Thank fuck 2020 was a stellar year for video games.
It was already primed to be a decent year of releases, but that was all thrown up in the air when COVID began. Remember when people were excited for special Animal Crossing-themed Switch consoles? Or when scalpers had started raiding Australia for stock of Ring Fit Adventure?
Hell, Australia was still recovering from the bushfires when COVID started. It was halfway around the world (and in Australia too) when about 80,000 people packed out ANZ Stadium to Horses, Queen and Hiltop Hoods.
Imagine pitching that event now. How do you make a moshpit COVID-safe?
Fortunately, we had video games. And not only did we have a handful of genuinely great games to farewell the PS4 and Xbox One era, there was also plenty of games in the tier below that.
Right then. Onto the games.
Talking Points (from Jackbox Party Pack 7)
I’ve always had a soft spot for the Jackbox games. They’re accessible in ways where gaming traditionally fails. It’s a clever reskin of a lot of existing concepts made fresh with new technology.
But I get why a lot of people have fallen off the Jackbox wagon. The series is up to 7 packs. It’s easy to get exhausted. And not every experimental game is going to work. Even some of the games that had potential didn’t really land the way they should. Push The Button, for instance, plays very similarly to Among Us but never took off in quite the same way.
So I didn’t have the highest of hopes for Jackbox Party Pack 7, and I especially didn’t think I’d fall in love with a game that was basically multiplayer Powerpoint presentations.
But Talking Points ended up being some of the best laughs I had all year. In a nutshell, two people combine to give a crazy presentation. Everyone comes up with various presentation topics at the start, before getting paired off later on. One person does the talking, while the second makes their life miserable with the most off-brand — or relevant — images to pair with their slides.
I’m underselling it here. And it’s not the only worthwhile game in the seventh Jackbox pack — Devils and the Details is pure chaos, and Quiplash 3 is more of the same with less Americanised prompts. But Talking Points is hands down one of the better games from the shitshow that was 2020, and absolutely one of the least talked about.
Command & Conquer: Remastered Collection
Evidence of how cooked 2020 was: EA had a really good year. Not as in they made Scrooge McDuck levels of vault money from microtransactions, although that’s absolutely still happening.
No, EA had a pretty good year because they just shipped some solid AA or lower-tier games without any of the faff that we’ve come to expect. Squadrons was excellent, and has just gotten 4K/120 FPS support on the next-gen consoles.
But as a love letter to a franchise from ages before, the biggest surprise was Command & Conquer: Remastered Collection. It doesn’t have Red Alert 2 — that’ll probably come in a future pack with the more sci-fi C&C games — but the remake was functionally perfect otherwise.
Easily Supergiant’s greatest game, and one of the tightest action roguelikes since Dead Cells. There’s a good case to be made here that Carrion equally deserves some love as 2020’s best mechanical title, although I never got around to playing that, so unfortunately I have no idea.
Still, Hades deserves all the praise it gets. It’s fun. It’s funny. It’s endlessly replayable. It’s supremely clever with how it matches story to the structure of a roguelike. The characterisation is outstanding, and I can’t get enough of the art style. You can enjoy the game mindlessly, or fully engage with its incredible world-building, lore, gods and the relationships between them all. Either way, it’s an absolute blast.
Desperadoes 3 is one of those games that I wouldn’t change a single thing about. Following on from the outstanding Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, Desperados 3 takes all of the superb concepts, adds a cracking Wild West layer with on top, some solid voice acting, excellent difficulty customisation and some fantastic sandbox mission design.
It’s like Hades in a lot of ways: everything Desperadoes 3 tries to do, it does really, really well. Unfortunately, it’s also a tactics game, so it hasn’t received the same degree of hype or fanfare. And as a fun fact: I’ve heard this game runs nicely on the new M1 Macbooks. Not that someone buying an ARM-powered Macbook Air/Pro/Mac Mini is thinking about video games per se, but hey, if you’re bored, why not load up one of the best games of 2020 while you’re at it?
The next-gen launch window took me away from Valorant for a while, but for a solid few months I was consistently having a blast with Riot’s new shooter. Another fun aside was how many old faces I recognised from the ancient Counter-Strike days. As it turns out, there’s a ton of folks who still want a Counter-Strike type game, but have fallen off the CS:GO wagon for one reason or another — although cheating in CS:GO is usually the main reason.
I don’t think Valorant will replace Valve’s crown jewel, although it does make me wonder. What would a CS:GO look like with refreshed, clearer visuals and some modern engine updates?
Few people got around to Umurangi Generation at launch, but as the year came to a close more people discovered this Australian/Kiwi indie. It’s functionally a disestablishmentarianism Pokemon Snap, except it’s wrapped in some superb Maori science fiction and some really neat environmental storytelling.
I’ll be upfront: this won’t be everyone’s game. It has a visual aesthetic that’s sometimes a bit muddled and unclear, and the controls can be a little clunky occasionally when you’re fretting around for the best shot.
But if you’ve ever wanted more first-person photography games, Umurangi Generation is cool as hell. It’s also just so exceedingly rare to see any game embrace Maori culture in the right way. The game just got some new DLC before Christmas too in Umurangi Generation Macro, which is chock-full of its own commentary on the shitshow that is 2020.
Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?!
Like Desperados 3, I wouldn’t change a single thing about Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?!. The decision to go for food trucks and a bonkers kind of post-war story was a great fit. But the studio also learned from CSD 2 and incorporated a better sense of progression as you play.
Games like Cook, Serve, Delicious are always great with a partner, and my SO has always loved the series for its mindless stress. You don’t have time to think about anything else, so you can’t think about the world’s ills and the rest of the bullshit that invades our day to day lives.
That’s what makes Cook, Serve, Delicious so great. The third’s my favourite from the series, and it also played really well through our Samsung TV using its inbuilt Steam Link functionality, which I didn’t expect. Alternatively, you can just buy it for $19 on the eShop right now.
I wish my friends would play GTFO with me, but the idea of “horror survival shooter” has kind of scared them all off.
That’s a shame, because my sessions with GTFO were hands down some of the most fun I had all of last year. I had a solo playthrough/interview with the studio around not-E3 time in July, and Leah joined me for a follow-up session a few months later. That was equally brilliant, and I wish I could get a couple of other friends who would brave the underground with me. Sure, the game has matchmaking now. But a game like this that has so much downtime is really ideal for a group of people who know each other.
Yakuza: Like A Dragon
I’ve always cheated with my GOTY lists a little bit. Usually it’s by expanding the list of “top 10 games” to include something involving cricket, or it’s having thoroughly enjoyed a game that my partner has played through to completion.
And to be sure, 2020 had plenty of those games. Paradise Killer was one that could have easily been on this list. I didn’t play it, but I spent plenty of time in bed watching my partner smash through it on the Switch. It’s an outstanding game, and one you should definitely pick up.
But this year my “cheat” game, as it were, was something my partner and I both played concurrently.
I hadn’t expected to fall in love with Yakuza: Like a Dragon quite so much. But timing can be a funny thing. The Yakuza franchise has always unabashedly embraced the fact that it’s a video game, and it loves being a video game. Amidst the bullshit of 2020 however, this was the time when we really needed a game that gave you sidequests about yakuza captains with diaper fantasies. Or running a company by promoting a hen — called Omelette — to the management so they can squawk at investors during board meetings. Or a kind of deliberately shitty knock-off version of Mario Kart with its own wacky side characters. Or the part where everyone transforms at the beginning of a fight because Ichiban is a massive Dragon Quest nerd and his brain is basically walking JRPG fandom stuck in the body of a yakuza.
Then there’s the moments of real heart. Few games embrace homelessness at any point, and certainly not major franchises. It’s not a side element to the story either: Like a Dragon is about rebuilding from ground zero, literally and figuratively. That journey is only possible with a heavy dose of humility, something Ichiban exemplifies in a way I wish we’d see in more major video game characters.
And then there’s the minigames. My partner and I spent at least a fortnight playing Yakuza‘s brand of mahjong for an hour or so just about every night, discussing what tiles to play or passing the controller around. I spent about a week straight just learning Shogi so I could do the puzzles. We stopped watching YouTube cooking videos for a while after dinner because my partner was too busy having Omelette crack the shits at board meetings.
Even in its grindier moments, Like a Dragon is just unabashedly fun. It offers that kind of silly, absurdist escapism that was not just a perfect foil for 2020, but also a perfect foil against the rest of the next-gen launch titles. In a window where games and platforms were obsessed with graphics, frame rate, real time ray-tracing and the potential of the future, Yakuza reminded us all that love and laughter is often much more powerful.
Microsoft Flight Simulator
Here’s one of my favourite gaming moments of the year. I’m sitting on a Discord server with some Counter-Strike mates. They’re mid-game, I can’t join, but one of them decided, hey, I’ll just share my screen so Alex can follow what’s going along.
I’d already fired up Microsoft Flight Simulator beforehand, because I wanted to do a little solo tour of Japan after the content patch dropped. So I rigged this up on my second monitor: a shot of the match filling up most of the screen, and my navlog and GPS taking up the opposite line.
There’s a neat thing with Flight Simulator too where it’ll accept inputs from an Xbox controller even when it’s not the active window on your desktop. So I can basically be clicking and moving windows around on the second screen, resizing, resetting my navlog and such without getting blown off course. Controller one hand, casually checking out Tokyo Tower and some landmarks in Yokohama, then turning to watch my mates completely botch a cache retake.
I’ve argued before that Flight Simulator is easily Xbox’s best title in a generation, and it’ll be a flagship console title too when it launches on Xbox Series X next year. The game still has some work to do to be completely playable with a console controller — on PC right now I’m finding I still need the occasional keyboard input depending on the plane.
But even then what the game is capable of is seriously impressive. Take this small thread from indie dev Rami Ismail, who loaded up Flight Simulator to replay … the exact flight he was on at that time.
Folks, I am incredibly, incredibly excited to finally try this. It's time to play Flight Simulator aboard a flight.— Rami Ismail (رامي) (@tha_rami) December 1, 2020
Aw – media refuses to upload but the flights are pretty synced up right now. I turned the other way to get onto course after takeoff (damnit) but beyond that it's pretty much the same. Clouds entry was seconds apart, climbing out of them was maybe 30-ish seconds difference. Wild.— Rami Ismail (رامي) (@tha_rami) December 2, 2020
Seems the real flight and flight simulator flight are both entering the oceanic track at pretty similar entry points, my flight being about 5 minutes ahead right now. I'll slow it down a bit and take a nap.— Rami Ismail (رامي) (@tha_rami) December 2, 2020
Update:— Rami Ismail (رامي) (@tha_rami) December 2, 2020
The airplane I'm on is now 02:25 hours out from Amsterdam.
The airplane I'm flying in Flight Simulator, the same route, departing simultaneously, is 02:29 our from Amsterdam.
This game is wild. The clouds look the same.
Hell, the distance to the clouds even seems right? I see the same stars??? pic.twitter.com/klwuFse1sQ— Rami Ismail (رامي) (@tha_rami) December 2, 2020
oh my god we started descent almost at the exact same second that's hilarious— Rami Ismail (رامي) (@tha_rami) December 2, 2020
The sunrise x2 pic.twitter.com/8i68umOkzu— Rami Ismail (رامي) (@tha_rami) December 2, 2020
That level of synchronicity in a video game — on a goddamn flight — is just wild. It’s the first proper instance of showing what “the cloud” can actually do in tangible terms that transform the user experience.
Sure, the game ran like shit on that laptop. And Flight Simulator is still brutally un-optimised in ways that make Cyberpunk 2077 look like a marvel. But you don’t play Flight Simulator for esports-level frame rates. You play it for the beauty of flight, the freedom of exploring your world, and the wonder of seeing your house in a video game where it absolutely and totally does not belong.
So that’s it for my 2020 list. A little delayed, but understandably so considering how insane the back end of 2020 became with the Cyberpunk debacle.
If you missed some of our 2020 recaps, you can find a solid selection from Kotaku Australia’s local team, and our US colleagues, below.
What were your favourite games from 2020?