Dec 31, 2020
Scott Ellison II’s Top 10 Games of 2020
I was going to make this the “Top 20 Games of 2020” list, to do a cutesy ’20 for 20′ kind of thing. While that wasn’t a bad idea, and there was more than enough games I would have no problem including, it just felt like cheating. Half the fun of doing these each year is really narrowing down the games that were not only good, but ones I had a deeper connection with while playing. In a year like no other, I’ve determined what are my top 10 games of 2020 that meant.
I think there are too many games that release each year where I have to at least mention what makes them special, even if they didn’t land within my top 10. So first, here’s five standouts still worth honoring for the year:
ASTRO’s PLAYROOM – This is the “pack-in” game for the PlayStation 5, in the past these kind of games were referred to as the “throwaway” game, but Astro’s Playroom shouldn’t be treated as such. If you didn’t buy any new games for the console, this is the way to kickoff your experience with the new generation. This is a fun platformer with awesome ideas, and lots of replayability through collectibles and speedrunning promise as reasons to return. It’s no doubt a showcase for the PlayStation 5’s DualSense controller, which uses the new haptic triggers to great effect. The visuals and sound are no slouch, but this game is made for the controller first and foremost. And Astro’s Playroom should not be overlooked, and should be the first thing you play when you boot up your PS5.
Gears Tactics – I wasn’t sure this was going to work for a series so action focused, and I’ve never been happier to be wrong. Turn-based tactics is fitting, and the realization that this is really just a slowed down version of the thoughts that go through your mind when in combat playing the mainline series. The game foregoes the XCOM-style of base building and management, and does what Gears does best: tense firefights behind waist-high cover. The tight, linear story shows how certain characters meet or become involved in the universe. It then becomes a great payoff whether you go on to play, or have played Gears of War 4 and Gears 5. The repeating mission types were shared across main and side missions, making it the most disappointing aspect. I loved equipping new items and mods on my characters. And it was just a great companion to the Gears experience I didn’t know I wanted.
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War – Normally Call of Duty gets a numbered spot, but this year it didn’t quite make it. I’m a fan of the Cold War era as a whole, as I grew up during the 80s, which was both the height and end of it. So everything from the setting to the soundtrack is right up my alley. I loved the campaign, and it really changed things up, whether the decisions I made were material or not, went a long way. I’m still playing this year’s entry a lot, thanks to the added Nuketown ’84 map and the Combined Arms modes. As of now, there’s overlap with the progression of Warzone, so it should be a perfect marriage. But I absolutely hate the zombies mode. I still think that Modern Warfare is the better game, at least for the time being. There’s some growing pains right now, but I still think it’s worth playing — especially now that this game is the start of unifying the universes between Treyarch and Infinity Ward.
BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION – THE BROTHERHOOD as they would come to be known, began as developers Chris and Nicolas Bischoff. They released STASIS, an isometric horror adventure game to great praise. Their next fully-fledged project with BEAUTIFUL DESOLATION would be in development for years, and very little of it was shown up until its release. This was to its benefit, because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. It’s a different kind of a post apocalypse, set in South Africa with its voice actors bearing the accent for authenticity. It’s a gorgeous and weird world to explore, largely in non-combat scenarios (save for the arena to take part in). The traversal is probably the best aspects of the game as you’re flying around. And it’s a game where you’re never bogged down by its puzzles. It’s well worth the near 50 hours it takes to see it all. It evokes high-concept 90s-era adventure games in all the right ways, and just nails it.
Wildfire – The debut game from Sneaky Bastards is nothing short of impressive. It’s a game of systems built upon systems, and elemental mechanics used to manipulate your environment. As you can’t take direction action against your foes, you’ll have to think creatively to kill, get past, or overcome the obstacles set before you. The way the game introduces you to new elements and abilities, and how you can work to upgrade them over time is a natural progression you don’t even realize is happening. Returning to earlier levels with new powers gives them new life to wreak havoc. If open-world games are sandboxes to play in, you’ve got a whole beach with Wildfire.
inXile Entertainment have learned a lot from the first two games, especially the twenty years of development alone between the first and second game in this series. But they heard the complaints with Wasteland 2, and really made Wasteland 3 something unique and special. Most notably the visuals, which looks really good and contemporary. Taking place in the state I call home, Colorado’s winters can be brutal, and are a great setting for the post-apocalypse of the Wasteland series. The Desert Rangers are on the move, and have answered a call in Colorado. What ensues is re-establishing order in a chaotic and lawless Colorado where family rivalries have gone too far. Everything about the game is more enjoyable than its predecessor, whether you’re playing as premade characters or creating your own, Wasteland 3 sticks close to its classic RPG roots. You can select perks and quirks, with quirks being debuffs for your character that can make the game more challenging or incredibly funny. inXile Entertainment breathes new life into the series with a very different locale that feels as good as looks, and plays even better.
I don’t know how I got it in my head that this game would be like the multiplayer game Depth, but I did. So when I finally realized this shark game was only singleplayer, I got really excited for it. Maneater is a self-described “shaRkPG” whereby you’ll eat and consume all indiscriminate forms of prey to grow and evolve. Playing as a young shark, separated from its mother and left to seek revenge on the reality TV star that killed her. What I can only describe as the shortest and most satisfying open-world game, Maneater is a perfect package. In just over ten hours, I was able to collect every collectible, complete every mission, and upgrade my shark to the fullest. By the end, I was equipping shark mods that enhanced certain abilities that matched my playstyle. When it was over, I actually wanted more, and still do. The constant narration from Chris Parnell was never grating or bothersome, and always entertaining. It’s actually kind of shocking how Tripwire Interactive did this game so right, and other open-world games get so much of this wrong.
Depending on who you ask, Crusader Kings III was either a step forward or a step backward for the series. For me it was a major leap forward. It was much more friendly to new players and really advanced its emergent storytelling to new heights. The newly released character customizer lets you make the royal avatar of your dreams, or nightmares. If water coolers were still a thing, or like anything in-person, people would gather and talk about how things are going in their respective kingdoms and what sorts of things unfold from trysts to conspiracy to murder. There’s almost nothing off-limits or taboo, and it’s more entertaining than any soap opera could dare attempt. There’s a real goal of actually taking more land and honoring diplomacy, winning wars, and the like, but the social-political game is far more intriguing than it lets on.
Asobo Studio has resurrected the Flight Simulator series in spectacular fashion. With incredible tech that’s years away from PCs actually being able to run at its highest settings, this is the best offering yet. There’s a whole flight model to master, but with accessibility settings that will let you fly with unrestricted freedom, this is a game not only meant for your eyes, but to gather friends and family around as you fly through the worlds most and least visited locations for an adventure to call your own. In a time where getting on a plane is no longer recommended, this is the next best thing to traveling the world. There’s still some tangible and experience pieces missing of course, but for the most part this is an incredible game for flight enthusiasts to even passers-by to play. With Xbox Game Pass for PC, there’s almost no reason to check it out. It’s worth noting that because of this game, there’s been a shortage of flight sticks to buy online.
Age of Empires III was the first Age of Empires game I played, so this game holds a special place in my heart. There’s been considerable work done to the game in terms of fixing some appropriation concerns as well as some misrepresentation. That aside, the original game still looked pretty good, but the Definitive Edition makes it clear how much better it can look. There’s a lot of changes to the gameplay from Age of Empires II, such as the advent of home cities to hero units. There are far less civilizations here, but that is actually to the game’s benefit. While gameplay is not equal, I think there’s reasons to play this game first to get acquainted and into the series. Age of Empires III may not be considered the best, but it’s still my favorite, and Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is the best version of it, making for a much better experience.
This is the last game with a “three” in the title, I promise. Mimimi Productions really struck a chord with many for Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, a real-time tactics game with pause. Now working with THQ Nordic, they were handed the Desperados license and absolutely ran with it. Not only did the type of games they already made fit perfect with the prior entries, it felt like the right time to reintroduce the world and characters. The game takes risks, with the use of a new character who uses voodoo magic and going to new locales. All of it pays off in spades. The game also serves as a prequel, so playing the prior Desperados games is not a requirement. There’s post-launch DLC that extends the life of the game, though it isn’t required. The game is story driven, and relies heavily on stealth. Going in guns blazing is likely to get you killed as you are always outmanned and outgunned. Each character has a unique set of abilities that can be paired with others, but the game keeps you on your toes as it assigns you a different configuration of characters for each mission. I adore Desperados III, and is one of my favorites of the year.
Marvel’s Spider-Man Remastered
Insomniac Games knows exactly what they’re doing. This is not a retread of Peter Parker’s origin story, recounting Uncle Ben’s death and how he gets his spider powers. No, this is a Peter Parker eight years into being Spider-Man, and it’s so much better off for it. Peter has dealt with many villains, some of whom are already put away before being broken out, and some new ones surface throughout the game, to form a sinister six. The game introduces you to Miles Morales rather overtly, and spends time on him. There’s even a focus on the compilated relationship between Peter Parker and Mary-Jane Watson. J. Jonah Jameson is now an Alex Jones-type, spewing hatred about Spider-Man on his own podcast, after being fired from the Daily Bugle. The game plants so many seeds for a proper sequel, despite post-game DLC stories, and a follow-up expansion. The way that the suits and associated powers are not tied to one another, along with mods that can be equipped that fit to your playstyle. There’s also tons of suits to unlock that delve into Spidey’s comic book history with care. Due to having a very loud PlayStation 4, I never got to play the original in 2018. So playing this in 2020 was a very welcome surprise, and an absolute delight in playing the pinnacle of Spider-Man games that understands what makes web-swinging through all of New York so good.
Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
This is a standalone expansion, but they couldn’t be more different from one another. Sure, the map is the same city but covered in snow, but Miles Morales is such an interesting character, and the type of spider he was bit by has given him a different set of powers to work with than what Peter deals with. Set a year after training with Peter, Miles’ first go at being his own Spider-Man is not the smoothest, but he does his best while Peter takes some much needed time off (even if it’s just going to work with MJ on a news story in a foreign country). Miles’ growth and development is astounding. He makes mistakes, and seeing them happen and feeling for him is really what the game is about. This game’s very emotional, for both the player and Miles. There’s some really great moments that sets Miles apart from Peter, and the two Spider-Mans provides a lot of entertainment and laughs from the people you interact with. Spider-Man: Miles Morales is a shorter game, but everything you do from side activities to collectibles is streamlined in a way I almost wish the original was. This is by all accounts a better game, but they are perfect companions to one another as the sequel gets setup across both.
There were a lot of racing games that came out this year, but they all pale in comparison to art of rally. From Funselektor, the developer that made Absolute Drift, a wonderful game in its own right. art of rally is a celebration of the sport without relying on real names or even the real cars to get its point across. The controls are sublime, the visuals are hyper-stylized and gorgeous, and the career progression is a wonderful trip through time. Add in the free roam mode lets you hoon around these gorgeous environments, find collectibles, and just revel in their hand-crafted nature. The soundtrack is a synthwave sonata, perfectly chill with the right tempo for the given track. For photo mode enthusiasts, this game has plenty of options and feels pretty much made for it. This is a game that lives up to its name, and is absolutely beautiful as much as it is excellent to play.
To be honest, I’ve only played the first two Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games on PC either via THUG Pro or some other means – I never had the true experience. That said, I would go on to play the following entries when they released. I can say with absolute certainty that Vicarious Visions has recaptured the magic of the older games like the wizards that they are. The campaigns have been reworked into tours, and it engaged like so few games can. I was constantly compelled to keep coming back, eventually 100%ing every level, finding all the collectibles, and completing all of the challenges. This is a game where your skill as a player also increases as you invest points into the skills of your chosen skater. That becomes apparent as your high score increases, as well as your placement on the leaderboard. The game is full of secrets, and it’s fascinating to try and find the perfect line to skate. This is an arcade game after all, but it doesn’t detract from the feeling that it conveys, in that it makes you feel like a skater going through these levels. It’s a perfect game. I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again (because it’s really good): Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 is The Second Coming of Christ Air.