We’re at the end of the year, and that means I have to figure out my favorite games of the year for our annual GamesBeat Rewind. And that was tough. I played so much good stuff in 2018, and it didn’t help that a lot of those games came out just a couple of weeks ago.
But I’m really glad I get to do this because I think my list reflects how much gaming has changed. I doubt that anyone else in media is going to share my game of the year, and I think that’s awesome. We are in a time when it’s possible to find a game that is an ideal fit for you. So I don’t feel bad that games like Red Dead Redemption II or God of War didn’t click with me. Plenty of other people did love them, and yet I still had more than 10 games for my end-of-year list. That’s awesome.
14. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is the ideal example of an Ubisoft open-world map game. It gives you plenty to do, but it also doesn’t overwhelm you. Ubisoft’s design also never gets in your way. It just wants to enable you to go from one fun thing to the next with as little friction as possible, and I love that.
13. Astro Bot: Rescue Mission
Astro Bot feels like the mascot for virtual reality. And in the little robot’s first standalone game, we got to experience the potential for bringing traditional gameplay mechanics into a VR headset. And then the game play with all of the potential of VR by creating challenges that require you to look around or move your body. If I had to suggest one game for a skeptical gamer to learn to love VR, I would pick this one.
12. Marvel’s Spider-Man
When Insomniac Games revealed it was making Spider-Man, it only had to nail one thing: the swinging. And it did that. The swinging in this game is at least as good as it was in the classic Spider-Man 2 from 2004. And this is also one of the better Spider-Man stories as well, which makes it that much better.
11. Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is one of those December games that snuck up on me. I feel like it could be higher on this list if I had more time to play it. It’s an XCOM game with real-time stealth sections. And the better you do in the stealth sections, the better you’ll do the tactics portion of the gameplay. On top of that, it just has great characters with some sharp writing.
10. Forza Horizon 4
The Forza series is a series I’m still waiting to get sick of. I figured that would happen with Forza Horizon 4, but instead it’s the best entry in the franchise so far. A lot of that comes down to an excellent open world and rewarding progression. But also the game just feels better than ever as well.
Frostpunk is a city management game about one of the last cities in a world that has frozen over. As temperatures fall, it’s your job to ensure that your civilization has enough resources to survive. That means having enough people. And managing your citizens is where this game is at its best. For example, you can choose to put your people to work for longer hours or for even 24-hour shifts. But if you do that, you’ll have to deal with discontent. And it’s up to you to find ways to deal with that. Thankfully, Frostpunk gives you a lot of tools to do that, and they’re rarely an easy choice.
The first thing I ever heard about Celeste is that it is difficult. And it is. But it’s difficult in that exact right way where you want to get better at it. And with its incredible controls and instantaneous restarts, I was able to build up my skill and understanding to a point where I beat it. Now, I just need to do those B-sides. …
7. Return of the Obra Dinn
Obra Dinn is a game where you play as a claims adjuster. It sounds boring, but it’s actually one of the best murder-mystery simulators ever. Your job is to figure out who died and what killed them. To unravel those details, you get these still scenes of the moment each character died with some sounds and occasional dialogue. You then need to note every detail — like what a character is wearing, where they’re looking, or what they’re doing — to determine who is who. It’s a satisfying and unique gameplay mechanic that really blew me away.
6. Into the Breach
Into The Breach is a mech tactics game where you fight against an army of giant insects. It is turn-based, but it sets itself apart from something like Fire Emblem or XCOM by telling you exactly what your enemies are going to do on the next turn. This creates exhilarating situations where you might stare at the screen for 10 minutes before realizing the exact set of moves you need to make the perfect turn. Into The Breach creates those moments over and over, and it’s a game I plan to play for years.
5. Tetris Effect
Tetris is timeless, and Tetris Effect is essentially the same game we’ve played for more than 30 years now. What this game does that is special is meld the mechanics of Tetris with mesmerizing visuals, sounds, and music. It is often so beautiful that I was on the verge of tears.
4. Beat Saber
Beat Saber is a game about slicing apart boxes with lightsabers to the beat of a song. It doesn’t have a huge playlist. It doesn’t have an overabundance of modes. And it’s not the kind of experience that people would think of as a VR killer app. It’s even pretty similar to other VR games like Audioshield.
But Beat Saber is one of the best games of the year because it’s better than anything I’ve ever played at turning your body into a controller. It doesn’t just force you off the couch, it encourages you to activate muscles in ways that you just wouldn’t otherwise.
3. Hitman 2
Hitman 2 is a video game that isn’t ashamed that it’s a video game. It has a strict set of rules, and your goal is to find the best way to circumvent or exploit them to your advantage. And Hitman 2 excels at putting you in fun situations to exploit with intricate and varied level design and absurd characters. And few things in games are better than strolling past security that just turned you away because you switched into a hippie’s clothing.
2. Dead Cells
I played Dead Cells so much that I hurt my hand. Even when I knew I had to rest to heal, I still found myself trying to find ways to keep playing it. It is the kind of game that excels at so many things that it almost feels unfair to compare it to other games. The movement is effortless and precise. Combat is a ballet of dodges, blocks, and well-timed strikes. Exploration has an incredible sense of risk and reward. And it’s one of the best-looking games of the year.
Oh, and beating the final boss was one of my favorite moments of the year.
Eco is a revelation. The reductive way to describe it is “Minecraft with more systems. It’s also an educational game about simulating the effect humans can have on the environment. The “Eco” name comes from ecology and economics. And it’s that last part that made this game resonate so deeply with me.
In Eco, you live on a planet with other real players. Your goal is to go from having nothing to having enough technology to destroy a meteor that is on a collision course with your world. In 30 days, it will destroy everything — unless you work together to stop it.
But your actions have environmental consequences. Throughout the game, you’ll always need wood, for example. But if you clear a forest, it won’t grow back. You have to exercise restraint and leave enough trees standing to ensure it can grow back and provide you more resources in the future.
The end of the world
The dual threats of the meteor and the fragile environment are inherently compelling. They create a push-pull dynamic that is enough for Eco to stand on. But developer Strange Loop Games takes things way further by enabling players to run their own legislation system.
In Eco, any player can propose any law they want. Strange Loop built a webtool that enables you to use if/then commands to create districts, limit when people can play, or prohibit players from hunting an endangered species. When you propose a law, it goes to a vote. And if it passes, it turns into a new game rule. And if the law has unforeseen consequences, you have to deal with those until the law expires or the players vote to repeal it.
Central bank simulator
The economic mechanics in Eco are simultaneously the simplest and most complicated part of the game. It’s simple because Strange Loop just gives players a couple of tools like store currencies, shops, and gold-back bank notes. It’s complicated because it has all of the nuance and phenomenons of a real-world economy run by human beings.
When I played, we tried to move from store currencies to bank notes, and I caused an economic collapse in the process. I wanted to rep John Maynard Keynes and stimulate the economy by giving everyone an equal amount of money. Others wanted to distribute it according to who had the most of the old, worthless dollars. It’s a long story that you can read about here, but the short version is that I completely wiped out the value of the old currency by giving away millions of the GrubbBucks, which I controlled.
And Eco doesn’t simply enable players to dabble with the economy — it encourages you to engage with it on a deep level. You cannot hurt other players in the game physically. You don’t craft weapons or anything like that. That puts a lot of the emphasis on cooperation. But if you do get competitive and want to jab at someone, you can only do that through the economy, legislation, or ecological terror (someone did eventually put toxic waste on one of my properties).
Why this is my game of the year
Eco came out of nowhere for me. Some friends decided to give it a try, and I went along with them. Over the next three weeks, I fell in love because it was using the intrinsic elements of video games to enable me to play with economic concepts that I had previously only read about.
I used to think that games were best at enabling human beings to experiment with physics. We go through life with a body that deals with the constraints of physical limitations at all times. Video games empower us to play with and change physics to help us better understand our relationship to it.
But Eco made me realize that games are actually crucial for understanding our relationship to all kinds of natural and man-made systems. The thing that gives me chills is that I think it is only in games that we can play with economic systems. And I walked away from my experience in Eco feeling like I learned so much even though we had no instructor. No one was connecting the dots for us. We simply learned through play.
That’s powerful. And it has ruined me for a lot of other games that don’t believe in their own capacity to experiment with similar mechanics.