The Digital Trends team named The Last of Us Part II our game of the year for 2020. In our post detailing why, we noted that it was a contentious debate. That’s because 2020 was filled with gaming highlights, big and small. Major studios rolled out a slate of high-budget games that sent the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One off with a bang, while welcoming their new iterations in style. Nintendo had a slow year, but delivered the only exclusive that mattered in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Despite COVID-19 related delays, which seemed to jumble up plans left and right, there were no shortage of big-budget hits.
Other success stories came out of left field. Among Us returned from obscurity to become a multiplayer sensation two years later. Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout spun the battle royale genre on its head and had brands clamoring for a piece of its pie. Blaseball, a minimalist baseball simulator, took the internet by storm and gained attention from unlikely places like The Paris Review and NPR. It felt like there was a wild story like this every month as gamers looked for creative ways to connect with one another in an all-digital era. We’ve put together a list of some of our favorite games of this year that paints a well-rounded picture of the video game climate in 2020.
Best Adventure Game: The Last of Us Part II
The Last of Us Part II had the unenviable burden of expanding upon one of the most critically and commercially successful games of all time, while also releasing at a time when gaming opinions have only become more divisive. Add to that a difficult development cycle and massive leaks before launch, and there was as much was stacked against the game as there was going for it.
That only makes the achievements of The Last of Us Part II all the more impressive. The game does not do what it thinks players will like, but what it felt was important for its characters, and makes no judgments on your thoughts on the matter. It kills off your favorite characters, it introduces new ones that initially leave a bad taste in the mouth, and lets them clash over a brutal 30-hour story that ultimately justifies its length. This is the definition of something that hurts so good.
When thinking of an adventure we took this year, there’s no doubt that The Last of Us Part II is the one at the forefront.
Best Action Game: Doom Eternal
When it comes to Doom games, it feels like the bar for success is constantly moving. Each game needs to feel bigger, faster, and bloodier than the last. It’s as if the franchise is constantly daring itself to outdo its own history and up the ante for action. Doom Eternal rises to the occasion by taking everything that made 2016’s Doom reboot work and adding more of everything without any of it ever feeling unnecessary.
Doom Eternal works so well because it finds natural places to iterate on a winning formula. Tools like the flamethrower add more layers to the game’s combat, making battles feel like a blood puzzle. Players always need to figure out the right tools for any given situation to constantly refresh their health, shields, and ammo. That creates a satisfying loop where every tool feels essential and every kill feels rewarding. Just like the franchise itself, Doom Eternal never takes its foot off the gas.
Best RPG: Final Fantasy VII Remake
Remaking a classic is no easy task, especially one as iconic as Final Fantasy VII. Longtime fans know the original like the back of their hand and that puts a fair amount of pressure on any developer who’s bold enough to shake up their memories. When faced with that challenge, Square Enix didn’t so much as flinch. Final Fantasy VII Remake is a bold, confident action-RPG that completely turns the original on its head. The game itself offers a metacommentary about the very idea of creating a remake, playing with the idea that its characters are inherently bound by an inescapable fate as they relive the events of the PS1 classic.
It’s clever narrative framing aside, Final Fantasy VII Remake offers an ingenious combat system that fuses hack-and-slash gameplay with traditional RPG menuing. Battles are huge and fast-paced, giving players a full sense of control while allowing them to seamlessly take a breather whenever they need it. The combination of surprising storytelling and innovative combat makes Final Fantasy VII feel like a brand-new story that goes well beyond the realm of remake to become its own game entirely.
Best Strategy/Tactics Game: Crusader Kings 3
The strategy genre has always been an intimidating one, even for the most seasoned gamers, due mainly to complex systems and management gameplay. Fortunately, 2020 was a huge step forward for strategy and tactics games, with a string of rapid-fire hits that broke into the mainstream. Crusader Kings 3 sits at the top of that list. On its surface, the grand strategy game can seem overwhelming. Players are tasked with managing an entire empire across centuries using a seemingly endless list of menus. What’s particularly astonishing is how engrossing that experience becomes, even for those who have never dipped their toe into this kind of game before.
Crusader Kings 3 largely works because of all the narrative possibilities it presents. With so many options available, players can concoct and execute wild plans to expand their empire. In one of my playthroughs, I set out on a long journey to seduce the pope so I could get an heir in his empire, only to inadvertently start a holy war. Having that plan blow up in my face presented a completely different challenge, but one that was every bit as entertaining as what I intended to achieve. That illustrates the best aspect of Crusader Kings 3 — it’s a game where success and failure are one and the same.
Best Indie Game: Hades
Developer Supergiant Games has been poised to take the gaming industry by storm for nearly a decade. Its 2011 debut Bastion was a stylish action game that helped put indies on the map in the early 2010s. The developer has only defined its voice more since then, and Hades is the culmination of that work. The indie darling is a wildly entertaining spin on the roguelike genre that breaks down many of its inherent barriers for entry. It features a real sense of progression, letting players feel like they’re actually improving every run. The combat constantly evolves thanks to weapons and random upgrades that make no two runs alike.
More than anything, it’s full of Supergiant’s signature charm. The music, art style, and voice acting all stand head and shoulders above 2020’s impressive crop of games. On top of that, it offers an engaging narrative, which adds urgency to each run. Hades breaks down the boundaries between indie and AAA labels, proving that even a comparatively “small” game can be just as rich and rewarding as a high-budget production.
Best Family Game: Animal Crossing: New Horizons
It’s hard not to talk about Animal Crossing: New Horizons without placing it in the context of 2020. The adorable life simulator arrived just as COVID-19 became a serious reality around the world. It’s true that there’s a “right time, right place” dynamic at play when it comes to the game’s success, but New Horizons is still excellent divorced from that context. It’s hard not to be won over by the game’s chill vibes and infinite charm, regardless of age.
New Horizons improves on the popular series in a number of ways, from more extensive island customization to a light crafting mechanic that makes chores more rewarding. In its current state, the game has settled into its role as a lighthearted live service game that’s constantly giving players more to do on their island getaway. Considering the game’s massive financial success, it doesn’t seem like support for the title is slowing down anytime soon, making it a must-own title for Switch players young and old who could use a little rest and relaxation once and a while.
Best Multiplayer Game: Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout
Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout took the world by storm in August, and while its popularity waned over the following months, there’s no denying that this game defined some of the biggest moments of gaming in 2020, including megastreamer TimTheTatman’s first win, which became all social media could talk about for an afternoon.
Fall Guys has played directly into what its fanbase has asked for, and bounced ideas off of its players to see how they’d feel about implementing them. A lot of criticism levied at the repetitive game modes has now been all but addressed with the inclusion of harder modifiers and obstacles like Big Yeetus. While it might not be the king of the hill right now, it feels like it will always be around for a quick game or two.
Best Mobile Game: Genshin Impact
Genshin Impact was an unexpected gacha game that surprisingly runs amazingly on mobile devices. In a year when AAA games have come to your phone via cloud streaming, to have a title of this caliber running natively on a phone feels impressive. The game also managed to make use of intuitive touch-based controls, and while having a physical controller input would be nice, it doesn’t feel entirely necessary.
Being able to jump into an RPG of this scope, and have it be fun to play with nothing but your phone, even if you’re without service, felt like an impossibility. Genshin Impact made it a reality.
Best Ongoing Game: Call of Duty: Warzone
Year after year, Call of Duty has defied expectations and blown away the competition when it comes to sales and the size of its player base. In 2018, it dipped its toes in the battle royale genre with the Blackout mode that was bundled with the fourth installment of Black Ops, and it was met with a lukewarm reception.
In 2020, it went back to the drawing board, and spun out the far more impressive Call of Duty: Warzone, which improved upon a lot of the issues with Blackout, and now has become its own cornerstone of the Call of Duty experience. After the release of this year’s installment of Black Ops Cold War, the company will keep Warzone around and be implementing future releases. Marrying the genre of battle royale with the resources at Call of Duty’s disposal has created an incredibly engaging game that we couln’t help but return to throughout the year.
Most Innovative Game: Astro’s Playroom
In case you haven’t heard, 2020 saw the release of the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. Between the two, many agree that the immersive experience provided by the PS5’s DualSense is the most exciting of the next-generation features, and no game implements that controller’s capabilities better than Astro’s Playroom.
Astro’s Playroom works on multiple levels. It’s an incredible showcase of the DualSense’s haptic feedback, with vibrations changing depending on whether you’re running through sand, standing in rain, or skating on ice. It utilizes the system’s abundantly useful activity cards, allowing the player to jump from one level to another near instantly, or attempt an even faster time in the game’s speed runs to climb higher on the leaderboard. It also works as a really fun platformer that would be a treat to play even without any of these innovations.
This year was meant to be about next gen, and there’s no better game that showcases the potential of the new consoles than Astro’s Playroom.