After all the triple-A game delays of 2020 we decided to follow suit and delay our game of the year celebrations, too. We’ve kept it in 2020, though, and that’s the key part really, isn’t it?
It’s actually been a pretty good year for games, which is fortunate because it’s not been a good year for much else. We’ve had some of the decade’s best shooters, countless breakout indies, the first system seller for VR, and huge technical advancements across the industry. Sure, the year’s complications have delayed anticipated games such as Halo Infinite, Deathloop, and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2, but even in deepest darkest lockdown PC gamers have found more than a few gems to plug the gaps.
Speaking of hellish things, you’ll find chthonic environments well represented in our top picks for 2020. Most of all though we’re impressed with how diverse our favourite games of the year are: from nostalgic skaters and cave-dwelling roguelikes, to the best FPS games and monarchy simulators that let you shag the pope, it’s all right here.
But before we get on with naming our game of the year for 2020, we reckon you should know how we made our picks. It’s quite democratic – and not in the electoral college way. Every PCGamesN staffer ranked their five favourite PC games that released in 2020, with their top pick getting five points, second place getting four points, and so forth. We poured all of those points into a super secret GOTY spreadsheet and after some spluttering it spat out a conclusive, ranked list of the best PC games of the year. Oh, and this is in ascending order so if you’re just looking for the top pick it’s, er, at the bottom.
10. Spelunky 2
Spelunky 2 doesn’t mess with a good thing, nor does it have to. You still find yourself navigating caverns that change with each new run, but there’s a heap more to think about this time around. A stone statue will fire an arrow in your direction if you meet its gaze, and it’s a gamble whether smashing a vase will yield treasure or a venomous snake. Throw the vase into the sightline of the statue, though, and you may solve a problem or create a new one. Mossmouth doesn’t change the gameplay proposition in Spelunky 2, but adds inventive new rules and fresh locations, providing veterans and newcomers alike with a clean slate. Spelunky 2 is simply more Spelunky, and that’s everything we wanted it to be. Tuck into our Iain’s Spelunky 2 review for a full breakdown of what makes it so special.
9. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 feels every bit as easy to lose yourself in as it did back in 1999. Combos are intuitive, following a rhythm dictated by muscle memory as you let your mind wander. Each level offers exciting objects for you to interact with, making every new area a private play park. You can set yourself incredible, arbitrary challenges, or simply go skating around doing a whole lot of nothing.
It would be sinful, too, not to mention the stellar soundtrack. Be it the thumping, familiar energy of Rage Against the Machine’s Guerilla Radio or the smooth bass of All Talk’s Let’s Do It, there are plenty of anthems to inspire your run. It’s one thing to pull off remasters of two beloved games mechanically, but it’s another thing entirely to recapture their soul. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 +2 doesn’t miss a beat, so despite skateboarding games feeling like a thing of the past, these remakes make a compelling case for their continued presence in our future.
8. Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War
2020’s helping of Call of Duty bombast doesn’t really raise the bar after the Modern Warfare reboot, but as a whole package it’s far better rounded. The beloved Zombies mode returns with a classic-feeling map and plenty of helpful tools built in for new players; 6v6 multiplayer boasts Treyarch’s trademark speed and smoothness; and the campaign shows Call of Duty is still capable of dropping jaws with one or two truly standout missions. Black Ops – Cold War is Call of Duty firing on all cylinders, and it’s only getting better with new maps, modes, and Cold War guns being added for free post-launch. Check out Jordan’s Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War review for more.
7. Microsoft Flight Simulator
Occasionally, a game achieves something genuinely groundbreaking. Microsoft Flight Simulator’s 1:1 recreation of the whole damn planet is exactly that, and so much so that you’re still going to have an incredible time if you’re clueless about what makes a good flight simulator. Sure, the cocktail of tech powering this behemoth does occasionally hiccup and deliver us haunting obelisks in place of palm trees and the odd giant death spike, but hey, look! I can see my house!
Read more: The best PC simulation games
You’d expect the price of creating an entire planet in a game would be that the visuals are drab and the textures flat, and while it’s true that Microsoft Flight Simulator looks pretty unimpressive when you’re idling on the tarmac, up in the air it’s nothing short of breathtaking.
6. Star Wars Squadrons
Star Wars: Squadrons is the spiritual successor to the classic Star Wars dogfighting space games X-Wing and TIE Fighter, which is a lot to live up to right from the get-go. Add to that the VR integration and the promised absence of live service clutter when EA pioneered so many such trends, and you’re left with a slightly confused picture as to what this game was going to be like ahead of launch.
But everything was fine. Better than fine, in fact. Squadrons is compact, yet a highly competent modern Star Wars dogfighting game. It’s skewed a bit towards the VR experience, sure, but it plays great without a visor providing you have the right gear. The solo campaign offers a window into the universe post-Return of the Jedi, in the same way that’s made The Mandalorian successful, and you know what? Even the multiplayer is fun. A-Wings are a menace, but the Fleet Battles mode and the way the different fighters can coordinate is the closest gaming has come to recreating the cohesion and spectacle of Lucas’s highly choreographed space battles. A joyful treat in a too-long neglected genre.
5. Crusader Kings 3
There’s an intimidating hurdle to cross when you fire up a Paradox grand strategy game for the first time, and that’s figuring out what you’re meant to be doing. Crusader Kings III has made that process easier than it’s ever been, as you quickly realise that your job as a medieval monarch is to try to ride herd on your profoundly weird family.
Sure, there’s plenty of political strategy to be plied throughout Crusader Kings III’s massive middle ages map – depending on who you choose to be, you’ll have to keep the pope, your emperor, and your peers from imagining your head on a pike, for instance – but your chief concern is the survival of your dynasty. What that dynasty looks like when the 1453 new year rings in is largely down to your choices in the centuries leading there.
Sid Meier once described games as “a series of interesting decisions,” and Crusader Kings III serves you these in rapid succession. Do you commit troops to another damn fool crusade in the Holy Land to curry favour with a pope who’s visibly suffering from end-stage syphilis? Do you carve off another title for your spymaster, who has gotten a little too good at her job? What’s to be done about your first-born son, who at the ripe old age of 27 steadfastly refuses to produce an heir? Also, should you get a cat? For more like this, check out our roundup of the best strategy games on PC, or Ian’s epic Crusader Kings III review.
4. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Vikings might not be what come to mind when you think about what Assassin’s Creed is. Stealth. Style. Swooshing around rooftops in a big billowy cape. Sure, stealth takes a back seat this time around, but it’s not gone by any means, simply overshadowed by the glorious, bloody combat that made the Vikings so feared during their time. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla sees you take up the axe of Eivor, a ninth-century warrior who crosses from their Norwegian homeland to the shores of Anglo-Saxon Britain.
You find yourself at the heart of its squabbling kingdoms, with no shortage of feuds to solve, areas to explore, and heads to bash in – with a big dash of Norse mythology in the mix for good measure. The main campaign is engrossing and there are new set pieces in the form of raids, which add some raucous (if ethically dubious) fun to shake up the series’ formula. But the real highlight is Dark Ages Britain – the environments are stupendously detailed and atmospheric, steeped in a Tolkien-esque mysticism that frees Ubisoft up to fill it with some memorable and occasionally silly side quests. There’s plenty in the way of activities to do outside this, too, and heck if it isn’t one of the prettiest open-world games ever made.
If you don’t find yourself proclaiming “Odin’s beard, that’s good!” by ten hours in, we’ll… well, we’ll feel sad, because it is really, really good.
3. Half-Life: Alyx
Half-Life: Alyx is a real Half-Life game. It’s a prequel, but it meaningfully pushes the story forward. It’s smaller in scope, but it features sequences as memorable as any in Half-Life 2. Does it live up to over a decade’s worth of anticipation for a new Half-Life game? Well, no, but only because no game possibly could – check in with Cyberpunk 2077 if you don’t believe us. Alyx represents Valve at its finest: a narrative-driven adventure where every individual moment feels perfectly crafted to keep pushing you forward.
As a VR game, Half-Life: Alyx has allowed Valve to continue its tradition of pushing new technology forward. It’s tough to overstate just how good it feels to peek around corners to battle the Combine, or rummage through boxes for ammo as a headcrab zombie shambles towards you.
Other VR games have used similar mechanics to great effect, but Alyx combines those immersive gimmicks with the same sort of level design that built classics like Portal and Half-Life 2. Half-Life: Alyx is a best-in-class VR game, an impressive argument for the strength of the format as a whole, and a damn fine videogame besides. Get the full Half-Life: Alyx review here.
For a roguelike game about escaping Hell, Hades stands out for its forgiveness. You become attuned to its engrossing weapons, boons, and bosses as you slowly save up Darkness to spend at the Mirror of Night for permanent power buffs. It can be hard to notice that you’re building the muscle memory to deal with certain encounters, but you take solace in knowing that you’re building the resources to make the next run more forgiving or interesting.
What pushes you through Hades, though, is its story. It’s one thing to be told that you’re trying to escape home because your dad, the Lord of Hell, is a dick, but it’s another thing to have him mocking and tutting at you each time you fail, return home, and venture out again. You’ll also meet more memorable characters on each jaunt through the underworld, learning more about them as you cross paths.
Hades is in fine company in our Games of the Year list, but it stands out for reflecting 2020 the clearest. It captures the Sisyphean frustration of feeling stuck in one place, bound to return no matter what you do to break the cycle.
1. Doom Eternal
PCGamesN’s Game of the Year 2020 is Doom Eternal. It wasn’t a huge surprise when we tallied our votes – we’ve got plenty of shooter fans here, and a few long-in-the-tooth PC gamers who are old enough to have played the original. And what a joy it is to see this iconic PC property so triumphantly updated for the modern era. Doom Eternal proves that some things really are eternal: blisteringly quick gunplay and beating the everloving shit out of demons.
For a game that appears at a casual glance to consist of little else than such violence, Doom Eternal is deceptively intelligent. Comparisons with Doom’s 2016 reboot reveal this intelligence in thoughtful revisions across multiple aspects of design, such as music, level and arena design, demon weak points, mid-air dashes, the meat hook, limb degradation, tweaks to your own weaponry, and much more. Hell, developer id Software even found a way to make the story feel relevant in 2020, even though it was conceived in an era where such things didn’t really matter.
These revisions represent a top-to-bottom review of the formula that’s clever not only in the changes made but in what’s been left alone, and most of all in how it all comes together. Switching guns to snipe off a demon’s arm cannon while flying across a vertiginous canyon of lava via the meat hook only to land on a Cacodemon and rip its eyeball out as thumping djent blares – yeah, this is the stuff. This leaves your every nerve tingling with adrenaline when the red mist settles. This isn’t just the undisputed peak of PvE shooter combat; it’s a peak we’re amazed would reach such heights.