You’d hardly describe 2018 as a vintage year for sports gaming, yet some heavyweight series are conspicuously absent from GamesRadar’s top ten best games of 2018. Names such as Football Manager 2019: strong as ever, yet eclipsed by another coaching sim, which we’ll explore imminently. And UFC 3 – a solid MMA effort from EA that still can’t quite match the fun vs realism blend of long-retired rival UFC Undisputed. Fire Pro Wrestling World, Mario Tennis Aces and the criminally underrated AO International Tennis can also count themselves unlucky not to make our countdown of the best sports games of 2018.
Those games which do make our past-12-months Hall of Fame are a mix of big-money veterans and plucky, on-a-budget upstarts, and exactly the way you’d like it to be every year. Balls of all shapes and sizes abound, but we’ve also got hockey sticks, power slams, laser fights and more – and our round up of the best sports games of 2018 are worthwhile additions to your Christmas list or January-sales blowout.
10. Madden NFL 19
Long removed from its PS2-era heyday, EA has finally returned its Gridiron veteran to relevance on the strength of two juggernaut features inspired by sparring buddy FIFA: story mode Longshot (which traces its origins to The Journey) and Ultimate Team. Indeed, many argue that Madden 19’s pack-opening, fantasy-roster mode is superior to the soccerball equivalent given the ability to upgrade players yourself, and omission of superfluous FUT pack-fillers such as fitness and injury cards. Also formidable on the field of play, this is the best Madden entry in a decade.
9. NBA 2K19
As Madden sneaks back towards prominence, its big b-ball rival endures a transitional season: still the best-looking game in sports, and magic on the court, but lacking genuine inspiration half a decade into the current console cycle. MyCareer storyline The Way Back boasts appearances from Anthony Mackie and Haley Joel Osment yet never scales the heights of previous seasons, while some clunky UI decisions make MyTeam a pound shop imitation of FUT. But its gameplay excellence, wedded to moreish-as-ever dynasty mode MyGM, earns it a top-ten slot regardless.
Nintendo Switch remains light on classic sports games, and Mario Tennis Aces misses out on a spot here given one curious design call: there’s no way to play it in a conventional, three-sets-of-six-games manner. The machine still earns representation by way of Windjammers, a modern update of Pong originally released for Neo Geo in 1994, where frisbee meets Street Fighter. Its modern equivalent works masterfully on Switch, with pixellated visuals, two-button controls and trick-shot heavy matches coming alive in online multiplayer - and local versus play, via a single Joy-Con, supported too.
7. MLB 18 The Show
During the PS3/Xbox 360 era’s peak, the most heated debate when making lists such as this was choosing which of MLB The Show and NBA 2K merited top spot. So it perhaps represents a fall from grace to see both those leviathans pawing at the top six. In truth, The Show, like NBA, does little wrong, but suffers from its own past success; to play it now is to both enjoy its brilliance and to feel overwhelmed by deja vu, its on-point metered pitching and timed batting satisfying yet forever familiar. Still, its status as the genre’s best-presented game justifies a post-Christmas purchase.
6. PES 2019
In recent years GamesRadar has endorsed Konami’s stalwart as the pick of the major football games, but that changes following Pro Evo’s loss of Champions League endorsement. While still admirably realistic on the turf, it’s a licensing loss PES 2019 struggles to come to terms with – particularly as its time sink modes (Master League and MyClub) fall short of their FIFA 19 equivalents, and it has no narrative tale such as The Journey: Champions to offer secondary value. Still the purists’ favourite, hence a mid-table showing here, but second best when the big two’s overall footballing packages are judged head-to-head.
5. Laser League
When analysing GamesRadar’s best sports games of 2016 I tabbed Rocket League for world domination. Its success since speaks for itself, and throws up the question of which sports game is ‘the next Rocket League’. Laser – no relation – feels like a natural heir. Meshing the maddest bits of Speedball 2 with Tron by way of Gladiators’ Atlaspheres, its multiplayer matches see you trying to score goals while collecting power-ups and dodging/redirecting lasers. It’s exactly as madcap and breathless as that last sentence, with an outrageously good bleep-bloop soundtrack that feels concurrently 1980s and 2080s. Vinyl release next year, please?
4. FIFA 19
When Love And Hate Collide: a huge hit for Def Leppard two decades ago which could have been looped to introduce any, or every, entry in the FIFA series since. No sports game is more popular, or maligned; and while FIFA 19 has its faults (go away, Squad Battles’ comeback AI), there’s plenty of footballing goodness to enjoy too. FUT – already the genre’s standout mode – is bolstered by the ingenious Division Rivals mechanic, kick-off matches against mates are transformed by the addition of house rules, and The Journey: Champions delivers an appropriate, glorious farewell to Alex Hunter. You can stop booing at your laptop/tablet/phone screen now.
3. WWE 2K19
If Triple H is the king of kings, consider this the shock of shocks. Many, myself included, lost all hope in Yuke’s and Visual Concepts when WWE 2K18 played reasonably on release – yet somehow got demonstrably worse each time it was patched. Yet WWE 2K19 is this year’s unlikeliest of comeback kids, with Universe mode finally delivering month after month of pay-per-view enjoyment, and the retooled-from-scratch MyCareer unleashing all manner of amusement both in the ring and backstage. (Please, please check out the top five WWE 2K19 career mode moments once done here.) A behemoth in every possible sense.
2. Out Of The Park Baseball 19
While Football Manager’s colossal world has reached the point of overwhelming more casual players, its former stablemate – Sports Interactive published OOTP from 2005 to 2007 – continues to deftly balance depth and accessibility. Weeks pass in a single evening as you whistle through matches making key decisions on pitch counts, base stealing and every other facet of baseball. Leagues can be started from as far back as 1900, with real pros and draft classes, and everything editable as you see fit. And like the great FMs of yesteryear, you can happily lose days to negotiating key trades and enticing free agents. It’s the best sports sim you’ve never played.
1. NHL 19
Confession time. This year we decided against carrying an NHL 19 review, unsure of the game’s critical potential or the size of its fan base. Upon reflection, following two months’ non-stop pretend hockey: we were wrong. Because however niche it appears from a global audience perspective, this is a game every sports fan, casual or hardcore, should buy immediately and play endlessly. Or at least until next August.
Myriad positives earn it top spot. A staggering array of changeable settings make it accessible whatever your past stick-swinging experience. Be A Pro, the series’ traditional create-a-player offering, becomes unmissable via World Of CHEL, a collection of four riotous on- and offline modes. Franchise perfectly balances off-rink excellence with on-rink drama. Outdoor matches delight. Gameplay, graphics, presentation: it sings in the snow on every front. Making for the best sports game of the year, and one of this decade’s finest. Really, truly pucking great.
If none of these float your boat, check out the 11 current best football games that aren’t called FIFA or PES.