As the last days come off the calendar, it's time for writers across the industry to once again reflect on everything they've played over the past year and give their favorites one last public push.
Last year was an unusual one for GamesIndustry.biz, with the staffers largely agreeing that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was a singular achievement and deserving of being named the site's Game of the Year. There was no such consensus this year.
So rather than give the site's stamp of approval to a single title, we've split up the honors and given each writer a bit of space to talk about their superlative gaming experiences of 2018. You can hear more about our choices in the latest episode of The GamesIndustry.biz Podcast, and we'd love to hear what your own picks were in the comments.
Personal Game of the Year: Sea of Thieves
As a lifelong fan of developer Rare, I was pre-conditioned to enjoy Sea of Thieves. Daft, stylistic, funny, beautiful, modern in an old-fashioned way, and with fantastic music, it ticks all the boxes that the studio is known for.
In many ways it's a bit of a comeback for the company, as it's the first original game Rare has released since its years making Kinect games.
When Sea of Thieves first came out, it was undoubtedly lacking in depth. It didn't take long before you'd seen the bulk of the game and that core loop soon became repetitive. Over the course of the year -- featuring four major updates and countless minor ones -- Sea of Thieves has come to life. There's always something to do and see, challenges to overcome, ships to sink, megalodons to chase away, treasure to find and krakens to escape.
"It's the anithesis of modern online games. Playing for hours and hours doesn't make you better at the game, just as accessible for those who are time limited as it is for those with time on their hands"
It's also the anithesis of modern online games. You can't unlock better ships, better armour or better weapons (only better-looking ones). Playing for hours and hours doesn't make you better at the game. It's just as accessible for those who are time limited as it is for those with time on their hands. And for someone such as myself, who has always been put off by games like Destiny for that very reason, this hugely appeals.
Certainly it's not for everyone. But Sea of Thieves is a bold, major AAA gamble for Xbox. It's arguably one of the bravest games released this year, and long may it stay afloat.
Honourable Mentions: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Spider-Man
Most Surprising Game of the Year: Doctor Who Infinity
I've played lots of great games this year, but I've only really played one I was wary over that turned out to be actually pretty good. Doctor Who Infinity is actually a series of small story-driven puzzle games. Each game features gem-matching gameplay, they each have a different comic book style (by known comic artists) and they're all written by different people. Each game also features voiceover work for some of the characters, but not all.
It sounded a bit disparate, and considering the history of Doctor Who games, I wasn't expecting great things. But developer Tiny Rebel managed to get it all to hang together reasonably well. The Infinity games are not going to win many awards, but finally we have Doctor Who games with stories that match those from the world of books, comics and TV.
Most Disappointing Game: Shadow of the Tomb Raider
I love the rebooted Tomb Raider series. The self-titled game, and Rise of the Tomb Raider, are among my favourite titles and -- frankly -- they're better than Uncharted (if a little humourless).
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is still a decent game. It still has those great visuals and it's still satisfying to stealth through a jungle and solve those tombs. Yet with an overblown story that lacked the emotion and mystery that made the first two so engaging, and with repetitive sections and a lack of new ideas, it was a rather disappointing finale for what has otherwise been a fantastic Lara Croft trilogy.
Personal Game of the Year: Florence
I struggle to put into words how much I loved this title. It delivered more joy, creativity and style in 40 minutes than most AAA games do in 40 hours -- it is the epitome of 'less is more'.
Ken Wong's romantic WarioWare manages to tell a compelling, relatable love story without a single word. Each minigame is used to express a different aspect of life, or a deliver a beat of the story. Though their mechanics are simple, the context gives them such depth -- the speech bubble puzzles being a prime example -- and interacting with them via a touch screen just strengthens your connection to the story.
"Florence delivered more joy, creativity and style in 40 minutes than most AAA games do in 40 hours -- it is the epitome of 'less is more'"
It helps that the art style is beautiful and instantly recognisable, the music is delightful, and the pacing is spot on. It's hard not to worry that you're rushing through each minigame (even though they're designed to be just a few seconds long), but you're eager to see what happens next and the ending -- though it might not be what you expect -- is satisfying. I cannot wait to see what Wong and the Mountains team do next.
Honourable Mention: What Remains of Edith Finch (yes, it's a 2017 game but I only played it this year. My word, it's good.)
Biggest Surprise: Forgotton Anne
In the opening hours, the simplistic gameplay and steady pace suggest this is a game that will lean a little too heavily on its (admittedly impressive) animation style. Yet as it gathers momentum, Forgotton Anne sweeps you up in its imaginative adventure.
Playing like a mix between a puzzle-platformer and a Studio Ghibli film, you explore this dystopian underworld where lost objects become living beings. The morality of how you interact with them is constantly questionable, building to an ending where I was genuinely divided as to which choice to make.
The voice acting is superb, much better than you would expect from an indie title, and the message the story delivers in the final act makes you truly question your own attitude towards your possessions.
Honourable Mention: Yoku's Island Express, the pinball-centric dung beetle Metroidvania I never knew I wanted.
Biggest Disappointment: Harry Potter Hogwarts Mystery
There's so much to like here. The structure makes you feel like a Hogwarts student. The nods to both the films and the books show there are die-hard Potter fans on the development team. The story is engaging -- far from the lazy tie-in I was expecting -- and I truly wanted to solve the mystery.
"It's a free-to-play title, so naturally there are time and money barriers put up and how dare I want to progress at my own pace"
But I can't. Because it's a free-to-play title, so naturally there are time and money barriers put up and how dare I want to progress at my own pace.
The grind required to simply keep your character's skills at an acceptable level to progress with the story, combined with the length of time each lesson or section takes, becomes unbearable in the second year and is not at all flexible to whatever else you may be doing in life. For example, you get more XP from an eight-hour lesson and if you spend all your Energy at the start, it takes up to three hours to fully recharge. But it takes three full bars of energy to five-star the lesson, so you need to log in at certain times to avoid missing the end of the lesson.
It's one of the titles that I wish had a premium alternative, because it would have been great fun to play through without the constant barriers the business model puts in place.
Honourable Mention: The fact that I still haven't got Spider-Man... sorry, Marvel's Spider-Man.
Personal Game of the Year: Minit
2018 was the year when I quit playing AAA games almost entirely and focused only on indie titles that instantly stood out. Nowhere was my jump from big games to small games more evident than my love of Minit, a lo-fi top-down adventure played sixty seconds at a time.
Stripped down graphics, necessarily short but quirky dialogue, and environments without a single unnecessary piece make Minit a shining example of a game with nothing to get in the way of the player enjoying exactly what they are doing at any given moment. It's evident in every second (you will be hyper-aware of each second) of this game that someone carefully minded how the player might move, look, and react. You somehow always have exactly enough time, despite never having enough. The end result is a smooth, rewarding, and speedy loop of movement in which my brain is firing on all cylinders as my duck-like character trots along, eagerly planning my route to the next puzzle.
Minit is the most considered game I've ever played. It's proof that with a strong enough gameplay concept at the core, fancy graphics and a million sidequests are unnecessary to delight a player... though its kicking soundtrack certainly doesn't hurt.
Honorable mentions: Celeste, Gris, Forza Horizon 4, Hollow Knight
Most surprising game of the year: Paratopic
"Despite not being at all interested in horror, Paratopic has lingered in my mind since I played it, enticing me to return"
Born and raised in the heart of the Midwest USA, I feel safe saying I had never encountered a game that captured the place I grew up in before Paratopic. This strange, unsettling short looks like it climbed right off of the PS1 and feels like the kind of horror movie you watch on accident out of boredom, but then can't get out of your head. Three intertwined stories about a bird watcher, a smuggler, and a hitman weave in and out of one another in broken vignettes that never quite explain themselves, but in a satisfyingly unsatisfying way.
And yet! Despite not being at all interested in horror, Paratopic has lingered in my mind since I played it, enticing me to return in hopes of comprehending the meaning that surely must lay just below the surface of this weird tale of VHS tapes, a strange red bird, and a haunting figure in the woods. The game's eerie familiarity, clever writing, and striking ideas about what can be gameplay (Squirting ketchup bottles! An uneventful drive on an empty road with nothing to do but change between two radio stations!) were a true novelty in an industry of bog-standard gunplay and routine jumpscare horror.
Most disappointing game: Where the Water Tastes Like Wine
The first few hours of Where the Water Tastes Like Wine took me delightedly back to my college American Literature courses, back to folktales and Frost poetry and dreams of Manifest Destiny. When it comes to simply telling tales and exploring how stories evolve, Good Shepherd's tale about tales captures life, struggle, and the how humans tell their stories and explain their world with some of the most fantastic writing I've come across in games.
But the disappointment lies in the execution. Between the folds of its numerous narratives, I was forced to drag my slow, skeleton player character for hours across empty stretches of the US map to the tune of the same (admittedly excellent) theme song sung in different styles for different regions. Then, when the story took up its next beat halfway across the country, back I trudged.
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine sacrificed how the player experiences stories for the stories themselves. Were it a short story collection, I'd be able to praise it better.
Personal Game of the Year: The Banner Saga 3
Beautifully rendered art reminiscent of grimy '80s cartoons, a deceitfully deep strategic combat system, and some of the finest writing in games, The Banner Saga 3 offers more of the same in the best possible way.
"Saving the world is the bread and butter of video game storytelling, but so rarely does it feel like the world needs saving"
Unlike many video game trilogies, The Banner Saga tells a single story, rather than three loosely connected ones. While it's technically broken up into three games, each instalment is more like a chapter of the same work than a separate entity, and yet each manages to feel distinctly unique.
While The Banner Saga is effectively a visual novel broken up with turn-based combat, Stoic Entertainment has achieved so much with the limited structure. From evoking the uncomfortable sense of being relentlessly pursued, to witnessing the world falling apart at its very seams, The Banner Saga trilogy is a masterpiece.
Saving the world is the bread and butter of video game storytelling, but so rarely does it feel like the world needs saving. In the Banner Saga, and most notably the third game, the sense that world has been irreparably damaged lingers, and any wistful thoughts of the past are mired by the stark realisation that everything is different now.
The Banner Saga 3 is a fitting end to the series and left me reeling for days, contemplating how I could have done things differently.
Most Surprising Game of the Year: Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden
Looking at the art direction, complete with a cartoonish anthropomorphic duck literally waddling around a glum post-apocalyptic world, I was fully expecting Mutant Year Zero to be a dud. But much to my surprise, The Bearded Ladies somehow glued those disparate elements together in a way which is both genuinely heartfelt and effortlessly funny.
It manages to be a tense and gruelling experience of tactical turn-based combat, survival, and stealth. Here again, The Bearded Ladies took ideas that shouldn't work together, and made something special.
A little wonky in places, Mutant Year Zero is pretty unforgiving, and it takes hours to fully grasp the more nuanced elements. But once all the pieces slot into place and you can stalk through areas putting down enemies with ruthless efficiency before pulling off a meticulously planned ambush on the big baddy, that's when the magic happens. It's an absolute gem.
Most Disappointing: 2018
I didn't offer up any notable mentions above, because it's been slim pickings and all of the best games I've played (or re-played) in 2018 are from years gone by.
"Overall, 2018 has been a damp squib peppered with crowd-pleasures that, while obviously good, just aren't for me"
It was quite the opposite when looking at disappointing games however. From the drudgery of Hitman 2 through to the bloated return of Guacamelee, it's impossible to nail down a real winner here.
Call of Cthulhu was a prime contender, just because I had genuinely expected something better than the shallow, incoherent mess that was the final game. And Fallout 76 was also in the running, but the series hasn't been good since New Vegas, so it was more of a grim acceptance than disappointment, though the sheer scope of its failings are truly remarkable.
Obviously we had God of War, Spider-Man, Red Dead Redemption II, and Assassin's Creed Odyssey, all of which will doubtless appear on a dozen Game of the Year lists before 2018 is finally taken out back and shot. But the size and detail of these games isn't enough to make them interesting.
Nothing has matched the lurid violence of Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, the elegant design of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, or the wonderful weirdness of Nier: Automata. Overall, 2018 has been a damp squib peppered with crowd-pleasures that, while obviously good, just aren't for me.
Personal Game of the Year: Marvel's Spider-Man
Marvel's Spider-Man is everything I want out of a modern AAA game. It takes the established open-world AAA formula, applies it to a gorgeous facsimile of New York City and makes the simple act of travelling from place to place a compelling and almost joyous experience. That was the very heart of the game as far as I was concerned. The rest could have been substandard at best and I probably still would have finished the game and enjoyed the experience.
"Marvel's Spider-Man takes the open-world AAA formula, applies it to a gorgeous facsimile of New York and makes travelling from place to place an almost joyous experience"
Fortunately, Insomniac isn't big on "substandard." The environment and movement may be the star attractions here, but the supporting cast (combat, side activities, narrative) is every bit as essential to Marvel's Spider-Man as Aunt May or Mary Jane is to Peter Parker. Insomniac gets closer to the modern comic book Spider-Man vibe closer than any previous adaptation came to any version of the character from the printed page. From the at-times melodramatic main storyline to the sometimes goofy side stuff to the obnoxious mid-fight one-liners, the game operates within the well-established boundaries for the character, yet never feels restricted or lacking in room to play with the characters and premise. It embraced the classic themes and tone of the character and made them feel eternally relevant rather than interminably rehashed.
I've seen enough AAA open-world games and Spider-Man adaptations to know that both ideas are rife with pitfalls for developers. A game mixing the two, where every aspect lives on a spectrum between "brilliant" and "merely excellent," doesn't just happen, no matter how talented the developers or how high the budget. Well done, Insomniac.
Honorable Mentions: Wandersong, Night in the Woods, Flinthook, Yoku's Island Express
Most Surprising Game of the Year: Hollow Knight
Count me among the ignorant masses who didn't have Hollow Knight on their radar until the game was released on Switch in the middle of the E3 Nintendo Direct video. I'm not typically big on Metroidvania (Yoku's Island Express earned an honorable mention because its pinball proficiency offset its Metroidvania leanings), but Hollow Knight's stunning visuals were the spoonful of medicine I needed to wash the backtracking-intensive game design down.
I never finished it, of course. My corpse is still lying somewhere in the inky blackness of uncharted territory on an exploration run so long just thinking about trying to track it down again makes me tired. But for a Metroidvania that came out of nowhere (for me), I enjoyed it far more than I would have thought.
Most Disappointing Game: Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite
I know it came out in 2017, but the initial reviews kept me on the sidelines until this year, and I kind of wish I had stayed there. As a fan of both Marvel and Capcom and someone who counts Marvel vs. Capcom 2 among my favorite games ever, I felt like I'd probably find something to like here. I was wrong.
I can't even narrow down what exactly didn't work for me about this game because it seemed like nothing did. The art style, the roster, the campaign mode, the infinity gems game mechanic... I just wasn't interested in any of it. I know it's here as my "most disappointing" game, but I'm actually having a hard time ascribing any strong feelings to it at all. Mostly I'm just curious how something that seemed targeted so precisely for my tastes wound up so far from the mark.
Don't forget -- you can hear more about our choices in the latest episode of The GamesIndustry.biz Podcast.