Slow, Curious & Tragic, Life is Strange 2 Stands Out on its Own

Impressions are based on the three episodes available for Life is Strange 2 out of its scheduled five. Mild spoilers ahead.

As far as adventures in video games go, Life is Strange 2 is powerful and thoughtful enough to be celebrated on its own. Separate of its predecessor. It’s deliberate, mysterious and often emotional, forcing the player to make critical choices that drive the narrative and have unexpected consequences. Being the one that chooses how the protagonist acts, and what happens to characters as a result, makes it that much more impactful than a traditional linear story.

Even though it’s labeled as if it’s a sequel, the adventure game from Dontnod Entertainment that’s published by Square Enix is not a follow-up in the usual sense. It doesn’t feature characters from 2015’s Life is Strange, which centered on the story of time-manipulating teenager Max Caulfield and her best friend Chloe, and instead shifts its focus to a Mexican-American family of three living in Seattle.

Life is Strange 2 is episodic, while played from a third person perspective. It began in September with Episode 1: Roads then continued with January’s Episode 2: Rules through Episode 3: Wastelands, which released days ago. What separates it from other narrative-focused titles is choice, then repercussion. Decisions don’t just have ramifications, they drive the story forward and force us down one of a various branching paths.

Across these episodes, the game delves into the relationship between Sean and Daniel Diaz, regular brothers from the Northwest that can’t seem to avoid terrible events. The Diaz brothers’ single father Esteban is slain by a police officer after he tries to defend his sons during an altercation, after which younger bro Daniel mysteriously causes a destructive shock-wave that accidentally kills said police officer. It’s an intense, saddening sequence, something that unfortunately turns into a theme for the siblings.

Whether it’s pure panic or fear of being persecuted, the boys flee from the scene then opt to venture to their father’s homeland of Mexico. It’s a rash decision, though somewhat understandable from a teenager and 9-year old. The elder Sean turns into Daniel’s paternal influence, while trying to repair their friendship that became fractured as Sean matriculated through high school.

What follows is both a literal and figurative journey for the pair, plus the player itself. We control Sean, as the two bond and bicker while coping with the desperate feeling of loss. Simultaneously, they work to understand Daniel’s special powers, which seem to be a kind of telekinesis as he can manipulate objects with his mind. Daniel is also curious of his mother, Karen, who Sean resents because she left the family before the game’s story begins.

Pacing is slow. Methodical, even. This approach, which might be a hindrance in other cases, is the opposite here. It allows exploration through the game space. Accentuates the intimate character moments that many other titles don’t even attempt, for fear of disrupting the action. Dontnod challenges players to be mindful in their wandering, frequently rewarding with tidbits of character detail and world-building akin to something like a BioShock.

The initial episode is its most sorrowful, as the brothers move south through the wilderness. Small moments of solace, such as those where Sean patiently teaches Daniel how to skip stones or they race to gather firewood, are quickly interrupted by the ever-present feeling of despair that they can likely never return to a normal existence.

Now, not everything is handled with this level of subtlety. The game is heavy-handed in its portrayal of stereotypes, especially when the brothers encounter a “racist redneck” that kidnaps Sean while throwing slurs as much as fists. This pops up again in a couple spots. Though I understand the game’s writers wanting to convey character prejudices overtly, I found myself hoping for a more delicate approach.

After escaping the racist, the boys receive help from friendly travel blogger Brody then move further towards their intended destination. Episode 2: Rules finds them occupying a winter cabin, alongside a new puppy named Mushroom. One theme that arises here and continues throughout is Daniel’s relationship with those other than Sean, as the latter moves into an authoritative role. Their quiet existence is upended as tragedy strikes again, with Mushroom being attacked by a wildcat. Throughout these moments, the player can decide to encourage Daniel to use his powers or to avoid them at all costs. As with everything, this has its impact on one’s individual story line.

Sean decides the boys should meet their grandparents on their mother’s side, who live in a small Oregon town. This brings a familial element that was noticeably lacking, providing momentary stability. It also stokes Daniel’s curiosity about his mom, which Sean is reluctant to even mention yet alone explore.

During this time, Daniel saves and befriends Chris, the main character from Dontnod’s standalone demo The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. Chris has also faced tremendous loss with the death of his mother and an abusive father, so he escapes into his fantasy of being a super hero. With Daniel at his side controlling objects floating in space, he believes he has actual powers. It’s another example of Daniel’s independent character maturation. The player can either plead with him to reveal his powers to Chris, or keep it a secret. One particular consequence of this choice is shockingly catastrophic.

This is also where we meet key characters for the next episode, while the group is shopping for Christmas trees with Chris’ father. The boys briefly chat with street musician Cassidy and her friend Finn, both of which are “train hoppers” living free from the cares of society. It’s clear that Sean is envious of their more carefree attitude, revealed during this scene that mainly acts as foreshadowing.

As usual, the brothers must bounce when the police stop swing by on a tip. This is especially painful, since their grandparent’s home seemed a fitting spot for them to settle down. Plus, Daniel openly expresses that he’s sick of running away and wants to find his mother.

Episode 3: Wastelands is in my opinion the weakest so far, as it’s the most cliche with a predictable structure. This doesn’t mean it isn’t good. In fact, because we get to know so many new faces, it has the best character moments yet. It’s just that the story arc is more typical than the prior two episodes. I will say the end is explosive, showing how much their situation is escalating the more they get involved with people out on their own.

The setup here is.. convenient. (As happens in media, to bring characters together and progress stories in parallel.) Sean and Daniel somehow meet up with Cassidy and Finn, then begin working on an illegal weed farm in Northern California to save up cash for Mexico. The campgrounds in the woods is liberating and constrictive at once. These folks are free to do what they please outside of work, but have a rigid regimen when laboring for a dangerous landowner and his goon partner.

A standout sequence of this episode is a fireside gathering, where group members exchange depressing stories. It’s uniquely powerful to hear everyone speak so openly about their lives, and reinforces a general theme that looking towards the future can help alleviate hurt caused by one’s past. Both Sean and Daniel can share memories, depending on player action.

This portion also allows choices related to sexuality. Finn presents as bisexual, while Cassidy is interested in men and flirts with Sean. The player can romance either, which is refreshing and speaks to the freedom theme. Our protagonist is at the age where he’s still exploring his sexuality, so it’s a poignant sequence that shows he’s still so young despite having the responsibility of caring for his brother.

As noted, the episode concludes with an intense sequence that I won’t spoil. Other than to say that Daniel and the player have a lot to learn about how powerful he can be.

At this conclusion, multiple mysteries are still unfolding. There’s the overall trajectory of the boys’ intention to reach Mexico juxtaposed against the allure of settling down. Is that even realistic? Can they ever return to their childhood town? The lingering questions about their mother remain, especially as the Diaz boys disagree: Daniel wishes to track her down while Sean wants nothing to do with her.

One critique is that I wish it had more details on choices and consequences after you finished a sequence, similar to the flow chart approach of Detroit: Become Human. Each episode shows a recap of decision points, though provides less detail than its peer.

Another minor point is that you can circle back in what’s called “Collectible” mode, however these don’t apply to your main save. I wish that any souvenir or backpack customization option found in this mode could be used during my main progression. It’s fun to make Sean’s backpack look unique, but I don’t want to reply entire sections just to get those I’ve missed.

Misery surrounds the Diaz brothers. However, they fight to avoid being defined by it. There’s a youthful hopefulness in their progression, especially Daniel’s innocence amidst great power, that I really would like to carry throughout the remaining installments.

Strangely enough: Despite their dreadful circumstances, I’m continually hopeful.

Sources: Dontnod Entertainment, Square Enix, Screenshots captured on Microsoft’s Xbox One X.

-Dom

Days Gone Is Mostly Mediocre, Morbidly Mundane And Will Still Sell Better Than Many PS4 Exclusives

Disclaimer: This is not a review, as I have not completed the game yet. It’s a series of impressions and sales predictions. Minor spoilers follow.

I went into Days Gone, the latest in post-apocalyptic PlayStation 4 exclusives, mostly curious. Minimal expectations, hoping to be surprised. I’ve felt this way since Sony revealed it back during 2016, when it was featured prominently during its E3 stage show.

Turns out that the open world biker game did in fact surprise me. Just, not in a good way.

Made by Sony’s Bend Studio out of Bend, Oregon, a team known for the Syphon Filter series and handheld Uncharted titles, Days Gone checks all the boxes for features in a standard “AAA open world” game, though fails to deliver anything extraordinary with any one of them.

The third-person game opens on the semi-ridiculous premise that the protagonist, Deacon Saint John, leaves his wounded wife Sarah to fly away to a government camp while a mysterious outbreak occurs around him, to stay behind with his best bro Boozer. I appreciate the “no man left behind” mentality, though couldn’t help feel both contempt and indifference towards Deacon after seeing him abandon his helpless lover. A main character doesn’t have to be likeable (see: Joel from The Last of Us, Nico Bellic from Grand Theft Auto IV), though I should at least give a damn about him.

Fast forward a couple years, the Pacific Northwest setting is overrun by infected (I refuse to call them Freakers and I’m mad that I just did), scumbags, settlers, wildlife and “drifters” like Deacon, who considers himself honorable because of an ambiguous code which I gather is mostly that he doesn’t kill women. Unless he has to, of course.

What follows is a classic example of bloated modern game design, flooding the player with crafting, skills and systems to satisfy the endorphin rush of seeing an experience bar increase or watching numbers go up.

Within the first half hour, I was forced to smash infected children (who Deacon specifically said would mind their own business if I left them alone), because they were in my way to an objective. The game said I could avoid them then put them right in my path, overwhelming me with enemies. In fact, main missions so far have been overly restrictive to the point of “Leaving Area” signals alerting you incessantly if you stray too far.

Movement is rigid, which means Deacon is occasionally difficult to control, especially when enemies are off-screen and the camera can’t quite catch up to controller inputs.

Driving the bike is mostly competent, though the gas mileage is unforgiving early on. Who wants to stop constantly in a video game to fill up their virtual gas tank, when we do that enough as it is in real life?

Thing is, I’d be mostly forgiving of flaws if the actual content was fun. Turns out, there’s not much to it outside of the campaign. See that infected nest? Throw a molotov cocktail into it. See that outpost? Murder everyone. See that government checkpoint? Cut down the speakers, fill the generator with gas and open its doors. Then do it again. And again. Until you find another one, where you can do it all over again.


Then there’s the camp system. One of the early camps is run by a freedom fighting gun nut, whose worst offense is that he feeds obnoxious radio blasts into your ear. Which you can thankfully skip.

It’s the other camp that bothers me. It’s run by effectively a slaver operating a “labor camp.” You’d think Deacon would want to capture this camp and free its prisoners, based on his apparent moral compass, but I don’t think the game allows for that decision. You can, however, gain access to new guns when you help its leader by doing jobs or sending random survivors to work in the digging fields. And from what I can tell, there’s no consequence of choosing to work with one group over another. So morality be damned, in the name of sweet guns and bike upgrades!

I haven’t even mentioned the technical issues I’ve faced or heard from impressions online. From enemies disappearing, characters and the bike getting stuck on geometry or falling through the world, slow loading times and severe audio glitches, it’s not deal-breaking though can be annoying when considering the game’s other flaws. (Fingers crossed for more patches, since the game was already updated multiple times in classic day-one tradition.)

I’d be remiss to mention that there are certain aspects I’m enjoying, or at least aren’t interfering with my progress. It isn’t all negative, I want to make this absolutely clear.

It’s mostly stunning when it comes to visuals and art design. The setting is picturesque, and the attention to detail in parts of the world is exceptional. The artists and animators at Bend did a heck of a job. Tire treads kick up mud with a slogging sound. Light shines through tree branches before glinting off water. A foreboding sky reveals infinite stars as dusk approaches. For a dreary game, it can be remarkably majestic.

The infected horde tech is impressive, showing dozens upon dozens of distinct enemy bodies all at once that flow together like rainwater down a drainpipe. Bike customization is cool, though I wish there were more stimulating visual options. There’s a good variety of weaponry, throwables and traps for your forays into the wilderness, and shooting is competent enough. Crossbow bolts that cause enemies to turn on one another is an especially fun toy.

Survival elements aren’t overly difficult or constrictive, though it involves searching. A lot of searching. And holding down the search button. Which can break up the pacing of the game, especially when running low on materials. This was one of the main critiques of Red Dead Redemption 2, and it’s just as bad here.

Excitingly, I finally hit a narrative beat that opened up a level of intrigue. Enough so that I will be playing more to see where it goes and if the game can change my mind at all.

Here’s the thing. I’m fine being an outlier when it comes to my tastes or experiences. This time, I’m far from the only one who feels this way. Consensus on review aggregator OpenCritic is sitting at “Fair,” with less than half of the 90 critics recommending it.

One particular piece that expresses my overall hesitation is authored by Patrick Klepek at Waypoint. He writes:


Days Gone refuses to settle on what it wants to be or what it wants to say. Rather than settling on a direction, it proceeds in all directions, hoping a more-is-better philosophy will prove blinding. This is true of both the clumsy mechanics, which are ever present and impossible to ignore, and its story, following the boring moral compass of biker Deacon St. John, who roams the world in the years after an event turned the whole world to shit, claiming to operate by a “code” but refusing to allow said code to operationally manifest into action.

Marvel’s Spider-Man is currently the fastest-selling PS4 exclusive.

Mine and Patrick’s thoughts aside, where does this leave us in terms of commercial potential?

I’ve joked about it in the past, and said that I started tepid on its sales prospects. The irony is that, despite my impressions and the average critical assessments, I now actually think it will sell relatively well. Better than many games exclusive to the platform, if not becoming one of the three fastest-selling to date.

This distinction currently belongs to 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man and God of War, which sold 3.3 million and 3.1 million units respectively during their first three days on market. These are excellent figures, though I wrote last year that I expected a licensed property like Spidey to perform that way.

Next up, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End moved 2.7 million units in a single week during 2016. Ever so slightly behind that was 2017’s Horizon: Zero Dawn at 2.6 million copies, though it was across two weeks.

Right about here is where I expect Days Gone to settle at launch. Between 2.5 and 3 million units, within say the next two weeks. Which means it will beat out games like Killzone Shadow Fall (2013), Bloodborne (2015), Detroit: Become Human (2017) and Nioh (2017), which all saw a million units near launch except for Killzone, which hit 2.1 million within a couple months on sale. (Detroit and Nioh are no longer platform exclusive, though were near launch.)

Sony has intensified its marketing push lately, not just in retail but also online and traditional media. Big networks like ESPN have been steadily running promos. Plus if there’s one thing that people like these days, it’s post apocalypses and zombies. Early rumblings are positive in terms of shipments from Sony, according to my bud Benji. And I expect demand especially from casual buyers will be enough to purchase most of those inventories going to retailers.

Similarly, I predict it will be the best-selling game of April in the United States, when NPD Group reports sales results next month.

After this mostly successful launch, how will it sell longer term? I can see it maybe settling right at the bottom of 2019’s Top 10 sellers, though as an exclusive it’s already at a disadvantage compared with multi-platform titles. The more titles hit release dates in this year, the tougher it gets. Lifetime units sales of 7-8 million is feasible, especially as the console’s user base approaches 100 million.

It’s always a question if single-player games can maintain strong momentum over time. At least out of the gate, I think Days Gone is more likely to.. accelerate to success than not.

All this said, should you play it? (I know many of you will, just look at my sales prediction.) Well, depends on what you like. The ultimate problem with Days Gone is that it tries to do so many things, then loses any semblance of focus. Maybe it suffered from feature creep, trying to do much more than originally intended. Or it bolted on too much close to launch. Perhaps a lack of decisive leadership during its earlier stages. What’s clear is there are other games that do these things, and do them very well, that I’d rather play.

Do you like a massive, beautiful world to explore? Play Red Dead Redemption 2.

Want stealth action and engaging character arcs? Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.

Like storming enemy encampments and taking over areas? Pick a Far Cry.

Zombies and crafting with a dynamic night-and-day cycle? Dying Light.

A sprawling world with expertly-written side quests? The Witcher 3.

Ranged combat encounters with unique enemies? Horizon: Zero Dawn.

Cinematic narrative in a post-apocalypse: The Last of Us. (Seriously if you haven’t played it, you should be doing so instead of reading this.)

Technical hiccups, repetitive side content, stiff movement, serviceable shooting, laughable enemy AI plus lots and lots of rifling through cars or houses to find crafting materials? Which are used to get caught in a tailspin of monotonous gameplay loops which serve only to make experience bars fill up, all the while questioning why you should empathize with its characters?

Shoot. Then I’d still probably play something else.

Sources: Sony Interactive Entertainment. Internet Games Database. Bend Studio. Quantic Dream. Insomniac Games. Team Ninja. From Software. Waypoint. Open Critic. Benji-Sales.

-Dom

Sony Reveals Record Gaming Sales But No New PlayStation Release Just Yet

If we learned anything from Sony Corp $SNE earlier today, it’s that it isn’t playing around when it comes to games.

The Japanese megacorp released its 2018 results, where it revealed solid overall stats and especially positive numbers within its Gaming & Network Services (G&NS) division. This includes PlayStation, downloads and related services i.e. PlayStation Plus.

Its PlayStation 4 console, released way back in 2013, has eclipsed 96.8 million in lifetime units shipped. It’s the 6th best-selling gaming platform ever, approaching the 101.63 million of the mighty popular Nintendo Wii. (Yes, the one that your grandparents even bought. To play virtual bowling.)

Quick rundown is that Sony’s total sales moved up slightly to $78 billion, while operating profit boosted 22% to over $8 billion. Sales for the final quarter came in above analyst forecast, while full-year outpaced Sony’s internal guidance.

Chart above focuses in on the gaming division, which generated a whopping $20.8 billion in sales and an increase of 75% in operating profit. This shows growth over time, using quarterly metrics, to put this record result in context.

A decline in hardware sales for the aging PlayStation 4 was offset by growth in software and subscription revenue, as PlayStation Plus members rose 6% to 36.4 million. You’ll see above that this is the best result for the “Network Services” part of this business unit, and that software is still as healthy as it’s ever been. Popular catalog titles like God of War and Marvel’s Spider-Man seem to be maintaining momentum, however Sony did not share updated individual stats on its major games.

On the hardware side, PS4 shipments were lower than the prior year however this was expected as we come up on next generation. The 17.8 million units came in above the firm’s estimate, and is helping to drive toward the lifetime 100 million threshold as mentioned before.

However, there’s an important flip side to the stellar numbers that causes me to have some hesitation for its short term prospects. (Despite remaining way optimistic longer term.)

While Sony tends to provide conservative forward-looking guidance, it’s especially the case this time. Even more so than expected, given how late in the console cycle its PlayStation business is plus unevenness in other units such as Xperia mobile phones. Operating income is expected to decline to $7.3 billion, on a 10% reduction in gaming profits. According to Bloomberg, this is below analyst consensus.

Even further, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, executives stated definitively that there will be no new PlayStation hardware released until at least a year from now. Effectively, it will go the entire next fiscal year without a new console. While it’s still projecting modest PlayStation 4 units, 16 million to be exact, this revelation along with weaker-than-expected financial forecasts and uncertainty with its games software lineup, is why I’m tepid on Sony’s short-term prospects.

It does have major games in the pipeline, including The Last of Us: Part II from Naughty Dog, Death Stranding from Hideo Kojima’s new studio and Ghost of Tsushima from Sucker Punch. Though we don’t know when any of these will be out. There’s even the possibility that one or more will be saved for next generation’s launch later in 2020. Combine this with no new console, it’s clear why Sony is being conservative.

Ultimately, while I applaud the absolutely stellar results, I’m somewhat hesitant shorter term. I don’t believe it can meet its gaming unit forecast without at least two of the three aforementioned titles, as the boost from the usual multi-platform games will exist regardless.

Thus, what will be the driving factor without new hardware or multiple flagship games? Which of its major titles will release in the next year? Upside is that we’ll know soon, one way or another.

Sources: Sony Investor Relations. Wall Street Journal. Bloomberg.

-Dom

Nintendo Reports Best Results in Nearly a Decade Despite Missing Switch Target

Shuntaro Furukawa, Nintendo’s President.

Japanese gaming giant Nintendo shared its latest annual results today. I didn’t want to jump (like Mario, get it?) to conclusions, so I’ve read through carefully. The outcome? I’m equal parts impressed and cautious, the former due to the results themselves and the latter due to where executives see the company next year.

The good news is that the games manufacturer hasn’t experienced this sort of financial bump in years. In particular, software is performing incredibly well even compared to its estimates. It broke through the forecast of 110 million to an impressive 118.55 million copies sold during this latest year, on the strength of titles like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.

If the teams working at or with Nintendo are experts at one thing, it’s making compelling games specifically for its platforms. While Switch hardware numbers often grab headlines, it’s the quality of games that support its business. A console can’t succeed without the support of a software lineup.

Diving into some numbers for a moment, I’ve built the above chart to illustrate results over time and expand on my headline. This is net revenue, which is overall sales achieved by Nintendo. Current revenue figure is around $10.8 billion when converted to dollars, though the chart is in local currency.

Similarly the above shows operating profit, which takes into account certain expenses. Another quality result, driven by the higher revenue offsetting slightly increased sales including those from selling and marketing its products.

Downside though is that its current generation Switch console saw sales of 16.95 million units, which means it fell short of the 17 million Nintendo expected to sell during this time frame. In fact, this target was initially upwards of 20 million around this time last year. Turns out that both of these figures were optimistic.

Which leads me back to my point on software sales, and why they are so key to Nintendo’s success. Many individual offerings are maintaining impressive momentum, especially those we’d call “evergreen” which means they are more timeless than others. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe remains the best-selling title on Switch, hitting 16.69 million units compared to just above 15 million last quarter. For a game that technically had its start on Nintendo’s prior generation Wii U device, this is excellent and conveys the power of a fine family-friendly multiplayer game.

Super Mario Odyssey and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate round out the Top 3, with 14.44 million and 13.81 million copies to date respectively. While I expected stellar results from Odyssey, it’s Smash that is the real winner here, fighting its way towards the top of the list.

So. If it’s doing so well financially, and selling software, why might I be cautious?

Well, because of where Nintendo itself expects to go. It’s just as much about guidance as it is results. Guidance which I consider to be conservative, and even timid considering its upcoming prospects.


First, the firm anticipates 18 million Switch units and 125 million software units in the year ending March 2020, which would be up a modest 6% and 5% respectively. On the financial side, execs think both sales and profit will increase 4%. These are.. lackluster, though not entirely unexpected given this past year’s result and considering the new leadership of President Shuntaro Furukawa.

Given the rumors of new Switch models as early as this year, plus key software titles in Super Mario Maker 2 (announced for a late June release), Pokemon Sword & Shield and a new Animal Crossing, I was hoping for more ambitious targets from Nintendo. This is also supported by recent reports of expansion into the world’s largest gaming market of China, which to call a massive opportunity is an understatement.

Still. Maybe some of these drivers are further out that I thought. During the call associated with this earnings release, President Furukawa revealed they won’t be talking new hardware or revisions during June’s major Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) event. We’ll have to wait further to see if the manufacturer will try to bolster sales using either a “mini” iteration or a more powerful version of the Switch. There’s also no timeline for the China expansion, so that could push further into future fiscal periods.

One additional point before we wrap up:

Nintendo’s foray into mobile continues, with the beta for the previously-announced Mario Kart Tour beginning this summer. This past year, mobile titles like Dragalia Lost drove growth of 17% within its mobile segment to just over $400 million in sales. It’s certainly a small portion of the overall business, however it’s the one segment that many cite, including myself, as having the best upside.

All told, Nintendo’s solid financial performance is undeniable. However, I see a disconnect between what I expect for its future prospects and what the company itself thinks. Similar to fans of upcoming games like Bayonetta 3 and Metroid Prime 4, which are currently listed as “To Be Announced” in Nintendo’s pipeline, I’m left both wanting and quite curious about what the future holds.

Sources: Nintendo Investor Relations. Bloomberg. Wall Street Journal. Fortune.

-Dom

Microsoft’s Annual Gaming Revenue Exceeds $11.6 Billion For The First Time

Phil Spencer, Head of Microsoft’s Xbox division.

For Microsoft $MSFT, having one’s head in the Cloud is turning out to be a smart decision.

According to the company’s fiscal 2019 3rd quarter earnings results today, it reported revenue of $30.6 billion. An increase of 14% compared to the prior year, and a figure that comes in above analyst expectations. Operating profit jumped 25% to over $10 billion. Growth is mainly attributed to the firm’s cloud offerings and productivity suite.

Going further, how did the Xbox gaming division fare? The answer is that it broke yet another record.

As you’ll see in the above chart, Xbox gaming revenue exceeded $11.6 billion for the trailing 12-month period for the first time since the company began reporting this specific metric. This breaks the record of $11.5 billion set last quarter. In fact, revenue has been steadily growing for the Xbox business during the later part of the Xbox One generation of hardware, which began in late 2013.

Quarterly gaming sales eclipsed $2.36 billion, up 5% since this time last year. Attributed to 12% increase in Xbox software and services, which offset a drop in hardware likely due to both market saturation and discounting. Microsoft notes that software and service results were boosted by “third party monetization” and “subscriptions growth.”

Edit: While profit metrics aren’t shared for gaming itself, there is a small comment giving a bit of insight:

“Gross margin percentage increased due to sales mix shifts to higher margin businesses in Gaming and Windows.”

Translation: Gaming is shifting to higher margin businesses, which benefits profitability. Unfortunately, I don’t see much else on the profit side.

Allow me to translate that last part for you:

Xbox Live monthly active users totaled 63 million compared to 59 million last year. The more people subscribe, the more they become embedded in the ecosystem and purchase content on the digital store. Each online buy provides a revenue slice for Xbox.

Then, like so many parties involved, it’s making a boatload of cash as its players spend in online battle royale games Fortnite and now Apex Legends. This phenomenon is not only keeping players around, but more importantly attracting new ones. Which is especially key as the current hardware generation ages.

So. How is Xbox achieving milestones when it’s not selling Xboxes?

It’s the renewed focus on expanding player services and reinforcing customer goodwill. Xbox has fully established its Game Pass offering, where players pay a monthly fee for access to a library of digital titles. It’s attracting major publishers to participate, grabbing games like Capcom’s Monster Hunter: World and Square Enix’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider. While we don’t have statistics on how Game Pass did this quarter, there’s no doubt it’s bolstering the service side.

Another attractive offering is backwards compatibility, where titles from prior generations work on the Xbox One family of devices. It’s certainly not a deal-breaker or a system-seller, though it’s still a distinguishing feature.

Oh. And did I mention battle royale?

Now don’t get me wrong. The hardware decline is a moderate concern. However it’s not uncommon that a downturn happens when a console is approaching its seventh year on market. And revenue growth is still happening despite lackluster hardware results. I fully anticipate middling hardware sales in the foreseeable future, until next generation. The good news is that both battle royale and these various services aren’t going anywhere.

With all-but-confirmed rumors that the firm is building its next generation of gaming hardware for a potential 2020 launch, Microsoft’s gaming division is using services as a way to generate business and maintain its user base for the time being. And based on today’s report, it’s working.


Source: Microsoft Investor Relations & Press Resources. Xbox.com. Windows Central.

-Dom

New Look, Updated Approach. Still Working, Always Casual.

Hi friends!

You’ll notice there’s been a bit of a change here. A new look. I’ve got other visual changes in the works, to make this space more unique, though for now let’s roll with the “minimalist” design.

This fresh look fits with a theme I’m bringing to the site: More activity, an enhanced critical perspective, better research and analysis plus even more writing about previews, impressions and my experiences with games and technology.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s always been very fun. I’d just like it to be lots more fun. Have additional people stop by. Promote even more interactions here and on social media.

In the past, I haven’t been as active as I’d like. I’ve used this space mostly for random posts and earnings calendars. I talk to a lot of you on Twitter about games, business, tech and media however it’s sometimes difficult to expand on thoughts and topics on that type of platform.

Which brings me back to the here and now. I’m expanding my writing from being analytical and commercial to building a better critical voice as well. Stepping into previews and even full reviews. Not just analysis but impressions. Think pieces as a result of research and experience. What do I think of a game or piece of tech, and how can I best share it with you? And how can I best accept you challenging my research and opinions?

As part of this, I’m attempting to get better and earlier access to the things produced by the hard work of very talented people. Being proactive in reaching out to public relations and community managers, trying to build relationships there that will be mutually beneficial. If you are a developer, indie team, PR, social manager or really anyone involved in making games, producing tech or with media experience, please reach out in the comments, at my email address or Twitter.

I can’t promise I’ll post all the time, but I can promise I’ll be here more often and discuss even more topics. Let’s see where it goes. And I know there will be feedback. I look forward to hearing from you! Thanks as always for your time in visiting.

-Dom

Earnings Calendar Apr & May 2019: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Updated: April 29, 2019

Back again!

Which means, let’s get down to.. business. Here’s the rundown of notable dates for gaming, technology and media results this quarter. Many fiscal periods end in March, so we’ll see a bevy of annual results during the next couple months. Which obviously means extra fun, all around.

See the above calendar image or below for a Google Doc which offers quick access to each investor site.

After that, I’ve highlighted three companies that I’ll be watching closely. What about you? Let me know here or on Twitter. Thanks for swinging by!

Working Casual Earnings Calendar Apr & May 2019: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Nintendo Co., Ltd (NTDOY): Thursday, April 25th.

It’s true that Nintendo makes this list virtually every quarter, though it’s especially noteworthy as its Switch hybrid console moves into its third year on market. It’s the end of the Japanese company’s 2019 fiscal year, one in which it previously predicted sales of 20 million Switch units. However, it recently backtracked to say this goal would not be reached. I was bullish on the hardware in recent posts, and still am even if it misses this lofty target, namely because of the rumor that two new models may be out soon. Not to mention its stellar software output. Nintendo has undoubtedly the most prolific short-term lineup of the “big three” manufacturers, with Super Mario Maker 2, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Luigi’s Mansion 3, a new mainline Animal Crossing plus, most importantly, its flagship Pokemon Sword & Shield due in Q4. In fact, regardless of hardware, I expect software numbers to be above its guidance of 110 million copies from its last report.

Take-Two Interactive Software Inc (TTWO): Monday, May 13th.

Red Dead Redemption 2 from Take-Two Interactive’s Rockstar Games had an amazing launch last October and was the best-selling game last year in the States, wrangling a whopping 23 million copies moved globally to date per last quarter’s results. However, there are questions about how much momentum its Red Dead Online mode can sustain amidst heavy saturation in the online multiplayer space. The good news? One of its main competitors is Grand Theft Auto Online, also owned and published by Take-Two. Separate of Rockstar, I’m anticipating we could see increased guidance from the publisher now that Gearbox Software has announced Borderlands 3 for a September release. A new game in the Borderlands franchise combined with 2K Games’ steady-selling NBA 2K this fall is why I’m predicting the firm could not just boost its forecast going forward, but also then achieve it.

Ubisoft Entertainment (UBI): Wednesday, May 15th.

This will be the French gaming software maker’s annual earnings and the first report after the release of Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, the successor to 2016’s record-breaking Tom Clancy’s The Division. Early indicators are showing strength, though it will be difficult to eclipse the massive $330 million opening week of the original. We also should hear Ubisoft reiterate its plan for 3 to 4 “AAA” titles through March 2020. Especially important since there’s no Assassin’s Creed game in 2019. (Fans can rest easy knowing that it will return in 2020, in what’s likely going to be a Viking setting.) Many expect the lineup to include the previously announced pirate game Skull & Bones, a third Watch Dogs entry plus potentially a Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell title. I’m not holding my breath on the last one. I’m leaning towards a sequel to 2017’s more action-heavy Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands. Even though the publisher will likely save full reveals for the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) gaming conference upcoming in June, any juicy tidbit or guidance adjustment would give a better indication of how its pipeline is.. rounding out.

As always, I appreciate you hanging out for discussion on the busy earnings season for companies in these sectors. Check back soon for updates to those that haven’t yet announced firm dates!

-Dom

Sources: Company Investor Relations Websites/Press Releases, NPD Group, Internet Game Database (IGDB), Nintendo Life, Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, Kotaku.

Earnings Calendar Jan & Feb 2019: Gaming, Tech & Media Companies

Updated: 1/29/2019

It’s a new year, which means another earnings season is underway!

Do you like numbers? And charts ? And corporate buzzwords like “tailwinds” or “compound growth?” Then you’ll dig the next few weeks as we’ll hear reports from major companies around the globe with updates on how each of them are doing.

(And if you don’t, you probably wouldn’t be here amirite?)

With a new earnings season comes my usual post, featuring essentially a calendar of events that no one visiting here wants to miss. Above is a snapshot, while below gives you access to a Google Doc for easy navigation to each investor site.


Working Casual Earnings Calendar Jan & Feb 2019: Gaming, Media & Tech Companies

Notable companies on my radar this quarter are:

There’s been a lot of chatter lately about Nintendo $NTDOY and whether it can hit its lofty hardware target of 20 million Switch units sold during its fiscal year ending in March. I’m on the record as being optimistic it will hit this goal, especially after December’s NPD sales report showing it was the best-selling console in the States during 2018. However I’m actually more interested in its software figures after hearing how well Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is tracking in particular after its December release.

In my recent piece about Capcom’s Resident Evil 2 Remake, I explained why I’m upbeat on the Japanese publisher’s latest title. Today the company revealed it’s shipped 3 million copies of this remake in its first week on sale, eclipsing the launch of Resident Evil 7 in 2017 which moved around 2.5 million. Between this resurgence and the ongoing support of Monster Hunter: World, I anticipate strong results when the firm reports on Monday, February 4th.

Major U.S. publisher Electronic Arts $EA has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately. Word of another Star Wars game being cancelled broke recently, its upcoming blockbuster game from BioWare called Anthem had a rocky demo this past weekend plus now the company has caved to pressures in Belgium to stop offering “loot box” transactions there for its FIFA franchise after local regulators deemed them gambling. The key here won’t be its actual results on February 5th, but instead its future guidance and overall tone when answering analyst questions. Especially with Anthem releasing next month.

What companies are you interested in hearing from this time around? Did I miss any that you want me to cover? Feel free to leave a message here or on Twitter, I’d be happy to chat. Thanks for stopping by.

-Dom

Sources: Company Investor Relations Websites/Press Releases, NPD Group, VentureBeat, Erica Griffin on YouTube, Kotaku, GamesIndustry.Biz, BioWare.

Can Resident Evil 2 Remake Outsell Its Predecessors?


The blog is no longer dead. You might call it.. undead!

Fittingly, Capcom kicks off a brand new year with another blockbuster January release, which is becoming its signature, with today’s launch of the remake/remaster/re-imagining of the second entry in its classic survival horror franchise, Resident Evil 2 Remake.

I’ve recently finished the game, which is based on the 1998 title of the same name, and even as a mostly casual fan I came away more impressed than I originally anticipated. Like the first, you fight through a devastated version of the fictional Racoon City, ravaged by a virus that’s turning folks into brain eaters. Players can proceed through similar yet diverging story lines from the perspectives of the game’s protagonists: rookie policeman Leon Kennedy and college-student-on-a-mission Claire Redfield.


As you’ll see in the video above, it’s a fantastic, total remake in the truest sense. The world in which shady big-pharma company Umbrella Corporation operates is rebuilt in the same game engine used for 2017’s Resident Evil 7. It features an over-the-shoulder perspective, redesigned familiar areas, new puzzles, plenty of undead enemies to fight and jump scares galore that are actually in different places that the original, to keep players on their toes.

While I still have qualms with some of its gameplay mechanics, especially a lack of punchy weapon feedback and the opaque, stumbling nature of some puzzles that you need to complete in order to proceed, I will admit Capcom and its R&D Division 1 development team sets a new standard for what this type of product should be. Fans of the original are going to devour it like a hungry zombie does when you turn the wrong corner, and I anticipate it will bring in a substantial new audience as well. Which is great news after stories regarding its difficult development cycle, documented recently by Polygon.

Though, let’s be honest. We like critiquing games here however we also really love to talk business! With my critical thoughts out of the way, let’s turn to the series from a commercial standpoint and do some predicting on where this remake will fall in its storied history.

Resident Evil is Capcom’s highest-selling franchise by a wide margin, moving over 85 million copies across its dozen-ish mainline titles and numerous alternate versions, spin-offs, remasters etc. The next closest is Monster Hunter, with 52 million. Four of the company’s six best-selling individual releases ever are Resident Evil games, as you’ll see later in this post. Like the game’s signature G-Virus monster, it’s a behemoth. And a core reason why Capcom remains one of Japan’s most successful game publishers. Especially with the resurgence that began with Resident Evil 7 two years ago, which is approaching nearly 6 million units on its own.

So, can Resident Evil 2 Remake shamble its way up the list to take a bite out of the original and other all-time Capcom best-sellers?

I’m betting that it can, and will, do very well. Especially its first few weeks. Though I’m skeptical it can eclipse the likes of the more action-oriented Resident Evil 5 and Resident Evil 6 which are the best-selling in the series at 7.4 million and 7.2 million units, respectively. I expect Resident Evil 2 Remake can and will outpace the original, plus both launch window and eventual lifetime sales of Resident Evil 7. Which will be impressive, considering that the original was the fastest-selling title in North America at the time of its release in 1998, hitting 5 million copies alone during launch year.

If I had to put a number on it, which I like to do because anyone can say it will “sell well” and look back like got the prediction correct, I’m leaning in the 6.5 million lifetime range. Check the chart below for some context. I’m thinking it will basically align with Resident Evil 2 for its first year, then have good momentum through early next year as we won’t likely see another franchise title just yet.

Why? Early indicators are upbeat, including review aggregators like OpenCritic showing scores in the low 90’s. Critical reception and word-of-mouth has been overwhelmingly positive. Its “1-Shot Demo,” where players could grab a version of the game for free and play for a half hour ahead of release, has been downloaded nearly 2.7 million times as of today.

Going further, a well-done rebuild of an older game has the dual appeal of feeling like something totally new while also tickling gamer nostalgia. And I would argue that nostalgia is a more important factor in the medium of games than any other. Especially when it comes to return to an older style within a long-running franchise, plus a remake that’s so expertly-crafted like this one is.

Lastly, its release window is darn near perfect. Capcom has been smart in releasing new Resident Evil and Monster Hunter games during the past three January’s now, a month that is usually a slower one for the games industry. The prior two years have seen very impressive commercial showings from Capcom, especially Monster Hunter: World which is currently the firm’s best-selling individual title of all time. And ultimately, I anticipate this smart release timing along with the familiarity of the franchise, nostalgia for a return to older games, the indicators from the demo and the outright quality of this version will drive impressive sales for Resident Evil 2 Remake.

So, what about you? Am I being brain dead, and overly optimistic? Or do you actually think the remake will outpace the 5th and 6th installments in the series? Link up here or on Twitter, and thanks as always for.. shuffling through!

-Dom




Sources: Capcom Investor Relations, ResidentEvil.net, Outside Xbox, Polygon, Capcom Fandom, My own Xbox One X for screenshots.

2018 Year-in-Review: Dom’s Top 10 Games of the Year

Hi all. It has certainly been a slow writing year for me here at the blog, though I try to maintain activity on Twitter as much as I can! With this last post of the year, I wanted to celebrate all the great times I had with notable games that so many dedicated development teams worked on during the past 12 months.

Let’s get right to it. Here are my Top 10 Games of 2018, in descending order. Plus, some bonus mentions at the bottom. Each is listed alongside developer, publisher, platforms and sales.

Which of these did you check out? Did any of these make your list? I certainly hope so!

10. Florence (Mountains, Annapurna Interactive)

Platforms: Mobile. Android & iOS.

Sales: Was tracking well early according to lead designer Ken Wong. Over 10K downloads on Android, 5K ratings on iOS.

Mountains’ Florence is nowhere near a typical mobile game. More of an interactive visual novel. Though it’s the type of game that wouldn’t work nearly as well on a platform *other than* mobile. It uses its platform masterfully to tell the tale of a couple in their 20s, from random encounter to honeymoon period to an inevitable rough patch. Its main mechanic is using the touch screen to literally piece things together (or attempt to do so) as an emotional narrative plays out. One that comes to an unconventional conclusion, and leaves a lasting impression as a result.

9. Celeste (Matt Makes Games)

Platforms: Everything, except mobile.

Sales: At least 500K units, according to the game’s creator Matt Thorson. Hugely successful for a smaller-sized indie team!

Celeste is a 2D platformer about struggle, mental health and attempting to overcome your internal criticisms to achieve an aspiration. As main character Madeline climbs Celeste mountain, the challenging gameplay combines with a suite of characters and a killer soundtrack to reveal it’s ultimately an allegory for setting a goal then dealing with obstacles on the way to fulfilling it. It’s a fine video game, frustrations and all.

8. Marvel’s Spider-Man (Insomniac Games, Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 4.

Sales: 3.3 million units its first 3 days, an all-time record for a PS4 exclusive. Currently stands as the 6th best-selling game of 2018 in the States.

For a medium that seems a perfect fit for superheros, not many recent games capture the essence of being one quite like Marvel’s Spider-Man. Insomniac stuck what I think is most important for the fantasy of being Spidey: effortless, stylish swinging through Manhattan then kicking the crap out of bad guys. While the game has snoozer side activities, annoying stealth sequences and uneven pacing, its gameplay, stellar 3rd act and surprisingly intimate character moments sling it above many 2018 games.

7. Return of the Obra Dinn (Lucas Pope, 3909)

Platforms: Windows. MacOS.

Sales: At least 100K units in around 2 months, per SteamSpy.

If you said a game made predominantly by one person that’s only available on PC/Mac where you play as an insurance adjuster would make my list, I would’ve looked at you like you were a kraken. But just last week, I finally played the game every critic I respect couldn’t stop talking about since its October ship date. It’s a sort of murder-mystery that tells the story of a doomed East India Company sea vessel called the Obra Dinn, via minimalist art and moment-in-time vignettes. Gameplay consists of navigating these snapshot memories using a magical watch, deducing what happened to crew members and passengers during the ill-fated journey. The sheer triumph of figuring out each fate becomes infectious, all the way through its conclusion and final reveal.

6. Monster Hunter: World (Capcom)

Platforms: Xbox One. PlayStation 4. Windows.

Sales: A whopping 10.7 million units. The best-selling single retail release in Capcom’s storied history, not counting re-releases.

This was the earliest major release of 2018, and the first time Capcom’s popular Monster Hunter franchise hit major consoles after being very popular on handhelds in Japan. A global audience latched onto the quirky, humorous fun of an action role-playing game where you hunt gargantuan wild creatures in a variety of detailed locales. Not only is the combat super satisfying, all of its systems blend to keep players engaged: studying animals, gathering supplies, crafting weapons, purchasing items, upgrading gear and taking on quests. Plus, it has cooperative multiplayer. And you hunt alongside a cat friend. It’s a “Palico.” That calls you Meow-ster. Purr-fect!

5. Yoku’s Island Express (Villa Gorilla, Team17)

Platforms: Xbox One. PlayStation 4. Nintendo Switch. Windows.

Sales: Not available.

I couldn’t write this list without including at least something pinball related. And Yoku’s Island Express isn’t just related, it’s pinball in video game form with a genius twist. Villa Gorilla ingeniously built a 2D world that integrates traditional pinball features like flippers and bumpers that allow for traversal across its environments. The player works toward unlocking areas, discovering secrets, finding collectibles and even fighting bosses using pinball as a means to achieve these goals. The controllable character is Yoku, a cute beetle-turned-postman, who delivers items across a cheerful world that’s unfortunately plagued by a dark curse. It’s the smartest synthesis of pinball and video game that I can remember, plus it features a joyful soundtrack and amusing dialogue. I had a ball!

4. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (Ubisoft)

Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch (Streaming in Japan Only), Windows.

Sales: Unit sales aren’t explicitly available, as often happens with major publishers. Ubisoft shared that 1st week sales set a record for the franchise on current generation. Currently the 10th best-selling game of 2018 in the States.

It may feel like the Assassin’s Creed franchise has been around for ages, before Assassins and Templars started beefing. Odyssey is nearly its dozenth mainline title, seeing the player take the role of Alexios or Kassandra, a pair of Spartan twins embroiled in political, societal and even mythical battles as mercenaries in ancient Greece. I don’t say it lightly that it’s one of the best entries in the series. (Yes, even after I said the same about Origins last year.) Some argue it’s shifting further from the series’ tradition, with its enhanced role-playing elements, loot system, dialogue trees, romance options and skill trees. I argue that this is progression. Ubisoft is continually expanding on the stealth-action base of its past. Other than a lackluster conclusion for one of the major plot lines, I have very little to complain about for this sharpest of entries.

3. Tetris Effect (Monstars/Resonair, Enhance Inc)

Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation VR. (I’d love a Switch version, please!)

Sales: Not available.

You aren’t suffering from seeing things, like you would if you were experiencing The Tetris Effect. There is a new Tetris game in my top three. We all know Tetris is one of the best games ever. I believe that Tetris Effect, produced by Mark MacDonald alongside visionary Japanese designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, is the singular best Tetris game ever since the original.

Its presentation is flawless. Expertly-crafted backgrounds alone would be an experience in sensory bliss. Then, its sound design is legendary. Blips of auditory delights trigger with every tetromino spin, placement and drop, accentuating its uplifting, modern new age soundtrack. It’s not without innovations, either. Players can trigger Zone, a slow motion mechanic that provides for crazy combos. There’s Journey, a curated experience through many of its levels. Its Effect mode allows players to level up and compete on leader boards. Not to mention, it’s fully playable in virtual reality. Moments of synesthesia aplenty, Tetris Effect is borderline transcendental.

2. God of War (Sony Santa Monica Studio, Sony Interactive Entertainment)

Platforms: PlayStation 4.

Sales: 3.1 million units at launch, a record for a PS4 exclusive game until Marvel’s Spider-Man released. Currently at least 5 million copies.

It’s very telling that Sony’s God of War is this high on my list, as I have little nostalgia for the over-the-top action franchise. Its main character, the rage-filled god Kratos, carries over from the earlier trilogy. Though it’s effectively a brand new game set within a gorgeous world crafted this time around Norse mythology rather than Greek. It’s a technical marvel, with game director Cory Barlog and team achieving a single camera cut for the entire duration. Positively stunning visuals, though uneven performance at times. Combat with the new Leviathan Axe is wholly satisfying, especially throwing it at a group of enemies and recalling it. Admittedly, the base combat can be repetitive but each skill unlock reveals the true depth of its systems.

With this said, the game truly shines in its story, character moments and monumental boss sequences. It’s hard to think I’m actually describing a God of War game in this way, but it’s all true and that’s why it’s this high on my list. The plot revolves around an older Kratos attempting to fulfill his wife’s dying wish of spreading her ashes, now accompanied by his half divine son and combat partner Atreus (whom the player can direct during combat and puzzle sequences). Certain Norse figures show up, including Baldur, Freya and the prolific, hilarious storyteller Mimir. The father-son dynamic drives this epic quest along, which ends in an unexpected place and surprisingly captivated me with its narrative elements above all else.

1. Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Games, Take-Two Interactive)

Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4.

Sales: $725 million in dollar sales during its first weekend. 17 million units in its initial two weeks. The second best-selling game of 2018 in the States. Not too shabby, partner.

This year, Grand Theft Auto developer Rockstar Games returned to the Western setting with the spectacular Red Dead Redemption 2. As a prequel to 2010’s Red Dead Redemption, one of my favorite games of last generation, I was both extremely excited and cautiously optimistic when it was announced. I’m happy to report it vastly exceeded any expectations I had, however lofty. This open world action game’s primary storyline delves into the gang formed by eloquent criminal Dutch Van der Linde, with the player controlling the crew’s second-in-command named Arthur Morgan. He’s a flawed man, loyal to a fault yet still shows the capacity for good deeds and compassion. The game allows you to interact with every character in the world, and ultimately decide what “your Arthur” becomes via a morality scale. The voice acting and motion capture across the board here, for all characters though especially gang members, is extraordinary. Additionally, we see appearances from a variety of familiar faces from the original game: namely John Marston, Javier Escuella and Bill Williamson. Each of them alongside a myriad of new characters makes it feel more like a bustling settlement than many others I’ve seen within the genre.

I can’t understate how visually beautiful and detail complete RDR2 is. Every biome across its world, from snowy mountains to desolate plains to swampy bogs, is populated with fauna, animals, random characters and places to explore. Many games boast what’s called “emergent storytelling,” as in moments that a player will experience individually, separate of the curated quests or story beats. Few deliver on this promise as much as Rockstar does here. It rewards you for going out on your own, talking to people, finding strangers and helping them with their requests. Hunting, fishing, playing cards and more activities open up and each is masterfully executed. Some of them could be games on their own. In fact, these emergent moments are just as memorable if not more so than the game’s missions for me.

Speaking of missions, its overarching narrative is a standout especially in terms of the manner in which it’s conveyed. It’s obvious Rockstar is telling a certain story here, with cutscenes and cinematics interwoven to rival modern films. Sure, its mission design isn’t necessarily innovative. And it doesn’t allow for much player choice during said missions. But that’s by design! There’s freedom in every other aspect that more than makes up for this curation. Missions are usually tense and engaging, especially “major” events like heists or gang endeavors. Arthur and his fellow crew members are constantly on the run from the law or engaging with rivals, not to mention their Western dream of freedom is slowly dying to the progression ushered in by industrialism. There’s plenty of weight to the campaign, especially in later chapters as relationships clash or unravel, and Rockstar weaves moments of fan service with surprising twists to tie the game and its predecessor together.

I’m not saying it’s a perfect game, or even a game for everyone. Some of its menu and UI design is dated. It’s deliberate. Its “feel” can be sluggish until you get the hang of it. You don’t speed through its open world, you mosey. You savor it, as exhibited by Arthur’s movement as he skins each animal, loots each drawer and chats with each gang member or passerby. You hear their stories. And then, you make your own stories that exist alongside Rockstar’s.

I loved this pacing. I loved exploring, finding oddities and secrets that felt like only I had ever seen them before even though I know that’s not true. I virtually *became* a character in America during the late 1800s. I lived in Rockstar’s hyper-realistic, beautiful yet dangerous world for hours and hours, and savored every moment as much as Arthur did.

Before I wrap up, I would like to mention that Rockstar has been criticized for its demanding work practices. Many team members work long hours, especially right before release. This dedication absolutely shows in the final product. And there are those that expressed how much they love working for the studio. Either way, I am hopeful that every single person is compensated fairly for their efforts. Labor practices and company culture is way too big of an issue to discuss here, so I’ll end with saying that no one should have to suffer mentally or with their family just to produce a video game.

Honorable Mentions (Alphabetical Order)

Dead Cells (Motion Twin)

Platforms: Everything, except mobile.

Sales: Upwards of 2 million owners on PC alone per SteamSpy. Not available for console versions.

Dead Cells is the type of game that I shouldn’t have enjoyed, with its roguelike elements including permadeath and losing gear after every “run,” however it ended up being one of my favorite 2D action games of the year almost on feel alone. It’s at its best when you have a run during which you build a sweet load-out and slice through opponents like butter. Though I never actually beat the final boss because of the difficulty spike, which I mark as a knock against it even if you might disagree.

Destiny 2: Forsaken (Bungie, Activision Blizzard)

Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Windows.

Sales: The only official numbers we heard were for the original Destiny 2 launch in 2017, which was above 6.3 million units. Well beyond that by now, especially after sales and promotions, however exact figures are not available.

We all know I couldn’t end this post without at least mentioning Destiny. Bungie put out its major Forsaken expansion this September, marking the one year anniversary of Destiny 2’s initial release. And it’s excellent, featuring a campaign where lovable, witty robot Cayde-6 is murdered and the player must hunt down his killers. Plus, there’s a brand new raid, tons of new gear, secrets galore and a variety of quality-of-life updates. Bungie has kept up with maintaining Destiny 2 since launch, however this is the best it’s been. It’s as fun as ever to team up with friends and fight the galaxy’s most threatening enemies, while naturally looking pretty cool all the while.

Donut County (Ben Esposito, Annapurna Interactive)

Platforms: Everything.

Sales: At least 50K on PC, per SteamSpy. Otherwise, not available.

Have you ever dreamed of controlling a hole in the ground that swallows up entire towns? No? Creator Ben Esposito fulfills a desire that no one knew they had, crafting a fun-loving game with a simple mechanic. You move a hole around a map, growing with every item it swallows up until literally nothing remains. Its plot is actually solid, as friends Mina (a human) and BK (a racoon) work at a doughnut shop. BK plays a mobile game where he “delivers doughnuts” to people by sending them holes in the ground. It’s simple and funny, with slight undertones of a commentary on gentrification. The humor shines especially in its glossary, where each item is documented as it’s gobbled up. It’s also an accessible, easy to control game.

Hollow Knight (Team Cherry)

Platforms: Everything, except mobile.

Sales: Approximately 1.25 million units, when aggregating available PC and Nintendo Switch figures.

This entry is technically cheating, as Hollow Knight originally released in 2017. Its Switch launch happened this year, so that’s when I played it, and it’s sincerely excellent. The dark, dreary 2D action platformer stands out not just because of its challenging combat but because of its unique lore and creative world-building. It’s all about a lost kingdom of bugs, and those creatures that inhabit it. The player learns about secrets and mini-stories via exploration. Each time you proceed to a new area, you feel equal parts wonder and dread. It also has some of the most memorable boss sequences I’ve played the past couple of years.

Pokemon Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Pokemon Let’s Go, Eevee! (Game Freak, The Pokemon Company, Nintendo)

Platforms: Nintendo Switch.

Sales: In the two months since release, over 3 million units worldwide. The highest first week sales for a Switch title, until Super Smash Bros Ultimate hit 5 million at launch in December.

My final honorable mention is the latest set of adorable entries in the Pokemon franchise, which I’ll just call Let’s Go! because it’s a lot to type every time. These are re-made versions of 1998’s classic Pokemon Yellow featuring updating trappings inspired by 2016’s mobile phenomenon Pokemon Go. I grabbed the Pikachu version of Let’s Go!, of course, and loved building up my team of pocket monsters within the colorful world of Kanto, then using them to battle trainers and gym leaders. Favorite of my current squad? Arcanine. You can ride on its back, with Pikachu on your shoulder. That’s worth the price of entry alone!

There you have it. All the 2018 games worth playing! Well, there are other good games out there, but these are my selections for the best of the best. Thank you as always for reading, here’s wishing you all the best in the new year.

Sources: Photos are screenshots from my time with these games. Sales info as linked. Other information from company media and investor relations websites, Wikipedia, Venture Beat and NPD Group.

-Dom