Normally, this is the time of the year where I would be writing a piece to discuss all of my favorites from last year in movies, TV and all forms of entertainment.
But 2018 just had so. Many. Great. Video games.
Not your typical “Game of the Year”-type games, either. Usually there’s only one or two of those to pick from. No, in 2018, there were a handful of games that legitimately deserved Game of the Year, and a select few of those are probably all deserve to be in the conversation of the best games to come out this console generation. And the top one, honestly, could make a good argument to be called the best video game ever made.
Seriously. No hyperbole here. The year 2018 may be the best overall year in gaming ever.
So while normally I would devote this space to going into detail about my favorite movie (it was “Avengers: Infinity War,” though “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse” gave it a run for its money at year’s end) or favorite TV show (without a doubt Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House”), there were just too many video games in 2018 that were simply better than all other forms of media that deserve that attention instead.
Sure, gaming is looked down upon by a lot of people, mostly that don’t understand it — that, or parents that are sick of having to hand their credit cards to their kids so they can buy a new pink hat on “Fortnite.” Those parents might have a point. But yes, people that say that they’re going to “curl up for eight hours with a good book” are generally accepted, while a person playing a video game for eight hours “has mental problems.” Yet video games can deliver emotional experiences with a quality of storytelling that is on par with or even surpasses the best-written novels — and an abnormally large number of games of that level came out in the same year.
So here it is. My top five video games of 2018:
5. Forza Horizon 4
I’m the opposite of a gearhead. I do not care about cars. They exist to get us places we need to go. But I love a good open-world role-playing video game, and “Forza Horizon 4” definitely qualifies. The long-running “Forza Motorsport” series is a hardcore racing simulator made specifically for people that love to get under the hood and work on these cars that exist in the real world. But the “Horizon” games are more fun and arcade-y, giving you the chance to drive around in these still-realistically-simulated cars but also giving you the freedom to do a variety of things you might want to do while exploring a cool location. In “Forza Horizon 3,” it was Australia. In the newest version, it’s the United Kingdom. The locales are all gorgeous, and it’s lots of fun to drive around all of these cars and see everything.
Rumor has it that the developer of the “Horizon” series is working on a new installment of Xbox’s dormant-for-too-long “Fable” series. I need that game. Now. If they do with that series what they’ve done with this one, that game will be amazing.
4. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey
The “Assassin’s Creed” series has been around for a long time, and I’ve never found the games particularly compelling — until the most recent two. “Assassin’s Creed: Origins” in 2016 changed the basic structure of the game from a pretty linear stealth action game into an open-world role-playing game, which I am all for. And “Odyssey” took what that game did and simply made it even better, offering even more choices to players — starting first and foremost with giving them a choice of protagonist. At the start of the game you choose one of two siblings, either Alexios or his sister Kassandra, to play the game as — and let’s be real, Kassandra is the only correct choice.
That’s not the only choice you get now, either, as the series added branching dialogue trees and gives you a chance to choose your own path in certain places. The combat is fun, too, and offers players a variety of styles. You can play it as a stealth game or you can choose a more direct hack-and-slash approach. The amount of freedom the game offers is something that the earlier games in the series simply didn’t have, and it all makes this the best game in the franchise.
3. God of War
The fact that this one is No. 3 shows just how incredible this year was.
The “God of War” franchise has had its ups and downs and issues over the years, but 2018’s Playstation 4 exclusive “God of War” reinvented what the series could be, and it’s nothing short of a masterpiece. Where the earlier games were just juvenile male power fantasies, the newest game tells a mature and emotional story of a father dealing with the death of the mother of his child while also trying to find a way to connect with his son. Of course, Kratos, the main character, is a Greek god on the run from his past and living in an entirely new world to him — the world of Norse mythology. That change breathes fresh air into the series, but the more serious and grown-up tone of the overall narrative was the change it needed most.
And while the story is tremendous, the gameplay is pretty outstanding, too. From the start of the game you are given the Leviathan axe, a frost weapon that you can throw and then call to return to your hand — and it’s just. So. Fun. Hurling the axe into a far-away enemy then thrashing a few more with your bare hands, then calling it back and having it hack up everything in its path as it returns just never gets old. And the overall presentation and graphics are noteworthy, too. The entire game is presented in one take — the camera’s focus never leaves Kratos from beginning to end. It was a bold choice by the game’s director, and it works incredibly well. All of that adds up to a game that, when it was released all the way back in April, was sure to be named the Game of the Year by year’s end. There was no way anything could be better.
Yeah, about that.
“Spider-Man,” another PS4 exclusive, dropped in September, and the first time I swung through its New York City streets with my webs, I knew this would be my choice for Game of the Year. “Spider-Man” is easily the most fun game to play this console generation. The controls are easy to learn but complex enough to allow you to approach combat any way you want to — throw your webs from a distance, use weird tech gadgets, sneak up on enemies and take them out quietly or sail through the air and launch into crazy hand-to-hand fights. But really, the most fun part of the game is simply going from place to place web-slinging through the city. There is a fast-travel option to make things quicker, but I never bothered. It’s just such a great feeling to zip around that, even having to go from one end of the map to the other, I always took the long way.
The story is good, too. It centers around a 20-something Peter Parker who has been Spider-Man for roughly seven years and begins with him finally taking down the Kingpin. But his victory is short-lived, as a host of new supervillains threatens the city and, without spoiling anything, there are some interesting new takes on old tried-and-true Spider-Man villains that make the narrative interesting. Not to mention his relationship with Mary Jane, here his ex-girlfriend who he still has feelings for. Oh, and the game also has a Stan Lee cameo that was my favorite moment in the game but now, after his passing, I’ll never be able to play through again without tearing up a little.
1. Red Dead Redemption 2
Truly, I thought “Spider-Man” was going to be my Game of the Year. Even after getting my hands on “Red Dead Redemption 2” in late October, I still thought it would end up that way, as this game starts incredibly slow — and, honestly, kind of stays that way throughout. In some ways, “Red Dead Redemption 2” is a chore.
But man, oh man, is it ever worth it, as “Red Dead Redemption 2” is a work of art. If “God of War” is a masterpiece, then this game redefines what that word even can possibly mean, and it elevates the entire medium of video games to an entirely new level.
Strangely, “Red Dead Redemption 2” is actually a prequel to 2010’s “Red Dead Redemption,” a game that starred former outlaw John Marston, who was forced to hunt down members of his former gang by the law, who were holding his wife and young son hostage. “RDR2” tells the story of that gang, a ragtag bunch led by the charismatic Dutch van der Linde. This time, you play as Arthur Morgan, and through him you get to live in an incredibly authentic late-1800s wild west world and see how Marston’s old gang fell apart in the first place.
I honestly did not trust that developer Rockstar Games could make me care for another protagonist as much as I did John Marston, but Arthur Morgan is simply phenomenal. He’s a complex character with a simple motivation, a fierce loyalty to gang leader Dutch, but he is also your voice in the world. Like other Rockstar games, you can play Arthur as an honorable, reluctant gunslinger that only fights when forced, or you can be a straight-up outlaw, robbing and murdering as you please. Or you can ignore the story and people and go hunting — there is a crazy amount of wildlife in the game’s world — or gamble by playing poker or blackjack. Or you can just pet every dog you see. I spent plenty of time with that last one.
But as much as there is to do, the game’s narrative is the real star. It’s not hyperbole to say that this is the best-written video game ever made, with all of your fellow gang members being fully-realized, multi-dimensional characters with their own story arcs. They’re so well written and the performances are so vivid and terrific that you get attached to them in a way you’d get attached to the characters in your favorite book. I found myself looking forward to story missions with specific people the way I look forward to spending time with actual real-world friends — whether it was going drinking with Lenny (“Lennay!”), or getting payback on the dirty O’Driscoll gang with widow Sadie Adler (who is easily one of the best female characters in any game ever), or going hunting with Charles, or taking John Marston’s young son Jack fishing (a mission with the best possible easter egg tie-in with the first game), or just getting to do anything with John Marston. Watching him grow from who he is at the start of this game into the character you played in “Red Dead Redemption 1” is gripping — almost as gripping as watching Dutch’s descent into desperation that leads him into the villain’s role in that first game.
And it’s the story, acting and writing that makes this the best game in this crop of outstanding games. It took me 68.5 hours to complete the narrative, and it was an emotional ride on par with the best movies — or TV shows, really, as long and involved as it was. There’s shocking moments, humorous ones, depressing ones, awe-inspiring ones and heartbreaking ones. This is a western after all — you have to go in knowing not everyone is getting out alive.
The game isn’t for everyone, though. The gameplay itself is pretty slow and cumbersome — there is a lot to do, meaning doing them is going to be pretty involved — and the story does take a long while to truly get going. There’s been plenty of criticism aimed at the game for those reasons, calling it too boring or saying that the devs “took the fun out of it.” And while those are legitimate opinions to have, anyone that has them is missing the point entirely.
Playing “Red Dead Redemption 2” is like reading a short story by Edgar Allen Poe. Every single decision, large or small, by its creators was made with one goal in mind — to pull the player deeper into the game’s world and make them feel like they’re part of it as they play. If the player accepts that and dives in deep, they get more out of the experience. If they can’t get past their own notions of what should make a game good, well, that’s on them, not the game. This is art, and you only get out of it what you’re willing to put in.
Other games may have been more fun in an instant-gratification way. But there simply is no other experience like “Red Dead Redemption 2.”
Except maybe “Red Dead Redemption 1.” Which I immediately started up again after finishing this masterpiece.
Josh Brown is the Sports Editor of the Troy Daily News. Contact him at email@example.com, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.