Narrowing these lists down to ten entries is always difficult, but I think 2019’s been one of the hardest. When I compiled our usual mid-year roundup of the best games in June, I wrote “This list of the best games of the year so far is already so strong, it feels like a proper end-of-2019 Game of the Year list.” Six months and dozens of releases later, the task of deciding what goes and what stays on the actual list is near impossible.
Some of my favorite games this year? Didn’t make the final cut. Games like Devil May Cry 5, What the Golf?, and Total War: Three Kingdoms. I wanted them to make it. I still do! But I couldn’t figure out what to sacrifice to make it happen. Hell, I already had to cheat a bit with our “Honorable Mentions” to squeeze in a few extra games, filling that section with any game that came out on a different platform prior to this year.
Below, you’ll find the results—nine of our favorite games this year in no particular order, plus a tenth that’s our official PCWorld Game of the Year for 2019. If your favorite didn’t make it? Know that it hurt me just as much to axe it. This was a really, really strong year, and truth be told that fact is more important than any arbitrary award.
Resident Evil 2
“Resident Evil 2 is the Resident Evil that finally made me a fan.” I looked back at our write-up in June and I can’t think of a better way to put it, nor a better endorsement. I’d played past Resident Evils, but none ever hooked me like this year’s remake.
Capcom preserved the spirit of the 1998 original, and even preserved some of the more iconic setpieces and puzzles from Claire and Leon’s respective adventures. But it rises above nostalgia in a way few remakes ever manage. Resident Evil 2 ($60 on Humble) is a fully modern game, representing two decades of progress—in mechanics, in storytelling, in level design, in every discipline imaginable. One of my favorite changes is also one brand-new to the series: A map that changes color depending on whether you’ve finished searching a room or not. It’s a small tweak, but indicates both how technology’s evolved since 1998 and how discussions around difficulty have evolved.
For a series this old to reinvent itself? To scrape off some of the accumulated cruft? That’s incredible. Here’s hoping Capcom can repeat the trick with the Resident Evil 3 remake in 2020.
Of all the games on this list, I think Heaven’s Vault ($25 on Steam) asks the most of its audience. It’s a game about history—a fictional history, of a lost galactic empire and what caused its downfall. But it’s a functional history, a knot the player needs to unravel. Heaven’s Vault is loathe to give straight answers to even its simplest mysteries, instead communicating through crumbling mosaics and inscriptions on weathered walls and in chunks of wood washed up on riverbanks.
And everywhere, remnants of a lost language, glyphs the player needs to translate either through context or guesswork. Get a translation wrong, it might affect the way your character sees the entire story going forward. An ancient graveyard or simple garden? Religious artifact or junk? The choice is yours.
That’s what Inkle does best, of course. Studio co-founder Jon Ingold once told me their design approach is “Lots of little choices, all of which can be significant at any given moment.” Heaven’s Vault demonstrates that better than ever, even better than Sorcery! and 80 Days. By the time you’ve finished, the past, present, and future all bear your fingerprints, traces of where you’ve gone and what you bothered to learn. It’s an incredible achievement in interactive storytelling, made better by its faith that players will want to undertake such a daunting task.
Only Remedy could have made Control ($60 on Epic Games Store). Remedy, and its love for pulp science fiction and the paranormal, for Twilight Zone and Twin Peaks and New Weird. Remedy, and its eccentric use of live action video, its knack for picking the right licensed song for the right moment. Remedy, and its talent for creating a kick-ass shooter—a talent the studio hasn’t fully indulged since Max Payne 2.
But mostly Remedy, and its willingness to keep experimenting. Control is the culmination of two decades of idiosyncrasies, groundwork laid by Max Payne and Alan Wake and Quantum Break. All of them were flawed, but diamonds in the rough. Here, in the titular Federal Bureau of Control, all those best impulses finally came together in a game that plays as well as it’s written and vice versa, a gripping adventure that blurs the lines between mundane and menacing in ways that would make Rod Serling proud.
Also—and this didn’t factor into our decision at all—but it looks incredible with one of Nvidia’s RTX graphics cards, the first truly amazing ray-tracing showcase. Real-time reflections are the real deal.
If “fun” were the only metric that mattered in Game of the Year discussions, Planet Zoo ($45 on Steam) would take home the prize. Frontier’s Zoo Tycoon successor uses the same creation tools as 2016’s Planet Coaster, and I’ve spent dozens and dozens of hours building everything from enormous reptile houses to fake cave dens and sprawling savannahs, placing every tree and rock just so.
And it’s worth it because of the animals. They’re the real draw. I never cared much for the “ride the rides” feature in Planet Coaster, but Planet Zoo’s animals are a joy to build for, exploring the spaces you’ve crafted for them and taking advantage of cliffs, lakes, and so forth. My favorites are the bears, which will climb pretty much any tree you give them, perching a hundred feet in the air and staring curiously at your guests.
End of the day, Planet Zoo’s the game I’m most looking forward to returning to—and with a steady supply of Steam Workshop items from enterprising modders? I’ve got plenty of reason.
Baba is You
You know what they say: One has to know the rules to break them. In Baba is You ($15 on Steam), the rules couldn’t be clearer. They’re written on the ground in big block letters, the underlying logic of this world made manifest. Baba Is You. Rock Is Push. Wall Is Stop. Flag Is Win. Rules begging to be broken.
Or at least manipulated. That’s the key to Baba is You. The rules can be split and recombined, each word an atom you can push around a grid. If Wall Is Stop and you need to get past? Push the Stop away so it just reads Wall Is ...nothing. Better yet, change it so you are the wall, or Wall Is You. It’s an exercise in outside-the-box thinking, with a side of programming logic, and the end result is more fiendish and satisfying than any other puzzler I’ve played this year.
I grew up with the early Internet, with AOL and GeoCities and Netscape and Napster. It’s hard for me to remember that internet, the way it worked before social media came along and centralized everything. But I did grow up with it.
Hypnospace Outlaw ($20 on Steam) is like a small slice of Internet-that-was nostalgia. Ostensibly you’re a moderator for HypnOS, an AOL clone people use while asleep. You’re supposed to patrol for copyright infringement, harassment, and other cyber crimes. But the real joy is in exploring this weird time capsule, where soda is advertised with terrible dad-rock jingles, where every website features at least one spinning GIF and one flashing piece of text, where hit counters are still an integral part of the decor, and where neighborhood spats play out for the entire world to see.
Is Hypnospace Outlaw of any interest to people who didn’t live through the era? I’m not sure. Maybe not. It felt real to me though, and months later I still find myself humming the “Gray’s Peak” theme, a jingle for a product that never actually existed.
Next page: The best games of 2019, continued