Tuesday 31 December 2019

Games of the Year 2019

So last year I refined the criteria for inclusion on my list of interesting games (which I'd actually managed to play through) released each year to include Early Access and other pre-release purchasable versions of games that were approaching feature-complete. Slay the Spire got that 1.0 release date early in 2019 on Steam (press inquiries are told the game released in 2017), which ties in well with how I expected the system to work. Of course, the beta of a brand new fourth character is currently ongoing because digital games often continue to be expanded upon after that 1.0 point. At the other end of the spectrum, that 0.17 "almost to 1.0" release expected in early 2019 for Factorio didn't actually arrive until almost October so maybe that wasn't as ready to call complete as I'd expected (I have not had time to even look at the game this year so I still think 2018 was a better list for it). Will 0.18 arrive soon? The devs have decided that it doesn't matter, they're just going to arbitrarily name the branch that's ready at the end of September 2020 as 1.0 and then work on patching a "released" game after that.

So all of this is to say that this year I'm going to be playing with the rules even more, because games today are rarely "done" and it's getting real hard to guess when they are "feature complete" (whatever that means in an era of plenty of games doing free DLC for a while beyond stability patches or even mechanics updates via "live game" changes). To be eligible for my totally subjective list of great or notable games for a given year, a game has to have released content I consider notable and I have to have extensively played the game that year. This means that if you release a game in December and I didn't get round to playing it but you release a large DLC expansion the next year, I can put the entire game on my list rather than weighing up if the DLC alone is good enough to make the list (DLC can still get onto the list, as it has done for years past, by being exceptional stand-alone content). Hey look, back in 2014, I was already bending the rules (expect similar in 2021 as I'm not going to be rushing for release day consoles in late 2020 along with every notable new game).

This year has been a bit weird for my play time. A console generation is coming to an end and that often means jumping through some of the highlights or games purchased but barely played (due to time constraints or just not being in the right mood for genres or design choices in otherwise interesting games). This year was really something in terms of diving into complete series (played end to end, usually including expansions or DLC) as part of that: Baldur's Gates & Dragon Ages, Dead Spaces & Mirror's Edges, Assassin's Creeds & Batman: Arkhams - some of these have not been short dalliances. But on to the 2019 list and what has caught my eye this year.

Best of the Best 2019:

    Outer Wilds

Another of those indie ideas that bubbles out of student projects (a 2013 master's thesis that had a public alpha in 2015), this clockwork miniature planetary system on a 22 minute timer will hopefully prod a few designers to think again about how roguelike-likes can work. I know it got me thinking about spaces that are broad rather than long.

After completing a short tutorial to unlock your space vehicle, Outer Wilds reveals its core conceit: you are trapped in a time loop that resets upon your death, most commonly happening 22 minutes after the loop starts as the star in the centre of your system goes supernova. As an explorer archaeologist, you will find out what's going on and why you and two other people are the only ones aware of this. At the very start of the game you have every tool required to piece together everything and explore every inch of this virtual system. It's Metroidvania-like if rather than collecting new tools, it was gathering new understanding of how things work to unlock the various doors and puzzles that initially seem to gate your progress. The only things that change between loops are your computer logs that list what you've already found (which is invaluable at showing links between areas with a marker if you've got more to find) and a couple of frequencies you can use to find artefacts (which get added to your device once you stumble upon anything related but are purely for help locating things, not required to reach any point).

Nothing in this world can be more than about 20 minutes away, and basically none of it is more than a few minutes away. But it's not a precision platformer or a classic roguelike about mastering controls or riding an RNG engine. It's an incredibly detailed space where you can dive into whatever parts you find the most enticing and will slowly learn more about what this place is and was (with some haunting writing to uncover) as you unlock every part of it. This is absolutely in the lineage of the Immersive Sims, while also feeling incredibly fresh as a walking/flying simulator. I've spoiled the reveal in the first few minutes of the game but this game is all about discovery (in any order you choose) so I'm going to avoid talking in detail about anything else. A real treat of every interlocking piece (both in the sense of each area and things like dynamic music & visual design) making the whole function, let alone more than just a sum of those parts; you need to play this.

    Assassin's Creed Odyssey

Here's why the preamble made sure that releasing new content for an existing game pushes it into consideration for that year. I've been a bit behind keeping up with this series recently (turning up on a couple of those "I need to find time for these" lists at the bottom of these annual posts recently) and never doing more than playing enough to understand the changing systems and renderer in a given year. But this year I made the time to do a deep dive into the entire series.

It's remarkable how new the most recent two games (Origins and Odyssey) are, completely flipping the established formula. A long time ago I wrote game previews and one of the things I started doing in a draft was writing down the controls, text that was cut but informed my final writing; essential for thinking through the new game. Why? Because in the '90s genres were moving fast enough that knowing what the designers thought was important for the interface and controls gave an insight into what the game was (and could be communicated to the audience without just referencing games they might not have played or even heard of). The entire control scheme for Origins was new. Core ideas like high and low profile (tying climbing, sprinting, etc to your AI stealth alertness system) were dropped; combat was completely reworked. The urban environments were replaced with an open world on land that showed a huge change in ethos since the previous attempt at anything similar (Assassin's Creed III, which was rolled back to more compact explorable areas with more focus on naval traversal in IV). These games are now very much the Skyrim end of the open world RPG, not the [melee-combat variant] GTA end.

I don't know if it was the patches and updates (adding some of the best narrative content into the game and completely reworking the levelling curves to accommodate post-credits expansions and a larger perk system) but a lot of reviewers seemed a bit down on this entry (even the ones who liked the transformation of Origins) - I loved almost every moment of it. Did reviewers who found boring copy-paste quests end up doing the bulletin boards (which seem quite clearly to be generated quests you should ignore unless desperate for XP)? The game now there are no more updates planned seems tuned that even if I'd only done half as many of the authored quests, I'd have been fine for the levelling curve (the game boosts the level of content to prevent you overlevelling and trivialising everything while retaining areas you can only go to later on without extreme caution - completionists are not punished but you can ignore a lot of content without even considering grinding off the main story path).

Thanks to the metanarrative, whatever science fiction the series rolled into the historic settings has now fully flipped over to fantasy meaning that this Ancient Greece can be filled with mythological creatures and stories on top of a very dramatised Peloponnesian War. The stunning visuals (making great use of that Origins engine update) keep uncovering new areas worth exploring while the strong cast and humorous asides pull you through a Skyrim-long RPG. I never felt exhausted by the length of the game (even coming straight off the also quite huge Origins) and actually found the swift conclusion of the A plot disappointing; getting the "best" outcome did not make it any more satisfying how quickly the sprawling story collapses into a couple of quick fights and some rather sparse areas with little in the way of B plot questlines before you see the initial story's concluding cutscenes (and dive back into the world to finish off B plots, optional challenges, and work towards the real story finale in the metanarrative timeline and dive into the meaty DLC post-credits stories - those expansions able to easily consume 30 more hours, most of which are worth your time).

I played the game as Kassandra (the canonical protagonist) and from what little dialogue I heard from the Alexios alternative, I feel sorry for anyone who decided they wanted to play a bloke. The romance options are not Bioware-style party members but feel about as well developed narratively (in the chapters you have the option to pick them up) with plenty of opportunity to play a disaster bisexual protagonist (love interests are all written as playersexual). Unfortunately there is some bury your gays that seems like they could have written more interesting ways of trying to hit emotional notes with raised stakes. I'm also still torn on writing a single plotline vs making choices change outcomes (in a game so long as to make it so choices can't majorly change things with major repercussions later). The dialogue is really nice "we have a set character but you can express a range of views within that envelope and try different strategies to engage with NPCs" and I was surprised later on in the game while restarting various quest chains and trying different options leading to quite different conclusions (even if isolated to that area, as the main plot only has a few branching options that are very Walking Dead "diverge then rejoin"). A few plotlines (including that A plot) could have been tightened up and expanded rather than writing several similar alternatives that ultimately didn't really make earlier choices feel more real (and could even undercut some of the themes of the narrative). Even the old binary narrative designs of the Mass Effect or inFamous series are a step ahead of how Odyssey handled this one system so I hope any future iteration can step up (maybe by poaching some ex-Bioware writers to help give an extra pass to the scripts).

    Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden

Released at the very tail end of last year (too late for me to have played it) but with an expansion coming out in the middle of this year, this is a 3D real-time isometric RPG that seamlessly turns into a modern Xcom-style move&shoot two phase turn based tactics game for combat. The real trick here: making that crunchy tactical combat engine really sing while removing all the stalking phase of initiating encounters (that's all handled entirely in the real-time part of play with vision cones and noise bubbles determining who gets the first turn when combat starts) and also adding silencers to weapons to break a large area full of enemies into several short sharp stealth assaults before anyone can raise an alarm (once again, removing the long turn-based movement phases between packs of enemies that slowed down Firaxis' titles).

The licensed setting here was a world I'd not previously encountered so I can't speak to the accuracy of it but the writing here slowly reveals a history you probably saw coming but it didn't overly detract from experiencing it unwind and getting a feel for the setting that takes the post-apocalypse standard and inserts a slight slant. Characters are colourfully written, encounters don't have time to get stale, and the visuals have a great lived-in feel.

I used to love UFO/Xcom (the 1994 onward series), completing playthroughs well into this decade, but could never be happy with the Firaxis reboot. I had thought that removing action points and moving to a two phase turn was what turned me off. This game made me realise it was actually everything else that had changed that broke it for me. I'm very happy with the Xcom-like combat resolution here (especially how they've tweaked it to move faster and allow stealth to matter more).

    Phoenix Point

Wait, didn't I just say I don't like modern Xcoms because I'd rather load up an extremely old original game (that is surprisingly playable despite technical shortcomings of running a 1994 game in DOSbox that only barely works with modern screens and mice)? Well, here's the just-released other side of that year-long realisation. This is a hybrid of Firaxis' modernisation with some original flair from the series originator, Julian Gollop. An indie take on the formula trying to compete with 2K's now-established series while reaching back for ideas about campaign structure and independent forces which can be allies or enemies as your campaign develops.

Starting with the turn-based combat, while it's not a complete return to action points, you do start out with 4 points each turn and can spend them on movement or combat in any order and combination (and with a second reserve of willpower for specials that also push a soldier closer to panic as you deplete them). I have long mourned the end of action points - a dozen plus fractions of time you can spend on anything within your turn allocation to play out - letting choices like a slow aim & shoot be tuned against blindfire with precision rather than using cooldowns to differentiate the different potential actions each turn. Games like Frozen Synapse 2 (simultaneous turn-based) last year and John Wick Hex this year have been doing some interesting stuff with modernising that idea but if we're moving away from that, I prefer the way Phoenix Point simplifies it.

The geoscape strategic layer here is somewhat primitive but functional, cutting back some of the options taken forward from the classic series into the Firaxis games but also moving back from the narrative "mission select screen with a ship-shaped cursor" map into a proper open map full of places to explore, defend, and worry about losing to emergent future events. This isn't a treadmill of progress that you have to walk down and can find out that a decision you made 6 hours ago (or even a single lost soldier) actually was game over because you fell off the required power curve the game doesn't tell you about. I've not actually finished a campaign yet but everything I've played makes me feel like this is inspired by the campaign design of the original series but with a bit more narrative flair for this new-but-similar setting you take control of as the last best hope of survival for humanity (here with global warming unlocking a frozen alien mutation menace). I hope anyone chasing the sales of Firaxis' series give the decisions made here due attention (it sounds like John Wick Hex will not be remembered by many but I do think that action queue is also worth others iterating on, even if I can't recommend that game as a whole).

    Disco Elysium

So talking of throwbacks combined with potential paths for future games, this is a very retro RPG in some respects with probably quite a bit of direct lineage to Planescape: Torment. It's a game of talking, or getting to know a place and some people, and working out what it is you know and believe in having woken up knowing almost nothing. It's also a pretty interesting modern setting around collapsed democracies, irony-poisoned Leftism, and what it means to be a detective in the era of police violence that feels totally disconnected from classic film noir portrayals.

The work turning an introspective character into the progression and character building system is smart (build out who you are, what you can do, and what knowledge you have access to as you explore the world), the way it feeds into the dialogue systems gives a cohesive interface and even feels a bit like a Failbetter Sunless game (so looping back to Torment influences). I really hope more games that want you to define a character rather than playing a fixed one iterate on systems like this. Scoping the world to be a single city block made it possible for an indie project to make a world this reactive and, I suspect but haven't confirmed, offers quite a bit of replayability for those of us who want to poke at exactly how broadly the character and progression can be directed.

    Resident Evil 2

As I said earlier in the year, this was a project that could have fallen apart extremely easily. Remaking a 21 year old title in a genre whose popularity has been up and down, bringing back most of the story beats and even design decisions while completely remaking the visuals and how the game controls (goodbye fixed cameras). And yet, what has arrived is both a great recollection of what has always worked for horror games along with enough new to feel modern and accessible. This should end up in classrooms as an example of how to refresh old games while retaining their identity.

Worth Talking About 2019:

    Gears 5 & Metro Exodus

I'm going to take these together as neither of them are going to make my top list this year and they share an interesting choice I hope we see refined in sequels. Gears 5 sensibly moves away from the boring Nathan Drake impression of a protagonist in 4 while retaining the "this advertises the engine" chain of interesting settings for set-piece missions that we're now used to. The flip is that those mainly linear experiences are accessed via several open world areas that also contain optional combat encounters that reward upgrade tokens for an AI buddy (can also be played co-op, so now offering two main players and a 3rd helper bot player if you've got someone who is less on top of shooter controls).

Metro Exodus also mixes more linear sections with large open areas where you can complete objectives in any order and engage in optional quests, crafting guns, and wondering why they got rid of the bullet economy of previous games. They're not doing it identically (Metro mixes open sections with some narrative missions and set pieces, offering very linear corridor sections as purely filler between those open zones; Gears makes the open areas combat free and always on a vehicle so the line you walk over for encounters or missions is very obvious rather than organic) and I'd say some of those linear sections in Metro really drained my enjoyment of the game while Gears kept the best stuff for the linear sections that could have been taken from any of the earlier games. But there's a common push for trying to do something more that I think offers something very interesting: replaying Gears 4 earlier in the year took me less time than my first playthrough but it was exactly the same progression; these open areas mean you can tailor how long your game is by choosing how much optional content you play (not just how many nooks you look in for collectable trinkets).

I think it's something we don't do enough of. Because it's hard to make a satisfying narrative that's as satisfying after a full dive as with a much shorter highlighted path through it. Books are as long as they are and you're not expecting a book to offer a shorter path through it where you only need to read half the chapters but it still makes exactly as much sense. Luckily we can modify experiences on the fly and so ensure we add context where it might be missed from skipping chapters, something authors of a single book can't do (even if they wanted to).

These games are not the interesting explorations of customising your typical eight to twenty hour action experience so you can play it as a long/double-movie 3-4 hours highlight or a roaming exploration of every nook and cranny with every side-story maximally expanded for 20+ hours (or several routes in between, all signposted so the player doesn't feel lost for what they should be doing next given their desire to reach a conclusion without wading through what they consider too much filler content). But they could be a step on the path there. I also can't stop thinking about how Outer Wilds is a 22 minute long game that you play for about sixteen hours and walk away feeling satisfied, but could also play for less time if you didn't want to engage with certain sections (as long as they weren't on the path to the critical knowledge for reaching the end and seeing credits). With RPGs we've explored main vs side quest chains etc but it's always been the difference between a long story and a very very long story.

    Tom Clancy's The Division 2

I liked the first game in this series enough to put it on my top list but three years later and I didn't find nearly as much to get excited about here. Despite the fact that in every single area I can think of this game builds upon the previous game and really refines systems in a way I can only think of as making for a better experience. There have been a few missteps that got corrected via patches but the first game launched with a lot more systems almost broken and only the core encounter loop & setting to pull you through it. Unfortunately I think it's the setting here that lets the game down. The well rendered scenarios with great enemy AI and still engaging RPG shooter combat don't matter nearly as much if you're not drawn into the setting. They picked a city and time of year that I don't find nearly as interesting as snowy Midtown Manhattan and pushed the clock forward so all the initial mystery of working out what had happened has been resolved. I can't even blame the narrative for being a lot less satisfying as the original wasn't that tight (especially with missions you're always thinking about repeating for the loot and co-op fun) and, baring a bit of a gap where I expected a more extensive cut-scene or even mission (once the levelling progression ends, a new enemy arrives and resets the map with new harder encounters, but this is all revealed in what feels weirdly rushed exposition), everything flows reasonably well here.

When we talk about the maturation process for games, we've often focused on visuals (this engine is doing a lot right even down to some really tricky edge cases) or more broadly on technical competence. The cinema equivalent of filming something well and not breaking the projector - once you get a certain level of maturity it's a baseline expectation of competence (even if cinematographers and editors can clearly show excellence far beyond basic competence to elevate a project). Less talked about is that reaching that point will push a much heavier focus on the other parts of a game. Some players will find that "it feels good to play" or "I like working out the optimal solutions" is enough to drag them through a game, as we are an interactive medium. But also there's going to be stuff like this where I can say that this game is a step up from the last game (which I played a lot of and even jumped into the PvP setting for the adrenaline rush) and I have no interest in going back and playing more than my basic tour of the initial campaign and prodding what the post-levelling game looks like.


Some of the indies who worked on this also worked on Alien: Isolation and you can see some of that at work. It's also worth looking at for the visuals and polish possible for modern indies working with an established engine. It's not Hellblade-tier of aiming directly for AAA aesthetics and technical rendering but it's certainly got a very specific look from the cameras to the interfaces combined with good-enough humans (the classic "only do this if you absolutely have to" difficulty spike for realistic real-time rendering and animation on a budget).

I did not enjoy the structure of some of the puzzles in this "you are the machine" exploration game and suspect that without a FAQ, I'd have only played an hour or two (of what is only a six hour game). But in a year where I must have missed more notable indies than I usually do (or just didn't find that much to remark upon - there are a lot of games near this in my personal rankings this year like Baba is You where I don't actually have anything notable to say), there's something here to pay attention to and based upon Stories Untold & this, I expect their next project could be really special.

    Ape Out

A very short note, as this is a very short game and I'm not as enamoured with the bold colours as many critics are. As you play this (and so far I've seen it offered free on Epic and included as part of Amazon Prime & Xbox Game Pass subscriptions), listen to the music. It's not an audio stream, it's dynamic composition. It's cool and I've been playing with something kinda similar in a very different genre for years without ever getting results that sound this good.

Notable for Consideration in 2020 (as they evolve):

Noita - I loved those '90s sand simulation games & the homebrew stuff (we all made from copying code from magazines). That with procgen levels you explore while constructing your own wands as a Magicka-style action roguelike-like? Looking forward to when it's nearing done.

Control - Sorry Remedy, going to wait for the GotY edition in 2020 once the season of content is all done and included (also the chance of having a GPU that's less than 3 years old, with some flavour of ray-tracing acceleration). Sounds like my sort of game but I didn't get round to it in 2019.

Death Stranding - The asynchronous collaborative online experience is intriguing and makes me slightly wonder about if I'm missing out by punting this into 2020 but also I'm extremely interested to see what that engine looks like on a PC or maybe will look like on a PS5 by the end of that year (if that's a cross-gen early example Sony invest in). I'm also slightly curious if memory value editing on PC could do some interesting things to the mid-early hours of the game that some reviewers have not reacted well to (or even what a modding scene could do, depending how locked down the game is).

Ghost Recon: Breakpoint - Beyond a few critics who really found something interesting here, this got panned and resulted in Ubisoft delaying their entire 2020 stack while also talking about how they needed to let live games have more space to breathe between iterations. I want to see what this looks like after some additional iteration because it looked really rough pre-release (of the "quietly warn friends to maybe wait for some patches before buying" type of coming in hot) but the sniping / clearing locations (picked up as the highlight by some reviewers) already felt like a step forward from Wildlands.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order - Sounds like this came in pretty hot too, so I'm going to wait for the version that's got less bugs in 2020. It was not a great year for EA releases feeling "fully baked" with NfS: Heat a week earlier feeling cheap & buggy for me while Anthem will likely live in infamy (even if that speculated retooling launches in 2020 and actually makes it worth spending more than an hour enjoying the suit flight stuff). Even Madden looks to be in decline (while NBA got cancelled shortly before release, again).