The pandemic created the one of the most unusual years for gaming, but also one of the most lucrative. As the movie and music industries hit pause over coronavirus concerns, video games kept chugging along, proving the industry’s resilience.
For some, gaming was a lifeline to normalcy while others used the medium as an escape when the world got too real. Whatever the case, gaming was a rock for many in 2020. It kept many of us sane in a rough year.
My favorite games reflect the impact of the coronavirus. The life-altering pandemic amplified the importance of some projects. Other efforts were negatively impacted by the coronavirus as studios struggled to figure out the work-from-home scenario. Several games were released with bugs that required hot fixes and other emergency work. This list acknowledges and reflects that, but it was still a strange but successful year overall.
1. “The Last of Us Part II” — Naughty Dog’s most ambitious work brings players back to a post-apocalyptic America, where a mysterious fungus has turned people into feral monstrosities. The sequel rebounds off the events of the original and explores the cycle of violence and revenge on the characters’ humanity.
The campaign mainly follows Ellie, a woman who is immune to the fungus as she travels to Seattle on a personal mission. Naughty Dog gives players a bigger playground to use the protagonists’ skills and creates engrossing stealth and survival opportunities as Ellie hunts down her enemies.
Although the gameplay is polished to a sheen, the groundbreaking part of “The Last of Us Part II” is how Naughty Dog unfurls its narrative and uses the video game medium to push empathy on players by telling another side of the story. (Available on PlayStation 4)
2. “Ghost of Tsushima” — For years, Sucker Punch Productions was a middle-tier developer that created good but not great games. That changed in 2020 with this samurai epic that takes place during the Mongol invasion of Japan.
Its mix of open-world gameplay and flexible combat made it a joy to play. This was an adventure that players could get lost in with just the right amount of content to keep players hooked without wearing down or distracting them with side quests.
Ultimately, it’s the lush visuals and art direction that moves this project and the studio to the next level. (Available on PlayStation 4)
3. “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” — When the pandemic began, this Nintendo title was the tether to a sense of normalcy in everyday life. The life simulator where players travel to a deserted island and establish a village created a rhythm as players did chores, expanded their house and earned Bells.
Being able to redesign the island and decorate the surroundings made it much like “The Sims,” but where “Animal Crossing” deviates is that it takes place in real time. That detail played a profound role in how players counted days and structured them at a moment when the coronavirus made many lose track of time. (Available on Nintendo Switch)
4. “Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout ” — Two surprise titles became hugely popular partly because of the pandemic. The first is “Among Us,” an online murder-mystery title that was released in 2018, and the second is “Fall Guys,” a battle royale game with a twist. With everyone social distancing, these games filled a niche emphasizing social interaction and fun.
“Fall Guys” took the battle royale formula, in which one player comes out on top from a field of 60, and melded it with party game elements. The product had all the raucousness of “Mario Party” or “Super Monkey Ball” but with plenty of chaos and randomness from dozens of competitors and levels. Like “Among Us,” it was a game that was infinitely streamable, but above all it made players feel a little less alone. (Available on PlayStation 4 and PC)
5. “Cyberpunk 2077” — Yes, this sci-fi role-playing game had plenty of hype behind it, but it was also released in a horrible state for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. If gamers managed to play it on PC or Stadia, they’d find an astoundingly beautiful and enthralling adventure.
CD Projekt Red takes its expertise in building open-world games and applies it to an first-person adventure where players have to solve the mystery behind a botched heist. It offers a deep progression system that accommodates several play styles, but it’s the mission design that’s top notch as the developer creates scenarios that forces players to play detective and dig deeper because choice matters in many of them.
If it weren’t for the bugs, this would have been closer to the top of my list. (Available on PC, Stadia, Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5)
6. “Final Fantasy VII Remake” — Another game that’s been years in the making, Square Enix poured plenty of resources into this RPG and it paid off spectacularly. Although it’s labeled a “remake,” this foray into Midgar plays with fans’ expectations and upends them.
The “Remake” gives tertiary characters more screen time, introduces new elements and adds more depth to the original narrative. It also introduces a revamped battle system that feels just right, giving players a mix of classic turn-based combat with visceral real-time action. The big question is if Square Enix can continue the high quality of the game in the second part of this “Remake.” (Available on PlayStation 4)
7. “Demon’s Souls” — Before the legendary “Dark Souls” franchise, acclaimed director Hidetaka Miyazaki introduced the world to this PlayStation 3 exclusive. It introduced the unforgiving difficulty, dark fantasy and other online elements that made its successors famous.
Bluepoint Games did a phenomenal job remaking this classic. The team updated the visuals taking advantage of the PlayStation 5’s power, and the team added several quality-of-life improvements that make this adventure the best launch game on the system. (Available on PlayStation 5)
8. “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” — The latest iteration of Ubisoft’s flagship series is its best in a long time. The constant refinement from “Origins” to “Odyssey” reaches an apogee as the team at Ubisoft Montreal finally gets the balance right between offering players a main mission and overdosing them with extra activities and side quests.
By reining in the loot and other excesses of the previous “Assassin’s Creed” titles, this entry following the Viking invasion of England feels more focused as the protagonist, Eivor, fights to establish a home in a foreign land. (Available on Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Stadia, PC)
9. “Doom Eternal” — The follow-up to the 2016 reboot was bigger and better, making demon slaying more of an art form. The developers, id Software, incentivize aggressive play even more as players must run and gun with different weapons to keep their ammo, armor and health stocked up.
These refinements along with masterful level design creates an adrenaline-fueled adventure that tests players’ skills and strategy as they explore more of the mythology behind the Doom Slayer. It all leads to a satisfying campaign for franchise fans. (Available on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and Series S, Microsoft Windows, Google Stadia)
10. “Immortals Fenyx Rising” — The success of “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” was sure to inspire adventures in a similar vein. The 2017 classic revolutionized the franchise and showed the potential of melding an open-world game with physics-based puzzles. It was a revelation.
Ubisoft Quebec tried to create a similar experience and they mostly capture the foundation of that magic. The studio infused it with more humor and built it around Greek mythology. The world the developers created has the tactile elements of the puzzle design and better combat, but the Golden Isles, where “Immortals Fenyx Rising” takes place, feels strangely empty.
It doesn’t have the thoughtful landscape and design of “Breath of the Wild” but “Immortals Fenyx Rising” is still one of the better adventures of 2020 and scratches that “Zelda” itch for puzzles and exploration. (Available on Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, PC, Nintendo Switch)