Insomniac Games / Sony Interactive Entertainment
Spider-Man is by no means the most ambitious, nor the most successful game of 2018. However, it is the game that I had the most fun with, and one where I consistently had a smile on my face as I played. It’s easily accessible for most players, and so long as you avoid the repetitive side-quests, the game rarely wastes your time.
Though I’m hardly the first to say it, web swinging in Spider-Man makes my heart sing. It is a joyful mobility system that’s all about momentum in a lived environment. When I finished the game, I mostly wanted more excuses to web swing and learn how to get faster or soar higher. The game does have a low skill ceiling, meaning once you’re good at web swinging, there’s really no further complexity to explore. That being said, it was still a delight to watch Spider-Man zip between buildings or sail these grand arcs across New York City.
I don’t have feelings more complicated than that. I had a lot of fun. I will never play it again.
Buried Signal / Annapurna Interactive
This puzzle game is technically from late 2017, however, I didn’t play it until January, and so I’m including this on my list. My family went to Brazil for a vacation that January, and for reasons too farfetched to get into, we spent most of our days in a house with at least ten cats. I stopped counting at ten anyway. There were cats everywhere. They were in the bathroom. In the yard. On the stairs. My mother basically threw a cat into my bed through an open window to wake me up one morning. They were inescapable, and inevitably, the trip became somewhat anxiety-inducing.
So what does this have to do with Gorogoa? Well, the game was a soothing balm for my bout with cat-madness. The puzzle game has arresting visual art style that settles somewhere between Buddhist painting and art nouveau pop art. Though it has no firm story as such, its themes are reminiscent of a Paulo Coelho novel, where the journey forward is ultimately about looking deeper inside yourself and retracing your steps back to where you started. And Gorogoa achieves this within its own puzzle design, asking you to interact with a series of scenes, layer them and slowly reveal a bigger picture.
The game is a little shorter than I would have hoped, but gave me a moment of peace in a house under attack by a feline armada.
God of War (2018)
SIE Santa Monica Studio / Sony Interactive Entertainment
God of War is at its best when it is about its characters. Sony Santa Monica somehow cooled Kratos down from the hothead who SCREAMED. EVERY. LINE. PUNCTUATED. BY. ANGER. Kratos makes for a compelling, if not complicated, father figure in the series’ effective reboot. Part of that comes from his interactions with his son Atreus, where the game’s dialogue, animation, and gameplay allow their relationship to shine.
While a lot of these highlights come from the story, what I really enjoyed was the subtler ways the game shows their dynamic changing over time. Where Kratos starts the game hesitant to even touch his son, he becomes more able to be vulnerable over time, quietly embracing his child. Or how after a fight Atreus would ask how he did, and Kratos’ opinion slowly improves over the course of the game. I really appreciated how their bond is represented in the gameplay as Atreus can extend Kratos’ combos, especially as he gets stronger. It was always in my interest as a player, both from a story side and a gameplay side to foster this overeager kid.
Overall, I think God of War suffers from lackluster plotting. It feels like an anti-Star Wars story. Instead of the heroes almost constantly tripping into happy contrivances, Kratos and Arteus seem to have the worst luck imaginable. Their time together can best be surmised as two steps forward, one step back… forever. Yet the characters at their core are a better excuse to give the game a whirl than the story they take part in. Watching Kratos and Atreus interact is charming, and shows the effort the actors, writers, and animation team put into these roles.
Pandemic Legacy Season One
Admittedly this is not a video game, nor is it from this year, but it is a board game I want to highlight. Playing regular Pandemic is a blast. Every game you attempt to cure a few diseases before the civilization collapses, working together cooperatively to solve logistical issues. Pandemic Legacy, by contrast, was such a tense nail-biting experience that there were games where we were watching the board and planning somewhere between 4-8 turns ahead to ensure the best possible outcome.
Pandemic Legacy not only makes the regular gameplay direr — it heightens the drama of play. Your turns have an impact for games to come, and that builds the narrative. Sure, Pandemic Legacy has a bare-bones plot that matters on the margins, but it’s not the story I’m going to remember. I’ll remember how we essentially sacrificed parts of Europe to further our search for a character who could ease future games. Then, out of guilt from losing essentially the entire Middle East and half of Asia early on in the game, we fought hard towards the end to ensure those cities were fully cured of disease.
It’s a board game that is smartly picking and choosing aspects of video games that can enrich long-term play. All of those years where games advertised moral choice as a feature — Pandemic Legacy had me making moral decisions every round.
Assassin’s Creed Origins
Ubisoft Montreal / Ubisoft
Look, I will perpetually be behind the most recent Assassin’s Creed game. It will be 2034, “Assassin Creed: The New One” will be on the Xbox Zero stream box and I will still be attempting to figure out boat combat in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Also, video games are long, and I should have finished Minit, which is good, but instead I played this, which I also liked.
Assassin’s Creed Origins makes Assassin’s Creed fun again. It also makes the game about stealth again, while not abandoning the adventuring spirit it gained over its last few iterations. Origins is a fascinating attempt at marrying those two systems with some very light role-play, where the two in tandem make for a greater whole. The stealth allows for a delicate hunt of enemy combatants, and when your plans inevitably fall to shit, the combat is just nuanced enough that the game remains exciting.
Overall, I came away feeling like Ubisoft had finally managed to turn this series back into something I wanted to play and they should be commended for that. Now I can go back to not playing this series for another five years.