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.