The top ten games of 2020

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With ten days left in 2020, it’s time to count down the top games of the year. I’ll add a new one every day, so drop in as the list builds. Or you can come back on New Year’s Day for a complete top ten!

Here we go…

10. Creeper World 4

From the review:

…developer Virgil Wall, who’s been unrepentantly 2D over the years, finally transitioned to a 3D engine.  Now the oceans have depth and even height, as waves loom over your defenses.  Elevation actually rises up from the map.  You can fly the camera down into your intricate network and see everything up close.  Now explosions are the kind of pyrotechnics you might see in a Unity game instead of the flat puff you see in a Flash game.  Creeper World 4 lets you inside and manages the kind of modest spectacle you want in your indie games.

9. Shadow Empire

A complex combination of hardcore operational level wargame, intertwined with a King of Dragon Pass style leader management game, played atop a sci-fi 4X.  Every time I’ve quit playing out of frustration, I’ve picked it back up.  The review — you can read it here — lays out seven of its fascinating idiosyncrasies.

Since I reviewed it, Shadow Empire has undergone some significant changes.  The logistics system was completely reworked.  It now includes flying units, which seems like a pretty significant shift to how battles will unfold.  Perhaps most importantly, it’s on Steam now!

8. Desperados III

I once heard one of the Thief designers describe the appeal of stealth games as making you feel like you got away with something. In that regard, Desperados III is successful like no other stealth game. From the review:

Once you embrace that savescumming is intentional, you’re finally playing a stealth game as a series of successful tricks.  You sneak past every guard.  You assassinate every villain.  You pull off every complicated coordinated move.  You fooled everyone on the map!  Along the way, you erased every failure with a quick tap of the F8 key.  And at the end of the mission, you get a debriefing on the map to show just how good you were.  Colored lines unfurl in real time to show where your characters went and what they did.  This replay is a testament to just how sneaky you were.  You pulled off the plan without a hitch!

7. Code Vein

I’ve always felt like I’m missing out on the Dark Souls genre. I get the appeal. I’ve persevered with the various games long enough to appreciate them. But I’ve never really seen one through. I’ve never really put in the time and effort. They’re like Tony Hawk games: I admire them from afar and think, “One day…”

With Code Vein, it’s now that day. From the review:

When you’ve got this kind of flexibility and variety constantly at your fingertips, when this sort of intricate interactivity is always available to distract you from potential frustration, a Dark Souls game isn’t quite so soul crushing anymore.

(I have just been informed Code Vein was actually released in 2019. A round of firings will take place in the home office and a new #7 has been inserted below.)

7. Project Cars 3

From the review:

 [Project Cars 3 is] premised on you being patient enough to practice tracks, being invested enough in your cars to master how they drive, and caring enough to shave fractions of seconds off your lap times.  These are requirements for Project Cars 3 as sure as the minimum system requirements.  But unlike other serious racing games, if you don’t meet these minimum requirements at first, you will eventually.  It will reward your patience.  It will get you invested.  It will make you care.  Because when winning isn’t everything and mere speed isn’t the ultimate goal, when you progress by racing well instead of just fast, all that’s left is the joy of learning.  That is what Project Cars 3 is ultimately about, what it’s built to deliver, what it’s carefully tuned to create: the joy of getting better at something.

6. Hades

In his review, Bruce Geryk doesn’t want to tell you why Hades is so good, because discovering why it’s so good is part of the appeal.  You can read his review here.  But I’d like to call out its pacing:

In Hades something is always about to happen.  You’re about to get some reward.  You’re about to make a difficult choice among cool options.  You’re about to start one of its short sharp battles.  There will be no downtime, no filler, no spinning wheels.  And not in a frenetic “Michael Bay will have another explosion for you shortly” way.  But in a measured, steady, and confident distribution of actions that engage your brain and your fingertips.  Most action RPGs are extended bursts of speed interspersed by idling while you sort through vendor trash, navigate skill trees, consider gear loadouts, or just walk down a hallway to the next room.  But Hades is about consistent traction.  It’s more Spintires than Forza.  Which means there is never a good time to stop playing Hades.  

Read more here.

5. Zombie Army 4

Horror is inherently absurd, even if it doesn’t realize it. A demon that make a girl turn her head around 360 degrees? A shark that conveniently decides to start eating people in time for the 4th of July holiday rush? A ghost that bothers people who videotape themselves while they’re sleeping? Dead people who wake up one night and wander around looking for people to eat? But there’s something special about horror that refuses to ignore its inherent absurdity. Zombie Army 4 is a rare horror game for its self-awareness. From the review hidden inside an article called “I wish Dan O’Bannon were here today to see Zombie Army 4”:

After all these years, Doom is trying to come to terms with its own seriousness and still isn’t sure how to do it.  It’s still trying to find its place in the world of modern shooters.  But with Zombie Army 4, Rebellion shows them how it’s done.  This is how you build a shooter, and furthermore, this is how you express the inherent silliness of it all.  Underneath the dim grey and the grim gore, there’s an indelible sense of playfulness to Zombie Army 4.  It’s not just horror, it’s horror laced with comedy.  It is what Dan O’Bannon did for George Romero with Return of the Living Dead.  He embraced, unreservedly, the horror of zombies, but also acknowledged, unabashedly, the absurdity of zombies.

4. Art of Rally

I play a ton of racing games, and many of them are good. But not many of them are different. From the review for Art of Rally:

It reminds me of paintings in which the human figures are tiny, all but swallowed by the landscape in deference to nature.  Art of Rally adopts this pastoral approach to rally racing.  The courses in Scandinavia, Japan, Germany, and Italy are in love with light and trees and patches of architecture.  Finland’s austere frozen lakes and Japan’s regal mountain switchbacks are majestic hosts to their tiny visitors.  The level designers drench the landscape in simple saturated colors and sprinkle it with reindeer or cattle.  Sometimes clusters of cheering spectators honk clown horns and blow whistles while crowding the road to get a closer look at a car.  This is a game about quiet drives through lovely countrysides with bursts of enthusiasm along the way.  It’s simple and all the more beautiful for its simplicity.  The stick-figure crowds are the game itself in a microcosm: a simple expression of sheer ebullience.

3. Mythgard

Mythgard cracked this year’s top five for a couple of reasons.  Partly that I feel it’s a fantastic design for how it hitches its theme to its rules.  Or is it the other way around?  I couldn’t say.  When a designer does it right, you don’t know if he’s hitched the theme to the rules or the rules to the theme.  

But the main reason I responded so strongly to a free-to-play collectible card game is that it’s been a long time since I was this thrilled by a card game, especially an online card game that denies me the tactile gratification of actual cards.  I have a deep-seated affinity for card games.  They’ve been a significant part of my entertainment ever since Magic.  But I’ve fallen out of love with them as they’ve succumbed to predatory business models and meandered online, and especially as they’ve settled into a rut of unimaginative “me-too” designs.  But Mythgard has snapped me back awake again.

Read the review here.

2. Snowrunner

If videogames are power fantasies, Snowrunner — like Mudrunner and Spintires before it — is easily the most plausible. A big-ass truck going where the hell it wants. It doesn’t even require that saddest of male compensation fantasies, the gun! So why haven’t more games tapped into it? Why don’t more games make me feel like…

 “Ha ha, Earth,” you laugh, “I don’t care that you flooded this road or cracked that asphalt or ruined this infrastructure.  You did your worst, yet here I am, industry incarnate, exerting dominion over you whether you like it or not.  Taste my big fat carbon footprint!”  You atop these sighing, puffing, gurgling beasts and their perseverance, sometimes for only inches at a time, by wheel or winch, indomitable!  

Read the review here.

1. Immortals Fenyx Rising

Why is this my favorite game of 2020?  Because no other game made me smile and laugh as much.  It’s that simple.

For the more complicated take, here’s my review.

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