Honorable Mention: Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order
I really thought this was going to make my Top 10 list. I like Star Wars. I like single-player games. I like the Uncharted style of traversal and exploration. This game has all of those things. It’s a competently told Star Wars story, and the traversal mechanics from development studio Respawn, at their best, evoke the freedom of movement they revolutionized the first-person shooter genre with in Titanfall and Titanfall 2. My first issue is that this isn’t an FPS title, but a third-person action game, and some of the traversal sections are rough. Even with the addition of Force powers, it can be incredibly frustrating to get from point A to point B in the manner you’re forced to do so due to wonky cameras or inconsistent control reactions. The moment this dropped off my Top 10 games list was during a chase/escape sequence I played during my Extra Life charity stream; the game features a number of these where your character is sliding down a muddy/icy.otherwise slick hill for some reason. This one featured multiple turns and jumps and I spent 20-25 minutes trying to complete a specific “slide, jump, slide/turn, jump” sequence. There were times I couldn’t get past the first jump despite being fairly certain my controller inputs were the same as the last time I did successfully complete the step. It soured me on the game to the point where I haven’t wanted to return to it, and that’s a shame! This was a game with combat that was frequently described as “Souls-like,” and I mentioned in my earlier piece how completely uninterested I am in combat from the Demons’s Souls, Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro family of FromSoft games. Fallen order does let you tune the combat with difficulty settings that show how combat is altered, and I applaud this concession to people like me who are more interested in the story/puzzle aspects of a game like this. It also featured a well-done map that color-coded itself with green for areas you’d visited, red for areas that were blocked until you had acquired new powers/gear, and orange for doors you could now return to and re-explore. There were some very, very good parts to Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order but just not enough to overcome the frustrating bits. Sorry, Respawn, you’ll have to make something better, maybe a little more consistent, to make my 2019 Top 10 games list.
With that out of the way, what follows is my Top 10 Games of 2019 list. These are 11 (sorry) games from 2019 that I played and enjoyed. They all have faults, but were all enjoyable experiences in one way or another. The list is ordered out of tradition, but the truth is that in constructing this list, finalizing the order has been far more difficult than choosing which games would be a part of it. I’ve had one game at spots 1, 4, and 7. Another at 1, 2, and 8. a third game has been off the initial drafts, 2, and 4. While this ordering below is a considered effort, I could probably draw game titles out of a hat, call it a list, and be more or less okay with it.
10. Crackdown 3 and Borderlands 3
Two series, two much anticipated and delayed releases, and two experiences that followed previously established formulae for gameplay. There are plenty of quarters of game critiscism where you can read all about how either or both series failed to improve significantly on what’s come before, either in their own past or in what they helped create and inspire with their prior releases. I can tell you that for me, none of that mattered as I was jumping ridiculously high in Crackdown 3 while carrying a semi cab and tossing it into bad guys before running off to find the next ability orb. And I was frequently irritated while examining different guns in Borderlands 3 to try to determine if I wanted to keep the slower firing, higher damage SMG with electric elemental effects or the lower damage, high capacity and fire rate assault rifle. But each offered a kind of comfort in their familiarity, albeit a comfort offset by the lack of modern convenience and things I’d grown to depend on in modern games. These games were what I was looking for from boxes with their names on them, and that was enough to make my Games of the Year list as a package deal.
9. Untitled Goose Game
What a goddamn delight of a game. The controls are simple: you walk or run (or swim), you crouch, you pick things up, you honk. You’re a goose, aka The Wild Kingdom’s Asshole Fowl, and each new area tasks you with a number of things to accomplish in order to inconvenience the residents of this area. Get that gardener wet, steal his keys, and make him change his hat. Lock that child in a phone booth…or frame him for robbery. Be a pest and move on, leaving broken spirits in your wake. Look, these quaint British townspeople look like Tories, so they deserve it.
8. Apex Legends
Remember a few hundred words ago when I said that developer Respawn entertainment would “have to make something better, maybe more consistent, to make my 2019 Top 10 Games list?” That’s what we call foreshadowing. One weekend in late January, rumors started circulating that the makers of the Titanfall series were going to release something imminently, and it was Good. It turns out the sources of those rumors were game streamers and influencers who had been invited to play Apex Legends a few days early and who were at best cagey and at worst in violation of their NDAs. Then it dropped: Apex Legends was a new, free-to-play, multiplayer battle royale set in the Titanfall universe with unique hero characters. Each three person squad could have one of each character at most, and each character had unique abilities to aid the team. If those ingedients had been added to Respawn’s signature mobility and gunplay FPS formula, Apex Legends probably would have been pretty good if not great. But it also introduced a simple way to wordlessly communicate with teammates about the hectic battle royale environment. Not only could you spot enemies, but call out guns, ammo, and equipment and mark them for your teammates to retrieve, or just as easily indicate you were looking for a particular type of ammo or weapon attachment. It takes a lot for a multiplayer focused or multiplayer only title to make my Top 10 list, but Apex Legends was a special blend of systems and gameplay that made an indelible mark on 2019.
7. Magic the Gathering: Arena
I have a bit of a “chicken or the egg” problem when it comes to Magic: Arena this year. I had been playing it in open beta and enjoying the CCG (collectible card game) of my high school years as translated to PC, but it hadn't dethroned Hearthstone as my go to digital CCG. Then two things happened: Magic introduced a “Mastery Pass” that rewarded you for playing regularly, and ActivisionBlizzard shot themselves in the…let’s say foot with their response to a reasonable statement by a Hearthstone eSports competitor in support of the civil rights protestors in Hong Kong. That’s a complicated a nuanced story with one pretty decent summary located here. The confluence of these events brought be back into playing Magic over Hearthstone and I think I’m better off. The Mastery Pass offers meaningful rewards for a small upfront investment and regular play, and I play at such a low level that issues with meta-dominating decks and stale formats don’t bother me. I log in every few days, complete my daily quests and rack up weekly and daily wins, and collect my Mastery Pass rewards. These usually include new cards and/or card packs, so I refine my decks or build new, irritating “jank” decks like by black and blue mill deck, and repeat. It’s incredibly nice to have Magic back in my life in a far more affordable format than the “cardboard crack” I grew up with.
6. Fire Emblem: Three Houses
How can I game I loved so thoroughly only check in at number 6 on my list? The Fire Emblem series has long been known for solid strategy and tactics game play. This Switch entry layered in a deep, engaging story and characters that you were able to get to know incredibly well in the more Persona-like part of the game set in the Gareg Mach monastery/school. I haven’t heard one other person who played this game and didn’t come away with a favorite character or two; I love my Golden Deer members Raphael and Leonie and worked hard to recruit swordsman Felix and the mage Dorothea from rival houses. This was easily my most played Switch game of 2019, and there’s still a part of me that wants to play through it again, twice, as a member of the other two of the titular Three Houses.
5. The Outer Worlds
How can a game I loved so thoroughly only check in at number 5 on my list? How much did I love The Outer Worlds? Reader, I finished it. In under a month. I don’t finish games. Part of me finishing this one was that despite being from Obsidian, a studio known for making expansive role playing games, The Outer Worlds had a clearly tighter focus. There were still tons of side quests to find and complete and NPCs to talk with and terminals to investigate, but I never felt overwhelmed. One of the game’s strengths is the writing of the companions, and no one embodies this more than Pavarti. Pavarti is likely the first companion you’ll recruit, and played a pivotal part in my resolution to the first main quest, pitting a corporate middle manager against a splinter group fighting against corporate control. By the time we reached the next major area, the space station Groundbreaker, and Pavarti met the engineer in charge of maintaining the ancient structure, I was almost more invested in my side quest to help her work out her romantic feelings for the chief engineer and help them have a pleasant date together than solving the mysteries along the “main path” of The Outer Worlds. It’s an incredible character arc, and a standout among equally solid writing for others characters and factions. This was the Fallout-style RPG I’ve wanted since Obsidian’s New Vegas.
4. Slay the Spire
How can a game I loved so thoroughly only check in at number 4 on my list? (I promise, the gag is over now.) Slay the Spire is a deckbuilding roguelike (roguelite?) where players choose their starting class/deck and try to work through multiple floors of multiple encounters. Each floor has a map with predefined paths, and the player can choose each step they take. A little worse for wear after a tough fight ? Choose the path that takes you to a healing campfire quickest. Wanting to test your luck? Look for ?s on the map that could be a fight, a merchant, or an encounter with multiple choices and potential outcomes. The magical part of Slay the Spire for me is the lack of guessing in combat; every enemy’s next actions are shown while you’re taking your turn. If one enemy is planning a major attack but you’ve got enough to damage it lethally? Go for it. Don’t have that damage available? Better find a way to block it or reduce its attack efficiency. But either way, you’ll KNOW what’s going to happen. Finding a way to manipulate those outcomes makes for one of my favorite games of the year.
3. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
A confession: as I write this, I’ve not touched the campaign at all. I used to be the outlier who played Call of Duty games for the campaign and eschewed the multiplayer completely, going as far back as…checks notes, does double take… 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare? 2007?!? 12 damn years?
The campaign has some textual issues. Despite being a game called “Modern Warfare,” focusing on conflicts between the US, Russia, and a fictional Middle Eastern nation, and in referencing the name of real life war crime but attributing it to the Russians instead of the actual American perpetrators, publisher Activision and developer Infinity Ward claim the game “isn’t political.” That’s not how “politics” works. I also don’t give a damn when playing such refined, engaging, rewarding, balanced multiplayer matches. Give me Hardpoint matches in Azhir Cave. Revel in the insanity of Kill Confirmed in the smaller-than-Nuketown-map of Shipment. Let us run wild in Team Deathmatch in Hackney Yard. The addition of daily challenges and longer term, curated challenges encourages experimentation with weapons loadouts. Just the other night, I knocked out two challenges at once by recording 60 kills with a shotgun (one challenge) with three modifications/attachments (a second challenge). Before this year, I don’t think I had ever used a shotgun in Call of Duty in my prior, limited multiplayer attempts. The more I play of Modern Warfare’s multiplayer, the more guilty I feel about not getting to the campaign yet, and the more certain I am it will be even longer before I do.
2. MLB The Show 19
Several weeks ago, when I last checked, The Show’s website had my total playtime for this year’s game at north of 480 hours. Now, some of that is a bit inflated by the fact that I might play a game or two of baseball and step away to walk the dog or use the restroom myself, leaving the game idle for…20 minutes? 5 minutes? 2? And while that time adds up…I think it’s fair to say I’ve played a LOT of baseball. This year’s Diamond Dynasty mode was incredibly fair in terms of rewards for players who didn’t want to spend money for quality pieces for their team, with the addition of monthly-ish Inning Programs, "Moments'“ challenging players to recreate or change history, and other means of securing free players for this “Ultimiate Team” like mode. I won’t lie, my love of this years game was helped by those changes, the removal of “souvenir grinds” that we faced last year, and real life. When my Washington Nationals started the real MLB season 19-31, The Show provided a welcome getaway where Trea Turner wasn’t injured, the bullpen wasn’t imploding, and key hits didn’t die in outfielder’s gloves. As the season turned around, my digital teams performing well were a reflection of the confident Nationals - go 1-0 each day, or 8-0 if you had time to grind out more games on the PlayStation 4.
What a weird and wonderful thing Disco Elysium is. At first glance, it looks like traditional CRPGs - Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Planescape Torment. Playing Disco Elysium feels bit like those games, except in key ways. You don’t play as a Dungeon and Dragons type fighter or mage - you’re a detective. You have a partner assigned to you, but your “adventuring party” is really the voices in your head. The encyclopedic knowledge you have, your sense of empathy, your enthusiasm for drug and drink…your connection to other planes of existence. There are 24 different skills, all of which can be leveled up and could pop up in your head with pertinent information or pushing you towards distracting impulses in any conversation. There’s also a “thought catalogue” system that reacts to how you play. In my games, I lean towards Communist ideology so am usually asked if I want to embrace that aspect of personality. If I do, I ‘internalize” the thought for a set amount of in-game time, then new dialogue options may be available as I interact with the denizens of Revachol.
But what do you do in Disco Elysium? You talk to people to solve a murder. To find your badge and gun. To find out who you are - no, seriously, you have amnesia. “Combat” is handled like every other skill check - as a 2d6 dice roll based on your skill set and the difficulty of what you’re trying to do. In truth, I’ve only made one “combat” check and that was trying to punch a 13 year old (he had it coming). I failed and fell down, and that felt right for my character.
Disco Elysium is a lot of reading text and deciding how you want to react to people. It’s also forced em to play an RPG like this in away I never would have before; not EVERY dialogue option presented to you needs to or should be explored. In fact, doing so may set you back further than anticipated. There’s no need to ask the murder witness who clearly hates you out on a date when you can just ask what she knows about the ongoing management and labor conflict crippling the town.
For being something new in familiar clothes, for containing clever, genuinely funny video game writing, and for setting the standard for a new style of RPG, Disco Elysium is my 2019 Game of the Year.