Jump Dash Roll's Best Video Games of 2020
2020 has done a lot of things to a lot of people, most of it not good. There have been some bright spots for sure, but on the whole it's been a year that I suspect the majority of the globe won’t be sorry to see the back of.
Even so, some of the highlights have been games — and what games! The amount of quality that dropped in our laps at a time when all we were allowed to do is sit inside was magnificent. Each year we pick the brains of our team to ask them to plant their flag alongside the title that has brought them the most joy/excitement/happiness/general feels, and despite all of the horrible stuff that has been happening around (and to) us, it’s heartening to know that we can take comfort in the work of talented teams telling wonderful stories, crafting fun experiences and making bad times just that little bit more bearable.
So here are the Jump Dash Roll team's picks of 2020, games that will likely stay in our memories for far better reasons than the year in which they were released.
The Jackbox Party Pack 7 (and 1 - 6) - Rob Kershaw
I've been reviewing Jackbox Party Packs without fail for years, but for me the coronavirus and the incessant waves of lockdowns and restrictions have really helped the series shine this year in a way that they haven't been able to previously. Sure, they might be considered throwaway casual games, but 2020 turned them into something more: a conduit for connection and — GASP! — laughter.
Transforming a traditional couch party game into a means of staying in touch with loved ones over an internet connection is something that few other titles have been able to do successfully. The mania of something like Overcooked! is lost when you're not in the same room screaming at each other. Conversely, The Jackbox Party Pack — and in particular the seventh instalment which came out in October — proved that social distancing doesn't need to mean social isolation. Video conferencing apps like Zoom, Houseparty and Teams proved an ideal alternative to the living room, while the likes of Twitch streaming meant that remote play was available to anyone with a mobile phone.
More importantly, enforced separation from friends and loved ones highlighted just how robust the series (and even a six-year-old game) was. When theatres closed and my improv group couldn't perform, a mid-week games night proved a vital lifeline. Jackbox Games' back catalogue of quirky, witty and downright nuts titles kept us both laughing and learning. Quiplash challenges you to think on your feet and be funny to boot, Drawful is the game Pictionary wishes it was, and the quiz aspects of YDKJ and Trivia Murder Party offered a far more fun alternative to trying to come up with questions for regular Zoom quiz nights.
Party Pack 7 was a great entry this year, one which bundled updated versions and variants on previous games with some fresh and innovative ideas. Talking Points is a highlight which allows you and a friend to create an absurd TED talk while generating laughs on the fly and in tandem. It isn't the best pack in the series, but frankly it doesn't matter: the entire Jackbox series provided a reliable, polished and downright wonderful tonic during troubled times.
The Last of Us Part II - Derek Johnson
In my life, I’ve played a lot of games. Not as many as some of the writers on this site, but I’ve had a controller in my hand since I was in nappies, and never in my life have I played a game that’s impacted me as much as The Last of Us Part II has.
Some of that impact definitely comes from the fact that, from an objective standpoint, the game is great. It’s visually fantastic, the animations are borderline erotic to watch and it’s paced better than an 18-year-old drinking with his parents for the first time. The gameplay is solid, too, with some seriously satisfying takedowns, shooting that feels better than 95% of the games I’ve played this year and level design that never had me questioning where to go.
However, the real reason that I hold the game in such high regard is because of its story. I relate to Ellie a lot, as I’ve had my fair share of adventure and I’m trying to understand what settling down looks, and so Ellie’s tale really spoke to me. I’ve never been one for crying, but the ending of The Last of Us Part II literally had me in tears. I was depressed for weeks after playing the game, and I still think about the game on a daily basis, which has never happened to me and I doubt it will again. If there’s ever a game that personifies why games are a better storytelling medium than film, The Last of Us Part II is that game, because it made a grown man cry.
Doom Eternal - Matt Jordan
It’s tough for me to choose a favourite game for 2020, with a handful of contenders from AAA franchises and indie newcomers alike upping the ante all over the board. The characters, themes, and narrative framing of The Last of Us Part II were superb, and a shot across the bows for those developers happy to churn out the same familiar stories for years on end. Having said that, Doom Eternal was the ultimate release for me, but I’ll try to gloss over the fact that “chainsaw meets demon” is a plot device that still always gets my attention.
A splattered masterpiece of blood and bullets backed with addictive and polished gameplay, Doom Eternal really feels like a step forward for the series, with new abilities and resource harvesting mechanics building on the groundwork established in the Doom Slayer’s 2016 outing. Gorier glory kills, great new locations and designs — and that shotgun is absolutely WILD as well. Reducing a demon to paste with the patented Super Shotgun looks and feels excellent, but using the grappling/meathook attachment to set an enemy on fire, while hurtling through the air towards them, and all in slow motion? Pure gaming bliss.
Even away from the screen, I found myself talking with friends about this game a lot this year; variously sending each other soundtrack links, or enjoying the cutesy odd couple content that sprung from Doom Eternal sharing a release date with Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Onscreen and offscreen, Doom Eternal was the game that kept drawing me back in this year, and for that reason the Doom Slayer is my crown prince of the Hell that was 2020.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla - Luciano Howard
2020 has been one heck of a year for everybody. My experience hasn’t been good, but it has been a little different, I’d say. Coming into the new year I’d just had emergency surgery on my left hand due to a domestic accident. I couldn’t use it for three months. Of course, by that time – when it was usable but not sorted (it still isn’t) – lockdown was starting and that presented all manner of challenges. I wasn’t able to take advantage and spend lots of time gaming. I had daughters to parent and come April that was alone, as my wife went back to work. I had no opportunity to play really, nor the right environment as the consoles and PC were moved around to accommodate various other things.
So, to cut the long story short, it wasn’t until September that I was able to even play a game, and only really November when everything was sorted at home such that I could play a game and listen to it and do so whilst sat down. That game was Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.
It’s a fantastic game for so many reasons, many of which are detailed in my review. But since then something else has revealed itself to me. There’s something calming and reassuring about it. I can pick it up for a couple of hours, or for just five minutes and find something exciting to do. The world is enormous and full of activities and I can pick what I want to do to fit the time I have, outside of real world responsibilities. Whatever I do is never stressful or frustrating in any way, either. I’m playing on normal difficulty and sometimes a boss fight or part of a quest can be a challenge, but one I can overcome after bettering myself and my tactics. There’s no real block, no annoyance. It’s all very chilled.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is comfort gaming then, something I look forward to each day, enjoy during, and think about thereafter. I’m always noodling on what to do next, which of the myriad options I’ll take. I love the way I can play rhyming games and get extra dialogue choices down the line to achieve something without just fighting. I can stealth everything pretty much, but Eivor can fight when called upon. It’s just a finely-honed game which never bores and on top of that there is seasonal content to enjoy and expansions coming down the line.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is my game of the year. Not by default given how few I’ve played, but by how good it is, and how much it has done for me and my state of mind in this horrendous year. It reminds me of real life, not this post-coronavirus existence. Long may it continue.
The Last of Us Part II — Anthony Barlow
Upon finishing The Last of Us Part II, I felt numb. I sat and stared at the screen and just took a deep breath. I didn’t know what to say, what to think, or what to do next. I felt for the characters and their situations and it took days of reasoning to come to terms with what I’d just played.
As oppressive, draining and harrowing an experience it was, it also delved deep into grounded stories of love, family and how we keep ourselves going when we’ve got nothing left to give. As cliche as it is — and it really is — The Last of Us Part II is an emotional rollercoaster.
I’ll avoid getting into the weeds, because I truly believe everyone needs to experience this game for themselves. It is the epitome of cinematic storytelling in video games. The performances from the entire cast are stellar, with Ashley Johnson (Ellie) and Ashly Burch (Abby) stealing the show in their duelling roles. And whilst you can argue that it doesn’t do anything new from a gameplay perspective, it builds on what a third-person action game can be with a number of subtle but vital additions.
The Last of Us Part II is Naughty Dog succeeding at everything they have created and innovated on over the last decade and a half. It is their magnum opus and I’m not sure they’ll ever top it. The Last of Us Part II perfectly captures the reason I play video games. So, whilst other games were considered for this list, it’s undoubtedly my game of the year.
Star Wars: Squadrons - David Avraamides
Unsurprisingly given the unprecedented events of 2020, finding time to play games has taken a back seat. In fact, I didn't purchase any new games for much of the year. But when a purely starfighter, space combat-based game set in the Star Wars universe was announced I knew I'd need to get on board.
Star Wars: Squadrons has been an awesome journey - outstanding visuals that take you into the dirty, worn cockpits of Star Wars craft and battlefields that take your breath away. A punishing mix of arcade and flight sim gameplay that was undeniably challenging but incredibly satisfying to master.
Squadrons offered a multiplayer experience that demands pilots know their roles well and work together effectively and I've not enjoyed online multiplayer gaming this much in a long time. There's a massive rush when you hunt down an enemy fighter tailing one of your wingmen, obliterate them and fly through the cloud of debris you've created before searching for your next target, or fly under the shields of a hulking capital ship searching for a weak point to exploit.
I've always enjoyed games relating to Star Wars but Squadrons is different. We've come to expect incredible visuals and audio, but the reluctance to tone down the difficulty and the focus on space battle simulation has created a special game that I have found myself returning to again and again.
The Red Lantern — Jesse Gregoire
This year has been the very definition of dichotomy; the worst year in most people’s living memory, but one of the best for video games. We’ve fought off Mongols in Sucker Punch’s feudal Japan epic Ghost of Tsushima, continued the cinematic story of Ellie et al. in The Last of Us Part II, and seen a swathe of lauded indies like Hades jump into the mix. And it’s one of these indies that struck a mammoth chord with me — The Red Lantern.
It’s not a particularly long game, nor is it one that’s rife with complexity, but it is an experience that I needed as an antidote to the year 2020. A story about a woman taking off into the wintery Alaskan wilderness with a pack of dogs, a dogsled, and who has many philosophical reflections on life along the way? Count me in. It doesn’t hurt that your character is voiced by Ashly Burch, one of the best voice actors in the industry, either.
A roguelite resource manager at heart, The Red Lantern resonated with my adventure-seeking, nature-loving side, and I found myself unable to put it down. It wasn’t so much about reaching your destination as it was about the journey, and learning from your failures. There is something relaxing in its world, despite it being fraught with danger for you and your furry companions. It tugs at your heartstrings in some places, has you marvelling at the majesty of nature in other places, and, in the best place of all, gives you the warm and fuzzy philosophical hug that I suspect many of us needed this year.
It’s not the bombastic AAA time sink that many of this year’s games are, but it’s an escapist dream with a lot to say; if the Musher can make it out there, so can we.
Cloud Gardens — Shaun McHugh
"By planting seeds in the right places," explains developer Noio, players "create small overgrown dioramas of brutalism and beauty, salvaging and repurposing hundreds of discarded objects to create unique structures for nature to reclaim."
Given 2020 has been such a blazing hot dumpster fire, it feels we’ve all been looking for whatever moments of calm we find. Cloud Gardens is full of those moments. No fighting, no timers, no goals. Just chuck seeds at stuff, and watch ‘em grow. It continues to be updated with handy tools and new plants, and 2021 promises further growth for the game.
I definitely don’t play this game on particularly boring conference calls. Neither should you.
Hades - Jon Peltz
In an absolutely bonkers year for Indies — I'm looking at you, Paradise Killer, Holovista, and If Found… — Hades clawed its way to the top with its endlessly addictive combat and its meaty and generous progression system. While the game's only true addition to the roguelite genre is its clever, playful narrative and how it doles it out to you in cycles, Hades is a reduction of various systems that makes it feel like a perfectly refined take on a classic meal.
At the beginning of Hades, you’re a heartbeat away from certain death, and after you’ve spent time with it, you’re a heartbeat away from a perfect run. Yet, it still manages to keep digging into you emotionally, convincing you there’s another combination of Boons you haven’t yet tried, or a weapon you haven’t yet completely mastered. Your time never feels wasted in Hades. Your mind is always active playing it, but it’s not as frustrating or punishing as others in the genre. Perhaps most telling is that when you’re not playing, you’ll find yourself thinking about playing it, or talking to others who have the game about their time playing it.
Also, most of the characters in the game want to have sex with each other. And why not?
Ghost of Tsushima- Evan Prather
Sometimes people just want to play a fun game. There's a time and place for video games to make us feel a wide array of emotions like The Last of Us Part II did — but this isn’t that year. 2020 is a year where the world needed an enjoyable distraction. A game like Ghost of Tsushima. Sucker Punch’s focus was to make a video game with phenomenal combat, beautiful scenery and a world full of things to do, and they nailed it.
The fighting mechanics in GoT are some of the best I’ve ever experienced. At the beginning I felt like a complete noob, not understanding the timing, not being able to handle multiple opponents at once. But then it just clicked. Suddenly I could fight off hordes of different types of Mongols, switching to the most effective stance for that particular foe like it was second nature. It’s one of the few games where I really felt joy when going against a large horde of enemies.
You know what makes great fights better? Having them in amazing locations. GoT had duels on top of snow-covered mountains, in beautiful fields full of bloomed flowers, on the edge of a waterfall and many more. It honestly felt like I was in a classic samurai film.
The main story wasn’t anything special, but in my opinion that's perfectly fine. All it really needed to do was point me in the right direction to get started. Because GoT’s world was so full of fantastic side missions — along with fun mini objectives like finding fox statues or writing haikus — that it always entertained me.
Ghost of Tsushima was the best distraction of 2020. I can’t think of a single moment that bored me. Next time we have a pandemic, whether it be in 5 years or 500 years. I'd expect a studio to help us through it by creating a game as good as GoT. That or a vaccine.
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