If there was a watchword for gaming in the first half of 2019, it might be “iteration”—or possibly even “refinement.” This six-month period saw a dead-on-arrival would-be blockbuster (R.I.P. Anthem) and the steady encroachment of the “games as service” model that continues to power Fortnite’s utter domination of the market. But in that same period developers have done some of their best work this year by looking back. Which isn’t to say 2019 gaming has been regressive, necessarily—this is a year where one of the best games released was a “remake” that reimagines its source material so successfully, and so thoroughly, that it feels fresher than the original did back in 1998—but that there’s been less of an emphasis on re-inventing the wheel, as opposed to making it run more smoothly than it ever has before. So, without further ado (and in no particular order, beyond the alphabetical), here are the A.V. Club’s favorites of 2019 so far; as per tradition, we’re picking one thing we really liked about each game, and using it to explain why it deserves to be a part of this year’s canon.


Apex Legends

I liked Apex Legends because it’s really good and I’m pretty good at it. I’ve written about this game so much already, so what else is there to say about it? It’s super fun, it brings new ideas to the battle royale genre that are really smart, and its setting and characters are refreshingly lighthearted in a way that allows it to get away with not taking itself too seriously. I’m putting more time into Apex than I have into pretty much any other multiplayer game in years, and I’m very interested in keeping up with it and seeing how it improves and evolves in the next year or so—especially since the developers at Respawn are fairly open about recognizing what needs to be improved (specially all of the things that you can pay real money for). I still wish we were getting a new Titanfall game—since that’s probably the most under-appreciated video game series of the last decade—but I no longer begrudge Apex Legends any of its success. I hope the game goes on forever and I can buy ugly Funko Pop figures of every single character. Actually, no, I hope it stops being successful just before that happens, so I don’t have to face the moral dilemma of wanting to buy any Funko Pops. [Sam Barsanti]


Baba Is You

I liked Baba Is You because it gave me the good kind of headache. Out of all my entries on this year’s list, Baba Is You is easily the one I’ve spent the least amount of time with. That’s less damning that it sounds, though because I’m only really capable of interacting with Hempuli’s rule-bending brilliance when I’m feeling like my best self. Come at it when you’re in the wrong headspace, and you’re likely to set yourself up for hours of fruitlessly shoving rules around, turning yourself into immobile rocks and being forced to reset the level. Come at it when you’re feeling like a genius, though, and… well, you’re still going to do a lot of the, “Oh fuck, now I’m a rock” stuff. But you’ll also come across the sorts of epiphanies that don’t come free or cheap these days, the moments when your understanding of a situation flips and the audacity of, “Wait, can I really do that?” sets in. It’s a rare, intoxicating feeling, and no game that provides it in such ready supply can be left off a list of the best experiences of the year. [William Hughes]


Crackdown 3

I liked Crackdown 3 because it was pure destructive joy. There are very few bells and whistles when it comes to the plot in Crackdown 3. Cutscenes are at a minimum. The story is barely relevant. Several months after playing it, I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what it was about—something to do with taking out bad guys in control of an entire planet/city? None of that really matters, because all the bells and whistles were redistributed to the landscape you destroy, and then Crackdown 3 went out and bought 20 gajillion more bells and whistles, just so you could blow them up, too. The more-is-more approach to the game makes it breezily entertaining, with a “Hulk smash!” mentality that’s encouraged with every step you take. From the moment you enter the overstuffed geography of new Providence, with its endless array of cheap facade-like buildings with no insides (there solely to give you as much vertical playground as horizontal), the havoc you can wreak is the sole incentive. And damn if it isn’t satisfying. Whether you’re throwing one soldier’s lifeless body at his still-standing compatriot, or blowing giant holes in everything from monorails to bulldozers, or just shooting everything in sight, the game’s madcap energy is infectious. In the era of pensive, deeply exhaustive tone poems like Red Dead Redemption 2, it’s nice to have a blunt-force reminder that these things are supposed to be fun. [Alex McLevy]

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Rage 2

I liked Rage 2 because it doesn’t require me to put in any extra effort. My favorite games tend to be the ones where I can get deeply invested in the story and where every little action requires some kind of lengthy build-up—whether it’s because I’m sneaking past guards or slowly walking across an enormous open-world. Not every game can be like that, though, because it would be exhausting. Rage 2, then, is more like eating a whole bag of chips than savoring a full meal (like a Skyrim or a Metal Gear Solid would be), and it fills that role excellently. The combat is fun, combining magic superpowers with sci-fi guns, and you can travel around its world with fun vehicles (especially the motorcycle that goes so fast that it breaks the game’s physics). There’s also a story… I think… but it’s really just there to give you an excuse to go to a new place and kill some new bad guys. It’s dumb and silly and it doesn’t really have anything worthwhile to say that you can’t get in any number of other post-apocalyptic shooter, but it is a lot of fun. Plus, there’s no intense online component to keep up with so you can just do whatever you want at your own pace with no pressure. It’s like taking a vacation from all of the other big video games these days. [Sam Barsanti]


Resident Evil 2

I liked Resident Evil 2 because it made the “survival” in survival horror a big maybe again. Much has been made of how faithful Capcom’s spit- (blood?) shined remake is in look and feel, creating a weird kind of cognitive dissonance: Anyone who’s played the original will experience pangs of déjà vu every time they enter a familiar location, like the grand hall of the police station, even though the 2019 graphics have lent these spaces a photorealistic sheen downright impossible to even imagine in 1998. Of course, Resident Evil 2’s fidelity extends beyond its design; the new game captures the values of the old one, too—from the scarcity of supplies (inventory management is a must) to the punishing, futile difficulty of combat. What really took this dyed-in-the-wool Evil junkie back was the successful provocation of that O.G. survival-horror feeling, a pit of the stomach certainty that whatever lies beyond the next door will be the death of me. That’s what this franchise, at its nerve-shredding best, is really about: a sustained dread, following you from room to room as surely as any stomping, trenchcoat-sporting Tyrant, and reinforced by a relentless stacking of the deck against the player, making your don’t-turn-that-knob anxiety more than justified. It’s like the old saying goes: Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean that a sightless, skinless, long-tongued mutant monstrosity isn’t after you. [A.A. Dowd]


Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

I liked Sekiro because it transmuted frustration into mastery in a way that utterly blew my mind. My first 20 hours with From Software’s latest hyper-technical action-adventure were an exercise in controller-crushing misery, punctuated by boss battles that would sometimes run to three or four hours of soul-draining length. Everything else—the emphasis on climbing and stealth, the refinement of Dark Souls’ super-dense menus of stats into a few easily checked stats, even the mostly minimalist plot—worked for me, but those boss fights were little more than periodic opportunities to slam my face full-tilt against a wall. And then something suddenly clicked in my head (and my hands) and the game’s entire combat system came together, turning what had been a series of dispiriting one-sided slogs into elegant, deeply satisfying duels. It might be a form of video game Stockholm syndrome—and there’s no question that the game itself does a punishing, borderline-criminal job of teaching people how to play it—but when Sekiro’s sword strikes and deflections start flowing properly, there’s very little in the world of action gaming that can match its sublime joys. [William Hughes]

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Sunless Skies

I liked Sunless Skies because space should feel like a hostile, terrifying place. 2019 has been a very good year for games that make you feel very alone, and very scared, when faced with the vast, horrifying expanses of outer space. But while the excellent Outer Wilds occasionally cuts its cosmic horror with marshmallows and banjo-playing levity, Failbetter’s follow-up to the equally horrific Sunless Seas never lets players forget how utterly tiny, alone, and insignificant they are. There are few feelings more melancholy and frightening than piloting a fuel-guzzling steam locomotive through the black, hoping for a sign of “land,” only to see the remains of some blasted, cracked-apart star appear underneath you, rapidly devouring your crew’s meager supply of sanity, instead. Or even the more mundane horror of those cold equations: How far can you get on too little fuel? What can you burn to keep yourself in the sky? What will you eat? Who will you eat? Like its predecessor, Skies is sometimes paced a little too slowly, making the completion of actual tasks a bit of a chore. But that slow pace is also insidious in another, most deliberately awful of ways: It gives you time to think. [William Hughes]


Tetris 99

I liked Tetris 99 because battle royale games are more fun when you’re crushing your opponent’s spirit instead of shooting them in the face. The great thing about a franchise as long-running as Tetris is that there’s pretty much something for everyone. Love the meditative state of dropping blocks in sequence? Last year’s Tetris Effect has got your back. Want a goofy puzzle game to play with your friends? Puyo Puyo Tetris will scratch the itch. Are you an utter bastard, with a competitive streak longer than a four-piece straight block slamming home, crushing some anonymous stranger’s dreams? Then the Switch Online exclusive Tetris 99 is your nasty, beautiful beast. Applying the 99 vs 1, you against the horde mechanics of modern battle royale shooters to the basic gameplay of Tetris continues to be one of the most inspired design decisions in recent memory, and the speed and efficiency of the presentation allows you to do exactly what you came here to do: Play as many utterly brutal, totally unfair, nail-biting games of Tetris as you could ever want. No need for the battle bus; it’s no waiting, all lines from here on out. [William Hughes]