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.
Metro is primarily a series about scrabbling through claustrophobic corridors with a janky flashlight and a weapon that’s literally taped together. Thus when 4A presented Metro Exodus ($60 on Epic Games Store) for the first time, an open-world game that would send Artyom and Co. venturing out of the titular Moscow subway system, I feared the worst.
Few manage the pivot to open-world as artfully as Metro though. Those cramped corridors still exist in the world, run-down bunkers and collapsing buildings and rusting shipwrecks strewn about the frozen banks of the Volga and the dried-up Caspian Sea. And while exploring between these landmarks never feels quite as vital, there’s still a wonderful tension to creeping through the snow at night, lit only by the full moon, watching Demons circle overhead and listening to Artyom’s strained breathing through a failing gasmask. Exodus is exactly what I wanted, a triumphant capstone for a series I feared might never get one.
As No Code co-founder Jon McKellan so aptly put it, “Observation is kind of 2001: A Space Odyssey—but you’re HAL.” Or rather, you’re SAM, short for Systems Administration & Maintenance, the AI in charge of all mechanical and electrical functions aboard humanity’s premier space station. Something’s gone wrong though, the ship’s been damaged and your crew injured or perhaps killed. What happened and why? That’s the crux of Observation, the central mystery you need to unravel.
And it’s a well-written mystery, a spectacular bit of pulp science fiction. The real draw is No Code’s fondness for analog technology though—or in this case, early digital. Like Stories Untold, there’s a lot of attention paid to user interfaces, to CRT distortions and fiddly knobs and so forth, as you direct SAM in everything from opening doors to finessing the comms system.
Outer Wilds ($25 on Epic Games Store) was our favorite Game of the Year when we did our work-in-progress list in June. It almost took home the prize here as well. I went back and forth, back and forth multiple times in creating this list, and while all the games are ostensibly tied for number two on this list, some came closer to the top than others.
Outer Wilds is a fantastic detective story. It’s a marvel of design. A galaxy in miniature, trapped in a time loop, where every event plays out over 22 minutes like clockwork. There are no upgrades, no unlocks. The only element that improves is you—your knowledge of the various planets and how they connect, your control over your ship, your understanding of the underlying mystery. If you knew exactly what to do and where to go, you could finish Outer Wilds in 22 minutes.
And yet it will probably take you upwards of 10 hours, making progress one crucial piece of information (and one death) at a time until it all clicks into place. There are some annoyances in the back half, with key events locked to certain parts of the timeline, leaving you to twiddle your thumbs before you can make progress. Those once-per-cycle moments are also what make Outer Wilds special though, and without them it would be a lesser adventure.
Best Game of 2019: Disco Elysium
What could push past Outer Wilds for the win? Another detective story, coincidentally. Disco Elysium ($40 on Steam) is our official Game of the Year for 2019, and well-deserved.
Disco Elysium is one of those games—and they’re rare—that make everything that came before feel outdated, instantaneously. One day, RPGs work a certain way. The next, you wish they were all a bit more like Disco Elysium. There’s a beauty to the writing, a prosaic quality that’s rare even in text-friendly RPGs. And this is a text-friendly RPG, one wherein interviewing a suspect might trigger six paragraphs about a fictional car in this fictional universe, or a soliloquy about the nature of reality, or maybe just a dad joke.
It’s more than just the quality of the writing though. It’s how it’s surfaced. Disco Elysium is one of the most reactive games I’ve ever seen, constantly making checks against both your character’s skills and past decisions, then peppering conversations with facts only your specific character would know—for better and worse. Invest a lot of points into Encyclopedia? You may be able to pinpoint the make and model of the gun used, but your conversations will be littered with useless trivia as well. Spend them on Shivers? You’ll be able to connect to the city on a deeper level, feel the energy of its past and present, but that opens you up to as many horrors as it does actionable truths.
The pacing suffers a bit in the back half when your character’s better defined and the investigation is heading towards a conclusion. That’s many, many hours into the game though, and what comes before? It sets a new bar for RPGs—the type of bar that gets people to wax nostalgic about Planescape: Torment two decades after its release, or Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines. It’s that good.
Age of Empires II - Honorable Mention
Two decades later, what is there left to write about Age of Empires II? It’s still the best in the series, and this year’s Definitive Edition ($20 on Steam) is exactly as promised. There’s little reason to upgrade if you already own the 2013 remaster, the so-called HD Edition. The Definitive Edition’s 4K sprites look fantastic though, and there are some important quality-of-life upgrades—like the ability to select armies without vacuuming up all your unarmed citizens in the process! And farms that automatically replenish instead of taunting you with that shicka-shicka-shicka sound!
I don’t know where I’ll find the time to play 30-odd Age of Empires II campaigns, but I’m looking forward to dipping in now and then. It’s one of the rare games I’m nostalgic about that also holds up well against the modern competition.
Yakuza Kiwami - Honorable Mention
Having played and completed Yakuza 0, Kiwami, and Kiwami II this year, I’ve spent more time in Kazuma Kiryu’s world than any other—and loved it. Every night spent at the karaoke club, every picturesque bowl of ramen, every bizarre stranger I’ve met on the street, and every dramatic twist and turn of his over-the-top life story.
Yakuza 0 is probably my favorite, but Kiwami—which came to PC in January—is a fantastic revenge story, made even better if you’ve already played the prequel. And as a side benefit, Kiwami’s also the shortest. That’s a relief, given the other games are all 30 to 50 hours long. I’m still waiting on the rest of the series to come over, so here’s hoping Sega gets 3 through 6 over to the PC in 2020. Bonus points if Judgment comes over as well.
Red Dead Redemption 2 - Honorable Mention
Red Dead Redemption 2 ($60 on Steam) snuck up on me. For a long time I enjoyed everything but the story. I didn’t feel all that invested in Arthur Morgan, nor the exploits of Dutch and his gang. I partook in Rockstar’s elaborate Old West theater production but felt removed from it, preferring instead the quiet of a camp in the mountains, or people-watching in Saint Denis.
But then all those lonesome hunting trips endeared Arthur Morgan to me, and as the stakes ramped up I found myself more and more invested in getting him free of Dutch, finding him a happy farm somewhere and making a life for him. You know it won’t work out that way, and can’t if you’ve played the original Red Dead Redemption. I wanted it anyway though.
The journey is long and meandering, but maybe it needed to be. I spent the early hours annoyed by how damn slow the story unfurled, but now I wonder: If it were any faster, would the emotional payoff be as high? I doubt it.