The digital escapism of video games took on a whole new meaning in 2020. With the coronavirus pandemic keeping us locked down with nowhere to go and a surfeit of spare time, it was games that let us escape to new worlds entirely or keep connected with friends over some light digital warfare or jelly-bean gameshows.
Yet for all the bluster about profits and hardware, it was also a year that provided games that were not just varied and inventive in their own right, but tapped into the vastly different ways we love to play. So from moreish card games to Viking brawling and escapes to our own idyllic island, here are our 10 best games of 2020.
10. Monster Train
Roguelike deck builders are very much an acquired taste - but if endlessly replayable card battles do tickle your tastebuds then Monster Train will be the equivalent of the finest fillet mignon. Taking the accessibility of Slay the Spire as a starting point, developers Shiny Shoe have added layer upon layer of tactical complexity to create a hellishly addictive classic which is simple to pick up but almost impossible to put down again.
9. Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout
Many of the games that defined 2020 were about the social connection that the pandemic had severed. Fall Guys’ raucous It’s A Knockout style gameshow, with 60 players jostling as jelly beans in a selection of barmy gauntlets, gunge runs and platform challenges was just the kind of thrilling, family-friendly escapism we needed.
8. Call of Duty: Warzone
Just when you thought CoD couldn’t get any more ubiquitous, along came Warzone, Activision’s second and much-improved attempt at adding real world grit and guns to Fortnite’s Battle Royale tomfoolery. Released back in April, it proved the perfect free-to-play panacea for locked down gamers, generating 60m downloads in its first two months of release. Sustained support and a steady stream of improvements meant Warzone was no flash in the pan success, either: as the year draws to a close more than 85m players are still parachuting into the plains and valleys of Verdansk on a regular basis.
7. Paradise Killer
And now for something completely different. Paradise Killer from UK studio Kaizen Game Works is a surreal investigation game that takes place in a vivid world of gods and demons. You star as Lady Love Dies, a detective pursuing a murderer on a near-perfect island set to be destroyed by its creators after the crime. You chase down evidence from Paradise’s irreverent band of characters, piecing together events before taking the suspects to trial. Thoroughly weird and entirely brilliant.
6. Yakuza: Like A Dragon
Sega’s brilliantly zany Yakuza series will often rise to the top of any list with its vivid and surreal facsimile of Japanese city life. Like A Dragon is a fresh start for the series, with new hero Kasuga Ichiban, a cast of whacked out ‘heroes’ and unremittingly barmy turn-based street fights (as an example, using your smartphone to summon crayfish from the sky to snap away at enemy heels). But, as ever, Yakuza blends its penchant for the weird, with a more serious and foreboding main narrative thread. If you haven’t experienced Yakuza before, it is unlike anything else. And this is a great place to start.
5. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla
Ubisoft’s quasi-historical adventure usually provides a swashbuckling time, but Assassin's Creed: Valhalla’s viking pilgrimage across the rolling hills of 9th century England is the best it has been for a decade. By marrying the series' stealth-action roots with its modern RPG trappings -and with some judicious crimping from the best open-world games of recent years- Valhalla is a huge, but confident game that encourages discovery and is consistently capable of surprise. Bashing Saxons with an axe on the way to raiding England's finest monasteries is always good fun, but there is plenty of heart to be found in its Norse hero Eivor too.
4. Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Nintendo took its charming village sim to a desert island, tasking you with crafting your own idyllic town and casting yourself into a lifetime of debt with a talking tanooki. Animal Crossing’s gorgeous escape found a particular resonance during lockdown, the ideal relaxation spot to lose yourself in, tend to your town, meet friends online and even obsess over turnip prices. Perfectly timed and perfectly pitched, Animal Crossing became an unlikely beacon of hope for a digital generation.
3. Half-Life: Alyx
Valve’s decision to make head-mounted displays mandatory for their long-awaited return to Half-Life’s City 17 caused consternation among the seminal shooter series’ fanbase but in truth the experience the developers designed couldn’t have been delivered any other way. And more than anything, Half-Life: Alyx was designed to be experienced, from the ingenious anti-gravity gloves which perfectly addressed the problem of manipulating objects in 3D space, to the super-heightened jump scares derived from surprise zombie attacks in virtual reality – in the dark. It took a while coming but in 2020 we finally got VR’s killer app.
Supergiant’s gorgeous, Greek-myth inspired roguelike has gained a legion of fans across the course of 2020. And for good reason. Your Sisyphean quest of escaping the underworld as Zagreus, son of Hades himself, is a brilliantly moreish treat. The crisp combat allows you to team your mythical weapon of choice with a range of buffs from the Gods of Olympus, with different combos keeping each run fresh as you battle from Tartarus to the River Styx. This is enough to keep you playing --taking on ‘just one more run’ before one hour turns to several-- but Supergiant also builds a rich underworld with an absorbing cast of deities and hellish denizens. You even get to meet the actual Sisyphus, if nose-tapping irony is your thing.
1. The Last of Us Part II
Naughty Dog’s excoriating treatise on the cycle of violence is one of the most impactful video game blockbusters of recent years, following ‘heroine’ Ellie across a beautiful and terrifyingly realised post-apocalyptic Seattle. Its expertly crafted tale is full of vicious twists, thrills and harrowing beats. And while much is made of The Last of Us Part 2's cinematic aspirations, coupled with a superb cast at the top of their game, its story has the impact it does because you are at the controls. It excels in tension and violence, yes, but also in more tender moments of humanity amid the horror.