5) Call of Duty: Black Ops 4

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4's Blackout mode.

Above: Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s Blackout mode.

Image Credit: Activision

Developer: Treyarch

Publisher: Activision

Platforms: Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

I was prepared to hate this game because it had no single-player campaign. The Black Ops series has strong storytelling, but single-player didn’t come together as the team at Treyarch dealt with the emergency situation of battle royale. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite were taking away Call of Duty players, until Treyarch came back with Black Ops 4 and the Blackout battle royale map.

It turned out that Call of Duty’s take on battle royale is good. The gunplay is familiar, and I can take out a skillful player if I had the drop on him or her. Playing with three other players is fun if you found a group that liked to chatter, and I recall many funny moments, like getting knocked out of the sky in a helicopter. I also had to revive a friend who fell out of a lighthouse.

Multiplayer is also well executed, with players getting a choice of nine specialists who could bring distinct advantages to every battle. You now have to pay attention to your health, injecting yourself in a deliberate move to reduce your injuries. And you have to face off with enemies in 1-on-1 duels, without the ability to jump all over the map within seconds. The basic skill is back to being able to hit someone who you’re shooting at.

And Zombies is bigger and badder than ever. One of these days, I wouldn’t be surprised if Call of Duty: Zombies became a game unto itself. I’m still regularly coming back to Black Ops 4, though I have probably put more hours into Battlefield V at this point.

4) Battlefield V

Peter Mueller is the commander of Tiger tank 237.

Above: Peter Mueller is the commander of Tiger tank 237.

Image Credit: DICE

Developer: EA DICE

Publisher: Electronic Arts

Platforms: Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Battlefield V had a rough year and a rough start. Fans got mad at DICE for putting a female character on the cover of its World War II game, and DICE pretty much told them to stop being man-babies. It also takes players into new battles that haven’t had much history in terms of movies, books, or previous video games. Some players reacted badly to this, as Rotterdam isn’t as fun as fighting in a place like Omaha Beach.

But the game survived and launched. It came with War Stories, or single-player vignettes, that conveyed a solemn respect for the sacrifice of soldiers. The destruction and quality of graphics are glorious. The wreckage of burning vehicles is so realistic. I was able to hide behind one burning vehicle and fire a ton of anti-tank shots at a bunch of vehicles. They never spotted behind the burning wreck.

But it came without a battle royale map, and that made it feel incomplete. The single-player stories, at about three-and-a-half tales, feels thin. That wasn’t much of a single-player campaign. The Last Tiger, the final War Story, or single-player vignette, debuted a few weeks after launch. It was good, but it came too late for most reviews. Multiplayer felt limited. The new Panzerstorm map in the update added some much-needed armor fighting, giving players a chance to live the fantasy of being a Tiger tank commander.

Yet despite all of that, this game grew on me. I enjoyed the immersiveness of the huge maps, like Twisted Steel, with such realistic imagery and environmental destruction. Later on, DICE will add a battle royale mode. I’m looking forward to it.

3) Marvel’s Spider-Man

Doing what a spider can.

Above: Doing what a spider can.

Image Credit: Insomniac Games

Developer: Insomniac Games

Publisher: Sony

Platforms: PlayStation 4

I’ve never been much of a fan of superhero video games, but Spider-Man has always been special. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover the huge depth behind Insomniac’s title. The open world of New York City is an amazing place, full of stories, landmarks, and missions that can keep you busy as the web-slinging hero. You can get around easily because swing is so fluid. Movement is fluid when you smack into a building and then just start running up the wall so that you can jump into the skies again.

But the campaign is also very well done, with cinematics that keep you involved with the story and on track. You don’t have to get distracted if you don’t want to. A bomb explosion makes the story more serious and raises the stakes of catching the bad guys. And fighting as Spidey gives you an appreciation for the kind of things that he can do. You can take enemies out in straightforward ways or string together a bunch of combos that can be much more effective. I enjoy picking up objects and slinging them at people, which is simple and fun.

I liked out the game skipped the familiar Spider-Man origin story yet brought in many of the series’ villains and characters through the campaign. Then you get the occasional revelations of Spider-Man’s human side, as seen through the vulnerabilities of Peter Parker and the strains in his relationships with Mary Jane and Aunt May.

2) God of War

Kratos tries to comfort his son in God of War.

Above: Kratos tries to comfort his son in God of War. Tries, but fails.

Image Credit: Sony

Developer: Sony Santa Monica

Publisher: Sony

Platforms: PlayStation 4

I had a terrible time deciding whether God of War or Red Dead Redemption 2 was the better game. I thought about making this a tie for No. 1. Both games are masterpieces, which raised the bar for both storytelling and world-building. Red Dead reflected a little more effort, but the model to follow for other game developers is undoubtedly God of War’s.

This title resonated with me because I wasn’t a God of War series fan. I did not want to play God of War 4. But the shifting of the series from ancient Greece to the Norse mythology allowed for a new beginning. And the father-son story really hooked me. Kratos is a badass and violent hero, or anti-hero, when it comes to fighting. But he is quite possibly the worst dad ever.

His sickly and weak son, Atreus, has lost his mother and needs comfort. But even after going out on their first successful hunt together, Kratos can’t bring himself to put his arm around the boy in a gentle hug. That scene was memorable to me because, as I remember, my own father, who died about 20 years ago this year, showed me the same kind of tough love when I was growing up.

That moment was the pinnacle of the beginning, and the ending was tightly written as well. It had its surprises and left seeds for the future. The great part was to see Kratos become dependent on Atreus, who could read secret runes, and to see Kratos develop respect for the boy. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better father-son story.

I could get into a game about the transformation of a father from an angry god into a restrained teacher. And it turned out that so many other people did as well. This story sustained my interest through 40 hours of ax-wielding gameplay.

1) Red Dead Redemption 2

Arthur Morgan rides his horse in Red Dead Redemption 2.

Above: Arthur Morgan rides his horse in Red Dead Redemption 2.

Image Credit: Rockstar

Developer: Rockstar Games

Publisher: Take-Two Interactive

Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Perhaps you predicted this would be my favorite game of the year. It had the biggest budget behind it, with a total of 3,000 contributors, some working for as much as eight years on the prequel to 2011’s Red Dead Redemption. The game is triggering strong emotions, some from people who feel it is too big, too unfocused, too directed, and plodding when it comes to gameplay controls.

I’m not one of those, as I thought this was a hell of a game that raised the bar. The New York Times cited this as an example of video games as high art. We knew that a long time ago. But this game could clear 20 million copies sold by the end of the holidays, meaning it will be as big a commercial success as it is an artistic achievement. Like its predecessor Grand Theft Auto V, it could be one of the best-selling games of all time. As such a favored front runner, I’m sure many critics have the urge to knock it down. Let them.

Red Dead Redemption 2 has 105 missions that take at least 50 hours to complete. (Then you can start playing Red Dead Online, if you wish). It has a main character, Arthur Morgan, whose loyalty to his gang and his leader, Dutch Van der Linde, is sorely tested as the outlaw life vanishes from the American West. But Arthur interacts with an entire gang before the game is over.

This game has subplots that, by themselves, would be the basis for an entire game made by someone else. It has subtle touches, like how you dream of deer if you perform good deeds, or you dream of a wolf if you do bad deeds. Red Dead Redemption 2 has surprise plot twists, character shifts, unexpected scenes like a horrifying alligator attack, and non-player characters who remember what you did to them. You’ll encounter many unique missions you’ve never seen before in a video game, in part because the game is so long. The landscapes are beautiful, the voice acting is strong, and the graphics of human faces are first rate.

It’s not perfect, as it lacks real fast travel and bugs do bring the game down. Everyone has a funny story about running their horse into something or somebody accidentally. But the details are insane, like how a horse’s testicles shrivel up in the freezing cold. That’s one reason why I think this is the biggest achievement in video games ever, alongside titles like The Last of Us, Halo, Uncharted 2, and Grand Theft Auto V. My hat’s off to Rockstar, for bringing this masterpiece to life.

Honorable mentions

Far Cry 5, Return of the Obra Dinn, The Messenger, Florence, Dead Cells, Celeste, Beat Saber, 11-11 Memories Retold, Donut County, Life is Strange 2, Command & Conquer: Rivals, Octogeddon, A Way Out, and Tetris Effect.