Listen, I don't have much time. I enjoyed a lot of games this year, but Alice just told me that if I spend more than 1,500 words on this list then she's going to murder my whole family*. And that includes some people I like.
So without ado: here's a handful of the games I enjoyed the most this year which (crushingly) didn't quite make their way into our soft 'n' snuggly RPS Advent Calendar 2022.
*I may have embellished the actual threat for dramatic effect.
The Cycle: Frontier
At the mid-point of the year, RPS brought out its list of our favourite games of 2022 so far. In it, I said (or rather, gushed) of The Cycle: Frontier that "I’ve never known a game to be so tense and so beautiful at the same time." Half a year on, and there are still no contenders to this throne.
The Cycle: Frontier is my new favourite game in one of my favourite genres - the ever-stressful PvPvE extraction shooter. It's best-described as a more accessible and approachable (and in my opinion, fun) version of Escape From Tarkov. From your starting hub you accept quests and missions from different factions, then drop into one of three maps filled with dangerous creatures and other potentially hostile players, loot what you want, complete your missions (or not), and extract at one of several predetermined locations. Expect lots of sneaking around - with a low time to kill and so much at stake, this is a game that tends to frown on players that prefer to just rhinoceros their way through every problem.
It's a formula that makes you really care about whether you live or die, combining the intense competition of a Battle Royale with the "oh god I have such good stuff on me, don't let me die here please" feeling that I've traditionally only ever got from the best survival games. But what really sets TCF apart is its absolutely gorgeous world and weather effects. Storms are a significant event on Fortuna III and can spell out death for unprepared prospectors, but I don't care. I love the rain, as you may know. And sneaking around in a nighttime storm in The Cycle: Frontier is one of the most delightful gaming experiences of 2022.
Dune: Spice Wars
With Dune: Spice Wars, Shiro Games have taken their own particular flavour of real-time strategy that they honed with Northgard, and brought it over to the venerable, much-loved universe of Dune. And what a combination it turned out to be. Dune: Spice Wars is a slow-paced, tense and treacherous strategy game that really makes you feel like (unless you're playing as the Fremen) you are unwelcome on this planet. Arrakis takes every opportunity to wear down your forces and hit back at your attempts to expand. Long treks through the desert will diminish your supplies. Water is forever in short supply. Most horrifying of all is the omnipresent threat of Sandworms beneath the surface, which can swallow up whole armies in one go when they get the munchies. When you actually do lose units to a Sandworm, it's annoying as hell. But the frustration when it happens is worth it for the delicious tension of their lurking presence.
Dune: Spice Wars really doesn't play like other RTS games. So many little details ground you in the world of Dune, from the monthly Spice tax you must pay to the Spacing Guild or incur their offworldly wrath, to the endless fight to harvest enough water to keep your armies and militia alive and well. Each of the playable factions behave very differently from one another (particularly when you account for the advisors you pick at the start of each game, which can have a drastic effect on your strategy and playstyle throughout), and the path to victory is never quite the same from game to game. What I love most is that I've almost never won a game through pure military conquest, and Dune: Spice Wars seems almost to encourage the opposite. It wants you to forge alliances, trade, scheme, backstab, and assassinate to get your way. It makes you feel smart and conniving, in the way that a leader would have to be in order to control such a dangerous and prized planet.
V Rising. Urgh. What a horrible, horrible name. Imagine our surprise when we found out that it's actually one of the best, freshest-feeling survival crafting games on Steam right now.
In V Rising, you play as a vampire. You can feed on low-health enemies to change your blood type and gain powerful bonuses, and you must also stay out of the sun as much as possible, because just a few seconds of Vitamin D is enough to smite you where you stand. Better still, the sun is a physical object that moves across the sky during the day, and the shadows all move dynamically, turning the daytime into a dangerous and compelling game of "the floor is lava".
As for the rest, the quality never drops. Chopping trees and exploding rocks is good grindy fun. Snapping together building pieces is far more intuitive and polished than we've come to expect of Early Access survival games. Fighting enemies with a range of punchy weapons and skillshot-based abilities is about as fun as you'd expect from the makers of Battlerite. The world is large, and getting larger with each update. And at a certain point in the game, you get the ability to turn into a giant frog at will. 10/10.
Does anyone else remember watching The Matrix for the first time, and then spending the next month or so making an absolute Kung Fool of themselves chopping and kicking their way about the house pretending to be Neo?
Sifu is the closest I've come to that same giddy martial arts-fuelled excitement. It's a cleverly crafted tale of one person's revenge upon the powerful group that murdered their master when they were a child. The game is split into a handful of levels, and you must fight your way carefully and deliberately through enemy after enemy to reach the boss of that region and exact your revenge against them. With each death, you age a handful of years, increasing your damage but lowering your health for your next life, until you finally run out of lives and luck and must start again from the beginning with all that you have learnt.
The combat, once it clicks, feels incredible. It's fast, fluid, flexible, and makes you feel like a true sifu when you finally master an area and can effortlessly carve a graceful path through the wild haymakers and reckless strikes of your opponents. I had a notion before that the games on the bleeding edge of this kind of combat would be very half-baked games which do nothing except give you a sandbox to fight in. A proof of concept. Sifu, despite being the debut title of its developers, does not feel like a proof of concept. It tells a story throughout all the fighting. It feels complete, and polished, and as disciplined and resourceful as the sifu you intend to avenge.
Rocket Bot Royale
Against all odds, I may have talked more about Rocket Bot Royale this year than any of the other games on this list. It's an amazingly simple idea, executed to perfection. That idea? Take one of those old-school 2D artillery games like Scorched Earth or Worms, and turn it into a quick and chaotic Battle Royale. Player-controlled tanks must engage in tense and surprisingly complex fights across an entirely destructible map, while reaching ever-higher to escape the ever-ascending water level.
Thanks to a very clever and considered approach to combat, fights in Rocket Bot Royale can be extraordinarily rewarding. There's a lot of opportunity for outsmarting your opponent - for instance, you might fire off all three of the rockets you have in reserve, to bring on the appearance of vulnerability and bait an attack from an enemy. And then, the moment they fire, you shield yourself to reflect their rocket back at themselves, killing them in one ill-fated blow. You can also master the ability to fire downwards at the terrain to propel yourself into the air, dodging otherwise fatal shots from enemies - even changing your flight path in mid-air to pull off incredible death-defying acrobatics while you formulate a plan to counterattack your foe.
Rocket Bot Royale is free-to-play, very accessible, startlingly skill-based, and incredibly moreish. I've played 36 hours of it this year, and I expect I'll play a great deal more next year too.