The Best & Worst Games of 2020
The fucking state of 2020.
This year, I was more grateful than ever for the comforting presence of video games. A place to escape; a place to be entertained. A place to be a Viking, do some eco-terrorism, swing a katana and partake in a cartoonish Sasuke. To match blocks, match colors and seek all-consuming revenge, in Seattle. A place to die and be reborn over and over again, get haptic-feedbacked to fuck, and help Jill get the hell out of Racoon City.
A place to play, escape and relax. Thank Odin for video games.
And we got new consoles too. After much frustration, I was able to get hold of both an Xbox Series X and a PS5. I've already gotten a lot of use out of the former, though I have hardly touched the latter. However, that's more down to the game(s) I've been playing the last two months rather than a reflection on the consoles themselves. It's been a half-start to this new generation for several reasons, but I'm glad we got there.
Here are the contemporary games I played in 2020, to completion or at least for a significant chunk of time.
Played: A Plague Tale: Innocence, Assassin's Creed Valhalla, Astro's Playroom, Burly Men at Sea, Burnout Paradise Remastered, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 Remastered, Call of Duty: WWIII, Control, Fall Guys, Final Fantasy VII Remake, Final Fantasy VIII Remastered, Final Fantasy XII The Zodiac Age, Forza Horizon 4, Ghost of Tsushima, Grindstone, Hades, Judgment, Luigi's Mansion 3, Mafia III, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, NBA 2K20, Red Faction Guerilla Re-Mars-tered, Resident Evil 3, Return of the Obra Dinn, Severed, Star Wars Battlefront II, Street Fighter 30th Anniversary Collection, Super Street Fighter IV, Tetris Effect Connected, The Last of Us Part II, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, Valkyria Chronicles 4, Yakuza Kiwami 2
Currently Playing: Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Streets of Rage 4
Bought but have yet to play: Demon's Souls, Yakuza: Like a Dragon
These are the best and worst games of 2020, according to me.
Have a very Happy New Year and enjoy your games
1. Game of the Year: Assassin's Creed Valhalla
2020 was light at the top, with only two games in the running for the most prestigious award on this most prestigious of blogs. Just two candidates, but they were both delightful.
Ghost of Tsushima was the open-world game I didn't know I needed. A beautiful exploration of a time and place in Japanese history that few of us are familiar with. A quiet and thoughtful experience that also isn't afraid of being a very silly video game, asking us to slice limbs, track down collectibles and man hilariously anachronistic missile turrets. Much like my top selection, I continued to play long after the main narrative drew to a close, which is something I very rarely do.
I initially had scant interest in AC Valhalla. The historical periods and locations of Assassin's Creed have long been the primary draw, but Vikings and Saxon England have never interested me, despite my love of history. When I picked it up, I did so on a whim, as I wanted something AAA-y to enjoy on my brand new Xbox Series X. That turned out to be a very good decision indeed.
I have spent seventy hours and counting in AC Valhalla. I have wrapped up the story and the secondary narrative threads, but continue to roam the forests and towns of England and the fjords of Norway. There is so much to do and see, and while I do generally prefer tighter games, I love the scope of Valhalla. In every way, Assassin's Creed has gone fully Witcher 3, and I am very much here for it.
I took to the lead characters almost immediately. Eivor, Sigurd, Randvi, Basim et al. They are well-written and well voiced. They are products of their time, supremely violent people who take what they desire, yet they are still a likable bunch. They live by the axe, but their love of community and adherence to a strict set of values redeems them. Their link to the godly-realm, to precursor races and technologically-advanced ancients is an integral part of the story yet is never overbearing, unlike in the otherwise excellent Odyssey. I actually enjoyed the sojourns to mythical realms and was satisfied with the answers they provided and the mysteries they left unsolved.
The axe swinging is extremely satisfying. The skill upgrades are mostly window dressing, as are new sets of armor. I stuck with the same Raven threads from start to finish and paid little mind to what skills I was upgrading, content to pump points into any ability so as to raise my overall power level. Story arcs have suggested power levels, but unlike Odyssey and Origins, they are not that rigid. I was regularly entering areas well above my current level, but the missions I found there were not at all impossible, just more challenging. This eliminated my biggest grievance with the last two AC. Side missions appear more organically and within the flow of the game, and are often more lighthearted than events elsewhere. Everything in Valhalla is accessible and very inviting.
Valhalla has fostered an interest in an era that I have largely ignored in the past. The history in Valhalla is one that runs deep in the area in which I grew up, the Mercia of Valhalla, and it has inspired me to start reading about this period in English history. In this way, Valhalla will stay with me long after the game goes back on the shelf.
This might be my favourite-ever Assassin's Creed. Considering how much I adore AC2, that's high praise indeed.
Honourable Mention: Ghost of Tsushima
2. Best Pre-2020 Game Played for the First Time: Return of the Obra Dinn
As is often the case, this is the most stacked category of my yearly awards. Spurred on by the coming of new consoles, I did a lot of backlog-busting this year. Mafia III, A Plague Tale: Innocence, Judgment. and Yakuza Kiwami 2 are all great, but Return of the Obra Dinn is something special, an unforgettable and unrepeatable experience. It's hard to believe that such an engaging tale can be spun in such a confined space and be unconstrained by its 1-bit monochromatic graphical style. If anything, the experience is all the better for its simple yet distinctive visuals. I was enthralled from start to finish.
Honourable Mentions: Mafia III, A Plague Tale: Innocence
3. My Daughter's Game of the Year: Animal Crossing New Horizons
This was the year that I got kicked off my Switch, as my daughter found her first favourite video game. I'll let her tell it: "I love Animal Crossing because I can choose my character and make it myself. I can make my own clothes and I can do parties like New Year, Christmas and Halloween. We don't know which character is coming but it's fun. Pinky and Shari are my favourites because Pinky is pink and Shari is a little monkey, and I like it. I can buy stuff and choose wallpaper and make it on the phone. And there's still more. It's got lots of animals, I like animals, and it's fun. Last one, I like putting things on my house door." Out of the mouths of babes.
Honourable Mention: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
4. Best Revisit: Uncharted 4
I was in the mood for some Uncharted, so I revisited both Uncharted 4 and Lost Legacy in 2020. Lost Legacy was pretty much what I remembered it being, a fast-paced and thoroughly entertaining romp, but U4 surprised me. I enjoyed it far more this time around. It still has pacing issues, and the writing isn't quite as sharp as previous outings, but it's so much fun. I love the settings, the pirate shenanigans, and feel that Sam was a worthwhile addition. I was reminded how much I adore the series, as if I needed reminding, and how it is the antithesis of ND's other big series, TLOU. Fingers crossed for the return of Nathan Drake a little later this gen.
Honourable Mentions: Burnout Paradise Remastered, Uncharted Lost Legacy
5. Best Good Yet Strangely Forgettable Game: Final Fantasy VII Remake
I got got caught up in Remake mania earlier in the year. I preordered my copy and made countless entries in the 7-11 raffles, collecting piles of branded tat before the game even came out. I bought magazines because they had Cloud on the cover and may have missed my train stop because I was enjoying the Remake Yamanote Line carriage a little too much. Suffice to say I was well-hyped for FFVII Remake.
In some ways it delivered; in others it did not. While I was conflicted on the experience at the time, I was certain it was one that would stay with me. That proved to be an inaccurate take. Writing this blurb is the most I've thought about Remake since playing it, and I have to really focus to recall much of it at all. Some parts do stand out, for example the opening and the characters. However, all that padding, backtracking and pointless side missions have melded into one, rendering the meat of the game a foggy half memory.
6. Best Gameplay Mechanic: Ghost of Tsushima Standoffs
Sometimes it's nice to storm a Mongol camp with no regard for Jin's safety. All bluster and swinging blades. Other times, you want to minimize the resistance you'll find inside, and that's where the standoff mode comes into play. When you first encounter a group of enemies, you'll be given the ability to initiate a standoff. A single enemy will draw their weapon, everything will go slow-mo, and you must wait for the moment they move to strike before drawing your blade and slicing them to shit. The number of kills you can chain in this method depends on the upgrades you've unlocked. It's satisfying, gory, and just tricky enough to not seem like a massive cheese. It also puts all focus on the power of Jin's blade and the skill with which he wields it - each swing is deliberate, graceful and lethal.
7. Best Characters: Final Fantasy VII Remake - Avalanche and friends
I'm always wary when it comes to voicing previously muted characters, but here it worked. The casting and writing brought these characters to life in a way that I was not expecting. Cloud was perfectly understated, Tifa was 100% Tifa, Aeris grew on me, and Barret was everything he should be. Cloud in particular could have gone terribly wrong, as a sulky, monosyllabic, generic RPG lead. Instead, he is a well-rounded yet reluctant hero, ever-protesting yet always the best at whatever he turns his hand to, including cabaret performances. Biggs, Wedge and Jessie took a larger role than expected, an increase that was warranted, and the Turks were portrayed as we've always viewed them, as villains but not entirely evil. Lastly, I was impressed by the last-minute inclusion of Red XIII. He is incorporated into the team seamlessly, and the decision to make him non-controllable was a wise one, removing the hassle of learning a new character so late in the day.
Honourable Mentions: Assassin's Creed Valhalla - Eivor; The Last of Us Part II - Abby
8. Worst Character: Final Fantasy VII Remake - Roche
While Remake may have had some of the best characters of 2020, it also had some of the worst. Roche was the main offender. A brash renegade, he is the dregs of JRPG character design. He arrives to much fanfare, only to disappear for much of the rest of the game, as if the director realized that he was a bag of shite and pulled the plug on subsequent scenes. It doesn't help his cause that he is attached to one of the worst sections in the entire game.
Dishonourable Mention: FFVII Remake - Chocobo Bill
9. Best World: Assassin's Creed Valhalla
My two homes, England and Japan, were the settings of my two favourite games this year. Whereas Tsushima feels like a million miles from my current home in the Greater Tokyo area, Valhalla was far more familiar. Much of the early-game action centres on what is now Northamptonshire and Leicestershire, which is right on my old doorstep.
I took great pleasure in recognizing place and river names, and trying to figure out where exactly the M1 should be. The landscape of Saxon England is varied and beautiful, and the depiction of its people living within the ruins of Rome set my imagination racing. I'd never stopped to consider how later generations might have perceived their predecessors. How they might have thrived living off the corpse of imperial Rome; how they kept its infrastructure and repurposed its architecture, instead of tearing it down. The world of AC Valhalla was more than just a canvas for icons and mischief.
Honourable Mention: Ghost of Tsushima
10. Best Music: Final Fantasy VII Remake
The original FFVII score was sublime. Remake did the right thing and just tweaked it, retaining what we all loved while also giving it a slight twist for 2020. I found Remake to be a game of conflicts. For every right there was a prominent wrong, but the score was just excellent. No need for handwringing or balanced arguments. It was simply very good.
11. Best Seasons: Ghost of Tsushima
Just like real Japan, Ghost of Tsushima has very clearly defined and rather beautiful seasons. Four of them, to be precise. You are probably already aware of this, thanks to the criminal overuse and oversharing of the photo mode that made my Twitter feed very samey for a solid month over the summer. Anyway, it is striking and made all the more effective by the dynamic weather system that adjusts according to how Ghost-like you are behaving. Through the pink of the sakura, the resplendent greens of summer, deep reds of autumn and the sheets of winter white, Ghost of Tsushima is a glorious celebration of seasonal colours.
12. Biggest Disappointment: Control
I'm cheating a little here, as Control was a 2019 release, but none of the 2020 games I played were a disappointment, per say. So I'm going to go with Remedy's reality-bending adventure. Control wasn't bad, but it failed to deliver on a wildly promising premise. It should've been so much better, yet I spent much of it bored, teased by a potential that was never fulfilled. A shame, as I really wanted to like it.
Dishonourable Mention: Not being able to murder more monks during AC Valhalla monastery raids
13. Biggest Surprise: Hades
AC Valhalla could've scooped this award, but for the sake of variety I'll opt for Hades instead. It isn't really my kind of game, but I'd heard too many good things and was in need of something I could play portably on my Switch. Honestly, I'm not that fussed about the gameplay - it's fine - but the art direction, the characters and the voice acting won me over. Each conversation was a little slice of joy.
Honourable Mention: Assassin's Creed Valhalla
14. Most Concise: Resident Evil 3
RE3 doesn't even know the meaning of padding. I'm not saying it's thick, just very concise and well-paced. It does everything you want it to in a tight six hours and was a breath of fresh air in a year where every game wanted to be a fifty-hour epic. It's nice to start a game on a Monday and know you'll be finished with it, and very satisfied, by Sunday. Thank you Jill for not hanging around, and thank you Nemesis for nipping at her heels.
15. Standout Moment: Final Fantasy VII Remake - Midgar Opening
I love what Square Enix did with the opening scene. In parts, they stayed faithful to the original, and in others they gave us new glimpses into a city we thought we knew. If you have any fondness for the source material, you'll likely get goosebumps as the camera swoops in and out of Midgar. The city bathed in Mako, the rousing music, then the speeding train; finally Cloud perched atop the carriage. As a piece of reworked nostalgia, Remake is sublime.
Honourable Mentions: The Last of Us Part II - space shuttle; Ghost of Tsushima - final duel; Assassin's Creed Valhalla - raids
16. Most Devoid of Joy: The Last of Us Part II
The Last of Us Part II is a special experience. It is polished beyond compare, mature, and pushes the boundaries of video game storytelling. I was in awe of TLOU2, but I can't say I particularly enjoyed it. It paints a very bleak picture of humanity, is unrelenting in its depiction of violence and never wavers from it's staunch belief that everyone is capable of committing atrocious acts. Violence begets violence, and there is no redemption to be found here. The Last of Us Part II may be a watershed moment in video games, but it's one I will never revisit.
17. Biggest Winner: History in Games
As we have already established, I love history. I love the way it's old and shit, yet also interesting. I also love video games, something that has also been established several hundred times over the last decade. AC Valhalla and Ghost of Tsushima took me to fascinating eras that I have never explored. Sure, they took very liberties with the truth, but through the names and places they featured they inspired new curiosities. In Hades, I was given a welcome refresher of Greek mythology, and Return of the Obra Dinn went above and beyond in its attention to detail regarding the ins-and-outs of an early nineteenth century merchant ship. In Mafia III, I visited a time and place far more modern but no less fascinating, and I could almost smell medieval France in A Plague Tale: Innocence.
18. Biggest Loser: CD Projekt Red
Christ, what a train wreck. Cyberpunk 2077 was one of my most anticipated games of the last few years, yet I haven't even bothered buying a copy let alone playing it. Constant delays, reports of unending crunch and poor working conditions, and ultimately a product so buggy that it was pulled from the PS Store. After Witcher 3, CDPR was the studio that could do no wrong, until they did pretty much everything wrong. A pity.
19. Tiny Thing that Bothered me the most: Hades' Zagreus addressing men as "sir"
If you are British, there are three very specific situations in which you would call someone sir. At school, when addressing your teacher; in the army, probably, or when you are detained at her majesty's pleasure and are speaking to one of the filth, probably in the 1960s. "No sir, it was Robson who shanked Phillips in the shower". Otherwise, you're not addressing anyone as sir. Americans call people sir, and they are welcome to keep that word. Zagreus is British Greek, apparently, and should not be calling Achilles anything but Achilles, or possibly mate. Supergiant Games really need to get their shit together. Mate.
20. Fastest Shelving: Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales
I am very fond of Witcher 3, but I've never been one for card games. I wasn't sure which of those two truths would win out, but unfortunately it turned out to be the latter. I played a couple of hours, after which I was no clearer on what I was supposed to be doing and not at all invested in the story. The extremely Yorkshire accents didn't help matters either.
21. Most Addictive: Grindstone
A just-one-more-level classic. I redeemed my Apple Arcade one-month trial earlier this year and bounced off most of what I tried, with Grindstone being the exception. It's colourful, intense, cartoonishly violent and very moreish. The perfect game for short-burst sessions that always turn into something far longer. I'm very tempted to pick it up on Switch and climb that mountain again.
Honourable Mention: Fall Guys
22. Best Multiplayer: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
My family and I only discovered MK8 Deluxe this year. It filled the two months between my daughter's brief obsession with Street Fighter and her more complete infatuation with Animal Crossing. The steering assist was invaluable in making the races competitive, though I think I was the only one focused on the podium - everyone else just wanted to have fun. A family of losers.
Honourable Mention: Fall Guys
23. Most Cringe-inducing: Ghost of Tsushima's Kurosawa Mode
How can you even say that with a straight face? It's Kurosawa because it's black and white and has a samurai in it? They should've called the full-colour parts Zwick Mode, after the director of The Last Samurai, a colour movie about some samurai. In fact, I have already been doing that, loudly. I think my wife is going to leave me.
24. Wish I'd Made Time For: Yakuza Like a Dragon
In a fairly light year for GOTY contenders, this may have been Yakuza's best opportunity yet to take the top spot. I've been playing Yakuza games since Y3, sometimes in English and sometimes in Japanese, and the series has become a contemporary favourite. I was delighted to see so many people playing and enjoying it this year, and wish I could have joined them. My Xbox Series X arriving earlier than expected, and AC Valhalla lasting far longer than I had anticipated, sunk any chances of my playing Yakuza 7 in 2020. I'll get on that in the New Year, promise.
Honourable Mention: Demon's Souls
25. Most Looking Forward to in 2021: Mass Effect Legendary Edition
Let us celebrate the arrival of new, powerful hardware by re-playing a trilogy of games from two generations past! I really do fancy a Mass Effect re-run, and in the absence of a most-anticipated brand new game, I'm happy with this choice.
Honourable Mention: Resident Evil Village, Monster Hunter Rise, No More Heroes III