We might have ticked over to a new year, but we still have thoughts to share on the games from 2020. We have talked about Our 2020 Year in Games, a joyful tale of our adventures in gaming through that topsy-turvy year. This time we’re taking a look at our Games of the Year. Some of us might have multiple Games of the Year, others might just have one, but there is one simple rule, the game must have been released in 2020. Here we have Ross sharing thoughts on his top games from 2020.
There are a few titles that deserve to be here. Röki. DOOM: Eternal. Wasteland 3. In the end, though, I decided to settle for just one—and if you told me in 2019 that it would have “Half-Life” in the title I’d have laughed you out of the room.
In 2016 I visited Seattle to attend Valve’s Steam Dev Days conference. It was a surreal trip; we’d just launched the first issue of Half-Life: A Place in the West on Steam, Tim Sweeney gave a rambling, boring talk about virtual reality utopias, and Hillary Clinton drove past me on the road outside the convention centre. I was convinced I’d just seen the next president of the United States. What a fool.
At the conference we were keen to touch base with our handlers at Valve—we wanted to talk comics and Steam. But Valve didn’t want to talk about that. They wanted to talk about virtual reality. Little did we know development had finally started in earnest on the next Half-Life game after several failed attempts, and it was to be a VR exclusive—the kind of AAA title VR needed but only Valve had the gumption (and cash) to make.
Flash forward to March 23rd, 2020. The worst UK Prime Minister in a century is preparing to announce a nationwide lockdown owing to an unprecedented pandemic that would rock the world. It was going to be a hard year, terrible in almost every way. But on that day I found exactly the piece of escapism I needed. The moment I slipped on the headset and once again emerged in City 17 I knew nothing else would come close to matching the sheer visceral thrill that was Half-Life: Alyx.
It was outstanding.
Alyx, true to the spirit of the series, wasn’t merely a new entry in a beloved franchise, but a watershed moment in gaming that set a new benchmark for immersive experiences. Here’s something I wrote back in April about the game that I think captures the sensation of playing:
In one late stage sequence, antlions—humongous alien bugs—stalk you through an ooze-coated train yard, Combine soldiers firing at you from platforms above. It requires dexterity and quick reflexes to traverse, and it ranks as some of the most enjoyable combat I’ve ever experienced. In many ways it’s more akin to the combat of Half-Life and than Half-Life 2.
I was forced to take temporary shelter in a hut, hastily extracting the health canister from my glove and pushing it into a charger station. Bullets peppered the window as I pulled the lever, and I could hear antlions closing in. As the little needles did their work on my hand – no small task, given I had half a heart left – I turned my head, pointed my pistol at the door, and blew away the antlion charging towards me. Pistol ammo depleted. Nearly three full hearts, but not quite. A second antlion came into view, and I went to switch to my shotgun, cursing the charger’s speed…only to see that the antlion had lost both legs, and was struggling past the hut, mostly harmless. I relaxed, and lowered my arm. Full health.
The emotional highs of that experience are hugely amplified by VR. I didn’t require a further justification as to why the game had been built this way, and for such a small fraction of the fan base, but it felt like the moment I really understood what Valve had accomplished. They’ve set the bar and they’ve set it high, and I think it’ll be some time before another rich developer has the nerve and audacity to meet it.
I won’t soon forget Alyx, and that’s not just because it has ‘Half-Life’ in the title (although that is certainly welcome). Alyx changed the way I thought about VR and delivered that rare, precious kind of experience that just stays with you long after it’s concluded.