In 2018, time hovered over — and hurtled toward — the gaming universe like the massive meteor that eventually obliterated Dusty Depot at the end of Fortnite’s Season 3. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One each celebrated their five(!)-year anniversaries. Chew on that for a minute: Both consoles came out the same year that Ben Affleck starred in the Best Picture of 2013 (Argo) — talk about a lifetime ago. Meanwhile, the rumors about What Comes Next began to get loud enough to actually grab our attention — Microsoft Anaconda, anyone? 2018 was defined by the release of a long list of deep and epic big-budget games that were the result and payoff of years of invested time and development.
As the future beckons, let’s a take a loading screen or two to reflect on the deep and meaningful gaming experiences 2018 offered. Here are the ones that stuck with me long after I’d powered off.
God of War (PlayStation 4, rated M)
Turns out a proper daddening was what Kratos, the ball of murderous rage who’s headlined Sony’s God of War series since the mid-aughts, really needed to connect with a new platform generation. Sure, the vast Nordic world he and his son, Atreus, traverse is vast, jaw-dropping and full of fascinating/challenging side paths the patient will be rewarded for discovering. But truth be told, the real payoff here is listening to the Ghost of Sparta crack cringey dad jokes and struggle to connect with his offspring. This reimagining took four years to come to fruition, and it was worth every single axe throw.
Fortnite Battle Royale (Multiple platforms, rated E)
While most of us can agree that gaming was cool long before Drake decided to team with Tyler “Ninja” Blevins for a Fortnite livestream, there was no way you could avoid 2018’s most ubiquitous gaming/pop culture phenomenon — even World Cup aficionados were treated to French striker Antoine Griezmann busting a “take the L” dance after burying a penalty kick in the finals. Even though the year’s apparently ending with a slew of lawsuits — swiping the Carlton dance might not have been developer Epic’s most savvy move — there’s no denying the game’s ongoing impact. Hell, it’s even responsible for forcing Sony to commit to the concept of cross-play — that’s a Victory Royale for all of us.
Celeste (Nintendo Switch, PS4 and Xbox One, rated E)
We had a lot of potential choices in the roguelike Metroidvania category this year — apparently gamers still love punishing challenges as much as they ever have — but in the end, the slightly more user-friendly Celeste beats out Dead Cells and Hollow Knight as this year’s standard-bearer. Part of the appeal here is the game’s psycho-drama narrative, which finds a young girl grappling with manifestations of her inner fears as she attempts to scale a perilous mountain. The other is the evolution of the floating jump from the multiplayer gem Towerfall: Ascension, developers Matt Thorson and Noel Berry’s previous effort. Mastering it is the key to surmounting Celeste’s increasingly brutal obstacles.
Marvel’s Spider-Man (PlayStation 4, rated T)
Plenty of major game franchises have remained in the gaming consciousness by releasing annual or biennial installments — think Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed, both of which also released quality AAA installments this year. But Spider-Man is what happens when a fully staffed development team is given a lot of time to polish its product to a blinding sheen. Even with a sprawling story that manages to do justice to the characters and villains in Spidey’s comics-based universe and a combat series that manages to build on the one Rocksteady Games created in the Batman Arkham games, Spider-Man’s purest joy can be found exactly where you’d expect it to be — in simply swinging around the city, perching on skyscrapers and taking in the world.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Nintendo Switch, rated E)
Every console generation gets the brawler it deserves, and, in an age where just about everything is available at out our virtual fingertips, Nintendo gives us Ultimate, a game that collects every single fricking character and stage that’s ever appeared in the long-running series into a single game. Sure, 90 percent of them have to be unlocked by hack or by hours of grinding, but that’s what every second of your free time is for, right? While this entry does suffer from typical Nintendo foibles — someday, Big N is going to figure out how to create a problem-free online experience, and Ness and King K. Rool probably need to be nerfed, pronto — there’s no question the content and metagame here will keep players busy all the way through 2019 and way, way beyond.
Red Dead Redemption 2 (Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Rated M)
Yet another project that benefitted from years of development and polish (sometimes, apparently, at the expense of the development team’s mental sanity and quality of life), Rockstar’s open-world ode to American post-Reconstruction was everything we expected it to be — a rollicking, polarizing outlaw Western, a massive time suck, an endless generator of cultural memes and a devourer of external hard drives (100+ GB!). All that said, the game’s open-world systems are also a blast to play and mess with, whether you choose to spend all your time catching and releasing fish, making patterns by walking in the snow or following the game’s sweeping main storyline.
Fe (Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Rated E)
This under-the-radar platformer from way back in February was one of the year’s underdog gems, calling back to some of the elements from the legendary game Journey. Set in a luminous wilderness, Fe’s game design demanded your glowing little fox explore it — with no hand-holding tutorial or guiding narrator, you really had no other choice — and find ways to communicate musically with its fascinating denizens.