Thursday, 31 December 2020

Games of the Year 2020

Well last year I tweaked the criteria for my lists and listed a number of games I'd get to that *checks notes* I did not manage to get round to this year (although I did at least get through quite a few games that had built up from lists in previous year - Divinity: Original Sin 2 is currently in progress). Everything outside games has been, for reasons you can guess, a lot to handle so I'm actually thinking of making another slight career change in 2021. Got that plan to eventually build up a co-op still rattling around somewhere. The slow ending of the 30% digital store rip-off may actually meaningfully improve the viability of making small games for a small market. But on to the new games other people have made that I've played and found notable this year.


Best of the Best 2020:


    Final Fantasy VII Remake (part 1)

The most well remembered classic JRPG, completely remade with modern AAA production values, and cut into pieces because making games as big as the original with 2020 costs would be prohibitive. It's a large ask, larger than was required of the total remake of Resident Evil 2 last year, but they seem to have worked out what Final Fantasy VII would look like if you made it today. Which things needed to be retained, which things had to change, and what stuff you could rework and expand because you're free to experiment a bit as slavish devotion to the original would necessarily import the most outdated issues into the reworking. At the start of the year, this was not the remake I expected to be at the top of my list by year end.


Baring a few asset streaming issues that hopefully the eventual PS5 or PC ports will completely fix, this is an incredibly lavish RPG that manages to walk through the initial sections of the 1997 game while showing that some of the offline rendered background from that era are now more than attainable by real-time rendering. But also that the current designers are willing to throw out entire systems (like the old combat mechanics) to build something that feels fresh inside the shell of the classic game. It really gets onto my list by doing the same thing I praised RE2 for: knowing how to merge the best of the original game with enough new to be novel without losing the identity of the game.

    Ori and the Will of the Wisps

I didn't get into Ori and the Blind Forest until a while after release (after the Definitive Edition had been out for a bit). The many escape sequences without checkpoints managed to sour me slightly on the whole thing, while acknowledging that it otherwise worked quite well (even the divisive system of laying your own checkpoints using an energy currency rather than hitting standard console auto-checkpoint areas - almost felt like when PC games have played with limiting quicksave for higher difficulty levels). But after they had fixed some launch performance issues with this sequel, I was ready to jump into this somewhat classic Metroidvania platforming experience and find out what was new.


Luckily this contains lots more of same and far less annoying escape sequences. The innovative checkpointing is out (so no forgetting to checkpoint and losing progress) but the various combat and upgrade systems have been extended in every way imaginable. It's now a lot more of a combat platformer than the first game (which relied upon auto-target shooting rather than a range of weapon styles) with your face buttons remappable to whatever skills you feel are best suited for where you're currently traversing. And the traversal still feels as good as the last game (I would not have persevered through the partial memorisation & cheap kills of those original escape sequences if the movement hadn't felt this good) while the story sorta retreads the same emotional notes the last game did - it mainly still worked for me but whatever they try next needs to change it up narratively or it'll just feel cheap a third time. It's still doing very nice things with making a world mixing 3D elements with lots of deformable 2D layers.

    Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Remastered

I'm not sure I've played the original game this remakes since shortly after it released in 2009. I have maybe replayed the original Modern Warfare since then but I'm not certain of it. Either way, Sony's co-marketing deal for recent Call of Duty titles have also ended up with remakes of the first two Modern Warfare titles coming to PS4 slightly before other devices and in the last two years also included them for any PlayStation Plus users (so anyone with a PS4 who wants to play online with others). After this arrived on PS+ only a few months after first being released, I decided to do a back to back (re)play of the two Modern Warfare games that are the definitive Call of Duty campaigns in my recollection.


While this isn't the sort of total reimagining that I've praised above, there's definitely some production values behind these and it's certainly not just offering up a PC port (higher resolution than consoles at the time could offer) with reworked textures and some higher detail models. This is all new work but based upon the level progression of the original campaigns (the credits seem to list "archive sound" so the original VO is retained but they've done new motion capture so it feels all-new). This is basically a "how you remember it" remake where you go back to look at the original and realise that actually the dynamic modern in-engine cut-scenes you've just played through actually were far more basic in the original game. It feels like the original given 2020 production values.

I did notice that the ground-up rework has (in the same way the Black Mesa remake of HL1 in the HL2 engine fails to capture identical enemy AI) somewhat changed the actual play experience and difficulty. This is a campaign that I did not beat on the highest difficulty in 2009 and I've not become radically better with a controller in the last 11 years of ageing. I still found a few spots of repeatedly reloading a checkpoint until I'd worked out a reliable way to get through a difficulty spike but it wasn't as punishing as the original game - I generally expect the very hardest difficulty in a game to be beyond me, leaving room for those with good reaction times and knowledge of a scenario to still have something to offer some resistance. There is a famous achievement for the very end of the original Modern Warfare on the hardest difficulty (which also slashes how much time you've got to complete that level) and it wasn't easy but this year I managed to get that perfect run in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered. It feels like that same difficulty change continues into this 2020 game, which some may find disappointing.

    Gears Tactics

That lovely Gears 5 engine, tweaked even higher with a PC-first release, and a turn-based tactical combat game between the lavish cut-scenes? Sign me up!


Somehow we're having another year where my personal list contains quite a bit of stuff that looks a lot like a modern Xcom and yet I'm still going to be adamant that I do not like either of those games and the expansions did not fix that for me, despite going back to the mid-'90s X-Com games they are based on and getting a lot out of spending my action points to slowly work through a procedurally generated map of alien terror. The way this game gets over the two-phase move + shoot turns I dislike in XCOM 1 & 2 is making it so you quickly multiply your total moves while also being able to recharge them during a turn. It's basically getting us towards proper action points while pretending to adhere to the modern choice to do away with them.

I'm also unsure how much the actual combat drove me through this game vs enjoying those lavish production values for every cut-scene. It's maybe not exactly as much obvious money on the screen (rendered in real-time) as a numbered Gears of War game but it comes close enough to remind you how little budget Firaxis Games are given to make anything outside mainly functional graphics by 2K (despite a consistent record of making multi-million selling titles).

    Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 + 2

Lotta remastered games getting to the top of the list this year. Almost feels like a theme: the last push for this generation with very mature technology being deployed to work over games that are old enough you'd maybe not really want to dive into the limited visuals today but, at the same time, they still often play really well. In this case, Activision have tried remaking and bringing forward various THPS projects in recent years without enough funding or care and completely failed. But after Toys for Bob remade Spyro and Crash Bandicoot into extremely profitable titles, the classic levels from the first THPS games and enough cash to relicense the vast majority of the classic soundtracks have made it into a game that feels like how you remember those old games did, only today we actually get the sort of framerate consistency you really didn't around the turn of the millennium.


I think I played a ridiculous amount of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 on PC with nothing more than a keyboard (this was far enough back that console games were being designed for digital not analogue inputs so actually you could just get a keyboard out and pray the port had been given more time and money than most to get it working well under Windows 9x). We Europeans then missed out on the Xbox merging of levels from the first two games in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2x because by the time the console was out here, it was time for the 3rd full sequel to release.

So here is the first European chance at getting all these iconic levels together in one package, now remastered with a lot of extra content and tweaks (the combo system is completed with the revert from THPS3, although you can disable it to get a pure experience on the original levels) while feeling a lot like those classic games, only without the classic framerate (it's a guaranteed 60 fps here). Now I'm just waiting to see if they add level packs from the 3rd and 4th game to this package or if that's going to be left for a full sequel bundle.

    F1 2020

At a certain point I had to stop just thinking that this annual franchise had never been better and start actually considering it for the end of year lists.


It's not quite what I wanted as this is very much another incremental tweak to the 2019 release that's coming out at the end of a console generation so probably has most of the major rendering tweaks waiting to be shown off in the 2021 release for the new consoles. But this is still an extremely good semi-sim game that this year adds the ability to create your own team and really take charge of making waves in F1. Like the addition of an F2 season to last year's game, it's an incremental change from what they've been doing recently so if you don't upgrade to the latest game you're not missing out on a radically new experience but it does help round out the package and build on top of the great driving engine they've had for a few years that can range from assist-heavy to a very light-touch semi-sim approach where you always need to be on top of the tyres and mix moment to moment precision with race-long strategic choices.


Also Notable 2020:


    Hades

This won the hearts of just about everyone else this year and is from a developer whose previous work I've enjoyed. I played a bit of the early access version when it first became available then gave it another go after the final release but, not helped by it always feeling really laggy on my Intel (iGPU) machine, I never really loved the combat loop (latency wasn't an issue on my nVidia desktop but when I was playing it was mainly on the go). As a roguelike-like, it's always going to be tuned for maximum difficulty but I also just didn't feel like how I lost health was often something I could significantly improve around without major elements of luck (often keyed to random rolls for upgrades etc) or grinding (as there are permanent unlocks you slowly earn currencies towards). Again, none of this is totally unexpected for what they set out to make but I'm not the biggest fan of 2D action games and definitely won't grind much to progress, even if there is a lot of recorded VO to put around shuffled tiles of levels. Maybe one to give another go in 2021.

    Genshin Impact

First off, this is a free to play game with primarily gambling mechanics around the collection of additional RPG characters that make up your party of four. It's an always online open world narrative RPG with matchmade online dungeons you can also tackle solo. You own nothing but that does mean you can completely seamlessly jump between a session on PC or on mobile. But if you feel compelled to collect everything in a game, this is a bad option because the dozens of characters have several tiers of power to unlock and each unlock comes from a rare random roll primarily using the paid currency. So it can't go on the top list, even if I've been having a lot of fun with this without having to pay money.


The core of the game is anime characters (with English or Japanese VO joining the original Chinese) exploring a large vibrant open world full of both repeatable event quests and a solid narrative mainline quest series. Your party of four elementally-aligned characters can be switched between on the fly and this provides some depth to the combat which otherwise restricts inputs to a jump, dodge, attack (fast & charged variant), with special on a timer and super that recharges with attacks (fitting into the limited options for phone controls). The elemental combos really make the combat sing here, along with plenty of abilities that operate even when the party member is swapped out (which is something you'll be doing potentially every few seconds when in intense combat) - it's an intriguing way of giving players most of the versatility of a four character full party & associated health pool without the pure offensive output of a group party with all characters active at once (which is how you do online play). You've also got plenty of modern niceties like zero punishment death, climb-anywhere traversal, gliders, plentiful fast-travel unlocks, and rebuilding a new party composition whenever out of combat. Actually one of the primary things to note about the lavish F2P RPG here is that it's rarely punishing in a way that feels like they're pushing the paid currency. You don't buy around death punishments because there is none.


There's zero friction to entry with the download kept reasonably small to fit mobile storage and lots of quite generous freebies on offer during limited time event and a drip feed of premium currencies that get you most of the way to the end-game without much grind (I got a full double party - only required for the most strenuous activity of a combat arena dungeon - up near level 80 when the cap is 90 and got to an Adventure Rank in the 40s, which is the non-level-based gating to progression). The PlayStation servers use different accounts but play on mobile and PC and it's seamless as they're the same servers and account system (you can also get a native 4K on PC, which the PS4 Pro doesn't quite hit and also has issues holding a stable 30fps there).

    XCOM: Chimera Squad

This is one of the close-but-no-cigar games for this year. I grabbed it at launch and had a good time... and then almost completely forgot about having played it during the rest of the year. Which rather says how the "friendly cops" narrative didn't stick with me given the geopolitical events this year that could have reminded me of their attempts at making the Xcom universe more light-hearted than previous games.


On the plus side, this was launched at a very attractive discount so early adopters got to take the risk for the sort of price that matches the more limited ambitions on display here. As an Xcom game, one of the best things it does is to remove the terrible sequences of cautious play while you work forward to reveal the map and activate enemy groups. Here each area is far more constrained and you start off with a breaching mechanic that can remove plenty of enemies from the room and also primes you for the mixed turn-based (initiative) rounds that mix up the previous gameplay formula.

    Tell Me Why

As I mentioned when discussing Vampyr, I do hope Dontnod don't end up trapped in a rut as they seem to make interesting games and I'd like to see them making many more. Surely there are some Quantic Dream developers who worked on the (world class) motion capture and animation systems who want to stay in Paris but would like a different boss. Interesting that another team at the studio completed Twin Mirror about the same time (I'm yet to play it but the reviews have not been very positive). This game, heavily advertised by Microsoft, definitely has the legacy of Life is Strange hanging heavily over it.


A trans coming-of-age (into young adult) story with magical realism elements, this is definitely an evolution of the house style and some narrative themes. Unlike the first Life is Strange, this embraces queer text with the assistance of some outside sensitivity readers and provided all of the episodes in rapid succession, having been developed entirely before release. I liked it despite some polarising choices made about how certain elements offered player choice.

    Resident Evil 3

Well, given my praise of Resident Evil 2 and other remakes, this would seem to be a slam dunk. While I don't have much of a history (I have watched it replayed quite recently) with the original, the idea of taking what worked about RE2 or even infusing some of the innovation of Resident Evil 7 into a more open city scenario sounds like it would be a great game.


Unfortunately this fails to fully utilise the excellent engine they've been building to update the 3rd game with the same scale of smart choices that made the last remake work so well. Some sections feel needlessly faithful to the rather limited original that was creaking at the limits of PS1 while others don't seem to know what new direction they're trying to build in.

    Dreams

The ways this sculpting tool and console game development platform manages to empower users to rapidly create so many different things is pretty impressive. Some smart rendering choices have ended up creating a very different look for consoles and I really hope the Media Molecule team are being given plenty of support from Sony to port this and everything created with it to PS5 to give it a long life (and maybe PS5 exclusive increased complexity or features). More people deserve to give this a proper shot and it's a real shame the 2019 public early access into 2020 official release and VR patch have seemed to see media interest wane rather than explode. Creators need curators with big audiences to find and promote their best creations to a wide audience to ensure the ecosystem stays enthused.

    Kentucky Route Zero

Long in development, this finally released the final episode in 2020 along with a console port. I think that's notable but also have remarkably little to say about this indie darling. Something about the intentionally aliased style eats at me, especially with how it scales to different resolutions. There are some interesting choices made in the emerging narrative but this has been picked apart over the years as each episode has been released.


Failed to Play 2020:


Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales - I mentioned this when talking about playing the previous game again but ended up deciding I'd rather wait for PS5 hardware to enjoy the best version of it (especially given how expensive this is compared to a Lost Legacy release, before exchange rate and other price increases made games a lot more expensive domestically).

Control - Sorry Remedy but the last gen version just looks bad to me when I tried to get into it. I'm still waiting on an upgrade to my home PC hardware. As soon as I've got a current GPU with hardware ray tracing acceleration, I've got the Ultimate Edition ready to go.

Noita - This did hit 1.0 this year but I've not really dived into it properly unfortunately.

Teardown - This is still in early access and is quite an interesting rendering choice with a completely destroyable world. Unlike Noita, it's all in 3D. Worth keeping an eye on as it develops.

MS Flight Simulator 2020 - My PC can barely run it, so I will wait until it runs a bit better on modern CPUs (has to be optimisation coming with that VR patch only just out by end of the year) and I've got a beefier GPU to throw at the ridiculous scale of what's being attempted.

Half Life: Alyx - My home VR equipment is getting old (DK2 & PS VR) so not being able to visit friends or offices with something fancy meant I didn't get nearly as much VR in 2020 so this will have to wait.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon - As is quite a theme in these, I never quite get round to Ryu Ga Gotoku games at launch so end up putting them on the end of my annual lists.

Cyberpunk 2077 - Sure sounds like waiting for the long patch and expansion cycle towards a GotY/Enhanced Edition (this team is known for) will pay dividends here vs playing the launch version. I'm up for some open world Deus Ex style gameplay but it seems like there's too much focus on shooting (a lot like how Watch Dogs: Legion sounds like it's not actually the sequel to WD2 that I wanted despite the ludic space being so ready for making guns even less relevant and a push towards Immersive Sim stealth/ghost play) that maybe fan mods will fix. Another game with too much to do and releasing too late in the year for me to have a chance of completing it.

Ghost of Tsushima - This runs at both high resolution quality mode and 60 fps on a PS5 (PS4 Pro makes you pick 1800p sub-30 [but actually mainly 30 fps] or 1080p30 locked) so I'll wait to play this on new hardware, once it becomes easy to get that at home and there is a critical mass of exclusive games to play on it. "1800p and if you're really pushing the visuals maybe accept 30 fps" is something I've associated with my [coming up to 5 years old] GTX 1070 OC and I'm ready to ask for 60 fps again from hardware upgrades.

The Last of Us Part II - I bet this will look even nicer if they do a big PS5 patch or rerelease rather than just a back-compat update. Maybe explore the options for ray traced global illumination and unified lighting/shadow model that their PS4 baked solution attempts to approximate but with a few obvious spots where it breaks when dynamic lights and objects fail to cast the shadows you'd expect.

Watch Dogs: Legion - I'm absolutely waiting for a new PC GPU for this. Ray tracing looks variable (not a big fan of how close the max distance is for rays, either dynamic objects or static, compared to how Spider-Man is dealing with the same problem) but it definitely looks better than without it.

Assassin's Creed Valhalla - Lotta big games coming out at the end of this year, right? Ubisoft Plus is going to get a lot of use in 2021.

Wasteland 3 - Conceptually I really want more Wasteland (I backed 2 when it came to KickStarter) having come to the series via the original '90s Fallout games but once again this seemed like it needed a few patches before being ready and with Game Pass I know it'll be waiting for me next time I subscribe with any enhancements they patch in.

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