The PC gaming highs of 2018

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Every single week we celebrate and commiserate in our Highs and Lows feature, spilling our guts about the best and worst bits of the week that was, or at least the parts we can remember. And now we’re trying to recall the whole year, rounding up the highs and lows of 2018. Below you’ll see all of our high points, but check back tomorrow for the gloomy lows.

 Chris Livingston: Store Wars 

After simmering for a while, I feel like the fuse has been properly lit. It's hard to envision a true competitor for Steam when it comes to selling PC games—and we're probably still years away from one—but more and more challengers popped up in 2018 and that's a good thing. Joining stores like GOG and Humble is the Discord Store and Epic Games Store, and while the offerings are pretty limited at the moment and there's a major lack of features when compared to Steam, they both still managed to score some exclusive deals, and that's an important first step—even if it doesn't feel like it.

I know the addition of new stores and desktop clients is a bit of a hassle for players. It can be hard to stop relying on Steam and we all feel a bit of reluctance to download a bunch of other clients, set up accounts, and especially to hand our credit card info—and as many as there are now, there will be even more next year and beyond. But competition is always a net good, and we're going to be seeing more exclusives in stores like Epic's and Discord's. I know exclusives can be annoying, too, especially if your Steam wallet is fat with trading card cash, and the game you want is only being sold somewhere else. But at least it's not like console exclusives. If a PC game has an exclusive agreement with a certain store, you can still play it on PC! It's not the end of the world and not as restrictive as it sounds.

The important thing for developers is that they're starting to see better deals than Valve offers when it comes to revenue splits, and stores with a carefully curated selection of games (instead of Steam's massive glut) can mean a better chance to be seen by customers. For PC gamers, all these stores competing with Steam, and each other, will eventually pay off in more discounts and sales. First these new stores will fight for developer loyalty, then they'll fight for customer loyalty. Let the great Store Wars begin.

Jarred Walton: Core Wars

The CPU is the main brain of your computer. It runs your OS and most of the logic in your games. A faster CPU can make everything on your PC run smoother, and competition for the crown of CPU champion has been fierce this year. This all started last year when AMD released its Ryzen processors, significantly closing the performance gap that existed between the old FX-series parts and Intel's Core i5/i7 offerings. The battle has raged on in 2018, and become perhaps even more heated—literally in some cases. But I like competition.

This year, AMD released its second generation Ryzen CPUs, headlined by the Ryzen 7 2700X. Not only is it faster than its predecessor, but it dropped the price to $329. Sure, if you have a top-tier GPU, Intel's CPUs might be a bit faster in games, but for reasonable builds (meaning, $500 or less on the GPU), AMD offers the better value by far. And in non-gaming scenarios, the 2700X typically beats the i7-8700K.

Of course Intel had to respond, bringing out its first 'mainstream' 8-core CPUs with the Core i9-9900K and Core i7-9700K. Both are faster than the Ryzen 7 2700X, in games and in general use. However, these 9th gen Intel CPUs likely wouldn't exist without AMD providing much needed competition. Also, the i9-9900K costs significantly more money.

It's not just the mainstream platform getting some love, however. The HEDT (High-End Desktop) enthusiast platforms also received updates. AMD's second generation Threadripper parts doubled core counts to 32-core/64-thread with the 2990WX. Intel responded… with a slightly faster Core i9-9980XE that's still an 18-core/36-thread part, just like the i9-7980XE. Of course the WX Threadripper parts aren't usually the best option, but I love seeing the boundaries move on what we can expect from modern PC hardware.

James Davenport: Book bath

The Witcher 3 is a few years old now. Yowsa. What I’d give to be able to play it for the first time! Not much, honestly. Not going to sell 10 years of my life to a witch or anything, but I found a wild lifehack that just might do the trick: reading. I’ve been tearing through the Witcher books and I’m impressed how perfectly The Witcher 3 manages to express these characters. I feel like I’m questing again, hanging with Gerry while he slashes bellies and says goofy, dry shit. It’s great. The books are also resetting my understanding of the world of the Witcher. There’s so much to Ciri and Geralt’s journey before the events of The Witcher 3, enough to compel me to play it again. There’s about four more books and the first two games before I manage that, but suddenly it’s become one of my most anticipated games of 2019. If you’ve been missing Geralt and pals, or just want something to do over the holiday break, go pick up The Witcher books. Start with The Last Wish, a series of shorts introducing Geralt and Ciri, or hop right into the novels with Blood of Elves. You’ll feel right at home, I promise. 

Wes Fenlon: It's a hunter's world

The highlight of my year has been learning to hunt. Not real animals, lord no: I'm a soft city boy who doesn't want to harm a hair on a poor deer or bunny rabbit's head. But the monsters in Astera? Those I'll gleefully stab, shoot, and capture in electric shock traps (so I can then fight them again in a small arena). It's vicious and I love it. Monster Hunter is one of those series I've wanted to get into for years, because I tend to be drawn to complex, intimidating games that are deeply rewarding once you've gotten over a brutal learning curve. A Capcom action game with complex weapon movesets and dozens upon dozens of varied beasts to fight sounded awesome, but playing that kind of game on a 3DS, or a Wii U with a janky-at-best online system, just never felt worth the effort. When World was announced, I knew it was going to be my in.

And with now nearly 100 hours of hunting under my belt, it's easily the game I've played the most in 2018. I love it just as much as I thought I would, and it's actually the first game I've played that has me logging in regularly for special events so I can unlock a particular sword or armor set. Above all, though, it's been a great multiplayer experience for me: for a few months I was playing with friends almost every night, which was a great way for us to hang out. It's the most fun "social" game I've played in the last year. Few years, even. Special shout out to my friend Steven for showing me the ways of the insect glaive, and Nico for being our monster hunter sherpa. Bring on those arch-tempered monsters!

Tom Senior: Rat’s entertainment!

Damn, Wes took my high of the year. While I still love a good singleplayer RPG or strategy, game, I’ve had the most fun this year playing games co-operatively. Monster Hunter: World is a great example, and I’m so happy the series is on PC—I wonder if the massive expansion due next year will end up in our game of the year estimations once again.

Destiny 2 and Vermintide 2 have also delivered brilliant co-op experiences this year. It can still be hard to get five other people together to go raiding, or even three other people together on an evening to smash up big rats, but it’s totally worth the effort. Vermintide even has a structured campaign that lets you share an ongoing story, and the classes are so varied it’s easy to start again with a new class and a different group of people. While in Destiny I feel like I need to do some grinding to access the cool new stuff, Vermintide is just right there, ready for us to grab our hammers and swords and get chopping again. I can see myself playing a lot of it into 2019 and beyond.

 Andy Kelly: With a vengeance

I’ve already written about the Shenmue re-release in my GOTY personal pick, but it’s easily my high of the year. My review and this article cover why I love the game so much in extensive detail, but what’s important is that the thing has finally been preserved in a form that’s easily playable. I no longer have to fire up the old Dreamcast sitting under my TV and hear that disc drive whirr and spin itself to death. I mean, there’s a charm to playing on original hardware, but I think I’ll stick to PC for future replays.

And, of course, next year there’s Shenmue III to look forward to. I’m wildly (but cautiously) excited about Ryo Hazuki’s quest for revenge continuing in a new game. His English voice actor, Corey Marshall, has been tweeting about the recording process, making this impossible sequel feel suddenly real. But even if it doesn’t live up to the hype, thanks to this re-release It’ll be easier than ever to return to Yokosuka and relive the magic all over again. Is there a better Christmas game than Shenmue? I don’t think so.

Fraser Brown: Tactics on top

It’s been an amazing year for tactics games. It’s only really dawned on me now, at the end of the year, how excellent it’s really been. Big, small, traditional and inventive—we’ve seen them all in 2018, and if your backlog is anywhere as bloated as mine, they’ll be keeping us busy well into next year, as well. 

At the top of the pile sits Into the Breach, a game that seems simple and bite-sized but is actually a devil sent from the depths of Hell to swallow up your life and sanity as you try, over and over again, to avert disaster. It didn’t need to carry the genre alone, though, and was joined by the likes of BattleTech, Valkyria Chronicles 4, Frozen Synapse 2, Mutant Year Zero, Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus and more. And none of them are alike. 

Intro the Breach is a bastard of a puzzler, BattleTech’s a huge mech sandbox, Mutant Year Zero is an adventure-tactics hybrid with a focus on story and Mechanicus sends space archaeologists into dungeons to fight undead robots. These brief descriptions don’t really do the diversity justice, but the important thing is that there are a lot of people out there with a lot of cool ideas about what shape modern tactics games should take. It’s not just that there have been a lot of tactics games, it’s that they’re indicative of a genre that’s agile and experimental and going in more than one interesting direction. It’s exciting! 

Samuel Roberts: Cyberpunk 2077 in 2018

Is it a little too easy to pick a game for 2018's high of the year? Honestly, though, Cyberpunk 2077 felt like the biggest deal when it came to reveals over the last 12 months, with Obsidian's The Outer Worlds getting close, too. The level of detail in the footage above is off the charts—to the point where I don't see how it's ever going to run on those five year-old consoles it's apparently destined for. If you were expecting CD Projekt Red to show you a glimpse of how RPGs could look in four or five years, they provided that. Cyberpunk 2077 felt like an event this year, even if it could be a long, long time before we play it.

I saw the demo in Gamescom days before the reveal was streamed online (glad I flew all the way to Germany for that!). I didn't love every part of the demo—the swear-y dialogue and overall tone might take some getting used to—but I can't argue with how nice that world looks, and the potential of those branching quests. As Bethesda's next singleplayer efforts seem years away, barely being shown through (admittedly exciting) teasers during E3, CD Projekt Red stole the year when it comes to the noisy, gigantic game reveals that I still find fun when I'm in the right mood.