2018 is nearly over, and Britain has survived another year. Brexit has not yet ruined our economy, global warming has not yet put us underwater, and fish and chip reserves are at record levels.
But hey, it's not all grey drizzle. One of the real causes for optimism about this sceptred isle's future is our continued seat at video gaming's top table. 2018 saw an incredible variety of games from British developers large and small, a slate of hundreds which is impossible to neatly summarise. All we can do is pick our top ten: the British games that, for whatever reason, made this year happy and glorious.
Forza Horizon 4
Not only is Playground's Forza Horizon 4 a superb British game, this time around it's even set in Britain! A condensed UK is the basis for FH4's map and sees everything from the Cotswolds to the Scottish highlands re-imagined as miniature racetracks, bounded by endless lines of dry stone wall and glorious green fields. This is probably as beautiful as Britain has ever looked in a game, and luckily it's a belter to boot.
The Horizon series has a great central formula: you're responsible for building hype as one of the drivers for the Horizon festival. It gives the player a real focal point, both geographically and in terms of an overarching structure that allows you to pick-and-choose the particular flavour of racing you'd like to do today. Cranking a Ford Transit van through Ambleside, touring a classic Jaguar in Devon, performing blistering stunts in a Lamborghini near Edinburgh... this variety and freedom of choice is what defines FH4's approach to racing. Not only does that make it the best entry in the series to date, but it confirms Playground as the modern heir to a long lineage of exceptional British racing studios.
Not Tonight: A Post-Brexit Thriller
At the start of this year Kotaku UK put together a huge list of British-developed games we felt were worth keeping an eye on. One of those that really jumped out was Not Tonight, described as "a post-Brexit thriller."
What we're really looking at here is Brexit, Please. Not Tonight plays out in a style reminiscent of Lucas Pope's Papers, Please, though obviously the context is quite different. Papers, Please has players checking ID at a border crossing in a fictional eastern European dictatorship, whereas Not Tonight plays out on the smaller scale of a nightclub bouncer checking IDs and tickets while working a series of zero-hour jobs. The influence is worn proudly on both sleeves, to the extent that both share an opening scene where failing to check ID results in the same consequence.
This satirical vision of an immigration crackdown across a nation suffering economic shock may be exaggerated in some aspects, at least for the game's late 2018 setting, but Not Tonight does powerfully capture the ugly tone of Brexit and potential risks of the road the UK is going down. It builds a world and public policy out of today's mainstream political xenophobia, keeps many of the core issues in this possible future exactly the same, and because of this ends up feeling depressingly plausible.
In Not Tonight's case it starts with demands like this: people who don't have £30k annual income and two generations of British heritage are gone. Turns out that's remarkably similar to Conservative plans revealed in the last week . The game just ramps up after that, little by little, whittling away lives by attrition.
The original Overcooked is one of the most fun couch co-op games I've ever had the pleasure to play. Players have to create culinary perfection in a small cramped cartoonish kitchen, which contains too many chefs, has too little space, and needs too many meals made. The idea of too many cooks spoiling the broth is brought to frantic life in Overcooked and, in Overcooked 2, the heat in the kitchen got even higher.
Overcooked 2 is of course more of the same, with a few tweaks. At the core you're still trying to micromanage a number of tasks as a group, from cooking meals to collecting plates. One of the new mechanics in the sequel is that food can now be thrown in any direction, but throwing it in the wrong place may destroy it, or make it inaccessible. It can be a quicker way to get a dish somewhere, but slinging chickens across the workspace has its own risks risk.
When I say Overcooked 2 is largely more Overcooked, that's a compliment. The original was a fantastic frantic party game, and Overcooked 2 has wisely chosen to tweak the garnish rather than mess about with a classic.
In a world ravaged by an outbreak of the undead you must survive... in Basingstoke! This top-down action game drops players into the titular English town with minimal resources, tasked with getting to safety across a series of difficult top-down combat maps.
The game focuses on fast paced resource collection, crafting, and combat. Find a lighter and some hair spray, make a flame thrower. Find some poison and a kebab, poison a hungry zombie. Hide in a wheelie bin, jump out and batter someone over the head with a traffic cone. It’s simple, but it’s fast paced and polished in execution, as well as a stiff challenge.
Also, I’ve been to Basingstoke before, and I recognise bits of this game’s map! It makes what is otherwise a familiar style of game much more enjoyable, and underpins the British sense of humour that permeates the whole experience. There's something quite Shaun of the Dead about battering off the undead with cricket bats while munching a half-eaten kebab from a bin. Or maybe that's just an average Saturday night in Basingstoke.
Sea of Thieves
Sea of Thieves is the first big-budget AAA game that Rare have made for Microsoft in quite some time, and it’s rather a departure from what people had come to expect from the developer. Playable solo or in online co-op. Sea of Thieves is an action adventure game about being a pirate on the cel-shaded seas. Get drunk, chart course across the sea, hunt down treasure, fire cannons at other ships, it’s a game of exploring and discovering best enjoyed with friends at the helm of your ship.
It's a game that works best when you have a regular crew to play with, and when it works it's a unique kind of co-op experience. We’ve had jolly fun sailing the high seas, and so have plenty of our colleagues. It’s a well made game, and if you have the friend group ready to play with, there’s a good time to be had.
Quarantine Circular is the fourth game from Mike Bithell, the creator behind Thomas Was Alone, Volume, and Subsurface Circular. A short narrative adventure game, Quarantine Circular is about trust and communication in fraught times. It feels particularly relevant in an age when communication is becoming more tense than ever before.
With one playthrough taking no more than a couple of hours, Quarantine Circular places you in control of a series of conversations during the hours immediately following aliens landing on Earth for the very first time. It's grounded in a scarily realistic near future where Earth is being ravaged by disease as a result of over-reliance on antibiotics and a reluctance to invest in developing alternative treatment. As a result, humanity has been left on the brink of a mass extinction event. There are multiple characters available to play as, several branching narrative points and endings available, and a number of approaches available to deal with the complicated issues at hand.
It actively pushes against a lot of typical sci-fi tropes that I had expected from this type of plot, and felt a lot more tied into modern discussion topics than I'd expected. It felt timely in its critiques of our choices right now as a species, as well as its commentary on humanity's attitudes towards those it perceives as difficult to empathise with or understand. I found myself really caring for the fate of the cast, and craving more of this fascinating world. It's a game you'll get through in a single sitting, but sticks with you long past its end.
It probably won't win any awards for originality, but Strange Brigade's pulp-inflected take on a co-op wave shooter is both fun and funny. Playing as one of four Imperial caricatures, you shoot the zombies, set traps for the zombies to run into, bag lots of lovely goodies and, when you get a bit complacent about it all, the zombies rip you to pieces. There are probably more cerebral ways to spend your time, but this has brains where it matters.
Laser League is simple, brilliant, and not enough people played it. Developer Roll7 has now moved onto other projects but the game remains live and is currently in the Steam winter sale for the princely sum of £4.39. As we said at the time:
It’s precisely the kind of game that would, had it been around in the very late 1990s, have drawn my university friends out from their rooms to huddle around the PlayStation – a multitap, a couple of six-packs, and that’s a damn good evening of avoiding revision, right there, with the slow-ass halls internet reserved for Napster.
Frozen Synapse 2
There are sequels that change-up the original a little and then there are sequels that go to town. In the case of Frozen Synapse 2, it built the town. The original game was a series of self-contained tactical vignettes smartly designed around asymmetrical multiplayer. That core remains but now there's a functioning city around it, one which you protect and serve as best you can while various factions try to take over. We called it a slick and futuristic turn-based SWAT simulator, which still seems about right.
Developed by the ambitious and wonderfully named Oxford studio Mode 7, Frozen Synapse 2 had a slightly rocky start but is now in a much more stable state, all the better to enjoy its unique multiplayer in. While the major changes to singleplayer are eye-catching, the feeling that FS2 delivers in multiplayer is unlike anything else: imagine playing correspondence chess with special forces units. If that sounds like your cup of neon-infused tea, then it's currently 30% off in the Steam sale.
Red Dead Redemption 2
There was some consternation about whether Red Dead Redemption 2 should be on here at all, being as it is the product of Rockstar Studios: the umbrella under which Rockstar's global development studios work. That means that up to eight studios worldwide contributed to the game, including Rockstar San Diego, the lead developer on Red Dead Redemption.
But from another angle it's not complicated at all. Edinburgh's Rockstar North remains the creative powerhouse, the Londoners Sam and Dan Houser are once more the creative leads, and Rockstar as an entity remains Britain's most wildly successful and culturally significant development studio.
Which is why Red Dead Redemption 2 can be hard to get your head around. The lack of exposure before release meant few knew what to really expect from this, and the answer is it's much weirder than anyone expected. This is not the irreverent, funny and scabrous Rockstar of Grand Theft Auto, but an altogether more sombre and simulation-heavy world, one where fishing and hunting rabbits has been paid as much attention as any shootout.
The masters of the open world game also seem to have gone back to basics in some regards, combining the usual stunning vistas with superbly readable topography. It almost has a focus on the nature of being in a place like this: again and again, RDR2 will ask you to make journeys that crisscross this gorgeous land. As you ride, sometimes there'll be some dialogue with another character, or an encounter along the way. More often though, there's nothing much but you, a horse, and your thoughts.
It's a bold ask, and it's part of a whole that makes this game hard to pin down. The story is absolutely huge in length and scope, and it's often the case that these missions are where the game concentrates the 'action', and this hook pulls the player through at some pace. These aspects of RDR2 are linear to a fault. But these threads lie atop a world designed for exploration, experimentation, packed with little surprises and radiating detail from every dirty shack, abandoned campfire, and glowing saloon.
The Rockstar game that Red Dead Redemption 2 reminded me of was Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. This masterpiece had something no subsequent Grand Theft Auto has recreated, largely because it was a function of more limited technology: there's a tonne of empty space at the outskirts. When I think of San Andreas I think not just of the urban centre but of the long dirt roads and desolation that encircles it. With that game it felt like Rockstar tried to make the map as big as it could, just for the hell of it, and by happy accident created GTA: Existential Edition. Towards the end of my time playing San Andreas I'd long-since finished with the story, and when I loaded the game up it wasn't about going back to the hood: I'd get in a car, turn up the volume, and cruise for hours through nothingness.
A similar atmosphere permeates RDR2's much more beautiful and detailed world. In some respects this is the game everyone expected: it's got the classic Rockstar mission style, super-slick gunplay, and the production values everywhere are off the charts. In other respects, RDR2 is a totally different game: a quiet, almost meditative world crafted with painstaking care, and imbued with a sense of melancholy.
It's a game that wriggles out from under simple attempts to define what it's doing, because part of its philosophy is that the player has to contribute to that. Arthur Morgan could, if one wished, simply hunt rabbits for days. He could take up a poker career, binge the story missions, become a treasure hunter, or simply ride on his lonesome to somewhere far away. What makes this a brilliant game, and a Rockstar game, is that such decisions are all up to you.