Everyone else has had their say, but it’d be a bit weird if the editor of a gaming site didn’t weigh in, too.
Many quipped that 2019 was an OK year; some went as far to mark it as one of the worst in the decade. And in some sense, if you think about the lack of absolute classics – no GTA 5, no Skyrim, no launch of a Destiny or a Fortnite or some industry-shaping title – there is a degree of merit to it.
But those doldrums, that level of cynicism, overlooks just how many decent games we really had. 2019 was a year of consistency, with live service games going relatively smoothly (bar Anthem, obviously), plenty of solid indies from the start to the end of the year (Disco Elysium, Slay the Spire, Outer Wilds all easy examples), and the return of a solid AA game.
The year has plenty of disappointments, and more than its fair share of bangers like Disco Elysium. But there’s also the ground underneath, the domain of games that are neither terrible or terrific, simply “good”. 2019 has been chock full of games like those, and it’s that second tier that we’ll be appreciating today.
It took a while for me to warm up to 2019. Courtesy of the stress of corporate machinations, I didn’t spend much of the first six months inspired to do a lot of gaming. All of my time with games – unless it’s something I can play on the train – is out of hours. And while that’s always been commonplace in the industry – how else would we ever cover something like WoW Classic or Death Stranding in time for embargo? – the more stressful daily life becomes, the more time I want to do anything but work.
Eventually, things began to settle. And as we crept into the busy season of the year, the industry did everyone a solid by … actually following through. Obsidian delivered a sci-fi Fallout not filled with the studio’s trademark jank. Sekiro is still responsible for the best screenshots of the year. EA let Respawn make a singleplayer Star Wars game sans their traditional publisher overreach. Death Stranding promised weird, and weird was precisely what we got.
And let’s not forget: last year mainstream media found a way to talk about video games that was genuinely nice. The Classification Board also upped their discourse with the public, even putting their director on a PAX panel, and we’ll hear a lot more about that in 2020.
But enough waffle. Below, in no particular order, is my favourite games of the year.
If I didn’t include this on the list, someone would call bullshit. And they would be right.
It still runs like arse on the Switch, but there’s a certain charm to playing it on that shitty, dull screen that reminds me of getting sconed as a 16-year-old. It’s also made me want to start playing club cricket again in 2020. Not the same level of inspiration Firewatch gave people, but it’s something.
I’ve been stuck in a hotel room for a couple of hours, slamming out some morning stories, responding to emails and finishing as much work before the day’s schedule overwhelms me. I hadn’t showered, but I knew I had a spare 15 or 20 minutes. Just enough time for some coffee, maybe an egg or two, and a chat with a friend. But as soon as I get down to the hotel buffet and a table with my friend, he looks up and laughs. I already know what he’s going to say. “Did you fall asleep playing cricket on the Switch last night?”
People talk about indies being surprises but, for me, Apex Legends was a real bolt of lightning out of nowhere. Everyone knew Respawn was good, but hardly anyone knew they were working on a battle royale, and one that would have a level of gunplay and pacing that, for a while, put PUBG and Fortnite on the backfoot.
Both those games have recovered, but Apex has absolutely carved out a space for itself. It’s still the main battle royale that I’m happy to regularly return to because of the movement, pacing, and the pure satisfaction of its gunplay. Battle royales aren’t dominating the gaming space quite as much as they used to, with Fortnite losing players and viewers, and the rise of auto battlers like Teamfight Tactics. But out of all the battle royales, Apex is the closest to comfort food — although PUBG did come very, very close at the end of this year with some excellent updates.
I was originally going to have two board games in this list, and for most of this year I was pretty certain that Wingspan would be it. But its place ended up being overtaken by a Christmas present I got to open a little early – Tapestry, a Civ-themed engine builder from the designer behind Scythe, Viticulture and Charterstone.
Tapestry starts by drawing a random civ to start with and begin advancing your way up the science, technology, exploration and military tracks, with each turn doing one of two things: either gaining income (which you can do five times throughout the whole game) or advancing.
Everyone chooses when to take their income, apart from the very start of the game, so you have civilisations that play wholly differently with one another. One of the tech tracks will also give you a second civilisation once you reach the top, giving you another set of bonuses and attributes to play with.
Once you’ve gotten through the first playthrough – which will take you ages, as larger games tend to do until you internalise all the minutia – Tapestry is a wonderfully elegant game. It’s very similar to Scythe but even more streamlined, with less of a focus on aggression. There’s some definite balancing issues: some civilisations completely neutralise others, while some tapestry cards (think of them as themes for each age your civilisation advances through) will absolutely work with the civ you have, or the tech cards available at the time.
So the best way to think about Tapestry is as an engine builder. You’re working out how to maximise your victory points, not getting Civ in a box. But it’s a great engine builder, there’s huge swings and roundabouts especially when you hit the mid-game, the components are great, and it’s nice and fast to play once you’ve got to grips with it. Just don’t expect it to be Civilization in a box, because it’s definitely not that.
Fantasy General 2
One of the surprises of the year in that a) I didn’t know anyone was going to bother with the Fantasy General lineage since … there really isn’t much of one and b) it’s some very solid, very oldschool hex-based strategy.
The campaign reminded me of being a kid, working through the original Fantasy General that I’d illegally acquired through abandonware (because nowhere in South Western Sydney would ever stock that kind of game). FG2 has some super oldschool frustrations, particularly when “reinforcements” spawn in the fog of war and just completely fuck you.
The game’s light on content – only the one faction is playable in the campaign, and multiplayer is pretty dead – and the presentation is relatively simple. But the campaign has lots of branching dialogue options which give you different missions or cause certain party members to bugger off, so there’s stuff to think about outside of combat, and the heroes and strategic options are deep enough to make the more bullshit elements tolerable.
Definitely not one for all fans of strategy, but FG2 was a lot more solid than I was expecting. For something more palatable on mass, however…
Total War: Three Kingdoms
Luke has waxed lyrical about Three Kingdoms enough already, so I’ll just say this: praise be that Creative Assembly finally found a clean, smart way to organise their UI. Not only that, the ink blots and romantic Eastern stylings were a perfect fit thematically.
Now, just give me the next Total Warhammer game with those improvements. Sweet Jesus that game will be good.
Giselle wrote about how games have places, and for me, games also have moments. Feather hit me at the perfect time, like Tetris Effect, when I was fatigued, frustrated and stressed up to my eyeballs.
Mechanically and visually, Feather is quite straightforward. You’re a bird on an island. There is no other objective than to fly around, peacefully enjoying the music and scenery for as long as you please. There’s some achievements, there’s a few secrets on the island, but nothing that fundamentally changes the fact that Feather is less of a game and more an interactive way to chill out.
Feather, in essence, is about being free. And for a couple of hours on a weekend, Feather completely freed my mind of the pressures ailing it. Feather isn’t one of the best games ever made, this year or otherwise, but everyone has a game that has an effect on them, one that just seemingly finds a way to strike a chord. Sometimes it’s not necessarily the game, but the right or moment when you play.
Feather hit the right moment for me.
AMID EVIL hit early access a while ago, but it wasn’t until mid-last year that all the episodes were finally complete. Needless to say: if you like a modern Heretic that plays like the ’90s, and you wanted something more vibrant than the excellent retro shooter DUSK, AMID EVIL is just straight up superb. Who gives a shit about the BFG when you have a gun that fires literal planets?
Sometimes, you just wanna play a damn shooter. You want some gnarly weapons, some mazes to wander in, and no particular justification for blowing up whatever demons cross your path. Amid Evil, a throwback shooter now released out of early access, channels the spirit of Heretic and Hexen for a frantic, first-person burst of blood and magic.
Also, AMID EVIL has the best gun of 2019 easy. Just watch.
Christ that’s satisfying.
Call of Duty Mobile
I’ve always enjoyed COD as a casual affair, but I’m also one of those that plays COD for the campaigns. But while Modern Warfare was fun and the PC port was relatively stable, any plans I had to enjoy it long-term were immediately cut short by … the mobile version of the same game.
So while Modern Warfare is trying all sorts of things on PC and console, the franchise’s biggest success has actually been on phones. Call of Duty Mobile has gotten hundreds of millions of downloads already, and for pretty good reason: it’s basically a greatest hits of older COD maps, with a levelling system that’s similar from the original Modern Warfare. But you know the best part? You can play the mobile game on your PC and just absolutely steamroll everyone. Officially.
While I haven’t continued ruining the experience for COD Mobile players through the official Tencent app, there’s something cathartic about firing up a quick game of Nuketown on the phone. It’s effectively the distilled TDM / FFA experience I got from Black Ops or Modern Warfare 3. And while there’s a ranked mode that plays a little like a proper scrim, COD Mobile is really just a pure get in and get out casual experience.
Sure, there’s microtransactions if you want to buy into that. None of them have interfered with my experience at any point, save for the regular pop-ups you get when firing up the game. I just enjoy it for the ability to get that quick TDM fix on maps I know and love, with guns handling the way I remember them. More importantly: I don’t have to worry about whether there’s an Australian player base, a problem that has plagued any oldschool fan of COD trying to play the games on PC in this day and age.
Here’s a quick peek behind the Kotaku Australia veil. I get up around 7:00am or 7:30am on weekdays, usually having had about six to seven hours sleep, and I’m immediately working the second I wake up. I’m checking the Kotaku AU front page in case anything is broken, checking the US front page in case there’s a major story there that hasn’t come over for whatever reason, and then checking emails to see if there’s something that has to go live right now.
Once that’s sorted and done, it’s onto Slack for a quick check-in, update the team and boss on my schedule and if there’s something I’m doing ASAP. After that it’s into the office, where I’ll tackle any posts that have to go out immediately – usually breaking news or the shorter things that have a shorter half life – before morning meetings and whatever is in my schedule that day.
By the afternoon I’m usually working on longer features or stories that won’t get published until tomorrow, save for any breaking news that comes through late in the day. I’m usually out of the office between 5pm and 5.30pm, although sometimes it’s closer to 6:00pm. When I get home, any last social scheduling that I haven’t done or work that wasn’t practical in the city. Maybe that’s some quick video rendering for the Australian YouTube or Facebook accounts, downloading a game code for future stories, writing up product reviews/stories while I’m using the product (like keyboards, mice etc). And maybe it’s just finishing up a story, lest I lose my train of thought forever.
So I’ll have a lot of days where I’ve done nothing but work. It’s still writing about video games – almost always writing, and very little playing – and the admin can be a particular grind, especially when its the stuff nobody likes: site breaking, things in the backend not working for some inexplicable reason, preparing presentations.
You get the idea.
But from the second half of this year, I’ve been able to break up some of those tasks with a quick hit of Tetris Effect. It was already a perfect game, in the sense that the only thing anyone would ever want is more levels, more music, more content. But being able to play it on PC and use it as a quick stress reliever between tasks, something you can’t really do with the PS4 or PSVR. And if you can fire it up at 4K with all the effects? Damn it’s stunning.
Most people have Slay the Spire on their lists this year and I can completely understand why. It’s not on mine for a few reasons, but primarily because I found something that’s effectively Slay the Spire in almost every facet, but with a few tweaks I really enjoy.
Endless Abyss is a beta game available only on Android for now. It is, for all intents and purposes, Slay the Spire on mobile with a less cartoony aesthetic. And while so much of the mechanics are copied over, including how the main characters work, the card descriptions and the general moment to moment gameplay, there’s an enormous difference from the off: the game is designed around 4 mana, rather than 3.
What this means in practice is that you have a game that’s more about building combos from the very beginning, since you’ll be able to play more cards out of your hand from the beginning. I’ll have a whole separate piece on Endless Abyss, particularly on its supremely fair business model (you get one revive each playthrough, if you’re prepared to ignore a mobile ad for 30 seconds). But Endless Abyss is definitely one of the best games nobody is talking about right now, although how much is Slay the Spire responsible? Probably almost all of it, but having played both games concurrently – Overwatch queues were so buggered I started doing Slay the Spire runs while I waited – I’m playing Endless Abyss more.
Untitled Goose Game
There’s two games with Untitled Goose Game: there’s the idea and thrill of being a dastardly goose, devastating the poor village, and then there’s the two and a bit hours of actually doing it. I’m a bit of an outlier in that I’m not that thrilled by Goose Game as an actual game. But if I was ordering this list by the stories generated by the games, Goose would be at the top, and a few streets above everything underneath it.
What Goose Game has done is break through the mainstream rubicon in a way that usually only a GTA, Fortnite or Call of Duty would do. But this time, Goose Game was being talked about with wonder, with a degree of genuine positive interest that typically never exists in the rest of the mainstream world. You had celebrities talking about The Goose during gigs and on their personal feeds. The Goose had the best turn, via the Muppets, at the Game Awards.
Apart from changing the lives of the developers, Goose Game will have an impact locally in ways completely invisible to gaming. Whenever discussions come up with government or Very Serious Companies about video games, you often get a lot of people in the room that know absolutely nothing about gaming, Australia’s involvement, or what the medium is possible. These people, for instance, have no idea how world class Hollow Knight really is, the excellence of Mountains, or some of the Australian classics over the years.
But now, they’ll have heard of The Goose. That’s just how far and wide Goose Game managed to penetrate mainstream media, and the positive power of that will become very handy in certain circles for a long while to come.
Control‘s David Lynch-inspired weirdness has gone down a hit with everyone, but it’s really the fluidity of the game’s action that makes this. The bizarre workings of the Bureau are fun to read and make for great atmosphere, but the game would be a total wash if it wasn’t possible to deform the environment in front of you, have the space to dodge a wave of exploding enemies, throw a chair back at the same time, and do all of this with a degree of polish and flash that belies the game’s AA budget.
Control isn’t just one of the best games of the year, but also one of the most technically impressive in the moment-to-moment combat. The ray tracing is also genuinely impressive and, if you have a decent enough PC, actually usable in real world conditions (unlike a lot of games this year). It’s also the only game this year that I’ve finished and returned to for multiple playthroughs, which says a lot given my preamble above. I couldn’t get enough of Control, and I hope to high heavens that game gets years of content. Well done, Remedy.
The best games are ones with complete confidence in their identity and what they want to achieve. Disco Elysium doesn’t have style: it has a powerful world view, a sense of self and an absolute refusal to adhere to pre-existing ideas of what RPGs should be, what players expect and what the “market” demands.
Disco Elysium has no combat. It is full of political messaging, at least once your character wakens from his drunken stupor and finds the shoe he threw out a glass window. The game doesn’t bother giving you a map – it’s on you to find where it is, and the money necessary. And while waking up with amnesia isn’t a new trope for video games, the unreliability of Disco Elysium‘s central character and the path in which you retrace your steps – the supernatural, the logical or a more charismatic, persuasive personality – is a welcome take. It’s also not as heart-on-its-sleeve about its ideology as some think: whether you opt for the fascist, ultraliberal, moralist or communist route, the game will take the piss out of you.
It’s certainly not the way forward for all RPGs – few studios would commit to their writing this much. But Disco Elysium knows and owns what it is. In a world and environment where too many games, especially big budget ones, struggle for a sense of their own identity and messaging, Disco Elysium stands tall and proud.