Look, I could waste all of our time trying to scrape together some desperately unoriginal jape about about how 2020 has ground the collective spirit of the human race into a fine paste, proven without a shadow of a doubt we’re occupying ‘The Worst Timeline,’ or ruined future seasons of Black Mirror by overshadowing whatever hellish future Charlie Brooker could possibly dream up.
I’m not going to do that, though. At this point, I’m running on fumes and can barely muster a coherent pun, let alone a rousing introduction to an end-of-year listicle. I mean, we both know the score at this point. You want to see if one of your favorite games makes an appearance on this critically meaningless list (which you’re probably reading on the toilet), and I want to fuel my sense of self-importance by waxing lyrical about some of the digital comfort food that made this year vaguely bearable.
We’re all adults here, and there’s no shame in calling a spade a spade — so let’s cut to the chase and get to it. Here are the five video games that stood out during the armpit stain of a year that was 2020.
I played Animal Crossing for almost 200 hours this year. Was that time well spent? Absolutely not. Did I enjoy slinking out of bed at the crack of dawn to see whether I’d won the turnip lottery and search Nook’s Cranny for aesthetic delights? That’s a tough one. Is it normal to spend hours meticulously conceptualizing and building an island just to make fictional animals happy? Well, when you put it like that…
Okay, so looking back I suppose Animal Crossing largely succeeded in turning me into a husk of a human being. A hollow mouth-breather whose sole purpose on this planet was to horde furnishings, design t-shirts, schmooze peppy fauna, and occasionally eat. Yet, despite that long-awaited realization, it also came to define one of the most turbulent times of the year.
It offered a genuine social outlet back in March and April, when COVID-19 finally got the respect it deserved from nations around the world, resulting in lockdowns, restrictions, and a distinct lack of human contact. It brought people together at a time when they couldn’t be further apart, and for that I’ll always be grateful to Nintendo’s alarmingly moreish slice-of-life simulator — even if I haven’t touched it in months.
What can I say about Apex Legends at this point that hasn’t already been said? This isn’t the first time Respawn’s last-team-standing shooter has appeared on my list, and for good reason. Every year I wonder if the game will finally lose steam and crumble under the weight of its own success, and every year the answer is a resolute ‘no.’ Respawn just keeps raising the bar.
It’d be easy to talk about how the studio deftly introduced a new map, an expanded armory, fresh-faced characters, and even vehicles without throwing the game off kilter, and make no mistake, that’s a huge achievement. Yet, once again, the core gameplay of Apex remains its crowing achievement. The shooter’s interlocking systems — built around precise gunplay, deft movement, and versatile abilities — are akin to a fine-tuned V8 engine at this point.
There’s not a single mechanic that feels surplus to requirements. Each design choice (from the duration of abilities to unique running animations) feels like it was agonized over for decades with the purpose of striking a impossibly precise balance between risk, reward, teamwork, and skill. It’s a meticulous approach that continues to deliver the goods, so here’s to you, Respawn.
Mediatonic knocked it out of the park with Fall Guys. The studio’s overwhelmingly endearing take on the battle royale format proved you can do more with the genre than ask players to blast each other to smithereens. The concept at play here is simple: waddle your way through a series of solo and team-based slaloms packed with all manner of madcap traps in a frantic bid to be the first to cross the finish line.
It’s essentially the video game equivalent of shows like Takeshi’s Castle and Wipeout, and succeeds in tapping into the same zany, unpredictable energy that made those series so popular. Of course, there’s more to Fall Guys than its impeccably crafted, barmpot obstacle courses — many of which have taken on lives of their own on the meme-fuelled Twittersphere.
It also packs plenty of heart thanks to some whip-smart character and sound design that turned the game’s bouncing beans into the real stars of the show. There’s something almost hypnotic about watching swarms of those rotund, hapless creatures squeak and scramble over each other before being sent packing by an inflatable hammer the size of a fridge, knowing full well that you could (and likely will) be next. Edge-of-your-seat moments like those are the bread and butter of Fall Guys, and helped transform the bumble royale into bona fide gaming gold.
As next-generation hysteria reached fever pitch, few people were talking about Astro’s Playroom, the unassuming 3D platformer that came pre-loaded on every PlayStation 5. In retrospect, that was a blessing in disguise, because it meant those lucky enough to get their hands on the hefty unit got to experience one of the best console launch titles ever made with completely fresh eyes.
Team Asobi’s nostalgia-drenched jaunt is first-and-foremost designed to introduce players to the unique capabilities of the DualSense gamepad. That alone made it the first proper ‘next-generation’ experience I played this year, with the game providing a perfect showcase for the controller’s pinpoint haptic feedback and adaptive triggers. It’s impossible to convey just how much those features added in terms of immersion, but trust me when I say that after blitzing through Astro’s Playroom with the DualSense firing on all cylinders, conventual controllers and their bare bones rumble feel woefully mundane.
Astro’s Playroom is more than a glorified tutorial, though. It’s a compelling experience in its own right, chock full of dynamic levels ripe for exploring, a plethora of collectibles, a hub-world filled with secrets, testing boss battles, and a lead character that’s more than deserving of their very own franchise. The only question at this point, is whether Asobi Team will be given the chance to make good on that promise and gift the world a proper blockbuster sequel. Make it happen, Sony.
Insomniac’s next-generation debut is gourmet comfort food. It’s the perfect compliment to the Parker-centric outing that launched in 2018, and delivers exactly what you’d expect from a follow-up to one of the best titles of the last console generation — which is to say slick combat, delirious web-swinging, fist-pumping hero moments, and classic origin story with a whole lot of heart.
Sure, it’s pretty much more of the same. But when that means you get to spend more time hurtling through Insomniac’s gorgeous recreation of snow-covered New York (this time with ray-tracing), while making frequent pit-stops to beat criminals to a pulp by tapping into all-new powers like venom blasts, invisibility, and holograms, why would you complain?
Perhaps the biggest reason I adore Miles Morales, however, is that it brings some much needed representation to Marvel’s video game universe. I’ve got nothing against Peter Parker (I actually quite like the guy), but how many times have we seen his story play out? By letting Miles and his family have their moment in the spotlight, Insomniac has shown it’s possible to make someone other than a quiff-toting white dude your protagonist.
As was the case when Squre Enix made Kamala Khan the focus of its Avengers game earlier this year, it’s a small step in the right direction, and one I hope our industry will continue to build on as it looks to become more include and representative, while inspiring others to do the same.