Last year may not have gone down as one of the best years in gaming, but hey, at least we got Untitled Goose Game. The 2010s, however, represented a step forward for the industry, with titles like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and the Batman: Arkham series. Now, we’re nearly through the first year of a new decade, and in a twilight year too. The PS4 and Xbox One were booted to the trash heap, as we wished them farewell to welcome in a super-powered generation of machines. The PS5 showcased heavy-duty tech that rivaled the guts of even the strongest PC tower, while the less-heralded Xbox Series X proved itself to be just as formidable, if lacking in launch titles.
But fret not, the old consoles went out with a bang in terms of new games. This year was stacked with titles spanning all audiences, from plenty of action-RPGs and first-person shooters, to some insanely narrative-driven games, to some equally artful and wacky indie projects. A new Animal Crossing (!!) and a sequel to The Last of Us proved that you can always rely on impressive triple-A outings. Same goes for the always-innovative indie community, with a gem like Fall Guys blessing our consoles.
The previous-gen consoles’ goodbye tour was bittersweet—doubly so for all those folks who couldn’t get their hands on a PS5—but with boundary-pushing titles like Dreams and Ghost of Tsushima, it has been a great year for gaming. After hours of research (a.k.a. playing games), these are Esquire’s 11 best video games of 2020. If you’re still unhappy with this gaming slate, don’t forget that we’ll be blessed by the divine god SkateBIRD in due time.
The Last of Us Part II
Release Date: June 19
Ah, yes. The game with a story so good that I’ll never—and I mean, never—play it again. The Last of Us Part II hit right in the first few months of the pandemic, which meant all of us were already in a not-so-stable mood when we first got a chance to catch up with Ellie and Joel again. As a follow-up to the famous first title from Naughty Dog, it was daunting, reckless, and unexpected. (I won’t spoil anything here, but you can check out my review if you’d like to relive some of the trauma.) It defied a lot of what made the previous title so good, and caused a bit of a riptide in the gaming community. But, although it may have isolated some fans who were hoping for more of the same, Naughty Dog deserves a lot of credit for having the courage to spend some time looking in the mirror and reassessing the modern action-adventure genre that the studio itself helped create. They wrote a story so challenging, so tortured, that it left many of us flat on our backs, afraid to ever press start again.
In the months since, I’ve wondered what a video game needs to do to be good, or great. I’m not sure a game needs a narrative as heartbreaking as this one. Hell, I’m not even sure if it was wise of me to play it during a time like this. But at the end of the year, the game that sticks with me the most is The Last of Us II. And I don’t anticipate forgetting it anytime soon. Oh god, that golf club. —D.N.
Final Fantasy VII Remake
Release Date: April 10
This year we finally got to return to Midgar, and it was glorious. Sure, any game surrounded by this much hype was bound to have criticism heaped on it, but Final Fantasy VII Remake is a masterful reimagining of the title that redefined what an RPG could be. It takes the iconic story of the original and draws it out, but not in a shallow way. Tetsuya Nomura and Square Enix fleshed out nearly everything in this world that could be fleshed out—like so many characters who appeared in FF7 but never got the time of day, save for roles as class fillers in the party—without making it drag. Remake also introduced an engaging style of action-RPG, melding the party balancing system from traditional RPGs with more fluid, flashy combat, and overturning the turned-based system. It was revelatory as a longtime fan to dive back in and experience so much more of Midgar, all while digesting it in the way the original illustrators wanted our imaginations to see those primitive, blocky 3D characters more than 20 years ago. By no means does the Final Fantasy VII remake replace the original. It instead does something even better: It creates what feels like a truly new experience. —C.S.
Release Date: November 12
A game that started an entire subgenre of video games—and an overused delineation for difficulty—Demon’s Souls was fully remade this year as a launch title for the PS5, and it could not have turned out better. Led by Bluepoint Studios, who remade Shadow of the Colossus back in 2018, this rebuild of the 2009 PS3 title seamlessly shows off just how much the PS5 can do. The textures, gameplay, lighting, and combat are the quintessential Souls experience while still feeling nothing like what I’ve ever experienced before from this caliber of game. The demons and landscapes come to life in immense and remarkable detail, and everything from magic to armor has a unique glow or shine to it that’s just plain beautiful. Demon’s Souls is a hard game, that’s for sure, the darkest soul of Dark Souls, but with servers back up to summon blue phantoms for help, plus years and years of online guides, it’s more than manageable. This game is just too damn good for any PS5 owner to forgo playing for fear of intimidation. —C.S.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Release Date: March 20
Platform: Nintendo Switch
At this point, your island might be long forgotten, blanketed by a musty coat of weeds, weeping villagers everywhere, as your copy of Animal Crossing: New Horizons sits untouched. Which… is okay, even if Henry the Frog and his sweet Virgo heart won’t ever recover from your absence. Just remember, please: Those cute animals were there for you during the early pandemic! Animal Crossing: New Horizons blew up the scope of its predecessors, providing comfort to a whole damn planet in crisis. So, just know: When Tom Nook yelled at you and took your money, he really meant to take your mind away for a bit. Thank him. Thank him, Tommy, Timmy, and every fluffed creature in your pocketworld for us all. —B.L.
Ghost of Tsushima
Release Date: July 17
Platform: PS4, PS5
Ghost of Tsushima wasn’t on my radar nearly as much as it should have been before its launch (my bad), and now it’s all I can play. This game demonstrates precise action-RPG combat, where timely dodges and blocking are crucial, then blends it with so many different (and challenging) playstyles. Are you going to be Jin, sticking to the samurai code and facing your enemies head-on, crowd-controlling larger groups? Or are you going to work like a ghost, emphasizing stealth? The best part is you can, and should, do both. These extremely polished combat styles are mixed with a metric ton of tools and abilities, and now that there’s online multiplayer, which is out of this world (especially for a free update), it’s amazing to see just how differently everyone plays this game—and how any strategy, after being refined, seems to work. A title with a combat system so deep that it can support never-ending options for tackling any given obstacle deserves a massive amount of respect. Beyond all of that, it’s just a damn fun, and damn beautiful, game. Ghost of Tsushima blends stunning and non-exhausting open-world adventuring, intensely thoughtful combat, gorgeous landscapes, and in-depth story, peppered with homages to classic samurai cinema. It was a perfect send-off for the PS4, really showing what that generation ultimately became by taking the tech to its absolute limit. —C.S.
Release Date: March 20
Platform: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PC, Google Stadia, Nintendo Switch
Kill! Kill! Kill! When the quarantine first started, when all of us buckled down and shuttered ourselves inside for the indefinite future, I found a lot of comfort from Doom Eternal. I’m not a first-person shooter guy; I have trouble enjoying the genre and its constant skull-fracturing. Maybe it’s my pandemic brain speaking right now, but Doom Eternal felt like a cold shot of joyful relief straight to the ass cheek. God, this game fucking rocked, didn’t it? I’d spend the day reading the worst news imaginable, and then start my evening by popping demons like bubble wrap. For a few weeks, hell was like the inside of my head—there was bad stuff inside it, and only the Doomslayer could root it out. I ripped, tore, and exploded every dead-eyed ghoul I could find, until I killed Satan himself in the end. Eternal may not have had the best (or most coherent) story, but hey, towards the end of the game you get a fucking sword. More games should end with you getting a sword. —D.N.
Release Date: February 14
Platform: PS4, PS5
It’s easy to call Dreams one of the best games of the year. The tougher question is to pick which game within Dreams is the biggest contender. Media Molecule’s game maker playground, which liberates the expensive and closed-off world of game development, allowing for anyone with a PlayStation to chase their loftiest video game dreams (heh), is absolutely stuffed to the brim with inventive and impressive indie mini-titles. There are a few fan-made Sonic games that finally show Sega how the speedy blue guy could work in three dimensions. A cute and inventive kaiju rampage game called Ruckus earned a lot of attention earlier this summer. The list goes on, but the real highlight of Dreams, I think, is all the horror experiences that people have made. You can really craft any sort of game that you want in Dreams, and it seems like, right now, people have some stunning—and scary—ideas (I can’t imagine what sort of trauma might have caused that…). Earlier this year I wrote about Sinfeld Chronicles, a spooky exploring title based in the Seinfeld universe. I still check back in with Sinfeld every few months just to see what’s going on with Jerry, Kramer, and their demon-infested apartment building. That’s really the joy of Dreams. It’s not just a video game, it’s a living, breathing network, built by gamers, for gamers. And I have a hunch that Dreams is going to continue to grow and spark the fascination of aspiring developers for many, many years to come. —D.N.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2
Release Date: September 4
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Oh, man, did the THPS remake arrive just when we needed it. Who knew ska could sound so good in 2020? This year really was a huge step forward for remakes and remasters—we had Demon’s Souls, Insomniac’s Spider-Man, Super Mario 3D All-Stars… the list goes on. In past years, the act of remaking an old game usually meant just getting the bones of it to stand up on a modern-day console. In 2020, a remake looks like a precious love letter. Activision combined all the nostalgia from the first two entries in its skateboarding franchise with gorgeous, sun-soaked 4K graphics, and a roster featuring all of skating’s most beloved icons, old and new. God, did it feel good to drop into the Warehouse again, or to grind the helicopter in Hangar. Now, after such an uproarious reception, it seems like the sky’s the limit for the revitalized THPS series. The Birdman flies again! Here’s hoping that the follow-up brings back New Jersey from Tony Hawk’s Underground. —D.N.
Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout
Release Date: August 4
Platforms: PS4, PC
I’d been saying it for months, or at least since Fall Guys was revealed: It is a genius game, and it will be my Game of the Year. I’m stubborn so I’ll hold to that, but honestly, Fall Guys is one of those games that took the internet by storm. It’s extremely accessible, allowing anyone and everyone who wants to play it an easy opportunity. Don’t get me wrong, it’s challenging, but only because you all keep grabbing me and getting in my damn way. This game is designed to pit players against each other and environments, causing mass battle royale chaos. Additionally, the art direction is just about the cutest thing to come out of 2020, not that there was a lot of competition there. You’re a little bean, and now you can even wear a wizard hat, or a Sonic costume, or a Goose Game costume, or other outfits that keep players incentivized to earn those crowns; the game has a massive amount of revolving content and some truly cool collaborations. Fall Guys is just about the perfect example of infuriating fun—the type of game that has you losing and immediately starting back up to try again, never so mad as to rage quit, but always on the edge of your seat. —C.S.
Crash 4: It’s About Time
Release Date: October 2
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One
Crash Bandicoot is an emotion to me. It’s so damn nostalgic, and as goofy as this character is, there’s a reason he can come out of the woodwork years later with the same hardcore loyal following. Crash 4 is the first main series game we’ve seen since 1998, and it picks up right where Crash 3 left off. What the folks at Activision and Toys for Bobs did is a true feat, as it feels new and exciting while still tapping into those old Bandicoot skills. The gameplay is just as hard and unforgiving as ever, but in a wonderful way that I personally have been missing from 3D platformers for a while now. All this coupled with the beautiful designs and visuals makes for the perfect rebirth of the old Crash. Crash and some others on this list prove that gaming, at least this year, unlike Hollywood, knows how to revitalize old franchises in a respectful way. Crash 4 is a must play for anyone, and with a ton of new difficulty settings and some stellar multiplayer features, even if Crash is traditionally not for you, there’s plenty here to mess around with that’ll make it fun bordering on emotional. —C.S.
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War Zombies – A New Beginning
Release Date: November 13
Platforms: PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Well-adjusted, dweeby little kids who turn into poorly adjusted, but still dweeby, adults usually pick a hobby early on. Baseball, knitting, painting. I chose Nazi zombies. Been playing it since ’NAM. (14 years old.) Hopefully that gives me some cred when I write that Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’s game-within-a-game is one of the year’s best. Some context: Since World at War and Black Ops’s original takes on the round-based, zombie shoot-em up, the experience saw fanfic levels of multiplying storylines and stuffy maps that demanded you watch YouTube tutorials to even get going. Cold War Zombies? It remembers what made Zombies so fun in the first place—killing… the zombies. Now, you just have about 50 more ways to do it, which, you know what? That’s all we’ve really wanted since 2008. —B.L.
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