At a time when roguelikes as a genre are fading in popularity (I think?), Dead Cells has managed to keep the action interesting by building variety into the game’s DNA better than many other of its ilk. It also doesn’t hurt that it feels incredibly fun to play with responsive controls, great animations and character movements, and an art style that I really dig. Perfect for short, frantic runs on the bus when played on Switch or longer, more methodical sessions on the PC, Dead Cells is a game that I still keep coming back to many months after release.
Fortnite: Battle Royale
I would be remiss to exclude this game from my top ten if for no reason other than the sheer number of hours I managed to dump into it during the first half of the year. Weary from spending most of 2017 getting my ass handed to me in PUBG, Fortnite’s cartoonish art style, simplified loot system and ever-evolving map and arsenal of weapons kept things feeling fresh for a very long time, even though I did still get wrecked. Over six months or so, I developed a love/dislike relationship with the game. Initially, the idea of building defensive structures appealed to me, enough to offset the irksome bullet spread most of the guns had. Then I got better at building and started winning more fights, until everybody else who had way more time to practice learned to conjure massive towers around me faster than I could process what was happening.
I enjoyed the silliness of the game’s characters, skins, dances, llama piñatas, exploding egg launchers, et cetera, and the release I felt at being able to just goof off and not have to focus as much on tactics and winning; that is, of course, until my competitive nature eventually got the better of me and I started investing more time into playing seriously and finding myself becoming more frustrated. The constant push and pull of my relationship with this game became complicated and eventually, despite so much of what was happening to the game itself being so good, I had to walk away before I ruined it for myself entirely.
Now, after many months of trial separation, I simply watch from afar, admiring the work that goes into the game and all of the fun things that Epic keeps adding each season, wistfully remembering the handful of victories during my time with the game, both hard-earned and accidental.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4
On the subject of multiplayer games and time efficiency, here comes a surprise even to me. I’ve not actually played a Call of Duty title since the original Modern Warfare, and I have never gotten into the online multiplayer of any modern COD game. I always felt/worried that it was too fast, too twitchy, too _not for me_ for me to enjoy. Then the Blackout Beta hit and I got a taste of what a AAA take on Battle Royale could look like and I was ready to dive and wingsuit in on day one. I did have a lot of fun with Blackout mode, and I appreciated the balance it struck between PUBG’s more sim-like mechanics and Fortnite’s almost arcadey take on the genre; it was more fun than I’d had in Battle Royale in some time, if for no reason other than feeling like my shots were actually, blessedly, finally landing where I expected them to.
Ultimately though, it was classic team deathmatch that I wound up spending most of my time with, and really enjoying. I was finally able to understand and appreciate the progression system and the way in which it effectively strings you along with constant new unlocks. And, even though I spent a lot of time being very bad at the game initially, I had a lot of fun as I learned the meta and improved my twitch aiming and shooting skills enough to compete. It was just the right thing for me at the right time, and though I probably fell back off of the game after a month or so, it’s still a great option to fire up when you just need to get in 20-30 minutes of fast-paced action.
Forza Horizon 4
Racing games have long been one of my secret favorite genres, except that I typically only play one racing game every other year because my tastes are narrow. Forza Horizon 4 lives right in the sweet spot between highly technical racing sims like the Dirt series and arcade-style action from Need for Speed and Burnout, providing a world rich with varied challenges and a racing system which can be as technical or loose as you want. This is not terribly surprising considering Playground Games is made up of folks who worked on both of those series in the past. I honestly wasn’t convinced that Horizon 4 would be able to top Horizon 3 in terms of exotic locales, as I really enjoyed the Australia setting and the variety of landscapes it presented, but the recreation of Britain in Horizon 4 is absolutely gorgeous and varied in unexpected ways. The vehicle roster is vast, the progression system has been largely improved and I have been having an absolute blast tearing up the countryside in my souped up STI, blaring my slide whistle horn while sporting the most ridiculous lewk I can manage from my recent pool of unlocks.
Into the Breach
I wouldn’t go so far as to say strategy games are another secret favorite genre for me, but I do enjoy a good one when the conditions are just right. Into the Breach sits much more on the X-COM side of strategy than something like a Civilization game, so it’s the sort of thing that automatically piques my interest. However, the unique spin on turn-based strategic combat combined with small playing fields, important secondary objectives that can change the shape of a battle, and the almost puzzle-like nature of the combat really make this game stand out from the pack. Of all games in this vein to come out over the years, this one has probably scratched the itch for me more than any other, which is a shame because I’ve barely gotten to spend the kind of time with it that I’d like to. Now that it’s finally available on Switch and Mac, it seems like something I’ll be able to get more intimate with in 2019, even if I have only made it off the first island once.
Subnautica is in many ways the game I have wanted (and desperately imagined) since I was nine or ten. There was an old educational game on CD-ROM back in the ancient days of home CD-ROM drives called “Oceans Below” which purported to allow the player to explore a realistic interactive ocean environment in search of treasure and mysterious creatures. You may not be at all surprised to learn that the game fell drastically short of its promise, but it planted a seed of desire in my young mind that would continue to lie dormant for years until the right game came along to satisfy it.
Subnautica is that game I’ve dreamt of since those disappointing CD-ROM sessions, and it delivers in a way far beyond what I could have imagined. It has beautifully rendered aquatic environments and marine life; it has futuristic technology, it lets you build your very own underwater base (in which you can recreate your favorite Sealab 2021 episodes if you feel so inclined). It has shipwrecks to explore, a wide variety of underwater biomes, a constant sense of mystery, and some surprises I won’t dare to spoil here except to say that this game elicited more audible gasps and moments of sheer wonder and giddiness in me than any single game has from me in many years.
If you’re even remotely into survival, exploration and building games, I cannot recommend Subnautica enough. It is the real deal, and you will not be disappointed.
Return of the Obra Dinn
That sound? That’s my sigh of relief having decided to finally buy Obra Dinn last week and realizing that I nearly missed one of the best games of the year. I seriously was this close to sleeping on it and that would have been _such_ a mistake. If you’ve not yet played Obra Dinn, consider me your Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come; you yet may change these shadows I have shown you!
Return of the Obra Dinn plays a lot of very clever, well-conceived tricks to worm its way into your brain. If you’ve been gaming on a PC since the 80s or 90s, the game’s visuals will call out to you like the spirit of a forgotten time, beckoning you back to the adventure games of your formative years. The music is masterfully composed, percussive and is as vital to the game as any of its characters or mechanics. It is a mystery shrouded in further mystery, in layers that become greater in number and complexity as you work further through the story. You come to care about the characters, and you are very quickly personally invested in understanding what happened to the crew of the Obra Dinn. You will obsess about their fates while away from the game, constantly turning over details in your head as you try to piece together the identity of that poor sod who was blown to bits by an errant cannon.
If you have ever loved video games; if you have ever loved mysteries; if you have ever loved tales from the sea, you owe it to yourself to play Return of the Obra Dinn.
Hollow Knight (Switch)
Wow. I barely know where to begin with Hollow Knight. I love a good “Metroidvania” (“Action Exploration?”) game, and can easily lose myself in them when the formula is well composed. Add in an incredible score, beautiful hand-drawn artwork, responsive and intuitive controls, a difficulty curve reminiscent of the Souls games, a world shrouded in mystery, and a stellar ability tree and you have yourself one of the best, if not THE best, entries the genre has ever seen. Hollow Knight rivals Symphony of the Night in its execution and surpasses it in many ways. Hallownest is a grim world, permeated, populated and in some cases wholly constructed by death. It is an expansive, macabre kingdom which you must explore at increasing risk to yourself despite your own flourishing power. The deeper you go, the darker, more disgusting, more eerie and unsettling it becomes.
In kind, the further forward you persist, the more capable you become as a character and a player, such that throughout the game there remains an important balance between challenge and ability. This balance is a big part of what keeps the game fun and interesting even as you encounter tougher enemies and bosses; no challenge ever feels insurmountable, no foe too great to be felled. This, combined with the game’s abundance of things to do and places to go renders it borderline addictive; even if you’re stuck on a boss, you can always take a break and go check out one of those other areas you haven’t explored yet and come back later, or go after that upgrade you’ve been chasing, or work on finding more of those little slug friends.
Hollow Knight is a contemporary classic which I have no doubt will live on as one of the greats of this era, and if you’re up for a challenge you would do well to try your own journey into Hallownest.
I knew Celeste was the kind of game I’d struggle to put aside until I had finished it from the first ten seconds of game footage I saw. I am a sucker for pixel art when it’s done well, I’m a sucker for cutesy stuff when it’s not layered on too thick, I’m definitely a sucker for a really good soundtrack, and I am a sucker for ~brutal~ highly challenging platforming with precision controls. Celeste nails all of these things and so much more in a way that feels almost effortless, which is a testament to the work put in by Matt Thorson, Noel Berry, Lena Raine, and the rest of the team who helped bring this gem to life.
Celeste is one of those rare titles that picks a genre, focuses on some solid core mechanics, builds on those mechanics as the game unfolds to create a really enjoyable experience, and then somehow weaves in an astonishing degree of artistic value on multiple levels. Games like this come along only once every few years, and even when they do appear, few are able to execute on a well-written story, let alone one with actual, real-world importance. From a gameplay perspective, Celeste is in par with Mario in its flawless execution of its ideas, its ability to teach the player seamlessly and help them build on those skills as they progress. From a story perspective, I am hard pressed to think of any game which has so masterfully intertwined its themes with its gameplay AND the experience of the player. Mount Celeste as a metaphor for Madeline’s struggle to cope with her inner demons and the player’s struggle to conquer their own journey is so good that it feels obvious, even easy, except that to make it work this well requires a deft touch.
If there were ever a game to make you truly root for its characters and become invested in their journey, Celeste is that game. It still resonates with me nearly a year after playing it and I look forward to making my own annual trip back to Mount Celeste to experience it all over again. Maybe next time I’ll even tackle all of the B-Sides.
Everybody loves Raccoons, even if they say they hate raccoons. Raccoons are hilarious, lovable scamps who we all know are jerks but can’t get enough of. There’s something almost charming about them, despite the fact that they literally eat garbage. What disgusting little rascals.
Donut County is a game about raccoons. It’s also a game about holes, and making those holes bigger, and using those holes to swallow up everything in sight in the pursuit of amassing as much _stuff_ as you can. Did I mention you play as a raccoon? His name is BK and he is a certified a-hole who is completely in love with himself and cares more about getting his paws on a new quad-copter than the safety of his own friends. So obviously that’s a very relatable experience for most people, I think.
I love Donut County for so many reasons. The art and character design is a lovely, contemporary take on single-shaded polygon art that gives the game a whimsical, cartoonish vibe which is further exaggerated by the interactions of the characters and the actions you carry out in the game itself. The writing is clever, quippy, and sardonic, full of jokes which land well and often. The act of driving your hole (the titular “donut”) around the screen and swallowing up items like some kind of reverse katamari is weirdly satisfying and even relaxing, bordering on therapeutic. And then there’s Trash-o-pedia, the in-game encyclopedia of every single item your donut devours; I almost had more fun reading every item entry at the end of each level than I did playing the rest of the game; I probably laughed harder at some of the descriptions than anything else.
Finally, you can complete Donut County in one sitting; clocking in somewhere between two and four hours, it’s the perfect game to sit down with and play from start to finish on a rainy afternoon or a plane flight, and it’s available on every platform imaginable so there’s little reason not to pounce on this.
Have a Garbage Day!
I raved about Hitman in 2016. It was hands down my favorite gaming experience of that year. Imagine my delight, then, when IO Interactive announced Hitman 2 earlier this year despite going through an unexpected and challenging break-up with its former parent company and publisher, Square Enix. To say that I was excited was an understatement.
So here we are in 2018, with a follow-up entry to an instant classic that sports improved tech, an all-new set of locales, the ability to import _all of the previous game’s content_, and an extra layer of polish to give the player the utmost edge in the world of assassination. And let me tell y’all, it’s really damn good.
Hitman 2 leans into the absurdity and cheekiness of the previous game, once again walking the tightrope of self-seriousness intermixed with preposterous scenarios that are only remotely conceivable because you’ve already bought into the idea of a notorious, master-of-disguise international assassin who needs only to don a chef’s hat or a clown wig to fool the entire room of people he just ran through dressed as a priest while brandishing a ceremonial knife from the renaissance.
The game takes the promise of Hitman 2016 (which was largely already fulfilled) and manages to take it further, potentially to its apex, by layering on loads of quality of life improvements and refinements to the game, new even more extravagant locations, a set of levels that is more consistent even than those from Hitman in their quality, and new multiplayer modes which are incredibly fun. Honestly my only quibble with Hitman 2 is that it probably doesn’t get the recognition it deserves because its predecessor was so great. To say that “Hitman 2 is more Hitman, but better” is high praise, and is very accurate, but it ends up being largely reductive in a way that doesn’t do justice to how much fun and how well executed the game is.
Did I mention that Hitman 2’s first Elusive Target was Sean Bean? What an incredibly good joke. Despite completing the mission, I’m not convinced he won’t turn up again. He gets right up in your face (in character) and asks you how you would take him out! BRILLIANT.
Monster Hunter: World
I have tried Monster Hunter games many times. Each time I have concluded after about two hours, “this seems like something I’d really enjoy if I dropped everything else I was playing and was able to dump 4-6 hours into it every day.” World felt like the first entry that I could actually realistically jump into, except that the timing of the PC release was awkward with respect to other games in my life and events in my life at the time, and so I’ve only completed the tutorial. I am hopeful to get a chance to dig into it next year at some point, although the time investment it demands may prohibit me from doing anything more than chipping away at it over time.
Rainbow Six: Siege
Every single year I find my way back to this game. The more time that goes by, the better the game gets as the team at Ubisoft continues to tweak and refine the systems to make it the best version of itself that it can be, all the while releasing more maps, more operators, and adding more polish. I am finding my way back to the game again right now just in time for the Year 4 content, but haven’t spent enough time for it to make it back to the top ten. I would not be surprised to see it on my list for 2019, though. If you’ve somehow never played this game, or haven’t played for a few years, do yourself a favor and pick it up while it’s on sale for the holiday season.
Red Dead Redemption 2
I could easily write a very long think-piece about this game and all of the conflicted feelings I have about it, but that’s already been done by people far more qualified than me, and I admittedly have only spent about eight hours with the game so far, so I’m not going to go there. Instead, I’ll say this. I loved the first game and wrung every ounce of content possible out of it. I have had high expectations for Red Dead 2, and in many ways I am absolutely blown away by it. I am simultaneously intimidated by its sheer scope and mildly irritated by its plodding pace. I want very badly to lose myself in this game and in the world for a few weeks, because there is so much promise in what I’ve seen thus far. The reality though is that I’ve only played for a relatively short stint of time and haven’t been back to it since my initial marathon session because I am still trying to build up some motivation to jump back in for another go. I’ll get there eventually, but I think the main issue has just been that when the opportunity to play arises, there are other things I’d rather do with my time. I don’t know if that’s more of a commentary on the game, my gaming preferences today, or some combination of the two, but it definitely says something; perhaps you’re in a better position to determine exactly what that something is.
I did indeed write a glowing review of this game. I really, really liked it. It probably is sitting at Number 11 on this list, or maybe it’s tied for Number 10. This game does a lot of things really well and personally I found the major twist to be a really fun and interesting decision, even if it was somewhat obvious in hindsight. The gameplay is fun throughout, despite the final third becoming a bit too weighed down with backtracking and not quite generous enough fast travel. This is largely saved for me at least by The Shopkeeper and the game’s music, and I am really looking forward to revisiting the world of The Messenger when the DLC comes out. I hope they throw in some new tricks, but honestly just spending another few hours as a ridiculously nimble and capable ninja will be well worth the price of admission, as it was for the base game.