Alan Wake has to escape from The Dark Place in Alan Wake 2.
Image Credit: Remedy Entertainment
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I was once again much more of a game industry business writer and event coordinator this year than I was a game reviewer. But I did dip my toe into playing games enough to come up with my annual list of favorite games.
The competition for my time was more severe than ever, with more events to organize and more travel to do during past years thanks to the global nature of the gaming business.
While on the road, I poured a lot of hours into mobile games like Idle Siege and Total Battle, and Total Battle came out the winner. Still, I managed to sink my teeth into games that commanded my wholehearted attention. I didn’t try to play exhaustively. Rather than focus on every new release, I spent my time on the games that I wanted to play and tried out the ones everyone was talking about. So, take this list with that in mind.
In contrast to last year, we had a ton of highly rated triple-A games ship this year. There were some disappointments, for sure, like Redfall, and there were some big delays like Skull & Bones, Six Days in Fallujah, Stalker 2: Heart of Chernobyl, Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, Homeworld 3, Star Wars: Hunters, and more.
But having enough games to play wasn’t my problem. I poured the most hours into my perennial favorite, Call of Duty: Warzone, as well as this year’s title Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III. But I also had a chance to play the nerdy and eclectic military sim games that I’ve always loved since I was a kid.
And I was ecstatic to see the success of game adaptations for the movies and TV, like The Last of Us, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, Gran Turismo, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, and Five Nights at Freddy’s. Those adaptations helped spread the love of gaming culture far and wide into the global mass market.
I hope you are staying safe during the holidays with your family and friends, and let’s hope you can find the game to play and celebrate your gaming passions. And so here are my favorite games of 2023.
My previous favorites are here: 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.
In each story below, the links go to our full reviews or major stories about the games. And be sure to check out the GamesBeat staff’s votes for Game of the Year and best individual favorites soon. Here’s the list in reverse order.
10) The Great War: Western Front
Developer: Petroglyph Games
Publisher: Frontier Foundry
Platforms: Windows PC
I’m sure that no other game journalist will have this title on a top games of the year list. But I like strategy games and this one conveys some of the horror of World War I through a strategic lens. Your job is to command the French and British allies or the Germans on the Western Front, after the trenches spread across Europe and combat gains were measured in yards of territory taken in murderous attacks. On the bird’s eye level, you can see there is almost no room for maneuvering through the breadth of the front, and victory means you might take one small piece of territory — a hexagon on a big map — if you throw enough troops into the meat grinder.
With each attack, you can choose to fight the battle in real time on a tactical level. The animations in this part of the game are pretty crude, but you do get a flavor for the dynamic flow of attacks as soldiers defend or assault trenches. Here, you have to time your artillery attacks wisely to give your soldiers a chance to break through the lines. And you have to position your machine guns on the defense. If you wind up taking the enemy’s lines, you get a small victory on the strategic map — at great cost in human life. It’s not a particularly fun experience, but it conveys the folly of the Great War.
9) Total Battle
Here’s another game I don’t expect any other game journalists to pick. But I’ve spent more hours on this game than most titles this year, playing obsessively for a few minutes at a time when I’m at the gym or on the go. It’s a free-to-play game that got me hooked thanks to ads where I saw real-time battles in a fantasy setting. The real-time battles are on a rail but they’re fun to execute. But the bulk of the experience is a strategy game where you build your city and armies to fight other rivals.
At first, I built up my city, then I ventured out with my soldiers to clear the monsters outside my gates. Then I started attacking monsters on the strategic map. All of this took a lot of time, and I occasionally spent money to speed things up.
Then I started getting attacked by other players, who would wipe out my entire army and steal resources in a single attack while I was sleeping. I had to start using my money to move from place to place on the world map. Finally, I joined a clan and started reaping the benefits of allies, who sent reinforcements so I could attack those who raided me. Now I’m collecting gifts from the clan and building up even more. Thankfully, I don’t have to flee as much or spend as much anymore. What’s the point? Well, I can’t answer that. But the 2D game is attractive enough to keep me coming back. For me, this is a little mindless fun.
Developer: Bethesda Games
Platforms: PC, Xbox Series X/S
Starfield took me to some new heights as an explorer, allowing me to fulfill missions in a campaign that stretched across a galaxy full of playable worlds. A mysterious plot kept me going from one world to another, fulfilling standard quests and occasionally leading me to delightful surprises and intriguing detours. I collected tons of stuff so that I moved slowly and couldn’t carry anymore — until I dumped the stuff in my ship. Everything was a system that let you level up in various ways, with the gameplay including everything from spaceship battles to ground combat where you could leap to great heights.
I spent dozens of hours in Starfield, but I didn’t get as far as I had hoped. One bug that held me up was an indicator that was supposed to tell me where to go on a vast planet to finish a mission. The indicator wasn’t there, and so I had to wander around for hours. Bugs are so annoying. But I appreciated all the effort that went into Bethesda’s first new intellectual property in decades.
7) Dune: Spice Wars
Developer: Shiro Games
Platforms: Windows PC, Xbox Series X/S
Dune: Spice Wars was a thoughtful real-time strategy game (with 4X elements) on the surface of the desert planet Dune, the world from the brilliant sci-fi writer Frank Herbert. It was fun to see the strategy of the book come to life in a video game where you had to make tough choices on offense, defense and deception. I enjoyed playing the ill-fated Atreides as they tried to fend off factions bent on stealing the valuable spice from Arrakis. There were multiple vectors to victory, and just when I thought I was going to win another faction would steal the victory through an economic or military win.
The only trouble I had was that it was hard to win a war. The second I launched an attack on another faction, I could face attacks on two or more fronts from other rivals. Or the sandworms or storms would come and swallow my entire army. It was a grinding no-win situation. But that’s not a bad message. The minute you launch a war, you start sinking into the sand.
6) Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty
Publisher: CD Projekt
Developer: CD Projekt Red
Platforms: Windows PC, PS5, Xbox Series X/S
When Cyberpunk 2077 debuted in 2020, it was a brilliant mess. I loved the single-player game set in the cyberpunk future with Keanu Reeves as Johnny Silverhand, who gave my character a split personality. But the game was buggy as hell, from the very first mission I tried. It had guns that floated in the air after I killed the owners. I played it for 50 hours or more and completed the campaign despite the fact the game was tragically and comically buggy.
But CD Projekt Red didn’t walk away. It kept on revising the core game, updating it and getting rid of the bugs. It spent more than $60 million developing the expansion. And the Phanton Liberty DLC is a much better experience. This time, you return as V to rescue the President of the United States, whose plane has crashed in Dogtown. It’s a simpler campaign and one that shows off the beauty of the world, with the gameplay that the original was meant to have.
5) Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III
Developer: Sledgehammer Games
Platforms: Windows PC, Xbox Series X/S, PS5, PS4, Xbox One
I gave the single-player campaign of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III the lowest score I’ve ever given for a Call of Duty campaign. Not that the story wasn’t good. It was. But the campaign was too short, and the use of open world map battles was a poor substitute for riveting single-player missions with high drama and emotion. But the multiplayer combat, Zombies and Warzone are like butter. I knew the classic maps like Scrapyard and Rust, and they were awesome in better graphics. This actually rewarded older players who knew the maps from the earlier games. And so, I have had a better kill/death ratio than in years past.
Zombies actually worked well in the open world map of Urzikstan, and the return of one-shot sniper kills made me relevant again in Warzone. I was able to hit the highest level of Prestige in a record short time in multiplayer, and that made for a great leveled-up experience. This multiplayer redeemed the game and is something that I could play year-round.
4) The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
Developer: Nintendo EPD
Platforms: Nintendo Switch
This game was tough to get into as I had no clue what to do to make it through. But there was beauty in that game design. In Tears of the Kingdom, you have to figure out what you’re going to do to solve problems with the materials and objects you have at your disposal. With the ability to modify objects, you can build bridges, walls, rafts with motors, and all kinds of weaponry. This was Nintendo’s way of embracing user-generated content, and it worked like magic. I didn’t spend nearly as much time in this game as I wanted to, but I truly admired the game craftsmanship that went into it.
3) Company of Heroes 3
Developer: Relic Entertainment
Platforms: Windows PC, PS5, Xbox Series X/S
This real-time strategy game fulfilled some serious pent-up demand. It came out a full decade after Company of Heroes 2, which covered the Russian front. This time, you play as the Allies assaulting North Africa and Italy during World War II. The game was split into a turn-based strategic map where you had to contemplate the big picture. When your units met the enemy on the map, you could move into a tactical battle where the position of your units — getting enough firepower to each firefight at the right time — made you work so hard that you had to become a mastermind at micromanagement.
The graphics of game are beautiful, capturing battle units as if they were a simulated world that you were looking down upon from above. The destruction buildings were pretty amazing, and it enhanced the importance of artillery, armor and airstrikes. The campaign map was just as mesmerizing in presenting you with different options for seizing territory through land, air and sea combat. You could fight over the same terrain multiple times and the outcome could be different, based on the forces you bring to bear in each battle. The fighting was balanced, and multiplayer was extremely tough when it came to playing a chess game with human rivals.
2) Marvel’s Spider-Man 2
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Insomniac Games
I feel sorry for the hack and leak of Insomniac Games’ data and my heart goes out to the devastation that has caused for one of gaming’s finest studios. But that’s not a reason why I’ve selected Spider-Man 2 as one of my favorite games of the year. This game is so well polished and full of open-world content that I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s rare to find a game where just swinging around is fun, and where the combat is so well choreographed that you feel like you’re Spider-Man in a ballet.
It’s also a game with a lot of heart, with the romance of Peter Parker and Mary Jane as well as the tough emotions that Miles Morales endures with family loss and the pull of friends and family. Through it all, whether you’re dealing with Peter Parker or Miles Morales, you always struggle with tough choices of living an ordinary life with romance or being a responsible superhero who won’t let any bad guys get away with horrible crimes. The story and the inherent emotional conflicts built into Spider-Man’s identity kept me interested, even though this is perhaps the 15th Spider-Man experience I’ve engaged with.
In the battles with ordinary thugs, Kraven the Hunter or Venom, you’re always tested severely in every fight. There were many fights that I had to fight over and over to get through them and move on to the next mission. We could have used more spectacle like the fight at the beginning with The Sandman, but I was fine with the formula of fight, cutscene, fight, cutscene with some open world side action.
1) Alan Wake 2
Publisher: Epic Games Publishing
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Platforms: Windows PC, Xbox Series X/S, PS5
I waited a long 13 years for Remedy to take control of its intellectual property for Alan Wake and finally come out with a sequel. The game is a solid combat shooter where you have to combine the light of a flashlight or a flare with the steady aim of a gun to dispatch the Taken, which are people who have been taken into a shadow world. You can play as either Saga Anderson and Alan Wake as you try to unravel the mystery behind a missing writer and get a handle on the struggle between light and darkness.
It was a very literary story, inspired by many books and movies, with homages built into the game’s fabric. And it really delivered on the crazy plot of interdimensional, parallel universes.
One of the greatest innovations was the “mind palace” that FBI agent Saga Anderson uses to sort clues and test theories to solve the mystery behind the disappearance of Wake and the strange murders in the woods of the Northwest. She keeps finding pages of a horror novel that Wake has written, and the pages start coming true. There was so much to the story that it took me 33 hours to get through it, and I did a fair amount of exploring of optional areas.
The only thing I didn’t like was the amped-up horror of this game compared to the first one. There are gruesome murder scenes and horrifying creatures. There were jump scares that almost gave me a heart attack every couple of minutes or so in some parts. But the zany moments that were interspersed throughout the story were so creative and imaginative that I couldn’t believe I was seeing them in a video game. One part, where the band the Poets of the Fall performed Old Guards of Asgard — like a musical inserted into a horror story — was one of the most brilliant things I’ve seen in a video game.
My honorable mentions fall into two categories. I liked the games but didn’t play them much yet. Or I played them and found they fell a bit short of some of my favorites. They include The Finals, Dave the Diver, Baldur’s Gate 3, Sea of Stars, Diablo IV, Asgard’s Wrath 2, Resident Evil 4 and NFL Pro Era II.
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