My gaming in 2019

For several years now, it’s been impossible for me to write anything about the last 12 months of gaming without mentioning that a large number of high-profile releases utterly failed to engage me on any meaningful level, even if I actually took the time to finish them. This year is no different; Control, Resident Evil 2, Gears 5 and Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 were all landmark titles which I played through without much enthusiasm (The Division 2 was probably the most engaging of these; but also the most suspect in terms of exploitative online hooks and loot-driven mechanics).

In terms of games that I did find myself heavily invested in, there are five titles which stand out in this respect. I’m not going to rank them, so the following discussion is in chronological order only.

Days Gone

Sony Bend’s exceedingly ambitious biker epic is not a flawed gem - it’s just flawed, period. The lackluster combat, insanely repetitive side activities, terribly paced mission structure and narrative mishandling of several major characters all add up to what can only be described as a mess of a game.

However, I still really enjoyed playing Days Gone and experiencing its slow-moving storyline over the course of the 50+ hour campaign. While there were certainly plenty of mistakes made in the writing department, the story of main protagonist Deacon St John and his wife Sarah included a number of emotionally effective scenes and unexpected relationship complications that kept me interested in what would happen next (great performances from the lead actors sure helped a lot in this respect). Also, the sheer length of the game means that there is enough room to establish the characters and their relationships to each other over time.

Apart from the narrative elements, the game’s comparatively subdued and naturalistic take on the concept of a post-apocalyptic open world (i.e. a sublimely beautiful slice of Oregon largely devoid of traffic and people) is also a big part of the reason why this game kept me happily glued to the TV for a substantial part of my summer vacation. Sony Bend delivers some of the most detailed natural environments ever created for a video game (even Horizon: Zero Dawn’s lush landscapes look like garish comic strips by comparison).

Death Stranding

Since the gameplay of Death Stranding provided some of the most enjoyable activities and player progression I’ve experienced this year, none of the sound and fury surrounding Hideo Kojima’s heavy-handed allegories and endless acronym-filled lore babble makes any difference to me.

Below the surface level phenomena of motion-captured Hollywood actors struggling to bring life to an unwieldy and laughably self-indulgent script lies a beautifully constructed open world game with deceptively simple mechanics which slowly - perhaps a bit too slowly - develop and grow in satisfying ways as the player traverses the striking landscapes of BT-infested “America”. The feedback systems are granular enough to reward almost everything that the player does, and the impressively tactile movement controls make even the simplest of deliveries into a remarkably involving affair. Despite its weighty themes and morbid symbolism, Death Stranding can be an oddly soothing and meditative gameplay experience even when things are literally falling to pieces around you and your best-laid logistical plans go horribly wrong.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Although Three Houses wasn’t quite worth spending 120 hours with (and the latter third of the campaign dragged on in particular), there’s no denying the general addictiveness of the turn-based combat and character progression in this sprawling SRPG. The relationship building between party members can be hit-or-miss as far as the actual dialogue goes, but the sheer amount of story content available for the player to engage with (or not) combined with excellent New Game+ options certainly makes Fire Emblem one of the most generous full-priced releases of the year. At the Hard difficulty setting I found the combat to be consistently challenging throughout, and there were some wonderfully tense battles which kept me on the edge of my seat for hours on end.

Metro Exodus

The technologically advanced Metro Exodus is undoubtedly an impressive and wonderfully exploration-heavy shooter, but the game nonetheless turned out to be one of the bigger disappointments of the year because of my (perhaps unreasonably) high expectations. In terms of actual gameplay sessions, the magical hours spent in the Volga Basin region was probably the highlight of my gaming year, but as a whole this FPS didn’t come together in ways that I had hoped. The semi-open world structure became noticeably more linear and less interesting as the campaign progressed, and I found the story and characters to be just as clumsily written and haphazardly presented as in earlier Metro titles. Also, while the RTX features were subtly mind-blowing (if that’s a thing), I never quite found a sweet spot between resolution and performance despite having purchased a brand new gaming rig at the beginning of this year. As a result of this, my enjoyment of the game was noticeably impacted by sluggish controls due to an often inconsistent frame rate.

Mortal Kombat 11

With its surprisingly heartfelt commitment to the good old-fashioned joys of ripping spines and eating brains, Mortal Kombat 11 deserves mentioning as one of this year’s more memorable experiences. Although my fascination with the game subsided quickly after having wrapped up the story mode, I did have a ton of fun as I was punching and kicking my way through the wonderfully silly campaign. MK11’s character models are some of the best I’ve seen in a 3D game, and the whole presentation is a joy to behold as the colorful roster of sub-humans, über-Mensch and demi-gods duke it out in all sorts of extravagant locations. That the subplot involving Johnny Cage, Sonya Blade and Cassie Cage also delivers a wholesome dose of family values amidst all of that cosmic cacophony is such an awesome counter-punch to the moral panic associated with this series that you wish the time-twisting Elder Gods could be summoned to zap MK11 back to those infamous 1993 congressional hearings. Also, the game did inspire me to go back and play through the entirety of MK9’s and MK10’s singleplayer components as well (something I didn’t think I was ever going to do).

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