The PC games that helped us survive 2020
- 24 December, 2020 22:01
Gaming never went out of style, but in 2020, it evolved from a fun hobby into an essential lifeline. Staying sane isn’t easy when you’re stuck in isolation for months on end. You can only watch so much Netflix before your brain starts dripping out of your ears. Games provide more active experiences that can help you forget that you’ve been staring at the same walls for weeks, letting you explore far-away virtual worlds or hang out with friends in multiplayer lobbies. In 2020, gaming became vital.
So rather than wrap up the year with our traditional list of the best PC games, we instead asked PCWorld’s staff to share the essential games that carried them through 2020. It’s a diverse list—some of us preferred light, airy games, while others preferred virtual tourism. Several of us leaned into the comfort of ongoing “live service” games that we’ve been playing for years.
For a more traditional “best of” list, check out our mid-year roundup of the best PC games of 2020. (Hayden Dingman’s picks below were cribbed from that article.) We’ve also compiled a massive guide to the best PC games of this generation now that the next-gen consoles have arrived. But without further ado, here are the games that got us through 2020.
Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 – Mark Hachman
I’m not sure what niche Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 fits into as a game: one of the best simulators, sure. But for a year that’s felt as long as a century, Flight Simulator was something more: a meditation, maybe, as you soared at 30,000 feet across Middle America or through a stormy sky. Or maybe a tour guide, exploring cities (Jakarta! Cairo! Cape Town!) that chances are I’ll never visit in my lifetime. All I know is that, once I pushed past the punishing installation sequence, I rediscovered the beauty of a world that I could only visit virtually. Oh, and it was a helluva stress test for PCs, too.
Half-Life: Alyx – Hayden Dingman
This is the year we finally got a new Half-Life, in case you forgot—and it was made for virtual reality. I still can hardly believe it.
What did it mean though? I still don’t think we’re far enough away to say definitively. Was Half-Life: Alyx the watershed moment? Did it convince people to take VR seriously? I don’t know. It certainly sold a lot of headsets to a lot of people. Maybe that’s enough, even if it didn’t break much new ground. Again, I just don’t know.
I suspect it’ll take years for the dust to settle. That said, Alyx is an excellent new chapter for Half-Life, and deserving of a spot on this list even if it didn’t reinvent the entire games industry. And hell, maybe now that Valve’s broken free from the weight of expectations, it won’t feel so hemmed in developing the next chapter.
Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout – Brad Chacos
I yearned for simpler, more lighthearted gaming experiences in 2020. I sank hundreds of hours into Animal Crossing on my Nintendo Switch, and bounced hard off the dark post-apocalyptic vibe of Wasteland 3 even though it was better on all fronts than Wasteland 2—my favorite game the year it came out. Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout scratched that itch perfectly.
Fall Guys is like Mario Party, a battle royale, and the TV show “Wipeout” all mixed into one. It casts you as a cute, hooting, highly customizable jellybean competing against 60 other contestants in a variety of fast-paced obstacle courses. In the end, only one victor can claim the Crown in a final battle.
Each Fall Guys round lasts mere minutes, with a wide array of available courses that keep the game feeling free. Sometimes, you’ll be hoarding eggs as part of a team; other times, it’s every jellybean for itself in a mad dash through false doors or whirling fans. It’s one of those rare games where losing is just as fun as winning, and you can hop into a new match in mere seconds. Win or lose, every match earns you experience you can put toward customization options that help you make your bean your bean. The developers embraced a seasonal approach that adds new outfits and courses every few months. (The winter-themed Season 3 just started!)
I can’t spend all night bingeing on Fall Guys like I can with, say, Fallout. But it’s perfect for picking up for a few rounds day in and day out. It’s a blast passing the controller around with my kids after work. (Local splitscreen when?) That brief, cheery distraction is exactly what I need in 2020, and I look forward to playing much more Fall Guys into the new year.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps – Alaina Yee
Few games captivate me, much less spark deep emotion. But this year’s Ori and the Will of the Wisps put me in tears no less than three times—and all the while, I praised it nonstop to friends and family alike.
The sequel to 2015’s Ori and the Blind Forest, this Metroidvania-style platformer picks up where the last game left off, both in environment and story. Its world remains full of the same lush art, beautiful music, quiet reflection, and finely tuned gameplay; its themes still explore core human experiences like sacrifice and belonging in a gentle, wholesome manner. All the pieces work together in near perfect harmony.
The Will of the Wisps’s only weakness is a bit too much similarity to the first game, which hinders it in areas Moon Studios tries to expand upon. While new skills are introduced, they remain very familiar. Ori’s new enemy also has the same general type of motivation as the antagonist in Blind Forest—but the story is a shade too thin to properly support this more complex villain, thus flattening the story’s impact.
But when adapting to Ori and the Will of the Wisps’ new skills and areas feels as natural as breathing, it leaves so much space for absorbing its message. The game has so much heart, and so I never once minded blubbering over it. In fact, I love it for that, despite my general dislike for crying.
Destiny 2: Beyond Light – Ben Patterson
Bungie’s three-year-old looter-shooter had a bumpy road this year (who didn’t?), what with a couple of lackluster seasons, an uproar over the sunsetting of large swaths of gear (which players had spent untold amounts of time and resources upgrading), and the “vaulting” of four planets, five raids, and more than a dozen of other activities, including the popular six-player “Menagerie” mode. (Vaulted planets and activities may return at a later date, but still, ugh).
But with Beyond Light, Destiny 2’s third major expansion, Bungie looks to be ending a rocky year on a high note. Beyond Light’s centerpiece, the frozen wastes of Europa, boasts dynamic snowstorms, legendary and “master” Lost Sectors (think mini-dungeons), Empire Hunts (multi-step quests leading up to an assault on a Europa boss), and Exo Challenges (fiendishly clever “simulation” missions that rotate each week). We also got a new raid, the return of the beloved Cosmodrome from the original Destiny, and graphical enhancements for the PS5 and Xbox Series X/S (120FPS FTW!). Best of all, Destiny 2 players on PC, console, and Stadia can look forward to crossplay starting next year.
Call of Duty Warzone – Adam Patrick Murray
I was surprised just how much Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Call of Duty: Warzone multiplayer I played in 2020. It makes sense, though. I needed a place to connect with friends near and far in lieu of physical hangouts. I just wouldn’t have guessed it would be in Call of Duty.
That said, the character and weapon progression found in the base multiplayer felt as addictive as always, and winning a round of Plunder in Warzone always jolts you with an excited buzz. Funny enough, the newer Black Ops: Cold War hasn’t scratched that same itch. It’s missing features found in last year’s entry and some of the basic gun feel and movement is just a bit off—probably due to it being handled by a different developer. But for now, Warzone is still free and receiving frequent updates, so I’ll keep downloading all those huge patches to stay in the fight, friends by my virtual side.
Cyberpunk 2077 – Brad Chacos
Look, I know Cyberpunk 2077 is a flaming disaster on the mainstream consoles. But this is PCWorld, and on my high-end gaming rig, Cyberpunk 2077 is delightful. (You know, because it actually works.) Will it go down as an all-time great like Witcher 3, CD Projekt Red’s last game, after all the bugs get ironed out? Maybe. Maybe not. This game was hyped beyond all reasonable expectations. But I’m deeply enjoying my time with it nonetheless.
The dense, dramatically vertical Night City feels alive in ways no other virtual world has yet, cranking the superb world building evident in Witcher 3 up to 11. The storytelling and character building is even better, making you feel like you’re playing the lead in a surprisingly hopeful action movie. Driving is fun, gunplay feels great (though the enemy AI is simplistic at best), and the incredibly versatile character builds let you kit out your V however you see fit. Want to be a hacker that blows out the cybernetics implanted in your enemy’s head? A sneak that ghosts your way undetected through hostile locations? A brute that rips doors off the wall and pummels your foes? A sniper? A badass cyber ninja? A jack of all trades? The flexible perk system allows it all.
Better yet, Cyberpunk 2077 showcases why the PC is the place to play, even with the next-gen consoles arriving. Its exceptional real-time ray tracing effects are both punishing and glorious, truly changing the look and feel of the game, while a robust photo mode lets you capture those luscious visuals for posterity. I’ve spent almost as much time posing V throughout Night City’s locales and snapping pics of the streets as I have battling roving gangs. Maybe wait for a patch or two to iron out the most egregious bugs, but don’t let the console disaster turn you off how masterful this game is on PC. Our Cyberpunk 2077 performance optimizations guide can help you get it purring.
Next page: Our favorite games of 2020 continue
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 2019—Control. 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 wow. As 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 Elysium, Celeste, Night 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.