John’s Best of 2020

2020 was a garbage ass year in many respects, but when it comes to new game release it was pretty spectacular. I played 44 new releases in those 12 months and there were some truly fantastic experiences. There were amazing story based games like Call of the Sea and Tell me Why, fun action titles like Battletoads and Minecraft Dungeons, and some awesome remakes of classic titles such as Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1&2 and Mafia: Definitive Edition. Despite so many great games though, I inevitably had to get that list down to my three favorite experiences of the year. So without further ado I present my Game of the Year 2020 picks as well some special shout outs to some games that stood out in very specific categories.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps is an outstanding achievement in just about every respect. It features gorgeous visuals, near perfect controls, and one of the best original soundtracks that I’ve heard in recent memory. Gareth Coker is a brilliant musician and one of the hottest young composers in gaming, with his work on Ori and the Blind Forest receiving rave reviews. He also scored the recent Immortals: Fenyx Rising and has contributed to the upcoming Halo: Infinite.

His music in Will of the Wisps (performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra) perfectly captures the emotions of the game whether it’s a heart pounding chase sequence or one of the more quiet and moving character moments. It feels like an essential piece of the artistic puzzle and really helps to drive home what is a surprising emotional and poignant story.

Developer Sucker Punch came out of nowhere in 2020 and delivered one of the best new PlayStation IP in recent memory with Ghost of Tsushima. The tale of Jin Sakai and his quest for vengeance was a simple but effective story, and the open world samurai epic borrowed heavily from other open world series, particularly Assassin’s Creed, with it’s gameplay mechanics and structure. While Ghost feels a bit like a first step to what will hopefully be a more polished and refined series, it managed to stand out from the crowd with it’s fantastic combat system, and in particular it’s art direction.

While Ghost of Tsushima isn’t the most impressive game in the world from a purely technical level, it makes up for any shortcomings with an absolutely stunning art style. Almost everywhere you go in the game you’re treated to beautiful vistas and landscapes that use lighting and color in ways I’ve never seen a developer do before. From endless fields of bright blue flowers to the rust colored leaves blowing in the wind, I found myself constantly stopping to just admire the scenery. I’ve always said that I’ll take brilliant art design over raw power any day, and in 2020 no game embodied that more than Ghost of Tsushima.

GAME OF THE YEAR – THIRD PLACE

Assassin’s Creed is a series I have loved for years and have a lot of attachment towards. I received the first game as a wedding gift back in 2006 and have (more or less) enjoyed the series ever since. A few years back Ubisoft reinvented the series by turning it into an action RPG with AC Origins, and while they have had some growing pains as they found their new identity, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla feels like the most complete, polished, and confident game they’ve released in a long time.

The story of Eivor and his (or her) clan of Vikings who travel from Norway to build a new life in England is full of interesting characters, dramatic plot twists, and enough references to the series history to satisfy those of us who have been following the exploits of the Assassin’s and Templars for over a decade. Each main quest feels like a satisfying and self contained episode of a classic fantasy series and for as long as the game is (I finished the main quest in 68 hours) I never tired of exploring the world and meeting the characters that populate it.

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla feels like the evolution of the series into a full Skyrim-like RPG loaded with 100’s of hours of content to keep you playing for months. And while the lore of series has jumped the shark a bit and can be tough to piece together, it puts a nice bow on the current trilogy of games and connects to the series past in satisfying ways. It’s one of the best games of 2020 but I’m sure it will keep me occupied well into 2021.

GAME OF THE YEAR – RUNNER UP

I’ve been struggling to decide whether or not Animal Crossing: New Horizons is my favorite game of 2020. And while it doesn’t make it to the top of my list, I can say with confidence that Animal Crossing is “the game” of 2020 and will always be associated with what was an otherwise shitstorm of a year.

It’s hard to disconnect the game from the environment in which it was released, but video games don’t exist in a bubble and our feelings about them are effected by what we’re going through as individuals at the time. Animal Crossing was an escape. A peaceful paradise when the world was being ravaged by unrest and a pandemic. The world was a tough place to exist in last year, and being able to briefly disconnect from that to worry about things like fossil collections and crafting furniture was exactly what we all needed. It became a phenomenon with everyone from children to grandparents, politicians to celebrities, everyone was in on the fun.

On top of the circumstances of it’s release, New Horizons was a damn good video game to boot. It took the familiar trappings of the series (fishing, collecting, paying mortgages) and expanded upon it with a crafting system and more customization options than ever before. My entire family spent hundreds of hours discovering everything the island had to offer and creating the perfect paradise. It wasn’t until just recently that I stopped playing on a daily basis. Nintendo might not have had the most new releases this year, but I probably spent more time on my Switch than any other console due to this incredible game.

GAME OF THE YEAR

As many outstanding games as there were during 2020, there was little doubt since it’s release that The Last of Us Pt. II would end up being my game of the year. For a sequel that I thought didn’t even need to be made after it’s initial announcement, developer Naughty Dog did the unthinkable and created a follow up to one of the best games of all time that is absolutely essential to the story that they are telling.

The story of Joel and Ellie picks up as they try and find some normalcy after the traumatic events of the first game, but they eventually learn a terrible lesson when the ghosts of their past come knocking at their door. The game is an examination of violence and the ways in which anger and vengeance can become all consuming if you let it. The way in which it eats away at people, turning them into unrecognizable shells of their former selves is as heartbreaking as it is unsettling. The violence is unrelenting and barbaric, and it would have been easy for the game to have gotten lost in it, but all of the blood and gore is there for a reason. It has a purpose.

One of the most brilliant things about the game is how it breaks up the horror of this world with moments of genuine beauty and love. All of the violence would be for nothing if you didn’t care about the characters involved, and they do an incredible job of showing these people in quiet, personal moments that show the humanity that still lingers inside of them. These moments are the best part of the game and they make it all the more devastating when you see what happens to them.

The Last of Us Pt. 2 is storytelling on another level. It doesn’t just take you on an emotional and powerful journey, but it challenges you in ways that other games just don’t attempt. Making you question the way in which you think about these characters and how you yourself would react in the same circumstances. It’s the game of the year and perhaps of the generation.

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