or, “Understatement of the Year
”, goes to… *drum roll* -- “2020 was a challenging year”, pipping out “surely he won’t get another year?!” by a larger margin.
Drop the COVID-safe streamers!
Seriously though, what a year. In fact in our limited view of the world at less than half a century of walking upon it, we can’t recall anything as long term challenging as this. It’s not something we need to rake through though, those myriad challenges affected everyone in different ways. But games, at least, were there to help clear the fog, shed a guiding light and help us hoist sail to at least more optimistic shores.
Numerous tacky metaphors aside, 2020 gave us a transition in generations from a console perspective with PlayStation 5
and Xbox Series X|S
. The PC
saw a boost with Nvidia
vying for top spot in the new video cards department, while championing ray-tracing to heights it might not have ever really enjoyed a few years back (largely because the tech now is so good).
world showed just how strong it is against the big Triple-As with massive budgets, and re-releases came and impacted in ways
we didn’t wholly think they would. We also saw the launch of one of the most talked about games of the past three years, which gave rise to many questions relating to development time, ambition, optimisation for lower-end hardware and what does it really mean to board a hype train where a class system actually exists.
As always, this list is subjective, and we’ll be dropping one a day for 10 days in countdown form, kicking off today (January 1st, 2021). We’ll then collate the full list on the 11th of January, and follow that up with some honourable mentions that just fell short of the AusGamers Top 10 Best Games of 2020
. Also, while some of the review scores might seem contradictory to each game’s placement, we’re compiling this list based on playtime, replayability and overall longevity alongside polish after the review fact. The scores still stand for each game from a perspective of delivery at the time as each game obviously offers up varying degrees of gameplay for different audiences.
All that said, Happy New Year to you all. Now sit back and enjoy 10 days of the AusGamers Top 10 Best Games of 2020 in countdown form.
10. Cyberpunk 2077 (PC)
In terms of anticipation alone, the hype surrounding the release of CD Projekt RED
’s Cyberpunk 2077
reached the sort of heights rarely seen in any industry. An unfair comparison sure, but it reminds us a little of the cinematic release of Star Wars Episode I: The One With Jar Jar
back in 99. And just like that little multiple year wait for some fresh yellow font on a star-strewn backdrop, there was no tangible way Cyberpunk 2077 could, you know, meet whatever expectations we might have set. In reality though, the troubled launch boils down to an unfinished gem released before it was ready. But, a gem nonetheless.
As per our review you could easily list a half-dozen or more elements that are clearly missing -- from being able to customise the look of your character after the impressive introduction through to traffic and police AI being, well, AI. Stuff that would elevate moving through Night City to the level of its formidable and stunning architecture. So then, what makes it one of the best games of 2020 after the fact? Subjective context of course!
Played on PC (with a high-end GPU), Cyberpunk 2077’s Night City is a marvel of art and technology -- a situation where even at hour 60 that mouth-open awe and sense of scale and place is palpable. The feeling is akin to digital tourism at its most intense, and doesn’t falter in the slightest. From the downtown lights to the dilapidated beachsides to the nomadic outskirts, Night City is a place that feels truly alive. Especially when you're actively engaged in many of its wonderful stories. The magic though, comes right after you encounter a glitch or bug. And you’re watching the videogame equivalent of Magician Secrets Revealed and find out that there’s two people in that saw-in-half box. Here the invisible ‘Immersion Meter’ quickly and assuredly fills back up the moment the smoke machine is turned back on and the mirrors are back in place.
In a year where we got two next-gen console releases, Cyberpunk 2077 on PC with all of its ambition and scope felt like the first true next-gen experience of 2020 - with detail, character, and wonder to spare.
9. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2
Movies these days are no stranger to the “remake/remaster” phenomenon. Often wildly variant in both artistic and commercial success, the option is less safe than it might first seem, but new lenses and new audiences make for easier decision making. Games have followed suit to a degree with equally similar levels of success, though a lot more goes into making a game and its longevity needs to be at the fore of any such business move.
Enter Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2
. Why this works so well as part of the above movement is due to a handful of factors: nostalgia, sandbox(es), scores, soundtrack, rewards and time. The last point there is its most poignant offering -- the game’s limited two-minute playtime in general play keeps players focused and on their toes. These sandbox levels have finite discoverables and you only have two-minutes to find them, or achieve them. Obviously then, replayability is a factor and through skater growth in Stats, it’s a forever rewarding experience, in two-minute chunks.
"With new custodians Vicarious Visions at the helm, we now have a clear line of sight for a franchise that was riding on locked up bearings for far too long..."
Add to all of that a new visual sheen for the current generation of machines, new skaters (so new video parts to unlock), an expanded soundtrack and a number of new online features, and you’ve got yourself a skater stew. But really, what this remaster did is show us just how freaking good the original two games were from a cultural perspective which highlighted two (at the time) sub-genres to new audiences -- skate enthusiasts to games, and gamers to skating. Moreover, with new custodians Vicarious Visions
at the helm, we now have a clear line of sight for a franchise that was riding on locked up bearings for far too long after Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 and we can only hope we see a Pro Skater 3+4
and then something brand new from Vicarious Visions beyond that. As a ‘new’ game though, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 is fast, fun and full of replayability -- all valuable assets where gaming is concerned, and its time-limit value gives it a level of challenge modern games just don’t have. Here, you have hundreds of hours of content to pour through and hold up as bragging rights against friend and foe alike.
8. Microsoft Flight Simulator
The simulation tag as a genre catch-all covers such a wide area that you can experience a somewhat realistic depiction of what it would be like to drive a truck across an entire continent, keep up a unassuming suburban bus route, or spend your afternoons building and maintaining yachts. The go-to sim experience most of us think of though deals with flight - be it in space, flying speedy jets, military choppers, or by-planes over the meditteranean. As one of the longest running sim franchises, Microsoft Flight Simulator
made its triumphant return earlier this year in a package that is as impressive under the hood as it is gliding thousands of feet in the air.
Featuring the entire globe brought to life using satellite imagery, photogrammetry, and advanced AI modeling, even with two million digital pilots taking to the skies since its inaugural flight up-to 30% of Microsoft Flight Simulator’s planet earth remains unseen. A staggering statistic that is backed up by the sheer awe that comes from witnessing the sim in motion, where dropping a pin on a spinning globe can see you seemingly transported in an instant to a far away place without, you know, physically making the trek. Visually, Microsoft Flight Simulator is as impressively detailed as the controls which take into account all of the countless dials and knobs and levers found in planes today. But, much like the stunning cloud formations and sunsets and mountainous regions you can find, Microsoft Flight Simulator still manages to be inviting to newcomers -- meaning you can simply go along for the ride.
It’s this part of games, of digital experiences, that draws many of us in - escape, immersion, tourism, role-playing. From simple endeavours like being in control of your favourite sports team through to casting spells and finding ancient scrolls in a fantasy setting. By creating an entire planet to explore, our own, Microsoft Flight Simulator is incredible. And with VR support and regular updates landing it’s also a platform in which we’ll gladly take off from in the years to come.
Everyone loves a surprise package. An apt way to consider ION LANDS
where you take on the role of Rania
, a from out-of-town delivery driver for the Cloudpunk delivery service in the bustling ‘streets’ of Nivalis
-- a sprawling cyberpunk metropolis forever rained-upon, neon and packed with interesting characters. To say this left-of-field release leaves a synth hook in your heart and memory would be an understatement, and behind its casually stunning voxel art lies a game brimming with confidence from a production perspective, trumped only by ION LANDS’ thorough world-building and storytelling.
"Rania -- the game’s main character, is supported by a cast of game-world personalities as colourful as the game’s neon-lit buildings that ache for the rolling clouds above..."
It’s far from perfect, with controlling your delivery vehicle being a bit of a mess, especially on console, but when you graduate from your cloud Ls the game offers up an experience that is half gameplay, half story beset in a world of pure cybermagination (yeah, made that up). Rania
-- the game’s main character, is supported by a cast of game-world personalities as colourful as the game’s neon-lit buildings that ache for the rolling clouds above. In addition to this colour is a structure in principle and story that drives the game ever-forward. Decisions plague your shaping of Nivalis and the aforementioned colour keeps it all always interesting.
, your Automota dog companion is a perfect counterweight to the heavy state of the world of Nivalis, and keeps the initially naive Rania in check, but plays just as important a part as the player and their decisions. There’s a sense of philosophical proprietary to the game’s messaging that only fully manifests when you take the time to seek out every person’s plight, and fix it, for good or for bad. The game is definitely story-heavy, but that doesn’t impact your movement through the world or its peripheral social commentary. We reckon your eyes will wonder from the roadways and towards ads and blinking lights more than you’d expect.
A surprise hit and one this studio can only go up from. A sleeper giant of a game beyond worth your investment.
6. Deep Rock Galactic
A little bit of this and a little bit of that, a riff on an existing concept, the comparison as the descriptor... the Elevator Pitch. For the space-mining co-op action game Deep Rock Galactic
from Ghost Ship Games
, the initial pitch was ‘Left 4 Dead meets Minecraft, but you control dwarves in space’. A premise and setup that is as inviting and fun to experience as choosing which beard to don as you embark on a new mining mission that sends you far below a planetary surface.
Deep Rock Galactic is one of those rare gems where you find a simple idea executed to perfection, and within its rock formations you’ll find mechanics with depth and layers of discovery.
... it’s Deep Rock’s blend of action and exploration that keep it feeling fresh long after you’ve survived your umpteenth and intense race back to the drop ship.
Above all though it’s Deep Rock’s blend of action and exploration that keep it feeling fresh long after you’ve survived your umpteenth and intense race back to the drop ship. The mood and tone is palpable with excellent music, atmosphere, sound and lighting effects that sell the awe and isolation of being underground in an otherworldly setting. As we stated in our review Deep Rock Galactic presents one of the finest co-op games in years, which means the synergy between the playable classes is more than a nice-to-have mechanic or simple design choice.
In Deep Rock Galactic working together feels natural, essential, and never forced. And with procedurally generated cave systems and various types of missions to tackle (a recent update added a couple of new ones including one where you need to build rollercoaster style tracks that you can grind to reach special resource pumps) it’s an experience we’ve kept going back to throughout the year.
5. Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Where to begin?
‘Metroidvania’ is as key a term in games now as “Roguelike” or “Sim”. It’s a good term, too. Personally within our own walls, the Metroid series from 2D to 3D FPAA is top-tier, as is the Castlevania series. The idea being, open areas and/or sandboxes that require new powers and abilities to reach seemingly ‘unreachable’ areas. So, performing tasks that relate to powering up is key, then you revisit the space and find something new you simply couldn’t before. Ori, as a series shaped itself as a pure Metroidvania experience but sometimes, well, the games just transcend the label and become their own mark.
With Ori and the Will of the Wisps, this is most true.
The design principle is there, and we won’t deny that, but what Ori has done first to now is carve out a design aesthetic that is wholly its own; boss battle, secret areas, and a world beset by dark wonders shapes a space you invest in. This is no longer Metroidvania by design, it’s Ori by nature, and that’s an important distinction -- what we get here now is a franchise; an IP worth its salt and design differentials. The influence remains, but those are just reminders of what it means to play games of said nature. Ori and the Will of Wisps challenges players to master a skillset that is ancient by design, but rewarding to nurture where videogames are concerned.
Add to that a visual sheen that is as Triple-A as they come, a score for the ages and a wistful story that kind of isn’t important, but truly is and you have a videogame series that will inspire for generations. It was hard keeping this locked in at the halfway point, but we’ve settled on its place in this list comfortably, but keep a key eye on its future.
4. Ghost of Tsushima
Look, we’re gonna say this loudly -- if you played this in English or didn’t at least once dabble in even *looking* at Kirosawa
mode, you might be a heathen. Okay, maybe not. But that those were options and that each elevated the game to cultural and design heights says a lot. But even if you didn’t, and those options didn’t exist this was, and still is, a special game.
A combat system that was easy to wield, yet difficult to master. And a three arc story that may or may not still be haunting you to this day. Make no folded damascus about it, Ghost of Tsushima threw down a narrative gauntlet...
Any studio that can take an open-world leap like Sucker Punch
did, with the same level of polish and maturity deserves every success. Ghost Tsushima was every bit of this and more -- the “more” being an ever-postcard game-world that pooped with colour and vibrancy at every glance. A combat system that was easy to wield, yet difficult to master. And a three arc story that may or may not still be haunting you to this day. Make no folded damascus about it, Ghost of Tsushima threw down a narrative gauntlet, and then some. But it wasn’t specifically an excellent story that elevated the game, it was its tumultuous world and myriad inhabitants that did.
There’s much to be said about repetition, but when said repetition is as rewarding as it was in Ghost of Tsushima, well, it’s nothing to scoff at. Additionally, however, comes a completed world and a traditionally-designed protagonist at that; transformed in the wake of necessity but still heavily tied to cultural customs, norms and services of both the land he’s a part of, and the history in which he stars.
Ghost of Tsushima is a special kind of game relegated to spaces other studios only dream of being relegated to. And this is said studio’s first open-world outing, which is saying a lot. But like Horizon Zero Dawn before it, Ghost of Tsushima is now a franchise and IP exclusive for Sony that can only go up from here.
3. DOOM Eternal
There was a trend about a decade or so ago, where the single-player FPS firmly moved into the scripted realm -- cinematic spectacle dictated by the narrative or other elements made possible thanks to advances reached in rendering tech. With the release of the reboot of sorts that was DOOM (2016)
, the talented team at id Software
made the case that this evolution was merely a different path to take. With a focus on intense combat, close-quarter Glory Kills, and the arena-style traversal that put Quake firmly on the map -- it was less a retro-style shooter than it was pure FPS action, dialled up to 11 alongside an excellent (and heavy) soundtrack.
Heading into 2020, DOOM Eternal was one of our most anticipated releases for good reason -- it was promising to be that videogame sequel in the traditional sense. Bigger, more variety, refined design, expanded arenas, and all-new ways to slay the demons of Hell.
Heading into 2020, DOOM Eternal was one of our most anticipated releases for good reason -- it was promising to be that videogame sequel in the traditional sense. Bigger, more variety, refined design, expanded arenas, and all-new ways to slay the demons of Hell. Narratively DOOM Eternal stepped things up too with a riff on the ‘Hell on Earth’ setting of the 90s Doom II but with a visit to Phobos and other otherworldly locations and planes. Built using the latest id Tech engine, on PC, DOOM Eternal also presented one of the most technically accomplished and polished releases in years -- not only due to its smooth performance but in how it merged art, animation, sound design, and visual effects into a heady mix of FPS immersion backed up by brilliant level-design and combat.
In our review we noted that DOOM Eternal was the first-person shooter perfected, and that statement holds true when viewed as the natural conclusion to the story that began with the seminal release of the original Doom back in 1993. With design that fully supports ‘always moving’ and excellent videogame touches like chainsawing for ammo or using the Slayer’s flamethrower for armour, there’s confidence and genius here in equal measure. And to think id Software isn’t done, with a second sizable expansion due this year and a potential third game down the track.
, which spent a good deal of time in Early Access, got its full release in 2020. And from there word of mouth and critical acclaim led to it becoming one of the most talked about games of the year. At its core a rogue-like (think Rogue Legacy
or Dead Cells
), what sets Hades apart or makes it a defining release for the popular genre is how the narrative proves to be as rich and rewarding as the engaging and excellent combat.
On that front the genius here, no doubt born from Supergiant Games
working closely with the Early Access community for several months, is that it features polished isometric real-time action that is fast, responsive, and good enough to support the rinse-and-repeat quest that comes from protagonist Zagreus looking to escape Hades. No matter how many runs that might take.
And like the rich narrative that sees new twists and turns emerge several hours after your first attempt, there’s an additional layer of build-as-you-go RPG-ness built on a clever mix of randomness and synergy. Here you could compare Hades to Diablo III
and that game’s build-your-superhero fantasy that plays out over the course of the end-game. Except here all of that is contained within each run. Blessing of the Gods not only serve as a means to push the story forward but provide choices in the form of powerful abilities or attributes that define how you move forward.
Hades is an experience that gets better the more you learn about its world and characters and the ways in which you can approach challenges and find little tricks that work. In fact one could argue that its peak comes right after you “succeed” -- where everything comes together in an emotional and expertly executed crescendo. And like everything else, sits alongside the very rogue-like nature of its presentation in a way that will be remembered and celebrated for years.
1. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Letter with Red Finger Prints All Over It
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
I am working in the Red Lichen Cave, painting our Saxon banners.
It was fun until I was covered in red lichen every night and could not court a lady for the death of me!
This job is hell, and I wish to be a true poet and run free, naked in the grasslands of Wessex until I die struck by lightning,
Tuicca the Single
is in rare air, not just among its IP ilk, but in terms of progression of a longstanding series, overall engagement and, as demonstrated above, in its sweet nothings that flesh out its medieval-inspired world. Additionally, while on paper or even in the elevator, the game’s pitch to marry viking history to that of the Guild and the Order seems ridiculous, across every iteration of the franchise yet, it is singularly the most impressive draw from history and maybe, actually, makes the most sense.
That story and a complete world stands tallest among the game’s other achievements explains why it came in as our Number One. Personally, I’m over 200 hours into this on the hardest setting. My Photo Mode photos litter the landscape and myriad screenshot clubs and I simply can’t get enough of it. But it’s a lot more. The game-world is brimming with life and exploratory opportunity, while the Settlement side of your adventure into Merry Old England is a fantastic hook to maintain a level of attachment to your goal. Freedom is also a key tenet -- boyfriends, girlfriends, pet wolves, chickens and more adorn your abode.
From our review:
Still, the amalgam of ideas works and a new blueprint for the future of the series is presented in storytelling form. You’ll find love, you’ll trip balls, you’ll raid, slaughter, and nurture. You’ll play with children and meet an ancient version of Keith Flint who asks you to “smack my Bishop, smack my Bishop” as you wail on an anti-music man of God. You’ll rescue wolves and foxes in kind and they’ll join your Settlement -- the central piece to the game. Valhalla is a metaphor for a better life; vikingr prepare themselves for “the day”, but you’re preparing your kin and culture to form a kind of symbiosis to a new world, lost in and of itself. The chasm between the unassured, seemingly weak and feeble Anglo-Saxons to the stout nature of the vikingr makes way for sagas even the devs might not have foreseen.
This is truly next-gen, next-level shit.
With both Origins
and Odyssey Ubisoft
threw down a gauntlet for how they want to move this franchise forward. But in equal measure, how open-world games should be treated after so much effort in the initial phase. We also saw it with The Witcher III
-- these games need to be supported long after release; worlds so meticulously developed from ecological and design levels, graphics and more -- to put them to sleep is simply a crime.
We see a long future ahead with Valhalla, and can’t wait to raise power levels and dual-wielded axes to that future. For now though, in the tumult that was 2020, we’re glad Eivor the Drengr
raided our heart(h)s.
Game of the Year 2020 -- Assassin's Creed Valhalla.
Tomorrow, January 11, we reveal the 10 Honourable Mentions that fell just shy of the mark, so stay tuned as we wrap up the year that was 2020.