The sheer number of instant classics released in 2017 meant 2018 could easily have felt like a letdown. Instead, the year continued gaming’s hot streak.
Fortnite made gaming more culturally relevant than it’s ever been, turning a whole cadre of Twitch streamers into micro-celebrities. The Switch has become a place for indie titles to flourish, providing huge audiences for titles like Dead Cells and Into the Breach. The PS4 hit it out of the park, with exclusives like Spider-Man and God of War both being good enough to justify purchasing the console, especially with prices falling. Defiantly unique PC titles like Subnautica and Rimworld finally hit 1.0 after years in “Early Access” states, proving that devs can work closely with a community without falling prey to design-by-committee. And some truly pleasant surprises stayed under the radar until right before release, like the jaw-dropping Tetris Effect.
The usual caveats apply — I wasn’t able to play every game released this year, there are some great titles that I wasn’t able to include, and taste remains maddeningly subjective — but here are my favorite ten games of 2018.
10. Dead Cells (PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC)
A fast-paced platformer in which you get one life to make it as far as possible, Dead Cells has dazzling pixel art and immensely satisfying gameplay. But the secret of why it’s so fun is that every run forces you to work with different combinations of weapons that you find along the way. One playthrough will see you learning to time out hits with a slow but hard-hitting broadsword and peppering enemies with ice arrows, while another run has you madly dodge-rolling with twin daggers and tossing fire bombs. It’s a punishing game — you’ll play the first few levels countless times before you even reach the first boss, much less beat it — but every run is still rewarding, as your progress slowly unlocks permanent upgrades and more powerful weapons.
9. Donut County (PS4, PC, iOS)
Video games have allowed us to play as so many things, but Donut County is the first to let us fulfill our ultimate fantasy: becoming an all-consuming hole. You play as a trash-obsessed raccoon whose remote-controlled hole slowly grows in size until it can swallow nearly everything. Gently charming, with a lush aesthetic that never gets old and a deadpan sense of humor that’s actually funny (a rarity in video games), the game itself is a series of physics puzzles, as you slowly swallow up the world around you. It’s an oddly relaxing and fulfilling experience.
8. Rimworld (PC, Mac)
In Rimworld, you manage a group of stranded colonists on a harsh outer planet fighting to survive starvation, aggressive fauna, natural disasters, bands of raiders, and, most of all, each other. Every survivor is teetering on the brink of sanity. Ask them to work too hard, sleep too little, or spend too much time with another colonist they hate, and they’ll suffer a psychotic break, and suddenly your colony’s botanist is stripping nude in a cornfield in the middle of a lightning storm and violently attacking anyone who attempts to drag him into a padded cell to calm down. The game’s simple graphics belie a complex and deeply satisfying simulation, and its freeform play-style means the game has no story except the ones you create through catastrophes of your own making — which end up being more memorable than anything a game dev could have written. Having everything go wrong has never been so fun.
7. Fortnite (PS4, Xbox One, PC, Mac, iOS, Android)
Sure, it started as a bald-faced rip-off of another battle royale game, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, but Fornite has quickly evolved into the biggest phenomenon in modern gaming, with 200 million players worldwide. The developers have kept fans hooked by endlessly tinkering around the edges of the game, improving balance, adding and removing gameplay elements, and starting new “seasons” on a regular basis. The gameplay, a mixture of desperate looting, frantic shooting, and Minecraft-ian building, remains fast-paced fun, especially with a group of friends. And the community of live-streamers (including, memorably, Drake) has catapulted gaming even further into the mainstream.
6. Subnautica (PS4, XBox One, PC, Mac)
Waking up after a crash-landing on an oceanic alien world, you struggle to survive in this underwater survival game. Subnautica’s accessible crafting and intriguing sci-fi storyline get their hooks in you, pulling you ever deeper. The early game sees you diving amongst bright tropical reefs filled with cute alien fish, but soon you’ll be venturing much deeper, where less friendly creatures await. Lost in a dark undersea tunnel system, running short of oxygen, and seeing a massive fin emerge past my flashlight was one of the scariest moments I experienced in gaming this year. Anyone with thalassophobia need not apply.
5. Spider-Man (PS4)
From the moment you first jump off the top of the Empire State building and swing over the tops of taxis on Fifth Ave., it’s clear the developers have nailed Spider-Man. Every bit of this game feels right: the way Spider-Man perches on the edge of a building, his athletic grace in combat, the wonderfully kinetic way he swings through the city — even Spider-Man’s quips are legit funny. The well-told story does a good job of splitting the difference between giving comics fans plenty to mull over, while still being accessible to people without who haven’t picked up a comic in years. Most of all, more than any other title this year, it’s non-stop fun, a game where Peter Parker’s infectious, Manhattan-gliding joy feels beamed directly to back of the player’s brain.
4. Tetris Effect (PS4)
Who knew one of the best games of 2018 would be another take on Tetris? Tetsuya Mizuguchi, creator of the hypnotic rhythm games Rez and Lumines, combines electronic music and pulsing visuals with the best-selling franchise in video game history to create something truly special. Levels slowly build in intensity — early stages have gentle tracks with beautiful imagery floating by, while later levels will have you frantically making lines while the music pounds away and the visuals explode in front of your eyes, inducing something close to synesthesia. It’s basically a club drug you take via game controller. Throw on your PSVR helmet for added intensity. As one co-worker put it, “This is a game I would play for 72 hours straight until they found me dead in my apartment.”
3. God of War (PS4)
The first three God of War games were very dumb but kinda fun, featuring Kratos, a pissed-off Greek demigod, killing the entire pantheon while being humorless and horny (bathhouse sequences were not infrequent). The first shot of this franchise reboot establishes an entirely new tone, with Kratos wielding an axe not to chop off someone’s head, but to cut down a tree for a funeral pyre for his recently deceased wife. Kratos has grown old, moved north to the realm of Norse mythology, married, and had a son. Now he’s a widower, grieving, and unable to do much more than gruffly bark orders at his son. The pair set off to fulfill his wife’s final wish, spreading her ashes from the highest peak. In between, there’s plenty of combat and exploration, some scheming Norse gods, one very entertaining talking decapitated head, and a deftly-handled dramatic arc of a father opening up to his son. The game’s bravura camerawork is done in one long, uninterrupted shot with no loading screens in sight, and the combat has a real thunk to it thanks to weighty animations that make every axe blow feel thunderous. But it’s God of War’s delicate touch, as Kratos and his son slowly connect over the course of their journey, that makes this game truly impressive.
2. Into the Breach (PC, Switch)
From the creators of indie hit FTL, Into the Breach is a turn-based strategy game in which you control three mechs protecting near-apocalyptic Earth from marauding aliens — think Pacific Rim mixed with chess. Each turn, you can see exactly what each enemy will do, but that only helps you so much. Into the Breach is a game that will throw five or six problems your way in a turn, and you have just three mechs to try to solve all of them. You’re free to study the battlefield as long as you like: Perhaps you could launch an artillery shell at this alien here, moving it over one square to make it shoot that alien there, but then the shell will also damage a nearby city. There’s rarely an easy answer, and you can easily spend or 10 or 15 minutes trying out various combinations of potential moves before pulling the trigger. But no other game I played this year made me feel more satisfied than Into the Breach when I finally worked out a solution that saved the world — for one more turn, at least.
1. Red Dead Redemption 2 (PS4, Xbox One)
Gargantuan, sprawling, and ambitious as hell, the prequel to Rockstar’s 2011 masterpiece Red Dead Redemption lives up to the hype. You play as Arthur Morgan, a senior gun in the Dutch van der Linde Gang. The game starts right as the gang’s luck starts to turn sour — if you played the first Red Dead Redemption, you know where this is all headed — but watching the crew’s dissolution is still compelling, and pulls the player along a fin de siècle story that hems its outlaw characters in as the law pushes them inexorably towards the sprawl of industry and civilization. You can quibble about some of the choices Rockstar made; the game can feel overlong in parts, whether because of a few too many story missions or some very slow animations for basic tasks you’ll end up watching hundreds of times. Regardless, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a stunningly beautiful epic, a technical masterpiece that looks more like a Charles Russell painting than pixelated polygons, and it allows you live out your gunslinger fantasies: robbing trains, dodging the law, and shooting from the saddle.