The games I played in 2020 span across 23 years of history. Some were old classics like System Shock 2 and Thief. Some were newer hits like Genshin Impact and DOOM 2016. Some were weird curios like Helltaker and Manifold Garden. Some were old favorites like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and, of course, Final Fantasy XIV. I even managed to find some new favorites as I went through my list of games to play and replay. Bioshock 2 is a fantastic game and its DLC is genuinely heartwarming. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl is such a phenomenal experience even with its quirks and dated engine, that it sold me on survival elements in video games at large. All of this is to say that, if I wasn’t restricting myself to games released this year, I could write for pages and pages on all the wonderful, heartwarming, foolish, ill-conceived, laughable, knee-slapping stuff that I played through.
I don’t want to gloss over the abysmal reality of 2020 and its impact on everyone, but there also isn’t much I could say that you haven’t heard already: that you haven’t experienced already. Weathering such a year has exacted its toll on all of us, and I can only hope you and yours have taken care of each other in this hellstorm. For me, this past year was a time to dig through my backlog, to keep hacking away at digital art, and to try and make people laugh when the day’s work had them down. I will continue those goals moving forward because even though I’d say I met them spectacularly, they’re worth bringing into the new year once more.
While my list only features a few of the highlights in a dimly-lit year, these games helped me connect with my past, my friends, and myself, and I hope the connections you make going forward help you as much as these ones helped me.
V. Black Mesa
Many of my early childhood memories are watching my father play games on his computer. One of these was Half-Life, and I still remember him going down a spiral staircase into a flooded generator room, only to be ambushed by a headcrab zombie on his right flank. Every time I’ve replayed Half-Life and get to that part, the memory comes back and greeting that zombie with lead is like reaching into my past. While playing through Black Mesa, I felt more connections throughout my experience, as the Crowbar Collective team did a phenomenal job recreating and updating all parts of Half-Life.
Black Mesa isn’t a replacement for the original – both have their merits. Many old and influential games have been “remastered” or “remade” into more modern iterations. Some have been wonderful – some have been lacking. Out of all the remakes I’ve played, Black Mesa stands as the best example of how effective it can be to let your team take liberties with the source material. The Crowbar Collective has shown exceptional focus and an understanding of what made the original great. The lackluster Xen chapters in the original Half-Life, some of the most boring parts of that game, have been expanded upon to great effect and actually give narrative context that better bridges the gaps between the first and second Half-Life games.
Various touches throughout the game have simultaneously invoked those old memories of mine while forging new ones to sit alongside the old. My mind has two Half-Lifes now, and I couldn’t tell you which one I liked more.
IV. DOOM Eternal
I played DOOM Eternal well before touching DOOM 2016, though I had played original DOOM and DOOM II several years prior. I did end up playing through DOOM 2016 late last year, and I found myself realizing how mindless that game’s combat was. In Eternal, I developed various tactics for dealing with certain enemies. I’d use the Heavy Cannon’s scope function to snipe turrets off of Arachnotrons, weakening them and forcing them into melee range. I’d employ the Combat Shotgun’s grenade launcher to quickly dispatch Cacodemons whenever those funky meatballs showed up. It was a blast and I loved the dashing and movement mechanics they added. They felt like a logical step forward from the gameplay that I’d see later in my playthrough of DOOM 2016.
2016’s DOOM felt… sluggish by comparison. Like something was missing. I had just about the same arsenal as Eternal, but I wasn’t thinking much about which weapons I was using or what enemies I’d focus down first. As long as I kept moving and shooting I didn’t have much trouble, but the real issue was that moving was boring (compared to Eternal) and shooting was more intuitive than tactical (compared to Eternal.) I realize now that both of these approaches to DOOM worked. 2016 was more of an aesthetic overhaul of older DOOM games, while Eternal felt more like an evolution of the core gameplay into an FPS/Character Action hybrid. DOOM Eternal has more in common with Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, and that really clicked with me in a way that 2016 didn’t. I still enjoyed 2016, but I’m in Eternal’s camp without question. For me, I was sold on DOOM Eternal when the first Cacodemon showed up, looking like it was ripped straight from classic DOOM, and after opening it up for a Glory Kill, it made a hilariously cartoonish -pop- noise as I plucked its peeper out. Going back to DOOM 2016 and seeing how tepidly designed their meatballs are, the winner for Best Meatballs In Gaming is Eternal without question.
One last thing – the story elements in DOOM Eternal were more distinct than the ones in DOOM 2016, because Eternal both bought into and delivered on the lore set up by its predecessors. DOOM 2016 was content to stick lore snippets in menus, and focused on a story that may as well have asked “What if DOOM was in the MCU?” DOOM Eternal pulls from the entire library of DOOM history, enriching its story without sacrificing anything that makes DOOM fun or memorable. It sticks to “The Canon” without getting lost in its own guts about how special the franchise has been over the years. It doesn’t try to recreate DOOM like 2016: it tries to rip and tear its way into the modern era in new and refreshing ways, and it’s a wonderful addition to the DOOM catalog as far as I’m concerned.
III. Destiny 2: Beyond Light
I have long, long been a skeptic of Destiny as a franchise since its inception. Though that skepticism has always come from a place of having watched people early buy into it simply because of studio prestige. “Bungie made the Halo games, I liked the Halo games, therefore Destiny will be the new Halo games, and I will like them too and they will be the best games of all time and will single-handedly win video games forever, just like the Halo games did.” I played Halo 1 and 2, and enjoyed them, but never really got into the online multiplayer suites those two were known for. When people would claim that Bungie knew how to make shooting guns in video games feel good, I had no idea what they meant.
Boy oh boy, do I understand what they meant now. I’ve been playing Destiny 2 since Beyond Light launched back in November, and it all makes sense. I understand how this game has stuck around for so long, and why people enjoy it so much. I’m especially proud of a moment in the Last Wish raid where my friends and I were on a timer to kill the boss, as someone had died and we were out of revives. Using an exotic helmet, the Celestial Nighthawk, I activated my Super ability and shot the boss in the face with a single godkilling bullet that immediately took out the last chunk of her health instantly. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in a video game.
That said, I also don’t understand why the game is designed the way it is. I come from the world of Final Fantasy XIV, where getting to the endgame can take hundreds of hours for a new player, but once you’re there, you can pick and choose which upgrades to get and how to get them. Destiny 2 is engram lootboxes all the way down – even your highest-tier rewards can be squandered by the game randomly deciding to give you an upgrade in the wrong gear slot. The gameplay is undeniably solid (even if I’d like a bit more balancing of subclasses so that some no longer only feel useful in PvE or PvP), and while the upgrade grind is laughably unconscionable, the worldbuilding and moment-to-moment experience is fantastic.
As for Beyond Light itself, I think it was silly how the story instilled this uneasiness and apprehension with The Darkness being an even more present entity, and then gleefully forces you to use the new Stasis powers to kill story bosses. I even tried forgoing Stasis in favor of my Solar abilities since that felt more in line with my character, but they straight-up made the bosses immune to damage at a certain point until you equip the Stasis powers. It’s very jarring. I wasn’t even expecting a narrative divergence – I simply wanted some fun bonus dialogue or a hidden triumph for defeating the Beyond Light bosses without Stasis. But no, the dark ice powers are a Big Selling Point of a Product, so they had to make it enticing for players to try out. It’s a shame, but funnily enough my favorite story moments in Destiny 2 overall don’t revolve around the epic boss fights and Big Story Sequences. The game’s storytelling is so good when it focuses on tiny moments with characters like Eris Morn, the Exo Stranger, the Crow, and even the coin-pervert Drifter himself. I’m looking forward to playing more Destiny 2, and it’s been fun so far – but please somebody tell them to play other MMO-style games so they understand why relying on engrams and RNG for everything is a bad idea.
II. Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition
This is one of the best games, which I know because I played through the main campaign before dealing with Vergil, and it’s made all the better with the inclusion of Vergil as a playable character. If Lady and Trish were playable characters as well, this would be beyond perfect. As it stands, there really isn’t much more I can say that hasn’t already been said as the main game has been out since 2019. It says a lot that this game is in my #2 despite me never really being a fan of Character Action games (until now).
Vergil isn’t even my favorite character to play, but he’s apparently my best since I effortlessly S-ranked the first five missions of his campaign whereas it took me quite some time to get an S-rank in the main campaign. Judgement Cut End is absurdly satisfying to use, to the point where I don’t even know why he has two other finishers – it’s like giving a double-edged sword two additional edges. One of my favorite parts is how he has a meter that builds if you stand still or “RP walk” toward your enemies, and drains if you act recklessly or run around like a fool. It’s a genuinely inspired design point and helps to put you into his mindset as you play him.
If you have never been a fan of Character Action games I implore you to try this one out. It’s unreasonably fun and I had no idea how expertly crafted these kinds of games could be until I got my hands on Devil May Cry 5: Special Edition. Unchained levels of enjoyment, Smokin’ Sexy Style — that’s all there is to say.
Rare are the games that have such a keen sense of style and detail in their presentation. Being a tower defense gacha game, Arknights was fighting on two fronts to keep me interested and engaged, yet its acute sense of direction and design had me coming back all year. Tower defense games have never held my interest for more than a couple hours at most, and Arknights takes that framework and bolsters it by turning towers into characters with a wide array of classes, skills, and specialties. There’s enough strategic depth here to satisfy all kinds of team compositions, and even the weaker units can be linchpins if you play to their strengths.
One of my recent feats was perfectly completing the third “Annihilation” map. These are large-scale encounters where the goal is to take out as many enemies as possible while dealing with various waves and enemy formations. You get rewarded based on how many enemies you can take out before 10 of them get into your base, and if you defeat all 400 enemies, you increase your weekly reward limit. Most of the strategies online involved using heavy-duty casters or characters with absurdly powerful skills, and while I could’ve invested the time and resources to build those characters up, I wanted to do things my way instead. It took me several attempts, but I slowly improved my score – 320, 335, 350, 367, 395, 396, etc. The linchpin hero responsible for clutching out those last 4 enemy kills was Jessica: a 4-star operator who is given out for free after completing the third tutorial mission. I didn’t need SilverAsh and his Truesilver Slash. I didn’t need Eyjafjalla and her tower of lava. Give me the catgirl with the 9mm pistol.
On the gacha side of things, it’d be easy to think that the rarest characters are the best, and while it is true that six-star operators can be very powerful, that isn’t always the case. Certain skills or passive talents can make lower-rarity operators on par or even better than their six-star counterparts. It never feels like a unit in Arknights is completely useless. Even the 2-star tutorial characters are useful for the game’s base management minigame, which even lets you decorate living quarters with furniture to make them look like pizza shops, noodle vendors, cafeterias, or chill zones.
What really won me over, though, was Arknights’ absolutely incredible UI design. Every facet of the interface, from menus, to tooltips, to font choice and iconography is the most congruent with its aesthetics and gameplay that I’ve ever seen in a video game. While crisp, clean, minimalist UIs have become something of a trend in modern games, they often lack a lot of character and coalescence with the rest of the game’s aesthetics. Arknights, being a tower defense game where most of the gameplay is interfacing with menus, had to nail this aspect in its entirety, and they did so flawlessly.