Destiny 2: Forsaken
I know what you're thinking. Forsaken, really? An update to a year-old game that struggled out of the gate? Hear me out: This next iteration of Destiny 2 is one of the largest improvements to a game in recent years (see also No Man's Sky), and it might draw you in — even if you gave up on the game months ago. It's the title I fire up most often when I have spare time. That's no mean feat given there were moments from the original release that burnt me out.
Forsaken works because there's simply a lot more to do than before, especially if you shell out for the yearly pass like I did. There are exotic weapon quests, seasonal events, triumphs (think in-game achievements) and loads of daily and weekly goals. And then there's Gambit — its clever mix of cooperative and competitive multiplayer is more than a little addictive. Combine that with solid shooting mechanics and an intriguing (if occasionally overwrought) story and it's a game that continuously satisfies me for however long I'd like to play, whether it's a 15 minute burst or a three hour marathon. I can't say that for the original D2, which usually devolved into a competitive-only game the moment I finished a story section.
Don't get me wrong, there are still problems: Forsaken is very grindy in places, for one thing. As much as I like the flurry of short-term achievements, it's not much fun to spend ages chasing down an elusive gun or a rare triumph. Tougher elements like raids are still largely off-limits. I don't have hours upon hours of uninterrupted time (let alone the clan members) to devote to a notoriously difficult experience. But I don't have to participate in raids to thoroughly enjoy myself — and unlike the first time around, I know there will be plenty of reasons to come back.
Yakuza Kiwami 2
The Yakuza series has always been about more than winning street fights and managing hostess clubs. It started as the story of Kazuma Kiryu, a young man trying to survive in the deadly world of Japanese organized crime. As the series has progressed, and Kazuma steadily climbed the ranks of the Yakuza (gaining new allies but losing friends and family along the way), fans have been treated to a depth and mastery of storytelling not often found in gaming franchises. Virtually every character — from the protagonists to the tertiary players — is fully realized with a coherent backstory. The ever-shifting loyalties between and within competing Yakuza clans are deftly balanced, like a spider's web of backstabbery fluttering in the Sotenbori wind. The latter of which you can actually see on occasion because the graphics are fantastic.
But, for all the nuance and granularity of the plot, it never becomes obtuse or cumbersome. Quite the opposite: if you forego the various side quests (of which there are many), the game plays like a fast-paced action thriller. And, if you set the game down for a couple weeks, you can come back and jump right back in with minimal need to refresh your memory.
Even the street fights themselves are a treat. Armed with an array of high-flying combat moves and a literal arsenal of weaponry, players are well-positioned to beat down any opposition they encounter, whether it's a half-dozen delinquents or the leader of a rival clan. Best of all, leveling Kazuma's abilities is much less of a grind than previous iterations of the series, eliminating the need to spend hours farming cash or glowing power orbs. In short, Yakuza Kiwami 2 is simply the best game I played in 2018. Eat your heart out, Spider-Man.
Man, that web swinging. Insomniac's Spider-Man game is a marvel (no pun intended... okay, maybe some pun intended) for many reasons, but the traversal system is my favorite. It just feels so-freaking-good to zip around Manhattan with the speed and acrobatic flair of Peter Parker. The basics are simple — just press and hold R2 to swing -- but knowing when to release for maximum height and velocity takes some practice. Throw in some point launches, corkscrews and backflips and the game becomes a super-powered parkour simulator. I haven't had this much fun dicking about since Skate 3.
Of course, movement is only a part of the experience. Insomniac crafted a terrific story that skips Parker's superhero origins (which, let's be honest, we've all seen and read a thousand times before) and takes place in a subtly unique version of the Marvel universe. You know all of the characters -- both friend and foe -- but their backstories and, more importantly, history with Spider-Man are tweaked in fascinating and genuinely surprising ways. It also takes the time to explore Parker's civilian life as a cash-strapped researcher working under the seemingly normal Otto Octavius.
And then there's the combat. Spider-Man offers a wealth of flips, punches and kicks inspired by professional wrestling. You can also use his web shooters to stun, ensnare and disarm foes. It's a surprisingly deep system buoyed by upgradeable gadgets and unlockable costumes that come with unique spider-powers. The noir suit, for instance, stops enemies from calling for backup once they've spotted you. The Stark suit, meanwhile, summons a helpful drone in battle. I also love that the powers can be used in conjunction with other suits. Like the Stark suit, but want the noir suit's power? No problem.
The movement, combat and world building culminate in a truly superb PS4 exclusive. The game isn't perfect — some of the collectibles and baddie-riddled bases are a drag — but I'm confident Insomniac will fix these shortcomings in the sequel. Oh, and did I mention that Miles Morales, the star of Sony's new animated movie, is in this game? Well, he is.
As always, forcing people to choose just one game to represent an entire year led to consternation among Engadget editors. And, as always, we found a way to include some more gems. Here are the games we felt also deserved a mention:
No Man's Sky
This is the year No Man's Sky finally became No Man's Sky. After a turbulent launch, a lawsuit and dozens of gameplay updates over the past two years, Hello Games has delivered a connected universe stuffed with mysteries and adventure. No Man's Sky will be around for a good while.
Hollow Knight / Dead Cells
I'm not a huge fan of Dark Souls-esque games and rogue-likes, so I was surprised that two of my favorite titles this year fell right into those categories. Hollow Knight isn't new, but this year it made it to the Switch and I fell in love with it instantly. It transcends the overcrowded Metroidvania sub-genre thanks to its a distinct art style, tremendous score and razor-sharp combat. But mostly, it just has a relaxing vibe of melancholia and destroyed beauty. I'm not sure what that says about me that I found it somewhat therapeutic during this tumultuous year. Dead Cells, meanwhile, is pure action and mayhem. I love the gear and the pixelated art style, but mostly, I appreciated that the combat simply feels good, with a fluidity we don't often see today.
It's always nice to see a long-anticipated game finally come out and deliver on all of its sugar-dusted promises. Donut County turns a hole in the ground into an engaging gameplay mechanic, and sets players free in an eccentric, lovable world inspired by Los Angeles... and doughnuts, of course.
As a kid my mother would take me with her to the post exchange and I'd peel off the minute we walked in the door to head over to the electronics department. Sometimes there was a Genesis set up there, but for the longest time it was a solitary Game Boy with Tetris on display. I'd start at level 1 and play up to level 9 and just stare at that low-res green screen until my mother came and dragged me away.
As an adult I don't need to camp at a demo system in the department store anymore. I can buy my own game systems and my own games — at release even. And you bet I purchased Tetris Effect on release, wiling away hours upon hours with its trippy take on my favorite block-based puzzle game. There are some new twists I enjoy, like the Zone mode: It adds a new layer of strategy, and sometimes it's the only way I can deal with the higher speeds (up to 12). The new age woo woo aesthetic, though, I have mixed feelings about: Sometimes it's very distracting, and sometimes I'm wondering if the game is crossing the line into offensiveness with its Native American, African and Asian imagery.
But I can't deny it's beautiful; a long distance from the fuzzy green tetrominoes of my youth. My mother would have had a far harder time pulling me away from this.
Life is Strange 2, episode 1
The second full season of Life is Strange is off to a fantastic start. Dontnod doesn't shy away from tackling real-world issues like racism, immigration and gun violence, though the story so far is told through a relatable, human lens. And never fear — there's still plenty of teenage angst and sarcasm here.