Welcome to Waypoint's End of Year celebration! This year, we're digging deep into our favorite games with dedicated podcasts, interviewing each other about our personal top 10 lists, and reflecting on the year with essays from the staff and some of our favorite freelance contributors. Check out the entire package right here!
Few games connected with me in 2018 the way they did in 2017. When I look back at my list from last year, I see a lot of games that conjured specific feelings and moods that pulled me out of my world and into theirs. I find characters whose stories resonated with me, and whose ultimate fates I still sometimes wonder about. There are so many places and images that haunt me from 2017. When I was writing up my 2017 list, I was reflecting on a year full of unforgettable journeys.
That rarely happened for me in 2018. This year I found far more games this year that I admired and appreciated, without ever really having that moment where I realized that I am all in.
Yet I was surprised, as I began listing memorable games this year, when I realized how many terrific new experiences I had. It turns out I had been enjoying myself a great deal, despite feeling let-down by this year as a whole. That probably has at least something to do with the fact there was almost no moment in 2018 during which something awful or scary was not happening in the background of all this play. But I think it’s also somewhat reflective of the fact that the flood tide of immersive sims and their descendants ebbed away this year. If 2017 was a year of worlds I could investigate and interrogate, 2018 has been a year of expansive artifice. Little wonder, then, that I ended up turning to a mix of expertly inventive genre games and offbeat narrative experiences.
Typifying this was a game that I didn’t feel I could include, but absolutely would have been one of my games of the year: Night School’s Oxenfree. It walked right up to the line between charming and twee, and occasionally may have put a toe over that line, but by and large it was one of the most absorbing games I played all year. It’s not just that it’s well-written and acted, successfully making you feel like you’re eavesdropping on life-as-it-happens. It’s also a game that captures the horror of the way relationships can change and curdle, and the various forms that hauntings can take. Not only was it exactly what I needed, but my reaction it tells me a lot about what this year left me wanting more of.
Other near-misses for the list this year were F1 2018, The Banner Saga 3 (I think if we consider the whole trilogy, however, it might be one of the best complete experiences of this decade in games), Nantucket of all things, and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which ended up being just gorgeous enough and charming enough to get me past my disappointment with many of its game design decisions.
I didn’t get enough time with Unavowed or Hitman 2 to reach a conclusion about them, and I’m not going to even address Mutant Year Zero until next year (though I increasingly suspect I’ll love it). I fell off both Spider-Man and Red Dead 2: I mostly enjoyed the former but lost my way in the aimlessness of the open world, and I was mostly indifferent toward Red Dead Redemption 2 with the exception of life in camp.
With all that said, these were the games that I liked the most this year, the ones that occasionally left me stunned, and the very few that gave me the feeling of another reality worth exploring.
'Frostpunk' screenshot courtesy of 11-bit Studios
Sometimes it’s enough to create an atmosphere and a tone, maintain them, and then intensify both over the course of game. I still don’t think there’s a whole lot to the actual city management game happening inside Frostpunk, but that’s also not really the point. The point is in the relentless ratcheting of the tension, the worsening storms, the dimming colors of the heatmap, the grim discoveries and narrative vignettes that interrupt the action.
Frostpunk is also a game that hasn’t fully thought through a political decision tree that pulls you towards authoritarianism or theocracy, and probably doesn’t impose enough trade-offs to any decisions to make their cost feel particularly resonant. On the other hand, I tend to think that Frostpunk’s endgame message is resonant: There comes a point where crises end, but the choices you made in the face of them tend to linger and shape what’s to come.
When I beat the campaign without having resorted to heavy police repression or state-sponsored worship, it felt like I’d helped a hard-pressed society survive in a form that left it capable of recognizing itself. I’m not sure that moment was fully earned, but the experience was so intense and absorbing that I’m not going to deny it.
9. Sea of Thieves
The snap of the sails as the yards are turned perfectly perpendicular to the wind, and the way the rail settles toward the water as the ship picks up speed. Coming ashore at night to sign off a stream for the day while our little band of sailors plays “Becalmed” and somehow even though we never take anything seriously on stream there is a moment where we find ourselves affected by the moment in the way that you sometimes are when you’re standing on the water’s edge with the ones you love.
The crack of the keel breaking in a gale. Calling out orders as you bring the ship perfectly into dock. Calling out orders as you try to bring the ship perfectly into dock and overshoot and suddenly everyone is bailing out the ship as it sinks in the shallows. The sudden darkening of the waters as the cursed music dies away and the great shark appears. Laying the guns in a chase through rough seas, trading fire with a furious galleon that refuses to let your treachery go unpunished. Exploring a mysterious island, hearing a hiss, and realizing you’re surrounded by snakes just before one of the adorable little fuckers strikes and you realize they’re also poisonous. The water, and all the colors and shapes it takes. Seeing a shot fly true and shouting, “I’ve got the range I’ve got the range,” and then you’re running from cannon to cannon, sighting and firing as fast as you can.
Your friends, vomiting on you and each other while you have to do every God damn thing on this ship yourself and still you wouldn’t trade this crew for anything.
8. Return of the Obra Dinn
At the very start of Return of the Obra Dinn, it’s clear that something turned this crew against their captain before their doomed voyage concluded in an orgy of treachery and bloodshed. As you lift the veil on the past by revisiting the moment of death of most of the characters aboard ship, you must reconstruct this vast crime scene by identifying each body you find, and their cause of death. With a mix of deduction, hypothesis, and process of elimination, you begin putting the pieces together and revealing the story of the Obra Dinn.
The problem is that there just isn’t that much of a story. This game was on track to be one of the highlights of my year but in the process of solving it, it lost a good deal of its wonder and by the end what I’d reconstructed was a not-particularly-affecting pulp-horror story. I was also disappointed that, really, only the officers and perhaps a couple of the major Formosan passengers emerge as actual characters. Nobody’s motivations, thoughts, or feelings get in-depth treatment in this game, but only a handful of people are even revealed to have them (though I can’t deny the truth and beauty of Laura Hudson’s reading either).
But the process of investigation and deduction were still an unmitigated joy for much of this game. Writing out detailed descriptions of each death scene, cross-checking clues and associations between characters, even laying out diagrams of key sequences… Few games have made me feel quite so much like a detective, even if my powers of deduction hinged on a magic time-traveling pocket watch and some ideally composed and comprehensive sketches. Return of the Obra Dinn gave me quite a few “Eureka!” moments whose joy outweighed the game’s few disappointments.
7. Armored Brigade
If you play a lot of wargames and tactics games, eventually you start seeing them everywhere. You’ll be walking in the woods and come to a rocky hill overlooking a a shallow ravine and suddenly you imagine it as a battlefield: Where would you set up your snipers to defend it, where would be the best places to put a heavy machine gun, what weakness would the enemy exploit to undermine your defenses? Wargames and tactics games transform empty, unremarkable space into a stage for drama, spectacle, and brilliance. Armored Brigade is the meta-wargame that understands all of the above and makes that the game. [If you want a full rundown of what this game is and why it works, listen to the Three Moves Ahead we did with Rod Humble and Waypoint contributor Ian Boudreau.]
The amazing thing is that it works. A wargame where you just look at a giant map of a potential Cold War battlefield, set the boundaries, objectives, and relative force strength somehow consistently generates some of the most unpredictable and thrilling battles I’ve played in years. They don’t feel cookie-cutter at all. One scenario turns into a deadly cat-and-mouse between tanks through rolling hills and farming villages, another is a World War 1-style offensive through successive lines of prepared defenses, and yet another is a chaotic, Gettysburg-style scrap as recon units clash near a crossroads, and then all hell breaks loose as heavier units and fire support come into play.
It’s also, despite its spartan appearance, a frighteningly vivid wargame. All the dynamics that defined modern warfare since the invention of truly long-range artillery and repeating rifles are still present on the late 20th century battlefield, they just happen with a speed, precision, and lethality that is truly shocking and upsetting. The minute a unit breaks cover to open fire, it has only moments before enemy artillery begins zeroing-in on their position. A tank platoon caught in the open when a pair of A-10s swoops onto the battlefield will be dead in seconds… but if there’s a surface-to-air missile system lurking nearby that hasn’t been scouted, those A-10s will fall burning to earth only moments later. Cluster munitions erase entire forests in an instant, rapid-fire cannons raze villages to the ground in only a few minutes of combat, and somehow soldiers keep fighting despite knowing that literally any mistake or misjudgment means instant death. With every scenario, a new alt-history horror story unfolds.
In retrospect, I should have guessed that the combination of an RTS and a worker-placement board game would be exactly up my alley. On the other hand, nothing like Northgard would ever have occurred to me as a possibility.
Northgard is the RTS that people who don’t play RTS games often say they want, and it proves that you can make a deep and rewarding RTS that isn’t driven by actions-per-minute or perfectly rehearsed build-orders. It is slow enough to let you think and plan and consider your options… and complicated enough that you will probably screw up in ways that don’t fully become apparent until winter sets in and your clan is starving and freezing and the wolves are quite literally at the door.
5. Valkyria Chronicles 4
I think a lot about the Siegvaal Line missions in Valkyria Chronicles 4. That first glimpse a beautifully rendered maelstrom of combat stretching from one horizon to the other. Tracer fire whipping overhead, roiling smoke, wrecked tanks in every direction and now you and your squad had to go into that. You needed to race armored cars full of troops across lethal killzones, storm enemy redoubts and knock out their pillboxes, and use teams of tanks to knock out superior enemy armor. In other words, you needed to fight a war.
And that’s maybe what I loved about Valkyria Chronicles 4: It has a sense of scale that the first game only ever hinted at. It still has that sense of intimacy and familiarity that’s so appealing, but now all those hijinks between squad members and the long vignettes where characters work through their feelings take place against a backdrop of a sweeping and increasingly dire military campaign with real stakes and looming dread. The missions themselves feel bigger and more intricate, less like you’re fighting an abstract skirmish on the edge of the action and more like a critical action in the center of it. [Austin and I had a long chat about this game on Three Moves Ahead, where we were joined by Heather Alexandra. It's probably one of my favorite episodes of the year.]
This increase in scale also comes with an increase in bloat. There are times when I played Valkyria Chronicles 4 for a solid hour and never touched a mission, because there were so many dialogues and cutscenes to work through. For the most part I liked hanging out with my virtual squad, but there were also times when their kookiness and cutesy teenage awkwardness were so forced I was ready to pull this car over right now. As luridly hilarious as Raz’s gleefully crass and overcompensating machismo were at times, I badly needed this game to confront him with the reality that he was being a creepy asshole, and it never really did. There’s a less rambling, more introspective version of Valkyria Chronices 4 that might have been my game of the year, but I remain pretty charmed by the one I got.
4. Forza Horizon 4
It’s just glorious. Perhaps one of the richest sensory experiences I’ve ever had in games. It’s almost impossible to find a moment in this game that doesn’t look and sound just perfect, and with changing weather across changing seasons, the process of playing Forza Horizon 4 is one of constant rediscovery. You’ll pass a bend in the road as it skirts the edge of a forest at the foot of some hills and be struck—as you lightly feather the throttle and hear the tires scuff along the gravel, throwing stones into the wheel wells where they ping-pong off the fender—by the way the morning sun is burning off the mist gathered along the hillside. And then you’ll remember that you passed this way not long ago, when it was a winter night and that same hill was ringed by the soft silver glow of moonlight on the fallen snow and you could almost feel the air in your lungs, and imagine the warm hum of the heater running in yet another of the greatest cars ever made.
It’d be easy to call it car porn but think it’s more akin to Avalanche Studios’ The Hunter in that the game and all its challenges serve more as a thing to take you on different routes through a gorgeous setting, to discover new places and take in new views. When I finish Forza Horizon 4 I don’t want to buy some European supercar or vintage roadster. I want to lace up my hiking boots and walk through muddy fields and up stony hills and breathe the fresh air until the light begins to fail and the rain finally blows in, its first drops beginning to patter through the leaves as I hurry back to care, which is just a way to get from home to somewhere beautiful in this increasingly fragile world.
3. Tetris Effect
Right off the bat, we need to acknowledge that Tetris Effect can be extremely up its own ass in ways that can be off putting. Promising a spiritual journey through a series of different Tetris themes, Tetris Effect frequently equates “vaguely ethnic traditional cultural objects” to spirituality. It can come across as condescending and shallow in the way that the self-help section of a bookstore can come across.
The funny thing is I don’t think it needs the slightly pretentious trappings because the fact is that Tetris Effect is an effortlessly powerful and affecting game. Which is doubly staggering because it’s just Tetris, and yet in that familiarity Tetris Effect becomes something new and different.
It wouldn’t work if not for an incredible soundtrack of dynamic music. Tetris Effect is fundamentally a great music game, and with tracks that reveal themselves with tantalizing deliberateness as you play. It is as much about silences and gaps in the music as it is about the slow crescendos to glorious, fully mixed choruses. Almost as important is art and animation mostly remains readable while simultaneously dazzling the eye and amping up the taut drama of a good game of Tetris.
When it all comes together, and the music and the visuals and the pieces are all moving faster and faster, Tetris Effect becomes truly meditative. Not in a sedate or relaxing way, but the way that sometimes you feel like you are clinging to emptiness with all your willpower, always on the verge of letting it slip away and having something else intrude. But for a few minutes there is only this mindlessly mindful task, the spiraling shapes and colors, and the pounding of the music.
First, you need to know that I’m not objective about this. You give me foggy London streets between 1820-1920, crimes to solve or crimes to commit, and I’m all the way in. There is a level of scrutiny and consideration that you expect me to bring to these things and I’m going to admit upfront that I’m probably not capable of it. Not when there are rainy streets to prowl in a long wool coat, and grisly scenes to uncover in Whitechapel. Oh, my character served on the Western Front in World War I? I’m going to begin from the assumption that this is GOTY material.
With those caveats upfront, Dontnod's Vampyr was still probably my surprise favorite of the year. Those complaints I had about 2018 in games as a whole? Vampyr was the antidote for many of them. Instead of a sprawling open world with endless amounts of trivia to occupy and ultimately waste my time, Vampyr gave me a few neighborhoods shot-through with mysteries and stories, and stocked with characters worth learning about.
Of course, it’s also stocked with characters in the way that a trout stream is stocked with fish for sport. From the outset, Vampyr is concerned with the essential dilemma that confronts such cursed characters: How can you be a vampire, feeding on humans you’ve killed, and retain any of your own humanity? Alternately, what good is eternal life if you’re going to spend it as a solitary monster? It is to Vampyr’s credit that it embraces the weirdness of games to evoke this dilemma: The better you get to know a character, the more full of that sweet, juicy XP they become, and the higher the reward for just eating them. But in doing so, you’ve changed the world and removed a character from the stage. You are stronger, but the world might feel poorer. On the other hand, you might uncover facts about characters that make you realize the world really would be better off without them, in which case you could make the case that at least your meals are ethically sourced.
There’s also a great deal in Vampyr that is timely and considered. It’s shot-through with contradictions and parallels. Your character is enormously privileged, but is now secretly the other in that society which conferred on him those privileges. He is a vampire, but also a doctor who takes his oath seriously. At every turn, the game shows that there are other forms of predation that one would also classify as vampiric, particularly around health care and who gets access to it. Vampyr ends up being an RPG about trying to be and trying to do good despite the fact that you and the systems your inhabit are tainted by exploitation and self-interest at the expense of others.
I guess the way I’ll close the book on this game, at least until the next major expansion, is to explain why it’s so hard to put down. It’s not that the game doesn’t get repetitive. It does. There are a lot of missions you’ll play very by-the-numbers and you won’t remember any of what happened the moment you return to your HQ and authorize the repairs costs. You get into a routine of “recon / Long-Range Missile bombardment / close assault / melee if necessary”.
But 130 hours into this game and I still never know when something special is going to happen. When you’ll get that mix of terrain, team composition, and objectives that will create something you’ve never seen before in this game, and you may not see again. A couple weeks ago I had a battle that took place inside a two hex-wide canyon. It was Thermopylae with Mechs, and throughout the entire thing the margin for error was nonexistent. A few days prior to that I had stormed a fiercely defended mountain stronghold… only to immediately confront a squadron of some of the heaviest Mechs in the game despite the fact that all of mine were on their last legs.
Even when I win a lot of these battles, a quick visit to the repair bay lets me know that I’m not winning them cleanly enough. I’m still not the best Mech commander I can be, and I’m still not ready for everything BattleTech can throw at me. After a year of playing this game, I feel its pull almost as strongly as I did the week it came out. Nothing else has compared.