Our favorite video games of 2019

“Disco Elysium” is a scintillating RPG for anyone who can click a mouse or has a taste for the surreal. ZA/UM handout

Before 2020 rolls in, and before our thoughts turn to New Year’s resolutions and new console generations, we thought it useful to reflect back on 2019, and think about the games we played and enjoyed. It was a big year for games, spanning from big, auteur-helmed statements, to AAA franchise reboots and remasters, to under-the-radar indie fare and 15-minute curiosities.

Our list below, of course, is not exhaustive. It’s not necessarily a list of 2019′s best games, or the games we considered most impactful (you can read those lists here and here, respectively). Instead, these are personal reflections, touching upon individual likes and dislikes. We hope you learn something new about the games we’ve chosen, and through them, about the team at Launcher as well.

– Elise Favis: Disco Elysium

When you step into the grimy world of Disco Elysium, you’re put in the shoes of someone whose soul is crippled as much as his liver after excessive drinking. Everyone despises this lowly cop, and as he learns more about who he is through fuzzy recollections, he realizes he hates himself too. You might not like the protagonist at the start of this detective noir RPG either, but that’s okay, because you may appreciate who he becomes just like I did.

What I love most about role-playing games is the ability to shape a character into whatever you want. Disco Elysium takes this to an ambitious extreme, where you aren’t just shaping how the protagonist acts, but also how he thinks and what he stands for morally and politically. Your character’s thoughts are vocal party members swirling in his head, squabbling over what he should and shouldn’t do. Every action has an audience. These thoughts can be upgraded like skill points, making even his ideas and sense of self malleable. This level of detail made me fall in love with the game.

Disco Elysium is a text-heavy experience, but its excellent writing – which is equal parts tragic and funny – helps make all the reading entertaining rather than a slog. It tells a memorable story where you’re never alone: your loud thoughts are like their own people with beliefs and feelings. Even if you let this troubled detective succumb into a psychotic breakdown or continue his substance abuse, you can still find ways to appreciate him and understand his flaws. I’ve never played a game before where I felt like I was authoring a character’s mind, and Disco Elysium offers just that. It makes for a fascinating approach to dialogue and character development from which I hope other RPGs take cues.

– Gene Park: Resident Evil 2

Resident Evil 2 was listed in everyone’s game of the year nominations, but won almost none of them. Its nature as a remake likely encouraged caution in appraising it. The story, after all, was mostly the same. But I’m here to say that Capcom’s remake is not only my favorite game of 2019, it’s also the perfect example of taking old gameplay principles and translating them with modern mechanics.

With every developer these days aiming for the next big open-world game, Resident Evil 2′s confined police station and nearby areas were like a salve for me. Capcom’s R&D Division 1 didn’t just graft modern camera into the Resident Evil formula. The world design – placement of enemies and puzzles – is the exemplification of how video games are a series of rewarding choices. Capcom remembered that its original survival horror games depended on resource management, puzzles and atmosphere. The RE Engine provides the most gruesome zombies ever committed to pixel, all in a high-quality, smooth package. And the unstoppable Mr. X monster reminded us why Resident Evil was once considered the horror champion, with his footsteps battering the empty city as he stalks you.

I played Resident Evil 2 incessantly earlier this year, and I even took a speedrunner’s approach to it. I eventually memorized every nook and cranny of the game, and was able to beat it at its hardest setting (saving only 3 times) in under two hours. The remake was like a Rubik’s cube to me, a puzzle for me to solve over and over again and as quickly as possible. When my mind became crowded with negative thoughts, I would allow my brain space to be taken up by Resident Evil 2′s puzzle, pacing and yes, even its visceral carnage. The best horror game to come out in years ended up becoming a mental oasis in a distracting, stressful 2019.

Mike Hume: Vader Immortal

If we’re discussing which title I spent the most time on this past year, that would easily be Call of Duty’s Blackout battle royale from Black Ops 4. The problems there: 1) It came out in 2018 and 2) Blackout was one third of the game, and I scarcely played the other two modes. Call of Duty’s 2019 successor, Modern Warfare, is vastly superior in terms of the game’s traditional multiplayer mode, but lacks a battle royale (to my great dismay). But even Modern Warfare didn’t bring me the same levels of joy as when I first played Vader Immortal, the Star Wars VR game from ILMxLAB and Disney Interactive.

Virtual Reality still isn’t where it needs to be if it ever hopes to replace goggle-less gaming. Games are built more to show off mechanics than anything else, and the tech requirements basically mean your character is bound to a linear, don’t-stray-from-the-path-because-you-can’t story progression. But Vader Immortal delivered to me something I’ve craved since childhood – an ability to wield a lightsaber and perform first-person Star Wars sword fighting with my arms and not my thumbs.

While I didn’t think the game itself was that wonderful, The Force Unleashed wowed me when it came to the Wii because I could at least wave my hand/remote and see my hero brandish his lightsabers. Vader Immortal takes that to the next level, giving users a full on lightsaber dojo in addition to the main story. The immersion of the VR is amazing when you see a Star Destroyer cruise over top of your ship, or when Vader himself strides up in front of you. (Note: VR will have truly arrived when you try to give Vader a VR middle finger and the Dark Lord of the Sith responds by breaking it with The Force.)

But nothing delighted me more than the saber battles against multiple foes. Adrenaline pumping (in part from a fear of smashing my TV), I would frantically twist my head to see where the next blow would fall, athletically parrying before launching a counter attack. (Note 2: While I felt like a Jedi in VR, real-world video evidence of the aforementioned athletic parries and counters more closely resembled a seizing octopus.) Still, in the virtual world, I felt like a bad ass. I felt like a Jedi. That was a first for me. And that’s more than I can say for the other major Star Wars game release this year. While Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order has its merits, making me feel like a Jedi was certainly not among them.

– Mikhail Klimentov: Apex Legends

My favorite element of early PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) was how the relative scarcity of encounters, coupled with the one-strike-and-you’re-out logic of the battle royale genre, made every firefight into a story. Every encounter was freighted with an arc. You see another player, or they see you. You scramble to assess your situation and assemble a strategy. Shots are exchanged! And then, resolution – victory or catastrophe. Loot, or be looted. A single house, a set of trees, even a big rock could become the site of a prolonged standoff, with neither player certain enough of their position or their arsenal to make a decisive move.

Eventually, though, players learned and internalized the meta, and encounters became rote, and worse yet, short. This, to me, felt out of step with the spirit of the game.

Enter Apex Legends. From the ground up, the game is built for speed and mobility. Climbing and vaulting feels great, and the game’s slide mechanic is so intuitive that I would sometimes try, out of habit, to use the slide in other games, to no avail. Unlike PUBG, the world of the game felt attuned to the gameplay design: A world built for speed accommodated play that centered on speed. PUBG’s maps, by contrast, felt dense and leaden, intended for careful plotting, not Quake-like acrobatics.

Apex didn’t end up becoming a Fortnite killer, as some had hoped. But it didn’t have to be. In fact, it benefited from the contrast with its competitors: It felt more focused than Fortnite and more intentional in its design than PUBG. As such, it is the best realization of the battle royale genre to date, the purest merger of intent and final product.

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