I think this was a pretty good year for games, but too many of them were packed into the last few months. That’s a shame. Still, I played as many as I could. I could play more games, but only if I was willing to give each one less attention and analysis. Since long-form analysis is kinda my thing, I think I need to stick to playing a lot of a little rather than playing a little of a lot.
Anyway, here are a few of the top games I played in 2018. As always, try not to read too much into the ordering. I tried to arrange these games in order of ascending appreciation, but that’s not an exact measure. If you ask me to repeat this list in the summer of 2019, I might give you a different list.
Also, last year I decided that games become eligible on the year when I play them instead of the year of release. I spend a lot of time playing games a year or two out of date and I think they should still be included in the conversation.
Honorable Mention: BattleTech
I didn’t play this until late December. I’ve spent quite a few hours with it, but I still feel like I’ve barely gotten anywhere with the story. I can’t really give the game a full review or an unqualified recommendation when I’ve seen so little of it, but I feel like I should acknowledge what a pleasant surprise this was.
It feels a lot like the original X-Com game. Time passes freely while you’re at your base scheduling repairs, trading for gear, and hiring fresh recruits. Then you enter an encounter and the game switches to turn-based.
If the prevailing trends in gaming are anything to go by, this game is not for everyone. It’s dense with lore. It has dialog that the player must read instead of having it read to them by voice actors. While the art is fantastic, it’s also minimalist. The story is told through brief sections of narration over illustrations rather than Hollywood-style motion-capped cutscenes.
Rather than having a freeform skill tree of minuscule bonuses to create a “no wrong answer” approach to player progression, these systems are deep and interconnected. You can’t just look at two magic swords and choose whichever one has the higher numbers. If you want to maximize your effectiveness then you have to understand the mechs, how they move, how their weapons work, what their tradeoffs are, and how all of this is impacted by terrain. As far as I can tell, you can’t faceroll through the game by grinding. If you want to get anywhere, you need to learn these systems. The game isn’t designed to make you feel powerful, it’s designed to simulate a very fussy and technical style of tabletop game.
For the vast majority of gamers, this game is the opposite of what they want. But for a few of you, this might be everything you’ve been asking for. I know publishers have been ignoring you for years because they would all rather fight over the same broad demographic rather than specialize. If the movie industry worked the way the games industry does, everyone would be making superhero action comedies and nobody would be making rom-coms, murder mysteries, historical dramas, mockumentaries, thrillers, or dark comedies.
Sorry. Once again I was on a rant about how the people running this industry don’t know what they’re doing. I feel like all of my gripes eventually lead back to that same source.
The point is that this is an unusual game. It’s probably not for you, but if it is for you then it’s very specifically for you and you should check it out as soon as possible.
The loading screens are horrendous, though.
As you’ve probably already noticed, I have a weak spot for bright colors and pumping electronic music. I’m always searching for another hypnotic experience like Lumines, Chime, or Ultratron. If you want to sell me a game, just asset flip some random garbage, cover it in neon lights, and give it a techno soundtrack. Even if the ratings are all negative and reviews complain that the game formatted their hard drive, I’ll probably buy it anyway. I have no self-control.
Maybe it’s a stretch putting this on my best-of-2018 list. I liked it, but I’m mostly bringing it up because it makes a nice contrast with the lamentable Antigraviator. Like Antigraviator, this game features you racing along a track at extreme speeds. Unlike that game, the track curves gently so you can see things coming at you and get a sense of scale and speed.
It’s more a rhythm game than a driving game. You have to hit buttons and lean into curves in time with the patterns it throws at you. Based on the title of “Thumper” I was expecting high-speed techno beats. Instead the music was more like an imposing high-speed synth dirge. The rhythm in this game is based on visual cues and doesn’t really come from the music, which doesn’t even feature traditional percussion.
It’s really different. Worth checking out. Just don’t be fooled by the title and go in expecting a banger.
6. Pako 2
Pako 2 takes the old-school police chase mechanics of the original 2D Grand Theft Auto games, adds a nice physics engine so the driving feels good, and then renders the whole thing in a lovely minimalist low-poly style. I love it.
The game is actually a roguelike. You pick up some criminals at a job and drive them to their safehouse. Then you go get more criminals. The longer you go, the stronger the police response gets. It starts with just a couple of cop cars halfheartedly following you around, but eventually it escalates until you’ve got a whole mass of various police vehicles riding your bumper while a helicopter prowls overhead and everyone is shooting at you.
It’s a game of brinkmanship. You’ve got a score multiplier that goes up after every delivery. If you can get to the edge of the map you can escape and keep all of your winnings. If you get killed or captured, you lose a chunk of your hard-fought cash. So you have an incentive to push it as far as you can and then flee when your car is about to fall apart.
Between runs, you can use your banked winnings to upgrade your vehicles or buy new ones. As you go, you’ll unlock new locations. The maps are incredibly varied, from icy winter towns, to big cities, to deserts, to sun-drenched islands.
I have three very small gripes with the game:
- The difficulty curve is… odd. The vast majority of maps have awful insta-kill hazards like cliffs. At top speed, by the time the cliff is visible it’s too late to change direction. You can try to turn, but the police will shove you off. Other maps have lots of little edges and corners to get stuck on. Getting stuck is usually insta-death, since you’ll never get un-stuck before the police overwhelm you. The thing is, the second map (Misty Fields) is nice and open and doesn’t have any of these insta-death traps. The first map and the last map are the two hardest, and the second one is the easiest? I don’t get it.
- The muscle car is the best. It’s available for purchase very early in the game. You’ll eventually unlock literally dozens of new vehicles, but they’re all objectively inferior to the muscle car, despite the fact that a lot of them are significantly more expensive. Every vehicle is rated on a scale from 1-6 on speed, durability, and weapons. The muscle car is the only one with 6 in every category. A few other vehicles slightly edge out the muscle car in terms of hit points, but at the expense of a massive drop in speed and maneuverability. I can’t make sense of this design decision. If the other cars are for variety and novelty, then I wish their stats were a little more extreme. Nearly all of them fall into the mid-range band of “not bad, but not as good as the muscle car”. For some of the big vans I’d love to see models with insane hit points and weapons but garbage speed, just to see what that was like.
- You can’t adjust the camera during play. You have to go to the pause menu and dig down into the options to change your view. The close camera is nice for early in the run when you’re moving at slower speeds and you’re worried about finesse. Later in the run everything is mayhem and chaos and you want the camera further back so you can see things coming at top speed. As it stands, you sort of have to pick one mode and stick with it.
I love the pacing. Runs last a few minutes each. Some roguelikes can feel a little cruel when you die an hour and a half into a game. Pako 2 keeps it brisk and fun by making sure you’re never more than a few minutes from an amazing run. It’s not quite Hotline Miami in terms of short, frantic rounds, but it has the same pull that makes you think, “Ohhh. Almost had it that time. One more try.”
The art is beautiful. The music is exactly my kind of entrancing electronic beat. It’s charming and fun and even a little witty. Highly recommended.
See, right here is where I probably would have placed Nier: Automata if their game hadn’t crashed so much. I realize it was actually a 2017 game, but I played it in 2018 and I would have been happy to give it a spot on my list. Who knows? If I’d been able to see more of the game then maybe I would have rated it even higher.
But you can’t win if you don’t show up, and Neir’s technological narcolepsy managed to knock it off my playlist.
Maybe it seems odd to have a blank spot? If Nier doesn’t take this slot, shouldn’t I give it to something else? Okay then, let’s pick a different game for number 5.
5. Grand Theft Auto V
I played the PC version of this game for the first time here in 2018. Then again, I played the Playstation 4 version back in 2014, and the PC version isn’t THAT different. The game is certainly a big deal. And I’ll be the first to admit it’s a technological marvel. Then again, I wasn’t really a huge fan of the game itself. GTA V impressed me, but it’s not really a game I’m inclined to celebrate.
Yeah, this doesn’t work. Let’s give this spot to something else…
5. No Man’s Sky: NEXT
The NEXT update for No Man’s Sky was a big deal this year. I have to give it credit for being a massive improvement to the original game. On the other hand, it still isn’t particularly good. Rather than giving it a place on my favorites of 2018, I should really be giving it an award for “Most Improved Game of 2016”.
Okay, one more try…
5. Madden 2018
Just kidding. I don’t care about this game.
I don’t know who should get my #5 spot. I suppose I could re-number the list, but… nah. The numbers are all arbitrary anyway. Let’s just stick with my original idea of leaving the #5 spot blank.
That’s the first half of my list. Next week we’ll finish this up and say goodbye to 2018.
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