These are some great games you probably didn’t play this year! Which is a shame, because frankly, they should be on more top ten lists. Unfortunately, mine ran out of space, so I’m putting them here.
10. Red Faction Guerilla: Re-Mars-tered Edition
As you can tell from the title, this is a brand new thing and not the same game that came out ten years ago. Okay, technically, maybe it is the same game that came out ten years ago. But since then, no one — and I mean no one — has followed up on its unique selling point. It’s still a master class in how to do destruction, which is a fundamental and consistently neglected part of the open-world power fantasy. The irony is that as videogames get more complex, detailed, and evocative, they make it harder to implement this kind of destruction. Luckily, there’s always still Red Faction: Guerrilla, Re-Mars-tered or otherwise.
9. Star Trader: Frontiers
In the burgeoning genre of fly/fight/trade games, here’s one of the best since Space Rangers. The emphasis is squarely on your spaceship with its crew of unique characters, as you navigate a populated galaxy bubbling over with emergent events of all sizes. From interstellar wars to busted airlock gaskets, it’s all in Star Traders: Frontiers. And it’s all expressed with numbers and stats as deep as you care to go. Would you rather pore over a spreadsheet or skate across an ocean of numbers? Whichever you prefer, enjoy an absurd amount of detail coupled with an even more absurd amount of freedom. Oh, it’s also a rogue-like.
8. Book of Demons
This might seem at first like a bunch of gimmickry about clicking on hotspots to break an armored monster’s shield or stop an evil spellcaster’s spell. If that wasn’t bad enough, you can only move backward or forward along a groove running through the center of every dungeon hallway. But these aren’t just gimmicks and arbitrary limitations; they are shifts in busywork. Whereas an action RPG normally asks you to focus on where to stand and which spells to click, Book of Demons moves the busywork over to the monsters you’re fighting. Imagine a hidden object game where the objects aren’t hidden. Now make it into a smart rogue-like with charming papercraft visuals. Voila, Book of Demons, one of the rare iterations on Diablo to offer something unique.
Staking its claim somewhere between real-time strategy and survival management, Northgard isn’t as transitory as a real-time strategy game or as grueling a slog as a survival game. The elements will probably get you before the other factions do, but a good build order is still important. I’m especially impressed with how the different factions have their own distinct gameplay tweaks and the different victory conditions have their own style. Mix and match and try not to freeze to death.
6. For the King
In the usual RPG, the dungeons are the main event and the overworld is just the interlude between them. For the King flips the scripts and makes overworlds great again. It even lets you move your party around however you like, either supporting each other or splitting up to do their own thing. Which is rarely a good idea, but sometimes you gotta let your Legolas go do his scouting stuff. It’s breezy, rogue-like, charming, and as hard as you want it to be. It’s also the only game this year beside Red Dead Redemption 2 that has smoking.
Finally someone really gets RollerCoaster Tycoon. You know all those times you said you just wanted RollerCoaster Tycoon with better graphics? And you know all those times someone instead did a 3D rollercoaster sim or a VR boondoggle or some shovelware bundle? Put all that behind you and delight in Parkitect’s very good value.
4. Kingdom Come: Deliverance
What’s an open world game to do in a year with Far Cry 5, Spider-Man, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, and Red Dead Redemption 2? How can it hope to compete with machine guns, cougar sidekicks (both kinds), Marvel licenses, spectacular scenery, triremes, and arthouse cowboy midlife crises? Is Kingdom Come: Deliverance doomed by the audacity to show restraint in pursuit of a unique and detailed historical setting?
3. Judgment Apocalypse Survival Simulator
Yeah, yeah, I know Rimworld just came out of early access. And I know Frostpunk finally has all new maps and an open-ended scenario. And Prison Architect is as good as it ever was. But none of those games has tactical combat, a fusion of magic and technology, or graphics quite this, uh, endearingly hand-drawn. Most of all, they don’t have this game’s heavy metal can-do approach to a demon apocalypse: hey, let’s build a log cabin and jar some pickles and craft a blessed pistol to fuck up some demons and loot a shopping mall we just found and then figure out what we’re supposed to do with ectoplasm! Rock on! JASS!
2. The Colonists
I love logistics. Love it. Loving logistics wouldn’t seem ridiculous if it was called something sexier. Resource allocation? Flow of goods? Origin and destination coordination? Input/output management? Moving stuff around? There’s gotta be a better way to explain the appeal. In the words of famous engineer Han Solo, “This one goes here, that one goes there.” The Colonists might look thematically anemic — to be fair, it is — but she’s got it where it counts: a focus on logistics over personality, efficient tools over fancy graphics, gameplay over gusto. Oh, hi, Surviving Mars! I didn’t see you standing there. Were your ears burning?
1. Strange Brigade
The best horde mode in a long time, whether you’re playing alone or with friends. And you don’t even have to play as a refrigerator sized slab of testosterone in a Microsoft exclusive! Along with last year’s Sniper Elite 4, this is yet another sign that although it might have taken them a long time to show it, Rebellion has been learning all the right lessons over the years.
From the review:
Strange Brigade is the simple act of shooting powerful guns at monsters. And lobbing the occasional grenade. And even more occasionally popping off some magic power because, well, that might as well be in there if we’re going to have zombies and skeletons. For the most part it works splendidly. Simple, gratifying, quick, accessible, with a unique sense of character, to boot.