The Best Games of 2019
No pithy preamble this time around. 2019 has been an incredible year for games. Out of the eleven titles that made it into our Games of the Year list, seven of them received our “Outstanding” award, the highest that we offer to those virtual toyboxes we love so much. It’s a year that has lacked many familiar franchise names, like Battlefield, Assassin’s Creed, and DOOM. Believe me when I say this is a good thing.
Indeed, this year the quality has been so stellar, with such a surprising mixture of mainstream, AA, and independent games that many of our favourite titles ended up ranking much lower on the list than we anticipated, while a few still-great games didn’t make it onto the list at all. Like I said, it’s been quite the year.
Anyway, there’s a lot to get through, so let’s get cracking.
If you told me when Control launched that it would rank lowest in our rankings, I’d have said that you must be living in some kind of alternate reality where the laws of physics, Euclid, and nature no longer apply. Control is a fantastic game, a surrealist action-adventure in which you explore a majestic Brutalist skyscraper home to a secretive American organisation tasked with the containment and cataloguing of objects that exhibit unusual and dangerous behaviours.
Control’s central mechanic is a whip-crackin’ combat system with beautiful destruction physics and the best object-punting system since Half Life 2’s gravity gun. But what makes it special is it rich and strange lore, which encourages you to poke around every nook and cranny, uncovering partially redacted dossiers on traffic lights that teleport human beings, endlessly replicating post-it notes, and a giant, floating orb that belches out infinite clocks. Control’s world manages to be utterly surreal and yet cohesive and believable, by far Remedy’s best stab at supernatural storytelling.
A slightly more gripping plot and a more nuanced upgrade system wouldn’t have gone amiss, but that doesn’t stop Control from being a thrillingly oddball experience.
10. Total War: Three Kingdoms
It’s been a while since Total War broke into our best-of list, but Three Kingdoms represents the strongest the series has been in years. Set in ancient China, Three Kingdoms introduces proper political intrigue into Total War for the first time. In Three Kingdoms, your faction isn’t a united force whose mutual allegiances are set in stone. It’s a complex, treacherous web of generals, diplomats, clerks and administrators, all of whom have plans for their own glory and will only work with you if you can keep them happy.
This is only a part of what Three Kingdoms offers. Every system in Three Kingdoms has meaning and significance. Spies don’t just wander around the map eavesdropping on armies and sabotaging cities, they embed themselves like a tick into a rival faction. There, they gradually work their way up the ranks, earning more and more sway until they can take over a faction entirely, handing it to you on a plate. Diplomacy is hugely significant too, featuring nuanced alliance systems that you’ll need to navigate carefully, ensuring your wars don’t step on the toes of major enemy powers or your own allies.
All that, and the battles are still spectacular as ever. Three Kingdoms is Total War at its most dynamic and compelling.
9. Resident Evil 2
A remake so good it’s basically a new game, Resident Evil 2 is a masterful overhaul of the classic survival horror. This is no straightforward graphical upgrade, but a complete rethinking of the game’s presentation, mechanics, and puzzles. It updates the entire experience to make it relevant for a new generation, all while retaining the core spirit of the original.
The whole game is excellently made, but it stands out in two specific areas. The first is the zombies, Like Alien Isolation, Resi 2 does a superb job of making a tired old enemy frightening again. They’re slow and stupid but utterly relentless, getting back onto their rotting feet even when you’ve dropped them for the fourth time. Even when they appear finally dead, you’ll leave the room and come back later only for them to get up again.
Then there’s Mr X, the slab of spice in Resi 2’s horror soup. The first act of the game is all cautious movement, peeking furtively around corners, and checking every shot. You think you’ve played this game before. You think you’ve got this. Then Mr X turns up and all your strategies go out the window. Now you have to run for your life, regardless of whether there’s a bunch of zombies in the corridor or a licker in the next room. Resi 2 is the best entry in the series for 15 years. The fact that it’s a remake is the least interesting thing about it.
8. Outer Wilds
One of the best exploration games ever made, Outer Wilds crams the universe’s weirdest, wildest, and most spectacular phenomena into a single star system, then gives you just twenty minutes to explore it until the sun explodes. When you die (and die you shall) time rewinds, putting you back at the start of that 20 minutes cycle.
Through death after death after death, gradually you piece together the mysteries of your civilisation’s star system. Like what happens when you fall into the black hole in the centre of the planet Brittle Hollow? Why there’s a moon that disappears when you look away from it? And what is the significance of all the strange, alien ruins dotted around the planets?
Outer Wilds crams more fascinating experiences into one star system than Elite Dangerous does into millions. A planet being torn apart by its own volcanic moon, a gas giant with storms so powerful it can throw entire continetns into the air, a pair of dwarf planet connected by a towering vortex that sucks the crust from one planet and deposits it on the other. These aren’t just gimmicks either, unveilin the mysteries of the system require you to learn how the planets change in the moments before supernovae, and slip through the gaps in the clockwork when they present themselves.
Ultimately, Outer Wilds is a game about accepting finality. Every journey has its end, be it that of a life, a planet, or a star. But that doesn’t’ make the journey itself any less worthwhile.
7. A Plague Tale: Innocence
French Publisher Focus Home Interactive put out a lot of interesting games, but they’re often undermined by rough production values, particularly in writing and dialogue. That all changed with the launch of Asobo Studio’s A Plague Tale, one of the best surprises of 2019.
A Plague Tale is basically The Last of Us Goes Medieval. It casts you as a teenage noblewoman named Amicia as she flees from the Inquisition with her sickly little brother Hugo, as a plague-rat infestation ravages 14th Century France. What’s impressive about A Plague Tale is how well it comes off in comparison to Naughty Dog’s masterpiece. A Plague Tale features believable, empathetic characters, and world design that is as stunning as it is horrifying. Some levels, such as the farmyard where the Inquisition has slaughtered all the animals and the ragged battlefields of the Hundred Years War, have stuck in my mind to this day.
A Plague Tale also evolves cleverly from a mechanical perspective. It starts off simply, with you evading rats using torches and other light-sources. Over time, however, you gradually learn to manipulate the rats through alchemy, lending you greater power both over the rats and the Inquisition soldiers who hunt you.
A Plague Tale isn’t always the happiest experience ever made, but it is a gripping and compulsive adventure nonetheless, comfortably the best game Focus Home has published, and we can’t wait to see what Asobo do with the already-announced sequel.
6. Tetris Effect
Tetris Effect launched last year on console, but we didn’t get it on the PC until summer this year. Fortunately, it was worth the wait. Tetris Effect is a game that is as much about the nature of Tetris as it is actually playing Tetris, using psychedelic visuals and dynamic sound to deliberately exacerbate the absorbing qualities of Tetris’ iconic block puzzling.
Each of Tetris Effect’s levels has its own unique theme, with a specific visual style and a soundscape linked to the turning and placing of your tetrominoes. Each level also has a unique, changing tempo. Some levels are relatively laid back, others, like Ritual Passion, are furiously challenging.
The idea is to generation a sensation of synaesthesia to bring you into a zen-like state of focus. This might sound like watery spiritual nonsense, but Tetris Effect really does have that captivating quality. It is simultaneously Just Tetris and unlike anything else we’ve played before.
5. Apex Legends
Apex Legends is Battle Royale refined, designed to maximise what’s great about the concept (the gradually building tension, the dynamism in matches, the joyful mix of survivalist scavenging and gunfights) while also reducing the problems (such as matches where you spend ages wandering around only to be shot from nowhere). It adds fast, slick movement including a wonderful ground-slide, a multi-layered revival/respawn system that gives you several chances to stay in the fight after being gunned down. And of course, it adds the Ping system, an efficient way to communicate with your teammates that also encourages positivity.
And it’s this, over and above the other mechanical refinements, that makes Apex Legends special. Through the Ping system, Respawn Entertainment strive to reduce the toxicity that is so deeply ingrained into most multiplayer shooters. Not only does the Ping system remove the need for voice and text chat, it also uses its characters to transmit a positive vibe throughout the game, in the hope that this will rub off on the players inhabiting them. That alone makes it deserving of a place on this list. That it also happens to be one of the best multiplayer shooters this year also helps a bit.
4. AMID EVIL
It wouldn’t be a Game of the Year list written by me without a retroFPS on it, would it? I’m joking, I would happily kick Amid Evil into the bin if it was terrible. It is not terrible. In fact, it’s as good as last year’s majestic retro shooter DUSK.
Whereas DUSK took its cues from Quake, AMID EVIL is inspired by Raven Software’s Hexen and Heretic games, where your weapons are not guns but magical swords, staves, and tridents. And what weapons they are. From the staff that fires entire planets at your enemies, to the Voltride, a trident that fires lightning and can cause opponents to explode. Both weapons are amazing, but they pale in comparison the Star of Torment. A cross between Unreal Tournament’s Flak Cannon and Painkiller’s Stake Gun, Star of Torment is possibly the most satisfying virtual weapon I’ve wielded this year.
Combine this with a unique aesthetic that blends old-school geometry with modern visual effects, and vast, mazey level design that impresses from the start and ends in mind-blowing surreal dreamscapes, and the result is hands-down the best FPS launched this year..
3. Red Dead Redemption 2
Like Tetris Effect, RDR 2 launched on console last year (as if you need telling), but didn’t ride onto PC until just last month. I’ve never been a huge fan of Rockstar’s games, finding them visually incredible but mechanically unambitious.
Red Dead Redemption 2, however, is undeniably brilliant. It’s still a very Rockstar game, cinematic to a fault and overly prescriptive in its mission structures. Unlike previous Rockstar games, however, RDR 2 takes that eye for detail Rockstar has, and applies to everything in the game, storytelling, quest design, incidental encounters, bounty hunts, animals hunts, treasure hunts, even tiny, nondescript cabins out in the wilderness are worth poking around for the surprises they contain. It also lends every action in the game a satisfying sense of tactility, whether it’s riding, fighting, walking through town, or shopping for resources. Even incredibly mundane activities like brushing your horse are lent a weight and texture that makes them enjoyable to do.
Like the Witcher 3, Red Dead Redemptions 2 transcends mechanical rewards and makes its world worth interacting with for the sake of it. Combine that with rich, fatalistic storytelling and the best cast of characters Rockstar has ever come up with, and you’ve got a special game indeed.
2. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
If this list was titled “Biggest Adrenaline Rushes of 2019” then Sekiro would easily have placed at the top. Ever since Dark Souls taught players that the best way to beat a mythical titan was to roll around and stab at its feet until it fell over, From Software has been looking for ways to encourage players to be more aggressive combatants.
Bloodborne laid the foundation with its pistols and trick weapons, but Sekiro is the culmination of that work, a game in which trying to avoid your enemies attacks will inevitably get you minced, but learning how to swordfight properly, to time your blocks and execute your attacks with precision, can make you feel unstoppable.
Sekiro deserves its reputation for a being a difficult game, but it’s really the ultimate power fantasy. Every skill and ability in Sekiro is learned and earned through trial and error. Even its most basic enemies hold no quarter, while bosses like Genichiro and the Guardian Ape are some of the most ferocious opponents From Software has come up with. But if you’re willing to learn the intricacies of Wolf’s Shinobi techniques, you won’t just defeat these adversaries, you will annihilate them, pin their weapons beneath your boot while you punch a hole in their hearts with your blade. It’s a fearsome, furious thrill-ride from start to finish, another classic in From Software’s nightmare canon.
1. Disco Elysium
Disco Elysium is the most original and spectacularly brilliant RPG in ages, a game in which you play an alcoholic police detective trying to solve a murder while piecing back together his own shattered memory. There’s a truly astonishing amount to recommend here, from the game’s unique skill system that gives different parts of your brain their own unique characters, to the incredibly rich and nuanced dialogue system that enables a kaleidoscope of different choices, with similarly colourful consequences.
The breadth of Disco Elysium’s canvas is amazing. Using it’s dilapidated port-town of Martinaise as a socio-political petri-dish, it explores everything from Communism and Union Politics, through the hypocritical economics of neoliberal capitalism, to racism and bunk theories of eugenics. It lets you appropriate any of these viewpoints, but isn’t afraid to show the consequences of wandering around mouthing off about how some humans are genetically inferior to others. At the same time it’s a rich and d,etailed police procedural that doubled down on that “procedure” element, letting you tackle and, in many cases, screw up each element of the case. It’s also a buddy-cop movie with one of the best, most loveable buddies you can imagine in the form of Kim Kitsuragi.
The best written game of this year. The funniest game of this year. The most narratively ambitious game of this year. The most politically charged game of this year. The most incisive, soulful, and devastatingly human game of this year. Disco Elysium is a masterpiece from almost every conceivable angle. Get it played.
July 1 2020 | 17:34