I bought an Xbox Series X earlier this year, along with Game Pass Ultimate, which helped push me to actually play more games instead of cycling between the same handful for all eternity (hello, Planet Coaster and Fallout: New Vegas). I’ve enjoyed trying new releases, catching up on games from a few years ago, and revisiting my favorites in glorious 4K resolution.
I thought it might be fun to talk about my favorite games in 2023, and some quick mentions for the games I really didn’t enjoy. Most of these were not released in 2023, but they were new to me this year, and that’s really what matters. Also, this is a spoiler-free article.
Two Point Campus
I enjoyed Two Point Hospital back when it was new, and the same developer released Two Point Campus in December 2022, which I finally picked up this year. It’s a simulation game where you progress through colleges in the fictional Two Point County, building and upgrading campuses to meet the given requirements until you reach a three-star rating.
Each campus has different goals and limitations, and unlike Two Point Hospital, there’s more of a focus on a year-long schedule. The summer breaks are used to set up new courses (which involve building classrooms and hiring teachers), then throughout the year you can plan student events and competitions to meet the level’s objectives.
Two Point Campus has the same general design as the earlier game, with cartoony buildings and objects, and characters that wouldn’t look out of place in Wallace & Gromit. The game wins extra brownie points my book for not only being a native macOS game — a rarity these days — but also being optimized for Apple Silicon processors. It works very well on my M1 Mac Mini.
I think I still prefer Two Point Hospital, but I also haven’t got too far in Two Point Campus, so I can’t fully compare the two. It’s definitely fun, but I’d recommend playing it on a computer if you can — simulation games like Two Point Campus are more frustrating with a game controller.
You can play Two Point Campus on Windows, Linux, macOS, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.
Minecraft Legends was one of the few new games I was interested in trying this year, mostly because it was available on Game Pass at launch. I haven’t seen many other people talk about playing it, but it passed three million players less than two weeks after launch, and it has received a few more updates since then.
I don’t really know how to describe Minecraft Legends — other people have compared it to Pikmin, but I haven’t played that. It’s a real-time strategy game set in the world of Minecraft, where you and your friends ride around on horses. Hordes of enemies are breaking into the world from the Nether dimension and building fortified bases, and it’s your job to fight them. The game world is procedurally generated, just like regular Minecraft, so the exact terrain (but not the gameplay) is different for each playthrough.
Minecraft Legends is the same gameplay loop over and over again: you find an enemy base (or you are called to protect a specific village), then you construct fortifications nearby using resources you run around and collect. Placing down Spawners gives you the ability to create and control certain mobs, which you unlock throughout the main story. After everything is built up, you send your army to attack, and help them pick new targets and move around as needed — you are also running around the battlefield, but your one sword can’t do a whole lot. Eventually, you get far enough into the siege where you can attack the enemy’s Nether portal, and then their base falls apart.
I played the entire game with a friend, which took about 12 hours from start to finish. During each battle, one of us usually collected resources elsewhere, while the other person built up fortifications and sent armies to attack. There’s some strategy with picking the shortest route to the portal for each enemy base, but most of the gameplay is just sending wave after wave of armies into the enemy base until you break through the final inner walls.
Even though the game does get a bit repetitive, and the main story is short, the stylized take on Minecraft and constant action made it pretty fun. I did end up playing it mostly on PC, though, because it’s much less frustrating with a mouse than with a controller.
Starfield was the main game I was looking forward to for 2023, and it’s one of the reasons I bought the Xbox (my PC is getting old and Starfield famously skipped PlayStation consoles). It seemed like a game made specifically for me: I enjoy Bethesda’s Fallout games, and I like space, and this is basically Fallout in space.
I’ve now played Starfield for a little under 60 hours, much of that being side quests and outpost construction. I haven’t finished the main storyline yet, so I can’t render a final judgement here, but I can say that Starfield is good. Not absolutely incredible, but definitely not bad.
Starfield is an open-world (open-worlds?) RPG that places you a few hundred years in the future, where humanity has colonized much of the galaxy with faster-than-light ships. As with other games from Bethesda Game Studios, there are a few different factions with their own bases, quests, characters, and territory. It’s very much Skyrim or Fallout in space, but with the added mechanic that there are hundreds of planets to explore: some of them important to the game, some with minor settlements, and many more that are mostly barren. All the while, you’re treated to the fantastic music composed by Inon Zur, who also created the soundtrack for every Bethesda-made Fallout game.
The universe of Starfield feels like a mishmash of Star Trek and The Expanse, but I don’t feel like it really pushes the sci-fi genre forward in an interesting way. Again, I haven’t finished the main story, but I have explored a lot of planets and locations. I was a lot more interested in the small details in exploration and interaction with specific characters than the lore of this completely-new universe.
The big problem with Starfield is that it’s too big. Most other reviews have pointed this out, but the bulk of the procedurally-generated planets and moons in Starfield are mostly uninhabited, save for the occasional pirate base or abandoned outpost (which are the same level models pasted over and over again). The empty worlds are mostly there for resource collecting, since most of the actual quests take place in populated areas with human-crafted levels. There are a few quests that involve exploring those empty worlds for a specific discovery, and those are by far the most boring quests in the game.
There are a few other elements of Starfield that don’t really work well. Inventory management is awful, especially if you plan on building outposts on worlds to collect resources. The inventories for yourself, your companion, your ship, and your outposts are mostly separate, which isn’t a big deal in the main game, but it’s incredibly frustrating when you want to build an outpost or do upgrades. I was also disappointed by the outpost system as a whole — it’s not nearly as fun as building settlements in Fallout 4 or encampments in Fallout 76.
I had a lot of fun with Starfield, but also some frustration, and I plan on going back to it after finishing some other games.
Wolfenstein: The Old Blood
Wolfenstein: The New Order from 2014 still holds up as a fun and fast-paced first-person shooter, and it was one of the first games I replayed on Xbox. Afterwards, I decided to try Wolfenstein: The Old Blood for the first time, and I think it might be my favorite out of the series (I haven’t tried the newer entries yet).
The New Order takes place in an alternate timeline where Nazi Germany won World War II and conquered most of the world, using advanced technology stolen from a secret society. You play as William B.J. Blazkowicz, who travels across Europe with a resistance group, eventually culminating in a trip to a fortified moon base. The Old Blood is set before the end of World War II in the same timeline, as Blazkowicz tries to break into a Nazi compound to obtain secret files.
The Old Blood has some great locations and levels: the medieval Castle Wolfenstein, the sci-fi military base attached to it, the German village around the castle, and more places I won’t spoil. It felt a little bit more polished overall than the previous game, though I didn’t like the story quite as much. There are also secret levels that I wasn’t expecting and were a fun break from the actual game.
This is a great (and relatively short) game, especially if you’re like me and need a break from the complicated weapon upgrades, skill trees, and other complex elements that are in pretty much every other modern first-person shooter. It’s just you, several guns, and a lot of dead Nazis.
You can play Wolfenstein: The Old Blood on Windows, PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S. It’s also on Xbox Cloud Gaming through Game Pass Ultimate.
Mass Effect Legendary Edition
I have been meaning to play the Mass Effect series for a while, and I inadvertently waited long enough for EA to release remastered versions packaged together as Mass Effect Legendary Edition. It’s absolutely fantastic, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Mass Effect 1, Mass Effect 2, and Mass Effect 3 place you in the role of Commander Shepard (who can be a man or woman, up to you) in the far future, where humans and alien civilizations have colonized the galaxy. You’re tasked with fighting the Reapers, an ancient alien race determined to destroy all organic life in the universe. Your choices in each game carry over to the next (unless you choose to create new save files), which helps the series feel more like one continuous plot instead of three disconnected games.
Mass Effect 1 feels the most like Star Trek, depicting a utopian society with some dangerous elements related to the main plot, but the level design is frustrating at times. Mass Effect 2 is improved in almost every way and has a grittier feel to match the growing war against the Reapers, but the premise of working for a human supremacist organization in space (not a joke!) isn’t great. Mass Effect 3 is fantastic, with some occasional segments that are more of a grind to get through.
There are also a lot of great sci-fi elements in Mass Effect. I love the Quarians and Geth, with the latter functioning a lot like Cylons or Borg but eventually turning into something much more. The history of Mass Effect’s universe changes repeatedly as you play through and uncover more of the past and what the future holds. It’s so much more engaging and unique than the universe of Starfield (or at least, what I’ve seen of it).
Mass Effect Legendary Edition contains the original trilogy, plus all the DLC and updates that were developed for each game, which is a lot of content. I ended my playthrough at around 100 hours, and I skipped some smaller missions in all three games. The extended playtime and save progression also means something can happen based on a decision you made an eternity ago — without spoiling anything, a potential threat I saved in Mass Effect 1 came back to help me in Mass Effect 3, for example.
I could gush about Mass Effect for much longer, but I’ll end it with some praise for the music and sound design. Jack Wall, Jimmy Hinson, Sam Hulick, and others made some fantastic music across the trilogy — my favorites are probably the theme for The Illusive Man and Mars in ME3. There are so many environments and characters that just sound cool, and it helps that much of the voice acting is great.
Mass Effect Legendary Edition is fantastic, and I look forward to replaying it someday. Keelah si’yah.
The worst games
I also played a lot of stinkers this year! First up is Duke Nukem Forever, which I played in preparation for the Tech Tales episode about the game’s development. The first hour or two is kind of fun, because it’s just Duke being a campy 80’s-inspired hero saving the world from aliens, but after that it starts to get really tedious. Eventually I got to a certain part that made me more uncomfortable than I’ve ever been playing a game, and then a boss battle that was frustrating and not fun at all, and that seemed like a good time to quit. Ben Kuchera said it best in his review for Ars Technica in 2011: “It's like watching your uncle tell racist jokes at Thanksgiving and praying someone has the guts to tell him to cut it out, but this time it's interactive—and you're the uncle.”
Next is Atomic Heart, which I was looking forward to for the same reason as pretty much everyone else — it looked like a modern and Soviet-inspired version of BioShock. I played it for three hours through Game Pass, and that was enough for me. The protagonist’s dialogue was annoying, the fighting was annoying, and I was running into some graphical glitches on Xbox. Maybe I’ll try it again in a year or two with the dialogue language set to the original Russian and all the later gameplay updates. The music is pretty good, at least.
Finally, I have to include Banjo-Kazooie here. I know, I know, it’s one of the most beloved games of all time. I had some fun with the early levels on Xbox (which is a slightly improved version originally released in 2008), but the camera system was constantly changing angles and movement direction at critical points, essentially sabotaging me. I’m not that great at platformers to start with, but Banjo-Kazooie’s camera is so much worse than any other 3D platformer I’ve tried. Maybe this was fine in 2008 or 1998, but now I’d rather just play something else.