Alec: By a comfortable (or uncomfortable, depending on who I’m trying to justify spending hundreds of hours playing pretend battle-cards to) margin, this is the game I’ve put the most time into this year. It’s inexorably entwined with playing endlessly during surreal days and long nights with baby Imogen snuffling away on my chest in the back half of this year, but obviously I’m not at all massively, helplessly emotional biased in favour of it for that reason.
Spire is endless. By which I mean, it nails endlessness. It’s hard to imagine a point at which I’d be tired of what it does, all the hundreds of permutations upon its simple concept of playing cards one after another. It’s like saying I’m tired of eating when someone’s just gifted me a Deliveroo subscription that guarantees a different cuisine every day for a year. (Can someone please do that, actually? My Paypal is [REDACTED]).
My gaming highlight of the year is the new-ish third character in Spire, The Defect. I don’t mean the day of their arrival. That day I tried The Defect out a couple of times, was roundly murdered and so muttered darkly to the cat about how a great game had been ruined by pointlessly fiddly additions for the hardcore gonks.
I mean the day a couple of weeks later, when I came back to Spire after my sulk had abated, and – hello yes I was a student in the 1990s – I saw the Matrix. I’d been trying to play The Defect as I would the Ironclad or Silent, which, well, is about as sane as trying to play the Silent like the Ironclad. Slow learner, me. So instead I played The Defect like The Defect, and all these new permutations revealed themselves, and I was in love all over again.
Which is the essential beauty of Spire, in a way. This wee-small card-battling thing, with ‘just’ three characters, but each of those characters feels like its own game entirely. And – still! – whichever one I choose, it feels like a brand new game. Impossible stakes. The glorious revelation, every time, of card combinations or outrageously risky strategies I hadn’t even considered before. The drama, the shoulder-shaking highs of triumph, the bollock-throttling shock of loss.
Witchcraft. Bloody witchcraft. I love you.
Brendan: Slay The Spire was tested on Netrunner pros and it shows. Or rather, it doesn’t show. Because it’s easy to notice when a game has all the wrong numbers living in its guts, yet perfectly invisible when those numbers are exactly right. This card-flinging strategy game has some good numerical gut flora is what I mean. Okay, let me put this another way. It is the videogame equivalent of one of those little eagles that balances on the tip of your finger by its beak. It looks like it should fall, and yet it stays. I’m trying to say it’s a perfectly stabilised work of art and numbers. Will you please just keep up with these metaphors? Honestly.
I know the numbers hiding under these cards are painstakingly tuned because if I don’t play for a few months, and then come back, the smallest differences feel radical. A card that once cost 3 pips of energy suddenly costing 2 pips makes my eyes bulge like two ping pong balls. It shouldn’t. I mean, what a tiny change, what a miniscule tweak. But that one point of energy, guys. That one energy. That’s going to change everything.
Matt: I’ve spent years hearing people talk about games they wished they could tear themselves away from. Games like yawning black holes, sucking up any free time were silly enough to let near them. That had never happened to me: I’d played some games plenty, sure, but not to the point where I felt guilty. Then I met the Spire.
Gosh, it felt good. Every decision was worth savouring, every card choice building towards decks that could wind up being criminally powerful or pitifully weak. Each turn presented a fantastic mini puzzle, a test of priorities and possibilities. I relished the learning, the gradual march towards mastery over a machine powered by never-ending surprises.
Eventually, of course, the surprises stopped. But I didn’t. Evening after evening, I’d find myself plugging back in. Ascension mode, where each victory piles on another handicap to an ever-growing tower, no longer felt painful or gruelling. It gave me another goal to work towards for another hundred hours, and I was grateful. At first.
On the nights where I didn’t manage a win, I’d look back at the hours I’d exhausted and ask what I’d achieved. Soon, that was happening on the nights where I did.
There’s something about Slay The Spire’s intricacies that stop it feeling stale. The near-weekly influx of new items and encounters have been part of its pull this past year, but I think I’d have kept playing without them. I’d have still felt that urge to start yet another run, to spin its wheels and try to make my fortune where they landed.
Because that’s the secret: two-tiered compulsion, two layers that bolster and merge into each other. Every shot at the Spire is a gamble where success lies at a confluence between skill and luck. Victory always comes as a result of well made decisions, but those decisions aren’t always there to be made.
In other words, it makes you feel like you have more control than you actually do. There are many factors that make Slay The Spire astounding, but that’s ultimately what makes it so compelling.
I’d recommend it in a heartbeat. Just don’t fall into the same trap that I did.
Alice O: Hi, sorry, I should have written something here because I’m always going on about how much I adore Slay The Spire but I was too busy playing Slay The Spire. Okay, sorry, bye.
Alec: Hitman 2 2 makes a fool of me. Because: I can start statements like this: “Hitman 2 2 is even better than Hitman 1 2 because…” Because: I have no way to end that statement. Because, because, because of the wonderful things Hitman 2 2 does.
It’s just… well, it’s just better, isn’t it? God, don’t make me explain this. What do you think I am, a professional expresser-of-opinions?
Ugh. FINE. A certain extra finesse, a certain extra sense of scale, a certain extra sense of murder-o-possibility, a certain sense of dispatching (already slight) deadweight, a certain amplified sense that these places, these vast, real-silly, silly-but-real places, would keep on keeping on whether or not I was skulking around their cupboards and kitchens, stealing people’s trousers and throttling people’s bezzies.
On the one hand, my sense of slight – slight! – deflation when I played Hitman 1 2’s tight but not-terribly-expansive Colorado level, and to a lesser extent its subsequent Japan one. That feeling that this game of Infinite! Possibility! had suddenly sprinted into the stadium wall and could take its ball no further.
On the other hand, laughing, actually laughing as Hitman 2 2 kept on pushing the scale out, far past the point that had hitherto seemed possible, or reasonable. Cackling as I went through a subway tunnel to a whole other part of Miami I hadn’t even realised was there, hooting deliriously as I got lost, actually lost in Mumbai, damn near cartwheels as the gothic castle of the climatic map somehow felt like an entire world.
I don’t know. It’s just… better, innit?
Graham: Yes, it’s more of the last Hitman game, but I don’t think that’s a mark against it in any way. The last Hitman game was the best Hitman game – sorry, Blood Money – and so more of it is a great thing. More of it but better, as Alec says, is a super great thing. And given that there’s still nothing else like it, I’d be happy if IO just kept making more of this Hitman for as long as they had ideas for new murder locales.
The only thing that’s worse this time around is writing about it, because of course it’s great for mostly the same reasons as last time. If I was to pick one thing that feels improved – because it’s not the back-of-the-box ability to hide in bushes – I’d say it was tone.
Across the whole series, Hitman has swung wildly from dry Euro-thriller to bird costume farce to B-movie pulp to polished Bourne-like. Hitman 2 still has over-earnest cutscenes telling a story I swear no one has ever cared about, but the missions themselves have finally found the places it needs to be serious and the places it’s better to be silly. Serious: your targets are bad, powerful people who do bad things, thus creating a framework where you can at least tell yourself your deeds are justified. Silly: 47 dressing up as a hippie drug dealer, tattoo artist and drummer (complete with ability to play the drums on stage) in a single mission in order to commit said deeds.
It’ll be another couple of months before I’m done with Hitman 2, I reckon, but I know I’ll be ready for more as soon as I am.
Alice L: There is nothing more exciting in gaming than figuring out the most entertaining way to kill someone. I learnt this from a young age when I first sat with a friend and purposely killed a Sim in a swimming pool by – you guessed it – removing the ladder. Hitman 2 isn’t much different to that.
OK, it’s a lot different. It’s a bit more graphic, a bit more brutal, and just a teeny bit more calculated. But in both games I love messing around with the locals and confusing everyone with my outfit changes. In just one level of Hitman 2, Agent 47 has more costume changes than you’d see at a Little Mix concert, and I can totally get behind that.
Disclosure: I’m friends with a level designer at Sumo Digital who worked on the game.
Matthew: If you’d told me at the start of 2018 that by the end of year I’d have killed Sean Bean by distracting his bodyguard with a thrown doughnut and poisoning his coffee, I’d have said “oh, so they’re making another Hitman then?”
This stuff just doesn’t happen in other games. Where else would you lure a target into an empty house by dressing as an estate agent – but not doing the deed before you’ve given him a full eight room tour, complete with sales pitch. Where else do you complete a level by helping a rival assassin take out your targets for you? Where else can you hide in a coffin and then pop out at a funeral to murder a mourner? Oh yeah, that last one happened in Hitman Blood Money – but this is still a delicious homage.
The more ‘scripted’ kills may not be what everyone comes to Hitman for, but I’ve loved uncovering them. More so than in Hitman 2016, the signature takedowns alter how you see each level – tackling Columbia, say, in a stolen militia uniform is an entirely different proposition to stalking its guards through the long grass in Agent 47’s civilian clothes. That bit I mentioned about helping a rival killer is a perfect perspective shift, as you try and jostle people into positions where you’ll know they’ll be in the sniper’s sights.
And once you’ve done all the horrible stuff IO planned for you, there’s that score chasing game to get hooked on. Ignore the global leaderboards and get your friends in on the action – battling to skim a few seconds off my runtimes has been a highlight of 2018, even if the sods over at PC Gamer have been dominating the top spots. Still, bet they didn’t kill Sean Bean with a doughnut.
Matt: There is a way out. You can do this.
Every turn, Into The Breach whispers those words in my ear. Somewhere in the myriad of possible moves lies a solution, a convoluted dance that can morph disaster into triumph. I’ll stare at my screen for minutes at a time, searching for the answer. Then I’ll spring.
Knock that bug there. Pull the other one into position, ready to be lasered. Dunk that insect in the sea.
Dust your hands off, then do it all again.
Every turn is a chain of ifs and can I?s, a chain that’s just – and only just – short enough to manage. There are only six things you can do, after all: each mech gets one move, and one attack. The bugs have plenty, though, and to win you’ll need to turn them on each other. Much of Breach’s brilliance lies in how one little push can change so much.
Every turn begins at the brink of defeat. Most turns end in glory. Few games have made me feel as smart as when I’m puzzling my way back from calamity in Into The Breach, and I doubt few games ever will.
Brendan: This is my second-favourite game to play on an 8 x 8 grid. It has many of the elements from its superior (impeccable tactics, chin-stroking strategy) but it’s the civilian buildings that make the monster clobbering so perilous for me. I always play with the same (overly) defensive attitude. I risk my mechs to save apartment buildings from destruction. I throw them blindly into the path of globulous insectogunk, all to save a single bar of meta-life. I probably shouldn’t be so worrisome of civvies. There are times when a tower block should probably be sacrificed to finish off a dangerous creature. And the buildings have a chance to resist an attack anyway, whereas your rock-em-sock-em robofriends do not.
But I will stand by my preciousness for micro-people, because it results in some tough, cortex-tickling decisions. Do I sacrifice my automated laser mech, knowing he’ll be useless for the rest of the fight? Or do I risk the life of the pilot in my artillery mech? Or is there some better solution? There is a saying in that other game played on an 8 x 8 grid: find a good move, then look for a better one. And that philosophy of grandmasters is just as applicable in Into The Breach. That’s why it’s my second-favourite game to play on a 64-square grid. It’ll never be as good as that timeless king of all games with whom it shares a floorplan. But then again, that’s an unfair comparison. Who could ever beat Giant Twister?
Alec: Like shutting a cat out in the rain, or making a baby watch Alex Jones videos at maximum volume, the thought of uninstalling Into The Breach makes me feel sick. This tiny, perfect thing – how could I be so cruel?
‘Perfect’, a word a critic should never really use, is the term I keep coming back to whenever I discuss Breach. A master balancing act, a lesson in economy that almost every other game should listen to again and again, tantalising world-building without any, well, world-building.
Perfection, or as near as dammit. Subset Games scare me, a little. I wonder how often they meet up with Spelunky’s Derek Yu to discuss how every other member of the human race is desperately, painfully intellectually inferior to them? My only true sadness about ITB is that, I imagine, the risk of diluting its perfection may never be taken. DLC, sequels – I crave both, but both seem so unlikely. The Mona Lisa with microtransactions.
So there it stays, installed forever, all but a few unlocks unlocked – left unlocked, because if I’m done with Into The Breach, I’d be done with Into The Breach. And that thought, I cannot bear.
Katharine: I have a love-hate relationship with permadeath strategy games. It’s immensely satisfying when you pick off hordes of enemies with just a couple of well-timed moves, but one duff decision, one foot wrong, and that’s it, your favourite soldiers are decimated in a bloody mess of failure and misery. It’s absolutely agonising when you lose your star player, but with Into the Breach the stakes are so much higher. It’s not just your individual team members you’re losing, it’s the entire planet. And I absolutely love it.
Sure, your mech pilots bring a touch of that old Fire Emblem/X-COM-style soldier attachment to proceedings, but they’re not nearly as important as the mechs themselves, or the tools you acquire for them along the way. I did an entire four (so very nearly five) island run with just a single human pilot and two AI-controlled robots once, and it was the best and most satisfying playthrough of the lot. This was mostly because I’d managed to equip my tiny team with some stonking special abilities that I felt the absolute master of by the time I waltzed up to the fourth island, but then disaster struck and everything was lost.
And yet I wasn’t sad when that playthrough came to an end. Those Vek gave as good as they got in that last round, and I respect that. I’d get them next time, in another timeline with a different set of random abilities, because failure in Into the Breach rarely feels like the end of hours of hard work. Your team isn’t crippled because you’ve lost one person. Instead, the entire slate’s wiped clean, giving you more impetus to get up and try again.
The fact it only gives you a few moves to play with, too, also makes it feel like the ultimate puzzle game. It’s not like I don’t take my time when I’m playing Fire Emblem or X-COM, but the added cerebral challenge of trying to nuke every Vek in so few turns is just another stroke of Into the Breach’s genius. This is turn-based strategy distilled into its purest elements, and it’s my personal game of the year.
Graham: This was my favourite game of the year, which means we’ve failed in this timeline. I’m going to hit this big red button and try again. Sorry, people of this timeline!