It’s almost 2019, and between climate change, the ever-present threat of nuclear apocalypse, and Elon Musk’s cyborg dragon, probably the end of everything. As the planet gasps its last trembling breath upon the precipice of extinction, let’s remember what actually matters – the games we’ve loved the most, ever and forever, this year, before it’s next year and we totally forget they even existed because we’re too busy shooting other people for beans and toilet paper.
No other game released in 2018 has grabbed me by the fleshy bits (and squeezed every drop of my attention from them) quite like Subnautica. It’s one of this planet’s finest examples of “Doing Survival Games Real Good, Okay”, and I’ve seen precious few virtual worlds capable of walking such a fine line between endless, jaw-dropping wonder and hopeless, ever-present terror. Its survival mechanics are sensibly intuitive, its watery biomes brim with secrets and danger, and it’s absolutely beautiful to look at from start to finish.
Funny story: I still haven’t finished Subnautica. I can’t bring myself to do it. I’ve intentionally left some of it unexplored, unknown. That way, I figure Subnautica’s undersea world will always be something to which I can return, that it’ll always contain something new to see and be amazed by. Of course, I may never go back, because it’d ruin the illusion. And that’s something special.
Honourable mention: Sea of Thieves
Sea of Thieves is a singular experience. Just as I suspected when I wrote about the pre-release beta, it launched a little too light on traditional, easy-to-digest content – which meant most people quickly bounced off it, because they had no idea what to do with this strange, playful thing, this game that’s completely open to interpretation. I’ll sum it up in one sentence: Sea of Thieves gives you all the tools you need to play pirates with your friends, and then sets you loose to do whatever “playing pirates” means to you.
As a solo game, Sea of Thieves is fine, but it’s not where you’ll find the magic. This thing is meant to be played with friends. Do your swashbuckling adventures with the right people, and I guarantee that for years to come you’ll all laugh about the hilarious, completely unpredictable stories that Sea of Thieves so effortlessly produces. Also, Rare continues to tirelessly update the game with fat stacks of New Stuff, so that’s good too.
Other honourable mentions (because Tarryn’s probably gonna do it so I’m gonna do it too and you’re not even my real mom so you can’t stop me):
BattleTech (because big stompy robots with big stompy guns, XCOM-styles), Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (because who knew a game about mental illness could be this compelling and pretty and OMG I CAN’T EVEN WITH THESE VOICES RIGHT NOW), Super Mario Odyssey (because LOOK MOM I’M A TYRANNOSAURUS), Wolfenstein: The New Colossus on Nintendo Switch (because now I can play it while I’m sad in queues at the bank or whatever), Warhammer: Vermintide 2 (because who doesn’t love punching rats in the face with friends?), and Jurassic World Evolution (because DINOSAURS).
Tarryn van der Byl
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Okay, I know this launched on PC and PS4 in 2017 but it only got to Xbox One in 2018 and I played it on Xbox One, so it totally counts. Ninja Theory’s unconventional game about a Pict warrior from the Orkney Islands who travels to the Norse realm of Helheim to reclaim the soul of her dead lover isn’t actually even about that. It’s about mental illness and existential doubt and coping with loss and it’s absolutely phenomenal.
I am a huge fan of prison breaks (virtual, obviously), and several games have done it in the past with varying degrees of success, like The Witcher 2 (if only partially), various Elder Scrolls games (also only partially) and The Chronicles of Riddick, but none of them had stories set in a realistic world without sci-fi elements driving them. A Way Out simply nailed it, with a solid storyline, characters you can relate to, and a narrative that often lets you choose between two possible scenarios, letting you choose your preference on how you would like to see the game play out.
If you’re a big co-op fan, this game has you covered too – you can always see both characters on your screen at the same time, regardless of which one you are controlling, and the setup allows you to play on the couch with your bestie, or online if your partner in crime is not conveniently located. It even lets you play online with your break-out buddy if only one of you actually owns the game, a feature I haven’t seen much of at all and one I strongly approve of. Don’t overlook this one when prepping your Christmas list if you haven’t played it yet.
Honourable mentions (because everybody else is doing it):
Read Dead Redemption 2, Assassins Creed Odyssey, Far Cry 5, Dark Souls Remastered.
God of War
I’m not that big on Souls-type games. I don’t play them often because the storyline is difficult to follow in places, I don’t really know much about my character’s history, and I don’t have an engrossing, winding narrative that branches off as I explore the world. God of War has all of this in spades, and more. The storyline is clear, and none of it is left for players to figure out because it’s laid out simply. I know everything about my character’s backstory, but I never needed to know it to begin with (because God of War’s story is told in the style of a Western, players are never made to wonder where Kratos came from and why he has wounds on his wrist). The narrative expands the more you explore the world – Kratos tells stories to his son to help him understand the world he lives in while on the boat, Mimir relates the chilling history of the thoroughly callous Norse gods as necessary, and even the environments tell you more about the universe you’re in. Visiting the other realms, learning about their histories, their inhabitants, and their wars tells you a lot about Midgard and Kratos’ desire to protect Atreus until he is ready to realise his own destiny. The Souls-inspired combat is satisfying, calling back the axe never gets old, and there’s a lot of replayability and hidden treasures to find on successive playthroughs of the game. God of War is Sony Santa Monica’s finest work, and my GOTY. This game is art. Do buy it.
Honourable mention: Marvel’s Spider-Man
Marvel’s Spider-Man deserves every high-scoring review it received because it is a wonderful game. It’s a return to the game that made the series popular on PlayStation in 2000, and every 3D mesh is masterfully crafted and every pixel perfectly painted. Slinging your way around Manhattan is always fun, walking on the street and high-fiving your fans is sweet, shit-talking your opponents with Spidey’s sharp wit is hilarious, and Mary-Jane’s role in the game is awesome because she’s not just a side character who needs to be saved. Good game. Do buy it.
Dishonourable mention: Fallout 76
When Bioshock Infinite was fresh off the shelves and reviews from critics and players were coming in, there was a common theme if you knew to look for it – players hate the idea of audiotapes to convey the main story. The audiotapes in Infinite served to flesh out the game’s story, giving you background into Booker’s history, the Lutece Twin’s origins and their entire reason for being involved in the story, and key points that told you about Elizabeth’s life and her relationship with Comstock. All hidden away on audiotapes to be found in random places. You came out at the end of it with a poor understanding of the story if you just played the main campaign and didn’t hunt for them, and it’s typical of a game studio that doesn’t want to dedicate resources to fully fleshing out their story for the players (instead of delivering a better one), sending them off instead in search of these missing pieces of the narrative just to give them something to do. Borderlands did it. Batman Arkham Asylum did it. Bioshock Infinite did it. Fallout 76 delivers all of its narrative through holotapes and recorded audio, and it’s clear that it’s set up like this to allow for Bethesda to cheaply create new story content with the same speed as asset flip games without dedicating too many resources to give players new fetch quests to complete. The game’s world feels dead, and the game’s world is dead. Bad game. Don’t buy it.
Forza Horizon 2
I love my pick for GOTY 2018. But I don’t know if I’m excited by it. Held up to previous game-changers through my life like Quake, Portal, and GTA IV, Forza Horizon 4 is as sedate a choice as is possible to make. But it’s also the most accomplished title I’ve played this year. Yes, there have been more enthralling games which have pushed boundaries and asked more of audiences, but if I’m looking at the game which highlighted the potential of the industry in 2018, it has to be this one. The events are lovely and all that, but show me another game which dishes up a bounty of such pointless joy as Playground Games’ latest does – ignore the icons, look past the progression systems and horrid emotes, and immerse yourself in this impeccably rendered version of the Queen’s England. The first time you venture far enough down a random river and witness the world levelling out onto a deserted beach, the mist rolling in off the sea, the sand churning under your wheels, you’re in motoring heaven.
[He only chose this because we wouldn’t let him vote for Steep. Deductions are yours to make. – Ed]