Gaming took on a whole new level of importance for me in 2020. Shortly after our first daughter was born in March we decided to isolate as much as possible to protect our young one from the (as of yet unclear) effects of the Corona Virus. The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Illinois was announced at the same hospital where we gave birth just days after we left. All of a sudden I was struggling to adjust to both fatherhood and pandemic life.
Like many across the globe who were seeking ways to pass the time and stay connected with friends and family, I spent my precious waking hours diving into my hobby with new vigor. I’m glad that in such a dark year we were treated to a new console generation and some amazing games to keep us distracted.
I’ll get this out of the way now. I didn’t get a chance to roll-credits on many games this year. I only really started getting some sleep/free-time back in June. But I can certainly recommend a few games that caught my eye and kept my attention that you may have overlooked. Cheers!
Nothing beats that new console smell. I was fortunate enough to secure an Xbox Series X, but with the delay of Halo Infinite, Assassins’ Creed Valhalla had to fill the gap as one of my first next gen experiences. I loved Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and I had seen enough promo material to get excited. Look at this quote from the Ubisoft website! “Explore a beautiful, mysterious open world where you’ll face brutal enemies, raid fortresses, build your clan’s new settlement…” I was in the first time I heard you could dual-wield axes.
Sadly, AC:Valhalla makes an absolutely horrible first impression in it’s opening hours. Without spoiling too much I’ll just say that the game’s starting area is a lackluster locale, mostly barren of life, color and intrigue. If you approach Ubisoft games like I do and usually explore and ‘clear the map’ you can certainly go that route here, there are peaks to climb and hidden valuables to find. The trouble is there’s next to nothing of interest in between. The snowy plains and icy cliffs go on and on. Even if you focus on the main quest the whole opening act amounts to an insanely long tutorial.
After a very slow burn things do open up, you finally unlock key abilities, you’re treated to saturated landscapes, and the world becomes rich with adventure. With each passing hour the game seems to get better, systems begin to click, and It becomes harder to walk away. One of the best games of the year hides it’s true self for way too long, and no doubt alienates many in the process. I can’t stand this approach. AC:Valhalla takes the trophy for ‘worst first impression’ by a landslide.
The Cyberpunk 2077 saga was one of the more interesting train wrecks of 2020. Releasing an eggregiously undercooked console version of the game destroyed developer CD Projekt RED’s once renouned reputation in a matter of weeks. As I noted in our ‘Top 5 Gaming Headlines of 2020’ feature the New York Times pulled no punches in describing the debacle, saying “Cyberpunk’s rollout is one of the most visible disasters in the history of video games.”
One of the worst consequences of the backlash was that the merits and quality of the game were almost completely overshadowed. The PC version looks stunning if you have a beefy machine and I can report that my experience was decent playing on the Xbox Series X. It looks no where near as good as on PC (in the graphics area the difference is night and day) but Cyberpunk 2077 is playable on next gen hardware, and I enjoyed my time.
The gunplay is punchy, the skill tree upgrades are interesting and feel like they make an impact on gameplay, and the soundtrack (as the kids say) slaps. I didn’t expect the game to spend so much time and dialogue setting the stage for what I can only assume will be important decisions. All I can say for now is that I haven’t felt this kind of real pressure when making a dialogue choice in nearly a decade. The story telling is standout to say the least. Don’t get me wrong the game is far from revolutionary, miles away from what was promised in a laundry list of ways, but I had fun and I wanted to play more.
Then it happened. I had held off on exploring combat with blades at first (handguns were just too interesting to pass up) but now I was armed with a rare Katana and face to face with a slimy bastard who deserved every inch of it shoved in his ass. My conversation with this low-life pimp devolved and things popped off as you might expect. After cutting down my foe the building swarmed with activity, I had snuck in but I would have to fight my way out. I ran to the door…and it was locked. Glitched shut. I tried to load a save, fought the monster again, and went for the door multiple times…still locked. Could there be a way to hack a lock or computer, some way to force open the door? No.I had dealt with pop-in, broken A.I., and plenty of floating characters so far but I had finally encountered an egregious bug.
I reached my limit and decided to shelf the game until the promised patches or actual built for next-gen version arrives. It’s such a shame because I wanted to keep playing, but the game fought me off, making Cyberpunk 2077 the best broken game I played all year.
GAME OF THE YEAR – THIRD PLACE
When you get a new console the first instinct isn’t to play games, your goal is to gather everyone in the house together and show off a next gen game. Eye-candy that can act as proof you didn’t just dip into your child’s college fund for no good reason. You NEEDED this console and if you can show your wife something stunningly beautiful she’ll have to stop scolding you for missing the last mortgage payment.
With all the Covid delays and the loss of both Halo Infinite and a Forza title at launch (usually racing games are perfect next-gen showcases) I struggled to find a game to show of my new toy. Cyberpunk 2077 running on console looks outdated compared to what was achieved on PC, I would have to invest hours before reaching more interesting vistas in Assassins Creed: Valhalla, and Destiny 2 looked fantastic with enhancements but was years off from being something new. The fact is, nothing made my jaw drop this year like Tetris Effect Connected.
The latest iteration of the well-known puzzler was critically acclaimed, but originally a PlayStation exclusive. PC fans got access next and while everyone else got to experience it in all it’s VR glory, Xbox fans got last dibs. However, we did get an enhanced version, complete with a new cooperative mode. Best of all it released on next gen launch day on Game Pass. I went fairly blind and after just a few minutes I was enveloped in a fantastic audio sensory experience.
If you’re somehow not familiar, Tetris is usually fairly tame graphically. Advancing through levels usually offers you a change in color scheme and a new music track. Normally the focus is on strategically stacking bricks to create and ‘clear’ lines. Tetris Effect Connected evolves the experience so much it’s remarkable. Each level features a familiar play box, and a large outer border that serves as a canvas where much of the magic happens. You start play with a dark empty screen. Tetrinos begin to fall. The music bumps and bops in time with the gameplay. As you clear lines a visual theme the entire screen comes alive with brilliant light and showers of particles. You realize you’re somewhat in control, harmonizing, conducting a grand concert. Once you’re in a groove, racking up combos and just when you hit your first ‘Tetris’ 4-line clear the beat drops and your jaw hits the ground.
I’m not a big puzzler fan, in fact I’ve never been a fan of Tetris in particular, but Tetris Effect Connected has made some exciting and unexpected changes to the formula that has won me over. It has the unique advantage of offering an exceptional A/V experience (this might be the best use of HDR tech in gaming I’ve seen) while being simple enough for non-gamers to pick up and play. I implore anyone to experience the game for yourself, you won’t regret it.
GAME OF THE YEAR – RUNNER-UP
I discovered the rogue-like deck building genre with Slay the Spire. I was hooked, even in a sea of offerings on Game Pass I kept coming back time and time again. Monster Train had caught my eye on a Twitch stream, but it looked overly flashy and complicated and featured a somewhat cartoonish (almost World of Warcraft-like) art style…so I dismissed it. Again, only when it came to Game Pass on Xbox did I give it a go. I started my first run around 9 pm, when I looked up from the screen it was almost 3 am. How could
How could a game so under the radar you probably haven’t heard of it make my Game of the Year list? Simple, it fulfills the important characteristic of being impossible to put down. My first impression was correct the game is far and away more complex than Slay the Spire. Battles play out on 4 vertically stacked floors of a train car, your job is to fight off heavenly forces attempting to reach and destroy the last jewel-like pyre. If the ember is destroyed you won’t be able to reignite the inferno and restore the forces of hell (yeah you play as the Bad good guys.)
Strategy games are an acquired taste so I won’t waste your time explaining the rules. I’ll only tell you that the game is deep and rewarding in that classic ‘easy to learn, tough to master’ kind of way. According to Steam, the game features ‘200 cards, 88 artifacts and a swathe of upgrades’, on top of that there are multiple monster clans to command that lend to particular strategies. Cards not only attack and debuff, but also have traits that make them automatically react under certain conditions. On top of that there are critical decisions to be made about unit placement at almost every turn.
If I had two complaints it would be that there is almost too much to keep straight and it feels as if succeeding in the late game is dependent on altering your deck to best take advantage of the random boons you roll instead of the other way around. Over time you learn that bosses have key weaknesses, as a result a somewhat narrow path to victory emerges that you must follow, or else. Long story short, the game can be overwhelming but it is a strategy lover’s dream come true. If you’re in the mood for a challenge this game is sure to steal your life away in the best way.
GAME OF THE YEAR
You may have seen Wasteland 3 appear as a nominee in the admittedly thin ‘Best Role-Playing Game’ category at last years’ Game Awards. You also may have never heard of it. I on the other hand have been waiting impatiently for a new entry in the franchise. Wasteland falls perfectly into one of my favorite genres, it’s a sweet mix of role-playing, turn-based combat, and squad-based tactics, all set in an post-apocalyptic alternate future. Fun fact many compare Wasteland to clone of the original Fallout games but it actually came out first. Fallout diverged into a shooter while Wasteland doubled down. Rarely does a game check every box.
I love every part of this game Creating custom characters, pouring hours into min/maxing stats, searching every nook and cranny of the world for loot, carefully spending upgrades points to unlock overpowered skills. Best of all is the combat. In the vein of X-COM initiative, cover mechanics, weapon range and of course RNG play a big role. You gotta love trying to shoot an enemy at point blank range with a 90% chance of hitting and miss! Oh and the writing is decent too, oddball characters give off a refreshing quirky vibe.
So what makes this game exceptional? I’ll be completely honest, not much. The game is notoriously riddled with bugs and performance issues, frame rate drops, crashes, you name it. Also, every aspect of the game from character creation to progression is executed with more polish in other games. I think what earns it my top spot for Game of the Year is two fold, it came at the right time and rarely does a game check every box. It’s a flawed gem in a niche genre that feels like it was made just for me. I’ve spent more time with it than any other title in 2020 and despite all its flaws I loved every minute.