I'm very happy to see the back of 2018. It hasn't been a good year for many reasons: difficult personally, nearly fatal for my family, and certainly not the easiest professionally.
But the creativity and cleverness of video games has always provided a welcome respite, with 2018 providing many smiles and surprises from studios big and small.
A small note: there's a ton of stuff that I simply didn't get to play this year. I'm still wondering how pretty Monster Hunter: World looks when cranked up. I saw a ton of colleagues jumping on board for Red Dead Redemption 2 (including Gizmodo's Tegan) and skipped it entirely. Being at PAX when RDR2 came out and then almost immediately left for Blizzcon didn't help either.
Anyway, onto the games. The list is unranked, except for my game of the year which is at the end.
For the first quarter of the year, this was the game I wanted to play on mobiles. An Aussie take on arcade cricket with an emphatically Australian sense of humour, Smashtastic is basically Power Hitting: The Video Game. Players control a single hitter each innings, pushing and slogging the ball to all corners of the ground as you play your way through domestic and international T20 competitions.
It's not an exhaustive simulation of cricket. It's certainly not a flashy game. But it's damn effective at what it does and a perfect tonic for cricket tragics. Smashtastic isn't a looker of a game, nor is it one that will transform minds on the majesty of cricket.
But bugger me sideways if it isn't fun.
Every now and again, something cricket-related will come across my feed. And just as sure as night follows day, I'll pick up my phone and think, "Maybe someone has finally ported Cricket 97 to phones."
The Red Strings Club
The nature of this job means that, every now and again, you go hunting for shorter experiences. The particulars of being an editor, however, mean that often you come across those experiences and end up having to shelve them for far, far longer than one would like.
The Red Strings Club was one such example. I remember seeing the game for the first time while putting together the weekly This Week In Games post, adding it to my Steam wishlist almost precisely a year ago. But work piled up, one day became one week, a week became a month, and before you know it the Christmas break was around the corner.
But with some leave booked in, I was able to set aside some time for games that I'd been hanging onto all year. And Red Strings Club was precisely what I thought I'd be getting when I added it to my wishlist all those years ago. The bartending mini-game is great fun, the vibe of the Red Strings Club bar is well done, the writing fits like a glove and the soundtrack underpinning the gameplay is fantastic. An engaging story that doesn't overstay it's welcome, and well worth the seven bucks it cost me pre-Christmas.
Don't Forget Our Esports Dream
One of my earlier writing gigs, before joining Kotaku Australia, was covering competitive gaming once a week for a couple of Australian outlets. It wasn't called esports back then, because the concept of contracts and prize pools over six figures were completely alien to ... well, the industry.
But there were plenty of interesting stories. Not enough to cover it daily, which is why I only filed once a week. But it was enough for a couple of columns, and the lower frequency meant I had the time to continue playing competitively myself while writing on the side and working a full-time job.
At the time, I was deeply into Starcraft 2. I never got close to the level of accomplishment or ability that I'd managed in Counter-Strike, but it was an absolute blast and one of the best competitive communities around. However, I eventually reached the point where I had to make a decision: if I wanted to become a genuine competitor at tournaments, one that could hold my own against anyone if they weren't careful, I'd need to put more time into the game.
I couldn't write and play Starcraft at the same time. Having seen the experiences of other Australians who had tried to go professional, and other concerns - Starcraft 2 is no less brutal on the hands and wrists - I quit playing to keep writing instead.
It seems silly to mention now, given how low the stakes were: streaming was just on the rise, but there was barely any money in the Australian scene at that stage. Organisers of weekly and monthly tournaments were paying out of their own pocket to stay afloat.
But people within esports have always been beset with that kind of choice. Do you keep sacrificing stability, money, and future career paths for work in an industry with little money and even less infrastructural support?
It's a question that the free-to-play visual novel SC2VN explored really well.
SC2VN was a short story about a player trying to gain a professional Brood War license in South Korea, and the sacrifices and hardships required to get there along the way. Don't Forget Our Esports Dream is the prequel to that, exploring predominately the lives of two players - a Protoss pro named Bolt (the player) and a female Zerg icon named Jett, the latter of whom is making a return to the professional Brood War scene after a notable hiatus.
Even though the game has various interactive elements, no prior Starcraft knowledge is required. And it's not really a visual novel about Starcraft, but more a snapshot of the Starcraft scene, the environment of team houses, pressures on students, and a glimpse into professional gaming before streaming changed the scene - for individuals, teams, organisations and the media - forever.
Don't Forget Our Esports Dream is a nicely written little visual novel, and one that any Starcraft tragics should definitely play. There's something here for fans of esports pre-Twitch, too, provided you have the patience for the visual novel format.
Into the Breach
If you hadn't heard about Into the Breach before the Christmas break, chances are you probably have by now. The strategy follow-up from the makers of FTL has a elegance spanning its design, strategy and mechanics.
I could go on, but it's not necessary by this point. I won't claim that Into the Breach is perfect by any means, but there's a reason people have been singing its praises for months. Much like FTL, Subset's tale of mechs saving the world is very, very good.
Detroit: Become Human
Part of the fun with roundups like this is we get to touch on the memories, the how and why different things spoke to us over the course of a year. Detroit: Become Human wasn't touching per se, and I'd never claim for a second that it was one of the best written or most brilliant games from 2018.
But there's one memory that I do remember quite strongly all those moons ago. Despite being riddled with a chest infection and a fever, sitting in bed with the laptop popped up while I ground through work, I remember thinking while the final credits rolled: "This is the kind of game I've been waiting for David Cage to do for ages."
It's late in the evening. I've moved the console to the bedroom, so I can enjoy a bit of Detroit in warmth and comfort. I fire up the game, and while the main menu loads, I duck off to the toilet. Nobody else is home, so I don't bother to shut the door. It's at that point that the worst possible sound echoes from the bedroom.
That's not to say it wasn't hamfisted at stages. Detroit was a little cowardly, too, relying on hackney cliches as answers to the android-human civil war and avoiding many of the more troubling metaphors and allusions to real world injustices raised by the game itself.
“Detroit is forcing me to do things I don’t want to so I’ve paused it in protest and am just sitting here,” I messaged the group chat on Sunday. I’d resolved to finish the game that weekend, but I’d reached an impasse. It wasn’t caused by the type of question you’d expect from a game - save this or that character, choose between high or low risk and reward. It was because I was being forced into a morally reprehensible act which undermined the central conflict of the game.
But it was a cracking watercooler game. I hope there's no sequel to Detroit, but I'm keen to see what Quantic Dream does next.
Tegan and I have a phrase we often say to each other, particularly after a more challenging day. "You want to go shoot something," one of us will say, which more often than not is our code for Overwatch or whatever co-op game we happen to be sharing at the time. (It's almost always some kind of shooter, which says a lot.)
But it's a feeling everyone gets. Sometimes, you just want to come home after a day's work and blow things to pieces.
Descent is really good for that. Or at least it was, if you didn't want to go through the hassle of getting the Rebirth mod working.
Fortunately, Overload is a modern spiritual successor to the 6DOF shooter. And having grown up with a healthy dose of Descent, Terminal Velocity, Fury and later Freelancer, I've always had a soft spot for circlestrafing around targets while pumping lasers into everything until the screen is filled with particle effects.
Overload is a little plain around the edges. The voice acting is ... not great. And the story is about as elaborate and involved as DOOM's.
But there are some games that know exactly what they are and what they strive to be. Overload's mission statement: fly really fast around an underground reactor and blow the living shit out of everything that moves.
Some days, that's all you need.
There's many missions, stories and mechanics in Spider-Man that made it one of the best games of the year. But the one that stands out the most was in between missions, when Peter Parker was swinging from one side quest to another.
Peter was taking a call from Aunt May at the time, mid-conversation about something at the homeless shelter. He was due to stop by for dinner or something minor. The specifics of that aren't what's special.
What followed was a Typically Video Game Thing. When a player interacts with a new mission or object in a video game, it usually results in the preceding voice line being cut off, never to be heard again.
That happened in Spider-Man: I reached the New Event, the call with Aunt was cut off, and I prepared myself to hear it never again.
Except in Insomniac's Spider-Man? The voiceover for the new side mission played through to completion, and then Peter rang Aunt May, and their conversation carried on from where it left off.
It doesn't happen all the time. I shudder to think about how much time, money and effort it took to even focus on something that most games happily ignore.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Smash Ultimate could still do a ton more to ingratiate new players with the quirks and mechanics of the Smash experience. Hell, a short tutorial showing new players basic recovery moves would make that initial learning curve infinitely smoother.
But it's still an astonishingly deep game, with a crazy amount to discover and learn. And as I found, you can still get bitten by the Smash bug in 2018.
Being over the age of 30 and having a very fortunate job, I'm lucky in that I don't have to miss out on games just because of the platform they're on. But growing up, with a family that was relatively poor and not having much spare cash lying around, there was plenty of games I never grew up with.
If I could only take one game from 2018 into 2019, if there was one game that I simply would not let go of, it would be the brightly coloured tiles of Azul.
A simple abstract strategy game that involves drafting - one of my favourite mechanics - with some great tactile elements, Azul is the perfect gateway for introducing others to modern board games. Games are fast, especially in two player. It scales just fine, although the experience changes markedly from a two player game to a group of four, and the tactile elements keep things enjoyable for less competitive players.
It's the kind of game I will play over and over without question, and one that will make an absolute fortune when someone translates it into a mobile app. It's easily the best $50 I spent all year, one of the best board games that became broadly available in 2018 (it first released in 2017, but supply and distribution issues meant it was only available en masse this year) and without a shadow of a doubt, worth every cent.