With all the GOTY awards it has won, at this point it feels like everyone knows what made God of War so great, so I don’t feel a need to restate the obvious. As a fan of the series since the 2005 original, I’ve been a longtime admirer of the games, the stories, and the fact that they had so many strong entries with a variety of different individuals at the helm. The bold (and in my opinion) necessary decision to fundamentally reinvent the game across the board deserves as much celebration as its flawless execution from Sony Santa Monica Studio. Right off the bat, the new camera perspective and behavior immediately lets you know this isn’t your father’s God of War. Everything feels different and somehow familiar at the same time. Kratos is injected with new dimensions, internal struggles and a father son dynamic that truly humanize him. The graphical fidelity of this game literally dropped my jaw. Simply a masterpiece.
It feels weird to put this on my top 10 list. Not because it doesn’t deserve to be, but because of the limited amount of time I was able to put into it, especially compared to the massive amount of stuff I know is in this game. The sheer volume of content is staggering and the attention to detail is so meticulous that it seems to border on obsession--are there really 40 different kinds of fish you can catch?
Even with the limited amount of time I was able to spend in Red Dead 2, it was clear this is a modern classic that deserves so much of a bigger a chunk of my life that I need to find the hours to give it, and can’t imagine this not being on my list.
One thing I love most about indie games is how much fun it is to see an “old-school looking” title rise to the top of the gaming ranks, capture players attention, and rub elbows with the AAA big-boys. Celeste is one of our yearly reminders of how important gameplay is, and the game’s retro graphics manage to focus that much more attention on that fact. The nuanced, tight controls are absolutely needed in its super-challenging stage designs. On top of the obviously great game-play and controls, I was really taken aback at the irony of such a mature and perhaps dark subject matter of its story, compared to the innocent presentation of the game. That, counter balanced with the Zelda-esque conversations and the haunting music really make this a unique experience. Bravo.
Sitting on the other end of the 2D platform spectrum from Celeste is Dead Cells, a game to which I’ll admit to being intimidated by. By no means am I a hardcore 2D-action/platform expert, but I was able to appreciate some of the game design decisions made in Dead Cells. And I loved how a lot of the weapons felt. Twin Daggers (or as I call them Twin Light Sabers!) FTW! The pace gets really frenetic and with all the effects going on, it took me a while to get used to the fact that you can run “through” enemies without dying. I had to “learn” what was danger and what was effects. While perhaps not “Dark Souls” caliber of difficulty, this game certainly fell on the harder side for me, with some frustrating moments, but I often was in awe of just how elaborate of a game system Motion Twin created.
While Spider-Man doesn’t take as bold steps of change as something like God of War did, it is a masterful execution of a familiar format. Yup, I was expecting that swinging through the city would feel great. Yes, I was expecting the combat to feel satisfying, twitchy, combo heavy and addicting. And YES, I was expecting a great (Marvel movie feeling) story. While I did have a few “Déjà Arkham Vu” moments, it was still an amazing, fresh feeling experience. What a great example of a studio's clear-cut love of a character being amply demonstrated by fantastic execution. I can only imagine the amount of work that must have gone into designing/modeling New York in this game, and don’t know if it is possible for this game to make you feel more like Spider-Man.
I’ve never considered myself “good” at any of the Smash Bros. games, and Ultimate is no exception. But they’ve always been fun, and Ultimate could possibly be the most fun to play of them all. I’ve heard some “write off” the Smash games as “just a party game” and never understood why that was considered a negative. Ultimate is a fantastic party game with a staggering amount of content. Having worked on a number of fighting games, I often used to ask our team “how many characters is too many? 100…?thinking that no fighting game will ever come close to 100 fighters. Ultimate has 74, which officially crosses into the “daunting zone.” I swear it feels like you could play this game for weeks just checking out all the stuff that’s crammed in. Over 100 backgrounds? Really? While I don’t have as good a time with this on solo play, with a group of friends, I don’t know any another game can top it.
I don’t remember the last time a game’s presentation, audio, and overall “mood” was so dominant in its identity, even above its gameplay. At the end of the day this is still Tetris, but it’s been packaged with such a slick, dreamlike, zen coat of paint that it literally breathes new life (and value) and feels like a refreshing experience. The way the visuals and audio work so effectively to create this mood reminds me of Flower or Journey, which is the name of Tetris Effect’s campaign mode. Coincidence? Again, all of this amazing art and audio is a skin for playing multiple games of Tetris, and I found myself wondering what other classic games this sort of skin could be wrapped around.
Odyssey was a little like Red Dead 2 to me, in that the staggering scale and volume of content in this title was overwhelming. I knew I would never have the time to finish either game (without quitting my day job), but one can’t help be in awe at how much they put into Odyssey. While playing as Alexios, I kept wondering how each experience/interaction with others would have played out as Kassandra--to the point where I had to tell myself “that’s for another time.” In addition, it’s hard not to get romanced by the sheer beauty of Odyssey and its landscape shots of Ancient Greece. The faster paced combat is welcomed and for some reason, it never got old kicking opponents off cliffs. I didn’t get nearly as deep into the customization nuances of my character as most would. If I had any issue with this game, it was the persistent feeling that I would never fully experience everything it has to offer. Somehow that was a negative for me. Nonetheless, this game is an amazing piece of work. It’s amazing how Assassin’s games are released so frequently at such high quality.
Despite a yearly release schedule for the Call of Duty franchise, Activision’s decision to have three studios working on COD gives them each a 3 year development cycle. With this strategy Treyarch has managed to carve out their own franchise within a franchise with Black Ops, which stands on its own with this fourth iteration. With “back to basics” controls (I refuse to say “boots-on-the-ground”), crazy amounts of customization, modes galore and COD’s trademark production/presentation quality, BLOPS4 holds its own with any previous entry. The bold move to drop the single player campaign for the Battle Royale Blackout may be perceived by some as jumping on the bandwagon, but Blackout clearly wasn’t “just slapped on.” It’s so much more and (at the end of the day) will certainly add more longevity to BLOPS4 than a single player campaign would have.
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