He’s not! He lives. In fact he’s typing this. Hello!
I’ve failed to publish my Games of the Year (or much of anything) since 2016. I would like to do something about that. Strange as it may be to discuss my highlights from last year halfway through this one, it’s nonetheless what I’ve got for you today. Read on… IF YOU DARE.
“Whatever does not kill you makes you stronger” is a nice sentiment, but untrue. Stuff that doesn’t kill often maims. Sometimes you have to lock yourself in your house because something lurking outside is waiting to kill you, which is the situation for most of the world as I type these words. It’s not without due irony that two of the games I’ll discuss shortly are about plagues.
In terms of my play habits, they have changed since the 2000-teens. I buy lots of games—I bought two yesterday, for heaven’s sake—but play fewer. Of those I play, I enjoy fewer still, and of those I enjoy, I finish just a fraction. This makes me sad. Playing games is something I should want to do. It’s troubling that I don’t. You see in the commercials: do you find yourself unable to do things that used to be easy, or disinterested by the activities you used to enjoy? Maybe Happydrine™ (Methotrexoloxabrilichatordayitlan Septophosphomurgatroyd) can help!
But it doesn’t.
I tell myself it’s not a pathology, just less free time and higher expectations. To be fair that’s an objectively provable argument. I have stuck with and finished several rather long games in the past couple years, so entrancing games do still exist, and I’m still interested in playing them.
This last year, 2019, I didn’t keep very good records. Normally I write down titles and notes as I go, because I forget stuff when on the spot to remember it. The end-of-year roundup is much more difficult to manage without a list of what I played. Absent helpful references, I’ve come up with a list that’s a little off-kilter but will hopefully, at least, be interesting reading.
I’m compelled to remind you that—much like Outback Steakhouse—there are no “rules” at Tap-Repeatedly. Our games of the year don’t need to be from that year, just things we played that year.
“This Abuses the Concept of Early Access” Award
I should be covered in shame. It’s beyond the pale, slapping a Game of the Year sticker on something that isn’t released.
But I feel zero units of shame, because Satisfactory is divine. I love it.
A first-person explorer/builder/puzzler from Coffee Stain Studios—they of Sanctum and Goat Simulator fame—Satisfactory Early Access rolled out exclusively onto the Epic marketplace fairly early in 2019. It’s since received several enormous updates that expand and, in some cases, fundamentally overhaul the experience. In terms of polish and content, the game was self-evidently ready to ship months ago. Coffee Stain wasn’t stalling, though. It just saw more potential.
In Satisfactory, you work for Ficsit, a big interstellar manufacturing company. Demand for consumer products, and for the raw materials needed to colonize new worlds, is galactically high in The Future; a single factory can envelop an entire planet. Though largely automated, such facilities still need a human supervisor, first to yank a start cord on the machine of industry and then to hang around on-world and oversee its continued growth.
Thus do you arrive on the odd, lovely planet Massage-2, which is pristine and resource-rich. It also has the benefit of being essentially uninhabited, as long as you don’t count all the stuff that lives there. Massage-2, then, with its lissome stone arches, gentle slow-moving herbivores, and vast shallow seas, is an ideal candidate for transformation into a mechanized ogre of pollutive despoilment.
The core game loop is not new. Build things to make other things; use those things to make more complex things, and so on. They could be described as puzzle games, but efficiency is the real objective. We have broadly seen Satisfactory’s like before, most comparably in the indie gem Factorio, and many other places too, going back many years.
Coffee Stain Studios, flush as it is with Goat Simulator money, has the manpower and resources to spread AAA coating onto a game type more commonly associated with 2D indies and single-person developers. Its lavish production values do set Satisfactory apart, but it’s the experience, the tuned mechanics, the sheer time-slurpitude that makes it hypnotic.
Building, optimizing, and expanding your factory is a delicate juggling challenge. You must balance production capacity against resource capacity and power capacity on an ever-increasing scale. Start off making stuff like iron plate, copper wire, and concrete. Over time, you’ll spin those humble basics into AI-driven supercomputers, jetpacks, and maglev trains. You’ll coat the delicate tiered cliffs of Massage-2 with a spreading clockwork of interconnected machinery. You’ll pave over its sparkling lakes, clear-cut its broad pink forests, punch holes in its bedrock to dine on its mineral innards. Miles-long conveyor networks will trundle raw materials across misty chasms. Robotic vehicles will ferry parts from node to node. Final products from around the production site will ride belts to your horizon-dominating space elevator. And you will stand there atop an automated smelter and look out and think: I built this.
And it is glorious.
But you’re not done. The factory is never done.
Satisfactory pushes all the buttons in part because it’s more than just a build-optimize-repeat loop. It has a gentle sense of humor and a subtle-but-definitely-there environmental warning. Its elegant interface makes pleasurable what could have been infuriating, and the opportunities for post-release DLC are practically endless. Play it for a while and you won’t doubt its potential.
Some people boycott Epic’s storefront. Most have bad reasons. Some have acceptable reasons. Neither group is accomplishing anything beyond missing out on content. Satisfactory started life as an Epic exclusive and that’s all there is to it; it’s now on Steam and hopefully I don’t have to buy it again to try multiplayer with my friends. Otherwise I haven’t lost any sleep about it, though I’ve lost plenty to the game.
Expect more on Satisfactory once I get my Scrivener files in order.
“Accidentally Walked Around All Day with A Human Liver in My Pocket” Award
2005’s Pathologic was a groundbreaking, divisive, meta-Brechtian charcuterie of existentialist horror from Russian newcomer Ice-Pick Lodge. Extraordinary and brilliant and—for westerners—almost impossible to enjoy, because of its inscrutable mechanics and staggering difficulty, plus a machine-translated script of meaningless spaghetti that would, occasionally, monkey-and-typewriter out beautiful (but still incomprehensible) poetic language.
For all that, it is still an especially important work. Its handful of adherents have long dreamt of a remake, done with more budget and—critically—more experience from developers who at the time had never made a video game before.
A $330,000 Kickstarter in 2014 was enough to get Ice-Pick Lodge to commit to the project, but nowhere near enough to actually remake the game. Aggressive fundraising secured several million more in VC investment, and suddenly the Pathologic remake was happening. Its ludicrously optimistic 2016 release date slipped several times as the game grew increasingly ambitious, but most fans wanted it done right and were happy to wait. Changing the title to Pathologic 2 allowed leeway to present it as both a remake and an expansion of the original vision. Finally Ice-Pick Lodge announced that Pathologic 2 would be released in three parts, which is very sensible given its story structure. The first episode arrived in May 2019.
Unfortunately, it may also be the last.
I’ve given 50+ hours to Pathologic 2. It is the game we wanted it to be: a remake of Pathologic with superior production values and an understandable script from a studio now armed with 15 years in the trenches of game design.
Describing this game (original or remake) is challenging, partly because it’s rather strange and partly because I have to dance around a secret that makes the dick reveal in The Crying Game about as revelatory as a knock-knock joke.
Pathologic has a Roshomon–style structure. It tells the same story three times, from the perspective of three protagonists. At some vague, unstuck time and place, a trio of strangers arrive in a remote town out on the steppe. Bound by divergent purposes, for the next twelve days, their fates will be entwined in a hellish, inescapable bacchanal of anguish that gets worse every time you think it’s reached its limit. Pathologic 2 is about death and disease. It’s about superstition and dread. It’s about what happens in isolated places, forgotten places, where the bonds of reality are weak, and the primitive earth reveals its true, terrible form.
It’s the kind of game where keeping three or four human livers on hand is just good common sense, but in like a box or a locker. Not in your pocket. Livers are squishy and gross.
This first episode tells the story of Artemy Burakh, the Haruspex. He’s a local, son of the beloved town physician, but left years ago for medical school. Burakh describes himself as a surgeon and understands the scientific method, but his origins are shamanistic: he’s related to both the aboriginal steppe people and the more modern townies, and his practice of medicine is equal parts witch and doctor.
Attacked by thugs as he gets off the train—not the welcome he was expecting—Burakh quickly learns that the whole town is baying for his head. For some reason they’re convinced he murdered his father, which seems like a strange thing to be convinced of until he discovers that his father has been murdered.
Shortly thereafter, the nightmare begins.
A plague called the Sand Pest, which decimated part of the town a few years ago, has returned. It soon reveals itself to be no mere sickness, but a horrific perversion of disease: an unnatural, festering retribution; a nearly self-aware thing that exists to end human life; a septic juggernaut with a 100% fatality rate that kills, on average, in just eight torturous hours.
Panic spirals as the Sand Pest rampages from district to district, while the town’s Trumpian leadership fails spectacularly to appreciate the magnitude of the crisis. By Day Four, hundreds are dead; by Day Six, thousands. Food prices skyrocket, mobs loot and burn, flames and madness consume entire neighborhoods. The infected shuffle around, wrapped head to toe in seeping bandages, begging for release from the agony. The streets and river are choked with corpses. Sore-covered infants wail in cribs as their parents rot on the nursery floor.
Everyone in this town is going to die.
Strictly speaking, your only objective is to survive all twelve days. The question is what you do with that time. Every day your map is speckled with potential. Meetings, tasks, requests, opportunities, far more than you can possibly accomplish, all clamoring for attention and leaving you to select your priorities. How deeply will you involve yourself in the town’s politics? How long can you manage without sleep? Without food? How much aid can you give without succumbing yourself? And how far will you go to survive?
The hardest part of remaking Pathologic was always going to be recreating how traumatic it is to play, and I feel like they bottled that particular lightning. Pathologic 2 is less wobbly than its predecessor and improves many core systems upon which both depend. Edge magazine’s glowing 9 out of 10 proved that someone, at least, appreciated the accomplishment. Other, more lackluster reviews tended to emphasize Pathologic 2’s opacity, its habit of actively deceiving the player, and its astonishing difficulty, without understanding that the former two are part of the game, and the latter, thankfully, has been patched into reasonableness. But no matter what else it may be, this is a game by Ice-Pick Lodge, and as such it’s only reasonable that it sport the same Ice-Pickian hobgoblins as anything else the studio has produced. It is, categorically, a richer, better-designed, more-polished Pathologic. It is not, nor was it ever meant to be, an easier or more accessible Pathologic.
It’s also not going to be a definitive Pathologic. Nikolay Dybowski, the founder of Ice-Pick Lodge and the creative whirlwind behind their games, has claimed that sales of Pathologic 2 met or exceeded expectations, but recent layoffs at Ice-Pick Lodge cast doubt on that. Sadder still is Dybowski’s revelation that the remaining two episodes will not parallel the Haruspex episode in structure, scope, or scale as they did in the original. Indeed, if they happen at all (which is uncertain), Dybowski has indicated that they’ll be “different genres” entirely, and likely each weigh in at only a couple hours of play. This is contrary to the game’s cloth, and very disappointing.
Look, a nonlinear open-world RPG packed with complex real-time dynamics is a huge development undertaking. Pathologic, as originally conceived, is that times three. You are meant to experience the same twelve days through the eyes of at least two or (ideally) all three characters, and each story is meant to take roughly the same amount of time. That is essential to the very concept of Pathologic, particularly the shocking endgame twist so critical to its literary merit.
And while it’s true that probably zero players worldwide actually completed all three character perspectives in the original Pathologic, that’s because the original Pathologic was a hugely flawed experience. That’s why the world clamored for a remake in the first place. To get one third of what was intended, and to have that third be so well-executed, only to discover that the rest will be a half-assed, lackluster phone-in…
It doesn’t make Pathologic 2 any less outstanding in its current state, but it doesn’t give disciples much hope for the remake they dreamed of, either. A studio the size of Ice-Pick Lodge was never truly equipped to deliver on a game of this scale. They deserve applause for trying, not once but twice, but in the end perhaps not every idea should be pursued even if we want it to be. You can’t save them all.
Expect more on Pathologic 2 once I get my Scrivener files in order.
“War is Hell, But Like Totes Adorbs Hell Y’know?” Award
This series has been around for more than a decade. It has a small, devoted following that would be a lot bigger but for the fact that it’s easy, at first glance, to mistake Valkyria Chronicles as cotton candy anime puffery. In reality it’s one of the deepest and most satisfying tactical battlefield simulations you’ll ever play, tied to a narrative that, despite the many moments of levity, is often incredibly dark and tragic. As if that weren’t enough, the games are worth the price of admission on art style alone.
I only play the Valkyria games in couch co-op with my friend McShane, handing the controller back and forth and yelling at each other because we have fundamentally different approaches to tactical command. I can’t remember how it got started, but it’s become ritualized now to the point where I would never think of playing without him present, nor he without me. Also: we never call it Valkyria Chronicles. It’s “the Schoolgirl Tank Game.”
This latest Schoolgirl Tank game improves on its predecessors in practically every respect, adding layers of depth to parts of the simulation that hadn’t yet been perfected and leaving the on-battlefield moments largely unchanged in what I can only assume is a well-considered decision to not fix things that aren’t broken. I’ve only played the first Schoolgirl Tank and then this one; Schoolgirl Tanks 2 and 3 were exclusive to the Playstation Vita handheld, and 2017’s Schoolgirl Tank Revolution, an ill-advised detour into Soulsian action, is apparently so bad that the entire world has collectively agreed to pretend it never existed at all.
Set, as all of them are, in sort of a Europe analogue during sort of a World War II analogue, it helps to know the broad outlines of the story so far, but it’s not necessary. Schoolgirl Tank 4 works as a standalone game, giving us a new cast and geographic focus but otherwise keeping what you’d expect intact. Claude Wallace, a young tank commander from the nation of Gallia, joins the Federation army along with some of his childhood friends to help defend their country against the Empire, which is never to my recollection given an actual name other than “Empire.” As the ranking solider in the company, Claude commands Squad E during battles and engagements that take them from their hometown to deep into the enemy’s territory, then back.
One of the critical points of all the Schoolgirl Tank games is that wars are largely fought by children; or, if you prefer, by people on the verge of grown-upery but who are unquestionably more young than adult. They have crushes and petty rivalries, they often make staggeringly poor decisions, they’re heavily influenced by their hormones, and—most important—like all young people, they believe they are immortal. War kills other people. War will never kill them.
Then, when war inevitably kills some of them while the others watch in horror, the last golden trappings of childhood fall away, leaving behind scarred and broken adults who will never unsee the things they observed during their time on campaign. But a fair amount of war is just waiting, and goofing around, and Schoolgirl Tank 4 captures both in wonderfully-voiced, largely-static manga cutscenes that do a fabulous job of presenting the characters more thoroughly and compellingly than you might expect.
Between these delightful moments lie the actual game, which comes in two parts: times when you’re not fighting, and times when you are. When you’re not fighting, you’re dealing with the day-to-day of managing a mechanized infantry company. Claude has… I don’t know, maybe 100 people under his command, and to excel at Schoolgirl Tank 4 you have to know the members of Squad E. Some dislike each other, and won’t fight as well if paired with their rivals. Some have allergies and should be kept off the roster in springtime meadow operations. Some are house mouses and would rather guard fortified rear positions. Some are the opposite. Some are obsessed with tanks. Some are drunks, some have families back home, some like cats, some are gambling addicts, some collect hats, some shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, and on and on and on.
Each of them also has a backstory, and you only know the basics at first. But the more you deploy particular soldiers, the more likely you are to unlock side missions that explore their characters in detail and may trigger additional attributes. This plus the usual strategy-game stuff: training, vehicle maintenance, equipment upgrades, resource management. That part of the game is intricate enough that McShane and I maintain a legal pad devoted to it, which we painstakingly recreate every time we play because weeks have passed and both of us have indecipherably poor handwriting.
The rest of the game is when you are fighting, when you command a detachment of Squad E armor and troops on the battlefield, and it’s here the Schoolgirl Tank games really shine. Mechanically, it’s similar to games like XCOM and Gears Tactics: turns, action points, primary and secondary objectives. But it looks a lot different, presenting battles more like a turn-based third person shooter. When you select a unit, you are that soldier, so you only see what they can see and only influence what they can influence. Shooting a foe means running into position, aiming, and pulling the trigger. Your skill with mouse or thumbsticks comes into play; you’re not given information like hit percentage so common in other tactical games. The result is exciting, layered, complex, and in many ways more realistic-feeling than other games.
Add the stunningly gorgeous watercolor-in-motion art style that made the Schoolgirl Tank game famous in the first place and you have something really special. These games are memorable for me because of how I happen to play them, of course, but also because the particulars of mechanics, production value, and narrative simply have no parallel.
There’s a lot more that could be said, particularly about the series’ broad arc and message, with its strata of meaning and social commentary. It’s considerably deeper and more relevant than you’d think at a glance, and anyone who’s interested in great tactical sims with great stories attached owe it to themselves to try out the first and fourth installments, both of which have excellent PC ports on Steam.
Expect more on Schoolgirl Tank once I get my Scrivener files in order.
“Black Holes and Revelations” Award
Lots of wise people (like Gregg) are giving attention to Mobius Digital’s Outer Wilds (not to be confused with Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds, which was also pretty good). My views on the game are not unique.
How you describe Outer Wilds is a matter of personal perspective, I think. A puzzle adventure? Yes. An oddball mystery? Uh-huh. An exploration game? Deffo. A space sim? Indeed. It is these things. It is also a beautiful, heartfelt tribute to discovery and wonder.
There are these little purple aliens, and they live on a planet far away from here, and they yearn for the stars. They’re not unhappy with their own world—quite the contrary—but they dream of space. They look up at the night sky with their many eyes and are overtaken by awe and longing. Exploring the universe means so much to them that they… well… they begin a space program quite a bit earlier than is advisable, given their technology level. These little dudes will strap a rocket to anything if there’s even the remotest chance it’ll get them into space.
Where Kerbal Space Program takes that concept in one (entirely delightful) direction, Outer Wilds doesn’t care a bit for thrust vectors or fuel ratios. It is a game of gentle miracle and spectacle and no never mind to realism.
So you’re one of these guys, and off you go in your little spacecraft, cheered on by the rest of your species. You’re not the first of your kind to venture into the outer wilds—planets and moons are dotted with other explorers, many of whom are stranded but who cares, I’m in space—and you have no particular mission. Just go. Have a look around. Space!
One small hiccup: your solar system appears to be caught in a loop. Every 22 minutes the sun explodes, time rewinds, and you’re back at the launchpad once more.
That’s the mystery of Outer Wilds. Why is this happening? The sun doesn’t usually explode, and when suns do explode they usually explode just the one time, not every 22 minutes. What’s up with that?
Oh well, you’ll get to it sooner or later. Boy, space is even more strange and exciting than we thought. Space!
What I like about Outer Wilds is the people. These funny aliens are everything human beings are not: they’re nice to each other. They love beauty and respect the natural world. Their default emotion is not cynicism but wonder. The idea of avarice is entirely lost on them. Their curiosity is driven by wide multi-eyed joy in discovery. They have no interest in exploiting anything, or weaponizing anything, or conquering anything. They just want to see it.
The solar system of Outer Wilds is filled with odd planets and strange phenomena, bursting with clues to the nature of your star’s predicament and begging to be explored. Piloting your ship is a bit like flying a buffalo, and space—while awesome—is dangerous. But thanks to the time loop, it doesn’t matter. The sun will explode soon! Die and die again. And you will die. And die again. You’ll die constantly. Doesn’t matter. You’ll open your eyes and everything will be as it was 22 minutes ago.
You can (and should, at least once) sit by the fire and toast a marshmallow instead of going into space. The sun explodes but who cares, there are friends sitting by the fire and marshmallows are yum. Next time, space. Or more marshmallows. Outer Wilds makes the emergency of a supernova into something as languorous and peaceful as laying on a tropical beach in the setting sun, drifting between asleep and awake, all once-pressing thoughts momentarily distant and unimportant.
Bit by bit you piece together the secrets and unlock the mysteries. Your ship’s log is strangely immune to the time loop, so you’re perpetually inching toward a greater understanding of the universe. The hardest part of Outer Wilds is wrapping your head around the idea that it doesn’t matter how you approach the mystery. There’s no “start.” Wherever you go, there you are, and you’ll find snips and fragments and clues. Conventional wisdom with jigsaw puzzles is to start with the edges, but really you can start with any piece.
Across the sea of space, the stars are other suns.
“Hey, Maybe Fewer Games About Pandemics” Award
Here’s another that’s more a treasure because of how I played than because of what it is. Both Division games would be okay as solo experiences, but nothing special; they’re meant to be played with a small, regular group of friends. As it happens this is how I like to play games online, and I’ve been doing it with the same three other guys more or less weekly for many years now. Borderlands 2 defined our personalities; Divinity: Original Sin 2 clarified our tactics; Planetside laid bare our many PVP inadequacies; and despite occasional gripes about its quirky interface or limited variety of things to do, The Division kept us thoroughly entertained for a good three months or so. No surprise its sequel was always on our radar.
This time, Massive Entertainment and Ubisoft wisely dropped the “immortal game you’ll play forever” line. The Division 2 was more cautiously marketed, as an expansive but still finite game, and like its predecessor it’s very clearly designed to be enjoyed in campaign co-op. By only ever playing the game with Pete, Eric, and McShane, we were able to better specialize as a team and better inhabit our individual roles in a small squad of tactical responders dealing with the fallout of a bioterrorist attack that left a huge percentage of the US population dead.
The sequel moves action from Manhattan island—ground zero for the terrorist attack—to Washington, DC, and jumps ahead a year. The plague itself is winding down, and the nation is in the early stages of trying to get back on its feet. It’s going to be a long process, though: with so few left alive, the usual machinery of civilization is barely operational. Much of your time in The Division 2 is spent helping small impromptu settlements survive, as the District of Columbia is short on skilled labor and basic resources, and is crawling with armed gangs and semi-professional looters who don’t hesitate to shoot first.
The central conceit of The Division has always been of a vast, secret military agency meant to counter only the worst possible crises, and, once deployed, free to operate as it pleases with no accountability during or after the fact. By design, a catastrophe capable of activating the Division would be so terrible that (in theory, at least) the people charged with picking up the pieces couldn’t be expected to do their jobs if they were trammeled by bureaucracy, oversight, laws, or human decency. The obvious problems with this uniquely Clancyian idea should be pretty apparent: first, Division agents aren’t all saints and many go rogue. Second, it’s a one-off solution, because once deployed, the Division is no longer secret.
The organization is operating openly in Division 2, still not subject to any authority. The President is dead anyay; the Vice President is missing; Massive—being a Swedish studio—probably isn’t an expert on the American system of governance, but so as far as I can remember Congress is never brought up at all. Maybe they all died of the virus. It’s a recipe for chaos and lawlessness. Coupled with a huge open world and as-you-like-it mission structure, it’s also a recipe for a really exciting video game. The Division 2 isn’t going to go down in history as a groundbreaking or innovative product, but it’s a solid, reliable workhorse that Massive is still updating with new content and missions more than a year after it first shipped. The studio’s proprietary Snowdrop Engine is better than ever, conjuring up DC’s apocalyptic streets and crumbling interiors with amazing fidelity.
The plot in Division 2 is a little more scattershot than that of its predecessor, but that allows it to throw some very surprising curveballs that add to its staying power. You reach what you think is the endgame only for a sudden twist to basically reset the entire board, with the sudden arrival of a vastly more dangerous foe that leaves the Division reeling and forces your squad to scramble as everything you’ve managed to rebuild comes tumbling down. The real surprise of this moment is that it simultaneously unlocks an entirely new progression for your characters: new skills, new weapons, new tactics, and new reasons to keep playing. You think you’ve seen all there is to The Division 2, only to learn that you’d just been peeking through a crack in the curtain.
But again, none of this would have been particularly memorable if I hadn’t played in a group. I suppose some people play the Division games solo, and I know a lot play with randos, simply dropping in and out of each other’s games whenever they need a squad. But to my mind most of the games’ strength would be lost if it’s not shared with friends. Playing that way makes it easier to ignore the cookie-cutter activities that make up the bulk of most open-world games. Indeed, except for main story missions—which can be intricate and quite complex—there’s only maybe half a dozen things to do in Division 2, repeated countless times. You will protect airdropped supplies from goons intent on stealing them. You will steal airdropped supplies from goons intent on protecting them. You will shut down pirate radio broadcasts by reprogramming antennas. You will interrupt public executions. You will assault fortified enemy positions to secure territory for the growing survivor settlements. Alone, it quickly becomes monotonous. Together, the repetition fades into the background and doesn’t bother you.
If there is a Division 3, we’ll buy it and play it despite its well-established formula. A game like this is digital comfort food: you know what to expect, and as long as that reliability is well-packaged and well-executed, no one is likely to complain. Massive’s production values are second to none, and they know how to make games engaging, so even the template-driven activity so common to open worlds isn’t a dealbreaker so long as you don’t set yourself up to be annoyed by it.
These things aren’t guaranteed, though. We were also excited about Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands, which for all intents and purposes is the same game but set in Bolivia, and we were very disappointed—so disappointed, in fact, that we’d passed on its sequel Ghost Recon Breakpoint sight-unseen, even before the storm of negative reviews began piling up. Articulating exactly what The Division did right and what Wildlands/Breakpoint did wrong isn’t hard, but it’s beyond our scope today and would make for tedious reading anyhow.
Playing games with Pete, E, and McShane is a highlight of my week and was even before mandatory quarantines ended what little social life I had. Not every game is a winner, though, and we’ve suffered through droughts when there’s nothing much to play. So when something like The Division 2 comes along, it represents more than just a solid game; it’s an oasis in the desert, and treasured as such.
2019 was a solid year for games! Still, for some to win, others must lose. I want to touch on three of them here.
I passed over From Software’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, for example, which seems out of character for me given my admiration for the work of Hidetaka Miyazaki. And honestly, Sekiro really does deserve to be in anyone’s top five games of the year. Sekiro confounds expectations even as it stays rooted in the design and mechanical sensibility that made Miyazaki famous. The reason Sekiro isn’t up there with the big winners is I’m so bad at it that in more than a year of on-and-off play I’ve made almost zero substantive progress. For all practical purposes I’m barely past the tutorial, facing the first “actual” boss. But it’s like drinking from a personal cistern of inadequacy. I finished Dark Souls! How can I be so bad? I don’t know. Yes I do: I’m old and slow and the worst.
Remedy’s Control is a solid game, but its technical foibles so interfered with my ability to enjoy it that eventually I gave up in frustration. Even without those issues it’s tough to say with confidence that Control “would have” made my list; outrageous difficulty spikes and a lot of backtracking diluted the experience quite a bit. Certainly Control has a lot of potential, but I’ll have to try it again to say for sure if it achieves all it could.
Finally, to my chagrin, Paradox Interactive’s Imperator Rome was… meh. At best. I’ve long hoped for a really deep and complex strategy sim set in the classical period, and when Paradox, made famous by Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings, announced Imperator Rome, I thought my letters to Santa had been answered. Unfortunately the game doesn’t live up to its pedigree even after a year of updates and expansions. It is rather dull, in a way Crusader Kings 2 never was. But what really bugs me about Imperator Rome is Paradox insisted it would be a faithful, accurate simulation of Roman politics and law, and it is nothing of the sort. Imperator Rome ignores or blatantly violates even basic common-knowledge stuff, for no good reason, which in fairness might not matter much to you but made yell at the screen.
I’ll sign off by wistfully admitting that there’s one game I really wanted to play and share my thoughts on, but couldn’t: I refer, of course, to Valve’s Half-Life: Alyx. While some enterprising soul has produced a mod that allows you to play the game without the otherwise-required VR rig, it seems like that would ruin the whole point of the game. Alyx was designed to showcase AAA virtual reality tech, to (hopefully) be the pebble that starts the avalanche. Since I don’t have VR I haven’t played it, which leaves a hole in 2019 that I’m eager to fill.
I’m keeping better records for 2020, folks, so there’s that at least. I can’t guarantee it won’t take me six months to write up my games of 2020 (it took six months to get this out the door), but at least when I try I’ll be working from notes. Baby steps!
Tell Steepike he’s talking to an empty room by sending a friendly email.