Despite how almost every other aspect of the year went, 2020 was a landmark year for video games. Not only did it see the release of highly-anticipated titles like The Last of Us Part II, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Ghost of Tsushima, and Cyberpunk 2077, but 2020 also marked the beginning of a new generation of console and PC gaming with the release of the Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, and new GPUs from NVIDIA and AMD. We even got a new Half-Life game this year!
What would’ve made the gaming year ever better? Big-name video game companies could have done more to eliminate development crunch and be more transparent about their business practices with customers and the press. And we definitely could have all been nicer to each other.
But video games also helped keep us connected when we couldn’t see our friends and loved ones in person. They helped us travel to new and interesting places when we couldn’t leave our homes. Most importantly, all 20 games on our best-of-the-year list made us feel excited about this medium at a time when it was so difficult to enjoy anything else.
To that affect, Den of Geek is celebrating 20 video games our contributors and critics, as well as our community of readers, voted as the very best of 2020.
20. Star Wars: Squadrons
For the last decade or so, most Star Wars games have focused on the power fantasy of being a lightsaber-swinging, Force-wielding Jedi. That’s all well and good, but for a long time it seemed like everyone forgot that some of the most beloved Star Wars games of all time were actually space shooters like X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and Rogue Squadron. In many ways, Star Wars: Squadrons is a throwback to those games, both in terms of gameplay and design. Controls are a pitch perfect mix of arcade simplicity and strategy, requiring quick thinking about whether to focus your ship’s power on attacking or defending.
Squadrons is also much more tightly focused than other recent games from large publishers, with a breezy yet enjoyable single-player campaign, and a multiplayer mode that, while light on modes, eschews the more annoying modern conventions of the online PvP like invasive microtransactions. But Squadrons is not stuck in its old school ways.
If you have the hardware for it on PC or PS4, you can jump into the cockpit of any of the playable ships for one one of the most immersive VR modes around. Similar to how The Mandalorian has rejuvenated the live-action side of the Star Wars media empire, Squadrons is a perfect mix of all of the best things we’ve always loved about Star Wars video games, and everything we want them to be going forward. – Chris Freiberg
19. Journey to the Savage Planet
Science fiction writers have long held on to this idea that, if and when humankind eventually colonizes the universe, it will do so as some sort of united, utopian entity, like Starfleet. But that future seems less and less likely every day. If and when humanity spreads across the stars, it will likely be messy, absurd, and profit-motivated. Journey to the Savage Planet wallows in that type of future. As an unnamed human (or dog, if you choose), you’re dropped onto the planet AR-Y26 by Kindred, the fourth biggest intergalactic exploration company with the simple goal of collecting as many resources as possible and leaving.
The Metroidvania gameplay loop of crafting equipment to access new areas is compelling, a rarity for 3D games in the genre. And it offers plenty of surprises too. You’ll start off with the typical blaster and scanner before eventually unlocking a grappling hook that lets you swing around levels like Spider-Man. But it’s style that ultimately lifts Journey to the Savage Planet above so many other games released in 2020. For one thing, the world and the fauna you’ll encounter are incredibly unique, and well, alien. And the regular live-action updates from Kindred beamed directly to your ship are among some of the funniest and most bizarre cinematics out this year in any game, providing plenty of motivation to see this journey through to its end. – CF
18. Half-Life: Alyx
As VR gaming continues to evolve, it’s becoming clear that the technology is more than just one truly great game away from widespread adoption. If that were all it took, then Half-Life: Alyx would have put a VR set under a lot of Christmas trees.
It’s truly wild to think that we got a new Half-Life game this year and that it sometimes feels like the game’s release was barely a blip on the cultural radar. While its somewhat muted debut can be attributed to its VR exclusivity (and the fact it launched at the onset of a global health crisis), Half-Life: Alyx surpassed all possible hype by offering a truly incredibly narrative-driven adventure bolstered by some of the cleverest uses of VR technology that we’ve ever seen.
Half-Life: Alyx isn’t the first great VR game, but Valve’s glorious return to form does shows how VR can advance fundamental elements of gameplay and storytelling rather than just show familiar games from a new perspective. – Matt Byrd
The indie game space is where you typically see the most experimentation, and this year proved no different when the gruesome and morbid Carrion released back in July. Highly inspired by the likes of John Carpenter’s The Thing, Alien, and other cult classic horror films known for their excellent use of practical SFX, this platformer cleverly flips the script, putting you in the role of the monster to dispatch helpless scientists in the claustrophobic depths of an underground lab as an ever-growing amorphous blob creature. What follows is a brief but effective 2D platformer that is fast paced and delectably gory.
The controls could have made controlling the creature a real pain, but Phobia Game Studio recognized that the key here was letting you move swiftly through the levels. As such, gliding through vents to take down scientists from above or underneath quickly becomes second nature. Encounters still pose a good degree of challenge, however, thanks to the heavily armed soldiers that show up later in the game, but this never stops Carrion from fulfilling every horror aficionado’s devilish fantasy of being the bloodthirsty monster. – Aaron Potter
16. Kentucky Route Zero
Calling Kentucky Route Zero an homage to classic point-and-click adventure games is technically correct, but it doesn’t come close to doing the experience justice. Kentucky Route Zero is more like a poem or fable in video game form. It’s a feeling, a distillation of what it’s like to come of age in the Great Recession and its fallout over the last decade. Kentucky Route Zero is an epithet for rural America told through a fever dream, an examination of a version of rural Appalachia where talking skeletons and robotic musicians live alongside gas station attendants and truck drivers.
Nothing about Kentucky Route Zero fits the typical confines of what we expect from a video game, and that includes its release. Developed by a team of only three, the first episode of the five-episode experience was released in 2013, but the final product was only realized in early 2020. That lengthy development cycle meant that the game’s scope and story could grow to only better encapsulate this moment in time, and the final product stands out as one of best games of the year. To say more is to spoil its excellent story. – CF
15. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2
Though it’s been a hot minute since skateboarding games dominated the console space, Vicarious Visions’ excellent remake collection of the first two Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater titles was a reminder of how the entire series captured a whole generation of players in the late ’90s and early ’00s. Whether it’s grinding down rails, performing kickflips, or landing the gravity-defying 1080 on a vert ramp, everything in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 feels and looks exactly as you remember it but touched up with modern flare. That’s the mark of any great remake, and why this game in particular was the best example of the practice this year.
Classic skating locations like Warehouse, School and Downtown have all been faithfully remade from the ground up for a 21st century audience, effortlessly delivering the same thrills and balanced challenge as they did before. The fact that select mechanical features like reverts, which wouldn’t arrive until later entries, have been retroactively added is also a nice touch, instantly making Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 the definitive way to experience these skateboarding classics. – AP
14. Ori and the Will of the Wisps
The fact that Ori and the Will of the Wisps managed to usurp the critically acclaimed 2015 original in most design aspects speaks to just how well Moon Studios has mastered the art of the Metroidvania. Whisking players off on another tight 10-hour journey set within a mystical forest full of secrets to discover, this 2D adventure gives off a fantastical vibe in a way few others do. It’s an expert blend between smart combat mechanics, highly polished platforming, and emotional storytelling. That it runs at a silky 60 fps both on Nintendo Switch and Xbox is the cherry on top.
The major improvements Will of the Wisps makes over Blind Forest relate to saving and combat. Whereas previously it was the responsibility of players to lay down specific checkpoints, progress is now more in line with other 2D platformers and less punishing. Combat, meanwhile, has been completely revamped with the inclusion of special charms and upgradeable skills, most of which result in more flexible enemy encounters. These tweaks are implemented without ever compromising on Ori’s core hook of magical exploration and challenging platforming, instantly making it one of the best Metroidvanias out there. – AP
13. Call of Duty: Warzone
Call of Duty: Warzone was a natural and perhaps even necessary evolution for the long-running shooter franchise, carving out a space for it in the ever-crowding battle royale genre. While it’s largely derivative of battle royale titles that came before, the staggering 150-player count, always excellent CoD controls, top-notch presentation, and flexible cash system have made it eminently popular and fun for casual players and series vets alike. The CoD fan base feels vibrant again after years of stagnation in the shadow of breakout titles like PUBG and Fortnite, and that’s without going into how Warzone has revitalized the franchise’s presence in the streaming space.
One of the best facets of the game’s design is that the large player count all but ensures that, even if a player is new to the genre or series, the chances of them being the absolute worst player in the field is very low. Better still, the “Gulag” respawn mechanic opens up the possibility for ultimate revenge should you earn your way back into the match, which is a nice way to up engagement for those who suffer disappointing deaths.
The game doesn’t feel quite as dynamic or high-stakes as some of its competitors on the market, but it’s definitely one of the easiest to pick up and play. It’s no wonder Warzone has expanded CoD’s already enormous audience over the course of 2020. – Bernard Boo
12. Astro’s Playroom
With launch lineups mostly filled with graphically enhanced releases of last-gen games, the release of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X has been more than a little underwhelming. The one bright spot is Astro’s Playroom, a little first-party Sony game that received virtually no pre-release hype and comes pre-installed on every PS5.
While at first glance a typical 3D platformer, Astro’s Playroom soon reveals itself to be a fantastic showcase of what’s possible with the new DualSense controller. In one level, you’re feeling the resistance from the controller’s adaptive triggers as you spring jump through obstacles dressed as a frog. In another, you’re expertly moving the controller back and forth to climb walls in a robotic monkey suit. Even just standing in the rain causes the controller to pulse ever so slightly with each drop. And all of this takes place across worlds celebrating the entire history of PlayStation, where you collect classic consoles and accessories, culminating in an unexpected boss battle throwback to an original PSX tech demo.
Astro’s Playroom may be short, but it’s an oh so sweet and exciting taste of what’s possible with the power of next-gen consoles. – CF
11. Doom Eternal
It would have been easy for Doom Eternal to be more of the same. After all, 2016’s Doom became the surprising gold-standard for single-player FPS games by virtue of its clever writing and gameplay that blended the best of classic and modern design concepts. Yet, Doom Eternal proved to be something much more than “the same but bigger.”
With its arena-like levels and resource management mechanics, Doom Eternal sometimes feels like a puzzle game set in the Doom universe. While the transition to this new style can be jarring, you soon find that Doom Eternal is speaking the same language in a different dialect. The brutal brilliance of a classic Doom game remains but it’s presented in the form of a kind of FPS dance that puts you in a state of pure zen once you figure out how to make that perfect run through a room full of demonic baddies.
Four years after Doom showed this old franchise could pull off new tricks, Doom Eternal proves that this series is at the forefront of FPS innovation once more. – MB
10. Demon’s Souls
Although initially released in 2009 for the PlayStation 3, Demon’s Souls would help define the next generation of gaming by establishing the Soulslike genre, which has influenced everything from recent Star Wars games to The Legend of Zelda. The “problem” is that the legacy of Demon’s Souls has been sort of eclipsed by the accomplishments of its successors.
That’s the beauty of the remake for the PS5. Aided by the power of the console’s next-gen hardware, developer Bluepoint Games pays homage to one of the most historically significant games of the last 15 years while wisely updating it in ways that show that the foundation of FromSoftware’s breakthrough hit remains arguably the best entry in a genre that isn’t exactly lacking in modern classics.
In a year where finding a next-gen console proved to be more difficult than any Soulslike game, Demon’s Souls remains the best reason to battle the bots at online stores in the hopes of joining gaming’s next generation as soon as possible. – MB
9. Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout
There were multiple times this year where couped-up players relied heavily on “bean” games to help maintain a human connection. Before Among Us dominated the Twitch streams, it was Mediatonic’s intentionally clumsy and hilarious Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout that had us competitively raging with our friends. It did so by merging the wildly popular battle royale genre with the inflatable-fueled antics of early ’90s game shows, where dodging swinging hammers and battling giant fruit against 59 others became the norm for a few weeks – all in the pursuit of winning a highly coveted crown.
Needless to say, making Fall Guys free to PS Plus subscribers for a month turned out to be a genius marketing move, urging everyone to hop into the game’s inventive gamut of levels and make a fool of themselves. Much of what sets it apart from other battle royale attempts is its low-skill barrier to entry, and thanks to frequent seasonal updates, new unlockable outfits and fresh mini-games always being added, bumbling to the top of the pack as a colorful bean remains consistent fun. – AP
8. Animal Crossing: New Horizons
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Animal Crossing: New Horizons should be included in history books about the Covid-19 pandemic. Releasing just as lockdowns were being instituted across the globe, New Horizons provided the escapism we so desperately needed while quarantining, attracting not just the usual Nintendo fanbase, but even those who had never played games in the past but were now looking for something to occupy their time at home. Whether we played it with friends or alone, New Horizons provided the routine and distraction that so many of us needed in a world suddenly thrown into chaos.
Of course, it helped that New Horizons is the best Animal Crossing game to date, with tons of new ways to customize your island (and yourself). And as Covid-19 restrictions have stretched much longer than many of us anticipated, New Horizons has kept pace, with Nintendo releasing a steady stream of new fish to catch, fruits to harvest, and events to participate in throughout the year. It may not be the game that everyone wanted, but New Horizons is the game that 2020 needed. – CF
7. Cyberpunk 2077
When Cyberpunk 2077’s legacy is written, there’s no doubt that the opening chapter is going to focus on the bugs, technical shortcomings, and empty promises that have turned what looked to be one of 2020’s guaranteed hits into one of modern gaming’s most debated debuts.
Yet, the reason that this game’s initial issues will likely not ultimately define it is that Cyberpunk 2077 reveals itself to be a special experience whenever you’re able to play it without crashes or bugs ruining your experience. From its stunning side quests that revive one of The Witcher 3’s best elements to its shockingly human narrative, Cyberpunk 2077 regularly showcases the undeniable talent of the individuals who battled internal and external factors to deliver their vision.
Cyberpunk 2077’s technical problems wouldn’t hurt as much as they do if there wasn’t a truly great game at the heart of them that people are begging to be able to play as intended. – MB
6. Final Fantasy VII Remake
The pressure was on for Square Enix from the moment it announced Final Fantasy VII Remake back in 2015. For those who obsessed over the original back in 1997, the prospect of a remake was the stuff dreams were made of, and this year we finally got to relive Cloud, Aerith, Barret, and Tifa’s grand adventure (the first act of it, at least) with fully updated, well, everything. Astonishingly, the remake actually lived up to expectations and delivered not just a faithful update to the original game but a modern RPG that stands as one of its generation’s best regardless of nostalgia.
The key to Square Enix’s success was its approach, which aimed not to duplicate the experience of the original game, but to capture the essence and spirit of it while using modern game design to deliver the story in a way that doesn’t feel retro or rehashed at all. The game looks dazzling by 2020 standards (Midgar never looked better) but doesn’t compromise the integrity of the original designs, and the real-time combat—arguably the biggest departure from the original—is a blast to play.
Time will tell how exactly Square Enix will follow through with the rest of the remake as we enter a new console generation, but in the meantime, they studio has left us with a terrific reimagining of the most celebrated title in the studio’s expansive oeuvre. – BB
5. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Ubisoft deserves credit for keeping a franchise like Assassin’s Creed, which is 13 years old at this point, thriving in an industry that is flooded with more open world games now than it ever has been. The series is always competitive in the genre, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla proves why: it’s as refined as any of its predecessors and delivers a balanced experience with a rich world to explore, tons of strange stories to uncover, and a mash-up milieu that combines the eerie atmosphere of 5th-century England with the otherworldly spectacle of Norse mythology.
No open world game is perfect, and Valhalla certainly has a handful of shortcomings. But it’s a bloody good time to play, and there’s so much to do that there’s no question that you get your money’s worth. Eivor’s quest for glory and domination is also arguably the most cinematic story in the entire AC catalog, with some truly breathtaking cutscenes that rival those found in more linear games that can’t sniff Valhalla’s scope. Some of the more otherworldly moments in the back half of the game are pure, unadulterated, nonsensical fun, and overall, this is one of the best entries in the series. – BB
4. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
Insomniac is one of those studios that you can always rely on to deliver fun, polished games that shine in every category, and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales only adds to the team’s sterling reputation. Building on the already brilliant formula the studio created with the original Marvel’s Spider-Man, Miles’s story is one of loss, friendship, identity, and the strength of the Black and Hispanic communities of Harlem.
The side-quel is also one of the best launch titles arguably ever. While it is a cross-gen game, the PS5 version is currently the best showcase of what next-gen gaming is capable of from a visual and performance standpoint. You won’t find a better-looking New York City in any other video game, period, and Insomniac’s outstanding animation work looks insanely good when bolstered by the PS5’s considerable horsepower. Miles plays differently than Peter Parker did in the original game as well, with his Venom Powers giving enemy encounters a new feel and rhythm.
Insomniac outdid itself with an excellent follow-up that would’ve been a forgettable DLC expansion in the hands of a less ambitious studio. But Miles Morales is one of the best modern-day superhero characters ever created, and it’s only right that he get a game that lives up to his greatness. – BB
The popularity of roguelikes has been calmly bubbling up for years now, yet only in 2020 did it truly become mainstream thanks to an ideal balance between gameplay and story as demonstrated by Hades. Players who previously took umbrage with the genre’s nature to wipe out all progress at each run’s end suddenly had a reason to jump back in, now inspired by Zagreus’ various tries to escape hell and overthrow his eponymous father. This alone sees Hades tower over most of its peers in terms of balance, further backed up by rewarding gameplay and a gorgeous comic book art style that makes the well-worn mythological Greek milieu feel fresh.
Developer Supergiant Games proved its penchant for creating flexible mechanical loops in prior titles, and in many ways, Hades feels like a culmination of all those ideas distilled in one neat package. It’s a great example of semi-randomized systems layering perfectly on top of other systems, until players eventually find themselves completing runs using distinct weapons, upgrading persistent abilities and slowly discovering which of the god’s many boons gel best with one another. Hades is always a hellishly good time. – AP
2. Ghost of Tsushima
The concept of honor has never been explored in a game as lyrically and philosophically as it is in Ghost of Tsushima, Sucker Punch’s story-driven samurai epic. Jin Sakai’s grand adventure is both brutal and beautiful, stretching across the grasslands and snowy peaks of the titular island, as he pushes the oppressive Mongol army out of his homeland, all the while wrestling internally with the kind of man, warrior, and leader he ultimately wants to be.
This game is outstanding on so many fronts that it’s difficult to list them all here. Visually, it looks so stunning that anyone who walks past your TV as you play is all but guaranteed to stop and stare for a while. The combat is fast and challenging, the stealth mechanic is on-point, the score is sweeping and sentimental, the character models are incredibly realistic, the online multiplayer mode “Legends” is actually a blast to play…and the list goes on. This poetic, pitch-perfect modern masterpiece is emblematic of the soulful, cinematic storytelling PlayStation Studios is known for, and it’s a wonderful way to send the PS4 off into the sunset. – BB
1. The Last of Us Part II (Also Reader’s Choice)
You can’t even say the name of our 2020 game of the year without sparking numerous debates that often make it nearly impossible to have a productive conversation about the game itself. That makes it that much more tempting to somehow find a kind of middle-ground that will “justify” the game’s lofty position to everyone regardless of where they stand.
The thing about The Last of Us Part 2, though, is that its divisiveness is very much part of the experience. Naughty Dog’s follow-up to arguably its greatest game is a bold attempt to live up to the franchise’s legacy by furthering what came before while trying to find its own way. Much like Ellie herself, The Last of Us Part 2 doesn’t always make the right decisions. Yet, at a time when bigger budgets are seen as an excuse to play it safe, The Last of Us Part 2 impresses through its willingness to present a big, bold, and personal adventure that is often anything but what was expected.
Anyone can generate a little controversy by saying something stupid, offensive, or hurtful. The beauty of The Last of Us Part 2’s controversy is that it stems from a heartfelt attempt to advance the conversation through indie-like passion and big budget production. – MB