The best looking game of 2018

I remember the first time I played GoldenEye on the Nintendo 64 in 1997. The incredibly lifelike animation blew me away, and the intricately detailed character models running in glorious 20 frames per second were a revelation.

“Games will never look better than this,” I thought.

I may have been incorrect.

Fast forward to today. Not only are video games approaching photorealism at an increasingly fast rate, there’s more diversity in visual style than we’ve ever seen. This is the result of the continued growth of the industry; both the explosion of high-quality indie titles, and the seemingly unlimited ambition of AAA studios.

From titles with budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars to games created by a single developer, there’s an almost limitless pool of eye candy to choose from. Though this list can’t hope to be exhaustive, these are the titles that most impressed us visually in 2018.

Honorable mentions

Shadow of the Tomb Raider was a solid title with a few underlying weaknesses, but the visuals were not one of them. It’s a remarkably beautiful game, with an emphasis on setting and location that set it apart, even from the Tomb Raider games that came before. Jungles certainly aren’t a new locale for video games, Lara herself has explored digital foliage before, but never before has it been rendered with such intricate detail. From the sprawling city of Paititi to the darkest underground tombs, Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s environments were some of the best of the year.

Octopath Traveler for the Nintendo Switch was designed to invoke nostalgia for the 16-Bit era, and though the gameplay and gorgeous music certainly succeed at channeling that '90s JRPG vibe, nowhere was this more beautifully exemplified than in the visuals. The SNES style sprites were surprisingly endearing and expressive, and the use of soft light and perspective in the environments were a gorgeous marriage of modern technology and older sensibilities. Octopath Traveler managed to elegantly walk the line between old and new, and that’s not always easy.

VR has finally reached a point where it can stand toe-to-toe with traditional games in terms of visual design, and the criminally underappreciated Astro Bot Rescue Mission is a stellar example of how far the medium has come.

Not only does it look exactly like a computer animated cartoon come to life, it also runs beautifully on the relatively underpowered Playstation 4 VR platform. Astro Bot’s brightly colored and varied worlds are a joy to explore, and the excellent use of virtual reality to enhance your little robot’s platforming escapades only helps with immersion.

Runner-Up: Dragon Ball FighterZ

We’ve heard the phrase “a cartoon come to life” when discussing games before (in the paragraph above for example,) but never has it been truer than here. Dragon Ball FighterZ nails its source material perfectly; so perfectly it’s easy to mistake gameplay for an episode of the immensely popular show.

Seeing Akira Toriyama’s iconic characters come to life with such loving attention to detail is a Dragon Ball fan’s dream come true, and it’s hard to imagine how it could possibly be improved. The extravagant tone of the show is perfectly captured alongside the art style, and as a result, Dragon Ball FighterZ sets a new benchmark for source material being represented in video games.

Even if you’re not a fan of fighting games or anime, Dragon Ball FighterZ is worth seeing in action, and stands tall as an achievement in video game visual design.

Runner-Up: GRIS

Not a lot of people were aware of Devolver Digital’s GRIS when it was released earlier this month. That’s a shame, because it’s easily one of the most visually engaging titles of the year.

GRIS is a beautiful exploration of nameless grief that uses ink and highly saturated color paired with evocative sound design to craft a wholly unique experience. It’s a talented artist’s sketchbook come to life, and the thematically varied levels consistently endeavor to keep things fresh. GRIS is a phenomenal example of hand drawn animation being used to great effect in gaming, and will no doubt continue to inspire creators to embrace more experimental aesthetics.    

It‘s been fantastic to see the mainstream embrace of titles like GRIS, Celeste, and countless other high concept indie titles that take interesting chances with their visual style. No doubt 2019 will bring even more, and we’re excited to see the results.

Runner-Up: God of War

God of War is probably the best looking game on the Playstation 4, and there’s certainly a case to be made that it’s the best looking game of this generation.

Not only does it set a new precedent of lifelike character models and animation, it combines that realism with a fantasy aesthetic that feels completely organic. Never before has a world so seamlessly blended mythology with realism, never before has the unreal seemed more real. Exceptionally detailed character models clash with impossible monsters. Every varied environment is polished to perfection, from the photorealistic snow of the high mountains to the ember colored trees of Freya’s realm.

The mythological world of God of War is relentlessly beautiful, and the attention to detail is often breathtaking. It isn’t just an extraordinary technological achievement, it also sets a new precedent for world building and coherent visual design. Even more impressive is the fact it’s running on console hardware, much to the chagrin of PC gamers everywhere.

One of the reasons God of War is able to continuously have such a high standard of presentation is the comparatively limited scope. It’s by no means a small game, but it’s not an open world, and that allowed the developers to limit what the player is able to see and experience to some degree. That hyper focused approach allows for a level of polish that something on a larger scale might not be able to replicate.

Winner: Red Dead Redemption 2

Not only is Red Dead Redemption 2 easily the most detailed and beautiful open world ever created, it’s also extraordinarily massive, exhibiting an almost ludicrous attention to detail on a scale we’ve never seen.

The most impressive aspect of RDR2 isn’t necessarily the polygon counts or the textures, it’s the way the interlocking systems work with each other. The way the blood left over on Arthur’s coat after skinning a deer washes away in a cloud of crimson when you enter a river, or the fog that slowly thins as the sun breaks through the trees in the high mountains. The way your horse’s breath becomes visible as you climb to a higher altitude, or the lighting changes subtly as rain clouds fill the sky. None of this was necessary to tell a compelling narrative, but this unprecedented attention to detail makes an unforgettable visual impression.

The character models might be the weakest link, but even they are often eerily expressive.  When Arthur is riding through the open grass fields near Valentine in cinematic camera mode, it’s sometimes hard to remember you’re playing a game, and not a highly curated tech demo. This is an open world that finally realizes the potential of what an open world game should be: a realistic playground where you can lose hours of your time pretending to be someone else.  

Though the artifice does occasionally collapse under the weight of its own ambition in the form of hilarious glitches or frustrating mechanics, it never diminishes the extraordinary technical and artistic achievement that is Red Dead Redemption 2’s consistently jaw-dropping visual design.

Every individual frame might lack the exquisite detail of God of War’s painterly composition, but taken as a whole, Red Dead Redemption 2 is such a feat of visual splendor it will be used as a benchmark for not just open world games in 2019, but all video games going forward.

Congratulations to Red Dead Redemption 2, winner of GameCrate's Best Looking Game of 2018 Award!

Check out our full 2018 award list for more.