2018 was one of those rare years where I played enough new things that I feel like I can put together one of these lists. As with every year, it might look different if I got to play everything I wanted to, but I’m still going to celebrate the best of what I did. For the record, I think any game that releases for the first time or is updated with new content in the year in question should be eligible for these types of lists. Hence the inclusion of a couple older games.
10. Into the Breach
For someone like me, who always wants to play strategy games but ends up playing few, Into the Breach is a perfect game to jump into. The relative simplicity of its base formula- just don’t let the monsters destroy the cities- and its bite-sized missions make it very accessible, but the range of possibilities within those encounters and the designed-to-be-replayed nature of its campaign create incredible depth to explore. The different units you can unlock and play with offer a variety of mechanics that actually feel distinct and game-changing, and experimenting with combinations of them makes for a ton of fun and even more replayability. A charming pixel art aesthetic makes everything better too, of course.
9. Destiny 2
I love the core loop of chasing ever-stronger loot in Destiny 2, and I can’t help but coming back to it every few months. I admire Bungie’s commitment to constantly tweaking its systems to strive to make it the best game it can be. In terms of new content, the big Forsaken expansion added many welcome elements, especially the extremely satisfying to use bow and arrow weapon class, and the addictive, brilliantly designed Gambit mode. The story didn’t particularly blow me away, but it does have some interesting boss fights and gorgeous new locations to explore. I also love the frantic Escalation Protocol mode from the smaller, but equally well made Warmind update.
8. Pokémon: Let’s Go Pikachu
Let’s Go Pikachu could be described as a non-traditional take on the traditional Pokémon game, in that it’s simplified to attract newcomers. As a veteran I was worried it would bore me, but I find it interesting to consider the ways they chose to do this. Removing the battle aspect of catching wild Pokémon makes the game lose a sense of danger and excitement, but does keep the experience more varied. Some features are missing, but the ones that remain are welcomely streamlined to remove a bit of tedium. I would like to see some of this stuff brought forward into future “core” titles in the series, especially the long overdue removal of random encounters. Plus, your partner Pikachu is fun to interact with and has more personality than Pokémon have ever had before.
7. Cartoon Network Match Land
I played the original Match Land obsessively in 2017. Ostensibly just another match-three/RPG hybrid, but really one big, deviously clever resource management puzzle, it was already one of the best things on mobile. But Race Cat Games one-upped themselves with the Cartoon Network-licensed sequel. The visuals are prettier, the already addictive gameplay is improved by additions like diagonal movement, and the characters and references from Cartoon Network shows I love always make me smile. I was glued to my phone for months.
More than any other, Overwatch is the game I have to go back to any time there’s new content to see, and it didn’t disappoint in 2018. New playable characters Brigette, Wrecking Ball (maybe my new favorite), and Ashe are great additions who meaningfully expand the scope of available strategies. The Retribution event was the best cooperative experience we’ve gotten yet. And even outside the game itself, Overwatch held my attention with the inaugural season of its professional league. I’ve never enjoyed esports enough to get invested before, but Overwatch League kept me tuning into Twitch all the way to the finish, and itching to play more.
5. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
It’s Smash Bros! That’s pretty much enough. The cast of characters is so big it can almost feel overwhelming, but the inclusion of every character ever in the series’ history keeps the game constantly feeling fresh. New additions to the cast like Incineroar and King K. Rool are excellent, too. It’s not all perfect: the Spirits mode is poorly balanced and too complicated for its own good, and outside of it there’s very little meaningful single-player content. But those disappointments can’t stymie the pure fun this series always is.
4. Red Dead Redemption II
Rockstar did it again. The world is simply awe-inspiring; amazing in its size and detail, breathtaking in its visual design. The auto-aim heavy combat is simple, but still incredibly satisfying (The Deadeye system, which lets you slow time to aim and automatically hit your target is still one of the best feeling things in gaming). The sheer amount of content to explore and discover is potentially overwhelming, but is wisely designed so you rarely if ever feel punished for ignoring systems that don’t interest you. What perhaps impressed me more than anything else are the small stories you can encounter. Ancillary, one-off characters or interactions can pack more emotional punch in a few minutes than many games, movies, or books do in their entire lengths. They’re entirely missable, and some of them don’t even come with any traditional gameplay reward, but they make the world and its characters feel all the more real.
3. God of War
To be honest I wasn’t really feeling God of War initially, but as its story ramped up, its surprises unfolded, and I started exploring the world more, I eventually couldn’t stop playing. Its combat system is incredibly fluid and fun, and much deeper and more varied than it first appears. The story is fascinating, touching, and shocking, with a great cast of characters. And though the game appears totally linear and narrative-driven on the surface, it actually offers a wealth of great optional side content to discover and tackle exactly the way you want to. It’s a balancing act that works way better than it should.
2. Donut County
Donut County is probably one of the funniest, cutest, and most unique games I’ve ever played. The totally original way you interact with the world- moving around an ever-growing hole in the ground to make things fall into it- and the superbly designed puzzles would be enough to make it stand out on its own. But the gorgeous visual design, clever writing, and surprisingly touching story elevate it to a top tier game to me. I also appreciate that it has the confidence to be no longer than it needs to be, lasting a consistently fun and well paced two or three hours rather than overstaying its welcome with filler content.
I finished the story of Spider-Man in under three days. It was all I could think about. All I wanted to do was play it. I honestly can’t remember the last time I felt that way about a game. Web-swinging around the city is pure joy that I never got tired of. The combat is satisfying, addictive, and varied, and where other games might overwhelm the player with so many options, the elegant control design here makes all the moves feel doable and fun to experiment with. Actually, a lot of the standard systems of modern AAA action games- equipable powers/gadgets, upgrade progression, collectibles- are so streamlined, polished, and interesting that things that feel like chores and frustrations in other games are only fun and exciting in Spider-Man. The story successfully captures the classic Spider-Man vibe while also feeling unique and new. Most importantly, the game makes the player feel like Spider-Man, and it feels great.