10. Borderlands 3
Gearbox had a pretty steep hill to climb this year. Along with some fits of public studio turmoil came a feeling that sequel fatigue was bound to plague their premier zany looter shooter. Borderlands 3 did something really smart when it came to positioning their game amongst all this doubt, and that was to stick to the formula that made the game memorable in the first place. Much of the sentiment around the game talked about how Gearbox needed to do more to make BL3 work, and I would counter that staying in the pocket is why I loved playing it so much.
Now yes, I had issues with its lackluster set of characters, not fun driving mechanics, and UI problems that hampered some quality of life bits, but as soon as you joined up with some teammates, for the most part all was forgiven.
I wish there were more perks, more gun permutations and a stronger set of antagonists, but at the end of my time with Borderlands 3 I came away with a story of four strong female characters that I would absolutely love to see get DLC. That’s not bad at all.
I clearly remember the first time I saw What the Golf. I was riding down the escalator at GDC and saw this huge circle of people standing around a couple of TVs laughing hysterically. I waded my way through the crowd to see this almost top-down golf course filled with obstacles and dad jokes. I was instantly hooked, and a couple years later What the Golf is on my top 10 list of 2019. What the Golf can best be described as mashup of WarioWare, golf, and the gentle ribbing of your favorite niece/nephew by your grandparents while at the Thanksgiving table.
I never thought in my old in crusty ways that a game like this would make me laugh out loud at all the in-your-face puns that fly off the screen. It’s like watching pratfalls happen with digital golf balls and is fun, light, and cheeky. Mechanically, everything is mostly done with a pull and hold to adjust power or angles to help you to tackle a course. Course design is fantastic and plays up the meticulous placement of obstacles that you’ll no doubt destroy seconds later. Lots of quick pick-up-and-play levels balance out an experience that served as an ideal introduction for the Apple Arcade service. I giggled then thrust my fist into sky cursing the developers at Triband for catching me once again with a witty end to another level. Games like these often get labelled as "time wasters." During this year it made my list as a "smile catcher."
I didn’t know much about Void Bastards before playing it, and I’m happy the goodness that is that game wasn’t spoiled for me. On a recommendation I jumped into this stunning cel-shaded rougelike and had a blast dying in the world they created. I’m a huge fan of FTL, so the game was right up my alley. The super dry wit combined with the 1980s Creepshow movie motif pulled me in instantly. I loved learning the small details about which weapons to take with me for certain kinds of enemies. Balancing when I needed to micro-manage bringing my ship into port so that I had enough resources for my next interplanetary jump kept me wanting to get more time in with it. The only negative feedback I have is that weapons felt a little “mushy,” but they did the jobs they were intended for.
I wish I had more time to play it, and will undoubtedly return to it at some point, but I’m very happy with the time I spent with Void Bastards, and highly recommend snagging it.
7. Pistol Whip
There have been lots of discussions of late about the state of VR, largely because of Valve’s upcoming Half-Life game. The conversations around whether the gaming industry should play taps for virtual reality have been happening for over a decade. While I fully understand the difficulty of making any headway in that genre, I have to say that I’ve had some pretty dope experiences in VR this year, and none better than Pistol Whip from Cloudhead Games. This rhythmic shooter is an on-rails style game that makes you feel like a total badass while playing it. Hard, bassy beats drive you through corridors of murder. You duck and sway to avoid bullets while shooting enemies for points. The method is simple, but the madness is why you keep coming back. The adrenaline that kicks through your body while you start to find the cadence of a song is brilliant, and is a shining example of the kind of fun only VR games can give you. I would finish a song sweaty, heaving, and over stimulated, but would have to jump right back in to shoot that one guy I missed in the previous run. There are games and experiences that make the price of virtual reality admission worth it, and Pistol Whip is one of them.
6. Apex Legends
Respawn pulled their version of a Beyoncé surprise launch this year with Apex Legends. They not only dropped a game that no one saw coming, but they dropped what I believe is the current king of the battle royale hill. Apex Legends set itself apart this year in a couple of ways. They brought together interesting character design, a truncated weapon roster, and a gameplay mechanic that has revolutionized the genre in which they sit: the ping system. It’s one part situational awareness radar, and one part toxicity removal. A system that works well as a foundation for team play with or without verbal communication. The ping system has made it so that I have to worry less about being matched up with random players because I can offer up information that makes us all better in real time while playing. It’s absolutely brilliant and I want every game that could use it to have it. It has literally changed the game for the BR genre and I adore it.
Apex Legends continues to grow and find its legs. Respawn did a great job of cribbing what it can from competitors while planting flags. The old saying of competition makes everyone better is embodied by Apex Legends.
Mortal Kombat has again figured a way to keep itself not only relevant in the vast sea of fighting games, but has found a way to excel at doing something that many games of its ilk have forgotten to do: teach, teach, teach. MK 11 continues to build out a fantastic and beautiful roster of old and new characters while broadening out gameplay mechanics that keep combatants one hit away from victory or defeat. Alongside their continuation of really cool narrative storytelling in the campaign, NetherRealm dug into the roots of the fighting game community with what I would describe as one of the best tutorial systems in a fighting game to date. One that doesn’t just fill you in on move sets from the roster but gives you lessons on the fundamentals of the genre. Want to learn frame data or what “safe on block” means? The team goes through the process of not only telling you what those terms mean, but why they matter when you fight. It’s been a thing that I and other folks who love fighting games have been asking for, and it’s great to see the team fully embrace the role of teachers in this iteration of Mortal Kombat.
Guest appearances from the Terminator, Joker, and Spawn will keep the rosters fresh for what seems to be a very long development cycle. NetherRealm has shared publicly that they want to let MK11 simmer for a long time so they can not only tune the fighter and really support the competitive community. The strategy seems to be working and has culminated in one of my favorite fighting games in a long time.
If there was an award for "The Most Important Game of 2019," I would enthusiastically award it to Dreams from Media Molecule. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more ambitious game in my lifetime. I still don’t fully know how best to share all the things you can do in Dreams because every time I start to drill down into one specific aspect, 10 more pop up that are astounding testaments to big thinking and community ingenuity. Since release, I’ve seen every permutation of game that I can think of. Vast amounts of art designs, musical interpretations, and everything else in-between.
The beauty of Dreams lies within the tools. Being able to sketch out a simple scene can take minutes, while folks who are more artistically inclined can build worlds within a couple of days. I’ve seen experiences that I’ve sworn have come from indie studios, then later learned that they were all made in Dreams. There really are no limits to what you can create and how far you can go.
Dreams continues to showcase what development studios can make if given the opportunity to break away from conventional modes of thinking. My hope is that Media Molecule can continue to expand on this initial idea into other ones. Ones that will further let the community they’ve garnered over the years build the worlds and experiences that have lived in their heads spring into reality.
Sea of Solitude was one of my favorite games of this year because it spoke to me in a very profound way. Like Gris last year, Sea of Solitude speaks about feelings and emotions in a personal, practical and poignant way. Cornelia Geppert’s beautiful tale of loss, anger, and perseverance comes to the player in the form of a young woman named Kay and the monsters that embody those feelings. Each one stands in the way of the player not in a manner where “winning” is the goal. Yes, you “defeat” most of these fears to continue your tale, but what I was most struck with was how each encounter asked me to take an internal audit of how I was feeling. How I dealt with those emotions in my own life and made me sit with those in a real way. The game itself is beautiful, the art design lovely and disturbing at the same time. While it doesn’t ask much of the player mechanically, everything feels thoughtful and necessary. Games don’t often leave you with things to talk about or feelings to mull over you’ve finished with them, but Sea of Solitude did for me. I loved it and was sad to see it go.
Hideo Kojima’s ode to the postal service really was one of my favorite experiences of 2019. I’d just finished Borderlands 3 and found that jumping into Death Stranding right afterward might have been the absolute best timing for such a playthrough. We all came to that game with less information than we wanted, but I feel like after bringing America back online, I’m happier having gone in blind. Lots will be made over the next couple of years about whether video games have to be "fun" to be actual games. I don’t know what the end result of that debate will be, but I know that Death Stranding is one of the weirdest, dullest, most awesome and exhilarating experiences I’ve had in a long time. I have a couple very distinct memories of my time spent with the game. The first time I climbed a mountain to a pristine overlook, and my wife saying over and over again, "Why are you still playing this, this looks SO BORING!" She would ask me, "are you having fun?" and I would respond in the most confused tone, "Kinda??"
That was a bunch of my time with Death Stranding, and weirdly that was OK. I loved jumping into the metaverse of the world. Loved trying to piece together the wild strings of narrative that held it all together. I adored the solitude of walking from place to place in the beautiful lush surroundings in a way that I would hate in real life. Death Stranding is such a weird moment in gaming that you have to celebrate that something like this even got made. It balks at convention in some ways and clings to it in others. It asks you to think about the current world we live in while throwing 100 ft. monsters at you. Words like surreal, stupid, gaudy, unforgiving, beautiful, and poignant can all be used to describe it, and they would all be true.
I will say a couple of quick things that really stood out to me. I never thought that I would be a fan of "busy work" in a game, and Death Stranding not only made me embrace it, but it made me want to do it because it would help other people with their busy work. Massive kudos for that. Also, no matter where you land on the "is it a game, is it fun" spectrum, Death Stranding had the best, or at least most memorable, acting moment in gaming this year from Tommie Earl Jenkins. Kojima found a wonderful diamond in the rough casting him as Die-Hardman, and he delivers a performance towards the end of the game that bridges the gap between digital and IRL acting in a way I’ve not seen before. I may never play Death Stranding again, but Hideo Kojima has created something that made me think, made me want to talk to people about my experience, and made me want to know more about the man who created it.
Control was not only the best game I’ve played this year, but also the most surprising. I didn’t expect to play a game that would hit on all the things I love. Paranormal experiences akin to The Twilight Zone and X-Files? Check. Dope woman protagonist with super powers?. Check. Fantastic visual design? Check.
Control starts strong and didn’t let up on the gas pedal from start to finish. I knew I was in for a fantastic ride when that now iconic full screen fontgasm splash screen hit for the first time. It just screamed confidence, not only in the visual style of the game, but in the foundation of the world. Everything from the psuedo-CIA backstory to the urban lore connective-ness screams "We know what we are doing and you are riding with us." I loved the connective tissue and lore the world presents to you. It tells you that you’ll never know everything, but that’s OK and that is why you want to keep going. Telekinetic powers mixed in with Men In Black weaponry all feel grounded in a weird way. The story of the Oldest House feels believable in a space where everything seems just a tad fanciful. The story of the main character and the universe feel so ripe for DLC that digs into all the urban legends we know to exist, and I would love to see where Remedy takes that stuff in the future. It is very rare that marathon a game at this point in my life, but Control with its style, level design, and panache all came together in one of the strongest debuts for a new IP I’ve seen this decade. Bravo Remedy, Bravo.