2020 seems to have earned the title for “most hated/worst year in recent history”, eclipsing that honor from 2016. A combination of climate disaster, ongoing pandemic, depressing and infuriating election cycle and a decline in mental wellbeing from being cooped up at home due to one of those former reasons.
Video games have generally been able to weather the storm better than other mediums due to being played and purchasable from home. Still, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the industry going into the new year by causing the new generation of hardware in the Xbox Series X and especially PlayStation 5 to be notoriously out of stock. Many games slated for release in 2021 remain without release date for reasons that mostly stem from a similar issue.
As for the games that I played, two of them were not able to make the list, the rest reaching the top five. Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War is a very troubled yet competent entry in the never-ending military shooter and the remake of 1999’s Resident Evil 3 is the one genuine disappointment I experienced, made more bitter by not even being bad, just astonishingly unambitious at meeting the same amount of content of the PS1 classic.
It hasn’t tarnished my high hopes for this year’s Resident Evil 8: Village nor any other coming Resident Evil project including the very likely remake of the beloved fourth, though I am considerably reserved for that happening at all since the original doesn’t scream update save graphically and even then.
Before I officially delve cautiously and wallet-allowing in to 2021’s offerings, most now with that next gen new car smell, It’s time to honor the five best games I played in a particularly soul crushing period of history.
5: Ghost of Tsushima ( PS4, Sucker Punch)
Ghost of Tsushima is the most refreshing yet familiar experience you could ask of a game that I know of from last year. It is mechanically taken from other open world/sandbox checklist titles like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry with near endless things on the map to find and do.
Mongol outposts to destroy, feudal Japanese villages to liberate, foxes to follow to sacred alcoves, bamboo to cut, Shinto shrines to navigate perilous paths to and my favorite, hot springs to sit in and just think about what you’re doing and relax from the grind that is inevitable in an experience like this.
The, at times, overwhelming familiarity of open-world design philosophy is tempered by an absolute commitment to immersing you in 13th century Japan. Of making you both a master samurai and a pioneer in ninjitsu, or at least the ninjitsu we wished was real rather than the much more mundane historical truth.
Through this gorgeously realized island, you ride swiftly as the wind literally directs you to where you have decided on the map to go next. You encounter your enemies and often find facing them honorably and openly more rewarding than the rebellious stealthy manner that is the titular conceit.
Being able to experience the entire game with Japanese vocals and Kurosawa’s black and white colors, you tackle Jin’s well told story of forgoing honor to save his people or perhaps crafting a new standard of honor that Japan may one day adapt. You experience a grand story told by Americans but clearly respectful of another nation’s history and culture. Considering a Japanese company owns Seattle based studio Sucker Punch, they certainly had some help in keeping their aim as true as Jin’s.
In spite of the inconsistent quality of enemy intelligence when confronting them with stealth, the monotony that will set in if all the non-story content gets in your path, and more than a few unwelcome reminders that Ghost of Tsushima is running on increasingly outdated hardware, it is still an achievement.
An achievement in visual fidelity to a time long since passed, to a style of fighting and living that is basically gone for all intents and purposes. In being a story that is all of these things but still having the courage to call this fascinating culture out when it needs to. Ghost of Tsushima is in immersion forward thinking. In just about everything else, its successor on the PS5 will need to follow Jin’s example and break with tradition if it wants to truly astonish me like it did so many others last year.
4: Doom Eternal (PS4, Id Software)
Doom Eternal, in spite of its very brawny college try, can’t conjure up in me the same enthusiasm I had for the shockingly amazing 2016 reboot of Doom we didn’t think we wanted but most certainly got. It most likely stems from how Eternal ups the demand from the player in ways that can distract from enjoying the cathartic thrills of eviscerating demons great and small.
As the Doom Slayer, revealed to be the same space marine badass of the 90s originals, you must be more mindful towards the health, ammo and armor you collect as you fight and explore as it can feel as if you’re not so much dominating the battlefields but surviving it. A near constant need to replenish your resources rather than enjoy the satisfaction of dodging, circumnavigating and destroying messily your foes. To a fault, Doom Eternal demands commitment and it will accept no shortcuts.
The slayer’s journey to drive the armies of hell from earth and ideally all existence takes you through destroyed metropolises on Earth, shiny white( save for the blood) laboratories on the moons orbiting Mars, Nordic, cyber-medieval realities full of high-rise sized mech robots, the very infernal depths of hell and even an offputting, eerily empty heaven.
It’s such authentic bombast that anything that can be construed as stupid is immediately tossed out the window for criticism because of how truly earnest its intentions are to be not just true to Doom’s tenets but to the tenets of the heavy metal culture that inspired the series.
Save for Jack Black’s Brutal Legend, there is no game out there that makes you live out a Metallica, Megadeth or Slayer album quite like Doom Eternal. It’s validation for a musical genre that many then and now dismissed or even feared for matters of supposed moral panic. It’s an imperfect masterpiece of first person destruction that will try it’s best to make you master hand eye coordination. It’s not always nice, but it is never not gnarly. Never untrue to itself or its forebears.
Not perfectly balanced, as it should be, but so long as there’s demons somewhere out there, the Slayer will be there to improve himself and most importantly, you.
3: Final Fantasy VII Remake (PS4, Square-Enix)
It’s funny to think of any outstanding work in a series being its seventh entry, but despite earlier acclaimed titles in its ironically never ending series, 1997’s Final Fantasy VII became a watershed title in widely introducing audiences globally to the Japanese Role Playing Game. It made titles like IV and VI much more popular and established in the minds of many that Final Fantasy was the premiere franchise for the JRPG.
That belief has waned due to wild inconsistency as the years and sequels piled up, but the remake of VII has done wonders to grab people’s attention once more and thankfully for the right reasons. Despite only recreating and somewhat controversially reimagining only the opening hours of the original into a full length game, it leaves you desperately excited to see how Cloud and his band of freedom fighters’ journey will go as the original classic is forged into a hopefully amazing sub-series all its own. I can only hope it doesn’t take too many installments to fully rebirth this story.
My adulation is all the more topical due to how I only first played the original FF7 in its PS1 glory a few months before the release of the Remake. I had known for a long time that FF7 was a major game in history, especially in helping push the original PlayStation to eventually dominate its generation over then king, Nintendo. Playing it for myself and really appreciating the of-its-time visual and audio quality was a novel experience, in much the same way I’ve experienced the first three Resident Evils and the original Metal Gear Solid.
Sure, the original FF7 is a dated looking and playing game but in some aspects it’s held up better than you would think for a 24 year old experience. But yet, a visual, mechanical overhaul was much desired by the fanbase and we finally got… the first part at least.
In spite of only covering what will in most players experience be the first six or so hours of the original and making it into a 30 plus hour game, FF7 Remake accommodates by fleshing out better the beautiful yet distinctly dystopian cyberpunk city of Midgar.
It’s a city of two halves, one above, the other below, with the ruthless Shinra power company in complete control. A blond somewhat mopey mercenary ends up on an adventure that is as grandiose as it is harrowing. FF7 Remake balances nostalgia for the original game while still considering the future wisely especially in its excellent, addicting real time combat that demands a tactical mindset.
As Cloud and old friends like Barret, Tifa and Aerith navigate through Midgar, you are given a gorgeously updated soundtrack to the original while not being afraid to introduce some brand new compositions. It is the clear winner for best game score in a year that was replete with many great soundtracks.
It’s set-up for the follow-ups is as enticing as it is frustrating for some longtime FF7 fans, who weren’t so keen on the game’s meta commentary on purity to source material. It leaves me eager to see old moments set later in the game given new life, especially the gaudy but gigantic amusement park known as the Golden Saucer.
This epic title was a grandiose prelude to not just the most ambitious remake attempt ever but a sign that Final Fantasy still has something to prove to its contemporaries, east or west.
2: Cyberpunk 2077 (PC, CD Projekt Red)
Cyberpunk 2077 in the state it’s in now is as exhilarating as it is obnoxiously inconsistent. When the game is more or less performing as intended, it is a remarkable success in scope and attention to detail, especially in character and narrative. Even then, despite the high placement on this list, I can’t feel it is a genre pushing work.
Considering this is Polish developer CD Projekt Red’s first time working on a sci-fi future role playing game rather than a medieval high fantasy one like the Witcher trilogy, this is for the time being more than forgivable. If I’m being brutally honest, I much prefer this to any of Geralt of Rivia’s adventures from the Witcher. The combat with guns and hacking doesn’t drive me to sleep for one.
It can be seen as a talented studio’s own take on the kind of sci-fi rpg that was once Deus Ex’s domain. Much of the systems of play are similar to it from different avenues to approaching challenges, through open combat or stealth, through dialogue options that are tailored by the custom build of your hero based on the branches of talents you have chosen and three different backgrounds.
As V, you can be a street kid, growing up on the very mean streets of dystopian cyber-metropolis Night City. Or, you can be from higher wealth and part of the terribly powerful corporate world who are the true players in politics. Or or, you can be a nomad, once part of a family of survivors out in the desert wastelands who goes it alone to find fortune and glory in NC.
How you interact with the various denizens of Night City, in true CD Projekt Red fashion, can have surprising, wide ranging effects on yourself, others and the city. You can mold a hard survivor with a caring core, a ruthless sociopath, a person with a mixed nature often correlating your behavior based on the situation or a person that is perhaps as close to yourself as you wish.
You can fall in love, have no one love you or just be a friend among peers. What is constant in your relationships is Johnny Silverhands, a rock artist/ anti-corporate terrorist/freedom fighter played breathtakingly by Keanu Reeves, ever ready with a sardonic comment. I won’t spoil even at this late date how Johnny comes to be your companion, but it forges the core conflict V faces, one as thought-provoking as it is existentially horrifying.
Your opinion on just about anything from Johnny to friends, foes and everyone inbetween is given proper agency by how you mold V. It is this narrative cohesion that makes Cyberpunk 2077 a hard game to put down amidst the ever insistent bugs, glitches and yet to be patched errors that continue to plague an experience that was definitely taken out of the oven too soon.
Yes, those moments can break well-cultivated immersion and focus. It only takes reloading a save to address most of those problems when they pop up but it still shouldn’t have to be that way, especially with all the anticipation the game cultivated leading up to release.
I will do a full review once I’ve completed my second playthrough, but I will say that Cyberpunk 2077, on a strong enough PC, is a must play. With one hell of an asterisk attached.
1: The Last of Us part II (PS4, Naughty Dog)
If ever there was a work in recent memory that re-affirmed the notion that art and our impression of it is subjective, it is The Last of Us part II. It is both the wrong game for 2020 and yet at the same time the perfect one.
I have played it three times, each time more enlightening about the big picture Naughty Dog is trying to express yet is falling on I fear too many deaf ears. Considering the outcry over it winning game of the year at several awards show, especially the prominent The Game Awards, I imagine many believe earnestly that this game is indeed a severely overrated title.
This is a game that toys with your emotions on a regular basis, asks, it seems too much, of its playerbase with regards to sympathy and empathy for its diversely motivated cast in relation to one another. It challenges presumptions on the nature of revenge stories and how they are almost never as black and white as we have largely been made to see them. It does so by having you play half the game as Protagonist Ellie’s target of vengeance: Abby, the killer of Joel, Ellie’s adoptive father and first game’s protagonist.
I would like to think that this game would’ve gone over a little better before the dire events of 2020 clouded everyone’s state of mind. After all, is it not the point that a game is meant to be escapist, to help us get away from the very real fears and pain that year gave us and has spilled over into 2021?
The Last of Us part II certainly does transport us into a convincing post-apocalyptic world where the dangers from the infected are just as harrowing as the hardened survivors. This is easily the most visually impressive game for the PlayStation 4, a beautiful swan song alongside Ghost of Tsushima in sending off a system that perhaps pulled off more than its hardware could ultimately chew. After all, my PS4 just died on me.
All that being said, the discourse over TLOU2 has made me very, very bitter. So much so, I try my best to avoid any videos or discussions on it in fear of having a take that is wrathfully against it. My experience with the game paints it as such a harrowing yet watertight experience I don’t personally care for any rebukes even if they did come from an honest place.
There are some out there that are generally on the same page as me, at least letting me know I am not alone, Noah Caldwell Gervais being the best example. In fact, I will link the video Gervais did on both both Last of Us’ so you can peruse for yourself.
I don’t necessarilly agree with every last thing he says about The Last of Us series, but my god it is still a refreshing perspective compared to the bandwagon out there. Check out his other stuff as I strongly recommend it.
As much as it pains me that my game of the year is so despised, I do try to be accommodating to those out there who dislike it on grounds that it is honest and not part of some grift. If they earnestly felt a way about this game that is at odds from me, then what can I or anyone else say?
The Last of Us part II exudes emotion powerfully and it is in truth a rock solid companion piece to its predecessor. In some ways, I view it not unlike the Godfather part II, a much less problematic cinematic comparison then that one time someone compared it to Schindler’s List. Both are indeed dark and about the complexity of the human condition, but in starkly different ways.
I would like to think that more and more people will warm to Last of Us part II as the astoundingly bold and successful experiment it was in interactive storytelling, let alone a great expansion on the survival mechanics of shooting, sneaking and exploring as the first’s.
But if 2020 has taught us anything, few things if anything are certain anymore. A truly great game may forever be seen as something much lesser, and that’s a shame.