Where do you even start? In years gone by this “last article of the year by the boss” has delved into pathos, but I think in truth we’ve had quite enough of that in 2020. Sure, as a key worker I feel I’ve grown an even stronger distaste for “my country” than ever before, having to stand and watch people clap for key workers, while six months later they won’t even let them out at a junction, and let’s face it, nobody has been paid better or given anything even close to an actual legitimate “thank you”. But, look, despite it all, gaming has given a respite. Not a welcome one, a needed one.
Next-gen console launches kept me sane and busy, and frankly, this has been one of the strongest years in gaming for a very long time. Industry practices may not have changed, and I do think we’re a long way from being anywhere close to effecting real change in an industry that refuses to grow up, but the respite of playing these wonderful creations; these labours of love, the biggest open worlds that absorb us and transport us, or the smallest indie games that touch us in a way that feels deeply personal… games are tremendous. They are an escape, an important work because of it, and this list hopefully celebrates that in some small way. Thanks for your support this year, and every year, and please remember to tip your postman, binman, milkman, or delivery guy: they’re fucking knackered and your small “thank you” will make them smile for hours, and fall asleep feeling like they’re worth something, because trust me, they don’t feel worth an awful lot this year.
Deep Rock Galactic: Came from nowhere, missed it entirely in early access, dominated my thoughts for months at a time. A truly brilliant co-operative experience that has unique classes and feels just superb to play. You’ve heard enough, by now, of the team and I extolling its virtues: just fucking play it please.
Wasteland 3: If I had a list of “games I wish I had time to get back to”, this one wins it. Brilliantly written, enormously deep, engaging, and varied. Jesus wept, what a game. Please pause time so I can get back to it and finish it.
Half-Life: Alyx: One of the best VR games I’ve played, only marred by how many people talk it up like it’s revolutionary. It’s not, other games with smaller budgets have tried the gameplay Valve achieved here, but importantly, this is HALF-LIFE, and it changes the history of those games and sets up a new one.
Demon’s Souls: a lesson in how to remake a game, from top to bottom it’s basically perfection, and the only reason it didn’t crash into my top ten is that I just simply ran out of time to get through the damn thing, and that it’s still obtuse and awkward to play with friends.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2: Again, an incredible remake that I played hot and heavy and then moved on from. I don’t have quite the connection to this that others do, but I did play it back then and, christ, it still plays well. Here’s hoping they add to this template and we get more.
Where the first game felt bombastic and like it had “big Marvel” behind it, Miles felt personal and human. He’s a young lad, learning his trade, and it’s even reflected in how he moves around New York. Aside the story jumping off a cliff at the end, this is a hugely enjoyable popcorn game. One thing that I feel Insomniac still don’t get much credit for, is the combat in these games. You build upon it as you play, unlocking skills to add to your arsenal, but there are few modern games that make you feel as badass as Miles Morales does. Stringing together obscenely high combos, maintaining an air juggle, or just continually keeping yourself in the air: these are the things you’d expect from a Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, but Insomniac nails it here. Oh and those load times and visials? Woof. What a superb glimpse of things to come for a new generation of gaming.
How did they manage this? How did they make Streets of Rage feel better than it does in my head? How did they make a soundtrack that feels like it has both moved on and not aged at all. All those questions are things I can’t answer, but I played through this multiple times, and rarely for me, twice in single sittings with friends. 2020 has been a year that I got back into playing with people online more often, and Streets of Rage 4 feels as rewarding to play with friends as it does offline. Even the art style which initially put me off, ended up being something I loved. It probably stands out on the list as the shortest or, perhaps, most simple game, but this is a series I have always adored and it’s back on track now, finally.
There was a moment this year where I had decided not to review Astro’s Playroom. It’s a pack-in game, and one that everyone gets if they secured a PlayStation 5, so it felt like it wasn’t needed: you’d play it, you’d love it, what was the point in me critiquing a thing that everyone got free anyway? But I changed my mind when it made me choke up. It took me back to my childhood, my parents getting me a PSOne, my (long-gone) dad trying to play with me, and it reminded me of how I got my kids into gaming. Astro’s Playroom feels amazing to actually play, and it’s a phenomenal introduction to the DualSense controller, but its as much a nostalgia piece as it is anything else. I adore this, and the decision to write a full review was easy: this game is important, one of 2020’s best.
If you’d told me that Ubisoft had a game in my top ten this year, I’d have believed you. But I always assumed, given how much I loved Watch Dogs Legion, that’d be the one. Immortals Fenyx Rising is more than derivative. It’s not homage, it’s borderline IP-theft at points, even down to how it ends. This is Breath of the Wild: there’s no way to sugarcoat that. But honestly? I don’t care. It has quality of life improvements and it knows it’s a game. It respects my time, and wants me to play my way. I find very little to complain about with Immortals, and to be honest, I even quite liked the humour and story. Easily the biggest surprise of 2020 in gaming.
Almost a mirror image of Immortals, if you told me a Supergiant Games joint would be in my top ten, I’d have said “of course it will be”. A unique adventure that has an entirely new take on storytelling within its genre, Hades is both warm and funny, yet it plays like a monster. It’s so good in the hands, it’s like the Titanfall 2 of roguelikes. No two runs feel the same, every line of dialogue is pristine and perfect, and nothing about it feels superfluous. I’ll concede there are games in my list that can be guilty of stretching themselves too thing, or perhaps taking liberties with your time, but Hades is perfect at what it does. I have no idea how Supergiant top this, but they’re four for four in my books now. What a studio.
I’m a sucker for a visual style, and Ori (like the game before it) has it to spare. A touching story that’s, sure, been done before, but like Hades it plays so incredibly well. Tight controls, loads of upgrades, and a game I managed to one hundred percent complete. Indeed, I’d have played more on Switch and Xbox Series X, but I was “done” with it before it hit either of those consoles. In truth, some of the skills are under-used, and it launched in a bit of a state, but everything else is just so compelling that I couldn’t put it down. I nearly gave up on the 100% when I couldn’t find one item, but I still went back and did it. Not many games can boast an “Adam Cook 100%” record, which goes some way as to explain how special this one is.
When you spend hundreds of hours with a series that has one main protagonist, creating a new playable character that resonates and is liked by veteran players is not an easy task. Doing that while switching a series that’s run over a decade to an entirely new genre is an astonishing achievement. Ichiban Kasuga and his pals are so likable and interesting, and having new places to explore helps, but the turn-based combat feels like a change they made thinking entirely of how to please me. Like a Dragon is funny and humble, it’s also endearing and moving. There’s so much to love about this game, and I truly hope they keep exploring this route, because even though the turn-based JRPG-combat is great fun, it does take a ridiculously long time to get going, and there are tweaks that could be made. I adore everything about this mad, lovely, brilliant game. Bravo.
There was a time where this wouldn’t have made my top ten. Sitting and listening to the music on the title screen made me feel warm and almost tearful. One of my favourite games of all time has been remade, it’s here; it’s real. And for 30 hours I was in love. Everything about it: the visuals, audio, and finally a non-turn based combat system in a Final Fantasy game that feels amazing. Then… then they started to change the story, mess with things, and move things around. And for weeks, I was… almost angry. I wanted more of the game, I wanted to play the “rest of Final Fantasy VII”, but… as time passed, I started to feel better about it. The angry fan of that original game realised the original game was still there, and that the narrative changes, while not always a rip-roaring success, were brave, offering a chance for me to get more of FF7 for many years to come. I can’t wait for what is next, now, and I’ve accepted this brilliant game is something new, perhaps in time something even bigger.
All I wanted from a Switch Animal Crossing was HD visuals. I got that, and I got more to boot. I got a community that still thrives today. I made deeper connections with people I barely knew who I’d now call friends. I got my entire family playing a game. I got my boys back, sat in the room with me, sharing an experience, despite being teenages. I got my wife playing a game, perhaps for longer than even I did. I know there are issues, I hear the complaints: but I don’t care. New Horizons is what you make of it. New Horizons is about your patience, your time. People think they have to play every day, and I did for a while, but it doesn’t hate you if you don’t. If I could have a joint winner, this would be it, but I make the rules, and those rules are a list is a list is a list. Bloody rules. Animal Crossing has rules, too, and I’m happy to play by them.
I think The Last of Us Part II is an important milestone in video game design. Like God of War, it takes chances and does things differently. In terms of storytelling, no, The Last of Us Part II isn’t perfect, but the chances it takes are things I’ve never seen a game do. The direction, the lingering on some things and not others, the audio design: it all adds up to being something bigger. It knows, and the people behind it know, that you will be angry at the mid-way point, but they also know you’ll trust them and go with it, to see where you end up. They know about your affections, they know about your loyalties, and they know that you will walk away without feeling “happy” after you finish it. It’s all calculated, it’s brilliant, and it’s moving in a way few games are. You will be jaw agape, staring at your own reflection as a black screen shows you the truth. Part of me wants to see more of where Naughty Dog goes with this, but it feels done. This universe feels done.
The Last of Us Part II is one hell of an achievement, from the smallest details to the flaming mess of a conclusion before the epilogue. The violence within the world holds a mirror up and says “this is what happens when you don’t let go”, and it starts with a crescendo and ends a whimpering mess, begging: please met me go. Please. Let me move on. Let me go. I don’t know if a game could ever make me feel as miserable as The Last of Us Part II did, but I don’t see that as this horrible negative. Games should be able to move you in all directions, and what Naughty Dog has achieved here is unparalleled. I knew when I’d finished it, nothing would top it, and here we are: the best game of 2020 is The Last of Us Part II.