Another year is almost over, and once again it seems like there were far too many video games to get through in a single lifetime, let alone a year. Here are ten standout titles you should definitely play (or replay!) over the Christmas break.
At the top end the billion-dollar AAA games impressed as always with complexity and scale on the absolute cutting edge, but many also reflected a rejection of the online multiplayer focus of recent years and a return to a narrative focus (albeit with microtransactions and DLC).
Meanwhile smaller and independently developed games continued to be among the most innovative and exciting, proving that if you can nail one thematic or gameplay concept really well, you can make something with just a handful of people that will be more fondly remembered than some games with a team size in the thousands.
Over the course of the year I earmarked no less than 20 games that I thought achieved something special enough to be considered must play experiences. After careful consideration (and though it physically hurt to remove some of my favourites), I've whittled my personal list down to these ten.
Assassin's Creed Odyssey
Playfully incorporating a wide range of ancient Greek influences, Odyssey surpassed every previous Assassin's Creed game in terms of story, design, visuals and character. Giving players more of a connection with the protagonist by allowing them influence over the dialogue as well as the action (and by letting them choose either a male or a female character at the beginning of the game), this was the first game in the series I personally stuck with for a decent amount of time.
Of course it doesn't hurt that the gameplay has also come so far since the days of rigid surveillance missions and and awkward parkour. The string of islands here are a joy to explore and the mix of visceral action, free exploration and deep roleplaying game mechanics makes for a very satisfying adventure.
Marrying impeccable game design with a touching and relatable story in a way I'd never experienced before, Celeste is simultaneously an excellent platformer and an engaging meditation on the perils and methods of tackling depression and anxiety. But while that sounds very heavy, the real brilliance of the game is that those two aspects are so naturally integrated into one funny, challenging, gorgeous and accessible experience.
While jumping and air-dashing and climbing up the pixelated mountain to solve each miniature puzzle, the obstacles and characters you meet hint at deeper metaphors but that never feels intrusive or ham-fisted. The game also balances its considerable challenge with optional support in the form of settings that keep it from feeling mean or exclusionary, and the soundtrack is so incredible that I purchased both albums and have been listening to them all year.
Having to start the game all over again when you die might sound like a frustration, but when the game's this good you welcome it. Dead Cells mashes together two genres that are themselves already amalgamations — the metroidvania and the roguelike — to create one of the finest recent examples of either. Each run takes you through familiar yet rearranged levels, armed with randomly appearing weapons and spells, meaning that progressing through the game is largely a matter of learning to improvise within the game's rules.
The really satisfying part, though, is the drip-feed of upgrades and unlocks that have a permanent effect on the world and tip the odds in your favour bit by bit as you play. This is one of those games that you can drop into for a 10-minute run or lose an entire weekend to as you experiment and push back against a design that never seems like it wants you to win.
An iPhone game that conveys the feelings of infatuation, familiarity and estrangement better than most, Florence is an animated short that leverages interactivity in a unique and satisfying way. It's a simple and not especially original story, but told in such a wonderful way as fill it with emotion and pull at memories of your own love and loss as only a video game could.
Through a series of touchscreen vignettes that let you guide Florence through her day and get insight into her personal life, the game shares a lot without ever delivering a single word. It's a breathtaking and emotionally affirming little game.
Forza Horizon 4
Forza Horizon is unstoppable. Originally an open world spin-off of the more serious Forza Motorsport, the apprentice has well and truly become the master here as Horizon 4 is for my money the greatest racing game of this generation. The open world design and mind-blowing visuals have been continually refined from entry to entry, and this slice of the UK is a joy to behold and to tear up in a beach buggy, vintage racer or bulky truck.
I generally opt out of online game features that bring the worldwide player base together, but the implementation here is brilliantly done. The world is synced for all players so seasons change all at the same time, opening up new paths and creating new challenges, and other drivers wander seamlessly into your game to give the whole thing a community feel. And of course the actual racing is top notch, with enough freedom to indulge your particular motorhead passions but plenty of surprises and challenges as well.
God of War
Shifting to Norse mythology, instituting a peerless cinematic presentation and retaining its gold standard hack-and-slash gameplay, the new God of War did two things I never would have thought possible: it brought the series back to cultural relevance, and it finally made Kratos a likeable character. The former Greek god wants nothing more than to forget about his former life in this game as he's left to reluctantly raise his son, but of course nobody's past is so easily forgotten.
That God of War actually continues the story of the puerile earlier games and uses them to say something interesting about fatherhood is astonishing, but it's also wrapped up in a well-paced and rock-solid game. The axe-and-shield combat is brutally satisfying, and the roadtrip through Norse myth is as exciting as it is genuinely heartfelt, a highlight being the frequent dialogue between the old warrior and his son as they travel the realm felling enormous beasts and teaching each other.
A big part of what makes Marvel heroes so popular is the constant tension between their personal lives and their more fantastical suits and powers. There have been good Marvel games before, but it's nailing this balance that makes Spider-man the greatest ever. In and out of costume, Peter Parker's drive to save New York makes for an engrossing story that reflects the best parts of previous Spidey adventures both on the page and the big screen.
And, of course, it also just feels so good to play. Blending flawless open-world acrobatics with more focused missions in linear areas, the game provides a massive playground with heaps to do no matter the kind of challenge your up for, and a bevy of upgrades and customisations.
Video games about video games have a tendency to get annoyingly reflexive, derivative or pretentious, and The Messenger isn't really an exception. This is a game that's humorously critical of its tried and true systems even as it celebrates them, variously expecting you to overcome the sort of bordering-on-unfair challenges of '80s and '90s action games and laughing at you when it completely flips the script and you're left floundering.
But the important thing is that you're always in on the joke. It's tough, but it doesn't punish you, and its amalgamation of old ideas into a modern structure is so gratifying that you'll want to keep pushing through. The game's marquee trick (but certainly not its only one) for example sees your character time jump from the 8-bit to the 16-bit era and back again; a marvel both technical and in terms of design.
Red Dead Redemption 2
A massive, believable open world filled with some of the most detailed wildlife, wilderness and gameplay systems ever seen, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a remarkable technical achievement. But the stories told within are just as deep as the world itself, with the overall narrative of Old West criminals smattered with smaller tales that build characters and absorb the player in a setting like few games before.
This is Rockstar's greatest storytelling to date, but it's wrapped up in an unparalleled ecosystem of things to see and do, where the act of simply saddling up your horse and riding seems to have limitless potential. From helping (or robbing) strangers on the road to becoming absorbed in a game of poker or a shopping spree for new hats, living in this world is so engrossing that you sometimes don't remember there's also a main story to progress; filled with horrific crimes, heroic betrayals and unexpected emotion.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
The name says it all. This is Smash Bros. — one of the most popular fighting franchises and inarguably the most massive video game crossover series there is — taken to its logical conclusion. All 74 fighters that have ever appeared in the series. More than 100 stages. Close to 1000 music tracks from dozens of game franchises. Innumerable items and collectibles from every corner of Japanese gaming history. Oh yeah, and one hell of a good fighting game.
Smash Bros. Ultimate scales effortlessly from a fun party game for two to 32 players to a highly technical, blisteringly competitive 1v1 pro-level fighting game, with a system of strikes, jumps, special moves and guards that's very easy to grasp for beginners but is different enough between characters to make things interesting. But the most impressive thing about it is that it brings together the worlds of franchises as disparate as Sonic the Hedgehog, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, Castelvania and Street Fighter, not to mention the obvious inclusion of Nintendo staples like Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Pokemon and many more, into a coherent and endlessly enjoyable experience.
This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald's home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.
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