It's been a pretty great year for games. Five years into this generation and developers are comfortable enough with the hardware to really push the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 to their limits, while Nintendo's quirky Switch, not yet two years old, injects its usual fun, fresh take on things. This is the point in the cycle when the real gems usually turn up, and this year that includes new entries in blockbuster franchises, some solid remakes, and even a few surprise underdogs. With new console announcements likely looming next year, New Atlas rounds up our favorite games of 2018.
Red Dead Redemption 2
(PS4, Xbox One)
This is it. Surprising absolutely no one, and despite some dissension in the ranks, Red Dead Redemption 2 is our game of the year for 2018, and it probably slips into our Top 5 of all time as well. Right from the word go, expectations were astronomical for Rockstar's sweeping Western epic, but somehow it managed to not only meet them but soar even higher.
A prequel to the 2010 game, Red Dead Redemption 2 is set in 1899, in an America on the brink of modernization, as the sun sets on the ways of the wild west. Players step into the cowboy boots of Arthur Morgan, the intensely-loyal right-hand man to outlaw gang leader Dutch Van der Linde.
Closely following Rockstar's usual narrative recipe, the story and characters are among the most compelling we've ever seen in a game. They may not be good people or even likeable in all cases, but all 20 or so of the gang members are fleshed out and relatable on some level. By the emotional end of the journey, you'll feel like you've sat through six stellar seasons of a Western TV show.
And we haven't even touched on the gameplay yet. With four fictional US states to ride across, this is one of the biggest open world environments ever constructed, but it feels far from empty. Literally hundreds of wildlife species roam the prairies, forests, mountains and swamps, and the towns are bustling with folk to chat to, trade with, help, rob or fight.
Missions rarely stray from the "go here, steal this, kill these people, get away" structure, but the story wrapped around them makes it all worthwhile. The real joy of the game, though, is just riding around the countryside, hunting, fishing, treasure seeking, robbing trains, stealing carriages, rustling cattle, gunfighting, brawling, gambling, drinking, and exploring. It sounds like a cliché, but it's such a pleasure to just exist in this world.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a major milestone in every conceivable way, standing strong among the best games of the generation.
God of War
Kratos first donned his double-chained blades in 2005 and after slicing and dicing his way through a pantheon of Greek gods over no less than seven games, it was understandable he was a little gray and grizzled in his eighth outing. Being a dad probably didn't help matters either, but the addition of his son Atreus opened the door for a more character-driven experience than we've seen from previous God of War games, and it was just one of a number of great moves by SIE Santa Monica Studio that reinvigorated a series that was starting to stale.
From start to finish GOW is a masterpiece, in terms of storytelling, gameplay, looks and sound. Whereas previous games in the series have tended to be button mashers, the combat in the latest instalment was more tactical and better rewarded skill – while still being as brutal and satisfying as ever. The addition of the Leviathan Axe and Atreus' bow and arrow added another dimension to the combat, while a steady stream of upgrades, rewards and collectibles kept the combat fresh throughout.
Another departure from previous games was the move to a close-up over-the-shoulder view. This was controversial among many fans of the series, but without sacrificing scale it added an immersiveness and impact to the combat that the zoomed-out camera of previous games couldn't deliver. Despite the pre-release claims of no camera cuts within the game, you could argue that, technically, this wasn't completely true. But for the most part – and if you were good enough – it was largely possible to play through the game as a single, seamless experience, further adding to the immersiveness.
It's impossible to list everything that's great about this game – we haven't even mentioned possibly the best NPC of the year in the form of a disembodied head Kratos carries around on his belt – but suffice to say, if you haven't played GOW, you should.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
It only just came out last week, but a solid weekend binge has been enough to convince us that Super Smash Bros. Ultimate lives up to its name.
Smash Bros. is less a fighting game and more a playable encyclopedia of all things video games. Nowhere else can you get Mario, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man appearing alongside characters from Metal Gear Solid, Street Fighter, Final Fantasy and Castlevania. The roster is bursting at the seams with over 70 characters from almost 40 years of video game history, along with more than 100 stages whipped from dozens of virtual worlds.
The combat itself is faster but still feels tight, perfectly walking the tightrope between casual and hardcore players. The latter group can set their preferred rulesets and duke it out purely based on skill, while the former can bask in playfully chaotic matches where unpredictable items, allies and terrain give dumb luck a bigger role.
Though it's predominantly a game for up to eight players, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate doesn't skimp on the solo content either. There's a hefty Adventure mode that experiments with pretty much every possible combination of characters, items and stages, as well as the returning Classic mode and other challenges that extract every last drop from this deep well.
Embracing the playful party spirit of Nintendo and the Switch in particular, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is an absolute must.
Spider-Man got his first video game way back in 1982 on the Atari 2600, but everybody's favorite web-slinger has come a long way since that vertical scroller. The power of today's consoles has enabled an impressively realistic virtual 3D recreation of Manhattan for Spidey to swing around in.
And it is the web-swinging mechanics of our titular hero that make traversing the game's open world so much fun – sure, it might not strictly adhere to the laws of physics, but it's fast, satisfying and easy to master. In so many open world games it's a relief when you finally unlock fast travel capabilities but it's almost an irrelevance here.
Combat generally takes more than a leaf or two out of the Batman: Arkham series of games, so is tried and true and easy to pick up, with a steady stream of abilities, gadgets and moves unlocked throughout proceedings to keep things interesting.
But the other highlight of the game, in addition to the web-swinging, is the story. It's an area that action games can often get wrong, but developer Insomniac Games has also put plenty of time and effort into the story and characters, resulting in a dramatic narrative that packs an emotional punch at times, and helps us forgive the poorer aspects of the game – such as the circuit and spectrograph puzzles that aren't difficult, but do start to feel like tedious busywork after a while.
There have been plenty of superhero games over the years, but few, if any, create the feeling of being a superhero as well as Marvel's Spider-Man, and is a worthy inclusion on this list for that alone.
Forza Horizon 4
(PC, Xbox One)
Forza Horizon 3 (FH3) set a new bar for the already great Forza Horizon series, and while not quite the same quantum leap we saw from FH2, Playground Games has continued to refine the formula to ensure FH4 is the best driving game going around – notice I didn't say "racing game," because, like its predecessor, FH4 is more than a racing game. Prefer to turn off the traction and stability controls and get sideways? Head to a drift zone. Want to push that hypercar to the limits? Try and set a new record at a speed trap or point to point speed zone. Just want to get seriously airborne for a few hundred meters? Head to the nearest Danger Sign. Then there's the surprisingly addictive online Forzathon Live events every hour on the hour, and the ability to go one on one with players from around the globe or join a team and tear up the road.
The UK setting of FH4 is absolutely stunning, from green country fields (complete with impressively nimble sheep) and rocky mountain trails, to the roads of quaint country villages and the tight city streets of Edinburgh. Everything looks so good it can be just as enjoyable to jump into a convertible and simply enjoy the sights as it is to strap yourself into a souped-up supercar and test your reflexes in a racing championship. And although the FH series may seem more arcadey than dedicated racing simulators, the level of car and race customization means just about every type of driver will have a blast in FH4.
The biggest departure from previous games is the introduction of seasons, which keeps things interesting by changing the driving conditions and scenery from week to week – snow-laden winter roads and frozen lakes give way to a spring thaw, followed by sunny summer skies (but still with the odd shower – this is the UK remember), and leaf-strewn autumn streets. There's also the usual impressive roster of vehicles – even with the lack of Toyota, Lexus, Scion and Mitsubishi vehicles. The wheel spins also come think and fast, ensuring your garage grows quickly and you don't have to save too long to afford that Lamborghini you always wanted.
It may not have had a lot of competition this year, but Forza Horizon 4 would be hard to beat as best driving game in any year.
Jurassic World Evolution
(PC, PS4, Xbox One)
This one's kind of a curve ball, but we really enjoyed building the Jurassic Parks of our dreams – and of course, watching them all come crumbling down.
Jurassic World Evolution follows the tried-and-true Zoo Tycoon structure, as players build food and entertainment facilities, staff buildings, paths and pens, then populate the park with an all-star lineup of dinosaurs from the movies, like T-rex, Velociraptors, Triceratops and Brachiosaurus.
But within that framework, the game strikes the perfect balance between the two themes of the movies: the majesty and chaos of nature. When things are running smoothly, menial tasks like feeding or repairs can be quite zen, and it's nice to just drive around and watch your dinosaurs do their thing.
But don't get too comfortable – in a testament to Chaos Theory, the smallest problem can quickly snowball into a park-wide disaster. A storm could knock out the power, a disgruntled employee might poison your animals, a stressed Spinosaurus might bust down the fence and start snacking on your guests – or all three at once. Some of the game's best moments come from those times where you're flailing to restore order, prioritizing which problem to deal with first.
Out of everything on this list, Jurassic World Evolution is the one that most likely slipped under your radar, but if you're a fan of dinosaurs or park-building games, it's worth sinking your teeth into.
Pokémon: Let's Go Pikachu/Eevee
Pokémon: Let's Go Pikachu and Let's Go Eevee is basically Nintendo trying to cash in on the scores of new and nostalgic fans reeled in by the ridiculous success of the Pokémon Go mobile game in 2016. But it's hard to be cynical about it when it's done so well.
Let's Go is the first "core" Pokémon RPG to land on a home console, but there are a few caveats. The game is a remake of Pokémon Yellow, which graced the Game Boy back in 1998, and it's a joy to roam this colorful world in Full HD and see all the classic critters come to life.
Although the battle system remains the same as the general Pokémon series, the influence of Pokémon Go is hard to ignore. Wild 'Mon are now caught using the same timing-based catching method from the mobile game, and the creatures can be transferred between Go and Let's Go.
Pokémon Let's Go Pikachu/Eevee is a decent middle-ground for casual players and the core RPG fans alike, but we can't help looking forward to the brand new games in the series due out around this time next year.
Shadow of the Colossus
One of the best games of 2005 makes the list again in 2018. Team Ico's cult classic Shadow of the Colossus was ahead of its time and was arguably held back by the PlayStation 2 hardware on which it first appeared, but thanks to the power of the PS4 – and especially the PS4 Pro – it's finally able to shine with this ground-up remake.
Story is kept to a minimum, and sounds kind of ridiculous when written down. Players take the role of Wander, who ventures into a forbidden land to find a way to revive his lost love. There a spirit named Dormin offers to help – if Wander hunts down and kills the 16 colossal creatures roaming the land.
Each colossus battle plays out more like a platforming puzzle than a traditional boss fight. Most of them regard you with the indifference we'd pay an insect, barely acknowledging your presence as you climb and jump your way across their strange half-organic, half-stone bodies. Bringing down each one requires a mix of timing, trial-and-error and puzzle-solving.
The gameplay is mostly the same as the original, but the control scheme has had a tune-up for modern sensibilities and the visuals have been refreshed with 4K upscaling on PS4 Pro. If you missed this gorgeous tragedy of a game back in the day, now's the time to catch up.
There were a few other games hovering around the periphery, but we've decided to be as brutal as Kratos dispensing with a pack of Hel-Walkers and keep things to a tight eight. Of course, we're keen to hear the games that had you glued to the controller in 2018, so let us know your picks in the comments.
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