The older I get, the more I know what I want out of a video game, and 2019 simply didn't have a lot of it. Every year has its high points and low points, and 2019 was no different in that respect. But this is the first time in a long time that I struggled coming up with 10 new games I played this year, let alone 10 new games that I really loved.
For that reason, I'm commemorating 2019 with a list not just of my favorite games, but the games that defined it for me, for better or worse.
The games I played a ton even though I didn't love them
Ghost Recon: Breakpoint
I loved Ghost Recon: Wildlands, and was extremely excited to play this followup. Much like Rob Zacny, I liked it more than most reviewers because it provided a precarious power fantasy. When I was focused and careful, I was an elite soldier sneaking through tech company campuses on a libretarian island state utopia, dispatching dozens of enemies before they even knew I was there. But when I made one wrong move and tripped an alarm, I was suddenly running scared into the bushes, with a dozen autonomous drones taking easy shots at my big red ass. Breakpoint is mostly what I wanted, which is more Wildlands with touches of Silicon Valley revenge fantasy. But in the end, even I was overwhelmed by its deluge of map icons and activities. More importantly, I desperately missed the three AI squad members from Wildlands, which were delightfully overpowered.
The Division 2
I played The Division 2 for 60 hours and here's what I can tell you about it:
- It takes place in Washington D.C.
- It's a good third person cover shooter, with clever AI and enemy types that make encounters fun even if they take place in the same spots over and over again.
- Its endgame is fun and original, dramatically changing the areas I've spent hours in and opening entirely new skill trees.
It was a fun, a good thing to play when I was in the mood for something like Destiny but didn't want to play Destiny. Ultimately, it was forgettable.
Rebel Galaxy Outlaw
Some people wax nostalgic about X-Wing Vs. TIE Fighter. I didn't get on board until X-Wing Alliance, but I understand the love for the mostly-dead genre, a space sim that's somewhere between Star Citizen and Rogue Squadron in its complexity.
Is Rebel Galaxy Outlaw a worthy successor to those old Star Wars games? No, not quite. But it hits some of the same notes, most notably in its dogfights, and that kept my interest for 40 hours, even though the 40th was exactly like the first.
I'm a sucker for Gears of War. I basically love all of them, even Judgment. Gears 5 is mostly a good Gears game when it does the Gears thing: letting me and the bois violently push through obstacles with teamwork and brute force, exploding heads along the way with a kind of pimple-popping satisfaction. But then, curiously, Gears 5 also tries to be a more open-world game, and when it tries it fails.
It is almost bold how much Borderlands 3 players like Borderlands 2, which is fine with me because I liked Borderlands 2. Much like The Division 2, it's a game that I played when I wasn't playing Destiny 2. I put a ridiculous number of hours into it over a weekend, enjoyed the gun treadmill, and then never touched it again because there were new games and new Destiny 2 content to play. Basically, much of 2019 was spent wasting time between new Destiny 2 updates, which provides the kind of rote, repetitive action that my feeble brain craves these days. Which brings me to:
Destiny 2 is less of a game than it is a bad habit for me now, like smoking. It's the game I turn to in-between other games. It's grown a lot since release, and I think at this point is overall a much better, more complete package that replaces and surpasses the place that Diablo 3 had in my life previously. There's no single thing that I can say is remarkable about it, but it's comfortable, entertaining, and regularly updated with new baubles for me to chase.
Games that I finished that were kind of bad
I love both of the new Wolfenstein games and could not imagine how its kinetic, over-the-top action could ever get old. Youngblood defied my imagination and showed me how: an ill-conceived progression system, copy/paste level design, and some of the spongiest bullet sponges I've ever seen in a video game.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
The pitch for Fallen Order is my favorite game of the year. A Metroid-style game with more accessible Sekiro-style combat, set in the Star Wars universe. In practice, none of it worked for me. There were a few bright moments that pulled me through to the ending, but overall the world was more annoying to traverse than it was interesting, and despite the clever way it handled difficulty, combat was either frustrating or trivial. It is also the most embarrassingly buggy big budget video game I played all year.
I never played the original Crackdown, so I was curious to see what the fuss was all about. There's barely a game here, in the big budget video game sense—an epic story, innovative new features, or endgame content designed to keep players around after they finish the game. Most of what you do is collect floating orbs, which is more fun than you think but not enough. Basically, this is a game about jumping really damn high. That's not enough, but… on the other hand… you jump so high. Like over buildings. It's not a good game but you should get in there and jump around a little bit.
Best game that I'll regret not putting on this list once I play it more
The Outer Wilds
I have started playing The Outer Wilds because Austin Walker said I'd like it, and based on the first couple of hours, I probably will. It's just too soon to say for sure. I didn't have a lot of time to play games that required me to use my brain at all this year, but I suspect I will beat myself up for not playing it after this list is published.
Game that I didn't get at all
I have played many rounds of Apex Legends trying to understand the hype. I love PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds as well as the Titanfall games, but combining the two didn't work for me. Maybe the gear and characters were too complicated for me. Maybe there's only room for one battle royale game in my heart, and PUBG is it. Either way, not since The Witcher 3 have I been so confused by a game's mass appeal.
My actual favorite games of the year
5. Void Bastards
I think one reason 2019 felt like a bad year for video games is that in recent years there have been a lot of smaller, unexpected releases that got my attention in-between tentpole releases. Void Bastards is the only game that fits that category for me in 2019. It's a first-person rogue-like with a flat comic visual style, and light immersive sim combat. Those are a lot of buzzwords smashed together but the end result is a rogue-like that I actually finished, which is something I rarely do.
4. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
The new Modern Warfare is my most problematic fave. Its politics, as I wrote, are truly depressing. But I can't lie: it got its hooks into me in a way that only Call of Duty can. Its single player story is a thrilling, often deplorable rollercoaster ride that I have thought about long after I finished it. And I'm still playing the multiplayer mode regularly, which is more than I can about any other multiplayer game this year. I'm not proud of it, but when Call of Duty works there's nothing else quite like it, and this is the best game in the series in years.
One thing I learned that I hate to do in video games is read, probably because my job is to carefully read things all day. In games like Skyrim, for example, I don't read any in-game books or other pieces of writing that expand on the world's fiction. In Control, I not only read every single piece of writing I found in the Oldest House, I actively went searching for internal Federal Bureau of Control memos just to learn more about its mysteries. Control's writing made me laugh, think, and do that annoying thing where I want to tell people who don't even care about video games all about it.
Though it falters in its final moments, it also doesn't hurt that Control is an excellent action game with shades of Max Payne and Half-Life 2's gravity gun.
2. Death Stranding
Hideo Kojima has talked a big game about Death Stranding for years, and he delivered a big game. Remember how Peter Molyneux would give wildly ambitious speeches about games, then reliably fail to deliver? Death Stranding is like one of those wildly ambitious ideas come to life. I don't think it's going to change the industry like Kojima imagines. I don't think it's an entirely new genre of game, like he says. It's a video game-ass video game, and one that I enjoyed playing a lot despite Kojima's famously indulgent and nonsensical cutscenes, which are more indulgent here than ever. But it is special, and boldly original. Out of all the games on this list, it's the one that I'm going to go back to over the break, because Kojima has somehow managed to make package delivery one of the most exciting things I've ever done in a video game.
I rest my case: