The ongoing covid-19 pandemic placed a brighter-than-usual spotlight on gaming in 2020, with an isolated population looking for entertainment they could enjoy from the safety of home. How fortunate then that alongside the year’s many maladies, 2020 also delivered some of the most memorable games in recent years.
From laid-back life simulators to an anticipated sequel that scrutinized cyclical violence, the gaming world was replete with options for anyone who wanted to get their minds off the consistently grim reality around them. The reintroduction and reimagination of the classic “Final Fantasy VII” highlighted the early spring, while the November debut of the PlayStation 5 ushered in a next-generation hero the gaming world both needed and deserved. Even with multiple delays pushing the much-anticipated “Cyberpunk 2077” beyond our Dec. 1 cutoff for Game of The Year consideration, there was no shortage of worthy contenders for that title.
How fortunate we were to spend so much time with such admirable titles. And how fitting, with January nearly here, that Launcher’s 2020 Game of the Year centers on an escape from hell.
Game of the Year: Hades
Created by 20 people within Supergiant Games, the best game of 2020 found incredible solutions to long-standing pacing and narrative issues not just within its chosen “rogue-like” genre, but within the medium as a whole. They made inevitable failure not just the core of the story, but something players might even look forward to. They recognized that realistic casual conversations are fleeting, and not repeating, so every character has thousands of dialogue options they would say only once and never again. They transformed tired Greek god cliches into characters so unique that entire fandoms are built around their mannerisms and personal qualities.
All this innovation came on top of a crackling, nonstop action game that could blister the thumbs of the most hardened players, all the while providing options to make the game easier to play for just about anyone intrigued by its art style and story. In a year of so many exhausting questions, “Hades” provided answers and solutions. Developers of games beyond 2020 should take notes. — Gene Park
Finalist: Animal Crossing: New Horizons
The newest entry to Nintendo’s popular life simulation series was an instant hit when it released in March and became a phenomenon as the pandemic spread. “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” became a virtual destination for weddings, graduations and other events when in-person gatherings were no longer feasible.
As much as “New Horizons” became a virtual hangout, it also offered excellent distractions in single player mode, providing routine to many of us who were struggling to find the rhythm of our new normal. Players could spend hundreds of hours building their towns, decorating their homes and scavenging for items to display in a museum. Though the gameplay may sound monotonous, it’s wrapped inside an addictive gameplay loop that rewards those who patiently put in the effort. — Elise Favis
Finalist: The Last of Us Part II
A divisive game among gamers and critics, “The Last of Us Part II” continues the original game’s story from Ellie’s perspective as she grows into a 19-year-old woman. Ceaselessly dark but equally heartfelt, the sequel weaves a narrative about loss of purpose, tribalism and the deep cost of revenge. This multifaceted story and its diverse cast challenged gamers to reconsider their initial perceptions of the heroes and villains, when moral compasses are muddied by a harsh, kill-or-be-killed world. Incredible storytelling is complemented by thoughtful gameplay, with smooth and rewarding combat that has improved significantly over the original.
“The Last of Us Part II” is also a technical marvel. Animations are so impressive that even the smallest of details were given pointed attention, like how Ellie’s breathing fluctuates depending on the intensity of the scene. — Elise Favis
Finalist: Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
Of the first games available on the PlayStation 5, “Miles Morales” makes a grand entrance, showing off the sheer power of the console with gorgeous ray tracing and graphical fidelity, while also making clever use of directional, 3D audio and haptic feedback. The snow-blanketed Manhattan is a joy to explore, with Miles at center stage as the new Spider-Man, just like he was in the 2018 animated movie “Into the Spider-Verse.”
This action adventure gives Miles an excellent array of new powers, like pounding enemies with an electric punch and the ability to turn invisible for a period of time, which brings a fun new layer to stealth.
Arguably the best part of “Miles Morales,” however, is its story, bringing in familiar villains from Marvel comics like the Tinkererer and the Prowler, but with an original spin. Some of the most rewarding parts of the narrative happen with Miles unmasked, as he navigates family and friendship. Suited up, the teenager faces self doubt as he carves his future as the new Spider-Man, making him relatable and real, even as a superhero. — Elise Favis
Finalist: Ghost of Tsushima
Sucker Punch Studios must have really studied the open-world games of the last several years before creating this swan song for the PlayStation 4. While its many ideas and features — from combat to exploration — weren’t new, they were fine tuned to mechanic perfection. That’s not to say that the game didn’t fill a void in the industry. There’s actually been a dearth of samurai-themed games over the years, particularly in the AAA space. Save for an uneven campaign narrative, “Tsushima” almost completely satiates that appetite.
Released early in the summer, “Tsushima” continues to steal the shine away from other comparable open-world games with its free updates, including a substantial multiplayer component and a transformative PlayStation 5 upgrade. — Gene Park
Finalist: Streets of Rage 4
It was a surprisingly good year for the beat ‘em up genre, with the fantastic indie darlings “River City Girls” and rogue-like “Going Under,” all the way to even the troubled “Marvel’s Avengers” (which at least has a solid fighting system) and the hilarious return of “Battletoads.”
“Streets of Rage 4″ shows why the beloved and once-abandoned series remains the final boss of the genre. The game adds enough finesse in its combat to make it just a bit deeper, the animations transitioning just a bit tighter to keep each two-to-three second fistfight feeling frantic and fresh. The legendary dance tracks have been updated with today’s electronic beats. But indie developers Dotemu and LizardCube barely changed anything from the game’s Sega Genesis formula because it was already almost perfect. Any drastic compromise to its formula would have endangered its status as the perfect brawler, which it is. — Gene Park
Finalist: Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Moon Studios took the excellent foundation of 2015’s “Ori and the Blind Forest” and made improvements to nearly every facet, creating a breathtaking visual experience with a sublime movement and combat system.
It can’t be overstated just how good it feels to traverse the lush, sprawling map of this Metroidvania. The way the game allows you to chain together Ori’s jumps, glide and air dashes gives the player a sense of grace and fluidity not found in other platformers. It’s not just an accomplishment in gameplay, however. “Will of the Wisps” is absolutely gorgeous. The layered particle effects, animated backgrounds and rays of light beaming through gaps in the forest make you want to put down the controller to process the game’s captivating beauty. A sweeping orchestral soundtrack provides the cherry on top of a masterful presentation. — Joe Moore
Finalist: Call of Duty: Warzone
“Warzone” took the crowded battle royale genre and not only made it bigger by upping the player count for its main mode to 150, it made it better by introducing new ways to keep defeated players engaged. It wasn’t the first game to allow fallen players a second life, but it was the first to offer a 1v1, Thunderdome-style mini game that allowed the winner to return to the fray. Add to that high-end graphics, a massive battleground that has evolved regularly since “Warzone’s” release and the more-realistic controls of “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” and it’s easy to see why 85 million players have played the game since its March debut. — Mike Hume
Finalist: Half-Life: Alyx
Although the new console cycle kicked off this fall, nothing offered a taste of gaming’s future quite like the virtual reality-based “Half-Life: Alyx.” The first Half-Life game in 13 years casts players as 19-year-old Alyx Vance, a resistance fighter on a mission to stop a super weapon from falling into the possession of an alien army. Sure, the story is forgettable, but “Half-Life: Alyx” sets the standard for VR adventure games with its best-in-class visuals and tactile gameplay. Using Alyx’s gravity gloves, players can fling nearby objects into their hands with the snap of a wrist, which sets the stage for some incredibly satisfying gameplay-loops. Provided you’re not susceptible to motion sickness, expect to enjoy tense combat sequences that will make you duck, and twirl about the room as if you were an action star performing in front of a green screen.
Even if you’ve been playing survival horror games for decades, confronting a barnacle or an armored headcrab for the first time in VR may well get your pulse up. If ever there was a video game worth rearranging your furniture over, it’s this one. — Christopher Byrd
Finalist: Final Fantasy VII Remake
For years, this game was a myth among the ranks of “Half-Life 3.” After the PlayStation 3 Tech Demo in 2005 tantalized fans further, it seemed a remake would never come. But in 2020, fantasy became reality, finally. And it more than met the colossal expectations.
The updated combat system is a perfect combination of RPG system micromanagement and reflex-oriented action. Each character feels uniquely useful, incentivizing you to switch frequently between them. The overall experience is a cinematic marvel that never feels overwhelming, and is fantastic to play once mastered.
But the crowning achievement is the game’s storytelling. The superb voice acting from almost every character elevates a script that seems made for western audiences, as opposed to the typical wonkiness most Japanese-translated approximations receive. The story pays homage to the original’s while updating the dialogue to fit present day trends and societal norms. And while the game’s controversial ending will be a turnoff to audiences that wanted a 1-to-1 retread, “Final Fantasy VII Remake” takes the story in a bold new direction, teeming with possibilities most fans couldn’t dream of going in. — Jhaan Elker
If Found...: Set in the early nineties, this gorgeous visual novel about an Irish transgender woman drifting through life is one of the most heartfelt games to be released this year. “If Found...” uses a novel, erasing mechanic: Moving through its story entails wiping away images and text to discover new layers of meaning — a gameplay loop that is both metaphorically evocative and satisfying. — Christopher Byrd
Among Us: It’s impossible to talk about games in 2020 without mentioning “Among Us,” which caught the attention of politicians, content creators and so many more. The social deduction game might have some bugs to work out, but it’s incredibly rewarding to play with (and against) your friends. — Mikhail Klimentov
Kentucky Route Zero: 2020 marked the end of the soulful and evocative “Kentucky Route Zero,” an incredible tale about the strange, magical mysteries plaguing the game’s version of Kentucky. — Elise Favis
Umurangi Generation: If you take the term “game of the year” literally, “Umurangi Generation” belongs higher up on this list. Many games this year featured apocalyptic themes, but this photography sim captured the spirit of the moment better than the rest. — Mikhail Klimentov
Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout: “Fall Guys” is one of the most unusual but charming games of the year, a family-friendly battle royale where you waddle, trip and fumble your way through minigames in hopes of being the last one standing. — Elise Favis