Twenty Nineteen was a year of transition for me. Some really, really bad things happened, and without friends offering me a place to live, encouraging me to get therapy for PTSD, or helping me find a lawyer and get some things straight, I don’t know how I would have survived.
Back in 2017, after I lost my home, after I got berated by an anonymous Games Magazine Editor for daring to suggest walking sims might have some problems that needed to be resolved, I tweeted this:
And then I recruited two people to work with me on making that game. I think we all put in a lot of work, it’s all got bits and pieces of each of us (you think I could have composed music that good or made cool moments like waiting for the elevator and putting out the cigarette? absolutely not!), and hey, look at that, there’s a picture of me standing there right before the IGFs, where we were nominated for two awards. We even walked away with one.
Not many people have believed in me over the years. I’ve been told no one would ever fund me, that, as a writer “I see you as a once a month kinda guy,” that my game was “boring with nothing to do,” that I’d be going to hell for “making these evil things.”
But you know what? This year, I didn’t just walk away with my debut game having won an award, I got hired to do narrative design with one of my dream studios, I was able to move out of the dangerous living situation I was in, and I got a new game fully funded, where I set up a new studio. We were even able to put together a good code of conduct for our studio to ensure a positive and healthy working environment, and I’m doing everything in my power to make sure my studio is one where no one ever has to get hospitalized after crunching on a game like I did. We’re trying to be sustainable, fair, and transparent, and I think we’re doing a great job.
Hopefully, the game we ship this year is one you’ll love.
Now, 2018 was bad. I got hospitalized. Buuuuut… one of the best things about being hospitalized is that you get a lot of time to beat games, so I beat 65, despite shipping a video game that year. Lots of bed rest.
2019? I was hustlin’. I finished a lot of games I’d started and only had a little time left to finish, or a lot of short games. But I still managed to beat 57, and rather than do a traditional “game of the year” award type thing, I like to list every game I played and what I thought about it. So here you go.
(if the game is still available for sale, I have tried to link it on the platform I played it on, so you can get a sense for my platform use in any given year; the major exception here are a few — but not all — Ubisoft games and Metro Exodus, which are still available, but not on Steam, where I had ordered and played them)
- Dawn of War III (PC)
I first heard about Dawn of War 3 at a very fancy restaurant I had been invited to during GDC 2016, my first GDC. The game had not yet been announced. The first words out of my mouth were “does it have base building?” He told me it did.
He… did not lie about it…
But, well… okay. So there’s a PC Gamer article about the future of RTS, and in that article, you see a huge number of game developers saying stuff about how the RTS needs to evolve, blah blah blah. One of the most common remarks that I’ve seen, in that article and elsewhere, is that the RTS needs to become more like MOBAs. The rationale here is that MOBAs came from RTSes, MOBAs are popular and RTSes are not, and that’s where we need to go.
It’s a problem that stems from the fact that most RTS designers seem to be listening to their competitive fanbase, or in some cases, assuming they know what the fanbase wants and then trying to manufacture an esport without actually listening to people. We saw what happened when Starcraft chased after the professional esports scene with Starcraft 2 — it’s died a slow death, and never hit the heady heights of Starcraft and Brood War.
But here’s the thing: if you look at the classic RTSes, the ones that sold millions and millions of copies, you don’t see RTSes that are big, huge comp-fests… instead, you see dad games, games that, like World of Tanks (which makes a ridiculous amount of income but has a fanbase of middle aged and elderly men instead of young men), are slower, more deliberate games about long-term planning, econ, and research.
Company of Heroes is a great game, but a lot of people took that and the rise of the MOBA and the popularity of Brood War in Korean esports and went “we need to chase that.” Fun fact, every developer I’ve worked for who intentionally tried to target competitive play failed miserably. The most successful competitive games happen organically. You cannot control this. The more rigorously balanced and focused you make your game, the less interesting it will be, especially to viewers, who you actually need to make esports successful.
Ever played Overwatch? That’s a game where a lot of players have left because the game keeps listening to the most hardcore players, the competitive players, and tuning itself for them. That’s a very, very tiny percentage of your userbase. Overwatch, like the RTS, listens to the wrong people, the most passionate people, and as a result? The audience gets smaller. Stop pushing people away.
Dawn of War III has base building. It does. But it also has a bunch of 3-lane maps that you’re supposed to fight your way down with hero units while destroying specific enemy structures before you can destroy other specific enemy structures and get to the final objective. It is 100% MOBA design philosophy. The base building exists… but it’s really in name only.
Dawn of War III could have been great, but I’m tired of hearing about the Blood Ravens, fighting between the most boring factions (Eldar, Space Marines, Orks, and Chaos, with the occasional Tyranids thrown in — give me more Tau and Necrons, please!), and the MOBA influences only serve to weaken the game further.
Look to city builders and 4X for inspiration; stop chasing esports.
2) The Banner Saga (PC)
I don’t know why I replayed this, but I did. It’s a decent turn-based strategy game, a really interesting management sim, and a genuinely great epic saga. I have no idea where it’s going, because once I finished it, rather than going into the sequel I decided to play a break and then try something else. This year, I will play 2 and 3.
I’m not sure I love the story and characters themselves, and the worldbuilding itself is very blatantly Norse mythology influenced in a way that doesn’t set my soul ablaze with joy, but… every time I play it, and this was the second time, I’m glad that I have done so.
3) September 1999 (PC)
There will be no explanation. Buy it and play it. It’s 5 minutes long and 98Demake deserves all the cash you can throw at him. What a beautiful art installation piece this was.
4) Northgard (PC)
I love Northgard. I love it so much. It’s… I think the closest game I can think of is The Settlers, except you don’t need to worry about roads as much. It’s a very Viking-y game, there’s an epic quest for revenge, fear of the world ending, Valkyries and undead to contend with, and all the while, you’re exploring, staking claims, building and upgrading structures, birthing villagers to expand, and performing various tasks in a quest to survive in the harsh north.
I can’t say this is some big, grand, epic story with memorable characters and all that, but it is a game I loved playing and I hope there’s a sequel or a big campaign expansion or something in the future, ’cause I’d love to play more.
5) Ghost Recon Wildlands (PC)
I purchased Ghost Recon Wildlands the year it came out, but one of my friends made the call to buy it on the PS4 so he could play it with a different friend, and another friend bought it to play with a different friend group. So there I waited, patiently, like a sniper getting ready for the kill, until my friends joined me. Neither of their friend groups finished the game.
Together? We did.
Ghost Recon Wildlands is one of the best open-world gaming experiences I have ever had. I loved taking screenshots of it. I loved how the geography felt like a real place instead of a traditional Ubisoft game world, despite being a Ubisoft game world.
This is a game with a great set of interconnected goals, a tight loop, a really cool interplay between military and civilian populations, it’s… honestly, it’s everything an open world co-op game should be. It’s funny, too. Not just because, like every Ubisoft game, it has kinda-bad writing that sounds like it’s been written by a bunch of great, long-suffering writers, put through a French filter back at Ubisoft’s headquarters by someone who Peter Principled their way into a position of power, and machine translated back into English, but because the mechanics work together in a way that leads to hilarious situations.
The sequel is one of the worst AAA games I’ve ever played.
Thankfully not as bad as Anthem.
But almost that bad.
6) Ace Combat 7 (X1)
If the games actually released in 2019 have a theme, it’s this: people who are incredibly good at doing what they do — some games I haven’t finished yet, like Devil May Cry 5, do this too — finally getting to do what they do best, and it absolutely rules.
Play a game like Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X., and you will get a serviceable plot about PMCs and national militaries and probably some rogue Russian general being evil somewhere. They’re never super imaginative because games like this have to be set in the Real World, and there are Real World Consequences to pissing people off, and also, they’re limited to current-gen technology. The games are fine. I don’t hate them.
But Ace Combat? It’s like “IN A WORLD WHERE A GIANT METEOR HIT AND DESTROYED HALF THE PLANET, A LOT OF NATIONS EXIST IN A TENUOUS, WWI-ESQUE STATE WHERE THEY’RE CONSTANTLY SPEAKING OF PEACE BUT ALMOST ALWAYS AT WAR. MERCENARIES FIGHT IN THE SKIES FOR SUPREMACY, LIKE KNIGHTS OF OLD,” and there are always scientifically-impossible superweapons to take down.
Ace Combat is anime as heck, and this allows it to be melodramatic, exciting, and even genuinely emotional without dancing around real world topics to avoid upsetting anyone.
And honestly, I think this one is, on a mechanical level, the best one, with a great sense of variety, mission design, visuals, feel… just… it’s the best one at everything except story — I think the PS2 games still have it beat on that front, and while Ace Combat 6 for the 360 is superb, I think 7 and the PS2 games are even better.
7) Condemned: Criminal Origins (X1)
There are good games and there are bad games and then there are games that are relentlessly interesting. I take all my own screenshots for these articles (unless otherwise noted), and I wanted to show one that illustrated what Condemned itself is like, but apparently I only took this and a picture of the main menu, and this one looks better. So I shall describe it to you.
Condemned looks ugly, not just ugly because it was a launch title for the original Xbox 360 fifteen years ago, in 2005, but because it’s a game that implies a sense of law, order, and society but only ever seems to show you ruin and decay. It’s like a game set entirely in Cairo, Illinois, if Cairo had once been a huge city with its own subways and skyscrapers, until that last level where you’re on a farmstead.
It’s a game where a murder hobo charged at me, ripped a pipe out of the wall, and this caused a short in the building’s electrical system, which caused the lights to go out. This wasn’t a scripted sequence — if you pull pipes off walls that are connected to the electrical system, that’s what’s going to happen, though you can’t do anything really interesting with that electrical system other than pull out pipes for melee combat.
You’re an FBI guy investigating a murder, other people think you’re guilty of it, and while it’s often surreal, everything feels grounded in reality… until it doesn’t. I’m not sure the level design was great — it’s mazelike and even more unnatural than F.E.A.R., a game released by Monolith’s other team that year (F.E.A.R.’s team had been responsible for games like No One Lives Forever and Shogo, as I understand it; Condemned’s team would go on to make F.E.A.R. 2 and apparently the original F.E.A.R. team would have to step in and salvage it. You can see some art for the A-team’s game, Echo, here).
I like Condemned as much as I hate it. The gameplay feels awful to engage with in so many ways, like those recurring nightmares I have about needing to fight for my life but barely being able to stand up because I’m dizzy. The story and lore itself is… whatever, it’s not good, but it drives the game.
But the ideas, man. The ideas!! And some of the set pieces. And the way you run out of ammo and can turn your shotgun into a melee weapon if you need to. Condemned is one of those games I think you should play but it’s not a game I think is good. It was a launch title. What do you expect?
8) Metro Exodus (PC)
In 2010, I remember a bunch of people claiming that God of War 3 was the best looking video game ever made. Metro 2033 was right there, but it wasn’t on the PS3, which, contrary to reality, Sony had been insisting was The Most Powerful Console. Never mind that Metro 2033 really shined as a technological showcase on the PC, the console fans needed God of War 3 to be the real winner here.
Metro 2033 was stunning, but as a game… hmm. I like it. It’s a very good adventure story, and the setting is spectacular, but it is also chokingly linear, which makes sense for a game about people living in tunnels like rats, doing their best to survive nuclear war.
Metro Exodus finally lets us out into the world, and it is a stunning accomplishment. It still has those moments of humanity and linearity, while you’re on the train, but the Volga and Black Sea levels are absolutely stunning achievements in open world design. Their atmosphere is unmatched, the technology is impressive, and the gameplay is the best the series has ever had.
It eventually gets linear in the game’s back half, which saddens me greatly, but 4A games demonstrate a confidence in their skills that led to a genuinely great, fantastically playable game with that trademark strong storytelling that deserves so much more acclaim than it gets.
9) 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand (360)
I loved it so much I wrote about 2500 words on it, which is about how long this article is up to this point, in case you were wondering. It’s “a surprisingly excellent shooter that history forgot.”
10) Anthem (PC)
AAA has a lot of problems.
One of those problems is the issue with true believers, people who believe their studio can do no wrong, who believe that people will buy their game because their game is being made by them. People who mistakenly think that people will buy their game because people buy this kind of game. People who keep the faith without understanding why people care about things. When management is filled with true believers who refuse to work towards a game that compels people to play it, the game can’t possibly be good.
Another big issue with AAA is management that doesn’t know what it wants. I overheard someone recently describe this as “management chasing a laser pointer,” and that sounds about right. When management can’t keep to a consistent vision, the game can’t possibly be good.
You’d think that “Destiny by way of Iron Man” would be a slam dunk.
It should have been.
But somehow, Anthem manages to be a game made by true believers who don’t know what they believe in. It never could have been good, and it wasn’t. In fact, like Mass Effect Andromeda, it is one of the worst AAA gaming experiences I have ever had. I don’t like The Last of Us, but I think it’s competently made. Anthem has nothing.
Instead what we got was Bioware on autopilot. Rumors about Mass Effect Andromeda (of which I said “ Games are like dogs. You want to call all of them “good boy” and pat them on the head and tell them how wonderful they are all the time, because everyone’s a lot happier when you do, but some games are bad dogs, and you’ve got to take them out back behind the barn and shoot them in the head.”) indicated that Bioware Edmonton lacked faith in Bioware Montreal’s efforts to make the game, because Edmonton is “real Bioware.” Insightful reporter Jason Schreier referred to this sense of superiority as “Bioware Magic.”
Bioware never had magic, Bioware had people who knew what they wanted and could convince people to execute on that vision. Without it… what you have is Anthem, a game that repeats the latest hits (there’s Smarmy British Guy, and Stern but Superior British Woman, and Down-To-Earth Mechanic Person Not Suited For Frontline Combat, for instance) with gameplay that looks nice but actually doesn’t feel as good as people claim. It’s got some nice ideas but is so rich with foolish compromises and poor decisions designed to pad it out that the end result just… yeah. Like I said. There’s no way this game could possibly be good, and it wasn’t.
I saw it go on sale for $5 not too long ago — the same year it came out — and the person mentioning the sale said “still too much.” I bought four copies for friends before it came out. I was excited.
Beyond too much.
11) Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War (PS4)
The screenshot above might not be visually interesting, but it takes place late in the game, when the Yuktobanians, your enemies, switch alliances and decide to fight alongside you. It’s a powerful moment, where enemies become comrades and you take your fight to the true enemy, who’s framed you, murdered civilians, and eventually tries to drop an entire space station on your homeland to kill as many people as humanly possible.
I don’t want to talk much about Ace Combat here, because I’m writing a whole article on it and don’t want to give it all away, but suffice it to say… I love Ace Combat 5 narratively more than any other game in the series. There’s so much going on, and it’s done almost entirely through radio chatter.
I’ve been attempting to link every game where it’s available for purchase, but sadly, Ace Combat 5 isn’t available, so I can’t link it; as an original Playstation 2 game, it was included as a preorder bonus for buying Ace Combat 7 on the Playstation 4, but it was never available legally for purchase. If you didn’t get it then, the only thing you can do is play it on the Playstation 2. That’s lame; it’s a wonderful game. Ace Combat 6 was available digitally for preorders of Ace Combat 7 on the Xbox One, and thankfully, if you buy a disc at Gamestop, you can still play it on the Xbox One, with all the improvement that entails, but it’s also not available digitally anymore.
12) Resident Evil 2 (PC)
Like I said, 2019 is the year of people who are the best at what they do finally getting to do what they’re best at. There’s no 360-gen “trying to appeal to the cinematic Western Market,” there’s no early this-gen “trying to take full advantage of the cloud or make a VR game” or whatever, there’s just… this. Resident Evil 2, a game so immaculately designed, so absolutely wonderful in its construction. This is a game with not one but four separate campaigns (not counting things like Hunk or Tofu) in the base game, with unlocks for further playthroughs, a mature ranking system and one of the best environments any game has ever had. Everything is connected, you can plan routes, clear rooms, take on zombies, oh my god, I could talk about this a lot. So much so that I should probably write an entire essay on it. So… hey, consider this a promise that I will.
Resident Evil 2 is one of those rare games I’d consider a masterpiece. I loved Resident Evil 7, a game using the same tech and made by the same team, and I think first person makes games way scarier than third person, but Resident Evil 2’s pacing is just so much better than 7’s. They’re both great, but if RE2 had a first person mode, I’d tell you it was the best survival horror game of all time.
13) Devotion (PC)
I wrote about it here. No link to the store because you can’t buy it anywhere anymore. Sorry. I loved it until the lack of drama killed it in the final hour or so, even though it really doesn’t do anything you haven’t seen in other nonviolent horror games anywhere else. Like the studio’s last game, it’s still retreading the tired old tropes of “this horror experience is just a manifestation of the protagonist’s guilt.” There’s a lot I don’t like, but… the execution is so strong that if it was available, I’d be here beating a drum and shouting “play this, play this now!”
14) The Division 2 (PC)
I really enjoyed The Division, though I thought the premise (you’re a member of a secret police force that just shows up and starts killing civilians when society falls apart) was bad and showed an ignorance of Tom Clancy. I thought the location — New York City — was uninspired and relied on the assumed importance of New York City. Too many people seem to think Americans love NYC. We don’t. Only people from NYC love NYC. It’s a city that needed the “I love NYC” marketing campaign because people were dumping so much garbage and piss in the streets that people literally had to come up with a marketing campaign to get them to stop. The ‘love’ people feel for NYC isn’t real any more than you and I love our homes. Like most service-based shooters, The Division didn’t really know what it wanted to be. It just kinda had some ideas and threw them out there and hoped they’d stick.
I think by patch 1.8, over a year after it launched, they finally did.
Do I love The Division? Well, I put nearly 100 hours into it, and I can still recall, crystal clear, that time when they did crazy stuff like “enemies who get close to you can poison you,” really neat events that made the game stellar, but it was, fundamentally, a game set in the real world, using real guns as loot, with a dumb story and really spongey enemies. It could look and feel amazing, but the premise… huh.
So then along comes The Division 2, and… as a third person shooter, like, just as a game you fight your way through, it’s stellar. This is an immensely fun third person shooter, and the way they expanded the combat (with two major exceptions that really killed it for me: 1) preventing you from changing gear during combat, which was bad when you didn’t know what kind of encounter you were going to be facing until you dropped into it, and 2) mods that would give, say, a 5m radius power a 0.5% increase in radius — completely useless mods. you also couldn’t even equip mods you had until late in the game, by which point you had better mods).
The Division 2 is a game that doesn’t really understand how to make compelling loot loops, with a premise that is actually really off-putting (in modern climate nobody wants to be a cop killing civilians), that isn’t releasing at a time when its major competitor, Destiny, is AWOL (The Division launched in the Destiny content drought after The Taken King, while The Division 2 launched during the Season of the Drifter in Destiny). It’s a really well made third person shooter and that’s all it had going on for it.
So I played the campaign, I had fun doing it minus the annoyances with loot and gear, but… the story was forgettable. It has some great, tense level design, just like the first game; might even be an improvement. But I just don’t fucking care about The Division as a concept. After the awful loot changes, I can’t see myself buying a third.
By the way, Ghost Recon Breakpoint also follows The Division 2’s loot changes. Guess what I haven’t finished it with the friends who I mainlined Ghost Recon Wildlands with? Yeah. It’s awful.
15) Uncharted 2 (PS4)
So, here’s the thing. I don’t like Uncharted 2. I really don’t. But I thought, hey, that was like 2012, maybe I’ll like it now. Maybe I wasn’t fair on it. Maybe it’s actually a great game like everyone’s been saying.
Only thing it’s got going for it is charismatic characters who eventually get too smarmy for their own good and stellar art design. It never deserved the praise it got. I didn’t write about it, but I did stream the entire thing live and uploaded all the videos I could find to my channel.
Apparently, I didn’t take any screenshots other than the ones you get for doing trophies, so uh… there you go. There’s a “trophy earned!” screenshot.
16) Anno 1800 (PC)
Again, we have another 2019 game, and it’s more of that “people who are really good at doing what they do being let off the leash to make something absolutely stunning.” In this case, we have Anno 1800, a city builder that is just, mm. Tasty. Chef’s kiss. I love Anno 1800, and I was lucky enough to pick it up on Steam before it was removed (sadly, there’s a notice on the store that says all DLC will be available through Steam, and that is not the case, as best I can tell).
Blue Byte are one of Ubisoft’s hidden gems, a studio often overlooked because they tend to make PC only games, and an unfortunate number of people in the games press, especially the American games press, which boasts all the largest sites, don’t play PC games as much as they ought to. Plus, it’s a city builder, so it’s never going to get the accolades that a game-like-a-movie-that-will-finally-make-Hollywood-and-my-parents-take-videogames-seriously-that’s-about-sad-dads will, but… it’s so good.
The campaign is really fun, Anno’s trademark “build buildings to support building other buildings while you grow a population that can work in even better buildings” system is the best its ever been. I liked Anno 2205, the last game, quite a bit, but it got tiring going to each map and having to repeat the same few objectives over and over again. There’s none of that here. This is a rock-solid, iconic city builder, and I’d recommend it without reservation of hesitation.
17) Halo Wars 2 (PC)
I replayed this entire thing in co-op with my friend Cory, and I had a blast. I think the best parts were defending against the Flood in the DLC, but the rest of the game’s so strong that I couldn’t be absolutely certain that those were the best missions. I’m amazed that Microsoft was able to get a Sega-owned studio to make this game for them, and I think that Creative Assembly did a stunning job recreating the feel of Halo Wars, though I do think this leans more towards the excessively noisy look of 343 Industries’ Halo art, and I’m not too big into that.
I’m also not sure I love Halo Wars as much as other RTS games. Base building is a really big thing for me in RTSes; like I said in my Dawn of War 3 piece, I love focusing on econ and research more than combat (it’s why I liked Anno 1800 so darn much). It’s a bummer that, because it needed to be a console series, Halo Wars 2 seems stuck with a controller interface and the deployable base system that severely limits that aspect of the game. This is mostly just about blobbing (selecting all units and sending them somewhere in a ‘blob’).
If I was going to make a Halo Wars, I’d probably look at World in Conflict, however, which is… totally not about econ or base building, haha. So what do I know?
Had a blast. That’s all that matters, sometimes.
Played this all the way through for a consulting gig. Most of my gigs don’t require that, but this one did. I liked it. I can’t talk about it.
19) Rage 2 (PC)
I have a personal rating system, which I rarely ever share because I don’t want to get caught up in ranking discussions; it’s more important for me to give you the text of what I’m feeling than the description. It’s a 6-part system, based on a mix of the American grading system (A-F) and the Japanese game scoring system (S-D), ranging from F (a failure) to S (super!). I try to put most games in C (average) or B (pretty good). D had no real redeeming value, but at least it ran. S is, of course, exceptional, timeless, endlessly engaging. F is a game that just did not work.
And then there’s A.
A is a rating I give to a game that I enjoyed tremendously and feel that any negatives are overwhelmed by positives. In Rage 2’s case, I gave it an A because it’s a game I can log into, run around shooting stuff in, and have a great time no matter what. The shooting is great, the missions are fun, the power system is really, really cool.
I loved Avalanche’s previous game Mad Max in part because of its narrative strengths, but Rage 2 is a lot more like another Avalanche 2 game, Just Cause 2: big, silly fun, a game that deserves to be loved because it’s unabashedly honest with you about the type of experience it wants to have. It’s big, it’s bold, it’s loud, and it’s here to party. They even used the music of famous party rocker Andrew W.K. in the reveal; I believe he also voiced a character in the game.
That said? Sometimes the vibes are a little off-putting. The gameplay makes it easy to go from location to location, shooting and blasting things, and it’s a riot, but who’s the punk aesthetic being marketed to, exactly? If we’re shooting punks and monsters, what does that make us?
Rage is excellent, but it isn’t quite a masterpiece, because it’s got this “fun superpowers” vibe thing going on and this absolutely-easy-to-get-lost-in combat loop that’s wonderfully put together but the “WOO YEAH PARTAYYY” feels a bit “how do you do, fellow kids?” rather than something the kids actually feel. It’s not speaking to something deeper, it’s speaking to an aged aesthetic.
20) Far Cry: New Dawn (PC)
In Far Cry 5, the bad guy was kidnapping people to save them from the apocalypse. Then the apocalypse happened so I guess he was… right to do all the kidnapping and murder and torture? I guess? In Far Cry: New Dawn, there’s a new bad guy in town, and it’s two sisters who have the traditional Far Cry over-the-top cuh-raaaazy thing going on.
It uses the same map from Far Cry 5, but verdant.
The main difference is the loop — now, you go to various bases in game, complete them for rewards, and give them up to be refilled with tougher enemies, who you will then fight for more rewards.
It’s a half-hearted and bizarre attempt to turn an open world shooter into a more RPG-like game, and it seems like one of these weird company-wide pushes that Ubisoft does from time to time as they try to find their next big “this is how all our open worlds will get made forever.” For a while, it seemed like every game they made had you playing as some kind of guy whose brother died (Far Cry 3, The Crew) because of Assassin’s Creed 2. Later, they really wanted you to be a cop (Far Cry 5, Assassin’s Creed Origins, The Division) because, apparently, that would make people all want to play like good characters and not bad characters. It never felt well considered (remember how The Division pushed The Dark Zone as a huge part of its marketing until player numbers got so bad that it was clear that most people don’t want to play competitively in a cooperative game and betray their friends?).
Anyways, Ubisoft’s push this year is “make everything like an RPG,” and by “like an RPG,” I mean “you can’t just one-shot people with a lethal headshot, now you have to have the right stats, or your bullets won’t penetrate their skulls.” New Dawn, like Division 2, Odyssey, and Breakpoint, has this system and it’s lame and boring.
The end result is a game with a really fun character controller (really! it’s fun to just run and slide around!), an interesting salvage system, and something like 4 co-op maps if you wanna do some fun little co-op missions with friends for loot… wrapped up in the same bad story (it does the whole “fill up meters by doing random objectives in the game world to ‘inspire the populace!’ and ‘we need a figurehead except he never does anything major’ that previous revolutionary games like Homefront 2 have attempted — these stories are… not great, conceptually. No one does a revolution because of some individually heroic character; please study revolutionary history) with the cherry on top of an RPG system that feels bad because first person shooters as RPGs just feel wrong (unless you’re Destiny and Bungie wisely understands that gun feel and stats should be separate elements of the game).
Fun enough to play, not a game I loved or would recommend.
Gorgeous as heck.
21) Strange Brigade (PC)
In theory, I should love Rebellion games, however, they never give the polish to their character controllers that they could, and enemy hit feedback is never quite what it needs to be. This means that their absolutely gorgeous games have a tendency to feel off.
Strange Brigade was tremendous fun with my friends; it’s got a King Solomon’s Mines or a 1930s Adventure Film vibe, complete with a narrator and some genuinely great jokes (I love the ghost pirate), the enemy types are pretty cool, the fights are great, the weapons are nice, some of the skills are cool, and I really, really, really love how many puzzles there are, how varied those puzzles can be, and how it’s great fun just trying to find them, figure them out, and solve them.
Strange Brigade is a game that made me happy through vibes and puzzles. But it never felt as strong as it should have, and that bummed me out.
22) Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (X1)
What a winner of a game. While I’ll never be totally in love with the whole “yours is not to reason why, yours is but to do and die” of the plot, the idea of having a space ship and flying around doing really cool missions in the best-feeling dogfighter on a mouse and keyboard or running around shooting things in first person in some genuinely breathtaking set pieces… man, that stuff was great.
It’s what Mass Effect could have been. Too bad neither has the strengths of the other. This is a game I’m going to keep coming back to, because every time I do, I have a blast.
23) Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle (Switch)
Here is a grid. On the grid are various characters, who each have their own unique sets of skills. When it’s your turn, you move them into hopefully advantageous positions and attempt to eliminate the enemy units. When it’s their turn, they attempt to do the same.
Only… somehow it’s a Mario game, and it’s also a Rabbids game, and these two juggernaut brands have collided in this weird strategic turn-based mess and… it’s… good?
It divides its missions up into worlds, which you travel through in real-time until you get to the combat portions. Each world has a theme and a series of enemies, missions, and puzzles based around that theme. The story, ehnh, you can take it or leave it. But the turn-based strategy can be fun. One improvement over the game it clearly takes its inspiration from, XCOM, is that there are only 3 possible percentages. No more will you have to miss a 94% chance to hit. Now it’s 100% chance to hit, 0% chance to hit, and 50% chance to hit. The game feels fair. You’re graded on how well you do in each mission, whether or not everyone survives and whether or not you can complete it in under a certain number of turns for the most resources with which to upgrade your units.
I think it overstays its welcome a bit, not because it’s too long but because it isn’t quite varied enough to feel like it justifies its own length. More mechanical variety would have really helped, even though it’s a ridiculously varied game already. Make it 20% shorter or 20% more feature-rich and I think I’d have loved every second of it. As it was, I had a good time. There’s a reason it’s still one of the best-selling Nintendo Switch games ever: it’s good.
24) Days Gone (PS4)
The premise of “The Walking Dead Meets Sons of Anarchy” is simple, maybe even appealing, but to combine two currently-popular things is often a recipe for disaster, because games take years to release, and by the time they’re out, the world has usually moved on.
Days Gone still works, though, which is why I wrote six thousand words about it.
25) Far: Lone Sails (PC)
Here is a sidescrolling game with no dialogue that implies the world is dying or has died, and you are making your way on a lengthy, cathartic journey from point A to point B without any real explanation for how or why. It… there were times I didn’t quite connect to it, but it crafted a wonderful sense of melancholy through its journey — and it is a journey, despite being shorter than most — so when you finally reach your destination it feels right, or maybe just pretty good.
I am reminded of the first game I beat in 2019 or 2018, The Final Station, which had a similar vibe of going through a world as things got worse and worse before they finally hit their conclusion.
26) Pony Island (PC)
its pretty meta but its pretty fun and short
27) The Last of Us (PS4)
I played this because my air conditioner died and people knew I wasn’t really a fan of what I’d played so far, so I said, hey, if my ko-fi raises enough money for my AC and my buddy’s seizure meds, I’ll stream this, Uncharted 3, and like, KOTOR or something. KOTOR’s still on the way. Life stuff happened.
The ko-fi supporters came through, so I kept my word.
What followed was a game that did very little worth commenting on. It is The Big Bang Theory of AAA video games. It is a shameless ripoff of better media that banks on you not knowing any better to enjoy it. I streamed it too, predicting essentially everything that happened before it happened, not because it was homage or foreshadowing, but because it was uncreative tripe with nothing clever to say and no real emotions to earn. It’s the game equivalent of a standup walking on stage and yelling “to get to the other side,” just hollering punchlines while they do one of five (just five) little “move an object so another character can progress through the level” minigames.
28) Uncharted 3 (PS4)
Before it released, two things happened. The first was that a lot of people who played Uncharted 2 and called it a masterpiece said things like “after Uncharted 2, I don’t need more,” and if there’s one thing I know about games, it’s that whenever someone says “I don’t need more,” it’s because even if the thing wowed them with audiovisual context, some small, honest part of them knows they don’t really care about it, but instead they pretend like no it’s just too good to get a follow-up. People did this to Bioshock too, which had bad gameplay as well.
The other thing I know is that they built a lot of the set pieces before they let the writers write the story, so the writers had to work backwards to make it any good. This was challenging.
Honestly, Uncharted 3 has some genuinely clever bits (the shipbreaking, basically) but overall… I called most of what happened, and the game was too afraid to actually get supernatural, instead opting for some uninspired “it was drugs in the water” nonsense. Combine that with not-that-great gameplay and you get a game that felt dated compared to its contemporaries.
The screenshot says I got ‘easy’ but I played it on a higher difficulty and the other one popped up after this. I actually have a screenshot of that too, but I wanted to use the text “it’s no good” to refer to the game, which is no good. :)
29) The Darkness (X1)
A long time ago, I started playing The Darkness. I loved the sequence where Jenny falls asleep on Jackie while they watch To Kill a Mockingbird together. I loved that you could bask in that moment, holding on to her for as long as possible, watching the entire movie if you so chose.
That moment had a tremendous impact on me creatively, and you can see it in Paratopic, just like you can see the influence of Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.
Too bad nobody played either of these games. You can read about The Darkness here. It hailed from an era where shooting had been figured out already, but people still wanted to experiment with their own systems. The result is a game that just doesn’t feel quite as good as it should. The game would have been a masterpiece on PC, but it never got a port. A shame. Great ideas wrapped in middling, even frustrating shooting.
30) Kamiko (Switch)
I dunno, it’s a cute little pixel action game. Some guy recommended it to me back when I didn’t really have any games on the Switch to play. I had some fun with it. Did it leave a lasting impression? Not really. It was fun enough. I had to reinstall it to take a screenshot for you.
31) Wolfenstein Youngblood (PC)
Bethesda’s marketing has always been kinda weird, and this year seemed like the year of “characters who are enthusiastic but kind of really dumb and have super powers via technology and kick ass,” I guess. It was mildly offputting, which is too bad, because as gameplay goes, this is the best Wolfenstein game since Machinegames started building ’em, and I think that’s probably because Arkane worked so hard on the levels. They’re amazing levels, taut, interconnected things, absolutely beautiful constructions.
I didn’t take many screenshots because I was playing in co-op with my buddy Cory, so this one, with an FOV so wide it makes the player arms look kinda funny, will have to do.
What a great co-op game. I love the twins, those great, big, dumb goobers. The actual plot wasn’t quite as good as the others, mostly because there was no central villain to focus on until the end of the game, but that’s okay, it was the best one to actually play. Like I said, this was the year of people who are amazing at what they do finally getting to do it; in this case, Arkane, a studio that makes stealth games in spite of their incredible action chops, finally got to work with Machinegames, a studio that’s really good at Nazi killing but historically not that great at level design, and the result is incredible.
32) Remnant: From the Ashes (PC)
As a general rule, I don’t replay games. Oh, sure, when it’s truly excellent, like Halo, I might replay it a year later, but I’m not one of those people with a “yearly replay” game. Between its release on August 16, 2018 and now, January 11, 2019, I have played Remnant: From the Ashes to completion 3 or 4 times. I have jumped into numerous games from other friends. Don’t get me wrong, you can beat it in like 6–7 hours, and according to Steam, I’ve played for 35 hours (which seems kinda low to me, to be quite honest). It’s not the longest game I’ve played — I’ve put more into Destiny 2 in a single month — but it’s definitely a game I was happy to keep jumping back into.
I don’t really know why. It’s a game that takes the Dark Souls formula, which I don’t like, removes a lot of the bits I don’t like (most notably: dropping souls, pointless difficulty instead of fun challenging difficulty, and impenetrable co-op) and replaces it with a really fun game with some randomized boss variation (not as many as the marketing made it seem, but still a lot) and events, unique drops from every single boss and most encounters, including unique weapons depending on the method of boss kill… just… there’s a lot. There’s a lot to this game, and it’s part of the reason I kept coming back to it.
At the same time, it’s kind of small, smaller than something like Destiny (but I don’t think it had the same kind of 900+ person studio and half a billion dollar budget that Destiny had), so it’s hard to stick with it, but man. What a surprise. What a delight. It’s too bad they didn’t have a publisher with a stronger marketing push and interest in the game’s success, but it did wildly well on streaming.
What a great game. Definitely one of this year’s best.
33) Control (X1)
I bought an Xbox 360 for Alan Wake, because I loved Max Payne 1 and 2 so much. I bought an original Xbox for Quantum Break, because I loved Alan Wake so much. I did not buy any new consoles for Control, because A) it didn’t release on a new console, and B) Quantum Break was honestly pretty bad in terms of both gameplay and narrative.
Control is Remedy remembering why they’re great, with bizarre characters and super tight, input-driven gameplay. In a trippy building called the “oldest house,” which I believe is the World Tree from Norse mythology, one person, Jesse Faden, has been recruited as the ‘director’ by a mysterious ‘board’ of potentially supernatural entities to halt an incursion on our dimension.
Also there’s a ton of Alan Wake references.
You should play it yourself. There’s a reason it won a lot of Game of the Year awards; they were well deserved. My only complaint about Control? I wish there was a lot more of it. What a superb experience.
It was almost my game of the year too.
34) Gears 5 (X1/PC — Play Anywhere)
Do you know how spoiled we were in 2019? Remember when I said this was a year of people who were really good at what they do doing what they do best doing their best? And then studios like Remedy, Aces Team, Capcom R&D Division 1, Blue Byte, Avalanche, and Red Candle Games backed that statement up?
Well, add another to the list, because The Coalition knocked it out of the park with Gears 5.
I saw some reviews which claimed the game’s open world segments weren’t good — the rationale seemed to be that because the open world wasn’t designed like a traditional open world game, with tones of jujubes and doodads to find, it wasn’t a good open world.
That’s not true. Sometimes, a game’s design breaks the mold to do something neat because that’s what supports the design best, and I think Gears 5 does that in spectacular fashion.
Am I still mad at the insistence that the game insists on having character classes for horde mode? Yes. Am I still disappointed that the enemy variety isn’t quite as good as Gears 3, because this new series is slowly building up to having more enemies after creating a new enemy race to fight? Also yes.
Did I have the time of my life fighting through a secret underground laboratory to kill a gigantic and horrifying monster that was nigh-indestructible to sever its psychic link to me only to accidentally birth an even more horrifying new monstrosity that impacted me so hard I actually teared up by the end of the game?
Yes. Super yes.
Gears 5 is a tremendous, remarkable achievement of a video game. The Coalition absolutely rocked this, a stark contrast to Microsoft’s other brand-managing studio, 343 Industries. Making games that feel like they’re true to the franchise while also doing bold and interesting new things is what these studios need to do, and The Coalition’s efforts are nothing short of spectacular.
Playing Gears 5 reminded me just what AAA gaming really is; what you can do with gameplay when you have immense resources and talent at your disposal. What a joy. What an immense, towering joy.
35) The Gardens Between (PC)
It’s a puzzle game where you move time backwards and forwards. It’s pretty clever. I do not have a screenshot of this game because I do not feel like reinstalling it. Apparently, I did not take any to begin with. Instead, I have linked a youtube video. I did not hate it, I was just somewhat ambivalent. I think I played it because there was a way to get free Microsoft Reward Points for completing games and it seemed like you could play The Gardens Between, and since it was short, I did, but then Microsoft later clarified that you couldn’t use this game to do it, so whatever. It wasn’t a waste of time, it was just one of those games for an audience who wasn’t me. It was like stumbling into the wrong theatre.
36) Dragon Quest Builders 2 (Switch)
I do not like JRPGs because the classics are largely 2D games where you don’t really have to think about how to play and when you do have to think it’s usually like the annoying Braille puzzles in Pokemon Alpha Sapphire that aren’t fun to solve at all aren’t really my jam. Also not a fan of the story.
I am not a fan of Minecraft because it’s a game where you just kinda come up with stuff to build and build it. I know how to do this, to me, it is not a meaningful or interesting goal worth pursuing.
I fucking love Dragon Quest Builders 2.
Earlier this year, things got really bad. There were moments when I was so paralyzed by anxiety and stress, because I was being gaslit — I had to ask friends and a lawyer to go over all my communications to help me respond — that I needed an escape. Dragon Quest Builders 2 was that escape for me.
It’s a game with a really fun adventure story, rich with humor and twists and turns. It’s a game that is charming, rather than a game that only thinks it’s charming. It’s a game that lets you build how you want, but also gives you blueprints, so you spend more time navigating the world to find the right resources, which I enjoy. Objectives are things like “hey, let’s build a bar because the miners have been working hard and need a place to relax!” rather than just “build this thing because It’s The Objective.”
This is the kind of game I love playing, even though it’s made up of parts of games I don’t love. I wish Dragon Quest Builders 3 was out, because I would love to dive right into that one immediately. I hear Dragon Quest Builders isn’t quite as good, but I’m gonna give it a shot.
37) Battlefield V (X1)
I don’t know why I keep playing DICE’s campaigns. They haven’t been good since Battlefield: Bad Company 2. The games feel inflexible in a way a lot of games aren’t; do anything the engine doesn’t like and blam, the whole game collapses right there in front of you. Once, in Battlefield 4, the entire level went invisible, and I could see the enemy tank that was supposed to be stalking me while I felt my way through the rest of the level.
DICE has issues with campaigns. Real issues. They don’t seem to focus on their main competition, Infinity Ward, or understand why those games work.
Their latest push is towards games that feature short little historic vignettes, taking a few creative liberties to humanize history. They did this for Battlefield 1 and they did this for Battlefield V (yes, Battlefield 1 released after Battlefield 4). In terms of design and game feel, the campaigns just… don’t feel right. Enemies you can’t see are incredibly dangerous, levels are open but in a way that doesn’t really encourage you to think about how you’re playing. You just kinda go from waypoint to waypoint with nothing to do until there’s combat, and then fight in combat that feels really bland and unfun.
I think I play their games because A) I get them on sale, B) there aren’t many historic FPSes out there, and C) I keep hoping we’ll get fun historic-set FPSes again. So far, no go.
There was one of the vignette campaigns I enjoyed, not because it was well-written (it’s cliche; you’ve got the Noble Nazi Tank Commander Who Fights For The Nazis But Is A Good Person Somehow, you’ve got The Weary Friend Who Dies Heroically, and you’ve got The Young True Believer Who Hurts People Because He Believes The Nazis. Never mind that you’re fighting for the Nazis, it’s okay because you get that Nazis Aren’t Good, even if you, y’know, are one)… but because it’s the only one that was actually fun to play.
Because you spend a lot of it in control of a tank, which means you actually have a pretty decent amount of time to stay alive. It also has a really good sense of progression and drama through its levels; there’s a moment where you creep through ruins, out of your tank, then you find yourself surrounded with no hope of escape, then your tank smashes through a wall behind you and gives you enough cover to climb in and escape.
It’s a story that takes you through one level, then the tide of the war changes and you’re trapped behind enemy lines and you have to drive back. It’s a story with glimmers of excellence here and there; if it wasn’t such a cliche and cowardly narrative, it might have been something special.
38) Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (PC)
One thing I see a lot in art is artists who want to observe a situation, report on it, and do their best to convey the sense of the thing as accurately as possible. Their goal is to help you draw your own conclusions about the events that happened, while at the same time creating a meaningful Entertainment Product.
Modern Warfare grapples with the complexities of the War in Syria in a way that isn’t fully satisfying, with narrative beats that don’t always work (like an American soldier heroically going AWOL to work alongside the rebel forces and no one really seems to care other than someone on the narrative team).
It’s a game that has some of the best design in the series, some of the best hit feedback, a game with clever and engaging moments that I had a blast with. It’s a game that recognizes it’s better to give the player room to decide
After the game shipped, I found out that one of my favorite levels was one that a good friend of mine had worked on (I didn’t want to know which level it was to avoid bias before release), and that was super awesome.
This is a game I really enjoyed. It’s a game that got a lot of flack from people who want games to Take A Side because Everything Is Political and the only Politically Valuable Act they know is to state on Twitter which side they’re on. To them, this world is black and white. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare tried to show, through extensive research and working with people who understood the situation intimately, what the world was like. The script didn’t quite get there, but the game, whew. The game is stellar to play.
After the abject misery of Treyrach and Sledgehammer’s games, it’s wonderful to see the pros back at work, making single-player campaigns like nobody else does.
The secret to playing Call of Duty is to want to play along. Don’t try to force the game to be what you want it to be, treat it like it’s a movie and you’re one of the characters. Roleplay within its framework, because that’s the experience it’s trying to provide.
I did have some issues with the difficulty tuning; the game has these really good maps that aren’t supported by the health system, so you often find yourself dying because you got flanked or finding that the second you take enough damage to need to get into cover and hit the cover button, you just… like, instantly die. Previous Call of Duty games from IW did a good job of compelling you to get into cover and making you act out the experience of being a character who needs to take cover. This one kills you a bit too quickly to feel right.
It feels like Call of Duty. Real Call of Duty. For the first time in a very… very long time.
39) Disco Elysium (PC)
I’m in the credits under “special thanks,” because, presumably, I showed a great deal of enthusiasm for the game prior to its release (it looked so amazing), and they sent me an early build, and I gave them the best feedback I could without doing a literal consult. They invited me out for drinks during GDC and got me drunk for the first time in my life, and when I needed heart surgery, they were one of the contributors to my heart surgery.
I’m telling you this to be completely open, because Disco Elysium is, in my opinion, the best game of 2019 (tied with another game we’ll get to later). It breaks the pattern of “experienced team doing what they do best,” because Disco Elysium is ZA/UM’s first game.
I’ve had friends who were skeptics get won over by it. I’ve had friends who’d never heard of it before lose their shit with laughter at how good it could be. This is an RPG that isn’t about combat but about talking. It’s the first really, truly good one. It’s a detective game that actually felt properly noir to me and made me feel like a character in a detective novel.
It’s one of those games that I firmly believe — and I believed this even before ZA/UM so generously paid me any attention — should be a watershed moment in RPGs. There should be RPGs before Disco Elysium, and there should be RPGs after. It should be to video game RPGs what Halo 2 was to shooters.
If I love it so much, why haven’t I written a million words on it?
I’m still trying to figure out how.
40) Death Stranding (PS4)
I wrote 13,000 words on it. Tied with Disco Elysium, it is my other Game of the Year. I implore you to play both.
It has become popular in recent times to argue against the auteur. This comes, I think, from two places. First, it comes from the whole series of trends that’s swept Twitter with the rise of casual-bro socialist/communist podcasts like Chapo Traphouse or the discourse surrounding the idea of making safe spaces for people in the workforce.
On the communist side, a lot of people are like “ahh, the workers contributed to the whole! you should praise all of them!” But there are also studios like Valve that profit from diminishing the work of individuals (making them interchangeable; this is how Marvel works now. Kevin Feige basically makes a bunch of people make assembly line McDonald’s burger movies for him and fires people who dare to actually be good at making movies because he wants them to be good at making movies for him) in favor of the brand that plays really well into this “fuck the boss” attitude despite being fundamentally about keeping the boss wealthy. It’s a really interesting and weird interplay that a lot of people aren’t that critical of, and I think they should.
On the safe space side, you have a lot of people going “screw the ‘genius programmer’ type, the person who can’t get along well with people and pretends people skills don’t matter is chasing other people away from your company.”
I don’t necessarily have problems with communism/socialism/safe spaces/all that other stuff. I think the Genius Programmer is often a horrible person. I’ve worked with many in my various jobs, and they all think they’re better than they are and that everything they do is gold, even when one’s work, like, functioned, but was so bad, we ended up building the entire project from scratch without him working on it.
Second, there’s the whole fact that people don’t really get what auteur theory is. A lot of people think of the stereotype of the artiste, that creative prima donna, and this ties into the whole “genius programmer” thing, right? You have a lot of people going “ugh, gross
So you end up with a lot of people conflating auteur theory with a lot of Truly Bad Things when… well, it isn’t.
Howard Hawks said it best: “I liked almost anybody that made you realize who the devil was making the picture.”
Auteur theory is basically just this idea that there are certain creators out there who are able to leave their mark on media, who do things that make their work readily identifiable. A lot of this comes from the fact that they routinely work with the same people. Quentin Tarantino loves working with Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman, for instance. Martin Scorsese always tries to work with Thelma Schoonmaker as his editor, and often works with actors like Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci.
An auteur leaves fingerprints on the work. They’re not an artiste, out there making ridiculous demands and trying to be pampered. They’re people who make art that is so distinctively theirs. Sure, yes, an army of people worked with them to achieve the goal, but they directed the project. It’s like the architect of a building; Frank Lloyd Wright designed Fallingwater. No one else could have. He left his fingerprints.
It’s a rare skill, an invaluable skill, a thing that matters in the grand scheme of things. True auteurs are people who build teams and direct projects towards a singular purpose and focus. True auteurs are great leaders — really great ones, because they achieve greatness by forging valuable relationships with their partners. They are people we recognize.
Hideo Kojima is a video game auteur.
You couldn’t mistake Death Stranding for anybody else’s game.
41) Red Faction Armageddon (X1)
I needed a palette cleanser, so one day, I woke up at like 3 AM and sat down and played through almost the entirety of Red Faction Armageddon, a game that had some clever ideas (how do you achieve level design when you can destroy a level, making it impossible to progress? Red Faction Guerilla did it with an open world; Red Faction Armageddon did it with the ability to destroy and recreate). I had fun, it’s a decent 360-gen third person shooter with an unnecessarily sexy female character design (and a cheap death as an emotional cash grab) and an absurdly boring brown-haired-shaved-close-guy-with-no-personality. Sprinkle in a bit of “your family is important” and “none of this really makes any sense” and you get, well, Red Faction: Armageddon.
This is a bad game that had some cool ideas. I’m glad I played it.
42) Deathtrap (X1)
After Death Stranding, I felt adrift. It’s why I kinda just randomly booted up Red Faction Armageddon one day and found myself finishing it. The same was true for Deathtrap. I sped through it in three days. It’s Diablo (but not as good) meets tower defense, from the creators of the Van Helsing games, which are basically just not-as-strong Diablo clones with a weak art direction but neat monsters.
I had fun playing it, but there are two kinds of Tower Defense: there’s the kind I like, which is about using towers to create enemy routes and do damage, and then there’s the kind I don’t like, which is about putting towers in pre-built locations and essentially memorizing what waves are where so you have a very strict build order to follow. I don’t like that kind as much, and Deathtrap falls into the latter category.
I had fun playing it for the two days I did, but… was it good? Not really. Just kinda neat I guess. The UI was not good on the Xbox.
43) Age of Mythology (PC)
I got tired of the game long before it ended. RTS campaigns are hard to produce, because you have, essentially, a bunch of buildings, and a map that generally needs to be pretty open, and that’s it. A player can just build a blob of an army and fight their way through other armies.
Ensemble did their best, but the not-that-great story, the streamlining of a lot of mechanics, and the not-exactly inspiring religion trees (which basically just determine what myth units you can spawn and some one-time-use powers) resulted in a game that… it was okay, but it wasn’t as good as Age of Empires 2.
It should have focused more on city building and less on… trying to be like Warcraft 3.
44) Pokemon: Fire Red (GBA)
I wish I had a screenshot of this one for you.
Unfortunately, I do not.
Fire Red is beautiful. I mean, it has some of the best pixel art in video games. It uses a lot of the Gen 3 advancements in the series to provide an engaging, enjoyable remake of the original Pokemon Red, with some additions in the Sevii Islands to give
I loved playing a real cart on the Gameboy Advance for this. It was fun to try to catch ’em all. I think Pokemon’s core formula is a bit stale — other JRPGs have done a much, much better job reinventing themselves over the years, but Fire Red was that perfect blend of not too many gimmicks and a manageable number of Pokemon. It’s a good game. Too bad it requires you to own old, hard-to-find hardware and requires you to sift through potentially fake carts if you want to be able to catch good mons.
45) Captain Spirit (X1)
This is a game that is kind of boring — you just click on stuff in the environment and listen to a character talk, and occasionally you do some very light puzzling. It’s a game with bad dialogue — it feels stiff and unnatural. I did not really like it, and if this is what I have to expect from Life is Strange 2 (it is a stand-alone free game that functions as a demo for Life is Strange 2)… yeah, I’m not interested.
I think it really conveyed the sense of anxiety from one’s family in an abusive situation, without simply making the player’s father out to be a bad person. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve known abusers who are bad people — heck, I was assaulted at work by my boss after years of abuse and a cop had to pull her off of me — but some people do bad things without meaning to, and I think this game pulls that off well. This is a father consumed by grief, resorting to drinking to try to numb the pain. He does bad things. He shouts. He gets angry. He demands his son pick up the phone so he can keep watching the basketball game he resents not being able to play in. But he also pats his son on the head and means what he says when he loves his son. He’s stressed by poverty. He’s complicated. This is a person who lost control when his wife died and he lost his job. He just wants it back.
The game knows this and shows how bad it is to live with him without making him into a cartoon. It’s a game that makes me wish I could help the guy, but I have to play as a kid who retreats into a fantasy world instead. There’s only so much I can do.
I didn’t enjoy playing it, I think the dialogue isn’t great, but there’s an awareness here that feels like what it’s like to live in an abusive relationship, and I appreciated that.
46) Halo: Reach (PC)
It’s finally out on PC, almost ten years after it first launched. In the years since, things like sprint and aiming down sights have been standardized, but bro. Bro. It’s Halo: Reach. It’s one of the best video games ever made, so beautifully crafted, so immaculately constructed. It’s a game with a combat sandbox that’s so robust, ever time you play feels like the first time. The art design is so strong that it holds up even now. There’s a cleanliness to it that 343i’s newer games lack, and I love it.
Also, a friend and I tried to defeat a tank with a pair of forklifts.
47) Skeal (PC)
“Is it a first person shooter?” I asked Nelson, when he told me about it.
“Okay. This better be good.”
Well, in a manner of speaking.
48) The Outer Worlds (PC)
I don’t love Obsidian. Lots of people do. I thought the gameplay in New Vegas was bad, the quests weren’t notably more interesting than the ones in Fallout 3, and they didn’t use the world as well or as interestingly as Bethesda ever did.
Here we have Obsidian making another Bethesda-like game, making all the trademark mistakes that Obsidian does. Glib jokes where it doesn’t belong, a few standout quests that overshadow 95% of the rest of the quests, where you do things like “talk to a person, walk outside and straight ahead, talk to another person, pass a skill check, walk back, and get your XP.”
As an RPG, okay, it’s got some funny stuff, but most of it’s just skill checks. It’s Bethesda-lite, lacking the heavy simulationist aspects that make Bethesda games the billion-dollar juggernauts that they are.
This is a game built on a budget, and it shows. I never fault a game for that. But it’s also a game retreading the ground Obsidian always treads. It’s the kind of game that the RPG Codex almost certainly loves, a game that never really aspires to be a great RPG but just repeat the glory days. It’s safe. It’s unambitious.
As a shooter, it isn’t that good either.
I’m glad it was free on Game Pass.
49) Resident Evil Revelations (X1)
Don’t ask me how a game original made for the Nintendo 3DS ended up being a pretty good classic Resident Evil spinoff, but here we are. Like all good Resident Evil games, it gets you familiar with a space, gives you horrible monsters, presents you with a wide array of not-quite-believable characters with bad dialog and silly moments, and manages to be a fun, tense experience regardless.
Just the thing to tide me over until Resident Evil 3 Remake.
50) Dark Pictures: Man of Medan (X1)
There is a moment in the game where a character says “what happened to the crew?” while on board a ship that has been lost from World War II. Another character follows this up with “yeah! And where did all those bodies come from?”
As a genius, I can tell you that those bodies used to be the crew.
I loved Until Dawn, a genuinely clever Playstation exclusive (which sucks because everyone should be able to play it) from early in the PS4’s life. It’s big, it’s bombastic, it’s not normally the kind of game I like (it’s like one of those story-heavy games with the occasional quick-time events, like, I don’t know, a good Quantic Dream game), but the premise and the narrative were really compelling.
Dark Pictures: Man of Medan is like the boring budget version of that, a game with a bunch of unlikable, stupid characters (Shawn Ashmore might be a great guy, but he always gets cast as people who are fundamentally annoying and uninteresting). They keep the not-that-important ‘trademark’ features, like the butterfly effect thing or the Mysterious narrator, but that was never why anyone loved the game. People loved it ’cause it was a choose your own adventure game that felt like being in a movie, and it was a fun movie.
This was not. It was a stupid movie.
I found out after I finished it that a genuinely shitty, abusive person worked on the game. I also heard from multiple people who worked for them that, yeah, management sucks. Turns out there was a Eurogamer report about this too. I feel good knowing that a game I didn’t like was run into the ground by shit management. Criticizing a game is always hard, because people are often sincere and did their best, so you wanna talk about the experience you had, and how frustrated you might be from that, but you run the risk of hurting people in the process. Don’t have to worry about this one; sounds like a lot of the good people have left and are happily working elsewhere, and the people who made the bad decisions are management and they’re not great people. So. Cool. Guilt free criticism for a really awful game.
This is a bad game with a predictable twist (poison gas made people hallucinate) and then a weird final twist that does nothing and goes nowhere (some guy gets possessed).
51) Lost Planet 2 (PC)
Lost Planet was a janky Xbox 360 game that was conceived by Keiji Inafune before he left Capcom. It took place on an ice planet and there were monsters and you had to fight a bunch of them in a sorta linear first person shooter that had grappling hooks and mechs. Basically, super jank, super ambitious, not really ‘modern’ yet, using the standard 16-button control scheme in a way that feels fluid and natural.
Lost Planet 2 got the controls (mostly) down, and it’s… I don’t know. It’s weird. There are lives. The planet is thawing. You encounter like 8 different factions as you play through the game, the story feels really disconnected, it’s a big, huge mess that still feels kinda jank…
And yet this is a game about you, a grappling hook, mechs, and giant monsters. One giant monster, pictured above, needs to have his legs shot off so you can send a player inside to shoot his heart. Another stays in place and shoots ice to freeze you or swipes at you with its many arms. Another is so big you have to defeat it with a gigantic cannon mounted to a train.
The gameplay doesn’t suck so much that I hated the game (and it uses Games for Windows Live but somehow still works), and the highs are so high they’re fun as heck.
Lost Planet never knew what it wanted to be. Was it Monster Hunter with mechs? Was it a third-person campaign shooter? Who knows?
All I know is that I had a ridiculous amount of fun finishing it.
52) Dusk (PC)
A long time ago, I made friends with a guy who made walking sims. As is my wont, I said “you should make a first person shooter next.” He told me that no, no, he didn’t want to make a first person shooter. We’d had talks about them, I knew he had taste (even though he liked Resident Evil 4 and insisted it was great, which I somewhat jokingly disagree with). One day, he disappeared off Twitter, but we still talked on Steam on occasion.
Eventually, he came back with a demo for a Quake and STALKER-inspired FPS called Dusk. While he had ignored my urging to make an FPS, he had a different experience that led him to the same place. I liked the demo a lot. It felt great, looked great, and had some genuinely powerful vibes. I feel like the game falls apart in the final act; it’s at its strongest, I think, in the quiet moments, when you see places in the distance and resolve to go there, but it has some genuinely “holy shit” moments of pulse-pounding brilliance.
Last I knew, it was one of the highest rated games on Steam. I’m a bit sad that David came back to Twitter, got famous, and eventually unfollowed me ’cause apparently he didn’t like me talking about Dark Souls and disability and we don’t chat that often, anymore. There’s a bittersweetness; when I play the game, I miss what we had, enthusiastically talkin about the games we loved together. Maybe I shouldn’t say this here, but it felt like his fame came at the cost of our friendship. I dunno. We still have ways to talk, but he’s usually too busy these days.
I always knew he had it in him to make a wonderful game, though, and he did.
53) The Expendabros (PC)
It’s a Broforce tie-in to The Expendables, and I beat it ’cause I wanted to test games in my backlog and it was so short I just ended up finishing it. It’s stupid, loud, has great hit feedback, and it’s free, so you might as well try it, I guess? I’m glad I did even though it’s not the kind of game I normally like playing.
54) Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (X1)
There was a time in my life when the thing I cared about most was the size of a game. If it was huge and fun, well, hey, I was poor and had to pick and choose. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey would have been perfect for me. It has a strong showing with its wonderful protagonist Kassandra early on, but then, over time, it kind of loses its luster. It has a Nemesis system, but that’s shallow and it cheats. It has boat combat, but there’s not a lot of variety there compared to Assassin’s Creed III or IV. It’s got quests, but nothing as complex or interesting as The Witcher 3, a game that its overall design, like Assassin’s Creed Origins before it, seems to rely heavily upon.
I like the “look at your map to try to figure out where to go next” system. I dislike the “everything is RPG skill based, so you can’t hurt this person with a bow shot to the head because he’s Magically Stronger Than An Arrow.”
This is a gorgeous game that is often very fun to play, but there’s So Much Of It, it reminds me of going to a buffet restaurant like Ryan’s, filling my plate with hush puppies and mashed potatoes and chicken and fried okra (accidentally!), and finding I can’t finish it all because they put some weird chemical in the food to fill you up faster than you should.
It is bountiful. It starts out very charming but loses that as it expands in scope. It puts its best foot forward and has little to offer after that.
The writing is confused and misguided at times — like, when you meet the final bad guy, it’s some person you haven’t seen for like 150 hours, and you’re like “wait, who are you again” and they’re all “i have seen the future… and i see a way to remake the world for the better” and it actually sounds like a good deal, the way they frame it, but then you’re like “you did do, you know, slavery and murder tho,” and they’re like “fair deal, I will fight you” and then you kill them in like two hits.
You meet one of Greece’s most legendary figures and he just kinda stands in a room and eventually dies after you finish a quest. It… could be more compelling, more personal, more involved than it is. It doesn’t suffer from the same problems that Assassin’s Creed Origins had, where it just kinda assumed you cared without actually trying to make you care, but eventually it turns into a bunch of nonsense about The Importance of Bloodlines that seems so popular in Hollywood these days because rich people think everyone cares as much about Family Legacy as they do, even though most of us care about more important things. There are weird bits where, like, important characters just kinda disappear without a second thought, only to resurface when it’s convenient later. It’s a confused mess.
It started so strong. It doesn’t stick the landing.
But man… I love living in Ancient Greece, at least for the 100+ hours I played. It was worth it. It just wasn’t An All Time Great like Assassin’s Creed 2 and Brotherhood were.
55) Star Wars Battlefront (X1)
Pandemic had something special. This game feels like being in Star Wars even though it’s an original Xbox game where you just capture points and spawn a bunch. Like, this is a multiplayer mode masquerading as a campaign. It is not sophisticated.
But dang, son. I liked it more than Rise of Skywalker.
56) A Short Hike (PC)
There is a kind of game that is cute in a way that I feel like I’ve seen elsewhere. It is not Personally Cute, it is Cuteness Derived From Somewhere. I don’t know where, but a few games have this kind of charm. Frog Detective, which I loved, had it. Night in the Woods, which I enjoyed a lot, also had it. This game has it too. There’s a character I’ve seen before, a situation I get, an environment that’s charming… it’s… I liked it. I did like it. I should have played with a controller, though.
Will it have an impact on my design sense? Almost definitely not, it’s more Zelda than Simulation. But hey, it was neat.
57) Can Androids Pray? Blue (X1)
My buddy Nelson wrote this weird little adventure. I asked him why, and he said he wanted to write a ‘bottle episode.’ He seemed surprised when I said I’d played it, because “it’s not your type of game,” and that’s true. It is not my type of game.
But I played it, I thought it had a great sense of structure to it, and I enjoyed the half hour or so it took to complete. There were moments it made me laugh and moments it made me contemplate. I am glad that it exists and that I was able to play it.
That was 2019. A bit of an odd year, a lot of games that I look at and go “huh, why would I play that?” They don’t really seem like my brand. Other games, I go “oh yes, that’s so me,” and I loved ’em. With the exception of Anthem and Man of Medan, I think they all possessed some value, though I do think Ubisoft’s direction is a bad one.
In the end, I managed to move out of a difficult living situation and some friends rallied to help me escape a demoralizing one. I wrote a game for someone and they seemed to love my work so much, they’ve asked me to come back and write more in the future. My own game.
Also, hey, I played a ridiculous amount of Destiny 2 this year. I’ve been playing a lot of Destiny every year since it came out, despite my frustrations with it, and 2019 might be the year I taper off, much like the first half of 2016, but we’ll see. We’ll see.
On the final day of 2019, my buddy Nelson wrote this on Twitter, unprompted.
I hope to show you in the coming year.
That means I probably won’t beat 65 games like I did in 2018, the year I had heart surgery, or 57 games, like I did in 2019, the year things got difficult and also I started a new company.
But I’m gonna keep playing games, because I learn every time I do, and I think it helps me make better ones.
See you next year.