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The big and small gaming surprises of 2020

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2020 was full of surprises: The Cleveland Browns have a shot at the playoffs, and Doritos is bringing back 3D chips. Alright, so maybe those won’t be the 2020 surprises we remember in a few decades—it’s been quite a year—but they were no less unexpected. 

The same goes for the world of videogames. There were some big shakeups, and several games that, at the start of the year, we had no idea would come to define the past 12 months. There’s a reason we said “holy shit” so many times in 2020. Microsoft owns Bethesda now, as one tiny example, and one of the biggest games of the year was a 2D multiplayer deception game released in 2018. 

Here are the PC gaming developments we didn’t expect going into 2020.

Hades is a huge hit

I played Hades when it first released in early access on the Epic Store, and it seemed alright. I couldn’t get into it, truth be told, but I didn’t make a huge effort, figuring I might find it more interesting when it left early access. Now it’s out (and on Steam), but it didn’t just go from being an alright early access game to a pretty good released game. It was one of the most praised games of 2020 and our Action Game of the Year. Supergiant’s a great developer, so maybe I should’ve expected the greatness, but I had no idea my first impression was going to be this far off. —Tyler Wilde

Genshin Impact is also a huge hit

There’s been a lot of surprise hits this year, but a free-to-play gacha RPG is definitely the most surprising surprise hit. But Genshin Impact has earned its success. Despite its microtransactions being a little yucky, they’re easy to ignore as you climb, swim, and glide your way across the gorgeous mountains, fields, and valleys of Teyvat. It’s one part Breath of the Wild clone, one part charming JRPG, and one part live-service game—but with few of the frustrations that usually plague that genre. MiHoYo has done an excellent job in responding to feedback and new updates have added substantial new features and areas to explore. It’s ridiculous that this is all free.  —Steven Messner 

Sekiro gets free DLC 19 months after release

What the heck? Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, FromSoftware’s brutal ninja game, came out in March 2019. It released to much acclaim. And that was it—no big updates or additions, just a one-and-done singleplayer experience. Until July 2020, when FromSoftware announced, out of nowhere, that Sekiro was getting free DLC. The free update released this October added a boss rush mode and a challenge system to give those obsessed with Sekiro’s combat a way to challenge bosses again and again or quickly jump into particularly tough battles. It also added a “passive” online multiplayer system akin to Dark Souls, where players could leave ghostly recordings of themselves around the map. Sadly, the update contained no Easter eggs pointing to when we’ll find out more about Elden Ring. —Wes Fenlon

Paradise Killer pushes the investigation genre forward

Paradise Killer looked cool at a glance, but when Funké sent over a 91% review, I was surprised. I expected it to be an interesting visual novel with some weird characters and cool music, maybe, but not a game that, like Her Story and Disco Elysium, would be important to the detective genre as a whole—and one of the best detective games ever. —Tyler Wilde

Valorant proves Riot can do other genres—oh, and it’s making an MMO

Riot, the company that used to be just “the League of Legends folks,” put out a competitive FPS this year. That’s wild on its own, but even more surprising is how excellent Valorant already is. Borrowing heavily from just about every part of CS:GO, Valorant proves that a tactical shooter can have magical fireballs, revives, and ultimate abilities without diluting the purity of Counter-Strike’s 1v1 gun jousting. Valorant’s quality (along with Legends of Runeterra) has convinced me that Riot can venture into new genres without dropping the ball. Let’s hope that trend continues with its newly-announced League of Legends MMO.  —Morgan Park

Half-Life isn’t over after all

Squeezing a new game between two existing games felt like a bad idea to me. The timeline of Half-Life has been wedged in my brain since Half-Life 2, so setting Half-Life: Alyx before it, yet after the original Half-Life, it just seemed like even if the game was good it couldn’t possibly have any actual repercussions or stakes.

But it did! Big ‘uns! We made a video about it if you want to spoil it for yourself. The story being locked between the past and future didn’t stop Half-Life: Alyx’s writers from twisting the lore into a new and exciting shape and setting the stage for another chapter. The only reason that sucks is god knows how long it’ll be until we see how it plays out in the next Half-Life game, which I’m now completely desperate for.—Chris Livingston

Persona and Horizon Zero Dawn come to PC

The dream wishlist of PC ports continues to shrink. Japanese games have been big on PC for years, now, with Persona developer Atlus one of the few remaining holdouts. That finally changed in 2020 with a PC port of Persona 4. And it’s good! Granted, it should run well, considering it’s a decade old at this point. Hopefully Persona 4’s success on PC means Persona 5 is on its way, too. The ramifications of Sony’s Horizon Zero Dawn being ported to PC feel even greater—if that becomes the norm for Sony’s first party games, owning a PC and a Nintendo console will really let you play every game under the sun. As Evan summed up, this year, the PC pretty much won the console war. —Wes Fenlon

Artifact comes back

Valve’s heavily-hyped fantasy card game Artifact was a spectacular flameout: Its player count plummeted within a few weeks of its November 2018 launch, dropping to double digits by July 2019. Adding insult to injury, the Artifact category on Twitch collapsed into a wasteland of porn, memes, and worse, and aside from beleaguered Twitch moderators, nobody seemed to care enough to be interested. Six months after leaving beta, it was well and truly dead.

But then the damnedest thing happened.

Artifact: Under Constructionhttps://t.co/QvJaieH5gfMarch 20, 2020

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“You might notice some changes soon—we are starting tests on our systems and infrastructure. This shouldn’t impact live Artifact but we wanted to give you a heads up,” the Artifact team wrote in a very unexpected blog update. “Expect more news after the launch of Half-Life: Alyx!”

Sure enough, after Alyx’s release in March, Valve started dropping details: The oft-criticized marketplace was dropped, a singleplayer campaign was added, heroes were overhauled, and more, and in May the Artifact 2.0 closed beta test kicked off, leaving us cautiously hopeful for (or at least, not completely dismissive of) the game’s future. It’s been quiet since then, but work is continuing: Valve said in a December update that it’s still too soon to commit to an open beta and release target, but it hopes to start bringing new players into the ongoing closed beta test in January. —Andy Chalk

Crucible does not come back

Amazon is one of the biggest, wealthiest companies in the world, and so when it revealed the sci-fi PvP shooter Crucible to the world in May, there was a general, widely-held assumption that it would at least be competent. After all, when you can throw a bazillion dollars at your problems without blinking an eye, you can usually make them go away pretty quickly.

Surprisingly, that did not turn out to be the case with Crucible. It just wasn’t good—it didn’t run well, and worse, it was too boring to bother with, even for free. “There’s obvious potential in its creative heroes, but my enthusiasm falls flat as soon I actually have to play with them,” we wrote in our 48/100 review. “There are too many shooters out there that do what Crucible does way better.”

But the real surprise came later. Unlike Valve, which quietly put its head down and went back to the drawing board after Artifact tanked, Amazon pulled the plug on Crucible entirely, first stuffing it back into the closed beta closet and then, four months later, throwing in the towel on the whole thing. Farewells were said, refunds were issued, and the Crucible team was moved to the fantasy MMO New World. It was a shocking outcome: After six years of work (Crucible had reportedly been in development since 2014) and significant resources expended, the whole thing was canned after being in the public eye for just a month. — Andy Chalk

Microsoft buys Bethesda

Technically, Microsoft bought Zenimax Media , Bethesda’s parent company. Same difference: It means that Microsoft now owns Fallout, Doom, and The Elder Scrolls. That’s pretty wild! We had some thoughts at the time about what it means. —Tyler Wilde

A $5 game from 2018 is a political platform

Among Us was one of the biggest games of 2020, but it didn’t release in 2020. It released in 2018, but only started to gain popularity this year, largely due to Twitch streamers. Once it got going, though, it really got going, and ended up becoming exemplary of just how mainstream games have become. 15 years ago, politicians would more or less only talk about games in terms of societal ills, and now young politicians, including US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are playing them live on Twitch to hundreds of thousands of viewers. I didn’t see that one coming.  —Tyler Wilde

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