Best of 2020: Five Special Awards

Got the usual mixed bag here – the same three ultimately meaningless but fun-to-write awards I’ve been unable to fit into any other lists for a few years now, joined by two new ones – and I’m hoping one of the new two has the staying power to return next year. But we will see. Not much more to say on these ones, other than that they’re a bit wordier than they were last year. Here we go.

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VR BEST OF 2020 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is an utterly bizarre coincidence. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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Best Third-Party Game Publisher

Activision

Do not adjust your screens; they’ll still take your money any way they can (as will any of these companies) but due to the widespread delays and unique challenges of game development in a pandemic, the infamously small-output habits of the modern-day Activision did not come off quite as cynical in 2020 as they have in recent years. EA’s only decently-received new release of note was Star Wars Squadrons, although they did make a few unusually consumer-friendly moves by leading the pack on cross-platform play throughout the year and adding their services to Xbox Game Pass by year’s end. Bethesda had to make do with just Doom Eternal and an expansion for The Elder Scrolls Online before ending the year as a Microsoft first-party studio. Capcom essentially only had the Resident Evil 3 remake; Konami stayed disappointingly dormant; and Focus Home Interactive was understandably unable to back up their stellar 2019 efforts. Ditto for 505 Games, although Journey to the Savage Planet is rad.

That left five major third-party publishers in the running. 2K Games deserves a mention for at last giving people a decent mainstream golf game in PGA 2K21, as well as bringing almost the entirety of the Borderlands and Bioshock series to the Switch in fine fashion. XCOM Chimera Squad is excellent – as well as cheap – and the Mafia remake wasn’t awful, but the 2K challenge ends there. Sega cannot be discounted in a year where it released the absolutely wonderful Yakuza: Like a Dragon, Sakura Wars and Streets of Rage 4 – not to mention a sequel to Puyo Puyo Tetris – but alas, we move on. Ubisoft was sitting pretty in 2020 thanks to its decision to delay literally every big game in its holster out of 2019, prompted by the poor critical and commercial reception of Ghost Recon Breakpoint. As a result they were able to unleash huge open world adventures Watch Dogs Legion, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Immortals: Fenyx Rising in consecutive months despite the pandemic, right after re-launching their much-improved game client Ubisoft Connect. They also launched their own battle royale title Hyper Scape, though opinions differ on that one to be sure.

For me 2020 comes down to two publishers in the end. The crown could quite easily have gone to Square Enix on the strength of its Japanese contingent alone – the Trials of Mana remake gives the Japan-only 1995 SNES classic a properly impressive modern presentation, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory surprised plenty of people with its content, and Final Fantasy VII Remake is a triumph on plenty of fronts. However, despite a thoroughly enjoyable campaign, Marvel’s Avengers has utterly failed to justify itself as an online experience, and the less said about the XIII remake the better. No, the most consistent game publisher of 2020 was somehow Activision-Blizzard. The extremely pretty Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War successfully evokes the variety and value of the first Black Ops title a decade ago; World of Warcraft: Shadowlands has recaptured a ton of lapsed players; and Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time proved that not only is there still an audience for the marsupial mascot in 2020, but you can still make a really good game for that audience. The clincher? Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 is simply one of the very best videogame remakes I have ever played.

Runner-Up: Square Enix

Click here for more random awards

Best of 2020: Top 10 Disappointments

Take a number, get in line.

Tired jokes aside, 2020 was certainly packed with negative news, and that gave me plenty of time to think about this list. Some of the truly heinous things that went on in the world of entertainment media this year made my usual first-world vents seem truly pathetic. But at the same time, the word “disappointment” feels like it’s nowhere near strong enough to describe them. So I ran with that; I tried to think about the whiniest things that specifically pissed me off about entertainment media in 2020, just to make it clear as day how what kind of pettiness this list is all about. This is the result.

In other words, it’s only slightly different from the normal annual list. Now let’s purge the negativity so we can move on.

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VR BEST OF 2020 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is an utterly bizarre coincidence. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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10. The Impossible Game Delay

No, I’m not talking about Cyberpunk 2077 – delays have become an expected part of CD Projekt Red’s games even in years without pandemics going on. And because there was, in fact, a pandemic going on this year, I’m also going to give a break to the two games that continue to frustrate me with their ongoing lack of release news, Roller Champions and Samurai Gunn 2. Nope, the only game with a significant enough delay to qualify for this list is none other than Halo Infinite.

If you were lucky enough to get your hands on an Xbox Series X this year, you would have noticed the giant Infinite artwork splashed across the back of the box. You might even have seen some merchandise around the place – mugs, action figures, Nerf guns – all emblazoned with the Master Chief and some even including DLC codes for the game. Delaying Halo Infinite from its position at the centre of the Series X launch lineup was supposed to be impossible, yet the mad lads did it anyway. It was the right call, which is why it’s at the bottom of this list; the game’s July gameplay debut undershot expectations so much it became a meme. But boy, did it take the wind right out of Xbox’s sails.

9. Good Ninjas Hide From Players

Remember Ninjala? The free-to-play Switch game that looked like a Splatoon spin-off with charming ninja-themed character designs? Oh it’s still going, don’t worry – it’s even got itself a devoted community. But if this is the first you’ve thought about the game since its disastrous late May launch, that would make two of us.

The stage was set for Ninjala to take over the lives of many a Switch player. Nintendo, as a Japanese company, was feeling the effects of the pandemic more than most companies in the gaming space at the time, and had almost no first-party game releases announced for the rest of the year. A colourful free-to-play title with that Nintendo-style polished looked was just the ticket for quarantine. But actually playing the game was easier said than done. I had no success getting into any of the scheduled beta sessions, and reactions on Twitter soon turned merciless. This was mere days before the Borderlands, Bioshock and Xenoblade avalanche, mind you, so it wasn’t long before there were plenty of things to play instead. I haven’t seen any of my Switch friends online playing Ninjala since.

Click here to see just how first-world things can get

Best of 2020 Intro

Well a year certainly did happen this year, didn’t it?

You’ve probably already seen, heard and read enough pithy lines about 2020 to form your own top ten list of sub-divided top ten lists, but luckily for you I’m really only interested in the good stuff that released throughout the year to entertain you. You know, if you could play it. Or watch it in one 90min-3hr sitting. Or listen to it. If it was Korean. That’s the stuff I’ll be spending the next ten days talking about on this site, anyway. I promise nine out of ten lists will focus on the positive. We just have to get the whiney stuff out of the way tomorrow, then its all good and straight on to 2021.

Join me for one list, some lists, all of the lists even, if you want. Have a great day.

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VR BEST OF 2020 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is an utterly bizarre coincidence. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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A Whole Lot of PS5 & Xbox Series Launch Impressions

2020 began with the promise that the next generation of mainstream videogame consoles (and by extension PC hardware) would at long last grace our homes by its end. At multiple points throughout this year, such a promise seemed about as far from reality as conceivably possible. The stop-start hype cycle, packed as it was with guesswork and noise, was nothing short of exhausting. Yet here we are. Despite two distinctly bitter flavours of worldwide preorder drama, the PS5 and the dual-threat Xbox Series exist in real life; they are out there in the wild and after almost two weeks spent with each, I’m here to talk about how they look out of the racing blocks. Strap yourselves in – this is a big one.

Seven years ago I posted a similar article comparing the PS4 and the original Xbox One. In many ways that feels like yesterday, but going back over it in preparation for this round I was struck by just how many shiny plates were spinning on both sides of the main home console divide in 2013. Gimmicks and talking points abounded: futuristic Kinect voice commands and hand gestures running on a tile-based solid-colour Windows 8 interface versus PS Vita remote play, the abandonment of Sony’s trusty “cross media bar” and Playstation’s most radical controller shake-up ever. Both consoles felt functionally fresh and experimental. They were missing key features their predecessors had taken for granted and neither one showed any interest in backwards compatibility with older-generation games, but at least in those first few months there was a sense that each cut had made way for something tangibly new.

Which is why that launch also feels like a hundred years ago. The still-young gaming industry has continued to change in many ways since 2013, and the feverish year of marketing and punditry behind us would have you believe there’s a growing ideological gulf between Microsoft and Sony. But the dawn of the ninth home console generation has a somewhat surprising streak of quiet confidence about it. Make no mistake: The PS5 and the Xbox Series X feel like marked leaps ahead for the home console experience, and they are quite different despite clearly learning lessons from one another during the last go-around. But neither Sony nor Microsoft has come off looking quite as insecure about it this time around.

Clash of the Titans

Let’s start by talking about the elephants in the room. It’s been well-documented (love an understatement) that 2020’s new boxes are a bit on the large side, but much like the pocket-friendliness of last year’s Nintendo Switch Lite didn’t hit home until I held it, the stature and weight of the Xbox Series X and PS5 feels like little more than a meme – until you actually have to try and fit them into your entertainment setup. I distinctly remember transitioning from PS3 to PS4 painlessly because they shared identical cabling and a similar stature, but the PS5 is so gargantuan that the tape measure had to come out more than once during the multi-hour entertainment unit reshuffle it demanded.

Visually the PS5 looks like it belongs firmly in the middle of the 2000s, right next to the lightly-toned, vertically-marketed day-one model Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii. Despite being larger than both combined, it would’ve fit right in among that semi-space-age design trend. It marks a huge departure from the last decade of flat, straight black lines that aim to draw attention away from the consoles they adorn, arriving instead with a weighty form factor wearing a brilliant white coat, collar popped like it was made by a company that just sold 100+ million PS4s. It doesn’t care that it needs a chunky (included) stand for stability; it wants to be the first thing anyone looks at in your living room.

CLICK HERE TO KEEP READING, BUT THERE’S A LOT.

2020: Year of Halo – Part 4: A Lesson in Fight-Finishing

The dream is dead. Early on while I was writing this, Microsoft made the disappointing but very understandable announcement that 2020 would not be ending with Halo Infinite, due to “multiple factors that have contributed to development challenges, including the ongoing COVID-related impacts affecting us all this year.” Instead, we can now look forward to its release in 2021, hopefully as a better game made by healthier people. In the meantime, a true classic has graced the PC market for the first time in its history. And after another few months of clashing co-op schedules and progress delays, I finally feel like I understand why it has earned that reputation. I finally, as they say, finished the fight.

Once upon a time, I was a teenager, and I was lucky enough to own some videogame consoles. They were all produced by Nintendo. There were a heap of amazing games on those consoles. This was all fine and dandy for a good long while. But then in 2009, roughly two years into the stratospheric success of the Wii, Nintendo stopped making the kinds of games I wanted to play. So, soon after starting my first job, I began looking elsewhere for them. I ended up with an Xbox 360, although Halo wasn’t high on my list of reasons why. The days of playing the first game on the original Xbox at other people’s houses were long gone. Halo 2 had been a non-event for me. I just wanted the Banjo-Kazooie games, Tales of Vesperia, and Borderlands.

But I’ve never been the kind of person to let entire corners of a console’s library go unacknowledged, and once I had a taste of HD gaming I wanted more. So I began to explore more 360 titles. I joined the Call of Duty train. I checked out Viva Pinata and Crackdown. I had my videogame preconceptions shaken by Braid. I gave Gears of War a spin. And even though almost nothing about it felt recognisable to me, I eventually found my way to Halo 3.

I did try the campaign – my first-ever taste of one in the Halo series – but without the context of the prior games I lost interest a couple of missions in. I moved on to multiplayer, which did hold my attention thanks to some extremely flashy controllable vehicles. Though it took a while to grow accustomed to the deluge of combat options that were brand-new to me, and I got bodied in several online matches, my relationship with the game improved drastically when I found a group of friends at uni who were keen to play. Thanks to the wonders of Xbox 360 System Link, I hosted my first LAN party with Halo 3 as the centrepiece. Then, my second. And so on and so forth. It took time, but Halo 3 became my default, my ground zero, the yardstick to which I would unconsciously compare every other game in the series.

A decade later, playing Halo 3 on PC feels like coming home.

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Movie Review: Tenet

My second full-on movie review in four years! Why not!
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Starring:
John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki
Director:
Christopher Nolan (Inception, Dunkirk)
Rating: M
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Before the year turned over, 2020 looked to be studded with tentpole film releases. A new James Bond movie, two big Marvel Studios releases, another wave of Disney live-action remakes, two new Pixar films, and at least one DC juggernaut. And yet for many of us out there, the promise of a new Christopher Nolan movie with another trademark timey-wimey gimmick stood above them all. Perhaps it was the ‘surefire sequel success’ vibes of most of the above, contrasting starkly with Nolan‘s stubborn refusal to leave behind practical effects, needless IMAX shots and fiercely original scripts with no concern for cinematic universes. Tenet loomed large.

Of course we all know that’s pretty far from how 2020 actually played out. Here in this current reality, most of those tentpoles have yet to see release. New movies in general have been hard to come by, matter of fact, even though streaming services have been more than willing to help out. Yet Nolan‘s reliable stubbornness has now ensured that not only is Tenet going exclusively to cinemas, it’s doing so before any other title of comparable size and hype. If Tenet looked like an imposing 2020 title before, it’s now positively monolithic. For this and many other reasons, I’ve actually written a full review. Yeah, 2020 is weird for us all.

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2020: Year of Halo – Part 3: It Was All A Blur

It… might actually happen. We’re now over halfway through the year, and somehow also over halfway through the Master Chief Collection‘s chronological rollout of PC-optimised Halo games. As the rest of the gaming industry attempts to navigate the pitfalls of 2020’s justified uncertainty, Microsoft continues to drop its tantalising sci-fi FPS breadcrumb trail. And so at long last, sixteen years after the fact, I have finally finished the Halo 2 campaign.

But for goodness’ sake, dear reader, let’s not undersell this; sixteen years after the fact, I have finally played Halo 2.

If 2002 was an exciting year marked by the seemingly limitless possibility of a new console generation – where even Nintendo fanboys could marvel at the possibilities of a company like Microsoft joining the console war – 2004 was defined by entrenched teenage loyalties for yours truly. I won’t hesitate to admit that I have no memories of any hype around Halo 2‘s initial release – When I wasn’t dealing with high school drama I was too busy immersing myself in what would become three of my favourite games of all time: Tales of Symphonia, Pokemon Leaf Green and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. My brother also got a PS2 that year, with two controllers and the original Star Wars Battlefront to boot. I had more than enough to chew on, and my friends at the time weren’t exactly Halo superfans.

And so years later, when I found myself in the Microsoft ecosystem thanks to my very own Xbox 360, the reverence I discovered for the second Halo game came as a bit of a shock. But I still didn’t dive in, because Halo 3 was already out and, well, we’ll get to that. Long story short, in 2020 I still knew much less about Halo 2 than I thought I did, and most of my experience playing the game felt wonderfully fresh as a result.

That is, when it worked.

Yes, this post arrives perhaps a month or two later than I wanted because for far too long I could not get a co-op game running with my Combat Evolved partner. No matter how many fixes we googled, what settings and configurations we changed, those first few weeks after Halo 2 launched in early May were beyond frustrating. We could play competitive multiplayer, but not campaign. When life (and other videogame releases) got in the way, we benched the idea until one day in late July, when our schedules aligned and at long last, I was able to take one of my favourite screenshots of the year so far:

I don’t know how much of this was due to my heat-of-the-moment decision to buy Halo: The Master Chief Collection on Steam after uninstalling the repeatedly disappointing Game Pass version, and how much was just months of game patches bearing fruit. All I know is I’ve never been happier to see the face of another Master Chief. Anyway, onto the game itself!

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The Great & Perilous Era of Long-Life Nintendo Games

The morning sun peers over the horizon, rays painting the sky and illuminating the dew on the tree leaves. The birds stir and my alarm shakes me from my sleep far too gradually, considering it’s the weekend. I reach bleary-eyed for the glasses next to my bed, stretch slowly and pull my Switch Lite off the charger. I take it out of flight mode and boot up Animal Crossing: New Horizons, with the volume just loud enough to let the gentle grooves of the soundtrack tell my ears it’s a new day. Isabelle greets me with typical cheer and updates me on the status of my town. There’s Nook Shopping to be picked up, rocks to be struck, fossils to dig up, weeds to pull, villagers to talk to, beaches to comb, a fresh catalogue to peruse. I get stuck in.

Half an hour later, when I’ve done all the tasks that can’t wait until tomorrow, I swap out to Pokemon Shield. All the dens in the Wild Area have been refreshed, after all. So have the Watt Traders. Yesterday one of them had the Substitute TR, which I hadn’t ever seen in the game before, so I have to check them all. I’ve checked the Wild Area News and there are some rare spawns to check out. Plus a new online battle season just started and I only need two or three wins to get into the next tier, securing myself enough BP to buy that Choice Band to help my Barraskewda hit like a missile. So I ride around for a bit, scoping out the daily updates, jumping into a few online raids and a quick battle. I try to brush aside the guilt that I still haven’t finished that new Fire Emblem: Three Houses DLC story and briefly entertain the idea of logging into Super Smash Bros Ultimate to clear a Spirit Board or two – I still need to check out that Trials of Mana crossover after all. But I need caffeine, so I get up.

Such is a normal day in this year of 2020. And as a lifelong Nintendo fan, it feels a bit strange.

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Launch is Not the End

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We stand at a familiar junction. Barring any unforeseen delays (or indeed foreseen, given the current worldwide landscape), we stand at the dawn of a new videogame console generation. We now know that on both sides of the blue/green divide the games optimised for this new generation will not just be enhanced by lightning-fast solid state storage drives, but require them in order to run at all. If spending the extra money and effort to “down-port” a new PlayStation/Xbox game to the Nintendo Switch was already a tricky proposition, it’s about to get several times more difficult. Nintendo has an absolutely gigantic head start when it comes to mind-share and third-party allies compared to where they were at the start of the Wii U era, but they’re about to face a similar problem. Until they are ready to phase into whatever piece of hardware comes next, the Big N is going to need to be a whole lot more self-sufficient.

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2020: Year of Halo – Part 2: Co-op Evolved

They did it. The world is going crazy, but the mad lads at 343 Industries got another Halo campaign out on the PC in 2020. We are one step closer to achieving the Year of Halo.

The original Halo: Combat Evolved is – surprise surprise – hugely nostalgic for me. I had a friend who got the game Day 1 alongside four controllers at the 2002 launch of the original Xbox. I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, but I was definitely jealous. As a Nintendo kid by trade I was already well used to console launches boosted by games in well-known franchises, so the Xbox came in with a definite disadvantage; but Bungie’s Halo was just so ridiculously polished that playing it made you quickly forget its status as a series debut. Halo didn’t originate twin-stick FPS controls, but it refined them and brought them into the mainstream; the jank of Goldeneye and Perfect Dark would never be convincingly disguised again. The splitscreen multiplayer experience on Blood Gulch is now legendary. I don’t think it’s that controversial to call Halo: Combat Evolved one of history’s greatest console launch titles.

But despite three or four attempts over the decades, I have never surpassed the second level of the first Halo campaign. The notoriously minimap-free level design has tripped me up on more than one half-hearted occasion over the years. That finally changed early last month, when I lined up a Halo-loving mate for another tilt at the campaign that started it all – now with yet another new coat of paint and a handy suite of fresh features on the mighty PC. Thanks to all manner of spicy technical difficulties, it would eventually take us almost two months to get it finished. But before we began, it was time to play some Halo multiplayer again at last.

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Ten 2020 Movies Summarised in Ten Words Each

Well, this was tricky.

For obvious 2020-specific reasons, it’s quite difficult to see any fresh films right about now. Cinemas are not exactly prime real estate at the moment, and quite a few movies on my to-see list have been delayed either several months or indefinitely. After tearing through seven new release movies in six weeks, it took me a full two months to see my eighth. Then, thanks to the help of one or two major movie studios and digital entertainment platforms, I reached the ten you see here. Who even knows whether I’ll get to twenty this year.

Even before the current global health crisis began to gather steam, I was struggling with whether some of these films counted as 2020 releases, but that became less of an issue once our bigger problems emerged. At the very least, all ten of these movies got their wide mainstream releases in Australia this year.

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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

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The Gentlemen

Hunnam, Grant, Farrell dominate the screen. Ritchie’s best since Snatch.”

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1917

Utterly spectacular on a technical level but don’t expect optimism.”

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