So, we’ve managed to officially make it past the half-way points of this utterly crazy year. Putting aside all the madness, that means we’re half-way to the traditional Game of the Year lists where we can gush about the games we love, argue about what we didn’t and remind ourselves why our hobby is awesome. That’s another 6-months away though, and I’m impatient, so just like last year I’m going to do the best games of the year, so far.
Before we get into it, though, there’s a couple of key caveats. Obviously the first is that this list is entirely opinion based, so it probably won’t match up with your own views. Second, only games I’ve actually played can be here, and since I’m just a human being (albeit, the most amazing human being ever in the history of ever) I can’t play everything. For example, I didn’t play the new Animal Crossing, so that’s not on here. I know, I know, but I can’t help it.
Do you like vaguely humanoid slabs of meat? Do you like taking cover behind things? Do you like turn-based tactical combat involving chainsaws? Do you like loot? If you answered yes to those questions then Gears Tactics is going to blow your mind into little pieces with a Gnasher.
Gears Tactics doesn’t exactly revolutionize the whole turn-based tactical genre, but it just does it so damn well. The action feels satisfying and just as brutal as you’d want from a Gears game, even with the camera zoomed out. Nice Gears touches are everywhere, like charging Locust with a Retro Lancer or the way they explode into gory chunks when hit them with a close range shotgun blast. It always feels like Splash Damage were true fans of the Gears games and wanted to ensure this spin-off felt like it could seamlessly exist in the same universe as Gears 5.
The lack of any sort of base management or something similar is a shame, but it means the focus is kept almost entirely on the turn-based gameplay and it shows. Gears Tactics is polished and its action is tight. Plus, there’s a level of production value that we don’t typically see from the genre, with cutscenes looking nearly as good as the proper mainline entries. Hell, even the in-game stuff isn’t too far off of Gears 5 when you get to see it up close.
As a medium virtual reality is still in its infancy, busy crawling about the floor and occasionally throwing up its breakfast while we all gently cheer it on and try to stop it from bumping its head off all the furniture. There’s so much raw potential, but right now it’s expensive to get into, and with such a small install base the games available are mostly small projects. Nobody is willing to spend big on a VR game. Except Valve. Because they’re Valve. It’s not like they don’t have the cash to spare.
Half-Life: Alyx is basically a glimpse into what a triple-A blockbuster in VR could be, and it’s fucking awesome. It doesn’t actually do anything astonishingly new that other VR games haven’t done, but it just does it all so much better and with an incredible amount of polish.
Firefights are tense and scruffy as you lean out from behind cover and unleash a few pot-shots. The slow sections feel nice and tense because having a head crab leap at your actual goddamn face is a level of terrifying right up there with losing your mum in a supermarket. Even messing around with a marker and a window feels excellent.
We’re a long way from titles like Half-Life: Alyx becoming a regular occurrence. And right now I don’t see any other company except for Valve and maybe Sony with its next-gen PS VR being willing to invest so much cash into creating a triple-A VR game despite their being a small market for it. For now, then, Half-Life: Alyx remains a tantalizing glimpse into the realms of what could be.
Oh, and you can catch a head crab in a bucket. Now that’s proper next-gen gaming, right there.
To be honest, Desperados 3 could have made this list purely because it actually encourages players to spam the quicksave button like it dispenses pure sugar straight into your mouth. It wants you to save every ten seconds and reload every single time you make the slightest mistake. But thankfully, Desperados 3 also makes this list because it’s really, really, really bloody good.
It’s also a tad strange that Desperados 3 even exists. Before this prequel came out, the last anyone had seen of the franchise was in 2007 with Helldarado. It’s a niche series, and yet in 2020 it got randomly yanked out of its grave, dusted down, given a six-shooter and a Stetson and shoved out into the world.
Yup, it’s a rootin’, tootin’, shooting’ cowboy game. Ulnike Gears Tactics earlier on this list, Desperados 3 is all about real time tactics. You swap between characters with unique skills while try to work your way through a maze of patrolling bad guys. You can unload some hot lead if its needed, but the emphasis is firmly on stealth and smart planning to dispatch foes, distract them or neatly step through the network of watchful eyes.
The level design is simply excellent, offering up multiple routes, new little twists to the gameplay and cunningly placed enemies that always seem impossible to get through at first glance. Solving the puzzle of how to best use the abilities at your disposal is immensely rewarding. Desperados 3 is a must-own game for anyone who enjoys some proper slow-paced, tactical thinking and has the patience of a statue.
You could still argue that in some ways 2016’s DOOM is, overall, the better game owing to its purer, focused design. DOOM Eternal throws in a pointless hub and weirdly convoluted upgrade system which results in it being a messier game. However, when it comes down to the combat, DOOM Eternal kicks its predecessor to the curb. The movement is somehow even faster and even smoother, the guns feel better and their alternate fire modes bring heaps more variety. And in the midst of the gloriously savage executions and the blood and the sheer, raw spectacle of the violence lies a more tactical heart. There’s always a reason to use almost every gun, or mix of enemies that forces you to decide what needs to die first, second and third.
Hell, DOOM Eternal even brings back the colour-coded doors that send you hunting for a shiny blue, red or yellow key card. And its fun.
And that soundtrack! I’ve got the whole OST and I’m currently attempting to play the drums to it, but I can’t play that fast. It’s the perfect barrage of heavy beats and guitar riffs needed for ripping and tearing. It makes you want to charge through your front door and rip the heart out of your neighbour! Or at least, it would if social distancing wasn’t a thing. It’s hard to rip out hears from 2M away.
Streets of Rage 4
Not once did I think that with all the possible franchises which could make a comeback that Streets of Rage 4 would wind up being a Game of the Year candidate in 2020. As a kid I spent hours and hours raging through the streets at 4am, powering through both of the first two games. Somehow all these years later the series is back, and it plays beautifully.
I’ve sunk a lot of time into Streets of Rage 4 now in a bid to grab the Achievements and unlock new characters. The gameplay is wonderfully simple yet tricky to really master. As a result I flew into what could only be described as a temper tantrum several times owing to my shite reflexes, but boy oh boy, when I nailed those combos and got that sweet S rank it felt amazing.
I’d perhaps go so far as to say Streets of Rage 4 is damn near flawless, in the sense that it sets out to do something very specific (awesome arcade beat em’ up action) and executes it near perfectly. There’s not a bit of fat to be found on the game. No needless upgrade systems or microtransactions or an attempt to tell a deep story. It just focuses on the gameplay and makes sure every punch, every step and every enemy feels exactly right. Much like DOOM Eternal, Streets of Rage 4 is a game that just feels good to play.
Formula 1 is slowly getting back on track (YAY PUNS!) and as I write this is literally in the middle of running its second race in Austria. Personally I’m hoping for a down pouring of rain, because that always makes things so much more exciting.
But while the real-life F1 might be having a tricky year, F1 2020 the video game is rather excellent. I already really loved the series, each year spending dozens and dozens of hours slamming my expensive Formula 1 car into the walls of Monaco. And while I still haven’t got the VR support I so desperately want, the brand new My Team mode is a good alternative. Now it’s not just a Ferrari I’m totalling at every bend, but rather it’s MY car, made by MY team, using MY money….ah, shit.
Even though I typically spend a lot of hours in each new F1 game it’s unusual for me to work through a whole season. My drive to do it peters out sometime around 10-15 races in and I wind up moaning like Lewis Hamilton when he isn’t winning. But with the added gameplay of My Team I actually found myself blasting through entire seasons in my efforts to become the greatest F1 team to have F1’ed.