Some games I played in 2019
Posted at 18:30 on 5th January 2020 - permalink

Here are some of the standout games I played in 2019. It wasn’t a particularly notable year for new releases, in part because the current console generation is winding down.

I ended up playing a mixture of small scale indie games (mostly on Switch) and revisiting games I’d missed from the last few years – but there were still a couple of new releases into which I unexpectedly ended up sinking lots of time.

No Man’s Sky

NMS’s on-going schedule of major free updates gives me the excuse to include it in my round-up again this year.

Beyond brought in ‘proper’ (vaguely Phantasy Star Online-like) multiplayer, a new (massively more performant) renderer, power and industry components for bases, creature riding (which will never stop being hilarious), and full VR support.

While VR was the big event that a lot of players were waiting for, I found that I couldn’t get on with it. A major part of NMS’s appeal for me is the scale and beauty of planetary landscapes, and (on PSVR at least) the visual fidelity is dialled down so drastically that most of this is lost. (I’m told the settings have been tweaked in subsequent updates so maybe I’ll give it another shot.)

Furthermore the new renderer, while a net improvement, introduces a fair bit of jank for all players due to trade-offs made to support the low-end platforms (Xbox One S, Intel graphics, PSVR on base PS4). Digging out footage of NMS 1.0 reveals that the modern game is spectacularly smoother and prettier, but conversely it’s currently a game where (for example) exocraft are pretty much unusable as they constantly fall through the ground.

The later, less-hyped Synthesis update was where the real improvements were for long time players. Hello Games reached out to the community to suggest quality of life improvements, resulting in lots of subtle changes that seem obvious in hindsight but massively improve the minute to minute experience of playing the game.

The transformative effect is similar to the evolution of Quake II deathmatch into Quake III Arena, a grand sweeping away of legacy clunkiness. Base building improvements (triangular pieces, easy terrain flattening, etc.) offer a massively increased scope for creative expression. Travelling between planets in the same system is much faster now also.

Now if they can just squash the annoying bugs introduced in Beyond (buildings taking ages to load in during in-atmosphere flight being the main bugbear) we might have the ‘perfect’ version of the NMS experience – at least until it absorbs the gameplay of another half dozen random subgenres in next year’s big update.

Tangle Tower

Tangle Tower is a sequel to Detective Grimoire, a point and click adventure game by SFB Games (best known these days for SnipperClips). Grimoire and his assistant Sally have been called to a crumbling stately home to investigate the murder of Freya Fellow, daughter of one of the two families that inhabit two separate towers.

The game proceeds in classic whodunnit fashion, as the player explores each room of the mansion, solves small logic puzzles to access pertinent clue objects, and interviews each of the characters to piece together what happened on the night of the murder.

Tangle Tower tells a well thought-out and self-contained story through which the player progresses at a steady pace. New theories to investigate or areas to explore are gradually revealed leaving few opportunies to get truly stuck. (The game has a gentle hint system which suggests what to do next – sometimes a bit too readily.)

The production values are stellar – music, voice acting, character design and location backgrounds are all top notch, and reminiscent of LucasArts at their height. The core cast are well-written and likeable enough that I think there’s scope to tell more Grimoire stories, perhaps in other media. If you’re looking for a compact, family-friendly adventure game you could do a lot worse.

Apex Legends

Apex is the first online shooter I’ve gotten into for a few years. (Other than a brief dabble with Quake Champions, I’ve been away from the genre since Star Wars Battlefront circa 2015.) I played a few hundred hours of it in a few months at the start of the year and then just… stopped. I have mixed feelings about it.

First the positives. It’s an amazingly designed game, and one that feels like it is taking the battle royale genre forward. I never got into PUBG or Fortnite so can’t really directly compare it, but the way that it encourages teamwork and communication makes it incredibly satisfying to play well with a good squad. The ping system is really efficient and unambiguous compared to voice and menu-based chat systems.

Direct combat is tough, but the game is as much about awareness of your surroundings and making good decisions as being a crack shot so even if you’re fairly hopeless at it (like me) you spend most of your time having fun rather than being repeatedly slaughtered. Some of the character abilities (such as Pathfinder’s ziplines or Bloodhound’s tracking ability) are genuinely innovative.

It’s a shame that this experience is dragged down by outdated technology. ApeLegs runs on a heavily modified version of the original Source engine, an platform that was already showing its age around the time of Portal 2 nearly a decade ago. My PC is pretty old, toward the lower end of the recommended specs for the game, but I’ve played plenty of FPS games on it that look and run far better than this. The maps are full of giant cliffs to keep the draw distance manageable and there’s still loads of popup. Audio is buggy. Objects glitch around comically on moving platforms (like the supply ships) like something out of Quake II. I’ve heard the console versions are still dogged with constant crashes and disconnects as well.

I don’t want to speculate about the corporate machinations that led to Respawn making a BR game, but certain elements do give the impression that they’re out of their comfort zone (although as the game has evolved this has been assuaged to some degree). The character designs are best described as ‘pedestrian’. I think they’ve consciously chosen to make the characters older and more drabbly painted than, for example, Overwatch or Fortnite to help pitch the game to older players but it makes them hard to get invested in.

The roadmap for the game so far feels a bit directionless. Monetisation experiments using rare cosmetic items were poorly received, Respawn moved much too slowly to address cheating and griefing players, and variant game modes introduced for timed events haven’t played to the game’s core strengths. But it remains a work in progress, and at least they’re not crunching as hard as the Fortnite team.

I expect I’ll still dip in to Apex every now and again to see what’s new, but I do suspect that they’d be better off starting with a blank slate on a modern engine, perhaps once the next console generation is properly underway.

Astro Bot: Rescue Mission

2019 was the year I finally got a VR headset. I haven’t played an exhaustive amount of VR content yet (I’ve not even gone back to all the PS4 games I already owned that have VR support… and yes, I do intend to get around to playing Beat Saber) but from what I have played Astro Bot is clearly the game that could credibly be described as the killer app for PSVR.

By keeping the game environment simple, linear and physically proximate to the player, Astro Bot does an outstanding job of making the player feel present in the game world. The materials and lighting are absolutely gorgeous as well. Astro Bot and the other robots in the world, as well as the ever-present virtual dual shock controller feel like completely convincing physical objects. I’d go as far as to say that the game gave me the biggest pure experiential ‘wow’ factor since the heyday of the sit-down arcade cabinets. It may not be quite up to the standard of Super Mario Odyssey (under the gloss it’s a much, much simpler game) but it’s more impactful.

The crazy thing is that I still haven’t completed it. I find the PSVR kit a bit uncomfortable to use for extended periods and have been rationing the game out about one world at a time for months now. I’ll probably have finished it by the time Sony announce a new VR headset for the Playstation 5.

Batman: Arkham Knight

I loved Batman: Arkham Asylum but let the sequels pass me by – Arkham City seemed like more of the same, and Arkham Knight had an offputtingly bumpy launch where the PC version was even withdrawn from sale for a while. For Batman’s 80th birthday, the Warner Bros came down from their water tower to make the Arkham trilogy free to download on the Epic Store on PC, and the third game free for PlayStation 4 Plus subscribers – so it would’ve been rude not to give them a go.

Now that I’ve played Arkham Knight, I really hope that Rocksteady are working on a mechanically similar game for the next generation of consoles. Arkham Knight is not perfect (it tries to corral too many playing styles with varying levels of success) but it’s still comfortably one of the best action/adventure games of the generation.

It’s a real shame that circumstances conspired to prevent Arkham Knight ever being patched to properly take advantage of the PS4 Pro. While it runs smoothly and has beautiful art direction and FX (the raindrop and water surface shaders are superb), it suffers from jaggy visuals compared to the the pin-sharp presentation of later big action adventure games on the platform (e.g. Marvel’s Spider-Man).

The game presents a peculiar version of Gotham City (evacuated of civilians for plot reasons and overrun with goons), traversed by swinging and gliding from rooftops or in the Batmobile, that feels about the size of GTA3’s Liberty City and looks like the Burton films crossed with Bioshock.

The whole game world is packed to the gills with secrets and Easter Eggs calling back to the comics and previous games. For most of the game Batman is under the lingering influence of Scarecrow’s fear toxin and Rocksteady’s artists have done a fantastic job of scattering ‘ambient’ hallucinations throughout the world which ramp up as the story progresses.

Mark Hamill returns with another great Joker voice performance, but as the character is now (mostly) relegated to commenting on the action from the sidelines it’s not as meaty a role as his GladOS-like integral presence in the first game. (Be sure to visit Simon Stagg in the GCPD lockup for one of the best Joker bits in the series.)

This cosy and quite visually homogenous playground is stuffed to the gills with an impressive variety of side quests, typically grouped together and themed on a specific playing style and villain from the Rogue’s Gallery. Foiling Two-Face’s bank heists fits most closely with the stealthy playing style of the first game. Firefly (or is it Firebug?) missions make the best use of the Batmobile with frantic chases across the entire map.

100%-ing the game and getting the ‘true’ ending involves completing a ridiculous number of Riddler challenges – finding trophies scattered around the game world, or completing minigames which are often as clumsily implemented and joyless as the dumbest side missions in the PS2-era GTAs. I completed everything else in the game and was happy to push my plate away with the bulk of the Riddler stuff untouched.

Rocksteady: I will preorder your next Batman game immediately if the trailer unambiguously shows The Riddler’s funeral happening before the timeline of the main game.

Virtua Racing

I’ve been waiting for years for an arcade-perfect port of Virtua Racing and M2’s enhanced version for the Switch is a dream come true.

I remember the coin-op making a big impression on me back in 1992. This was Sega at the height of their engineering confidence. With multiple huge screens, booming sound and a liquid-smooth framerate, the V.R. cabinet seemed impossibly far ahead of home video game technology at the time. I even got a Sega 32X to play the best available home port a couple of years later (which still holds up surprisingly well).

And now I can play the real thing, in HD, basically anywhere, for about seven quid. A game that cost amusement establishments something like ten grand back in the day. Ridiculous. There’s not a lot more to say about it – it’s a perfectly faithful port with lots of options. It’s a slight shame that the extra two tracks and cars from Virtua Racing Deluxe couldn’t be practically included but it’s a decent package regardless.

I hope M2 have definitive versions of Sega Rally and Daytona USA in the pipeline.

Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove!

The crowdfunded Toejam & Earl sequel/reboot has been a background part of my life for so long that I almost forgot that it actually came out this year. As someone who counts the original as my favourite game of all time and who contributed to the Kickstarter, I’m obviously going to be a bit biased, but I think that Greg Johnson and team succeeded in what they set out to do. TJE4 is the first Toejam & Earl sequel to faithfully recreate the gameplay style of the first game.

Most of the new features are improvements. The game now supports up to four players with a choice of nine playable characters with different perks. Nearly all of the Earthlings from the first two games return, along with an assortment of stylistically congruent new ones. There are loads of new presents to discover as well (it was surprisingly affecting to find things I hadn’t seen before in Toejam & Earl a quarter of a century after playing the original to death). There are even ‘power hats’ to unlock through repeated playthroughs plus new ‘hard’ and ‘endless’ playing modes.

I know a lot of people aren’t keen on the new visual style or the rather stiff Spine-based animation. But if we’re being honest the in-game graphics in the original game were pretty basic at the time. It’s a shame they didn’t make the jump to full 3D or try to more closely recreate the cel art style of the second game, but as this is a game with a very large cast of characters and a modest budget I appreciate that some trade-offs had to be made. Some of the character designs and new visual gags are genuinely funny – Santa, King Tut, the earthling disguises and the helpful dolphin being faves of mine.

While they’ve made a noble effort to maintain parity between all the different platform versions, the Switch version (capped at 30fps with some long loading pauses) doesn’t run quite as well as one might hope. Once you get engrossed in the game none of these issues are as distracting as you might expect.

Later levels can become much more crowded with objects and Earthlings than the original game could support which leads to more exciting mayhem but also more jarring difficulty spikes – there are lots more enemy types that can wipe you out with a single hit than in the original.

The game also suffers a little bit from trying to cram in absolutely everything from the earlier games – the hyperfunk zone, parking meters and beat matching minigames from Game Two could probably have been left out. (The rather clunky bonus screens after finding a ship piece or earning a promotion are also a needless interruption.)

All in all I’m happy with how it turned out and expect it will stay in rotation on my Switch for long journeys pretty much indefinitely.

Titanfall 2

This was another game where I was late to the party, and eventually caught it as a rerun on Playstation Plus (which just about paid for itself this year). I passed on it originally because I’m a bit wary of first person games with very overloaded movement systems, and a game that hinted at the need to use wall-running, leaping between time periods and shooting all at the same time sounded like a bit of a drag. So I was relieved (albeit slightly disappointed) to discover that the single player campaign barely uses its traversal gimmicks at all, typically only using brief, signposted platform sections to link together combat arenas.

At normal difficulty on console, Titanfall 2 feels like it’s playing itself a lot of the time. Enemy attacks are weedy and they have little in the way of AI, which combined with abundant weapons and ammo and ridiculous aim snapping makes combat a minor nuisance outside of a couple of boss battles.

Titan (mecha) combat has a distinct feel, more like a tank or sea battle rather than a gunfight. Juggling dodging boss attacks, dealing with their henchmen and judging the right moment to use your special attacks is satisfying. The fact that you can instantly swap your Titan’s loadout for any one you’ve collected (while it does encourage the player to vary their strategy for each battle) takes away some of the tension.

The game is substantially prettier than Apex Legends (with which it shares an in-game universe, studio and engine) and while performance is rock solid, there are some limitations that smoke and mirrors can’t disguise. It’s strange to play a game with quite small maps and actual loading screens between levels in this day and age.

A lot of the small tricks the environment artists have used to optimise the game aren’t noticable unless you go looking for them, but on a couple of occasions I found myself laughing out loud when presented with a vista that was very obviously a slightly out of focus forced-perspective matte painting – which is probably not the reaction they were going for.

If we accept that the developers were aiming to make an accessible all-guns-blazing theme park ride in the Call of Duty vein, Titanfall 2 succeeds. You’re constantly moved forward through the world and the story and presented with new mechanical twists. It’s all very exuberant. The story is very simple and the characters and world history are never fleshed out in much depth. Of the few single player FPS campaigns of note in recent years, it slots in as a respectable third after MachineGames’ new Wolfenstein saga (which has much better writing and characters one can actually care about) and Doom 2016 (which has faster, deeper combat and takes itself even less seriously).

Untitled Goose Game

⚞ HONK ⚟

Game of the Year: Noita

Noita is a platform shooter action roguelike with a per-pixel physics (and chemistry) simulation. Very loosely, it could be described as a mash-up of Spelunky and The Sandbox (with shades of Breath of the Wild’s simulation in there too).

I was sceptical about Noita when I first heard about it. Most of the videos of it I’d seen showed a cacophony of earthquakes, floods and explosions, that would surely be frustratingly chaotic once the initial novelty had worn off. Once I’d gotten my hands on the game my perception changed completely.

While all hell can (and does) occasionally break loose, most of the time the game world and simulation are so expertly designed and tuned that the player can easily read dangers and formulate plans to try and defeat enemies and traverse the world with the resources at hand. It may not always be scrupulously fair, but it’s respectful of your time.

In Noita, you control a small witch/warlock (noita in Finnish) who is dropped into a procedurally generated 2D world (think Terraria) at the mouth of a cave. The implied goal is to delve as deeply as possible into the dungeons below the mountain, but the player is free to set off in any direction. Even in its current early access state, there are lots of different biomes squirreled away to find with unique environmental hazards, treasures and monsters.

Your noita can carry up to four magic wands (each of which can typically be equipped with multiple spells), four flasks which can contain different substances (such as water, oil, acid, blood, or magic elixirs like damage-increasing Berserkium or monster-pacifying Pheromone) which can be either thrown or judiciously sprayed at the desired target using the right mouse button, and an unlimited number of Perks (permanent ability modifiers typically awarded by reaching a Holy Mountain checkpoint area between biomes). They start out with a weak bolt-firing wand, three bombs, a flask of water and the ability to levitate for short periods.

The wand system in Noita is like the combining weapon system from Gunstar Heroes expanded massively along multiple axes. Each wand has some fixed core stats (how much mana it stores, its maximum firing rate and recharge rate, how many spells it fires per cast, whether it fires spells in sequential or random order, whether it always fires a certain ‘preloaded’ spell in addition to its loadout, etc.) and storage space for multiple spells.

There are dozens of spells to find – projectiles with different aerodynamic and damage characteristics (from magic bolts, fireworks and shotgun pellets to straight up nuclear warheads), modifiers that change the movement pattern of projectiles or buff them with different characteristics, local bubbles of magic (such as a healing field, a rain of lava or a transmogriphying field that turns any projectile that enters it into a live duck) and loads more.

You can build fancy magic guns, but you can also combine spells together to build specialised tools. Want to build a flamethrower? A chainsaw? A jackhammer? A freeze ray? An energy shield? An actual lightsaber? There’s a spell for that.

The true genius of Noita is that it takes all these spells and reactive substances and explores the implications of various magic powers from fantasy fiction and folklore (and Wile E. Coyote cartoons) would play out in a physically consistent world.

Yeah, you could hold a lightsaber up to a wall, turn it on for a second and poke a hole through the skull of a baddie on the other side. Yeah, monsters with (litres of) acid for blood are going to make quite a mess when they die. Yeah, having the Midas touch would make it easy to burrow through the world assuming you instantly collect gold. Yeah, flooding a cave with whiskey will leave its denizens both highly flammable and unable to shoot straight. Yeah, leaving a booby trapped wand on the ground near some humanoid enemies that can pick up wands will have the desired result. Yeah, being blessed with the overly vague genie wish of “immunity to explosions” would mean you can survive nukes. Yeah, being able to summon earthquakes while deep underneath a mountain is probably going to kill you.

The feel of the controls and the constant organic feedback from the world give Noita access to the brain’s dopamine taps. I loved Spelunky, but for all the hours I spent doing the daily challenges I could never shake the feeling that the game’s finicky controls (that assume a lifetime of Super Mario World muscle memory) and overloaded buttons put up a needless artificial barrier. Noita replaces jumping with jetpack flight, and replaces clumsy throwing and melee attacks with a plethora of spells that afford precise action to be carried out at a distance. Digging, melting, burning or exploding parts of the physical environment (not to mention beating tricksy enemies) always provides satisfying feedback.

The game is made by a little supergroup of indie technical and game design wizards, and their deep appreciation of PC games shines through. Noita feels ancient. Its aesthetic and the lore of its world (with elder gods and a creation myth pitting nature, technology and magic against each other) feel like a natural progression from Quake, Diablo and Nethack. Playing it as intended (rolling a random seed and treating death as final) feels like a ritual – I can’t imagine wanting to save scum it to crudely dissect its mysteries.

Noita is the best PC game of 2019 and it’s not even finished yet. It will of course get overlooked by the PC games press because it’s unapologetically an arcade game, and the current fashion dictates that PC games that are trying to tell pulpy ‘genre’ stories are inherently more ‘worthy’ than mechanically deep games. But it will get its due in time.

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