For many of us, video games have been more than just an escape this year. They’ve been buoys around which we’ve thrown our arms as we navigate the pandemic. And the numbers back it up.
In the third quarter of 2020 alone, US consumers spent a total of $11.2billion on video gaming. According to the NPD Group, a consumer behaviour stats expert, that’s a whopping 24 per cent increase compared to the same time period last year. More importantly, it’s the highest ever in US history.
Sure, the pandemic had a major hand in these numbers, but let’s not detract from the brilliant work the people of the gaming industry have put in this year. Some of the best games ever made were published this year, from the feel-good Animal Crossing: New Horizons to the epic The Last Of Us Part II, to the brilliantly bold Final Fantasy VII Remake. And that’s not even mentioning the next-generation PlayStation and Xbox consoles.
Our team of writers have put our heads together to come up with a list of 20 of the year’s standout games, from AAA blockbusters to indie gems. If you haven’t played any of these titles, well, you’ve an entire holiday season to get cracking.
Terence Stanley, Associate Manager
Words: Vikki Blake, Jason Coles, Stacey Henley, Jordan Oloman, Alan Wen, Ewan Wilson
20. XCOM: Chimera Squad
A surprise spin-off to one of the greatest strategy games of all time, Chimera Squad is, like one of the research projects cooked up in the original game’s lab, highly experimental. In a lot of ways, it’s the opposite of what people usually come to XCOM for – it’s compact, straight-to-the-point, and most importantly, characterful.
This isn’t the long war, but a tight string of spec-ops missions that wrap around what the series was always missing: personal stakes and a proper story. Critically, while Chimera Squad toys with the formula – which makes it more exciting – when all is said and done, the game still has that finely tuned tactical combat at its beating heart. EW
For fans of: XCOM 2 and Battletech
19. BPM: Bullets Per Minute
Doom but it’s a rhythm game, and also an unforgiving permadeath roguelike. It’s an unusual blend for sure, and the gameplay is initially daunting, but after a few runs when it all clicks, you wonder how no one came up with something like this sooner.
Shooting, reloading, jumping and dodging to the beat gradually become second nature, while procedurally generated maps with random buffs and surprises ensure no two runs are the same. There’ll be highs and lows as you master BPM’s hellish labyrinth, but what remains consistent is a metal soundtrack that absolutely bangs. AW
For fans of: Beat Saber and Pistol Whip
In a year without music festivals, Fuser couldn’t have come at a better time. The technology here is magic as you’re able to pull apart individual instruments and samples from songs spanning decades and genres into impossible and surprising mixes.
You can also turn out some truly trolling mash-ups that any self-respecting DJ wouldn’t be caught dead mixing, but that’s part of the fun. You can play around with the infinite aural possibilities, whether you’re working your way up to become a superstar DJ in the campaign or experimenting in Freestyle mode and sharing your mixes with the community. It’s not quite Coachella, but we’ll take what we can. AW
For fans of: Dance Central and DropMix
Like Hades, Spiritfarer is another game about death, featuring Greek god Charon. Here, though, your passage through the afterlife is dreamier and more calming.
Taking over from the mythical ferrymaster is Stella and her cat Daffodil. Together, they discover lost souls among a gentle chain of islands, housing them and just generally being of service. Beautifully animated, Spiritfarer involves a flood of activities – building, crafting, upgrading, farming, gardening, fishing, even hugging – but really, there’s only one fundamental: relationships.
Everything you do is for your spirit-friends, and while there’s plenty of heart sores along the way, Spiritfarer offers an overwhelmingly pleasant escape. Which, let’s be honest, is nice in a year like this. EW
For fans of: Terraria and Ori And The Will Of The Wisps
16. Dirt 5
Dirt 5 is the fifth game in the Dirt series, but there are a lot of other racing influences parked in its garage. Developed in the same engine as Onrush by many of the developers from Driveclub and MotorStorm, Dirt 5 offers manic off-road carnage where it’s rival, Forza, brings sleek and streamlined realism to the genre.
Released early in November, just before the big console launches from Microsoft and Sony, it seems to have slipped under the radar, but it’s definitely one for racing fans to check out. SH
For fans of: Project Cars 3 and Dirt 4
15. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2
The Tony Hawk’s franchise had gone cold, following some poor peripheral games and years with no releases at all. Thanks to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2, the birdman is back in action, pretending he’s a Superman. The stunning, energetic remake of the first two games features 19 different levels, each crammed with collectables, score goals and gaps – so whatever you’re into, you’ll find it here.
With the full original roster restored, plus a plethora of modern skating stars, THPS 1+2 is not just a nostalgic look to the past, it also has an eye on the future. With the franchise thoroughly reinvigorated, expect more remakes and maybe even an entirely new release in the future. SH
For fans of: Skate XL and, of course, the first two THPS titles
14. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
An Assassin’s Creed game set in the era of Vikings doesn’t seem like a recipe for success at first glance. After all, the Norse raiders are scarcely known for their stealthy ways – especially given their affinity for humungous battle axes.
Play through Valhalla however, and you’ll soon find this can’t be further from the truth. It is one of the best Assassin’s Creed games made. Valhalla’s world is gorgeous, the combat, while not exactly what you’d be used to, is still delectable, and the narrative is gripping. No, it doesn’t bring much innovation to the table, but when a game looks and plays as good as this, who cares? VB
13. Desperados 3
Mimimi Games has single-handedly resurrected a genre, and Desperados 3 easily stands as the studio’s greatest accomplishment. In motion, Desperados is a bright and sunny Western with gun duels at high noon. Press pause and it transforms into a brooding, tactical puzzle.
Every level is an intricate sandbox that presses you into slowly thinking through your every move. You’re encouraged to prod and poke at the edges of a problem, experimenting and making liberal use of the quick-load, before manoeuvring your team of outlaws into the perfect spot. With one swift button press, your squad’s myriad abilities come together, and you’ll execute something special. And that’s just one of many ways you can toy around in Desperados’ clockwork dioramas. EW
For fans of: Wasteland 3 and Shadow Tactics: Blades Of The Shogun
12. Destiny 2
2019’s Shadowkeep expansion may have been a lacklustre one, but Bungie has certainly turned things around this year. Beyond Light, with its icy new world, satisfying campaign and challenging raid is a welcome update, and more importantly, a sign of promising things to come.
Right off the bat, the new location, Europa, will mesmerise you with its sheer beauty. Fighting in the science labs frozen in ice won’t bore you. The campaign provides just enough depth to keep you engaged. And the Deep Stone Crypt raid, with its challenging puzzles and delectable rewards, will keep you coming back for more. VB
11. Fall Guys
Fall Guys launched to a huge amount of fanfare and kind of took over for a few months. Its take on the battle royale genre, one that doesn’t involve slinging guns at each other, felt like a breath of fresh air. Not only that, but being free on PlayStation Plus helped it reach a huge audience in a record time. It wasn’t just the gameplay that was enticing, though.
Fall Guy: Ultimate Knockout feels like a throwback to shows like Takeshi’s Castle, but updated for a new age. The colourful beans running around trying to pick up balls or trying to make tricky jumps won’t be out of place in a slapstick comedy show. It’s not as popular as it once was, but it’s still an incredibly fun way to spend your spare time if you want a distraction. JC
For fans of: Among Us and Roblox
10. Apex Legends
As you’re travelling through Kings Canyon or trying to acclimatise to the latest map, Olympus, it’s easy to forget that Apex Legends is a free-to-play game. With zero content gates beyond cosmetics, it’s not only one of the most-played multiplayers this year – it’s one of the most enjoyable too.
A perfect palate cleanser to the demands of always-online games, Apex Legends lets you play as often or as little as you like without ever feeling that you’re falling behind or holding your pals back. Undemanding of both your time and your wallet, Apex is exactly what we needed to get through the hellscape of 2020. We don’t know how long the appeal of battle royales is going to last, but we reckon we’ll be riding this train right up until the wheels come off. VB
For fans of: Fortnite and Valorant
In a year when meeting up in the real world has been harder than ever, having places to meet up online and hang out together have become completely essential. Better yet, a game that lets you do that – and Fortnite still reigns supreme in this regard. The fact that it’s easy to play, available on nearly everything, and free, only prove it as the forerunner of the battle royale genre.
It’s not just that the game has been getting better and better, though. With the constant addition of new zones on the map, new weapons and the mighty tie-ins with the likes of Marvel heroes and villains this year, Fornite has become more than just a game for a lot of people. It’s an event, a phenomenon, and an ongoing activity to take part in.
When you then add in things like the massive Travis Scott concert back in April, you’ve got a game which frequently transcends the medium and brings in new players from all kinds of backgrounds. JC
For fans of: Apex Legends and Valorant
8. Ghost Of Tsushima
Despite a lack of fanfare prior to release, Ghost Of Tsushima surprised everyone with its unique spin on the open-world RPG formula. By committing to its tranquil setting and cutting away some of the trite chaff associated with the genre, like level bars and damage numbers, Sucker Punch’s slick samurai slasher made a real impact in 2020, with its memorable duels sticking out as some of our favourite gaming moments of the year.
The wider narrative isn’t all that impressive, but the gamification of Jin’s internal conflict is magnificent – it’s up to the player to decide whether they will follow the samurai code or play into the underhand tactics of the invading Mongols.
But beyond the plot, simply exploring with nothing but the wind to guide you nurtures a serene experience unlike anything we’ve played in years. If you’re an avid podcast listener, it’s the perfect accompaniment! JO
7. Microsoft Flight Simulator
Travel has pretty much been impossible for most of the world’s population this year, which is part of the reason the hyperreal escapism of Microsoft Flight Simulator is a comfortable pick for one of this year’s best games.
A truly staggering technical achievement, you can chart the entire world from the comfort of your bedroom with eye-watering realism. There’s nothing like getting a bird’s-eye perspective on the street you grew up in, or drinking in a city you love on a lazy biplane flight.
Asobo Studio knocked it out of the park at launch, but like many Flight Simulator games, this one is going to be supported with new content for years to come. With console and VR support set to arrive in the near future, Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is only going to get better and better with time. JO
For fans of: Microsoft Flight Simulator X and X-Plane 11
6. Final Fantasy VII Remake
Remaking a game so revered was always going to be a daunting task, but in retelling the story of a band of revolutionaries trying to take down a fascist corporation and save the planet from ecological disaster, it couldn’t be more timely.
Final Fantasy VII Remake does not play like the 1997 masterpiece. It swaps out random turn-based encounters for electrifying real-time combat, while beloved characters like Cloud, Tifa and Aerith are fully fleshed out and given a voice. Yet, it’s remarkable just how faithfully it captures the spirit of familiar story beats, while giving previous footnotes a show-stopping makeover, such as Cloud’s glorious transformation at the Honey Bee Inn.
The real kudos, however, go to its creators for daring to deviate from the original script. While divisive, the new storyline sets us on an exciting new course of where this epic could end up beyond Midgar. Beautiful, brilliant and bold, it’s a new bar for video game remakes. AW
For fans of: Final Fantasy VII and Devil May Cry 5
5. Genshin Impact
A shameless Breath Of The Wild clone that employs a predatory gacha-based free-to-play model? There’s reasons to be sceptical about Genshin Impact, so what a surprise then that this has become one of the most exciting new IPs to break out this year.
While it undoubtedly takes inspiration from Nintendo’s masterpiece, it rises above mere imitation with a more relaxed and approachable open world where you’re never far from a new, wonderful discovery. The ace up its sleeve is a brilliant elemental-based combat system that gets deeper as you mix up your party with ever more interesting and beautifully designed characters.
It’s both a new way to think about free-to-play mobile games that can have the production, polish and scale of any big-budget console game, as well as a reimagining of an open-world RPG as a live service. As MiHoYo continues updating and expanding the world with new content, logging into Genshin Impact has become a daily treat. AW
For fans of: Breath Of The Wild and Honkai Impact 3rd
4. Among Us
In true Among Us style, there’s an impostor among us. This game was actually released in 2018, but went viral this year – first on Twitch, then around the world – so we can’t possibly have ignored it for this list.
The game, set somewhere in space, is relatively simple: players need to complete very mundane tasks like emptying the garbage or fixing some wires. The twist is that at least one player isn’t there to complete tasks, but instead is there to kill you all. The genius of Among Us is that it’s not really a great game, it’s the platform for a great game.
Trying to convince your fellow crewmates that you’re not the imposter when you’ve been caught running away from a dead body is the real fun. It’s all about deception, trickery, charisma and talking your way out of trouble. Among Us even reached Congress, with Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar streaming together just before the election. SH
For fans of: Project Winter and Barotrauma
For a game all about ancient mythology, Hades feels remarkably tuned-in to what’s current. Its familial story is smart and sensitive, its characters vibrant and chic, its dialogue snappy and dramatic. A soap opera then, only centred around Greek gods. There’s fighting too!
As prince of the underworld, Zagreus, you’ll choose from a cabinet of weapons and smash your way through Hell, consorting with Olympians who grant powerful boons, all in the hope of clawing your way towards the surface. Unlike other games of the genre, Hades’ constant cycle of death is continually folded into the narrative.
Dying on a run isn’t failure, but instead opens up more of the story and further develops your character and their relationships. Even after reaching the surface, there’s a real reason to continue. The result is something that feels complete. Minute to minute, Hades is gripping – but also, there’s real purpose to its overarching repetition. Whether it’s your first or your 100th time battling through Hell, the motivation never lets up. EW
For fans of: Dead Cells and Bastion
2. Animal Crossing: New Horizons
It feels like it’s been a million years since we wrote about the black market villager trade of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, but even that seedy aspect feels like a flash in the pan of the game’s wider cultural context as we close out the year.
New Horizons has meant so much to so many people in a socially distanced 2020, hosting weddings, graduations, birthdays, talk shows and presidential campaigns. It’s a serene second life, a necessary escape and above all, a mindful experience to latch onto in such troubled times.
As well as being the best Animal Crossing game yet, it’s also an important vehicle for everyday empathy. Where else would we send carefully chosen gifts to friends, arrange kooky furniture and plant seeds for a brighter future? We needed Animal Crossing more than ever this year – New Horizons found us all at the perfect time. JO
For fans of: Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing (2001)
1. The Last Of Us Part II
It’s been six months, but we still think The Last Of Us Part II is one of the greatest games we’ve ever played. While our review focused on its brutality, we’ve since begun to ponder the abundant hope in it.
Against all odds, The Last of Us Part II is a moving riposte to the apathy waiting at the end of the world. It’s caked in all the grit and terror one might expect from a post-apocalyptic world, but it’s defined by its cautious kisses and emotional serenades – quiet, character-defining moments that hit so close to home.
Somehow, Naughty Dog managed to step out of its own shadow with this inimitable sequel. The Last Of Us Part II developed all of the original’s systems in smart and meaningful ways while introducing and exploring new characters like Abby, whose emotionally complex arc is unparalleled in modern video games.
We can’t think of a better game to bridge the two console generations – it’s a brave and beautiful game that will likely inform AAA storytelling for years to come. The Last Of Us Part II is 2020’s game of the year. JO