I think it’s fair to say that 2020 sucks. Outside has been cancelled, and I can no longer write “Hope you’re well” at the start of an email without feeling extremely awkward. But if that’s the price for giving the most vulnerable people in our society a chance against this dreadful virus, then I am more than happy to pay it.
Vital as it is that everyone observes the lockdown as stringently as they can, being stuck inside for the foreseeable future is going to be a strain on everyone, and each person is going to have different challenges to contend with. Loneliness, learning to live 24/7 in a small space alongside your family, flatmate or partner, trying to stop your children from turning the house inside-out. Any of these would be stressful enough without the looming spectre of a pandemic outside.
The only good thing is that in 2020 we aren’t short of indoor entertainment. Video-games, in particular, can provide a reprieve for the imagination. That said, not everybody is in the same boat regarding what they might want to play, or what they can play. So I’ve put together a few suggestions geared toward different circumstances, such as whether you want to disappear into a massive open world, jump online for a virtual catchup with some pals, or just get your kids to sit still for half an hour.
Given the current state of the real world, it’s entirely reasonable to feel like losing yourself in a virtual one. So here are some of the biggest and most absorbing games out there. We’ve split the list into two halves, the first covering open-world games, and the second covering strategy.
The Witcher 3
Still probably the best all-round open-world game in existence, the Witcher 3’s balance of arresting visual design, sharp, emotive writing, and incredible depth in quest structure make it the standout open-world RPG experience. There really is nothing quite like it for the sheer attention to detail in every element of its design. Also don’t neglect the expansions, particularly Blood and Wine, which is basically a big, fun holiday for Geralt of Rivia.
Red Dead Redemption 2
Designed to an astonishing degree of precision at almost every stage, Rockstar’s rootin’ tootin’ cowboy sequel is undoubtedly the studio’s best work. It’s not just the big, cinematic story and compelling, empathetic characters, every shack and cabin in the game’s world has some little tale or surprise hidden inside. It’s the only other game beyond the Witcher 3 that I’d say I’d truly lost myself in. It also has the best clouds in gaming – you’ll probably spend an hour of your life just staring at its big virtual sky.
Assassin’s Creed: Origins/Odyssey
Both Origins and Odyssey offer rich historical worlds to explore, and are both worth playing for different reasons. The first game delivered an impressive rethinking of AssCreed’s core systems, revamping the combat and offering stealth that actually works. Odyssey adds several things to Origins’ template, including more interesting characters, battles with mythical creatures, ship-combat, and a fantastic sub-quest that sees you rooting out the leaders of a secretive cult. Combined, those two games should keep you occupied for somewhere around 150 hours.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Yes, Metal Gear V’s story isn’t the best. But that’s not really the point of Kojima’s Metal Gear swansong. Instead, the Phantom Pain is all about making up your own Metal Gear stories. It has one of the richest toolsets of any open-world game I’ve ever played, letting you approach its tactical espionage missions from dozens of different angles. You can ghost through missions with silenced weapons, deploy artillery to decimate bases before you enter them, use your sniper buddy Quiet to pick off guards while you infiltrate, or just deploy into the battlefield driving a tank. But enemies don’t just let you do as you please, they respond to your tactics, dynamically adding new defences that force you to rethink your approach. It’s a mechanical masterpiece, and vastly underrated in the series canon.
If you’re looking for an open-world game that’s just *fun*. You can do a lot worse than Watch_Dogs 2. It eschews the performative grim-ness of the first game for a lighter, more vibrant tone. Also, while it’s not really a hacking game, it conveys the power-trip of being a hacker really well, letting you infiltrate enemy infrastructure with robotic drones while your character sits a hundred feet away in a sunny San Francisco park. Add to that decent combat and some brilliant car-chases, and you’ve got a big popcorn treat of an open-world game.
Also consider – The Mass Effect series, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Just Cause 2, Skyrim, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, GTA V, Saints Row: The Third
Total War: Three Kingdoms
The best Total War game in years, Three Kingdoms completely revamps many of the series’ core systems, offering more complex and nuanced diplomacy, powerful and satisfying espionage, and a fluid faction system powered by complex characters who evolved throughout the game. Combined with battles that are more diverse and spectacular than ever, it’s an utterly absorbing strategy experience.
I debated whether or not to include XCOM, given that it can be quite stressful. On the other hand, having the opportunity to save the world feels pretty damn good about now. XCOM 2 reworks the formula of the original game to make it more flexible, more unpredictable, and more thrilling. Yes, it’s often fiercely challenging, but it also lets you take the fight to the alien menace in a way the original doesn’t, getting the drop on them with new stealth mechanics, and letting you kit-out your soldiers with crazy-powerful weapons and abilities. Oh, and it has production values to die for, a true blockbuster of the strategy realm.
Crusader Kings II
The ultimate bastard simulator (in both senses of the word), Crusader Kings II is still one of the most unique grand-strategy games around, focussing on individual characters rather than nations. CKII sees medieval dukes, lords, and kings compete for tithes, titles, and huge tracks of land, stabbing each other in the front, back, and side in the process. Few games have such powerful story-generating capabilities, and if you invest in its long list of expansions, you’ll probably be playing it until the next decade.
No list of life-absorbing games would be complete without Dwarf Fortress. Tarn Adams’ uber-deep fantasy magnum-opus offers an unparalleled world simulation where Dwarves can write procedurally-generated poetry before being eaten by a procedurally-generated demon. If, however, you find Dwarf Fortress’ aesthetic and systems design a little too intimidating, then RimWorld offers a similarly engrossing colony simulation, but in a rather more accessible package.
Also consider – Civilization VI, Cities: Skylines, Stellaris, Planet Zoo, Europa Universalis IV.
Maybe you want to play games, but are finding this whole situation far too stressful, and don’t want to play something that’s intense or action-packed or requires a massive investment on your part. What you really want is something that’s going to help you chill, the heck, out. Well, here are my picks for games that are like meditating in a bath of warm syrup.
Eastshade is a Skyrim-like first-person RPG, but instead of killing monsters, you paint pictures. The whole game takes place on this gorgeously idyllic island, and casts you as a travelling artist with the goal of painting four of your mother’s favourite locations on the island of Eastshade. As well as a great little painting mechanic, is also has some wonderfully designed quests, fantastic writing, and a general atmosphere of fun.
Abzu is a short but spectacular adventure game set under the ocean. It’s a very simple game that involves swimming between different locations and completing basic puzzles. But it's stunning art direction, rousing soundtrack, and cleverly told story make it a splendid game for easing the mind.
No list of chillout games would be complete without Proteus, one of the first and most literal of walking simulators. Each game procedurally generates a pixelly 3D landscape in which each object has a unique musical sound, and with the result that walking around produces a distinctive melody. It’s a game about wanderlust and the joy of the outdoors, which has an understandable appeal just now.
Also consider - Euro Truck Simulator, Stardew Valley, Journey, Flower, Lost Ember, Gris.
Part two coming tomorrow.
September 18 2020 | 18:30