Gaming

The best video games of 2020: CNET’s favorite titles of the year

As far as entertainment goes, 2020 took a lot from us. It took our movies, it took live music and it took audiences out of sports. But gaming is one area that’s been thriving in the coronavirus era. Not only have the big releases of the year launched as intended, people around the globe now have more time to play games than ever. 

Coming into the year, there were three especially hyped games: Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Last of Us Part 2 and Cyberpunk 2077. The first two were acclaimed for living up to the hype — both receiving perfect scores from GameSpot, our sister site — while the third is getting love for its giant open world and hate for dodgy performance, especially on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

And speaking of the PS4 and Xbox One — platforms that entered the year as “current-gen” are now “last-gen,” as 2020 brought the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S platforms. So, as you can tell, it’s safe to say the past year has been a huge one for gaming. Here, then, are our favorite games. 


Mediatonic

Fall Guys

Mark Serrels, Editorial Director

Sure, Fall Guys was a little flash-in-the-pan. Sure, no one really talks about it or plays it anymore. But for a period of around two months, I played nothing except Fall Guys. And it was awesome. 

Most online games, especially shooters like Counter-Strike or Valorant, take pride in balance. In removing random elements, creating an environment where the best players win through skill or ingenuity. Fall Guys did the opposite. Fall Guys was successful because of an absolute commitment to chaos.

It’s an insane battle royal game that takes its cues from shows like Ninja Warrior and Takeshi’s Castle — I described Fall Guys as a “brightly lit hellscape of late-stage capitalism in full bloom.” A video game where your potential successes and failures are almost solely dependent upon factors completely outside your control. There is no empathy in Fall Guys, no safety net. You will lose, and it will be completely unfair. 

But for reasons I still haven’t quite figured out, that didn’t stop me coming back. Over and over and over again. Fall Guys, I love you and your bullshit. 

Ghost of Tsushima 

Dan Ackerman, Reviews Manager

It’s tough to pick a best game of 2020 when so little of what happened in 2020 passes for normalcy. We’ve suffered through forced indoor isolation, a tumultuous political season, massive social unrest, disinformation campaigns and various other worst-timeline calamities. What’s more, we got two band-new next-gen game consoles that, at least at launch, did little to actually move the needle on innovative gaming. 

On a purely technical level, the game this year that was simply the best-made, most meticulously crafted and most clearly optimized to be a fun, engaging experience is Ghost of Tsushima. Everything about it feels incredibly finely tuned. I dismissed it at first as yet another combat-heavy skirmish game, which is not usually my kind of thing, but its mix of storytelling, voice acting, visual design and historical background is just a master class in game design. 

Having played the next-gen version of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, I found that Ghost does just about everything better and looks better on a PS4 than most PS5 games do. Watch Dogs: Legion is not as finely tuned, but has a great semi-realistic London and cargo drones you can ride. Still, Ghosts is probably the most pure fun I’ve had playing a game this year. 

Bonus: Actual best game of the year is Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, a fantastic tabletop strategy dungeon crawl that feels like a great PC RPG in paper-and-plastic form.

Hades 

Andrew Gebhart, Senior Associate Editor

Hades is a special, unique title in a year filled with sequels, retreads and remakes. It explores new ways to tell a story using the medium, and does so with great character work, fun gameplay and thrilling music. It’s my game of the year, and it’s not particularly close. 

I’ve struggled to get into other games in the roguelike genre — one defined by starting from the beginning each time you die. In Hades, you do get gradually more powerful from run to run as opposed to starting completely from scratch (which puts in the roguelite subgenre). Early on, it’s easy to bank enough permanent resources to unlock a new weapon or a powerful stat upgrade, so motivation to keep trying was easier for me. 

More than that, every time you die, you return to your home at the base of hell (your character is trying to escape) and you get to develop relationships with a roster of characters reimagined from classic Greek mythology. Imagine losing to the first boss, then returning to the base and chatting with her about it, or finally beating her and getting to gloat your next time through while she sits at the bar and tries to ignore you.

As you pile up more runs, you find out more about each of these surprisingly deep characters, and dialogue is impressively never repeated. The game is stunningly responsive to how you’re progressing, and your cohorts gradually open up to you and try to help you out if you’re attentive to them.

The gameplay also starts getting much more manageable as you increase your character’s stats and learn what powers work well together. The challenge is tough but fair, and it’s quite rewarding to finally beat a tough boss that’s taken you multiple tries. 

Whether you like the genre or not, I strongly recommend giving Hades a try. The action won me over, but the way it weaves narrative and character arcs into your continued struggles is brilliant and what elevates Hades above the field for me in 2020. 

The Last of Us Part 2

Oscar Gonzalez, Staff Reporter

As an elderly gamer with four decades of playing video games under my belt, I’m rarely surprised. There are the exceptions that come once a generation that completely rock me from the get-go and crush any preconceived notion I had. The Last of Us Part 2 did exactly that

Naturally, I don’t want to delve into the spoilers of the storyline, but I will say that the game was the kind of rollercoaster ride of emotions you get from movies that are two hours long rather than a game that’s 10 times longer. It was apparent how Naughty Dog wanted to deliver a series of gut punches that would put Mike Tyson to shame, and I was on the receiving end of each. The development team also made sure the game was fun to play, whether it’s delivering stealthy and brutal takedowns or cowering in fear of the Clickers patrolling an area. 

The wave of rage that came with the release of The Last of Us Part 2 is not lost on me. It’s the kind of never-ending outrage still burning today, months after the release. While I won’t see eye to eye with those who insist the game is subpar, I do understand how a game like The Last of Us had such an impact on those who played it.   

Are you really excited to play Super Mario 64 again?


Nintendo

Super Mario 3D All-Stars

Jackson Ryan, Science Editor

Just kidding.

Spelunky 2

Morgan Little, Director of Social Media

No, it’s not as revelatory as Spelunky HD, nor have I gotten any better at the series. But in a year filled with slow, cautious progress punctuated by swift failure and a regression back to where it all began, what’s more thematically appropriate than Spelunky? You go into each level knowing what to do, what the traps and dangers will be (or you at least quickly learn them for the next go-around).


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What’s the worst that could happen? Oh, you were bopped you into the spike block you were too distracted to notice, and who knows when you’ll get a jetpack and 20 bombs again? You could have been more cautious. You could have considered your options, but your progress inspired bravado instead of level-headed consideration and now you’re back to square one.

That trajectory is at the core of Spelunky 2 and at the core of the 2020 experience. Here’s to defeating both at some point and never having to go back.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Daniel Van Boom, News Editor

I’m ashamed and disgusted that my colleagues haven’t showered more love on Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

As the world shut down in March, who was there for you? Tom Nook. When shelter-in-place orders were extended to the end of April, who kept you company? Timmy and Tommy. When lockdown became the new normal in May, what kept you calm? That’s right, watering the flowers in your tropical paradise

Games like The Last of Us 2, Final Fantasy 7 Remake and Cyberpunk 2077 may have been the big titles of 2020 back in January. But when everything changed in March, it was Animal Crossing that became an unlikely sensation. It was the right game at the right time — or at least, the time it was most needed. 

That’s made evident by its success. With over 26 million units sold, it’s a bigger moneymaker for Nintendo than Breath of the Wild, Smash Bros. and Super Mario Odyssey. The Last of Us 2 was fantastic, Final Fantasy 7 lived up to its namesake and Cyberpunk is indeed massive. But 2020 was Animal Crossing’s year.


Square Enix

Final Fantasy 7 Remake

Sean Keane, Staff Reporter

It came out. The fact that I played Final Fantasy 7 Remake in 2020 feels like a miracle — nearly 23 years after the glorious original hit PlayStation and 15 years after a lovely PS3 tech demo got fans clamoring for a remake, I booted it up on my PS4.

And it was incredible — Cloud and company are more engaging than ever, Square Enix used its experience with battle systems to make combat utterly exhilarating, and exploring Midgar was a joy. It’s one of the few virtual worlds I’ve wanted to see every inch of, as rearranged versions of composer Nobuo Uematsu’s original soundtrack sucked me in completely. 

Also, the ending takes the kind of big, unexpected narrative swing that made me think “Did I like that?” After some reflection, I concluded that I loved it — any ending that makes me re-evaluate an experience is a winner for me.

Roll on, Part 2

Madden NFL 20

Scott Stein, Editor at Large 

I know what you’re going to say. “Madden NFL 20 didn’t even come out this year.” Shhh. Shhhhhhhh. 

Want some games I loved? OK, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Half-Life: Alyx. The weird Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit. Plenty of VR games, like The Room VR. I’ve hopped in and out of a lot of them.

But when the world shut down and I stopped playing Animal Crossing, I turned to Madden. I picked up my pathetic New York Jets, started diving into Franchise Mode, and went forward in time. A year, five years, ten years. I’m in 2034 now.

I’ve seen players rise and fall. I’ve seen championship runs aplenty. I’ve come to love players who don’t even exist, and felt saddened by their inevitable trades or releases. By the way, I’m not a good Madden player. I use coach suggestions. I use it as an anaesthetic, a meditative routine, a way of polishing my knowledge of an arcane American sport I only came to love because my dad made me go to the games as a kid.

What did I do every evening for months on end? Madden 20. What did I sink hundreds of hours into? Madden 20. And when Madden 21 came out and disappointed me with its less-than-stellar updates and, recently, its underwhelming next-gen features, what did I go back to again? Madden 20.

Where will I be tomorrow, probably, around midnight or so, much like every other night spent at home during the endless journey into isolation? Madden 20.

Here’s to 2021.


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