2019 was a year that didn’t really knock me on my ass in terms of things that I consumed, but there were enough bright spots to bring up that I figured I’d throw some stuff down in a list! A list that is unordered and un-numbered, just like the tides of fate that buffet us to and fro in this roller coaster that we call existence.
It was a PC-heavy year for me; I don’t think I turned my PS4 on for more than a couple hours of trying Spider-Man, and I think I tried a bit of Octopath Traveler after E3 but, apart from that, haven’t spent much time on the Switch this year. There’s a bunch of games I didn’t try (Death Stranding, Fallen Order, Disco Elysium, The Outer Worlds), others that I kind of bounced off of (Outer Wilds), and more than I liked but didn’t like enough to warrant mentioning (Phoenix Point, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Borderlands 3).
But I did feel genuinely excited about some games this year! These are their stories.
I was pretty heartily obsessed with Division 2 for a couple of months earlier in the year, to the point where it was what I played pretty much every day. The clock says I only played for 40 hours or so, but it sure felt like I was in it much longer than that. I never played Division 1, so I can’t really speak to the improvements on the formula that D2 offered, but it felt super sharp in terms of gunplay and movement. I pretty much exclusively played solo, as well, and I appreciated the fact that I was able to get through the entire story and well into the endgame without having to worry about co-oping it up. A number of Ubisoft’s games-as-a-service trends came together here in ways that felt really strong, and hopefully they’ll keep building on that platform over the next year or two.
(I’ll also mention here that Tom Clancy’s Jon Bernthal’s Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, despite seeming rushed and pretty buggy, was a fun way to spend a couple of weeks shooting things up and listening to Jon Bernthal growl.)
I haven’t seriously played Magic: The Gathering in 20 years or so. I dipped into the Duels of the Planeswalkers games on Steam a while back, but those were always limited in scope and didn’t have great deckbuilding interfaces. It’s kind of surprising that Magic The Gathering: Arena is so accomplished compared to those earlier attempts to digitize the MTG experience. Even if some of the bells and whistles have yet to roll out (friends list, better stat-tracking), it’s still a super-solid platform to pop into to get your Magic fix every night.
It’s also got a surprisingly forgiving free-to-play model that I’m honestly kind of shocked was implemented as-is. I spent 20 bucks on gems early on, but I’m not even sure I’ve spent all of them yet; you can get plenty of the generic currency just by logging in and doing your dailies (none of which require you to actually win games to finish), so in the early going I would just let my three daily quests stack up and then make cheap decks to try and finish all of them at once. (I’d lose a bunch, of course, but it’s still fun to play!) Just repeating that action over time will let you build up a war chest to buy packs with, and those packs will in turn get you wildcards that you can use to fill holes in the deck you want to build. It’s all a pretty smooth F2P implementation where most of the stuff you can spend real money on winds up being cosmetic in nature, which I appreciate.
Obviously MTGA relies on Magic itself being a good game, and by and large it’s been great for 25 years now, but the release of format-ruining cards like Oko, Thief of Crowns should give any fan a bit of pause. We’ll see if the power level continues to grow, but for the moment, I just enjoy logging into MTGA and knocking games out, whether I win or lose. I’ve probably spent more time in MTGA than any other game this year, and I can’t see myself putting it down anytime soon.
I don’t really know what to say about Control except that, even as someone who was not the biggest fan of the last few Remedy games, this one really hit me right in the butt. I liked the main character, I liked the main character, I liked the story, I liked the skill progression, I liked the combat; I liked pretty much everything about it. It looked and felt great, had some amazing audio design, and built a world that I wanted to spend time in, even when I was shooting sewer monsters.
I can see why people might feel differently about it, especially if you didn’t get the same thrill as I did from throwing rocks at people with telekinesis (which was probably an overpowered skill but felt so damn good as a core mechanic, a la the gravity gun in Half-Life 2), but as a complete package this just enthralled me from beginning to end. I’m really looking forward to the DLC that’s on the way.
Children of Morta seems like one of those games that flies under a lot of people’s radars but is recognized as a classic as more people latch onto it in the months after it release (just like Mr. Shifty). The core mechanics are solid enough, but what really drew me in was the wonderful sprite animation and the excellent writing that made the Bergsons feel like a real family instead of just a collection of pixels. The characters are unique enough that you can change around your experience of playing the game substantially by reloading with another family member. It’s the most fun I’ve had with a rogue-like in a while and I look forward to getting through more of it when I get a chance.
I am far from the end of FFXIV; I started up a character earlier this year, got back into it around when Shadowbringers was released, and have now made it all the way to around level 65. Which means that this isn't related to the quality of Shadowbringers at all; I haven’t even seen any of that content yet (but I hear it’s great). But I’m having a lot of fun with it all the same.
The main reason I flipped over to FFXIV was that Battle for Azeroth might be one of the least appealing WoW expansions yet, but I shouldn’t give FFXIV short shrift as it’s obviously an amazing MMO in its own right. It took me a long time to get comfortable with it as it’s a very different game than WoW: it’s a lot slower to get you ramped up to a point where you feel like the “Warrior of Light” (having only two or three buttons to hit for most of my paladin’s early levels made the process of leveling up feel deathly slow in the early going), and it’s a much more story-intensive game than any MMO I’ve ever played. Some gameplay sessions feel like they’re half spent in cutscenes, but once you start thinking of this more as a core Final Fantasy story-based game (with a subscription fee) rather than an MMO, it’s a much more relaxing experience.
It’s certainly not all gravy (the amount of stuff you can just straight-up miss if you don’t know specifically where to look at it is astounding), but I don’t think any MMO fan could ask for a better king of the hill than FFXIV, and I’m looking forward to spending some solid time in Shadowbringers when I get there.
Playing Sekiro reminds me a bit of hopping into Call of Duty’s multiplayer mode this year after maybe a decade off: I thought I could compete, but time has robbed me of most of the reflexes required to excel in these types of games. That said, I’ve reached a couple of points in Sekiro where I was SURE that I was at an insurmountable wall, but then I’ve come back to it after a few days or a week off and have beaten bosses that easily wiped the floor with me earlier. Hell, I even got Lady Butterfly to her second phase last night! At this rate I might beat the game at some point in 2021.
I really, really dig the emphasis on stealth and mobility in Sekiro. It is tremendously fun to wander through bushes and get stealth kills on enemies from the shadows; even the simple act of farming for experience in areas you’ve already cleared out is pleasurable. I don’t think I’ll ever be good enough at reading animations to ever know whether I should parry, dodge, or Mikiri counter, though, so it feels like I’m probably never going to beat some of the faster bosses, but I’ve thought myself short before and I’ve managed to progress. I didn’t think I’d ever get to the end of Bloodborne after dying 20 times to Father Gascoigne, but I powered through and managed to finish that game off, so we’ll see where my Sekiro journey takes me.