God of War
Welcome to CNET's list of the best games of 2018. See this story for details on how we pulled together this list. Without further ado, let's jump straight to our top choices, presented in order -- and followed by honorable mentions. Note that CNET may receive a commission from the products featured in this gallery.
Our choice for best game of 2018 was God of War, which proved that sequelitis isn't what's calcifying tentpole games. A clear creative vision, lengthy development time, keen scripting and sharp gameplay all come together here. In an alternate universe, God of War is what the Legend of Zelda series became. A loosely guided romp through a world full of minor puzzles with the story development and deep combat Zelda has avoided. Plenty has been written about how superb God of War's storytelling is (which remains wild given how awful the franchise became), but its introduction of arcadey Dark Souls-like combat made the loop of "spot collectible opportunity, ride boat over, keep circling around on the boat to hear character dialog, land and tackle a bundle of enemies" satisfying throughout.
It's not often that story-driven games that take more than 20 hours leave you hungry for more. Compare it to Red Dead Redemption 2, where you wish people would just hurry up and get to the missions. Or Nier: Automata, where setting the game to autopilot is the only way to get through the second playthrough for the sake of getting to more story. God of War did everything right, from a blistering intro to a Back to the Future-tier sequel tease. -- Morgan Little
Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a colossal achievement considering its incredible scope and jaw-dropping fidelity. It's one of the most massive games we've ever witnessed and its painstaking attention to detail is other-worldly. Rockstar Games successfully created a truly believable world here -- one in which all of your actions feel weighted and important. The game's outrageous ambition is complemented by a memorable cast of characters and a compelling story that needs to been seen all the way through. If want a game that will keep you busy for literally months, Red Dead Redemption 2 is for you. -- Jeff Bakalar
(Disclosure: Strauss Zelnick, the current interim chairman of the board of CNET's parent company, CBS, is also the CEO and chairman of Take-Two Interactive, the parent company of Rockstar Games, which publishes Red Dead Redemption 2.)
When Insomniac announced it would be making a Spider-Man game, we all knew it would be good. But we didn't know it would be this great. Pulling from every super polished game mechanic the studio has spent years perfecting (Sunset Overdrive's bonkers movement, Ratchet and Clank's collect-o-ramas), Insomniac not only dropped one of the very best action-adventure games in 2018 but one of the best ever. It introduced us to a brand new Peter Parker story, one that turned left on some of the more classic storylines, and it left me full of joy, sadness, and downright glee once the credits rolled. Photo mode added even more richness to the game, as you become the kid who used to snap pictures for the Daily Bugle. Oh, and don't get me started on the cast: Yuri Lowenthal's Peter Parker was perfect, and Darin De Paul's J. Jonah Jameson was the rage-filled cherry on top.
In one word? Amazing. Spectacular. Sensational. You get the idea. -- Ashley Esqueda
The pandering, demeaning question has long since been settled. "Are video games art?" In 2018, most of us agree they are. Like painting, music or filmmaking, games are a medium of expression -- and that medium can be used to express something as simple as the joy of swinging through the streets of Manhattan as Spider-Man, to a person's complex inner struggle with depression, anxiety and self-acceptance. That second example is Celeste, a challenging indie platformer by Matt Makes Games. And it's my favorite game of 2018.
Celeste starts off as a game about a young woman who is determined to climb a mountain: a few set pieces of comedic dialogue that lead into a series of puzzle platforming challenges akin to Super Meat Boy. This core gameplay is a solid, challenging experience that feels built for speed runners, but that's not why I like it.
I hate difficult platforming games -- but Celeste transcends my aversion to the genre by making every frustrating moment mean something. As the game progresses, the hero opens up about her life to people she meets on the mountain, and reluctantly begins to face her past regrets and personal struggles.
What makes Celeste great is that the game forces you to symbolically experience it through the gameplay. As the lead character struggles with her anxiety, the climb becomes harder and more abstract. The magic of the mountain brings some of her inner demons to life, forcing you to contend with them directly. This masterful melding of gameplay, theming and story helps the player feel the turmoil struggle of someone dealing with depression and anxiety, and underpins it with a fun challenge and a feeling of hope.
Celeste is a game about depression, but it isn't depressing -- it's beautiful. I love this game. -- Sean Buckley
Pokemon Let's Go
This game has awoken something dark and terrible in me. I haven't really gotten into Pokemon since the third generation -- that's 2003's Ruby/Sapphire -- but Let's Go has subtly altered how I live.
Since it came out, I've become obsessed with Pokemon Go -- how else am I going to get new Pokemon Meltan and evolved form Melmetal? -- for the first time since 2016 and have been walking around with the Pokeball Plus in my pocket. Now, Eevee is demanding attention as I shop for groceries.
Let's Go itself is a wonderful throwback to the Game Boy's best game, Pokemon Yellow, and I feel compelled to Catch 'Em All again, 20 years later, and I'm already thinking about how to form the best possible team from the original 151 Pokemon (plus Meltan and Melmetal). And I'm loving every second of it. -- Sean Keane
Even though I'm known as something of a Tetris fanatic, that doesn't mean I'm going to sit there and cheer for every Tetris-branded game that comes along. With hundreds of different versions over the years, it's actually very hard to come up with a good new take on the original, which was created by Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnov in 1984.
It turns out some fresh blood was needed, in the form of game designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, best known for puzzle classics like Lumines and Rez. Tetris Effect keeps the core of the original game but tightly ties it into music and visuals, adds a leveling system for unlocking challenges, and lets you clear an amazing 20 lines at once (if you're really, really good), which is now called an Ultimatris.
This PS4 exclusive also supports PlayStation VR. Adding virtual reality doesn't radically change the game, but the visuals and rhythm are so perfectly matched with the VR experience that it's easily one of the best PSVR experiences you can have, and the ultimate zen/chillout meets frantic action game of the year. -- Dan Ackerman
(Note: This game is unrelated to Dan's 2016 book on the history of Tetris, which happens to have the same title.)
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
I knew from the moment I first played the original Super Smash Bros. on Nintendo 64 that I was experiencing something special. Mario, Link, Donkey Kong and other iconic characters, all bashing each other in a weird, unique and hilarious fighting experience? It was brilliant. It was probably the most fun I'd had playing games with friends in my entire life.
That momentum held strong through Super Smash Bros. Melee, the sequel, but the unbridled joy I felt as a child never quite carried over to subsequent games in the series. At least not until now.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate was announced with a big promise: The most complete version of Smash Bros. ever -- with all the characters, nearly every stage and the best gameplay mechanics yet. It was a lot of hype, but I didn't buy into it. I always knew I was going to buy Smash Ultimate, but I was never excited to. On paper, I knew I would love the enormous roster of 70+ characters and the nostalgic return of my favorite N64 stages, but it was just another Smash game. It was never going to live up to my childhood memories.
And then it did. The first time I played Super Smash Bros. Ultimate at a friend's house, I went in jaded and skeptical. I planned to leave after an hour or so. My friend practically had to kick me out. I'm not a competitive player or a melee die-hard. I'm not even good at the game. I can tell you that I haven't had that much fun playing a Smash Bros. game with a group of friends since I was a kid.
This game? This is it. Go get it. -- Sean Buckley
Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire
In some ways a throwback to the isometric fantasy RPGs of my young adulthood -- Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment -- POE 2's world brings something entirely new: it's at sea (in a good way). Just like the superb original, you're building your party, exploring towns, dungeons and wilderness, fighting intricate sword and sorcery battles with a complex rule set and interacting with fully voiced NPCs, as well as party members you recruit. But now you also pilot, outfit and crew a sailing vessel, sink other ships and sail across a vast archipelago. Avast yer lubberly conceptions of retro PC games, mateys, and turn up the shanties! -- David Katzmaier
Within 10 seconds of playing Dead Cells, I knew it would become one of my favourite games of the year. On every possible level, Dead Cells simply feels good. We typically use words like "roguelike" or "metroidvania" to describe Dead Cells -- and it does borrow from those genres -- but Dead Cells is really just a brilliantly pitched balance of systems that collide together in an incredibly compelling way. With Dead Cells it was love at first sight, but I'm now in a full-time relationship. I'm married to this video game. -- Mark Serrels
"What is it about moving an ever-widening hole around a game level and the challenge of making that hole so big that everything in the level can fit into it, falling to its apparent doom?" is a question I never thought I'd have to ask myself. Yet, here I am.
But it's not just the minute-to-minute gameplay of Donut County -- the goal of each level is indeed to move a hole around and essentially ensure that everything in the level falls into that whole -- that made it one of my favorite games of the year. It's really the somewhat bleak and self-aware tone of its game world and also a snarky tone of its characters. BK is one of the best-written video game characters I've seen in a long time, but the writing overall is razor sharp. -- Eric Franklin
Astro Bot Rescue Mission
Maybe you're asking yourself, "What's the big deal with VR?" And, "Does it have any good games?" Spend some time in a PlayStation VR and try Astro Bot Rescue Mission once, and you'll never ask that question again. Sony's gorgeous, eye-popping platformer feels exactly like what you might dream of if Nintendo ever made a VR game. Rescuing little robots hiding in areas throughout the 3D levels means playing with perspective, and the worlds still look vivid on a regular non-Pro PS4. The game's use of the PlayStation controller to transform into different tools is brilliant… and means you sometimes even use your head and hands to do things in-game. It's like peering into a toy box world, and I've never wanted to play a VR game more. It's my favorite game of the year, VR or otherwise, and I've never felt that way before about a VR game. -- Scott Stein
We're cheating by adding Hollow Knight, a game that was technically released in 2017, but it came out on Nintendo Switch this year and that's how most of us played it. So... uh. Deal with it.
It remains a complete mystery how a game with this level of depth, this level of polish, was created by a core team of three people. Hollow Knight wears its influences on its sleeve -- Super Metroid, Dark Souls -- but it feels unique. It's a game that starts out feeling small but is ultimately huge and ambitious in scope. And like all the best games, Hollow Knight has an atmosphere. An indefinable, strange atmosphere.
Play this video game. -- Mark Serrels
Honorable mention: Destiny 2: Forsaken
Commence your mockery. Destiny 2 was trash, we all know it. But Bungie did it again: another Year 2 renaissance. The jury remains out on whether the new approach to Year 2 DLC will keep the game afloat. With a rebalanced loot system that made drops actually worthwhile (at least, for those not desperate for legendaries) and a competitive multiplayer revived by Gambit's mix of PvP and PvE, Destiny 2 finally became what fans expected last year. Were there better games? Sure. Were there games that better executed a phoenix-like rise from the ashes? Nope. -- Morgan Little
Honorable mention: Detroit: Become Human
I admit I'm going to be in the minority on this one, as most critics were lukewarm at best about this narrative robots-in-peril game. To them I say, Detroit: Become Human is a mess in places, but a glorious, ambitious mess that shows just how much almost every other game is phoning it in on a theme, script, and characters.
French game auteur David Cage keeps making and remaking the same multicharacter, branching storyline dramas, from Omikron to Heavy Rain. None fully satisfy as games, because the mechanics take a back seat to ambitious storytelling.
Sure, the civil rights allegory about robots is heavy-handed at times, but the game looks amazing, has unmatched backstory and world-building, and even the occasional bit of flat dialog is miles beyond supposedly A-list TV like Nightflyers or Mr. Robot. -- Dan Ackerman
Honorable mention: Florence
In video games, we usually interact with our world by punching or shooting things. Usually, we're saving the world or the princess. Florence is a video game with different stakes. You're not saving the world, you're having a relationship. A very normal relationship with its own struggles, its own ups, and downs. Florence is essentially the story of two people who meet, fall in love, and then grow apart. It's honest and delicate in a way most video games aren't. -- Mark Serrels
Honorable mention: Forza Horizon 4
Games have never been better than they are right now, but my favorite period in gaming, the one that tugs hard on my nostalgia, is the mid to late 90s. That was peak Sega arcade dominance. And it was around that time that I truly fell in love with arcade racing games.
Games like Daytona USA, Super GT, and Sega Rally made me appreciate how technical racing games could be, while still maintaining their arcadeyness. Forza Horizon 4 feels like the ultimate Sega arcade racer. It has gameplay mechanics that reward you the more time you put in, but is still immeasurably accessible thanks to the Forza rewind and racing lines features.
With two young kids, I haven't had the time to even begin to scratch the surface of this game. For the last few sessions, I've only had a few moments to set some quick jump and speed records. The fact that the game displays how well your friends have done in those challenges, however, means I spend just a bit more time than I'd originally planned to make sure I beat them.
This is such a complete racing game that I can't imagine where the series goes next, but I'll be there wherever that is. -- Eric Franklin
Honorable mention: Octopath Traveler
Confession: I *love* turn-based RPGs, and the first time I caught a glimpse of Octopath Traveler, I knew it was right in my wheelhouse. It was everything I've missed about traditional JRPGs: beautiful, modernized 16-bit artwork; a deep and thoughtful combat system; and a series of eight hero storylines that, surprisingly, had absolutely nothing to do with one another (but manage to be individually enjoyable). There's something really special about this game, and it felt like it flew under a lot of peoples' radar this year, but if you missed it or weren't sure about picking it up, it's more than worth a look. -- Ashley Esqueda
Honorable mention: Overcooked 2
My kids aren't old enough for me to let them own a tablet or play many games, but games I do let them play on our big TV are with me -- co-op on Nintendo Switch -- and my favorite is Overcooked 2. It's a simple enough game for my daughters, ages 6 and 8, to grasp and its bite-sized sessions make the perfect reward for cleaning up the family room. I love discussing strategy with them, assigning roles ("OK Anna, I'll wash dishes and chop while you expedite. Ella, you're on rice duty." "Awesome, I love rice!") and then watching it all disintegrate into chaos as the clock ticks down, the stove invariably catches fire and the girls completely freak out ("Ohmygoshdad where is my cucumber!!??" "Fire extinguisher! Fire extinguisher!"). Good clean family fun. -- David Katzmaier
Honorable mention: Return of the Obra Dinn
What looks like a simple retro-inspired murder mystery is so much more below the surface. Return of the Obra Dinn presents a complex and abstract whodunit in new and inventive ways, forcing the player to buy into the game's unique set of rules and sometimes illogical logic. -- Jeff Bakalar
Honorable mention: Shenmue
Another cheat, since Shenmue originally came out for the Dreamcast in 1999. But it was remastered and re-released for the first time in 2018, along with its sequel, so it counts.
This old-school adventure game is a throwback to a simpler era of gaming when open worlds weren't really a thing. It offers a rich, densely packed 1980s Japanese town to explore and compelling narrative to follow… by '90s standards.
If you're feeling nostalgic, this is a blast and I can't wait to jump into the Hong Kong-set sequel. Thank you for letting me play this 19 years later, Sega! -- Sean Keane
Honorable mention: Warioware Gold
There aren't many times I open up the Nintendo 3DS anymore, but there are some key games on that little system that still haven't made the leap to the Switch. Warioware was my favorite old weird Nintendo franchise throughout its multiple Game Boy/DS iterations. Its insane speeds and broken-feeling retro style seem to have predicted a future world of viral memes, mobile games and pixel art indie titles to come. I also loved how the series echoed the old Game and Watch LCD games that were my summer camp companions as a kid. Nintendo's packaged remix of Warioware on the 3DS, released this year, has standouts from every series and some new surprises, much like the excellent Rhythm Heaven compilation that's also on the 3DS. Some games haven't aged well and don't feel as weird or fresh as I remember, but I'll take what I can get. I might like Warioware Gold better than any Switch game that came out this year. Port it to Switch, Nintendo! -- Scott Stein
Honorable mention: Megaman 11
When Keiji Inafune left Capcom in 2010, he left a hole in the company. Inafune worked on Dead Rising and Onimusha games and the original Street Fighter -- but while those games saw new releases after he left Capcom, one Inafune staple seemed to be shelved with his departure: Mega Man. With the exception of a handful of retro collections, there hasn't been a new Mega Man game since 2010. This year, that finally changed.
Mega Man 11 is a big change, but it's a good change -- largely because it's a Mega Man game that has stopped looking to the past for answers. Not only has Mega Man 11 moved on from the retro 8-bit style the series returned to in Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10, but it also challenges the core gameplay mechanics of the series. Sure, he's still just "jump-and-shoot man," but now Mega Man has access to built-in power-ups that can effectively slow down time or increase firepower for a limited time. The experience is familiar enough to feel like Mega Man, but it's not just retreading old ground.
For a game I expected to be a shell of what I loved about this series, Mega Man without Inafune hits the mark surprisingly well.
Too bad his run cycle still looks silly. -- Sean Buckley
Best games of 2018: The video
Don't want it to end? Watch this video wrap-up of the entire list.