The Best and Worst Games of 2019
This is my tenth year-end, Best & Worst blowout. That's a decade of me agonising over winners and losers for a post that maybe twenty people read. And eleven of those people are me.
A lot has changed since I picked Mass Effect 2 as my game of the year back in 2010. We've had hardware successes and failures, and major franchises that have come and gone. We've seen the peaks and troughs of casual and mobile gaming, the near disappearance of game-dedicated handhelds, the growth of subscription and streaming services, the evolution of online gaming, and the continued ascendancy of the industry as a whole. And don't forget the ongoing march to all-digital, the multitude of trends that have lived and died (3D, second screen gaming, toys-to-life etc.), the indie explosion-demise-resurgence, and the death of the mid-tier game and developer. A lot has happened over the last decade.
By this time next year, even more will have changed, as I'll likely be playing on next-gen hardware. As long as the price isn't too excessive, I expect I'll pick up a PlayStation 5 at launch, or very close to it. However, I'm certainly open to being swayed by the new Xbox instead.
But before we look forward, let's look back at another great year for games. It was a year where I spread myself thin over three platforms. I harassed a British village, killed ex-classmates, explored space in twenty-two minute intervals, had a terrible first day as a police officer, hunted ice beasts, revisited the Garden, delivered some magazines to a hermit on a haunted mountain, and so much more. And if that weren't enough, I also finally picked up a CRT monitor and permanently hooked up my Saturn. You'd best believe I played a lot of Sega Rally and Virtua Cop 2 in 2019.
As ever, video games are lovely.
Here are the contemporary games I played this year, to completion or at least for a significant chunk of time.
Played: Anthem, Assassin's Creed Odyssey, Battlefield 1, Battlefield V, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Crackdown 3, Death Stranding, Devil May Cry 5, Final Fantasy VIII Remastered, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Gears of War 3, Gone Home, Hollow Knight, Just Cause 4, Left Alive, Lonely Mountain: Downhill, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, Monster Hunter World: Iceborne, Outer Wilds, Resident Evil 2, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Sayonara Wild Hearts, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Steep, Superhot, The Walking Dead Season 3, Untitled Goose Game, Void Bastards, What Remains of Edith Finch.
Currently playing: Luigi's Mansion 3, Thumper
Bought but have yet to play: Into the Breach, Judgement, Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales, Valkyria Chronicles 4
These are the best and worst games of 2019, according to me.
Enjoy your games and have a Happy New Year.
1. Game of the Year: Death Stranding
Another year, another two-horse race.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses was wonderful. The melodrama was far more engrossing than I expected, I took to my students more completely and faster than I thought I would, even the annoying ones, and you simply cannot go wrong with Fire Emblem gameplay. I aligned myself with the Golden Deer, as they seemed the least racist, and I have no regrets. I may yet play the entire thing over again from a significantly different perspective as one of the other two remaining houses.
However, as good as Three Houses is, it simply isn't as memorable as Death Stranding.
I have never played a blockbuster this unique, and I doubt I ever will again. As Sam, you must deliver hope to survivors. You spend the game making connections, from person to person, shelter to shelter; from life to death. Trekking through a lonely landscape, you shy away from violence and take it upon yourself to reconnect a scared and distrustful populace. At times, you are forced into combat, but it's the least interesting aspect of DS and is thankfully kept brief.
Connectivity with other players is pushed, yet never fully explained. The mechanics are vague, but the message is clear: help each other. It's a powerful and convincing message. Build infrastructure, complete abandoned deliveries, trust other players to take on contracts that you cannot complete. You feel alone, out there in the wilderness, but you never are. Shout into the void, and someone will likely shout right back.
The motion-capture performances are outstanding. I certainly cringed at some of the lines, but I was never less than impressed by the way in which they were delivered. I felt none of the disconnect from the fiction that I often feel when recognisable faces appear in games. The lead actors and actresses inhabit these characters, and I fully believed them in their roles. In a game with cut scenes that run upwards of an hour, this was crucial.
As with all of Kojima's post-Snake Eater output, Death Stranding is not perfect. The middle third drags, as you must trudge over snowy mountains to make deliveries to people and places of no consequence. Sometimes the writing strays from bat-shit crazy to outright bad. Princess Beach, indeed! Yet I'm able to forgive these issues because the core experience is so convincing, engrossing and worthwhile. Even when Death Stranding is embarrassing itself, it never stops being fascinating.
With Death Stranding, Kojima and his team delivered.
Honourable Mention: Fire Emblem: Three Houses
2. Best pre-2019 Game Played for the First Time: Assassin's Creed Odyssey
I reckon Odyssey might be my favourite Assassin's Creed since AC2, which would naturally make it the second best in the series. I loved the setting, was taken aback by the scale of the map and enjoyed the melding of the real world and the divine. I could've done without having to grind between story missions to hit the recommended levels, though it was a good excuse to see more of the Aegean. With two excellent ACs back-to-back, my love for the series has been rekindled.
Honourable Mention: What Remains of Edith Finch, The Walking Dead Season 3
3. Best pre-2019 Game Played for the Umpteenth Time: Final Fantasy VIII Remastered
I was not expecting to revisit Balamb Garden in 2019. The FFVIII remaster was a very pleasant surprise, though I was a little concerned about how it would stand up to modern expectations. Turns out there was no need to worry. The cinematic presentation and the other-worldly score have aged wonderfully, as has the setting which, for my money, is the most memorable and unique of any Final Fantasy. Triple Triad is unassailable as an RPG distraction and the art direction, especially in the towns and cities, sets VIII apart from the rest. It's always reassuring when a cherished older game proves itself capable of remaining a current favourite.
4. My Daughter's Game of the Year: Untitled Goose Game
Man, she loved that Goose! We'd clear one stage each weekend, with my daughter taking the lead and me stepping in for the more difficult challenges. We spent far too long on the garden level, as my daughter simply could not get enough of ringing the ornamental bell and making the neighbour spit out his tea. That motherfucker was drenched! Untitled Goose Game is the first that my daughter has wanted to play herself, rather than watching me. I think she's almost ready for Snake Eater.
Honourable Mentions: Luigi's Mansion 3, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020
5. Standout Moment: What Remains of Edith Finch - The baby in the bath
I realise that this is kinda cheating, as Edith Finch was released in 2017, but there was a moment that affected me so profoundly that I can't overlook it. What Remains of Edith Finch is essentially a collection of snippets from the lives of your recent ancestors. Your family has been plagued by bad luck, which has often proved fatal. Some of these stories are playful and lighthearted, others are not. You inhabit the character in each, and none was more impactful than that of baby Gregory. Knowing that you are about to witness his death firsthand is upsetting, especially as a parent. However, it was the way it was handled that touched me the most. We are allowed to see the innocent and fantastical way that he views the world, and sharing in this for even the briefest of moments was a blessing. It is magical and devastating all at once, a moment that is as beautiful as it is heart wrenching.
Honourable Mentions: Fire Emblem: Three Houses - the time skip; Outer Wilds - countless eureka moments
6. Best Gameplay Mechanic: Death Stranding - Deliveries and Building
Death Stranding is a game about making deliveries and bringing people together. If you don't enjoy the basic premise of taking a consignment from A to B, and building and maintaining the infrastructure that enables you to do that, you're going to bounce off Death Stranding pretty hard. Personally, I was like a pig in shit. I loved figuring out the most efficient way of making my delivery, maximising my haulage and figuring out which stops I could hit on the way to my final destination. The community-driven infrastructure building is the cherry on top. Returning to a hazardous area to find that my partially completed road had been finished by another good samaritan was a regular and ever-pleasing occurrence. Bathe in Likes, delivery man, because you've earned them.
Honourable Mention: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice - the grappling hook; Outer Wilds - the 22-minute loop
7. Most Tired: Just Cause 4
I've always enjoyed the Just Cause series. Silly fun and chaos-making in huge playgrounds - what's not to like? Well, it seems I've had my fill, as JC4 did nothing for me. It uses the exact same formula as the previous games, except it doesn't do it nearly as well. It also looks rough as fuck, which didn't help. A real letdown.
8. Best Character: The Golden Deer (Fire Emblem: Three Houses)
My children! The Golden Deer crew really grew on me. What started off as a relatively vanilla bunch of anime-tropes became a beloved and memorable team of anime-tropes with very good haircuts. I bought into their relationships, dug their personalities and even came to appreciate their neediness. Each time we went into battle, I felt like I was controlling a group of real characters not just pieces on a chessboard. I was their Teach and I wanted them to succeed. Team Golden Deer for life!
Honourable Mentions: Cliff (Death Stranding), Cpt. Price (CoD Modern Warfare)
9. Worst Character: The Handler (Monster Hunter Iceborne)
She is insufferable. Everything she says is annoying. Every word delivered with theatrical, thoroughly unnatural emotion. Can't I just talk to a cat? I spent most of Iceborne hoping she'd be eaten, but I was left bitterly disappointed. She constantly puts herself in perilous situations, yet emerges with nary a scratch. Fingers crossed her luck will eventually run out.
10. Most Addictive: Death Stranding - Picking up abandoned deliveries
Right, I'm all loaded up. I'm going to make a beeline for the settlement in the mountains. I won't hang around as this area is crawling with oily ghost creatures, and I've seen a couple of corpse lions too. I'll use this highway, as it's fast and easy but hang on, what's that I spy in the distance? Is that a dropped package for the Engineer? He'd love it if I brought that to him. He'd be properly made up. I'll just nip over there and grab it and add it to my back tower. (Spends ten minutes wading through death juice, dropping, damaging and reclaiming payloads). OK, no more of that - let's get straight back on the road. This is good, but what is that box over there by the river that definitely isn't haunted? Yeah, I've got time....
Repeat for forty hours.
Honourable Mentions: Call of Duty Modern Warfare - online; Void Bastards - one more space station before bed; Final Fantasy VIII Remastered - Triple Triad
11. Biggest Disappointment: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Sekiro isn't a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. It has all the dank charm of the Souls games, the moment to moment combat is deep yet accessible, and I really appreciated the mix of speed and deliberate movement. However, more than any other From game, it is a massive grind. The bosses are unimaginative, time consuming and joyless. They constantly interrupt the fun that can be had elsewhere and I felt no sense of achievement or progression when I defeated them. They bothered me so much that I eventually abandoned Sekiro, at the last boss of all places. I fought the final opponent once and stepped away. I could not bring myself to spend another few evenings figuring out how to beat yet another foe, via cheese or skill. I have no regrets.
Dishonourable Mention: Just Cause 4; the repetitiveness of the final third of Devil May Cry 5
12. Biggest Surprise: Sayonara Wild Hearts
I've resisted picking the FFVIII remaster here, as I'd prefer instead to focus on a game that I knew absolutely nothing about, until just prior to playing it. And that would be Sayonara Wild Hearts. Part game, part pop album and video, it takes on aspects from many existing games and genres yet comes out feeling quite unlike anything else. It burned brightly, capturing my attention for a week before disappearing as quickly as it has appeared. Disposable entertainment, perhaps, like an incredibly catchy pop song that gets stuck in your head for a week or two. However, in that moment, it blew me away.
Honourable Mention: Final Fantasy VIII Remastered
13. Best Multiplayer: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
Iceborne runs it a very close second, but everything about Modern Warefare's multiplayer was smoother and ran with minimal fuss. As fun as hunting with friends is, you still need a Masters degree to figure out how to join a hunt in Iceborne. It's been several years since I last dipped me toe into CoD multiplayer, yet it felt instantly familiar. The one-time mute-all option is a god send, the playlists are varied, and your gear and stats are easily accessed. I still have no idea what the Battle Pass is, but ignoring it didn't seem to have any negative affect on my fragging. It was good to know that I can still hang with the kids, or at least not entirely embarrass myself.
Honourable Mention: Monster Hunter: Iceborne
14. Fasting Shelving: Afterparty
Comedy is a very personal thing. What one person finds hilarious may not tickle another's fancy. It's also not the easiest of things to pull off in a video game. All that being said, I found the first hour of Afterparty to be so painfully unfunny that I immediately deleted it off my hardrive. The banter and wise cracking was utter drivel. I'm just glad it was on Game Pass, so I didn't feel bad about immediately abandoning it.
Dishnourable Mentions: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Thumper
15. Best Value: Game Pass
I'm continuing to make the most of Microsoft's ludicrously generous Game Pass Ultimate deals. I'm on to my second 3-months-for-£3 subscriptions this year and have been won over by the concept. I'd hardly touched my Xbox One the last two years, but I spent almost as much time with it in 2019 as I did my PS4. I enjoyed a number of games that I'd had my eye on. However, its true value was affording me the chance to play those that I was on the fence about, as well as games that I simply wouldn't have tried otherwise. For every Afterparty that I didn't get on with, there were at least two that I did, like Outer Wilds or Void Bastards. If this is the future model for gaming services, then you can count me in.
Honourable Mentions: Twenty-something hours of Anthem for ￥700, Battlefield 1 and V for under ￥1000.
16. Best Expansion: Monster Hunter World: Iceborne
I toyed with considering Iceborne as a standalone, GOTY candidate, where it would've definitely ranked in the top three or four. However, it relies too heavily on the base game for content, so I left it off. Still, as an expansion, it was great. The new areas and monsters are a very welcome edition to one of my favourite games this gen. I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly I got back into it after more than a year away, and I was able to strike a nice balance between playing alone and cooperatively. When a hunt comes together, with the right mix of players and tactics, there are few gaming experiences more satisfying. A year apart did nothing to lessen that.
17. Most Uncomfortable Moment: Call of Duty Modern Warfare
There were points during the campaign where I considered walking away and not returning. If it weren't as accomplished as it were elsewhere, I would've packed it in. Call of Duty has never shied away from the horrors of war, but here it felt excessive, indulgent even. There are civilian massacres and the murder of children. You can't prevent these events - they have either happened just before your arrival or happen in-view but out of touch. It is grotesque exposition. Window dressing to imbue you with a sense of righteousness and also justification for your bouts of ultra violence. While I enjoyed the campaign as a whole, it crossed the line on several occasions.
18. Best Game That Felt Like it Should've Come out in 2009: Crackdown 3
I had a lot of fun with Crackdown 3. It is terribly dated, but that's part of its charm. I've got a lot of nostalgia, perhaps misplaced, for the first few years of the last gen. Lots of sandbox games with simple combat and tonnes of collectibles, that were fun at their core. Think InFAMOUS or Red Faction Guerrilla. Crackdown 3 would not have looked out of place released alongside those favourites. Hidden orbs, simple yet explosive combat, rag-doll physics; total chaos. I knew exactly what I was getting into with Crackdown 3, and it didn't disappoint.
19. Most satisfying: Murdering ex-classmates in Fire Emblem: Three Houses
I spent countless hours roaming the school campus, encouraging my students and looking for potential additions to my class and the Golden Deer. I was fairly picky, only approaching candidates who I thought would look good on my team and definitely weren't racist. Time and time again I was rebuffed. There was always some stat that I had no interest in raising that my target required before joining my crew. Fuck 'em, I thought. Seeing them in battle in later stages of the game, and having the chance to make them pay for questioning my level of horsemanship or embroidery, was extremely satisfying. The cutthroat nature of Fire Emblem really shines through in the latter stages, as old allies become new foes and I was forced to bash Petra's brains in.
Honourable Mention: Hollow Knight - finding a shortcut
20. Best Soundtrack: Final Fantasy VIII Remastered
What more can I say about Nobuo Uematsu's exquisite soundtrack that I haven't already said a million times before? Nothing.
Honourable Mention: Sayonara Wild Hearts
21. Best Game That I Had to Make up a Category For: Resident Evil 2 Remake
Resident Evil 2 Remake is one of my five favourite games this year. However, I don't feel that it has a defining feature, which is why this is its lone appearance on my list. No moment that took my breath away or gameplay mechanic that made me say "wow, that is a very nice gameplay mechanic". Instead, it was just really good all-round - solid-to-great from start to finish. It strikes the perfect balance between nostalgia trip and a modern, AAA experience. It is just as atmospheric as I remember, and Capcom did an exemplary job of deciding which original elements to retain and which to jettison. The camera and frugal save system are out, but the scarcity of ammo and the limits on your inventory remain. I don't think you could handle a remake any better than Capcom did here.
22. Wish I'd Made Time For: Control
Control was always of interest. The premise sounded promising and I trust Remedy. However, it had two things working against it. The first, was timing. Too many other games of interest came out during that Autumn-Winter window, and Control got squeezed out by Iceborne, Death Stranding, Modern Warfare etc. The second was performance issues. I heard it runs like shite on a standard PS4, plagued by constant slow down and long load screens. I'll try to remedy (thank you) my oversight in the New Year.
Honourable Mentions: Return of the Obra Dinn, A Plague Tale: Innocence
23. Most Looking Forward to in 2020: New consoles
Next year is stacked. Final Fantasy VII Remake, Cyberpunk 2077, Ghost of Tsushima, Yakuza 7 and so much more. But I'm going to pick the excitement of a new generation over them all. Sure, the first year of a new console is rarely all that spectacular, but I love the build up to launch, the announcements and reveals, and finally the excitement of having a new toy to play with. I'm looking forward to seeing how it all shakes out.
Honourable Mention: FFVII Remake