5. God of War (SIE Santa Monica)
Every year, it feels as though I have less and less clue as to what the Big Game will be. I played God of War after it came out, and liked it a fair bit. The animations were heavy and brutal, the world-building deliberate and interesting, and Kratos’s characterization was much more interesting than it had been before. It was a good game, and I was glad to play it.
Then this fall, more and more buzz kept building about how this was “The Game of the Generation” or something, and I just don’t get it. In the interest of fairness, I tried it again on my roommate’s PS4, this time cranking things up in difficulty. And it came off even worse. The world-building stuff was boring now that I’d already seen it once. I love linear games, but I hate games that play at being non-linear but then rope you back to the same pathways as soon as you try to step off the path. Sure, the older Zelda games were like this, but they all had gloriously diverse and intricate combat, not this ugly mismash of Dark Souls dodging and Devil May Cry combo-chains, all broken apart by a camera that is so focused on closing in to make Kratos a more intimate, relatable character that it forgets to actually show you what’s happening in every fight. You can’t slap the camera from Arkham Asylum onto a combo-heavy skill game and expect people to be able to figure out what’s happening.
I don’t want to discourage people from playing this game (like they haven’t already, if they were interested) — as I said, the world-building and plot stuff is actually really strong, and absolutely worth playing. But I think I can sum up my problems with this “Game of the Generation” with one simple anecdote. About halfway through, I was guiding Kratos through the Norse mythological realm of Hel, the land of the undead. A little while in, I got hopelessly and completely stuck on a simple climbing puzzle because I didn’t understand you were supposed to climb up a pillar and then shimmy around to the other side. I didn’t get this because at no point in the game to this point were you allowed to climb on anything that wasn’t pre-marked with those patented Uncharted-style climbing handholds.
Maffewmatosis went in-depth on all this stuff much better than I could, but it’s really frustrating how much God of War doesn’t want to be a video game. It’s a huge game with a big, savage world all around you and you still can’t climb anywhere that doesn’t have a nice, safe marker on it. How is that still possible after Breath of the Wild? How can any self-respecting game maker not understand that the entire point of this whole “video games” thing is allowing your players to strap two different systems together and slam them together like a kid playing with toy trains? If I wanted to watch a gruff, inhuman asshole silently climb a cliff with no input, I’d just go watch any Mission: Impossible movie instead. [Editor’s note: Take that back!]
The boss fights were really good, though. If only someone could make a game like this where every fight is a boss fight. Man, that’d be something.
4. MARVEL’S Spider-Man (Insomniac Games)
Here’s a game that stands as almost a diametric opposite of God of War. There’s a lot about the peripheral experience of MARVEL’S Spider-Man that I thoroughly disliked. The overall movement is choppy, the game’s rendering of Manhattan, while admirable, makes it really hard to navigate (there’s a reason most games don’t make 1:1 recreations of major cities a big priority). To go further, the difficulty curve is broken, the Mary Jane stealth sections are woefully underdeveloped in comparison with the rest of the game, and perhaps most egregiously, this is a post-Breath of the Wild open-world game in which a bunch of waypoints are vomited on your screen every time you climb a tower.
Speaking of those towers, whoever thought up making Spider-Man a straight up fascist police man, gleefully setting up a quasi-legal spy network for the police like that part in The Dark Knight when Bruce Wayne enacts his own version of the Patriot Act, is an idiot.
All that stuff aside, the reason Spider-Man works as well as it does is simple: the swinging is immensely pleasurable and the story is immensely simple and well done. I really can’t overstate that first part. No Spidey game has ever nailed this particular aspect of the character as well as this one did. It’s a lot like how the first Arkham game just nailed that cool feeling you got when you jumped off a ledge as Batman and glided to the ground with your cape billowing in the wind. Speaking of Arkham, this character fits that style of game much better than Batman ever did, what with the whole “regenerating health” thing. It’s not exactly a new formula, but it works tremendously well here.
The level of affection this game has for Spider-Man’s comic and film history is evident, but never more so than in the wonderful little backpacks strewn about Manhattan, each of them filled with some memento of Peter’s already-burgeoning career as Everyone’s Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. It’s just a wonderful touch, and combined with the successful integration of both real-life and Marvel Universe landmarks across the entire city, make the comic book version of New York and the real-life version mesh in a really satisfying way.
That second part, the story, is harder to talk about without spoiling what really is one of the better Spider-Man stories outside the pages of a comic book, but it really just gets to the essence of the character in a clean, concise way, and while the MJ stealth bits were frustrating as a gameplay mechanic, they did well to help flesh out her character in an important way. Aunt May, Miles Morales, and even a few of the villains all receive a similar deft touch, but none of them more than Dr. Otto Octavius, long one of Spidey’s best and most morally intriguing villains. This story was good enough that I sat wondering how it could be adapted to a trilogy of films after I’d finished. Even if the game around it has some flaws, just the combination of an entertaining plot and web-slinging is enough to propel this into my Top 4.
3. Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Games)
Here’s the question I have: What about Red Dead Redemption 2 (hereafter referred to as either “RDR2” or “Red Dead”) had to be expressed in the medium of video gaming? It’s enthralling in a macro plot sense, as Dutch’s gang slowly unravels as their way of life is hunted into extinction. It’s expressively tactile in an audio/visual sense, as light dapples through forests, lightning crackles ominously in faraway thunder clouds and rain plinks and planks off jagged rock formation. Books can be read physically and feel more physically real than in any game yet. Horses (and guns) are physically maintained and cared for. The combat is brutal and visceral and a little bit slapstick. The script is often wondrously lyrical and verbose in the best sort of cliche way of all 19th-century fiction has become.
Of all these things RDR2 definitely possesses, do any of them matter as much as the fact that in the end, RDR2 is kind of boring? It’s a fun game, don’t get me wrong. When I wrote about it in November, I said it was almost overwhelming at times, and that’s what I’m going to focus on here. I think the flaw with this game is that Rockstar very desperately wants it to be a story-first narrative game about the dissolution of a dream, while the people who play it want it to be another goofy sandbox game. Rockstar’s writing staff has matured a lot as storytellers since GTA IV, but the type of game they make hasn’t, really. There’s a conflict, is what I mean, one that is most evident whenever you, the player, wants to hogtie a bounty and throw him off a cliff or whatever while the game itself DEMANDS that you watch a cutscene.
To put this a simpler way, a lot of devs have the courage to make a game this big, with this much content, and risk players not seeing some of it due to their systemic choices (the original Deus Ex was infamous in this regard). Rockstar definitively is not one of those developers. You MUST see everything they did. This makes sense in a way. Games these days cost more and more to make, and no sane publisher would ask a team to make stuff maybe 20% of the player base will actually see (a la last year’s Prey). Couple this with Rockstar’s well-documented lack of regard for their employees’ mental and physical well-being, however, and you’ve got a recipe for a very discouraging type of game.
What I’m really getting to with all of this is that I think RDR2’s lasting legacy will be of a game at war with its own better nature more than as some genre-defining landmark that changes the industry forever. Rockstar should try making a pure walking sim to really flex their storytelling muscles, profits be damned. But that’s not how this industry works.
2. DragonBall: FighterZ (Arc System Works)
I’m unsure there’s ever been a better marriage of source material and genre than fighting games and Dragon Ball. While that concoction has resulted in some solid games before, from Hyper Dimension to Budokai, nothing has yet captured the quick-twitch speed, kinetic momentum and sheer aggression of Dragon Ball at its best. It doesn’t hurt that this game absolutely sears the eyeballs with its overall aesthetic brilliance. It’s just gorgeous to watch.
A lot of fighting games have to strike a balance between playability and technicality, and perhaps unsurprisingly, FighterZ strikes that balance with near-perfect attunement. It’s easy to pick up, but hard to master. It’s accessible to anyone who just wants to mash buttons, but has enough high-level tech skill to completely neutralize that. It has a reliable, understandable base ability set with bespoke and unique moves for every single character, each tailored perfectly to their previously established personalities (that there are three different Gokus and Vegetas, each identifiable through their unique skillsets, is remarkable fighting game design).
It’s technical and anarchic in equal measure, and the reverence it holds for its source material never gets in the way of just being a good fighter. That’s such an amazingly thin line to walk, even for a developer as experienced in fighting games as this (Arc System Works made Double Dragon, Guilty Gear and BlazBlue), and doing it with one of the most popular and beloved properties in the world just ups that difficulty to eleven. They absolutely nailed this one.