Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat — 2020 was a lousy year, particularly if you lived in the United States, and particularly if, like me, you live in New York. I spent most of the year inside (when I wasn’t working six jobs) looking for something to distract myself from the dystopian hellscape that is the real world.
As Jarrod Johnston already noted, there were no shortage of remasters and remakes in the last 12 months, and he already nailed some of this year’s best. Where we disagree is on the quality of original works this year. For me, 2020 was one of the best years in recent memory — especially for action games.
Fair warning, I’m not going to pretend I have a wholly original list here, and I don’t say that it’s comprehensive. Most of what I played in 2020 was dependent on what I could get review codes for and what was on GamePass, which remains the single best deal in gaming.
Some major releases that I haven’t had a chance to play yet include Hades, The Last of Us Part II, Monster Train, Genshin Impact, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, A Monster’s Expedition, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Kentucky Route Zero, and several more.
But of what I did play, this was the best!
10. Nioh 2
I don’t like the Souls games. I respect them, particularly their level design, but I don’t like them. Dying repeatedly in games designed to kill you (often unfairly) over and over and over again until you figure them out doesn’t appeal to me. The Nioh games are different, though. The core conceit of Nioh is “What if the Souls games had combat system that was more like Ninja Gaiden?”
The result is a game that is just as challenging as traditional Souls, but one that offers much more depth and remains more engaging over the long haul. The level design isn’t as good and the story is nonsensical drivel that you’ll skip over as often as you can, but the actual combat is something that encourages freedom and creativity, and forces you to master its systems if you want to succeed.
Nioh 2 is a hard game — you’re going to die a lot and it can be intensely frustrating, but it feels damn good to play and rewards you for being good at it. Whenever I died I always knew why, and there was always a way to win. That’s good design, and in an era of samey action games that rely on regurgitating tired mechanics over and over again, Nioh 2 feels unique. It’s hard as hell, but I’ll take that over generic any day.
9. Gears Tactics
It’s easy to dismiss Gears Tactics as someone getting their X-Com in your Gears of War, and that’s kinda true. It’s obvious where the inspiration’s coming from, and nobody’s going to accuse Gears Tactics of reinventing the wheel. What Gears Tactics does really well, though, is marry what makes Gears of War unique with what makes X-Com work.
There are lots of different classes and weapons, each with its own unique abilities and skills to upgrade. Building characters however you like and choosing the right team for the job is part of the joy of strategy games, but Gears Tactics works because it still feels like a Gears of War game. Enemies go down when you shoot them, and executing a downed foe gives you more AP to play with, allowing you to chain executions together to extend your turn. This inherent risk makes the game unique — to win, you’re going to have to be aggressive. Sure, it’s still a tactics game, but making it feel like Gears is no small feat.
8. Ghost of Tsushima
Real talk? Most open-world games are terrible. The Ubisoft style dominates the genre now, so you go from map icon to map icon, doing the same three things over and over forever while dealing with mediocre combat and tacked-on RPG systems. Then came Breath of the Wild, which turned the entire genre on its head and made it obvious just how boring, stagnant, and paint-by-the-numbers things had become.
Don’t get me wrong — in a lot of ways, Ghost of Tsushima still follows the genre template. There’s a map to fill in and the combat isn’t anything special, but it shines in moments where the game shows how horrible a war and its occupying force are for civilians. Other moments are strong as well, like how you come across a Mongol patrol and cut them down, or how you find a golden bird or a fox and try to keep up as they lead you to a hidden area nearby. In these ways, Ghost of Tsushima captures the sense of wonder and exploration that Breath of the Wild achieved effortlessly.
Don’t get me wrong: Ghost of Tsushima still has many Ubisoft elements and calling it Assassin’s Creed: Japan wouldn’t be wrong. But at its best, it shows that the open-world game can be better if major studios want it to be.
Cyberpunk 2077 got all of the hype, but Ghostrunner might be the best game in the cyberpunk genre this year. The premise is simple — everything, (including you) dies in one hit and the difficulty is steep. The difference between life and death is the breadth of an eyelash, and you’re going to die a lot. Fortunately, your Ghostrunner has all the abilities you’ll need like a wall run, a grappling hook, a quick dash, a slide, an air dodge, and a nasty katana. Combine that with the ability to deflect bullets and several special abilities and you’ve got a title with an absurdly high skill ceiling and a ton of replay value. Throw in a surprisingly well-told and acted story that nails the genre, a killer soundtrack, and some gorgeous art design, and you’ve got a great game that slipped under way too many radars.
5. Star Wars Squadrons
It’s been ages since we got a good Star Wars flight game, but Squadrons delivers. The game’s best in VR, but it’s no slouch without it, either. Sure, you could just play it for the campaign and story, I suppose, but the real reason you pick up Squadrons is for the dogfights. The game shines for two reasons — an incredibly high skill ceiling and well-designed ships and ship customization.
You can feel the former when you’re flying, but the latter comes into play in and out of combat. Squadrons lets you control every aspect of your ship, from your throttle and your loadout to the level of power you dump into your shields, engines, and weapons. It’s not an easy game to master, especially competitively. A team that coordinates will always beat one that doesn’t and a good pilot will always outfly a decent one, but once you get it and you’re drifting around other guys who realize what’s going to happen to them a second before you blow them out of the sky, there’s nothing like it.
5. Streets of Rage 4
The beat-‘em-up is an underappreciated genre that doesn’t get enough love. If you’re new to them and looking for a place to start, you could do worse than Streets of Rage 4, which is an absolute masterclass in game design. It’s a game willing to meet you at your level, whether you just want to do a quick run with a friend or test your combos on the highest difficulty. it’s also intensely replayable thanks to a ton of characters to learn and an enormous amount of depth to mine, but it’s more than worth a casual playthrough even if you’re not looking to run up the high score.
4. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2 are two of the greatest games ever made, and this new version 1+2 takes those two classics, adds new skaters, tons of customization and the advanced mechanics from Pro Skater 3 to create one of the best remakes in the modern era. Rolling through these classic levels will be enough for the casual player, but the wonderful Create-a-Park mode should keep the dedicated busy for years. It may not be the most realistic skating game ever made, but there’s definitely an argument to be made that it’s easily one of the best.
3. Final Fantasy VII Remake
I could spend hours praising FFVIIR’s wonderful characters, engaging combat system, beautiful visual style, and excellent expansion of the original game, but what I really want to focus on is the story. It would have been easy to simply remake Final Fantasy VII, but that’s not what Square did. Instead, they made a sequel masquerading as a Remake that directly challenged both the fanbase and the concept what a remake can and should be. Make no mistake — Final Fantasy VII Remake was an enormous creative risk that was not guaranteed to succeed. Square did it anyway, and knocked it out the park. More studios – and more games, remakes or not – should try to be as brave.
2. Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Ori and the Blind Forest is one of the best games to release during the last console generation. Its sequel, Will of the Wisps, is better in every conceivable way.
Sporting stunning visuals and an exceptional soundtrack to match its refined gameplay, Will of the Wisps takes everything that worked and cranks it up to 11. What’s really special, though, is its understanding of narrative. It doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but instead it tells its story in gorgeous cutscenes that shows a mastery of visual storytelling that few games possess. Will of the Wisps is emotionally affecting but that fact that it plays as well it does is nothing short of incredible. Don’t miss it.
1. Doom Eternal
People might be surprised to see this game top the list, but the reality is that Doom Eternal is one of the best action titles ever made and one of the best shooters released in the last two decades. It’s a game that asks a lot of the player — ammo is limited and you have to master its movement mechanics if you want to stand a chance, especially on the higher difficulties. But those that click with it will find a masterpiece that completely understands its genre and allows the player a level of freedom normally seen in character action titles.
Unlike so many triple-A releases, Doom Eternal isn’t ashamed of being a video game — it revels in it. However, you’d be silly to write it off the game as having nothing to say. Like it’s predecessor, Doom Eternal knows the real problem isn’t the demons. They’re just a symptom. The real problem is the people who let them out — the corporations more interested in profit than people, scientists whose quest for knowledge trump their ethics, religions that mistake dogma for faith, entities who seek power at the cost of others, and the people who’d rather maintain the status quo than do the right thing. In short, it’s a pretty stunning critique of neoliberalism, capitalism, religious fanatics, and politicians. Or maybe just a dumb action game that lets you raze hell. How much you want to read into it is up to you, but if you ask me, Doom Eternal wants you to eat the rich.
Either way, Doom Eternal understands who the enemy is and has no problem letting you go after them. It understands your rage, and gives you an outlet for it. 2020 might have been hell, but at least this machine let me kill demons.
— Will Borger