Danny Baranowsky is a composer best known for his work on games like Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac, Crypt of the Necrodancer, and 2019's Cadence of Hyrule. You can find his various compositions on Bandcamp, and follow his adventures on Twitter.
2019 was an interesting year for me. I moved to Vancouver, BC late last year and have been adapting to life in a splinter dimension where you can buy gravy and curdled cheese fries at McDonald’s, 7-11 doesn’t carry alcohol, and every video game is 25% more expensive. I work at Brace Yourself Games now, and for the first time in my career I’m an employee at a company rather than freelancing. I’d thought that gainful employment would cause me to play fewer video games, but it turns out the bouts of panic attacks and sobbing brought on by perpetual existential crises and the cabin fever of self-employment were more time consuming than I’d thought. I’ve regained the concept of a weekend and found it easier to focus on games when I wasn’t constantly musing the death of my career.
Given the chance I'd put Max Payne 2 on my GOTY list every year, but for the sake of following the "rules," Control will have to do. I’ve been a massive Remedy fan since MP2, and I’m always excited about the next Scandinavian insanity they foist our way. I’m also hugely excited about ray tracing, and Control is a great demonstration of its potential. It feels like an entirely different game without it. It suffers from some of the teething pains of the technology, with noisy shadows and reflections, but the way they’ve adapted the visual presentation of the game to be soft and filmic adapts to the drawbacks.
I hesitate to describe the gameplay as fairly traditional (person gets powers and hits things with powers until dead), but something about the way the game feels makes old-hat abilities like telekinesis feel really good. The hit feedback and death animations swirl with time-warped shader effects that truly look unlike anything I’ve seen before in a game. It’s a great example of why games don’t always need to reinvent the wheel. It’s a creative take on well-worn mechanics, and feels great to play.
The Ashtray Maze alone is GOTY-tier shit, with the self-aware Poets of the Fall (sorry, Old Gods of Asgard) track tearing it up through one of the coolest set-piece segments I’ve ever experienced.
I also appreciate the modest length. I finished it in about 12 hours, felt fully satisfied and wasn’t subject to any pointless grinding or padding. If I had to criticize anything, it’d be that the mod system and leveling seemed a bit pointless, but it felt pretty optional so didn’t really get in the way of my enjoyment.
I’ll admit I was initially pretty skeptical about WoW Classic. I assumed I’d jump in, remember why the last 15 years of updates to WoW were actually all for very good reasons, and then go back to wishing I had time to play WoW. But Blizzard actually did a very good job in balancing changes to quality of life with the original scope of the game. Menu and UI tweaks that are objectively better have been kept, while the gameplay stuff is mostly untouched.
I stopped playing right at level 39, but only because it was consuming me. I had a solid guild of active friends to play with, and there is definitely something to the experience of schlepping over to the Deadmines as a group and handling the logistics of people getting there in one piece and making sure everyone gets the items and quests they needed. Yeah, sometimes trying to get the fifth goddamn boar elbow to drop was annoying, but there is a certain joy to a group of friends working on something, rather than just following quest markers and checking boxes. Finding efficient farming spots and contending with friendly and enemy players is just not the same as it is in modern WoW.
I’m glad WoW Classic exists, even though I probably won’t play again. It’s wild to see how much 15 years of updates can change a game. It really does feel like an entirely different thing.
And fuck the Horde.
Another ray tracing showcase, Metro Exodus is gorgeous beyond belief, focusing more on accurate lighting than Control’s reflections. I love how everything feels placed in the world, with proper depth, because all physical light occlusion is accurately accounted for. It’s also great to see Metro finally get out of the Metro. I do admit that the questionable-Russian-accent soliloquies are difficult to get through, and the movement sometimes feels a bit stilted and geometry can be difficult to navigate. But the entire experience is so, so worth it, and if you’ve got a ray tracing card it’s a must-buy for that alone.
I love every new Codemasters racing game release, because it allows me to pretend for a minute that I give a shit about cars and know at all how they work. “Fuck yeah, that camber angle is dope,” I tell myself. “This is the sickest gear differential quotient, brah,” I exclaim, flat-brimmed hat 10 degrees off center.
I tend to prefer the rally racers. I don’t know why. I have no strong feelings about solid rock versus tiny rocks. Since we live the epoch of diminishing technical progress in games, the difference between the first Dirt game and Dirt Rally 2.0 isn’t hugely obvious. But beyond the visual upgrades, you can feel that the simulation is getting better, and the way they design a controller or wheel to manipulate that simulation is always improving. The sound simulation is just disgustingly accurate at this point, with the proper filtering and panning if your camera is outside or inside the car.
If you haven’t played a racing game in VR before, this is a great one to try. Racing games are one of the unimpeachable genres for VR. It’s better in every way, minus the sweaty raccoon face.
I hadn’t played much of the previous expansion, and got pretty quickly frustrated with the arcane quest and inventory system. I finally trudged through it and found the core of the new content very fun and rewarding.
Destiny aggressively lobbies to be the only game you play. But me, I’m perfectly content with getting to the highest light level I can, as fast as I can, then hopelessly trying to find six people to do raids with before I remember that I only have one human friend, but she’s legally bound to me and doesn’t like Destiny. Love ya, babe!
I pray for a UI and quest overhaul at some point, as what ultimately frustrates me is trying to juggle dozens of objectives and bounties that all count to some invisible limit, and some quests you can’t abandon, but some you can, and some items are quests but some are not and there’s no way to sort things in sensible ways and some quest objectives are just like, “Solve the riddle of the Inverted Ferret” that can’t be solved by any mortal human person without Google and there’s no easy way to pin bounty objectives requiring you to constantly fumble in the menus with long animations and you have to still, in 2019, hold down buttons to do things and there’s no way to toggle it off and the game gives messages like, “Can’t invite player, game is full” without ever explaining that the Tower can be full of randos instead of just being all, “Hey bud, want to go to a new instance with your friends?” it just throws that error message, oh and also I couldn’t find a way to manage my clan without clicking through 7 levels of hell on the website, and there’s a website called Destiny Item Manager that is like super critical to ever having any kind of handle on inventory management which is like a 3rd party unofficial thing but works somehow and adds core functionality to the game? Which is weird? And sometimes you’ll get items randomly distributed into one of your inventory pages that starts a quest but did I mention that sometimes the item itself, like, is the quest? And the nature of the bounties sort of forces players to be at odds with each other during what should be cooperative events like killing a giant robot but you need 140 kills on goblin robots with an electric frying pan so it’s in your interest not to kill the giant robot so more goblins spawn but the other folks really just want to kill the giant robot because they have to do it six more times today and and and and...
I really like the shoots though.
Noita feels impossible. It reminds me of the first time I “got” Minecraft and the infinite depth struck me. Everything acts as it should. It’s got some tuning left to do to tame the possibilities, though. It does a better job than any game I’ve ever played in actually allowing virtually anything, and having the consequences of your actions play out to total completion.
I put this on my list for this year because I bounced off RDR2 pretty hard on PS4 last year. I made the mistake of buying an OLED TV the year before they figured out how to get the latency down. Even on game mode, my OLED has a pretty intense lag, and the built-in delay on virtually every in-game action compounded with that to make it feel like I was controlling a Mars rover.
The game was visually impressive on PS4, but on a high-end PC, I found myself enrapt by the intricate geometry and detail on every ludicrous blade of crabgrass. I’m a very shallow person and easily swayed by window dressing. I’d be lying if I said the graphics didn’t get me through the game. When I ultimately felt the fatigue of having to watch the game model the excruciatingly detailed process of picking up every fucking box of biscuits, I stopped focusing on the optional side-systems of hunting, fishing, accounting, chocobo husbandry, manscaping, and shoe repair, and powered through the main story. I ultimately found it very satisfying and emotionally affecting.
RDR2 is not a great game, but it is a great experience. I’m happy it exists, but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a should/could situation on accurately representing the logistical hurdles of fucking biscuit acquisition.
It’s a pretty straightforward Jedi jaunt. It’s a soulslike in a loose sense of the word; after years of trying to like Dark Souls and failing, I found myself taking to Fallen Order pretty quickly. It’s probably because the combat is often easier and more forgiving, even on hard. The only problem is that while Dark Souls demands unceasing precision and every mechanic feels elegant and civilized, Fallen Order’s combat can feel clumsy and random. I was able to perform a “skill dodge” exactly once. The conditions in which you could actually damage an enemy were often frustratingly imprecise, and defense was often just as much of a crapshoot. Eventually I did figure it out and finished it in 22 hours, an amount of time respectful to the human condition.
It felt like a missed opportunity having all the hidden loot boxes be cosmetic only, but I do have to wonder if that was just a giant middle finger to EA management.
I love me some city sim builder types, and Rise to Ruins is one of the more unique ones to come around. It’s got a solid smattering of tower defense, god game, RTS and city management, with an adorable DOS-game aesthetic. I really like the way that you manage your workforce, and the different god powers all feel impactful and meaningful.
I was obsessed with Chivalry back in the day, but Mordhau has claimed the top man-beating simulator spot in my heart. The physics seem impossibly accurate. You can knock arrows and bolts out of the air with your weapon. It’s not a scripted event, the thing has to actually hit the other thing. It feels cheap to resort to words like “visceral,” but it absolutely is. On a couple of occasions I’ve had the pleasure of chopping THREE HUMAN HEADS off with one swing, gaining me a handful of in-game points and a mental complex about the enjoyment of inflicting grotesque virtual deaths upon others.
It’s probably fine.