Another year, another best of the year article. And what a weird year it has been. Covid-19 has brought the world to its knees and the new normal isn’t very normal. Thankfully, though, we’ve still got video games, board games and books to help keep the sense of impending doom at bay. So without any more prelude, here are our favourite things we played or read/listened to in 2020.
Something about CRPGs put me off for a long time. Why bother getting to grips with their complexities when I could enjoy the immediate fulfilment provided by the more modern breed of action/RPGs like Mass Effect, Skyrim and The Witcher. Isometric cameras? Eugh.
Welp, only goes to show how bad my takes are. Sitting down with Gav to play through Divinity: Original Sin 2’s campaign in Co-Op has been one of my highlights of the year. Sometimes playing RPGs feels like there’s a pressure to get perfect outcomes and to make sure my character gets the exact story I want for them. In playing co-op it’s been nice to relax into a more chilled approach to the game, bodging our way through challenges, not worrying about perfectly min-maxing yet happy to look stuff up when we need to. The adventures of Mycelia and Astragalus may not be elegant but they’ve certainly been memorable.
I also want to give two honourable mentions. The Outer Worlds, a game that reminded me of the best part of Mass Effect – the opportunity to bum about space being heroes with a cast of companions. Its heart and humour was exactly what I needed in such a melancholic year. Star Wars: Squadrons fulfilled the dreams of 10 year old George, playing Rogue Squadron on a knackered old family computer, wishing he was a starfighter pilot.
In such a daunting year, it’s fitting that my favourite board game should be Undaunted. Miserable puns out of the way, Undaunted: Normandy is an innovative war game that uses a simple deck building system to power a squad combat game. While I had played maybe 6 of the 14 scenarios the game features, Lockdown 1 was an opportunity to bash through all 14 with my brother, stringing them together into a campaign. While each game has no gameplay effect on the next, each scenario is intended to reflect the progress of the US 30th Infantry Division following the Normandy landings.
Throughout the campaign each new scenario adds new troop types or sets up a unique challenge until the final mission or two give you everything to play with. The game is not without friction and the dice rolls can lead to frustrating moments but they never feel like they decide the game. Getting to debrief with my brother as we discussed our attempted strategies after each game was rewarding, building excitement for the next. (Hoping we can get through most of Undaunted: North Africa over Christmas).
Undaunted feels like a system that still has so much to give and avenues to experiment with and I’m thrilled that a third box has been announced that will serve as a dual expansion for both of the current games. I had a go at some homebrew scenarios and while they had limited success, it speaks to how much the game leaves you wanting more (in the best possible way).
It’s hard to imagine any videogame so perfect a panacea to the woes of the year 2020 than Animal Crossing: New Horizons. The timing of its release is so suspiciously apposite that at least a few of my brain cells regularly suggest that COVID-19 is a Nintendo conspiracy. When the virus pulled tight its net around our fragile-seeming society, here was a game that offered a little window of escape. Fly away to a deserted island, form a community of adorable animal pals, and perform an array of soothingly simple and rhythmically repetitive tasks to upgrade your dwelling, style your island, and provide a growing number of civic amenities. New Horizons gives you a world that’s small, knowable, infinitely comforting; it’s an ideal, self-contained home away from home.
Maybe it says more about me than anything else, but the idea of giving a game of the year ‘award’ to anything grim and/or gritty in the Year of our Lord 2020 is unthinkable. So here’s the game where I plant flowers, sell fruit and lazily fish by the river, where the most stressful decision I make in a play session is which of my many fetching outfits to put on (when I’m not being chased by tarantulas). I hope I’m not painting a picture of New Horizons as escapism for the chronically hopeless – it’s just a thoroughly nice game, with buckets of charm, which really sells you on its warm, compact reality. I’m currently faffing about after a wee break from the game trying to get festive items. All my animal chums are happy to see me again. Things are alright.
They also included a greater variety of hairstyles in a recent update, so at long last I can be as bald in the game as I am in real life, which is a good thing – I think.
There was basically only one major-ish fighting game release in 2020, and that was Granblue Fantasy Versus. It was OK, with a back-to-basics approach which appealed to a lot of people in the fighting game community and wonderful visuals courtesy of Arc System Works’ consistent stylistic envelope-pushing. The online was awful and they arbitrarily decided to delay updates to the PC version, so it’s dead on my platform of choice, at least in the UK. I spent this year playing all the same ones as last year (and the year before, really). They also added rollback netcode (the real star of 2020’s fighting game scene) to Guilty Gear XX Accent Core +R (say that ten times fast) on Steam, which is very nice but would really stretch our already-straining ‘this year’ designation. For the most thorough distillation of the fighting game genre’s fundamental principles as understood by insider HiFight, see Footsies (which also has good netcode).
flight sim lmao
So how about instead of a fighting game, we talk about a flight-ing game? Microsoft Flight Simulator isn’t really my scene, but the outstanding technical achievement of a game which quite genuinely has the entire Earth in it has to be brought up somewhere. Using the staggering power of 3D satellite scans and the invocations of the AI wizards, they managed to create a 1:1 version of the entire planet, give or take. It isn’t perfect, with an array of strange visual oddities in many places, but when moving at a decent airspeed you’ll probably be somewhat distracted – that is, unless you fly into a strange alien monolith and/or giant Xbox. It’s an odd feeling, but there’s a strange majesty in how slow your progress is across the globe – a sensation which cuts the pre-packaged ‘open worlds’ we’re used to in gaming down to size. MSFS’s game-ness shouts to my brain that it should be providing a tighter, more navigable world than the unbending, vast planet I’m presented with, but the outcome is awe, not frustration. It’s a game that makes you want to go outside.
I hope I’m not harping on about this too much, but in a year like this one, restricted as it is, here’s a game that gives you access to a reasonably-accurate facsimile of the entire world, the skies yours to soar through as far as you’d like. I embarked on an ongoing air tour of the Australian outback with fellow Bits & Pieces-er George some time ago, wafting onwards from Canberra through woods and valleys, following rivers, and setting down in the occasional field in our small single-prop planes. We’d regularly remark on how surreal the painstaking reality of the world seems (and on the regular artifacts of building a planet using AI), and just how staggeringly large the planet is. It’s the other side of the ‘2020 game’ coin to Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Instead of escaping to a more comforting world, here you can experience a freeform version of the genuine article, liberated to fly the skies unbound, because steel and engineering can’t contract viruses.
While trying to think what my video game of the year is this year, my brain kept wandering back to the Ashtray Maze in Control. Nothing this year has managed to beat this level in how much fun I had playing it. It’s a perfect storm for the game where all the mechanics, story, characters and music all come together to produce this unforgettable level. I’m hesitant to spoil it but if you’ve played Control, then you know what I mean. And if you haven’t then Control is excellent, but this level exemplifies the reason why.
As a whole piece Control is an exploration of the weird and mystifying. There’s plenty in Control that defies belief and through its narrative and combat it pushes these themes in the players face time and again. However, the hook of trying to understand the story being told and master the engaging combat kept me playing past the designated endpoint.
Honourable mentions – Some of my other memorable moments this year have come from co-op experiences. My partner and I played through all of Earth Defence Force 5, twice. Shooting bugs is fantastic and this propelled us to then start playing through the Halo franchise and we are four games in and looking at the Halo 5 box and it’s lack of splitscreen with dismay. However, playing these games with my added knowledge of the Halo novels has enriched my experience and meant that I had a better sense for what was happening.
My board of the year should read tabletop game of the year really and it has to go to Warhammer. While I’ve only managed a couple of games of 9th Edition thanks to lockdown, it has become more than just a game for me. Steadily painting my Death Guard or World Eaters has helped to keep me sane and given me a consistent non-screen activity in a world where it’s hard to go outside. After a long day staring at a screen, it’s nice to have something that is entirely separated from that. It’s also been great to chat with people about a shared interest and bother the boys here with pictures of my latest miniature.
And then there’s how this has led me down a rabbit hole of exploring the many novels and short stories I’ve finished this year. My Goodreads account clocks that I’ve finished nearly 100 books this year and a lot of them have been Warhammer related, and that would never have happened without my interest in the tabletop game.
Honourable mention – I should mention that before lockdown and coronavirus, I had a regular Gloomhaven campaign night and was thoroughly enjoying the experience. However, with the world being how it is, this has been put on hold. I’m hopeful that in 2021, we’ll be able to continue our adventure as even though we’ve barely opened any boxes we must have done at least 15 missions and loved every minute.
This was by far the hardest section to write. Not only because I’ve read and listened to far more than I’ve played this year, but because there have been some fantastic books among them. I’ll get this out of the way early for anyone who followed my Halo novel coverage, none of those books were contenders for this prize. While they were enjoyable reads, they continuously lacked the substance and depth that I found in the Warhammer novels. So with that, my Bookclubbing book of the year is Black Legion. And I’m conflicted about this answer.
Up until last month, I was certain I was going to name Helsreach as my book of the year but Black Legion has managed to edge it out. While I love the characters in Helsreach and the story of desperation and inevitability it tells, the Black Legion novel has my new favourite scene from a 40k book. When Abaddon and Sigismund eventually meet it’s powerful, emotive and sad. I was left forlorn after their encounter as regardless of the outcome there was no real winner in this fight. And that was one part of a larger book that follows primarily Khayon and delves deeper into his character with twists and turns throughout.
Black Legion is a fantastic sequel to The Talon of Horus and I cannot wait for the third book in the trilogy. It was hard to pick a single book of the year and any of the ones in my honourable mentions are well worth reading for their own reasons.
Thank you so much for another year here at Bits & Pieces. 2020 is the first year we’ve had a consistent release schedule throughout and this is going to continue into the new year, so keep an eye out for Bookclubbing articles every Wednesday and something video games-y Fridays. From the team here we hope you are all staying safe and have a good holiday break and we’ll see you in the year 2020+1.
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