The PC games that helped us survive 2020

These PC games helped us explore the world, hang out with friends, and generally stay sane in an isolated year.

Credit: Brad Chacos/IDG

Sea of Thieves – Alaina Yee

Confession time: I finished few games this year, despite trying more than usual. And part of the reason was Sea of Thieves, which is available on Steam and as part of Microsoft’s fantastic Xbox Game Pass for PC subscription

The weird thing is, I don’t think I’d ever say I enjoy the game on its own. Rare imbued SoT with a purposefully janky vibe. And yet, I’ve racked up probably a good 70-plus hours in that game in the last three months.

Why? Because Sea of Thieves has a purposefully goofy janky vibe, and when my equally goofball friends assemble on a boat, pure entertainment follows. I’m pretty sure we don’t even play the way we’re supposed to. I’m absolutely terrible at PvP in this game, and so my friends humor me. We rarely attack other ships and instead just sail from island to island, gathering loot so I can hoard coins I’ll never spend. When they get bored, they invent things to do—like making up a platforming game of jumping between sails or ringing the ship’s bell in the imitation of a song until the rest of us guess what it is. (I am currently in second place for number of songs correctly identified. With only one song.)

So despite continuing to say I don’t super love this game, Sea of Thieves is still one of my top games in 2020. New content keeps coming out, making it a reliable outlet for wholesome antics—and thus bonding with my friends. I deeply appreciate that during this time of isolation, because normally we’d be goofs together in person and we can’t right now. Sea of Thieves fills that void perfectly.

Doom Eternal – Hayden Dingman

Doom Eternal is one of the most elegant shooters I’ve ever played. It is meticulously designed, a cascade of systems that push and prod at the player. It is a puzzle you solve at 100 miles per hour, with your hands on fire. Cacodemon? Toss a grenade in its mouth and then rip its eye out. Arachnotron? Shoot off its turret-tail. Mancubus? Destroy its arms. And save the Makyr Drone for your last desperate stand, so you can pop its head off and restock on ammo.

It’s not to everyone’s liking. I’ve seen people complain they feel restricted by Doom Eternal and the way it designs enemies around a series of hard counters, and those people aren’t necessarily wrong. I loved it though, finding in Doom Eternal the depth I thought 2016’s Doom reboot lacked.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps – Jason Cross

Five years ago, Ori and the Blind Forest earned high praise for taking the “Metroidvania” 2D design approach and infusing it with loads of heart and imagination. It was one of my favorite games of that year, and Ori and the Will of the Wisps is exactly the sequel I hoped Moon Studios would make. The game world is more expansive, with more upgrades to unlock and locations to explore. Moment-to-moment gameplay is more refined and polished, with more responsive controls and combat. Most importantly, the tale is every bit as emotional and heartwarming as in the first game. Performance was a bit rough at launch but was quickly smoothed out with a patch, and it now looks and sounds fantastic. In a genre that has seen a bit of a renaissance lately, it stands out as one of the must-play games of the year.

Control DLC – Adam Patrick Murray

My favorite single-player gaming experience of 2020 was extra content for my favorite game of 2019Control. Better yet, both The Foundation and AWE expansions are bundled as part of Control Ultimate Edition if you haven’t picked the base game up yet.

While The Foundation was a nice reason to hop back in, AWE was an incredible expansion that helped flesh out even more of the Oldest House and the characters I fell in love with last year. Control is one of the only games I’ve ever played where I read every note and listened to every audio tape, and AWE’s continued world-building sucked me in just as delightfully—it’s the true star of the expansion. There weren’t any substantial combat additions in AWE but I still never tired of floating around, throwing missiles back at enemies, and generally feeling like a supernatural superhero every step of the way.

And Control remains a standout showcase for real-time ray tracing’s gorgeous lighting effects. AWE gave me the perfect excuse to load it up on my new EVGA GeForce RTX 3080 FTW 3 Ultra-equipped gaming rig and get even better performance while basking in the sights of this truly beautiful game.

Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions – Willis Lai

Captain Tsubasa: Rise of New Champions may be relatively unknown in U.S. but it’s widely popular in countries that go wild for soccer, and Tamsoft turned Takahashi Yoichi’s manga classic into a high-octane, over-the-top arcade experience. Imagine Dragon Ball Z meets Super Mario Strikers, or Hong Kong’s “Shaolin Soccer” movie, which itself was heavily inspired by Yoichi’s creation. Channeling a character’s spirit animal, kicking the ball, and watching it transform into a tiger never gets old! Captain Tsubasa’s action-focused mechanics aren’t complex as realistic soccer games like FIFA, but if you’re an anime fan like me, you’re really playing for the beautiful cinematic cut scenes that play out when players dribble or perform ridiculous acrobatic goal shots. The interactive dialogs between rivals and teammates alike also get your spirit running. 

The game isn’t without its flaws though. The online competitive mode is completely broken when Captain Tsubasa first launched in late August, and it remains unstable during with matchmaking. If you manage to find a game, it’s often glitchy and bugged. Offline mode is the way to go if you want to relive the classic story of Captain Tsubasa. You can also create your own character in New Hero mode and play the Junior Youth World Arc, battling rival teams.  

Anime-based games often wind up hit or miss, but fans of the Captain Tsubasa anime will deeply appreciate the top-notch cinematics and voice acting that breath life into Rise of the New Champions. Look out, FIFA. You’ve got competition!

This and that – Brad Chacos

I didn’t complete many games in 2020. I typically prefer deep, detailed titles, but my brain just couldn’t handle the extra complexity and long-term commitments this year. Instead, I spent a lot of time dipping my toes into a wider variety of games than I normally would and found a lot of gems. I wanted to mention some of my favorites.

It was a banner year for tactics fans yearning for something to replace XCOM 2 and Mutant Year Zero. Both Gears Tactics and the spinoff XCOM: Chimera Squad put a more action-oriented take on the otherwise staid genre, rewarding you for acting aggressively rather than sitting back and endlessly overwatching. Each does so in different ways, however, and I heartily recommend each for tactics lovers like myself.

MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is also worth your time if you like mixing your strategy with giant robots and luscious real-time ray tracing effects. ScourgeBringer is an addictive, demanding hack-and-slash roguelite with kinetic action and deeply rewarding progression. Dirt 5’s muddy, aggressive arcade rally racing kicks ass, especially in a year without a new Forza Horizon. If you like real-time strategy games, Iron Harvest’s dieselpunk mechs in an alternate 1920 will suck you in, and it has a demo you can try before buying. Relicta’s physics-based space puzzles feel like a mix of The Talos Principle and Portal—fine company to be in, though it doesn’t quite match those genre titans.

Star Wars: Squadrons successfully revives the spirit of the X-Wing games of yesteryear and gives you a great excuse for blowing the dust off your HOTAS flight stick (along with Microsoft Flight Simulator and MechWarrior). Mimimi Games followed up the fantastic Shadow Tactics: Blade of the Shogun with Desperados III, a just-as-stellar puzzle game disguised as a stealth tactics game disguised as a wild west shooter. Crusader Kings III is, well, Crusader Kings III. And Streets of Rage 4 somewhat surprisingly managed to live up to the series’ legendary pedigree, making me feel like I was pumping quarters into an arcade machine at 7-11 again.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Gaming isn’t all about triple-A blockbusters. Give some of those lesser-known games a try—you might be surprised at the gems you’ll find. If you’re wary about wasting money on potential stinkers, just poke around the darker corners of Microsoft’s excellent Xbox Game Pass for PC. The $10-per-month subscription service includes a deep, diverse lineup of great indie games in addition to the usual Microsoft blockbusters.

Kentucky Route Zero – Hayden Dingman

Kentucky Route Zero is the game of the generation, if only because it took the entire console generation to release. Episodic back when episodic was in-fashion, the first chapter released back in 2013, the last this past January. 

And I naively put off playing it for years, waiting to experience it in one go. Then I did and wowAs I said in my review, it’s obvious in retrospect that so many of the games I loved this generation drew from Kentucky Route Zero, in spirit if not directly. That list includes Disco ElysiumCelesteNight in the Woods, even (probably) Tales from Off-Peak City.

Kentucky Route Zero is the kind of game that makes other people want to make games. A sprawling story of love and found family and betrayal and loss and Capitalism, it’s messy and unapologetic and very heartfelt. I saw myself in its characters. I saw my friends in its characters. It’s one of the finest pieces of interactive fiction I’ve ever played—and only “one of” because so many developers have taken its lessons and run with them these past seven years.

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